23 thoughts on “Note to Self…”

  1. You were sort of like God, as described by Joyce. You POSTED and then you rested from your work, retiring from your creation to “pare your fingernails” and leaving us here below to scratch our heads over your cryptic parable. All in all, we did an excellent job of parsing it, I think. We deserve – some of us more than others, since life isn’t fair – to get into whatever heaven an agnostic dreams of.

  2. I was wondering, Shannon, why did you ignored my original comment, which was addressed to you. I shouldn’t have let myself to get drugged into a fruitless conversation; it never makes sense to talk to religionists. I should not have believed their declarations of tolerance – all lies, nothing new there. That’s my fault, and I’m sorry for taking the bait.

    But I came back to this topic, mostly, to say this: I posted my original comment to you, Shannon, hoping for your answer, and instead got the usual assortment, with usual vulgar invitation to go back to my communist country of birth, implying – again, as usual, all manner of things about me that in fact are insulting and slanderous – from people who by their own adopted religious moral code should be an example of tolerance. Usual simplistic false propagandist talking points, like “atheists killed more people in history than anyone everywhere”, and usual equating ALL atheists with the Left and ALL secularists with them both. I really don’t know why you people think you are libertarians; you love liberty and respect liberty of your neighbor as much as a dog loves a stick, to use Russian proverb. If this is what’s called conservatism, I want no association with it. It’s nothing but most foul manifestation of a primitive clericalism and a mob rule (see one of the commenters threatening a religious war, for christsakes, with atheists of this country).

    You, Shannon, are one with this people – you employed that card trick of switching “leftist” with “secularist” – and the mob took to it like fish to water. I feel soiled even writing about it. So dishonest.

  3. Then, fool that I was, I didn’t think it was about religion. Well, implicitly, I guess. Much is. And yours was, of course.
    I see your witty & useful comment about the hammer/screw choice; the metaphor itself seems to be a hammer. So, here, I’ll deliver a whack: I think all our posts appear to be nails to someone who has a hammer and apparently few other tools and even fewer skills. On the other hand, both gave some a chance to think through & explain positions in a way I suspect they enjoyed and I did.

  4. A person abducted by aliens, who carries with them the scar of an “exploration”, who has vivid remembrance of the experience, who has been emotionally and even physically changed by the encounter will be very hard for abduction deniers,for anyone to convince the abducted that it never happened, that there are no aliens, that his experiences are just a slavery of the mind.

    For the “religionist” or more important for the Christian, experience trumps any one else’s Theology all day long. Particularly if that theology is Atheist or Agnostic. Any belief about the nature of or the lack of any God is by definition a theology.

    I dare not deny what I know to be true by experience. That is the difference.

    I’m not here to convert. I’m not here to proselytize. I am here to offer an opinion that if you are an honest reader may give you cause to consider that not everyone agrees with what you consider to be a superior intellectual position. In fact the world view I carry as a Christian is superior to any other in my not so humble opinion.

    I learned that truth while working in China. Most Chinese people consider themselves far superior to the stupid American. Most Christians consider themselves far superior to those who do NOT know the TRUTH as they see it.

    So, be careful not to think that your “enlightenment” is something special or superior. To much of the rest of the world, particularly to Christians, your view is seen as profoundly foolish and naive.

    The one who knows he has been abducted by aliens considers those who don’t know that aliens are real to be foolish, even naive. So, don’t get too comfortable in your philosophy….. Much of the world sees things far differently from you.

    I say that because I see an arrogance of intellectual superiority in comments on the long blog Shannon posted last week that has at it’s heart an uncertainty of experience or knowledge.

    What people aren’t up on they are usually down on…..

  5. Redlin, Do you know the metaphor of honey Jonathan Edwards uses in “The Divine & Supernatural Light”? (Influenced by Locke, he speaks of the difference between experiential and rational knowledge.)

  6. A person abducted by aliens, who carries with them the scar of an “exploration”, who has vivid remembrance of the experience, who has been emotionally and even physically changed by the encounter will be very hard for abduction deniers,for anyone to convince the abducted that it never happened, that there are no aliens, that his experiences are just a slavery of the mind.

