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Should truth be simple, easy to comprehend?

May 11, 2010

I have always disliked Ockham’s Razor, because I think many people assume that it is obviously true. So in arguments, they wave it around without backing anything up as if it is so apparent and cannot be challenged. In fact, any challenge to it is instantly understood as the rantings of a madman.

What is Ockham’s razor? Well, in complex form, it is: “Entities must not be multiplied beyond necessity.” In simple form, it is: “The simplest explanation is usually the correct one.”

People take this as true beyond anything else, and whenever competing hypotheses duel, someone in the room will invoke Ockham’s razor in defense of one: “Well, this hypothesis has less assumptions, so it is more likely to be right.” Or, if we know the likelihoods of two hypotheses, someone will say, “Since this one is more likely, it must be true.”

This spills over, I think, in discussions of beliefs. Especially beliefs about religion. Many people talk about coming to their beliefs in their religions in terms of what they have understood or comprehended…and what is simple to ascertain based on the evidence. In fact, one thing that many ex-Mormons (or even nonbelievers in general) try to argue is that the religious case is just so implausible.

What comes after is hairy. Because something is implausible or unlikely, what does that mean?

Some people conclude that if something is implausible, then it probably is untrue. Others conclude that if something is implausible, we have less reason to believe it to be true. What’s the difference?

I can tell you that I’m a fan of the second a lot more. But to explain, I’ll explain what I believe is the error of the former (and what I believe is an obsession with truth as a “simple” thing). With the former, one assumes that truth should be simple and easy to comprehend, so difficulty and complexity are objective evidences against something.

Monty Hall Problem

Should you switch your door?

I don’t think that is necessarily the case. There are plenty of unintuitive truths that can nevertheless be proven, but which don’t seem easy to comprehend. 0.9999~ = 1. The Monty Hall Problem. There are tv shows and internet chain emails devoted to tricking people up on unintuitive facts and truths.

Yet…this doesn’t mean we should be willing to accept anything that is unintuitive. Things that seem unlikely don’t give us reason to believe in these things (which is why we often do have to learn about logical fallacies, proper argumentation, and proofs…so that we can seek reason to believe things — even when they seem unintuitive.)

So, my question is the one I’ve asked in the title. Should truth be seen or understood to be simple and easy to comprehend? Because there is another train of thought. Some people, rather than saying that truth should be simple and easy to comprehend, rather than saying that as we learn more, everything about the universe will start to make more sense and fit together, they insist that truth — and indeed, higher truths — necessarily must be nuanced, complex, laden with paradox and unintuitiveness. Mystery and unresolved dilemmas should be embraced as sign of a life not on auto-pilot.

Today, I was reminded of this kind of thinking by the post at By Common Consent. But of course, that is far and away from the first or the only place where I have seen such a line of thought.


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  1. The tricky thing with Occam’s Razor is how we define ‘simple’ or ‘complex’. Lots of people say, “God! Simple!” But we don’t define simplicity by the number of syllables.

    one assumes that truth should be simple and easy to comprehend, so difficulty and complexity are objective evidences against something.

    The way you’re defining ‘complexity’ here is something like ‘difficult to understand’ or ‘counter-intuitive’. That’s not how we’d want to define it in the context of Occam’s Razor.

    For example, the phenomena described by quantum theory are very difficult to understand and counter-intuitive! (I certainly don’t understand it!) But at present, quantum theory explains these phenomena better than any competing theory, so we accept it.

    The key behind Occam’s Razor is that there’s no reason to use a complicated hypothesis to explain something when a simpler one will do. That’s ‘complicated’ in terms of ‘the entities’ used in the hypothesis.

    I had a discussion with someone who said that spiritual feelings were because of a god giving you that feeling. But it is possible to explain these feelings using brain chemistry (with experiments done on complicated equipment, to be sure!). Which hypothesis is more parsimonious? If you go for the god theory, you’re postulating a very complex being (on the basis of no real evidence). But we know that we have brains. The ‘brain chemistry’ explanation requires no god construct, and therefore is to be preferred, all else being equal, until more evidence comes along.

    I use the ‘crop circles’ example in my classes. One hypothesis for a crop circle is that aliens did it. Another is that people did it. We have good evidence that people exist and are capable of making crop circles. Therefore, we are not justified in adding an extra ‘alien’ layer onto our explanation, at least until we have good reason for doing so.

  2. Good point, Daniel. I was thinking that I might be going a little outside of the scope of the razor, but I decided to include it anyway because I didn’t want to gut this post.

    I think that your phrasing makes things easier to understand for me. For example, “Therefore, we are not justified in adding an extra ‘alien’ layer onto our explanation, at least until we have good reason for doing so.”

    ^so, in actuality, an extra alien layer could exist. That could be the truth. We just don’t necessarily have reason to believe such.

    The issue is when we confuse what we *have reason to believe* with what *is*. (Or rather, what is being debated).

  3. noforbiddenquestions permalink

    I agree with what Daniel said — got down to the bottom of the post and was about to write the same thing, but he beat me to it. 🙂

    Commenting anyway because I saw your tweet about not being able to get WordPress to ping the Atheist Blogroll. I managed to set it up (admittedly, on a separate installation and not on by adding “” under “Update Services” on the Writing Settings page. I think WordPress is set up to notify Pingomatic by default, which should include and for some reason just doesn’t work, but adding it as a separate line fixed it for me.

  4. Yeah, does not allow (as far as I can tell) people to change their pinging services…and pingomatic doesn’t seem to *correctly* notify blogrolling…

  5. noforbiddenquestions permalink

    Ah. Then I change my vote in your poll from “if you want to” to “great idea”!

  6. I ❤ the Monty Hall problem.

    It’s an interesting insight into how our brains work (or don’t). A mathematical proof is stronger than evidence, but the proof doesn’t often work as well. I’ve had friends reject logical proofs, like the ‘100 doors’ explanation. But then when I show them a computer simulation where, yes, the switcher does indeed win twice as much as the sticker, they accept it! Even though it’s technically ‘worse’ evidence.

  7. ^Good point too.

    I think the issue is that evidence itself isn’t all that important. Personally persuasive evidence is everything. Mathematical and logical proofs aren’t always personally persuasive, but simulations may be.

    I think people often focus on logos, but not enough of pathos and ethos.

  8. Daniel makes some good points here.

    However, the problem is that you can believe in the scientific brain chemical reaction explanations, and still believe in a God behind it all. The two are not mutually exclusive. In fact, I would posit that the two are talking about entirely different things.

    Science in general has no opinion on the reason why the universe and its laws “are.”

    Science merely observes what is observable. Nothing more. It can observe the motion of the universe and calculate a singularity “Big Bang” (or not – depending on the set of calculations and theories you find compelling). But it cannot answer “why” it’s all there or “what’s the point” of it all. In fact science is – by design – not equipped to ever answer that question. It simply has no opinion on the matter.

    So, when the religious person says “Holy Spirit” in an attempt to give meaning to his own emotional experiences, he need not be offering a COMPETING explanation for those feelings in contradiction of the scientific explanation. Neither need he be trying to SUPPLEMENT the scientific explanation with what he considers to be an observable and empirical add-on to the existing accepted science.

    What he is actually doing is applying an explanation to a realm where there IS no competing explanation – at least not from science.

    So this is not a matter of adding an additional layer of complexity to the already existing scientific observations. Rather, it is a matter of applying a theory to an area that science says nothing about whatever.

    Any educated person can read the accepted psychiatric journals and find out a bit of the “how” in human feeling. Read about the brain chemical reactions, how to alter them, what physical stimuli impact them, etc.

    What they cannot explain is why it’s all there. That’s the realm of metaphysics. And that’s the turf that competing metaphysical systems debate over.

    So it’s not adding a layer of complexity to the scientific explanation. It’s offering an explanation where science is silent altogether.

  9. When you put a metal battleship into the water, it seems like it should sink. But it floats.

    Now science may use terms like ‘buoyancy’ and ‘displacement’ to explain this, and that’s a fine scientific explanation. But you can also believe that the Great River Spirit is holding it up.

    Our Great River Spirit explanation is not adding an extra layer of complexity to our scientific understanding. It’s offering an explanation where science is silent altogether. Science has nothing to say — indeed, can have nothing to say — about river spirits.

  10. That’s not really a response to what I said Daniel.

    Because you are positing a “rive spirit” as a competing explanation for why the battleship floats.

    If you re-read what I said, I emphasized that God is not a competing explanation for why things happen.

  11. You’re taking an interesting and somewhat confusing approach, Seth. It’s true that science doesn’t really have an answer for some of these “why” questions, but some of those “why” questions are pretty absurd. I suppose the default position is that that’s just how it is, we happened to end up in a universe with this somewhat random set of physical laws. I believe string theorists / M-theorists might have a bit more to say about why we have the set of physical laws we have — certain possibilities are necessarily excluded from any universe that could potentially sustain life, so we couldn’t have been here to observe those laws in effect. But … is it really illuminating to ask that. I mean, “why is purple?” and the like. What does that question really even mean? Why does everything have to have some sort of Great Purpose Behind It?

  12. NFQ,

    But what if someone finds something engaging and compelling from a “why” answer that is beyond the “default position.”

    Or, what if someone considers a *different* answer to be the “default” position. I mean, you have so many people who say things like, “All of this stuff just couldn’t have arisen on its own.” Now, that isn’t proof of anything in and of itself, but it seems to me that it shows that some people don’t think the default answer to “why” is “That’s just how it is,” and as a result, many people are not satisfied with such an answer.

    I think that questions such as “why does life exist?” or “why am I here?” are not to be considered absurd, and to compare them to things like “why is purple?” is to miss the point.

  13. Why?

    Because it’s freaking awesome!

    That’s why.

  14. I would also say that science doesn’t answer ANY ultimate “why” questions – not just “some” of them.

  15. Religion provides rather strange, arbitrary answers to the ultimate “why” questions. Most of them come from people who claim to have an authoritative connection to some specific god. The different answers to these ultimate “why” questions become institutionalized and have direct and immediate effects on society. People divide into tribes depending on their unquestioning adherence to a particular set of prepackaged answers to the ultimate “why” questions fed to them since birth. Many of these answers actually DO conflict with science, or at the very least are interpreted by most believers in such a way that they do.

  16. Carson, people do not simply follow these ideas because someone told them to.

    They follow them because the ideas – in and of themselves – are glorious and powerful and speak to the greatest passions, longings, and aims of human identity. The ideas are powerful – with or without someone forcing them on everyone else.

    • Dan permalink

      The point of this post, though, is that “glorious and powerful” ideas that “speak to the greatest passions, longings, and aims of human identity” aren’t necessarily True.

      The Iliad does exactly the same thing without being true. Shakespeare does exactly the same thing without being true. ALL great works of fiction (emphasis on great and fiction) accomplish this aim without even trying to be True (with a capital T).

      The problem comes in when people try to use God to explain things outside the realms that He (and fiction) so successfully affect people:
      “God” created the Earth in 7 days. No, the earth was formed over millions of years through natural processes.
      “God” created a flat Earth at the center of the universe. No, the Earth is round and revolves around a small yellow star on the edge of a galaxy that is, itself, nowhere near the center of the universe.
      “God” created animals, plants, and people. No, living things evolved through natural processes.

      You get the idea? You can argue for a God that stirs men’s passions all you want. You can even pretend that’s somehow different than the myths other civilizations have told themselves. But God doesn’t work anymore as an explanation, once we’ve figured out the natural process. God is not True, just because he makes some people feel good.

  17. No, I’m not offering the Great River Spirit as a competing explanation. I’m applying a theory to an area where science says nothing.

    You can believe in the scientific explanation and the Great River Spirit. They’re not mutually exclusive — in fact, they’re talking about two entirely separate things. Science tells us how the boat stays up, and the Great River Spirit tells us why the boat stays up.

    And did I mention that I derive great peace and meaning from my belief about the Great River Spirit?

  18. Daniel,

    your presentation of the great river spirit argument doesn’t seem to provide an answer to “why”. When you say, “we can also believe that the great river spirit holds it up,” this doesn’t provide any why answer. So, I dunno, the analogy falls flat to me.

    On the other hand, I can see where, as Carson says, “many of these answers actually DO conflict with science, or are interpreted by believers in a way that makes them.” But that’s a bit of a different argument. (e.g., The why impacts the how).

  19. I agree that the ideas put forth by religion speak to the natural passions and longings of humanity. In fact, organized religion takes great advantage of them. Religious ideas also appeal to humans’ desires to see patterns where none exist, to feel superior than others, and to fear that which is different. There are two sides to the coin. I know that the ideas are powerful, but I really don’t think many of them are glorious.

    There is a natural sense of wonder and awe that we humans share, and organized religion tends to prostitute that.

  20. I can make up something about ‘why’ if you want me to. I could say that the GRS created everything for his own watery enjoyment and edification. I can do a lot of handwaving about how the GRS tells us ‘why it’s all here’. Maybe if I said more about how the GRS is glorious and powerful and speaks to the dreams and aspirations of all humanity. I could make something up, just as well as Seth can.

    Some points.

    1. There is absolutely no difference between Seth’s God explanation and my Great River Spirit explanation, except for domain. Switch the words around, and they’re exactly the same. Anything he can say about “God”, I can say about “the GRS”. And they’re both equally good explanations of ‘why it’s all here’.

