Up@dawn 2.0

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Quiz Jan.23

Our first daily quiz is a little longer than usual, since it includes questions on keeping score - which we'll do every day to track and inspire participation. Write your answers down on a sheet of paper and bring it with you to class.

1. Name two of the ways you can earn a base in our class. (See "course requirements" & other info in the sidebar & on the syllabus)

2. How many bases must you earn, for each run you claim on the daily scorecard?

3. How do you earn your first base in each class?

4. Can you earn bases from the daily quiz if you're not present?

5. How can you earn bases on days when you're not present?

6. What should you write in your daily personal log?

7. Suppose you came to class one day, turned on the computer/projector and opened the CoPhi site, had 3 correct answers on the daily quiz, and had posted a comment, a discussion question,  and an alternate quiz question before class. How many runs would you claim in your personal log and on the scorecard that day?

8. How many bases do you get for posting a short, relevant weekly essay of at least 250 words?

9. What are Dr. Oliver's office hours? Where is his office? What is his email address?
10. How do critics who conflate physicalism with eliminative materialism mis-portray atheists?

11. Why isn't atheism parasitic on religion?

12. Does Baggini agree that absence of evidence is never evidence of absence?

13. What did David Hume point out about our tendencies of belief?

14. Give an example of an abductive argument supporting atheism.

15. Why isn't atheism a faith position?

Discussion Questions (please also post your own DQs, alternative Quiz Questions, additional comments, relevant links... and don't forget that you can earn a RUN (not just a base) by posting a relevant weekly mini-essay of 250 words or more).

  • Were you raised by "Bible thumpers," indoctrinated mildly or rigorously, given compelling reasons to believe the claims of a particular faith tradition, etc.? How do you compare your religious experience with Baggini's?
  • Do you have any "dark preconceptions" about atheists or theists that you're willing to put aside, in our class? Are you willing to try the Rawlsian "Veil of Ignorance" thought experiment, and pretend you don't yet know if you're a theist or an atheist? Are you willing to follow Spinoza's example in trying to understand other points of view rather than dismiss or ridicule them?
  • What's your view of eliminative materialism? Can something be real but not strictly physical or "stuff"-like - love, for ex.?
  • Are you annoyed by "Honk if you love Jesus" stickers?
  • Can you give an example of evidence for naturalism that is NOT at the same time evidence for atheism?
  • Are people at funerals who say "he/she is in a better place" being gullible? What better word(s) would you suggest?
  • Do you agree that Plato (for ex.) is guilty of perpetuating a "collective myth" about knowledge and certainty? (24)
  • Do you agree that to explain something is inherently to naturalize it?
  • Comment: "Belief in life after death is contrary to the wealth of evidence we have that people are mortal animals." (32)
  • Comment: "Our fear of hell should be pretty small." (34)
  • If you're not 100% certain that atheism is true, should you be an agnostic?

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

A&P funnies

Image result for atheism cartoons new yorker
Image result for atheism cartoons new yorker
Image result for atheism cartoons new yorker
Image result for atheism cartoons new yorker
Image result for atheism cartoons new yorker

Image result for atheism cartoons new yorker
Image result for atheism cartoons new yorker


We begin with an invitation: tell us who you are, and why you're here. We'll introduce ourselves in class and online (hit "comments" below). I'll start.

I'm the prof for this course, PHIL 3310, Atheism & Philosophy. I hold degrees from the University of Missouri and Vanderbilt, and I'm here because the question of god continues to perplex and divide people. I'd like for this course to address that perplexity and lessen that division, by exploring the implications of a godless universe. I believe we can, with the right intentions and a willingness to hear one another out, surmount our differences.

I also teach courses on Bioethics, Environmental Ethics, and Happiness, among others.

Enough about me.

Who are you? Why are you here? (Bear in mind, as you reply, that this is an open site. There's nothing preventing the world from reading what we post here, except of course the world's own distraction.)

