Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Mark Kleiman claims to be agnostic. I dare to disagree (I'm glad I don't believe in eternal punishment either for the sin of pride or for the sin of blogging like a twit as I am).

update: I like this, via Mark Kleiman much more. Now *that* is what I call a metaphor.




Religious thought, writing, and speech, at its adult level, is always metaphorical. "Humans are created in the Image of God," taken literally, is nonsense,


update II: Mark Kleiman reconsiders.


if you remember that it is a part of a religious tradition that says that God is an infinite, omniscient, beneficent, immortal being "without parts or passions," which is the opposite of finite, finitely rational, ethically challenged mortal beings with physical bodies and emotional drives. It makes no more sense as a proposition in comparative primatology than "My love is like a red, red rose" makes sense as a proposition in botany. But it's a very powerful metaphor for the ethical proposition "Human beings are not to be damaged or degraded." (Of course religious writers don't generally assert that "God" names a metaphor rather than an entity, any more than the actor playing Hamlet looks at the audience and says, "I'm not really the Prince of Denmark" or any more than a Pynchon novel carries a disclaimer on the title page, "None of this stuff really happened.")

Confronted with the verse from Robert Burns, Meyers would no doubt say: "She is not! Why, she doesn't even have petals, and her reproductive strategy is entirely different from that of a rose." And Gerson would reply angrily, "If you don't believe in the petals of your beloved you have no objective reason to have sex, and the species will die out."

Considering "God exists" as an empirical proposition on the model of "the Earth is a spheroid," there's no evidence for it. It corresponds to no observation or well-formed theory, and the attributes usually attributed to the metaphorical entity are, in logical terms, mutually inconsistent. (Really, It's not very hard to prove that One doesn't equal Three.) Believing literally in the old but remarkably fit white guy with a long beard that Michelangelo painted on the Sistine Chapel ceiling makes about as much sense as believing in unicorns. So, as between Gerson and Meyers, I side with Meyers, since "The proposition you maintain has no evidence to back it up and is, moreover, incoherent" is a stronger argument than "Yes, but I couldn't stand it if the proposition were false."

But if, like anyone who has thought deeply about these matters, you think of God as an especially potent metaphor (or, to put in more flowery terms, "a mystery to be understood only in part, and then by faith") — if you think that, then the whole debate is pointless. Both Gerson and Meyers are just being silly: it's two blind men debating the nature of the elephant while groping around different parts of a Land Rover.

Footnote The word "agnostic" gets misused in this debate. An agnostic is not someone who says "In my mind, it's even money whether God exists or not." An agnostic, properly speaking, is one who doesn't think "God exists" is a proposition that can be argued about, either because the relevant evidence can't be gathered or because it wasn't an empirical proposition in the first place.





OK what do we call someone who thinks "Of course religious writers don't generally assert that "God" names a metaphor rather than an entity, any more than the actor playing Hamlet looks at the audience and says, "I'm not really the Prince of Denmark" or any more than a Pynchon novel carries a disclaimer on the title page, "None of this stuff really happened."" ?

I would call such a person an atheist. Kleiman is clearly saying that writing about God is like acting or writing fiction, that is, the statements are not literally true, that is that God does not exist. I am quite sure I am not misunderstanding him, as I would if I thought Burns had a very unusual looking love.

Mark Kleiman says he is an agnostic and explains "An agnostic, properly speaking, is one who doesn't think "God exists" is a proposition that can be argued about, either because the relevant evidence can't be gathered or because it wasn't an empirical proposition in the first place." Clearly he things the relevant evidence can be gathered (it is not hard to prove that 1 does not equal 3 etc.) Thus he thinks that the claim "God exists" is not an "empirical proposition."

I think that Mark Kleiman's claim is total nonsense. I can imagine a universe in which God exists (what with him being benevolent and omnipotent it would be very different from this one) and in which he showed Himself and demonstrated his benevolence and omnipotence. I think it is clear that the statement "God Does not Exist" is one that can be tested and disproven if someone convincingly GodLike shows up (I wouldn take a while to convince me of the benevolent part).

Kleiman writes that "Religious thought, writing, and speech, at its adult level, is always metaphorical." in other words, people who believe that God really does exist are not really adult. This sounds very close to Meyers who "refers to all religious beliefs as "goofy, stupid, and ridiculous."" Kleiman is claiming that all religious people are either immature or uhm speaking metaphorically without ever admitting that they are doing so (that is liars).

