The Honorable Atheist

I don’t think it is necessary to defend the idea that there are honest and virtuous atheists. Unlike Leftists, there is nothing innately wicked or innately dishonest in their core values or basic assumptions which require them necessarily to support and defend wickedness, lies, indecency and cruelty.

Indeed, many of them are atheists because they conclude it is the rational position, and, if they are serious, they will hold that same standard of reason in other arenas when facing other questions, and may well live honorable and honest lives, because virtue is life lived according to right reason.

However, I think an atheist society (that is, a society whose basic values and virtues reflected in its institutions and laws are atheist and anti-Christian) cannot be honorable or honest for long. We cannot conclude merely from the fact that an atheist living in a primarily Christian society can be a decent man that the creation of atheist laws will create just laws, or atheist institutions will be decent institutions.

Atheists, even very honest atheists such as I once was, cannot be quite honest about history: either they ignore it altogether (a type of dishonesty) or they believe a self-congratulatory Victorian myth about how the modern world rose from the cesspool of the Dark Ages lead by that archenemy of the Church, winged Science with her Shining Sword of Truth, and in triumphant march overturned all the obscurantist superstitions of ignorant churchmen like  Copernicus and advanced, singing with glory, to the clear-thinking Scientific Achievement of men like Karl Marx and Ayn Rand, cured polio, fired rockets to the moon, split the atom, and we even now hover on the brink of one last final step upward to Utopia.

One would have thought the Great War would have put paid to this myth, but it is as current among atheists now as it was in the days of H.G. Wells. We Christians do not expect Utopia to appear on this Earth at any point before Doomsday, but there are good societies and bad, and pre-Christian and post-Christian societies are much more vulnerable to the temptation to be bad.

The testament of history makes it all too clear that such abominations as ritual sodomy, temple prostitution, child sacrifice rule the ancient pre-Christian world, and sacred sodomy, pornography, “one-child policies” and abortion rule the modern post-Christian world, with gulags and holocausts the accompanying the more vehemently anti-Christian societies, and political correctness and thought police accompanying the more benign strains of the disease.

Let us not mistake a belief in virtuous pagans, exceptional men like Trajan, Aristotle or Confucius, with the belief that a pagan society would be honorable or just or tolerable.

Let us also make a distinction between the morality that a rational and honorable atheist can reach and that which a Christian saint can reach. A rational atheist can find perfectly sound reasons to be just, temperate, moderate, and courageous, because these are examples of the reason ruling the unruly and selfish passions and tempers. However, no rational atheist can understand or justify the mystical love of chivalry, of charity to the poor, of self-sacrifice, or any of the Christian virtues of Faith, Hope, or Love. Loving your enemies simply is not rational and no non-Christian can see any reason to do it. At least, not rational by what the material world counts as reason.

Even a rational atheist, such as I was, is and must be a snob, because he must regard ninety-nine percent of all humans who have ever lived, and all the wisest and best men who ever wrote, as either chumps of a massive con game, or fools addicted to folly in the one area that most concerned them.

All atheists are snobs, and snobbery is no basis for an egalitarian society, or one that treats the poor and downtrodden with charity and generosity, or one that treat women with chivalry.

You see, even an honorable atheist has to fall into one of two camps: he either has to have the temperament of a pagan Stoic or grim and fatalistic Viking, someone who regards life leading nowhere but to death, but who defies the eternal darkness nonetheless (perhaps with a touch of self-congratulation because he facing a sad fact other men sugar coat in Santa Claus tales of a life after this one). Or the honorable atheist has a temperament of hedonist, who merely dismisses the innate tragic loneliness of that flicker of human life aboard Sol III with a shrug or a laugh. He knows an infinite darkness will follow the extinction of all human life on earth, and the death of all the stars, but he is concerned only for his own momentary gains and pleasures and pursuits, noble or ignoble.

In the final analysis, all pagan philosophies boil down to Stoicism or Hedonism, the love of duty or the love of pleasure. One can indeed found a society on Stoic doctrines. Both the Spartans and the Romans did so. There is much to admire in these states, if one admires strength and cruelty. One cannot found a society on hedonism, because hedonism is weakness. Pleasure-seeking, when incarnate as a socially protected and legally recognized institution,  undermines the discipline needed to protect society from ordinary wars and insurrections, not from the disorders and violent jealousies surrounding mating and reproduction, not to mention the ten thousand minor social duties from tax paying to jury duty to returning a library book –hedonists can give no coherent reason for abiding by these duties one inch past the minimum needed to elude the discomfort of punishment.

I postulate the existence of God for the same reason Einstein postulates that lightspeed is the same to all observers, and for the same reason Newton postulates that bodies in motion tend to stay in motion — namely, it is the postulate which, if accepted, leads to a rational and coherent view or model of the universe, one which makes accurate predictions, and if rejected leads to a view or model of the universe which makes inaccurate predictions, or requires paradox and ad hoc explanations.

As an example of a perfectly good prediction, I point toward Humanae Vitae, which predicted the outcome of a society based on contraception with uncanny accuracy, and long before such signs could be seen. Contrast this with the naive predictions of Marxists or Objectivists about what a perfection of utopia would be achieved if only we changed our laws and institutions, which would then (by magic!) change human nature to what unfallen Man enjoyed in prelapsarian Eden. I assure you that any theory which requires “magic!” as a middle step is not going to be accurate.

Christian theory says that man ought not divorce his wife, except in case of adultery. No word of Christ is more clear. The worldly theory is that no fault divorce is necessary in order to help people escape unhappy marriages, and that the general happiness of mankind is thereby increased. No theory is more obviously hooey than that. Ask half a dozen children of broken homes about their happiness, or their willingness to trust or willingness to wed.

I cannot be convinced that one should believe in God because the order of society of better off if the majority is believers, and this for two reasons.

First, it is simply false. Christian societies are in constant upheaval and change as the energy of Christian morality forces reforms as wide ranging as the abolition of slavery to the sacramentalization of monogamy. Christianity is not a force for conservation. Christian truths are eternal, and do not belong to any period of time. Perhaps Hinduism, or some religion that preached that the social order from Brahmin to Untouchable was ordained by the gods would be conservative — but not a religion that worships a God who is no respecter of persons. No Christian believes or can believe that the king and rulers of this world are free of sin. No Christian is allowed to pay divine honors to an Emperor or Pharaoh or God-King or its modern equivalent, the Marxist Dialectic of History.

Second, no matter how useful a belief might be, if the belief is false, it cannot be believed.

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All the claims made above provoke several questions: A pagan society founded on Stoic principles (Rome, Sparta) can be tolerable, for a time. Can an atheist society grounded in Stoicism (France?) do just as well?

To answer the question we have to define tolerable. Let us recall that Imperial Rome had gladiatorial games, divorce, abortion, infanticide, slavery, and one of the most brutal and efficient systems of justice in ancient history. The Spartans had the most brutal and efficient military police-state in ancient history, complete with secret trials at night, bands of young men sent out to terrify and kill slaves at random, military sodomy and helotry (which is worse than slavery—a slave owned by the public treated worse than a slave owned by a master who at least has some self interest in the wellbeing of his property). Spartan women, unlike their Athenian sisters, were allowed to own property, but they lost their boy children at age seven to the agogy, youth military training and boot camp. The Spartans had a pit called the Apothetae in which babes, examined by the city elders and thought unfit, were dropped to their death without any memorial. So ‘tolerable’ for this question includes tolerating many things no Christian can tolerate.

To answer the question we next must ask what values or virtues necessarily come out of atheism and become part of the laws and institutions and moral atmosphere of the society, and discover if they are tolerable values.

Unlike classical paganism, atheism is not a world view, it is merely a theological belief about one issue: it is the faith that God does not exist. Modern atheists will say that they disbelieve in all gods equally and impartially, but if you live among them, as I did, or overhear their conversations, it is perfectly clear that the God in whom they do not believe is the Christian God of the Old Testament.

An atheist of the Socialist cult, Karl Marx, is not the same as an atheist of the Objectivist cult, Ayn Rand. Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke and Robert Heinlein are all atheists, but they do not seem to agree on what kind of values or virtues society should promote and celebrate in its laws and customs.

However, looking at the names just mentioned, I offer the insight, or perhaps this is merely the suspicion, that atheists and pagans both tend to be power worshippers.

Priding themselves on their practicality, atheists of all cults tend to be attracted to moral codes like utilitarianism and to politics of the realistic or Machiavellian school. The only thing we can say for certain is that an atheist regards man as a natural and not as a supernatural being: there is no deeper meaning to man, he is merely a big-brained ape without hair. An atheist like Heinlein can disparage the inhumanity of communism or eugenics, but he cannot offer a coherent philosophical reason why, if man is merely a beast, he should not be bred like a beast to cull the weak.

(Indeed, in one chilling scene in STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND, Heinlein, allegedly an arch-individualist libertarian, has his main character Mike the Martian lament that teaching mankind to be peaceful and psionic utopian communists halts the glorious progress of Darwinian evolution. Jubal, his mentor, rushes to assure him that the mooks and chumps and subhumans who cannot learn the psionic disciplines of Mars have already flunked the Darwinian test, and will die off, so there is nothing to worry about! This bit of chilling Hitlerian master-race talk from a guy who says he is an individualist!)

An atheist is a philosophical naturalist: only nature exists and not supernature. An atheist can do nothing for a ceremonial, magical, or mystical reason. Now, on an individual level, such an atheist can indeed be an honorable fellow, one who does not cheat on his wife nor cheat at cards. But society is itself a mystical thing, a union like a marriage, a being that is more than the sum of its parts.

Atheists of the Socialist Cult embrace the mystical nature of society wholeheartedly and worship it as fiercely as the ancient heathens worshipped Moloch and Dagon, and they demand meaningless or counterproductive sacrifices to their idols. Communism is the most violent version of this cult, and it has killed and killed and killed in such astronomical numbers that the Aztec gods are appalled. Even Tezcatlipoca, god of the smoking mirror, never starved whole Kulak populations slowly and cruelly to death, and had Walter Duranty of the New York Times lie to the world about it.

Atheists of the Objectivist school reject the mystical nature of society, and they end up regarding the laws and customs as optional, and the nation of one’s birth not as a home, but as a hotel.

No one is willing to fight and die to defend his hotel.

A social order with no mystical ceremony surrounding it cannot exist. Atheists of the Objectivist school cannot form a coherent society: such a society would either fragment into ever smaller groups of ever more small-souled selfish individuals, or it would evolve despite their professed creed, some sort of a mystical heart that granted unity and coherence to the collective body.

Running a culture without a cult is like running an army without flags, ranks, or uniforms: man is a ceremonial animal, a worshipping animal, and if you deprive man of sacraments and God, man will not worship nothing, he will take whatever is his highest value and turn that into an idol.

It is a law of nature that idols rot, or a law of supernature. Taking any valuable thing and elevating it above its peers ruins the value of the thing. Compassion for the poor, when it becomes a god, becomes communism, and creates gulags. Equality for women, when it becomes a goddess, becomes feminism, and creates a politically correct environment of man-hating. Liberty, when elevated, becomes license: we are browbeaten every day about how glorious sodomy is, and how wrong marriage is because it excludes sodomites, and sober courts and officers of the law demand the alteration of marriage and military and education and all other institutions to accommodate the practitioners of a sexually neurotic malfunction, and all in the name of liberty, glorious liberty. And so on.

If compassion, equality, and liberty become corrupt when they are given divine honors, when they are adored and glorified, anything becomes corrupt.

Only God is strong enough and pure enough not to be corrupted when worshipped as God, and this is the one thing an atheist society cannot worship. Therefore by a supernatural law as inescapable as a law of nature, any atheist society, libertarian, liberal, communism, or whatever, must eventually erect whatever it most highly values as an idol, and that idol will turn on them and rend them.

So my answer is negative. One cannot base a society on atheist stoical values for any length of time, because if the institutions and laws are utilitarian, then the weak will be sacrificed to the strong. The belief by individualist or Objectivist atheists that an atheist social structure ought not oppress the weak is opposed to the alleged pragmatism of utilitarianism, which will inevitably become embedded in the laws and institutions, and which inevitably involves worship of naked power. You can run an efficient military, or a slave camp, along stoical atheist lines, but not a community.

Third question: Can it be said that Stoicism, unlike Christianity, is primarily conservative?

Well, while I say that Christianity is revolutionary, and always forms an opposition to the world and to the powers of Hell that rule this world, keep in mind that Christians are ordered unambiguously to support their leaders and rulers in prayer and in deed, to obey Caesar as they might obey God. The only real reason for Christian disobedience to Caesar is when Caesar insists on divine honors, or abridges the laws of God, as with, in the modern day, the mass killing of unborn children.

Stoicism, if taken seriously, has little or no reason for revolution. The stoic hardens his mind with Buddhist indifference to pain and suffering, accepting adverse fate with indifference and equanimity. A stoic is supposed to die like Socrates, without complaints, and not to die like Christ, complaining of thirst and crying out My God, why hast thou forsaken me? A society based on stoic virtues would necessarily be a very cruel and merciless sort of place, because stoicism places all the blame for suffering on the sufferer. There would be no undeserving poor in the stoical society, because the society would institutionalize the ideal of self-reliance to the point where all poverty was seen as a just and deserved reward for lack of hard work: or else merely your bad luck to the posted to a bad spot, but no more cause for unmanly complaint or alleviation than when a soldier is posted in the breech.

I am not sure if that makes Stoicism necessarily a conserving force, however. Cato of Utica fought Caesar, and Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita fought his cousins the Kuvuras, each as his duties required, and a noble pagan contempt for pain, wounds, and fear was a part of their character, and their motive to fight, if the accounts by Plutarch and Vyasa are to be believed. These were battles that shook the world.

Fourth question: Is this pre-Christian society’s great shortcoming?

Not in my opinion. Pagan society’s greatest shortcoming is power worship. The mystical idea that the poor are blessed and should be cared-for, the mystical idea that womanhood is fragile and sacred and mysterious and must be guarded with chivalry, the mystical idea that the strong should serve and defend the weak, is found nowhere in pagan civilization, neither in the Hellenic world, nor in the Near East, nor in the Far East. In pagan societies the Emperor always eventually ends up being the Son of Heaven, the king always ends up as a god-king. The idea that an Emperor would appear in barefoot to do penance for a massacre is revolutionary in a way no modern man, who has drawn in Christian notions of equality with his mother’s milk, can truly appreciate.

To a pagan, the scene where Pontius Pilate confronts a ragged troublemaker from an unknown family, a bastard with no father, would be a comedy scene: the right and proper rebuke to give the troublemaker is that rebuke that Odysseus gives loud-mouthed Thyrsites during the conclave of kings in the ILIAD. The great man takes up the baton, studded with gold nails, used by the speaker in public assemblies to show he has the floor, and with that rod he beats the wretch until the wretch bleeds and howls, and all the gathered kings laugh in lighthearted scorn, and the social order is maintained. Neither Confucius, nor Lao Tzu, nor Aristotle, nor Vyasa the sage who penned the Bhagavad Gita, nor any wise man of antiquity would have sided with the troublemaker over the forces of power, law, order: no pagan holds the villain or churl or peasant or slave to be higher than the rulers and powers of this world.

Fifth Question: On the point of a majority belief in God to build a better society, I can see why mere popular belief is not sufficient to create a Christian society, but is it not necessary?

My point was that the usefulness of a belief does not and cannot persuade anyone to believe the belief. Belief is assent to what is true, not to what is useful. Recall when you were three or four years old, how joyfully you awaited the coming of Santa Claus, and how good your behavior was so that you would not get sticks and coal for Christmas? But no adult believes in Santa Claus. It does not matter how good the belief made us feel nor how good it made us act: we believe the truth because it is true, not because it is comfortable.

This question is a different question entirely. If we are asking whether Christian faith is necessary for a good and just society. My answer is not ‘Yes’ it is ‘Hell, Yes’.

No non-Christian peoples can live under a constitutionally limited democracy. The attempts to do so end with socialism, or some other form of creeping totalitarianism, or the grotesque wreckage of modern Europe, which cannot even summon the political will to adjust the retirement age, or stop killings by Muslims of film-makers on street corners.

This is an operation of a law of supernature: without God as the center and apex of the social order, something else must be put there. The modern belief that this apex can be left blank and void is mere horsefeathers. That something becomes an idol, metamorphosing from merely a high and noble thing highly valued to an obsession that trumps and tramples all opposition, and the idol becomes corrosive of the social order.

Do not confuse the humble unwillingness to fund an established national church with the desire to remove God from the apex of the social order. The Founders established a limit on Congress’s ability to dictate matters of faith and doctrine not because the Christian faith was unimportant to the social order, but because it was all-important; too important to allow for meddling by politicians and leaders.

The Founding Fathers clearly meant and intended God to be the center of American life, not self-indulgence, pornography, and the greed of the eyes and lusts of the heart. The image on the back of the dollar bill shows the eye of the Omniscient as the capstone of the new tower of civilization, the new temple, which no king, no ruler, and no Caesar is worthy to surmount.

Last question: I made that claim that the universe makes no sense to those who do not believe in God, and that their model cannot predict nor explain the phenomena. How it is that atheists are so often right, when they are wrong about that basic point?

This is something of a sore spot with me, since I know a bright young man (a grown man, now) who was talked out of believing in the Christian faith of his childhood merely by being exposed in his Freshman year at college to the Greek philosophers, historians and playwrights. Seeing such noble and honorable and wise men as this, such great characters of history, great thinkers, he came to the conclusion that Christianity could not be good, since so much good was found outside it. I thought this was an illogical conclusion for two reasons: (1) the elements of the classical world that are admirable, such as the very learning of the philosophers my friend was reading, were preserved by Christianity and by nothing else. (2) The elements of the classical world that are abominable were reformed out of existence by Christianity and by nothing else. Christianity married Jewish spiritualism to Hellenic philosophy, enriched both, and ushered the modern world into being: it is not an opponent to Hellenic civilization but its flowering.

So my friend’s idea that good Christians are required to believe that no such thing as a virtuous pagan exists, otherwise Christianity is false, is a simplistic, and not a Christian, idea.

Logic works in chains. If you accept postulate A and A leads to B, and B to C, then A leads to C. A logical atheist can look at some point B and correct deduce conclusion C even if the ultimate link of the chain of reasoning is outside of his scope.

