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Oh, John Dehlin, what will we do with you?

August 16, 2010

John and Joe

One of these individuals has helped hundreds of lives by being involved in community outreach. The other is apparently a dirty sellout apostate wolf in sheep's clothing.

Recently, I befriended John Dehlin (of Mormon Stories fame) on Facebook. He had some facebook status saying he was going to be interviewed with ABC News. I was like, “OK, that’s kinda cool,” but then I didn’t think about it again. John’s a pretty involved guy, so he could be interviewed about a number of things. But last night, when I was preparing to go to bed, I was alerted to a tweet about a new article from Bloggernacle Times.

As I read the title, I knew that I would have to stay up just a bit longer.

John Dehlin: The New Go-To “Critic” of Mormonism.”

Oh John, what will we do with you?

Normally, when John’s name comes up with such charged negative emotions surrounding it, I have to evaluate from which side the charges come. This time just happens to be from the believing bastion at Bloggernacle Times, but John has also — even if Seth hasn’t seen it — caught flak from FLAK (and other non-believing contingents of the (dis)affected Mormon Underground.)

I for one think that ABC’s video was opportunistic with how they employed John’s comments. The video seems far more critical than the article, and the article seems somewhat bare of context.

Some of the comments from the video and the article seemed familiar to me, and that is because he has already written his thoughts about the new Mormon.org site on Mormon Matters. John’s ending to that article, I think, really clarify some of his reservations, and his hopeful (read: FAITHful) attitude about the church’s future.

Here’s my hope…that the members and leaders of the LDS church will see and internalize the values and sentiments reflected in these videos.…not just the investigators.  When that happens….I will once again reconsider my covenants of full obedience and consecration.  Seriously.  Right now, partial consecration is the best I can muster…but THIS is a church (i.e. the one depicted in the PR campaign) that I would literally bleed and die for.

Consequently, I will rejoice at this marketing campaign.  I choose to see it as aspirational on the part of top church leadership — regarding their vision for what our culture and curriculum someday might become.

…but, I can see within even this comment where Geoff and others would experience radical (dis)trust of John. John has just admitted that “partial consecration is the best” he can muster, and that the church for which he could literally bleed and die is not the current one…and yet he is represented by ABC as a faithful, if “progressive” Mormon.

While some people include John’s comments as part of signs of a (Dis)affected Mormon Renaissance, I think this is very bad for John. Firstly, because his aim is not to be disaffected at all. Secondly, because many disaffected Mormons don’t even appreciate his work staying in the church or helping others stay. When John is seen as an apostate or DAMU, then believing members can simply brush off him and his supporters as (dis)gruntled ex- and anti-Mo Butthurt Dehlin Defense Force.

Many people seem to support John’s right to comment, saying that if he is able to air his opinions (which are certainly very (dis)tinct) while *still being a faithful, active member of the church*, then this can only augment and sustain the church’s ad campaign to show that members are diverse individuals. However, I get the feeling is that most people aren’t even sold on whether John even passes the bar of being a credible, faithful, active member. As Mark wrote:

The general problem with Dehlin’s tone is that he doesn’t sound like someone who actually supports the Church _at all_, but rather like someone who hopes the entire Church will move in his more enlightened direction.

Certainly many people feel that way in private. Adopting that tone in public is controversial for very good reason – it suggests that the person concerned doesn’t have any loyalty to the church he is a member of. Loyalty doesn’t just mean “I hope the leaders of the church will repent and quit teaching these discriminatory and irrational doctrines”, it means expressing some indication that one believes the church one belongs to is an institution worthy of commanding loyalty and adherence in the first place, something more than a socio-cultural anomaly that one only feels a kindred feeling for by accident of birth or geography.

The unfortunate conclusion that I can (dis)till from the back-and-forth of comments there, as well as from some (dis)cussions elsewhere in the Bloggernacle, is this:

It’s ok to have doubts. It’s ok to have a right to air those doubts. BUT just because one has the right and the potential doesn’t mean that one should. In this case, someone who would air doubts, (dis)sent, and (dis)agreements so publicly should have his integrity as a faithful, active member of the community doubted.

More importantly is the clarification on what a big tent Mormonism can be.

From what I can tell, it’s ok if someone remains a member even when the church for them is at best “a socio-cultural anomaly that one only feels a kindred feeling for by accident of birth or geography.” HOWEVER, such members must NEVER forget that they are not the same as members with active faith, who can be fully obedient NOW to the community and the church, and who are more prudent, more (dis)cerning than to air the family’s dirty laundry to a hostile public.

For whatever (dis)agreements that Geoff may have with Steve Evans (functionally the Steve Jobs of the Bloggernacle) about loyalty as a virtue, since Geoff believes the church is divinely approved and guided, such imprudent (dis)plays of (dis)loyalty by John cannot simply slide.

I think this is an unfortunate conclusion, but one that binds most human communities in some way, shape or fashion. I don’t think this conclusion is the “anti-Mormon” conclusion of a “hyper-loyal, borg-like culture,” and it is not limited to the church. Instead, it is greater human tendency.

My only regret was that, when I made such comments on BT, I was hoping that someone would say, “No, communities don’t have to be like that.” or “That is not how the ideal church/kingdom of God/Zion works.” I was hoping someone would say my comments were draconian and cynical. But no. That’s not what happened.

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74 Comments
  1. Dehlin doesn’t really bother me that much (although it does bug me when rabid anti-Mormons try to cite to him in an attempt to look more reasonable than they really are). He has some good interviews over at his podcast and I do appreciate what he is trying to do, and how difficult it is for him to do it.

    My only problem is that he sometimes comes off as rather naive. He doesn’t really challenge the negative content coming from certain quarters of the ex-Mormon community. He instead seems to sort of just soak it up uncritically with wide-eyed credulity. It never seems to occur to him that critics of the LDS Church actually lie and deliberately misrepresent the history and the facts.

    His remark on the ABC clip about how racism is “deeply ingrained” in LDS scripture is a good example. How exactly is it deeply ingrained? I don’t think it is at all, but if I was simply parroting crap from Dr. Shades or exmormon.org, then yeah, I suppose I might say the same thing.

    I would just like to see him challenging his sources to provide a bit more support for their conclusions before naively buying them wholeheartedly and then repeating them on the national stage. Well, maybe he just needs to get burned a few times and then learn from it, I guess.

    That said, I think organizing a lynch mob for him is a real waste of time and effort. And it ignores that there are all sorts of degrees of “heretics” in the LDS Church. FAIR gets angry emails all the time condemning them for their content from church-going Mormons. The bloggernacle is likewise viewed with suspicion by FAIR and other LDS. And the bloggernacle of course is suspicious of the DAMU.

    In every case along the spectrum of “faithfulness” (if you can call it that), each faction seems to be eager to grab the next guy in line and say “yeah, I’m a little edgy… but look! At least I’m not as bad as THIS guy!”

    • Alec permalink

      Seth, you obviously come from a place of bias. You seem to suggest that those against the LDS church need to lie to make it look bad, which just isn’t the case.
      John doesn’t assume that he’s right, or that the church is right. He takes time to listen to what people have to say and processes that information instead of merely assuming that they must be wrong, misguided, or deviant and should be chastised.
      He’s not naive, he’s open minded and humble. He tries to come from a healthy and positive place.

  2. Well, John has a timeline of the church’s racial positions. I think the issues are a few-fold.

    1) There’s so much emphasis on the past, a glossover of the present. E.g., John’s timeline ends at 1978, but in fact with the 1978 revelation (and as we’ve moved forward), there’s been great progress.

    2) Referring to deep ingrained racism or sexism in scriptures really highlights no 1. The scriptures are part of the past, so no matter how you look at it, the OT is going to represent a series of documents thousands of years old, and so with the NT, and depending on your perspective, so will the BoM (or, if you’re not a believer, it’ll represent something 200 years old). The social condition back then was quite different and more brutish than what we would suppose today. So to say, “Racism is deeply ingrained in old stuff” is like, “duh.” You can’t really escape that because the past will not change. Only interpretations, etc., will.

    This doesn’t have to be mere parroting of ideas from Dr. Shades or exmormon.org, and such a reduction marginalizes people who are not like those guys but who still have issues.

    (although I do think there were a few instances that make such a case for “wide-eyed credulity.” I don’t remember what the issue was, but at some point, he was criticized for bringing someone on and not asking harder hitting questions, and he admitted, “Well, I don’t really know the technical details, I’m trying to approach this in a casual, layman’s way, not grill people, etc.,” and the other person said, “Then why would you bring this guy on and let him run loose?” [paraphrased, of course])

    Nevertheless, I think that, ‘real, genuine people are affected by this, so I’m trying to reach out to those and show how they aren’t ragey and shouldn’t be ignored” angle is important. But instead, issues that affect these people are “naive” and “unchallenged.”

    • Well, I was saying deeply ingrained in LDS SCRIPTURE. I wasn’t referring to the entire body of LDS teaching (which I would agree has a deeply ingrained racism – even if we are 30 years out now). I just meant that it isn’t deeply ingrained in the Book of Mormon and Pearl of Great Price. But now maybe I’m just splitting hairs.

      • White and delightsome? That’s BoM.

        Seed of Cain being black? That’s PoGP.

        I thought that the precision of saying “Mormon scriptures” rather than history (which can be brushed off as impure, affected by human prejudices, etc.,) was the right move.

  3. i posted a reply on my blog, but i’ll add it here too (also, thanks for the pingback). i really don’t care how the ad campaign effects dehlin, even though i think he’s a great guy. to me the fact that the church is on record saying “come as you are” tells me that they either have to put up with people criticizing their policies from within, or quietly do away with this campaign at some point in the future. either way, it’s going to be hilarious.

  4. I went ahead and left my comment over at your site.

  5. Chris permalink

    I think Dehlin should be in one of those ads.

  6. I predict rioting would occur.

  7. Geoff J. overreacted a lot. As Larry the Cucumber would say, I’m shocked and slightly embarrassed for him. John was absolutely correct about the commercials having some misleading material in them and he ought to be able to express his dissent publicly. These strident accusations of treachery from more conservative Mormons just makes Mormonism look even more paranoid and intolerant than its reputation already suggests.

    Also, please note that the part about not believing a woman’s place is in the kitchen and how her husband is the cook in the family has now been edited from Cassandra Barney’s video.

    • intriguing on the edit.

  8. Chris permalink

    It’s interesting the line that the Church draws as to the types of people they showcase. They have a gay man on there which I think was somewhat of a ballsy move (not in a video but on the site I think). I was being a little bit facetious with my last comment. But why stop at gay?

