Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Tao Te Ching


Those who read my book Sense and Goodness without God (or even some of my online work, e.g. From Taoist to Infidel, which I updated for my book) will know I was a devout Taoist for many years. It is the religion I am still most fond of, and would soonest return to if I discovered enough evidence refuting naturalism. Unless, that is, such evidence in turn confirmed or more strongly supported some religion other than Taoism. But Taoism has such an enormous explanatory power over against just about every other religion I know, I find it quite unlikely any other is true (if naturalism is false). I discuss this fact in an appendix on Supernaturalism added to my critique of Michael Rea's World without Design.

Because of my peculiar background in this regard, I often still get asked what the best translations of the Tao Te Ching are. Though one should not overlook the Taoist writings of Chuang Tzu, the Tao Te Ching is the most important Taoist scripture, of which there are dozens of translations of varying merits. I will only list here what I consider the "most useful" of those I was familiar with, for understanding both the original and potential message of Taoism as a worldview.

The first thing to say is that there is nothing definitive. No translation is sufficient to understand the text, as the Chinese is subtle and frequently brilliant, carrying a different range of connotations than English, and the Tao Te Ching plays repeatedly on the double and extended meanings of words, which can only be appreciated in the Chinese, unless you have read a wide array of English translations (and perhaps a commentary or two), which will start to convey to you the range of each word's meaning in its given context. Then you can build on what you understand on your own.

Of course, in Taoist tradition (and in my Taoist faith) it is really the Tao that teaches you, by directly merging and communicating with it (in a sense like the Western idea of the Holy Spirit). The text only points you toward the Tao, and thus you did not have to understand the text in every detail, only just enough to get a good foothold, to step off from in the right direction, and thus "find" the true Tao and commune with it (through meditation, reflection, and the atunement of your character and demeanor). Then would follow insight and understanding beyond what even the text can teach you. In reality, of course, all this is just an intuitive game of self-reflection, imagination, and contemplation, which I admit was very useful to me, but ultimately not really anything to do with the Tao of the Universe.

The single best place to start is the Robert Henricks edition, which relies on the oldest and most reliable scrolls (in fact representing something of a critical edition of extant manuscripts, which do not always agree). Henricks includes the Chinese along with the English, and adds a brief commentary to every verse or line, which is often useful. I have the original 1989 edition (now out of print), but the 1993 Modern Library edition seems to be essentially identical. Note that Henricks calls it the Te Tao Ching, believing that to be the original title (as it was always copied on two scrolls, one the Te and one the Tao, which Henricks argues became reversed in order over time), but that is not certain, and it doesn't really matter.

I would then compare this with the Ellen Chen, Stephen Mitchell, and Jane English translations to get an idea of the total range of meaning for any given line or word. The truth is somewhere in the middle of all these. The simplest and least contentious translation is the Jane English edition, though if you ever compare it with Henricks you will see it still has many defects. Similarly when comparing these with the other two. The Chen edition is perhaps overly literal, while the Mitchell edition overly interpretive. Still, the Chen edition, like Henricks, is more scholarly in its construction and utility. The Mitchel edition, in contrast, is often more what Mitchell wants the book to have said than what it actually does, though by stretching the possible meaning of the text his effort illuminates the potential range and limits of the original words in context. Combining a reading of all four translations will, I think, land you in the ballpark of what the Tao Te Ching originally, or at least potentially, meant to say.

These four represent the translations I settled on by around 1990 as the most useful, and thus the ones I know best. I produced my own "translation" by hand copying my preferred verses and lines from all four of these, into a hardbound diary, to take with me as my one devotional item in boot camp. There are many other translations (including several produced since I deconverted). My exclusion of others here does not necessarily mean they are worse (some may even be better), although I did look at every translation I could get my hands on by 1990 or so and thus any I do not include above probably did not rate well enough to be worth your interest (though that was so long ago I could not tell you now why).

72 comments:

Josh said...

I'm going to look through some of your other writings on this, and I'm wondering if you haven't talked about it somewhere else, if you would talk some more about what you meant by the explanatory power of taoism.

As always, I find your writing fascinating!

Pikemann Urge said...

I've just read 'From Taoist to Infidel (2001)' and found it compelling.

You're pretty much spot-on with regards to the quality of the Bible in moral terms: it's mean, angry, spiteful trash. It isn't much better in historical or natural terms either (though I used to think it was the bee's knees). However, there are some beautiful passages in it which is why I - and you no doubt - go back to certain parts of it now and then.

Why doesn't it surprise me that people are trying to pass blasphemy laws? I think in 1897 in the US state of Indiana there was an attempt to legislate the value of Pi (but I don't know if it was to reconcile with the passage in 1 Kings or not).

Josh said...

I have to agree. I've been going back and reading quite a few of Richard's online papers, and I can't iterate enough just how much I respect and love these writings.

I started with 'From Taoist to Infidel,' and though I've read it before, it's still quite compelling. I forwarded it to a few friends, and hope they find it just as interesting (though, they are Christian).

I've only dabbled in studying eastern philosophy, and now I'm convinced I should study it further. The east gets ignored far too often in favor of western philosophy. Not that one is necessarily better.

They offer different things, but each are rich in history and I think can offer insights today, even if their conclusions aren't necessarily supported.

David Fitzgerald said...

One of these days I'd love to read the Carrier "Translation" of the Tao Te Ching...
-DF

ari said...

Prof. Walter Kaufman in his Critique of Religion and Philosophy points out that Buddhism and Taoism are not especially concerned with truth or pursuit thereof. The value of getting at the truth, rational intellectual truth, is more manifest in Christian theology. As far as truth is concerned, meditation is not the same thing as taking an integral. Or is it?

Agnostics_R_Us said...

RC,

I immediately read a copy of the Tao Te Ching when I saw you recommended it in your "From Taoist to Infidel" essay and I must say ever since then I've wondered about the translation you kept for yourself... lol. Honestly I'm more interested in the book you haven't written yet on the Jesus myth because Earl Doherty's writing is a dizzy mess of overstatement, but I must second the motion for your personal translation of this classic Taoist work.

ARU

möbius said...

It is interesting that among rationalists/naturalists some of the eastern religious traditions like Taoism, Confuciansim or Zen Buddhism are held in relatively high esteem (Sam Harris anyone?)

Reminds me of something I heard the British comedian Pat Condell say in one of his newest online videos (http://richarddawkins.net/article,1807,Whats-Good-About-Religion,Pat-Condell):

"...buddhism - a religion with no gods, like a prison with no walls..."

I know, I know, there are many different "flavors" of Buddhism, but in general this seems to be an apt description.

Indeed, I don't see why we, who we subscribe to reason and free inquiry as the most reliable methods of navigating this world shouldn't look into what some of these ancient traditions - Stoicism, Epicureanism, Taoism, Zen, etc... - might be able to tell us about living a happy, peaceful and fulfilled life.

Just to anticipate the claims of Judeo-Christian or Muslim apologists: yes, the same is, of course, true for your "traditions", but unfortunately the Abrahamic faiths put a much stronger emphasis on following a huge number of nonsensical, self-contradictory and ultimately harmful rules - much more so than the other traditions I mentioned before.

Therefore, insofar as these Eastern traditions or some of the pre-Christian occidental philosophies have something to offer, we should try to keep an open mind and try find what is usable, even beneficial, while avoiding the parts that smack of unfounded dogmatism.

ari said...

From http://www.bartleby.com/66/43/33743.html
"Without stirring abroad, One can know the whole world; Without looking out of the window One can see the way of heaven. The further one goes The less one knows."
Lao-Tzu (6th century B.C.), Chinese philosopher. Tao-te-ching, bk. 2, ch. 47, trans. by T.C. Lau (1963).

What do you think this means? It appears blatantly false. When would it be practical to think in this way or to adopt this pholosophy? I mean, had the philosopher not made the effort to seek out a teacher, or to travel somewhere to study texts he would never achieve anything. There are plenty of losers out there who sit all day doing nothing, and they don't grow any wiser, smarter, deeper, or better. Why so much emphasis on not doing? Why so little on what to do?

ari said...

The way I understand this is that the author is repudiating conscious knowledge and experience and advocating inner knowledge and experience. Still if you are well traveled the amount of unconscious knowledge available to you is greater than what's available to an untraveled ascetic. Whoever wrote this aphorism must have been just lazy by nature, and wanted to pass his weakness for a strength. Don't you just hate when people do that? But I like it when I do it myself, though. So that's hypocritical, which means it's good because one can only arrive at truth and honesty by the way of lies and hypocrisy. In short, this is a lie.

ari said...