    None of this means that the abduction story is true. It means only that someone believes it. Vehemence of belief is not evidence. People fool themselves all the time. Sometimes they even try to fool others. As someone pointed out here recently, the main point of the scientific method is (I paraphrase) to give rational inquiry a fighting chance against the many temptations to bad judgment built in to human nature. It’s human nature to want to believe, but that doesn’t mean that any particular belief is valid.

  7. My only thought here is that if people find themselves making a point that it must feel to them that they have made 40,000 times, they might ask what value is added by making it the 40,001st.

  8. “Mais voyant trop pour nier, et trop peu pour m’assurer, je suis dans un état a plaindre.” [But seeing too much to deny it, and too little to prove it, I am in a pitiable state.] Blais Pascale

  9. Shannon,

    The debate has been interesting to read, but I believe there was a crucial element missing from the beginning. You never defined what you meant by “God”.

    Do you feel that God is the totality of everything physical in the universe–i.e., God (literally) is the Universe? If so, a more accurate term for someone is “Pantheist”. Or do you believe in a Christian-style God–an actual conscious and sentient, omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent being that controls the destiny of everyone and everything in the Universe (it is this popular version of God to which I will refer throughout this message)?

    Perhaps you think you are undecided because you have not given the concept of God as much serious thought as you have to, say, concepts of Individualism or Capitalism.

    You ascribe yourself the label, “Agnostic”, but I do not think you are Agnostic. Agnostic means “without knowledge” but you are not without knowledge. You have a great deal of knowledge regarding the existence or non-existence of God.

    I can assume this not only because you mentioned (the cynical) Mr. Dawkins in one of your responses, but also because it is evident through your blog posts that you are a logical person. Therefore, you have probably attained more knowledge than the average layperson about religion. Given that you are logical, I can guess you are confident there is some sort of “machinery” behind the fabric of Everything. I think we can be safe in saying this machinery exists–we can see it in the rules of Gravity and Motion, for example. We can see that certain rules in the universe are immutable (for example, no matter how many times I throw a ball high in the air in a clear field, it always comes back down; gravity never changes its mind about that, no matter how much I wish it and regardless of how much faith I have the ball will keep going…). It is normal to deduce if a machine exists, something must have created it.

    That seems logical, but does it stand up to a test of rational thinking? If something created the machine, it must have taken something more complex than the machine to create it (that is safe to assume because we never see simple things create infinitely more complex things; i.e., snails never build cell phones). So, is the Creator of the Machine, God?

    But if so, that means something even more complex must have created the thing that created the machine (oh. Well, maybe that is God, then?). And so forth. The Chicken or the Egg mentality is not clearly not sound logic–it only leads to more riddles. However, the existence of the machinery proves the universe is logical and, again, runs by immutable rules. We can see it is not an illogical, haphazard, or magical machine because Gravity is always Gravity; I am always me; snails never build cell phones. We may not always understand how the machinery works, but all discoveries in history illustrate the machinery is not magical or divine; it is just very complex. If it WERE magical, by definition, we would not be able to figure out things like the speed of Light or the construction of atoms (because they would be magic). If it were divine, it is the same–there would be no science that could figure any of the workings of the machinery.

    So, let’s take a closer look at the sentient being that mystically sees everything we do, all the time, whether it is good or bad, whether we are awake or sleeping, and who rewards us or punishes us depending on our level of conformity to whatever he deems as “good” or “bad”. No, not Santa Claus — the OTHER one. God. Ignoring the highly illogical ideology that God could possibly have any interest in what the speck of a speck in a blade of grass does in the furthest corner of the backwoods of His enormous ranch… and ignoring that God, if God exists, would have any more need for solely human concepts like “Good” or “Evil” than Redwood trees or distant stars would have…and ignoring that humans have the sheer vanity to create God in their image while preaching it is the other way around…

    Setting all that aside, let’s just consider the basic logic of a being that is omniscient (knows everything) and omnipotent (can do anything). These are basic tenets of the Christian God (if not all current Gods). If such were true, the simplest philosophical question shows the error in the reality of such a being. The question is this:

    Can God create a rock that God can not lift?

