Thursday, October 14, 2010

On Truth and Certainty - A Response to The Redheaded Skeptic

Laura, the Red Headed Skeptic, wrote a post On Truth that I would like to comment on.

My first objection comes from her disclaimer:

I find myself getting a little annoyed at some aspects of atheist culture (I know not every atheist is part of it, but I have no desire to clarify “most” or “some” atheists anymore than I want to do the same when I talk about Christians every single time I mention the word, so just consider it implied for both parties).

We live in a world and among a species of creatures who are psychologically disposed to bigotry. It is far too common to take a flaw found in "most" or "some" Jews, blacks, Christians, Muslims, Italians, atheists, or whatever and to condemn everybody in that group for that failing.

If humans were not that way, we could get by with making generalizations without contributing to prejudice and bigotry. However, humans are that way, so this refusal to use qualifications such as "most" or "some" when accurate is a direct contribution to prejudice, bigotry, and hate-mongering.

You may wish the world were different and you could get away with these things. But it is not. And you cannot.

It is ironic that what you complain about in the main body of your post is precisely the type of attitudes that spring from a refusal to qualify statements with "most" or "some" - and condemning all people who believe in God of evils that only "most" or "some" are guilty.

My second objection is to this:

However, I am a bit bothered by the “everyone must think exactly like I do” attitude I see frequently.

And yet you write a post that says that, "Here is what I think, and everybody who disagrees with me is wrong."

What you think everybody should agree with you about is not over whether God exists or not, but on how to treat those who believe in God. On this issue, you think you have the right answers, and others are mistaken.

I agree that arrogance is a vice, and there is reason to condemn those who do not respect their own fallibility. One of the greatest arguments for liberty and, in particular, freedom of speech is grounded on humility. Those who would tell other people what to do are seldom as right as they think they are. So, let others alone to pursue their own way. Don't be so arrogant that you are willing to push your beliefs onto them.

But this only applies where there isn't overwhelming evidence that their choices are harmful to others. The people who believe that pumping arsenic into the air cannot be given the choice to "live and let live". "Let those who think arsenic is harmless pump as much arsenic as they want into the air, while those who think it is harmful do not," simply is not going to work.

Where there is sufficient reason to believe that harm comes from a way of thinking, it is time to come down hard on that way of thinking and those who think it.

Yes, there are theists who are just as certain that their God exists as I am certain it does not. However, there are polluters who are just as certain that the pollution they put out causes no harm. And there are people who are just as certain that their children’s' illness is due to lack of faith as I am that it is caused by a biological malfunction. And there are people who are just as certain that infidels deserve to be killed as I am certain that they do not.

The fact that there are people in the world just as certain that I am wrong about something is not proof that I should do nothing and leave them alone.

And I do not think that propositions about whether a God exists are the most important ones to be debating right now.

I have used a story to illustrate my point. You are on an airplane that crashes on an island. You need water, food, and to medical care for the sick and injured. What should you do first.

(1) Obtain unanimous agreement on whether or not a God exists among all the passengers.

(2) Find water and food and begin to provide medical care to the sick and injured.

I am going to opt for Option 2.

Now, where people's religion gets in the way of Option 2, there's reason to complain. Those who are praying for rain rather than building an irrigation system can be condemned. Those who are wasting scarce food on religious rituals or refusing to provide medical care or support medical research because they claim their God prohibits it can be condemned. Those who are digging for water where their scriptures say water can be found, rather than where the geologist says water can be found, can be condemned.

Now, about 6.5 billion of us have crash-landed on this planet where we do not have sufficient amounts of clean water, food, or medical care. So, I'm not so much interested in whether or not a God exists. We can chat about that over the fire at the end of a day's work.

If we could focus our discussion specifically on religious claims that caused actual harm - and there are many - leaving the rest alone - we could avoid efforts being spent on this type of debate. The discussion would be more productive and beneficial. And what is left of religion would be - by definition - pretty much harmless.

13 comments:

Brenda said...

"The people who believe that pumping arsenic into the air cannot be given the choice to "live and let live". "Let those who think arsenic is harmless pump as much arsenic as they want into the air, while those who think it is harmful do not," simply is not going to work. Where there is sufficient reason to believe that harm comes from a way of thinking, it is time to come down hard on that way of thinking and those who think it."

What you fail to do here is to distinguish thoughts from behavior. We do not and should not punnish others for what they think, only for what they do. Thinking that "pumping X into the air" is a good thing is not and should not be a crime. However actually doing it should be once X is shown to be harmful.

The mark of liberalism is that we do not punish thoughts. That is the mark of the reactionary conservative. That you would seek to punish people for what they think, that we should "come down hard" on people for their thought crimes, rather than what they do is what marks you as a fascist.

Liberalism is based at least in part on the concept of freedom of conscience.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Brenda

What you fail to do here is to distinguish thoughts from behavior.

The distinction between thoughts and behavior is bogus.

A belief that P is a disposition to act as if P is true.

