Up@dawn 2.0

Saturday, January 14, 2012

A new thread for introductions, Doubt Quiz etc.

I'll start a new thread here for introductions and any other fresh comments anyone would like to add (including your thoughts on the Doubt Quiz in Jennifer Hecht's introduction to Doubt: A History).

At least one person has reported having difficulties publishing here. You can also use the "comments" section to request technical assistance from your classmates. Or just send me your post and I'll put it up for you.

BTW: Did anyone hear Lawrence Krauss on the radio yesterday? Very interesting on "a universe from nothing." (See the link in my morning post.) And I'm reminded of his previous interest in the question of facts & values, which he discussed a couple years ago with philosophers including Sam Harris. Remind of that when we get to Harris in March.


  1. Harris also had a Q&A with Krauss on his (Sam's) blog a few days ago. It was short, only a few questions, but I found it entertaining.

  2. The "Scale of Doubt" Quiz

    1. Do you believe that a particular religious tradition holds accurate knowledge of the ultimate nature of reality and the purpose of human life?

    No. So far, none of the gods (way over 10,000 and counting) have ever demonstrated any credible evidence for their existence
outside of human personal conviction or faith, both of which are plagued by inconsistency and incoherence. That fact, compounded by each and every religion’s exclusive, incompatible claims about the divine, makes accepting Pascal’s Wager the beginning of a more extensive problem—not the solution.

    2. Do you believe that some thinking being consciously made the universe?

    No. There’s no evidence for this claim either. Smacks of presuppositional question-begging.

    3. Is there an identifiable force coursing through the universe, holding it together, or uniting all life-forms?

    No. Positing a god as a sustaining force in the universe has no more of a provisional basis than Santa, fairies, the spaghetti monster, or the grand electric chicken (GEC). It only answers a mystery with a mystery and doesn’t get us anywhere.

    4. Could prayer be in any way effective, that is, do you believe that such a being or force (as posited above) could ever be responsive to your thoughts or words?

    No, and I still go by the old adage: nothing fails like prayer. For a rather crude but (I think) conclusive study, check out the recent experiment regarding the National Day of Prayer.

    5. Do you believe this being or force can think or speak?


    6. Do you believe this being has a memory or can make plans?


    7. Does this force sometimes take a human form?


    8. Do you believe that the thinking part or animating force of a human being continues to exist after the body has died?


    9. Do you believe that any part of a human being survives death, elsewhere or here on earth?

    No, and I hope not. As for the Christian understanding of life after death, even playing guitar gets old after several hours so I couldn’t imagine playing a harp for eternity and having to constantly kiss the butt of some angry, jealous and insecure deity the entire duration. That very thought seems like “hell” to me.

  3. "Scale of Doubt" Quiz Continued

    10. Do you believe that feelings about things should be admitted as evidence in establishing reality?

    No. Science has been the most effective way of furthering our understanding of the universe—as Lawrence Krauss puts it: “The universe is the way it is, whether we like it or not.” And in the words of Jacob Bronowski, “The sanction of experienced fact as a face of truth is a profound subject, and the mainspring which has moved our civilization since the Renaissance.” Feelings can be useful in establishing “ought,” but “is” is a question of science and I believe we have yet to close that gap.

    11. Do you believe that love and inner feelings of morality suggest that there is a world beyond that of biology, social patterns, and accident — i.e., a realm of higher meaning?

    No, not in the sense that there is something “out there” or supernatural beyond our own internal consciousness, feelings, personal experiences, and emotions. So far, evidence weights that the “world beyond” is literally in our heads. Also, one can find plenty of meaning right here on mother earth.

    12. Do you believe that the world is not completely knowable by science?

    No. So far science and reason has given us the best explanation of the world as it exists and is continually progressing. Religion’s view of reality has been proven wrong time and time again. Periodically, scientific claims get proven wrong or the claims simply improved because of the mechanism within science (the scientific method), which is a catalyst for further improvement understanding. Religion, personal revelation, and wishful thinking are devoid of such self-correcting mechanisms.