    2. Supernatural explanations don’t do a good job of telling us ‘why’ because there’s no way to test them. All they give you is fluffy stories that you might like, or not.

    If anything is going to tell us ‘why’, it’ll be science because it will give answers that are testable. Maybe science can’t do that, but religion will do even worse.

    3. Seth said:

    That’s the realm of metaphysics. And that’s the turf that competing metaphysical systems debate over.

    But in fact there are no competing metaphysical systems because there’s no way to choose between two metaphysical claims.

    It’s easy to choose between two physical claims; just do an experiment. Did it rain because of falling air pressure, or because of the smoke in the air? You can sort that out very easily.

    Did it rain because God made it rain, or did Zeus make it rain? You’re stuck.

    4 (and more to the point of this post). Seth’s ‘God’ and my ‘GRS’ are perfect illustrations of the kind of nonsense that Occam’s Razor is so good at getting rid of. Seth can do all the handwaving and special pleading he wants (and so can I); the fact remains that we have perfectly adequate physical explanations for physical phenomena, and untestable supernatural notions are just extra baggage. The Razor says ‘cut it’.

  21. But Daniel, this ignores the fact that some belief systems are better and more compelling than others.

    This is where the fatuous comparisons of God to Santa Claus fall on their face.

    The idea of Santa Claus didn’t inspire the Sistine Chapel, Milton’s Paradise Lost, most of the works of Charles Dickens, Leo Tolstoy, and Dostoevsky. Nor did it inform the American Revolution, Martin Luther King, and the Abolitionists. Nor does “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” stand up very well to Handel’s “Messiah.”

    Neither is any “river spirit” you care to make up really going to stand up for depth of culture and human achievement. Maybe when you are capable of writing something of the depth and power of Augustine’s “City of God” we can talk Daniel.

    Come to think of it… have you even read Augustine’s “City of God” Daniel?

    Anyway, comparing God to the Tooth Fairy, a flying spaghetti monster, or an orbital teacup is just obviously stupid. None of those things can really claim all that many stars on their report cards.

  22. Just for clarity, guys — I keep seeing the word “why” used in two entirely different ways. (That’s part of why I wrote “some” instead of “all.”) You can ask, “Why does this log float on water?” and get the answer, “Because the density of the wood is less than the density of the water.” If you are satisfied with an answer about density and buoyant forces and all that, then you are asking ONE type of “why” question. (Sometimes you guys are calling this a “how” question, but not always.) But if you are not satisfied, you might go on to ask a SECOND type of “why” question, more like, “But why are there buoyant forces, and why should density matter anyway? Why do things have density? Why is there mass? Why is there gravity? Why are there forces at all?” This is what I called absurd.

    If you don’t think the question, “Why am I here?” is inherently absurd, please read some Sartre. I don’t know what to tell you. It’s just as absurd as “why is purple?” — because, why would you ever assume in the first place that you have some deeper reason for being?

  23. Seth: Santa Claus has definitely inspired some beautiful writing in children. Heartfelt, earnest, really expressive. But he probably never inspired a work like the Sistine Chapel because most kids find out Santa Claus doesn’t exist before they turn 8 or so. Established religions perpetuate the idea of God much longer than that,.

    Before you start trashing on River Gods, maybe you should read the Odyssey and check out some other great works of art by people who believed in the Greco-Roman pantheon.

    • Oh, I wasn’t talking about those ideas NFQ.

      I was talking about a hypothetical river god that Daniel proposes to make up off the top of his own head.

      And there were reasons that monotheism prevailed over very polytheistic paradigms that had nothing to do with military conquest. In fact, civilizations were often conquered by a superior idea long before they were conquered by the sword.

      God has staying power that Santa doesn’t simply because he offers more depth, more complexity, and a far more powerful idea. To try and compare God to Santa requires a rather breathtaking ignorance of the human span of theology and ideas. Or you just have to be in a rather juvenile frame of mind, I suppose.

      Nietzsche, the founder of atheism as a worldview, understood this better than anyone. When he declared God to be dead, it was an anguished cry of a horrible discovery.

      Because he (unlike many modern atheists) knew exactly how much humanity had lost with the death of God. He declared the loss to be just as earthshaking as the ultimate triumph of Christianity over the polytheism of Rome. What horrified him was that he didn’t see any good replacement for the idea of God in the offing. What was going to replace God as the new transcendent human narrative?

      When he posited his idea of the “ubermensch,” he was attempting to provide that new narrative that humanity could get behind and use as motivation for its future achievements (which he understood to be quite necessary). For a while, people had high hopes for atheism providing that transcendent narrative. But I think we’re still waiting.

      And with the failure of the enlightenment and rationalism, atheism is left standing on rather shaky ground. If human knowledge if really as subjective as postmodernism posits, then where does this leave the hyper-rationalist underpinnings of atheism itself?

  24. NFQ,

    absurdism: my weak spot.

  25. Just curious NFQ, are you really saying that the most powerful argument for atheism over theism is “who gives a crap?”

  26. Seth:
    I am definitely not claiming that this is “the most powerful argument for atheism over theism,” and I have no idea why you would have supposed that I was. There are so many arguments for atheism over theism, I have a hard time choosing which one might be the “most powerful.” I have never given a thought to such a hierarchy.

    The fact that a story is “compelling” has nothing to do with whether that story is factually true. I mean, seriously, pick any prize-winning novel off the shelf. I was not comparing God to Santa in all ways. I agree that Christian theology is in some senses a richer, more compelling story than that of Santa Claus. I was disputing your claim that, because Santa Claus had not inspired Dante to write the Inferno, Christianity is real while Santa Claus is not real. People have very strong feelings about Santa Claus, it’s just that they happen to be very small people without developed fine motor skills or very large vocabularies. I think that is more of a limiting factor than richness of narrative.

    Nietzsche is not, in any sense, “the founder of atheism.” Your claim that he is is laughable. As long as there have been gods that have been believed in, there have been some who didn’t get taken along for the ride — atheism is not a unified ideology, it is a lack of a particular category of ideology. What Nietzsche personally thought about God or the lack thereof is entirely irrelevant here. A great deal of what he wrote about the ubermensch was inspired by syphilitic insanity. I’m not taking his opinion (or, your opinion of his opinion) on whether or not rationality has failed. I am also not defending the subjectivity of all human knowledge, or “postmodernism.”

    I was so relieved when I first took a class in existentialism! I felt like all the questions and feelings I had about the world were maybe not so weird after all. It was refreshing to think that one could embrace those feelings instead of trying to solve them. I can recommend some good books if you are interested in reading more.

    I think it’s natural for humans to ask questions like, “Why am I here?” We act with intent, and create things with intent, and it’s not hard to imagine that someone created us and created the world with similar intent. However, the fact that we are inclined to ask certain questions does not mean that those questions have neat and tidy answers, or have answers at all. When I talk about “absurdity,” I’m talking about the fact that we will keep wondering about these questions and won’t find answers that satisfy us. See .

    • NFQ,

      If you think that Christianity provides “neat and tidy answers” then you don’t understand it.

      • True; it’s actually a very complex hypothesis.

      • You’re absolutely correct. In reality, though, I think that on these “important questions” Christianity does at least one of three things: provides no answer at all, provides multiple contradictory answers, or raises many more (and more difficult to answer) questions than it could be imagined to have answered.

        Nevertheless, my point was that people will continue to want neat and tidy answers, and a lot of people are under the impression that their own religion provides them.

        • Yup.

        • Oh, I wholeheartedly agree.

          We just had a lesson in LDS Sunday School last month on the Fall of Adam and Eve. The question came up of why God would tell them not to eat the fruit, but then give a conflicting commandment that could only be carried out by eating it.

          I was a little disappointed at how most in the class thought the answer to this was easy.

          It’s not an easy answer. That’s why the story has so much power.

          But that doesn’t prevent people – both believers and non-believers – from trying to trivialize it.

  27. Shorter Seth:
    1. People who believed in my god made great works of art, music, and literature.
    2. Therefore, my god exists.

  28. Wrong Daniel,

    People who believed in my God made great works of art.

    Therefore comparing him to an orbital teapot is stupid.

    Carry on.

  29. The only difference between your tribal deity Elohim and my Great River Spirit is that Elohim has had a four-thousand year head start.

    It’s not about how ‘compelling’ the belief is, it’s the evidentiary basis for the belief. In that area, Elohim and the GRS are exactly equal.

    • “The only difference between your tribal deity Elohim and my Great River Spirit is that Elohim has had a four-thousand year head start.”

      Yes Daniel, and there’s a reason he’s had a four-thousand year head start. A reason he’s endured that long.

      The people who’ve lived before you weren’t exactly imbeciles you know.

      • Oh, so the oldest god wins?

        I’m now getting the impression that you either don’t know what a good argument is, or you don’t care as long as you can come back with some kind of ‘answer’.

        • Not just the oldest, but the one who has been the most powerful and potent in human history.

          It beats taking your word for it anyway.

          And I’ve given quite a few arguments here. Reducing my position to one of those arguments is to miss most of my point.

          • In what weird reality is the Christian/Muslim/Jewish god the oldest?

            Your ethnocentrism in dismissing all other religions, worldwide is pretty astonishing. I doubt most Hindus would agree that the Abrahamic god is the most powerful or potent. Nor Buddhists. Nor Scientologists.

            You make statements as if they were fact, and as if that then makes them fact.

            If the Russel’s teapot analogy offends you, how about we compare your god to the gods of people who also made art and music, like the Greeks, or the Romans, or the Babylonians, or any number of civilisations. Why is your god real but Zeus/Jupiter/the Indo-European gods are silly fables?

            Your god has survived into modern times with believers not because he is real or because he’s the best and oldest and most powerful, but simply because our culture happened to develop in such a way that perpetuated the Jehovah god persona. If the ancient Hebrews had picked a different god to associate with El, the head god, instead of Yahweh you’d be worshipping one of the other minor gods Ba’al, Astarte, Anat, Resheph, Yerak, or maybe even a female goddess like Shapshu or Asherah, the consort of El. Yahweh was just one of the minor gods, one of El’s 70 children, and the one that happened to be associated with the geographic region of Israel/Palestine.

            The fact that you’re monotheistic(ish) at all is purely happen-stance, as is the fact that the Jewish religion, and then later the Christian decided to associate El the head god of the pantheon with Yahweh and eventually became monotheistic. In fact, up to the Babylonian captivity (600BC), the Israelites were polytheistic, with El/Yahweh being the head god.

      • Hindu gods have been around a long time, but you’re not Hindu.

        I know you like to think that your god is special and better than other gods, but you’re going to have an uphill battle trying to argue that using facts and reason.

  30. Comparing God to a teapot? Are you kidding me? Russell’s teapot is a purposefully absurd example used to illustrate the point that it is not up to skeptics to prove unfalsifiable religious claims. There’s nothing about the teapot example comparing how beautiful the stories are.

    I’ve read very many beautiful and inspiring fictional stories before. Somehow the nonfictional stories seem to inspire me even more. I wonder why that is?

  31. That’s the thing though – metaphysics is by-definition beyond the realm of being proven by scientific observation. If you are going to worship a god, you must do so on other grounds than “science has established it.”

    Which makes Russel’s observation true, but also beside the point.

  32. Oh come on Craig.

    You don’t see the irony of an atheist reprimanding me for dismissing other gods? To use your own terminology, I’ve simply dismissed one less than you have. Don’t try to tell me I’ve disrespected other cultures when you yourself are part of a paradigm that essentially dustbins what most of the world’s population holds most dear about their own cultures.

    I may reject aspects of Shintoism for instance, but thank goodness, at least I don’t trivialize it. An atheist has little business playing the multiculturalist I think. If the only aspect of human life that matters is what is rationally aprehended, then observing other cultures is merely a stepping stone on the way to ultimately consigning all of them to the dustbin and uniting humanity under one true rationally apprehended way. An atheist who talks about leaving other cultures alone is, as far as I can tell, merely one who lacks the courage of his own convictions.

    As it so happens, by the way, I personally identify the Old Testament goddess of Asherah with Heavenly Mother. There’s also plenty of room in Mormon thought for other divine beings. Mormonism has a certain native adaptability that well suits it to act as a sort of bridge religion.

    So you have to be careful in definitively declaring what Gods Mormon theology does or does not reject.

    • Craig is not reprimanding you for disrespecting other gods. He is pointing out that the fact that you believe in Elohim the Hebrew Tribal Deity is due to many accidents of history, and not his supposed omnipotence. If you were born somewhere else, you might believe a different god.

      And you haven’t given any reasons why your god is to be preferred on factual grounds over any other.

      As it so happens, by the way, I personally identify the Old Testament goddess of Asherah with Heavenly Mother.

      This is getting weird.

      • Here you go Daniel:

  33. You have to specify what you will accept as “factual grounds” before such an argument can go anywhere.

    I’ve already suggested several factual avenues and the response has been that you aren’t interested in looking at it.

    How well an idea has fared in human history, what it has inspired and motivated, and how well it accounts for the full human experience are all “facts.” Some of them may be subjective facts, but facts nonetheless.

