A Conversation for Atheist Fundamentalism

Atheist Fundamentalism.

Post 541


I'm having just such a conversation with a reasonable believer, on facebook of all places.

It began over Wittgenstein. He was a young Christian (in the war) but became (clearly) a strong agnostic ("such things cannot be known") though he stopped short at "I can't believe this, but I would never ridicule those who do".

On account of his extreme punctiliousness and the seriousness with which he discussed the issues, he has been very influential in theology. It seems to me that he saw no way of persuading people out of belief (however impossible the attitude of belief turns out to be when examined seriously) and simply refused to try. After all, it's a decision people must make for themselves, so you can only wait for them to get there. In the mean time there is no percentage in being rude.

Here is our convo: http://www.facebook.com/topic.php?uid=2210525713&topic=4397
(I enter at post 7)

Atheist Fundamentalism.

Post 542

Edward the Bonobo - Gone.

OK. Here's one. The title of today's R4 'Anodyne Homily for the Day' was 'Some things can not be reduced to the measurable or testable'. The transcript isn't up yet, but when it is, it will be http://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/programmes/thought/documents/t20090319.shtml

The title alone opens up all sorts of possibilities for discussion of empiricism vs faith. But I'd like to kick off by talking specically about something that was said along the lines of 'Beauty can not simply be explained as the firing of certain neurons'.

It seems quite common for the religious to attack Atheist reductionism. See also 'We're not just a walking bag of chemicals'; 'We're not just animals'; etc. Theres something in here to do with Dogster's recent comment (on 'another' thread smiley - winkeye) about the religious being offended by the drop in status this implies.

Only...when we say that the perception of beauty, love, whatever result from ordinary material processes...we're not belittling them in any way, are we? We're not talking about *mere* beauty, mere love, etc.

Why not?

Can we explain ourselves in any way that might stop the religious from jumping to the wrong conclusion?

Or does it matter? Can't we be content just to be happy bags of chemicals?

Atheist Fundamentalism.

Post 543


Mere smiley - book

Gif smiley - geek

Atheist Fundamentalism.

Post 544

Clive the flying ostrich: Amateur Polymath | Chief Heretic.

Ditto smiley - book back when I've had a bit of a think....

Atheist Fundamentalism.

Post 545

Edward the Bonobo - Gone.

That's the spirit. Thought is what we want.

Atheist Fundamentalism.

Post 546


Oo. I'm away to the big city for most of the day. I'll ponder whilst tottering about the mall, with all the other bags of chemicals.

smiley - book

Atheist Fundamentalism.

Post 547


Hello fellow chembags,

Hmm, I had this one used against me quite recently when I tried to explain that I did not believe in ghosts or the existence of "higher forces". There is a prevailing view around that science cannot prove everything and that you can't reduce everything to mere numbers.

I'm going to attempt to answer this from a number of viewpoints. All (or none) of them might be relevant.

Surely you can reduce most things at least to a binary number? Does it happen ("1") or does it not happen ("0")? That's scientific, isn't it? So I would tend to believe that everything is testable and measureable in some way, even if the measures are only possible to define (currently) in a very limited way.

Also, we are powerfully affected by sexual attraction, which is very tangible, but also for most religious people, very animalistic. Why is the power of sexuality put in one category, but our feeling of love is put in another category? To me it's just another form of emotional engagement.

And as for beauty, what I might see in great art might be lost on someone who doesn't care less about art. What another person might see might be lost on me. There's a cultural learning effect at play. The more we find out about an area of interest to us, the more it means to us.

And finally, I think that most folk, atheists and religious, go about our lives seeking meaning in things. For religious people, that meaning is referenced back to a god or gods, whereas for those freed from religion, we are more at liberty to assign meaning in a way that makes the most sense to us.

Ramble over..

Atheist Fundamentalism.

Post 548


Well whether we want to or not, we'd better learn to be happy with just being chembags because that's all we are. I'm not sure there's any point sugaring the pill for the religious (and atheists) who think otherwise. So the question is how to convince them. One possibility is to persuade them to take some drugs. Another is to try to get them to read something about neuroscience (that Oliver Sacks book is quite good, or Ed's favourite guy whose name I'm not sure I can reliably spell). It's difficult to hold on to illusions about humans once you know a little bit about how we really work (or don't).