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Too small

“We have a theology that is Earth-centered and involves a tiny piece of space, and when we step back, when we attain a broader cosmic perspective, some of it seems very small in scale. And in fact a general problem with much of Western theology in my view is that the God portrayed is too small. It is a god of a tiny world and not a god of a galaxy, much less of a universe.”

“Many religions have attempted to make statues of their gods very large, and the idea, I suppose, is to make us feel small. But if that's their purpose, they can keep their paltry icons. We need only look up if we wish to feel small.”

“A new concept of god: “something not very different from the sum total of the physical laws of the universe; that is, gravitation plus quantum mechanics plus grand unified field theories plus a few other things equaled god. And by that all they meant was that here were a set of exquisitely powerful physical principles that seemed to explain a great deal that was otherwise inexplicable about the universe. Laws of nature…that apply not just locally, not just in Glasgow, but far beyond: Edinburgh, Moscow…Mars…the center of the Milky Way, and out by the most distant quarters known. That the same laws of physics apply everywhere is quite remarkable. Certainly that represents a power greater than any of us.”

“The number of external galaxies beyond the Milky Way is at least in the thousands of millions and perhaps in the hundreds of thousands of millions, each of which contains a number of stars more or less comparable to that in our own galaxy... And this vast number of worlds, the enormous scale of the universe, in my view has been taken into account, even superficially, in virtually no religion... 
Carl Sagan, The Varieties of Scientific Experience: A Personal View of the Search for God

Friday, January 5, 2018

God: A Human History

Getting a jumpstart on the semester, thanks to an inquiry from new A&P classmate Don about Reza Aslan's God: A Human History. Saw Aslan on CSPAN's BookTV recently, where he made a more favorable impression than that reported by the Times reviewer who rejects Aslan's pantheism.
The idea of the book is fairly simple: Human spirituality can be explained in one cohesive, linear story about our universal desire to see ourselves in God. Aslan is skeptical of religion, which he sees as “little more than a ‘language’ made up of symbols and metaphors.” He’s more interested in “the ineffable experience of faith,” which for him is “too expansive to be defined by any one religious tradition.” While he claims he’s not interested in proving or disproving the existence of God, by the end, his metaphysical commitments become clear. He believes God is universal, present in everyone and everywhere, and no more capable of making moral demands on humanity than any person. “The only way I can truly know God is by relying on the only thing I can truly know: myself,” Aslan writes. It doesn’t matter whether people believe in God or not, he implies. “We are, every one of us, God.”
My response to that, to quote Monty Python: "I'm not."

But in Aslan's defense: there's really nothing "fairly simple" about pantheism, unless you want to call Albert Einstein and the author of Ethica Ordine Geometrico Demonstrata fairly simple... in which case, to quote MP again, "I'll have to ask you to step outside."

Aslan is an intriguing figure, that rare public intellectual who has repudiated the worst excesses of his native tradition without, as it were, relinquishing its residual value. And, he's highly quotable. For instance,
“...most people in the ancient world, did not make a sharp distinction between myth and reality. The two were intimately tied together in their spiritual experience. That is to say, they were less interested in what actually happened, than in what it meant. It would have been perfectly normal, indeed expected, for a writer in the ancient world, to tell tales of gods and heroes, whose fundamental facts would have been recognized as false, but whose underlying message would have been seen as true.”
Reza Aslan, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth

Aslan on CSPAN inDepth 

Wednesday, December 6, 2017


A perceptive primer that helpfully establishes the credulous cultural and historical backdrop of atheism in America.
  • “mix epic individualism with extreme religion; mix show business with everything else; let all that steep and simmer for a few centuries; run it through the anything-goes 1960s and the Internet age; the result is the America we inhabit today, where reality and fantasy are weirdly and dangerously blurred and commingled.” 
  • the deeper, broader, and more enduring influence of American Protestantism was the permission it gave to dream up new supernatural or otherwise untrue understandings of reality and believe them with passionate certainty."
  • “The disagreements dividing Protestants from Catholics were about the internal consistency of the magical rules within their common fantasy scheme.”
  • “When somebody asked Alexander Hamilton why the Framers hadn’t mentioned God in the Constitution, his answer was deadpan hilarious: “We forgot.” 
  • “A MAIN ARGUMENT of this book concerns how so many parts of American life have morphed into forms of entertainment. From 1980 to the end of the century, that tendency reached a tipping point in politics and the political discourse.” 