  9. well, Chris, I think the issue is that when the church says, “yay we’re diverse,” this diversity clearly has bounds and nuance. If we fail to catch on to that nuance, then we might say, “Oh, they are being hypocritical/arbitrary/deceitful.” But really, we’ve just misidentified their purpose

  10. Martin permalink

    So your comments at BTimes were just bait, eh? I guess you can play your way.

    Where I believe John Dehlin went off the rails was his Mitt Romney campaign comment. Playing to the conspiracy theory. Maybe he believes it. Either way, if you assume the worst intentions from your own people and pass them as insider information to the public, I don’t believe you can be considered a true insider any longer.

  11. Bait? I’m not following, Martin.

    In my comments at BT, I was trying to understand where someone like Geoff was coming from. I think I get it (and so I’m trying to pursue it further whether on the thread or within my mind), but I (dis)like it a lot and I (dis)like what it portends of the Bloggernacle or of the church. But ultimately, as I wrote in the comments, people that feel this way are either going to have to get over it or get out because the community doesn’t really care.

    …I really don’t get what the fuss is about the Mitt Romney comments. It is very clear John wasn’t saying, “This ad campaign is so Mitt Romney will do better.” However, could Mitt benefit from Americans having a better perception of Mormons? Could Mitt benefit if stereotypes of Mormons are (dis)pelled? Absolutely.

    I think that was a really uncontroversial statement from John.

    The (dis)tinction is this. “Were the commercials made for Mitt Romney to do better?” No. “But even if the primary purpose wasn’t that, could the commercials benefit Romney?” Of course.

    I don’t see that as assuming the worst intentions from your own people. In fact, John assumes quite good intentions — an aspirational campaign to be more open and accepting in the church. So, because I can’t see where John assumes the worst intentions, I can’t really agree with your conclusion that he can no longer be considered a true insider.

    Nevertheless, I understand that if one’s ideal opinion of the church is a bit different, then John seems like an subversive ark steadier.

  12. Andrew: “I was hoping that someone would say, “No, communities don’t have to be like that.” ”

    Of course communities have to act that way. Borders and boundaries are what makes it a community.

  13. This should not mean we need to have high walls and be overtly suspicious of everyone who sounds different.

  14. Well I certainly don’t disagree with that Andrew

  15. If the church cannot abide people like John Dehlin, then I see zero worth in it. The fact that you can grow up in a supportive community and family and then be ejected from it or silenced within it for no other reason than that you can’t bring yourself to believe in the supernatural claims the community espouses is disgusting.

    Borders and boundaries are what makes it a community? To keep out what? To keep out honest, genuinely kind people who disagree with you on some finer points? Hatred also unites a community. A common distrust of outsiders unites a community. Shared commitment to any ideology unites a community. Artificial boundaries unite a community. Lack of diversity unites a community. Internet flamewars rally and unite competing communities.

    Gotta unite that community. Go unite that community of yours, and we’ll unite ours, and maybe if we’re lucky we can start a war.

  16. Geoff, I mean, at some level, I can see the audacity of what I’m going to say next, but I guess it’s not the boundaries/borders themselves that I oppose, but where they lie. The borders/boundaries I would set would be the cultural ones, which I think would be more expansive.

    Mark’s comment 15 from the (dis)cussion highlights that yes, Mormonism is a *religion* to which people should adhere (and of which those who are loyal to the tenets it espouses should be valued apart from those for whom the church is “a socio-cultural anomaly that one only feels a kindred feeling for by accident of birth or geography”), but I can’t help but feel like the boundaries should freely welcome even those in this latter categorization.

    So I chafe (even if I think i can understand) when people (understandably) want Mormonism to be a religion first and not a kind of ethnicity or family.

    I chafe when the boundaries are set around the former, even at the exclusion/alienation of those who still fit the latter.

  17. Carson,

    If the church cannot abide people like John Dehlin, then I see zero worth in it.

    I guess the problem with this is…anyone could at this point say, “So?” “See ya.” As I wrote on the BT thread, if the choice is between someone staying in as a heretical member or getting far away from the church, then for people who see the church as a religion first and foremost, the former option just doesn’t seem all that compelling.

    You say that the boundaries keep out people who (dis)agree on “finer points.” But if this is first and foremost a religion, then these supernatural points are not just “finer points,” but are foundational claims and fundamental theology.

    A war will do nothing but encourage building of even higher walls and make each side listen to each other even less. It’s just not a sustainable solution.

  18. The people who see the church as a religion first and foremost forget that it’s also a family, a culture, and a local, physical community. I wouldn’t care so much if it were just an Internet club like the Bloggernacle, but it’s not. People shouldn’t get kicked out of their own families and communities they grew up in because they couldn’t make themselves believe.

    Of course a war does nothing to bridge the two sides. John Dehlin’s approach works very well for those not on the exclusionary extremes. The die hard haters on the extremes can only be neutralized or marginalized.

  19. They need not “forget” such. It’s just that, it can be perfectly valid not to view it as such in the first place. Or they can say that the family/culture/community is limited to those members striving together *in belief*.

    I don’t like it, and I think this approach gets heavy-handed, but I have to say that I can *see* why someone else would take this approach. (“A religion…being about belief in the religion? NO WAY?!”)

    “The die hard haters on the extremes can only be neutralized or marginalized.” Do you hear the irony?

  20. Yes, neutralizing and marginalizing sometimes requires not-so-nice tactics. Are you suggesting that this is ironic because it’s exclusionary? I’m not against exclusion when aimed properly, and I don’t think there is anyone alive who is. When it is aimed improperly at nice people like John Dehlin, I agree fully with you that it is indeed heavy-handed and unnecessary.

  21. But who’s to decide where exclusion is aimed properly? That gets us back into the start of the mess…

    Obviously people disagree on whether John Dehlin is an inappropriate target for exclusion.

  22. I don’t mean to bait you with the following probably overly extreme example, because believe me I agree with the things you say about 99% of the time, but I’m just trying to find the logical conclusion of what you said about the validity of a belief within a community defined by that belief. It just seems a bit tautological. Would you agree that it is valid within an extremist Muslim group to believe that killing infidels will get you rewards in heaven? I’m not really concerned about whether certain beliefs are valid within their belief system. I care about whether the belief system causes unnecessary harm.

  23. OK, what comment of mine exactly are you trying to get at re: validity of a belief within a community defined by that belief. I doubt I stated it quite like that.

    Nevertheless, if “killing infidels will get you rewards in heaven” is indeed what their tradition says, then yeah, who can blame extremists for believing that? Why would that be invalid? (The issue is whether or not the tradition actually says that, etc.,)

    I’m trying to understand how this extreme example applies back here…it’s not really anything like terrorism to expect someone in a religion to believe basic, well-established tenets of a religion — or to expect them to leave. It doesn’t cause “unnecessary harm” to have a system like that — if everyone agrees that the community is defined by acceptance of those religious tenets.

    And again, different parties could disagree about what harms are “unnecessary” and which are “necessary,” or what harms really are harmful.

  24. Obviously people disagree on whether John Dehlin is an inappropriate target for exclusion.

    Yes, this is the heart of this matter. My argument: he’s not. Why? Because he’s a nice guy. No, seriously, he’s a really nice guy, and he loves the church. Additionally, the changes he’d like to see in the church are all about making Mormonism a safer place for nice people like him (not angry bitter ex-Mormons).

    I realize that people disagree with that, but they have to make their case. You can’t just say, “well they believe that he should be excluded” and have that be enough. You’re just going to have to trust me when I say that I am amenable to good arguments to the contrary.

  25. [DevilsAdvocate]

    My argument: he is. Why? Because he’s a wolf in sheep’s clothing. His niceness is all a part of that! Seriously! He doesn’t love the church; he loves the IDEA of the church. As he himself mentions, the church as it currently exists isn’t something to which he can commit full obedience and consecration. instead, he is waiting for some future ideal of the church to which he will decide that he can literally bleed and die for. The changes he’d like to see in the church are all about making Mormonism a safer place for people like him, when the entire point is that religion is *dangerous*, religion is *challenging*, religion is *demanding*, and religion is NOT something that just fits our whims.

    I realize people disagree with that, but they have to make their case. You can’t just say, “well, he believes that he should be included” and have that be enough. You’re going to have to trust me when I say that I am amenable to good arguments to the contrary.
    [/DevilsAdvocate]

  26. I used the example just to illustrate that it doesn’t matter (to me, at least) whether a belief is valid within a particular belief system. You say that Mormons “understandably” believe in certain things, like excluding nice unbelieving people. You elaborated on what you mean by “understandably” by saying that it’s understandable because it fits within their belief system. Yeah, I get it, but my problem with it is not about the consistency of their belief framework. My problem is that there is unnecessary harm that it causes.

    Don’t read too much into the terrorist analogy, since I’m certainly not comparing the intensity of the harm (it’s obviously not even remotely close). I’m just comparing the presence or lack of presence of unnecessary harm.

    It doesn’t cause “unnecessary harm” to have a system like that — if everyone agrees that the community is defined by acceptance of those religious tenets.

    I was born into my hardcore Mormon family without any choice on my part. I never agreed to this. I never had a chance. Now I find myself on the verge of being rejected by my own family. I would never agree that my own blood family should be defined by acceptance to these religious tenets. I assume that John Dehlin has a lot of family and close friends in the church that he was born into.

  27. Hmm… I would ask the advocate to expound on this part:

    when the entire point is that religion is *dangerous*, religion is *challenging*, religion is *demanding*, and religion is NOT something that just fits our whims.

    Specifically, why and how is religion supposed to be dangerous? Why would including these nice people with different perspectives make it less dangerous, challenging, or demanding? And what terrible whims are we referring to?

  28. What is the unnecessary harm from saying, “People who don’t believe in our religion are not part of our religion”?! From a religious aspect, there is no such harm. That’s why people from nearly every other Christian denomination and most other religions have no long-lasting commitment to their old denominations if they leave. You don’t see people hanging around as “ex-Baptists.”

    The only issue is really that in a few religious communities, there exists a culture even larger than the connection of belief. BUT it is not established that this kind of cultural community must be preserved per se. It is not established that “cultural Mormons” should have as much standing in the community as, say, “secular Jews” have.

    Especially when Mormons are based on this idea of leaving old family religions for the “true religion” (and that is where pioneers came from), THAT is why it’s understandable that Mormons view the idea of staying in a religious community as being a voluntary thing predicated mostly on one’s belief and activity.

