Strong atheism: Substituting chain saws for axes

 

Dear friends at Strong Atheists, I have no idea where or how this will be posted, but if any of you do end up reading it then please note that I am still looking for some critical feedback to an essay that I think has substantial potential for advancing our agenda. I will post the abstract and URL below. Any and all comments gratefully received.

 

‘Truth?’ Abstract:

 

This essay is a direct attack on the rational legitimacy of our concept ‘truth’. It suggests that we have observably been using this concept as a reason independent – and thereby reason opposable – basis for knowledge justification. Its main line of attack is that if we have been using ‘truth’ for anything less than this (if we have not been meaning by “is true” something more than we have been meaning by ‘is observable” or “is demonstrable” or similar) then the concept’s overall contribution has been obfuscation. While if we have indeed been using it for this (the implication of ‘something more’) then we have been doing so in the face of our inability to offer any coherent understanding as to what that ‘something more’ might be. The attack is additionally pressed from many other observations and philosophical positions, but our ability to understand and demonstrate to each other the superiority of some knowledge proposals over others is strongly defended. On-demand-repeatable physical observation is offered as, and is shown throughout the essay to be, our most powerful and reliable determinant for knowledge. It is not offered as a basis for ‘proof’, or thereby, for ‘objective truth’. I merely suggest that it could be extended to underpin all of our other knowledge that it does not logically rule out through reference to our scientific knowledge, in essentially the same way that Sir Karl Popper showed that it could – and indeed must – support our scientific knowledge.  

 

If none if the above seems new or exciting then I would offer that the essay takes that turn when it moves from the theoretical to the practical level.  Immediate practical implications that arise from the essay’s case being found compelling are (A) that we should stop using ‘true’ and ‘truth’ in our own speech and writing, and (B) that from having in that sense put our own house in order we might begin to exploit as an Achilles’ heel the truth dependence of all of our ancient systems of emotionally seductive irrationality (most particularly, our theisms).

 

URL to full text:  http://poppersinversion.blogspot.com   

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Comment by Keith Sewell on May 2, 2011 at 4:18pm

 

Dogly,

 

We agree entirely. Now just need to get the other 6.5 billion on board. Any thoughts on that step?

 

Best regards,

 

Keith

Comment by Dogly on May 2, 2011 at 12:37pm
I say, Buddy, forget your "truth"; just give me the facts!
Comment by Keith Sewell on May 2, 2011 at 12:23pm

 

Michael,

 

It's not easy to grok, but I think worth the effort. As recommended in my long answer just posted for Alice, please try a couple of the very short essays first. They all converge on the central point of 'Truth?' but are almost certainly easier to approach. [Access via 'view my complete profile' at the blogsite]. Let me know how you get on.

 

Best regards,

 

Keith

Comment by Keith Sewell on May 2, 2011 at 12:13pm

 

Alice,

 

Sorry for the long delay.

 

Further to your first comment below, you may be wise not to try the full version. Even ‘page for page’ it is probably more challenging than CBP. But you might enjoy another of the short essays, called Spirituality sans Theism. It’s a single-pager, and pretty certainly the most accessible (normal?) thing that I’ve written. If you want to take a look then go back to CBP and hit ‘view my complete profile’. That will show all four essays. For now, I’ll see what I can do about answers to at least some of your questions:

 

Hi Keith

 

I’ve read your short piece twice through.

The first time I didn’t understand it at all. The second time I read it slower and it made more sense to me. I can’t imagine wanting to read 27 pages of something like that...

But I am interested if you’ve got time to discuss the basic aspects of this with you to gain further clarification for myself on your meaning.

It seems that what you are saying is that we should approach theists from a respectful position and ask them to engage with us in a process of logically going through their propositions – based in a mutually respectful relationship – based in social etiquettes and ethical practices. Which presumable to feel will be persuasive enough for them to change their minds permanently?