  34. You seem unaware of the difference between ‘facts’ and ‘unwarranted conclusions based tenuously on facts’. Perhaps a demonstration.

    Religious people built the Sistine Chapel.
    Unwarranted conclusion
    Therefore, Elohim exists.

    People have believed in Elohim, a Hebrew tribal deity, for thousands of years.
    Unwarranted conclusion
    Therefore, Elohim exists.

    Religious ideas comfort and inspire people.
    Unwarranted conclusion
    Therefore, religious ideas are true. Oh, but only my religious ideas, not anyone else’s, even if they find them inspiring or comforting.

    If you could present facts to support your view, and leave out the jumping to your own foregone conclusions, that would be most welcome.

  35. Oh, are you moving the target now Daniel?

    You wrote:

    “you haven’t given any reasons why your god is to be preferred on factual grounds over any other.”

    Now you seem to be changing your mind and moving the requested proof to “demonstrate that God exists.”

    It’s hard to discuss this if you keep moving the target.

  36. And anyway, none of my facts were meant to be definitive in the first place toward the conclusion of God’s existence. All of them are tentative. But that doesn’t mean there are no supporting facts.

  37. No, no. When I said “Perhaps a demonstration”, I meant that I was about to demonstrate to you what I was talking about. And then I gave some examples of where you have mistakes your conclusions for facts in this conversation.

    I thought this was necessary because you’ve misunderstood at a fundamental level what kind of evidence it takes to establish a claim.

    So if you have supporting facts for not just any supernatural being, but your supernatural being, I am all eyes. Please tell me what they are.

  38. An atheist has little business playing the multiculturalist I think. If the only aspect of human life that matters is what is rationally aprehended, then observing other cultures is merely a stepping stone on the way to ultimately consigning all of them to the dustbin and uniting humanity under one true rationally apprehended way.

    This is just the old and false charge that atheists, because they don’t believe in deities, can’t appreciate things like love, aesthetic appeal, moral beauty, art, human connection, community, symbolism, and culture.

    An atheist who talks about leaving other cultures alone is, as far as I can tell, merely one who lacks the courage of his own convictions.

    Leaving other cultures alone? Where did you get this from? This isn’t about leaving other cultures alone, it’s about realizing that other cultures have completely contradicting beliefs to yours.

  39. Chris permalink

    “So, when the religious person says “Holy Spirit” in an attempt to give meaning to his own emotional experiences, he need not be offering a COMPETING explanation for those feelings in contradiction of the scientific explanation. Neither need he be trying to SUPPLEMENT the scientific explanation with what he considers to be an observable and empirical add-on to the existing accepted science.

    What he is actually doing is applying an explanation to a realm where there IS no competing explanation – at least not from science.”

    Mutually exclusive? Maybe. However, I think science can evaluate the reasons that are used to justify a metaphysical explanation.

    • Oh, I agree with that point Chris.

      Religionists have been just as guilty of rationalizing God as the atheists they debate with. Nothing irritates me more than debating with some Evangelical who obliviously brags that (unlike the Book of Mormon) his Bible has been objectively proven by science, history and archeology.

      I consider a church-goer with this kind of attitude and this kind of basis for faith to be simply an atheist waiting to happen – once he gets more information.

      That’s why I’ve always discouraged this kind of grounding of faith.

      • I should add, it’s not so much the rationalizing of God that I mind. I think rational and even scientific data should be applied to the notion of God.

        What I object to is the pigeonholing of God in the rational/science inbox and acting like that’s the only place of inquiry he belongs in.

      • Chris permalink

        You say that scientific and metaphysical explanations are mutually exclusive, correct?. One can accept the brain chemistry explanation and the “Holy Spirit” explanation without being in a contradiction, correct?

        I have a problem with the reasoning “metaphysicists” use to justify their explanation. I’m not asking for proof. I just haven’t seen good evidence to justify the explanation of “the Spirit.” Why is it assumed that “the Spirit” is the one causing the brain chemistry?

  40. Carson, Daniel, anyone…

    Can you give me objective rational proof that a piece of poetry or art is any good? Something that doesn’t appeal to:

    1. I like it or

    2. Lots of other people have liked it

    Given how obsessive many of the atheists I have encountered with rationalism and hard proof, I really do consider it a wonder that they do still appreciate the things Carson mentions – love, art, beauty… For where is the “proof” of any of these things?

    It seems to me that some atheists are applying a double standard that separates God out from any number of important and treasured aspects of life to which they do not apply the same standard.

    Either that, or they are still under the delusion that science has anything definitive to say about God in the first place.

    Again, asking for scientific proof of God is just as pointless as asking for scientific proof of a Shakespearean sonnet. Science is a narrow artificial paradigm that we have constructed for achieving certain aims. But lets not kid ourselves that science has much relevance to the biggest questions of human nature and existence.

    As for proof of God…. how am I supposed to comply with this request in a way anyone here would accept?

    You might as well ask me to prove that War and Peace by Tolstoy is a greater work of literary fiction than Patriot Games by Tom Clancy. How am I supposed to prove that in a debate setting?

    Now, I’ve read both novels (years ago), and I am quite convinced that War and Peace is light years better as a novel than Patriot Games. But do you think I’m going to be able to walk into a bar and argue this point persuasively with some guy who’s only ever read Patriot Games, and who – on top of that – naturally mistrusts these “high-falutin’ ivory tower types”?

    Nope. Not a chance. Unless he actually breaks out and experiences it for himself, my arguments are meaningless to him. I can point to how a lot of smart people agree with me (which you guys have shot down as an argument). I can appeal to my own sense of aesthetics and meaning (which I haven’t dared to use here because I know your response already). I could invoke a lot of academic literary mumbo-jumbo, if I were so trained (which I am not), but it wouldn’t make much difference if the listener wasn’t speaking the same language.

    Prove God Daniel?

    Prove your wife loves you.

    You can crow about lack of proof all you want, but it’s simply beside the point on this topic.

  41. The issue is that aesthetics isn’t objective. Beauty doesn’t objectively exist. It exists precisely because

    1) you like it or
    2) lots of other people have liked it.

    But we wouldn’t talk about there existing an external objective beauty or aesthetics.

    So, as long as you recognize how this argument similarly applies to god (e.g., it is subjective…your belief is justified insofar as you recognize it is something you and other people perceive and project, not something inherent to the universe), then this doesn’t necessarily deflect atheism.

    • Andrew, beauty may be subjective – but it is also a common shared experience. Which seems to indicate something more is going on here.

      • Intersubjectivity indicates that we are related as a species. In the same way, the vast majority of us process certain spectrums of light as the phenomenon we call “red,” but that doesn’t mean roses are objectively red.

        It just means that the vast majority of us (because, of course, we do know of people who are differently built.) have rods and cones that process it as “red”.

      • Well, you can make a case that there is an overarching human meaning behind that.

        • And I would have no problem with that. If we understood it to be overarching *human* meaning.

          It’s been interesting to see you chastise atheists for being hyperrationalistic, relying on the “objective” evidence.

          I agree. But I also think it’s silly for religious people to try to do the same thing and just stick God in there. Not claiming that you’re doing it, but I’m sure many of your fellow religionists (lol, what a lame and loaded term) would cringe at your description of religion as “subjective, participatory, relational.”

  42. Chris permalink

    I’m not sure if this is semantics but…

    Is science really about proving something? Can we really prove that the theory of evolution is true? Or do we take the approach that we have enough good evidence to show that it is probably true and thus considered a fact?

    When someone asks for some good evidence, is that the same thing as requiring proof?

  43. sdrogers permalink

    Chris, I think in general Christians often do a very poor job of providing good evidence for their faith – even the kind of evidence they are supposed to be providing. Mormons are the same way.

    Religion is supposed to be subjective, participatory, relational. It is not something well-suited to objective analysis.

    Thus the evidence a faith system is supposed to be providing is in the inherent mental and emotional strength of the theology, the ideas it motivates and fosters, and in the lives and society of the people who adhere to it.

    Basically, it’s a “by their fruits shall ye know them” kind of thing. This is supposed to be religions “door approach” – what gets people in and interested. Once in, the duty to continue providing this kind of evidence continues upon the adherents. In addition to this, the believer is encouraged to seek direct personal and even mystical contact with the divine – thus adding solid personal experience to the proofs they already have (I haven’t reached this level myself with particular or notable intensity – but I know people who have claimed to).

    That’s the theory anyway.

    In practice, religious adherents are mean, judgmental, and uncharitable and often repel a lot of potential believers. I feel that believers will have to answer to God for that – for how poorly they represented him.

    This is where I feel a disinterested atheist observer could be of best service in the debate over religion – in pointing out the ways in which religions and religious adherents are not living up to their own professed ideals. Sometimes an outsider can spot this stuff better than the people who are in the thick of it.

    As long as they keep in mind the possibility that they may not have the whole picture of what religious belief within a faith system means.

  44. Andrew, I posted under an old WordPress account I had by accident (“sdrogers”) and my comment went into moderation. Just a heads-up.

    • yeah, I noticed. I think I fished it out.

  45. Chris permalink

    I still don’t understand how the utilitarian argument is even a stepping stone in the direction of supernaturalist belief.

    If somebody wants to believe in a placebo, that’s fine as long as they claim it’s a placebo. People saying that a placebo is the real thing is different. This is where I look at their reasoning and ask for some evidence.

    • Chris – even if you have a placebo, it ceases to have any effect once you identify it. So even if religion is a “placebo,” asking believers to admit that that’s what it is seems a little unreasonable, wouldn’t you say?

      And anyway – why does the utilitarian argument automatically mean “placebo” in your mind?

    • Chris permalink

      The “emotional strength of the theology” is a placebo because it’s just in your mind. There is no external Spirit giving you comfort.

      The utilitarian argument doesn’t automatically mean placebo. Only when it is used to justify that the medicine is real, or could be real, do I take issue with.

      Yes it is quite unreasonable for believers to admit that’s what it really is (a placebo). But if somebody wants to be completely and honestly self-delusion and aware of their self-delusion… I’m totally fine with that (if that’s even possible). Just don’t go around claiming something you don’t have good evidence for.

      • Why shouldn’t the positive effects be evidence.

        Any pharmaceutical researcher would take positive effects of something as at least positive evidence of effectiveness. Why won’t you entertain the same possibility?

    • Chris permalink

      “Why shouldn’t the positive effects be evidence?”

      Because the positive effects are artificial. I could literally use it as evidence for all kinds of ‘-isms.’

      • Chris permalink

        Maybe artificial wasn’t the right word, btw. I think a pharmaceutical researcher would also take note of when something just doesn’t do anything or sometimes has negative effects. Do you entertain those possibilities?

  46. I guess I’m not getting this whole placebo argument. The problem is that placebos *do something*. It’s just that since we use them as the backdrop against some kind of externality, we have demonized them.

    • Chris permalink

      The problem is when a placebo-taker uses the placebo’s utility to claim that the medicine is real or it is logical to even consider that the medicine is real.

    • And I’m just not sure why you are assuming that I am arguing the validity of religion because it’s a placebo and does nice stuff. I’ve never claimed that here.

    • Chris permalink

      Heh… ok. Let me start over.

      Basically, it’s a “by their fruits shall ye know them” kind of thing. This is supposed to be religions “door approach” – what gets people in and interested.

      Why is it even a legitimate door approach? Godless philosophies could use the same door approach.

      • So why don’t they then?

      • Chris permalink

        Maybe some do. And I probably should have said ‘dogma’ instead of ‘philosophy.’

        Well… I suppose I’m just against that line of thinking because I’ve seen people use the utilitarian argument to go down paths that just leech them of their money…when it just turned out they were buying a bottle of water instead of “magical” water. I understand you don’t use it as a solid evidence for God, and that you just use it as a door approach….

  47. By the way, thanks for keeping the conversation pleasant everyone.

    Daniel, I hope I’ve been behaving myself a bit better than our last recent conversation.

  48. Thanks, Seth. All is well. Except that the conversation moves on when I go to bed! I suppose the answer is to never sleep. Let’s see if I can catch up with some of the ideas going around.

    Fact claims v opinion claims

    Seth wrote:
    You might as well ask me to prove that War and Peace by Tolstoy is a greater work of literary fiction than Patriot Games by Tom Clancy. How am I supposed to prove that in a debate setting?

    That’s an interesting one. I’m singing in a Bach mass this weekend. The G Major mass is a great piece of music, but I don’t have an objective way to demonstrate that it’s objectively better than some song on pop radio. We might both agree that the Bach is better, but we wouldn’t have an objective standard — we’d just have a standard that we both agreed on.

    Questions of opinion are somewhat different from questions of fact. I think you’re conflating the two. But — going along with you — if you want to say that the existence of the deity Elohim is a question of opinion, we can do that. In which case, I will classify your religious beliefs as your opinion, sort of like what books you like and what music you listen to.

    BUT if the question of your god’s existence is an opinion question, then there’s no reason for you to be arguing for what amounts to your own personal religious preferences — or ‘peculiarities’. It would be like someone arguing for Bach, and pretending to have an objective standard. And, I might add, your church can stop sending missionaries to teach people that the existence of Elohim is a fact that everyone needs to accept.

    I don’t think you really believe that the existence of Ganesha, Thor, and Elohim are opinion questions. They are questions of fact, which need evidence to support them.