When I was an atheist, I came to the conclusion that homosexuality was illogical. One need only look at the shape of the sex organs to see that they have an innate purpose to them, and there is no moral code, not even the most liberal or libertarian, which does not contain a tacit appeal to the innate purposes of things for moral authority. An atheist can rightly conclude that a sex act which does not involve sex is illogical. An atheist can conclude that the nature of reason is such that to defy reason is to defy goodness: that is it morally wrong to be illogical, for the same reason to tell lies is wrong. From this comes the conclusion that homosexual acts, because illogical, are therefore morally wrong.

An atheist can also reason that the social order, and the vicious nature of competition for mates, requires men to support children they father, and, if possible, the social order should require those men to love and cherish their children. Anyone not a total fool can see that marriage is the only institution that has even a small chance of requiring men to support and love the children they father, and that marriage and fornication are mutually exclusive and incompatible, both logically and psychologically. Any atheist who has seen the vicious nature of sexual competition for mates—such as, for example, me, a newspaperman who got to cover stories about murders motivated by jealousy—can come to the conclusion that marriage is not merely needed, but essential, for the social order, and for human happiness. So even an atheist can conclude that fornication is wrong in principle.

My Christian friends, most of whom (ironically) supported and applauded fornication as something to be tolerated, if not celebrated, were shocked at my conclusions. They said it was wrong for me, as an atheist, to see that there was a design in nature, because I saw no designer. They believed that there could be no purposes in nature unless there was an intelligent purpose, something intended by an intelligent and purposeful actor called God.

I thought my friends were bad Christians, but also bad philosophers: everything from Darwinian evolution to the aggregate actions of the free market display purpose, and the shape of the wing of a bird declares its purpose is to fly, even the wings of ostriches and penguins, despite that no bird ever in history pondered between his options and decided or determined by a mental process of reflection to use his wings for flight. The word “design” is not limited to rational processes of reflection, no more than human actions and only human actions are “purposeful”—there are “purposes” even in inanimate nature. It is not the decision of the individual bird to be use the wing for flight: but anyone who says a wing is not shaped “for” flight is blind.

The reason why atheists can sometimes get their conclusions correct is that sometimes, perhaps by accident or habit, the atheist will start from correct premises. They do not know the ultimate reasons for things, but they still have the faculties of reason and common sense God gave them.

137 Comments

  1. Comment by Rolf Andreassen:

    Since Christianity is not in fact true, your post is a catalogue of mistakes. C’est la vie.

    I wonder if you would care to put any money where your mouth is? Can you make a specific prediction for how or when the collapse of atheist Europe will occur, or some other bad future consequence of the increasing atheism of society? If so, I’m willing to bet a small amount of money on the point, or if you don’t like gambling for money we can discuss other forfeits.

    • Comment by John C Wright:

      A request that Christianity produce its bone fides for accuracy in portraying the world coming from a man who believes himself to be a meat machine?

      I will make a prediction: I predict that you are not a machine, that you have a soul, and that you have a conscience, and that you can reason. Based on that prediction, I further predict you will read these words, understand their meaning, and make a moral judgment about them (you would not bother to call something ‘false’ unless you also thought it ‘wrong’).

      I return your challenge to you with contempt. Predict for me any prediction of any kind based on the vague inchoate collection on unquestioned assumptions, biases, prejudices, and smirkings you call your philosophy? Show me where it describes the real world around us at any point that contradicts the Christian world view? I add this last because we both believe in the sun and moon and stars, elements and evolution.

      Predict anything for me.

      • Comment by Rolf Andreassen:

        All right, I predict that there will be no Second Coming of Jesus in the next five years; that the LHC will have five-sigma evidence of the Higgs boson before the end of 2015; that the world economy will muddle through with higher-than-usual unemployment but no sudden Depression-style crash and no sovereign default in the US, Germany, or China; that the proportion of atheists and non-religious will continue to increase, partly at the expense of Catholicism; and that you will continue to take an angry and sarcastic tone, unbacked by argument, with those who disagree with you, including meaningless accusations such as “believer in meat machines”.

        • Comment by John C Wright:

          And how do any of those predictions (except possibly the first) come out of the materialist world view you’ve adopted? If those predictions come true (including the first) it has no probative value on the truth of your world view.

          A scientific theory is falsifiable, that is, it makes predictions that can be used (when the prediction comes true or does not) to add evidence to the argument for or against. A model of the universe in general is one used to make sense of the universe, to explain what would otherwise be random and inexplicable events. Darwinism, for example is a model rather than a theory, since it explains what would otherwise be an inchoate mass of data, but it has made no predictions that could be tested. The strength of a model depends on its explanatory power.

          You also did not read the question. I specifically asked for predictions that would be excluded by the Catholic tradition. Naturally, one can be Catholic and also believe the Parousia will be in six rather than five years, or believe science will discover new properties of subatomic particles, or believe economic woes might be slower than first feared, and so on.

          • Comment by Rolf Andreassen:

            You asked me to predict something, and I did. Let me nevertheless make some different predictions.

            I stand by the Second Coming one. I picked five years because I needed a fixed period; my real prediction is of course that there will never be a second coming at all, but that’s hard to check without living forever. So, if you have a specific belief about when this will occur, we can make a bet on it; six years, ten years, whatever. What we cannot bet on is “The Second Coming will occur” versus “It will not occur”, because verifying the latter requires us both to live forever. I note that for any given period, your estimate of the probability of Jesus’s return within that period is necessarily higher than mine.

            Next, I predict that intercessory prayer does not work; that is to say, patients prayed for will recover at the same rate as patients not prayed for. Similarly for the waters of Louvre and other alleged miracles of healing.

            I predict that, if a time machine is ever built, one of the first things it’ll be used for is to go back to Jerusalem and have a look at that crucifixion; and that it’ll either fail to find any Jewish rabble-rouser at all, or else will find him rotting in the expected fashion. But I admit that this is rather a safe prediction to make whatever the truth of the matter.

            As noted, however, my call for predictions was not really related to Christianity, but to your theory of atheism leading to societal ills. So I shall continue the discussion below, where you responded to that question.

            Darwinism, for example is a model rather than a theory, since it explains what would otherwise be an inchoate mass of data, but it has made no predictions that could be tested.

            Complete side point, but this is probably false, depending a bit on what you’re referring to as ‘Darwinism’. If the term means the theory of common descent of all organisms, as propounded by Darwin, then it did indeed make predictions that were later tested. Note that Darwin knew nothing of genes, much less DNA; yet the theory of common descent obviously predicts that all Earthly creatures will use similar cellular mechanisms. (A competing theory such as intelligent design, or for that matter spontaneous generation, offer at least the possibility that Australian mechanisms might differ from Old World ones.) And behold, DNA is universal.

      • Comment by Rolf Andreassen:

        I also predict that you will be very surprised upon your death, although unfortunately only for a brief period. However, I wasn’t calling out Christianity, as such; I was calling out your theory that atheist societies must be bad ones. This, presumably, does not depend on the truth of Christianity, but rather on its usefulness for social control, and more particularly on the difference in usefulness between religion and atheism. Now, as a society becomes more atheistic, then (if your theory is correct) there should be more and more bad effects, no? So, I say again, do you want to make any specific predictions, as opposed to spouting generalised doom and gloom?

        I note that your theory is not specifically a Christian one; one could imagine an atheist saying to himself, “Although atheism is true, it has bad social effects if adopted widely”, and perhaps even propagandising for religion in defiance of his own belief. Again, the point is that such a theory is an empirical one, capable of settlement without shooting anyone so they can see if there’s an afterlife. With this clarification, would you like to reconsider your response?

        • Comment by John Hutchins:

          I, of myself, have neither the knowledge or authority to make any prediction or prophecy outside of my family for whom I am responsible for. That said I will give two recent prophetic warnings, which though everyone else here may disagree with the validity of them being prophetic warnings, they are true:

          “We warn that individuals who violate covenants of chastity, who abuse spouse or offspring, or who fail to fulfill family responsibilities will one day stand accountable before God. Further, we warn that the disintegration of the family will bring upon individuals, communities, and nations the calamities foretold by ancient and modern prophets.” – The Family: A Proclamation to the World, 1995

          “I repeat, I hope we will never again see such a depression. But I am troubled by the huge consumer installment debt which hangs over the people of the nation, including our own people.” – Prophet Gordon B. Hinkley, LDS Conference 1998

          If we are in an actual recovery then high unemployment for a five year time period would be rather odd, especially since only some parts of the world currently have higher then normal unemployment levels (I will assume for the sake of simplicity in calculating unemployment that you wished to say the US or perhaps the US and Europe). If we are not in a well founded recovery then your other statements become more questionable over a five year period. Also would hyperinflation in the United States count as default on the debt? The Great Depression by the way had only as sudden a crash as we already have had and had a moderate recovery, similar to todays recession, before crashing down again. I can not say that we will have any such further dip in economic activity. It is quite possible, though, that when the adjustments to the last few years GDP numbers are made over the next five years we will see that we may have actually been in a depression.

          That said, faith does not come by miracles but miracles by faith, though you were to see a miracle with your own eyes that does not mean you would recognize it as such. It is my opinion that you are “put(ing) down the power and miracles of God, and preach up unto themselves their own wisdom and their own learning, that they may get gain”, which could be considered a miracle as it is the fulfillment of prophecy. The whole state of the world could be considered a miracle:

          “This know also, that in the last days perilous times shall come.

          2For men shall be lovers of their own selves, covetous, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy,

          3Without natural affection, trucebreakers, false accusers, incontinent, fierce, despisers of those that are good,

          4Traitors, heady, highminded, lovers of pleasures more than lovers of God;

          5Having a form of godliness, but denying the power thereof: from such turn away.

          6For of this sort are they which creep into houses, and lead captive silly women laden with sins, led away with divers lusts,

          7Ever learning, and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth.

          8Now as Jannes and Jambres withstood Moses, so do these also resist the truth: men of corrupt minds, reprobate concerning the faith.

          9But they shall proceed no further: for their folly shall be manifest unto all men, as their’s also was.”

          If you can not see that you are the fulfillment of this prophecy, in more ways then would be appropriate to enumerate, from thousands of years ago and that this is somewhat miraculous then what sort of prophecy or miracle would convince you?

          • Comment by Rolf Andreassen:

            Yes, yes, call me names, as though that settles anything. Sticks and stones. I note in passing that predicting “The people of period X will love themselves, be boastful, and [catalogue of imagined evils]” is safe enough, since that’s true of every period. Unless you have some nice statistics showing an actual increase in per-capita evil, with a measure of evil that I’ll agree to, not interesting. Incidentally, did you know that the per-cap rate of homicide has been decreasing for the past 500 years?

            I note that you’re willing to make very generic, “you’ll regret this”, statements, but not to be nailed down to any specifics. Very prophetic, to be sure; the first business of a soothsayer is to be uncheckable. And wailing and gnashing of teeth in the sky, by and by, impresses me no more than the version with pie.

            • Comment by John Hutchins:

              Pornography, adultery, fornication, homosexuality, substance abuse, (per-capita murder if one includes abortion), I suppose those don’t ring a bell? Oh, wait, it has to be something that you consider to be evil, what would that be? Other then murder I am not sure what you consider to be evil. Evil is not something that we vote on or get to choose for ourselves. I am quite sure that Hitler did not consider what he was doing to be evil, (we can add mass genocide to the list). Everyone tends to think that they are not doing anything so wrong, but it isn’t what you think that matters, it is what is really true.

              As for statements of “you’ll regret this”, I wasn’t the one that made most of those statements, I was merely quoting statements made in scripture and by the prophets of God.

              As for being uncheckable, even when the prophecy is checkable it is easy to deny the prophecy, to say they were lucky, or that anyone could have predicted that. Or to point out prophecies that didn’t happen the way expected or that were conditional on the obedience of those involved at the time.

              Saying in 1998 that excessive debt will lead to economic conditions not seen since the great depression is pretty checkable, especially when, if you were interested, you could look up a dozen more such statements. Saying in 1841 that the Jews will return to Israel and Jerusalem is pretty checkable. Saying that the Civil war will start in South Carolina is pretty checkable. Warning of the dangers of government social safety nets when they were being implemented in the 1930’s and onwards is also checkable. Saying in 1979 that Brazil would become a respected and powerful member of the world community, with the statement in 2003 that the prophecy was beginning to be fulfilled is likewise checkable. While the claim of Elijah’s return is not checkable, the claim of the hearts of the children being turned to the fathers is checkable with the date of the founding of the first genealogical societies corresponding quite nicely.

              Lets try this on for size:
              I, unfortunately, can not find the quote, so you will probably say I made it up or something like that, but like the Ballard quote after this, there was warning of new persecution of the LDS church by one of our apostles, before 2003, and that the persecution would be on the subject of homosexual marriage.

              Russell Ballard:
              ”it will be more and more difficult to remain a committed follower of Jesus Christ. I believe future followers of Christ will face adversity and persecution that is much more intense than anything we see today. “ -1995

              Ezra Taft Benson:

              “A nation cannot spend itself into prosperity. Nor can we preserve our prosperity and our free-enterprise system by following a reckless policy of spending beyond our income….””Few policies are more capable of destroying the moral, political, and social basis of a free society than the debauching of its currency.”We must reverse our present dangerous fiscal policies. If we fail to do so, we will set off an international monetary debacle that could easily make the experience of the 1930’s sink into insignificance.”

              Hopefully those are specific enough for you.

              Of course there are always the warnings of: the evils of pornography, especially how it leads to adultery, that extra-martial affairs won’t make you happier, that adultery ruins families, that lying is wrong, that repentance can bring healing. That God lives and Jesus is the Living Christ.

              • Comment by Rolf Andreassen:

                I, unfortunately, can not find the quote, so you will probably say I made it up or something like that, but like the Ballard quote after this, there was warning of new persecution of the LDS church by one of our apostles, before 2003, and that the persecution would be on the subject of homosexual marriage.

                Let us define our terms. What, precisely, shall be considered persecution? For example, if Mormons are required to ride at the back of buses, denied service at restaurants, lynched, prohibited (that is, by law and not by the votes of the electorate) from serving in the government, beaten up, spat upon in the streets, driven out of their houses and homes, or even forced to admit people to their sacraments whom they would rather exclude, I will agree that they are being persecuted. If, on the other hand, someone writes nasty newspaper articles saying “The Mormons did thus and so, aren’t they evil?” then that is not persecution. Do you disagree? Now, can you show any examples of persecution, under this definition or another?

                As for statements of “you’ll regret this”, I wasn’t the one that made most of those statements, I was merely quoting statements made in scripture and by the prophets of God.

                Repeating the threats of another is equivalent to making the threat in the first place.

                “Few policies are more capable of destroying the moral, political, and social basis of a free society than the debauching of its currency.”We must reverse our present dangerous fiscal policies. If we fail to do so, we will set off an international monetary debacle that could easily make the experience of the 1930′s sink into insignificance.”

                This does not seem like a particularly Christian prophecy to me; it is rather an economic forecast, which fail at about the same rate for Christian and atheist alike. (I might point out that Jesus would likely have been right behind high taxes on the rich to feed the poor; “take no thought for the morrow”, quoth he, nor was he an economist.) But let that pass. I take it you do not think the fiscal policy has been changed, and therefore this prophecy is still in force? Very well, shall we bet on it? But first let us agree on what it means to have the Depression sink into insignificance. In the Depression there was 25% unemployment; but more to the point (since modern statistics are not really comparable), in the Depression it was not unknown for the unemployed to starve or freeze to death. Do you think we’ll see that happen again? Or will there be food riots, or Hoovervilles (refugee camps)? If not, then what does it mean for “the experience of the 1930s to sink into insignificance”?

                This is still very unspecific; it is just as good as saying “oh, woe shall be us”, which is a pretty safe assumption. Christians believe that Man is fallen and that this world is a vale of tears; me, I believe that Man is a whiny teenager and there’s rather more tears around than are strictly called for. Either way, though, to predict woe and gnashing of teeth is a safe occupation in which you’ll never be proven wrong.

                • Comment by Gigalith:

                  [quote]Let us define our terms. What, precisely, shall be considered persecution? For example, if Mormons are required to ride at the back of buses, denied service at restaurants, lynched, prohibited (that is, by law and not by the votes of the electorate) from serving in the government, beaten up, spat upon in the streets, driven out of their houses and homes, or even forced to admit people to their sacraments whom they would rather exclude, I will agree that they are being persecuted. If, on the other hand, someone writes nasty newspaper articles saying “The Mormons did thus and so, aren’t they evil?” then that is not persecution. Do you disagree? Now, can you show any examples of persecution, under this definition or another? [/quote]

                  Not that I hold stock in the prophecies of the Mormons, but worse things than merely newspaper articles have been done to those who oppose gay marriage. They have been fired from jobs, harassed verbally, threatened, had their property vandalized, denied government funding, had professional reputations smeared, and in cases been imprisoned for expressing their views. I am talking about a preacher praying silently in the middle of a Gay Pride event being arrested for “disorderly conduct”. I think this is reasonable to call persecution.

                  [quote](I might point out that Jesus would likely have been right behind high taxes on the rich to feed the poor; “take no thought for the morrow”, quoth he, nor was he an economist.)[/quote]

                  The bone of contention is whether or not Jesus was merely a man, or a man and also God. If Jesus was only a man, you might be right. If Jesus was also God, then he would also be the God of Economies and Economics incarnate. I fail to see the point of your statement, because for it to be true, you would have already had to have won the discussion.

                  [quote]Repeating the threats of another is equivalent to making the threat in the first place.[/quote]

                  Copying a threat is equivalent, quoting one is not. There is a qualitative difference between “Like Joe said, I’M GOING TO RIP YOUR FACE OFF!!” and “Dude, did you hear Joe just say he’s going to rip your face off?”

                  If someone believes that the Star Children will come with their Alien Space Guns to purge the planet of its inequity in 2012, then saying “Stop being iniquitous! The Star Children are coming!” is entirely logical on his part. The Star Children may /be/ a threat, but the astropedologist has no control over the Alien Space Guns, whether or not they exist, and cannot be blamed for threatening anyone with them.

                  [quote]I also predict that you will be very surprised upon your death, although unfortunately only for a brief period.[/quote]

                  1. Do you believe consciousness ends at death, and if so, at what point will John C. Wright be very surprised? When will this period begin and end?

                  2. From whose perspective will it be unfortunate that John C. Wright is very surprised for only a short period? His? Yours? Mine? Humanity’s? The Cosmos’? I am not asking out of pedantry, I am genuinely curious what value the final moment’s realization of a dead man has, to him or anyone else.

