God is not a god.

John Dickson from CPX recently posted a diagram illustrating, as he put it, why it’s dumb to say that religions are ‘atheists’ about each other, and that Atheists “just deny one god more” (as has been said repeatedly by Hitchens, Dawkins, Krauss, FitzSimons, et al., and many online warriors since).

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I was involved in the ensuing conversation, and it seems the point needs more elaboration for some.

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Brendan O’Neill on “smug atheism”

An interesting recent post in The Telegraph by columnist Brendan O’Neill, entitled: “How atheists became the most colossally smug and annoying people on the planet“.

A brief excerpt:

Today’s atheism-as-identity is really about absolving oneself of the tough task of explaining what one is for, what one loves, what one has faith in, in favour of the far easier and fun pastime of saying what one is against and what one hates. An identity based on a nothing will inevitably be a quite hostile identity, sometimes viciously so, particularly towards opposite identities that are based on a something – in this case on a belief in God. There is a very thin line between being a None and a nihilist; after all, if your whole identity is based on not believing in something, then why give a damn about anything?

The Maverick Philosopher on human wretchedness

Over at the Maverick Philosopher‘s blog, there’s a great new post inspired by Blaise Pascal. It’s short, so I’ve reproduced it in its entireity, go here for the original.

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Blaise Pascal (1623-1662):

“Man’s greatness is so obvious that it can even be deduced from his wretchedness, for what is nature in animals is wretchedness in man, thus recognizing that, if his nature is today like that of the animals, he must have fallen from some better state which was once his own.” (Pensées, Penguin, p. 59, #117, tr. Krailsheimer)

“What is nature in animals is wretchedness in man.”  That is a profound insight brilliantly expressed, although I don’t think anyone lacking a religious sensibility could receive it as such.  The very notion of wretchedness is religious.  If it resonates within you, you have a religious nature.  If, and only if.

Man’s wretchedness is ‘structural’: man qua man is wretched. Wretched are not merely the sick, the unloved, and the destitute; all of us are wretched, even those of us who count as healthy and well off. Some of us are aware of this, our condition, the rest hide it from themselves by losing themselves in Pascalian divertissement, diversion. We are as if fallen from a higher state, our true and rightful state, into a lower one, and the sense of wretchedness is an indicator of our having fallen. Pascal writes that we “must have fallen from some better state.”  That is not obvious.  But the fact remains that we are in a dire state from which we need salvation, a salvation we are incapable of achieving by our own efforts, whether individual or collective.

How do we know that?  From thousands of years of collective experience.

A legal defense of marriage

Here’s an example of a legal right, and a justification for its existence:

Society needs someone appointed to make decisions on everyone’s behalf, because we can’t get anything done if we need to consult the whole population about every decision. Since this person is making decisions for everyone, everyone should have a say in choosing who this person is. Therefore, everyone should have a right to vote.

We start with a societal need, and the rights endowed upon citizens are based on that need.

Here’s another societal need:

Society needs good future citizens. Thus, society needs children, and needs to promote the best upbringing for those children. Children require a mother and father. The best care for children is usually given by their parents, and this care will take many years and require huge investment. Thus the people involved need to feel secure as they invest time, effort and money into creating a family in which children can grow up. Thus, we create a legal framework where any man and woman (the most basic and universal requirement for parents) may enter into a legal contract that encourages them to invest in creating a potential home for children. Thus, any pair of one man and one woman may choose to get married.

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Some thoughts on the redefinition of marriage

Several countries are currently discussing (or are already in the process of) redefining marriage. With that in mind, there’s a new paper by Ryan T. Anderson entitled: Marriage: What It Is, Why It Matters, and the Consequences of Redefining It. Although there are obvious religious considerations to this issue, Anderson isn’t actually discussing those issues in any detail in this paper.

The abstract expands:

Marriage is based on the truth that men and women are complementary, the biological fact that reproduction depends on a man and a woman, and the reality that children need a mother and a father. Redefining marriage does not simply expand the existing understanding of marriage; it rejects these truths. Marriage is society’s least restrictive means of ensuring the well-being of children. By encouraging the norms of marriage—monogamy, sexual exclusivity, and permanence—the state strengthens civil society and reduces its own role. The future of this country depends on the future of marriage. The future of marriage depends on citizens understanding what it is and why it matters and demanding that government policies support, not undermine, true marriage.

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Thomas Nagel: a heretic amongst heretics?

There’s a fantastic article at The Weekly Standard about Thomas Nagel. Nagel may not be as much of a household name as Dawkins, but he is probably America’s most prominent philosopher and a serious intellectual heavyweight. But his latest book, Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False, was roundly attacked by the self-proclaimed “brights” of atheism. In short, Nagel thinks that the worldview of philosophical materialism is wrong, despite being a very useful presupposition of science. For voicing these thoughts, Nagel has been branded a heretic by his fellow atheists.

The most interesting aspect of this drama is that Nagel is actually just voicing what every one of those critics believes. Or at least, he’s voicing the line of thought that is revealed by their actions. Because nobody actually lives as if materialism were true (unless they are certifiably insane). As the article puts it:

As a philosophy of everything [materialism] is an undeniable drag. As a way of life it would be even worse. Fortunately, materialism is never translated into life as it’s lived. As colleagues and friends, husbands and mothers, wives and fathers, sons and daughters, materialists never put their money where their mouth is. Nobody thinks his daughter is just molecules in motion and nothing but; nobody thinks the Holocaust was evil, but only in a relative, provisional sense. A materialist who lived his life according to his professed convictions—understanding himself to have no moral agency at all, seeing his friends and enemies and family as genetically determined robots—wouldn’t just be a materialist: He’d be a psychopath.

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Questions to Nature

Scientific research can be thought of as a process of asking questions of Nature. Perhaps it’s worth exploring that concept in a little more detail.

It is true that many scientific advances have started with a question. And the process of research can be considered a way of asking Nature questions. But the kind of questions that we can ask Nature are very specific.

First, the obvious: Nature doesn’t have a voice. Interviews are out. So we need to look for evidence instead.

The language that I’m using resembles a criminal investigation, and that’s deliberate. Scientific research is in fact very much like forensic work. We look for evidence, we analyse things that we observe, we try to find patterns and unravel processes. Forensics is all about mechanisms: how the crime was perpetrated.  However, there’s usually an accompanying part of a criminal investigation, and that is the literal question-and-answer stuff. By interviewing a suspect, the investigator can try to unravel the question of motive. Forensics, for all its strengths, is powerless to address “why” questions. This, again, is like science.

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