Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Productive dialog without honest dialog

The Maverick Philosopher is at it again, this time pondering whether "whether any productive dialog with atheists is possible" in his quest for all that is true (meaning Conservative and Christian, naturally). Oddly, my first thought was that a productive dialog would be much easier if he didn't delete every comment he didn't like on from his blog, despite their being direct and polite, but we can't expect too much from Dr. Vallicella, I suppose.

The Maverick Philosopher reintroduces many of the same misunderstandings as in his Teapot post, to which I posted a reply. As he is a reasonably intelligent man, it is hard to attribute his misunderstandings to something other than a self-induced blindness. Another great example is his post on the liberals playing the race card, where both he and the article of Thomas Sowell's to which he links manage to over look that the two biggest race cards played recently were by Mark Williams and Andrew Brietbart. I guess the race card only offends Dr. Vallicella when liberals play it. So, I'll address the usual misunderstandings of Dawkins point below the fold.

"Some of Us Just Go One God Further"

I've seen this quotation attributed to Richard Dawkins. From what I have read of him, it seems like something he would say. The idea, I take it, is that all gods are on a par, and so, given that everyone is an atheist with respect to some gods, one may as well make a clean sweep and be an atheist with respect to all gods. You don't believe in Zeus or in a celestial teapot. Then why do you believe in the God of Isaac, Abraham, and Jacob?

There is one way in which all gods are on a par: there is no reliable evidence for any of them. However, the quote here is not a statement of some necessary ontological status regarding gods. It is a challenge to apply consistent standards of evidence. Given that you reject personal testimonies for Zeus and Anansi, that you find their histories insufficient to believe in them, why do you accept evidence for Yahoweh that is not better in any non-subjective fashion?

What Dawkins and the gang seem to be assuming is that the following questions are either senseless or not to be taken seriously: 'Is the Judeo-Christian god the true God?' 'Is any particular god the true God' 'Is any particular conception of deity adequate to the divine reality?'

I can see no reason to say these questions are senseless or trivial to Dawkins. If they were, he would not have devoted a considerable amount of time and energy to writing a book on them. Dawkins was already a popular author of books on evolution, and his aggressive stance in favor of atheism has cost him some of that popularity. From all indications, Dawkins sees this cost as well-invested, because the issue is both capable of being intelligently discussed and important to address.

The idea, then, is that all candidates for deity are in the same logical boat. Nothing could be divine. Since all theistic religions are false, there is no live question as to which such religion is true. It is not as if there is a divine reality and that some religions are more adequate to it than others. One could not say, for example, that Judaism is somewhat adequate to the divine reality, Christianity more adequate, and Buddhism not at all adequate. There just is no divine reality. There is nothing of a spiritual nature beyond the human horizon. There is no Mind beyond finite mind. Man is the measure.

Well, it does seem trivial that if there is no divine reality, you can't be closer to it with one model of it than another model. However, I have not read anything by Dawkins that says "Nothing could be divine", rather, 'Nothing is divine' seems to be a much better summary of his position. There is no ruling out of any possible type of supernatural, only noting that there is no reliable evidence in favor of any sort of supernatural entity. I have never read a claim he can disprove the existence of an infinite mind, merely that there is no reliable evidence for such a mind.

Of course, this does not rule out the ability to disprove the existence of a particular model of the supernatural, many of which fall apart simply because they are bronze-age creations of people who did not possess what we would recognize as a consistent philosophy, which are then shoe-horned into our modern thoughts. For example, the notion of an omnibenevolent being who engages in eternal conscious torture for temporally limited offenses is inherently self-contradictory. You don't need to rule out the existence of all possible gods to rule out the existence of that particular god.

That is the atheist's deepest conviction. It seems so obvious to him that he cannot begin to genuinely doubt it, nor can he understand how anyone could genuinely believe the opposite. But why assume that there is nothing beyond the human horizon?

In my case, I assume there is plenty beyond the human horizon. There are galaxies we have not even seen yet, ideas about the beginning and possible end of time itself, infinities of space, and whole manners of natural phenomena that exceed our horizon. I accept them because we have evidence that they do or at least can exist.

My return question: why assume there is something out there that intends to be found but fails to leave any reliable evidence pointing towards it?

The issue dividing theists and atheists can perhaps be put in terms of Jamesian 'live options':

EITHER: Some form of theism (hitherto undeveloped perhaps or only partially developed) is not only logically and epistemically possible, but also an 'existential' possibility, a live option;

OR: No form of theism is an existential possibility, a live option.

That's easy: theism is absolutely a live option for the majority of atheists. Many of us find it the preferred option. However, the universe does not run itself based upon our preferences. Theism is a live option, but it is not an evidenced option. You can't just wish gods into existence.

Theist-atheist dialog is made difficult by a certain asymmetry: whereas a sophisticated living faith involves a certain amount of purifying doubt, together with a groping beyond images and pat conceptualizations toward a transcendent reality, one misses any corresponding doubt or tentativeness on the part of sophisticated atheists. Dawkins and Co. seem so cocksure of their position. For them, theism is not a live option or existential possibility. This is obvious from their mocking comparisons of God to a celestial teapot, flying spaghetti monster, and the like.