                  3. Though he obviously knows about it more than we do, John C. Wright has said he had a near-death experience, after which he converted to Christianity. Given his direct data of the final stages of mortal life, what argument can you offer that he should take your prediction over his experience?

                  [quote]…including meaningless accusations such as “believer in meat machines”[/quote]

                  What part, or the accusation entirely, do you disagree with? You were previously talking about clockwork monkeys and robot Shakespeares. Do you believe that we are not machines? Certainly “meat” is a crude metaphor–we are made of bones, blood, and cerebrospinal fluid as well as muscles–, but it is functional. Has John C. Wright misinterpreted your beliefs, or if not, how is his accusation meaningless?

                  • Comment by Rolf Andreassen:

                    My understanding is that, by ‘meat machine’, Mr Wright means not only that our bodies are machinery, but also that they are not inhabited by conscious entities whose actions are meaningful. I do not think it’s possible for a conscious entity to believe such a thing; it seems equivalent to denying Decartes’s cogito. So in that sense the accusation is meaningless. It is also inaccurate. I believe that our bodies, and our brains, are in a sense machinery: Fuel and inputs (equivalent to pushing buttons) go in, waste and physical motion (and sometimes new machines) come out. I further believe that one of the side effects of this process is the creation (in a manner not yet understood) of conscious, morally-significant entities, possessing free will in the sense Mr Wright uses the phrase, namely moral responsibility for their actions – that is, for what the machinery does.

                    I further believe that the physical actions of the bodies are physically caused, and that mental reasons have explanatory but not causal power. That is, it is reasonable to say “He fired the gun to kill his enemy”, and it is reasonable to say “He fired the gun because neuron thus-and-so was active”; but it is wrong to say “His desire to kill caused neuron thus-and-so to be active”; and finally, it is correct to say “The activation of neuron thus-and-so caused him to feel a desire to kill.” In other words, I believe the material explanation has priority when speaking of causality.

                    From these beliefs, I draw some conclusions about robot Shakespeare, the calculability of poetry, and other matters, which I have been unable to explain in such a way that Mr Wright understands what I’m saying, much less agrees with me. It is not that we disagree on these points, it is that we speak past each other.

                    Not that I hold stock in the prophecies of the Mormons, but worse things than merely newspaper articles have been done to those who oppose gay marriage. They have been fired from jobs, harassed verbally, threatened, had their property vandalized, denied government funding, had professional reputations smeared, and in cases been imprisoned for expressing their views. I am talking about a preacher praying silently in the middle of a Gay Pride event being arrested for “disorderly conduct”. I think this is reasonable to call persecution.

                    Fair enough, that is indeed persecution; I merely observe that the same things have happened to those who support gay marriage, or are gay themselves, and that both parties tend to make single incidents into national trends.

                    1. Do you believe consciousness ends at death, and if so, at what point will John C. Wright be very surprised? When will this period begin and end?

                    I was speaking metaphorically, and in somewhat bitter jest. There may or may not be a point at which Mr Wright realises both that he is dying and that there won’t be the afterlife he expected, in which case he will presumably be surprised until his consciousness fades away. But there will certainly be a point at which he doesn’t exist, and if he still existed, he would then be surprised. As I say, a bitter jest.

                    2. From whose perspective will it be unfortunate that John C. Wright is very surprised for only a short period? His? Yours? Mine? Humanity’s? The Cosmos’? I am not asking out of pedantry, I am genuinely curious what value the final moment’s realization of a dead man has, to him or anyone else.

                    I was referring to the cessation of consciousness that ends the surprise, rather than the surprise itself. It is unfortunate for all of us. Were it up to me, Mr Wright would live forever; I find it unfortunate that I have no power to make it so. If nothing else, I’m missing an eternity of saying “I told you so”.

                    3. Though he obviously knows about it more than we do, John C. Wright has said he had a near-death experience, after which he converted to Christianity. Given his direct data of the final stages of mortal life, what argument can you offer that he should take your prediction over his experience?

                    That men who are near death are, firstly, prone to hallucination, and, secondly, not noted for their powers of careful observation. Our one source for this event is Mr Wright’s memory; memory is extremely unreliable near stressful events, as any lawyer knows. It is reconstructed and re-narrated until what was chaotic at the time seems to make sense as a narrative; in this process, truly dreadful damage can be done to the actual data. I refer you, for example, to the ‘gorilla basketball’ experiment.

                    • Comment by John C Wright:

                      “Mr Wright means not only that our bodies are machinery, but also that they are not inhabited by conscious entities whose actions are meaningful. I do not think it’s possible for a conscious entity to believe such a thing; it seems equivalent to denying Decartes’s cogito. So in that sense the accusation is meaningless. It is also inaccurate.”

                      Dr. Andreassen goes on to say

                      “I further believe that one of the side effects of this process is the creation (in a manner not yet understood) of conscious, morally-significant entities, possessing free will in the sense Mr Wright uses the phrase, namely moral responsibility for their actions – that is, for what the machinery does… it is reasonable to say “He fired the gun to kill his enemy”, and it is reasonable to say “He fired the gun because neuron thus-and-so was active”; but it is wrong to say “His desire to kill caused neuron thus-and-so to be active”; and finally, it is correct to say “The activation of neuron thus-and-so caused him to feel a desire to kill.” In other words, I believe the material explanation has priority when speaking of causality.”

                      I will point out that if the material explanation has “priority” and if the mental phenomena are merely epiphenomena, that is, side effects entirely dependent on the material underpinning for their being, then the mental phenomena have no meaning and no power to act, not even the action called thinking, not even the passive thought called self-consciousness.

                      In other words, if the material and the mental explanation are in conflict and mutually exclusive, and if the material explanation has priority, therefore a man will feel the impulse to kill (or any other impulse or thought) because and only because the molecule-sized gears and wheels in our brains have certain position, mass, density, movement, and other physical properties. There is nothing, or nothing significant, aside from the physical properties.

                      This implies the mental explanation has no meaning. The mental explanation would ascribe the impulse to kill to a man’s passions and character and philosophy and the meaning he places on the scene in which he finds himself, such as walking in on his wife in the arms of her lover, such as his malice aforethought, his sanity, his willpower, and so on, is of no meaning. If the content of our thoughts are determined by physical properties, that content has no more meaning that physical properties do, which is, not at all.

                      As best I can tell, this is the same as saying man is a machine made out of meat. I does not seem like a mis- characterization to me

                • Comment by John Hutchins:

                  Is it charity if it is forced?

                  To say the depression would sink into insignificance would probably require the collapse of the dollar due to hyperinflation and the subsequent forced stoppage of payments on social programs such as social security and food stamps, which would cause food riots. When the depression happened there were in place more charities and social organizations that were able to help alleviate some of the suffering, many of those have stopped or are operating on a much lower level as the government has taken over much of their function. So if the social programs were to stop there would be a vacuum with nothing to fill it, where as in the depression the space was filled but severely strained.

                  This is, of course, my personal opinion so it is worth what you are paying for it. Also, and again, I realize and accept that probably every other person on this board disagrees that anything said was or is prophecy.

        • Comment by Tom in Arizona:

          The view you’re talking about—”an atheist saying to himself, ‘Although atheism is true, it has bad social effects if adopted widely’, and perhaps even propagandising for religion in defiance of his own belief”—was the policy of both the Stoics and the Neo-Confucian movement in Asia, who propped up the state cults for their social utility. The problems with Stoicism (its ruthless social policies) our host has stated. As for Neo-Confucianism, the Neo-Confucians in Joseon Korea brutally persecuted Buddhists and shamans (and Christians), restored slavery after the Goryeo Kingdom had abolished it, and stripped women of all the civil rights the Goryeo Kingdom had given them (Goryeo had made one of a very, very few attempts to enact Buddhist principles in government). Qing Chinese Neo-Confucians instituted a policy of apartheid, where absolutely every state post could only be held by an ethnic Manchurian and ethnic Han (“Chinese”) people could be killed for so much as cutting their hair.

          The very worst example of Neo-Confucianism, however, began as the Sonnô Jôi movement (“Revere the Emperor, Expel the Barbarian!”) in late Edo/early Meiji Japan. Around the 1890s, though, they realized they couldn’t keep being isolationist…and adopted a policy of conquest, creating a “buffer zone” of subject territories around Japan. It kept the Imperial cult, however—with the explicit understanding that the Emperor was not actually one of the Yaoyorozu no Kami, but that it stabilized society for people to direct their devotion to him.

          So the thing you’re talking about? State Shinto. AKA Japanese Imperialism. AKA the thing responsible for half as many mass-murders and twice as many war-dead as Nazism.

          Oh wait, the Nazis were atheists too. So were the Communists—those two, by the bye, are the only societies explicitly founded on atheism, and they killed (at last count) about 144 million people, *not* counting war dead or China’s forced abortions, between 1917 and 1989. 144 million in 72 years is, conveniently, 2 million a year. For your reference, the current estimate of the death toll of the entire Crusades is 1 million. So, every year an explicitly atheist state exists, it kills twice as many people (in peacetime) as the Crusades did in 3 centuries (in wartime).

        • Comment by John C Wright:

          “Now, as a society becomes more atheistic, then (if your theory is correct) there should be more and more bad effects, no? So, I say again, do you want to make any specific predictions, as opposed to spouting generalised doom and gloom?”

          Ah, if that is what you are asking, yes, I can answer. America society between 1940 and 2010 has seen the breakdown of the extended and the nuclear family, to the point where half the marriages end in divorce, adultery is commonplace and suffers little stigma, virginity is stigmatized rather than unchastity, self-indulgence as a lifestyle is considered a norm if not a right.

          The social ills that flow from this include sexualizing ever younger girls, a social atmosphere where young men do not make and need not make commitments to their sexual partners, in concomitant increase in violence due to sexual rivalry, including wifebeating, an increase in gang membership, drug use, teen pregnancy, and abortions.

          The number one cause of violent death among children under two is being beaten to death by the live-in boyfriends of their unmarried mothers. Bastard children, especially babies, are more likely to be murdered or killed by neglect than legitimate children.

          Do you need me to quote statistics concerning the social pathologies afflicting both the underclass and middle class during the period? I am not persuaded myself by statistics, particularly when talking about something anyone can discover talking to his grandmother.

          Or you could just read the writings of Theodore Dalrymple. He is himself an atheist, but he is a prison doctor, and he has seen the influence and effect of the modern human-centered and self-centered values has had on the poor in his nation.

          I apologize for being sarcastic. It is neither persuasive nor mature on my part. Please forgive me.

          • Comment by Rolf Andreassen:

            As it happens I do indeed read the good Doctor’s online writings. I think that he, like you (and like my theoretical grandmother; alas, they are both dead), is being misled by, firstly, nostalgia; and secondly, sampling bias. Bad news makes it into newspapers to be read and remembered; good news vanishes. (And I note also that Dr Dalrymple has specifically dealt with the underclass, the lumpenproletariat; while undoubtedly disgusting to middle-class eyes, they are not a majority in any nation.) So, I want to see statistics, not anecdotes.

            This being so, I went and dug up some statistics of my own, from the FBI. Then I made a quick plot of per-capita murders from 1960 to 2009, which you can see here. I don’t see any correlation with public atheism. I see a big increase in the sixties, plateauing until the nineties, then dropping again to reach the old 1960 rate.

            Assault is similar; rape and robbery show a slighly different pattern, rising to a peak (with no plateau) in the eighties and then dropping steadily, although not yet at their old 1960s rate. (I observe in passing that I tend to mistrust rape statistics compared over such a period as this; it seems to me that many things now considered rape might not have made it into a police blotter in 1960. I suggest therefore that the murder, robbery, and assault statistics are the more reliable.)

            Now, I admit I do not have a similarly nice measure of public atheism. But surely you cannot argue that the 1970s were less Christian than the present day? It seems to me that atheism has been rising fairly steadily over the past forty to fifty years, with a particularly rapid rise in the last decade – precisely the period when crime has actually been dropping. Do you disagree with this?

            So, an observation: The rise of atheism does not correspond to a rise in crime; true, both rose in the seventies, but in the nineties one rose while the other fell. I think, then, that you will have a hard time arguing for causation here. And then a prediction, in nice hard numbers: I predict that the per-capita murder rate as measured by the FBI will remain steady or continue to fall for the next three years, while the number of self-identified atheists (including agnostics and ‘nonreligious’) will remain steady or continue to rise. (I note in passing that I didn’t put error bars on the numbers in the plot, hence my hedge of ‘remain steady’ – I’m not certain that a drop could actually be observed with statistical significance over a three-year period.) It seems to me that this is exactly the opposite of what your theory predicts. Have we got a scientific controversy, then, to be settled by data?

            • Comment by Gigalith:

              There is study, which I could possibly dig up if absolutely necessary, which observed the effect of materialist determinism on both active and passive cheating.

              Using passages from Frank Crick and a neutral text, and a questionnaire afterward, they divided the participants into a determinist and non-determinist groups.

              In the passive experiment, the participants were made to solve math problems on a computer. A “bug” in the program would reveal the answer unless they pressed the spacebar. The determinist group had a higher rate of letting the answer fall into their laps than a non-determinist group.

              In the active experiment, the participants were also made to solve math problems, on paper. For each correct answer, they would receive a dollar. In the control groups, the test-overlord remained throughout the entire experiment. In the other groups, the test-overlord was called away to some “urgent problem”, leaving an envelope of dollar bills behind and telling the test-takers to score themselves, and shred their tests afterward. The determinist non-control group took more money than the non-determinist control group, but had presumably not scored that much higher.

            • Comment by John C Wright:

              My dear doctor, are you honestly asking me to accept a statistical correlation between two things, public weal and atheism, and you have a statistical measure for one, but it is a measure where you have not controlled for other variables, and no statistical measure at all for the other?

              I would say that there is insufficient, ah, data, if it can be called that, for reaching a firm conclusion.

              • Comment by Rolf Andreassen:

                And yet you are asking me to accept a similar correlation, while having provided no data whatsoever outside of your unsupported word! If you find my numbers unconvincing, what are we to say of your mere assertions?

                • Comment by John C Wright:

                  I did not think my assertions about the data were in dispute. I expected argument on the interpretation. Are you actually unaware of the growth of the divorce rate, and rate of unwed pregnancies? I find that surprising, but maybe it does not happen in your country.

                  • Comment by Rolf Andreassen:

                    Divorce rate shows a similar pattern; it peaks somewhere in the eighties, as shown in this table, then declines through the nineties and this past decade. Again, how am I to take seriously an alleged correlation between divorce rates and atheism when one increases and the other doesn’t? If you want to make some argument that there’s a third variable not controlled for, go ahead and make it. Until you do, you’re putting all your skill points in Shooting (your mouth off) and none in Knowledge (what you’re talking about).

                    • Comment by John C Wright:

                      Accord to your table, the number of divorce per 1000 population (which controls for population, not for the number of marriages) shows a two percent rate in the 1950’s, and a four percent rate in the 2000’s: which is in accord with what I said. I am not even sure what point you are arguing against. I am not making the claim that the divorce rater per thousand population is directly proportional to the atheism rate.

                      And your chart does not show the number of atheists per thousand in the population, so that, taken by itself, it does not show, and does not disprove, any correlation between atheism and divorce rate whatsoever. For all we know, the number of atheist per 1000 might have fallen between 1980 and 2000 — many people find religion when they get marriage, for example.

                      But even if your chart showed fluctuation between the number of atheists and the number of divorcees, I am still not arguing for a direct proportion. You are making a straw man argument.

                      You are making a basic in error in your scientific reasoning. In order to prove or to disprove a statement using statistics you need to find statistics that relate to the statement.

          • Comment by David Ellis:

            “Ah, if that is what you are asking, yes, I can answer. America society between 1940 and 2010 has seen the breakdown of the extended and the nuclear family, to the point where half the marriages end in divorce, adultery is commonplace and suffers little stigma, virginity is stigmatized rather than unchastity, self-indulgence as a lifestyle is considered a norm if not a right.”

            It’s long been noted that the democratic nations with the highest rates of atheism are also consistently the ones with the highest rates of social well-being in almost all categories.

            • Comment by Rolf Andreassen:

              Ok, in principle this supports my argument, but I’m going to have to object. When you start comparing across different nations, you have to control for different ethnic homogeneities and social mechanisms. You’re probably referring to the Scandinavian nations, and it’s true that they are nice places to live, but it’s also true that they have nothing like the scale of urban density and immigration that the US has. Further, they have very different economic traditions. I see this argument made in discussions about welfare as well: “Norway has welfare”, it’s said, “and it hasn’t collapsed economically, everyone works, and it’s a lovely place to live”. Well yes, but that doesn’t mean that the approach will scale to the US! You have to take into account the path dependencies of the development, the much greater degree of homogeneity (as demonstrated by the partial breakdown of all that social harmony in Oslo, where the immigrants live…) and, of course, that the economy is lubricated by oil.

              So, I much prefer to compare different times within single nations, rather than different nations at the same time.

            • Comment by John C Wright:

              “It’s long been noted that the democratic nations with the highest rates of atheism are also consistently the ones with the highest rates of social well-being in almost all categories.”

              You mean the opposite, surely. At least, all the reports I hear indicate the opposite, and always have, so much so that I have never even heard the rumor that there was another opinion. High rates of suicide, divorce, and drunkenness, and a climbing crime rate and a falling industry are signs of social well being?

              Perhaps you are using the word to refer to socialized medicine and a welfare state? If so, then yes, there is a correlation between atheist and socialism.

              • Comment by Rolf Andreassen:

                And where are you getting these trends, you who are so eager to correct for other variables when someone posts actual numbers?

                • Comment by John C Wright:

                  Your numbers are meaningless and you know it.

                  I have lost all faith in you. You are not really a physicist, are you? You seem to have no idea about how the scientific method works. You argue like an intellectual, not a scientist, as if the mere numbers by themselves, with no controls and no relation to the subject matter, win the argument.

                  Since most of the trends I have been discussing have been the main topic of newspaper and academic interest for the last fifty to one hundred years, I am taken by surprise you would ask for a source. Or did you think no one has any opinion or comes to any judgment on a matter he can see around him daily until and unless an Academic study whose date title and author he has at his fingertips convinces him of the matter?

                  • Comment by Rolf Andreassen:

                    Newspaper reports, especially anecdotal memories of newspaper reports, are not reliable; they will always show increases but never mention decreases, such as we’ve been having for the past twenty years, as shown in the numbers I gave. Your memory is not data. I do not claim that a quick look at the murder rate is a rigorous regression analysis; but I do claim that it is far superior to unsupported assertions such as you are making. You claim that divorce rates are rising, and are mistaken. You claim that murder rates are rising, and are mistaken. And then when I point this out with actual numbers, you appeal to what is “widely known” (and mistaken!), and call me an intellectual because I provide sources and numbers!