All the truths are lies, and all the lies are truths. All the men are women, and all the women are men. Hmmm ... wonder where this leads.

ari said...

I guess I discovered my own answer:
http://www.bartleby.com/66/48/33748.html

The national distrust of the contemplative temperament arises less from an innate Philistinism than from a suspicion of anything that cannot be counted, stuffed, framed or mounted over the fireplace in the den.

ATTRIBUTION: Lewis H. Lapham (b. 1935), U.S. essayist, editor. Money and Class in America, ch. 8 (1988).

chris said...

Hey Richard, what do you think of Zen Buddhism? I am an atheist, but I seem to have a soft spot for Buddhist philosophy, and have dabbled in Zen and the writings of Alan Watts. If you have not heard of Watts (which I doubt) you should check him out.

Richard Carrier said...

Ari: Prof. Walter Kaufman in his Critique of Religion and Philosophy points out that Buddhism and Taoism are not especially concerned with truth or pursuit thereof. The value of getting at the truth, rational intellectual truth, is more manifest in Christian theology. As far as truth is concerned, meditation is not the same thing as taking an integral. Or is it?

Depends on what you mean by "truth." As far as truth being a formal induction or deduction following empirically well-established propositions and well-tested logics, that was a pagan invention of the Greeks, which the Christians simply inherited (and largely screwed up for a while before they got back to what the Greeks had been doing with it--after all, medieval Christian theology was just as ridiculous as anything in Taoism or Buddhism). But that does not mean other cultures were "not concerned with the truth or its pursuit," it just means other cultures did not discover good technologies for doing that. By analogy, as compared with the modern West, other cultures did not discover the best technologies for increasing agricultural yield, yet they were certainly "concerned with increasing agricultural yield" and would have adopted anything they could adapt to that end, had they come across it, and been able to assimilate and deploy it.

Regarding the example you give of Taoist verses that seem "blatantly false," I largely agree with you (and that's not the only one I could list), which is one of the many reasons I fell away from Taoism (in this case by reading Confucian critiques of Taoism and ancient Western philosophical attacks on similar thinking).

However, that seemingly anti-empirical verse 47 is not "blatantly" false from within the Taoist perspective, since the fundamental tenet of Taoism is that everything is governed by the Tao (the Way of Heaven that is the only subject of knowledge identified in verse 47--that verse is not about learning how cars run or what horses eat or where Beijing is). In Taoism, everything that adheres to the Tao will conform to a certain repeating pattern (of harmony and order), and everything that does not will conform to another repeating pattern (of chaos and decay), so that if your mind is at "one with the Tao" and fully understands it, then you know all you really need to know: you can predict the course of all systems, even those you've not yet seen.

But the only way to commune with and understand the Tao is through introspective meditation. You can't discover it empirically. To the contrary, if you focus on the particular questions of the world (like studying the digestive system of horses), then you are taking yourself away from an understanding of the big picture. According to verse 47, you will understand less about yourself and the world the more you obsess over studying little pieces of it instead of sitting back and examining the whole, as a whole (by analogy, think of all the really smart people you may have met who know tons of things but actually understand very little).

This is almost like the Western ideal of a Theory of Everything (TOE), which, once we know it, will allow us to deduce everything else about the universe (which is not strictly true, but in a vaguely general sense is). Just add to this the ability to discover and comprehend the correct TOE only (and entirely) by communing with the Holy Spirit, and you get verse 47. The only problem is that there is no Tao, so you can't commune with it, nor will systems conform to the expectations laid out by Taoist metaphysics (except in vague ways that are seductively true but usually less obviously false). In other words, if the Taoist religion were true then verse 47 would not in fact be false, but would be blatantly true. But since Taoism is false, so is that verse.

Still, there is a sense in which this verse is true, even now: I learned a great deal (and I mean a great deal) through introspective meditation, exactly as this verse recommends. I learned about myself, of course, but also about the nature of people and life and the universe. It's just that I now know where that knowledge was really coming from: not communion with the Tao, but by rapid holistic processing of empirical data previously accumulated in my memory from broad real-world experience, which had not been adequately collated and analyzed. Even then I did not discover any new laws of physics, but I did discover more directly relevant knowledge about the actual significance of statements we take for granted but rarely think all the way through (like "bullets can kill you" or "breathing is fun"), and the answers to questions that are arguably more important than any in physics (like "who am I?").

In the absence of a Western physics it would be easy to think this is all that really mattered. It's only in the presence of modern science and technology that Taoism begins to look rather naive. Nevertheless, all the knowledge I did gain following verse 47 was real and valuable, and thus I still adhere to what remains true of that verse: the value of meditation and self-contemplation. I simply add to it the Western achievement of empiricism. In the end, I learn much more from sitting and thinking than from going out and looking, but only after I've done a lot of going out and looking, and then I still test whatever I think I have learned through contemplation by even more going out and looking.

Hence I recommend following verse 47 to just this extent: do spend a lot of time (a lot of time) sitting and thinking about what you have experienced and learned, in an effort to understand it, since merely knowing is not wisdom. But I also recommend adapting the Aristotelian goal of the ideal middle ground by also adopting the converse wisdom of the West, that knowledge gained from the armchair is often wrong and thus needs to be tested against the real world before being believed. In fact, combine both approaches and you will have the best of all epistemologies.

I also recommend meditation, in the Taoist contemplative sense, as a tool to be used in that capacity. But that's a much more difficult skill even to explain, much less develop.

Chris: As far as Buddhism goes, I can say much the same thing: a lot that is useful can be learned from it, but ultimately its worldview is false, which thus often leads to incorrect conclusions. I recommend testing (and then modifying) anything Buddhism says, using an empirical, rational, quasi-scientific method, just like any other source of hypotheses. In other words, treat it like Epicureanism: a lot it said was wrong, but a lot it guessed at turned out to be correct, once you suitably supplement and qualify it with more accurate facts and understanding.

P.S. To everyone: No, I won't be producing my own translation of the Tao Te Ching, because that would be a waste of time without an explanatory commentary, which would be an even greater waste of time, because I no longer believe in what the book says (witness the example above). I would sooner write an encyclopedia of the Firefly universe. That would at least be fun.

Yewtree said...

I like Taoism.

I don't think the Tao is necessarily supernatural though; more a sort of dynamic of the way the world works. Correct me if I'm wrong...

Richard Carrier said...

Depends on how you define "supernatural." By my definition of supernatural, the Tao is supernatural, since it's a kind of vegetable mind that can only have a supernatural foundation or origin, and that has influences on our minds and the world that ultimately can only be explained supernaturally. If you remove everything supernatural from the Tao, it simply becomes something like "the Big Bang plus the laws of physics," which can no longer have the value-directed effects on our lives that Taoism claims it does.

Yewtree said...

OK, to me, supernatural means beyond nature.

I regard mind as an emergent property of matter, and the same would apply to the Force wielded by Yoda and other Jedi (which is analogous to the energies hypothesised by modern Pagans - and many of us wish someone would test them scientifically, actually).

I think Michael York's term preternatural is useful here. (See A Pagan defence of theism - don't be put off by the title, we don't mean theism the way the other lot mean it.)

I don't mind the Tao having value-directed effects, because if it doesn't have a personality (afaik), it can't be arbitrary in what values it embraces (the way deities are), because the values must be emergent from it and the properties of nature, rather than imposed by it. Actually I do see it as something like "the Big Bang plus the laws of physics" though I wish people wouldn't refer to them as laws, because laws are imposed from above (a very Christian concept), rather than emergent from within the context of the universe.

Richard Carrier said...

Yewtree: The definition "supernatural means beyond nature" is meaningless in itself, because you first have to define "nature" before you can determine what exists "beyond" it, and once you thus define "nature," then the "supernatural" is automatically whatever is not that. Hence my definition is more useful, and (even following York) more correctly tracks the use of the word.

As to your proposal, if everything that exists (mind, "physical laws," etc.) is fully emergent from nature (i.e. entailed by a natural configuration of natural facts) then nothing supernatural exists (because then by definition naturalism would be true, which I do think is correct).

Otherwise, what York says is completely unintelligible. I still have no idea what exactly he means when he says this or that god "exists," or how that can be known at all if it's entirely noncausal, or what he means by "magical" or "miraculous" or "numinous" etc. In other words, what is the difference between his worldview, and just any garden variety naturalism?