Wednesday, November 22, 2017



The best thing about saying thank goodness in place of thank God is that there really are lots of ways of repaying your debt to goodness—by setting out to create more of it, for the benefit of those to come. Goodness comes in many forms, not just medicine and science. Thank goodness for the music of, say, Randy Newman, which could not exist without all those wonderful pianos and recording studios, to say nothing of the musical contributions of every great composer from Bach through Wagner to Scott Joplin and the Beatles. Thank goodness for fresh drinking water in the tap, and food on our table. Thank goodness for fair elections and truthful journalism. If you want to express your gratitude to goodness, you can plant a tree, feed an orphan, buy books for schoolgirls in the Islamic world, or contribute in thousands of other ways to the manifest improvement of life on this planet now and in the near future.

There are no atheists in foxholes, according to an old but dubious saying, and there is at least a little anecdotal evidence in favor of it in the notorious cases of famous atheists who have emerged from near-death experiences to announce to the world that they have changed their minds. The British philosopher Sir A. J. Ayer, who died in 1989, is a fairly recent example. Here is another anecdote to ponder.

Two weeks ago, I was rushed by ambulance to a hospital where it was determined by c-t scan that I had a "dissection of the aorta"—the lining of the main output vessel carrying blood from my heart had been torn up, creating a two—channel pipe where there should only be one. Fortunately for me, the fact that I'd had a coronary artery bypass graft seven years ago probably saved my life, since the tangle of scar tissue that had grown like ivy around my heart in the intervening years reinforced the aorta, preventing catastrophic leakage from the tear in the aorta itself. After a nine-hour surgery, in which my heart was stopped entirely and my body and brain were chilled down to about 45 degrees to prevent brain damage from lack of oxygen until they could get the heart-lung machine pumping, I am now the proud possessor of a new aorta and aortic arch, made of strong Dacron fabric tubing sewn into shape on the spot by the surgeon, attached to my heart by a carbon-fiber valve that makes a reassuring little click every time my heart beats.

As I now enter a gentle period of recuperation, I have much to reflect on, about the harrowing experience itself and even more about the flood of supporting messages I've received since word got out about my latest adventure. Friends were anxious to learn if I had had a near-death experience, and if so, what effect it had had on my longstanding public atheism. Had I had an epiphany? Was I going to follow in the footsteps of Ayer (who recovered his aplomb and insisted a few days later "what I should have said is that my experiences have weakened, not my belief that there is no life after death, but my inflexible attitude towards that belief"), or was my atheism still intact and unchanged?

Yes, I did have an epiphany. I saw with greater clarity than ever before in my life that when I say "Thank goodness!" this is not merely a euphemism for "Thank God!" (We atheists don't believe that there is any God to thank.) I really do mean thank goodness! There is a lot of goodness in this world, and more goodness every day, and this fantastic human-made fabric of excellence is genuinely responsible for the fact that I am alive today. It is a worthy recipient of the gratitude I feel today, and I want to celebrate that fact here and now.

