Before Thanksgiving

I find atheism extremely puzzling, like persistent attempts to square the circle or construct a perpetual motion machine.

To me it seems that our way of understanding the world will be usable—will actually function as an understanding—only if it is coherent, hierarchical and ethically directed. “Coherent” seems self-explanatory. “Hierarchical” means we must be able to distinguish principles that are more and less fundamental. “Ethically directed” means that our understanding must advise us what to do. There must be something about the world that makes things worth doing or not worth doing.

Our way of understanding the world must also be true, or at least we must accept it as such for it to be our actual understanding. That means that we must believe the world resembles our understanding in some basic ways. In particular, we must believe that the world is also coherent, hierarchical and directed. If the world is incoherent we won’t be able to understand it at all. If it’s non-hierarchical then we won’t be able to apply general principles and will get hopelessly lost in the details. And if it is not directed ethically then our understanding can tell us nothing about what to do. Actions, including the actions generally thought to constitute thought and communication, will become a matter of whim or blind will.

So it seems the world must be coherent, hierarchical and directed if we are to understand anything and act rationally. If that’s what the world is like, though, how much space is left for atheism? It seems to me that to try to be an atheist is to try to live in one of Samuel Beckett’s late novels. Can anyone really do that? Isn’t atheism really just a pose, rhetorical maneuver, or theoretical conceit? Why is that something a well-intentioned adult would want to bother with?

I would go farther. An ethical hierarchy in a coherent world implies objects of reverence and ultimately worship. Reverence and worship are thus basic to our grasp of things, and therefore to knowledge and reason. Cult is the basis of culture, culture of coherent, flexible and comprehensive thought. If that’s so, then godlessness means you become a crook, crank, drunk or airhead, at least on the whole and in tendency, as the implications of your basic position work themselves out. What you don’t become is a well-balanced personality who acts rationally and says reasonable things.

UPDATE: There’s some to-and-fro on this entry at Thrasymachus’s place.

25 thoughts on “Before Thanksgiving”

  1. The atheist perspective is
    The atheist perspective is essentially one of reduction to the scientific fundamentals: the laws of physics are the ultimate nature of the universe. This is, I think, coherent; it is also hierarchical – chemistry builds on physics, and biology builds on chemistry. It has no direct ethical imperatives, but they attempt to construct ethical systems by considering people’s long-term interests and applying economics and game theory.

    • I don’t think the
      I don’t think the scientific perspective as you describe it is complete enough to do the job. For example, physics depends on the coherence of human thought, the trustworthiness of memeory and informal reasoning, our ability to identify particulars, the ability of physicists to recognize their peers, understand what they say, and trust each other, and so on. So do all the other modern natural sciences. So far as I know, none of the modern natural sciences proves any of those things. Nor can they account for aspects of the world of our experience that are as fundamental as qualia—subjective experience itself.

      Beyond that, I’m not sure what the physical definition of “long-term interests” is. How can waves in space have long-term interests? At bottom, it seems to me that the modern natural sciences buy enormous power and precision at the expense of narrowness. By themselves they don’t constitute an understanding of the world that is self-supporting or at all adequate to our needs.

      Rem tene, verba sequentur.

      • I am not certain that I
        I am not certain that I follow the first part of your response: surely any understanding of the universe relies upon the coherence of human thought, and so on. Even the Bible, though divinely inspired, has to be read by and understood by the human mind.

        Regarding qualia and subjective experience, I think this is the cornerstone of the matter – a hard-line atheist of the type I describe above would say that your subjective experiences are an evolved self delusion: biological robots that believe that they exist have a better chance of surviving and passing on their genes than those that do not. (One can jujitsu this idea – if a machine can think it exists, then why not the fundamental laws of physics themselves? To wit: God. Not that that is proof of anything.)

        By my oblique “long-term interests” phrase, I was trying to describe the interests of the genome in propagating itself: genes have no direct “interest” in survival, but the ones that survive are those that are good at propagating themselves. Thus actions in ones “long-term interests” are those actions that increase their genetic posterity, and vice versa. Of course, this can be interpreted a lot of different ways, and is not as clear as the Ten Commandments, but it is intended as the basis of ethical systems, and not the system itself.

