The Religious Cold War
January 10, 2007
From April until September 2006, I wrote a series of philosophy posts here on Only a Game which explored issues in metaphysics. Since I half-jokingly refer to this blog as a non-fiction role-playing game, this period is known as “the Metaphysics Campaign.” What follows is a digest of these posts along with some discussion of the key themes. Since this material deals with inflammatory subjects such as religion, politics and science, please approach it with an open mind.
What is meant by metaphysics are those
things which cannot be tested, but may still be discussed and explored. We can
imagine metaphysics as a region delineated by Popper’s Milestone, which
figuratively stands at the edge of the domain of the testable. Metaphysics are
intimately connected with religion, as every religion has some kind of
metaphysical position associated with it – regardless of whether those
metaphysics concern God, the soul, ultimate causes or assertions of absolute
Truth. However, it is less widely accepted that scientists (even those who do
not identify a religion) have a system of metaphysics which affects their
perspective in some way. Indeed, everyone has some system of metaphysics
informing their world view.
(The entire Metaphysics Campaign was built
upon a foundation of philosophy of language, based upon the work of Ludwig
Wittgenstein. Although not strictly metaphysics, I find it invaluable to
approach the subject armed with an understanding of Wittgenstein’s concept of a
language game, and consequently appreciating the extent to which language
defines our realities).
My purposes in undertaking this endeavour
were various. I was prompted by the absence of clear thinking on the topic of
religion on the internet, and in particular by a current of scientistic atheism
that seemed to pervade the kinds of blog I was reading, and which I felt was
exacerbating the problem it was hoping to solve. Both issues arguably stem from
the low importance our modern culture places upon philosophy, so I set myself
the dual task to popularise this vital field while simultaneously furthering my
own philosophical investigations. Philosophy, it should be understood, is not
concerned with finding ultimate answers so much as it is concerned with exploring
ultimate questions – its very name means ‘love of wisdom’, and we should not
confuse wisdom with truth.
One of the key problems our modern cultures face is the paralysation of representative democracies as a result of the inability of the electorate to form consensus views. In the absence of a clear ‘will of the people’, politics becomes a game of media manipulation as individuals and parties jockey for the slight shifts in support required to secure positions of power. But when the people agree on something, it is easy (albeit slow) to make it happen. The tricky part is reaching a popular accord.
It is my contention that a tremendous
amount of political power and social influence is being squandered on a
religious cold war between chiefly-Christian theists on the one hand, and
chiefly-scientistic atheists on the other. Although this problem affects much
of the Western world, it is centred upon the United States, perhaps in part
because the metaphysics of certain Christian factions from this country are some
three centuries old, thus increasing misunderstandings (and hence tensions)
between ‘modernist’ atheists and ‘traditional’ theists. An early post
discussing this concept dates back to September 2005, and shows the roots of
the metaphysics campaign.
Another of the roots of the campaign was when I posted an old article of mine examining aspects of evolution outside of conventional Darwinism, and was instantly dismissed – without discussion – either because in one sentence I used the word ‘faith’, or because I was arguing against the dominant paradigm in evolution. Now the article in question is both verbose and clumsy (not to mention tediously overlong), but it contains some salient discussion points – still, someone felt it was necessary to pronounce it “bunk, stuff and nonsense” citing only alleged errors in the minutiae as justification, and entirely ignoring its content. I presume this happened because I was erroneously identified as a Creationist, but whatever the reason, it is not in the best interests of science to demonise opposing viewpoints on metaphysical grounds.
It is necessary to be absolutely clear
here. The Christians do not form a single collective, and neither do the
atheists, so when referencing these factions we are being necessarily general,
and consequently imprecise. There are considerable differences of opinions
among Christians on all manner of issues, and an equal range of different
opinions among the atheists. In fact, beyond the key metaphysical tenet of
these two positions – belief and disbelief in God respectably – it is almost
impossible to make a meaningful generalisation about the people concerned.
