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.

Friday, October 01, 2010

Morality in the Real World: Episode 3

Luke Muehlhauser has uploaded another episode of the podcast, Morality in the Real World

Morality in the Real World 03: Alph and Betty on a Distant Planet

In this episode, we acttually start to talk about desirism.

The purpose of this series is to give a complete account of what desirism says. I had never actually tried to do that before, instead throwing out bits and pieces to see what people thought of them. In this podcast, we are actually starting from the ground up.

So, in this, the first of the podcasts on Desirism, we talked about desires as reasons for action and, specifically, of desires as reasons to act so as to change the desires of others.

Doing Good in the Real World

I continue to see atheists attempt to answer the question, "How do we motivate people to do good and to not do evil without appealing to some type of God?" by saying, "We are biologically disposed to be motivated to do good and not do evil."

Which doesn't answer the question.

In fact, it misses answering the question by such a huge margin that it legitimately causes those who ask the question to wonder as to the mental competence of those who provide this answer.

"Well, thank you for that piece of information. You have now demonstrated that you suffer from a complete disconnect from reality."

The reason?

People who are interested in the motivation to do good and avoid doing evil are not interested in in motivating people to do good that we are biologically compelled to perform, or the evil we are biologically incapable of performing.

They are concerned with the very real goods and evils that surround us every day and that can be found in huge quantities by any study of history. They are concerned about the evils that we are clearly biologically capable of committing because we have historical examples of people committing them.

The question is, "How do we motivate people to do good deeds that they are clearly capable of not performing?" and "How do we motivate people to avoid doing those evils that people all to often do to each other?"

The claim is that a God can give the people a motivation to do these goods and avoid these evils and that no other effective method exists.

To answer this question by saying that, "Biology compels us to do good and avoid evil," then gets answered with, "What? You're telling me that slavery, genocide, murder, child rape, spousal abuse, tyranny in all of its ugly forms . . . that none of these things ever happened because biology makes it impossible for humans to do evil?"

Well, clearly, you don't mean that.

However, because you don't mean that, any appeal to the biology of altruism . . .


The question is - the legitimate real-world worry is - how do we prevent these things from happening without appealing to a God?