Now, there is a difference between a disposition to act and an act. But the difference is minor. A disposition to act will necessarily turn into an act under the right circumstances.

So, a claim that, "It is okay for you to believe that P but not act like you believe that P" is like a claim that "it is permissible for you to weigh 180 lbs but not show 180 pounds when you step on a properly balanced scale."

If you actually look at what goes on in a court of law, people are punished for what they think. All law punishes people for what they think.

What is the difference between killing in self-defense and murder? The difference is not found in the act of pulling out a gun, aiming it, and pulling the trigger. The difference is found in what the accused was thinking while he pulled the gun, aimed it, and pulled the trigger.

The difference between rape and voluntary sex has everything to do with what the rapist believed (or had reason to believe) at the time of having sex. If a gunman holds a woman hostage and demands that she have sex with the first man she meets, the fact that this first man does not know about these and the woman gave every indication of consent is a perfectly legitiamte defense.

At the airport, what is the difference between theft and accidentally walking away with somebody else's luggage? It is not found in the act of picking up a suitcase and walking away with it. The difference rests entirely in what the person was thinking at the time she picked up the luggage and walked away. The prosecutor proves guilt by proving beyond a reasonable doubt that the agent believed the suitcase to belong to somebody else and did not believe she had the owner's consent to take it or the property within.

In virtually all criminal case the prosecution has to prove what is called mens rea (or guilty mind), which means that the accused is going to be punished for what he was thinking at the time he performed the act.


We do not and should not punnish others for what they think, only for what they do.

But what a person "is doing" is defined by what he was thinking while he was doing it.

There simply is no such thing as "is doing" that is distinct and separate from "is thinking". You cannot give me a single account of "doing" that does not contain elements of what the agent is thinking. It can't be done.

The mark of liberalism is that we do not punish thoughts.

Then it is a mark of liberalism that it is grounded on an impossible absurdity. In fact, liberals have crimes against murder, rape, theft, fraud, and the like. Even though every single one of these acts is defined in part by what the agent believed at the time they committed the action. Even though prosecutors must necessary prove their case in part by proving that the accused had the "bad thoughts" necessary for being guilty.

Liberalism is based at least in part on the concept of freedom of conscience.

To the degree that this is true, to this degree liberalism is based on a myth that is no less absurd than any claim made in any practicing religion.

You cannot make good on that distinction. Nobody can. It's a meaningless political slogan that simply cannot be applied to anything in the real world.

Jeffrey A. Myers said...

I appreciate your analogy regarding the Lost scenario. But agree with Brenda that it is actions rather than beliefs that are problematic and warrant concern. The fact that Redhead doesn't like the way some Atheists comport themselves is not in and of problematic - indeed, debate between different aspects of the Atheist community is a healthy thing. We should welcome it.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Jeffrey A. Myers

I do not see the connection between your premises and your conclusion.

As I wrote above, every prohibition on an action is a disposition on a disposition to act in a particular way under particular circumstnaces. Which is a prohibition on beliefs.

Nothing you wrote addressed the fact that distinguishing thought from action - or at least the types of actions for which people are punished - is impossible. It cannot be done.

In addition, you wrote:

The fact that Redhead doesn't like the way some Atheists comport themselves is not in and of problematic...

I do not know what this means. Certainly it is problematic if what one recommends to others is based on an impossibility such as separating beliefs (dispositions to act) from actions.

...indeed, debate between different aspects of the Atheist community is a healthy thing. We should welcome it.

And, for this, I am wondering why you think that I would disagree with this statement.

Is there something in what I wrote that says debate is a bad thing? That would make me a bit of a hypocrite given the amount of time and attention I spend on that debate.

One of the benefits of debate is that hopefully it will lead to some set of proofs. So, such a debate would necessarily include statements of the form, "I am pretty sure that you are wrong and here are my reasons," which implies, "No person who knows the facts of the matter would think what you think."

This is a necessary part of all debate. Yet, it was Linda, not I, who seemed to have a problem with people saying, "I am pretty sure that you are wrong and here are my reasons."

Brenda said...

"A belief that P is a disposition to act as if P is true."

No, that is false. You certainly cannot prove that it is true. And it is also irrelevant. Even if I granted your claim above in our civilized society we have agreed to act as if there is a distinction to be made between thoughts and action. Your proposal amounts to totalitarianism for if your claim is true then we'd better get out there and start prosecuting thought crimes.

"So, a claim that, "It is okay for you to believe that P but not act like you believe that P" is like a claim that "it is permissible for you to weigh 180 lbs but not show 180 pounds when you step on a properly balanced scale.""

This is laughably bad. I am perfectly capable of believing X and yet not acting in any way as though X were true. Moreover people are capable of and often do distinguish thoughts from actions every day. Your claim that there is no such distinction to be made is absurd.

"If you actually look at what goes on in a court of law, people are punished for what they think. All law punishes people for what they think."

You have no idea what you're talking about. Most criminal law punishes people for their behavior. There are some laws that go to intent however if all I do is think about committing a crime I will never be prosecuted for that crime unless I actually commit that crime. Indeed, were I falsely arrested and jailed for thinking about robbing a bank I could sue for false arrest and illegal imprisonment.