One of the key battlegrounds in this
metaphysical cold war is over the teaching of evolution in schools. A minority
faction of Christians, the Young Earth Creationists, want to strike the teaching
of natural selection from schools entirely, something that would be entirely
unthinkable in almost any country but the United States. I argued (alas,
somewhat obliquely) that this position is fundamentally inconsistent with most Christian
belief systems – but in doing so I courted severe criticisms from the atheist
camp for suggesting that it was not necessary for an individual to believe in
evolution. Part of this confusion resulted from my suggestion that, given the
extremely incomplete state of the science in this area, it was actually reasonable
for someone holding the metaphysics of a Young Earth Creationist to not believe
in evolution. This is categorically not the same as arguing that evolution
should not be taught in schools – I am merely affording people their right to
freedom of belief, a right guaranteed by law in the
A separate, but related, political issue is
that of the teaching of Intelligent Design in schools. This is of concern to
many more Christians than just the Young Earth Creationists, and should not be
confused with the previous point despite the apparent similarity. While some of
the people advocating Intelligent Design are doing so as a fallback position
from banning the teaching of evolution, some support this view because they
believe that the teaching of evolution in schools has taken upon an atheistic
bias, thus violating the supposed exclusion of religion from school curricula
by supporting a specific metaphysical position. I suspect there is a viable case
here, and actually favour the inclusion of Intelligent Design in the
On the other side of the coin, the problem
becomes immediately more difficult. Christians recognise they are coming from a
religious, and hence metaphysical, position, but many atheists do not recognise
that their beliefs are metaphysical in nature. A few even labour under the
misapprehension that atheism is scientifically mandated – a gross
misunderstanding of the domain of science, as one cannot devise experiments to
test what is inherently untestable. Furthermore, attempts to suggest to certain
atheists that their metaphysical beliefs constitute at the very least a partial
religion can result in severe cognitive dissonance, thus preventing this
information from being taken on board. Although in effect a minority group in
the United States, the atheists nonetheless wield considerable influence in
science and the media - hearing first hand reports of a widespread prejudice
against Christians working in science jobs in the US gives me an extremely
uneasy feeling, as does allegations of people being excluded from newspapers and magazines as a result of whispering campaigns condemning individuals as
To attempt to approach this issue tangentially, I initially tried to lay a firm foundation by outlining the benefits that skeptics provide for a society, along with a brief warning about not allowing this (or any other) belief system to become fanatically entrenched. Later, we approached the subject in a more direct fashion, firstly looking at whether Marxism can be considered a religion, before proceeding to look at atheist religions in general. In many ways, the discussion of atheist religions – while strictly a piece on religion, and not philosophy, per se – was a culmination of the metaphysics campaign, in that by this point we had not only explored the issue of atheism as a metaphysical (and hence religious) position, but also wider issues in science relating to metaphysics.
Near the end of the metaphysics campaign, we
returned to the topics that inspired it. I advanced the view that if we wish to
exclude Intelligent Design from science, we also inherit an obligation to purge
science of all manner of metaphysical artefacts, including quantum
interpretations, speculative cosmological models and teleological games. But it
is difficult for many scientists, lacking any training in philosophy, to
appreciate the distinction between science and metaphysics, and this in turn is
one of the factors driving scientism – the ideology that scientific knowledge
is the only kind of knowledge of any value. This confusion undermines trust in
science: whenever a scientist asserts their own metaphysics as scientific
truth, they perform a disservice to the scientific community and often
simultaneously advance a fanatical (atheistic) religious position, as staunchly
partisan as the fanatical (theistic) religious positions they seek to oppose.
I do not expect that my meagre offerings have the power to put an end to the religious cold war, but if they can in any small way contribute to increasing understanding or reducing tensions between the theists and the atheists, I believe they are worthwhile. I suggest to any Christian with the patience to read me that fighting over metaphysics is in strict contravention of the teachings of Jesus which they purport to follow – love they neighbour extends to everyone regardless of their beliefs, as the parable of the Good Samaritan clearly demonstrates. I simultaneously hope to convince the open minded atheists that if they genuinely desire a world in which religious intolerance can be abolished, atheistic bigotry must also be eliminated. Either way, one should get one’s own house in order before pointing fingers elsewhere.
For centuries, our planet has been beset with conflicts between people with differing metaphysics. At one point, Christians of different factions went fought over whether God the father and God the son had the same nature or a similar nature, a metaphysical conflict no-one today would consider worth fighting over. Today, neo-Darwinists fight a metaphysical battle with almost every opposing view of the evolutionary process, although thankfully not yet with weaponry. Although most wars attributed to religious causes have strictly secular roots, there is no doubt that mankind did fight bitterly over metaphysics in the last millennium - although in the time before this, there was substantial tolerance and exchange between different religious traditions, as typified by Zoroastrianism. Sadly, we have forgotten this part of history, and as George Santayana noted, those that do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.