                    This is not honest argument. If you have something to say about third variables, say it and we can discuss the point; but don’t make wild accusations, and don’t use your memory of public concern to insist on trends which do not exist.

                    As for your accusations, they are beneath my contempt.

                    • Comment by John C Wright:

                      But your numbers don’t support your claim, no do they have any bearing on my claims, which you here have misrepresented. I did not say, for example, that the rise of atheism led to a rise in the murder rate (which even your own numbers show to have risen over the last fifty years).

                      I agree and admit my statements are unsupported. I did not offer a single statistic to show the correlation between atheism and philosophical idolatry, because these are matters no open to statistical analysis.

                      The relation between broken homes and other social pathologies I believe to be a common enough experience, and so obvious, that anyone not seeing it by common sense and cultural memory could not be persuaded to see it by statistics: that is merely a tactical decision on my part not to pursue a type of argument I think not persuasive.

                      Perhaps I misunderstood your basic point. If so, I apologize. Are you seriously maintaining the claim that the divorce rate per capita, and controlled for racial and social groups, factoring out immigration, is lower now than it was fifty and sixty years ago? If so, are you controlling for the number of couples who cohabitate without marriage? If you are only saying that the rate of change of the divorce rate has dropped recently, that is a point with which I have no dispute.

                    • Comment by John C Wright:

                      “You claim that divorce rates are rising, and are mistaken. You claim that murder rates are rising, and are mistaken”

                      Actually, I did not make that claim. What I claimed was that high rates of suicide, divorce, and drunkenness, and a climbing crime rate and a falling industry are not signs of social well being, and I thought I was clear in saying I was speaking of the last fifty to one hundred years.

                      I understand how my words might have given you the impression that I was talking about a continuous fall in certain rates of social wellbeing, but, no, this is merely a misunderstanding.

                  • Comment by bibliophile112:

                    Whatever his philosophical errors, Dr Andreassen is both well meaning and honest. Your rudeness to him ill becomes you.

        • Comment by John C Wright:

          “I also predict that you will be very surprised upon your death, although unfortunately only for a brief period.”

          I will point out that, as a matter of logic, even if your atheist belief is true, your prediction cannot be true, since, if I am conscious enough to be aware when I am dead that I am dead, that by definition I would be aware, hence not dead. You are making a prediction that can only be presented to the observer after the observer ceases to exist.

          In other words, this is a theological belief of yours, not a scientific belief, not a prediction. It is not falsifiable.

  2. Comment by Christian:

    Mr Wright, I had not read of your books or even heard your name in science fiction circles before this year. The fault is no doubt mine, as I have largely stopped being as voracious a reader of sci-fi as I once was. I was introduced to you as an author and a blogger through some catholic blog trumpeting that that you were no longer an atheist. Since then, I have been following this blog with ever increasing appreciation. I just wanted to take this moment to thank you for expressing these ideas with prose that borders on poetry. In the hurry, hurry modern world where everyone who writes seems to race to put down their thoughts like so much mental diarrhea, it is a great joy to read ideas phrased with the care that you take. I look forward to enjoying your published work. Thank you for enlightening my days.

    • Comment by John C Wright:

      You are very welcome, albeit one can detect from the spelling and grammar errors (not to mention the slips of logic) that dog my work online, I cannot accept any compliments on the carefulness of my online work. But I thank you for the compliment nonetheless.

      I am eager, should you read some of my published work, to hear your judgment on whether it sounds similar to my online nonfiction writing. (My own opinion is that they are not much alike.)

  3. Comment by Mary:

    I think you overdo the claims about respect for the poor in paganism.

    then Anu and Bel called by name me, Hammurabi, the exalted prince, who feared God, to bring about the rule of righteousness in the land, to destroy the wicked and the evil-doers; so that the strong should not harm the weak,

    Or again, in Egypt’s Old Kingdom, during the first dynasties, great men would have epigraphs written exalting their great deeds, like building a city wall or conquering areas. In a troubled time, there’s a change to the epigraphs; they boast of how they established justice and were of aid to orphans and widows.

    Since the law is written in the heart, it will show up. Indeed a pagan such as Plato thought in his perfect republic, myths would have to be censored to expurgate anything that attributed evil behavior to a god.

    • Comment by John C Wright:

      I admit with embarrassment the slander I have written against the pagans: Trajan was famed for delaying a campaign until he had rendered justice to a poor widow who clutched his stirrup.

      I would venture to say that the poor never had rights, as they had in Christian lands, as when even the poor man’s hovel was as a castle, and not even a king could enter without permission.

      Concern for the poor is emphasized in the religion of Abraham, but by no means unique. I stand corrected.

  4. Comment by NorthoftheBorder:

    Enough is enough. I demand you write an apologetics style book. I want you to cover all that my wee heart ponders. Is that so hard Mr Wright? Is it too much to ask? You have a guaranteed $20 in your account if you do (or more, how ever much these things cost) – can’t say it will increase the sales of your other books though…but your reward will be great in Heaven :)

  5. Comment by Martin T:

    Modern atheists will say that they disbelieve in all gods equally and impartially, but if you live among them, as I did, or overhear their conversations, it is perfectly clear that the God in whom they do not believe is the Christian God of the Old Testament.

    The reasonable reply I have read is that there is no great reason to refute, say -Hinduism, in a country that is exclusively Christian.

  6. Comment by Neo-Scotist:

    beautiful article. you better publish that manuscript on philosophy and theology soon (which I assume you’re writing, right? ;) ), or else, I’ll be pissed.

  7. Comment by Gian:

    Christ preached no new morality and a perfect pagan would be as moral as any Christian
    Ronald Knox in Belief of Catholics.

    Also see the appendix to CS Lewis’s The Abolition of Man that all the traditional long lasting societies had quite similar moral order (in theory). Casual murder of babies was nowhere lauded (as it is in modern West). Girl baby murdering segments of the world know that they are wrong and take no pride in it.

    • Comment by Mary:

      a perfect pagan would be as moral as any Christian

      And if the sky fell, we could all catch larks.

      • Comment by John C Wright:

        Here I must disagree with Mary and agree with Gian. The Natural Law, the Objective Moral Code, the Tao, or whatever you want to call it, applies to pagans as well as to Christians.

        • Comment by Mary:

          Humm? What does that have to do with disagreeing with me? Of course it applies. The question is not whether it applies but whether any pagan is capable of being perfect by it.

        • Comment by David Ellis:

          “Even a rational atheist, such as I was, is and must be a snob, because he must regard ninety-nine percent of all humans who have ever lived, and all the wisest and best men who ever wrote, as either chumps of a massive con game, or fools addicted to folly in the one area that most concerned them.”

          One is not forced to be a snob to disagree with the majority view on important issues.

          “In the final analysis, all pagan philosophies boil down to Stoicism or Hedonism, the love of duty or the love of pleasure.”

          Most of us contemporary atheists are humanists. We need not deify love of duty nor a concern for human happiness. Both are important values. You example of a society built on stoicism is just that: an example. A possibility. One among a massive multitude of possible ways to try to organize a society. I really wish you would address the philosophical and ethical position most of we atheists actually hold to: humanism.

          “Christian theory says that man ought not divorce his wife, except in case of adultery. No word of Christ is more clear. The worldly theory is that no fault divorce is necessary in order to help people escape unhappy marriages, and that the general happiness of mankind is thereby increased.”

          What of the husband who does not commit adultery but who beats his wife mercilessly? I’ve personally seen the unfortunate results when devote Christian women while not divorce their abusive husbands because only adultery is a biblically sanctioned reason for divorce.

          • Comment by John C Wright:

            “One is not forced to be a snob to disagree with the majority view on important issues. ”

            Certainly not. Nor is this the way atheists talk about Christians.

            Their tone is not one of polite or respectful disagreement. We (for I was one) looked down upon the Christians as self-deluded victims of a hoax, or of a weakness of character making them unable to face harsh reality. Atheists, or at least each and every single one I’ve ever met, look down on non-Atheists are sufferers from mental or moral inferiority to themselves. Hence the term “brights” — no one picks a term like that unless they mean to imply the majority of mankind are dim.

            • Comment by Rolf Andreassen:

              It may be worth pointing out that the majority of humanity has IQ between 85 and 115, a range for which the technical term is “thick as two short planks”. And that even this is an improvement on earlier ages when nutrition was worse.

              • Comment by Tom in Arizona:

                I’m sorry, maybe you have some new, cutting edge version of context-dependent lexeme-interpretation, but where I come from, “thick” and all the other synonyms for “stupid” are relative to the general population. And yet here you seem to be saying that the general population is stupider than the general population.

                Wow. This is both snobbish—weren’t you concerned to deny Mr. Wright’s contention that atheists were snobs?—and also a contradiction in terms.

                But please, tell us another one about how smart you are.

                • Comment by Rolf Andreassen:

                  I was never concerned to deny Mr Wright’s contention that atheists are snobs; any minority that grasps obvious truth must be snobbish.

                  I do not define stupidity relative to the general population, but relative to people who can read. That is, not people who can manage to stumble their way through a tabloid if a gun is held to their heads, but people who read for pleasure; say, two, perhaps three standard deviations above the average.

                  • Comment by CPE Gaebler:

                    I’m led to wonder what, exactly, makes atheism so “obvious?”

                  • Comment by John C Wright:

                    “I was never concerned to deny Mr Wright’s contention that atheists are snobs; any minority that grasps obvious truth must be snobbish.”

                    Unless that group holds pride to be a sin, and humility to be a virtue. Dr. A’s argument here is that atheist are right to be snobs because they are smarter than everyone else.

                    But you will notice among atheists that the attitude of condescension is the same whether the atheist is speaking to a layman or an expert, a learned doctor, or an illiterate.

            • Comment by Gian:

              Mr Wright,
              Are you informed about Vaishnaism (Hare Krishna and ISCON are Vaishnavas)
              The Vaishnava theology is almost a perfect copy of Christian with Incarnation, Love for God and God’s love for creature. The most significant difference is that Souls (i.e. jeevas) are co-eternal with God in Vaishnava theology.

              The prosperous Western state of Gujarat is Vaishnava dominated and so are Marwari Trader community from Western India.

              So you certainly can not dismiss all pagan philosophies so easily.

              • Comment by John Hutchins:

                Actually I would say the most significant difference is reincarnation. There are Christian churches that hold the belief that soul (or some part of them) are co-eternal with God (one of the things that makes other Christians debate whether said church is Christian). The Catholics consider this belief to fall under the heresy of the Arians and violates the Nicene Creed.

                Reincarnation removes fear of punishment for sin and makes suicide more acceptable (I have an econometric paper on cross nation suicides and one of the only things that came out with a very high level on confidence is that nations with a high level of belief in reincarnation have a higher level of suicides then otherwise).

                With the rejection of the Nicene Creed the doctrine of reincarnation is still heretical as Christ rose from the dead so will we all rise from the dead, and if all are resurrected then which reincarnated form gets resurrected? There are multiple Biblical verses to show that it is the dead that are getting resurrected in their mortal bodies, not reincarnation (Ezekiel 37:1-14, Job 19:26, 1 Corinthians 15, Romans 14:10, 2 Corinthians 5:10-11, and so on). The belief in reincarnation requires there to be extra biblical mystic teachings or replacing reincarnation with resurrection in most scriptures, while still ignoring other scriptures. For if we are to believe that reincarnation is meant when resurrection is said then how do we believe that Christ rose from the dead and had an empty tomb? Was he reincarnated? if so why would the tomb be empty? If he resurrected with an empty tomb, so in the same body, then why would the meaning of the words change when talking of us? Even the early church fathers that were rejected, like Origen (who gets the most new age claim of believing in reincarnation), taught against reincarnation if you bother to read any of their works.

  8. Comment by David Ellis:

    ” Modern atheists will say that they disbelieve in all gods equally and impartially, but if you live among them, as I did, or overhear their conversations, it is perfectly clear that the God in whom they do not believe is the Christian God of the Old Testament.”

    Obviously, in a dominantly Christian society it is Christian theists with whom an atheist must most commonly deal. On those occasions when one of us encounters Wiccans, Pagans, and others one finds us equally skeptical of their dieties and supernatural beings.

    “When I was an atheist, I came to the conclusion that homosexuality was illogical. One need only look at the shape of the sex organs to see that they have an innate purpose to them, and there is no moral code, not even the most liberal or liberatarian, which does not contain a tacit appeal to the innate purposes of things for moral authority. An atheist can rightly conclude that a sex act which does not involve sex is illogical. An atheist can conclude that the nature of reason is such that to defy reason is to defy goodness: that is it morally wrong to be illogical, for the same reason to tell lies is wrong. From this comes the conclusion that homosexual acts, because illogical, are therefore morally wrong.”

    A rather unusual position among atheists. When I deconverted from religion I very soon came to stop thinking homosexuality was morally wrong—there simply weren’t any reasonable arguments given for calling it so (including the one above). My experiences of talking with other atheists suggest this position is overwhelmingly dominant among atheists. So much needless suffering results from the belief that homosexuality is immoral and the resulting social stigma attached to it. A shame that this fact seems not to have entered into your moral reasoning on the issue. It seems to me far more morally relevant than the point you make above.

    One final point (though hardly the only other issue on which I found problems in this post): why, in your talks about atheism do you spend so much time on things like Nietzsche, Stoicism, Objectivism, and Communism and so little on the overwhelmingly most common philosophy among atheists in our society: humanism? I’ve always thought this a puzzling oversight in your discussions of the topic of atheism.

    • Comment by John C Wright:

      “On those occasions when one of us encounters Wiccans, Pagans, and others one finds us equally skeptical of their deities and supernatural beings…”

      But not as equally contemptuous. At least, that was not my experience, among the (many) atheists and the (many) witches and neopagans I know.

      “A rather unusual position among atheists. When I deconverted from religion I very soon came to stop thinking homosexuality was morally wrong—there simply weren’t any reasonable arguments given for calling it so (including the one above).”

      I suppose that depends on the quality of atheists you are familiar with.

      Most of the atheists I knew embraced some form of Stoicism or Objectivism or some other form of reason-based morality, which, upon examination, offer grounds to condemn any practice that places the sovereignty of the appetites, passions, and emotions (particularly false-to-facts appetites) over the reason. These generally were men who were atheists for rationalistic reasons.

      Atheists who are atheists for emotional reasons, because they are angry at God, or seek an escape from reality or from the moral order of reality, of course would come to different conclusions. I have also spoken to atheists of this ilk: they are not really atheists as much as anti-Christians. They tend to promote homosexuality under the (incorrect) belief that only Christianity, of all world religions, condemns it. Naturally, in that circle, nothing condemned by the Church would be condemned.

      “Nietzsche, Stoicism, Objectivism, and Communism and so little on the overwhelmingly most common philosophy among atheists in our society: humanism?”

      This is because I have an education in the classics, which inclines me to look at primary sources rather than later interpretations. The common philosophy called humanism does not have a single spokesman. It is a combination and sublimation of several authors:
      Machiavelli – inventor of “the new morality”
      Kant – subjectivizer of Truth
      Nietzsche – self-proclaimed “Anti-Christ”
      Freud – founder of the “sexual revolution”
      Marx – false Moses for the masses, and
      Sartre – apostle of absurdity.

      Naturally, the criticism I might make of one of these is not the same as I might make of another.

      • Comment by David Ellis:

        “But not as equally contemptuous.”

        A rather sweeping generalization. Not all of us atheists are contempuous of religion at all. Much less Christianity in particular. It is, no doubt, true that many of us have had vastly more direct negative experiences with Christians than with those of other religions (I can’t begin to count the number of times, after I’d very politely pointed out why I found their apologetical arguments unconvincing, I’ve had a Christian tell me, with all evident malicious glee, that I’d burn in hell if I didn’t convert to their faith).

        So perhaps you can understand why Christianity more directly evokes negative associations in many American atheists than does Zen Buddhism or Wicca or other religions they have almost no direct encounters with.

        “Most of the atheists I knew embraced some form of Stoicism or Objectivism or some other form of reason-based morality, which, upon examination, offer grounds to condemn any practice that places the sovereignty of the appetites, passions, and emotions (particularly false-to-facts appetites) over the reason. These generally were men who were atheists for rationalistic reasons.”

        I’ve yet to encounter a single atheist who is a Stoic (some of them, myself included, find some elements of Stoicism interesting or admirable—but nothing more). As for Objectivism, it is, by far, a minority position among atheists. The majority of us humanist atheists hold Ayn Rand in contempt. I am, again, puzzled by the lack of attention you give to humanism in your essays on atheism as compared to positions far less common among atheist’s in our society.

        “This is because I have an education in the classics, which inclines me to look at primary sources rather than later interpretations. The common philosophy called humanism does not have a single spokesman. It is a combination and sublimation of several authors:
        Machiavelli – inventor of “the new morality”
        Kant – subjectivizer of Truth
        Nietzsche – self-proclaimed “Anti-Christ”
        Freud – founder of the “sexual revolution”
        Marx – false Moses for the masses, and
        Sartre – apostle of absurdity.”

        Humanism as it exists today has little in common with the positions of any of those thinkers. It is it’s own thing (though, of course, it does draw on and react to the past as does any philosophy, religion or ideology) and by not addressing it you do little more than attack a strawman version of the positions held by atheists now.

        As to the origins of humanism you neglected to mention it’s primary sources: the thinkers of the Enlightenment. Surely you’d agree that this is the primary ground from which modern humanism springs?

        Speaking of the Enlightenment, I’m also puzzled as to why you so rarely mention it in talking about modern rationalistic atheism. It is, after all, far more influential and relevant to the way atheists think and what, in the philosophical literature, has shaped them than Machievelli or Nietszche or the whinings of the Existentialists.

        I’d say Hume, for just one example, has vastly more impact on the thinking of contemporary atheists than any of those you list above.

        • Comment by Mary:

          “Negative associations”? Perhaps you should check out some of the arguments against the existence of God that your fellow atheists offer, and compare them to other religions’ concept of the divine. You will shortly find that they think that by refuting Christianity’s concept, they could refute God Himself.

        • Comment by John C Wright:

          If what you are calling “humanism” is not the modern secular world view that springs out of Machiavelli, Kant, Nietzsche, Freud, Marx, and Sartre, and not a world view that springs out of the classical liberal, libertarian, Objectivist lineage, I happen never to have heard of it, or, rather, do not characterize it by that term. Are you talking about Voltaire, Rousseau and Thomas Paine?