    The fallacy of either answer is obvious. If God can make a rock so heavy God can not lift it, then by default, God can not be omnipotent (because there is something He can not do). If He can not make a rock so heavy that He can not lift it, then He can not be omniscient (because he does not how to do it).

    Consider further, the Bible itself (or Koran, or Torah, etc.). We will put aside that the Bible is most likely the work of 40 or so authors (all human men) and compiled and edited from many orally-passed down stories, many of which presumably were suspect even then (for they were rejected from the final manuscript). Instead, accepting, as we must, that God is also omnipresent, it is reasonable to wonder why there are no references anywhere in biblical books that were not relevant to the time in which they were written. Not that I might expect to read of flying cars or transporter technology, but we are talking about the alleged word of God, here. It is no leap of logic to figure He could easily have said one thing–something–anything– incontrovertible, undeniable, and unequivocally provable that would be relevant today (for example, He could have described Black Holes or pointed out that the Earth revolves around the Sun–either could have been interpreted literally or figuratively at that time, but today would be a clear-cut prediction of the then future).

    Anyway, as this message is well beyond anything reasonable for a Blog-post response, I will wrap it up but there is so, so, so much more to consider about this.

    Ultimately, the thing is, for someone to believe in God, or even to believe that she is Agnostic, she must make many incredible leaps and twists of logic, reason, and even reality, to uphold her “faith”. Faith is ultimately the final argument a zealot MUST rely on–it is the religious category killer–to believe based on nothing more than the requisite to believe. But we know faith doesn’t work. How do we know? There is a simple test:

    Really, Really, REALLY have faith that you will win the next Mega-Million-Super-Lottery-Wonder-Power-Gold-ball Jackpot. Gather all your friends and family and have them pray for you. Have everyone you know put their Faith in You. Post on your blog for everyone to pray you win and visit your church daily until they announce the lucky numbers…and let me know how it works out. No matter how much faith you have, or how much you wish it to be so, the odds of winning are, I submit, likely better than the odds there is a sentient God with identical personality and values to, of all things in His magnificent universe, a shaved down ape.

    One has to bend all manner of rationale to hold one’s belief in God against Logic, Science, and Reality. But to know there can be no God like the popular Judeo-Muslim-Christian God is as clearly rational as not believing in Santa Claus, faeries, ghosts, alien abductions, or the Invisible Flying Spaghetti Monster.

    Although I am an avid reader of yours, I only rarely comment on your posts (mainly because I do not want to waste time bickering with zealots–religious or otherwise–for reasons I think are apparent in the exchanges between Tatyana, Michael , and K.J. Webb). This was the first one where I felt disappointed by what you had to say.

    I put your words on a higher intellectual pedestal than something as silly as an invisible spaghetti monster.

    My two cents.

  10. Michael,

    You never defined what you meant by “God”.

    That’s because “God” is only one member of set of ideas that can’t be observed measured or tested even in principle. “Karma” would be another. I simply don’t care to speculate about things about which I have no information.

    Do you feel that God is the totality of everything physical in the universe…

    No, I usually call that the “totality of everything in the physical universe.”

    Can God create a rock that God can not lift?

    Yes, an omnipotent being can by definition do anything including creating paradoxes. God can violate any rule of causality or logic. He can edit reality to suit himself. By definition. All speculations about the nature of God/Gods etc are meaningless because all things are possible. We can expect to observe all phenomena we can conceive of and an infinite number of ones we cannot. We cannot deduce the existence of God or any of his attributes by examining a universe he himself created and can alter at his whim.

    Agnostic means “without knowledge” but you are not without knowledge.

    I am without knowledge about things I cannot observe or measure. For example, I cannot observe the existence or operation of karma neither can I measure its effects.

    Perhaps you think you are undecided because you have not given the concept of God as much serious thought as you have to, say, concepts of Individualism or Capitalism.

    Well, if you read the original post linked above. You will see that agnosticism is not about being undecided. Its about acknowledging that there are things about which you have no information and therefor shouldn’t speculate.

    Ultimately, the thing is, for someone to believe in God, or even to believe that she is Agnostic, she must make many incredible leaps and twists of logic, reason, and even reality, to uphold her “faith”.