If we are to make the next millennium a
time when humanity will refuse to fight over metaphysics, it must begin by
changing ourselves, not by blaming others. The answer to religious intolerance
cannot be atheistic intolerance – to advocate otherwise is to propose a new
metaphysical war, but now instead of fighting over the nature of God, we will
be arguing over whether we are allowed to believe in God – which is what is
implied when one accuses all theists of irrationality – or whether we are
allowed to disbelieve in evolution. These are not battles worth fighting.
We should all be free to believe or disbelieve in God or evolution – from a
theistic perspective this is the God-given right of free will, but even without
invoking God we gain this right through our mutual agreement to freedom of religion,
and hence to freedom of belief. Only when we come to truly respect the
diversity of our planet’s beliefs will we be ready for peace.
My thanks to all the players of the Metaphysics Campaign: Ajedireligion, Anon10001, beepbeepitsme, Chico, Chill, Colin Bennett, Darius K, DavidD, gconner, GregT, Gyan, Joseph Capp, Matthew Cromer, Mikko, Mory, rhrempe, Tide, William Fechter Phd, and latecomer Theo, and my especial thanks to all the “regulars”: Peter Crowther, Craig, Malky, Jack Monahan, Neil, Patrick, RodeoClown, Suyi, translucy, and zenBen. It wouldn’t have been the same without you!
The opening image is Excalibur by Curtis Verdun, which I found here. As ever, no copyright infringement is intended and I will take the image down if asked.
Excellent! Quite frankly, I'm impressed with authors who have such a command of clear, logical, discursive writing such as you regularly exhibit. Doubly so when we're dealing with metaphysics or anything philosophical, of course.
It's great just to look over the ground you've (we've) covered in mounting last year's metaphysics campaign, and bravo for artfully outlining it in a brief summary.
Together with how well written and presented your thinking has been on the matter, what I find most rewarding about this campaign is that you continue to strive for a revival of mutual understandings that have been lost, and forging new alliances and understandings that would be in the best interest of everyone concerned.
It reminds me of what I like best about Charles Taylor's work on ethics--he characterizes our modern plight as a "work of retrieval," against the equally fruitless polarized opposites that currently seem to freeze up political/cultural affairs in the US. There is hope!
And as a player engaged in the campaign, let me say I'm always happy to join in, provided you as our commanding officer remains keen on going over the top ahead of me :)
On an entirely unrelated note, I couldn't help but remember your intention about a Jane Austen-type game, now that while traveling I'm reading through much of her work. Sign me up--Jane Austen in game form would beat the pants off the Sims any day!
Posted by: Jack Monahan | January 10, 2007 at 03:32 PM
"we will be arguing over whether we are allowed to believe in God – which is what is implied when one accuses all theists of irrationality "
Oh, nerts. You were so close.
This phrase is a wild distortion of what is actually meant by atheists when they claim that theism is irrational. Not all atheists, in fact, relatively few of them say that we should be fighting the belief in religion. This is a misconception based on Dawkins and his ilk. Rather, most atheists just don't want their lives to have to be affected by dogma they don't happen agree with. So when they point out that theism is irrational, they are not necessarily saying that people should stop it, they are simply justifying their views to those who would challenge them.
Claiming that theists are guility of irrationality is not an attack. Trying to stop them from being irrational is.
Posted by: Malky | January 10, 2007 at 05:56 PM
Malky: Accusing someone of having irrational beliefs is a fundamental attack. Or if not an actual attack, at very least a hostile statement that lacks understanding of the concept of belief in the first place. It would be the equivalent of saying that your opinion was flawed and worthless. The statement is baseless and designed to provoke, and thus should be avoided.
Claiming someone's metaphysical construct is flawed (ie irrational, or faithless) from any opposing side is an unnecessary accusation.
Chris: I have enjoyed reading these philosophical musings over the past year. While some of the discussion and background seems overwhelming, and well above my head, I feel that I have come to a better understanding of metaphysics in general. Certainly it has given me some insight towards how my scientific and logical nature can coexist with my personal Christian metaphysics, and with the various belief structures that bombard the popular media. I also am beginning to see the lines between science and metaphysics more clearly, which is eye-opening when you start to look carefully at some of the "studies" and "research" currently being undertaken.
Thank you, and please continue.