    Prove God Daniel?
    Prove your wife loves you.

    Actually, I have a lot of evidence that my girlfriend loves me. For one thing, she woke me up by dropping many packets of chocolate onto me. (It’s my birthday today, you see.)

    • Opinion vs. fact…

      Maybe Daniel.

      However, I am fairly confident that my “opinion” that Bach’s mass is better than “London Bridge” by Fergie is correct.

  49. Actually, I have a lot of evidence that my girlfriend loves me. For one thing, she woke me up by dropping many packets of chocolate onto me. (It’s my birthday today, you see.)

    I may have gotten the wrong mental image in mind from this…

    • Agreed.

      • It’s an obscure sexual act and a dessert topping!

      • Well, happy birthday.

      • Oh, thank you.

  50. I’ve been following this discussion quietly for a while, and I have to say I’m kind of confused about the point anyone’s trying to make at this point, except that Seth R. thinks it’s a good idea that everyone else believe in his God and his religion and everyone else (almost? I might have forgotten some comments in this long thread) disagrees.

    I would like to answer some of the assertions about opinions and facts that were left dangling somewhere in there. I think it’s worth pointing out that the only things we can really prove are mathematical statements. We defined the axioms and the operations and we can then show that the effect of such and such operation has this result. We can show that this expression is identical to, or always different from, that expression. It all exists within a world of logical constructs.

    Scientists know this and are okay with this. (I say this as a scientist who’s been part of “the scientific community” for quite a few years now.) When we say we’ve “proven” a “scientific fact,” we mean that we’ve done so to the best of our abilities, using the tools we currently have available. We recognize that at any time new data could arrive that would overturn our results, so we wait to call something a fact until we’ve done a lot of experiments, thought about it for a long time, told everyone else and invited them to ask hard questions, done a lot more experiments…. We are willing to say that we understand some physical phenomenon when we have a boatload of observations that, as far as we can tell, can only be explained by one theory.

    I think this is the way that most “regular” people (non-scientists) operate with respect to knowledge about the physical world as well. I mean, we don’t have absolute proof that if I were to push this laptop off the table, it would crash to the floor. We just know that every single other time an object has been dropped, it falls according to certain principles of motion having to do with the object’s initial position and velocity as well as the various forces in play. We have never observed something not following those principles, so unless we do, I don’t need to drop my laptop to its crunchy doom in order to verify this.

    So, this is what we mean when we talk about proof in science. A truly overwhelming collection of evidence that, after long and careful analysis by as many great minds as we can put on the case, appears to point towards only one conclusion. No, it is not “absolute proof” in the sense that we have absolute proof for the Pythagorean theorem. But if you did not accept this sort of stuff as sufficient in order to act as though these things were fact, you’d probably go crazy. You can’t live your life with literally no assumptions about the mechanisms of the world around you.

    When religions make claims, however, they’re not even approximating this type of a system. The only supposed evidence I’ve ever seen for a particular deity or a particular religion’s tenets is the assertion that “someone said so.” You know, it’s written down in this really old book here. This guy in a black suit with a white collar told me it was true. This guy with a really epic hat promised me it was the case.

    If you want to claim that religion is ultimately in the realm of personal opinion, like whether or not U2 is a good band, then fine, but stop trying to convince other people that your religion is obviously true. By calling it opinion, you’ve relegated it to the regime where there is no one true answer. If you want to admit to the fact that your religion is making factual claims about how the real world actually works (e.g. the outcome of prayer, where rainbows come from, the age of the earth, why people get sick, etc.) and you think that other people should accept your religion’s explanations, you’re going to have to start providing at least a fraction of the kind of evidence that science provides for similar explanations.

  51. NFQ, that assumes that opinions ultimately don’t matter.

    That’s the only way you can claim we all ought to stick to our own opinions privately and not try to imposes them on our surroundings.

    But opinions DO matter. Quite a bit.

    The opinion of whether or not U2 is a good band or not has millions of dollars riding on it, as well as the careers of many people – beyond just the band members. Record deals, news interviews, ad campaigns, expensive concert tours employing hundreds of people.

    It’s kind of a big deal.

    And other opinions matter even more.

    • No, I’m not assuming opinions don’t matter. I’m saying that if something is a matter of opinion, there is no such thing as a correct or an incorrect belief on it.

      If you want to argue that the world would be a better place if everyone lived under your particular religious delusion, that’s one thing. (This is, I think, what Chris was talking about when he mentioned the placebo effect.) But if you want to argue that your religion is true, that there really is this particular God and he really does demand these things of people and so on — then don’t call it a matter of opinion.

  52. Of course there is such a thing as an incorrect opinion.

    You sound like one of those bad 1980s self-esteem videos they shoved on us in elementary school.

    Some opinions are really, REALLY bad actually. And some are outstanding, and some are just idiotic. Opinions are definitely worth arguing over and caring about.

    • Please give me an example of an opinion that is really bad or really outstanding.

  53. Democracy is the best system of government currently possible.


    • Well, it depends on what you mean by “best.” If you mean, “That’s the government under which I’d most like to live,” that is a matter of opinion without any right or wrong answer.

      Assuming that this sentence is said in a context where “best” has some well-defined meaning, there is some factual answer. We can do statistics on all the governments currently in existence and throughout recorded history and look at how they measure up to whatever standard “best” means, and we’ll find out if democracies really are the best.

  54. NFQ,

    We’ve bombed entire nations back to the stone age over this “matter of opinion.”

    We had the Cold War over this difference of opinion.

  55. But what criteria do you use to determine “best?” And how do you prove those criteria hold?

  56. Re: the first part about wars. What is your point? I am saying that if something is a matter of opinion, you should stop trying to force other people to hold the same opinion as you. I am not claiming that people don’t try to force other people to share their opinions. Obviously they do.

    I don’t know what criteria you use to determine what’s “best.” It’s not my fault you used imprecise language when offering your suggested “opinion.” You might be talking about “best” in terms of life span, or health, or wealth, or self-reported happiness, to name a few examples. I can’t read your mind, but there are lots of objective, factual assessments I can imagine. What did you mean when you said “best”?

  57. What I’m saying is that this whole “democracy” thing boils down to opinion on what I think is your criteria for the word. And we do force that opinion on others – and a lot of people vehemently think we should force that opinion on others.

  58. Is this “opinion” really bad or really good? You never actually clarified what the inherent nature of it was supposed to be. I was assuming “good,” because democracy usually equals good in people’s minds in my experience. But now I think you maybe were going for bad, because you keep bringing up the wars and the forcing on others. I’m pretty sure that when you said “bombed entire nations back to the stone age,” you meant that to have a negative connotation (but correct me if I’m wrong in that assumption).

    I still think that this “opinion” you’ve suggested is an opinion when “best” means “I like it” and a factual question when “best” has some well-defined criterion like I’ve been saying. But let’s imagine that it’s always an opinion, for a moment. — The bad part is only coming from the part where someone forces the opinion on someone else. This is exactly my point.

    Upon reflection, I really don’t think you’ve provided me with an example of an opinion which is inherently good or inherently bad, but you did insist such things exist. Shall we try again?

  59. I’m not taking a position on whether democracy is good or bad. It doesn’t matter for the point I’m trying to make here.

    You have said that when it is a matter of opinion, we should not force that opinion on others.

    I disagree.

    My point in bringing up democracy, or communism, was to point out that there are opinions that matter enough to force on others. Opinions that matter enough to start wars over.

    Now, you seemed to be hinting at the explanation that people back up that “opinion” of democracy = good enough to kill for, with solid evidence.

    But I think the evidence that they use to back up this opinion is really no different in nature from the evidence religious people use to back up their opinion in God.

  60. You need to take a position on whether the opinion, “Democracy is the best system of government currently possible,” is a good or a bad opinion to have, because what you were arguing before is that some opinions are inherently good while other opinions are inherently bad. I asked you to provide an example of an opinion that fell into either category, and you offered this one in response — but you didn’t tell me what category you thought it was in.

    At no point have I been talking about the idea that anything is “good enough to kill for.” This is completely distinct from the question of what system of government is the best. Whatever you thought I was hinting at was totally imagined.

    You are phrasing everything so vaguely and dissociating so much that it is hard to tell what you are actually defending.
    I feel kind of like I’m chasing a cartoon character up and down a hallway full of doors. Are you trying to say that if you have an opinion as to what form of government you’d enjoy living under, you would be justified in murdering other people in order to attempt to facilitate the government you’d like rising to power to govern yet other people still? What portion of this is the “opinion” that you wanted to talk about?

  61. I think the real issue is that when we are confronted with a relativistic situation (which is the case if we’re just dueling opinions [which we are]), then it’s easy to say things like, “Everyone is entitles to his own opinion; let’s not force our own on others.” But at some point, this is pusillanimous and doesn’t reflect the way the world works.

    Even if, let’s say, there were no objective external “right” way or “wrong” way and everyone has his own opinion, the fact is that we perceive such (our opinions) and pursue such. So, a world where there is no objective “right” or “wrong” seems to have humans acting pretty similarly to a world where this is such because of the strength of our convictions.

    So, as long as you are willing to note that powerful opinions don’t necessarily imply rightness, truth, or correctness in an objective sense (but these don’t matter anyway because we will perceive and project, define and establish these things regardless), there is no problem.

    To apply it: Democracy or communism aren’t necessarily ideas that inherently “matter” enough to force upon others. The opinion “Democracy is the best form of government” isn’t inherently good or inherently bad. However, this is irrelevant, since “mattering”, “good,” and “bad” are all things perceived by us in the first place, and plenty of people do perceive that democracy and communism matter, and plenty of people (not just Seth, so it is irrelevant which “side” Seth is on) will perceive this opinion as being good/right/correct or bad/wrong/incorrect, and these people are willing to attempt to spread it and force it on others.

    My only issue is…most people, I think, don’t want to take God in such a way. They don’t want to believe that God as a concept is relevant, matters, is important, because *people perceive and project* that it matters. They want to believe (and what they perceive and project, precisely) is that God objectively and externally exists.

  62. Point of order: democracy and communism are not mutually exclusive. They’re not even on the same continuum.

    • of course. Didn’t mean to imply that they were; just was trying to go with the metaphor of the others.

      • I considered making that point of order myself earlier, but I figured it was just another door on that long hallway that I’d be better off leaving closed. 😉

      • I was actually pointing that out not to you specifically, but in general, just because I got the idea that earlier in the convo, certain assumptions were being made.

  63. It seems to me to be entirely unrelated to the question at hand whether “plenty of people … will perceive [an] opinion as being good/right/correct or bad/wrong/incorrect, and these people are willing to attempt to spread it and force it on others.” The question isn’t whether those people will do such a thing, but whether it makes sense for them to do it. If you could tell those people, “Stop forcing your opinions on others!” would you? I would.

    To bring back some context … somewhere in this discussion it was debated whether or not Seth’s belief in God was his opinion or whether it was an objective fact. What I was trying to say was that if it was fact, it should be verifiable in the way that we verify other facts about our world (a la science). If it was opinion, then it makes no sense to imagine that other people should share it or to attempt to force them to share it (since opinion is an inherently subjective, personal inclination by definition).

    • Continuing to muse to myself … are (any of) you going for an argument something like: given that some people will be forcing their bad opinions on other people, the people with good opinions should push back and force their opinions on people for balance / to win out over the bad ones?

      • I argue that, with one caveat – an opinion or even an objectively true belief ought never be forced on anyone (depending on what you mean by “force”). There also has to be demonstrable harm being done, and/or demonstrable lack of truth able to be shown.

        This is, in fact, my main basis for my arguments against Mormonism. It both does demonstrable harm, and is demonstrably false (the claims it makes about the universe aren’t true).

        Ideas about art, music are subjective, and I’d be hard-pressed to find an instance where an opinion about art could really be categorised as true/false, good/bad. Religion is, generally, not in the category because as has been pointed out, religions make claims about reality that can be tested. When these claims fall short (and they all inevitably do), we can make a judgement about those claims.

        Science ought, can and does have much to say about religions.

        Also in this same way , science has much to say about politics.

        • “This is, in fact, my main basis for my arguments against Mormonism”

          Mormonism in specific, and religion (and all bad ideas) in general.

        • “I argue that, with one caveat – an opinion or even an objectively true belief ought never be forced on anyone (depending on what you mean by “force”). There also has to be demonstrable harm being done, and/or demonstrable lack of truth able to be shown. ”

          This is, of course, an opinion.

          • Of course it is. I’m not claiming those views as objective truth or whatever. We can’t really make objectively correct rules about morality. Morality is inherently subjective. Morality exists because we’re self aware and feel pain. The universe has no rules about morality like it does about gravity or time or space. Gravity is objective truth, evolution is (likely) objective truth, opinions about morality are subjective opinions.

        • Except Craig, that you claims of “demonstrably false” and “demonstrably harmful” are utterly controversial.

          Science has things to say about religion – but generally only around the periphery. The most fundamental claims of religion are, by-definition, outside territory that science even claims to live in.

          • For example, science can state that the earth is not 6,000 years old like the Bible states.

            But this is not even remotely a fundamental religious issue. It’s merely a stylistic issue for many religious people, and hardly something to make-or-break one’s faith in an Old Testament religion.

