Up@dawn 2.0

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Quiz Jan28

JB 5-7

1. "Anaxagoras is the earliest historical figure to have been indicted for atheism" (Jennifer Michael Hecht, Doubt: A History... & see Tim Whitmarsh's Battling the Gods: Atheism in the Ancient World - "Disbelief in the supernatural is as old as the hills"), but the first "avowedly atheist work" was by whom? Who does Baggini name as some of his ancient precursors?

2. Did original Marxist communism advocate religious oppression?

3. Which of the traditional god arguments does Baggini find "philosophically interesting" but banal?

4. How do most believers justify their faith, according to Baggini?

5. What methodological principle does Baggini invoke, to reject the imposition of stringent standards of evidence and truth?

6. What's a humanist?


  • Comment: "In the case of ghosts, we not only lack a rational explanation of how ghosts can exist, we also lack any rational reasons to suppose that they do." 77 Does this apply equally to souls, spirits, and dualistic minds? Is there a way of conceiving naturalism broadly enough to admit their possibility?
  • Do you agree that Enlightenment values (liberty, equality, tolerance etc.) remain triumphant, dominant foundations of the western world? Thinking of the European refugee crisis, the American election, are they at risk?
  • "The main danger we need to guard against is not religion but fundamentalism" - agree? Are atheist fundamentalists equally dangerous?
  • Are you hostile to (ir-)religion? Should "Friendly" Atheists confront militant atheism or ignore it? Should moderate theists confront or ignore religious extremists?
  • If a "god of the gaps" is objectionable, what should we say about gaps in our natural understanding? Is it an article of scientific faith, to believe that the gaps will eventually be filled?
  • If "evolution accounts for the appearance of design," and evolved minds are capable of discerning this, doesn't evolution (after all) contribute significantly to what it means to be human?
  • Does Baggini give short shrift to the role of "inner conviction" in establishing personal belief? Isn't subjectivity or temperament an inevitable factor in philosophy (as James said), even though the official view is that it should not be? Or is inner conviction just a mirror of external, local contingencies of birth?
  • Do you agree with Baggini's rejection of the the Nietzschean critique of religion as inherently life-denying? 105
  • "Atheism is the throwing off of childish illusions and acceptance that we have to make our own way in the world. We have no divine parents who always protect us... [this is] the precondition for meaningful adult lives." Fair?
Image result for carl sagan no hint that help will come from elsewhere

Also of interest:

Book Review: The Illusion of God’s Presence

Summary: Not a new theory, but a new and strong case for an old theory, supplemented with up-to-date neurological evidence.
Jack Wathey is a neuroscientist and computational biologist and the founder of Wathey Research, a scientific firm that focusesafter on problems like protein folding. His new book, The Illusion of God’s Presence, presents an answer to a puzzling problem: Why do human beings believe so strongly in a supernatural deity, even in the face of ample contradictory evidence? (Full disclosure: Jack and I have been correspondents for several years, and I sent him feedback on an earlier draft of the manuscript. It also cites my writing as reference material in a few places.)
The book begins with a gutsy personal anecdote in which the author, with painful honesty, describes the worst mistake he ever made – a family hiking trip in the Sonoran desert of southern California, which almost turned deadly when midday temperatures soared and they hadn’t brought enough water. Although no one died, he was tormented by guilt and thoughts of what he should have done differently. It was while grappling with his guilt that night that he was unexpectedly visited by the overwhelming sensation of a loving, forgiving presence in the room with him – despite the fact that he was and still is an atheist. It was “a religious experience devoid of religious belief”, as he puts it.
Wathey reflected on this experience after the emergence of the New Atheist movement. He writes that he found the books of prominent atheist authors “rousing and delightful”, but that they neglected “the real reason that most believers believe: their personal experience of the presence of God” [p.16]. It’s this subjective and highly emotional sensation, the same one he experienced for himself, that he believes lies at the root of most religious belief, and that this book seeks to explain in scientific terms...
His theory – the illusion of the title – is that belief in God is a misfire of the brain systems that evolved to promote parent-child bonding in infancy. A baby instinctively believes, without needing any prior experience, that its crying will summon a powerful, loving parental figure. Wathey calls this instinct “short-circuit certainty” and says:
“Even if she cannot be immediately seen, heard, tasted, or felt, the mother still exists. Even if she takes what seems an eternity to respond to the infant’s cries, she still exists. This knowledge would give an infant separated from its mother the persistence to keep crying for her, even if hunger and exhaustion would otherwise compel silence and rest to conserve energy. This hardwired, innate sense of certainty of the mother’s existence is, by definition, certainty in the absence of evidence. The infant is certain because certainty confers a survival advantage.” [p.63]
Wathey’s proposal is that in times of great despair, anguish or helplessness, this deeply buried neural network sometimes reactivates, giving a person the unshakable sense of a powerful and benevolent presence that’s willing to give aid or comfort. Effectively, belief in God is a supernormal stimulus for the innate parental image which all humans inherit.
This isn’t a new idea, of course. Sigmund Freud proposed something similar, that religious belief grows from an unconscious longing for a childhood father figure. But where Freud was groping in the dark, Wathey backs his argument up with modern neuroscientific evidence, identifying the specific brain regions and networks that he believes give rise to this phenomenon. If you, like me, have a geeky fascination with how the brain gives rise to the mind, there’s a lot of material here to mull over: the role of nucleus accumbens in mediating reward-seeking behavior, cholinergic signaling in the basal forebrain, the top-down role of the visual cortex in sensory perception, and more. He surveys comparably complex neural programming in other species, like newly-hatched sea turtles which have sophisticated instincts that govern when to emerge from their nest, how to seek out the ocean, and how to tell which direction they should swim. He also devotes considerable time to infant cognition and what patient, careful experimentation has shown us about the way babies perceive the world.
There are probably a few questions that come to mind when you consider this hypothesis. I had them myself on my first reading of the book: Given that the parental caregiver is usually the mother, why isn’t God more widely believed to be female? Isn’t it maladaptive for this brain network to confer the sense that the supplicant’s prayers have been answered, whereas an infant is only soothed by the actual presence of its parent and not merely the wish? Why do so many religions believe in a God who’s a cruel, punishing lawgiver rather than a comforting maternal figure?
Wathey addresses those objections and others in the book, and I’m not going to go into detail about his answers in this review. Instead, I want to touch on what I thought was a very clever and unexpectedly persuasive argument: in addition to the neurological evidence, he describes “infantile imagery” in a wide variety of religions and cults: texts and rituals that, implicitly or explicitly, tell believers to picture themselves in an infantile role and God as a loving parent.
Sometimes, this infantile imagery merely consists of stressing the believer’s total helplessness and dependence and God’s omniscient willingness to aid. But sometimes the connection is unambiguous, as in prayer manuals which compare believers in prayer to a helpless baby nursing at a breast, or doctrine which instructs believers that they must be “born again”. (One tidbit I learned is that Jim Jones demanded his followers address him as “Dad”.) He also points out that prayer often involves rhythmic rocking or swaying, which parents know has a calming effect on small children. The first time I read this, I thought of devout Jews rocking back and forth in fervent prayer at the Wailing Wall.
The other thing I liked about the book is that Wathey demonstrates the explanatory fruitfulness of his theory. He argues that it can explain a diversity of questions under the same banner: why nearly all religions are obsessed with sexual proscription and taboos, or why denial of God consistently attracts such anger, or why prayer so often involves kneeling and prostration, or even why churches and temples have common architectural motifs. He does venture into speculation that the greater religiosity of women is partly biological, which I suspect will attract some opposition. But overall, when it comes to secular works on the origins of religious belief, this is a thoughtful and worthwhile contribution and a persuasive case for atheism.
The Illusion of God’s Presence is published by Prometheus Books and available online through major retailers. You can also listen to an interview with the author on Point of Inquiry.
- See more at: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism/2016/01/book-review-the-illusion-of-gods-presence/#sthash.KHlyHB8c.dpuf
...Birth and death are the bookends of our lives. Living towards death in time gives one's life a direction and framework within which to understand the changes that life brings. The world looks very differently to the young and the old. The young look forward. The old look back. What matters to us changes as we get older. The prospect of death informs these changes. The young have an intellectual understanding that death comes to us all, but their mortality has not become real to them. For the old, mortality starts to sink in.

For a long time, I have been puzzled by two famous philosophical ideas about death, one from Plato and one from Spinoza. The first is that a philosopher has a vital concern with death and constantly meditates upon it. The second is that the wise person thinks of nothing so little as death. Perhaps the truth is somewhere in the middle. Ignoring death leaves us with a false sense of life's permanence and perhaps encourages us to lose ourselves in the minutiae of daily of life. Obsessive rumination on death, on the other hand, can lead us away from life. Honestly coming to terms with one's death involves reflection on its significance in one's life, and thinking about the larger values that give life its meaning. In the end, it is useful to think about death only to the point that it frees us to live fully immersed in the life we have yet to live.


Related Article: Close Encounters of the Cancer Kind (written by Jeff Mason two months before his death in August 2012).http://www.philosophersmag.com/index.php/reflections/17-death-and-its-concept