Yewtree said...

I assume Michael York is using magic, miracle etc the same way I would (though I may be wrong).

I would define magic as "a property of nature we don't understand yet" (therefore possible) and miracle as "divine intervention by a transcendent deity" (therefore not possible).

I agree that nothing supernatural exists. But our definitions of nature might be different (mine is open to the possibility of magic as defined above, for instance).

Re god(desse)s: as far as I am concerned they are possibly anthropomorphic interfaces of cosmic processes, or to put it another way, an archetype that we project onto said processes in order to relate to them.

There isn't a lot of difference between the Pagan world-view and garden-variety naturalism. Paganism is more about doing rituals for the joy of the experience than actually worrying about whether what you're interacting with is "out there" or "in here" or both. I think I do agree with naturalism, but need to read more about it as a philosophical system. What do you think of Naturalism.org? Is that a good place to start?

The numinous is a deliberately vague term for what is experienced by people doing ritual (it's a polite way for people who study religion sociologically to avoid discussing whether gods exist or not). People who actually practise religion who use the term seem to use it to mean "that which gives me goose-bumps".

Yewtree said...

As to the existence of gods, it would be more accurate to talk about the nature of gods.

As a minimum, gods exist as an idea. Anyone can grasp the idea of, say, Aphrodite. If you have a concept of something, e.g. atheism, it exists as a concept.

But is Aphrodite a meme? an archetype in the collective unconscious? a cosmic process with a personality? an actual discarnate mind floating about? a physical being in another plane who can somehow manifest in this plane? (The most I would be prepared to accept is "cosmic process with a personality".)

Richard Carrier said...

Yewtree said... I assume Michael York is using magic, miracle etc the same way I would (though I may be wrong).

At the very least, we can assume that when you endorse his statement, you do so on your definitions of those terms. Granting that, you can now define those terms and we can proceed, without having to assume anything about what York actually meant. But even with that in mind...

I would define magic as "a property of nature we don't understand yet" (therefore possible) and miracle as "divine intervention by a transcendent deity" (therefore not possible).

So magnetism was magic until we understood it? I don't see the use of that definition. If every property we don't understand is magic, and we can project that we will understand every property eventually (based on past performance of progress in exactly that respect), then what predictions are made by calling something "magic"? Do scientists who discover some new unexplained property in an experiment gain anything by calling it "magic"? Obviously not. They only make progress by adducing a model to explain it, then testing that model to see if it's correct. Your term "magic" has no utility here. The question remains: when faced with the unexplained, should scientists first consider naturalistic models or supernaturalistic models?

I agree that nothing supernatural exists. But our definitions of nature might be different (mine is open to the possibility of magic as defined above, for instance).

My definition isn't closed to that possibility (indeed, even now it's no mere possibility, but a demonstrable reality). It just doesn't identify nature as "that which we understand." Scientists need an intelligible model capable of producing new explanations of what isn't understood. Naturalism provides that under my definition. Your definition, by contrast, is of no use to scientists and can't aid our progress in understanding.

But more to the point, none of this helps make York's claim about gods any more intelligible. Is "gods" just a synonym for "natural properties we don't understand"? If so, the use of the word "gods" is perniciously confusing and should just be done away with.

Re god(desse)s: as far as I am concerned they are possibly anthropomorphic interfaces of cosmic processes, or to put it another way, an archetype that we project onto said processes in order to relate to them.

The first definition is unintelligible to me, so I'm not sure your second definition is as clear as it looks. But assuming it is, you are simply saying gods are models we make up in our heads that don't even pretend to correspond in a one-to-one property relation to anything in the real world, like when I anthropomorphize my car in the way I speak to it and treat it: I don't even pretend to actually believe it speaks English or has feelings, but pretending it does has its uses. If that's correct, then by that definition gods no more exist than cars have minds. That's not theism by any socially relevant definition. It's just naturalism garnished with fantasy. But you seem to agree, so I guess that's a moot point to make.

And this now makes York irrelevant. Since he cannot mean what you do. He rejects naturalism overtly, and he does not say paganism is just naturalism with pretend gods. He says the supernatural (which he defends) is "the non-causal otherness of nature" that "comprehends the magical, miraculous, numinous, mysterious yet non-empirical quality of the sublime," a statement that is still to me completely unintelligible.

What do you think of Naturalism.org? Is that a good place to start?

I suppose as good as any as far as online resources go, other than my own Naturalism as a Wolrldview page and my book Sense and Goodness without God (also sold there). But for a quicker and more direct introduction see the items in the far left column of my Naturalism as a Worldview page, which are all introductory explanations of naturalism.

The numinous is a deliberately vague term for what is experienced by people doing ritual (it's a polite way for people who study religion sociologically to avoid discussing whether gods exist or not). People who actually practise religion who use the term seem to use it to mean "that which gives me goose-bumps".

Since there are many things that give naturalists goose-bumps, we're again not talking about anything distinctively "supernatural" here. It's all just natural and naturalism, and if that's the case, why doesn't York just say so?

But is Aphrodite a meme? an archetype in the collective unconscious? a cosmic process with a personality? an actual discarnate mind floating about? a physical being in another plane who can somehow manifest in this plane?

Only the first would be compatible with naturalism (unless the second is just an archaic way of saying "meme" and unless the last is just a fancy way of saying "astronaut"--I actually discuss the latter distinction, using the analogy of natural vs. supernatural demons, in my blog post about defining the supernatural).

(The most I would be prepared to accept is "cosmic process with a personality".)

Okay. That would not be naturalism, but supernaturalism--as I explain in my blog post about defining the supernatural. Where Taoism fell in this spectrum I already addressed earlier.

Haukur said...

(Okay. That would not be naturalism, but supernaturalism)

I don't think she means "cosmic process with a personality" in any supernatural sense. I think she believes, as I do, that the divine is entirely immanent in the universe. If Aphrodite has a personality, that personality is an emergent property of matter-energy in space-time, just like our own personalities. Goddess doesn't cheat.

Richard Carrier said...

Haukur said... I think she believes, as I do, that the divine is entirely immanent in the universe.

I don't know what that means.

If Aphrodite has a personality, that personality is an emergent property of matter-energy in space-time, just like our own personalities. Goddess doesn't cheat.

Are you saying that "if" Aphrodite exists and has a personality, then she is a kind of space-alien with a complex brain and energy metabolism obeying all the laws of physics, and she came into existence through evolution by natural selection (or intelligent design by someone else who came into existence through evolution by natural selection)?

If that's the case, she's not a god by most definitions, and in any case one would still have to ask (a) why anyone believes this space alien exists and (b) how they know she is worthy of any kind of reverence or worship.

But if that's not the case, then I don't know what you are proposing Aphrodite is, and thus can't tell you if it's supernatural or not (per my own argued definition in my previous blog post on defining the supernatural, linked above).

Haukur said...

I think I'll have to backtrack a bit in search for common ground. To a naturalistic neopagan the idea that "Aphrodite doesn't exist" is an unhelpfully reductionistic view akin to "the color red doesn't exist".

For the sake of argument we could conceive of a Parody Atheist who tells us that there's no such thing as the color red, there's just light of different wavelengths and you should talk about it precisely, thank you very much. If pressed on the point our PA might agree to define 'red light' as shorthand for 'light of the wavelengths 625 - 740 nm'. But then we immediately run into trouble with things like afterimages, where we can see red without any light of the appropriate wavelengths being involved. The PA would dismiss this as uninteresting non-sense, "all in your head".

Now, just to prevent any misunderstanding, I realize that actual atheists don't deny that 'red' exists, just like actual theists do not worship the parody deities that atheists invent (though, who knows, maybe the Invisible Pink Unicorn could be a promising start for an approach to the divine).

Now let me address your two problems, but I'll take them in reverse order:

b) How do we know that Aphrodite is worthy of reverence and worship? This one is easy: We feel driven to worship her and when we do we feel good. You're the one who built an entire ethical system on the idea that it feels good to act in a moral way. Well, there you go - it feels good to worship Aphrodite and thus we are justified in doing so. The only way this could go awry is if worshipping Aphrodite was in serious conflict with other things that make us feel good.

a) How do we know that Aphrodite exists? Again, I think this probably isn't the best question to ask. The one I would ask is: What is Aphrodite? And the answer is: I don't know! Almost certainly something naturalistic because, as you are fond of putting it, the supernatural horse has run a million races and lost them all. It seems most probable that when we worship Aphrodite most of what's going on is "in our heads" but that doesn't somehow invalidate the whole endeavour. What goes on in our heads is of great interest to us!

