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Silent3's Journal
Silent3's Journal
February 29, 2012

Dancing around judgment of differing beliefs and opinions

I have serious doubts when many people champion the idea of "not judging" that they're really as free from making judgments about the beliefs and opinions of others as they'd like to appear, or as they might like to believe themselves to be.

Keeping judgments quietly to yourself doesn't mean you aren't judging.

Adding disclaimers like "I could be wrong" doesn't mean you aren't judging.

Avoiding an overlap between judging an opinion or belief in particular and judging the person who holds that opinion or belief in general doesn't mean you aren't judging.

Blithely saying "whatever gets you through the night" is not an avoidance of judgment. You might think you're avoiding judging the character of a person that way, but you're taking what could well be strongly held beliefs and judging them to be nothing more than a coping strategy. I think it's actually much more respectful to treat others as having opinions worthy of debate than to treat them as children in need of a security blanket that you're oh-so-generously trying to not to upset.

Matters of personal taste aside, what is an opinion if not a judgment that some idea or conclusion is superior in some manner, more likely correct, more moral, or more justifiable than differing opinions. Opinions do not exist in isolation from other opinions, they exist in contrast to other opinions.

Consider a non-religious example:

It is my opinion that global warming is a real phenomena, and that human activity is a major cause of it.

I therefore believe that the opposite IS WRONG (gasp! shudder!). Believing that the opposite is wrong isn't a matter of me going out of my way to be judgmental, it isn't some special effort that I could avoid even if I wanted to avoid it, it's simply a totally obvious and integrally connected conclusion, like knowing that if the sun is up, then the sun isn't down.

Am I absolutely, 100% certain that I'm right? No. I consider there to be a very small chance I'm wrong, which means there's a small chance that those who disagree with me are right. Judging myself highly likely to be right, and others highly likely to be wrong is, however, still a judgmental stand on the worthiness of the opinions of those who disagree with me.

If I believe that climate denialism is wrong, then in the one respect, on that one issue, I believe that the people holding that view are wrong, that the denialists are wrong. Yes, I dare to say out loud that I think other people are wrong, and that I am right. One conclusion follows the other. No special effort, no particular penchant for being judgmental is required. A kind-hearted desire for being diplomatic wouldn't change this, even if it might change the carefully chosen words of diplomacy.

Having any opinions at all beyond matters of personal taste inherently implies some kind of negative attitude toward the opinions of others which are in disagreement with your own opinions.

By the way, none of the above has the slightest thing to do with anyone's right to hold differing opinions. That should be totally obvious, but sadly people constantly blur the distinction between respecting other people's right to hold different opinions and respecting those opinions themselves. Criticize X on the internet, and the odds quickly approach 100% the more you criticize X that someone will indignantly cry out how people have the right to believe X if they want to! (And leave Britney alone!)

What was that I said about the sun before? If it's up, then it isn't down? Did I forget that the sun can be up in the sky in one place while being down in another? No, I did not forget that. The question is this: Do you think that this caveat really makes a deep difference about what's right and what's wrong, or do you realize that in many contexts that such caveats are merely semantics games?

While it might often be a good and useful thing to point out that the validity of some opinions depends on unstated assumptions (like that we're talking about the same location on the planet) the fact that one view is right and another is flat out wrong remains, once you make sufficiently explicit any unstated assumptions and conditions. Right and wrong cannot remain infinitely plastic and personalized on all issues in anything but a through-the-looking-glass world, a world in which normal human functioning and interactions would be impossible.

You can try to duck the apparently horrible, unforgivable act of judging the opinions of others by trying to turn all issues into personal issues, as if believing in God or not is no different a matter than preferring chocolate ice cream over vanilla. I contend that such an approach, however, is itself a kind of judgment, a diminution of the importance of the opinions of others for the people who hold those opinions, a diminution many of those people are not likely to appreciate.

Besides, if you don't treat opinions on global warming as mere matters of personal taste, or as if some weird metaphysics applies where global warming deniers live in an alternate universe where climate change isn't actually happening, why treat issues of religion that way?

February 27, 2012

What are the various flavors of "let's all get along" theology?

These are the varieties that I can think of:

(1) What I believe is true, but my God is a nice God (or my gods are nice gods) and as long as you're a good person, you'll be OK.

(1a) What I believe is true, but my God is a nice God (or my gods are nice gods) and as long as you're a good person, you'll be OK. You won't ascend to as high a level as I do/won't be as rewarded in the afterlife/won't enjoy the full spiritual benefits I enjoy -- but you'll be OK.