          What do you mean by “Humanism”? Which philosopher are we talking about?

          • Comment by David Ellis:

            When I refer to humanism I am not speaking of a particular philosopher but of a modern philosophical movement. For example, the American Humanist Association:

            http://www.americanhumanist.org/Who_We_Are/About_Humanism

            “As for Humanism itself, there isn’t anything to say about it. It is so vague as to mean anything and nothing at all. The inclusion of humanist would actually confuse any point by means of its non-meaning.—RobertJWizard”

            Actually, what most of us humanists mean by the word is fairly straightforward and clear:

            “Humanism is a democratic and ethical life stance, which affirms that human beings have the right and responsibility to give meaning and shape to their own lives. It stands for the building of a more humane society through an ethic based on human and other natural values in the spirit of reason and free inquiry through human capabilities. It is not theistic, and it does not accept supernatural views of reality.”—International Humanist and Ethical Union’s Statement on Humanism

            The way I’d define it (this being the thumbnail version) is that it’s a philosophy of life that:

            a) embraces reason and critical thinking over faith,
            b)puts the well-being of sentient beings at the heart of its values and
            c)which rejects (at least until compelling evidence dictates otherwise) the belief in the supernatural.

            Though different humanists may word it different those 3 points are pretty consistently central to the way most contemporary humanists use the word.

            • Comment by John C Wright:

              This is a watered-down version of Nietzsche. The criticisms I have leveled against the philosophers who examined the basic ideals that underpin these concepts also a fortiori applies to these concepts.

              “embraces reason and critical thinking over faith” — an interesting dichotomy. I would have said that faith, which means trusting the conclusions of your reason in the face of irrational doubts, is an ally rather than an opponent of reason, especially of what is called Right Reason.

              “puts the well-being of sentient beings at the heart of its values” — as opposed to, for example, what?

              “which rejects (at least until compelling evidence dictates otherwise) the belief in the supernatural” — the fact that reason is itself supernatural, or, at least, admits of no natural or mechanical explanation, would seem to be compelling evidence implied even in this statement itself.

              “Humanism is a democratic and ethical life stance, which affirms that human beings have the right and responsibility to give meaning and shape to their own lives…”

              Is not this a contradiction in terms? It is a statement that the meaning of life is to give to life the meaning it lacks: but if it lacks meaning, then there is no meaning to life, not even the meaning “to give life meaning.”

              Unless life has at least some meaning to begin with, there is no way to apply meaning to life just out of human invention or human willpower. The fact that all men are mortal is a tragic horror, for example, establishes its meaning to us. And death cannot be “made” into a non-tragic non-horror by some act of human imagination or willpower. I, at least, cannot imagine what it would mean to changing the meaning of death from “tragic horror” to mean something else, such as, for example, “cupcakes” or “the color blue”, or some other harmless thing. But even if men had this power (and they obviously do not) the act of recreating the meanings of life would not operate unless, as a raw material, things had meanings already, such as cupcakes being pleasant or death being unpleasant.

              Now, if a god had this power, and could change death from a tragic horror into a doorway into paradise, or change a instrument of cruel death by torture into an emblem of glory, the third postulate of the humanists would reject this as supernatural.

              Man cannot make meaning out of nature, because natures meaning depends on the supernatural in the same way that the conclusions of geometry depend on the axioms and common notions of geometry. Nature merely is what is, and one cannot make an meaning, or a ought, out of an is. Without supernature, nature makes no sense and has no meaning.

              There no natural reason to place any meaning on humanity. If there is nothing but nature, then man is nothing but a beast, and to kill him is not murder but slaughter, and to compel him is not slavery but domestication.

              So, no, there is nothing in the philosophy of humanism which requires a separate examination apart from the philosophers who first articulated the ideas on which humanism is based.

              • Comment by David Ellis:

                “This is a watered-down version of Nietzsche.”

                Only in the homeopathic sense.

                ““embraces reason and critical thinking over faith” — an interesting dichotomy. I would have said that faith, which means trusting the conclusions of your reason in the face of irrational doubts, is an ally rather than an opponent of reason, especially of what is called Right Reason.”

                Obviously we’re defining faith differently. And the one you’re using bears little resemblence to the term’s actual usage among religious believer (not that it isn’t a term believers, at least when engaging in apologetics, find useful to keep especially vague).

                “puts the well-being of sentient beings at the heart of its values” — as opposed to, for example, what?”

                The commands of a supernatural being as presented within the scriptures and teachings of the various religions of the world (to give only one example). Something all too frequently at odds with human well-being. The teaching that divorce is only sanctioned in the case of adultery is a prime example of what I’m talking about.

                “the fact that reason is itself supernatural, or, at least, admits of no natural or mechanical explanation, would seem to be compelling evidence implied even in this statement itself.”

                That’s a whole discussion in it’s own right. I’d love to see a good argument to support your claim that reason is supernatural.

                “Unless life has at least some meaning to begin with, there is no way to apply meaning to life just out of human invention or human willpower.”

                Let me put it this way: we either make choices that enhance and enrich life for ourselves and those around us….or we dont. That’s what the humanist means by a meaningful life. Nothing about this position involves the humanist in a self-contradiction.

                • Comment by John Hutchins:

                  “Obviously we’re defining faith differently. And the one you’re using bears little resemblence to the term’s actual usage among religious believer (not that it isn’t a term believers, at least when engaging in apologetics, find useful to keep especially vague).”

                  Faith has two separate meanings depending on how it is used. If you say Christian faith then you are talking about a set of shared beliefs.

                  The other meaning of faith is trusting (or believing) (acting in a manner as if it were (or may be) true) in something you know (or believe or desire) to be true. So you can have faith that flipping the light switch will turn on the light (when of course the light might be burned out or the power off). True faith is trusting (or believing) in things that actually are true. Hence, unless you have actually flown around the world you must take on some measure of faith that the world is round, likewise you have faith that the sun will rise tomorrow.

                  You probably wouldn’t believe someone that said that the sun won’t rise tomorrow. If you wake up in the morning and it is dark outside your first assumption isn’t that the earth has stopped spinning or the sun quit shining but that it is cloudy or something similar. Similarly, all actions require some measure of faith on the part of the person doing the acting.

                  Unfortunately, many people take simple belief to be faith which can cause some confusion. I may say I believe in the Flying Spaghetti Monster but unless that in some way is informing my actions I can not claim to have faith in the Flying Spaghetti Monster, at least not and be using the term correctly.

                • Comment by John C Wright:

                  “Only in the homeopathic sense.”

                  We are agreed on that point. Your “humanism” only has the least particle of real philosophy to it. It seems to be a set of assertions grounded on no particular metaphysics, ontology, epistemology, or moral code. This has the advantage of flexibility — perhaps I misunderstood. Would you call it a political program rather than a philosophy? Political programs of their very nature are “big tent” affairs attempting to agree on a consensus rather than deal with philosophical minutia.

                  “And the one you’re using bears little resemblence to the term’s actual usage among religious believer (not that it isn’t a term believers, at least when engaging in apologetics, find useful to keep especially vague).”

                  Sorry, I thought we were using the same definition. The term has an exact technical meaning, and volumes have been written about it. It is at paragraph 1814 of the Cathechsim of the Catholic Church, which I hope you will accept is an authority for how at least the oldest and largest community of believers use the term.

                  “Faith is the theological virtue by which we believe in God and believe all that he has said and revealed to us, and that Holy Church proposes for our belief, because he is truth itself.”

                  If one comes to believe in God, as I did, for reasons not incompatible with reason, but strongly supported by it, and suffers doubts, as all believers do, for improper and emotional reasons unrelated to honest skepticism, then the role of faith matches this definition, and what I describe.

                  As for your ridiculous “dig” that believers like to keep their terms undefined, this is merely more proof, if any are needed, that “humanists” are intellectual lightweights, not to mention snobs. It is also bad form to start a discussion by accusing your opponent of intellectual dishonesty. If that is your assessment of me, then by all means let us shake hands and part on friendly terms, never to speak again.

                  “The command of a supernatural being as presented within the scriptures and teachings of various religions of the world… are frequently at odds with human well-being.”

                  Certainly. That is why it is important not to worship devils. There is one named Moloch, served by the Carthaginians, who demanded the sacrifice of children. It is my belief he has a modern counterpart in the apotheosis of abortion into a sacred right, if not a sacred rite, of the secular movement. The old gods of the blood and soil were frequently appealed to by the National Socialist Workers Party of Germany, but who were Socialist bend on the creation of a secular utopia at heart. Which goes to show that the command of various secular authorities are likewise frequently at odds with human well being.

                  Are we discussing the Christian God? We Christians consider Him to be one and the same as the Unmoved Mover of Aristotle or the Ideal of the Good spoken of by Plato. The idea that the commands of the supernatural being who is the embodiment of goodness per se, and the cause of all being, are not good for men, men who were designed to find and fulfill their good in the way they were designed, is disputable, to say the very least.

                  I hope we can agree that at least some of the commands of at least some supernatural beings are benevolent? Unless you think the command to love one’s neighbor (merely to take a popular one) is not good for people? Or self-control? Or chastity? Or humility? What about obedience to legitimate authority? What about treating human life as if it is sacred, and made in the image and likeness of God, from conception to natural death?

                  You see, the argument here is not whether the goal is the good of man; the argument is over what is the nature of man that certain things which are difficult in the short run are good for him in the long run. Your “humanist” doctrine is nicely ambiguous on that point, and it is unclear whether you mean the Stoic notion of goodness, saying the good of man is self-control, or the Hedonist notion of goodness, saying that the good of man is pleasure-seeking. Absent some appeal to a supernatural or quasi-supernatural goal or final cause for man, those two things, self-control and pleasure-seeking, are the only two options several thousand years of philosophy have managed to identify.

                  “we either make choices that enhance and enrich life for ourselves and those around us….or we dont.”

                  This does not escape the paradox I propounded, which is whether the concepts “enhance” and “enrich” have any meaning in a universe whether life has no meaning aside from what is arbitrarily assigned to it. Do these concepts have meaning due and only due to some act of human imagination or willpower? Did someone decide to make the concept “enrichment” meaningful?

                  And I am afraid your “enhance” and “enrich” are more ambiguous than my “faith”. Suppose a man is facing an incurable and painful disease, or suppose again a noble pagan like Cato of Utica is facing sure defeat at the hands of Caesar. Now, if life has no innate meaning, there is no reason for them not to commit suicide. If life has only the meaning each man himself chooses to give it, then either or both could decide that human life is sacred and not owned by himself, which would rule suicide out, but open him to lingering pain or humiliation. So in making the decision in what might well be his last hour of life, Cato of Utica as to what meaning he means to impose on the meaningless life leaves him merely with the choice between taking the lesser of two pains, if he decides the pain has meaning, to taking the greater of two duties, if he decides that duties have meaning. The philosophy of humanism, “do whatever will enrich and enhance your life” has no meaning in this context, since the choices are (from a natural point of view) between self-destruction and lingering pain.

                  Oddly, a martyr or a saint who dedicated the pain or the humiliation the pagan cannot face to the greater glory of God, or saw himself as in union with the suffering of Christ, would indeed, in some mystical way (or so I have been told) find it meaningful, even ennobling. This looks something like that mental operation you described where “meaning” is assigned or affixed on a life that does not otherwise have it, except with the glaring difference that we are now talking about the supernatural meaning of an event being contrary to its natural meaning. And saints and martyrs (or so I have been told) do not ascribe to themselves within their own human powers of imagination and willpower the ability to make the meaning of suffering change from pain to glory.

                  Absent this supernatural help, any explanation of how, in a universe with only natural, that is to say, meaningless meanings, human beings by their own natural powers of imagination and willpower can assign meaning without being arbitrary is a paradox.

                  Can you make death from a horrid tragedy “mean” a door into paradise?

                  If you are familiar with Aristotle’s four causes, the support for the argument that reason is supernatural can be summed up in a sentence: (1) all natural things can be described completely by mechanical causation (2) reason can only be described by final causation, and no description of mechanical causation is meaningful in relation to it (3) therefore reason is not a natural thing.

                  If you are not familiar with Aristotle’s four causes, the discussion will take more time.

                  • Comment by robertjwizard:

                    >> “Your “humanism” only has the least particle of real philosophy to it. It seems to be a set of assertions grounded on no particular metaphysics, ontology, epistemology, or moral code.”

                    Thank you, I was going to address this earlier but didn’t have time. Your description is dead on. refreshing my memory with a little scooping I can find no actual philosophical underpinnings for any humanist position.

                    They say they “seek truth through reason rather than on faith or superstition.” Yet I could find no definition nor explication, a philosophical explication, of reason itself. A certain philosophy’s view of reason is found in its epistemology. That can change radically from philosopher to philosopher. Do we mean reason according to Aristotle or do we mean reason according to Kant?

                    Any philosophy’s concept of reason is ultimately dependent upon its theory of concepts – what is the Humanist theory of concepts? There isn’t one – they merely assume reason as a self-evident concept like “puppy”. Well, it is not. Not only is it not an intuitive concept we all grasp, it is not a faculty we are born knowing how to use. It must be discovered, defined, taught and learned and practiced by an act of will. To say one upholds reason without defining it is to not hold it at all. Depending on the philosopher involved, reason can be the essence of unreason itself.

                    They proclaim the belief in nature over supernaturalism or mysticism. Well, that is a philosophical position. Great. Why? What metaphysical, primary principles are we relying on for this assertion? How about epistemological? There is no evidence for it? What is their theory of evidence? To what specific epistemological premises are we to support this? Do they take an empirical approach and state the reason as being there is no empirical evidence? If so what is their theory of the senses? Is knowledge based on the senses the only form of knowledge acquirement?

                    The evidence of a complete lack of any philosophical rigor or cohesion in the fields of metaphysics and epistemology is evident in the motley conglomeration of ideas that forms their ethics and politics. All of this is why you can have humanists of any color or stripe imaginable.

                  • Comment by David Ellis:

                    “We are agreed on that point. Your “humanism” only has the least particle of real philosophy to

                    it.”

                    It has only the least particle of resemblence to the thinking of Nietzsche. Please recall that I

                    referred to what I said as a thumbnail description of the characteristics humanists have in

                    common. Individual humanists can and do have widely varying views on specific philosophical

                    questions—just as can individual Christians, despite their commonalities. I don’t know why

                    you would think humanists would be, or should be, monolithic in their philosophical opinions.

                    “It seems to be a set of assertions grounded on no particular metaphysics, ontology,

                    epistemology, or moral code. This has the advantage of flexibility — perhaps I misunderstood.

                    Would you call it a political program rather than a philosophy?”

                    It is not a political program. Nor is it a philosophical system. It is set of broad philosophical

                    commonalities (call it a life stance if you prefer—some do) among individuals which, as I said

                    above, can and do have widely varying views on specific philosophical questions.

                    “Sorry, I thought we were using the same definition. The term has an exact technical meaning,

                    and volumes have been written about it. It is at paragraph 1814 of the Cathechsim of the

                    Catholic Church, which I hope you will accept is an authority for how at least the oldest and

                    largest community of believers use the erm.

                    “Faith is the theological virtue by which we believe in God and believe all that he has said and

                    revealed to us, and that Holy Church proposes for our belief, because he is truth itself.””

                    You call that an exact technical definition? I’d call it pretty vague. I am, however, happy to

                    accept that you define faith in the way you do and keep it in mind when the term comes up in

                    discussion with you.

                    “As for your ridiculous “dig” that believers like to keep their terms undefined, this is merely

                    more proof, if any are needed, that “humanists” are intellectual lightweights, not to mention

                    snobs.”

                    Not all Christians but it has been my experience that keeping the term vague (and slipping at

                    will, when convenient, between quite different usages of the term) is a common rhetorical

                    tactic among Christians with whom I’ve debated about religion.

                    ““The command of a supernatural being as presented within the scriptures and teachings of

                    various religions of the world… are frequently at odds with human well-being.”

                    Certainly. That is why it is important not to worship devils. There is one named Moloch, served

                    by the Carthaginians, who demanded the sacrifice of children……”

                    What of the specific example I gave of how making moral decisions based on Christian scripture

                    rather than by reasoning as to what best serves human well-being? Should divorce be

                    permissible in the case of abuse in addition to adultery despite what the Bible says on the

                    issue?

                    “we either make choices that enhance and enrich life for ourselves and those around us….or we

                    dont.”

                    “This does not escape the paradox I propounded, which is whether the concepts “enhance” and

                    “enrich” have any meaning in a universe whether life has no meaning aside from what is

                    arbitrarily assigned to it.”

                    I see no paradox. One needs no “meaning” imposed by some external force in order to live a

                    rich life. A rich life, of course, being defined in the only way possible: through a broad

                    experience of life and it’s possibilities. Some paths in life are better than others and

                    experience of life, along with the ability to reason about those experiences, is, so far as I can identify, the only way to distinguish the one from the other.

                    “And I am afraid your “enhance” and “enrich” are more ambiguous than my “faith”.”

                    The word “blue” seems rather unclear to one who is blind from birth. The word “love” means little to the sociopath. I assumed you have enough life experience for the idea of a difference between a richly lived life and it’s opposite to be meaningful to you. I still do.

                    “If you are familiar with Aristotle’s four causes, the support for the argument that reason is

                    supernatural can be summed up in a sentence: (1) all natural things can be described

                    completely by mechanical causation (2) reason can only be described by final causation, and no

                    description of mechanical causation is meaningful in relation to it (3) therefore reason is not a

                    natural thing.”

                    I’m a bit reluctant to get into what will likely be a long, technical discussion on the argument from reason. I’m afraid it’ll divert things from the, to me, far more interesting question of your views about divorce that I raised above.

                    Glad to go into it afterwords though. Both of our comments are getting a bit lengthy and unfocused and it might benefit us to stick to one thing at a time.

                    • Comment by David Ellis:

                      Briefly I would suggest that premise 2 can be reasonably objected to. Reason can be described by both mechanical and final causation (the reasonings of a human mind having a physical causative description on one level and a description in terms of final causes, the goal of reaching a true conclusion, on the level of human experience).

                      The argument from reason seems particularly popular among internet apologists. I’m not sure why. It’s always seemed to me, in every variant I’ve seen, a pretty weak argument. I can’t begin to count the variations of it that I’ve encountered. Most recently, for example, Plantinga’s EAAN–evolutionary argument against naturalism. Are you familiar with it. If so, what do you think of it?

