Movement Humanism

Movement Humanism (2011)

by rjosephhoffmann

What makes “organized humanism” different from the humanism that evolved philosophically out of the Renaissance and Enlightenment era is that it didn’t evolve out of the Renaissance or Enlightenment era. Not really.

Anyone who has travelled through the liberal arts curriculum of a European or American university in the last century has experienced the benefits of a benign, docile, unangry form of humanism: a curriculum free from church dogma and supervision, a reverence for scientific inquiry, systematic approaches to the study of literature, history, society and an emphasis on critical thinking.

Once upon a time, theology was called queen of the sciences. That was once upon a time. If you really want to know how the liberal arts (a slightly misleading name in our historically impoverished culture since “liberal arts”–the studies that “set your free”– include mathematics and sciences), fought and dethroned theology for the title, you really only have to look at the history of the American university—not counting, of course, those private and parochial ones that are paid for and managed by religious institutions of various stripes. In general, the modern university is built from the bricks humanism provided. It’s a product of intellectual evolution and learning and constructed to focus on the things that, as humans, we can know about rather than on the things that, as humans, we can’t possibly know.

Sometimes secular humanists want to claim that their brand of humanism shares a common pedigree with the humanism of the university. But that’s not true. Its origins, while respectable are not intellectually apostolic: French salon discussion, satire and tractarianism, German political movements, especially the Left Hegelians (like Marx in economics and Baur in philosophy and theology), anti-clericalism, frontier pragmatism in America, and above all a village atheism and hardheadedness that can be traced back to Tom Paine, Darrow, Ingersoll, and a dozen lesser lights. Many, though by no means all of these bargain basement illuminati never saw the inside of an ivory tower–though it’s a credit to Oxford that the university awarded an honorary doctorate to the cantankerous Midwestern skeptic, Samuel Clemens, in 1907.

As in Britain and Europe, freethought went hand in hand with politics: in England, spinning off the free-churches movement that was allied with Unitarianism and the “chapels,” it was tied to disestablishment— the end of the prerogatives and protections given the Church of England. In the United States, it was tied to First Amendment principles, civil liberties, a certain naive belief in “democratic values” (that did not take into account that the democratic values of the masses were dominantly intermixed with and confused with the Bible), and an occasional envy of the more robust socialism and communist tremors of an evolving secular Europe.

Clarence Darrow

I have never thought of myself as a secular humanist, or a big life-stance British Humanist Association sort of Humanist. The minute you start qualifying humanism you are no longer talking about humanism but the conditions under which you can think of yourself as a humanist. Humanism is humanism. Movement humanism can be a variety of things–like ice cream or Christian denominations.

The danger in my view is that movement humanism is not innocuous. George Bernard Shaw once drunkenly said that “the conversion of a savage to Christianity is the conversion of Christianity to savagery.” (Shame on him for not knowing that he was impugning the Irish as well as first century Palestinian Jews.) It is true, in the same sense, however, that the theft of the name “humanism” by atheists who think it has a nice ring is the diminution of a major chapter in the history of human learning to a press release.

I have no trouble with anyone calling himself a humanist of this or that colour. But for the word to retain its “denotative” sense, it’s important to distinguish between “movement-humanism” and humanism.

Movement or “organized” humanism, as the name suggests, is a hybrid of certain currents that came together in a strand in the mid twentieth century, especially driven by the frenzy of intellectual change after two world wars. The movement was never fully coherent and for that reason appealed to political liberals, people who sincerely believed that religion (equated with superstition, supernaturalism and dogmatism) was responsible for the world’s ills and others who had been injured by religion and needed catharsis and (perhaps) non-violent revenge. Some of these people were intellectuals. Some were nurses and folksingers and ex-seminarians. All were a little angry.

In terms of its constituency and mood, secular humanism was entirely compatible with atheism; in fact, many recognized that the phrase was simply a circumlocution for atheism or agnosticism, in the same way some Evangelicals equate their doctrinal stance with being “Christian.” The percentage of secular humanists in America or Humanists in Britain or India harboring any “religious” sentiments must be painfully, infinitesimally small.

Other additives of American-style movement humanism included a belief that ethics were man-made and not dictated by a supreme being or mediated by dogma. Secular humanism became wedded to this fairly obvious proposition just when the best theology in Europe and America was teaching much the same thing. The theologies of Hartshorne and Whitehead, and to a certain degree Gilkey and Tillich, with their panentheistic view of God and idealistic view of man, were fully humanistic in the proper sense of the word, but could not be acknowledged by movement humanism with its constricted view of human reality and facile equation of religion and supernaturalism. Indeed, the greatest error of the movement was the simple association of religion with superstition, and the the working assumption that, like superstition and magic, religion could simply be debunked as a system of ritualized hoaxes.

Whitehead

The commitment to “godless” and anti-religious ethics made good sense for an atheist program of action as a kind of self-help course for unbelievers, but could never achieve the intellectual benchmark of an ethics based on the totality of human experience and reflection.

That’s not to say that one needs to believe in God to be moral. It is to say that an ethic that is not grounded in some actually existing infinite reality, such as God is presumed to be, must first state clearly what the grounds and perimeters of values are before proposing them as normative or significant: without such a calculus, it is no more relevant to say that an action is moral because it is human than it is to say that an action is moral because it is something Jesus would have endorsed.

I drink no more than a sponge...

In the realm of ethics, especially, movement humanism became habituated to oversimplification. To make religion more depraved than it seemed to most sensible people, the movement humanists stressed that religion was the sum total of its worst parts. Christianity, a religion of Bible-believing nitwits who meddled in politics, aspired to mind-control and hated Darwin. Islam, a religion of twisted fanatics who loved violence and hated progress and the proponents, mainly western, of progress. There was no equivalent narrative for Jews or Buddhists—not really—or the irrational components of secular movements: democratic socialism, communism, and (within limits) civil libertarianism could be forgiven their excesses precisely because they had their theodicy right if sometimes they got their tactics or outcomes wrong.

While often claiming the protective cloak of science and reason as their aegis for intellectual rectitude, movement humanism was really all about creating straw-men, stereotypes and bogeymen and unfortunately came to believe in its own anti-religion discourse.

To have capitulated, at any point, to the most humane, uplifting or learned elements in religion would have been seen as surrender to the forces of ignorance and superstition. For that reason, by the early years of the twenty-first century movement humanism gave birth to a more uncompromising form of radical secularism in the form of the new atheism with its anti-God and oddly Orwellian postulate: All religion is evil. Some religions are more evil than others. Before God can be disbelieved in, as Christopher Hitchens argued in God is Not Great, he has to be roused from his slumber, bound, tried, and humiliated for his atrocities. If he is not available, his avatar, the Catholic church, will do.

God is Not Great

Movement humanism as it has evolved is not really humanism. Or rather, it is a kind of parody of humanism. A better name for it would be Not-Godism. It’s what you get when you knock at the heavenly gate and no one is home.

It’s a rant of disappointment camouflaged by a tributary note to science for having made the discovery of the great Nonbeing possible. It’s structured outrage towards the institutions that have perpetuated belief and promises that (as many atheists sincerely believe) the churches have known to be empty all along.

At its best, it is a demand for honesty which, for lack of a unified response from “religion,” seems to require commando tactics.

Unfortunately, the tactics are all wrong because they demonstrate the movement’s almost complete lack of understanding of the “total passion for the total height” that validates religion for most Jews, Christians, Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists—a huge slice of the earth’s population. To read Sam Harris’s extended fallacy, The End of Faith, or Richard Dawkins’ screed, The God Delusion, or any of the clones that have appeared since 2006 is to enter a world of misapprehension and illogic that can only be compared to a child trying to fit the contents of an overstuffed toy chest into a shoebox on the premise that both are boxes that can hold toys. But the logic did not originate with the new atheists; it originated with movement humanism.

What organized humanism lacked from the beginning of its career, as a circumlocution for robust unbelief in God, is a sense of the dignity of wo/man combined with an indulgence and appreciation of human frailty, including the limits of reason. In renaissance humanism, the thought belongs to Hamlet:

What a piece of work is a man! How Noble in
Reason? How infinite in faculty? In form and moving
how express and admirable? In Action, how like an Angel?
In apprehension, how like a god? The beauty of the
world, the Paragon of Animals.

At the beginning of the renaissance, the humanist thinker Pico della Mirandola was censured by Pope Innocent VIII for “certain propositions” contained in his Oration on the Dignity of Man—the first true humanist manifesto.

In the Oration, Pico extolled human achievement, the importance of learning, the centrality of the quest for knowledge, and the primacy of man as the knower of the order of universe (which he associates with the faculty of reason and not divine revelation). He gives this speech to God as an imaginary dialogue after the creation of Adam:

“We have given you, O Adam, no visage proper to yourself, nor endowment properly your own, in order that whatever place, whatever form, whatever gifts you may, with premeditation, select, these same you may have and possess through your own judgment and decision. The nature of all other creatures is defined and restricted within laws which We have laid down; you, by contrast, impeded by no such restrictions, may, by your own free will, to whose custody We have assigned you, trace for yourself the lineaments of your own nature. I have placed you at the very center of the world, so that from that vantage point you may with greater ease glance round about you on all that the world contains. We have made you a creature neither of heaven nor of earth, neither mortal nor immortal, in order that you may, as the free and proud shaper of your own being, fashion yourself in the form you may prefer. It will be in your power to descend to the lower, brutish forms of life; you will be able, through your own decision, to rise again to the superior orders whose life is divine.”

Innocent VIII

Innocent VIII was no fool. This was not the Genesis story. It was a re-writing of the whole creation myth. It makes Adam’s choice of the earth over his own “divine” potential all the more tragic, a squandered opportunity. But it also makes the choice free, unfettered, fully human and the consequences–which lead after all to smart people like Pico writing smart books–all the more impressive. Divine is as human does well: that was the message

An authentic humanism to be inclusive of all people has to be inclusive of all possible human outcomes, including the possibility of failure. The story of the first human being, in the religious context, is the story of a bad choice. I suspect that that is why the story of Adam has staying power and instructional weight.

Maybe the failure of movement humanism really goes back to how we read Adam’s saga. It has always struck me that the word simpleton can be used to describe both the atheist rant against the creation account in Genesis and the fundamentalist’s preposterous attempts to defend it. Beyond the Scylla and Charybdis of that divide are millions of people who think the story is really elsewhere, that it really doesn’t begin with sticking the sun and the moon in the primordial darkness but with Adam, and more particularly with the curse of reason that Pico describes in his Oration.

Curse? Yes, I think so. The “gift” of reason (no, I do not really believe that we are endowed with reason by a divine being) is both the gift to be curious and the ability to make choices, to act. The tension we experience, like Adam, is that natural curiosity sometimes outdistances a third element—reflection.

The humanist understanding of reason doesn’t magic it into a faculty that, used correctly and with the best application of science, will protect us from error. Religion had such a faculty once: it was called faith and it got you saved from sin.

To be blunt, movement humanism with its straw men and reductive techniques, its stereotyping and bogeymen, is not just stuck in the past but stuck in a religious past of its own making. It is a past that an authentic and fully inclusive humanism would want to reject. It is a past that many religious thinkers have already rejected.

94 thoughts on “Movement Humanism

  1. Great Essay. Really good reading. As a ‘New Atheist’, I didn’t find anything much to disagree with, but that comment comes with the proviso that there is a lot which goes to a depth (breadth?) which is far beyond my intellectual waters-treading toes.

    Personally, I don’t subscribe to Humanism, it seems to me too much like a religion without a deity, but that’s just me. I fully recognize that it might be a daunting prospect if ‘hard’ atheism was all there is, instead of, as is the current situation, it existing as one ingredient in a soup of humanity rich with religion, Humanism and, well, just an inclination that there must be ‘something more’.

    On the other hand, a world of hard atheism does not frighten me. Sometimes I even think it might be exciting. Not that I think it is an imminent or likely prospect.🙂

    As for the anger, yes, I can see that this is unattractive. But I also see that there is a reason for it. Perhaps I am just more empathetic. It is of course, limiting. But, as a parent of two teenagers, I recognize that it is sometimes more useful to under-react to anger.🙂

  2. The humanist understanding of reason doesn’t magic it into a faculty that, used correctly and with the best application of science, will protect us from error.

    Quite true. One of the more problematic aspects of the “New Atheism” is, I think, its misplaced faith – so to speak – in reason, although there are many threads, apparently most from philosophy and mathematics, that seem to point to reason’s limitations. But the worst case is exemplified by Ayn Rand’s vision of “the heroic man” who regards “reason as his only absolute”. While a better, though probably not the best, view is suggested by this from “The Human Use of Human Beings” by Norbert Wiener – one of the progenitors of the science of cybernetics:

    I have said that science is impossible without faith. By this I do not mean that the faith on which science depends is religious in nature or involves the acceptance of any of the dogmas of the ordinary religious creeds, yet without faith that nature is subject to law there can be no science. No amount of demonstration can ever prove that nature is subject to law. [pg 193]

    Which then, I think, puts us in the position of being obliged to move forward on the basis of both faith and reason – ideally complements of each other and not antitheses – but to do so with some degree of “fear and trembling”.

    • Hm. I have a few problems with this, Steersman.

      First, I think that the suggestion hat ‘New Atheism’ has a problematic faith in reason is too much of a generalization. It would not describe most atheists I know, who would say (a) that they don’t depend on pure reasoning alone and (b) that they don’t depend on those things they depend on with any more ‘faith’ than to take the view that what they depend on seems like the best thing to (provisionally) depend on at this time, and they would simply ask a theist to suggest a better alternative.🙂

      Most people I know have no problem resorting to science when the chips are down, such as when they slice off the end of their thumb while carving the sunday roast, though there may be those who prefer to intuit the would to stop bleeding.🙂

      Secondly, I’m not sure I instictively agree with Mr wiener, when he says that without faith that nature is subject to law there can be no science. Sounds canardish and strawish to me. I don’t think science lays claims to truths, though I suppose it often sounds like it does. science just says, if this wing is designed a certain way, the aeroplane will fly. If not it will crash. Proof. Pudding. Science rolls on without bothering to be certain that a law of nature is adhered to, it seems to me.

    • David Mills,

      I think that the suggestion that ‘New Atheism’ has a problematic faith in reason is too much of a generalization

      Maybe, to some extent, although I qualified the statement by pointing to reason’s limitations, an unawareness of which, or a dogged refusal to even consider them, would seem to be one of the hallmarks of a “misplaced faith” in it. As for the prevalence of that – even in the scientific community – you might be interested in this review of Carl Sagan’s The Demon Haunted World by the well known and regarded biologist, Richard Lewontin, which has this salient point:

      Our willingness to accept scientific claims that are against common sense is the key to an understanding of the real struggle between science and the supernatural. We take the side of science in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs, in spite of its failure to fulfill many of its extravagant promises of health and life, in spite of the tolerance of the scientific community for unsubstantiated just-so stories, because we have a prior commitment, a commitment to materialism.

      And, as cases in point, there are his descriptions of various claims and “theories” by E.O. Wilson, Lewis Thomas, Richard Dawkins and Sagan himself, as well as Joseph Hoffmann’s critique of Sam Harris’ “extended fallacy”.

      But it is that tolerance for, if not careless or egregious use of, “unsubstantiated just-so stories” in those cases which betrays both, I think, an ignorance of the nature of reason itself as well as, in consequence, an “unreasonable” expectation of what it is truly capable of – misplaced faith. And at the heart of that ignorance is something which Daniel Dennett alluded to in his Darwin’s Dangerous Idea:

      There is no such thing as philosophy-free science; there is only science whose philosophical baggage is taken on board without examination.

      And, more specifically, the essence of those unsubstantiated stories is that there is a whole slew of not-precisely-defined premises and assumptions – the unexamined baggage – at the heart and foundation of them: in many cases – mostly physical sciences – not terribly problematic, although consciousness could, I think, be a major exception, but in other cases – sociobiology and the “selfish gene” for examples – it could be substantially more so. The problem seems to essentially boil-down to the example provided by Euclidean geometry: we start out with some axioms – the intuitively “obvious” facts provided by our “common sense” which frequently turns out to be a very weak reed to lean on indeed – and build a number of theorems on top of them which provides us some degree of control over our environment. But in our success in that latter endeavor we tend to forget that we started out with an assumption, a hypothesis, an article of faith, that “reality” has no “obligation” to make good on. In many cases we’re at least in the right ballpark – the non-Euclidean geometry of relativity for example – but in many others we haven’t been so lucky – Copernican versus Ptolemaic cosmology for example. How our current “theories” might fare in the future is, I think, anyone’s guess.

      … though there may be those who prefer to intuit the wound to stop bleeding …

      Or maybe “gesture hypnotically”.🙂 But relative to which you might be interested in this article on intuition by the scientist / philosopher Massimo Pigliucci. And there have been more than a few scientists who have made significant discoveries or advances as a result of intuitive flashes of insight which they describe as something pretty close to religious revelations – the cosmologist Fred Hoyle and the physicist Richard Feynman for examples [The Mind of God; Paul Davies, pgs 228-229]. Seems to me that intuition is roughly equivalent to inductive logic while the scientific method itself is largely based on deductive logic, although even science uses it in, at least, the generation of various hypotheses.

      I’m not sure I instinctively agree with Mr Wiener, when he says that without faith that nature is subject to law there can be no science.

      I think that is based on the assumption – some of the baggage that Dennett referred to – that there are certain causal regularities in nature that can be captured or described with various mathematical laws or expressions. All sorts of cases to strongly suggest that that is the case. But there is no guarantee that every subsequent case is going to adhere to any particular law – which is, as they say, descriptive rather than prescriptive: Newton was Newton, not God. The problem of induction; hence faith.

      Science rolls on without bothering to be certain that a law of nature is adhered to, it seems to me.