Yewtree said...

Divine as immanent in the universe = consciousness is an emergent property of complex systems.

So "Aphrodite" is a symbol-complex (not a meme, that would be too simplistic) which we impose on aspects of nature. If she was a floaty space-alien, I'd be quite worried.

I don't worship gods, or regard it as a worthwhile thing to do. It doesn't make me happy.

The rest of what Haukur said, I agree with. It's what goes on in our heads that is useful (and sometimes not useful); it's values that are important (and of course you can have good values without religion), not believing in improbable floaty entities. I "do" religion because I value the meditative practices and I enjoy a good old sing.

Definition of magic: magic is quite often defined as "the art of changing consciousness in accordance with one's will" (e.g. Aleister Crowley defined it as this).

Clarke's Law: "Any sufficiently advanced technology looks like magic." So yes, magnetism was magic until we understood it. When we understand telepathy (if it exists) that will cease to be magic and become psychology.

I guess magic could also be defined as "the manipulation of external symbols in order to affect internal states of mind".

Haukur said...

And I don't do magic - though it may well be a worthwhile thing to do.

As for the divine as immanent in nature, it may help to read people arguing against that idea:

"The ancient revulsion with regard to paganism felt by adherents of Judaism links up with the need to take stock of these contemporary phenomena. The return of paganism forces Judaism to focus on Jewish law and tradition, which proclaim that God is central in the world. Nature is not sacred and its laws represent barbarity; the Noahide laws represent civil society."

To me, and I'm not sure if I'm parting company with Yewtree, the divine is something we can sense in nature, more strongly in some places than others. Crucially, there is no great gap between humans and the divine which can only be bridged by a transcendental/supernatural entity sending us sons and prophets.

When I say we can sense the divine in nature I don't mean that we do it through some undiscovered sixth sense. And, yes, where we sense it most strongly depends on our cultural conditioning. But there's something here which is innate to a large extent. It's worth noting that most neopagans are converts - sometimes converts from secular humanism.

Yewtree said...

Yes, I sense the divine in nature (and so does Richard Dawkins, for what it's worth - see opening chapter of The God Delusion).

Most Pagans are converts - yes, but not in the ghastly evangelical sense of conversion - most regard it as a home-coming.

Haukur said...

Yes, many pagans are squeamish about the word 'conversion'. I'm not, perhaps because I had a fairly conventional Augustinian conversion experience. As did our lapsed Taoist host, if memory serves. In any case my point was that neopagans don't have the religious experiences they have because they were brought up to be pagans.

Now, I have a feeling that Richard may be writing off neopagans that don't believe in the supernatural as atheists with weird hobbies and an intentionally obfuscated vocabulary. And it's worth noting that some neopagans do "embrace atheism" as this article argues for. Personally I think that "atheism" is a very unsuitable word for someone who does "embrace the Gods", as the article above also argues for. I think the author would have been better off with "metaphysical naturalism".

But the question remains, why not atheism? What's wrong with secular humanism? I can only answer for myself. Let's start with a brief rundown of the "new atheists".

Dawkins can be thoughtful but I find him rather repetitive. His best book remains The Selfish Gene. Hitchens is sometimes amusing but he's a bit of a dick. Dennett I have yet to read. Harris is actually pretty good and, crucially, he realizes that it's not a good idea to lump all religions together. So he's willing to say that Islam is deeply awful while Buddhism actually has a lot to offer. That's definitely a conversation worth having.

As for Richard Carrier - I'm definitely a fan. He does an excellent job of debunking the pro-Christian view of history which still has such a dominant place in our discourse. It's very refreshing to see him debate the Christians with such an extensive knowledge of antiquity beneath his belt. Plus - he's boyishly cute ;)

But on to my point. Many western atheists seem to carry over from Judeo-Christianity a view of the world as "a vale of tears", a nasty and brutish place - except that there's no saviour on the way. Even to Richard, who was never a Christian, a particular natural process can be "vicious and heartless" and "a genuine monster, a horror movie villain". And, in a barb apparently aimed straight at us, "not some wise mother goddess that we have any reason to follow". Sometimes we're even presented with a view of the world as a sort of Maya - an illusion we have all the wrong ideas about. Our intuitions being wrong, the only way to the truth is to deny our experiences and embrace Science. Anyway, I'm veering slightly into parody but this gives the gist of what I dislike about the atheistic world-view.

I see neopaganism as a way of embracing the totality of human experience and existence. It includes not looking at the universe as an adversary but, yes, as divine. In my case it also includes observing, with the Stoics, that when our desires are not in harmony with the (rest of the) universe it's often more fruitful to work on our desires than to work on the universe.

Well, that was a long comment. I hope Richard doesn't feel that we've hijacked the thread.

Yewtree said...

Yes, I agree that atheists may have carried over some attitudes unexamined from the general culture, which is generally influenced by Christianity (but don't blame the Jews for that rather Gnostic attitude; they are generally life-affirming).

I also see p/Paganism as a way of embracing the totality of human experience and existence, and agree with the Stoic comment too.

And I also agree with a lot of what Richard says and enjoy sharpening my thinking against the hone of his logic.

Haukur said...

Fair enough, I don't have any bone to pick with Jews (except when they want me to follow the Noahide laws, as in the quotation above) and I have had essentially zero personal exposure to Judaism so I can't make any first-hand comments.

I was actually surprised how often I agreed with Rabbi Wolpe against Christopher Hitchens in their little debate. That, to me, goes to show that the naturalism/supernaturalism divide isn't everything.

Yewtree said...

Yes, I think values are more important than beliefs.

Just looked up the Noahide laws: we're in trouble straight away with number 1; no problem with 2,3 and 6; number 7, just laws, sounds OK until you realise it's enforcing numbers 1, 4 and 5, which I do have a problem with. And anyway, law should be established by reason and not revelation.

Haukur said...

Yes, I'll pass on the Noahide laws. As to whether they "represent civil society" as Gerstenfeld says, they certainly don't seem to do that any better than, say, Solon's principles.

Richard Carrier said...

Yewtree said... Yes, I think values are more important than beliefs.

But correct values combined with false beliefs produces a preponderance of waste or even evil. You must thus have both correct values and correct beliefs. Read my discussion of Nazism as an example in my book Sense and Goodness without God--and of course my whole ethical theory, which demonstrates that correct behavior can only exist if we hold both correct values and correct beliefs, and thus we should aim for both with equal effort and concern.

This includes the threat that any epistemology that even allows you to have false beliefs in greater number than any alternative epistemology, will indiscriminately increase the number of false beliefs you have that produce waste or harm (since these kinds of harmful or wasteful beliefs will statistically exist at random among all false beliefs, so more of the latter entails more of the former). We therefore are morally obligated to embrace an epistemology that eliminates more false beliefs than any other we know. To do otherwise is knowingly reckless.

This is why it is not acceptable to stump for "safe" false beliefs, because such beliefs can only be held by adopting an epistemology that allows it, and such an epistemology will necessarily (as an inevitable statistical fact) produce other false beliefs that are not safe. We thus must adopt a strong epistemology, even at the cost of losing safe false beliefs we might otherwise have found useful.

As has been suggested here already, it's better to adjust your desires so you don't need false beliefs, than to try and defend false beliefs. Because any position permitting the latter will have collateral damage on our whole belief system that will tend to no overall good, especially in the long term (e.g. in terms of the society we then create and its ongoing history).

Richard Carrier said...

Haukur said... But the question remains, why not atheism? What's wrong with secular humanism? I can only answer for myself. Let's start with a brief rundown of the "new atheists". Dawkins can be thoughtful but I find him rather repetitive. His best book remains The Selfish Gene. Hitchens is sometimes amusing but he's a bit of a dick. Dennett I have yet to read. Harris is actually pretty good and, crucially, he realizes that it's not a good idea to lump all religions together. So he's willing to say that Islam is deeply awful while Buddhism actually has a lot to offer. That's definitely a conversation worth having.

These are all just evaluations of the personal character and literary product of these authors. What has that to do with atheism as an idea or as an applicable word in the English language?

Many western atheists seem to carry over from Judeo-Christianity a view of the world as "a vale of tears", a nasty and brutish place...