    No, agnosticism is about not speculating about things about which you have no information.

    One has to bend all manner of rationale to hold one’s belief in God against Logic, Science, and Reality

    It is a leap of faith to believe that logic, science and reality to provide all answers. I can imagine scenarios that have nothing to do with traditional religious beliefs in which that is not the case.

    But to know there can be no God like the popular Judeo-Muslim-Christian God is as clearly rational as not believing in Santa Claus, faeries, ghosts, alien abductions, or the Invisible Flying Spaghetti Monster.

    (Actually, logically, you cannot prove a negative. You can only say that you do not observe supposed attributes of such beings. For example, Santa Claus is supposed to inhabit the north pole and we know that he does not.)

    More to the point, Santa Claus, faeries, ghosts, alien abductions, are presumed to be attributes of this universe and as such follow the rules of this universe. This makes it theoretically possible to prove or disprove their existence using an understanding of the rules of logic, time and the physical world.

    The Invisible Flying Spaghetti Monster is supposed to be a universe creating deity and therefor its existence cannot be tested in anyway. I am agnostic as to the existence of the Invisible Flying Spaghetti Monster.

    I put your words on a higher intellectual pedestal than something as silly as an invisible spaghetti monster.

    It’s not about status. It’s about qualifying information. It’s about having the discipline not to make statements based on things about which you have no data.

  11. Shannon,

    I’m not sure if you were addressing me, but I would add commentary to your post:

    1. It’s one of the most well-reasoned posts I’ve seen to date. Thank you.

    2. If you have to “define” god, then the debate is over. When religions can bend the definition of god to suit their purposes, the sophistry overwhelms everything and being agnostic about it is a cop out (which I think it is anyway). But more compelling actually is the fact that a vast majority of religious individuals have pretty much the same definition of god in respect to being all-powerful, the creator and the keeper of his creations. When someone who views god simply as the unexplainable “force of nature” in the universe and then employs the term “god” in their discussions I believe they are misusing the term given that those who hear it will interpret the word differently (e.g. as the white-haired ruler). I believe that the “force of nature” folks who use the term “god” in conversation do so for political expedience while knowing in their mind that they do not mean what the listener believes.

    Finally, I do take exception to your dismissive label as a “bickering zealot.” This issue (religion) needs to be aired. Sam Harris is correct in my view when he says that tolerance and deference to mainstream religion gives harbor to the extreme elements of religion. It is also critical that religion be taken out of governmental decision-making and public schools. The discussion of religion is wonderful. The practice of it is horrendous to a modern intelligent society. So, while you label us zealots, I can also see the passion of your position oozing from your words.

  12. Ooops, my post was directed at MICHAEL (the other one) who was responding to Shannon. Sorry Shannon! : )

  13. Michael Kranitz:
    I may have mis-communicated. I was referring to what I think was a futile attempt by two people (yourself and Tatyana) trying to reason with someone who, in my opinion, had already decided to stick to their belief beyond anything you could ever have said–reasonable or otherwise. I did not mean to infer YOU were the zealot. Actually, I was only using your conversation as an example. My point overall was that I do not generally comment on blogs because other respondents are not usually seeking new perspective or new knowledge, but rather just a chance to defend their own points of views (to the literary death) with any takers. At least, that is my experience.

    Regarding the definition of God, I asked because different people have different concepts of God. Albert Einstein, for example, believed in the “force of nature” God (more or less) that you referenced. Einstein, as I understand it, thought of God not as a conscious entity with a man-like personality, but rather the sum of all the parts of the physical Universe (what Shannon dismissed as just usually calling “the totality of everything in the physical universe”).

    On all other points, if I did not articulate it well enough, I second everything you said.
    Good luck with the zealots…

  14. MICHAEL,

    Some things to remember about logic:

    1) Logic is a set of rules for turning one set of assumptions or axioms into something equivalent. You can’t “learn” anything from logic that isn’t already embedded in your starting assumptions — a conclusion that “God cannot exist” means that you assumed something equivalent to “God cannot exist”, and even then only if your logic was valid.