        • Since “any understanding
          Since “any understanding of the universe relies upon the coherence of human thought, and so on,” a general account of the world should be able to account for those things in accordance with its own standards. Do the modern natural sciences, which have demanding standards and take into account a limited range of cognitions and explanations, do so?

          “Qualia as the self-delusion of waves in space” doesn’t make a lot of sense. What’s there to delude if qualia aren’t real?

          Nor do I understand why survival is an interest of arrangements of waves in space. Some arrangements are more limited in extent and duration than others. So what? Why isn’t the interest of each to be exactly what it is? More basically, what conceivable sense could the world “interest” have in a world in which qualia aren’t real?

          Rem tene, verba sequentur.

          • “Do the modern natural
            “Do the modern natural sciences, which have demanding standards and take into account a limited range of cognitions and explanations, do so?”
            Probably not. How does your philosophy measure up?

            “What’s there to delude if qualia aren’t real?”
            Wave-patterns can contain models of the universe in which they exist. A book, for example, has no qualia, but can describe history or theology or whatever. So may a computer, with the difference that it can potentially process the model and act upon it, sending out web pages in response to user requests for example. These models of the universe can of course be wrong, i.e. deluded.

            The atheist understanding of qualia is to think about what makes up your own subjective experience of the world – continuous processing of sensory data, memories, and models of the other things in the world – and to assume that a computer program doing the same thing would be just as conscious as yourself. Hard to conceive of if you think that you are just a complex pattern of waves, but then it is hard to conceive of complicated software like Windows from the moving around of millions of electrons within your PC. (I am not really convinced by this myself, but I like to try to understand how people see things)

            “Nor do I understand why survival is an interest of arrangements of waves in space”
            So call it “tendency” or something if “interest” is too anthropomorphic for you. The point is that the arrangements can make copies of themselves. In a universe filled with random wave-patterns, the vast majority will self destruct or do nothing. Some will manage to build copies of themselves. Given time, the wave-patterns that are better at building copies will thrive. Given limited or variable building resources, wave-patterns that cooperate may build more copies than those that do not. And that is allegedly the root of ethical behaviour.

          • Is consciousness a behavior?
            “How does your philosophy measure up?”

            “God made it all” does I think account for everything in accordance with its own standards of explanation. Modern natural science has a particular problem (extreme rigor that depends on things that can’t be made at all rigorous) that becomes quite serious when people try to make it the sole standard of knowledge. The “at bottom, God did it” theory doesn’t have the same problem.

            “Wrong” does not mean “deluded.” Only a conscious agent can be deluded. Your examples and explanations seem to miss something. The idea appears to be:

            1. A computer or pattern of waves in space or whatever can act like a conscious agent, at least in some ways. A tendency to do something that prevails in a variety of settings, for example, is rather like an intelligent attempt to do that thing.
            2. Therefore a computer or whatnot has or at least in principle could have all the same capacities as a conscious agent.
            3. It therefore has or could have all the same qualities, for example subjective experiences.

            Why assume though that subjective experience is the same thing as observable behavior? It doesn’t seem to be.

            Rem tene, verba sequentur.

          • Behavioralism
            “Why assume though that subjective experience is the same thing as observable behavior? It doesn’t seem to be.”

            John Searle’s famous Chinese Room thought experiment has pretty effectively destroyed this line of argument, that observable behavior is the equivalent of or validation of consciousness. In the literature, this is known as “behavorism.”

            If you’re interested, just google it; it’s all over the web. Or, consult David Chalmers’ home page; he’s a philospher of consciousness, and has collected a variety of papers at his website:

            Searle (he’s a philosopher at UC Berkeley) also has a home page:

            This link is called “Searle Central” and has several papers on the issue:

            A discussion of the Chinese Room argument may be found at the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

          • Behaviorism II
            Another type of behaviorism, issuing out of logical empiricism, reduces all knowledge to biological behavior. Human knowledge, being a mere biological adaptation, therefore has no truth value and makes no truth claims.

            This in turn leads to an alienation from reason, one of the consequences of material reductionism.

            In connection with your attention to atheism, if an atheist bases his position on material reductionism, and its expression through natural science, he would have to answer for this.

            These are the kinds of consequences that superficial thinkers like Dawkins never address.