 

K: I’m saying that we should be respectful of the theists, but at the same time should stop pussy footing around with them. I think that real respect for an intellectual opponent involves crediting him or her with the intelligence and education to understand the best arguments that we can bring against their position. I don’t think that we have been doing this with the theists, especially during the 70 odd years since Karl Popper’s publication of The Logic of Scientific Discovery. Please forgive me, but I can best explain this by pasting in 3 single paragraph quotes pulled from different parts of ‘Truth?’:

 

-          From about ¼ through the essay:

Popper thus effectively rescued science from Hume’s epistemological meltdown; but he did not rescue the rest of human knowledge. I believe that the most exciting implication of this has yet to be generally understood. To be clear on what happened: That which we can see to be our most powerful and reliable form of knowledge - (in that we can see it to deliver, in the provision of methods and predictions that enable us to influence reality in our desired directions) and in that we can see it to grow (in its range of applicability, explanatory power, and internal consistency) - was restored to a sound logical footing through formal renunciation of its linkage to 'proof', or therefore, in any objective sense, to ‘truth’. But then, and from this realization; what about all of the rest? If we have been able to see for the past seventy years that even our best is not qualitatively superior (i.e., that none of its proposals can reasonably be embraced as the actual state of reality) then from what position have we been continuing to hold so many proposals that we can see to be in clear logical opposition to it? If we have not been maintaining – as an emotionally supported collective illusion - our possession of 'truth' as precisely the kind of independent knowledge basis suggested by my preceding points, then from where have we been maintaining as knowledge proposals about creation in six days, virgin birth, walking on water (and turning it into wine), dictating angels in mountain caves, and all similar?

 

-          From about 2/3:

We are here, from yet another angle, at my underlying point. We can see ourselves to have nothing but our perceptive and cognitive faculties through which to prefer the defining proposals of any irrational knowledge system (for example, Catholic Christianity) over those of any other (say, Scientology, or Voodoo). But we cannot, through honest reference to these faculties, arrive at an irrational system. The intellectually honest question “What should we embrace as knowledge?” is a direct appeal to observation and observation grounded reason. We can understand these to be capable of yielding – through their apparent interaction with reality (ultimately, through their apparent constraint by reality) – a functional distinction between knowledge and non-knowledge. We cannot understand the dishonest question “What would we like to embrace as knowledge?” to be capable of any such distinction. Basically, we can find no coherent constraint on ‘what we would like’. [Que Annie Lennox; and 'Sweet Dreams are Made of This'.] Anything - and so, in the end, nothing - can be clearly selected.

 

-          From near the end:

The clearest overall response that I’ve had from my own community to earlier drafts of this essay might be summarized as: "This won't work, because the theists just won't accept it." But (A) I'm not talking to the theists, yet. [I want to know first if it works for us. And if it does then - from my understanding of our basic tenets, I think that we should embrace it purely on its own rational merits, whatever response we may expect from the theists]. And (B) if 'this' is right in the sense that I claim it to be (simply observably right) then what's really being said is "This won't work because the theists are just too stupid, or too intellectually dishonest, to be able to see it." I wouldn't argue with such an assessment in reference to people of the intellectual caliber of televangelists. But I'm considerably more hopeful about their Dembskys Plantingas and Tiplers. These guys are smart, and claim to have a foot in both camps. One way to view my action item proposals here is as a suggestion that we go ahead and find out, once and for all, how serious they are about the foot that they claim in reason's camp.

---- 

Have you ever engaged in this process?

 

K: Yes. In on-line debates in the Brights, JREF and Richard Dawkins forums.

 

How you ever been successful in changing someone’s mind?

 

K: I’ve never reached Step 3. Most theists balk, and go for the most graceful exit that they can achieve, during Step 1. But I hope and believe that this plants a seed in their minds which may blossom later. It’s also worth considering that this ‘cut and run’ option would be kind of difficult to take for an intellectually high-level theist in a public debate. Our side would get a lot more mileage out of it then the theist would be happy about.

Who was it?

How much time did it take?

How many viably could you change permanently with this method?

 

K: As implied above, I’m not after the rank-and-file theists. I want to talk to our side’s intellectual leaders, and then, collectively, to their side’s. My agenda isn’t to change minds one by one. It’s to clearly and finally invalidate the claim, inherent in all of our irrational knowledge systems, to our having a reason-independent and thereby legitimately competitive basis from which to embrace as knowledge proposals that we can actually see not to make sense. I want to take out our intellectual opposition’s main ammo dump. The ‘changing minds one by one’ will then need to be done, at all levels, and I want to be right there in the thick of it. But I think that until/unless we can achieve the fundamental game board reset being argued for in ‘Truth?’ we will remain only marginally effective.

 

Does it require any follow up work to maintain?

Is it vulnerable to failing due to further indoctrination into religious beliefs from others?

 

K: Human minds will always be vulnerable to effectively presented emotional appeals. The larger their interconnected edifice of rational knowledge, and – in a positive feedback relationship to that – the more advanced their own development of strong mature reason, the less vulnerable they are. This doesn’t mean less subjective or less positively ‘human’. As many on our side have so well pointed out, our appreciation of the rainbow is in no sense diminished by our ability to scientifically unweave it. 