    I’m sure the pioneers didn’t really agree to being estranged from their families for joining the church in the first place — or for being born in other religious communities. But that’s life.

    Now, to your second comment…

    Religion is about challenging ourselves to conform with God’s way. If the natural man is an enemy to God, then being religious should take us out of our “comfort” zone. It should put us on a track that is radically opposed to the way that society (especially a natural, secular, or ungodly society) operates…as a result, it should be dangerous, because we are embarking into a wilderness for righteousness.

    People may be “nice,” but the real question is…are they striving for God’s way? If their “different perspectives” mean that no they are not, and that they would rather become a law unto themselves, then THAT is seeking to deprive God of power and authority.

    Whims? Think of any issue that the church leader speaks out against…gays, feminists, intellectuals. Any of these groups (and others), if they do not submit first to God and his prophets, instead seek after their own whims.

  29. What is the unnecessary harm from saying, “People who don’t believe in our religion are not part of our religion”?!

    How overly simplistic that is. What it really turns out to be is: “People who don’t believe in my religion the same way that I believe in my religion are not part of my family or my community.” I suppose that all the nonbelievers who find themselves not only rejected from church meetings, but also tossed out of the family and shunned by the community should just suck it up, because “that’s life”.

    Religion is about challenging ourselves to conform with God’s way.

    This whole argument reads like: “God hates these people regardless of how nice they are.” It just proves my point that these beliefs are harmful. No actual argument for why these people are damaging to a religion, just an appeal to “God says so”.

  30. Again, though, you’re arguing that people agree in a form of “family or community” aspect of religion that is (dis)tinct from the religion.

    Time and time again, I’ve found that many believers simply don’t buy into this.

    Without such a foundation, yes. Nonbelievers who are shunned by the community SHOULD just suck it up. They don’t fit. So they either need to find a way to fit in to the community based on its prerequisites (belief), or find a different community. Why should they expect the community to change and degrade itself just for them?!?

    This whole argument reads like: “God hates these people regardless of how nice they are.”

    To quote you, “How utterly simplistic that is.” The entire point is that when you love someone, you actually *don’t* let them get away with stuff. But hey, people have agency, so you point out that if they want to do stuff, then you WILL protect your household and your family, and you WON’T support the harm that the ne’er-do-well is proposing to the family.

    Parents don’t have to support children’s drug addictions. They can engage in harsh interventions. But if the child insists on it (and when the child comes of age), then the parents can rationally decide that they do not want the problems of drugs and crime in their house. They do not want shady people around the house. They do not want possible violence coming to the house. So it is perfectly acceptable, if a child will not follow the rules of the household, for the parents to kick him/her out.

    You dismiss all arguments of harm because you don’t agree. You dismiss all arguments for an alternate view of “niceness” and “meanness” because you don’t agree. Again, you ALSO have no actual argument for why these people aren’t damaging to a religion; you just say, “LALALA YOUR RELIGIOUS GOALS ARE SIMPLISTIC AND FOOLISH LALALA”

  31. The entire point is that when you love someone, you actually *don’t* let them get away with stuff.

    Get away with stuff? Like not believing in God? Like being gay? Your argument is that e.g. being gay or not believing is going to do harm to your family kind of like drug abuse and violence will. You back this up with “God says so.” Why would the burden be on me to prove to you why you shouldn’t kick your son out of your house? You’re the one that needs a good reason to take such drastic measures.

    You dismiss all arguments for an alternate view of “niceness” and “meanness” because you don’t agree.

    No, I did not dismiss any arguments for an alternate view because there weren’t any to dismiss. You have to put some forth first. I can help you out a little: maybe start out by explaining why a religion that takes a universalist approach will eventually lose its identity and become irrelevant or something. Or if you think John is actually mean, back it up with examples so that we can debate those. If you think being gay is harmful, let’s hear those arguments. Just don’t revert to “well I believe it and it’s part of my religion so you just need to accept that.” I don’t accept that anymore than I accept that an extremist muslim believes I need to die in order for the world to be a better place. We clearly disagree, and so we’re debating. Whining about how I’m just going to dismiss your arguments is just whining.

  32. The entire point is that you need to show why the reason provided *isn’t* good, in the same way you need to show that the reason provided for kicking a drug user out isn’t good.

    Your acceptance of sin isn’t a compelling argument to those who don’t accept such sin.

    maybe start out by explaining why a religion that takes a universalist approach will eventually lose its identity and become irrelevant or something.

    Look at the Community of Christ. It is dying and has been dead in the water since it formed. Look at the mainline denominations. They are dying and have been dead in the water.

    Religions that do not demand as much from adherents give those adherents little reason to be loyal, and religions that blow in the wind do not appeal to people who want a secure, firm foundation for their lives.

    This is research. “Strict Churches are Strong.”

    You know as well as I do the arguments on both sides doubting John’s good intentions.

    This isn’t just reverting to, “well I believe it,” You are ignoring social science research, actual past experience, etc.,

  33. The entire point is that you need to show why the reason provided *isn’t* good

    If the reason provided is simply “God says so”, then there’s really nothing to refute. The person has dug in their heels and they have nothing to back up their views outside of a belief that certain men speak for God and they said X and therefore X. Reason, logic, studies, statistics, data, evidence, all mean nothing. Logos and ethos have failed, and now possibly only pathos is left.

    Now the argument that being strict (no matter how arbitrarily) helps an organization to survive is actually interesting. We can actually talk about this one. Remember Pournelle’s Iron Law of Bureaucracy:

    …in any bureaucratic organization there will be two kinds of people: those who work to further the actual goals of the organization, and those who work for the organization itself. Examples in education would be teachers who work and sacrifice to teach children, vs. union representative who work to protect any teacher including the most incompetent. The Iron Law states that in all cases, the second type of person will always gain control of the organization, and will always write the rules under which the organization functions.

    I think that when making a choice on whether to exclude certain kinds of people, there needs to better justification than “doing this sort of thing generally helps organizations to survive.” I think that you need to tie it into the goals of the organization somehow. Hopefully those goals are noble. But, of course, if the goal of your organization is simply “do what God wants”, then we’re at a standstill again. The old men at the top get to decide what God wants.

    The people who say “God wants this” and “God wants that” tend to have their own idea of what God wants, and so one possible avenue of persuasion would be to establish some common ground by figuring out what good characteristics their god has (e.g. love, mercy, fairness, justice, forgiveness) and try to help them understand how disowning their gay son is contrary to these ideals.

  34. except in both the drug user case and this case, there is temporal, real-world harm to having these people in the midst of the religion. They tear down people in their spiritual experiences, dissent, etc.,

    If you already come from an apostate nonbeliever position and disregard god, then that doesn’t mean there is “nothing to refute.” that means you have dug your heels and have nothing to back up your view other than a belief that these men do not speak for god.

    you have ignored the reasons, logic, data, evidence, etc., because of a few premises that you categorically reject.

    the problem is that you want to coopt reason and logic and things like this. But logic and reason are simply *methods*. You put in certain premises (e.g., “prophecy is a reliable way to gain knowledge) and reason and logic are simply the ways you gain valid conclusions from those premises. You can’t just say a group of people categorically fail to use reason and logic just because you disagree with the premises they have.

  35. you have ignored the reasons, logic, data, evidence, etc., because of a few premises that you categorically reject.

    You think I categorically reject them for no reason? Do you really think I’ve ignored the possibility that these men speak for God? I believed that with all of my heart for most of my life. I could talk your ears off about why exactly it is that I reject that premise. I have already spent a lot of time talking about why I reject that premise. The whole atheist blogosphere talks about why this premise is rejected. I do little more with this alias on the Internet other than talk about this kind of thing. Do you really want to have a generic theist versus atheist debate with me?

    You put in certain premises (e.g., “prophecy is a reliable way to gain knowledge) and reason and logic are simply the ways you gain valid conclusions from those premises.

    You can’t have that premise for free. That premise is at the center of the debate.

  36. Your categorical rejection is pretty clear — because you do not accept God and his prophets. :p. That’s a clear reason.

    Whatever you recognize of the possibility these men speak for God, you reject the actuality of it because it chafes against your life, your feelings, your desires, etc., along with the rest of the atheist blogosphere.

    (for that matter, WHY am I devil’s advocating a theist position anyway?!)

    You can’t have that premise for free. That premise is at the center of the debate.

    this premise is at the center of thousands of years of tradition and history across the world. The premise is not won “for free.” It is paid for with thousands of years of human social capital in the face of a ragtag group of iconoclasts.

  37. Whatever you recognize of the possibility these men speak for God, you reject the actuality of it because it chafes against your life, your feelings, your desires, etc., along with the rest of the atheist blogosphere.

    Yes. And I can and do frequently go into why it chafes and why I think the world would be a better place if the idea that men can speak for God was suspect. You can point to me and say, “well that’s your subjective opinion based on your own feelings, experiences, desires, etc.” Of course it is. Recognizing that obvious fact is not grounds for rethinking one’s own perspective. It’s in the encountering of new data, experiences, or feelings that one finds reason for a change in their mindset.

    It is paid for with thousands of years of human social capital in the face of a ragtag group of iconoclasts.

    Heh, my ragtag group and I also coincide with the scientific revolution. Maybe you could have used us during those thousands of years?

  38. And I can and do frequently go into why it chafes and why I think the world would be a better place if the idea that men can speak for God was suspect.

    “The wicked have told me of things that delight them…but not such things as Your law has to tell.” st. augustine.

    non-starter.

    Heh, my ragtag group and I also coincide with the scientific revolution. Maybe you could have used us during those thousands of years?

    The scientific revolution need not equate to a collapse of all tradition and spirituality. In fact, so far as it has, it has led to a debasement of values, meaning, and purpose in society. Modernism, postmodernism, nihilism.

  39. “The wicked have told me of things that delight them…but not such things as Your law has to tell.” st. augustine.

    I’m sorry, what?

    Your enduring idea that men can speak for God has also been a part of countless years of enslavement, tyranny, wars, and stagnation. You say that premise is paid for. I say that the freedom from being compelled to accept that premise has been and still is being paid for in blood.

    The durability of a tradition says nothing of its virtue. Let us preserve the good and discard the bad.

    So… this is all pretty standard atheist versus theist back and forth. Usually playing devil’s advocate is a way to strengthen or challenge one’s own arguments in order to keep them relevant and grounded in reality. Here though I haven’t really encountered anything that challenging, or anything that makes me nod my head and go, “hmm yeah… interesting point.” If it’s just going to be “you’re a wicked atheist who doesn’t understand the ways of God” then I’m pretty familiar with that and why I think it’s silly.