    2) Conclusions drawn from logic are only valid if your starting assumptions are valid AND your logic is flawless. It only takes a subtle flaw in either to render an entire conclusion invalid.

    Your supposed conundrum, “can God make a rock so heavy even God can’t lift it”, is not the logical masterpiece you believe it to be. Let me point out the flaw by asking: is “a rock so heavy even God can’t lift it” even a valid concept? “Heavy” is a measure of gravitational force (which implies TWO objects pulling on each other), and “lift” is the result of a greater force increasing the distance between the objects. So the question is, could a force exist which cannot be overcome by a greater force? In other words, is there a “largest possible force”? I submit that such a concept is invalid (there is no “largest possible” finite number, nor is there a “largest possible” infinite number or ordinal; look up the Burali-Forti paradox.) Asking if God can make something which is an invalid concept is a matter of your starting assumptions — must God be limited to valid concepts or not? You assumed that “omnipotence” only includes valid concepts, concluded that a God with that type of “omnipotence” can’t do something conceptually invalid, and then changed your definition of “omnipotence” to include the conceptually invalid. You didn’t actually conclude God couldn’t exist, you just demonstrated the folly of changing definitions mid-argument.

  15. LotharBot,
    Thanks for your input. I think it is fair to point out that I am neither a scientist nor a theologian. When I use the word “logic”, I only use it colloquially, not scientifically. It would probably be a futile attempt to have a legitimate debate about Logic, so I will just concede. You win. But I will qualify that with the following observations:

    You said: “a conclusion that ‘God cannot exist’ means that you assumed something equivalent to ‘God cannot exist’, and even then only if your logic was valid.”
    –I can assume the opposite is true, then, for someone concluding “God exists” or for someone concluding, “I do not have enough information to decide if there is an invisible flying spaghetti monster watching me”.

    You said: “Conclusions drawn from logic are only valid if your starting assumptions are valid AND your logic is flawless.”
    –Again, I have to concede this point on principle. I do not know if there is any way to prove someone’s logic is flawless (particularly if one chooses to hold the belief something outside of the universe exists independently and outside the laws of the universe), but that does not preclude me from making rational decisions based on reasonable axioms observed to be true in the known universe (the ONLY known universe).

    You said: “[The question about the rock]…is not the logical masterpiece you believe it to be.”
    –I should point out that I did not create that question, nor the concept of the Invisible Flying Spaghetti Monster. I am not sure who deserves credit for either, but probably those people would be better qualified to defend their philosophies (you can type either into Google and find great information about either).

    You said: “…is “a rock so heavy even God can’t lift it” even a valid concept?”
    –Is an invisible man in the sky that sees everything, gives you freedom of choice but controls your destiny, lets you die but you don’t really die, impregnates virgins who already had children, does ridiculous magic tricks only relevant to the fourth century, and kills his own mutant half-breed son, then promises to bring him back to kill everyone else or take them to a magic place… a valid concept? Are you kidding?

    You said: “You didn’t actually conclude God couldn’t exist…”
    –Yes, I did. You want indisputable proof that God does not exist. Indeed, if I understood you correctly, you want “flawless” proof of God’s non-existence. But again, I am forced to concede to you and Shannon, that I can not unequivocally prove that something that does not exist…does not exist. However, that does not mean I have to pretend I am too stupid to make a rational, reasonable (I hesitate to use the word “logical”) judgment about that which I understand can not be true. (I am not accusing you of pretending to be stupid, by the way–just making the point that lack of irrefutable knowledge does not default to complete ignorance.)

    The stories in the Bible were made up. By men. Possibly crazy men, without even the slightest, single, sliver of a shred of proof to back up anything they claimed. The stories even contradict themselves–they are not even GOOD stories with consistent plots.

    I saw “Superman” movies when I was a kid–which offer much more compelling proof that a Man can fly and shoot laser beams out of his eyes than the Bible offers to defend the existence of God, but I have since been able to use my huge, pulsating adult brain to figure out Superman does not really exist. It’s a valid concept and I can’t really prove it with flawless logic, but I am pretty goddamn certain about it.

    Pardon the pun.

  16. Your mistake wasn’t posting about religion. Ginny does that all the time without creating a stir. Your mistake was insulting most of your readers.