          • And by that very nature, those claims are silly and pointless.

            If a claim is unfalsifiable, what use is it? You might have a pleasant emotional experience to go along with that belief, but every contradicting belief has the same thing.

            Again, why Mormonism? Why among all the unfalsifiable claims that religions make, do you pick Mormonism?

            Of course many of the claims religions make are in the realm of reality/science and can be tested. And are. And usually end up being nonsense.

      • nktrygg permalink

        In my opinion, it’s more important for people to learn the difference between opinion, preference and facts.

        We are all entitled to have bad opinions, even strongly held ones, and we are allowed to have a preference for how the world should be – opinion and preference are strongly linked.

        We just need to not confuse our own opinions and preferences with facts – or interpretations of the facts.


  64. Why wouldn’t it make sense for people to spread (and even force) opinions on each other? The entire point is that opinions have force of conviction. People feel strongly about certain opinions…everything is *not* like chocolate or vanilla ice cream.

    For you to tell people, “Stop forcing your opinions on others!” would only make sense in context of opinions you yourself have. Your drive to action is caused because your opinions have force of conviction — regardless of the fact that it is still just opinion.

    I guess my problem is that you have not established that “if it was opinion, then it makes no sense to imagine that other people should share it or attempt to force them to share it.” It makes tons of sense. Just because something is *subjective* doesn’t mean that people aren’t driven to share and spread the subjective inclination.

    • What do you mean by “force”?

      • In a previous comment on this article, you noted that morality is a subjective opinion.

        Now, we can disagree on what the particulars of a good moral code are, but whatever that is, we are going to try to enforce it. It becomes foundation of our laws and our justice system. We try to inculcate our opinions via schooling or childrearing. If people will not abide by it, we will punish them.

        I think that counts as “force”.

  65. NFQ: Continuing with your musing to yourself, while I believe anyway that “bad” and “good” are projections and perceptions of individuals, I think that OF COURSE, from every individual standpoint, this is true.

    I think this is life. It is apparent throughout life. “Given that there are people of x political party trying to legislate x’s horrible political ideals, we y partiers must push back and legislate y’s awesome political ideals.”

    Or put in a philosophy.

    Consider this argument: “Given that there are religious people trying to proselytize a non-empirical philosophy, we empirical rationalists must push back with empiricism and rationalism.”

    This argument does not escape ‘bad opinion’ ‘good opinion’. It highlights, however, Seth’s point that there are opinions that matter, opinions that are good, and opinions that are very bad.

    *My* point however is that the opinions that ‘matter,’ that are ‘good’ or are ‘bad’ will depend on person. We often ignore the lens (us) taking the snapshot of the world.

  66. I am of the opinion that when Seth decided to recast his fact claims as being similar to opinion statements, it was because he realised that he had no facts with which to bolster his claims. That way, he could remove from himself the burden of evidence. How could we expect him to provide evidence for his claims when they are as fuzzy as ‘what makes a good piece of music’?

    An opinion like “‘War and Peace’ is a great novel.” is difficult to verify because of the imprecision inherent in its wording (like ‘great’). If someone decides to define that term with enough precision, then the opinion can be evaluated like any other claim.

    However, religious claims like these:

    – Jesus died to save us from sin and death.
    – The world was created by a god.
    – The Bible/Book of Mormon/Urantia Book is a historical record that contains the dealings of a god with people.

    are claims of fact that need to be supported by evidence.

    Seth’s religious claims are still claims, despite his attempt to recast them as opinions. He still has the burden of evidence. This talk of ‘opinion’ is a distraction technique.

    • I think you’re just trying to drag the debate back onto ground where you feel more comfortable. Now, when you state:

      “However, religious claims like these… are claims of fact that need to be supported by evidence.”

      You are overlooking that I never once claimed religious people have “no evidence” for their views. Mormonism, Catholicism, Islam, what have you, all have plenty of evidence for their worldviews and beliefs.

      Just not scientific evidence.

      The problem Daniel, is that in your statement you are trying to rule out entire realms of legitimate evidence and demand only a narrow TYPE of evidence. Then you are trying to claim all the other stuff doesn’t even count as “evidence” and only the type of evidence you are artificially limiting the debate to counts as “evidence” at all.

      Basically, you seem to be trying to rig the game before it’s even started.

      • What other kind of evidence is there besides scientific evidence?

      • Aesthetics, morality, personal experience.

        None of these need to be scientific.

        Morality and ideology are almost never scientific in their claims (although people sometimes try to pretend they are). However, we still consider our own moral views to be backed by evidence that we consider compelling.

        In a court of law, the OPINION of a respected person in a field is considered evidence – even if that field has nothing to do with science or anything with claims that can be tested in a lab or with a calculator.

        • We’re getting bogged down in semantics again.

          When the vast majority of people say “evidence,” they are talking about facts that support a particular conclusion. They may not amount to conclusive proof but they are reasonable grounds to make an inference, at least. Things that necessarily do not constitute evidence include: gut feelings, inclinations, tendencies, preferences, hunches, isolated anecdotes. In a court of law, an expert’s opinion is evidence that there are experts out there who hold that opinion.

          “Many people wrongly consider their own preferences to be backed up by completely nonexistent evidence” is not a compelling way to argue that aesthetics, et al. constitute “evidence.”

        • Again – is democracy a good form of government?

          How would you ultimately argue yea or nay on that question, without turning to evidence that is of a subjective nature?

          People should have a say in government? Why? Why is that a good thing?

          These may be semantics, but they matter – because I think a big chunk of the atheist argument is, in essence, semantic. It seeks to radically narrow the scope of “allowed” evidence – even though the vast majority of human experience does not operate off of, or rely upon the kind of “evidence” they want to limit the word to.

          I would utterly reject your assertion that “most people” limit the word evidence like you do.

      • You cannot establish the validity of a truth claim by using aesthetics (it’s true because it’s beautiful?), morality (see ‘argument from consequences’), or personal experience (this is known as ‘anecdotal evidence’).

        Again, you need to review the kind of information that is required to establish a claim.

        • I simply disagree Daniel. I reject your assertion of the kind of evidence required to establish the claim here.

        • And yes Daniel.

          It is true because it’s beautiful. It is true for it’s consequences. And it is true because of my own personal experiences.

          Each of which is valid “evidence.” The kind of evidence people everywhere use to make the majority of their life choices and decisions.

          You are simply rigging the game via a radical narrowing of the kind of evidence allowed.

          • nktrygg permalink

            Personal experiences are not evidence to anyone but the person who experienced it.

            experiences are subjective, not factual, because they are experienced and interpreted emotionally.

            it can’t be quantified or measured or repeated.

            as for beauty, it’s not truth – many things in nature are attractive because they are deadly traps or they are decoys in the case of brightly colours males to protect the dull colours females – appearance is deception, not truth

            plus, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and again subjective not objective

        • The things you’ve just mentioned are fallacies.

          A true proposition can be ugly and unappealing, and a falsehood could appear beautiful. The truth of an idea does not depend on its aesthetic value. Similarly, a proposition is not true just because it would have good consequences, nor false because of possible bad consequences. See more about ‘argument from consequences‘.

          Personal experience does not make something true because our memories are unreliable and selective. See ‘anecdotal evidence.

          It may be true that people often use these techniques to make life decisions, but then people are sometimes fooled. Using them to find out what’s true is asking to be fooled. Your position will be much stronger if you use principles of evidence, logic, and reason.

          • eek. Comment rescued out of spam purgatory.

          • You seem to have confused the issue here Daniel. Just because a form of evidence can be undermined by the factors you mention does not render it no longer “evidence.”

            If someone’s personal anecdote is unreliable, that’s an argument you are going to have to make. You don’t get to cheat and have all anecdotes classified as “non-evidence.” That’s just lazy argumentation.

          • nktrygg permalink

            it makes sense to push your opinion on others insofar as you are seeking change – to bring about your worldview – or to validate it.

            I have often thought that the reason religious groups are so against gays/lesbians and/or atheists

            is because we do not share their opinions and preferences – and on some level, and many of us live successful/contented lives – which means that their particular religious way of life is not the only way to that success/contentedness.

  67. nktrygg permalink

    “usually” correct still leaves a lot of room for it to not be the correct one.

    Sometimes reality is counter-intuitive

    but I think that the path of least resistance is more often than not, the case


  68. Breaking free of the hated “threaded comments” here:

    Dan wrote:

    “The point of this post, though, is that “glorious and powerful” ideas that “speak to the greatest passions, longings, and aims of human identity” aren’t necessarily True.”

    What basis do you have for determining that?

    My problem in this discussion is that people are trying to redefine words like “true” and “evidence” to mean only “that which can be scientifically verified” when those words have almost never been so limited in human experience. “True” encompasses much, much more than stuff with a testable hypothesis.

    • nktrygg permalink

      Well, Seth – you have struck on the real truth

      you can’t discuss any subject until you define and agree on the terms

      otherwise, we’re all coming from our own subjective opinions and experiences


    • Dan permalink


      I submit that almost any of these definitions would work.

      When you say, ” the ideas – in and of themselves – are glorious and powerful and speak to the greatest passions, longings, and aims of human identity”

      You’re talking about something that is “inspirational” and “moving.” There is nothing about that statement that means the idea itself needs to be true in the dictionary sense of the word.

      Who’s playing semantic games? What do you mean by “true?” Inspiring? Moving? By that definition, Hamlet is a “true” prince of Denmark, and Vishnu and Ra are (or were) true deities.

      • “real; genuine; authentic:”

        And you are asserting that belief in God does not qualify under this definition?

        Begging the question a bit, aren’t we?

        • nktrygg permalink

          the belief may be real to the believer- and genuinely held by them

          but that doesn’t mean that the object of their belief is real or true.

          otherwise, Big Foot and Loch Ness Monster are real and Elvis is still alive

        • Dan permalink

          You’re misrepresenting what I’m saying.

          Belief in whatever does qualify as real, genuine, authentic. You clearly have an empirically verifiable belief in God. And it seems to be absolutely authentic. And it inspires you. Passionately.

          My argument, though, is a belief in something doesn’t make it real. I’m saying that the idea of God can inspire people without God being a real flesh and bone guy.

          That’s not begging the question.

          Based on your criteria for evidence, we have to accept as “true” anything that someone believes passionately about, including faiths that oppose yours.

          Seth – belief in God isn’t evidence for the existence of God. It’s evidence that some people believe in God.

          This is why subjective evidence doesn’t convince people. You’re convinced by your subjective experience, but I’ve never had those kinds of subjective experiences.

  69. You don’t get to cheat and have all anecdotes classified as “non-evidence.” That’s just lazy argumentation.

    It’s not cheating. There are very good reasons why anecdotal evidence is not good evidence. For example, many people are convinced that homeopathy works because of their personal experiences. But when homeopathy is examined under controlled conditions, there’s never any effect. People still think it works though, because our memory is selective; we remember the times it worked, and forget the times it didn’t. A hundred anecdotes do not add up to solid evidence.

    You can disagree all you want. I’m not trying to fight you here; I’m trying to help you hone your skills. These are the criteria that rational people use when making evaluating claims. If you decide to find out about them and use them, your arguments will only be stronger for it.

    You might as well make it easier for other people to agree with you.

  70. Daniel, you’ve shifted your argument again.

    Your original position was that it was not evidence AT ALL.

    Now you are suddenly talking about “good” evidence and “bad” evidence. Or weak and strong if you like.

    That’s a different argument than what you were originally asserting.

  71. There’s good evidence and there’s bad evidence. Bad evidence is no evidence at all.

    Gee, I’ve got to get my wording right every time, haven’t I? Otherwise I’m ‘changing my argument’. But let’s focus on the issues under discussion, and not play silly games.

  72. And I’ve been giving you sources of “good evidence.”

    The strange one here is you – insisting that the only evidence you will ever accept is scientific – because the rest just doesn’t give you the iron-clad universal guarantee you’re looking for.

    But most of humanity actually operates on the basis of much, much more evidence than the merely scientific.

    The evidence is just fine. It’s just some people have the opinion that it isn’t.

    Let’s bring it back to the overarching point Daniel. You demand that I prove God, but you radically restrict the kind of evidence that can be used to support him. Limiting it to a very narrow and very artificial proof set that was never designed to say anything about God in the first place.

    The fact that you don’t believe in him – under these parameters – is hardly surprising.

    • Banning subjective experiences and emotional psycho-somatic reactions as useful evidence for gods isn’t radically restricting the kind of evidence useful in proving a claim. It’s simply restricting the kind of evidence we’ll accept to useful evidence. Your non-scientific evidence isn’t useful.

      If we allow such things as evidence, then we can “prove” not only the existence of your god, but of every god, ever, of the contradictory truthfulness of every religion, ever, and indeed, of every idea ever. By your arguments, Nazism is true.

      Scientific evidence is the only kind of evidence that is useful in determining what is and is not real. Because your beliefs utterly lack (scientific) evidence, you want to include subjective experiences as “evidence”. But science has proven that subjective experiences are incredibly terrible at determining what is and is not true/real/and even to stay into morality, good. Why is Mormonism true but Hinduism not? Or Nazism? Or Atheism? What subjective experience makes your claims more real than the contradictory claims of others who use the exact same type of evidence you do?