    I also don’t think anything supernatural (e.g., gods, ghosts, goblins, etc.) will be discovered outside of science, which is the current benchmark for human understanding about reality. If we were to discover something "supernatural," it would simply not be supernatural. We could measure it, talk to it, test it, try to escape its wrath, plead with it or maybe even buy it a beer, but it wouldn't be supernatural. It will be simply natural. Beyond our current understanding doesn’t necessarily mean supernatural—it just means we haven’t gotten there yet.

    13. If someone were to say "The universe is nothing but an accidental pile of stuff, jostling around with no rhyme nor reason, and all life on earth is but a tiny, utterly inconsequential speck of nothing, in a corner of space, existing in the blink of an eye never to be judged, noticed, or remembered," would you say, "Now that's going a bit far, that's a bit wrongheaded?"


    Moreover, on the quiz I scored as hard-core atheist of the rationalist-materialist variety. Several of these answers could have easily (for me, being obvious) fallen within the “not sure” category. But in the context of Hecht’s “Doubt”—the existence of gods—I went with a resounding “no” to these answers due to my abhorrence and boredom with the god-of-the-gaps explanation for the unknowable. I don’t champion any of these answers with absolute certainty, and all answers were based on reason, evidence, and probability. I always remain open to examining further evidence and subjecting radical hypotheses to skeptical inquiry.

    I reserve the right to be wrong about some of these questions and anxiously look forward to examining the evidence proving otherwise.

  4. @Phil

    I did listen to Lawrence Krauss on NPR and it prompted me to buy his new book.

    He does strike me as a bit hard on philosophers, but I think its from when one opens Pandora's Box to the possibility "other-world" entities or explanations beyond empirical evidence, all sorts of ghouls goblins start moving in. And, as a scientist, he doesn't need to go there.

    1. I'm reading it today. When he says the philosophers' "nothing" is non-empirical I wonder if that's really an objection. I always thought the point of asking "Why is there something rather than nothing?" was precisely to ponder the imponderability of oblivion. How COULD that be empirical in the scientists' sense?

      But I enjoy Krauss' writing, and his sense of humor. Some philosophers could learn from him in that respect.

    2. I suppose to some people it is an objection. I have several friends for whom if something is not able to be empirically tested in the scientist's sense, it is at best an idle waste of time.

    3. I'm still reading but maybe Krauss was just making a categorical distinction to further define the concept of 'nothing' in a newfound empirical sense, which now contrasts with old data and the philosophical understanding of 'nothing.'

      One would have to imply that nothing is something in order to talk about nothing.

      Hopefully, I'll know more in an hour or so. :)

    4. Couldn't one still discuss the concept of nothing, whether or not such a state actually existed? The "something" of nothing could simply exist as an idea rather than an objective state of the world. That is to say, what we have traditionally thought of as "nothing" may be ruled out as a result of our exponentially increasing ability to observe the natural world at the smallest scales. It may be that a state of "nothing" is impossible, in an empirical sense.

    5. I think we could still discuss the philosophical concept of nothing but, as you state in your post, one would eventually have to define the concept of 'nothing' to further the discussion. The "why" question seems to be in the wheelhouse of philosophical discussion, but the distinction that Krauss makes is that some "why" questions are actually "how" questions, and that is best answered by physicists.

      The breakdown of Newtonian physics and Einstein's General Theory of Relativity at the quantum level apparently opens the door to empirically answer the question of "why (how) is there something rather than nothing?" Please take this as a philistine explanation, but, from what I understand, Krauss's theory follows from Einstein's theory that space and time are properties of the universe. The property of empty space exposed to the effects of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle at the quantum level in the presence of gravity allows virtual particles to pop in and out of existence within that empty space. Therefore, 'nothing' has no choice but to be 'something' in the presence of gravity--another property as well.

      You should read "A Universe from Nothing" if you get a chance. I would loan you mine but I downloaded it so it's all Os and 1s.


    6. I agree that the majority of why questions actually end up being how questions. And science has been cleaning religion's clock on how questions for centuries.