Now I am an atheist, and I absolutely do not have as contemptuous a view of the religious as Kleiman does. I think that mature people can really literally believe in God.

But my focus is, as it often is, with the definition of "agnostic" and "atheist" . Kleiman sets up a straw man with " An agnostic is not someone who says "In my mind, it's even money whether God exists or not."" no one imagines that someone who thinks the chance that God exists is 10% is an atheist or religious. More importantly, subjective probabilities do not at all capture the complexity of human doubt. Someone who would not bet on the existence of God at any odds but who does not feel sure that there is no God is agnostic. Kleiman strongly demonstrates that he has no doubt that God does not exist (that is no hope that God does exist). His refusal to believe that any adult really thinks that God literally exists is sufficient (but not necessary consider my case) to demonstrate his certainty.

So why does Kleiman insist that he is agnostic ? Going beyond too far, I speculate that it is because he, like many people, reserves the word "atheist" for bigoted atheists. To many people (possible including Kleiman) an atheist who respects religious people and would rather believe in God is a contradiction in terms. Someone who is sure there is no god but isn't contemptuous of religion is called agnostic. This is damaging to the language, because the same word is used for very different beliefs, from even odds to insisting that no one ever asked the question of whether God exists literally and not just the metaphor of God. On the other hand, nothing is gained by considering the word "bigoted" in "bigoted atheist" to be redundant. Kleiman demonstrates that he knows it is required for clarity even as he gives me the impression that, in his own mind, he considers it redundant.

mere fisking of the less interesting parts of Kleiman's post below.

I guess I'm glad I know that, freed from the chains of obsolete superstition, atheists are invariably tolerant, rational, and loving, and that they don't go off on bigoted rants as so many religious folks do. Because if I didn't know that independently, I don't think I could prove it from the evidence.


Failed irony. Meyers may be intolerant but compared to Leon Trotsky he is John Stuart Mill. No one doubts that atheists can be intolerant irrational and hating

After all, if I heard Jerry Falwell claim that all Muslims, without distinction, are "ignorant, deluded, wicked, foolish, or oppressed," or heard Osama bin Laden make the same claim about Christians, I'd just nod my head and say, "Yep. Bigots." So I might easily have made the mistake of calling P.Z. Meyers a bigot for saying exactly that about religious believers in general. And that would have hurt his sensitive feelings. After all, he's not a bigot at all: "My cause," says Meyers, is simply the truth."

Now, what's the difference between "My cause is simply the truth" and "What I believe is true"? None that I can see. The gospels refer to Jesus as "the Truth." The fact that Meyers doesn't use a capital "T" doesn't make him any more open to ideas he doesn't currently hold.


Good points, but I think they are points about manners not about ontology. It is considered intolerant to say "I think your religious beliefs do not correspond to reality" but it is very difficult not to think this, given the differences in different religious beliefs and the difference between all of them and atheism. In Falwell's list if I assume he thinks that 99.99% of Moslems are deluded and that he just means they believe something which isn't true, then I find nothing objectionable in his statement (that is I would agree).

I'm not a member of any congregation or an adherent of any denomination. So it's not my self-love that protests when Meyers calls refers to all religious beliefs as "goofy, stupid, and ridiculous." It's my liberalism that's offended, and my suspicion that there might be something to be learned from very old and widespread traditions. (I've always wanted to ask someone like Meyers — or Dawkins, or Pinker — how much smarter he thinks he is than, let's say, Heraclitus or Socrates or Maimonides or Newton, who thought hard about religion and didn't dismiss it as nonsense.)


OK I'd say anyone who claims that special relativity is nonsense is ignorant or "goofy, stupid, and ridiculous." None of the thinkers above gave any hint of considering it possible. They weren't stupid. They weren't aware of evidence collected after their deaths. In particular, the argument from design made sense, before the development of modern biology. Also Newton sure was smart, but trying to figure out when the world will end by studying an alleged floor plan of the temple of Solomon was a bit goofy frankly.

Meyers , it seems to me, is just the flip side of Michael Gerson. Meyers furiously denounces as false the sort of childish religion that Gerson exemplifies but that thoughtful worshippers of every persuasion have always despised.


Always Prof. Kleiman ? I'd say Gerson's religious belief has never found an expression quite as goofy as Newton's.

update: well that was a pointless post and Brad did it sooo much better.

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