      If you had been born in Iran, all the anecdotal evidence and emotional experiences you’ve had that you now use to support Mormonism you’d use to support Islam. The chances of your birth have everything to do with what religion you believe is true/real/efficacious.

      Do you understand?

      • “Your non-scientific evidence isn’t useful.”

        What basis do you have for saying that?

    • nktrygg permalink

      Actually, you haven’t

      You’ve made a lot of subjective claims and personal preference – and accuse others of moving the goal posts when that’ actually your tactic.

      Funny that you should claim that science is suggestive of iron-clad guarantees – it is not at all – it’s just the best we can determined based on our understanding of the information we have available – science is not meant to be a means to lock something down and move onto the next

      Science is constant revision when new data arises.

      religion is what looks backwards and posits absolute morals and truth.

      it is not artificial to determine what kind of evidence would be proof of supernatural claims

      just because you are willing to accept personal subjective anecdotes and feelings does not mean other people have to

      otherwise, you would have to accept that all other religions and deities are equally true to your own

      there is no difference between Zeus, Odin and any other God.


  73. “there is no difference between Zeus, Odin and any other God.”

    Only if you never understood them to begin with.

    Craig, Nazism is just as “true” under your paradigm as you accuse it of being under mine.

    Really, what provable basis do you have for rejecting Nazism?

  74. I’m not claiming I have a purely scientific basis for rejecting Nazism. My point was that you seem to be saying that if a person (you) has a positive, subjective experience with a thing, that thing is therefore true/good/real. And I’m asking what makes you differentiate then between your subjective Mormon experiences as being true/good/real and people whose subjective experiences makes them believe the opposite of what you do? Why and how is non-scientific evidence useful?

    What then are the meaningful differences between Zeus, Odin and your god? What makes yours real and those imaginary?

    The reason I say that non-scientific evidence isn’t useful I mean that when deciding what is and is not true and/or real, you have to have science. You can say useful things about what you like, dislike, what you think is or is not moral and not have to use scientific evidence. If everything about your belief in Mormonism is a subjective opinion that you hold, free of any and all scientific evidence then that’s fine, but as soon as you make a truth-claim about anything, you leap into the area where you need scientific, evidence based claims. That is my point.

    “There is a god, he is male, he has a son, named Jesus, who died for your sins, and you have to participate in ceremonies proving you believe in him and accept his sacrifice for you, if not you will be punished one way or another.” These are truth-claims. They are claims that aren’t directly disprovable through scientific observation. They are however claims we can dismiss as frivolous and silly based on the fact that they are irrefutable. They are the same as claims about the existence of leprechauns, unicorns, celestial teapots, and every other god. In this way, your god is indeed exactly the same as Zeus and Odin.

    This is why all religions, including yours, are false. We either falsify their claims, or reject them as pointless and useless because they are claims which cannot be tested.

    • Like I said earlier, God is a superior concept to other claims that don’t have the magic scientific pixie dust. Beliefs in celestial teapots and unicorns have little to no motivating power, no inspiration behind them – not much of anything really. So the comparison simply doesn’t work.

      Most major world religions actually have quite a few things going for them.

      As to which of them is better?

      Well, you’d have to get into theology for that – something most online atheists I’ve encountered aren’t really willing to do because they’ve already made up their minds that it’s a waste of time.

      • “Well, you’d have to get into theology for that – something most online atheists I’ve encountered aren’t really willing to do because they’ve already made up their minds that it’s a waste of time.”

        Because they’re all made-up nonsense.

        The point, as has been pointed out to you, with the gods=unicorns=teapots comparison is that any crazy person can, and does, make up any crazy thing. How many people believe some crazy made-up thing doesn’t matter, and doesn’t make it more likely to be real. Sure, no one is probably going to join the religion of the floating teapot, but that concept is no more ridiculous than the concepts of Mormonism or any other religion. Christianity isn’t any more likely or real than the polytheistic Hebrew/Caananite religion it eventually spawned from. They’re all utter bullshit.

        That is why we don’t care about theology, and why we compare your religious belief to belief in unicorns, because categorically, it’s exactly the same.

        You’ve still not answered why your god is different/better/more real than Zeus or Odin.

        • You’re losing your cool Craig.

          • In what way?

          • “Utter bullshit” Craig?

          • Oh my, did I offend you by using a colourful colloquialism?

            Just because I used a naughty swear word doesn’t mean I’m “losing my cool”.

            In perfectly calm, normal conversation I do routinely use all sorts of words some deem naughty. I simply like those words, and incorporate them into my active vocabulary. It’s a mistake to assume what my emotional state is based on what vocabulary choice I make.

            In this case, “bullshit” = great amounts of ridiculousness. I’d say that’s an apt descriptor for religion.

          • No Craig, I don’t really care how foul-mouthed you want to get. I’m not 10 years old.

            What I care is why you chose that phrase.

            Just throwing out an “all religions are bullshit” phrase like that usually means you are no longer debating with the religious person on the other side, but rather have reverted to the role of cheerleader for your own side and are simply trying to hype up the audience.

            “Religion is bullshit” is the sort of thing that will earn you plenty of thumbs-ups on a typical atheist message board. But it should not be confused for actual argument or debate.

            It’s really nothing more than emotionally-charged question-begging. Stuff that’s good for preaching to the choir, but little else.

            So, if you are going to whip out lines like this, I think it fair of me to ask – are you telling me that you are done debating me?

    • Oh they can be tested alright. But since you’ve already ruled out personal experience, usefulness, and general appeal, we aren’t really left with much to work with.

      You also stated:

      “If everything about your belief in Mormonism is a subjective opinion that you hold, free of any and all scientific evidence then that’s fine, but as soon as you make a truth-claim about anything, you leap into the area where you need scientific, evidence based claims.”

      I don’t see that this logically follows at all. Why does a truth claim need scientific evidence?

      I say I love my daughter. And you say I need a lab coat before I can properly say that?

      • So explain to us in what way personal experience is a useful way of deciding what religion is and is not true. In what way is popular appeal an indicator of truth?

        By “truth-claim” I’m generally referring to a claim made about the nature of reality/the universe. Something that can be proven, within a reasonable margin of error, to be objectively true.

        Your love of your daughter, which I do believe exists, has nothing to do with that. Whether or not you love your daughter isn’t making a claim about the way the universe operates. It’s a subjective feeling experienced by you.

        But in a large way, love is in the purview of science. We can measure the phenomenon we call love. We can measure the chemicals in the brain and the physical reactions of those who are experiencing love. Love exists, and we can, at least in some way, measure, catalogue, and observe it. It’s a kind of emotion, which is a function of both our brain chemistry and our evolution.

        You love your daughter. This is a reasonable claim that has scientific backing.

        God exists. An absurd claim that has no scientific backing.

        • The fact that you think chemistry actually definitively explains love simply demonstrates that we are on completely different wavelengths here.

          Why is the proposition that God exists “absurd?”

          You are again resorting to forceful rhetoric as a substitute for argument.

          I find the claim that there is a God no more “absurd” than the claim that there is no God. Both are equally unverifiable – and the fact that one is a positive statement and the other is a negative statement don’t make either any less equally “absurd.”

          • I don’t think biochemistry explains love. All I said is that it supports its existence. Science has something to say about love.

            A god-claim is absurd precisely because it is unverifiable. All unverifiable claims are absurd. They’re silly and pointless. A waste of time. Just because tons of people believe the claim doesn’t make it less absurd. Just because most people don’t believe in unicorns and there isn’t as much of a emotionally satisfying narrative doesn’t mean that your god claim is less absurd than the claim of the existence of unicorns. Or bigfoot.

  75. My basis for rejecting Nazism is likely similar to yours. It was violent, bigoted, discriminatory, murderous, genocidal. These are all things which transgress my ethical code – a code which is utterly subjective.

    You seem to have a hard time differentiating between the subjective beliefs and objective reality/truth. You seem to argue that Mormonism is true based on the fact that you have positive subjective experiences associated with Mormonism. It is you who is incorrectly making truth-claims about the universe but who refuses to provide the kind of evidence which applies to truth-claims. You cannot make a truth-claim and then say your claim is outside the realm of scientific inquiry. You can’t have it both ways.

    • But if you ethical code is subjective, how are we to determine whether it is true or not?

      • Yours is also subjective. Everyone’s is. I’ve already explained this.

        There is no “one true” set of ethics. We are, generally, ethical animals because we evolved that sense. Our ethics vary between cultures and circumstances. I think that, overall, my ethical system is better than many others because of what my values are. I value life, freedom, equality, fairness, and many other things. I build up rules to govern my behaviour accordingly. My ethical belief that it is wrong to murder someone isn’t an objective truth. It isn’t objectively wrong to murder. The universe doesn’t have ethical laws. Right and wrong often have little to do with true and false, but they do have connections.

        We feel pain, emotionally and physically. It is generally unpleasant. These are objective facts. Most people would agree that it is unethical to inflict pain on another human. They would agree that it is wrong. These are subjective judgements. Do you see the difference?

        Certainly religion overlaps both of these areas, as well as the area of absurd claims that are pointless and silly. I oppose religion partly out of ethical reasons, and partly for scientific reasons.

  76. There is a scientific basis for rejecting Nazism. It made claims about race which have no biological basis.

    • Good point. I’d not thought of that.

    • But even if all its claims checked out, that still wouldn’t mean it’s off to the camps.

      An ‘is’ is not an ‘ought’, as they say.

      • Indeed. Creepily, I found myself arguing with some crazy on facebook who thought that the Japanese internment camps during WWII were a spiffy idea, and that it’d be a good idea to do something similar now re: Muslim Americans. Because violating human rights and illegally imprisoning hundreds at Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib just wasn’t enough.

      • Why is he crazy? Science doesn’t care if Japanese people are imprisoned unfairly or not. It wouldn’t even particularly care if we killed the lot of them.

        And since you have no scientific evidence for the claim, I guess we cannot consider the statement of “Japanese people should not be unjustly imprisoned or killed” to be “true.”

        And since it is scientifically unverifiable, by your own words, it must be false.

        Because anything non-verifiable by science is “false” by your definition, correct?

        • You’re clearly either not paying attention, or you’re being deliberately obtuse.

        • I could say the same thing about you.

          You’re not realizing that religion simply operates in a realm that does not require the sort of evidence you are demanding, nor should operate in such a realm.

          You are also skirting around the central point that human beings take a much wider range of evidence as valid in determining what is true, and it makes little sense to artificially limit the evidence in the way you are proposing.

          As for proving whether Odin is better than Allah, or Christ?

          Good grief.

          What do you think the hundreds upon hundreds of religious blogs out there are doing? What about the mountains of theological treatises? What about all those theological debates you don’t consider worth your time?

          And you want me to boil it down into a single blog comment for you?

          You don’t ask much, do you?

          Believe me, I think I’ve got some pretty darn good reasons for believing that Mormon theology is head and shoulders superior to five-point Calvinism. But I’m not going to just offer it up on a platter for you here.

          If you want some reasons why Odin doesn’t make the cut, then go bone up on your theological reading. Or if you don’t have time for that, fine. But don’t try to pawn off your lack of interest on the fact that a guy in a lab coat didn’t tell you it was so.

          • You claim that it operates in such a realm. We dispute that claim, and give evidence for why we dispute it.

            You claim that non-scientific evidence is useful in determining truth, and specifically what religion is true and what is not. But you refuse to give examples of how this works. You refuse to show how you determine that your religion is true, based on non-scientific evidence.

            You claim that your god is better or more real than other gods, but decline to give any reasons or evidence.

            Why should it be our job to argue and research your claims for you?

          • Simple – because religion is inherently participatory.

            It means almost nothing outside a participatory model. If you want to believe in a religious paradigm, you’ll have to get hands-on experience. You can’t borrow my testimony.

            If you simply don’t feel like it, fine and dandy.

            Just don’t think you are in a position to persuasively declare it untrue if you haven’t done the legwork.

          • You’re not realizing that religion simply operates in a realm that does not require the sort of evidence you are demanding,

            Truest thing he’s said on this page.

          • But it does operate it that realm. Every single time it makes a claim about the way the universe works, we have the right to demand evidence for that claim. Religion makes these kinds of claims often. Not all of its claims are in this realm, but many are.

            Why should we rigorously require evidence from a scientist when he or she makes a claim about how reality works, but not from a theologian?

            I’ll tell you why. Because they only way religion will survive is if it doesn’t have to back up its claims, and is free from criticism or falsification.

          • Still missing the point Craig.

            Religion – at its core – does not make claims about the way the universe works, but rather why it works at all.

            You’re thinking a bout stuff like Noah’s flood, or Young Earth Creationism. Those guys try to take religion and make it explain the “how.” Once they’ve done that, they are, as you note, within a realm that science has something to say about.

            But that’s not really the essential core of religion. Just like the story of Noah isn’t really about whether Everest was covered in water or whether Noah remembered to load the kangaroos.

      • Remember how I said that an ‘is’ is not an ‘ought’? It’s important to be able to tell the difference between ‘is’ questions and ‘ought’ questions.

        Questions of ‘is’ can be handled by science. They can be true or false. These include the claims you’ve been making about the existence of gods.

