Up@dawn 2.0

Thursday, January 12, 2012

A few points about the class discussion today...

I thought it might be better to start a new pool of comments here, rather than continue to clutter up the Welcome post, so here we go. I wanted to float a few thoughts, and it's obviously going to be easier to flesh out ideas in this format (as opposed to group discussion.)

1. For starters, I wanted to start a discussion regarding the definition of atheist. If theism is held to be the belief that at least one deity exists (and for practical purposes a deity that actually interacts in some way with our plane of existence), then an atheist would simply be a person who lacks this belief, or actively disbelieves it. That doesn't seem too complicated to me, but perhaps you think these definitions are too narrow.

Simply put, if your deity (or transcendent being, or Divine, or Grand Architect, or Ground of All Being, or Whatever) takes an interest in or interferes with our universe-in any way-then your belief would seem to be consistent with theism. If not, perhaps another label would be better suited as a description of what you believe (goodness knows that there are more than enough labels on offer.)

2. I heard someone (I don't remember exactly who) say something to the effect of "beliefs are shown to be true by virtue of the fact that they motivate people to actions." I'm sure that I'm not representing this entirely accurately, but I think the story of the old lady in the hospital who was the recipient of a spiritual visitation was the genesis of it.

What this story seemed to discount was the fact that people can be motivated (for better and for worse) by beliefs that are based on a premise that is totally and unequivocally false. Consider the following scenario: Alice receives a phone call informing her that she has won the $200 million dollar Publisher's Clearing House Sweepstakes. She enters the sweepstakes religiously, and so has no reason to doubt the veracity of the call. She is, of course, deliriously happy. She is immediately flooded with positive emotions, and goes on a whirlwind of selfless behavior. She depletes her savings in order to buy friends and relatives gifts, knowing that she will soon be rich beyond her wildest dreams. She donates most of her possessions to charity, knowing that she will soon replace them with new ones. She pledges money to help the poor in her community, and makes plans to establish a trust to service those less privileged than her.

But of course you see where this is going. It turns out that the phone call was a cruel and elaborate hoax: she was never the grand prize winner. Her belief that she was a winner, even though it motivated her to do good deeds, was based on an untruth. Her belief was genuine, but the object of that belief was not.


  1. By that stipulated definition, it turns out I am an atheist then! I'm gonna have to change my facebook info and everything. ;)

    2) That story came from Matthew Busman. I may be misrepresenting him, but what I /think/ that he was talking about was that for any given experience we have there are usually multiple interpretations of that event which may be of similar possibility, so why not choose the interpretation that is most productive and satisfying?

  2. Why not just define an atheist as simply a non-theist? Then we ARE all atheists with respect to others' gods. That's a very large umbrella, maybe too large, but I don't think you should have to change your "status" to admit that you don't believe everything anyone and everyone else believes. Take it one step further, though, and you may.

    Matthew, as I heard him, was making the uncontroversial pragmatic point that belief and action are integrally related. The more controversial pragmatic claim is that the actions we approve of, the ones that from our pt of view "work," are therefore true. I didn't hear him agreeing with that, exactly. David's right, though: we can be motivated to do "good" by falsehood. Better to be motivated by truth. But another serious pragmatic contention must also be reckoned with: objective truth, independent of subjective belief, can be hard to verify. If we want the most good, we may have to relax our truth-standards a bit. Do we dare?

  3. One more thing and I'll get out of the pool (come on in, the water's fine): I just put up a short post following up on as aspect of yesterday's discussion and "the matter of spirit." Comments welcome.


    I look forward to continuing this on Tuesday, and to beginning the small group discussion format as well. Stay warm!

  4. A non-theist with respect to others' gods (and who has no gods of his own) would be an atheist, no? Define theistic belief however you like, and a person that lacks or rejects that belief is an a-theist.

    @Jamie I have heard the story from several people, and in several iterations. The source is irrelevant to my point, however. The factual claim that inspired the woman's belief was demonstrably false, and yet it motivated her to acts of kindness and charity. The main difference between her story and that of your average theistic believer is that the hoax can be perpetuated indefinitely due to the inability of the dead to testify on the matter.

    As far as choosing a productive and satisfying interpretation, I think Sagan said it best: “It is far better to grasp the Universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring.”

  5. Actually, I was thinking about this when I was watching Inception last night with the wife David. I think people as a whole are far too concerned with what is 'real'. Now that's a controversial attention-grabbing statement. But I think it applies to many people I know both believers and non-believers I know. The universe "as it really is" is a bit of a loaded phrasing, because "as it really is" is accessible to us only in fairly limited ways, and ways which science is proving are more limited than we think all the time. I did quite a bit of research into 'how the brain works' last summer as part of a paid research position, studying issues like conceptual blending and how we perceive the world around us. Suffice to say, that things in the world seem to have very few actual inherent properties. The vast majority of properties are interactional (meaning that we apply them as properties of things based on our interactions with them, not as properties of the things in themselves).

    In other words, while I get the thrust of your statement, I think it's a bit overly simplistic and it reminds me of a statement made by Beau Lotto in his TED talk (he's a neuroscience PhD) where he says, "The light that falls onto your eye, sensory information, is meaningless. Because it could mean literally anything. And what's true for sensory information is true for information generally. There's no inherent meaning in information, it's what we do with that information that matters." We see the world not as it really is, but as it has been useful to see it in the past.

    Lakoff, Fauconnier, and many other great scientific minds investigating the neuroscience behind how thought works are starting to see similar results.

    The point I make, is that whenever someone starts making assertions about what something "really" is, or "really means" or "really says", particularly in an abstract non-empirical matter, I'm just not sure that we can make as many statements about what "really" is as we usually think we can. Call me a skeptic in that way.

    I think the main problem with the hypothetical "average theistic believer" is not how they interpret abstract/personal experiences or choose to conceptualize the universe, it's that the logic they use to progress from that conceptualization to action and application is usually flawed and that the "average" organized religious community actively downplays critical thinking (usually in order to defend specific and flimsy doctrinal points)

  6. Sensory input can *mean* anything, sure, because people can interpret said input differently. But that doesn't mean that the sensory input is equally likely to *be* anything. I agree that we oftentimes see the world in ways that have proven useful in an adaptive way, but our perception of the world does not change the underlying empirical reality of the situation. I can interpret the light falling onto my eye as originating from a beneficent deity that directs a flaming chariot across the sky for my benefit. My assessment, however, would be objectively and empirically incorrect (however adaptive it might have proven in the past.)

  7. Well true, that's why I'm an experientialist instead of a relativist. But I'm curious, given that you agree with that, what can you possibly mean by 'empirical reality' empirical is by definition based on observation.

    Things are not equally likely to be 'anything' only by virtue that we all share a set of common experiences based on being carbon-based bi-pedal life-forms with certain physical limitations on interacting with the world around us. Even the concept of spatial orientation is not as clear-cut as we like to think it is.

    Like the difference between 'front' and 'back' being entirely arbitrary.

  8. My point is that not all observations are equally valid. A person's observation that disease is transmitted by evil spirits does not conform to our knowledge about the empirical reality of pathogens. Observations often mistake correlation for causation, they can be loaded with personal biases, or be skewed by evolutionary baggage. That is why the framework provided by science (with it's emphasis on empiricism, evidence, and honest inquiry) is so useful for evaluating competing truth claims.

    And I would say that the difference between front and back is relative, not arbitrary. Once you have defined your frame of reference, the terms are completely valid.