  5. Posted for Brian Woulfe:

    I have been looking forward to this class since last semester. A little about me: I was raised in a catholic family, spent grades K-8 in a catholic school and attended a church of Christ high school. I was a youth leader from grade 7-12. I am not one who has an aversion to religion because of a traumatic experience in any of these instances. My questions about the truth of religion started when my catholic beliefs were challenged daily by my high school bible teachers (two of these biblical scholars were my football coaches) who were certain that my faith was greatly mistaken. The frequent arguments that resulted from our differing views made me take a deeper look at why I believed the things that I did about God, and morality. Even after four years of this I still believed in the divinity of Jesus, the infallibility of the Pope, etc. around age twenty (9 years ago) I lost interest in my religion for reasons that I don’t really recall now, but I suspect it was a mixture of over exposure and a my acquiring a fake ID that made it difficult to get up and worship every Sunday. I have since moved from disinterest in my old beliefs to distain for them. My atheism is of the loud and outspoken variety. I have a genuine interest in winning minds for rationality, and I can’t wait to hash it out with everyone in class. Putting the inquisition, the crusades, and witch trials of the past aside; I can see how many people now believe that there are redeeming qualities to religious faith. While there are many people who do good in the name of religion, the utility of religious belief says nothing about the truth of that religion. It’s just as if I were to say that I gave to charity because I believe that Elvis is alive and living on the streets of one of our major cities. My generosity is the result of this belief. It is reinforced by the personal satisfaction I get from donating a considerable portion of my income to organizations that assist homeless shelters in major metropolitan areas that could potentially help Elvis. This would be helpful for many unfortunate people, but in no way suggest that The King is in need of my help.

    I would consider myself to be of average moral fiber. I wouldn’t be hard pressed to think of instances of complete and utter selfishness, and the calice disregard for the well beings of others (I don’t know the exact ratio, but my I suspect that decent and kind actions far out way these)…..however, these are still abhorrent to me in retrospect and are a helpful and humbling reminder of how I should not treat others. I like to think that most people are in the same moral ballpark as me. -Brian Woulfe

  6. @Phil

    We have got to get a wallet card depicting my personal sacrificial savior: Supernova.
    I'm one chapter in--great writer.

    I noted from the preface Krauss's brief description of theological and scientific disagreements over 'nothing', and I'm looking forward to his expanded discussion in the upcoming chapters. This does introduce a new meme from the scientific community in regards to the phrase: "They seem to be arguing over nothing."

  7. I also answered "No" to all the questions on the quiz. A few of them were very open to interpretation, like #10. Which reality are we talking about? The reality of how I feel about something, or the reality of the object that I have feelings about? And #13 was so loaded with junk that I answered "No" just on principle ;-)

  8. The Doubt quiz says I'm agnostic. From what I've heard about it agnostics think that the knowledge of God is unobtainable and so we shouldn't bother trying to figure it out. I don't think any knowledge is unobtainable, we just haven't found it yet, so I wouldn't call myself an agnostic. I also wouldn't call myself an atheist, though I used to be one. I don't believe in any organized religion but I also don't believe that reality just happened. Everything the way it is, especially as it is related to us, just seems too perfect to be totally random.

  9. Hi Erik,

    I'm not sure if I'm grasping your vision of perfection. With all the past wars, inquisitions, crusades, genocide, plagues, famine, slavery, as well as present day, wars, torture, starvation (a child dies every 3.5 seconds of starvation--some in the U.S.), floods, tsunamis, hurricanes, drought, racism, apartheid, criminal corporate greed and, as George Carlin notes: ice capades, I would be hard pressed to share your view of reality as 'perfection.' Then again, maybe I'm just jaded.

    1. What I mean by perfection is how physics works to have come to the conclusion of our existence and how it is so capable of being manipulated to some useful end. What we choose to do with it, for better or worse, is on us, not on physics or whoever conceived it.

    2. OK. I think I see your point, which is addressed in Goldstein's argument #5, The Arguments from the Fine-Tuning of Physical Constants.

      How we got here is an excellent and, I think, open question. Your no-man's-land position between agnosticism and atheism will be fun for you to explore. I would love to hear what prompted you to to change your "status."

      Thanks for the clarification!