        Questions of ‘should’ are a bit different. When someone has an idea about what ‘should’ happen, that idea can be ‘more helpful’ or ‘less helpful’, or have better or worse consequences. We try to predict what consequences our actions will have and then decide whether we want those consequences based on our values. My own personal values involve not imprisoning people because of their ethnicity, but my evidence for the goodness of these values is not rock solid. I hold these values anyway (somewhat loosely), because I think the reasons other people give for imprisoning people are even worse than mine.

        There’s an interesting discussion going on around the ‘sphere about whether science can give us ‘oughts’. Sam Harris says yes, and PZ Myers says no. I haven’t decided yet.

        Having said that, I’d rather get my ‘shoulds’ from science. At least science is empirical. If science can’t do it, religion would do an even worse job.

        • I’ve also not decided yet whether science gives us “oughts”. It’s possible, but not something I’m ready or prepared to argue.

        • Science does deal in ‘shoulds’ sometimes.

          Should scientists fake their data? Obviously not. So science does have a commitment to honesty.

          Although I guess science still works even if a scientist isn’t honest, because other scientists will spot it.

        • Honesty = truth, correct? So as soon as a scientist is dishonest, they’re not dealing with truth, and therefore no longer doing science.

          Science is committed to honesty because it’s committed (solely) to finding out what is true.

          Whether this means that science is informing whether we should or shouldn’t falsify data, and therefore is giving us ethics is an interesting idea.

          I think I tend more towards the idea that science an ethics are only loosely bound.

          • Under those criteria Craig, blackmail is “honest.”

            Pure data has nothing to do with honesty – one way or the other.

        • Well that’s the problem Daniel.

          God is not an “is” question. That’s where you are going wrong here.

          God is a “why” question.

          Science doesn’t only fail to answer the “should” questions, it also fails to answer any ultimate “why’s.”

          • Dan permalink

            Does this mean the question, “Is there a God” is not answerable?

            To me, this sounds like the classic “God of the gaps” argument – God is whatever explanation we come up with when we don’t know the explanation.

          • No, this isn’t “God of the gaps” at all.

            God of the gaps states that whenever we encounter something observed for which we have no scientific explanation yet – “God did it.” Which, of course, means that God shrinks as we gain more and more scientific data about the world.

            That’s not what I’m talking about.

            I’m saying that God is a question about which science with NEVER have anything to say – no matter how much data we accumulate. No matter how much scientific data you accumulate, you still have not answered the question of “why” it all is.

  77. Seth:

    Simple – because religion is inherently participatory.

    It means almost nothing outside a participatory model. If you want to believe in a religious paradigm, you’ll have to get hands-on experience. You can’t borrow my testimony.

    If you simply don’t feel like it, fine and dandy.

    Just don’t think you are in a position to persuasively declare it untrue if you haven’t done the legwork.

    But what if the reason a person has come to declare a religious paradigm untrue, the reason they don’t or can’t believe in a religious paradigm, etc., is *because* they have had hands-on experience, have participated and done the “legwork”?

    Wouldn’t the ex-religious person’s participatory experiences be as valid as the religious person’s?

    • Depends on the depth and quality of the participation, doesn’t it.

      • Do you think it is impossible or unlikely for someone with “great” (whatever that would be) depth and quality of religious participate then to be turned off by that religion?

        • It is a given within Mormon theology that even those with the deepest commitment and understanding are capable of rejecting the whole thing.

          • but within Mormon theology, isn’t it just so convenient that when those with the deepest commitment and understanding reject it, it doesn’t seem to validly disprove the religion.

            Do you agree?

            So, let me get this straight. Deep commitment and understanding can prove a religion to be real, genuine, authentic and true, but deep commitment and understanding cannot do the opposite?

          • Convenient for what?

            Don’t misunderstand me – I’m not in the business of telling people whether Mormonism was valid for them or not.

            I only wade in when people start taking their own experiences as grounds for stating that it isn’t valid for ME, or isn’t valid for anyone categorically.

            And there have been countless examples of Mormonism’s attackers and defenders arguing over whether a single person’s experiences have anything bigger to say about the religion itself or not.

            No, my position is not that Mormonism is non-falsifiable. Just that people on both sides rarely use the evidence that carefully or correctly.

      • Dan permalink

        Seth –

        Would it be possible to get an objective statement as to what sufficient depth and quality means? I’d like to see if my experience stands up to your criteria.

        • Probably not.

          • Dan permalink


            What’s your criteria? What does it take to investigate or participate with “sufficient depth and quality?”

          • If you agree with Seth’s religion, then your depth of participation was sufficient.

            If you don’t, it wasn’t.

          • Well, it’s disappointing seeing you trying to make this about the apologist rather than about the issues, but ironically you actually touch on something here (though I’m sure you didn’t intend to touch on anything in particular).

            I think as the theist vs. atheist argument stands, both atheism and theism are not generally provable or verifiable, nor should they be. Rather both are something that can only be established on the individual level. Theism can be proven sufficiently for the individual. As I said elsewhere, religion presents itself as participatory. It’s a relationship. One who does not bother to cultivate the relationship will not experience it.

            This makes proof of either position unavailable to the general population, but available to individuals. Both are inherently subjective in an important sense. This is not to say that there are not generally available arguments and objective data available on both sides. But in both cases – atheism and theism – the objective data is not sufficient to establish the position.

            Atheism ran into this problem of being objectively unverifiable a long time ago – thus leading to the current trend among atheist apologetics of trying to establish atheism as the “default” position that theism must refute.

            I can definitely see the argumentative advantage of rigging the game in your favor this way, but I have not yet seen any reason why we should place the affirmative claims of atheism as the default position – in the event that the existing arguments of theists fail.

          • And incidentally, if your level of participation merely reached my own, I would not say you had sufficiently participated. If I were to leave the LDS faith next week, I would not consider my experience of it sufficient to put me in a place to definitively declare it true or false for others.

          • What affirmative claims are you purporting that atheism makes?

            What objective data is on the side of theism?

          • “There is no god” is an assertive claim that has to be established in an argument. Atheists have been trying to make atheism the default position that we all go to if we don’t have a good reason for theism. But I have not seen any compelling argument why this should be so.

            As for objective data – you’ve got accounts of the miraculous throughout human history.

            Atheists will quickly point out the possibility of non-theistic explanations for the miraculous, but merely offering an alternative explanation is not the same thing as conclusively establishing that alternative explanation.

          • And atheism does make a positive claim, once you boil it down. It claims that at the foundations of reality, at the most basic level, there is inanimate matter rather than “conscious stuff.”

            That’s a positive claim about the universe that you have to prove if you wish to assert it.

  78. This thread is a mess. I hate threaded comments.

  79. Dan permalink


    You misunderstand (or are deliberately mis-characterizing) Atheism. I don’t know a single, thoughtful Atheist who would tell you that “There is no God” is a provable claim. Most Atheists will tell you, instead, that the evidence is not sufficient to demonstrate God exists.

    How can you judge that my “participation” is “probably not” sufficient and not give me some criteria by which I can measure that claim? Is Daniel right – the only criteria you have is that I have to come to the same conclusion as you?

    Why can’t you give us concrete examples of what makes your God better or more real/True than anyone else’s? I can give you evidence why germ theory is more true than a theory of the humors. I can give you evidence why evolution seems a better explanation for life than creationism. I can give you evidence why the earth is not flat. I can’t find evidence like that to justify belief in your God or anyone else’s. What have you got besides your own experiences? If you haven’t got anything, why should I trust YOUR experiences over my own?

    Your subjective experience tells you one thing. Mine says something different. What makes you right and Atheists, Muslims, and Zeus worshipers wrong?

    Seth, this is precisely why subjective evidence doesn’t work in a debate like this – our experiences are different than yours. Our interpretations of the SAME experience end up being different. Humans are fallible and prone to error. You HAVE to offer objective evidence for your claim that God exists, because otherwise you’re asking people who don’t share your subjective experiences to rely on your say-so. I think that’s called “borrowing a testimony.”

    Unless you can give some concrete, objective answers to the questions above, I’m going to have to move on. I can’t accept your arguments based on subjective experiences I don’t share.

  80. Dan, let’s get one thing straight here:

    The point of this original post was never to establish (or refute) Mormon theism, or any other brand of theism. We have ranged far and wide in this conversation from the original topic of discussion – Ockham’s Razor and whether it works as an argument for atheism.

    I have tried to stay on topic (with debatable success), but have still entertained a bunch of side issues.

    But trying to demonstrate why the Mormon or Baptist, or Muslim, or whatever brand of theism is superior is a HUGE topic in it’s own right, utterly beyond the scope of this discussion, and probably more ambitious than I ever hope to get. I have repeatedly stated here that I have no interest in trying to prove theism to you.

    Now, the only portion of your above post that bears on the original post here is your first paragraph:

    “You misunderstand (or are deliberately mis-characterizing) Atheism. I don’t know a single, thoughtful Atheist who would tell you that “There is no God” is a provable claim. Most Atheists will tell you, instead, that the evidence is not sufficient to demonstrate God exists.”

    And this paragraph misses the point of what I have been arguing here entirely.

    I never said that atheism argues that “there is no God” is a provable claim. In fact, I argued quite the contrary. I am aware that atheists know their position is unprovable.

    What I was stating was that BECAUSE atheists are generally aware that their position is ultimately unprovable, they try to re-write the rules of the game and make their position the “safe default” to which theists must provide an alternative.

    But this does not work. Because when you get right down to it – atheism is not a “non-position” or a “non-claim.”

    It is a claim – that when you’ve fully comprehended the universe, there is no consciousness there – just inanimate matter.

    There is absolutely zero reason why that should be the default position that a theist must provide an alternative to.

  81. In fact, I would posit that there really is no such thing as a “non-position” or “non-claim” and for atheists to so label their own arguments is pointless.

  82. Do you believe you have positive proof that leprechauns do not exist? Or do you just default to that position because leprechauns seem like very implausible creatures, and you have no reason to imagine in the first place that such an implausible creature exists?

  83. Leprechauns aren’t an explanation for the ultimate meaning of the universe, they haven’t inspired anything in particular – and we actually have good positive reasons to disbelieve in them – the people who told us the stories made it clear they were only telling them as fun stories.

    All these things do not hold for general theism.

    • You assume that there actually is ultimate meaning in the universe. Why? What evidence do you draw upon that supports that conclusion? Or is it rather an assumption you’ve made.? Is it perhaps you who is begging the question?

      What is implausible about god is the utter lack of even the slightest shred of objective evidence for his existence. Or for the existence of anything supernatural for that matter.

      You’re talking to a bunch of sceptics here who don’t believe claims unless there’s sufficient evidence to support them. And as Dan pointed out, and as I’ve tried to, no solely subjective experience or explanation is ever a reliable indicator or what is real, and cannot convince others who have different, contradicting experiences – which is most humans. When a claim has no objective evidence to back it up, the default position is disbelief, because if the default position were belief, we’d have a jumble of crazy, contradictory beliefs and no way to get rid of them when actual information came along. This is the heart of scepticism, and the basis for atheism. We’re atheists because of a dearth of evidence supporting the theist/deist claims.

      “I never said that atheism argues that “there is no God” is a provable claim. In fact, I argued quite the contrary. I am aware that atheists know their position is unprovable.”

      Andrew answered this quite well, but I’ll say one more thing. You missed the point. That’s not our claim. That’s not our position. You’ve set up a straw-man.

  84. And what exactly is “implausible” about God?

    There’s an awful lot of question-begging going on here.

    • nktrygg permalink

      what’s implausible?

      what is remotely plausible?

      a being capable of creating the entire universe and then being remotely concerned about humans on this planet – humans that have hardly been on this planet very long.

      what exactly would a being that powerful need us to worship it?

      why would a powerful being be that insecure to even need worship?

      • Which is not an accurate summary of the being I worship, or the being I see as suggested by Mormon theology.

  85. Leprechauns aren’t something that General Mills made up to sell Lucky Charms cereal. They come out of ancient Celtic beliefs. The people who tell stories about leprechauns today think they’re just telling them as fun stories because they don’t follow the ancient Celtic religion, but we haven’t heard from believers in the Tuatha Dé Danann on the matter.

    As to implausibility, read this and tell me how plausible God is to someone from the outside looking in.

    Things don’t have to be “an explanation for the ultimate meaning of the universe” or be profoundly inspirational to be true. Or, do you not believe that, for example, milk is an ingredient in cheese?

    • I should have said, the fact that something is “an explanation for the ultimate meaning of the universe” or that it is profoundly inspirational is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for it to be true. That is to say, true things do not always meet that criteria, and things that meet those criteria are not always true.

  86. Seth:

    “You misunderstand (or are deliberately mis-characterizing) Atheism. I don’t know a single, thoughtful Atheist who would tell you that “There is no God” is a provable claim. Most Atheists will tell you, instead, that the evidence is not sufficient to demonstrate God exists.”

    And this paragraph misses the point of what I have been arguing here entirely.

    I never said that atheism argues that “there is no God” is a provable claim. In fact, I argued quite the contrary. I am aware that atheists know their position is unprovable.

    What I was stating was that BECAUSE atheists are generally aware that their position is ultimately unprovable, they try to re-write the rules of the game and make their position the “safe default” to which theists must provide an alternative.