      What you are describing seems closer to engineering than to science: the practical applications of some “found” laws rather than the search for them and concerns whether we can ultimately find them all.

      • Steersman,

        Hi. Thanks for the considered and thorough reply.

        ‘Maybe, to some extent, although I qualified the statement by pointing to reason’s limitations, an unawareness of which, or a dogged refusal to even consider them, would seem to be one of the hallmarks of a “misplaced faith” in it. As for the prevalence of that – even in the scientific community – you might be……’

        Yes, I didn’t mean to suggest that you didn’t have a point (note: I type with one finger. Sometimes this leads to my replies being more, er, brief/terse than represents my thoughts on the matter :)). I just wasn’t sure how prevalent your point was. I am not even sure if it is Sagan or the reviewer who would make the explicit claim that science has anything like ‘all the answers’, but in a way, that is by the by, for me, because if anyone does want to make a claim anywhere in that vicinity, that is their problem, not mine, and I wouldn’t go along with it.🙂

        In a nutshell, this matter goes (politely) into the category of, ‘yes, science is incomplete and fallible….and? What is your point?’

        I don’t doubt that science cannot ensure happiness, among other things, and that religion can, for example, but I don’t believe this is science’s promise. It is not even science’s inherent promise to make things ‘better’, though I agree that this IS a prevalent justification, and the results are indeed something of a curate’s egg.

        No. For me, science is first and foremost about making the best possible attempt, using the means at our disposal, to know stuff. Whether this ‘knowledge’ is better for us or not is, I believe, secondary.

        This is no better demonstrated than in the bare question of the supernatural and God. The question of whether it is more probable that god exists or not is, essentially, a no-brainer for the neutral (if anyone can be described as such), IMO.

        ‘Or maybe “gesture hypnotically”. But relative to which you might be interested in this article on intuition by the scientist / philosopher Massimo Pigliucci. And there have been more than a few scientists who have made significant discoveries or advances as a result of intuitive flashes of insight …’

        I have no problem with that. Intuition and hypnotism are fascinating examples of what the mind can achieve, but they are not good evidence of anything non-material/non-physical/supernatural. Though those can’t be ruled out, obviously. Only a fool would rule ANYTHINg out.🙂

        I have not heard of a severed thumb being reattached by mind power alone, however, which was my point.

        ‘which they describe as something pretty close to religious revelations’

        I’m sure they are ‘pretty close’ to religious revelations (though I would strongly prefer religious experiences). Religious experiences/revelations are quite common. What is not common is any persuasive evidence that they come from where they are sometimes believed to have come from.

        ‘I think that is based on the assumption – some of the baggage that Dennett referred to – that there are certain causal regularities in nature that can be captured or described with various mathematical laws or expressions. All sorts of cases to strongly suggest that that is the case. But there is no guarantee that every subsequent case is going to adhere to any particular law – which is, as they say, descriptive rather than prescriptive: Newton was Newton, not God. The problem of induction; hence faith.’

        Again, fine. I don’t dispute that scientists and atheists don’t sometimes overstep the mark in terms of treating axioms and ‘laws’ and assumptions as if they were fixed and absolute, but a really good scientist/atheist should not do so, IMO, and there are plenty who realize this, and simply use ‘working models’.

        Yes, induction is faith, but religious faith is faith with good evidence, that is the key difference.

        ‘What you are describing seems closer to engineering than to science: the practical applications of some “found” laws rather than the search for them and concerns whether we can ultimately find them all.’

        Fair enough. For the purposes of the analogy, I think that ‘applied science’ is a very useful category, because it distils what science is ‘about’ better than, say, us discussing the philosophy of science in abstract terms.

      • Dr. Hoffmann,

        Certainly; my pleasure.

        Anything in particular that you would like us or me to develop or elaborate on? Any areas that you think are well-plowed ground or that should be let lie fallow or that could use some cultivation?🙂

      • Let’s open it up: and then perhaps David can respond to your catalytic force! It would be extremely worthwhile to have an adult conversation about some of these issues: we might set a new tone and precedent.

      • @ Joseph, steph and steersman,

        Joseph. You said ‘let’s open it up’. This is probably not what you meant, but….

        Hm. I am going to be rather busy tomorrow and possibly for the next few days, so, please forgive me for stepping in out of turn to offer a short detour (that is to say, at first impression, off topic, though in reality anything but) since I may or may not be in a position to respond, steersman, to your next reply on the matters we (though I can really only speak for myself) were enjoyably touching on.

        I am going to link you to two youtube items. One is a piece of music, the other an animation. They affect me very deeply, for reasons which are personal, or more accurately, personal to people i am close to.

        I know an elderly Christian woman, approaching 80, who, 50 years ago, and only a few months after the birth of her 4th child (all girls), lost her husband, her love, to cancer, very suddenly. It is probably fair to say that she has never recovered, though she has done a remarkable job of bringing up her daughters despite everything, despite great hardship, not least financial.

        She has, I know, never given up on the belief that she will one day, be reunited with her young love, and has spurned several opportunities to marry again. The lyrics to the piece of music are posted in the comments just below the youtube video, which is really just a picture of Hayley Westenra, who I’m guessing can’t be that much different in age to this woman when she was a young bride and mother.

        I know all the 4 sisters very well, and again, I would feel that they have not fully recovered either, even though they lead othewize successful and happy married lives, and have children of their own. I have them in mind when watching the animation.

        I’d be interested to know what you think. The reason I post these things is, er, well one can never be sure about one’s motives, can one? i suppose, if I’m honest, I do sometimes feel that as an outright, indeed ‘New’ atheist, atheism is….to some extent…a maligned and misunderstood term. it’s just a superficial label, after all. I should add that i am not suggesting either of you have maligned it. Not at all. I do not even know what your beliefs or lack of beliefs actually are, for starters.

        Anyhows, these two items do sort of, in a way, say a great deal about how i, and i believe many other atheists I know, feel about atheism, Humanism, and indeed theology, well at least the Christian version.🙂

        Wait for a quiet interlude to view them, if you can.

        catch you later.

        DM

      • Beautiful… Hayley Westenra is a Kiwi born in Christchurch 1987 – she was 18 when she recorded the Odyssey album that Quanta Qualia is on. She has a voice as crystal clear and pure as an angel with a very broad range – at least two octaves and nine semitones. In that album alone she ranges from F sharp below middle C (On My Heart Belongs to You) up to the D# – just over two octaves above middle C (in Quantia Qualia) without effort or strain. She always sends shivers down my spine. She’s recently got engaged to a French boy…

      • David,

        I’d be interested to know what you think.

        To be addressed in the context of your later comments.🙂

        The reason I post these things is, er, well one can never be sure about one’s motives, can one?

        Quite true – far too much, maybe, happens “underneath the hood” that, I think, we’re only peripherally aware of, except maybe to a limited extent through intuitions – aka feelings: “the heart has reasons that Reason knows nought of”.

        … I do sometimes feel that as an outright, indeed ‘New’ atheist, atheism is….to some extent…a maligned and misunderstood term.

        Well, I’ve certainly given it a shot or two and have been labelled that “horror of horrors”, an “accommodationist” – far worse than the “baby-eating reductionist” levelled at atheists, for my troubles.🙂 But the “sensitivity” that you seem to exhibit there suggests – politely speaking – something that is, I think, a fairly common and entirely human “failing” – which is maybe to paint it in darker colours than it deserves: simply a tendency to stereotyping and categorical thinking, a “my country, right or wrong” type of outlook. Which is, I think, quite problematic as it tends to preclude much in the way of rapprochement, or of finding much in the way of the common ground without which I think humanity’s prognosis is not particularly favourable.

        And relative to the example of the “new atheism” you refer to I think there is great amount of value within that movement or philosophy, but also much that is, at least, quite counter-productive. It really appears – as most “isms” are, I think – to be a rather amorphous ball of somewhat or quite conflicting principles, attitudes and values, not all of which are going to be subscribed to or supported by all those who might self-identify as “new atheists” or labour in its vineyards – so to speak. But, for example, I am very much on board – to a greater or lesser extent depending on context – with a principle in Dennett’s tribute to Christopher Hitchens:

        Of all the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” Hitchens was clearly the least gentle, the angriest, the one most likely to insult his interlocutor. But in my experience, he only did it when rudeness was well deserved – which is actually quite often when religion is the topic. Most spokespeople for religion expect to be treated not just with respect but with a special deference that is supposedly their due because the cause they champion is so righteous.

        And I think, based on my own experience in talking with various fundamentalists or reading their various articles and posts, that that characterization of “expecting not just respect but … special deference” seems to hit the nail squarely on the head – and drives it home if not half-way through the plank: there really does seem to be a great many of them who expect precisely that; one thinks fondly or with some sympathy of the joke about the fellow who hit the mule over the head with a two-by-four – just to get its attention.

        However, that “the cause they champion is so righteous” is, I think, decidedly problematic as it is something that is also exhibited, frequently or periodically, by more than a few “new atheists” – problematic, for one thing, because it tends to give the movement a bit of a bad name, gives an opportunity for those who might wish to unfairly malign it. And relative to which you might be interested in this book review of The Righteous Mind and in this blog post which discusses it in some detail. But that all-too-human phenomenon is, I think, best exemplified or characterized by a Christian pastor who, basing his “sermon” on St. Augustine, describes it as “the lust for domination”:

        Second, we need to become sensitive to the lust for domination that is part of our fallen nature. It comes out in disguised and insidious ways. We are adept at using acts of service to manipulate others and get our way. Sometimes when making a strong point in a discussion with my wife, I feel an odd thrill. It’s not the thrill of pursuing the good, true, and beautiful in partnership with someone I love. Instead it’s the thrill of winning or, to put it more accurately, it’s the thrill of her losing. I’m dominating. It feels good at home, on the job, in the Church, and in the Public Square. It’s giving in to libido dominandi and is cause for repentance. Loving truth is good; loving being right and lording it over others is sin, plain and simple.

        Bit of an echo there of your earlier comment about our motives and how they are not always all that clear even, or particularly, to ourselves. But one of the things that I’ve found most useful as a protection, as a prophylactic – one might say, against going overboard in that “lust” is simply to remember that there is quite likely something of significant or of more-than-passing value in the position and argument of one’s interlocutor. To totally destroy one’s opponent really is, I think, largely counterproductive at best and tantamount to destroying oneself at worst – frequently somewhat of a pyrrhic victory.

        Which sort of brings me around to your videos and question, my response to which is largely predicated on the foregoing. While you didn’t elaborate much on how you think they related to “Christian theology” in particular, my view is that, although dogmatic fundamentalists tend to cause me to look around for the nearest two-by-four (figuratively speaking), I think that more metaphorical interpretations are likely to be, and have been, of some significant value. Although that is more along the line of an inkling rather than any great degree of certitude – sort of a “work in progress”. Which might have to wait to a later post for further elaboration.🙂

        Jim
        [Steersman]

      • For what it’s worth David, I have a lot of skeptical faith (excuse the apparent oxymoron) and belong to the Universal Church of Hermeneutical Suspicion. I also believe in the cultural spirit of humanism. It focuses on the quest for knowledge and meaning through the works of men and women rather than on the ‘works’ of God, but atheism is not a sufficient description. From the time of its earliest practitioners in the west, humanism has been a celebration of human achievement in all fields of learning, art, craft, and ethics. Efforts to equate humanism with ‘secularism’, special ideologies and interests and the narrow focus on scientific achievement put forward by some organizations, has had a corrupting and limiting effect contradicting the critical spirit which humanism has always fostered. I believe in recovering for the future what the present has sacrificed from the cultural spirit of traditional humanism.

      • To be more explicit: Humanism has nothing to do with ‘religion without a deity’. Humanism is not about no God or God. The word has been hijacked by modern secular and atheist organisations, but traditional Humanism is without ‘unbelief’. I believe in the renaissance of the essence of Renaissance Humanism … without unbelief.

      • Jim,

        ‘……Quite true – far too much, maybe, happens “underneath the hood” that, I think, we’re only peripherally aware of, except maybe to a limited extent through intuitions – aka feelings: “the heart has reasons that Reason knows nought of”……..’

        I have, in my time, had the pleasure of quite a bit of psychotherapy, an experience I would recommend to almost anyone who wants to try to understand what’s ‘under their hood’. Not that one finds out, necessarily. A lot of the time one just realizes that one doesn’t find out.

        I have, for many years, had the epitaph for my gravestone chosen in advance. It’ll say, ‘Here lies the body of David Mills….then underneath…’never quite got the hang of it’. 

        I am especially tickled by the experiments of Benjamin Libet and those who have come after him, which suggest that conscious thought might be a bit like a news reporter who arrives at the scene AFTER the decisive action has taken place (up to 7 seconds after according to some experiments) and reports on it, making as much ad hoc ‘sense’ of it as possible.

        .’…..Which is, I think, quite problematic as it tends to preclude much in the way of rapprochement, or of finding much in the way of the common ground without which I think humanity’s prognosis is not particularly favourable…….’

        Sure. As a species, we tend to pick a trench, get into it, and then lob grenades towards the opposite trench. I could equally use an analogy using the word ‘tribe’ instead. I’m sure the reasons for this are very complex, and I wouldn’t dare to offer any simplistic overview, but it does seem true that the middle ground (literally, no man’s land’?) is hard to occupy.
        ‘…..And relative to the example of the “new atheism” you refer to I think there is great amount of value within that movement or philosophy, but also much that is, at least, quite counter-productive……’

        Yes. Like most things ‘radical’, it’s double-edged.

        ‘…….. And relative to which you might be interested in this book review of The Righteous Mind and in this blog post which discusses it in some detail…….’

        Very interesting reading, thanks. I would tend to agree more with the ‘Choice in Dying’ blog post than with John Gray (on the specific topic of ‘New Atheism’, I mean) but that’s just a personal preference.
        ‘……, I think, largely counterproductive at best and tantamount to destroying oneself at worst – frequently somewhat of a pyrrhic victory……’

        To a large extent, I agree. To the lesser extent that I would disagree, I would say that I do believe religion deserves a good kick up the backside and that tippy-toeing around it is not necessarily counter-productive at all, but then it does depend what one is hoping to produce. I might add that by religion I specifically mean organized/institutional religion, and not an individual believer, though I accept that they may feel criticized automatically.

        I think it is very important to distinguish between religion as a social/psychological phenomenon and the supernatural claims which tend to go along with it. The benign and even perhaps useful contributions of the former, especially in history though also currently, can be more easily acknowledged, and I think this is possibly what some/many atheists/scientists do not fairly acknowledge, so they appear to unkindly throw the baby out with the bathwater. I know why they do it, and can sympathize with their reasoning, but it’s not something I personally would do. I am, by nature, an ‘accommodationist’.  Though I can be a bit radical if my gander is up.

        ‘….I think that more metaphorical interpretations are likely to be, and have been, of some significant value…..’

        Ah, well, you certainly may have to elaborate on that one for me, because……I do wonder what value, going forward into the future I mean, religion can have.

        As for my music/animation. Thank you (and steph) for taking the trouble of viewing them. On a clumsy level, I think I simply wanted to say, quite loudly and proudly, that we new atheists are not insensitive robots. I don’t know quite where I picked up the impression that anyone explicitly said we were, but I have an inkling that it may be here and there, in between the lines of criticism. I also think the word ‘scientism’ is a tad overused.

        My reference to Christianity in relation to the links was simply that both remind me of what is surely one of the most poignant aspects of the belief system, that one will one day be reunited with one’s loved ones. The fact that I believe it is a mistaken belief makes it all the more poignant for me, and because of the people I am close to, I cannot watch or listen to those pieces without welling up.

        David

      • Steph,

        Hm. I think it is going to be difficult for me to properly explain what I meant when I said that Humanism seems to me to be a bit like religion without a god (it is, of course, only my subjective opinion in any case).

        Perhaps if I said that your saying ‘I believe in recovering for the future what the present has sacrificed from the cultural spirit of traditional humanism.’ Sums it up, in a way. It sounds vaguely teleological. I might be tempted to ask you, ‘why do you care about the future in that way?’ Whatever your answer, won’t it ultimately, be to do with you and what you ‘like’? That is to say, it will be normative.

        Not that I find anything wrong with that, at all. I can simultaneously admire it and yet take the view that it is meaningless, apart from the meaning you give to it. I can simultaneously agree that life is meaningless, and enjoy filling it (my life) with meaning. Just as I can enjoy what appears to be free will, even though I think it may be an illusion.

        Does any of that make any sense? I am not sure it will. So long as you understand that while I see your preferences as entirely arbitrary, I probably share most of them, then I hope we can share common ground.🙂

      • David:

        I believe in recovering for the future what the present has sacrificed from the cultural spirit of traditional humanism. “Vaguely teleological”. Why? Because I care about our generation’s children and our children’s children, and the planet, and animals and think it my responsibility as a human being, sucking up oxygen and using up resources like water, to ensure they have fruitful, productive, happy lives too, full of opportunity to contribute to society, learn and gain new knowledge? Or because I used language that is can be narrowly defined as religious like ‘spiritual’ and even ‘sacrificed’?

        Normative – as a part of human society. Meaningless? Arbitrary? I hear echoes of A.J Ayer. Total contempt for humanity. I don’t consider my lifelong studies and evolving philosophical position ‘arbitrary’.

      • stephie louise fisher,

        I have a lot of skeptical faith (excuse the apparent oxymoron) and belong to the Universal Church of Hermeneutical Suspicion.

        I believe in the renaissance of the essence of Renaissance Humanism … without unbelief.

        Apart from generally agreeing with you there, I think your statements highlight, as you suggest, the somewhat problematic nuances of “faith” and “belief” that require some circumlocutions of one sort or another. And, more specifically, there are these definitions for the word “believe” that suggest or highlight those nuances or aspects:

        1. To accept as true or real: Do you believe the news stories?
        2. To credit with veracity: I believe you.
        3. To expect or suppose; think: I believe they will arrive shortly.