Posted by: Duncan | January 10, 2007 at 07:50 PM
"Accusing someone of having irrational beliefs is a fundamental attack. Or if not an actual attack, at very least a hostile statement that lacks understanding of the concept of belief in the first place. It would be the equivalent of saying that your opinion was flawed and worthless."
It's not an attack unless they're trying to validate their beliefs objectively by claiming that they are rational. And in that case, a response is entirely appropriate.
I'm not advocating the Dawkins view of shouting from the rooftops that religion is wrong (because, again, it's none of my damn business what you believe), but we shouldn't be afraid of pointing out one the basic properties of theism. At the same time, theists are free to point out that atheism doesn't provide any form of moral framework, nor does it answer any of the key questions of life that theism attempts to answer. Does that weaken atheism? Of course not, since that's not what atheism is about. And in the same light, theism isn't about being rational.
Posted by: Malky | January 11, 2007 at 01:19 AM
Jack: I found it odd, reading 'Ethics of Authenticity', that Charles Taylor kept saying that 'he didn't have time to discuss such-and-such a point'. I don't suppose you have an insight as to why he was making these comments, in a book which was suprisingly short? As for an Austen game, I'd love to make this, but funding is hard to come by. :)
Malky: Whoops - I picked the wrong word to use there. I was specifically referring to Dawkins accusation that all theists are *delusional*, and I choose 'irrational' as an oblique reference to this. I forgot that some atheists use 'irrational' in a different context. If I'd remembered, I might have written this paragraph slightly differently. (More on Dawkins madness tomorrow.)
However, that said, I don't believe that the accusation of irrationality is fairly targeted at theism. 'Irrational' generally means deprived of reason, or sound judgement. The vast majority of theists are perfectly reasonable people by any medical definition, and I'm not seeing any evidence that atheists are any less prone to irrationality than theists. Irrational behaviour is part of the human condition.
Do some metaphysical systems lead to irrationality? Most certainly. But again, this cuts both ways, and both (individual) theists and (individual) atheists have behaved in an irrational manner (I'm tempted to put Pat Robertson next to Richard Dawkins for a comparison. :D ) This does not allow us to conclude that *all* theistic and atheistic belief systems are irrational, surely?
I agree with Duncan that accusations of irrationality constitute a verbal attack, and disagree with you that theism is *inherently* irrational. One must make a specific metaphysical choice in order to reach that conclusion. I accept that from your metaphysics, theism seems irrational, but then from a theists view, does not atheism also seem irrational?
If we must invoke rational and irrational as terms in this debate, surely the only rational choice is agnosticism? Both atheism and theism require a leap of faith, and thus either could potentially be accused of being irrational - although I certainly wouldn't advocate the use of such an inflammatory term either way.
All that said, my personal thanks for your involvement in the metaphysics campaign. It has been really good to get feedback from your side of the fence, and you obviously have a firm handle on atheist issues. Much appreciated. I wish there were more atheists like you and Peter and fewer like Richard Dawkins!
Duncan: many thanks for the thanks! I am well aware that my philosophical writing frequently borders on the incomprehensible, but I'm very glad that there are people who have appreciated my efforts in this area.
Posted by: Chris | January 11, 2007 at 10:06 AM
"I accept that from your metaphysics, theism seems irrational, but then from a theists view, does not atheism also seem irrational?"
That's basically the position that Sarah and I have come to as we've explored our own belief systems. I believe that theism can be very dangerous for the individual and the world. In particular, I note that anyone who holds that there is eternal life after death where the quality of that eternal life can be affected even slightly by their actions in this earthly life should (if acting rationally) take all possible steps to improve their eternal life even fractionally, as it is by definition eternal, even if that means completely trashing their earthly life. Sarah acts on that basis. By contrast, I believe that there is no afterlife; that I therefore cannot affect it by my actions during my earthly life; and that I should therefore optimise my earthly life 'cos there ain't no more. Both views appear to be internally consistent, but they lead to very different results.
Chris, may I add my thanks for an interesting and stimulating campaign? And given you're the GM, may I play the "Pay for the GM's food, go up a level" Munchkin card sometime? :-)
Posted by: Peter Crowther | January 11, 2007 at 01:51 PM
"Claiming someone's metaphysical construct is flawed (ie irrational, or faithless) from any opposing side is an unnecessary accusation."
Mmm. What's your opinion on claiming that someone's metaphysical construct appears (to you) to be internally inconsistent and requesting more information? That's (I hope) my typical behaviour - "I don't understand" rather than "you don't understand".