Monday, January 25, 2016

Quiz Jan26

1. The Euthyphro Dilemma implies what about the properties of goodness?

2. What is Kierkegaard's (and Woody Allen's) existentialist point about Abraham and morality?

3. Does Baggini think it matters whether judgments like "pain is bad" are factual?

4. Did Sartre deny that human life lacks purpose or meaning?

5. Why doesn't Baggini think belief in an afterlife solves the problem of meaning?

6. What's the nirvana dilemma?

Discussion Questions
  • Can you admit the truth of cultural relativism without admitting the ultimate arbitrariness of moral judgments? If you insist on objectivity in morals, must you reject cultural relativism? 
  • Which is the more important choice, Abraham's (to follow what he perceives as a divine command) or his peers' (to follow the rule of law and humane ethics)?
  • What do you think David Hume meant when he said reason is and should be the slave of the passions? Do you agree? Must reason and feeling be antagonistic or hierarchical?
  • Do you agree with Aristotle's characterization of a good person? 48
  • Do you agree that the mere fact of consequences is enough to "get morality going"? 49 If you were stranded on an island alone, would you still (in principle at least) be subject to ethical evaluation and accountability?
  • What do you think of the "nihilistic mantra"? 57 What's your answer to the question "why do you bother to get up in the mornings"? (See RD's reply...)
  • Do you believe your life has an externally-imposed and objective purpose? If not, do you regret that?
  • Is it possible to live meaningfully without goals?
  • Does evolution confer meaning?
  • Do you think most people lead meaningful-enough lives? Could they, if they appreciated life's simple goods?
  • Do you know any stereotypically-shallow atheists? (68) Or theists?
  • Do you want to live longer, or forever? Would your life mean more to you, if you did?
  • Who's your favorite celeb atheist?
  • Have you traveled in a place like the Czech Republic? Was it unpleasantly devoid of meaning? 

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Daily Quiz Jan21

Baggini ch1-2
Bring your written answers to class, we'll swap and grade them. 
You get a run just for taking the quiz, and if you ace it with six correct answers you'll get another. There's no penalty for missed questions, you've got nothing to lose. The three exams (at the end of February, March, & April) will be drawn from the quizzes, so these questions are part of your growing study guide.
Supplement my quiz questions with your own, in the "comments" section below, and earn a run.
Your correct answers to others' supplemental quiz questions count.
You can also earn additional runs, up to five per class, by posting relevant comments, questions for discussion, links to articles and videos etc.
Note in your dated personal log if you took the quiz, who graded it, if you aced it, if you posted any comments, questions, or links, or did anything else you think entitles you to a run.

1. How do critics who conflate physicalism with eliminative materialism mis-portray atheists?

2. Why isn't atheism parasitic on religion?

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

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

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

6. Why isn't atheism a faith position?

Discussion Questions

  • 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?

Monday, January 18, 2016


Let's introduce ourselves, Spring 2016 Atheism & Philosophy collaborators.

I invite you all to hit "comment" and reply by posting your own introductions telling us who you are and why you're here, and to ruminate as well in response to any or all of these questions:
  • Do you subscribe to belief in an "afterlife"? 
  • What does that mean, to you? 
  • Do you think people who believe in the possibility of continued personal existence after physical death are happier, kinder, or likely to lead more "meaningful" lives than those who reject or suspend such belief?
[These are questions we posed last time this course was offered, two years ago: What problems of "meaning" do you and your fellow humans encounter? Do you think they're harder problems for atheists, humanists, secularists and other god-deniers? Do atheists (etc.) miss out on something valuable? (As Steve Martin and his bluegrass band sing, "Atheists Ain't Got No Hymns"...) Is "reality" an objective phenomenon? What is "religious experience"? What is "scientific experience"? Are either, or both, legitimate and respectable instances of human experience? Can an atheist live a good life AND die a good death?]

Our first class meeting will consist mainly of introductions. We'll not spend much time going over the syllabus or talking course mechanics, there's plenty of time for that later. But do peruse the site and syllabus (linked in the right margin) and let me know what's unclear.

I'm Dr. Oliver. I live in Nashville with my wife, younger daughter, dog (Angel), and cat (Zeus). Older Daughter is a film student in another state.

My office is in James Union Building 300. Office hours are TTh 11:15-12:45 & by appointment.

I've been at MTSU since the early '00s, teaching philosophy courses on diverse subjects including atheism, childhood, happiness, the environment, the future, and bioethics.

My Ph.D. is from Vanderbilt. I'm originally from Missouri, near St. Louis. I was indoctrinated as a Cardinals fan in early childhood, so I do understand the nature of religious zeal. My undergrad degree is from Mizzou, in Columbia MO. (I wish my schools weren't in the SEC-I don't approve of major collegiate sports culture or of violence in football, but don't get me started.)

My philosophical expertise, such as it is, centers on the American philosophical tradition of William James. Last year a student asked me to respond to a questionnaire. I did, and have continued to reflect on its excellent questions. "It was an honor..."

I post my thoughts regularly to my blogs Up@dawn and Delight Springs, among others, and toTwitter. I'll also continue experimenting with podcasting as a course tool this semester. Follow me if you want to. But of course, as Brian Cohen said, you don't have to follow anyone. (Extra credit if you get that reference... and real extra credit if you realize that my "extra credit" is usually rhetorical.)

Enough about me. Who are you? (Where are you from, where have you been, what do you like, who do you want to become,...?) Why are you here? (On Earth, in Tennessee, at MTSU, in philosophy class)? What intrinsic or voluntary meaning does your existence entail or imply? What are your thoughts on the other questions posed at the beginning of this post?

Hit "comments" below and post your introduction, then read your classmates'... and bear in mind that this is an open site. The world can read it. (The world's probably busy with other stuff, of course.)