I can only presume you didn't do time in the wake of Katrina. Disease, predation, parasitism, and destruction from weather and geological activity are common on this planet. In the absence of human technologies, 50% of all babies do not survive their first year, and the average life expectancy for any that do is in the 40's. The forensic anthropological studies of the ailments of the dead at Pompeii tells a story of horrors, of biological defects and chronic diseases entailing pain and debility and impaired mental development for the majority--and they enjoyed the technological benefits of sewers and public and personal hygiene and protection from the elements and reliable food and water supplies, even doctors and medicine. Nature is a nasty brute. Let's not pretend otherwise. Atheism is about accepting the truth. Is paganism about denying that truth?

In my case it also includes observing, with the Stoics, that when our desires are not in harmony with the (rest of the) universe it's often more fruitful to work on our desires than to work on the universe.

I agree that's often easier (and often overlooked as a more practical option). But it's just as often not. Try to adjust your desires so you can live comfortably without a sewer system, and you'll understand why adjusting our desires simply won't cut it. There are human technologies that are the only way of combating nature's ubiquitous and unchecked evils. We must embrace that fact, or else we will be dangerously disconnected from reality, and our own decisions will begin to do us harm (just as deciding to do without sewers would, though more subtle errors are more likely).

Richard Carrier said...

Haukur said... To a naturalistic neopagan the idea that "Aphrodite doesn't exist" is an unhelpfully reductionistic view akin to "the color red doesn't exist".

That depends on semantics, i.e. how you define the word, which is arbitrary, and in this case must certainly deviate wildly from common English convention (e.g. whatever definition you are using, we won't find it in any dictionary and 99% of the English speaking world will never have heard of such a connotation). I find such language games to be a waste of time. I'd rather you just speak English like the rest of us. Anything else is just sowing confusion while rubbing with all futility against the grain of human conventions of communication.

But then we immediately run into trouble with things like afterimages, where we can see red without any light of the appropriate wavelengths being involved. The PA would dismiss this as uninteresting non-sense, "all in your head".

He'd be right about the latter. Though it's hardly "uninteresting," it is certainly "all in your head." To that extent, this isn't a parody. It's what the color red actually is: a creation of the human brain, existing nowhere else (apart from other animal and maybe robot brains that compute colors similarly). It is a computation of the presence of photons of a particular frequency, and a computation that is essentially a fabrication, albeit a useful one that corresponds to a reality (the photons), except when it's in error (as with afterimages, which happen when the cone cells in the eye continue to send the signal even after the photons are no longer present).

But existing in the mind is still existing. So I suppose by this PA you mean an eliminativist (also not a parody: such people actually exist), who argues that mental things don't exist in any sense at all. I would agree that's an error of logic, mistaking the meaning of the word "exist" as somehow excluding existence in a mind (e.g. as the output of a computer), which is yet another mistake of language.

(b) How do we know that Aphrodite is worthy of reverence and worship? This one is easy: We feel driven to worship her and when we do we feel good.

But what is the "her" you are worshipping? That's the only issue here. I don't presently care whether or when it's justified. We're talking semantics and metaphysics now, not ethics.

(a) ... What is Aphrodite? And the answer is: I don't know!

Then I can spot a serious ethical defect in your position (read my book's chapter on love for a clue). But that's of no interest to me here. Here what matters is the semantics and metaphysics of this: if you don't know what x is, then in what sense are you worshipping x at all? In reality, you are only worshipping your idea of x, not the actual x. Since you don't know what x is, by definition you cannot know if you are worshipping it (or something else instead by mistake, for example).

Therefore, semantically, when you say you worship x you are either uttering literal nonsense (i.e. a proposition with no known content), or you are saying nothing more than that you worship your idea of x (whatever that is, which is still unclear to me).

I will agree, if that's all you are doing, then yes, polytheism in that sense is capable of being naturalistic, just as Pink Unicornism or Spaghetti Monsterism are. But whether that's what other pagan authors mean is not clear to me (and they truly suck as authors if they cannot communicate so simple a concept as this in such a massive word-count), nor is this what most polytheists in history have ever done or meant.

In effect, what you mean by Aphrodite corresponds not at all to what most people mean by a god. It's just the idea of a god, which most people contrast with an actual god. And that's basically atheism (or agnosticism, if you allow but "do not know" whether the idea corresponds to a real god, in the sense everyone else uses that word for).

Richard Carrier said...

Yewtree said... Divine as immanent in the universe = consciousness is an emergent property of complex systems.

Even getting past the wanton abuse of the English language that this entails, the meaning is still unclear. Do you mean the word "divine" simply refers to the existence of consciousness? Such a word game essentially eliminates god, as a mere joke-word for something we already have a perfectly acceptable and far more recognizable word for. Why not just be honest and say gods don't exist, that only our conscious minds exist? And if that's not what you are saying, then what are you?

So "Aphrodite" is a symbol-complex (not a meme, that would be too simplistic) which we impose on aspects of nature.

I don't see the difference between a symbol-complex and a meme complex--every complex of ideas is composed of memes just as every genome is composed of genes. But no matter. If Aphrodite is just an idea, then she isn't a god in the most common conventions of the English language. It sounds like you are saying paganism is just atheism, but hiding behind a colorful system of verbal bullsh*t. That's certainly not what polytheism is or has been for most people in history, or even still today (as, for example, in Nigeria or China).

I "do" religion because I value the meditative practices and I enjoy a good old sing.

So do we. We just call it meditating and singing.

Definition of magic: magic is quite often defined as "the art of changing consciousness in accordance with one's will" (e.g. Aleister Crowley defined it as this).

Yeah, thereby perverting normal English convention. This only obfuscates. It doesn't illumine. I'd rather we used words in ways English speaking peoples will more readily recognize. The purpose of language is to communicate.

Clarke's Law: "Any sufficiently advanced technology looks like magic." So yes, magnetism was magic until we understood it.

Clarke did not say it was magic. He said it looked like magic. Thus even he recognized that the word means something other than the merely not-understood. He was speaking English. I don't know what language you are trying to speak.

Moreover, this does not connect at all with what you just said. "The art of changing consciousness in accordance with one's will" = "technology we don't understand"? That's so illogical an equation I can't fathom what your point is.

When we understand telepathy (if it exists) that will cease to be magic and become psychology.

So now you are using the word "magic" as a synonym of what I just defined in this blog as the "paranormal." My choice of appellation is more in line with English convention and more readily recognized by speakers of English. It is therefore more useful. I find no utility in your alternative. Better to just use "magic" in a way we can all more readily understand. The purpose of language, again, is to communicate.

I guess magic could also be defined as "the manipulation of external symbols in order to affect internal states of mind".

That's hardly more intelligible. On any plain reading of this sentence in English, you are saying all thought is magic, since all thought is "the manipulation of external symbols in order to affect internal states of mind." Surely that's not all you are saying?

Yes, I sense the divine in nature (and so does Richard Dawkins...

That's really not what he says, though. Read my chapter on "the nature of spirituality" (in Sense and Goodness without God) for what he and I and others like us mean. If all you mean by "the divine" is what we mean by godless spiritual experience, then you are atheists, and just hiding that fact behind an obfuscating wall of gamed-up language. What's the point of that?

Richard Carrier said...

Haukur said... "The ancient revulsion with regard to paganism felt by adherents of Judaism links up with the need to take stock of these contemporary phenomena. The return of paganism forces Judaism to focus on Jewish law and tradition, which proclaim that God is central in the world. Nature is not sacred and its laws represent barbarity; the Noahide laws represent civil society."

I don't know who you are quoting or what on earth they were thinking, but in historical reality "the ancient revulsion with regard to paganism felt by adherents of Judaism" was based on the belief that other gods were evil tribal demons (actual invisible beings with supernatural powers influencing and corrupting their enthralled peoples); ancient Jews did regard nature as sacred (it is the creation of God and its "laws" represent the governance of god and his angelic middle-management staff); and the Torah law did not "represent civil society," it represented a covenant with God--not with society--and its purpose was to win God's help by demonstrating loyalty by pleasing him and accepting his governance, in exchange for which God would kill their enemies and make the Jews the masters of the world. Only when that didn't work out in the real world did they change their minds and conclude God would instead in exchange resurrect their corpses and the corpse-dust of all their ancestors and loved ones who kept the covenant, after he killed all their enemies, and then he would set the faithful up in style in a future supernatural kingdom.