        Seems to me that the first two definitions are based on the “acceptance” as true of what is asserted – to act as if it were true, whereas the third one is based on the supposition, the hypothesis, that what is asserted might be true. A significant difference that seems to bedevil much of American politics, although not limited exclusively to that venue, which led John Gray in his review of The Righteous Mind to this observation:

        With the possible exception of Poland, there is no advanced industrial country as deeply polarized as America is today.

        While I think one can make a credible argument that it is the fundamentalists – mostly the religious variety – who are most at fault for their crossing the Rubicon from asserting to demanding the acceptance of their dogmata, one might also reasonably argue that it is something we are all prone to, to a greater or lesser extent.

        For instance, there is the problematic issue of abortion. Many if not most of the religious are going to be asserting that it is tantamount to murder which might be a reasonable argument except for the fact that it is coloured, and quite badly, by their “feelings” that they are speaking on behalf of Jehovah Himself. And many of the feminists and atheists are asserting that there is no evidence for any soul or sentience – which apparently magically appears at the end of the first trimester – which certainly seems a reasonable argument – except for the niggling suspicion, a feeling, that that does some serious damage to the image, if not of “God” then the one delineated by Hamlet. As for a way off the horns of that particular dilemma? Since, staking out a position in no-man’s land between those two entrenched ones, both of those positions are predicated on some “feelings” that are, probably, ultimately unprovable one is obliged, I think, to have recourse to questions of expediency: really a question of triage, a necessary evil, a “just” war, that might provide some troubling reflections on society’s scale of values.

        But, more generally, that brings me around to your later comments about “teleology” and “total contempt for humanity”. While I generally have quite a bit of sympathy for them and their underlying premises, the “humanity” statement at least seems to be predicated on the somewhat reasonable idea – seems to be based on the “feeling” – that “humanity” itself is more than just an abstraction (how can one have contempt for something that doesn’t exist?); that it possesses, at least potentially, some degree of autonomous reality which informs and motivates certain actions and purposes: teleology. However, you may or may not know of the degree to which “science” or atheism in general has some serious aversions to that concept – so much so that I get the impression that its adherents or practitioners, on hearing the word, start scurrying around looking for their crosses and holy water and wooden stakes to deal with the nefarious attempt to put the “divine [if not infernal] foot in the door”: really quite amusing, although decidedly problematic, in many ways.

        For example, there’s this recent post by the biologist Jerry Coyne on the topic of “Group Selection” – “humanity” being, one might argue, the penultimate if not the ultimate one of those – which is, as the post discusses in some detail, the cause for some extensive and acrimonious internecine warfare among biologists – bit of a ridge-line in a very large watershed. In addition, there’s the book Toward a New Philosophy of Biology by the biologist Ernst Mayr which has this:

        Teleological statements and explanations imply the endorsement of unverifiable theological or metaphysical doctrines in science. … Contemporary philosophers reject such teleology almost unanimously. Likewise, the employment of teleological language among modern biologists does not imply adoption of such metaphysical concepts (see below).

        But, apart from my view or “feeling” that that “doctrine” is anything but “unverifiable”, that aversion has led to some remarkable contortions such as the following attempt, for example, to remove any suggestion of anthropomorphism or attribution of agency, of intent, to critters less “evolved” than we humans are:

        In other words, Nagel would translate the sentence, “The turtle swims to the shore to lay her eggs” into the sentence, “The turtle swims to the shore and lays her eggs.”

        And, my favorite, this amusing summary from the well-known biologist J.B.S. Haldane (significant contributions to the “Modern Synthesis”, the current theory of evolution):

        Teleology is like a mistress to a biologist: he cannot live without her but he’s unwilling to be seen with her in public.

        The upshot of all of that? Seems to me that while one can sympathize with those scientists who are apprehensive about letting that “divine foot in the door”, their fear – one might say their dogmatism if not their “scientism” – tends to preclude honest assessments of a significantly worthwhile idea – and one that has, I think, some significant contributions to a broader, if not transcendent, concept of humanism.

      • David,

        … epitaph for my gravestone chosen in advance. It’ll say, ‘Here lies the body of David Mills….then underneath…’never quite got the hang of it’.
        🙂 Know the feeling, although I expect many do as evidenced by such phrases as “fake it until you make it”, “muddle through”, “working on a mystery without any clues” and the like.

        I am especially tickled by the experiments of Benjamin Libet …

        Reminds me of the book The Remembered Present by the biologist Gerald Edelman that you might be interested in or have read already; not read it yet myself but may eventually get around to it …

        … I do believe religion deserves a good kick up the backside and that tippy-toeing around it is not necessarily counter-productive at all …

        Yes, it seems we agree on that point; hence my willingness to disabuse the fundamentalists of their notion that their beliefs are significantly better than ones in the Easter Bunny – even if that means being somewhat rude, depending on the circumstances.

        Ah, well, you certainly may have to elaborate on that one for me, because……I do wonder what value, going forward into the future I mean, religion can have.

        Not exactly sure myself – bit of a work in progress. But, as indicated in my last post to you it’s partly a question of having something in the way of a transcendent vision of one sort or another, even if it is badly flawed and subject to abuse – and, of course, power tends to be that way. And I think there are a great many bits and pieces in the Bible – even Dawkins’ lists several pages (384, 385) of them – that have, at least, substantial “literary merit”. The question, for me anyway, is whether the Catholic Church in particular is able to distance itself from the literal interpretations and realize its survival probably depends on doing so.

        I also think the word ‘scientism’ is a tad overused.

        Yes, tends to be, particularly by the religious and various theologians in cases of “special pleading” such as this by Alvin Plantinga. A little less unjustified when argued by John Gray and Eric MacDonald, for examples.

        … simply that both remind me of what is surely one of the most poignant aspects of the belief system, that one will one day be reunited with one’s loved ones.

        I can sympathize with that for a number of reasons. Depending on the details of the context one might argue that, for example, that “elderly Christian woman” you refer to was honoring the spirit of her dead husband and in so doing ensured its survival, in a sense, as well as giving some credence and credibility to various “transcendent” principles. Another example along that line that I find particularly moving is Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, in particular this:

        But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced.

        Both cases, I would say, of a commitment to various principles that have some significant influence on the survival of the species and which manifest a fundamental “humanism” – the same humanism that you apparently don’t “subscribe” to yet apparently support or promote in your own concern for your children – and “at a stretch their children”: all part and parcel, I think, of that broader, if not transcendent, philosophy.

      • ‘……Reminds me of the book The Remembered Present by the biologist Gerald Edelman that you might be interested in or have read already; not read it yet myself but may eventually get around to it …….’

        Haven’t read it. It sounds interesting. So many books, so little time, eh? It seems to me that evolutionary biologists often get into explaining how stuff evolved to be what it is today, and while I do generally agree that everything probably has (evolved), I sometimes feel that their efforts may be limited to guessing or at best constructing plausible hypotheses which are very difficult to verify, given the problem with evolutionary timescales, generally speaking. So far, it’s been difficult enough just to demonstrate speciation in fruit fly, if you get my point.🙂

        Maybe some day, some day….

        ‘….Not exactly sure myself – bit of a work in progress. But, as indicated in my last post to you it’s partly a question of having something in the way of a transcendent vision of one sort or another, even if it is badly flawed and subject to abuse –….’

        Yup. We all like a good reason to get out of bed in the morning.🙂

        Sometimes, I think, religious people, and even humanists (our topic group) seem to worry that without, er, some sort of ‘worthwhile’ philosophy, or ultimate purpose, or something noble to aspire to, we won’t have one (a reason to get out of bed) but in practice I don’t tend to think it works like that, so I think such a worry may be misplaced. In any case, ‘breakfast’ is quite a good enticement.

        It seems to me both useful and important (could have used inverted commas there) to fully confront the idea, at least in discussion if not in life, that ‘purpose’ is, to some extent, an illusion, and that in the grand scheme of things, it may well be nothing more than a reflection of our own desires. From the viewpoint of almost any other species on the planet, we might easily be described as a pest, for all our uphill climb towards civilization. This is not contempt or disrespect for humanity. It might even be called humility and perspective, IMO.

        ‘……..I would say, of a commitment to various principles that have some significant influence on the survival of the species and which manifest a fundamental “humanism” – the same humanism that you apparently don’t “subscribe” to yet apparently support or promote in your own concern for your children – and “at a stretch their children”: all part and parcel, I think, of that broader, if not transcendent, philosophy……’

        I am not sure that I subscribe to any ism, though I probably do, because someone somewhere which have a label for it.🙂. Perhaps, even, it would be better to say that ultimately, I am subscribed, since this implies less of my having volunteered in the first place to be a member (of humanity).

        Put it this way, I don’t make any noble claims for why I might give a damn about my immediate descendants. Regarding my own children, I think a shedload of personal responsibility may be in order, given that my wife and I played god as regards their appearanace (assuming we had free will, which is by no means certain, but I am willing to run with it as a working model, especially as I have limited alternative options). After that, it (the sense of responsibility) tails off.

        By the way, if you have made some specific point that you were hoping I would respond to, do let me know by reminder. We are covering a wide area here. I do read your posts thoroughly. Part of the reason I don’t respond to everything is because I agree with a lot of it and partly because I type with one finger and need to go to work.

        I liked your ‘the turtles swim to the beach and lay their eggs’.

        david

      • @ steph.

        Uncalled for, and possibly inaaccurate and irrelevant ad hom, IMO. I wasn’t going to reply, but I decided I wanted to. I find your discussion technique unfortunately and unnecessarily adversarial, and inconsistent too, because recently at another venue, you chided me for categorizing people as atheists or not atheists, and said you hated the word, and now you refer to ‘atheist steersman’ ?

        Actually, for what it’s worth, I personally had mistakenly thought steersman was a liberal Christian, or at least ‘spiritual’ and in any case, does that have anything to do with the shortcomings of his thoughts, for which I do not see any evidence that they are limited in the way you speculate? What does an appreciation of the complexities of language have to do with atheism in any case, ultimately, I might ask?

        I am not seeking either an argument or a discussion with you, by the way. As I say, I think you incline to a tad too much adversary.,

      • @ steph.

        Apologies. I think I misread your post. You meant, I think, ‘atheists, steersman’. My mistake in thinking you were replying to me, not him.😦 Whoops.

        A lot of my post can be scrapped, in that case. Perhaps not all of it, but a lot of it.🙂 Apologies again.

      • stephie louise fisher,

        Only ‘problematic’ for atheists Steersman who might have narrow views of language and logic.

        That is probably true, at least to some extent, and there are, no doubt, some atheists for which that “narrow view” is the case – having run across a few of them in my travels. However, I would say the problem is far more pronounced in the religious – probably related to or as a result of their literalism – which tends to make it a serious problem for everyone else. Although, of course, not everyone else sees it that way.

        But, for instance and apart from the “belief” word, there’s the “argument” from them that because atheists “believe” there is no god that makes atheism a religion and therefore on par with theism. And which has been used by some to justify their argument that creationism should be taught as being on par with evolution. And in some narrow largely metaphorical sense of the word I think they do have a point, to wit:

        4. A cause, principle, or activity pursued with zeal or conscientious devotion.

        Which, one might argue, certainly seems like it is applicable to many atheists, particularly the more militant, if not dogmatic, cohort. However, what most of the theists, the religious, apparently fail to recognize is that some principles are more credible and carry more weight than others; that not all hypotheses are created equal; that, equivalently and paradigmatically, the hypothesis that the Earth is the center of the solar system does not have the same degree of utility and “truth” as the one that it is the sun which is the center (more or less). As Carl Sagan put it:

        The well-meaning contention that all ideas have equal merit seems to me little different from the disastrous contention that no ideas have any merit. [Broca’s Brain; pg xii]

        The religious in particular, although not exclusively, really do seem to have some ‘problematic’ difficulty in understanding that idea; that just throwing out a hypothesis is certainly not any justification for anyone putting any faith in it, much less for demanding that anyone else do so.

      • David: In my one sentence short response I addressed Steersman, not you. I did not address him as an atheist, I was addressing why some atheists find particular language problematic. I am well aware he does not describe himself as an atheist and he has suggested he is a panentheist among other things elsewhere.

      • No that’s right Steersman, not just some atheists, but conservative religious people too, who also hold constricted views of meaning and language. Neither having a problem though, is a problem for humanism. Humanism came out of the renaissance and is without unbelief and has always fostered critical thinking. As a celebration of human achievement in all fields of learning, art, craft, and ethics, it embraces evolving languages and ideas.

      • stephie louise fisher,

        No that’s right Steersman, not just some atheists, but conservative religious people too, who also hold constricted views of meaning and language.

        Ah, we have some agreement then, at least some small amount of common ground.🙂

        Neither having a problem though, is a problem for humanism.

        However, that is a problem, I think. If Joseph can argue, quite reasonably, that “movement humanism is not innocuous” and that it consists, to some extent, of the hijacking of core elements or “renaissance humanism” by atheists, and which is, arguably, substantially better than the views and goals of “conservative religious people”, then it seems not unreasonable to argue that both are quite antithetical if not inimical to the values and goals of that “humanism” you refer to.

        Humanism came out of the renaissance and is without unbelief …

        And, not to be overly argumentative, that also seems particularly problematic. It seems to me that that “humanism … is without unbelief” incorporates or strongly suggests a double negative [“not with not-belief”] and which can therefore be “unpacked” as “humanism … is with belief”. Now, I don’t have any particular problem with that in itself as I expect I subscribe to, or have some sympathy for, more than a few core elements – a few central premises and postulates and beliefs – in it as suggested, notably, by this:

        The theologies of Hartshorne and Whitehead, and to a certain degree Gilkey and Tillich, with their panentheistic view of God and idealistic view of man, were fully humanistic in the proper sense of the word ….

        But the wicket gets a little stickier when one realizes that beliefs have consequences in terms of their effects on and motivations for various forms of behaviour which then tend to produce ripples of one sort or another. As someone said by way of an analogy with standardized murder mysteries: if you buy a gun in the first act then you have to use it by the third (otherwise it’s a red herring or padding). And that necessitates, at least if one wishes not to be irresponsible, some degree of circumspection about what it is that one believes and a willingness to examine those beliefs and what their consequences might be. As Dennett put it in the context of science and, probably, scientism:

        There is no such thing as philosophy-free science; there is only science whose philosophical baggage is taken on board without examination.

        From which one might argue that scientism follows more or less from the use of that unexamined baggage, the most notable consequence might be the view that since the only tool one has is a hammer then every problem can be viewed as a nail. But relative to “renaissance humanism” I would say that the “human achievement” you refer to is one of those “articles of faith”, one of those premises that might be considered all fine and dandy yet which constitutes “unexamined baggage”. But without some answer, even a hypothetical one, to the question “To what end?” much of it seems to me to be little more than advanced basket-weaving: busy-work. As Kierkegaard put it:

        Are we so sure that we have achieved the highest, so that there is nothing left for us to do except piously to delude ourselves into thinking that we have not come that far, simply in order to have something to occupy one’s time? Is this the kind of self-deception the present age needs?

        I remember thinking many years ago that an amusing ending, depending on one’s appreciation for sardonic if not gallows humour, to Waiting for Godot would be for the main characters to pull out a game of Trivial Pursuit and start playing it. Certainly seems to be the response of many ….

      • stephie louise fisher,

        No I am not contradicting Joe, sorry Steersman.

        Looks to me then like you’re contradicting yourself: you are then asserting, apparently, that “movement humanism and [by extension] atheism and religious fundamentalism is not innocuous” and that that is “not a problem for renaissance humanism”. Something does not compute. Unless you think “not innocuous” doesn’t mean “harmful”.

        The fact that you’re getting tangled up with particular words and literalism demonstrates a defence of the position I mentioned before.

        And which position might that be? And how so? I can’t say that you’re being particularly clear on that point.

        In addition, it might help if you clarified exactly what you mean by “literalism”. In the context of religious fundamentalists I generally mean Biblical literalism and, more specifically, their argument that descriptions of supernatural events and causations are “literally” true, as described.

        In the context of words like “belief” and “religion” then “literalism” is totally justified and entails a mandatory requirement and obligation to provide or refer to or to use the precise meanings as described in the dictionary. Any other idiosyncratic use depends on context which the creator of such has some obligation to provide some elucidation or suggestion of – unless they just wish to be obscure …

      • No I implied or said nothing like that at all and you seem reluctant to let go of a conviction that a double negative means literally the opposite. I wrote to be more explicit above Humanism has nothing to do with ‘religion without a deity’. Humanism is not about no God or God. The word has been hijacked by modern secular and atheist organisations, but traditional Humanism is without ‘unbelief’. That is, it is not about secularism/atheism, ‘good without God’, special interests and ideologies. Obviously therefore it excludes fundamentalisms of both extremes. It just requires a little lateral thinking and imagination. So best wishes, I have several projects to complete.

      • stephie louise fisher,

        No I implied or said nothing like that at all

        And by “that” you mean what? That you didn’t say: “Neither having a problem though, is a problem for humanism”? Which I took to mean that you thought that “atheists and … conservative religious people who also hold constricted views of meaning and language” are not a problem for “renaissance humanism”. Either your sentence construction is rather ambiguous or highly idiosyncratic or my language parsing module needs some recalibration because that is the plain sense of that sentence that I get …

        The word has been hijacked by modern secular and atheist organisations, but traditional Humanism is without ‘unbelief’.

        And I pointed out that the following quote of Joseph’s seems to be central to renaissance humanism and constitutes something that might reasonably be construed as a set of beliefs:

        The theologies of Hartshorne and Whitehead, and to a certain degree Gilkey and Tillich, with their panentheistic view of God and idealistic view of man, were fully humanistic in the proper sense of the word ….