    You mocked the religious person for being motivated by mere faith, and the atheist for having too much confidence in his giant brain. You then congratulated yourself for recognizing the limits of knowledge, and seemed to claim a monopoly on rational religious thought for agnostics.

    Look, you’re entitled to the opinion that nothing can be known about the supernatural; a lot of folks would agree, and a lot would disagree. You’re in good company either way. But you go too far when you characterize your opponents as irrational because they disagree on that point. It’s not like you’ve proven it or anything, or even given an argument for it. Your conduct in the following thread–for example, your take on strong omniscience–suggests that you aren’t aware of the state of thought on the matter. Even your characterization of your opponents is way off base; perhaps the naive Christian is driven by faith and the naive atheist doesn’t know what he can’t know. But that cannot be fairly said about the intellectuals of either party; the Christian apologist is ruthlessly evidential, and the atheist (in my experience) wants to talk about nothing but epistemology. In short, you characterize your opponents in a way that suggests you have not met them.

    On some level, this is okay; someone who thinks the supernatural cannot be studied has little motivation for understanding what the folks who *are* studying it are saying to each other. But you are clearly outside your field, and are insulting a whole crop of scholars with unflattering haste. There are folks–very smart, capable folks–who care about the supernatural very much, study it a lot, and think they can rationally say things about it. Some of them read your blog and value your opinions on economics.

    You are in the position of the kid on the sidelines at a basketball game, claiming that nerds are more important than jocks, and anyway, your nerdish study of the game has taught you things that would allow you to compete with any of the jocks in the room. Look, don’t participate if you don’t want to, and argue that the whole pursuit is invalid if you want. That’s fine. But claiming you can beat the pros at a game you clearly don’t play is going a bit too far.

  17. P.S., so you don’t think I’m just blowing smoke . . .

    On the topic of how knowable the supernatural is, the big dog is probably this guy. He’s widely considered the best epistemologist around. He’s also not on your side.

    You’re allowed to disagree with him, of course, or even to be unaware of him. No one said you had to be a philospher to have an opinion on this stuff. But scan the list of papers and click through to a couple. Dismissing the whole thing as fueled by faith and ignorance might start to look hasty to you, too.

  18. Dove,
    Not that you need anyone’s approval or support, but for whatever my opinion is worth…that was the best–and most rational–post of them all so far. Well said.

  19. For illumination I read one of the pieces by the big dog and thought it interesting, modest and perhaps even true. Here are a couple of sentences taken from the b.d. himself: “My beliefs are not within my control”, and, in more fancy form, “The dispute here [between believers and unbelievers] is ultimately ontological, or theological, or metaphysical”. He’s saying that no one can reason himself into or out of belief in God (or in no God) and that reason isn’t the preserve of either belief or unbelief. Reason takes off from presuppositions that are anterior, more basic, more a matter of temperament and sensibility than of thought. We believe (or the contrary) and then we reason.

    Now that seems right and sensible to me. Plato (and even Aristotle) were saying something like that a long time ago. It also seems quite consistent with a certain version of agnosticism which doesn’t claim rationality as its highest principle (“I wont’t believe without proof”) but proceeds from a predisposition to intellectual modesty, paradox and dialectical thinking. This sort of agnostic has a sort of psychological system of checks and balances. He is determinedly nondogmatic. He looks within himself and doesn’t find the worm of belief, yet knows that human life is long and that better men than himself have believed. To him belief is one of life’s beautiful possibilities, even if in his own soul it has not ripened and may never ripen.

    We can’t all either believe or disbelieve ab initio. Some of us just keep waiting to see if either of those worms will turn up. It may be a long wait. Godot, where the hell are you?

    In the meantime the human qualities of good sense, reasonableness, kindness – the whole humanistic pantheon, boring as it may be – are what agnostics of my stripe honor. Even if it was said by that old dog Voltaire (also a pretty big dog in his day) “tend thy garden” isn’t bad advice. For St. George (Orwell) human decency was the talisman. You can take them cabbages to the bank while you’re waiting for something more definitive to turn up.

    Here endeth my Meditations for a Good Friday.

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