Posted by: Peter Crowther | January 11, 2007 at 01:54 PM
I'll try to address my responses one at a time, but I apologize if I miss something or accidentally take it out of context.
"However, that said, I don't believe that the accusation of irrationality is fairly targeted at theism. 'Irrational' generally means deprived of reason, or sound judgement. The vast majority of theists are perfectly reasonable people by any medical definition, and I'm not seeing any evidence that atheists are any less prone to irrationality than theists. Irrational behaviour is part of the human condition."
I couldn't agree more. Atheists are, overall, just as rational and irrational as theists.
However, that doesn't mean that individual beliefs are not rational or irrational to hold. For example, it is irrational to believe that the moon with be green with purple polka dots when it appears tonight. That is a belief that simply cannot be defended logically, and is therefore irrational to hold.
The same goes for theism. No one can currently prove the existance of a deity. So to believe in a deity is irrational.
Everyone has plenty of beliefs that are irrational, and we shouldn't make a big deal out of theism being irrational when it's just one of many. Irrationality is normal, and it can even be healthy. But we shouldn't confuse "This is what I believe" with "This is what is rational to believe."
I, personally, make an attempt to model the former after the latter. But that's my personal decision, and it may not be best for everyone. And I'm not always very good at it, which is also okay.
"One must make a specific metaphysical choice in order to reach that conclusion. I accept that from your metaphysics, theism seems irrational, but then from a theists view, does not atheism also seem irrational?"
I don't think we can purely subjectify rationality like that. There must be some objective rules we can all agree upon for what is or isn't rational.
It isn't rational to ignore evidence. It isn't rational to come to conclusions without sufficient evidence. It isn't rational to use logical fallacies to reach a conclusion.
While there is "wiggle room" in there can needs to be clarified, from simple rules like this we can both agree on whether or not theism is rational. Our personal metaphysics can be excluded.
"If we must invoke rational and irrational as terms in this debate, surely the only rational choice is agnosticism? Both atheism and theism require a leap of faith, and thus either could potentially be accused of being irrational - although I certainly wouldn't advocate the use of such an inflammatory term either way."
" Both atheism and theism require a leap of faith"
I think your definition of atheism is slightly different than mine in this case. "Hard" atheists (although I normally abhor the term, it is useful here) are irrational. They assert that gods cannot possibly exist, and they are wrong, for all things are possible. "Soft" atheism, on the other hand, is the dismissal of the notion because there is insufficient evidence for its likelihood. There is no leap of faith, since they are simply drawing the most logical conclusion from the evidence that is given to them.
Most atheists, if you asked them, are "soft" atheists. Ignoring the possibility of a deity is insane. Irrational, even.
(I presume that you would group soft atheists with agnostics, but I've been through this a thousand times and it never seems to work. The best reason I can give without getting entirely off-topic is the literal meaning of the word "atheist," or, "without god(s).")
"Do some metaphysical systems lead to irrationality?"
I think you're confusing the rationality of an individual belief with the character of a person who hold such a belief. People often hold completely nonsensical beliefs but still act in a normal and rational manner. At the same time, irrational lunatics can have a strong, rational founding for one particular belief.
Theism is irrational. By holding the belief of theism, theists are acting irrationally. But in general, theists could not be described as being more or less irrational than anyone else. One belief does not a personality make (hopefully).
Posted by: Malky | January 11, 2007 at 06:08 PM
Malky - "all things are possible."
Really? Try creating your preferred deity at http://www.philosophersnet.com/games/ ("Do it yourself deity") and see what the engineers say...
As far as soft vs. hard atheism goes, I'm probably at about 5 on the Mohs scale. I believe there are major problems with the Judao-Christian god, but have less of a problem with the smaller gods favoured by most other religions (more comments on my very incomplete web site).
I also suspect Chris will bring Wittgenstein into play here (if you don't mind the lousy pun), and note that we are possibly playing this particular word game by somewhat different rules, as the definition of the term "atheist" that you're using doesn't match the one that's in common use.
Posted by: Peter Crowther | January 11, 2007 at 10:04 PM
"Really? Try creating your preferred deity at http://www.philosophersnet.com/games/ ("Do it yourself deity") and see what the engineers say..."
I'm surprised I've never seen that one before.
"as the definition of the term "atheist" that you're using doesn't match the one that's in common use."
That I may have to disagree with. I've heard both definitions used commonly, often with little regard for the difference.