 

Can you give a transcript that fully expresses a real situation in which this might happen?

 

What sort of context might this happen in? In a pub, library, conference building?

 

K: First, in high level public debates.

How would you advertise such a system? To theists and non theists?

 

K: Yes, to both.

 

What do you estimate the rate of change to be over time?

 

K: There are few precedents from which this could be answered, but maybe the best would be to look at what happened in Europe during the middle years of the 17th century. Rene Descartes’ four essays were published – under the title of the main one ‘Discourse on the Method….’ – in 1637. They were little pebbles that triggered an intellectual avalanche. During the remainder of the century the whole medieval world view was swept away in most advanced and politically effective minds, and all of the basic tenets of what we now call modernity were established. In our present world, with mass media and the internet, I think that this same kind of philosophical and social upheaval could happen much faster. Perhaps in just a few decades.

 

How do you compare all the answers here with similar answers to other methods of ‘conversion’?

 

It seems here that we are changing atheism to a world view of conversion. Is it important that we convert others to our views?

 

K: Only if we want to change the world. If we are ‘happy’ with it as it is (if we think that overall and on balance the kind of stuff that we can see our species to have been doing is really the best that we can manage) then ‘no’, we shouldn’t try to convert others.

Is it ethical that we convert others to our views?

 

K: I think that it is unethical to leave others who we can clearly see to be in error – and to be as a direct result of this error harming both themselves and us – in error. But it is never ethical to apply any form of physical coercion. Intellectual disagreements need to be resolved at the intellectual level. I hate to toss in yet another essay, but there is one of my very short ones that specifically addresses this issue: ‘The Cuddly Kitten’ (again, go to the poppersinversion blogsite and then to ‘view my complete profile’).

 

What are the moral and ethical implications and responsibilities to converting others to our views?

 

K: See comment above.

 

What do world views supernatural or otherwise do for their believers? Perhaps they offer needs met that are otherwise left unmet in a potentially atheist world view.

 

K: I don’t think so, but this is clearly one of the complex issues that we need to debate with the theists. From my position all of our theisms are a little bit like wheelchairs, which we have been using in their folded up form as clubs to permanently break our children’s intellectual legs, and then unfolded for the kids to get into and get around in for the rest of their lives. The strange central proposal of ‘Truth?’ is to directly start winding down our species’ use of these wheelchairs.

 

Does atheism run in families?

 

K: Yes, to a degree.

 

What environmental circumstances lead to atheism or theism?

 

K: Very crudely: Worse environmental circumstances (poverty, lack of education, reduced life expectancy, and so on) to theism. Better circumstances, to atheism.

 

Perhaps there are way more sociological reasons for faith than at first glance.

 

K: Perhaps. But if so then the theists should be able to inform us about them.

 

Is this 3 step method too simplistic to deal with the complexities of why people have faith?

My basic take on it is that people have basic needs. They get their basic needs met through many avenues. Sometimes – in fact often it is more effective to get needs met if we submit to having supernatural beliefs or faith. This means that it is more attractive to people in order to meet their basic needs – to have a religious faith. See my Group Compassionate Connection for a rough list of basic needs – including categories such as physical needs, social needs, personal needs, creative needs etc.

 

So if belief is needs based – how can we better change others to seeing the world more as it is – as opposed to through the lens that is obscuring the reality in order to meet basic needs?

We need then to provide the same services as the church does, in our atheism.

 

K: I can’t really add anything beyond my above comments to address these four paragraphs. I would re-reference in particular the wheelchair analogy and Spirituality sans Theism.

Right now, I have a family with kids and the local atheists meet at the local pub at nights late and drink beer. How is this conducive to supporting my needs to mix social with others of my world view? How is this meeting my need to have my children grow up with adults who can share a real view of the world with them? It’s not. It’s exclusive and un supportive.

 

K: Agreed that this needs to change. Let’s do it.

 

IMO if atheists want to get with it – they need to create a culture that is inclusive of ALL parts of society – until then it will be confided to young single people or old professors who are lucky enough to have friends and family sharing their views.

We need to start buying buildings and creating community gardens and activities that include old people young people children, single people married people gay people disabled people and so on...

Humans like tribes – they like to feel secure – they want cradle to grave security in all their basic needs – that’s normal and natural – religion provides aspects of that for many many people...