That's all irrelevant, though. What actually contrasts Jewish transcendentalism and "divine immanence" is the contrasting view that God is separate from and distant from his Creation and interacts with it using intermediary supernatural powers and beings, and the view that God dwells within his Creation directly. That's what you wanted to say (I think).

To me, and I'm not sure if I'm parting company with Yewtree, the divine is something we can sense in nature, more strongly in some places than others.

Then it's like some sort of paranormal fluid or field of force that physically settles in some places more than others, which can be detected by some organ in your body that science has yet to discover? You claim "when I say we can sense the divine in nature I don't mean that we do it through some undiscovered sixth sense," but that is a logical contradiction: by definition you can only sense something by having that sense. Either you lack any such sense (and therefore in fact sense nothing), or you have such a sense, in which case where is that sense? Is it a physical organ? What does it key on? What triggers that sense to send a signal to the brain? Why haven't scientists discovered this nerve-signal structure? Or are nerves and the brain not involved at all?

Crucially, there is no great gap between humans and the divine which can only be bridged by a transcendental/supernatural entity sending us sons and prophets.

Finally a correct and intelligible English distinction between immanence and transcendence. But this still does not explain what "the divine" means. In English, you are saying "the divine is present in the world and thus doesn't need personnel to mediate our contact with it," but this sentence remains meaningless until you define "the divine," otherwise all we have is "x is present in the world and thus doesn't need personnel to mediate our contact with it," which is true of nearly everything that exists, which is of hardly any use as an observation.

So I still have no idea what you are talking about.

Haukur said...

Thank you for replying, and in such detail. There's a lot of material here and I'll try to take it in order.

These are all just evaluations of the personal character and literary product of these authors. What has that to do with atheism as an idea or as an applicable word in the English language?

I agree, I didn't really get to saying anything very relevant there. Try this: Prominent atheists, like Christopher Hitchens, say things like this about atheists:

"Sacrifices and ceremonies are abhorrent to us, as are relics and the worship of any images or objects"

Well, these things are not abhorrent to me. In fact, I'm rather fond of them.

Nature is a nasty brute. Let's not pretend otherwise. Atheism is about accepting the truth. Is paganism about denying that truth?

Have I stopped beating my wife? I just don't agree that nature-is-a-nasty-brute with technology and progress as our saviours is the only valid worldview, nor do I think it is the best one. I don't think life in Pompeii was a "story of horrors" or that people there were less happy than in, say, modern Russia or perhaps even modern Italy. Do you have reason to suppose they were?

I'm a graduate student in medieval literature. The poems I read certainly have a lot of complaints - but they're not about biological defects or chronic disease. The poets complain about their lack of luck in love, they complain about the public's declining interest in epic poetry and they complain of old age. These aren't problems you can solve by installing a sewer system. Yes, the ills of old age can be kept at bay longer now than in the middle ages but last time I checked the global human death rate was still at 100%.

Haukur said...

On the ontology of the color red: Since I wrote the above it came to my attention that Richard uses this very example in a rather neat little interview here. I'm not quite sure if I have a "holy spirit epistemology" - I'll have to read Richard's book. Unfortunately the libraries over here don't carry it and my country's currency is not worth much at the moment.

As a side note, I tend to agree with Richard that modern philosophy has lost its way. I also suspect we have similar tastes in art.

On me using language in a way different from everyone else: I don't really think that's true. When I worship Aphrodite* what's going on would be perfectly recognizible to any observer you would post in the room as worship of Aphrodite.

* Or actually, another goddess, but I can't imagine that makes a difference for the argument and Aphrodite was the example originally introduced here.

Haukur said...

I don't know who you are quoting or what on earth they were thinking

I was quoting Neo-Paganism in the Public Square and Its Relevance to Judaism, an article by Manfred Gerstenfeld, apparently published in the Jewish Political Studies Review in 1999. I doubt you disagree with the whole article as much as you take issue with that excerpt. Gerstenfeld does say that the Biblical view is that nature is "a manifestation of God's majesty, and man should recognize this". He also says that "there is no charity in nature; there is no mercy. There is no safety net in nature for marginal beings. The strong eat the weak. The old are abandoned. ... There is no equality in nature or anything resembling democracy. Nature should be feared."

On sensing the divine: No, I don't think there is any paranormal fluid or field of force. I mean that certain phenomena can, by being observed through our known senses, elicit religious experiences - religious awe, mysterium tremendum et fascinans, that sort of thing. A Christian, say, might interpret such a feeling as a connection with a transcendental deity. I and you might say that his feelings are misdirected - the thing he is in awe of is right here in the observable world. One difference between you and me is that I'm happy to use words from traditional religious language ("divine" etc.) to describe experiences like that and you are not.

And you're right! I'm not sure how I would define 'divine'. I think that might be the "holy spirit epistemology" again.

I don't know if it will bring light to the discussion but I thought I'd add that my views have been influenced by reading Sita Ram Goel, in particular Defence of Hindu Society, the full text of which is available online.

Yewtree said...

Richard, so I guess you're entitled I just want to say that different discourses use words differently. Everything Haukur said was intelligible to me because I am familiar with the discourse he is using (and probably vice versa). It's normal for words to have different connotations in different discourses. Archaeologists use "palimpsest" differently than architects (and so on). Most Christians (and many atheists) use "god" to mean "supernatural creator deity". Pagans don't use it that way; and probably many ancient polytheists didn't either - once they met other cultures with different deities, they started to regard them as more symbolic.

If people insisted on rigid definitions for words, and language not being changed and adapted for new situations, we'd end up in some Orwellian world where no-one could ever come up with a new concept of anything.

Your unpicking of the terms we are using is perfectly logical, but appears to start from the assumption that there is no consciousness in the world apart from what's in our heads. Our reasoning starts from a different premise (that consciousness is in everything, and that everything is sacred - which is why we use the word divine).

I agree that rigid belief/dogma can lead to wrongdoing; but if a person is open to new ideas, criticism and reason, then even if they currently hold a false belief, they will eventually end up with a correct view. (For example, scientists have frequently held incorrect views, e.g. eugenics, but scientific method leads to the refinement of ideas; a similar process is at work for the seeker of spiritual truths.)

Yewtree said...

sorry, first sentence went wrong, as I failed to delete part of what I had written; it should read: "Richard, I just want to say that different discourses use words differently."

Haukur said...

Everything Haukur said was intelligible to me because I am familiar with the discourse he is using (and probably vice versa).Yes, though with some slight caveats. Yewtree is a Wiccan and I am not. I've picked up some Wiccan theology over the years but I've never performed a Wiccan ritual or read about such rituals in any detail. Nor have I ever met a Wiccan. So, perhaps unsurprisingly, Wiccan magic talk is not completely intelligible to me. Neo-paganism is a reasonably mainstream thing in my country (a high percentage of the populace will know the name of the high priest at any given time and we've had neo-pagan members of parliament) but its dominant form is not Wicca.

Richard Carrier said...

What do Neopagans Believe?Haukur said... Prominent atheists, like Christopher Hitchens, say things like this about atheists: "Sacrifices and ceremonies are abhorrent to us, as are relics and the worship of any images or objects" Well, these things are not abhorrent to me. In fact, I'm rather fond of them.Now that I can understand. Of course, in reality, Hitchens isn't speaking for even a majority of atheists, much less all of them. Most of us don't even care. The rest of us aren't bothered.

Indeed, most of us participate in ceremonies and rituals (I'm sure Hitchens himself has many a time, and without abhorrence--unless he's never been to a wedding or graduation), and revere relics (as museums and private collections and heirlooms attest). And sacrifices? We call them potlucks and BBQ's over here. Both major secular pastimes. Sure, in Africa or China they might have a ceremony of slaughtering the cows and pigs right there, but they still cook them up and eat them in a community event just like we do.

Maybe wasteful sacrifices are abhorrent. The Santaria slaughter of a chicken that is then just thrown in the trash is indeed as abhorrent as pleasure-hunting bears and leaving them to rot. But the abhorrence here is not at the ritual, but the waste. Similarly, kosher slaughter is abhorrent, because it is cruel. And religion in both instances is to blame: it hardens the heart against seeing the waste and cruelty of these acts, and teaches its adherents to defend such evils with irrational righteousness. Perhaps that's what Hitchens has in mind.