Another question is how does one learn to live with being just a chembag? For my part, as soon as I realised I was a chembag, Lo!, I had no trouble with living with it. I didn't suddenly cease to feel emotions, experience beauty, etc. In fact, life was very much the same. The same thing when I realised that the concept of free will was vacuous (free will as opposed to determinism).

But I fear this doesn't even come close to addressing Ed's question:

"Can we explain ourselves in any way that might stop the religious from jumping to the wrong conclusion?"

Atheist Fundamentalism.

Post 549

Edward the Bonobo - Gone.

smiley - rolleyes Villayanur Ramachandran.

And I didn't even have to look it up. smiley - smiley Like may Indians with Too-Long-To-Pronounce names, he shortens it - to 'Rama'. This seems like a cop-out to me. It's no more difficult than Postlethwaite or O'Shaughnessy.

Atheist Fundamentalism.

Post 550


Yeah but I knew you'd step in and spell it for me, saving me the effort of googling him! smiley - winkeye

Atheist Fundamentalism.

Post 551


Mere. There's the rub.

>Why is the power of sexuality put in one category, but our feeling of love is put in another category? To me it's just another form of emotional engagement.

Why "just"? A Harley is just another form of bicycle.

We have to ask ourselves, why do almost all people fear reduction? What is the unspeakably dire consequence of being just a bag of chemicals?

Disraeli was wonderfully wily: "Is man an ape or an angel? Now I am on the side of the angels."

This answer deserves extreme parsing. While seemingly aligning himself with those who deny evolution, he puts it in wishful-thinking terms, enough to satisfy the pragmatist who says "we make the world a more coherent entity by acting as though it is a coherent entity" (to paraphrase William James).

Even now, Dan Dennett gets stick for his reductionism. What is the fear? "If that's all we are, then we could have no high destiny." But he triumphantly refutes the inference commonly drawn, from physical determinism to moral nihilism. How long will it take to sink in?

I once saw an illustration in a Watchtower magazine, asking me to choose which ancestors I'd prefer: a clean-looking Adam and Eve, or mucky apes. Struck me as odd. I'd rather be better-washed (and behaved) than my ancestors, than worse.

Atheist Fundamentalism.

Post 552


Having ranted first, I read the text of the Rev. Giles Fraser. Yes, he says "one would want to resist those who think of love as nothing more than chemicals in the brain or beauty as nothing more than the firing of certain synapses."

What can't be reduced is the physical universe. How dare he belittle it? Wonderful chemicals, wonderful synapses. smiley - magic

Atheist Fundamentalism.

Post 553


thing with beauty though, whilst it has many and varied forms depending on the person who is perceiving, there are some common threads.

For one, symmetry especially in animals (including humans) is a good indicator of whether or not that form will be held beautiful. Presumably that comes down to somehow indicating they are a healthy individual and worth thinking about mating with.

BTW, anyone else notice the news that Conway (of Conway's Life fame) is doing a series of lectures about how if we have freewill then so do subatmoic particles and the universe in general?

Atheist Fundamentalism.

Post 554

Edward the Bonobo - Gone.

Oh good! The Lying-Down Man's still around. He's always sensible. Yes - well nailed, as ever. Materialism is worth being belligerent about.

(Damn! This forum's not meant to be about dissing religion. However...)

This is one of those examples of why it's ridiculous that the BBC won't allow Atheists on TFTD. Never mind the right-wing inanities of the likes of Ann Atkins, there ought to be serious intellectual challenges to this kind of theology - especially when the argument against is dissmised, a priori, as 'mere'.

It's quite a common attitude, isn't it? I stole the 'walking bag of chemicals' from a Druidic contributor to this site, who used it to 'win' a public debate against a scientist. Apparently.

And it's a big thing for Rome plc also. iirc, the Pope (or was it the last one?) wrote on ''The Poverty of Materialsm' (one can easily imagine the phrase sneered patronisingly by a Jesuit.)

So why are they so scared of it?

Well...maybe it's the 'slide into nihilism' thing. Interestingly, Rowan W is an authority on Dostoevsky, who had utterly wrong-headed ideas concerning the possibility of morality in a godless morality. 'If there's no god, where do we get our moral lead from?'