        If that is the case, or if there are other similar premises and principles as seems to be the case, then it seems just a little incongruous if not disingenuous, at best, to insist, as you are apparently doing, that “traditional humanism is without unbelief” does not mean that “traditional humanism is with belief”.

        And in the case that it does encompass a number of beliefs [hypotheses; arguments accepted as true] then it would appear to be rather hypocritical to be throwing stones at either atheists or fundamentalists for their “beliefs”. Perfectly reasonable, I think, to be criticizing various beliefs because their lack of correspondence to “reality” or their lack of plausibility; not quite so credible, if not a case of shooting oneself in the feet, to be criticizing the act of believing itself.

        It just requires a little lateral thinking and imagination.

        Imagination certainly has its benefits and uses. Although unless it is anchored at some point in objective reality it tends to have substantially fewer.

        So best wishes, I have several projects to complete.

        Thanks; likewise, I’m sure …

      • Obviously: I did not say or imply ““movement humanism and [by extension] atheism and religious fundamentalism is not innocuous” and that that is “not a problem for renaissance humanism”. And obviously I know what innocuous means.

        I am quite happy that you insist on massively misconstruing simple realistic ideas. Dogmatic religions and ideologies are antithetical to humanism without ‘unbelief’.

      • ‘,,,,,,,,But without some answer, even a hypothetical one, to the question “To what end?” much of it seems to me to be little more than advanced basket-weaving: busy-work. As Kierkegaard put it:

        Are we so sure that we have achieved the highest, so that there is nothing left for us to do except piously to delude ourselves into thinking that we have not come that far, simply in order to have something to occupy one’s time? Is this the kind of self-deception the present age needs?’

        Lol. Great stuff. No need to be frightened of squaring up to meaninglessness as an explanation to…..well, perhaps everything. Quite liberating, actually, IMO, as one possibility to try to keep (juggle) in mind, along with others.

        For some reason, I am reminded of the song, ‘Always look on the Bright Side of Life’ from the closing scene of ‘Life of Brian’ (which song I believe was chosen by Graham Chapman for his own funeral? Now there’s integrity and consistency for ya, probably). Sometimes, I even go as far as to think that if Monty Python haven’t covered it, it porobably ain’t philosophically worth covering. Lol.

        Anyhows. I wonder if Kierkegaard would have appreciated the following cartoon, which I consider among the most pithy I can think of, so much so that I post it again here, having already posted it at another thread here at the New Oxonian which you may already have seen. Good discussion site this, don’t you think? I haven’t been back to my old haunt at rationalskepticism.com for days and days. Now, I wasn’t expecting that. Lol

      • stephie louise fisher,

        SLF: Obviously: I did not say or imply …

        Certainly looks to me like you did so. As I attempted to explain at some length. And which you apparently more or less ignored or rejected.

        SLF: I am quite happy that you insist on massively misconstruing simple realistic ideas.

        Why should that make you happy? I would think that that would either reflect rather badly on your ability to explain those ideas or that the ideas themselves are incoherent or inconsistent right out of the chute.

        SLF: Dogmatic religions and ideologies are antithetical to humanism without ‘unbelief’.

        Really sorry to have to say this, but that really makes absolutely no sense whatsoever to me. Is it that “dogmatic religions and ideologies” are being antithetical “without unbelief”? Or that what they are being antithetical to is “humanism without unbelief”? In the latter case if you are unable or unwilling to explain precisely what you mean by the term – “humanism without unbelief” – then I think I’m entitled, if not obligated, to consider that as, at best, a falsely profound “deepity” – in Dennett’s phrasing – or simply as, at worst, outright nonsense.

        Although to maybe throw you a bit of a lifeline, I can see that your “without unbelief” – aka, in my view, “with belief” – is your somewhat idiosyncratic method of differentiating the dogmatic beliefs of various fundamentalists from the more rational ones of science and “renaissance humanism”. However, as somewhat of a relevant aside, I think that Joseph’s differentiating between renaissance and movement humanism is somewhat artificial, somewhat of a false dichotomy, as even the “fostering of critical thinking” of the former and its “reverence for scientific inquiry, [its] systematic approaches to the study of literature, history, society” seems to qualify as a movement of sorts, in the sense of promoting and inculcating certain perspectives which it sees as being of paramount importance in the evolution of society and civilization. Although one might also argue, or concede, that an important difference is that the former is somewhat more circumspect about throwing the baby out with the bathwater ….

      • You are not a mind reader – you have misrepresented what I said and continue to do so. I did not say or imply “movement humanism and [by extension] atheism and religious fundamentalism is not innocuous” and that that is “not a problem for renaissance humanism”. Humanism without ‘unbelief’ is without ‘unbelief’ because The narrow focus on scientific achievement put forward by some self-styled “secular humanist” organizations has muddied and eroded the traditional and the modern senses of humanism. The association of humanism and secularism has eroded the positive meaning of the term even further. And the efforts of some groups to equate humanism with special ideologies and interests has had a corrupting and limiting effect which, in significant ways, runs counter to the critical spirit which humanism has always fostered. You have made your opinions clear and as far as your opinion that Joe’s and my “differentiating between renaissance and movement humanism is somewhat artificial, somewhat of a false dichotomy, as even the “fostering of critical thinking”” it’s another reason why I wrote “I am quite happy that you insist on massively misconstruing simple realistic ideas” – ie. we disagree and this overlong internet ‘conversation’ had finished, a matter on which I thought we had agreed. Haere rā Steersman.

      • Lest there be any doubt: I regard the use of the term “humanism” to mean secular humanism or atheism to be one of the greatest tragedies of twentieth century movementology, perpetrated by second-class minds and perpetuated by third-class polemicists and village atheists. The attempt to sever humanism from the religious and the spiritual was a flatfooted, largely American way of taking on the religious right. It lacked finesse, subtlety, and the European sense of history. While it invoked its own commonsense saints like Dewey and Santayana, it also betrayed the spirit of both, and violated the great American tradition of Emerson and Thoreau, who like their progenitor Blake could still see “a world in a grain of sand/ And a heaven in a wild flower.” It is really quite tragic what evisceration of humanism that secular humanism and its founders are guilty of, and in my “maturity” I think it is too late for them to change their minds. Secular humanism is destined to die a death brought on by its own self-deception,narrowness of vision, and inability to speak to the human quest for meaning.

      • @ Joseph,

        To add to my previous post.

        Analogy time again, to illustrate the way I sometimes see things……

        Sciences (and atheism’s) ‘crime’, as it seems to be seen by some here, is as if it has said, ‘look, here, at the back of the wardrobe. We have made a door. It seems to lead to somewhere’, and the response by some is, ‘What? you cut a door? Don’t you realise that this wardrobe is an original by Androuet Du Cerveau?!?!’
        🙂

      • David,

        Sometimes, I even go as far as to think that if Monty Python haven’t covered it, it probably ain’t philosophically worth covering. LoL.
        🙂 There’s probably some truth to that argument. Along which line you might be interested in the book Plato and a Platypus Walk Into a Bar: Understanding Philosophy Through Jokes by Cathcart & Klein. Certainly seems that humour really has some important value in encapsulating some fairly profound aspects of life. For example, I’m reminded of this joke from the book:

        A man is in desperate financial straits and prays to God to save him by letting him win the lottery. Days go by, then weeks, and the man fails to win a single lottery. Finally, in misery, he cries out to God, “You tell us, ‘Knock and it shall be opened to you. Seek and you shall find.’ I’m going down the tubes here, and I still haven’t won the lottery!”

        A voice from above answers, “You’ve got to meet me half way, bubbeleh! Buy a ticket!”

        A more prosaic or colloquial expression of which is the aphorism, “God helps those who help themselves”. And maybe somewhat of a prophylactic or counter-balance to, at least, the rather fatalistic and debilitating conceptions of God that seem most saliently manifested in the Islamic one.

        But part of the reason why I have some sympathy with Voltaire’s “If God didn’t exist, it would be necessary to invent him”: it is, I think, at least a useful abstraction in a great many circumstances and applications even if it is susceptible to the “sin” of reification – aka, in some sense, idolatry.

        Anyhows. I wonder if Kierkegaard would have appreciated the following cartoon …

        Probably; thanks, I certainly do …🙂 But one might suggest that the fellow in the cartoon might want to reflect on the aphorism that “To study history is to be blind in one eye. But to not study it is to be blind in both.” Not sure what conclusions might reasonably follow, although variations on Francis Bacon’s “Debtor to one’s profession” and Wordsworth’s “Intimations of Immortality” seem like useful points of departure ….

        Good discussion site this, don’t you think?

        It is indeed. Certainly has some topics and perspectives that I can “get my teeth into” …

      • Jim,

        You said:

        ‘For example, I’m reminded of this joke from the book: A man is in desperate financial straits and prays to God to save him by letting him win the lottery. Days go by, then weeks, and the man fails to win a single lottery. Finally, in misery, he cries out to God, “You tell us, ‘Knock and it shall be opened to you. Seek and you shall find.’ I’m going down the tubes here, and I still haven’t won the lottery!” A voice from above answers, “You’ve got to meet me half way, bubbeleh! Buy a ticket!” ‘

        One of my favourites is about the guy who says, ‘when I was a kid, I used to ask God to bring me a bicycle. Then I realised it didn’t work that way, so I stole one, and asked him to forgive me.’ 🙂

      • Steph,

        Humanism without ‘unbelief’ is without ‘unbelief’ because ….

        You seem not to notice that I’m somewhat or even largely sympathetic to your argument and that of Joseph’s – specifically, for example, that “the narrow focus on scientific achievement” is decidedly problematic – but fail to notice that my problem is with your use of the term “without unbelief” which I find simply nonsensical or largely redundant and not at all consistent with the descriptions you wish to attach to it.

        Haere rā Steph.

      • Joseph,

        I regard the use of the term “humanism” to mean secular humanism or atheism to be one of the greatest tragedies of twentieth century “movementology” ….

        You might well be right on that point, particularly as I’m not all that familiar with all of the individuals you cite, and I sympathize with the argument – as I have indicated in my previous posts – that “severing humanism from the religious and the spiritual”, that denying or abandoning “the human quest for meaning”, is shortsighted at best, tantamount to throwing the baby out with the bathwater, and fraught with the danger entailed in the Biblical proverb “where there is no vision the people perish”.

        Although “secular humanism is destined to die a death brought on by its own self-deception …” might be a little premature as I expect that it is capable of doing, and has done, some evolving itself to forestall that eventuality. But I do agree that there is more than a small amount of “self-deception” in those “movements”; it is somewhat curious and quite amusing the degree to which many make a cause célèbre of their atheism and secular humanism and skepticism yet fail to see that the same sense of purpose and meaning they derive from them are virtually the same as those provided by more traditional religious perspectives and values – I expect they would be at serious loss if religious fundamentalism was to disappear overnight.

        At least it would be amusing if it weren’t quite so depressing in suggesting that we’re all working at cross-purposes – “we have seen the enemy and he is us”, that we’re still “riding madly off in all directions”. As the anthropologist John Hartung rather cogently put it:

        Without an analogue to heaven, eco-morality [and atheism and secular humanism and “politicized skepticism”] will suffer the same fate as communism. Ways and means are not the issue. The question remains, ways and means to what?

      • Steph,

        Without ‘unbelief’. That is without the ‘secular’ and the ‘atheist’ etc Steersman.

        As in, “humanism without the unbelief of secularism and atheism”? If that’s the case then you could have pointed that out a little earlier, particularly since, as you noted, I’m no mind reader. Although I would say that you’re not any better at that skill than I am or you would have known that that was what I was getting at.

        However, I still think the bare term is still decidedly ambiguous and that it muddies the water more than it clarifies it; it might be useful as jargon for the cognoscenti, but decidedly a hindrance if you’re trying to find adherents among the hoi polloi.

        But even so I still think the extended or elaborated term is problematic in defining that movement – “renaissance humanism” – in contradistinction to atheism: not what it is for, but what it is against – the very problem that bedevils atheism, secularism and skepticism: i.e., no vision, transcendent or otherwise. At least the process theology and process philosophy – not that I know very much about either – of “Hartshorne and Whitehead” suggested earlier by Joseph seems to give some hint or inkling of an “analogue to heaven”, of a positive “ethic that is … grounded in some actually existing infinite reality” as the basis for some workable “moral calculus”.

      • Joseph,

        You said:

        ‘…….Secular humanism is destined to die a death brought on by its own self-deception,narrowness of vision………….’,

        Yes. I recall discussing this with king Canute just the other day, at the beach.🙂

        Perhaps better to say that your slight caricature version of secular humanism may die?

        Hint: The Rennaissance, however wunnerful for humanism, is unforunately, er, of the past.

        ‘………and inability to speak to the human quest for meaning.’

        Ah yes. The quest. Which quest is that? The one for personal/group meaning, or something more, er, absolute and beyond and, maybe teleological. I ask, because I think mixing the two up is possibly part of the caricaturization which I think I see, between the lines. Though i could be wrong.🙂

      • Actually David, I think secular humanism is already in the throes: it has been swallowed by atheists who don’t even like the term and find it archaic, the full-frontal crowd, and looks a little like England after the War: lost its real estate and can’t find a role. Where do you get the idea I’m pumping for renaissance humanism? Much as I like Erasmus and Michelangelo, I accept their deaths as factual. What I don’t like as much are “humanists” whose bluff rejection of religion so constricts their imagination and vision of the human spirit that they see science as the fulfillment of meaning and human value.

      • Steersman. The earliest humanist thinkers were skeptics Steersman. They were also theists. Humanism is without epithet. The efforts of some groups to equate humanism with special ideologies and interests has had a corrupting and limiting effect and compromises critical thinking which humanism has always fostered. I was describing it as without unbelief to make a point Steersman. I can’t imagine how you interpreted ‘humanism is without ‘unbelief” as a term. Most people understand the notion of unbelief. Humanism is not about personal philosophical beliefs, atheist or otherwise and neither is it therefore specifically ‘against’ them. I had hoped this was over. You seem very muddled over what Joe wrote perfectly clearly.

      • @ Joseph,

        You said:

        ‘Where do you get the idea I’m pumping for renaissance humanism?’

        Faior do’s. perhaps that was more appropriate for steph. Perhaps it wasn’t even appropriate for her. I do confess I’m confused about what the issue boils down to? Why do you and steph (apparently) put the boot into Humanism and atheism? I don’t get it.

        Ah. A clue:

        ‘What I don’t like as much are “humanists” whose bluff rejection of religion so constricts their imagination and vision of the human spirit that they see science as the fulfillment of meaning and human value.’

        Would it be unreasonable of me to swop ‘humanists’ for ‘people’ in the first line there?

        Anyhows, who exactly are these people? Can you provide a quote from one of them? What I mean is, so what if there are more than a few geeks out there? It doesn’t mean that their ‘shortcmings’ should be generalized, which, with all due respect, is the flavour of what seems to be happening here. Geeky scientist types do not represent atheism or humanism any more than I do. You are having a go at soft targets, I think. I personally do not know any atheuists or humanists who would say that science is the fulfillment of meaning and human value.

        Btw, if by human spirit you mean anything supernatural, then yes, pretty much all of ’em will disagree with you there. But as I have been trying to elucidate, it seems to be something approaching a canard, or at least a miscoception that not believing in that sort of sprit leads to paucity of philosophical outlook. Arguably, it’s an opportunity for quite the reverse, IMO, and sometimes I even think that it is ‘spriritualism’ in the supernatural sense which is both limiting and a cop out. A bit too pat for my liking. Like Harry potter always having a spell to get him out of a Jam.🙂

      • How does believing in recovering for the future what the present has sacrificed from the cultural spirit of traditional humanism equate with ‘pumping’ for renaissance humanism David? Neither Joe nor I are ‘putting the boot’ into humanism. We don’t like the narrow focus on scientific achievement put forward by some self-styled “humanist” organizations, and there are plenty of them, which has compromised and eroded the traditional and the modern senses of humanism. As Joe said we don’t like self-styled “humanists” (and there are plenty of them) whose bold rejection of religion so constricts their imagination and vision of the human spirit that they see science as the fulfilment of meaning and human value. Humanism is not about being atheist or secular. And the human spirit is metaphorical. It is not about ‘supernatural’ – originally a philosophical term but now only used by atheists to describe religion and ghosts and fairies.

      • @ steph,

        you said:

        ‘We don’t like the narrow focus on scientific achievement put forward by some self-styled “humanist” organizations, and there are plenty of them, which has compromised and eroded the traditional and the modern senses of humanism.’

        Such as?

        As Joe said we don’t like self-styled “humanists” (and there are plenty of them) whose bold rejection of religion so constricts their imagination and vision of the human spirit that they see science as the fulfilment of meaning and human value.’

        Such as?

        More to the point, so what? So, some have a different way of looking at stuff. I doubt they’re going to take over the world by crushing human emotions. They’re not all bad, and for every lab technician in a white coat who thinks love is just chemicals (and who, interestingly, may be on to something very interesting indeed) there’s a Brian Cox, who appears to me to be positively lit up.

        Horses for courses. We live in an age of specialization. Some do science. Some do poetry and literature. A few do both. There are unfeeling dullards who go to church every week. I’m still confused as to what the big issue is.

      • Steph,

        I can’t imagine how you interpreted ‘humanism is without ‘unbelief” as a term.

        That quoted part is a sentence; what you said earlierantithetical to humanism without ‘unbelief’ – was not and so can quite reasonably be, I think, called a term (“A word or group of words having a particular meaning”).

        Most people understand the notion of unbelief.

        Then maybe you could clarify exactly what you mean by it as I get – via constructions such as un-clear, un-labeled, and un-leaded – that it means “not belief”. And my best stab at that, based on “belief” as opinion – more or less, is that it means facts. In which case, the term “humanism without unbelief” means “humanism without facts” – doesn’t seem like a particularly credible selling point if you ask me.