  40. The entire point is that the two sides start out from different foundational claims. There cannot and will not be crossover because the two sides start out from foundational claims.

    it’s naive to think that you can use some mechanism and filter out what is “relevant” and “grounded in reality” because beliefs simply don’t work like that — even if you’re blind to the bias of your own beliefs.

  41. There cannot and will not be crossover because the two sides start out from foundational claims.

    I disagree that there cannot be some crossover. I think that there is plenty of common ground that can be established. There is give and take in any good discussion.

    I also disagree with you that it is naive to think that you can better ground your beliefs in reality. Some beliefs are easily disprovable, like “I can fly by flapping my arms”, and some are more vague and harder to establish, like “the Internet has fundamentally changed the way we communicate”, and then others are fully subjective, like “this scenery is beautiful”. I think it is incredibly naive to think that beliefs are all equally valid simply because you can conjure up a few premises to prop them up. It seems to me that you want to stand outside of it all and above the fray. You observe us from a distance, bickering about our petty beliefs; such pointless bickering, because it’s not going to ever make a difference.

  42. there is give and take in any good discussion.

    This isn’t establishing common ground. All this is establishing is compromise.

    It’s not about saying that beliefs are all equally valid. It’s about recognizing that the vast majority of the human population has never believed some variation of “I can fly by flapping my arms,” but the vast majority of the human population throughout time and culture HAS believed in some variation of spiritual experiences and deity, and that to try to equate or make a simile of the two is precisely the problem. It’s naive to assume that just because it seems silly from our vantage point that this framework has no justification and can be (dis)missed easily.

    I don’t claim to be above the fray. In fact, I’m denouncing your delusion of above-the-frayness that you commit when you think that you can be this kind of objective, neutral arbiter of valid, sound arguments — and in the process ignore your embeddedness, your situation in a worldview of foundational beliefs and viewpoints.

    I think being in the fray means recognizing that we aren’t blank slates, and as a result, communication and conversation doesn’t occur from a blank slate. We have to recognize the difference in foundational beliefs, instead of ignoring or blowing them off — and even recognize when they put eliminate “common ground” and only allow for “compromise”.

  43. That sounds an awful lot like the theist argument that because most humans have believed in some form of deity (the actual details of the beliefs differing enough that people kill each other over them), that belief is above scrutiny or ridicule.

    I’m denouncing your delusion of above-the-frayness that you commit when you think that you can be this kind of objective, neutral arbiter of valid, sound arguments — and in the process ignore your embeddedness, your situation in a worldview of foundational beliefs and viewpoints.

    That’s funny. Do you think that when I make a comment about, for example, how much I think the show “Glee” sucks without attaching the disclaimer “it is my own personal opinion drawn from my own worldview and biases that I’ve picked up through my environment, experiences, and genetic make up” that I’ve decided that I am a neutral arbiter on which TV shows objectively suck?

    When I refer to things as good or bad, it is of course necessarily coming from my own limited worldview. Nevertheless, I will take the worldview that I have and fight what I consider to be the good fight in the way I consider to be the best way to do it. It just so happens that my worldview tells me that I need to seriously consider other worldviews as well. Shocking, you say? How do you think I got into this atheist mess in the first place? By stubbornly sticking to my guns? By declaring myself an arbiter of objective truth? Do you suppose that I never truly believed in the first place, like you?

  44. Except, Carson, there is a clear difference between “above scrutiny or ridicule” and “beneath serious and prolonged consideration”.

    When I refer to things as good or bad, it is of course necessarily coming from my own limited worldview.

    This is very different from what you were implying here:

    Usually playing devil’s advocate is a way to strengthen or challenge one’s own arguments in order to keep them relevant and grounded in reality. Here though I haven’t really encountered anything that challenging, or anything that makes me nod my head and go, “hmm yeah… interesting point.”

    You think that your own limited worldview is relevant and grounded and reality and that another, because it doesn’t challenge you or make you go, “hmm yeah…interesting point” is irrelevant or not grounded in reality.

    It just so happens that my worldview tells me that I need to seriously consider other worldviews as well. Shocking, you say?

    Not shocking at all. In fact, many people CLAIM that their worldview requires them to “seriously consider” other worldviews…but the common thread for most of the people like this is that at some point, their ACTIONS don’t really match up to serious consideration at all, because they are staunchly in their position.

    How do you think I got into this atheist mess in the first place? By stubbornly sticking to my guns? By declaring myself an arbiter of objective truth? Do you suppose that I never truly believed in the first place, like you?

    um, actually, many people I know who go from believer to nonbeliever did just that. They “stubbornly stuck to their guns.” They declared themselves (or their god or whatever) an arbiter of objective truth. But at some point, something (dis)positive to their current paradigm clicked with some foundational belief they had more than their current position and bam — cognitive dissonance. Things sorted out as they did.

    The same thing for atheists who became theists.

    It was never the “rational inquiry” that did it. It was a barrage of evidence *despite* the ruse of “rational inquiry”. It was “irresistible grace” or “irresistible (dis)grace” *despite* the seeming shell of calm and collected conversation.

  45. I don’t disagree completely, but I think you could aim those accusations at anyone on the Internet who disagrees with you. Anyone who has a strong opinion about anything could be said to have made themselves an arbiter of objective truth. If they say they’re open to opposing viewpoints, but don’t come around to your way of seeing things, you can accuse them of hypocrisy, like you subtly did with me. You can throw a little bit of ontological nihilism at anyone who uses the term “reality”. Anybody who changed their mind about anything could be said to have “stubbornly stuck with their guns” about whatever foundational belief they had that became the overriding factor. You always have room to accuse somebody of never actually changing some foundational belief of theirs. You could say that anybody who thinks that their worldview improves over time is only deluding themselves. You could accuse anybody who uses the term “rational” to describe a thought process of deluding themselves into thinking that pure rationality even exists.

  46. I think you’re missing what I’m saying. I’m not saying this is something characteristic of people who disagree with me.

    I’m saying this is something characteristic of *human nature* — including those who agree with me. It’s just called something different like “echo chamber” or “preaching to the choir” when there is consensus.

    I’m saying that we need to recognize this (that is, the universality of this) first because when we start thinking that this is something that only affects ‘some people,’ or ‘that guy, but not me,’ or when you start thinking this is a terrible vice to be “accused of” instead of a constraint on human nature that we share, then that is the problem.

    You could accuse anybody who uses the term “rational” to describe a thought process of deluding themselves into thinking that pure rationality even exists.

    what can I say? With what we know about human psychology and the human psychological shortcuts that we all take, I think the idea of “pure rationality” is one that SHOULD be stomped out. That’s just not how people work, first of all…and that’s not how people WANT to work, deep down.

  47. I’m saying that we need to recognize this (that is, the universality of this) first because when we start thinking that this is something that only affects ‘some people,’ or ‘that guy, but not me,’ or when you start thinking this is a terrible vice to be “accused of” instead of a constraint on human nature that we share, then that is the problem.

    But what happens when we recognize this? What opinions should we hold less strongly as a result? All is suspect.

    I think the idea of “pure rationality” is one that SHOULD be stomped out.

    Yeah, just like I think the idea that men can speak for God should be stomped out.

    I don’t think that the term “rational” ultimately requires absolute neutral objectivity in order to be a useful concept. Same goes with “reason” or “logic”. They can all be useful despite being ultimately human (and therefore imperfect) ideals. We’re all humans here. I can understand why you chafe when someone claims to have a rational argument, but I think instead of using the double-edged sword of undermining the whole concept of rationality, it would be more effective to engage them by showing them how their own concept of rationality can be used against them. In other words, by trying to tease out some of their foundational beliefs (ones you can agree with if possible) and showing them how they can lead to different conclusions. Nobody has a perfectly consistent worldview, but we like to try to make it consistent, and we’ll respond (positively or negatively) when we confront an inconsistency.

    If instead you respond to someone’s argument with, “But that’s just your opinion coming from your worldview and you have to recognize that,” I don’t see why that gives the other person any reason to hold his or her opinion any less strongly than before.

  48. The point of recognizing such bias is not necessarily to hold our opinions less strongly, but to recognize more *subjectivity* within them. I guess one opinion to hold less strongly is thinking that we are doing a good job at seeking after objectivity and rationality. (of course, I think that would be one of the toughest ones to devalue).

    I don’t think that the term “rational” ultimately requires absolute neutral objectivity in order to be a useful concept. Same goes with “reason” or “logic”. They can all be useful despite being ultimately human (and therefore imperfect) ideals.

    And yet you brandish it to oppose particularly human uses of it. Why? Because you disagree with the premises that others use. “You can’t have that premise for free” as if your premises are free, or have been decided satisfactorily.

    Nobody has a perfectly consistent worldview, but we like to try to make it consistent, and we’ll respond (positively or negatively) when we confront an inconsistency.

    Not in any meaningful way. Responding to cognitive dissonance usually changes everything else *before* central beliefs are touched. So trying to confront these fundamental central beliefs in the way you talk about just isn’t psychologically sound.

    If instead you respond to someone’s argument with, “But that’s just your opinion coming from your worldview and you have to recognize that,” I don’t see why that gives the other person any reason to hold his or her opinion any less strongly than before.

    The issue isn’t to get someone to hold their opinion any weaker. Just to get them to recognize that however strong they hold it, it is situated in their worldview and not necessarily applicable to others.

  49. And yet you brandish it to oppose particularly human uses of it. Why? Because you disagree with the premises that others use. “You can’t have that premise for free” as if your premises are free, or have been decided satisfactorily.

    When I say “you can’t have that premise for free” I mean that the argument isn’t about whether you can use reason or logic to conclude that men can speak for God if you start from the premise that prophecy is a reliable way to gain knowledge. If the argument was about that, then sure, I would grant that it’s easy to reason yourself from that premise to that conclusion, and the discussion would be over. However, that is not the point in question. You can’t have an argument without having some premises that both sides accept, even if the only thing we have in common is that we’re both human and we both feel that murder is immoral. If there is nothing to build upon, there is nothing to discuss. I think in any argument it is good to figure out which foundational beliefs you share in common, and which you’re going to debate. Even if I were to enter into a debate with an amorphous sentient alien cloud monster, the very fact that we could exchange ideas in the first place would mean that there is commonality to be built upon.

    Responding to cognitive dissonance usually changes everything else *before* central beliefs are touched. So trying to confront these fundamental central beliefs in the way you talk about just isn’t psychologically sound.