                    • Comment by John C Wright:

                      ” I don’t know why you would think humanists would be, or should be, monolithic in their philosophical opinions.”

                      Because if the group of people calling themselves “humanists” do not agree on a philosophical position, you may not (as you have done here, at the start of this discussion) ask me why I have not addressed the philosophical position of the humanists.

                      If they do not agree on at least some philosophical basics, then they do not form a philosophy. They are something else, a social movement or a political faction. To use an example, “Libertarians” are a social movement and a political faction, whereas “Objectivism” is a philosophy. The two might agree on conclusions, but not on axioms.

                    • Comment by John C Wright:

                      “What of the specific example I gave of how making moral decisions based on Christian scripture
                      rather than by reasoning as to what best serves human well-being? Should divorce be permissible in the case of abuse in addition to adultery despite what the Bible says on the issue?”

                      Well, I did not understand that you were using this as an example of something that was not in keeping with human wellbeing. Sorry.

                      My reply is what I gave above: namely, that the argument that divorce is bad for human well-being is a separate argument from the argument that divorce is forbidden by scripture. In my answer, I was actually quoting from the Catechism of the Catholic Church word for word, which says that separation in such cases is preferable, but divorce, if necessary, is not a sin.

                    • Comment by John C Wright:

                      “I see no paradox. One needs no “meaning” imposed by some external force in order to live a
                      rich life. A rich life, of course, being defined in the only way possible: through a broad
                      experience of life and it’s possibilities. Some paths in life are better than others and
                      experience of life, along with the ability to reason about those experiences, is, so far as I can identify, the only way to distinguish the one from the other.”

                      The paradox is that humanism both asserts that you have the sole and sovereign arbitrary authority to impose “meaning” on a meaningless life, and humanism asserts that “a rich life” means a broad experience of life, because some life paths are “better” than others. You then say “the ability to reason about those experiences” (and I am sure St. Thomas Aquinas has the ability to reason from experience) is the only way to distinguish the better from the worse.

                      But if you and only you are the arbiter of the meaning of life, then life can have no innate meaning. If life have no innate meaning, then there is no innate better and worse, and nothing for experiences to discover.

                      The most we can say is that a man who does not know what his tastes or natural talents are can sample different pleasures or work at different jobs until he discovers what his tastes incline him toward, or what he is good at. But even this tacitly assumes an innate meaning to life, namely, that one should follow one’s tastes and one’s talents. And this would not change necessarily whether one believed one’s talents were gifts from God or where merely randomly assigned by blind nature or dumb luck.

                      On the other hand, if we are created beings, created for the purpose of loving our neighbor and serving the Good, and if we are created to find joy in no other way, then seeking one’s self-fulfillment in pleasure and work is either secondary, or a distraction. Reason and experience will discover if one is true or the other. That is just a question of whether the experience of mankind shows whether most people are happy when they define happiness to suit themselves.

                      I also notice you used the words “imposed” and “forced” to describe a condition whereby men, by use of their natural reason, can come to discover, not arbitrate, the innate meaning of life. The connotation of these words is false to facts: as if reality, merely by being real, were a tyrant.

                    • Comment by John C Wright:

                      “I assumed you have enough life experience for the idea of a difference between a richly lived life and it’s opposite to be meaningful to you. I still do.”

                      Sorry, no. I don’t have any clear idea of what you are pointing at when you use vague terms like “richly-lived” — I cannot tell if you mean the stoic or the hedonistic view of life. It sounds like a watered down version of existentialism to me. I can also imagine drug-abusing womanizing rock stars who riot in Copenhagen calling their lives “rich” and “full of experiences” but I cannot tell if the life of a hermit in a cell, devoted to prayer and not to worldly ambitions, counts as “richly-lived” or not.

                      No matter how many nor how few “life experiences” I have had, if you use a word that I don’t know what it means, then I don’t know what it means until you tell me.

                      1. What is “the richly lived life”?

                      2. Are we assuming an atheist, one who is cut off from reality and cut off from normal human emotions like awe and humility, automatically lives a more richly lived life than a Christian saint or missionary or martyr? If we do not make that assumption, then “humanism” is not incompatible with the Christian religion.

                • Comment by CPE Gaebler:

                  ““This is a watered-down version of Nietzsche.””

                  “Only in the homeopathic sense.”

                  What, it uses similar language, but has no actual meaningful substance, yet somehow manages to gull people into thinking that its half-truths and meaningless vapidity have merit, thereby causing many to believe that they have unlike the sheeplike masses found the best approach, leading some to eschew and even decry anything with actual substance, to their own ultimate detriment?

                  ;)

          • Comment by David Ellis:

            There was another statement you made in the essay I found particularly problematic:

            “Christian theory says that man ought not divorce his wife, except in case of adultery. No word of Christ is more clear. The worldly theory is that no fault divorce is necessary in order to help people escape unhappy marriages, and that the general happiness of mankind is thereby increased.”

            What of the husband who does not commit adultery but who beats his wife mercilessly? I’ve personally seen the unfortunate results when devote Christian women while not divorce their abusive husbands because only adultery is a biblically sanctioned reason for divorce.

            What’s your take on such situations?

            • Comment by John C Wright:

              I favor the death penalty for wifebeaters. Does that answer the question?

              • Comment by CPE Gaebler:

                I’m going to tentatively assume that by “wifebeaters” you are referring to the garment as well as the crime. I think absent further clarification, this is the only fair and unambiguous way to interpret your sentence.

                • Comment by John C Wright:

                  Sorry I was not clear. I meant people who eat the fruit from the Wifeb tree that grows in the southwestern part of east North Rokovoko.

                  This is an island not down in any map; true places never are. In order to preserve the healthy custom of eating human brains from captured enemies, the Wifeb tree is decreed ‘tabu’ and sacred, and to contradict the tribal law merits death by defenestration (a fortuitously merciful form of executions, as the men of Rokovoko have no windows).

                  I mean to write Wifeb-eaters not Wifebeaters.

                  But I also think Wifebeaters should be stoned to death, preferably by women. Preferably the wifebeaters will be Muslims acting in accord with the law of his heretical religion: see, for example, here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iWGA8i6scYY

              • Comment by David Ellis:

                Not particularly. Do you think divorce should by sanctioned in the case of abuse?

                • Comment by John C Wright:

                  I see nothing wrong with a permanent separation in the case of an abusive husband.

                  You will forgive me if I am a little leery about giving a simple answer to this question, because the one and only time back when I was a lawyer I saw a case of it, it was a bogus case, where the creepy little husband alleged that HE was being beaten by the wife, and not only changed the locks while the wife was away, threw away her property, he killed her cat, and the court helped him get away with it by getting a restraining order against her because he allegedly lived in fear of her rolling pin. While I know intellectually that cases of wifebeating exist, the fact that the one time I saw an abuse case for divorce misused rather than used makes me more sensitive to the misuse that I otherwise would be.

                  Personally, I would prefer a separation to a divorce in a case where the marriage with within the Church, but whether in or out of the Church, If civil divorce remains the only possible way of ensuring certain legal rights, the care of the children, or the protection of inheritance, it can be tolerated.

                  Even in countries that are relatively strict about divorce, divorce for such causes as adultery, abandonment or abuse is allowable. I would not argue against such a standard: it seems fair and just to me.

                  • Comment by David Ellis:

                    So no divorce or remarriage for women who had the misfortune of marrying a violent man?

                    If so, do you begin to see what I mean by the important difference between making human well-being, as opposed to the dictates of scripture, the basis of one’s moral opinions?

                    • Comment by David Ellis:

                      Sorry, didn’t read carefully enough. Ignore the previous statement. Your last sentence states clearly that you DO endorse divorce in such cases.

                      But this DOES contradict Christian scripture. How do you reconcile your views on divorce and your views on scripture? Is the Bible not authoritative on when divorce is morally permissible? If not, by what means to you judge when to follow the Bible and when to follow your own differing best judgment?

                    • Comment by Tom in Arizona:

                      Since when was Wright bound to Sola Scriptura? Do you not actually know what a Catholic is?

                      Catholics, by the bye, have always allowed divorce in cases of abuse; they just don’t allow remarriage. The Church’s view is that the marriage is not ended, it’s just that the abusive spouse has forfeited the rights of the relationship.

                    • Comment by David Ellis:

                      Tom, he was endorsing the Biblical teaching on divorce for it’s moral superiority. I was not, and am not, assuming anything about his views on the nature of scripture. That’s why I asked how he goes about judging when to reject what the bible says on a moral question and when to accept it.

                      And I’m not just talking about a concern for human well-being vs scripture as the basis for moral positions. I referred to the more general idea of religious teachings as well (including extra-biblical Catholic teachings).

                      It’s pretty obvious that not allowing remarriage for a woman who was abused is less than conducive to her well-beng.

  9. Comment by Maureen:

    Part of the problem is that many Christians are either taught that there’s nothing different between Christian morality and pagan (and there was — Christ struck to the heart with the surprising newness of what he said — though its amplification and simplification was within reach of reason) or that everything is different. You get people who apparently think that all pagan ideas and objects are hopelessly contaminated, such that even if two unrelated peoples happen to come up with the same thing and one of the peoples is pagan, the Christian people should now regard their thing with horror.

  10. Comment by John Hutchins:

    Atheism, in my experience, is really a polytheistic view point where the Greek gods over the virtues have risen again but without being called gods or even a recognition that belief, worship, and sacraments exist.

    Many have tried to elevate science to the roll of godhood but unfortunately science can only approximate the truth, only tell you what not to believe and that the truth might look something like X to some degree of accuracy. Thus, what is commonly worshiped is not science itself but a particular theory of science. We have returned to Gaia worship, animal worship, and sky worship all in the name of science. This along with intellect worship, money worship, and power worship, though those have never gone away since the beginning.

    People recycle glass even though in many places the glass goes to a landfill and is never used, as silicon is one of the cheapest elements in existence. People refuse to eat meat as a way of protecting animals when raising livestock increases the animal population and if everyone refused to eat meat most domesticated animals would become extinct, plus purchasing well treated animal products would do a lot more towards the treatment of animals then removing your vote from the marketplace. People demand ethanol as a way of protecting the planet when the production of ethanol changes the prices of food crops causing starvation in some parts of the world and the destruction of the rain forest in others. The list goes on, but is impossible to write with out giving major offense as the ceremonies of worship have become so ingrained in many people that they are unable to consider what it is they do.

    Even when things change so that the original theory is no longer regarded as correct, the data has shown it to be false, or the practice is no longer necessary, it still continues because it is not about changing the practices of meat packers, or whatever, it is about worship and faith. It is so bad that one can not publish an article questioning the premises of global warming, or macroeconomic theory (other then the main schools of thought), or the environmental and hunting practices of Native Americans (large portions of the south eastern great planes would have been forest and scrub land except for burning practices of the natives, when hunting far afield only the choicest parts of the animals were taken, and etc.) because to do so would be sacrilegious. Data is manipulated to fit the theory or it is ignored, because it isn’t about what reality is, it is about what is “true” according to the religion.

    From this, I believe, that an atheistic society would be no better then a pagan society. The myths are different but the end result in practice is the same, the faith, and lack thereof, is the same.

    • Comment by John C Wright:

      I salute your excellent examples.

    • Comment by lotdw:

      Well said.

    • Comment by Tom in Arizona:

      It’s getting better. NPR of all places actually had a historian on talking about how the Comanches were the torturing, murderous gang-rapists they were (let’s just say if they had a word for “karma” it’d be “smallpox”—or that, surprisingly, the Aztecs *weren’t* the biggest bastards in the Uto-Aztecan language group).

      Basically, actually factual history and anthropology gets taught, but it has a tendency to just be treated as “the current scholarly consensus”. Scholars are allowed to talk about it, even to write books about it…they’re just hesitant to advance anything controversial as a specific thesis, especially one with their name on it. It’s remarkably similar to how the USSR would periodically drop nonsense like Lysenkoism or the excesses of Stalinism, but without making much remark about the fact they *were* dropping anything.

  11. Comment by lotdw:

    I believe you mean “posted in the breach.” Although being posted in the breech would be a reason for quite manly complaint…

  12. Comment by David Ellis:

    “Even a rational atheist, such as I was, is and must be a snob, because he must regard ninety-nine percent of all humans who have ever lived, and all the wisest and best men who ever wrote, as either chumps of a massive con game, or fools addicted to folly in the one area that most concerned them.”

    One is not forced to be a snob to disagree with the majority view on important issues.

    “In the final analysis, all pagan philosophies boil down to Stoicism or Hedonism, the love of duty or the love of pleasure.”

    We need not deify love of duty nor a concern for human happiness. Both are important values and one’s errs when one fails to consider both important parts of a rational system of values. Your example of a society built on stoicism is just that: an example. A possibility. One among a massive multitude of possible ways to try to organize a society.

    “Christian theory says that man ought not divorce his wife, except in case of adultery. No word of Christ is more clear. The worldly theory is that no fault divorce is necessary in order to help people escape unhappy marriages, and that the general happiness of mankind is thereby increased.”

    What of the husband who does not commit adultery but who beats his wife mercilessly? I’ve personally seen the unfortunate results when devout Christian women will not divorce their abusive husbands because only adultery is biblically sanctioned as grounds to do so.

  13. Comment by robertjwizard:

    >> “The majority of us humanist atheists hold Ayn Rand in contempt.”

    I can vouch for the truth of this statement. Of course he misspeaks between his two sentences; I believe he means contempt for Objectivism and perhaps Rand as well. But it is of two different things to hate the philosophy and to hate the philosopher.

    Humanism is not a philosophy, but a motley conglomeration of conflicting ideas with some foggy, ill-defined, common threads that are not always consistent. It has no philosopher, no cause, no definition. It is like trying to define some vast expanse of grey that fills one’s sight with no differentiation.

    The Humanist contempt for Objectivism stems from the fact that it is the opposite of all these traits. Leaving aside the veracity of either side’s positions (and any particular humanist can be on almost any side of any issue) the contempt stems from the fact that Objectivism makes definite claims on all major issues – unequivocally. It claims objective truth, and an objective morality. What a Humanist sees when they encounter Objectivism is religion. That is why Objectivism is called a cult (beyond the charismatic “leader” or originator feature) it deals and holds forth absolutes. Must be religion. I have seen that myself a hundred times if once. I can at least credit the Christians I know of not making that error. As a matter of fact it is almost refreshing to be called a subjective whim-worshipping hedonist, usually it is simply dogmatist.

    As for Humanism itself, there isn’t anything to say about it. It is so vague as to mean anything and nothing at all. The inclusion of humanist would actually confuse any point by means of its non-meaning.

  14. Comment by Rolf Andreassen:

    I’m not sure if my post went into moderation or was eaten by the gremlins, so I’m re-posting just in case. Please delete one if this is a duplicate.

    In other words, if the material and the mental explanation are in conflict and mutually exclusive, and if the material explanation has priority, therefore a man will feel the impulse to kill (or any other impulse or thought) because and only because the molecule-sized gears and wheels in our brains have certain position, mass, density, movement, and other physical properties. There is nothing, or nothing significant, aside from the physical properties.

    I disagree. The mental properties arise from, are caused by, the physical properties; but why should that make them insignificant? This is a judgement of yours, with which I do not agree.

    Further, if mental and material explanation are both accurate, then they cannot conflict. If A (position of neurons) causes B (desire to kill) and also causes C (act of murder) then the explanation “B caused C” is useful but not fundamental, the explanation “A caused C” is fundamental but may not be useful (since the position of neurons is hard to determine), and they do not conflict. The explanation “A’ (a different set of neurons) caused C” could conflict with “B caused C”, but since A’ didn’t in fact occur that explanation is wrong. Different true explanations of the same facts cannot conflict, they can only complement.

    Now, I will admit that I have here a point of intuition, of faith if you like, rather than empirical observation. We observe empirically that (to simplify) the desire to kill is always accompanied by the movement of neurons. We can draw three conclusions: The neuron movements cause the desire, the desire causes the neurons to move, or the two things arise independently and just happen to move (by miracle, if you like) in concert. I am not yet certain whether you favour the second or third explanation; I have seen you say both that mental acts cannot move electrons, and that Shakespeare moves the electrons in his brain like chess pieces. I observe that we can change men’s thoughts by moving their neurons around, although only crudely – we cannot change a Guelph into a Ghibelline, as you once suggested; but we can change a reasonable man into a slobbering drunk. Over time, we can also cause twin brothers to have very different mental capacities, by feeding them different diets. A sharp blow to the head has also been known to cause people to get religion. But all this is suggestive rather than conclusive.

    This implies the mental explanation has no meaning. The mental explanation would ascribe the impulse to kill to a man’s passions and character and philosophy and the meaning he places on the scene in which he finds himself, such as walking in on his wife in the arms of her lover, such as his malice aforethought, his sanity, his willpower, and so on, is of no meaning. If the content of our thoughts are determined by physical properties, that content has no more meaning that physical properties do, which is, not at all.

    I disagree. All these things have exactly the meaning they ever did. It is merely that I do not have this prejudice of declaring physical things meaningless. Some are, but not all. The position of, as you say, molecular gears, is meaningful precisely because, and to the extent, it causes a man’s character, willpower, and sanity to exist.

    Thus, I retain all the meaningfulness of non-machinery; I merely acknowledge that the meaning arises from the movement of atoms.

    You say, “Materialism declares all life to be a mere dance of atoms!”, and I say, “what is this word, ‘mere’?” Certainly it’s a dance of atoms. It is still meaningful.

    • Comment by John C Wright:

      “The mental properties arise from, are caused by, the physical properties; but why should that make them insignificant?”

      Because then the mental properties are epiphenomena of the material properties, and you do not kill your wife’s lover because your jealous rage makes the act seem justified in your eyes, you killed her because a charge of .02 microvolts in brain cell A101 triggered ganglia B7664 to produce chemical X, and X stimulated nerve Y which pulled finger muscles in your triggerfinger, and the mental sensation of “jealous rage” and “seemed justified” were illusions. There was no jealous rage, no decision to pull the trigger, there was nothing but a sequence of mechanical events starting with .02 microvolts. If it had been .03 microvolts, another chain of brain events in the brain machine would have produced the non-motion of the trigger finger and the accompanying illusion would have been forgiveness, or something else.