        In addition, even your sentence “humanism is without ‘unbelief’” can still be parsed as “humanism is without facts”. Likewise not a good selling point as I expect it is simply untrue for one thing.

        Humanism is not about personal philosophical beliefs, atheist or otherwise ….

        I think you’re fooling yourself – at best – if you think that humanism – movement or renaissance – doesn’t have any beliefs as part of its own baggage. I’ll happily subscribe to both to various extents without necessarily being willing to sacrifice my first-born (if I had one) to them, but I at least will view with some degree of skepticism all of their premises and hypotheses – aka “beliefs”.

      • David. Names? What’s the point? I don’t really see why names should be named. There are many and it’s generally well known. Goodness. PZ Myers is one. And even he probably isn’t the most obvious. Myers won the AHA humanist of the year in 2009. I only name him because you might have heard of him. The American Humanists is an organisation. The lovely Michael Goulder (RIP) was a highly regarded biblical scholar and was a Fellow of the Committee for the Scientific Examination of Religion (CSER) and became President of the Birmingham Humanists in 1993. He deliberately identified himself as a “non-aggressive” atheist in order to disassociate himself from the atheism of the British Humanists. Regrettably the President is now Richard Dawkins. Maurice Casey deliberately didn’t join when he left the church in 1963 specifically because of their focus and would be even less likely to now. As for the rest, read the forthcoming post on New Oxonian sometime.

      • @ Steph,

        The ‘point of names’ is for me to try to understand exactly what you are on about, what it is that bothers you.

        So, you said:

        ‘…plenty……..whose bold rejection of religion so constricts their imagination and vision of the human spirit that they see science as the fulfilment of meaning and human value.’

        Do you have a quote from P Z Myers (with whom I am only vaguely familiar) in which he says something like that, about science being the fulfillment of meaning and human value?

        And, even if there are some ‘unfeeling dullards’ in ‘New atheism’, aren’t there unfeeling dullards in every walk of life?

      • I know very well what I said and what the definitions of ‘term’ are. I really don’t see the point of pursuing this, especially when you go to extremes to misrepresent me. This thread is exhausted and we all have work to do don’t we? It should be clear from the context and my continual references to describing ‘humanism’ that I described humanism without ‘unbelief’ specifically to differentiate it from self styled ‘secular humanim’ etc. Humanism is not about personal beliefs such as atheism. I never said humanists have personal beliefs. All human beings do. It is about the critical spirit and in the same way personal belief is not part of critical scholarship. Humanism is not for sale.

      • David it’s about ideology and not about simplistic quotes out of context. Neither is it only about ‘new atheists’ who claim the name humanism. Our concern is with the hijacking of humanism.

      • David,

        And, even if there are some ‘unfeeling dullards’ in ‘New atheism’, aren’t there unfeeling dullards in every walk of life?

        Looks like the argument is a bit of a “straw man”, doesn’t it?😉

        Although there are, as you suggest, “New Atheists” for whom science is the “fulfillment of meaning and human value”. For instance, as I discussed here earlier, the blog Choice in Dying by an ex-Anglican priest, Eric MacDonald, whose recent post, The Humanities, the Sciences and Ways of Knowing, starts or continues the dialog on that topic by discussing the relative merits (or not) of “scientism” – the hypothetical anti-thesis to theism and “sidekick” to atheism – with this:

        I am now increasingly of the opinion, however, that there is a streak of scientism running through the gnu atheism, and that a number of gnu atheists whom I respect highly have adopted this position, committed to one or more of the above conditions.

        This seems to be the case with Jerry Coyne. For example, in his response to Kitcher, “The trouble with “The Trouble with Scientism“,” Jerry quite explicitly says that all that is worthwhile in the humanities is what can be assimilated to the scientific method. All else is feeling.

        While Coyne is anything but an “unfeeling dullard”, it seems to me that his discounting and deprecation of feeling is just as problematic, and in as much error, as Joseph’s apparently over enthusiastic and uncritical acceptance of it as suggested by his recent quote of a poem by Matthew Arnold in the “Disqualification” thread. “Feeling” is, I think, a very close cousin to hypothesizing and revelation – both religious and scientific – but all of them very much need to be tempered and constrained by the facts.

      • Steph,

        I really don’t see the point of pursuing this, especially when you go to extremes to misrepresent me.

        Sorry if you think that latter is the case as I certainly don’t see it that way – more a case of trying to point out that I think that your term “humanism without ‘unbelief’” is decidedly problematic if not flat-out wrong. For instance, you quoted Joseph thusly in the “Disqualification” thread:

        In the Oration, Pico extolled human achievement, the importance of learning, the centrality of the quest for knowledge, and the primacy of man as the knower of the order of universe (which he associates with the faculty of reason and not divine revelation)…

        Seems to me that, with its emphasis on knowledge and reason and the rejection of “divine revelation” you couldn’t get closer to definition of atheism – at least the weaker version – in its “unbelief”. Just a little incongruous and inconsistent if not actually disingenuous to be then throwing stones at atheism and simultaneously to be insisting that its core principles are both part of and not part of your “humanism without unbelief”.

        Looks to me like you’re just being argumentative – maybe a reflection of your previous “drip” comment? I’m not sure that you wouldn’t say I was wrong if I said today (the date of this post) was Monday ….

      • Surely you had finished this thread Steersman instead of continually contradicting what I say? Pico’s humanism was not secular or athiest. He lived before the Enlightenment, before the advances in science, and before atheism which did not evolve until the late nineteenth century, unlike the modern atheism which is often so overtly divisive (and often relgilously illiterate). I described ‘humanism’ as with ‘unbelief’ precisely to contradict the organisations which are atheist and ‘secular humanism.’ It was not a name for humanism. It was a distinction from modern humanist movement disqualifying their ideology. It doesn’t mean it’s ‘religious humanism’. It takes a very limited view of language and logic not to grasp the idea. Dripping taps don’t do anything else, like obsessively opininated people who continually contradict. It is not problematic. You haven’t understood the idea. We all have lives Steersman. Well some of us do and others spend alot of time trolling blogs. Argumentative Steersman? I originally offered a correction to David’s original perception of what humanism was and you have done nothing but contradict and misrepresent me since.

        I’m just as concerned about fundamentalism as anyone Steersman. We don’t need Ophelia’s emphasis on that or other so-called ‘free’ thought bloggers on that site.

      • Steph,

        … instead of continually contradicting what I say?

        I would call it more along the line of “disagreement and assessment” ….

        Pico’s humanism was not secular or atheist.

        Sorry, but I don’t see it that way. While Pico’s Oration is written in the language of theism, the essence of it seems to be, in Joseph’s words, “the rise of human responsibility” – God helps those who help themselves – and is written as “an imaginary dialog” which tends to repudiate or invalidate any literal interpretation of “God” as some sort of anthropomorphic entity. And the upshot of all of that is to put humanity in the driver’s seat with God as a minor bit player or foil at best. Which might entail some problematic hubris ….

        But in addition, to the extent that “Pico’s humanism” is representative or the essence of “whole cloth humanism”, I would say that they are anything but theist – more along the line of spiritual or metaphorical or mythic. And which might reasonably come in under the rubric of at least secularism or maybe atheism, although the vision of the latter seems somewhat more circumscribed or undefined.

        However, I will concede, largely on the basis of the conclusion of Joseph’s essay “Killing Humanism”, that your “humanism without unbelief” may have some utility even if I still think it is terribly vague and that, as mentioned, something along the line of “mythic humanism” might be more accurate and have a more positive spin. Unless, of course, you’re both literalists and are arguing for some literal deity to have created Adam and informed him of humanity’s options – in which case that would appear to be attempting to supplant “whole cloth humanism” with “theistic humanism”. But he specifically said:

        But humanism has never been about unbelief, let alone about the sort of unbelief that contemporary secular humanism espouses. It has always been about belief in a human spirit that rises above even discredited ideas of God and government.

        And it is that “belief in a human spirit” – couched in the parable or myth of Adam and Eve – that justifies the “mythic humanism” term as well as being consistent with my earlier parsing of “humanism without unbelief” as “humanism with belief” even if I couldn’t figure out precisely what belief you had in mind.

        We all have lives Steersman. Well some of us do and others spend a lot of time trolling blogs.

        I look upon it as an opportunity here and elsewhere, to genuflect, to the extent I’m able, to Francis Bacon’s aphorism: Reading maketh a full man; writing an exact one. At least more so ….

        I’m just as concerned about fundamentalism as anyone Steersman. We don’t need Ophelia’s emphasis on that …

        I didn’t mention that to point out the problem of fundamentalism but as way of agreeing with David’s argument, more or less, that religion can be as problematic as atheism in the poverty if not the pathology of its vision. And both largely because their commitment to dogma is greater than that to open-ended inquiry.

      • Steersman it’s about history. Pico was a theist living during the Renaissance. “Pico extolled human achievement, the importance of learning, the centrality of the quest for knowledge, and the primacy of man as the knower of the order of universe (which he associates with the faculty of reason and not divine revelation)…”

        “But humanism has never been about unbelief, let alone about the sort of unbelief that contemporary secular humanism espouses. It has always been about belief in a human spirit that rises above even discredited ideas of God and government.” Exactly right. Humanism is without unbelief. That’s not what humanism is about. Perhaps you ought to consider getting a blog.

      • David,

        Yes, thank you also for the quite enjoyable discussion – been awhile since I’ve had the opportunity to “get my teeth into” one to the degree which we managed.

        See you around – here, there, or elsewhere I hope.

        Cheers,
        Jim

  3. oops. ‘Religious faith is faith WITHOUT good evidence’ I meant to write. Remind to bring that one up at my next psychotherapy session. Lol.

    Also, while I’m doing an errata, Steersman (and by the way, thanks for amending my ‘would’ to ‘wound’ in your reply) can I just clarify that when I said that it is erroneous to think that science has ‘all the answers’ I did of course mean ‘has or ever can have all the answers’.

    For me, science and theology and philosophy are a bit like Islam, Christianity and Judaism, they all have a common root. No, not Abraham, but a spirit of enquiry. It is my view that science is the best too of the three, but it is not perfect and never will be.

  4. @ joseph.

    Your suggestion is enticing. However, I am already procrastinating on this hobbyhorse when I should be working. A knot of guilt is forming in my tummy. Time for me to attend to making the bread appear on the table. Now, if you know a good miracle bread recipe, let me know, so that I can deploy it and so have more time for the essay you kindly suggest.🙂

  5. David Mills,

    Thanks also for your responses which, I think, include several interrelated $64,000 questions, or at least point to them, that I’ll try to address from the perspective of providing a “position essay” as kindly suggested by Dr. Hoffmann. And, as primary or salient points of reference, you said the following, with the first of them being, I think, the crux of the matter:

    In a nutshell, this matter goes (politely) into the category of, ‘yes, science is incomplete and fallible….and? What is your point?’

    Intuition and hypnotism are fascinating examples of what the mind can achieve, but they are not good evidence of anything non-material/non-physical/supernatural.

    What is not common is any persuasive evidence that they come from where they are sometimes believed to have come from.

    Yes, induction is faith, but religious faith is faith with good evidence, that is the key difference.

    For me, science and theology and philosophy are a bit like Islam, Christianity and Judaism, they all have a common root. No, not Abraham, but a spirit of enquiry. It is my view that science is the best tool of the three, but it is not perfect and never will be.

    And, relative to that first point and to address if not answer the question, my initial argument – the interplay and interrelation of faith and reason – was made in the general context of the rather problematic role religion and its various antitheses play, or try to play, in society, along with the various claims made by its various practitioners – cases in point being recent posts by Joseph (here and here, more or less respectively). On which topic there seems to have been some extensive discussion recently in both the “blogosphere” and in various on-line and off-line news-sources, a central element of which has been the argument, the claim – more bogus than not but not totally so, from the religious, primarily the “theologically inclined”, that religion provides a unique way of knowing that science, per se, cannot access. And one entry point into that discussion that I’ve found quite useful is the blog Choice in Dying by an ex-Anglican priest, Eric MacDonald, whose recent post, The Humanities, the Sciences and Ways of Knowing, starts or continues the dialog on that topic by discussing the relative merits (or not) of “scientism” – the hypothetical anti-thesis to theism – with this:

    I am now increasingly of the opinion, however, that there is a streak of scientism running through the gnu atheism, and that a number of gnu atheists whom I respect highly have adopted this position, committed to one or more of the above conditions.

    This seems to be the case with Jerry Coyne. For example, in his response to Kitcher, “The trouble with “The Trouble with Scientism“,” Jerry quite explicitly says that all that is worthwhile in the humanities is what can be assimilated to the scientific method. All else is feeling.

    Now, not having read recently Jerry’s argument in its entirety I’m not sure how accurately that summarizes it, but it would seem tantamount to asserting that feeling – all or not – is therefore not worthwhile. But that seems highly questionable at best and not a little problematic, not least because it appears rather too close to science shooting itself in the foot – more or less echoing if not underlining my previous points about inductive and deductive logic providing the essential set of thinking tools that we all use to a greater or lesser degree. Although, as somewhat of a digression, that does seem a little incongruous on Dr. Coyne’s part as he has, apparently from this post by Massimo Pigliucci, asserted in effect that “there is no substantial difference between plumbing and science because plumbers test hypotheses based on empirical evidence.” And with which I would largely agree.

    However, maybe that precisely highlights the problem which one might emphasize with the somewhat rhetorical question, “And where might hypotheses come from if not intuition – aka feeling?” A point that is more or less, I think, corroborated by a look at the definition:

    Intuition:
    1. a. The act or faculty of knowing or sensing without the use of rational processes; immediate cognition.
    b. Knowledge gained by the use of this faculty; a perceptive insight.
    2. A sense of something not evident or deducible; an impression.

    But what needs to be emphasized there is that it in no way justifies concluding that any particular feeling is necessarily right or accurate, that, as you said, it in no way provides any “evidence of anything non-material/non-physical/supernatural”.

    It is only to assert that the intuitive and inductive “leaps of faith” [aka feelings, aka hypotheses] may lead to knowing – through the proper use of deductive logic (aka the scientific method) to prove, to empirically test, the hypothesis – something that is simply “not evident or deducible” by any rules of inference and logic – I think Turing’s work on The Halting Problem provides examples of that, although I really don’t have a very good handle on the concept and its implications except in a very general sense. But that partitioning of inductive logic into the intuitive, feeling or unconscious (hemi-)sphere of our brains if not psyches, and deductive logic into the rational, conscious, one is, I think, only a first approximation as inductive logic or reasoning is a recognized and well-developed technique in mathematics, but under very constrained conditions. Probably indicative of the problem of induction on which “the philosopher C. D. Broad said, ‘induction is the glory of science and the scandal of philosophy’”: a method that science, and mathematics, uses extensively, if not with gay abandon, but one on which philosophy has yet to bestow its unqualified blessing.

    But the nature of that process is, I think, more or less emphasized by Massimo’s observations on intuition (the post has a link to cases where scientific “feelings”, aka hypotheses, themselves were out-to-lunch, that were anything but accurate):

    As for the intuitions of experts, there is plenty of cognitive science literature (developed from studying chess players, math teachers and nurses, among others) showing that intuitions in one’s domain of expertise become increasingly reliable the longer one has been practicing in that domain.

    And as a more colloquial manifestation of that, although on the negative side, there is the fairly well known and highly technical term, which you might be familiar with, from computer science known as GIGO: (If) Garbage In; (then) Garbage Out. If people start their own unique analog if not quantum digital computers – the ones manifested by the 3 lbs of finely and highly integrated and differentiated tofu that we all carry around inside our skulls – by “programming” them with bad premises, wishful thinking, “facts” that are anything but, and invalid rules of inference and logic, then we should not at all be surprised if the result is a dog’s-breakfast of half-baked schlock – which is what I argue is the case with a very large percentage of religious dogma.

    Which then raises some specific questions about the problematic claims of various fundamentalists and theologians, and about precisely where they themselves have gone off the rails. And it seems that follows from being “hooked on the feelings” themselves; from, as you suggest, refusing to consider factual evidence, both for and against their positions and of which they have virtually none or have blinded themselves to because of prejudice (literally: pre-judging); from emphasizing the abstract, intuitive, inductive, integrating, and extrapolating faculty of our minds to the exclusion of the factual, rational, deductive, differentiating, and interpolating one – both of which we all have, or have developed, to a greater or lesser extent. They really remind me of sidehill gougers, those benighted and four-legged critters with legs on one side more developed and longer than on the other and who were therefore fated to move in circles – frequently ever diminishing ones – on the sides of mountains. Although one might also argue that the “sidehill gouger”, as a type, is also found amongst those who over-emphasize the second set of characteristics.

    However, as somewhat of a preliminary conclusion since this “essay” is getting maybe overlong (and I’m not sure I’ll have the time to shorten it🙂 ), that is not to say that all of the “intuitions” of the religious are without value. And, as a matter of fact it seems quite reasonable to argue that a great many of them quite likely have, as Joseph said of the “story of Adam”, great “staying power and instructional weight”. For instance, that one in particular speaks in great detail, I think and as a number of others have also thought, to the phenomenon of consciousness itself – something that Richard Dawkins called “the most profound mystery facing modern biology”. But regardless of where one argues the transition to conscious experience took place in the evolution of life – whether in some amoeba 3 billion years ago changing from asexual to sexual reproduction or in some of our homo sapien ancestors coming down out of the trees 3 million years ago – the story of Adam and Eve can, though not necessarily does, provide, I think, some worthwhile perspectives on the problematic aspects of consciousness itself, not to mention our fate and direction as a species.