Posted by: Malky | January 11, 2007 at 10:25 PM
Peter pre-empted me at this point by pointing to Wittgenstein, but I will attempt to avoid going there yet. :)
Malky, your logic seems to rest on your opinion that to believe in something without proof is irrational. This logic can be used to render everyone irrational, which I am perfectly happy with, but it doesn't leave much point to the term 'irrational!'
Are you of the opinion that all your beliefs result from evidence? You hold a belief that believing in untestable entities is irrational - what is the evidence supporting this belief? Indeed, is your belief in this regard testable? And if not, does that render it irrational?
To render the same argument in a more common form: if someone tells you they love you, do you ask for proof? And if not, is it irrational for you to believe they love you?
You cannot prove the objective existence of yourself or a nation any more than one can prove the existence of God, and any proof of the existence of nations will serve as proof for the existence of God. What God constitutes in this scenario may not correspond with what most theists consider to be God, but this is rather beside the point.
Your underlying ontology seems to be essentially Platonic - there is an external reality and all entities either exist in this reality or do not exist. I personally reject Platonic reality as a gross simplification, particularly because it ignores the role of language in defining one's personal reality. This creates a demonstrable schism between the way you and I see the world.
I believe I understand your position (admitedly, without proof!), and it makes sense given your philosophical position, but it becomes somewhat meaningless once it is imported into my own ontology. Such is the nature of many discussions that concern metaphysics, alas.
Sadly, I've run out of time. If you'd like to continue this discussion, we can do, but next time I'll end up invoking Wittgenstein. :)
Posted by: Chris | January 12, 2007 at 10:37 AM
"What's your opinion on claiming that someone's metaphysical construct appears (to you) to be internally inconsistent and requesting more information? That's (I hope) my typical behaviour - 'I don't understand' rather than 'you don't understand'."
My opinion is that this approach can be magnificently productive, when it is handled with care. Certainly, I feel it is better to admit one's confusion than to accuse others of stupidity. :)
I remain in constant awe of your "inter-faith marriage". :D
Oh, and you can gain a level for pre-empting my reliance on Wittgenstein - but next time, you can buy me food instead. :)
Posted by: Chris | January 12, 2007 at 11:05 AM
Oh, nertsface. I had a full reply typed up, but when I posted it I had to leave before I could do the "confirm you aren't a spambot" thingie.
Oh well, here we go again:
"Malky, your logic seems to rest on your opinion that to believe in something without proof is irrational. This logic can be used to render everyone irrational, which I am perfectly happy with, but it doesn't leave much point to the term 'irrational!'"
I think I already addressed this. Everyone IS irrational. Sometimes.
However, individual beliefs can be rational or irrational beliefs, and theism is the latter. That is a perfectly satisfactory usage of "rational."
"Are you of the opinion that all your beliefs result from evidence?"
Of course not.
"You hold a belief that believing in untestable entities is irrational - what is the evidence supporting this belief?"
The reason why belief without evidence is irrational is that evidence allows us to make useful decisions regarding what is or isn't real. By ignoring the issue of evidence, we have no way of knowing whether or not the entity actually exists, and therefore it is illogical to assume that it does.
"To render the same argument in a more common form: if someone tells you they love you, do you ask for proof?"
Of course. Don't you?
"You cannot prove the objective existence of yourself or a nation any more than one can prove the existence of God, and any proof of the existence of nations will serve as proof for the existence of God. What God constitutes in this scenario may not correspond with what most theists consider to be God, but this is rather beside the point."
Are you referring to "self" and "nation" in the sense of physical entities, or in abstract ideas?
For the former, evidence allows us to demonstrate the existence of these entities. For the latter... well, they're just abstractions, so they don't physically exist.
"Your underlying ontology seems to be essentially Platonic - there is an external reality and all entities either exist in this reality or do not exist. I personally reject Platonic reality as a gross simplification, particularly because it ignores the role of language in defining one's personal reality. This creates a demonstrable schism between the way you and I see the world.
I believe I understand your position (admitedly, without proof!), and it makes sense given your philosophical position, but it becomes somewhat meaningless once it is imported into my own ontology. Such is the nature of many discussions that concern metaphysics, alas."
While there is obviously a philosophical gap, I think we can eventually find enough common ground on this issue that we can come to a satisfactory resolution.