    The ever-shrinking fundamental belief. Every layer you peel away reveals more layers. Are you of the opinion that there is an unchangeable core to every person’s worldview? When is it that you suppose these “central beliefs” are actually touched? Can they be touched?

    The issue isn’t to get someone to hold their opinion any weaker. Just to get them to recognize that however strong they hold it, it is situated in their worldview and not necessarily applicable to others.

    But this applies to every possible opinion, including the opinion that this applies to every possible opinion. There is no escape from the problem that you describe. You can’t even distance yourself from it, for in the very act of trying to distance yourself from this problem you are jumping head first into it. Every word we type on the keyboard is bound up in this human delusion that we have some kind of grip on our reality, that we have something to say that is important for the other person to hear. Every argument we make is in absurd defiance of this problem, including the very one I’m making now. Your opinion that this problem even exists is wrapped up in itself recursively.

  50. You can’t have an argument without having some premises that both sides accept, even if the only thing we have in common is that we’re both human and we both feel that murder is immoral. If there is nothing to build upon, there is nothing to discuss.

    You say this as if most arguments don’t already end up with effectively “nothing to discuss,” with people throwing words at each other but not really hitting anything.

    Are you of the opinion that there is an unchangeable core to every person’s worldview? When is it that you suppose these “central beliefs” are actually touched? Can they be touched?

    Some things are as unchangeable as sexuality. However unchangeable you will believe of that.

    Regardless, if central beliefs are to be touched, it is through an immensely traumatic and earth shattering event that people will spend serious time trying to recover from. Such things CAN and DO happen, of course, but it’s not a pleasant discussion.

    But this applies to every possible opinion, including the opinion that this applies to every possible opinion. There is no escape from the problem that you describe. You can’t even distance yourself from it, for in the very act of trying to distance yourself from this problem you are jumping head first into it.,

    Except that’s the thing. You assume I’m trying to distance myself from it, instead of recognizing that I am situated in my subjectivity.

    In this way, I am not “out of the fray,” but “in it,” and I recognize and embrace it.

    Basically, if you recognize there is no escape to this problem, then stop trying to escape! Recognize that this isn’t so much a problem as an opportunity.

  51. You say this as if most arguments don’t already end up with effectively “nothing to discuss,” with people throwing words at each other but not really hitting anything.

    When I say “nothing to discuss” I literally mean you couldn’t even throw words at each other in any comprehensible way, like me telling you, “monkey splat farm” and you coming back at me by reciting some Klingon poetry. I know that the argument we’re having now goes much further than that simply because I can easily recognize that you are actually reading what I’m saying and responding intelligently in kind. I can actually sense the commonality that is hidden under the surface where our opinions clash. It is true that most debates don’t end in a ton of enlightenment, but there’s still a baby in the bathwater.

    Some things are as unchangeable as sexuality. However unchangeable you will believe of that.

    You see, I just can’t accept that someone’s belief that some specific group of men speak for God is permanently bound up with their core identity to the point where trying to dissuade them from that belief is completely futile. To accept something like that opens up a whole can of worms, questioning the aim of any form of persuasion, argument, or even teaching. Where do you draw the line between unchangeable core beliefs and the malleable outer layers. How can you possibly judge the difference when engaging other people?

    Basically, if you recognize there is no escape to this problem, then stop trying to escape!

    You’ve described to me a self-defeating problem and you’re telling me I’m trying to escape from it? The problem literally devours itself. It renders itself irrelevant and meaningless in its very utterance. Absolutely everything is suspect, including the idea that absolutely everything is suspect. It is everywhere. It is nowhere. Everything changes. Nothing changes. There is no spoon. Nevertheless, I will use the spoon to eat.

  52. When I say “nothing to discuss” I literally mean you couldn’t even throw words at each other in any comprehensible way, like me telling you, “monkey splat farm” and you coming back at me by reciting some Klingon poetry

    If you say “monkey splat farm” and I get Klingon poetry out of that (e.g., same words, totally different meaning, assumptions, etc.,) then that is the same thing as “nothing to discuss”

    I think that’s what happens. You think that people are throwing words at each other in a comprehensible way. But it’s not really working out. The “comprehensible” part isn’t happening. We THINK we have a shared language, and so we respond as we do, but we do not. And so no one makes any progress to “common ground.”

    Basically, your baby is the fact that we both appear to be speaking English.

    To accept something like that opens up a whole can of worms, questioning the aim of any form of persuasion, argument, or even teaching.

    You already SHOULD be questioning these things. If you want to persuade, argue, or teach, it should be out of faith and passion — not out of some kind of assurance that these things can objectively be effective. If you’re doing it for the latter and not the former, you should question more.

    Absolutely everything is suspect, including the idea that absolutely everything is suspect. It is everywhere. It is nowhere. Everything changes. Nothing changes. There is no spoon. Nevertheless, I will use the spoon to eat.

    This isn’t self-defeatist. It could easily be true. What changes is not whether we use the spoon or do not use the spoon, but whether we acknowledge that what appears to be a spoon could nevertheless not be. What changes is not whether or not we do stuff, but whether we acknowledge that we do stuff because of a faith, not because of any certainty or surety. If you want certainty or surety, then THAT will be chewed up and destroyed. If you don’t have certainty and surety, then you don’t have anything that will “devour itself.”

  53. But it’s not really working out.

    Haha, says who? I think it works out just fine. Who said the goal was to end up on the very same page? Sometimes the goal is just to understand a little bit more about the other, sometimes it’s about strengthening your own argument by filtering out the parts that don’t stand up to scrutiny by your peers, sometimes it’s even about publicly humiliating the other. Whatever floats your boat. There are so many reasons to have a debate, and so many different things you can get out of it. Do you honestly think that debates are worthless?

    Basically, your baby is the fact that we both appear to be speaking English.

    LOL. Andrew, please. I subscribe to your blog because not only do you have a history of posts that I think are right on the money, but you also have contributed a lot of commentary (here and elsewhere) that have left me intrigued and fascinated. Seriously, whenever I see the name “Andrew S” in a comment thread, I’m convinced that a great comment is sure to follow. I subscribed to this blog when I found myself nodding vigorously every time I read a comment of yours on other sites. We’ve got so many views in common that I often wondered if your blog among others just functioned as an echo chamber for me. I mean, it’s about time I disagreed with you on something.

    You already SHOULD be questioning these things.

    I think I’m pretty sold on the general idea that teaching when done right can actually change people for the better. I’m sold on the idea that people can be and have been persuaded to a different point of view than they originally had. If I just assumed that people’s beliefs were hard set at the core of their identity, then I’d necessarily have to belief that people could fundamentally change their identity. Again, where do you draw the line between what is identity and what is up for debate?

    If you want to persuade, argue, or teach, it should be out of faith and passion — not out of some kind of assurance that these things can objectively be effective.

    Here’s where I honestly don’t know what the difference would look like. I don’t get this “faith” concept. Where does the passion in persuasion come from if there’s no assurance or confidence that your ideas hold any water? Where do you draw the distinction between someone who argues because he thinks he’s right and someone who argues because he thinks he’s objectively right? Do you think you’re right? Why should I listen to you if you have no assurance in your own argument?

    What changes is not whether or not we do stuff, but whether we acknowledge that we do stuff because of a faith, not because of any certainty or surety. If you want certainty or surety, then THAT will be chewed up and destroyed. If you don’t have certainty and surety, then you don’t have anything that will “devour itself.”

    What does it look like to go through life with no certainty or surety? Is confidence allowed? Maybe we’re thinking of “certainty” in different ways. I see “certainty” as being more ephemeral and human than you probably do. I don’t see it as some abstract absolute position. I can be certain of something today, but tomorrow someone will say something to me that will unhinge that certainty. That kind of certainty does not seem dangerous to me. It is simply a strong opinion weakly held. It is not completely closed to debate, but there is still confidence going forward. You can’t go through life trying to avoid having your opinions become chewed up and destroyed. Honestly, if you effectively stomp on some of my certainties, I will ultimately be thankful for it. Everybody’s got certainties. You can chafe at people when they express their certainties, accusing them of setting themselves up as objective truth arbiters, but they can turn right back at you and accuse you of the same.

    The question is: are you certain that you shouldn’t have certainty? That is how the question devours itself. I could accept your argument by rejecting it entirely. You could reject your argument by accepting it fully.

  54. Sometimes the goal is just to understand a little bit more about the other, sometimes it’s about strengthening your own argument by filtering out the parts that don’t stand up to scrutiny by your peers, sometimes it’s even about publicly humiliating the other…Do you honestly think that debates are worthless?

    The first and second do not happen when people leave the conversation saying, “I haven’t really encountered anything that challenging.” But I will concede the public humiliation part, but if that is the purpose of a debate, then debates are worth less than worthless (hehe, pun): they actually have *negative* worth.

    I just do not think it’s worthwhile to do something if the only likely after-effect is that both sides think their own position is super-solid and that the other side is idiotic. But that’s what happens with most debates.

    We’ve got so many views in common that I often wondered if your blog among others just functioned as an echo chamber for me. I mean, it’s about time I disagreed with you on something.

    Echo chamber…there’s that word again. And considering that a substantial part of the disagreement in this thread is based on a devil’s advocacy case I’ve whipped up from in patchwork, I dunno man. (Although, if it makes you feel better, even if I wouldn’t normally state it so extremely, I do think that subjectivity puts a wrench in a lot of attempted dialogue, and that dialogue is often like running into a wall repeatedly because we have this insane hope that we won’t break all our bones when we hit but instead that we’ll come forth on the other side unscatched.)

    If I just assumed that people’s beliefs were hard set at the core of their identity, then I’d necessarily have to belief that people could fundamentally change their identity. Again, where do you draw the line between what is identity and what is up for debate?

    To the extent that most people give up exercise routines after a few weeks, most people give up diets after a few weeks, etc., and these aren’t even “fundamental” identity changes, I really don’t know why you are so optimistic here.

    You act like there is a “line” for what is identity and what is up for debate — when everything can be (and IS) debated. But even though you can find someone who will debate EVERY little thing, you won’t find that people are all continuously moving and improving because of this.

    I think that when people’s identities change, it’s because of traumatic events. Maybe you can cause that? Maybe someone can induce it on themselves. But it has to be traumatic for it to really do anything, and most times, this isn’t something people voluntarily assent to. I’m sure you’ll debate that. But isn’t that the swell thing: you can!

    Where does the passion in persuasion come from if there’s no assurance or confidence that your ideas hold any water? Where do you draw the distinction between someone who argues because he thinks he’s right and someone who argues because he thinks he’s objectively right? Do you think you’re right? Why should I listen to you if you have no assurance in your own argument?