(1b) What I believe is true, but my God is a nice God (or my gods are nice gods) and as long as you're a good person, you'll be OK -- as long as you believe in something. Lacking belief won't cut it.

(2) You're at a different level/stage of "spiritual development" than I am. But that's OK (great struggling and effort expended to avoid sounding condescending and/or like making a value judgement). I was once where you are now.

(2a) ...and there are other people at higher levels than me.

(2b) ...and I'm sure there are other-worldly spiritual beings advanced beyond me (but I don't know of any here on earth above my level).

(3) What I believe is true, what you believe is true... it's all true!

(3a) ...it's just "different aspects" of the truth. Let me tell you about the blind men and the elephant...

(3b) ...your truth is your truth, my truth is my truth, and, well, let's not get into thinking too deeply about how that works out in any sort of coherent epistemology.

(4) Let's just leave it at "let's all get along" and not ask any complicated questions that might mess that up.

(5) I'm right, you're wrong, but I'm going to keep quiet about that, or gloss over any possible conflicts with diplomatic language, because I want us all to get along. As far as you know, I'm "happy for you" and the comfort your beliefs bring you, and that's that.

(6) Something super-erudite and spiritual and wise that's way better than any of the above options, but I can't possibly explain it to anyone who...

(6a) ...isn't ready to understand.

(6b) ...doesn't want to understand.

Can anyone think of some more?

February 10, 2012

Atheist Q&A

A few weeks ago someone posted a link to this book review:


...of a book called, "The Atheist's Guide to Reality: Enjoying Life Without Illusions", by Alex Rosenberg. I haven't read the book myself, but I found myself wondering if the book is really as bad and as shallow as the reviewer makes it out to be. Whether or not the book deserves the review above, I decided I'd like to address some of the questions brought up in the review myself, with a few extra questions of my own as a lead-in, and provide something better than parody, straw-man answers.

Q: Do you think the universe is obligated to provide you with answers which you will find emotionally satisfying, answers which will provide you with a sense of purpose, a sense of deeper meaning, or feelings of comfort?

A: No. Maybe the universe can or does at times, but it's not obligated to do so. The fact that you might not like an evidence-based answer to a question, or might not like the lack of any evidence-based answer at all, doesn't make evidence-free, faith-based answers which satisfy your emotional desires better answers.

Q: Does the way the critic of the reviewed book characterizes the supposed answers from the book strike you as suspicious?

A: What the reviewer says the book says sounds more like the over-simplified straw man versions of atheist positions that belligerent anti-atheists throw around, much more than what I've typically heard directly from atheists themselves.

Q: Is there a god?

A: For the most popular meanings of the word "god", I'd say there's no evidence that such gods exist, that it's not even close to a 50/50 proposition that they exist. Some definitions of god are self-contradictory and can thus be categorically denied. Some definitions of god are so vague that it isn't clear what we'd be discussing the existence of. Some more academic definitions (the Prime Mover God, Spinoza's God), if you strip away unstated cultural baggage that people don't mention (but that I think some theists hope will slip by unoticed) are nothing more than synonyms for the natural universe. Such gods might indeed exist, but only as redundancies stated in overwrought language -- they aren't very "god like" by popular meanings for "god", they aren't personal gods with moral codes and plans for humanity, they aren't the kinds of gods one could expect to listen to or answer prayers.

Q: What is the nature of reality?

A: Who really knows? It's not like even the basic Philosophy 101 questions about reality have ever been solved. You don't move beyond those questions by solving them, you move beyond them by knowing you have to live with some uncertainty, then pick what seems like the most fruitful and practical possibilities to explore. Science has demonstrated itself to be a far more practical and fruitful and accountable way to explore reality than religion or "spirituality" ever has.

There are of course plenty of unanswered questions left, and perhaps one can give religion some credit for asking some of those questions. In my opinion, however, it's better to simply appreciate the occasional good questions raised by religious thinking without adopting any of religion's evidence-free, pre-packaged answers. Unlike the common caricature of atheism as a philosophy that claims science has "all of the answers", I'd say atheism, which is often just one aspect of general skepticism, has a whole lot more to do with becoming comfortable with saying, "I don't know" than claiming anyone or anything has all the answers.

What rankles believers most is that the atheist's "I don't know" isn't simply "I don't know", but also "I see no reason to believe that you know either".

Q: What is the purpose of the universe?