            See Kolakowski:

  2. A response … or not.
    That’s really well put and argued, thanks. I’m trying to come up with anything to add or contribute and am not doing very well. I find myself balking a bit at “ethically directed,” though I’m not sure why. It certainly seems directed, but do we have any assurance that it’s *ethically* directed, except maybe in such an immensely cosmic sense that almost nothing can be said about it. Which leads me to my one other minor misgiving: How much can actually be said about what’s really known about the nature of things? There are immense, hard to grasp underlying patterns, which I suspect many people sense in indistinct ways. But it seems that only rare and super-gifted people can convey a sense of them. And how directly do these general observations and princeples translate into direct help and advice?

    • I don’t like the word
      I don’t like the word “ethically” either, but can’t think of a better one.

      It seems to me that in order to see our thoughts and actions as rational and so understand them we have to refer them to standards that don’t depend on what we think, do or want but are somehow independent of us and implicit in the nature of things. We have to think that if we direct ourselves in some ways but not others we are in line with how things are. So in effect we have to think that in the nature of things some directions are good and some bad. That’s pretty much the same as thinking that the nature of things is ethically directed.

      As to how we can know anything solid about these things, I’d say that we can’t get by without some sort of view as to what they amount to, rationality depends on it, so we just have to do our best. Tradition includes the insights and understandings of lots of people drawn together and crystallized in an overall way of life people attach themselves to and find satisfying to live by, so it’s one obvious route.

      To the extent you think tradition is too unstable and undefined to be a final guide, especially in a critical and cosmopolitan society (in the West that might include everything since Alexander), you’ll need something beyond it for a coherent and reliable grasp of basic issues and thus rationality. It’s hard to think of anything that would fit the bill other than some definite authority understood as based on revelation.

      Rem tene, verba sequentur.

  3. Maybe truth and health are mutually exclusive?
    Hi! I’ve not read this blog before but find this a fascinating discussion!

    It seems to me that there is no logical barrier to living in a Samuel Beckett novel. The scientific worldview does not provide a basis for ethics. Science does not provide a reason why one should not be a crank, a drunk, or a crook, although it can provide many reasons why being the first two is a bad idea. Just because religion is good for you (and there are many, many indications that it is) does not make it *true*.

    The fact that life with religion is better does not change the truth value of religious statements. It may be entirely possible (I cannot say for sure) that there really is no external moral value to anything, and that we are alone in an uncaring universe and collapse to simple matter when we die. Maybe being a complete, healthy person and knowing the truth about the world are mutually exclusive. Chesterton’s statement that a person who lived for a thousand years would become a Catholic or succumb to nihilism has relevance here: perhaps to know the truth is to succumb to nihilism!

    • Aber das Nichts nichtet!
      That is to say, Nothing noths. Nihilism can’t do much of anything, and in particular can’t assert itself. What sense can it make to say the world is such as to dissolve all connections and therefore all assertions?

      The point isn’ health or happiness but rationality. You can’t really talk or think in a Samuel Beckett world, except through an association of thoughts and words that trails off into incoherence and then goes silent as whatever principle of unity it might once have had dissipates.

      Rem tene, verba sequentur.

      • the Beckett world
        Your post—and its allusion to the dissolution of any principle of unity—prompted me to think of modernity, and its myriad collection of unrelated facts, all of equal value, united by the principle of utility. And, that utility ultimately devolving to the question of power, and power of course resting in the subjective will.

        Now, would moderns choose the Beckett world of disconnected facts and incoherence, or would they choose the world of the subjective will?

        Because we know the answer to that question, it’s a fair conclusion that we are not threatened with Beckett’s world. Rather, we are threatened by—or overwhelmed by—the world of the subjective will.

        • Why is the Wille zur Macht worth bothering with?
          I suppose the question you’re asking is whether the world ends with a bang or a wimper.

          I vote for wimper. The will to power as a final standard doesn’t work because you can’t tell what power is until you know what’s worth willing. In the absence of value that precedes choice everything becomes a complete bore.

          Rem tene, verba sequentur.

          • wimpers
            And modernity isn’t a bore?

            I view at least some postmodern criticism of modernity to bear on this very issue: Because modernity is a complete bore, all has been reduced to presentation.

            As for modernity, it has its values it deems worth willing: To borrow Voegelin’s phrase, “the lust for the massive possession of experience.” I just say, the will to dominate and master.