    Passion comes from inside. It’s not an external thing, or something that references external thing. I am very big on distinguishing between “belief” and the phenomenon of belief and the phenomenon of something like “knowledge,” and I think that “belief” is an internal state — it doesn’t have to deal anything with the external world, even though we often LIKE it to.

    I think someone who argues because he thinks he’s right is characteristic of everyone who *believes* something. But “I think I’m right” doesn’t necessarily need to have any bearing to the external world (other than the fact that the thing about which he thinks he’s right…he thinks his belief corresponds with the external world [I'm not all that big on correspondence theory of truth...]). The difference with someone who thinks he’s objectively right is that he’s not emphasizing his psychological state — he’s emphasizing the world outside of him. The difference between “I believe there’s a god” or “I believe in god” on the one end and “there is a god” on the other is that the first two focus on the individual’s psychological state. It doesn’t matter whether there is or is not a god because to that individual’s internal reality, that idea takes purchase. But the latter statement implies a radical control or understanding of external reality that isn’t justified merely by a psychological state.

    The only reason you should listen to me is because you continue to have passion/faith that this conversation will work out. That doesn’t mean that it will, but despite how many times you break your bones running into a brick wall, you get back up and hope that one day, one of us will run *through* to get to the side of the other (or have the other person get to our side.) I think that experience bears out that when any participant loses this belief or faith, then the conversation *does* end, regardless of whether there was real progress or whether there could have been.

    I can be certain of something today, but tomorrow someone will say something to me that will unhinge that certainty.

    Have you seen any of my posts or comments on black swans? I think I can hit a couple of these ideas by bringing that up today.

    It seems to me like what you’re saying is this. “I can be certain that there are no black swans today, but tomorrow, I will see a black swan, and that will unhinge that certainty.”

    My problem is this: why say something like “there are no black swans”? Even when you say “I BELIEVE there are no black swans,” why would you say it (as many people do) as if this is an objective thing instead of a cry of a *internal psychological* state?

    To me, what living without certainty or surety looks like is pretty similar to what it looks like with certainty or surety, but more humble. If I were to say I believe there are no black swans, I’d recognize this is out of some faith (for one, in the idea that absence of evidence is evidence of absence).

    (But that wouldn’t even be my style. I would rather “not believe there are black swans” than “believe there are no black swans.” The former focuses even more on the self. How can I be “wrong” in saying one day, “I am not convinced” and then saying “I am convinced”? regardless of black swans, by focusing on me, I’m focusing on something I can at least know [I guess if we can be certain about anything, it's that Cartesian subjectivity thing] )

    The meandering point is something like this…why have certainties for them to be potentially scrapped? Why have certainties that you recognize can REASONABLY LIKELY be “unhinged” by something someone else says?

    …But you’re right…I’d probably use certainty in a bit of a different way. If it can be unhinged with reasonable possibility, it probably wasn’t a candidate for something certain.

    The question is: are you certain that you shouldn’t have certainty?

    The question would only devour itself if you assumed I’d answer “yes.” But I don’t do that. It’s like saying, “We know nothing.” Do we know that we know nothing? Well, we don’t know that we know nothing. We always have to wonder whether this is something we know (which would mean we don’t know absolutely nothing), or whether there is something out there that can be known. But if we can know stuff, how do we verify that we know it instead of simply believing it? At the core, it gets down not to knowledge, but to feeling.

  55. Good comment. I can start to see some of the areas where we are in “violent agreement” if you will. I think that in my opinion, I believe that one could probably conclude that this might possibly be about language.

    if that is the purpose of a debate, then debates are worth less than worthless

    You see, I could interpret that sentence as a declaration of objective truth by adding an “I know” to the beginning in my head. Or I could choose to interpret it as a strong opinion. Just because I don’t add an “in my opinion” at the beginning of my statements doesn’t mean I think of myself as an arbiter of objective truth.

    The difference with someone who thinks he’s objectively right is that he’s not emphasizing his psychological state — he’s emphasizing the world outside of him.

    This is just good writing practice. You’re not supposed to litter your argument with “I think” and “as I see it” and “in my opinion” unless you really want to demonstrate insecurity in your ideas. We’re all adults here. We know that what the other person is saying is his or her opinion. The reader doesn’t need to be reminded of that.

    My problem is this: why say something like “there are no black swans”? Even when you say “I BELIEVE there are no black swans,” why would you say it (as many people do) as if this is an objective thing instead of a cry of a *internal psychological* state?

    Why not just say “there are no black swans”? Why the need to add “I believe” to the beginning? It is implied. I am not equally sure of all of my opinions, so therefore the ones that I am least sure about I will deliberately add “I think”, “I believe”, or “in my opinion” to the beginning. The ones that I have more confidence in I will leave out those first-person references because they are unnecessary. Sometimes I’ll even leave those off because I want to put an idea out there to be tested. People react differently to your writing depending on if you add “I believe” or leave it off. If you put “I believe” everywhere, than people will not take you as seriously as they would if you left it off. Sometimes I’m just saying something about what I think, and so then I’ll add “I think” or “I believe”. People may read that and shrug – he believes that, so what? But more often I want people to feel challenged by my opinion so that I’ll get feedback on it.

    If I had only seen some swans at the zoo and in books and on TV, I might just say “I don’t think black swans exist.” If I had traveled the entire world studying swans and been to every place except for southern Australia and had seen countless swans, none of them black, in a non-formal setting I would just say “there are no black swans”. When challenged by a pedant, I’d probably back off and say, “well sure, I don’t know that, but I believe it strongly.”

    Interesting tangent here about public humiliation: until fairly recently I believed as you did that arguing for the purpose of public humiliating could only have negative effects. I truly thought that “killing with kindness” was the only sensible way to bring about positive change. Some cogent arguments to the contrary made me rethink this position. One example of the reasoning is thus: assuming that you find the worldview of one group to be good (like racial tolerance) and the worldview of the opposing group to be bad (like racism), if the good group can successfully publicly humiliate a small, extremist minority from the bad group, then the extremist views are marginalized, and the effect is that the mainstream public shifts slightly away from those views, which you might view as a positive change. Certainly the good group could botch it up by going over the top and shooting themselves in the foot by moving public opinion against them, or by offending too many people from the bad group, pushing them further into extremism. If done correctly, it can be a powerful tool. You may see this tool as inherently bad, but I see it as neutral. Can you tell that I’ve been reading The Prince lately?

    I really don’t know why you are so optimistic here.

    People are slowly changing their minds about things every day. I’ve gone through so many re-evaluations as a result of my change in belief in the church, that perhaps I’m guilty of projecting a little of that onto others. “Changing beliefs” doesn’t quite capture it all though. New information and new perspectives can also add additional beliefs that weren’t there before. Our brains are constantly in a state of change. If they weren’t, they would be dead. We’re never the exact same person that we were before.

    You act like there is a “line” for what is identity and what is up for debate — when everything can be (and IS) debated.

    I never said there was a line. In fact, I asked where you would draw the line precisely because I don’t see a clear line anywhere and I figured that you did see a line because you described two different types of beliefs: the core beliefs that are tied up with someone’s identity, and the outer layers that shift during cognitive dissonance. Furthermore you said that people don’t change their core beliefs except through earth-shattering experiences, the implication being that it is useless to try to argue with someone’s core beliefs. Obviously since it is not useless to argue with someone’s outer, more shallow beliefs, I was interested in knowing how you would judge whether a belief that someone holds is a core belief or an outer belief in order to gauge whether a persuasive argument would be futile or not. I suppose maybe that just comes out in the conversation?

    I think I could accept that there is a continuum from core to shallow beliefs, and the more central they are, the harder they are to persuade against. Your threshold on this continuum at which it’s not worth the effort may be different than mine.

  56. re: declaration of objective truth vs. strong opinion, I think the issue comes from what framework in which we view words. For example, for me, words like”worth” and “beauty” are subjective words…so to say, “this is beautiful” or “this is worth less than…” are going to be subjective. I think others certainly use words like these in a different sense.

    So, as you say later on, I do not think we all know that the other person is saying his or her opinion. We as listeners can interpret that, but the speaker could adamantly believe that he is NOT just saying an opinion. That frustrates me.

    re: black swans.

    1) because you shouldn’t imply that you know that, and 2) because you’d be flat out wrong. I think that on statements like “there are no black swans,” the normal interpretation when someone says something like this is that they are giving a FACT/OBJECTIVE statement, NOT a belief/subjective statement. I believe is not implied. That is why it is perfectly acceptable for agnostics to say, “I don’t know” to the question “Is there a god?” but it doesn’t make sense to say that to “Do you believe there’s a god?” Former question implicitly asks for knowledge of some external fact. Latter is an inquiry into internal state.

    Your comments about “non-formal setting” are the problem. It reads to me like, “When I’m lazy, I’d rather say there are no black swans than I don’t think there are any black swans.” Even when challenged by a pedant, to fall back and say, “Well, I believe that strongly” is problematic. You believe it strongly on a faulty assumption.

    re public humiliation:

    I see a big negative from this. When the extremist views are marginalized, they aren’t changed. Instead, the extremists believe they are unfairly persecuted, and may engage in “tolerance” (to fit in to a changing mainstream) but not acceptance. I don’t view tolerance as a great thing, really, so I don’t view your scenario as all that positive. (LOL, the Prince does shine a bit through that though).

    Re: line. I think you’re confusing two things. You have asked about a line about what can be debated or what is debated. There is no line.

    But then, you want to talk about which beliefs can be relatively easily jostled or changed and which cannot. Here I think you just have to get a feel for it. People tend not to change epistemological frameworks that much. They may accept more evidence via the frameworks they currently value, but they don’t generally say, “whoa, I now believe in an entirely new class.” Changing this requires something huge and violent.

    I guess without being, I’d just have to say that core beliefs are one’s “final vocabulary” (in Rorty-speak) or “foundationalist” beliefs (in any version of foundationalism-speak). Note that just because arguing with some beliefs is useless doesn’t mean it won’t be debated. I’m arguing that people do futile things all the time, whether they understand what they are doing is futile or not. So, how to judge whether a persuasive argument will be futile or not? I don’t think most people do this, or know how to do this, or care how to do this…I do think that experience shows that when you’re debating about the same things over and over and over and no one’s getting anywhere, then MAYBE you should think that the argument is futile (but that probably won’t stop anyone).

    I think if I have to establish anything about human nonrationality, it’s that people do things that aren’t “worth the effort” all the time, so it’s not really a big deal to find out precisely what isn’t worth the effort, because if you really care, then you probably will go do that thing regardless of the futility.

