Saturday, December 10, 2005

Atheist Theological Disputation

I totally disagree with this post at The Road to Surfdom

is the reason to be jolly

If you haven't read Sam Harris's book The End of Faith, then this article is a reasonable introduction to his argument. I mean, it obviously can't be as complete an approach to the topic of religious intolerance and the problems of faith as the book, but it does touch on some of his main themes. It also has some interesting links. Here's his bottom line:

When we have reasons for what we believe, we have no need of faith; when we have no reasons, or bad ones, we have lost our connection to the world and to one another. Atheism is nothing more than a commitment to the most basic standard of intellectual honesty: One’s convictions should be proportional to one’s evidence. Pretending to be certain when one isn’t—indeed, pretending to be certain about propositions for which no evidence is even conceivable—is both an intellectual and a moral failing. Only the atheist has realized this. The atheist is simply a person who has perceived the lies of religion and refused to make them his own.

Which reminds me, one of the most interesting thing in the Power of Nightmares doco that SBS is currently running, is the cynical way in which religion has been exploited by the American right. Okay, we all know they do it, but it's interesting to see the likes Irving Kristol (I think it was) basically admitting it. More about that show after I watch the final part (and on which subject, check this out).

Posted by Tim Dunlop at December 8, 2005 09:44 AM


I am an atheist and I disagree with the view presented above of what atheism is.
I have two problems with "Atheism is nothing more than a commitment to the most basic standard of intellectual honesty: One’s convictions should be proportional to one’s evidence. Pretending to be certain when one isn’t—indeed, pretending to be certain about propositions for which no evidence is even conceivable—is both an intellectual and a moral failing." First it declares itself to be intellectually dishonest. There is and can be no evidence that "One’s convictions should be proportional to one’s evidence." Yet that statement is made with great conviction. I am sure that Dunlop and the people he quotes are sincere and sincerely wrong about the nature of intellectual honesty. They should realise that any claim about what one should or shouldn't believe is inherently self referential and check that it is not self contradictory. Their belief (falsely) declares itself to be dishonest. It is clearly wrong. It might or might not be possible for someone to have beliefs that are based only on evidence, that person would certainly not consider such lack of faith the way things should be, because that person could not have any opinions on should and shouldn't.

This is my more strongly felt objection to the view presented above. If one’s convictions were proportional to one’s evidence, one would have no opinions in ethics, no conviction that, say, other things equal peace is better than war or that torturing all living people would not be a good action. Evidence is useful in evaluating positive theories. The only evidence we can have about whether something is good or bad is evidence on our feelings. I can know that I don't like torture, that I my feelings about the statement that torture is ok and the statement that the earth is flat are vaguely similar etc. However I have and can have no evidence that it is a fact that torture not good in and of itself. The goodness or badness of an action, in itself, leaves no traces. If my convictions on right and wrong were only as strong as the evidence, my feelings about torture would be like my feelings about anchovies. I don't like either.

I recognise that I should fight torture and tolerate anchovies. There is no more evidence for the claim that torture is wrong than for the claim that anchovies taste bad. My conviction is not based on evidence. I think that is a very good thing, intellectually honest and consistent with my atheism.

Update: I am having an epistemelogical crisis because I just ate anchovies and they tasted great. They were prepared by my colleague Amalia Donia Sofia with pine nuts, rasins, bread crumbs salt pepper and sugar. Now I understand that my criticism of The Road to Surfdom was completely invalid.

The difference between my hatred of torture and my hatred of anchovies is operational not ontological. I hate torture even when it is served with pine nuts and raisins.

3 comments:

brad said...

I don't get it: why should you tolerate anchovies? Why not start the eliminate-anchovies-from-Italian-cuisine liberation front, dedicated to achieving this goal by any means necessary?

Vance Maverick said...

Brad, I believe that's explained by his update.

I must admit that when I first read Tim's post I was snowed by Harris' sensible tone. Thanks for reasserting the basic fact-value distinction here. A passing bigot might still wonder how an atheist would pick up values, but that's not your fault.

Anonymous said...

Anchovies - God's gift to pizza.