Brenda said...

cont...


What is the difference between killing in self-defense and murder? ... The difference is found in what the accused was thinking while he pulled the gun, aimed it, and pulled the trigger.

No it isn't. The difference is in what the victim was doing i.e. was he threatening the life of the defendant. Just because he thought he was defending his life is insufficient defense against a charge of murder.

"The difference between rape and voluntary sex has everything to do with what the rapist believed (or had reason to believe) at the time of having sex."

No, again false. The difference between rape and making love is consent. The state of mind of the alleged rapist is irrelevant. But consent is difficult to establish which is why rape can be hard to prove.

"At the airport, what is the difference between theft and accidentally walking away with somebody else's luggage?"

If I don't have someone's permission to take their property is matters not a whit if I believe I had their permission. If it's an honest mistake and I return it's unlikely I'll be arrested. But if I insist that what was once someone else's property is now mine but the original owner disagrees then my belief won't help me. I'll need to provide proof of some kind.

"Then it is a mark of liberalism that it is grounded on an impossible absurdity."

Please note that I mean liberalism not as it is generally understood today as being identified with the Democratic party but I meant liberalism as contrasted with a monarchy or an authoritarian dictatorship.

Nor is it either difficult or absurd to distinguish thoughts from actions. And you are simply incorrect in your claims about the law. Criminal law is for the most part focused on what someone did or did not do. I think it should remain so.

"You cannot make good on that distinction. [freedom of conscience] Nobody can. It's a meaningless political slogan that simply cannot be applied to anything in the real world."

People do it every day. It really isn't that hard.

cl said...

"It is far too common to take a flaw found in "most" or "some" Jews, blacks, Christians, Muslims, Italians, atheists, or whatever and to condemn everybody in that group for that failing."

Yes, I agree, and that's why I feel you contradict yourself immeasurably when you say things like, "Electing a young-earth creationist to make laws is as foolish as getting into a car driven by a drunk," or "...what a young earth creationist believes itself contributes to death and maiming."

You are engaging in the very "Bigot's Fallacy" you criticize.

faithlessgod said...

Brenda

You need to read up on criminal law.

Actus non facit reum nisi mens sit rea

The Universe is an Atheist said...

This was spot on. We know that religion can be very harmful. its not like we want to pass laws or kill anyone who is religious, but we reserve the right to tell people that it is bad for them.

I view religion exactly like I view alcohol. I wouldn't outlaw it - but just because some people realllly love to get shitfaced doesn't mean we give them the thumbs up to get shitfaced. We worriedly educate people about the dangers of drinking too much. Sure, a glass of wine occasionally is pretty harmless, but sometimes people get really drunk and fly planes into buildings (cough, cough)
So we shouldn't just step around it without telling people the horrible, horrible, well-documented dangers of it.
http://theuniverseisanatheist.blogspot.com/2010/10/drink-up.html

CardsFan said...

On your plane crash example:
"(1) Obtain unanimous agreement on whether or not a God exists among all the passengers.

(2) Find water and food and begin to provide medical care to the sick and injured.

I am going to opt for Option 2."
As a person of faith, I am going to opt for Option 2 as well. That is one of the reasons that most hospitals were begun by people of faith. They do not require you to have faith to treat you. Most colleges were begun by people of faith. Again, they (for the most part) would not require you to ascribe to their religious beliefs (and most of those schools don't subscribe to those beliefs any longer anyway) to gain an education.
As a person of faith, I do not try to argue someone else into believing what I do. That is incredibly ineffective. I do not try to convince you that I am better than you because I believe in Jesus Christ. However, what I can testify to is that I am better than I was because I believe in Jesus Christ. He changed my life for the better. That is what it means to have a "personal relationship" with Jesus Christ.
I am not a fan of what you call religion, but I do think that term could be used to describe those that try to persuade others on THEIR belief of there "not being a god" as well as religious people who try to argue for the existence of God. I agree with the Redheaded Skeptic that it is possible to have a discussion with someone from the opposite camp without the arrogance or name calling. That only leads the other camp to shut their ears to what you have to say.

Sabio Lantz said...

"refusal to use qualifications such as "most" or "some" when accurate is a direct contribution to prejudice, bigotry, and hate-mongering."

I couldn't agree more. Blogging has helped me learn how true this is. I catch myself all the time making this mistake. Atheists throwing out blanket accusations have been my biggest teachers. Thank you.

Sabio Lantz said...

For others ignorant of Latin & Law (like me):

Actus non facit reum nisi mens sit rea
=>
"the act does not make a person guilty unless the mind be also guilty"
(good wiki article explaining)

Ryan M said...

As noted before, I think Brenda is clearly ignorant concerning criminal law. The mens reas aspect of criminal law is a necessary element for establishing the guilt of an accused person. So both actions and thoughts concerning a crime must necessarily be considered to estabish guilt properly in criminal law. Or atleast this is what I think is the case.