Same place as always. Same place the religious gat theirs. From one another.

What I think is really going on is that Materialism blows down the whole religious house of cards. smiley - puff If opinions have to be tested against the material world, the guesswork of the priestly class loses authority.

Which brings me to...

There's often a confusion between big-M Materialsm and little-m materialism, ie consumption, interest in worldly goods. 'He's so materialistic'. OK. That's fine. Money can't buy you love. Overconsumption is trashing the planet. Anti-materialsm is a good message for the over-privileged.

For the less privileged...less so. It's notable that the Catholic church is also a big enemy of Marxism. Liberation Theology they do not like. Well - of course, Marx was a Materialist. He was also a materialist. He understood that our lives are shaped by access to commodity. The religious idea is that poverty can be A Good Thing - which is a fine thing to say, if you're not poor. Buddhists will tell us about the benefits of renouncing the material/Material world. Well...who puts the food in their begging bowls? And are the alleged spiritual benefits of eschewing condoms worth the physical toll? etc. etc.

I'm rambling, so I'll stop. As usual, a poet has already said it better:

Most people think,
Great God will come from the skies,
Take away everything
And make everybody feel high.
But if you know what life is worth,
You will look for yours on earth:
And now you see the light,
You stand up for your rights.

Atheist Fundamentalism.

Post 555

Edward the Bonobo - Gone.


I've not heard of Conway. I shall investigate.

Before I listen to anything about Free Will, I shall have to listen to the 'In Our Times' on Spinoza to refresh my memory of how he dismissed Free Will vs Determinism as a worthwile debate. There was also mention of a book by - Diderot? d'Holbach? - which is germane.


And while I'm at it...here's the excellent one on Materialism:
They could have made a whole series out of that one. Lord Melvyn says at the end that they didn't get around to discussing half the topics they wanted to. Like Marx. And quantum physics.

Atheist Fundamentalism.

Post 556

Edward the Bonobo - Gone.

No - *here's* the one on Materialism:


I know I keep saying this...but, damn! that really is the best thing on the radio.

Atheist Fundamentalism.

Post 557

Clive the flying ostrich: Amateur Polymath | Chief Heretic.

Agreed. I download the podcasts.

Atheist Fundamentalism.

Post 558

Edward the Bonobo - Gone.

In a bid to keep up the momentum...

...I was going to post something along the lines of 'What do we mean when we say we don't believe in god?' The religious god concept is a tricky one to pin down. We can waste a lot of effort arguing against 'inept theology' (a term I've just discovered) - eg the non-existence of a god that dictates books to people, gives good fortune to those who pray, designs platypi, wants us for sunbeams, etc, etc is just too obvious to bother about. However - it's been mentioned in another thread that it can be tricky to get the religious to define what they actually mean by god. That's not quite true, I fear. It may be that we simply haven't read the right theology!

But then...I came across this:

There's a lot I don't like about the piece...but I ws intrigued by the last three paras on ' the apophatic tradition of theology'.


Atheist Fundamentalism.

Post 559


you just caused me to read a piece by Madeline Bunting you foul being you!

The article itself has more than a few strawmen and is overtly biased and lacking in any real insight or critical thinking.

The apophetic theology stuff seems to be a basic appeal to mystery. The what god is not items seem to be fairly meaningless and simply put it is just a fancy way of saying 'dont know, now shut up and go through the motions' in answer to any questions. It doesn;t say anything about how we know god is not X nor why. Some of the negatives strongly imply a positive and thus aren't really merely negative statements. They don;t just tell us what is not but what is as well. I guess the problem is that you need to have some positive concept of what god is in order to say what god is not.

Atheist Fundamentalism.

Post 560

Edward the Bonobo - Gone.

>>'dont know, now shut up and go through the motions'

smiley - biggrin Yes, kind of.

I guess my comment would be somewhere along the lines of:
'Well, OK...but if you don't know what it is, how does it contribute to any ideas, explanations or behaviour? Isn't it sufficient to simply behave well without mentioning god'

I can kind of see what they're getting at. Whether or not there's a god is utterly trivial alongside the important matter of how to live our lives - and on this issue there's much to unite on with the more ept (?) religious. But still I have to quibble that simply by allowing the idea of god, we also allow people to use it to support all manner of nonsense.

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