A: I'll first answer that question with another question. Purpose in what context? The idea of "purpose" does not exist without a context for a purpose. Why do you work? So you can, among other things, buy food to eat. Why do you need to buy food? So you can stay alive. Why do you need to stay alive? That's hard to answer -- many people just take it for granted that living is something you "need" to do. You could answer, "In order to work", and make the whole issue circular.

Is there a context in which the universe itself could have a purpose? That question doesn't even make much sense. If you say something like, "The universe is it's own purpose", that's a useless tautology. If there's a context outside of the universe where a universe might be created to serve a purpose, then what you're calling a "universe" isn't really the universe, that larger stage within which "universes" might or might not be created would be the true universe.

So my second answer to this question is this: Not a flat-out "none", but a request to clarify the question until it makes sense. If someone finds an answer like "To serve God's plan" satisfactory, I submit that such a person has simply failed to ask the obvious follow-up question, "What's the purpose of God's plan?"

Q: What is the meaning of life?

A: Whatever you want to make of it. Or 42 if you prefer. I see no evidence for any absolute meaning handed down from On High, or any good reason to suspect that such a meaning is out there for us to go looking for.

Q: Why am I here?

A: To pick up your dry cleaning? Pretty much the same problem with this question as with the "purpose" and "meaning of life" questions.

Q: Is there a soul? Is it immortal?

A: Probably not. We might not know everything about human nature, there are plenty of mysteries of the mind left to solve, but there's nothing so perplexing or damningly insufficient about explaining the human mind as a product of chemistry and evolutionary biology as to demand that some unproven entity called a "soul" must exist to explain the way we are.

Someone like the critic in the review can, of course, twist an answer like mine into something like, "So you think we're nothing but an accidental chemical reaction?!", as if their indignation over me not stroking their desire for greater cosmic importance makes my answer wrong and makes some god-based or "spiritual" answer better.

Q: Is there free will?

A: Free will is something that makes sense only when you don't think about it too much. If the universe is completely deterministic, there can't be anything you'd call "free will" no matter how you define it. Chaos theory tells us, however, that even a deterministic universe isn't predictable. Quantum mechanics seems to indicate some aspects of nature may be purely random. Is the existence of randomness and unpredictability enough to lead to something worthy of calling "free will"? Something that's partly deterministic, that takes occasional unpredictable or random turn? That doesn't sound like a very satisfying concept of "free will" either (not that I consider my own personal satisfaction to be an important a metric for truth).

It seems to me that a satisfying concept of free will is something that's neither deterministic or random, neither completely predictable or entirely unpredictable, but also more than a mere statistical bias toward one type of action or another. Does that leave anything left over for free will to be?

Regardless of whether free will exists, or even makes sense, I'm going to keep acting as if I have real choices in my power to make, and that the concept of "responsibility" applies to those choices. The question of the existence of free will is philosophically interesting, it's worth exploring, but in my day-to-day life, it's also a moot point. I don't have "faith" in free will, but I do act as if such a thing exists.

Q: What is the difference between right and wrong, good and bad?

A: I don't think the difference is based on the rules of a deity sitting in Ultimate Judgment.

Many people fear that if you don't believe in God-given laws of morality society will break down, suddenly murder and rape and theft and bad table manners will be rampant. I have three responses to that: (1) Even if such beliefs kept crime and other immoral conduct under control, that would only show that those beliefs had efficacious side effects, not that the beliefs were true, just as children's beliefs that cleaning their rooms and doing their homework will convince Santa to bring presents might improve children's behavior, but that improvement doesn't make Santa real. (2) No one can agree what the laws are that God or gods expect us to follow -- people typically choose gods and religions which agree with their own opinions of right and wrong. (3) People do all of the stuff their own religions and other people's religions tell them not to do anyway. Given that there is a higher percentage of believers in prison than in the general population, and a lower percentage of atheists in prison than in the general population, the evidence for religion making people behave better is questionable at best.

(There have to some recent studies suggesting that when people have been recently exposed to religious concepts, or the idea of a God watching over them, there can be some short-term increase in avoidance of dishonest behavior. The prison statistics, however, argue against that effect being a lasting effect.)

I certainly don't believe that "good" and "evil" are things in and of themselves, that they are primal forces or incorporeal essences. They are merely classifications of events and behaviors.

While I don't think the differences between right and wrong and between good and bad are clearly, sharply, and definitively defined, I hardly think that a lack of definitive clarity leaves us with the diametric oppositite where "anything goes". I think many moral principles ultimately go back to our evolution as social creatures. Beyond that, it doesn't seem too difficult to arrive at a rough cultural consensus about some of the improvements we can make by trying to go beyond our biological heritage.

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