  57. You can try to separate opinions from strong opinions from declarations of truth, but that is hard to do if you’re not familiar with how the other person expresses himself/herself. You label certain words as inherently subjective and others as inherently objective. These are Andrew S semantics that other people may not use. You say “worth” is subjective, so if anyone says “this is worthless” they cannot possibly be implying anything other than “it is my opinion that this is worthless.” There are people out there who truly believe that there is an objective standard of worth and they will say “this is worthless” fully meaning it to be a declaration of irrefutable truth. Then there are people like me who would never commit to an objective standard of worth like that. Since you cannot tell the difference without teasing out someone’s personal philosophy on objective versus subjective, you cannot simply accuse someone of making themselves an arbiter of objective truth when it may be more likely they are using a different set of semantics than you are.

    1) because you shouldn’t imply that you know that

    No, it does not imply “I know”. That is my whole point. You simply cannot assume that because someone left out “I believe” or “It is my opinion that” that there is an implied “I know for a fact that”. There is no such implication. That first-person reference is completely left out of the sentence. If I were to say, for example, that “there are no unicorns”, the overwhelming majority of my audience would not think me to be stupidly advancing an impossible knowledge claim that could be easily falsifiable. Why? Because the existence of unicorns is not a widely held belief. And that would be just fine because I would never presume to make an absolute knowledge claim about unicorns’ existence. If I were to say “there is no God”, then there may be cause to add an “I believe” because belief in God’s existence may be widely held by your audience, and they can easily get distracted by what they perceive as a knowledge claim. Language is a tool used by humans for humans. If your audience is attuned to your semantics, then you can cut out the fat and get to the point. This works both ways: if you’re not familiar with a writer’s semantics, then you might want to try to familiarize yourself with them in order to aid your understand of what the writer wants to communicate via this imperfect human language.

    2) because you’d be flat out wrong.

    The assumption behind the whole swan question was that you don’t know if you’re wrong. If I knew there were black swans, than of course it would be stupid to say “there are no black swans”.

    It reads to me like, “When I’m lazy, I’d rather say there are no black swans than I don’t think there are any black swans.”

    It may read to you like that, but in that case you might be misinterpreting what the person said by projecting your own semantics onto their writing. Perhaps their real reason for leaving out “I think” is that they don’t like to litter their writing with first-person references for the sake of good rhetoric.

    Re: public humiliation:

    I agree with you that this could only end up as tolerance in the case of the extremists, and that tolerance is not a great thing. The extremists might not even get to the “tolerance” stage at all. I think that this can still be a win, because some extremists will never change, so their marginalization is the best possible outcome. If hardcore racists’ views are marginalized, then new generations can grow up without hearing those voices. I think that they should still have free speech, but not without the disdain of the rest of the world. It’s ineffective however when you try to marginalize too many or the wrong people.

    Re: line:

    I pretty much agree with you here. Especially about having to just get a feel for it. I agree people will argue regardless if they think it’s getting anywhere. I do it because it is intellectually stimulating, and it actually does cause me to refine and make small changes and additions to my worldview. I throw my worldview out there for people to smack around so that I can see what sticks and what doesn’t.

    Interesting point about how people rarely change their epistemological frameworks.

  58. I like the sound of that: “Andrew S semantics”

    …but my point is precisely that other people may not use Andrew S semantics. That’s why I believe it is important to be more precise in language (even if it leads to vastly more pronouns that you think isn’t “good rhetoric.”) Clearly, some people *do* have ideas that worth and beauty and other things are objective qualities, so I cannot just *assume* that they mean something subjective — especially if they do not use subjective/pronoun marker words. You say “I think” is implied. I do not think that is the case.

    Basically, this first part of your message (where you show that some people believe in objective worth, etc.,) cuts against what you said earlier — that “I believe” subjectivity is implied. Objectivity and knowledge are implied when there is no pronoun/subjective marker language.

    I still think there is such an implication of “I know” and that is why agnostics of all scopes are so careful to say, “I don’t know” to questions that do not insert pronouns (e.g., “does god exist” as opposed to “do you believe…”)

    If you say “there are no unicorns” the reason your audience does not think you are stupidly advancing an impossible knowledge claim is because most people also advance that impossible knowledge claim AND believe that that knowledge claim is not an unreasonable or impossible one to take. That is one of the “arguments” against being agnostic on issues. People say: “if I can’t say unicorns don’t exist — something common sensical and rhetorically efficient, then that’s silly.”

    It’s not that people aren’t advancing an impossible knowledge claim, just that they do NOT think it’s stupid.

    The assumption behind the whole swan question was that you don’t know if you’re wrong. If I knew there were black swans, than of course it would be stupid to say “there are no black swans”.

    Actually, the whole issue with the swan question is that if you say “I don’t believe there are black swans” then you never are wrong in the first place. In such a case, you’ve never harbored an incorrect belief — you’ve simply not been convinced to harbor a correct one.

    Perhaps their real reason for leaving out “I think” is that they don’t like to litter their writing with first-person references for the sake of good rhetoric.

    I guess the problem here is that you are more willing to believe that the “I think” is implied when it is left out. I do not think that is the case — and I think that when most people clarify or provide context to their statements, they make it clear that they are making objective pronouncements. This is how people speak of belief in god. When people elaborate on or provide context to the phrase “God exists,” they don’t emphasize the primacy of their belief; they emphasize the idea that god’s existence is objective.

    So, I think that “good rhetoric” must be carefully redefined.

    • forgot the rest:

      re: humiliation — marginalization doesn’t mean people will be less racist (or less people will be racist). It just means that they won’t talk about it overtly, and so people who are not attuned to see racism don’t think it is as prevalent. This is a worse situation than when racism is open and public. To people who experience racism, “subtle” racism is just as painful — especially when people think that “there just isn’t as much racism as there used to be,” or, even worse, “racism doesn’t really happen anymore and minorities are just being sensitive.”

      re: line — I guess I’m different, because I’m an extremely competitive person. i view arguments as combat, and if I’m not “winning,” it’s extremely depressing. I would not be the first person to concede defeat *ever*. I’d be the person who sulks away and plots your demise afterward. (which is part of the reason why I don’t think marginalization works, btw.)

  59. Basically, this first part of your message (where you show that some people believe in objective worth, etc.,) cuts against what you said earlier — that “I believe” subjectivity is implied.

    You’re right. What I should have said is that neither is implied just from the statement. Or at least if “I know” is implied, then it’s a very superficial and casual “I know”. Whether I’m leaving off “I believe” or “I know” cannot be inferred unless you know more about the way I think. The thing is, I do this on purpose, purely for rhetorical effect. Haha, I know you hate that. But I purposely put a smokescreen there, cutting out the formalities, so that my argument is pointier. This isn’t just my own way of doing things. It’s pretty common writing advice. It definitely puts practicality above ideals, but I’m speaking to humans and it gets the desired effect.

    I still think there is such an implication of “I know” and that is why agnostics of all scopes are so careful to say, “I don’t know” to questions that do not insert pronouns (e.g., “does god exist” as opposed to “do you believe…”)

    Re: unicorns:

    I don’t think that most people would advance that unicorns don’t exist as an absolute knowledge claim because first of all, a lot of people don’t even know what an absolute knowledge claim is. This sort of philosophical precision is not understood by many, and if they were to all become educated about this precision I really believe that they would overwhelmingly support the idea that they cannot make that knowledge claim without ever fundamentally changing their minds about the existence of unicorns. So it’s not like they’re seriously implying that the non-existence of unicorns is an irrefutable objective fact that can and has been proven. That kind of rigor isn’t even in their arsenal.

    The rest just don’t care. They might understand that someone could read “I know for a fact” into their statement and call them on it, but it’s not likely to come up, and they’d rather reduce the clutter and use the quick and forceful rhetoric at the expense of some very unlikely misunderstanding. Sometimes the audience and the writer/speaker are well acquainted and therefore they implicitly understand where all the “I know” and “I believe” phrases are hidden. If you’ve ever listened while a successful businessman gives you valuable advice, you might notice that he makes a lot of absolute assertions about the way things are. You might say that he should be better about qualifying his assertions, but I’d say that it’s just the way he expresses himself, and instead of hand-wringing about how he communicates, we should just happily add the qualifiers in our own heads and thank him for the good advice.

    I think that agnostics are careful to say “I don’t know” only when there is danger. When there is little to no danger of being misinterpreted, only the nerdiest and most pedantic of them won’t let their guard down. This person is likely to be considered highly annoying by others. It’s not useful to have that guard up at all times, because it takes a lot of discipline, it’s not always going to get the best results/effort ratio. Sometimes it will even hinder your results by cluttering up your communication. Think about all the little places where you’d have to insert qualifiers. Your wife comes home from work and you tell her, “Dinner is on the stove.” Well, you can’t actually make a knowledge claim about that, because you’re in another room and for all you know some raccoon may have broken in and kicked the pan off of the stove. Do you really have to stop yourself, think a little bit, and then tell your wife, “I left the dinner on the stove.”? Should you really be spending time disciplining yourself never to say such a silly thing as “dinner is on the stove”? How about the “the door is open”? Even if you’re staring right at it, you could be hallucinating. You should say instead, “the door looks open to me.”

    Actually, the whole issue with the swan question is that if you say “I don’t believe there are black swans” then you never are wrong in the first place. In such a case, you’ve never harbored an incorrect belief — you’ve simply not been convinced to harbor a correct one.

    As I pointed above, the risk of being wrong is part of life. It doesn’t need to be avoided at all costs. It could be that when the guy who said “there are no black swans” (whom you thought was so dangerously careless and vulnerable) finds out about black swans, he’ll just shrug and say “Oh, there are black swans. Neat.”

    • Re: humiliation:
      I’m not even going to pretend that I know anything about how subtle racism is experienced, so I’m just going to accept that you’re right on that point. Still it’s hard to believe that wide public disdain for something like racism can be a wholly bad thing, even if some of the effect is to push it underground. I mean, if it were acceptable to be racist, I think that would be bad.

      Re: arguments:
      Heh, well I might approach some arguments as combat, but when arguing with people I respect (this includes you), I don’t see it like that.

  60. Whether I’m leaving off “I believe” or “I know” cannot be inferred unless you know more about the way I think

    then I’ll adjust my argument slightly. Granting this, I think that when you find out more about the way MOST people think (from context/other comments they say), it turns out that they are leaving out “I know” kinds of statements, or objective statements.