            But, I agree, the will to dominate eventually reduces to boredom, then aimlessness, then nihilism, then destructiveness.

            But none of this refers to an “end of the world,” because modernity is neither the world nor the end of history.

      • Let’s be concrete. Why
        Let’s be concrete. Why can’t I say that God doesn’t exist, and that the speed of light in a vacuum is 300 million meters per second?

        • Science can’t be taken for granted
          Why think there’s any connection at all among (i) the patterns of pixels that appear on digital meters, the ink patterns that appear on the pages of scientific journals, our various subjective reactions to those things, what people say, and what others understand them to say, and (ii) the way the world really is without respect to what we do, want, or believe?

          If there’s no connection the statement “the speed of light in a vacuum is 300 million meters per second” doesn’t do much for anyone.

          It seems though that to be as confident as we are that the connection is there, we have to trust that the world somehow matches our forms of thought and speech, that some interpretations of crude experience really are better than others, and that the loyalty to particular interpretations that constitutes our community of inquirers is justified by standards that do not depend on the community.

          In other words, we have to believe that rational connections and distinctions of better and worse, right and wrong, are implicit in the way things are. We don’t just put them there, but we can and should recognize and adhere to them.

          In what kind of world does such an outlook make sense?

          Rem tene, verba sequentur.

          • The patterns on the meters
            The patterns on the meters have a designer, if not a Designer.

            “It seems though that to be as confident as we are that the connection is there, we have to trust that the world somehow matches our forms of thought and speech, that some interpretations of crude experience really are better than others, and that the loyalty to particular interpretations that constitutes our community of inquirers is justified by standards that do not depend on the community.”
            Well, if we put the measurements together ourselves, we know we did them. As for some interpretations being better than others…depends for what purpose. The principle of science is that no model is true but some models are useful; an experimental model is better if it explains more of reality than the previous one.

            It’s the last bit that’s problematic: you can have a purely local sense of truth, where eating pork, drinking alcohol, or killing your child is wrong depending on which community you belong to. If two people have a different idea of right and wrong, who is right? You can’t say without appealing to some outside figure (in your case, God).

            “In other words, we have to believe that rational connections and distinctions of better and worse, right and wrong, are implicit in the way things are. We don’t just put them there, but we can and should recognize and adhere to them.”

            It seems as though you’re conflating positive statements (shooting your mother will kill her) and normative statements (shooting your mother is bad, ie undesirable). While I agree that I don’t want to live in a society where people shoot their mothers, and that’s one of the reasons I’m happy for religion, the fact remains that there is nothing logically inconsistent about the conclusion that if you can kill your mother without getting caught and inherit her property faster so you can invest it and get more money it’s convenient to speed the process along. Sociopaths get along pretty well in today’s society with sufficiently high IQs. What’s *logically inconsistent* about the sociopath’s worldview, apart from the fact that you really, really don’t want to be around the guy?

          • Can “usefulness” be a final standard of value?
            I don’t see why the fact some engineer supposedly designed a meter and someone else built it based somehow on what the first guy did means the meter tells me something. And are interpretations really useful or is it just useful to act as if they are? To whom and by what standard of value? Why should I accept that standard? Because somebody thinks its useful?

            I don’t think I’m illegitimately conflating positive and normative statements. I’m just observing that you can’t make positive statements without accepting normative statements, for example regarding inferences, interpretation of evidence, how language should be used, striving for simplicity and coherence and so on.

            Rem tene, verba sequentur.

          • Polanyi
            I refer you to Michael Polanyi’s essay, “Scientific Beliefs,” which is an essay length discussion of your points. Here’s a sample:

            “Other attempts to lessen the burden of responsibility on the scientists’ shoulders do not prove more successful. Science, it is urged, does not claim to discover the truth but only to give a description or summary of observational data. But why then object to astrology or to the description of periods of pregnancy in multiples of the number Ï€? Surely for no other reason than that they are not held to be true or rational descriptions, which brings the problem back exactly to our starting point.

            It has been suggested that scientists are giving the simplest description of their observations. But this is blatantly false. Scientists do not reject astrology, magic, the coincidence of pregnancy periods with multiples of the number π, or extra-sensory perception because these are not simple descriptions of the observed facts. And I would even say that human ingenuity could devise no more involved description than that given by the general theory of relativity, of the facts to which this theory refers. The adjective “simple” can be used as a distinctive mark of scientific statements only if it is tortured into meaning “rational” and finally made to coincide with “true,” which brings us back again to where we stood before.