To whom, then, do I owe a debt of gratitude? To the cardiologist who has kept me alive and ticking for years, and who swiftly and confidently rejected the original diagnosis of nothing worse than pneumonia. To the surgeons, neurologists, anesthesiologists, and the perfusionist, who kept my systems going for many hours under daunting circumstances. To the dozen or so physician assistants, and to nurses and physical therapists and x-ray technicians and a small army of phlebotomists so deft that you hardly know they are drawing your blood, and the people who brought the meals, kept my room clean, did the mountains of laundry generated by such a messy case, wheel-chaired me to x-ray, and so forth. These people came from Uganda, Kenya, Liberia, Haiti, the Philippines, Croatia, Russia, China, Korea, India—and the United States, of course—and I have never seen more impressive mutual respect, as they helped each other out and checked each other's work. But for all their teamwork, this local gang could not have done their jobs without the huge background of contributions from others. I remember with gratitude my late friend and Tufts colleague, physicist Allan Cormack, who shared the Nobel Prize for his invention of the c-t scanner. Allan—you have posthumously saved yet another life, but who's counting? The world is better for the work you did. Thank goodness. Then there is the whole system of medicine, both the science and the technology, without which the best-intentioned efforts of individuals would be roughly useless. So I am grateful to the editorial boards and referees, past and present, ofScience, Nature, Journal of the American Medical Association, Lancet, and all the other institutions of science and medicine that keep churning out improvements, detecting and correcting flaws.

Do I worship modern medicine? Is science my religion? Not at all; there is no aspect of modern medicine or science that I would exempt from the most rigorous scrutiny, and I can readily identify a host of serious problems that still need to be fixed. That's easy to do, of course, because the worlds of medicine and science are already engaged in the most obsessive, intensive, and humble self-assessments yet known to human institutions, and they regularly make public the results of their self-examinations. Moreover, this open-ended rational criticism, imperfect as it is, is the secret of the astounding success of these human enterprises. There are measurable improvements every day. Had I had my blasted aorta a decade ago, there would have been no prayer of saving me. It's hardly routine today, but the odds of my survival were actually not so bad (these days, roughly 33 percent of aortic dissection patients die in the first twenty-four hours after onset without treatment, and the odds get worse by the hour thereafter).

One thing in particular struck me when I compared the medical world on which my life now depended with the religious institutions I have been studying so intensively in recent years. One of the gentler, more supportive themes to be found in every religion (so far as I know) is the idea that what really matters is what is in your heart: if you have good intentions, and are trying to do what (God says) is right, that is all anyone can ask. Not so in medicine! If you are wrong—especially if you should have known better—your good intentions count for almost nothing. And whereas taking a leap of faith and acting without further scrutiny of one's options is often celebrated by religions, it is considered a grave sin in medicine. A doctor whose devout faith in his personal revelations about how to treat aortic aneurysm led him to engage in untested trials with human patients would be severely reprimanded if not driven out of medicine altogether. There are exceptions, of course. A few swashbuckling, risk-taking pioneers are tolerated and (if they prove to be right) eventually honored, but they can exist only as rare exceptions to the ideal of the methodical investigator who scrupulously rules out alternative theories before putting his own into practice. Good intentions and inspiration are simply not enough.

In other words, whereas religions may serve a benign purpose by letting many people feel comfortable with the level of morality they themselves can attain, no religion holds its members to the high standards of moral responsibility that the secular world of science and medicine does! And I'm not just talking about the standards 'at the top'—among the surgeons and doctors who make life or death decisions every day. I'm talking about the standards of conscientiousness endorsed by the lab technicians and meal preparers, too. This tradition puts its faith in the unlimited application of reason and empirical inquiry, checking and re-checking, and getting in the habit of asking "What if I'm wrong?" Appeals to faith or membership are never tolerated. Imagine the reception a scientist would get if he tried to suggest that others couldn't replicate his results because they just didn't share the faith of the people in his lab! And, to return to my main point, it is the goodness of this tradition of reason and open inquiry that I thank for my being alive today.