    As a result, there are more people who would assume that’s the implication. So, in order to be clear, we have to re-inject “I believe” kinds of language.

    re unicorns.
    XD; would people not knowing what an absolute knowledge claim is prevent them from making them? I’m speaking about ordinary people’s penchant for philosophical and linguistic laziness, so this helps my case. Unicorns and leprechauns and things like that are precisely the kinds of things that people think are so “obviously” ridiculously that they literally cannot exist. They don’t make the statement with rigor, so they don’t know that rigor crucifies them.

    Your business analogy doesn’t really help your case…most business people are clearly relying on asynchronous information. Clarity would hurt, not help them, so they have incentive to imply certainty.

    re: agnostics and danger. I would interpret this in a slightly different way, going back to unicorns. Most people aren’t agnostic about unicorns (even though they ought to be) because it is so SAFE and COMMON to believe that unicorns are patently ridiculous.

    The issue is: the safety of saying dinner is on the stove (even though OMG you aren’t presently in the kitchen! you don’t have a solution for the problem of induction to know that the past can tell you anything about the future, etc.,!) is different than the cultural safety of saying “unicorns don’t exist.”

    I think in the most cases, clarity doesn’t require great discipline, and isn’t too much of a hassle. For example, to say, “I left dinner on the stove,” is NOT a burden, as you have tried to make it. Saying, “I don’t like x band” instead of “x band sucks” isn’t a burden, even though you disdain these pronoun statements. I think you’re overreacting a lot in some of these cases.

    this goes to black swans as well. It’s REALLY not that hard to say “I don’t think there are black swans” instead of “there are no black swans.” not only that, but you avoid accusations of dogmatism.

    See, the real usefulness of the black swan dialogue is to analogize to atheism. “I don’t believe there is a god” vs “there is no god.” The latter can reasonably be called out as unjustified and unjustifiable, EVEN IF the strong atheist can say later, “oh, there is a god, neat.” The former is rock-solid.

  61. I’m speaking about ordinary people’s penchant for philosophical and linguistic laziness, so this helps my case.

    You call it laziness, I call it well chosen rhetoric and pragmatism. Not that I think there isn’t a place for philosophical precision (particularly when it comes to debating the existence of God), just that it is not always necessary or useful in other situations.

    so they don’t know that rigor crucifies them

    Crucifies them? That sounds pretty heavy. I guess these people could be silently crucified by the God of Logic without their knowing, but I’ll bet most of them will live out their entire lives oblivious to that fact. I think they deserve a better reason to care.

    Your business analogy doesn’t really help your case…most business people are clearly relying on asynchronous information. Clarity would hurt, not help them, so they have incentive to imply certainty.

    Wait wait wait wait wait wait WAIT. This doesn’t help my case how? Certainty trumps clarity in this particular case, so it doesn’t count? This is exactly my point.

    I think in the most cases, clarity doesn’t require great discipline, and isn’t too much of a hassle.

    I completely disagree on this point. It would be quite a hassle to me if I were to make sure I never said anything so simple as “the door is open” without making it clear that this is only an observation of mine, and not an arrogant declaration of the state of the universe. Maybe that makes me a lazy son of a bitch, but I get no utility whatsoever from making that effort in every communication.

    Additionally, not only is the effort not worth it, but your rhetoric can suffer. Yes, too much of what you call “clarity” can sabotage your rhetoric, making things actually less clear. Like Paul McHenry Roberts said in his essay “How to Say Nothing in 500 Words”:

    Some of the padding in freshman themes is to be blamed not on anxiety about the word minimum but on excessive timidity. The student writes, “In my opinion, the principal of my high school acted in ways that I believe every unbiased person would have to call foolish.” This isn’t exactly what he means. What he means is, “My high school principal was a fool.” If he was a fool, call him a fool. Hedging the thing about with “in-my-opinion’s” and “it-seems-to-me’s” and “as-I-see-it’s” and “at-least-from-my-point-of-view’s” gains you nothing. Delete these phrases whenever they creep into your paper.

    The student’s tendency to hedge stems from a modesty that in other circumstances would be commendable. He is, he realizes, young and inexperienced, and he half suspects that he is dopey and fuzzyminded beyond the average. Probably only too true. But it doesn’t help to announce your incompetence six times in every paragraph. Decide what you want to say and say it as vigorously as possible, without apology and in plain words.

    What you think of as clarity and philosophical rigor is perceived as linguistic diffidence. I don’t care what my writing actually says in the purely abstract philosophical sense, because hardly anybody ever reads it that way. I care about how other people will interpret it. If I want people to feel the effect of a strong assertion coming from me, then I will leave out the “in my opinion” and shove it right in their face. If I’m addressing an audience of philosophical nerds, and I want them to understand my thoughts in a careful, precise way, then I will add in all the qualifiers. If I have an opinion that I am slightly unsure of and do not want to make it the main focus of my argument, I will add a clarifying qualifier.

    Different situations, different audiences, and different desired effects all call for different ways of writing.

  62. re: humiliation

    I think the benefit in public disdain is that it hinders the overt actions of racism. in other words, there aren’t too many lynchings anymore. But people confuse these overt actions with racism itself.

    re: arguments

    so far you haven’t turned on my rampage mode either, lol

    re: laziness or rhetoric pragmatism

    I think the entire point is that precision in this case provides *useful* data, so I don’t see why you say it not necessary *or* useful.

    re: crucify

    yeah, they can be oblivious, but that doesn’t say anything about logic; it says stuff about them. If people don’t care to be “rational” or “logical,” this is utterly fine. But if people keep drumming up rationality as this awesome thing, then this is unacceptable.

    Certainty trumps clarity in this particular case, so it doesn’t count? This is exactly my point.

    I didn’t spell it out. Business people are crooks who cannot be trusted. We have to develop laws to force people to accept liability for their projections or be clearer. This is what audit is all about, theoretically. You’re advocating deception as a general rule, and I’m saying that hurts your case.

    re: door is open

    notice how I didn’t use the door is open. I think there are, to be sure, some instances where our foundationalist beliefs give us permission to be lazy (after all…I’m not saying everyone should speak as if they are completely philosophically skeptical). But there’s a difference between that and saying “I left dinner on the stove” or “I don’t believe black swans exist.” These latter or not tough alternatives.

    Your quoted material is telling:

    The student’s tendency to hedge stems from a modesty that in other circumstances would be commendable.

    Since most of us live in the real world (where there’s road rage) and not in the artificial ivory tower of paper writing, I think more modesty and politeness would go far better. In this case, it is *your* idea of good rhetoric, that suggests that people say things “as vigorously as possible” that is dangerous.

    I care about how other people will interpret it.

    Newsflash: most people will assume something different. That is why most theists and self-proclaimed agnostics believe that atheists are overbearing and arrogant fools who have certainty and faith in their dogma that god does not exist.

    Atheists only oblige these people by not caring about linguistic difference and instead leaving it up to people’s interpretations — which will be wrong.

    I think you have it backwards. You say you will be more precise in front of philosophical nerds, but be less so in front of the masses. But the problems are that it’s the *masses* who have such a terrible understanding of things like atheism, and it’s the *masses* who need to see the nuance in the position.

  63. Business people are crooks who cannot be trusted.

    Hahahaha! You see, that is totally awesome! It just wouldn’t be even half as awesome if you had said, “I think business people are crooks who cannot be trusted.” You said it like it is and threw it right in my face. And you even bolded it. I absolutely love it! It forces me to look straight at it and confront your confident and well-placed assertion. It says to me, “I’m an accountant, and I dare you to tell me that business people are not crooks.” It’s practically intimidating. This is the kind of writing I can get on board with.

    I was thinking more along the lines of a successful entrepreneur giving tips on how to start a company or something, but I admit you do have to be a little deluded to take on the world and start a company.

    notice how I didn’t use the door is open.

    Heh, that is exactly what I noticed, so I pushed on that one a little harder. I wanted to see if there really was a point at which you’d allow for “laziness”. I think your standard for that is incredibly high.

    Re: instances where hedging is commendable:

    Yeah, there is a time and a place for different modes of rhetoric. Being blunt and forceful is not helpful in a lot of situations, particularly when atheists talk with theists. When the subject is about atheism, God, and belief, then I’m all about being philosophically precise. In this area it is very important to me that people get it right. The difference between “I don’t believe there is a God” and “I believe there is no God” is actually a very important one to me. That is one point that I agree with you completely. If I was to talk to the masses about atheism and belief, I would want to make myself perfectly clear in this regard, because in this particular subject, nuance is everything.

  64. re business people crooks:

    touche.

    but this also gets to my point. This statement IS provocative, and it is meant to start a fight. But I don’t think that kind of provocative pugnacity isn’t preferential to conversation. (Especially when, in response, someone could build high walls and note that accountants are also business people, also have track records of sliding by rules, etc., or someone could build walls to think i’m some kind of “socialist” hater of america, free markets, and apple pie.)

    Again, if the purpose of debate is to rile people up and incite people, then I think this is dangerous.

    I think I wrote a post earlier this month…about the zappos guy’s book. I forget what I titled the post, but Seth R broke all of my illusions about the greatness of entrepreneurs. Entrepreneurs, as you mention, must be ambitious…this ambition and creativity is the same thing that fuels crime.

    re hedging:

    It’s funny that you see the importance of the difference in wording for atheism, but not so much for black swans. :( That’s why I use the black swan analogy in the first place

  65. Re: swans:

    I agree that it is better to say “I don’t believe there are black swans” than “there are no black swans” or even “I believe there are no black swans.” Incidentally, even if you did say “I don’t believe there are black swans,” people interpret it incorrectly and will say, “well you’re wrong, there are” in which case you’d have to inform them that you were never technically wrong, and then they’d call you a pedant, and then you’d have to slap them, etc.

    I was just pointing out that there is a different level of danger in each scenario. In an informal situation, if I were to declare “there are no black swans” the worst that could happen is that someone corrects me: “Actually there are, in Australia.”
    “Oh.”
    Of course if I were to say “there are no black swans” in an academic paper, I’d never hear the end of it. Whereas if I were to say “there is no God” even in an informal situation, any theists there would not only build up a wall, but they’d decide that all atheists make that assertion, they’d tell their friends and relatives how dumb atheists are, causing lots of damage and possibly undoing a whole lot of good work by smarter atheists.

  66. I think that represents another difficulty. To some people, “I don’t believe there are x” and “I believe there are no x” are equivalent statements. I think this is problematic precisely for the chain of events that must ensue and which inevitably ends in facial slappage, as you mentioned.

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