            The fact that serious and wise people with penetrating minds have so long subscribed to such rigmaroles about the nature of science can be understood only
            as expressing a deep, underlying urge of our modern civilization. It is due to a fundamental reluctance to recognize our higher faculties, which our empiricist philosophy cannot account for. We dread to be caught believing – and, in fact, knowing – things which are not demonstrable by the measurement of observed variables. So we fabricate all kinds of pretenses and excuses and describe our most profound insights as merely “economic descriptions” and speak of our most assured convictions as mere “working hypotheses.” This serves us as a verbal screen behind which to hide our philosophically unaccountable power of discovering the truth about nature and our wholehearted commitment to the truths which we have so obscurely acquired.

            The positivistic movement is, of course, only part of the general trend engendered by modern empiricism, which induces us to camouflage in utilitarian colors our transcendent faculties and obligations, in order that they may pass muster before a skeptical philosophy. Like clowns imitating puppets, we pretend to be pulled by strings, so as to conform with a mechanistic conception of man. It is part of this pattern that we dare not confess that we hold the scientific beliefs which we actually hold, for fear of the empiricist policeman behind us. We look carefully over our shoulder and pick our words appropriately, to avoid saying anything so metaphysical as that science inquires into the nature of things or that it seeks to explain them – for fear of offending the ruling assumptions about the strictly empirical origin of science.”

          • You guys are probably right
            You guys are probably right about science not being able to get away from some sort of axiomatic roots. (I say probably because I’m sure Dawkins or one of these guys could come up with a comeback, but I sure can’t! 😉 )

            Leaving aside the issue of the transcendent value of science (which, after all, is just another human activity), I still don’t think you need ethics to think rationally. Sociopaths have no ethics and work on a strictly self-interested fashion, yet they seem to be quite rational about advancing their own interests when they have reasonably high IQs—in fact, they are more effective at doing so in many cases than those of us with an ethical compass. You have to want something in order to do something, but it doesn’t have to be ethically based. You can be quite rational and successful without any sense of ethics. (I could make a crack about Congress but the discussion would degenerate into politics.)

          • Maybe not so rational
            The one actual sociopath I’ve worked closely with (an Episcopal priest, and so a member of one of the learned professions) struck me as oddly mindless. He seemed incapable of actually understanding anything—people, situations, social functioning, even mechanical devices—because he couldn’t imagine that other things existed independently of him and acted on principles of their own that had nothing to do with what he thought and wanted. It was a bizarre and horrifying experience.

            What he did have was amazing tenacity. He had learned through experience that particular patterns of words and actions would promote certain effects, and he had become amazingly effective in punching people’s buttons. It seemed to be all trial and error though. He had no idea what the words and actions meant apart from their successful use in manipulating situations to bring about short-term goals. It was more like dealing with the beta version of an artificial intelligence program than a human being. He didn’t pass the Turing test.

            Rem tene, verba sequentur.

          • Most strange! It could be
            Most strange! It could be from the neurobiological point of view that the abstraction circuitry is somehow coupled with the ethical sense. In which case Mr. Kalb may be right that a lack of ethics does more than just make people evil.

            I do still think I’ve known plenty of atheists who are perfectly rational and well-balanced even if I don’t agree with everything they do. Given my more liberal circles it wouldn’t be surprising I’d know more atheists though.

          • Ethics
            Of course, Randians and at least some economists of the Austrian school would take the position that to act against one’s interest is irrational, and only rational acts are ethical. Therefore, ethical acts must be, by definition, self-interested acts. The corollary is that there is no such thing as altruism.

            In contrast, a Thomist or Aristotelian would take the position that, unless a human action is placed within its ethical context, it can’t possibly be rational, because of man’s teleological character.

            This all depends, to a great extent, on how one defines terms like “rational” and “ethical.” It also depends on whether one accepts, or rejects, the proposition that man has a teleological character.

    • Ethics
      “The scientific worldview does not provide a basis for ethics.”

      The Marxists, the Austrian libertarians, the Randians, and even Richard Dawkins, might take you up on that.

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