 

K: It does. But could those needs be met by non-irrational (and therefore non reason-destructive) belief systems?

------------

Comment by Michael Black on May 1, 2011 at 8:10pm
I just can't grock it.
Comment by Alice on April 30, 2011 at 1:57am
Keith - sure! : )
Comment by Keith Sewell on April 29, 2011 at 12:08am

Alice,

 

Sorry about the delay. Things have been rather busy here. Just wanted to let you know that I will get a reply off soon.

 

Best regards,

 

Keith Sewell

Comment by Alice on April 26, 2011 at 7:51pm
Hi Keith

I’ve read your short piece twice through.

The first time I didn’t understand it at all. The second time I read it slower and it made more sense to me. I can’t imagine wanting to read 27 pages of something like that…

But I am interested if you’ve got time to discuss the basic aspects of this with you to gain further clarification for myself on your meaning.

It seems that what you are saying is that we should approach theists from a respectful position and ask them to engage with us in a process of logically going through their propositions – based in a mutually respectful relationship – based in social etiquettes and ethical practices. Which presumable to feel will be persuasive enough for them to change their minds permanently?

Have you ever engaged in this process?
How you ever been successful in changing someone’s mind?
Who was it?
How much time did it take?
How many viably could you change permanently with this method?
Does it require any follow up work to maintain?
Is it vulnerable to failing due to further indoctrination into religious beliefs from others?

Can you give a transcript that fully expresses a real situation in which this might happen?

What sort of context might this happen in? In a pub, library, conference building?

How would you advertise such a system? To theists and non theists?

What do you estimate the rate of change to be over time?

How do you compare all the answers here with similar answers to other methods of ‘conversion’?

It seems here that we are changing atheism to a world view of conversion. Is it important that we convert others to our views?

Is it ethical that we convert others to our views?

What are the moral and ethical implications and responsibilities to converting others to our views?

What do world views supernatural or otherwise do for their believers? Perhaps they offer needs met that are otherwise left unmet in a potentially atheist world view.

Does atheism run in families?

What environmental circumstances lead to atheism or theism?

Perhaps there are way more sociological reasons for faith than at first glance.

Is this 3 step method too simplistic to deal with the complexities of why people have faith?

My basic take on it is that people have basic needs. They get their basic needs met through many avenues. Sometimes – in fact often it is more effective to get needs met if we submit to having supernatural beliefs or faith. This means that it is more attractive to people in order to meet their basic needs – to have a religious faith. See my Group Compassionate Connection for a rough list of basic needs – including categories such as physical needs, social needs, personal needs, creative needs etc.

So if belief is needs based – how can we better change others to seeing the world more as it is – as opposed to through the lens that is obscuring the reality in order to meet basic needs?

We need then to provide the same services as the church does, in our atheism.

Right now, I have a family with kids and the local atheists meet at the local pub at nights late and drink beer. How is this conducive to supporting my needs to mix social with others of my world view? How is this meeting my need to have my children grow up with adults who can share a real view of the world with them? It’s not. It’s exclusive and un supportive.

IMO if atheists want to get with it – they need to create a culture that is inclusive of ALL parts of society – until then it will be confided to young single people or old professors who are lucky enough to have friends and family sharing their views.

We need to start buying buildings and creating community gardens and activities that include old people young people children, single people married people gay people disabled people and so on…

Humans like tribes – they like to feel secure – they want cradle to grave security in all their basic needs – that’s normal and natural – religion provides aspects of that for many many people…
Comment by Alice on April 26, 2011 at 7:15pm
Thanks Keith - I'll have a look at the website - I don't have huge swaths of time to read stuff - but I'll make an effort to have a look at it... i must admit that i haven't read your link above - but thought i would comment anyway - so as to perhaps find out more from any discussion we might have... : )
Comment by Keith Sewell on April 26, 2011 at 12:33pm

 

Dear Alice,
 
Thanks for your comments, but to offer some clarification, I didn't write 'Truth?' for religious folks. I wrote it for people who have already taken reason as their primary determinant for knowledge, and who have already figured out that religion is on balance a bad thing and decided to actively oppose it. I agree with Sam Harris about many things, but do think that he and the rest of our present intellectual leaders are trying to cut trees with axes when we've had a perfectly good chainsaw available for about the past 70 years. For a quick glimpse of the chainsaw, without slogging through Truth?'s 27 pages, here is the link to a much shorter companion essay:
 
http://www.poppersinversionapp.blogspot.com
 
All the best,
 
Keith Sewell

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