    As for the all of the ramifications of that perspective? The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyam says, “Many knots have I unravelled, but not the Master Knot of Human Fate.” That is something, I think, that only humanity itself can do. But I’m not sure that it is entirely wise to be entirely discounting and rejecting all of the visions, the intuitions and feelings and hypotheses, that religion and theology, at least in their better moments, have elucidated. Though it would help greatly, I think, if they can be disabused of the notion that just because they have some feeling, some hypothesis, as to the nature or existence of some putative entity they wish to style “God”, that that necessarily makes it true: seems to me that problems multiply like the heads on the mythological Hydra when they (or anyone else for that matter) insist not that something might be true, but that it is true; the difference between the presentation of a hypothesis and the dogmatic insistence that it qualifies as a fact.

    • Phew, steersman, quite a lot of material there. Luckily, I don’t take issue with very much of it, which might allow my reply to be manageable (I speak as someone who prefers conversations rather than essays :))

      Hm. So, what is the ‘position’, of your ‘position essay’, I ask myself? If it that religion should not be denigrated unduly, or that its role and contribution in history should be recognized, or that some ‘new atheists’ go too far at times, then I’d go along with that, and all the more so for the wider category of feelings, emotions, intuitions and, well, the arts, if you like, because I can imagine a very similar position essay being written on behalf of, say, poets and playwrights and artists, that is to say, setting aside the supernatural aspect which is usually religion’s special offering/claim.

      If I were religious, I think I would be equally critical of some of the things Dawkins et al have said. But I am not, so, perhaps I lack the, er, reflexive urge which I think, at times, leads to them being demonized more than is warranted by those with more understandable reason than me to be offended.

      Now, what exactly is ‘too far’? What can we really expect an atheist scientist who is not a philosopher to say? When does assertive become aggressive? There is no objective answer, as far as I can see. One could make a case (and I for one would, having grown up in Ireland) that religion has had it far too much its own way historically, and a sort of reaction/revolution is not unwarranted, in some ways, and revolutions, as we know, are blunt instruments in the short term, and often involve crossing the line between assertive and aggressive. In other words, I think that some aggression is ok by me, and goes with the territory (and is of course only verbal aggression after all) though I do understand that I can say this from the comfort of not being the target.

      Is there paucity in a materialist/scientific outlook? Yes, of course there is, or can be, but not necessarily so, only in individual cases, or perhaps if enough individuals have institutional influence. I am a materialist and a confirmed atheist. I also lean slightly towards determinism, but prefer not to make a strong call on this, because I think it is impossible for any creature which has free will to know for certain whether it has or not, so it is one of a number of delicious uncertainties which I enjoy. Personally, I don’t think there is significant paucity in my outlook. I hope that doesn’t sound too arrogant. I am sure there is definitely some paucity in my outlook. Lol.

      Given that we all here seem to be in some general agreement that many of the supernatural claims of religion are mistaken, then if this is the case (and I’m not entirely clear whether we would all fully agree) the question then becomes, ‘what should we value religion for, exactly?’ Which gets back to my earlier question, ‘science is fallible and incomplete…and?’

      My view is that we would not be ‘better off’ without the arts, emotions, intuitions, even, dare I suggest, the irrational, but that we would, in my opinion, probably be ‘better off’ without religion, that is to say without any position which claimed there was a god, an absolute source of morality or anything in the nature of what is normally meant by the supernatural, because it is my view that belief in god is akin to belief in elves. This remark often elicits an angry response, in my experience, and is often, mistakenly, seen as dismissive or hostile, but I haven’t yet heard what I consider a good argument against it. As such, I believe that whether or not religion feels nice, or brings happiness, is, ultimately secondary to whether it is likely true, that is to say, something which we should use to make decisions and to act.

      In some ways, we might very likely be worse off without religion, so I am only stating an overall preference. Call me an optimist, but I tend to think we could cope.

      You will see I have put ‘better off’ in inverted commas just now. There are several reasons for this, not least that it is very difficult to supply an objective definition. Plus, I have no aspirations to make humanity ‘better’, except insofar as my own life and that of my children, and perhaps at a stretch their children (if they have any) is more comfortable. I do not worry about the long term. Some day, humanity will probably be a very, very thin, dirty grey layer in the geological strata.🙂

    • David,

      (I speak as someone who prefers conversations rather than essays🙂 )

      I can sympathize. Although I think that cultures which rely exclusively on “oral traditions” tend to be less evolutionarily viable…🙂

      … a sort of reaction/revolution is not unwarranted, in some ways, and revolutions, as we know, are blunt instruments in the short term, and often involve crossing the line between assertive and aggressive.

      Yes, quite agree. One might argue that the “New Atheism” is the sharp point at the end of the sword, or maybe its cutting edge, although somewhat less bright than when it was first unsheathed; new broom and all that. However, there is always the problem or tendency for that process to become an end itself, a frequent consequence of which is throwing the baby out with the bathwater. And revolutions do have a tendency to do precisely that – The Terror probably being the best example I can think of. Hence part of my apprehension over a too-enthusiastic or uncritical acceptance of all of the principles and objectives – to the extent that they can be quantified – of that “philosophy”.

      … we would, in my opinion, probably be ‘better off’ without religion, that is to say without any position which claimed there was a god, an absolute source of morality or anything in the nature of what is normally meant by the supernatural, because it is my view that belief in god is akin to belief in elves.

      Yes, likewise agree; part of the reason why I tend to anathematize literalist interpretations of Scripture, although that is not to say that there has not been some value, at least of a historical nature, in the process – sort of like a booster rocket that has put a satellite into orbit. Don’t know whether you’ve read Dawkins’ The God Delusion or not – although I expect you have – but, relative to that point, he discusses a theory by an American psychologist, Julian Jaynes, which argues that a significant milestone in the evolution of consciousness was “the breakdown in the bicameral mind” – a salient feature of which was those two “chambers”, e.g., “self” and “god”. I think Jaynes was a little wide of the mark – most importantly because a synthesis seems a more consistent analogy – but religion, along with Jaynes’ theory, has some value in helping us to understand that process.

      Plus, I have no aspirations to make humanity ‘better’, except insofar as my own life and that of my children…. Some day, humanity will probably be a very, very thin, dirty grey layer in the geological strata.

      Ah, but what then of your grandchildren’s grandchildren? Seems then to be another of those $64,000 questions and on which I think Joseph had this cogent observation:

      It is to say that an ethic that is not grounded in some actually existing infinite reality, such as God is presumed to be, must first state clearly what the grounds and perimeters of values are before proposing them as normative or significant: without such a calculus …

      And the essential element there, I think, is the question or concept of transcendence which has quite a few different interpretations and varying degrees of relevance and validity. But while I don’t have a particularly great handle on much of that, although I tend to think that many of the religious perspectives are largely nonsense based on a particular bias, I tend also to think that the discussion is somewhat crippled by an apparent dearth of tangible examples of the phenomenon. However the dearth seems more apparent than real as it seems hard to think of a more common, or a more profound, miracle than the process by which some 100 billion neurons and 1 trillion synapses turns into the magic of consciousness: emergence if not transcendence – and I would very definitely lean to asserting it contains significant amounts of both.

      As for what that has to do with the price of wheat in Russia? I tend to think – on the fairly reasonable “as above, so below” principle of Hermeticism – that that phenomenon is extensible to humanity as well, even if only on the view that it is unlikely that humanity itself – at least as it is now – is the highest pinnacle of evolution that is possible. And I think that it may provide a method of accessing or defining some of the “transcendent” values that might be the basis for that “calculus” – the mathematician Ruddy Rucker in his Infinity and the Mind (never did get very far into it) suggested, maybe somewhat hyperbolically, that “Logic and set theory are the tools for an exact metaphysics” . But the following from the anthropologist and naturalist Loren Eiseley in his book of essays The Immense Journey [highly recommended] summarizes, I think, the possibility of humanity’s further evolution quite well:

      Some neurologists, not without reason, suspect that here [in the brain] may lie other potentialities which only the future of the race may reveal. Even now, however, the brain of man, with all its never-to-be-abandoned richness, is becoming merely a unit in the vast social brain which is potentially immortal, and whose memory is the heaped wisdom of the world’s great thinkers. [The Dream Animal; pg 125]

      Now whether one views that possibility – the apotheosis of the collective, a “rough beast slouching towards Bethlehem” waiting its hour to be born – with some degree of horror or sees it as the culmination of humanity’s dreams of a utopia, I think that those possibilities provide a reasonable set of bookends to a spectrum that we should probably give some serious thought to, in large part because, as Proverbs has it, “Where there is no vision, the people perish”.

      Which is actually part of my objection to atheism in general: great for poking ruddy great holes in theism – something that definitely needs and needed doing – but not so hot for coming up with any kind of a vision that really engages the enthusiasms, the passions, the feelings of the “people”. Which is, of course, something that religion in general has done rather “well” – depending on how ready you might be to condone various “excesses”.

      As for what might replace Islam’s largely juvenile mirage of a bordello or the seriously twisted if not decidedly pathological apocalyptic vision of fundamentalist Christianity? King, Country, Making the World a Safe Place for Democracy, the Greater Glory of Man and God? I certainly don’t know, but it seems to me that the possibility you suggest – “a very, very thin, dirty grey layer in the geological strata” – would be a monstrous crime and a very great tragedy, a repudiation of and a failure to redeem the vision and efforts and sacrifices of our ancestors in “our long, tortured, uphill climb toward civilization”. But without some overarching or transcendent vision of some sort, and a workable and realistic one, I think we’re quite likely to ride madly off in all directions and never attain the “superior orders whose life is divine” that we might hope for – and that we have hoped for these, at least, past 3 or 4 millennia.

      • Jim,

        ‘…..(I speak as someone who prefers conversations rather than essays🙂 )I can sympathize. Although I think that cultures which rely exclusively on “oral traditions” tend to be less evolutionarily viable… :-)……..’

        Lol. Pithy.

        . ‘…….Hence part of my apprehension over a too-enthusiastic or uncritical acceptance of all of the principles and objectives – to the extent that they can be quantified – of that “philosophy”……..’

        You can certainly have too much of anything.🙂 I understand your apprehension. But at the same time, I think the ‘danger’ is overstated. Radical does not mean guns, in this case.

        And, one can’t make an omlette without breaking a few eggs…

        ‘……Don’t know whether you’ve read Dawkins’ The God Delusion or not – although I expect you have –……..’

        Read it. Not especially impressed by the tone. Same for ‘Breaking the Spell’ which was just plain patronizing in parts. ‘Brights’?

        I don’t especially like or dislike Dawkins. He says a lot of things which I think are very accurate and I often agree with him, but when it comes to Chairs of the Simonyi Institute for Public understanding of Science, I much prefer the current one, Marcus du Sautoy. He stays out of the anti-theism thing. I think his kids attend a Jewish school, in fact. His wife is Jewish, I think.

        ‘…….Ah, but what then of your grandchildren’s grandchildren? Seems then to be another of those $64,000 questions…….’

        One can only think so far ahead.🙂

        . ‘…….However the dearth seems more apparent than real as it seems hard to think of a more common, or a more profound, miracle than the process by which some 100 billion neurons and 1 trillion synapses turns into the magic of consciousness: emergence if not transcendence – and I would very definitely lean to asserting it contains significant amounts of both. ……..’

        Consciousness is certainly an interesting phenomenon. Nothing to suggest there is anything actually transcendent about it though, in the sense of being ‘from beyond’, IMO.

        “Where there is no vision, the people perish”.

        Seems to me there is a lot of truth in that (just as in several places in the bible). I won’t mention opiates of the people.

        ‘…….Which is actually part of my objection to atheism in general: great for poking ruddy great holes in theism – something that definitely needs and needed doing – but not so hot for coming up with any kind of a vision that really engages the enthusiasms, the passions, the feelings of the “people”. Which is, of course, something that religion in general has done rather “well” – depending on how ready you might be to condone various “excesses”. As for what might replace Islam’s largely juvenile mirage of a bordello or the seriously twisted if not decidedly pathological apocalyptic vision of fundamentalist Christianity? King, Country, Making the World a Safe Place for Democracy, the Greater Glory of Man and God? I certainly don’t know………’

        Check out ‘Modern Scandinavian societies’. Not utopia, obviously, but arguably some of the ‘best’ societies achieved, and also, some of the least religious, albeit coming from that influence, historically, though not the indigenous Sami version, since Christianity wiped them out.🙂

        ,’……. but it seems to me that the possibility you suggest – “a very, very thin, dirty grey layer in the geological strata” – would be a monstrous crime and a very great tragedy, a repudiation of and a failure to redeem the vision and efforts and sacrifices of our ancestors in “our long, tortured, uphill climb toward civilization”. ……..’

        Maybe it will be a pity. But it will probably be the case anyhow. And it won’t have to be a disaster striking. Evolution may take care of it. And maybe what comes after will be related to us, or maybe it won’t. Maybe it will be ‘better’ than us, or maybe it won’t. Maybe there will be no sentient or sapient life forms on our particular planet in a million years. And remind me, when is the sun due to go out, because after that, there probably won’t be any life on the planet at all, if there even is a planet. I’m only saying what’s inevitable in the long run. Not a fan of teleology, as you might have realized by now. Not downhearted or holding humanity in contempt either though, by any means. Quite like people, actually.🙂

      • ps

        Jim,

        For those who are more, er, interested in the possible demise of the ‘long, tortured, uphill climb towards civilization’ or for those who think it has definitely been uphill (are we any better than any other species, I ask myself?’), there is a way of looking at atheism as the painful birth pangs of a new threshold. After all, isn’t the idea that there is something bigger and smarter than us just, well, not grown up? An abdication of personal responsibility?

        David

      • Jim,

        A couple of extra lines of thought. So as to be equitable, one about me, the other about you.

        I don’t think I need to explain to YOU (because I think you ‘get’ where I’m coming from rather well) that my, er, philosophical approach is not what I consider to be unhealthily cynical, overly laissez-faire or unduly ‘I’m all right Jack’. I like to think of it as healthily cynical, though this may be a conceit. To others, I suspect that I and a lot of other ‘new atheists’ have wandered into the unhealthy end of the spectrum. There is perhaps some truth in this, but we should be wary of overstating it or oversimplifying something which is I believe, very rich indeed, if unpalatable at first sight, particularly to non-subscribers.

        Were I to attempt to sum up any philosophy I might have, I would quote Rabbi Hillel, when he said that the essence of the Torah was to not do harm to another that one would not want another to do to oneself (or words to that effect, indeed it tickles and impresses me to find that early Christianity apparently took the same line of thought and tweaked it from the passive – ‘don’t do harm’ – to the active ‘do unto others’). If anything is my ‘motto’, I might be that (though I regularly fail to live up to it, for certain).

        Now, have I chosen to be like I am, or has it been chosen for me? I think that one very plausible answer is the latter, that I am simply the biological receptacle for a winning formula which can be understood by studying ‘The Prisoner’s Dilemma’ and game theory in general, to wit, the idea that it is ultimately beneficial to cooperate, up to a point, and generally speaking, especially for sentient/sapient species living in small groups (which is arguably what we still ‘think’ we are doing). J

        The point is, knowing that I may just be operating under such an influence seems to me an interesting and rewarding knowledge, rather than a grand shame.

        So, as to the promised thoughts about you, rather than me.

        I like your focus on transcendence. I think it is a good thing (use of inverted commas temporarily suspended). Actually, doesn’t it seem to you that the ‘eastern’ (sorry, definitely need inverted commas there) philosophies and religions have done a better job of exploring this than the abrahamic ones? Are you a closet Buddhist, or Taoist? Lol.

        I recall that when I first participated in a rational scepticism online forum about 5 years ago, I was genuinely horrified to see that someone had an avatar which consisted of the slogan, ‘Jesus, love me or burn’. Gradually, I changed my view, and began to think this a very apposite summary, albeit offensive to Christians. Do you see what I am saying? Of course, ‘Christianity’ has arguably changed a lot since the early days, but then the problem is that they are still referring to the NT. J

        Anyhows, I don’t disparage your search. I hope you find it rewarding.

        David

      • ps

        Jim,

        I just want to add something very briefly. When I ended my last post by saying, ‘I hope you find it rewarding’, I did not mean (and I think you probably already guessed this), ‘you are mistaken, but I hope it floats your boat’. In many ways, as often, the beauty and the pleasure is in not knowing, and of course, you may be on the better path than I.

        Now, I may personally feel that I have more reason to be on the path I’m on than you have to be on the path you’re on, but that’s only my assessment, and in any case, the paths probably aren’t that far apart at all.

    • David,

      I did not mean (and I think you probably already guessed this), ‘you are mistaken, but I hope it floats your boat’.

      No problemo; I certainly didn’t take it as disparaging or dismissive in any way, although you, and everyone else, are of course entitled if not encouraged to take that position if you are so inclined: ideas are only ideas and not persons; criticisms of them tend only to make them better – I see the process as somewhat analogous to zone refining …🙂

      But I would have responded before now except that I also have a bunch of other irons in the fire – sacrifices to Mammon and the like – and your posts raised any number of points all of which require, at least by me, some time to reflect on, analyze and respond to them. Briefly (??), a few of them (in no particular order relative to your posts):

      … doesn’t it seem to you that the ‘eastern’) philosophies and religions have done a better job of exploring this than the Abrahamic ones? Are you a closet Buddhist, or Taoist?

      Busted!🙂 At least to some degree. But definitely seems the case. And that to the extent that Jesus’ words carry much weight – whether he was largely fact or fiction – I think it is due in some substantial measure to his apparent recourse to some of those eastern philosophies.

      So many books, so little time, eh?

      Amen to that; an “embarrassment of riches”. Although I tend, at times anyway, to sympathize with Ecclesiastes (12:12) on that: “… of making many books there is no end; and much study is a weariness of the flesh”.