As far as worship, most of us just consider it silly, like rubbing a rabbit's foot for good luck or something. It's not abhorrent, but it is a bit ridiculous. Nevertheless, I'm okay with ridiculous, as long as it's harmless. As Jefferson says, if it neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg, do as ye will. So as long as you defend my liberties as fervently as your own, you can dance any magic jig you want. I'm pretty sure most atheists agree with me on this and not Hitchens.

When I worship Aphrodite* what's going on would be perfectly recognizible to any observer you would post in the room as worship of Aphrodite.I don't know what "you would post in the room" means. Most actual people who saw that would assume you believe some kind of superbeing of that name exists somewhere that is somehow consciously aware of your worship and will reward you in some way for the honor you pay them. You would have to set them straight otherwise. But so far I'm still not entirely sure what you would tell them.

No, I don't think there is any paranormal fluid or field of force. I mean that certain phenomena can, by being observed through our known senses, elicit religious experiences - religious awe, mysterium tremendum et fascinans, that sort of thing.If that's all you mean, then I quite agree. I have a whole chapter on exactly that, and why it's valuable and important. And it's perfectly natural. It doesn't require religion (in the Hitchensian sense of a system of dogmas).

Your unpicking of the terms we are using is perfectly logical, but appears to start from the assumption that there is no consciousness in the world apart from what's in our heads.I'm talking semantics at this point. Whether there is other consciousness is irrelevant here. I just want to know what you mean. If you mean that pagans believe there are other consciousnesses, that's fine, just say that, and explain what other consciousnesses pagans believe there are. Obviously I don't agree with pagans if they believe that (you already know my position, and why I hold it--and thus you know I am not assuming anything, but concluding, from evidence and argument), but my question here isn't whether pagans are right (obviously I already believe they are wrong--unless they don't believe anything other than naturalism, which is the original question you all keep dancing around and still haven't answered), but simply what on earth they believe in the first place. The fact that it has been so hard to learn so simple a thing as that after hundreds and hundreds of words exchanged is quite frustrating, I'm sure you can imagine! :-)

Our reasoning starts from a different premise (that consciousness is in everything, and that everything is sacred - which is why we use the word divine).So does "divine" mean "having a consciousness and being sacred"?

And if so, what does "sacred" mean?

And what do you mean by "consciousness"?

For example, if "consciousness is in everything" then my car has consciousness, so in what sense do you believe my car is conscious? What is it conscious of? How?

You don't need to defend your answer. I just want to know what it is.

I agree that rigid belief/dogma can lead to wrongdoing; but if a person is open to new ideas, criticism and reason, then even if they currently hold a false belief, they will eventually end up with a correct view.We certainly agree there.

Of course, as you know, I predict that if someone genuinely has that disposition, and is exposed to a large enough body of facts--e.g. the findings of science, critical history, etc., all six methods I outline in my book--then they will eventually become naturalists like me.

In contrast, what do you predict?

(For example, scientists have frequently held incorrect views, e.g. eugenics, but scientific method leads to the refinement of ideas; a similar process is at work for the seeker of spiritual truths.)Actually, eugenics isn't false, it's just unethical (except when it isn't, e.g. our own personal selection of good prospects for our child-rearing mates, and pre- and post-conception genetic screening for serious genetic disorders, is arguably not only not immoral, but possibly even morally obligatory).

Eugenics actually does work (in fact, we use it routinely on animals, and have it down to a science--and as noted above, we also use it on people, even in the first world, just with moral restraint). But I was speaking of having correct values, and incorrect beliefs. Eugenics is only maintainable on incorrect values. Otherwise, there are no incorrect facts in eugenics. It thus isn't a pertinent example.

More pertinent would be the belief (once held by psychologists) that homosexuality is infectious and causes harm. Were that factually true, then even on correct values we should treat it as a harmful disease. It's just that it isn't factually true.

If we apply that refining process to "spiritual truths" I predict we will end up with what I discuss in my chapter on "The Nature of Spirituality." Does Neopaganism presently predict anything to the contrary? And if so, what?

Before we can apply any scientific refining method to neopagan claims, we have to have clear definitions of what those claims even are.

Richard Carrier said...

Is Nature All Cuddly?Haukur said... I just don't agree that nature-is-a-nasty-brute with technology and progress as our saviours is the only valid worldview, nor do I think it is the best one.It's not a worldview. It's just a fact. Malaria kills people. Hurricanes destroy families. Earthquakes ruin communities. And those are just the nice things nature does, in comparison with some of the most disturbing ways she kills kids with parasites, for example. Millions and millions of kids.

Technology is bad only when its consequences aren't thought through, but then so is abandoning technology bad when its consequences aren't thought through.

Organic farming, for example: all well and good for rich people (like, say, fifteen percent of Americans), but there isn't enough land to feed the world by organic technologies. Over 90% of the world's population would starve. Hence most of the world needs amped-up agriculture, like it or not. The only other solution is massive reduction in population. But unless you plan to start shoving the masses into incinerators (or just letting them starve off), you're stuck with the people. And they need to eat. Indeed, the only way to humanely reduce the population is with more technologies, this time of birth control (and, incidentally, industrialization, which has consistently reduced birth rate through a complex series of causes, so that in first world nations we are finally shrinking--or would be if we stopped immigration, and I wouldn't argue we should).

We need to deal with reality. Not fantasy.

I don't think life in Pompeii was a "story of horrors" or that people there were less happy than in, say, modern Russia or perhaps even modern Italy. Do you have reason to suppose they were?Yes. We know they were in greater chronic pain overall, due to a variety of chronic ailments, identified from medical examination of their skeletons. I'm sure that was all kinds of fun. Every mother would see half her babies die in their first year, and half the remainder to die before puberty. Bundle of joy that. Even most adults died of injury or illness--often painful, protracted, and untreatable--before they were fifty. And, of course, they were incinerated. Not exactly conducive to happiness.

Compare the fate of the people living by Mount St. Helens: note technology's ability to warn them and evacuate them, to save almost all their children from dying from ordinary ailments, to prevent and cure and treat most of the causes of chronic living pain and death they could have suffered, and so on.

And remember, I'm just referring to nature's evils. If you want to start talking about human evils at Pompeii (slavery, brutality, injustice, chauvinism, illiteracy, poverty), we get way past "they were as happy as we are."

I'm a graduate student in medieval literature. The poems I read certainly have a lot of complaints - but they're not about biological defects or chronic disease.Honestly? You are arguing that medievals didn't have greater rates of rickets, malaria, influenza, meningitis, bone disorders, plagues, infant mortality, etc., because they didn't feel like singing them in verse?

You need to read up on the forensic anthropology and epidemiology of ancient populations--and study the realities of the modern third world for comparison.

Yes, the ills of old age can be kept at bay longer now than in the middle ages but last time I checked the global human death rate was still at 100%.So you'd be okay if half of everyone you knew died before they were fifty? Half of all babies die in their first year? Half of all children die before adulthood? Malaria or TB or cholera or syphilis or chronically painful bone or muscle disorders inflict a third of everyone you know? You're cool with occasional waves of mass deaths from influenza or plague? You'd love to host all manner of parasites? You don't mind being incinerated by volcanoes, crushed by earthquakes, drowned by floods, or eaten by animals? Heat waves and cold spells killing thousands is fine?

You really need to think this through.

Haukur said... He also says that "there is no charity in nature; there is no mercy. There is no safety net in nature for marginal beings. The strong eat the weak. The old are abandoned. ... There is no equality in nature or anything resembling democracy. Nature should be feared."I'm not sure that characterizes ancient Judaism. It certainly doesn't characterize early Jewish Christianity ("even birds neither sow nor reap..."). I'll grant there was certainly no idea of any democracy in nature (democracy in nature?), but then there still isn't. Democracy is a human technology.

The typical view was that nature obeys God and thus manifests his will, directly or indirectly, so the sick "deserve" to be sick (for some reason or other), floods demonstrate God's displeasure (or "test"), and so on. Again, read Job. A significant minority also attributed many evils to Satan and his war with God (so, disease was the product of demons, which the faithful could fight with God's help, etc.). But the idea of a dispassionate, unguided natural world is not ancient at all--outside of Epicureanism and related ideologies (which were a minority in antiquity), and (ironically for you) many common pagan views (which often held most gods to be capricious and terrifying).