      We differ on this point only on a very small technical nuance which I have tried and failed to make clear previously. I do believe the mechanical actions exist, but I do not believe they describe or control the mental actions. I believe the question, “does the decision cause the brain cell to fire or does the firing of the brain cell cause the decision?” is a false dichotomy. I believe that the brain cell firing and the decision are one and the same act, merely described two different ways, by the neurosurgeon and the juror, for establishing two different facts. You just said, in contradistinction to this, that the firing of the nerve cells causes the decision.

      In that case man is a merely passive machine, and not only are all decisions illusionary, all thoughts are without any truth value, and consciousness does not exist, because there is no way to derive meaning from the meaningless and undirected physical motion of atoms.

      “It is merely that I do not have this prejudice of declaring physical things meaningless. ”

      The whole point of the scientific method, the thing that gave it a power and a direction that mere alchemists or philosophical speculations into natural philosophy lacked, was the removal of any element of final cause or meaning in nature. Scientists ceases to look for what natural motions of inanimate bodies “meant” but instead looked for models that postulated no meaning but which predicted the motions mathematically of stars and falling bodies and so on.

      So if this is a “prejudice” it is one all scientific thinkers share.

      • Comment by Rolf Andreassen:

        I do believe the mechanical actions exist, but I do not believe they describe or control the mental actions. I believe the question, “does the decision cause the brain cell to fire or does the firing of the brain cell cause the decision?” is a false dichotomy. I believe that the brain cell firing and the decision are one and the same act, merely described two different ways, by the neurosurgeon and the juror, for establishing two different facts. You just said, in contradistinction to this, that the firing of the nerve cells causes the decision.

        Perhaps it would be better to say, “is the decision”. I agree in any case that it is a small difference. It may even be no difference at all, merely us using words differently.

        In that case man is a merely passive machine, and not only are all decisions illusionary, all thoughts are without any truth value, and consciousness does not exist, because there is no way to derive meaning from the meaningless and undirected physical motion of atoms.

        That is precisely the point of disagreement: I say that the physical motion of atoms can, in fact, have meaning. I suggest that we do not get into a sequence of re-iterating our respective positions on the point. :)

        Again, however, it may be that we do not really disagree. Consider: When the man shoots his wife’s lover, we agree that there is a physical sequence of causality and a mental or moral sequence of causality, and that it is appropriate for the jury to consider the latter. (Although given a sufficiently good neuroscience, it may be possible for the former to illuminate the latter.) Now, in my description, the meaningfulness is contained in the atoms; in yours, it is separate. But does this really matter? Both descriptions have a mystery: In my case, the question is “How do atoms cause consciousness and meaning?” while in yours it is “Why do atoms move in ways that correspond to mental decisions which have no mechanically causal power?” I suggest that these are different ways to phrase the same question, and that the difference between our positions is not only meaningless empirically, but also philosophically. What decisions, what chains of reasoning, will differ between us on account of this difference in wording? If there is none – again, I am not talking about empirical testing but about reasoning – then it seems to me that the words do not really matter.

        The whole point of the scientific method, the thing that gave it a power and a direction that mere alchemists or philosophical speculations into natural philosophy lacked, was the removal of any element of final cause or meaning in nature.

        True, but you’ll note that the beginnings of science, until very recently, did indeed deal with phenomena that I agree are meaningless: Ballistics, planetary orbits, chemical reactions (outside of brains, that is), thermodynamics. When we come to deal with the brain, and this is a very recent development, we shall have to abandon that assumption, and say things like “this concentration of chemicals means the subject is angry.” Now this will make for much more difficult theorising, which is why the first scientific thinkers had to start elsewhere; describing a human just cannot be done with the tools they had available.

        Beginnings are difficult, and therefore the beginnings of science had to put off questions of meaning until good tools were developed. Now we have good tools, and can attempt the problem of meaning again.

        • Comment by Dave:

          [quote]In my case, the question is “How do atoms cause consciousness and meaning?” while in yours it is “Why do atoms move in ways that correspond to mental decisions which have no mechanically causal power?” [/quote]

          But these two mysteries are fundamentally different. Mr Wright’s is the mystery of a man looking at a bolt of lightning and saying, “How does that work?” Your mystery is, to borrow one of Mr Wright’s metaphors, “How many cans of dog food add up to Tuesday?” Atomic motion is simply *different* from consciousness and meaning. Consciousness cannot emerge from atomic motion any more than Tuesday can emerge from dog food.

          There’s a giant difference between that and the man who looks at the action of God and the supernatural and says “I do not understand this.”

          • Comment by Rolf Andreassen:

            Consciousness cannot emerge from atomic motion any more than Tuesday can emerge from dog food.

            Sez you! This is an intuition on your part, not a reasoned conclusion; Mr Wright will no doubt refer to it as an axiom. Nu, an axiom is a proposition that everyone assents to, so that one may use it as a starting point for reasoning; and I don’t assent to this one.

            By the way, the way to get quotes is to use ‘blockquote’ in angle brackets – HTML code and not BBcode.

            • Comment by Dave:

              Thanks for the tip. I didn’t realize that posts go through as straight HTML, although it makes sense now that I think about it. Does the tool automatically close tags if you forget? I don’t think I should experiment on our host’s blog.

              So, I realize that much ink has been spilled in vain trying to define consciousness, and I have little confidence that we’ll reach agreement on it. I think that the term’s common usage implies a certain level of self-direction. That is the meaning I was using. In other words, self-direction cannot arise from a sum of mechanistic directions. The sum might look self-directed from outside, but it ultimately is directed mechanically.

              Determinism seems like a reasonable enough conclusion for someone standing outside and looking at a complex system, like a person. But what I don’t understand is – you’re not outside looking in. You’re inside looking out. You have direct, first-hand experience of making choices and directing your thoughts. That’s the evidence. But you choose to allow your philosophy to override the evidence, all the while claiming the opposite.

            • Comment by John C Wright:

              No, this is a reasoned conclusion. The reasoning goes like this:

              1. All measurements of physical objects can be reduced to mass, length, duration, temperature, luminosity, moles: all can be described in terms of mechanical cause; and the mechanical cause is a complete description.

              2. No meaning of mental symbols such as true or false, fair or unfair, efficient or inefficient can be understood without reference to final cause, and without reference to the relation between the symbol and the thing symbolized. The final cause is the complete description.

              3. Mechanical cause and final cause are independent of each other, and cannot be expressed one in terms of the other.

              4. Measurements of physical objects and the meaning of mental symbols are independent of each other, and cannot be expressed one in terms of the other.

              If this chain of reasoning is correct, then no neuroscience can ever replace a jury. What a jury does and what an empirical scientists does are in two different spheres. Looking at the mechanical motions of the brain atoms and attempting to deduce the meanings of the thoughts reflected there is akin to looking at the motions of a typewriter mechanisms and attempting to deduce whether the speech being typed is persuasive or the poem being typed is beautiful without oneself being able to read the symbols and letters used by the typist.

              But we have gone over this difference before. I am confident the difference is more than merely a matter of terminology, and that it has more influence over the rest of one’s philosophy than might at first seem. For example, there is no basis for distinguishing true from false in a materialistic universe, nor is there any account for the origins of nature or natural law, nor is there any reason for such healthy and civil emotions as humility and gratitude, since if everything, including man, is merely a clockwork of meaningless atoms and forces, there is nothing to look up to. Even abstractions such as truth and justice are meaningless structures and combinations of atomic motions in the brain, not real things that human beings really see and know.

    • Comment by John Hutchins:

      So would the appropriate punishment of crime be the killing of the neurons that are responsible for the crime? Or would this be considered murder to you? If it is murder, then are each of us responsible for murder everyday as we grow and change? Would implanting extra neurons in the brain for the purpose of raising intelligence be murder? If any are murder, how is it different from the other ones?

      You must consider humans, then, to be something like a Turing machine, or else what theory of computation do you think we use, are we hyper-computers? How do we get around the Church-Turing thesis? Or, do we not get around the Church-Turing thesis? If not, what is our halting problem or incompleteness proof?

      • Comment by Rolf Andreassen:

        You understand of course that “thus-and-such a neuron” was an oversimplification for purposes of illustration? With that established: If we knew how to change a murderer’s brain so as to guarantee he would not do it again, that might be considered killing, and it might also be considered an appropriate punishment.

        Humans are indeed Turing machines, and our incompleteness proof is trivial. Is the sentence “If John Hutchins asserts that this sentence is true, he is inconsistent or asserting a falsehood” true or false? If it is false, and you assert its truth, you are asserting a falsehood, making it true. Thus it must be true. But if it is true, and you assert it, then you must be inconsistent. My own preference for dealing with the corresponding sentence that has my name in it is to say that I cannot decide whether the sentence is true or false, accepting that there are truths I cannot demonstrate but leaving myself at least the hope that I may be consistent. An alternative approach is to bite the bullet of inconsistency. But there is no third option.

        As for the halting problem, if you are indeed asserting that you are a halting oracle for Turing machines of arbitrary numbers of states, what is the sixth Busy Beaver number? The millionth?

        • Comment by John Hutchins:

          I am not asserting that we are a halting oracle or Turing machine. I think we are quite different things entirely, not that we are better at some types of computation then a computer (demonstrably worse, in fact). A Turing machine is something that is acted upon, it only does what it is programmed to do, where as we are able to act of our own choice. Turing machines do not and cannot have free will, they do only according to their states and what is on their tape, but humans do.

          The fact that I can look at that sentence and make a judgement on the sentence shows that it is not the same as the halting problem, which the incompleteness proof is. By the way, if I evaluate the problem in true-false-null logic the statement is a null, there are programmable logics that can evaluate such a statement. I am, just like you did, immediately able evaluate the statement and determine that it is, in true-false logic, undecidable. This is different from a halting or incompleteness problem that the truth value of the statement in not known, to the thing doing the computation, and it is not known that the problem is undecidable, hence the need for busy beaver numbers in the first place.

          • Comment by Rolf Andreassen:

            A Turing machine is something that is acted upon, it only does what it is programmed to do, where as we are able to act of our own choice. Turing machines do not and cannot have free will, they do only according to their states and what is on their tape, but humans do.

            That is, of course, precisely the point in dispute. I say that a Turing machine can indeed have consciousness and free will (in the sense of moral responsibility), just as humans do.

            I am, just like you did, immediately able evaluate the statement and determine that it is, in true-false logic, undecidable.

            Right you are, thus proving that your reasoning is incomplete, QED. A Turing machine can also do this.

            • Comment by John Hutchins:

              Look at Gigalith’s post, clearly you aren’t understanding how the incompleteness proof is a halting problem in logic. Knowing a problem is undecidable is a completely different thing from having a halting or incompleteness problem. A better example would be something like Descartes thought experiments.

        • Comment by Gigalith:

          Let HMF be a function that,for a specified program, creates a halting problem that will either have the target halting-solver run forever trying to solve it or return a incorrect answer. (We won’t bother discussing it creating halting problems that actually halt, because a sufficiently advanced halting solver can simply run the program on another thread until it halts, and therefore solve the entire set. HMF is included in a halting solver program HSP that has a scripting interface. A script can be made such that HS can solve any problem HMF(HSP) creates.

          Proof:

          1. Suppose HMF returns halting problem HSPp.

          2. A script can be written for HSP for it to loop through all the problems that HMF(HSP) returns. As we know that HMF will only return looping programs, and HSPp must be somewhere in there, eventually the program will return with an answer.

          The only way for a program to create a halting problem it cannot solve is to spew random garbage until it stumbles on it. However, it cannot /know/ that it stumbled on a halting problem it could not solve, or else it could solve it.

          Therefore, taking your above statement in its halting problem form, I can solve it by knowing I would conceive of it in looking for a halting problem.

          In addition, giving sufficient time, inclination, paper, styli, and the means to prevent the sufficient amount of paper to collapse into an astronomical body from its own weight (which, while cool, is counter-productive), I could calculate the sixth or millionth busy beaver number.

          • Comment by Rolf Andreassen:

            I assert that you cannot, in fact, calculate the millionth Busy Beaver problem with any amount of paper whatsoever; it requires insights of which no human is capable. (I note in passing that modified humans, WIF MOAR NEURONS, might be capable of such insights; and that it might be possible to construct an entity that has continuity of memory with you, and is so capable. Nonetheless such an entity would face its own limit; after there are an infinite amount of Busy Beaver numbers available.) But it’s not very testable, I must admit.

            I can make no sense of your halting-problem argument. Are you sure you know what the Halting Problem is? You seem to think it is a class of generic problems. But perhaps I am merely misunderstanding you, and after all computational theory is not my field of expertise. Could you elaborate a bit? Define what a “halting problem for a specified program” is, for example.

            I also note that your magic function HMF looks quite a bit like an Oracle to me; in other words, it may be impossible to construct your machine, because HMF assumes a solution to the Halting Problem.

            • Comment by Gigalith:

              By produce a halting problem, I mean it provides a Turing Machine and a Turing Tape, which may or may not halt within a finite amount of time, and asks whether it will. Perhaps it would be better described as a Halting Problem problem, since it is a problem in this sense of a question on a mathematics test, which is difficult to solve because of the Halting Problem.

              HMF and HSP should be read as “For any Halting Problem problem producing function HMF…” and “For any Halting Problem Problem solving program HSP…”, and I am sorry I was unclear. Neither of these are perfect; every HMF has some HPps it cannot create, and every HSP has some HPps it cannot solve.

              My point is that, if an HSP has access to an HMF, then that HSP can solve every HPp that that HMF would create, simply by calling the HMF and learning what it made. For the HMF to reliably provide a HPp that would stump its master, it needs to check each candidate to see if it /does/ stump its Master. If it would, then its HSP can find that out from the HMF, or a modified version. If it does /NOT/ check, then it might return a HPp which would stump HSP, or one that it would solve in seconds.

              In other words, to provide a HPp that you know will stump a program or a person, you have to already know its solution. No human can produce a program that he /knows/ he cannot figure out, because by knowing that he has already solved it.

              Certainly, he could conceive of a program that he may be /unlikely/ to figure out, such as a program that would loop forever if the million Busy Beaver number was even, or halt if it was odd. But he couldn’t prove it. The moment he figured out it was impossible, he would have already done it.

              He can’t prove that he wouldn’t figure it out, eventually, by the same logic, because by knowing that, he knows that the program loops forever to keep him forever as a Halting Sisyphus, and therefore can solve it. He can’t even prove that there /is/ a proof, somewhere, which he would never discover, because he can use the existence of the forever-unreachable proof as proof that the program runs forever. He can speculate, but he can’t prove it.

              By the same token, I don’t believe you can prove I can’t eventually figure out the millionth Busy Beaver, because proving it would require the same insights that I would need to not have to not solve it. If nothing else, I could collapse the paper into a universe, and wait for Dr. Andreassen analogs to evolve, to tell me the proof, so I can finally figure out the darn number.

            • Comment by John Hutchins:

              Halting problems are a class of generic problems, it is clear that you are thinking of The Halting Problem, and The Incompleteness Proof of First-Order Logic by Godel. Unfortunately, those are just the two best known examples of the class of problems being talked about. We are not talking about those particular examples but generic examples, of which there are supposedly an uncountably infinite number for any particular system (Turing Machine).

              Anyways, I have gone over a bunch of the old posts and discussions and feel I understand your position better. So I am going to try and respond here, as we are on the subject, if it comes up again and you haven’t responded here, I’ll re-post, assuming I deem it to be relevant.

              Basically you hold that people are deterministic, despite some measure of claim to the contrary by yourself. You are holding that we are deterministic but that we still have free will and rational thought, while you don’t bring this up (in what I have read, so far) (probably because you aren’t aware of it?) you could be holding the view of consciousness being a multiple run Turing Machine (of which neural networks, the AI strategy, is an example). Those that believe in the possibility of strong AI generally hold that view as it is producing the best results so far and fit in someways the model of a brain. If so, then claiming humans don’t have the ability to calculate busy beaver numbers without more neurons is false, any Turing machine is able to calculate anything any other Turing machine can calculate. The debate is still open whether any non-infinite parallel number of Turing machines can calculate what a infinite number of parallel Turing machines can in finite time (see P-NP Problem, the expectation is the answer is no).

              Basically, the idea is that multiple levels of Turing machines are being run on a person, first the inputs get processed by a base level, then another level processes that, and so forth. Thus saying that you are thinking about your own mind would be false, the truth would be some high level Turing process is evaluating, possibly running optimization problems, on lower level Turing processes but not evaluating itself. Thus, self awareness is an illusion “you” are aware of only the lower (well, really intermediary) processes of yourself and not the highest level of processing that is occurring. So that the unconscious mind, the subconsciousness, gut feeling, should really be thought of as the highest level of ones intelligence rather then the lowest level under this view, as it would have access to more data, and processing power (being massively parallel), then the conscious part of the mind (linear) and be able to come up with a better solution. Thus, rather then discount ones feelings one should place an equal or greater value on them and generally trust ones gut in this world view, in which case belief in God becomes more logical not less. Regardless, under this view of the world free will is an illusion as everything is deterministic, to prove this view would require the exact modeling of a human on a computer, as the computer is a (approximation to a, at least) Turing machine and so is a human under this view so that can be done. In which case the computer would be able to predict with exactness the actions of the human in a controlled situation with exactness.

              You are right in that this is a theoretically testable theory, however doing so would require more computing power then we are likely to see for quite some time. Also, even if all chemical reactions are modeled but the theory fails one could still have faith that the theory would work up until quantum movement becomes an issue, which may be a problem as some theorize that humans are in some form quantum computers. If humans are quantum computers then modeling would require quantum computing power sufficient to model all possible quantum states, which if quantum computing follows Moore’s law with number q-bits and decoherence times will take another longer then you will remain alive, excluding some new life extension procedure of course. The other way to test it would be to create a strong AI, not that this would be a proof of humans being a Turing machine but if an AI is created that is as intelligent and creative and adaptable as a human then your case would be made vastly easier. Of course we are nowhere near that point despite the our very best efforts, many computer scientist including many of the best AI people believe it to be an impossible task.

              Given the above paragraph saying that you have a testable theory of what humans are but it will require more then my lifetime to test is no different then saying I know that Christ will come again and every knee bow and tongue confess that Jesus is the Christ but that it may be more then my lifetime before that happens. Both require a strong element of faith and neither is provable or testable right now. However in supporting evidence of my theory I have the testimony of all the prophets, all that have seen visions, and more certainly the Holy Spirit testify of the truthfulness of these things to my soul. Obviously, that last is only evidence for me but I believe it to be a testable statement, if you are willing to accept the possibility of God existing, and to change your beliefs if you receive proof, and of God being able to respond, then you are able to ask God and He will respond. The willingness to change if a response is received is important as God is not in the business of having people commit the unpardonable sin or in any way come close to it.