  10. I have a somewhat similar story to Dr. Oliver although I would not consider myself an atheist. I grew up as a youth minister's kid at a pretty conservative baptist church (although not a conservative baptist home, thank God). My Dad and I have been talking about religion and philosophy from the moment I was old enough to talk; so I've always had a very critical and inquisitive mind. Naturally, as I got older, I began to put those critical thinking skills to use and realized that a large majority of Christian doctrine and religion in general didn't make much sense. However, I still found myself struggling to reconcile this realization with the reality of some profound experiences I had and called "God"; as well as the feeling of fire in my bones and passion in my voice when I talk about things like Love, Compassion, Humility, Peace, and Hope. And an ever nagging feeling that there is more to life than what we see. I figured if this God people always talk about is really as awesome as they say, it wouldn't make much sense that one specific religious tradition or one specific set of texts could fully describe him or explain him; in fact, nothing could. He is not set of teachings or system of knowledge or fact to recite. God is an experience and therefore may be described and translated into systems or teachings differently by different people. If this God does exist I must also assume it is not like me; not in substance or existence. There is no way it has feelings, emotions, desires, plans, or anything of the sort; so therefore it is probably not conscious. He doesn't sit on some cloud and diamond throne ruling over the world and damning and saving people; he's not actively involved in the world at all. So with that in mind, anything we say or do to try to explain God is ultimately inadequate; however, because of that it takes the whole of time and people to contribute to the discussion and that includes science. God is Truth and any search for Truth is a search for God. I'll end with two quotes that kind of summarize where I am. The first of which is from a song by the band mewithoutYou (perhaps my favorite band of all time) and the second is a quote from Alan Watts.

    "You strike the match... why not be utterly changed to fire?
    To sacrifice the shadow and the mist of a brief life you never much liked?
    So if you'd care to come along, we're gonna curb all our never-ending, clever complaining,
    As who's ever heard of a singer criticized by his song?
    Though we hunger, though all that we eat brings us little relief,
    We don't know quite what else to do;
    We have all our beliefs, but we don't want our beliefs...
    God of Peace, we want You."

    "Religions are divisive and quarrelsome. They are a form of one-upmanship because they depend upon separating the "saved" from the "damned", the true believers from the heretics, the in group from the out group. Even religious liberals play the game of "we're more tolerant than you." Furthermore, as systems of doctrine, symbolism, and behavior, religions harden into institutions that must command loyalty, be defended and kept "pure", and-because all belief is fervent hope, and thus a cover-up for doubt and uncertainty-religions must make converts. The more people that agree with us, the less nagging insecurity about our position. In the end one is committed to being a Christian or a Buddhist come what may in the form of new knowledge. New and indigestible ideas have to be wangled into the religious tradition, however inconsistent with its original doctrine, so that the believer can still take his stand and assert, "I am first and foremost a follower of Christ/Mohammed/Buddha, or whomever." Irrevocable commitment to any religious tradition is not only intellectual suicide; it is positive unfaith because it closes the mind to any new vision of the world. Faith is, above all, openness; an act of trust in the unknown.
    -Alan Watts

  11. And don't forget the fact that our species can only recently occupy more than a fraction of this planet, whereas the rest of our solar systems seems to be completely hostile to life. Add to that the number of spontaneously aborted fetuses, and I have a hard time seeing how anything other than random chance is at work.

  12. So the doubt quiz said I was a theist but I want to know how it weighs the answers to each question. While I am a theist I changed any question that made be pause before saying yes to a maybe. It still said I was a theist so i changed all the maybes to no and it still said I was a theist. That may be the case but how hard is it just to drop down from theist to agnostic much less atheist?

  13. Hi dg675,

    You would have to qualify which ones gave you pause. At a cursory glance, I think "yes" to any of the questions 2-8 would qualify you as theist. Then again, I don't know how JMH weighted the answers either.

  14. Just to clarify: I haven't posted MY story here, that's Brian's post (I think) that Matthew's referencing.

  15. I already posted on the welcome thread, but I wanted to post my thoughts about the Doubt Quiz here, as it seemed appropriate. I heard a lot of talk about the quiz in class today and some different perspectives, some agreeing with and some disagreeing with the results of the quiz. For me, the quiz was simple. I'm a Christian, which led all of my answers to be a solid "yes." Quite appropriately, the quiz labeled me "a Believer."

    - J