Posted by: Malky | January 12, 2007 at 08:59 PM
It was a pleasure talking this through with you! I find your belief in the existence of a reliable evidential reality to be perfectly rational, although a touch sterile to my tastes. Abstractions don't physically exist? I personally enjoy the abstraction I call "me"; I've become quite fond of him, despite his lack of physical existence in your reality. :D
Although I wouldn't choose to characterise theism as especially irrational, I of course defend to the death your right to choose to believe this!
I look forward to hearing your thoughts when we start the Ethics Campaign later this year.
Posted by: Chris | January 12, 2007 at 09:39 PM
In particular, I note that anyone who holds that there is eternal life after death where the quality of that eternal life can be affected even slightly by their actions in this earthly life should (if acting rationally) take all possible steps to improve their eternal life even fractionally, as it is by definition eternal, even if that means completely trashing their earthly life.
That assumes that what you really are is a separate individual person. But that's really more of a western idea of individuality and a "separate soul".
The more eastern philosophical approach, also finding support among mystics in the west, is that the individual is an illusion, a mistaken perception, and that what we actually are is undivided consciousness, currently experiencing a billion billion dream of individuality and separateness.
From that perspective, the whole emphasis on "saving yourself" is simply an optical delusion of consciousness like looking into a million reflections in a room of mirrors. There never actually was a separate individual to save, not really.
So instead we simply rest in our true nature as the witnessing consciousness, and allow life to unfold, including the "me" and its particular individual story, knowing that what we really are was never born and cannot die.
Posted by: Matthew Cromer | January 13, 2007 at 01:21 AM
Does this mean we can all relax and stop worrying about "what might be after we die"? This is what all these things seem to be about for me.
Part of dealing with the after-death fear, is to rationalise it in any way we can imagine in the hope that it will mean we "win" in the end.
This appears to be what a lot of religions/spiritual beliefs are about. From Karma (it'll bite you on the ass) to fire and brimstone (it will enjoy biting you on the ass)... It all seems like ways of handing off the after-death fear to a salesman in a priest's frock.
I know this is boiling all religion in its finery down to a tawdry stereotype, but that's just how *organised* religion feels (sure religion as an idea is great, so is fast food...).
Hey ho, that's my prejudicial tuppence, anyway. :-)
Posted by: Neil | January 15, 2007 at 12:56 PM
Matthew - I am reporting an apparent view of someone who holds a strong Western religious view, so it seems reasonably likely that they will express it in that way.
I happen to believe that Western and Eastern are both mistaken, and that we are born individuals and die dead. But, as noted elsewhere, that is one of my own articles of faith.
Posted by: Peter Crowther | January 16, 2007 at 12:27 AM
Neil: there's no doubt that one of religion's roles is to address people's fear of death; this applies to both theistic and atheistic religions. However, it is by no means the only role of religion. But as a clearly metaphysical issue, it is an area which will always remain part of religion's remit.
Presuming a general atheistic metaphysical stance, is there really a significant difference between paying a religious officer to help alleviate fear of death and paying a psychiatrist for the same service? The research suggests people get considerably better value for money for the former! ;) (Religion shows up in the top three in factors contributing to happiness, and the cost of religious contributions is trivial next to the cost of a shrink).
You have quite deep seated issues with (organised) religion... I know how you feel about churches, for instance, essentially seeing them as built from the blood and labour of the workers. I've actually investigated this a little, and most churches from the medieval period onward were built as a matter of pride by the people in the towns. They were communal projects, undertaken in a spirit of fraternity by the townsfolk. Often, when they finished building one, they'd start work on another - they were opportunities for craftsmen to show off their trade, and add to the reputation of their home towns.
Incidentally, the notion of karma originally had nothing to do with an afterlife, and was about resisting the temptation to respond to evil with further evil. I might write about this at some point, as it has become bundled in with reincarnation - a disservice to a useful concept, to be honest.
Posted by: Chris | January 16, 2007 at 09:14 AM
PS: On the issue of irrationality, this piece by Alvin Plantinga amused me.
Posted by: Chris | January 16, 2007 at 09:18 AM
we are born individuals and die dead.
Actually it is pretty clear that the sense of individuality is not present in newborn infants and requires additional cognitive development, appearing around 18 months to two years of age. However infants are clearly conscious and aware.
So awareness and consciousness precedes the "I" construct, which when examined closely through introspection can be seen to be nothing more than a particular thought-pattern.
Posted by: Matthew Cromer | January 18, 2007 at 04:52 PM