      So far, it’s been difficult enough just to demonstrate speciation in fruit fly, if you get my point

      I expect you mean the micro-macro evolution bone of contention? My impression is that the biologists say that there is plenty of proof from the laboratory for that, but that the results are not all that impressive. I have very little doubt that it took place more or less along the lines laid out by the theory, although I have yet to see an explanation as to how, for example, the number of chromosomes can change from species to species – not to say that there isn’t one floating about somewhere. But I tend to think that evolution, as a theory, is most definitely still a work in progress, a major deficiency in which is, I think, its failure to incorporate “consciousness” as a significant factor.

      assuming we had free will, which is by no means certain, but I am willing to run with it as a working model, especially as I have limited alternative options

      As someone said: “I believe in free will, but I have no choice in the matter”. But I tend to view that dichotomy – free-will versus determinism – as similar to the theories of quantum mechanics and relativity: both have their ranges wherein they apply and outside of which they don’t.

      I liked your ‘the turtles swim to the beach and lay their eggs’.

      In what sense? Because you think it more accurate? Or because you think the circumlocutions involved are, maybe, somewhat amusing? If the former then I would tend to disagree with you as it would suggest a belief that consciousness is a phenomenon unique to humans – maybe somewhat uncomfortably close to the views of many religious fundamentalists, even if for different reasons. In addition it seems not supported by various studies on animal behaviour which show some fairly strong evidence of problem solving abilities as well as being self-aware. Maybe somewhat moot whether those are truly indicative of consciousness but certainly suggestive of that.

      • Jim,

        Ditto on the sacrifices to mammon. There are expensive teenagers to fund, mortgages to pay. I have been spending too much (enjoyable) time on our conversation already, so perhaps now is a good time to say it has been good and that I may slow down on it, but not stop entirely.

        Regarding evolution, yes that (the micro/macro thing) was sort of my point. The idea that things don’t evolve seems virtually obtuse, even if we do not yet know all the mechanisms.

        Regarding consciousness, I tend to put this in a similar category, something we have a pretty good general explanation for (though not as good as for evolution), namely that it emerges naturally from the brain/body, even if we don’t yet know exactly how, or can demonstrate/recreate it, and can’t think of a good reason to attribute it to agency, let alone outside agency.

        I am, by the way, one of those who finds materialism not one iota less fascinating than the alternatives.

        Regarding turtles, if I were to guess, I’d say they were conscious, at least to some degree, but I could be wrong. I’d guess that there is a boundary somewhere, probably in the animal rather than plant kingdom, at which consciousness emerges. I’d probably attribute it to chimps and elephants, who I believe pass some of the experimemntal tests (you know the sort, they paint a red dot on the forehead, present the animal with a mirror, and the animal reaches up to the dot, because it appears to have an idea of self).

        Of course, consciousness is an umbrella term for all sorts of things. I wouldn’t, for example, be inclined to the view that turtles have conscious intentions or purpose in swimming to the beach to lay their eggs (though I am happy to be disabused of that provisional conclusion), and that is why I liked your statement.

        Ciao for now,

        David

      • Jim,

        Afterthought (I am prone to these):

        My use of the word ‘agency’ in my previous post is obviously up for grabs, discussion-wise.

        I can imagine/conceive/allow the possibility of internal agency, and your analogy with quantum/macro realities is useful. All I can say is that I do not tend to lean this way (or am leant this way, ha ha, the possibilities are multiple).

        As you probably know, there have been a number of potentially illuminating experiments, notably Libet et al which I referred to previously, which tend to suggest that we may make decisions instinctively (that is to say like a ‘lower’ animal) and then post-rationalize them. This may involve the brain cortex, among other things.

        Another interesting set of experiments, as you may know, are the ‘split brain’ ones, where the two hemispheres of the brain are disconnected, at least at the cortex connections (though not deeper), the subjects of the experiments having had this procedure done previously, in order, if I recall correctly, to alleviate symptoms of epilepsy.

        The upshot appears to be that the mind, when it cannot compute an explanation, is able to confabulate one, which may, in a way, be similar to post-rationalization.

        Regarding outside agency, I am even more disinclined to believe in it, for lack of good evidence or reason to do so.

        Here’s a $64,000 question for you. One that you’ve heard before, I’m sure. If consciousness is not an emergent property of the brain/body, how come it is altered by lesion and/or anaesthetic?

        I am sure, like me, you may have heard the possible answers, including the ‘radio receiver’ possibility. Personally, I have explored these, and not been convinced.

        David

      • David,

        I have been spending too much (enjoyable) time on our conversation already …

        Likewise, on both accounts.🙂

        But since Dr. Hoffmann is providing us both with some prime soap-box space – whether because he is gratifyingly tolerant or simply amused or has some interest in gauging the pulse of some segment of the blogosphere (0.00005 steradians) – I figure it would be somewhat boorish, at least, to not take advantage of the opportunity.🙂

        Of course, consciousness is an umbrella term for all sorts of things.

        It is indeed. The following was quoted in the philosopher David Chalmers’ The Conscious Mind: In Search of a Fundamental Theory which I think adequately and amusingly summarizes the problem or its apparent intractability:

        The International Dictionary of Psychology does not even try to give a straightforward characterization:

        Consciousness: The having of perceptions, thoughts, and feelings; awareness. The term is impossible to define except in terms that are unintelligible without a grasp of what consciousness means. Many fall into the trap of confusing consciousness with self-consciousness – to be conscious it is only necessary to be aware of the external world. Consciousness is a fascinating but elusive phenomenon: it is impossible to specify what it is, what it does, or why it evolved. Nothing worth reading has been written about it. (Sutherland 1989) [pg 3]

        Personally, I think that it is something that “goes all the way down”; that several of the better models for the phenomenon are panentheism and, more explicitly from “Eastern religions”, Indra’s Net – which shows some interesting similarities with holograms; and that, as suggested both by Dawkins’ TGD discussion of Julian Jayne’s theories and by Chalmer’s ruminations on the topic, consciousness and “God” are intricately and fundamentally interrelated – if not as actualities then as “phenomena”.

        … though I am happy to be disabused of that provisional conclusion.

        In which case you might be interested in this 2009 article in Discover magazine on the use of quantum level processing in green sulfur bacteria. As you may know several well known physicists (Tegmark, Stenger), at one time or another, swore up and down that there was no way on god’s green earth that quantum coherence could take place in biochemical structures – a core feature of theories about quantum mechanics being the central and operative principle in the processes of consciousness.

        But the article also argues, at least as far as I’m able to decipher and re-phrase it, that the photosynthesis in the bacteria is more than 95% efficient because it uses quantum coherence and “quantum random walk processing” to “calculate” – in zero time, apparently – the most efficient path for the light energy to travel. Now, while most of quantum mechanics is quite a bit outside my salary range and while I don’t want to overindulge in “quantum flapdoodle” and “quantum mysticism”, that still suggests to me, and others, that the bacterium is essentially evaluating and choosing among various possible future courses of events to determine which step is going to be optimal for its survival.

        And if that is the case, that such processing is intrinsic to the phenomena of choice and consciousness, then “turtles all the way down” – and all the way up – seems not all that implausible. Don’t know if you’ve run across this bit of cosmological lore, but apparently with the way the current universe was “designed” if the values of the various constants [masses, coupling constants, etc] had been infinitesimally different then stars would have never formed nor would the heavier elements on which life – and consciousness – is so dependent – apparently. Really all hangs together in some surprisingly intricate and fascinating ways – sort of like “Bucky balls” ….

        Will try to address your related “afterthoughts” on agency and the other $64,000 question a little later after some further sacrifices to Mammon ….🙂

      • Jim,

        You said:

        ‘Now, while most of quantum mechanics is quite a bit outside my salary range and while I don’t want to overindulge in “quantum flapdoodle” and “quantum mysticism”, that still suggests to me, and others, that the bacterium is essentially evaluating and choosing among various possible future courses of events to determine which step is going to be optimal for its survival. ‘

        With all due respect (which you know I have for you), I think ‘quantum flapdoodle/mysticism’ is, er, exactly what you are indulging in.🙂

        I see nothing there, or in the articles, to suggest anything is ‘evaluating and choosing’. It is like saying that a river evaluates and chooses its path to the sea. (btw I am aware that this is a macro world analogy and of the limitations). now, maybe it (the river) does. Maybe the particles within the river do, at some quantum level. But I don’t seee any reason whatosever to think it likely.

        In broad terms, taking on board joseph’s recent comments above, I sense a commonality between you and he and steph, which is, not to put too fine a point on it, a reluctance to consider that meaninglessness (in the absolute sense) is (a) parsimonious and (b) not an unbegnign concept for humans to realise. in this sense, intellectually speaking, I’m afraid to say that it seems to me there is a bit too much ‘retreating into the bunker’, and in the case of Joseph and Steph, much lamenting, and caricaturing of those outside, who it may be argued are more willing to bravely breathe the new air .🙂

      • David,

        With all due respect (which you know I have for you) …

        Likewise.🙂

        … I think ‘quantum flapdoodle/mysticism’ is, er, exactly what you are indulging in.

        But no problemo – I’m not so heavily invested in the concept or perspective that I’m unable to recognize or give due consideration to its limitations or criticisms of it – part of the reason I used “overindulge”: moderation in all things (including moderation). However, at the same time, I think that it – quantum mechanics – provides a useful framework for trying to understand if not replicate the phenomenon of consciousness.

        But several of the crucial elements of consciousness that QM seems to provide a useful handle on is the phenomenon of choice and the related one of teleology – a useful definition of which is “future requirements dictate current actions”, all of which are encapsulated in the game of chess (among others) and the aphorism “if we wish to have bread on the table tomorrow then we must plant wheat today”. It seems to me that knowing of and choosing between various courses of action is, in that fact itself, a case, virtually at least, of a “cause [bread on the table tomorrow] subsequent in time to a given effect [planting wheat today]” – as Norbert Wiener and others put it in their Behaviour, Purpose and Teleology.

        Now, how it is that we know of – are conscious of – those possibilities and are able to choose between them and how they influence that choice is, I think, all tangled up in questions on the nature of causality and on the intricacies of QM itself, all of which I have the barest handle on. But it seems quite evident that we – as semi-autonomous biological entities – are “purpose driven” and goal-directed choosers of our own futures – to whatever limited extent circumstances allow. In addition, it seems that that process of choice – the “evaluating and choosing” – is enhanced if not underwritten by various quantum level processes, notably the projective and anticipatory capabilities provided by the quantum random-walk calculations referenced in that Discover article. And, finally, that perspective seems to have more than a little support from individuals such as Roger Penrose and Stuart Hameroff, both of whom generally argue that consciousness is a rather ubiquitous phenomenon, albeit of limited extent in different organisms, that has played a substantial role in the evolution of life:

        One possible advantage of consciousness for natural selection is the ability to make choices. As Margulis and Sagan (1995) observe (echoing similar, earlier thoughts by Erwin Schrödinger), “If we grant our ancestors even a tiny fraction of the free will, consciousness, and culture we humans experience, the increase in [life’s] complexity on Earth over the last several thousand million years becomes easier to explain: life is the product not only of blind physical forces but also of selection in the sense that organisms choose. . .” (Scott, 1996).

        However, to what extent that is different from, as you suggest, “a river choosing its path to the sea”, I certainly don’t know. But it seems related to the question of “What is Life?” – the title of a book by Schrödinger – which appears to be anything but settled, although “self-replication” seems to be a commonly suggested criterion.

        I sense a commonality between you and he and steph, which is, a reluctance to consider that meaninglessness (in the absolute sense) is (a) parsimonious and (b) not an un-benign concept for humans to realize.

        Probably, at least to the extent that I think that “meaning” itself is an important and useful if not necessary concept. Although I expect my commitment to religion is quite a bit less than theirs. But while your “in the absolute sense” is somewhat of a problematic if not intractable aspect, I would say that it is likely that even you, and many atheists and secular humanists in general, still derive a sense of meaning and purpose from raising your kids and passing the torch and promoting the “Enlightenment” in one way or another; “meaning” is, I think, more or less built into the hardware.

        … much lamenting, and caricaturing of those outside, who it may be argued are more willing to bravely breathe the new air
        🙂 A “nice” method or point of contradistinction with which I can sympathize, although one might argue, with all due respect, that that, at least absent its jesting tone, might be shading a little too much over into hyperbole at best and an over indulgence in a bit of self-flattery at worst. For one thing and relative to your previous “meaningless (in the absolute sense)”, I sort of get the image – which seems to be suggested by many atheists, but which I can also actually sympathize with – of some prototypical “New Wo/Man” bravely accepting the ultimate meaninglessness of life and soldiering on in spite of that. However, in the absence of proof and evidence – which seems to be the case – that seems rather like an article of faith. Which, in the light of the ubiquitousness of both “meaning” and transcendence in general, seems somewhat of an untenable position.

        In addition, while I can also sympathize with and actually promote the efforts of atheism to “clear the air” of the noxious fumes generated by religion in general, the question remains, I think, of where we go after that, of what vision atheism itself offers beyond that point. Don’t know if you’ve ever read H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine or not, but it seems to me that his “vision” of the Eloi and the Morlocks is not far removed from a reasonable extrapolation of what atheism in general has in mind – one might at least hope that Mankind is able to “transcend” that fate.

      • Jim,

        You said:

        ‘…… the question remains, I think, of where we go after that, of what vision atheism itself offers beyond that point. Don’t know if you’ve ever read H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine or not, but it seems to me that his “vision” of the Eloi and the Morlocks is not far removed from a reasonable extrapolation of what atheism in general has in mind – one might at least hope that Mankind is able to “transcend” that fate…..’

        I fully understand that to those of a ‘spiritual’ or religious persuasion, atheism is scary, and seems cold, lifeless, reductionist and…whatever. I just don’t think it really is. Personally, I find it quite the opposite. Quite liberating, mysterious and exciting, as if new doors are opened, rather than any being closed off. Not sure why you think Eloi and Morlocks are more likely in an atheist world than a religious one.

      • David,

        I fully understand that to those of a ‘spiritual’ or religious persuasion, atheism is scary, and seems cold, lifeless, reductionist and…whatever.

        I certainly don’t find it at all scary; just somewhat incomplete. Emergence and its “companion” transcendence seem to manifest themselves in far too many other spheres to not think that they might have some relevance to the phenomenon of “God” – even if I think that traditional religions, particularly the Abrahamic ones, have gone badly off the rails in their use of it (I’ve seen junkies – of the literal sort – act with more integrity and decorum).

        Not sure why you think Eloi and Morlocks are more likely in an atheist world than a religious one.

        Assessing probabilities, particularly for hypotheticals, is (almost) always problematic, but I would say that, based on historical data, the “religious world” is just as prone to the “them vs. us” – the Eloi vs. The Morlocks – as an atheist / secular humanist one. Just that the former at least has, I think, somewhat of a redeeming feature in the form of some transcendent vision of one sort or another. Communism, at least the Russian version from the little I know, also had one of those, although I think its “fatal flaw” lay in not looking far enough ahead – and in trying to fit its understanding of human nature to its dogma rather than vice versa.

        But somewhat apropos of the point, you might be interested in this post from the Butterflies & Wheels blog (part of the Freethought “ghetto”, an epithet that has some justification) – Steph can go directly to the blog it links to – on the topic of fundamentalist Christianity’s aversion to critical thinking. This is a portion of the Republican Party’s view based on its decidedly unseemly “cohabitation” – strange bedfellows and all that – with religious fundamentalism:

        We oppose the teaching of Higher Order Thinking Skills (HOTS) (values clarification), critical thinking skills and similar programs that are simply a relabeling of Outcome-Based Education (OBE) (mastery learning) which focus on behavior modification and have the purpose of challenging the student’s fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority.

        P.S. Not to lean on you at all or insist on a particular format but you might be interested in this site which has some HTML formatting codes. The New Oxonian seems only to support bold, italics and http links – no blockquotes – but even that helps I think.

      • Jim,

        You said,

        ‘……but I would say that, based on historical data, the “religious world” is just as prone to the “them vs. us” – the Eloi vs. The Morlocks – as an atheist / secular humanist one. Just that the former at least has, I think, somewhat of a redeeming feature in the form of some transcendent vision of one sort or another…..’

        …which last part seems, to me, to be something which you have mentioned quite a few times.

        Hm. Do people ‘need’ a vision? I could argue that they don’t, necessarily, but I think that might muddy the waters, since it’s entirely debateable how far I could take that. Let’s just say I agree, for the purposes of the discussion, that they (we) do.

        Does atheism lack a vision? Is it a bit like a political satirist. You know the sort, the one who prompt you (or at least me, repeatedly) to say to yourself, ‘yeah, very witty, mate, very pithy, but hey, why don’t you try to run the country, mate, if you think you could do a better job, eh?’.🙂

        I’m sure you’ve heard it a thousand times though, that atheism is not an ideology, no matter how much it seems like one to non-atheists. Atheism is only an ideology, I once read, if not collecting stamps can be described as a hobby.🙂

        So, here’s the deal. If you’re an atheist, and your thing is social justice and the like, you are an atheist who has a vision of social justice. Ditto for an atheist who ‘digs’ humanism, or evironmental issues, or animal welfare, or gender equality, or…..well you get the point. I’m sure, as I said, that you’ve heard it a thousand times. I just thought it worth pointing out again.

      • Jim,

        There is more to it than that (above) obviously, but that’s the core. As Clinton (George not Bill) might have said, ‘free your mind and your ass will follow’.🙂

        But it would, for example, be a bit disingenuous of me to suggest that atheism (to temporarlily use a general label) is without ‘agenda’. And yes, that agenda is, by and large, er, subtractive (prefer this to ‘negative’ since it’s not the same thing. I suppose you could say that by and large, atheists would prefer a world sans religion, or at least a world where religion has no more status than say, homeopathy or ‘crystal healing’, that is to say, where people are free to believe in it if they want to, and gain benefits thereof, but we don’t have crystal healing informing decisions about education or politics, or at least not because of the tenets of crystal healing.