              Now, what proof do you have of your claims? I would venture less then none, as every time that a new mathematical proof is made, every time a new story is written that has meaning, every time an unsolved problem is classified Man is doing something that no Turing machine can do. The ability to work with new axioms, second-order logic and higher, to use forcing techniques, and meta-logic fall outside of the realm of what a Turing machine is thought to be capable of. The best way to solve a busy beaver number for man is not to sit with a pencil and paper but to make intuitive leaps in designing even better algorithms, machines, or some other technique not yet thought of. Even more so, it is clear that you understand less of the theory of computation then I do. This means you are taking more on faith, rather then less.

              • Comment by Rolf Andreassen:

                Now, what proof do you have of your claims? I would venture less then none, as every time that a new mathematical proof is made, every time a new story is written that has meaning, every time an unsolved problem is classified Man is doing something that no Turing machine can do. The ability to work with new axioms, second-order logic and higher, to use forcing techniques, and meta-logic fall outside of the realm of what a Turing machine is thought to be capable of.

                Theorem provers have been built. And you are just plain wrong when you say that Turing machines cannot write new theorems; the whole point of Godel’s structure – not his incompleteness proof as such, but the formalisation he invented to get to the incompleteness – is that theorems can indeed be derived mechanically!

                Given the above paragraph saying that you have a testable theory of what humans are but it will require more then my lifetime to test is no different then saying I know that Christ will come again and every knee bow and tongue confess that Jesus is the Christ but that it may be more then my lifetime before that happens.

                There is a difference between being testable in principle and having an experiment you can run right now. Science requires only the former.

                So that the unconscious mind, the subconsciousness, gut feeling, should really be thought of as the highest level of ones intelligence rather then the lowest level under this view, as it would have access to more data, and processing power (being massively parallel), then the conscious part of the mind (linear) and be able to come up with a better solution. Thus, rather then discount ones feelings one should place an equal or greater value on them and generally trust ones gut in this world view, in which case belief in God becomes more logical not less.

                Only if the gut feeling is that there is a god! Mine is exactly the opposite. However, your argument is in any case false, since there is no guarantee that the lower levels (however powerful) are correctly programmed for a given problem. Mere calculating power is no match for a better algorithm. I would certainly trust my gut feeling over a formal calculation to tell me where a thrown rock will land, or whether someone is lying; but human intuition is laughably bad for any sort of problem in probability, especially concerning improbable events.

                If so, then claiming humans don’t have the ability to calculate busy beaver numbers without more neurons is false, any Turing machine is able to calculate anything any other Turing machine can calculate.

                Indeed, but Busy Beaver numbers are specifically not calculable by Turing machines. That is, some Turing machines are able to calculate particular BB numbers, but there cannot exist a Turing machine that is able to calculate any BB number. The reason is that, if you had a machine that could calculate the BB(n) number for arbitrary n, then that machine would be a halting oracle for all Turing machines.

                Even more so, it is clear that you understand less of the theory of computation then I do.

                Says the man who apparently does not know what a Busy Beaver number is, or that theorems can be proven by Turing machines.

                • Comment by John Hutchins:

                  Actually, Turing machines can only solve a subset of problems, all of the things: new axioms, second-order logic, meta-logic, and forcing techniques are outside of the realm of what the solvers or theorem writing machines can do. That is why I listed them, Turing machines can of course come up with poetry too but it requires a human to conclude which ones are good and which ones are bad. You are either ignorant of what I was saying or you are just trying to make me look bad when you know the truth.

                  With the busy beaver numbers you are also splitting hairs and I think you know it.

                  • Comment by John Hutchins:

                    The testable in principle response isn’t that valid, both are testable in principle.

                    You have a point with the subconscious, calculating power isn’t the same as a good algorithm. If the subconscious is so bad and it is the thing doing the optimization on the thinking linear machine it does leave me to wonder how much we can trust our linear thoughts as well, under that view. It could easily be the case though that the blunt brute force is able to run optimization on the thinking thing leaving the thinking thing better, like creating a better tool from and very inaccurate tool.

                  • Comment by Rolf Andreassen:

                    You are just mistaken about the plain facts, here. Turing machines can do all the things you list.

                    As for the Busy Beaver numbers, I was not nitpicking. You thought that Turing machines can calculate them, therefore humans can also do so if humans are Turing machines, therefore my assertion was wrong or irrelevant. Since Busy Beaver numbers are one of the things that Turing machines cannot do, your misunderstanding is at the very heart of the discussion. Pointing this out is not a nitpick, especially when you insist on boasting of your superior knowledge. I am not sure whether your try at dismissing this is mere wounded vanity and face-saving; I almost hope so, because if you meant it honestly then you are demonstrating that you still do not understand the very fundamentals of this field that you claim to be expert in.

                    Your comments on the unreliable subconscious leading to an unreliable conscious thought process are unfortunately insightful. Someone (I think Eliezer Yudkowsky) refers to this as “running on untrusted hardware”, which struck me as a powerful metaphor. There is a whole science of documenting the ways human reasoning fails. But conscious thought has at least the advantage that you can go back and check it. One can at least hope that other people’s subconsciouses are faulty in ways different from your own; if several people agree on a piece of reasoning, then, it is likely sound. This of course is equivalent to having redundant processors. The problem comes when you try to check your axioms; these must by construction bubble up from the subconscious, where you have no opportunity to test whether the algorithm that produced them is valid.

                    • Comment by John Hutchins:

                      It is my understanding that busy beaver numbers are calculated by creating a busy beaver machine and then checking if it is a busy beaver machine. Both things are hard to do but appear to be doable as it is my understanding that this has been done for a few of the easiest busy beaver numbers. Hence, while the number itself is not calculable it is possible to create a way of calculating them using Turing Machines.

                      It is also my understanding that only first order logic and second order with only the existential quantifier are able to be worked with on a Turing machine, and then only as an NP-Complete problem. If I am wrong, I would like to see where you are getting that information.

                    • Comment by John C Wright:

                      “One can at least hope that other people’s subconsciouses are faulty in ways different from your own; if several people agree on a piece of reasoning, then, it is likely sound. ”

                      If true, this would support the soundness of relying on common opinion and common knowledge, even when applied, for example, to the moral reasoning of mankind, including such universal beliefs as chastity, or the belief in the supernatural, one of the few things found among all nations in all periods of history.

          • Comment by Gigalith:

            I made a reply to this days ago, it appears to be still stuck in the spam filter.

  15. Comment by Rolf Andreassen:

    The threading here has gotten to the point where I’m seeing the post count increase but I can’t find the new comments. If I don’t reply to something, that’s the reason. :)

    • Comment by John Hutchins:

      I get the messages in the email from subscribing to the thread, then if there is something I wish to respond to I copy a piece of the text and then do a search for it in the browser. Of course that means my inbox gets some thirty messages over the course of the day but if I read all the emails then I have read all the messages, although occasionally, you still have to search to see what is being responded to.

      Just trying to be helpful.

  16. Comment by Rolf Andreassen:

    It is my understanding that busy beaver numbers are calculated by creating a busy beaver machine and then checking if it is a busy beaver machine. Both things are hard to do but appear to be doable as it is my understanding that this has been done for a few of the easiest busy beaver numbers. Hence, while the number itself is not calculable it is possible to create a way of calculating them using Turing Machines.

    You are reasoning wrongly. The statement “A Turing machine cannot calculate Busy Beaver numbers” means that there does not exist a single Turing machine capable of calculating all BB numbers. Thus the ability of humans to calculate the first five is completely irrelevant. To demonstrate that human intelligence is not Turing-limited you must demonstrate a method for humans to calculate any BB number whatsoever.

    It is also my understanding that only first order logic and second order with only the existential quantifier are able to be worked with on a Turing machine, and then only as an NP-Complete problem. If I am wrong, I would like to see where you are getting that information.

    That a problem is NP-complete is not relevant; humans don’t do any better on NP problems than computers do. As for the rest, I remind you of Fagin’s theorem: NP-complete problems are exactly those languages expressible by sentences of existential second-order logic; languages, here, means formal languages with precisely defined syntax and semantics, in other words, precisely those things that Turing machines can operate on.

    I observe that you seem to be confused between what computers have currently been programmed to do, and what Turing machines are in-principle capable of. The latter is the question of interest. What is more, when you say “A computer cannot do X”, you should generally speaking supply a stronger proof than “I haven’t heard of anyone doing this yet”.

    f true, this would support the soundness of relying on common opinion and common knowledge, even when applied, for example, to the moral reasoning of mankind, including such universal beliefs as chastity, or the belief in the supernatural, one of the few things found among all nations in all periods of history.

    If those beliefs were based in checkable logic, yes. You don’t seem to have read the whole of my argument; I noted that intuitionistic beliefs cannot be strengthened in this manner. There are excellent evolutionary reasons for a belief in the purposefulness of all events; consequently that belief is unreliable.

  17. Comment by rossjudson:

    I see a tiny, yet divided herd of exceedingly clever men jostling along the same narrow path. Their prime shared characteristic: A remarkable inability to admit “I don’t know” into discourse. A second similarity: Confused, relentless and infectious expansion of the sphere of argument, which is otherwise known as an inability to prune commentary with “Who Cares?” shears.

    On John’s essay — my question is, who are you writing for? Why did you write it?

    • Comment by John C Wright:

      “On John’s essay — my question is, who are you writing for? Why did you write it?”

      I wrote my essay for the same readers for whom you wrote your comment, asking readers not to read it. My motive was the same as yours, to express the truth to any in the world who care to hear the truth.

      More than that, my motive is to fight, in whatever small way is given me, against the rising deluge of moral relativism, apathy, and moral decay exemplified in the two small words “who cares?”

      I am writing against you and yours, you who neither know nor care to know, you who regard ignorance and inattentiveness as praiseworthy rather than shameful. I am writing to fight you in any way I can, to undermine your position, and to lessen your hold over the minds of men.

      Is that clear enough?

      • Comment by Ross Judson:

        A poor choice of words, on my part. What I intended to criticize was the obfuscation of the argument (the irony doesn’t escape me). There are relevant and important questions being debated. Germane arguments are buried under the weight of everything else. At some point you need to edit it down a little.

        The right words are, “what matters?”, as always.

        I’m not sure if you intend it, but there isn’t any air for others to breath in your world. You’re smart without being kind, and arrogant discussing the unknowable, where a little humility goes a long way. That’s OK with me, but it has the unfortunate aggregate effect of turning you from a complex person into a predictable position. You possess a hammer, and you look around. Because of the nature of your voice you probably do more damage to your cause than good. You don’t appear to have a choice, though. Maybe you see it as a part that needs to be played. Obsession has its uses, and anyone who’s any good at anything has more than a measure of it.

        Are you aware that you follow, and write from, an easy path(*)? You’ve had experiences that, in your judgement, have convinced you of certain truths. Unless you were somehow made to believe (and is that even possible?). Most of us muddle through life without the stress-relieving benefits of such certainty. If it was part of God’s plan for you to have these experiences, was it also his plan for you to so arrogantly dismiss those who have not?

        I probably shouldn’t have said any of this. Picking a fight with a public figure who can write relentless circles around me — dumb. Am I your next leftist, innately wicked and innately dishonest?

        With free will, we evaluate what we can. I change my mind when presented with evidence, or sufficient reason. I admit when I am wrong, and it’s not even difficult. That’s honest enough.

        I think you work harder and write better when you respect your opponents, for real. Not just in the words on a page, but in your thinking.

        In any case, you’ve written some great stuff and I’ve enjoyed pretty much all of it. My only complaint? I’m still waiting for the real second half of Mists — the one that stays true to the story, minus the self-indulgence. It’s cool that you needed to write what you did, but you really left us hanging.

        I found Orphans to be vivid, affecting, and even educational. Null-A is on the queue, and I expect good things.

        If I had to name an all-time favorite, I’d be hard-pressed to choose between your Golden Trilogy and Dan Simmons’ Hyperion series. I hope you approve of the company.

        * I don’t mean that your path in life has been easy. Only that, based on experiences you describe, your path to belief was easy, after the triggering events.

        • Comment by John C Wright:

          “I probably shouldn’t have said any of this. Picking a fight with a public figure who can write relentless circles around me — dumb. Am I your next leftist, innately wicked and innately dishonest? ”

          LOL. I am hardly a public figure. However, your criticism that I need more humility is both accurate and welcome: this is a personality flaw of mine with which I have been struggling a long time. (One of my problems is that when I am polite and courteous, modern Americans, habituated to friendly informality, regard this as more arrogance rather than less.)

          As for breathing room, I know of no other way to debate the interesting topics of the day, not to mention of eternity, without debating them. That requires a difference of opinion, one man on one side, the other man on the other, each man willing to change his views when and if he is proved wrong. Ceasing to debate will not free up the air in the room and bring more truth out, it will merely allow each party, the correct as well as the incorrect, to wallow in his own unexamined opinions, and may well habituate each party to regard opinions as something that he has a right to go unchallenged and unexamined.

          As for leaving you hanging, my dear patron, I do intend (God and the publishers willing) to write a sequel to Mists of Everness, tentatively titles Gates of Everness, and I have the first five chapters written, but other projects are in the way.

          Just between you and me, I think Dan Simmons’ Hyperion Cantos is better in most respects than my own humble work, but particularly in characterization and grandeur of theme, not to mention the inventiveness of his science fiction backgrounds.

          “* I don’t mean that your path in life has been easy. Only that, based on experiences you describe, your path to belief was easy, after the triggering events.”

          LOL again. Perhaps you should not speculate on the internal workings of the mind of man you do not know personally; perhaps again you should not assume the ease or difficulty with which a belief is sought and found is proportional to its truth value.

          It took me over 35 years to break the chains of my early training and belief, which taught me and trained me to belief that fornication and promiscuity were not only harmless and fun, but praiseworthy. It was only due to a very patient and unrelenting love of logic for its own sake that I was able, very much against my own inclinations, to arrive at that same truth which any child raised right would know as if by second nature: that chastity is both prudent and virtuous. I arrived at this painfully obvious truth extremely, extremely slowly, as slowly as a prisoner rasping a hacksaw against his fetters eventually to break them, and only by means of that rigorous devotion to truth no matter the cost to myself which you here criticize as airless disrespect for the opinions of others.

          I am sorry, friend, but if I were prone to the more relaxed standard of allowing falsehoods to spread unchallenged, I would still be bathing in the swinish filth of falsehoods.

          The experience of my life, for what that is worth, tells me that an unexamined life is not worth living.

          This is not an abstract ideal, but a practical matter I pursue for its own sake.

          If you were raised and taught by sane and old-fashioned standards, unlike me, then perhaps the relentlessness of my attitude must strike you as strange and uncomfortable. I did not have that advantage. I was raised as a modern, and taught all the nostrums and shibboleths of modernism, and it was only by dint of years of effort that I was able to dig myself out of that dungeon and into the sunlight of a more sane and eternal philosophy.

          But it is the humility of a philosopher that prompts me to continue to inquire. There is always the possibility that I am wrong. My openness to that possibility and nothing else led to the salvation of my soul.

  18. Ping from The Honorable Atheist. | NATHAN SHUMATE:

    [...] via The Honorable Atheist | John C. Wright’s Journal. [...]

  19. Comment by James Hutchings:

    “Unlike Leftists, there is nothing innately wicked or innately dishonest in their core values or basic assumptions which require them necessarily to support and defend wickedness, lies, indecency and cruelty.”

    Indeed. The example that makes my blood boil is when Leftists ignore the huge numbers of Christian teenagers killing themselves because of bullying by gays. And I can’t believe that in the 21st century, two Republicans still can’t legally marry.

  20. Comment by Sandy Petersen:

    One of the unspoken assumptions by Mr. Andreasson is that atheism has been rising of late. While this might be true in Scandinavia and Europe of late, the world has a whole has been definitely experiencing a rise in religious feeling over the last 50 years. Religion made no public appearance in our politics during the 50s and 60s. Kennedy explained away his Catholicism to suspicious Protestants by saying it wouldn’t affect his judgment. Evangelical Christians were uncommon. Now we have Evangelical Catholics even, and every major political figure in the USA parades his religion on his sleeve. More Americans attend church today than 50 years ago.

    Islamic nations were almost entirely secular in the 50s and 60s but now we see global fervor (for better and worse). Africa is filled with rapidly-expanding Christianity. The slow-moving laid-back Catholicism of central America is being replaced by other faiths – by some estimates over 50% of Guatamalans will be Protestant within 20 years – and they’ll be active, bible-reading Protestants.

    Europe’s lack of religious committment, and its false belief that the world is moving steadily towards a secular paradise is simply a sign than Europe itself is out of step spiritually with the rest of the planet.

  21. Comment by John C Wright:

    My dislike of Communism is entirely rational. I have read DAS KAPITAL and other socialist economic writings, which is more than most cultists of the Marxist heresy can claim. I can point out his logical, that is, rational errors in some detail.

    My dislike of Communism is also because I know people personally, or through my newspaper days, who escaped from Communist regimes and lived to tell the tale.

    I call it a cult not to demean it, but accurately: Marxism is a schism from Christian intellectual tradition, and it centered on its leader and his writings, and behaves in all ways as a cult, not as a religion, and certainly not as a system of economics. Cults are parasitic on the mother religion from which they depart. A schism is not parasitic, but can exist independently: hence, Anglicanism is not a cult.

    Marxism does not look like a cult merely because one of its theological postulates is that there is no God. If Marxism was exactly as it was, and nothing else differed, except that Marx promised that the material dialectic of history would lead to an apocalyptic Last Battle, after which God would create a new heaven and a new earth of total prosperity, would not the reverence and respect paid his works by his disciples, their purges, their chants and marches, seem like a cult?

    It is not a school of economics. Economists talk about things like a factors leading to wage and price changes. Marx talks about abolishing wages and prices by magic. He is anti-economist, someone who daydreams that the scarcity of resources built into the nature of reality can be overcome by some ill defined mystical power of history called the material dialectic

  22. Comment by Mary:

    your irrational dislike of Marxism, Communism and spinoff

    it is impossible to have a irrational dislike of a philosophy that not only spawned more mass murderers than any other in history, including the two largest, but which has been falsified by every conceivable criterion, with every prophecy Marx made being proven wrong, and yet inspires people to claim that any real, historical, actual manifestation of it is not true Communism.

  23. Comment by John C Wright:

    I thank you from the bottom of my heart for the kind words you have said about my books. I am glad you enjoyed them.

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