So, are we to equate the careful considerations of The Maverick Philosopher with the bold declarations of Dawkins as playing the same role in the social movements dedicated to their respective views of the supernatural? No, I don't think so. Dawkins is not The Maverick Philosopher for atheists. To the degree that we would have leaders at all, he is the James Dobson, the Malcolm X, or the Deepak Chopra: a public persona pushing an agenda. I'm sure Dr. Vallicella knows better than I who the serious atheistic philosophers are.

For sophisticated theists, however, atheism is a live option. The existence of this asymmetry makes one wonder whether any productive dialog with atheists is possible.

Well, I don't recall there being a lot of productive dialog with the James Dobson's of the world, either. Perhaps if you seek dialog, it should be with someone seeking to dialog. Dawkins is an advocate.


J said...

Actually, alter the sentence one word (atheist to... theist), and the MavP makes some sense: "Is any productive dialog with theists is possible?" No. Bill of Occam would be proud.

I'm kidding to some degree, but for one Dawkins (or Hitchens, Harris, et al) there are 1000 biblethumpers. Even if we don't care for Dawkins (actually, I don't think Dawkins & Co handled the issue as well as they could have, tactically speaking), he's a bit brighter than a boxcar full of John Hagees. Dawkins has become a whipping boy for the MavP and Feser types, a sort of straw man: "hey, you have doubts about religion? You're...a Dawkins!" The religious folks did the same with say Bertrand Russell a few decades ago.

One Brow said...

Zealots of any stripe always seem to choose the worst examples from the people whom they oppose. Some focus on the Dawkins, others on the Hagees. The world continues to turn.

J said...

Perhaps you noted Edward Feser at it again, OB-- quoting Aquinas's pre-newtonian "physics" and the First Cause chestnut, and the Primum Mobile of the Domino Chain--just as person starts a domino chain...why, so does a judeo-christian God start the Universe. Feser's also closed down his comments, and his blog now appears to be ....Papists only--traditional catholic tactics.

One Brow said...

I don'[t expect Dr. Feser to change his metaphysical stances, because they were not chosen for rational reasons to begin with. He's chosen them for religious reasons, and will stick with them regardless.

As for "closing" (I presume you mean moderating) the comments, if I ever become popular enough that I need to deal with trolls on a regular basis, I might do that as well. I haven't read his comments in a while, but I have never had one deleted or even fail to be approved.

John said...

Hi, I am from Australia.

I would posit that it is impossible to enter into any kind of productive dialog with the "maverick", and that he is no at all interested in doing so. So too, with all right-wing philosophy and "theology" hacks.

One Brow said...


I tend to agree that productive dialogs with idealogues are going to be rare. Nonetheless, teh effort must be made, if only to point out the effort has been made.

Anonymous said...

To the degree that "theists" believe in the existence of God "on faith," and atheists belief in the non-existence of God "on faith," there is indeed no debate with them on that topic. Agnosistics are a different question, but, even there Protagoras might have said it best many centuries ago:

"About the gods, I am not able to know whether they exist or do not exist, nor what they are like in form; for the factors preventing knowledge are many: the obscurity of the subject, and the shortness of human life."

One Brow said...


I was in productive dialogs with atheists when I was a theists, and I have had productive dialogs with theists since become an atheist. I find such dialogs much harder with people who seem to (no necessarily deliberately) misinterpret positions to suit their own agendas.

cwm.777x said...

Hello folks. It is amazing to me too see so much work put into this subject. Amazing too to see the effort made for civility in this blog.

I just accept that there is a difference between the little webs we weave within our skulls, and the world outside.

Believing that we can cast a net out and haul in "God" with our own effort, either to prove existence or non-existence.. . . .is claiming a sort of omniscience. Believing that God may choose to come and connect to us is claiming a sort of importance beyond all reason. Believing that God cares specifically about you is the central belief of Christian theology, and that is Love beyond our understanding. . . .

And if you want to discuss "reason" and "logic" with anyone who wants to believe in a God who loves him/her personally, guess how appealing your offerings are in comparison.

Love is not something you can prove logically or reasonably. Neither is faith.

Endless reasoning will not discover God in the universe, but simple love will.

One Brow said...


Thank you for your kind words. I hope to see you often in the future, if that works for you.

I actually agree with you that there is no logic you can use to discover God/a god/gods, and no evidence you can use to support His/Her/Their existence. While I don't share your faith, I hope you have found a place where you are happy with your beliefs. Good luck!

cwm.777x said...

And thank you, One Brow.

Truth is, I have a lot of questions for every little trail I've beat into the philosophical/theological thickets.

I also enjoy a little definition from the The Devil's Dictionary by Ambrose Bierce, which I sorta quote as

"When lost in the night and fog, mired neck-deep in an unwholesome bog, Experience, like the rising of the dawn, reveals the path we should not have gone."

That said, perhaps I will visit here once in a while to weigh in on some aspect of the discussion.

One Brow said...


Philosophy (like mathematics) is the art of figuring out what you have already presumed to be true by your assumptions.

So, feel free to stop by anytime.