        Which leads on to the question, ‘do we/people need religion?’
        (specifically using the definition which involves a god or the supernatural).

        Personally, I would say, demonstrably, no. I don’t appear to, and I know many others who don’t either, and some of ’em are in wheelchairs, or poor, or suffering from depression (by mentioning which in passing I only mean to clarify that I’m aware that there are pitfalls with ‘I’m all right Jack’ comfortable armchair atheism). Furthermore, the countries I admire the most (if I ever lapse into admiring whole countries) are, at least in some ways, the Northern European, Scandinavian ones, which have not descended into chaos (quite the reverse) as a result of waning religion.

        Which reminds me, I believe Jean Sibelius once said that other composers (I think he may have had Gustav Mahler partly in mind) make cocktails, where he offered only a glass of cold, clear spring water. Not sure I agree that in hindsight this describes his music (minimalism arrived in force slightly later, in all art forms) but I like the idea.

        So, the question, in a way, becomes, ‘do we/people need cordial?’🙂

        Of course, W C Fields once famously remarked (when offered something to dilute his whisky), ‘water?….never touch the stuff…..fish have sex in it’. But that is a different matter, sort of, though not entirely, because you can do a lot of things in and with water, and I’m not sure it’s necessarily ‘lacking’ anything, which is why I preferred ‘subtractive’ to ‘negative’.

      • David,

        I’m sure you’ve heard it a thousand times though, that atheism is not an ideology ….

        Don’t think I’ve heard it phrased quite that way, but I’ve heard and had to deal with it as “atheism as a religion”. And likewise the analogy to collecting stamps. But in that sense I think there is some justification – as I have argued here in this thread – for considering atheism as a religion, at least metaphorically speaking in the sense of a “cause, principle, or activity pursued with zeal or conscientious devotion”.

        But I also point out with some acerbity if not rudeness – which, you won’t be surprised to learn, tends not to be received by the religious all that well – that some principles have quite a bit more credibility and utility than others.

        So, here’s the deal. If you’re an atheist, and your thing is social justice and the like, you are an atheist who has a vision of social justice. … heard it a thousand times. I just thought it worth pointing out again.

        No problemo – good fences and good neighbors and all that.🙂

        And with which I quite agree – although I guess I’ll have to update my self-identifying label for various conferences and blogs: skeptical agnostic atheistic panentheistic mythopoeic secular humanist ….😉

        ‘free your mind and your ass will follow’.

        I like it J.B., I like it.🙂

        I suppose you could say that by and large, atheists would prefer a world sans religion ….

        Yes, and that is something with which I largely agree – at least qualified by the perspective that “religion” is a bit of a moving target or a somewhat amorphous one. While I am quite sympathetic to Joseph’s championing of some of the positive contributions that some of the religious have made in “our long, tortured, uphill climb toward civilization”, I view with a bit of a skeptical if not a jaundiced eye his apparent willingness to use that to justify letting “the divine foot in the door”. Far better, I think, to “accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative” – although sometimes in throwing out the bathwater, and the (literalist) monster, it’s not always easy to see where they end and the baby begins.

        Which leads on to the question, ‘do we/people need religion?’

        Good question. And one good question deserves another, to wit, “what do you mean by religion?” Some people apparently need – having been egregiously and shamefully addicted to it during childhood – the supernatural variety. But I think many more of us, if not all of us, still need various “causes, principles or activities” that we “pursue with some degree of zeal or conscientious devotion” whether that provides or entails some “transcendent” vision or not. Some famous philosopher, I think, said something to the effect that “our monomanias [our causes] can drive us like clockwork” – the trick, I think, is to view them with some circumspection and to retain some degree of control over their directions and manifestations.

        Of course, W C Fields once famously remarked …

        Gotta love him; everyone’s (?) favorite curmudgeon. I like his related observation about water that even a stick becomes crooked when (partially) immersed in it (whiskey maybe less so depending on the index of refraction). And that more people have been driven insane by religious hysteria than by alcohol….

      • Jim,

        ” ‘Which leads on to the question, ‘do we/people need religion?’

        Good question. And one good question deserves another, to wit, “what do you mean by religion?” ”

        The supernatural kind. Sorry, I thought I’d specified.

        ‘Some people apparently need – having been egregiously and shamefully addicted to it during childhood – the supernatural variety. But I think many more of us, if not all of us, still need various “causes, principles or activities” that we “pursue with some degree of zeal or conscientious devotion” whether that provides or entails some “transcendent” vision or not.’

        This is the point I was trying to explore.

        You ‘dig’ the search for the transcendant. I get that, and I’m happy for you. If the world was entirely made up of people like you, I have no doubt it would be a ‘better’ place, and probably not just for homo sapiens.🙂

        Yes, it’s probably generally true that all of us ‘need’ “various “causes, principles or activities” that we “pursue with some degree of zeal or conscientious devotion” “.

        For some of us, ‘transcendant’ is not a big issue, though it could be said that even then, we may be, psychologically, trying to transcend the mere facts of human existence on the mortal coil (cut, momentarily, back to that guy in the cartoon, on the beach, asking ‘what’s it all about?’).

        On the other hand, I offer you this, what could be more transcendant than opening the door to, say, atheism, materialism and overall meaninglessness, and exploring where than door takes us?

        Personally, I do not fear for the collapse of humanity or civilization, as many others seem to (not you specifically) because, at times, I wonder if in fact the reverse is not a possibility.

        Now, please bear in mind that I speak only for myself. I do not have a vision for humanity. Not that I don’t like humanity or the peole of it (I do), but..well, thank goodness all living things do not appear to be capable of voting in a democratic poll as to whether we should be allowed to continue.🙂

      • Jim,

        for example,

        what if, what we ‘are’ is a machine (in the broadest sense) which has got to the point where we are asking ‘am I a machine’? ‘Am I just a machine, without a progammer, in a meaningless/purposeless (in absolute terms) universe?’

        What are the implications of considering the answer to be ‘yes’?

        Nihilism?

        Possibly, for some.

        But in a way, that might be a pity, or if not that then simply ‘not following through’, whether one wants to use the terms ‘brave’ or ‘cowardly’ or not, it’s essentially, it seems to me, an opportunity spurned, for those of us who really are seeking the ‘truth’.

        Or are we like Jack Nicholoson’s audience in that film courtroom drama, (‘A Few Good Men’?) when he yells, ‘you want the truth? You can’t HANDLE the truth!’.

        I’m not presuming it IS the truth, obviously, just that it seems to me like a better candidate.

        And don’t think for a moment that I wouldn’t love there to be a progammer.🙂

      • Jim,

        apologies, keep thinking of things.

        As you may have gathered, I am not a fan of thinking that atheism/materialism is going to lead to a ‘not better’ outcome. Tend to think of this with more of an open mind. Call me an optimist. In fact, if you like, call me a ‘true humanist’, since it’s arguably disparaging to a species to fear that it can’t cope without what might be a delusion or two.🙂

        Anyhows, I’m almost sure the Buddhists have been way ‘ahead’ of ‘us’ (‘westerners’) on quite a few fronts, for quite a while.

      • David,

        The supernatural kind. Sorry, I thought I’d specified.

        Somewhat of a rhetorical question.🙂

        On the other hand, I offer you this, what could be more transcendent than opening the door to, say, atheism, materialism and overall meaninglessness, and exploring where than door takes us?

        My gosh there David! That looks rather like a belief in the “spirit of humanity”, a ‘mythopoeic humanism’! Careful now; you could be painting yourself into Joseph’s and Steph’s corner (which seems unnecessarily restrictive) ….😉

        Now, please bear in mind that I speak only for myself. I do not have a vision for humanity.

        With all due respect and not to put a “label” on you that you don’t want to wear, but it seems to me that you, and Dawkins and company, still have a “vision” of a society or a world sans ‘religion’ – “and no religion too” – that entails or manifests “the greatest good for the greatest number”. That might stop well short of what others might have in mind, but “exploring where that door takes us” still makes it a quite open-ended “vision” – anything but dogmatic.

        what if, what we ‘are’ is a machine (in the broadest sense) which has got to the point where we are asking ‘am I a machine’?

        As some character in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Galaxy put it, “Tricky.”🙂 Gets down into the details – where the devil resides – of the free-will vs. determinism debate; I think the problem is partly language in general as various words are rather ambiguous and tend to incorporate some contradictory aspects. Sort of like the interpenetrating yin and yang symbol….

        And don’t think for a moment that I wouldn’t love there to be a programmer.

        Yes, one can certainly sympathize with that perspective. Although I think that in some real and profound sense we are individually and collectively one of those: “masters of our fates; captains of our souls”.

        Anyhows, I’m almost sure the Buddhists have been way ‘ahead’ of ‘us’ (‘westerners’) on quite a few fronts, for quite a while.

        Yes, quite agree. A major part of our – as ‘westerners’ – problem is, I think, our perspectives on the absolute; as mentioned above, the yin-yang symbol seems to provide a better handle on many phenomena.

      • Jim,

        Just heading home from work here. On hols for a few days now. The ‘Glorious Twelfth’ don’t cha know. Northern Ireland comes to a standstill, bar the marching feet and the Lambeg drumming.

        Just briefly,

        A lot of the time, we seem to understand each other. Just occasionally, you seem to completely misunderstand something I’ve said (and likewize ditto in the other direction I’m sure), and when I said this:

        ‘On the other hand, I offer you this, what could be more transcendent than opening the door to, say, atheism, materialism and overall meaninglessness, and exploring where than door takes us?’

        and you said this:

        ‘My gosh there David! That looks rather like a belief in the “spirit of humanity”, a ‘mythopoeic humanism’! Careful now; you could be painting yourself into Joseph’s and Steph’s corner (which seems unnecessarily restrictive) …. ‘

        I struggled to see a meeting of minds.

        It’s not that I think it’s transcendant (at least that’s not a word I would use)…I was…using your word, temporarily, or at least ..I wasn’t using it in the sense you seem to think I was using it, and I certainly wasn’t thinking of it for hooman beans-ism, or whatever the correct term is.

        I suppose I was trying to suggest that if you, Jim, are seeking what you call the transcendant, have you ever considered exploring where I’m suggesting?

      • David,

        The ‘Glorious Twelfth’ don’t cha know. Northern Ireland comes to a standstill ….

        Interesting. I had been guessing that you were in England – Canada for me. But, as the American biologist Jerry Coyne [Why Evolution Is True] has been discussing the topic periodically, I’m curious about the status of the so-called “Blasphemy Laws” there – although that probably refers more to Ireland itself, with its larger Catholic population, rather than the northern part which I gather is still part of the UK – and Church of England.

        A lot of the time, we seem to understand each other. Just occasionally, you seem to completely misunderstand something I’ve said (and likewize ditto in the other direction I’m sure) ….

        Yes, quite true I think – part of the necessity for continual feedback, a term fully developed in the science of cybernetics (part of my ‘toolkit’ for putting bread on the table if not for making a claim to fame ….) But that is a problem that bedevils communication of all sorts – noise, channel capacity, entropy, etc. I generally find the Persian, Eastern, parable of the blind men and the elephant to be remarkably relevant and cogent in a great many similar circumstances.

        It’s not that I think it’s transcendent (at least that’s not a word I would use)…I was…using your word, temporarily, or at least ..I wasn’t using it in the sense you seem to think I was using it ….

        Yes, I think that is the crux of the problem, the different interpretations and meanings of the word – part of the reason why I’ve referenced, I think, the Wikipedia article on the topic several times here. But I think the core attribute that is common to all applications and uses is:

        … an object (or a property of an object) [that is] comparatively beyond that of other objects.

        And, I would argue, the “group” is “beyond” the “individual” – the whole is greater than the sum of its parts – although there are some problematic aspects to that – and in the same way that a whole – consciousness – emerges out of, and is greater than and beyond, the attributes of other objects (neurons in the case of consciousness).

        But a fairly prosaic and basic definition yet one that, I think, encompasses the spectrum from the mathematical concept of emergence (phonons being a particularly good example) to the secular or atheistic “the greatest good for the greatest number” to the “spiritual” [Joseph’s and Steph’s “mythopoeic humanism” which is, I think, still well short of the whole ball of wax] to the theistic “God”. And it was that common thread which informed my (jesting) argument that your “atheistic transcendence” put you into the same “corner”, more or less, with Joseph’s & Steph’s “spiritual humanism” variety – all of which, more or less, I also agree with.

        But a moot point as to how far up the ladder that concept can be extended, although I expect rather far – certainly much further than we’ve so far managed to push it.

        … have you ever considered exploring where I’m suggesting?

        But not quite sure what you’re suggesting. If it is the Buddhist and Eastern philosophy then I have already done that – at least to some extent – and it is that which sort of provides, I think, the “glue” which holds those different examples of transcendence together.

      • Jim,

        ‘….to the secular or atheistic “the greatest good for the greatest number” ‘…..

        Hadn’t thought of that as an atheistic or secular thing, but, there you go.🙂

        ‘….Joseph’s & Steph’s “spiritual humanism” variety – all of which, more or less, I also agree with. ‘

        If you mean you agree with them regarding their preferred definition of humanism, then, actually, so do I (agree with them, or at least am sympathetic) to a large extent, as might be obvious. Some atheists do indeed disparage supernaturalist religion a bit too much., or more accurately, disparage those who believe in it.

        ‘”… have you ever considered exploring where I’m suggesting?”
        But not quite sure what you’re suggesting. If it is the Buddhist and Eastern philosophy then I have already done that – at least to some extent – and it is that which sort of provides, I think, the “glue” which holds those different examples of transcendence together……..’

        No, not that.

        What I was wondering, in passing (it’s not a dare or a challenge and I’m not trying to prove anything, since I’m only an amateur explorer myself), was, have you ever considered exploring the implications of, say, the universe being meaningless and undirected (not to say that there isn’t an ‘animating force’, just that it’s not got any direction or intent, IOW, it’s just an ‘is’, naturalist thing).

        IOW, the blind men and the elephant is an excellent story, but, what if…..there’s no elephant, other than the one we’re assuming ‘should’ be there?

      • David,

        Some atheists do indeed disparage supernaturalist religion a bit too much, or more accurately, disparage those who believe in it.

        Not sure that it is possible to do that “too much”.🙂 It really is, I think, decidedly problematic in many ways and virtually any acceptance of it is tantamount to allowing people to be driving while totally blind. As metaphors and as abstractions – even as the basis of poetry – it has its uses – interestingly even Dawkins makes a “spirited” defense of personification in his book The Selfish Gene from that perspective. But to take them literally is, at least, a logical fallacy of profound dimensions – reification – if not a serious case of idolatry.

        If you mean you agree with [Joseph & Steph] regarding their preferred definition of humanism, then, actually, so do I (agree with them, or at least am sympathetic ….

        Their “preferred definition” seems to be more “spiritual” than “supernatural”, although I think Steph at least unrealistically and inaccurately discounts the latter’s prevalence and problematic consequences far too much. But the former has, as I will agree with you, some utility and value – interestingly Sam Harris is attempting to “reclaim” the word “spirituality” from some of its negative and problematic connotations as described in some detail on Jerry Coyne’s website. But that is, I think, predicated more on a recognition that some, even many, “feelings” can – not necessary, do – provide more accurate pictures or views of the world that are not readily accessible to (conscious) reason and logic.

        … have you ever considered exploring the implications of, say, the universe being meaningless and undirected (not to say that there isn’t an ‘animating force’ …)

        Yes, certainly. Although whether it is or is not, is, I think, something that is necessarily an article of faith – not something that is readily, if at all, provable one way or another. In which case, a reasonable question is then which one is going to provide the most benefits – and probably each one has its downsides. But that might be, as you suggest, a reasonable question to pursue ….🙂

        As for your “animating force”, I’ve always been somewhat partial to Kurt Vonnegut’s “Universal Will to Become” [UWTB].🙂 But I find it somewhat amusing to note that he had been an honorary president of the American Humanist Association ….

        … what if…..there’s no elephant, other than the one we’re assuming ‘should’ be there?

        Certainly a fair question. But in the absence of conclusive evidence one way or the other, I would say, as mentioned, that it is simply an article of faith that people should be entitled to pursue in virtually any way they wish – although any that rely heavily on supernatural events and causations should, I think, be heavily discounted and deprecated. As Carl Sagan put it:

        The well-meaning contention that all ideas have equal merit seems to me little different from the disastrous contention that no ideas have any merit. [Broca’s Brain; pg xii]

      • Jim,

        ‘Their “preferred definition” seems to be more “spiritual” than “supernatural”, although I think Steph at least unrealistically and inaccurately discounts the latter’s prevalence and problematic consequences far too much. But the former has, as I will agree with you, some utility and value – interestingly Sam Harris is attempting to “reclaim” the word “spirituality” from some of its negative and problematic connotations as described in some detail on Jerry Coyne’s website. But that is, I think, predicated more on a recognition that some, even many, “feelings” can – not necessary, do – provide more accurate pictures or views of the world that are not readily accessible to (conscious) reason and logic.’

        IOW, the suggestion that atheists, even the ‘new’ variety, are out to suppress the spritual, is, er, a canard. And if it’s that, what is the whole schmozzle about disqualifying atheists from humanism REALLY about?

        To me, it’s about people who don’t want to let go of he supernatural, or the possibility of it, having their noses put out of joint by those who are prepared to let go of it, and embrace what humanism is (arguably, IMO) about, namely, just humans.🙂

        Of course, Monty Python have been there already, as ever. ‘Are you the People’s Front of Judea?’ ‘Bog off mate, they’re a bunch of splitters. We’re the Judean People’s Front!’ Lol.

        I’m sure another humanist denomination (non-atheist humanism, agnostic humanism, whatever) will hardly rock the boat. Heck, there ae over 39,000 denominations of Christianity, and that boat’s still floating.🙂

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