What, though, do I say to those of my religious friends (and yes, I have quite a few religious friends) who have had the courage and honesty to tell me that they have been praying for me? I have gladly forgiven them, for there are few circumstances more frustrating than not being able to help a loved one in any more direct way. I confess to regretting that I could not pray (sincerely) for my friends and family in time of need, so I appreciate the urge, however clearly I recognize its futility. I translate my religious friends' remarks readily enough into one version or another of what my fellow brights have been telling me: "I've been thinking about you, and wishing with all my heart [another ineffective but irresistible self-indulgence] that you come through this OK." The fact that these dear friends have been thinking of me in this way, and have taken an effort to let me know, is in itself, without any need for a supernatural supplement, a wonderful tonic. These messages from my family and from friends around the world have been literally heart-warming in my case, and I am grateful for the boost in morale (to truly manic heights, I fear!) that it has produced in me. But I am not joking when I say that I have had to forgive my friends who said that they were praying for me. I have resisted the temptation to respond "Thanks, I appreciate it, but did you also sacrifice a goat?" I feel about this the same way I would feel if one of them said "I just paid a voodoo doctor to cast a spell for your health." What a gullible waste of money that could have been spent on more important projects! Don't expect me to be grateful, or even indifferent. I do appreciate the affection and generosity of spirit that motivated you, but wish you had found a more reasonable way of expressing it.

But isn't this awfully harsh? Surely it does the world no harm if those who can honestly do so pray for me! No, I'm not at all sure about that. For one thing, if they really wanted to do something useful, they could devote their prayer time and energy to some pressing project that they can do something about. For another, we now have quite solid grounds (e.g., the recently released Benson study at Harvard) for believing that intercessory prayer simply doesn't work. Anybody whose practice shrugs off that research is subtly undermining respect for the very goodness I am thanking. If you insist on keeping the myth of the effectiveness of prayer alive, you owe the rest of us a justification in the face of the evidence. Pending such a justification, I will excuse you for indulging in your tradition; I know how comforting tradition can be. But I want you to recognize that what you are doing is morally problematic at best. If you would even consider filing a malpractice suit against a doctor who made a mistake in treating you, or suing a pharmaceutical company that didn't conduct all the proper control tests before selling you a drug that harmed you, you must acknowledge your tacit appreciation of the high standards of rational inquiry to which the medical world holds itself, and yet you continue to indulge in a practice for which there is no known rational justification at all, and take yourself to be actually making a contribution. (Try to imagine your outrage if a pharmaceutical company responded to your suit by blithely replying "But we prayed good and hard for the success of the drug! What more do you want?")

The best thing about saying thank goodness in place of thank God is that there really are lots of ways of repaying your debt to goodness—by setting out to create more of it, for the benefit of those to come. Goodness comes in many forms, not just medicine and science. Thank goodness for the music of, say, Randy Newman, which could not exist without all those wonderful pianos and recording studios, to say nothing of the musical contributions of every great composer from Bach through Wagner to Scott Joplin and the Beatles. Thank goodness for fresh drinking water in the tap, and food on our table. Thank goodness for fair elections and truthful journalism. If you want to express your gratitude to goodness, you can plant a tree, feed an orphan, buy books for schoolgirls in the Islamic world, or contribute in thousands of other ways to the manifest improvement of life on this planet now and in the near future.

Or you can thank God—but the very idea of repaying God is ludicrous. What could an omniscient, omnipotent Being (the Man Who has Everything?) do with any paltry repayments from you? (And besides, according to the Christian tradition God has already redeemed the debt for all time, by sacrificing his own son. Try to repay that loan!) Yes, I know, those themes are not to be understood literally; they are symbolic. I grant it, but then the idea that by thanking God you are actually doing some good has got to be understood to be just symbolic, too. I prefer real good to symbolic good.

Still, I excuse those who pray for me. I see them as like tenacious scientists who resist the evidence for theories they don't like long after a graceful concession would have been the appropriate response. I applaud you for your loyalty to your own position—but remember: loyalty to tradition is not enough. You've got to keep asking yourself: What if I'm wrong? In the long run, I think religious people can be asked to live up to the same moral standards as secular people in science and medicine.

Daniel Dennett
Edge.org, 11.2.06