    But this does not work. Because when you get right down to it – atheism is not a “non-position” or a “non-claim.”

    It is a claim – that when you’ve fully comprehended the universe, there is no consciousness there – just inanimate matter

    I’m going to take a stab here.

    I do not believe that atheism claims such. I do not believe that atheism is the claim “that when you’ve fully comprehended the universe, there is no consciousness there, just inanimate matter.” I’ll bounce off of what Dan wrote: “Most atheists will tell you, instead, that the evidence is not sufficient to demonstrate God exists.”

    I think this is a way of saying, “It’s not that atheists are convinced there is no god. It’s that atheists are NOT convinced there is one.” For whatever reasons.

    So, if this is the case, it does not follow that atheists believe that — when the universe is fully comprehended — there is no consciousness there, only inanimate matter.

    Because an atheist could fully understand that *when the universe is fully comprehended*, there may be evidence of a god, or of any other consciousness within the universe. But that doesn’t change the fact that now, for atheists, the current evidence is personally uncompelling and unconvincing.

    So yes, I think that atheism, as a *nonbelief*, is a *nonclaim*. I think that instead of addressing atheism itself, you’re addressing several claims that are often comorbid with atheism (at least, as atheism often gets expressed in the US these days.) For example, materialism or naturalism or something like that.

    • Thanks Andrew, yes. It is a perfectly reasonable position to say, “I’m not convinced there is a God, but I could be wrong.”

      Here is an essay by Penn Jillett that makes the distinction pretty clear.

      When he goes out on a limb to state “I believe there is no God” he makes it VERY clear that he’s making a “leap of faith” in saying so. He characterizes this position as “Beyond Atheism.” See the first 3 paragraphs.

    • The problem here is selective skepticism Andrew.

      Philosophically, it is well known that it is impossible to successfully argue with a true skeptic. True skepticism – taken all the way – challenges the grounds for knowing anything at all. Claim sensory experience, and they’ll counter that you could be deceived, etc.

      Most atheists do not appear to be skeptics to that extreme. But why shouldn’t they be? Where do you stop with this whole doubt thing? Most often, it seems that the typical atheist draws the line at the things with which he is most subjectively comfortable.

      The fact is that skepticism – as a default is not a very inspiring, or I would argue – even particularly useful position. And it tends to be a bit radioactive. It can easily get away from you and undermine a lot of things you never meant it to undermine – like love, morality, justice, being tolerant of atheists, science, evolutionary theory, the evening news, your very senses themselves.

      It would be just as easy to adopt skepticism as the “default” position for any of these things. And I think I can fairly ask why I should not adopt skepticism as the default for all these things.

      And if you think that I should not, then what is your justification? And how is where you’ve set the bar subjectively any different from where I’ve set it?

      • Ah, but that’s the problem.

        I said nothing about skepticism. So a selective skepticism isn’t problematic and “true skepticism” isn’t a requirement for atheism. The only requirement for atheism is not believing in deities. One thing I’d like to point out is that we *are* talking about belief vs. lack of belief. This is an entirely different question than knowledge (or the perception of knowledge) and lack of knowledge (or the perception of lack of knowledge). So, I think that referring to skepticism here is trying to address a different question. That’s why an agnostic (which is a kind of skeptic) can either be theist or atheist. Because not *knowing* whether there is or is not a god doesn’t say much about whether one *believes* that there is one or isn’t one.

        However, I guess, if I were to continue along with this, the entire point is, as you say, to “draw the line at the things with which one is most subjectively comfortable.” That’s the entire point. We take in all this sensory data, and we process it and come to conclusions that seem likely to us. That are compelling and persuasive to us. These are our beliefs.

        If one of our beliefs is that sense data can be trusted, so be it. That doesn’t mean we KNOW that sense data can be trusted (so, I guess there’s your skepticism, huh?!), nor does it imply that sense data actually can be…I don’t see how the difference between compelling beliefs and conclusions (and the lack of knowledge some people are willing to admit about such beliefs and conclusions) should be considered so negatively or strangely.

        I think then that you give skepticism a bad rap. I don’t think it in and of itself undermines all the things you think it does, and I think that’s because beliefs and subjectivity persist despite lack of knowledge about them. Beliefs and subjectivity persist despite lack of objectivity about them, if that’s also the case. Love, morality, justice, being tolerant of atheists, science, evolutionary theory, the evening news, our very senses themselves need not be undermined if they seem to be the most compelling conclusion. However, I think that it IS healthy, if we are going to believe in these things, to believe in these things cautiously. Even though we may fervently argue for love, morality, justice, whatever, if skepticism encourages us to question that our beliefs aren’t as rock-solided and obviously true as we believe them to be, I don’t think that is a bad thing.

        Why not adopt skepticism as the default position for any of these things? Well, firstly, I believe we do. The change occurs when we experience these things.

        My argument has always been something very simple. “If we find personally persuasive evidence, then we will believe in something. But if we don’t have evidence that personally persuades us, then we won’t.” I don’t see why this should be controversial. I don’t see why this should make you ask such things of the things you have mentioned. People who don’t have personally persuasive evidences of morality consequently may *not* believe in morality. And so on and so forth for each of these things. We don’t find people believing in these things (or any other) by default. I certainly think we *should* adopt skepticism as the default position for each of these things. I just happen to think (and maybe I’m biased — as you note, and I would agree, by what I am subjectively comfortable with) that most people would move from the skepticism on these issues based on personally persuasive evidence.

        I think that just as many people have mistaken you to be the ordinary Mormon dude, you mistake me to be the ordinary atheist dude.

  87. Wow, what a thread. I’ve been busy with starting an internship on the other side of the country.

    Quick thoughts:
    Seth seems to paint a narrow picture of science, as if it were just an obscure epistemological inclination shared primarily among people with PhDs and lab coats. The scientific method has proven to be an extremely reliable way for creatures like us to discover knowledge. This is because our beliefs constantly get in the way of our acquiring new knowledge, and therefore the scientific process continually refines our observations until they match the facts. It is an excellent method for applying to subjective evidence as well. For example, if you get a warm fuzzy from praying, or if you feel inspired by a morally beautiful tale, you can hypothesize that these feelings mean that e.g. Joseph Smith actually dug up some plates made of gold created by the ancient inhabitants of this continent. From there, there are many ways in which you can test this hypothesis, making sure to correct for your own personal biases.

  88. nktrygg permalink


    can you provide an example of what you could test to make a connection between warm fuzzy feelings from praying and Smith’s plates that no one has seen?

    Because the scientific method can only test the natural and what’s objective.

    Yes, you can put a person in an MIR machine and see what parts of their brain lights up before, during and after prayer – but that can only demonstrate that there’s an emotional componant to the act of praying

    and then compare the lighting up of a person who’s meditiating or people of other religions praying or someone just thinking positive thoughts or recalling memories – to see what the act of prayer is most similar to in terms of brain chemical released that give that warm fuzzy feeling

    but warm fuzzy feelings are only proof that the person is experiencing something emotionally – and that experience will vary widely person to person


  89. Chris permalink

    Like I said earlier, God is a superior concept to other claims that don’t have the magic scientific pixie dust. Beliefs in celestial teapots and unicorns have little to no motivating power, no inspiration behind them – not much of anything really. So the comparison simply doesn’t work.

    Most major world religions actually have quite a few things going for them.

    If religion and belief in God only motivated people to do good, then I might consider subjective evidence (anecdotal, etc) good enough evidence to start down the path towards belief.

    Now you’ll take issue with how I define good and where morality comes from. For this discussion, I hope we can keep things simple. I think we both agree that killing and molesting are not good things. We can discuss where morality comes from later but I don’t want to right now.

    However, I also think there are also many reasons why people are motivated in life and get inspired to do great things.

    • Chris permalink

      Let me clarify a couple things. I see good fruit, bland fruit, and rotten fruit come from theism. Because of this I find that it’s a problem using fruit even as a door approach. However, if the fruit was sweeter and if we can correctly identify what is causing the better fruit then I might consider that as a worthy door approach. (Studies have shown that believers aren’t necessarily more altruistic.)

      I know many theists would be tempted to say ‘but look at all the atrocities of atheism!’ I think we would have to define what is dogma and what isn’t which might be for another thread.

  90. Chris permalink

    Also, Seth, you make it sound like “rigging the game” is a bad thing. It’s not. We “rig the game” all the time. It’s part of being skeptical of the various claims that come our way. If somebody came up to you and wanted to sell you a super-awesome-magic-ball that will forever replace detergent and all they had were the testimonies of other people to show that it works, wouldn’t you want to see some real evidence before you shell out 4 payments of $19.99? (Now in this case I’m not trying to make any comparisons to religion. I’m just throwing out at an example where no one thinks twice to “rig the game.”) And even then, we would still want to evaluate the evidence because many times laundry can get clean with just water.

    Now you want to give religion or belief in God special treatment by not using the same method of skepticism because religion or belief is popular, has produced awesome fruit, is old, etc… what else?

  91. nktrygg permalink


    by the old, popular, fruit consideration

    then prostitution should be revered and worshiped

    being among the oldest of human activities


    • Irrelevant observation.

      Two completely different categories.

  92. You want some tests, nktrygg?

    Record people’s responses to a number of very inspiring stories, some completely fabricated and some true, but all of them equally probable and compelling. Now measure whether the good feelings people had correlate with actual objective facts.

    This is elementary psychology. I think there is plenty of room in science for an experiment that verifies whether warm fuzzy feelings correlate with objective facts. Just because you feel good about a story of ancient Americans and a boy visited by God doesn’t mean the story is true.

    • If you think what I’ve been forwarding here is “warm fuzzies” you really haven’t been paying attention to what I’ve been saying.

      Sounds to me like you’re more interested in making this all fit into the preconceived narrative of your own prejudices.

      • Sounds to me like you’re more interested in making this all fit into the preconceived narrative of your own prejudices.

        One might just as easily say the same of you, Seth.

  93. I use the term “warm fuzzies” in place of “powerful, deep, resonating feelings of inspiration and transcendence that motivates one to do great things” because I see them both as functionally equivalent when used as a basis for determining whether the story that provoked such feelings is factual.

    • Well, that’s the thing – they don’t just resonate with emotions and feelings. They also resonate with the intellectual paradigm you have of the world. What you know of math, science, history, human relationships, politics, what have you.

      Listen to Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech sometime.

      Now sure, there are some powerful feelings being evoked there. But you just can’t reduce it to only that. The Old Testament is really some powerful medicine in that speech. And calling it “warm fuzzies” just doesn’t hack it in my opinion.

  94. Carson

    my point is that subjective feelings are not evidence of truth

    there is much comfort in what we prefer to be true than what is actually truth

    so, no that test only measures what is comforting to the subject person

    not a means to determine if warm fuzzies are truth detectors

    • Wait… I agree with you… are we talking past each other?

      • yes, I think we were

        on a big thread, it’s easy to get confused

  95. Warm Fuzzies …Personal Revelation….. Answers to Prayers… Call it what you want.

    My experience is that the one thing we should be the most skeptical of is these experiences and should not be used as a truth detector.

    I have had amazing “spiritual witnesses” of both Mormonism and Atheism, how is that possible…. Well when I believed as a Mormon and the majority of my input was Pro-Mormon I wanted it to be true I received many witnesses of it truthfulness. Have had the same experiences when contemplating things about my current belief system…. The only difference for me now is that I know these experiences are still up to me to decide what they mean; witness of truth is one I personally have had to rule out.

    • For the record, I’ve had “spiritual witnesses” of both religious and atheist aspects. One occurred while watching “Touching the Void” (put it on your to-watch list if you haven’t seen it) – some of his existential epiphanies were quite compelling actually.

      The difference is apparently in how you fit it all together.

      • Note to self: never ever ever ever go mountain climbing.

        that is my epiphany after watching that :3

        • I had a different reaction and went on a 10 hour solo hike in Rocky Mountain National Park soon after. These stories always get me stoked to get out.

          • didn’t seem to stop Joe either. “Two years and six operations later Joe climbed again”


          • Climbing tends to attract a certain type. Climbers always talk about how they feel alive when climbing – how climbing brings everything into razor focus – everything is clear and all the uncertainties and dilemmas of life drop away. All that matters is whether you can make that next crucial move – or risk gruesome death.

            It seems kind of like a human existential rebellion against the dreary, stifling, risk averse, anal retentive culture we live in. Kind of like flipping the bird to all those babbling analysts on the 5 o’clock news clucking fretfully over risks that are – in the big scheme of things – quite trivial.

            And I have to say, if you have to check out, plummeting off a 1,000 ft. cliff definitely seems preferable to bleeding out the last seconds of your life on the asphalt of Interstate 25 (a statistically much more likely death than a mountaineering accident).

          • I dunno. When I flipped my car over on 290, that was pretty fun stuff too.

            I’m not planning on doing that one again though. I guess I don’t feel the need to have the kind of excitement that comes from climbing in my life either. Different strokes.

  96. “Touching the Void” Joe Simpson and Simon Yates? Yes that was an incredible movie saw it when it first came out. My TBM Brother thinks Joe Simpson made it all up.

  97. Well, if you’re determined to disbelieve something, I guess you can always make a case for disbelief. I saw no reason to think that things did not happen the way he said they did.

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