As for now, on present factual understanding (outside religion of any sort, Judaism or otherwise), it would be incorrect to say that nature is all evil and no gift. Though it has no personality (and thus it can be misleading to reify it with such concepts as "charity" or "mercy" which nature can no more have--or lack--than a stone or a car), it does act, and many of its actions are helpful, just as many are harmful. It's simply unconcerned with anyone's happiness. It should thus be enjoyed, no less than feared. Nature is just like a gun or a car: it can warrant fear or comfort, gratitude or abhorrence, depending on the circumstances. But unlike guns and cars, for whom people decide whether they will be used for good or evil, nature makes no conscious choice whether or when to be evil or good. And that is not a fact to be admired.

Haukur said...

It's not a worldview. It's just a fact.I'm surprised how dogmatic you are about this. Nature being a nasty brute or genuine monster or horror movie villain etc. is just a fact and alternative views are fantasies? You seem to think I am disputing some facts about malaria or hurricanes or earthquakes. I'm not.

Haukur said...

nature makes no conscious choice whether or when to be evil or good. And that is not a fact to be admired.Did you earlier in your life find it a fact to be admired? How did you understand the fifth poem of the Tao Te Ching?

Haukur said...

"what on earth [do pagans] believe in the first place"

Well, it tends to vary rather a lot! Most pagans I know have a naturalistic world view - many are even happy to call themselves atheists (though I personally find that confusing).

Those who do believe in something supernatural may hold views close to the European pagans of old (more the folk religion than the Stoics or the Platonists) or to New Age people or to Taoists or to Hindus. I think there is a lot of variety there.

We do have some Ram Swarup fans. I thought it was interesting to see Richard post the cover of a Ram Swarup book at one point. Have you read that book? What did you think?

Haukur said...

On ancient Judaism and its view of nature: I don't have any special insight on that. I introduced Gerstenfeld's article as a way to approach the immanent/transcendent divide. Gerstenfeld purports to compare a sort of timeless paganism with a sort of timeless Judaism. In reality he's probably comparing neo-paganism with his own type of modern Judaism. I have no idea if his views are widely shared among Jews. The time he spends arguing against other Jewish writers certainly seems to indicate that they are not universal.

The medieval Christian writers I'm familiar with do sometimes condemn pagans for worshiping nature but I get the impression that they regarded it as a lesser error than worshiping 'demons'.

Haukur said...

On Job: I have read Job. First when I was a devoutly Christian child and several times since then.

On happiness and "stories of horrors": You attribute to me a number of views I don't hold and assumed my ignorance of several facts I'm aware of but I think you've hardly even begun to present the case that the ills of the natural world rendered life in antiquity a "story of horrors" with unhappy people.

Let's say that in a few hundred years, progress has increased the human lifespan to 300 years and eliminated, say, headaches and the common cold. I can visualize your intellectual descendant in that time talking about the "story of horrors" that was life in the first world in the 21st century. Would you be fine with everyone you knew dying before they were even a hundred years old? Would you be cool with your head hurting and your nose leaking disgusting stuff a substantial part of your life? Yes, we take things like that for granted and we know we can be happy in spite of them. Would it cause me discomfort to be transported back to Pompeii? I think that goes without saying - I might not last a month.

You seem to be under the impression that I think the demise of industrial civilization would increase human happiness. Rest assured, I agree that such a collapse would be a time of horrible misery and widespread unhappiness.

When I'm in an earthquake, and they're not infrequent over here, I reflect that I'm fortunate to be in a house built in the 20th century and not any earlier century. I appreciate living in a country that often comes up on top of the list of happiest countries in the world and I do appreciate that this happiness is not unrelated to the fact that my countrymen have seen enormous increases in material well-being in the last 100 years.

If industrial civilization collapses it will do so under its own weight, not because of me plotting its demise. But if it does collapse, I wonder if neopaganism will be there trying to pick up the pieces as in this little series by John Michael Greer.

Haukur said...

Most actual people who saw that would assume you believe some kind of superbeing of that name exists somewhere that is somehow consciously aware of your worship and will reward you in some way for the honor you pay them.And this is somehow a simple and straightforward proposition to you? What is a superbeing? What does it mean to exist somewhere? Is it in opposition to existing everywhere? What does it mean that Aphrodite is "of that name"? Does it mean that she has no other names? Does it mean that she cares what names she is referred to with? What do you mean by Aphrodite being conscious? Do you mean, to quote Wikipedia, something "related to the specific way in which humans are mentally aware in such a way that they distinguish clearly between themselves (the thing being aware) and all other things and events"? Sam Harris says that "consciousness remains a genuine mystery, and anyone who attempts to study it is confronted by serious conceptual and empirical problems". Unfortunately I still haven't obtained your book so I'm not sure what your views on spirituality are or how they differ from those of, say, Sam Harris.

To use your wording, yes, I feel that Aphrodite has "rewarded me in some way for the honor I pay her" but this will be meaningless to you unless I tell you what Aphrodite is and I can't. I'm hoping that restating it as "worship of Aphrodite has benefited me in the past" makes it intelligible since I think "worship of Aphrodite" is easy to define.

Haukur said...

This conversation has become too big for it to be practical to continue every part of it. So I won't reply in detail to the parts of Richard's answers I haven't addressed yet and I certainly don't think there's any onus on Richard to reply in detail to everything I've brought up. I'm actually a bit amazed he's willing to spend so much time answering essentially off-topic questions from people he doesn't know. That said, I do find this to be a valuable discussion and I think it has advanced my understanding of several things.

On Epicureans: It interests me that, in spite of everything, Lucretius starts his poem with an invocation to the goddess we keep mentioning.

On sacrifice and 'abhorrent' religious activities: I could write at length about this but this probably isn't the right venue. I think Hitchens would find the religious activities displayed in, say, this video abhorrent. If Richard doesn't then that's excellent.

Haukur said...

Oh, and if you do read Greer's little series (and I recommend it) I forgot one part in the links above.

Richard Carrier said...

Q: Is nature (frequently and indiscriminately) a brutal monster?Haukur said... I think you've hardly even begun to present the case that the ills of the natural world rendered life in antiquity a "story of horrors" with unhappy people.Less happy people and fewer happy people, not "unhappy people." With that correction in mind, if you are unconvinced by the facts I've listed, you are beyond reason.

Let's say that in a few hundred years, progress has increased the human lifespan to 300 years and eliminated, say, headaches and the common cold.Actually, within a few hundred years we will have eliminated death altogether (provided civilization continues apace), as well as all disease. The writing is already on the wall here: we can already work out how to accomplish both, we just lack the technology infrastructure to carry it out. It will take a few centuries of R&D to get there. But if you want the road map drawn for you, I can oblige.

I can visualize your intellectual descendant in that time talking about the "story of horrors" that was life in the first world in the 21st century.Indeed. I already do this myself. Or are you living such a cushy, isolated life you don't know what most of the 21st century's population endures? Even apart from the Third World, I would not consider the 1st World to be free of nature's evils, not by a long shot. Katrina and the national health care crisis are both squarely in the 21st century, and alone betray nature's brutish indifference to us. And that's just two things among hundreds I could list, which hound us even in the First World. And yet for all that, a 24th century historian would not regard our lives here in the early 21st century America to be anywhere near as bad as in 1st century Pompeii. She would fully recognize our technological ability to vastly improve quality of life, even as she recognized how much better it got since.

Would you be fine with everyone you knew dying before they were even a hundred years old?No, I'm not fine with that. But I'm better with it than their dying before fifty. Or the age of one. You seem to be stuck in black-and-white. I'm living in the real world, which evolved in shades of grey. Things have improved vastly, thanks to human technology. We have expanded the number of people who can achieve greater happiness, and expanded the time in which they can pursue and enjoy it. Indeed, doubled and beyond. Nature didn't do this for us. Nature doesn't give a sh*t. We had to do it for ourselves. That's simply a fact. And an undeniable one.

Would you be cool with your head hurting and your nose leaking disgusting stuff a substantial part of your life?Actually, yes. I don't care about trivia. If I could trade real diseases for runny noses and real injuries for skinned knees, I would indeed. There is no comparison here with malaria, ebola, TB, rickets, meningitis, AIDS. You need a reality check. You need to stop conflating the serious with the trivial, and face up to the fact that the serious is indeed awful.

I do appreciate that this happiness is not unrelated to the fact that my countrymen have seen enormous increases in material well-being in the last 100 years.All thanks not one whit to nature. That's my point. We had to do this. Left to its own devices, nature wouldn't have done any of it. Yes, we employ nature to accomplish all this, but only because nature doesn't care. And that's why nature is a monster. Indifferently helping and hurting with no regard for human happiness. Like I said, that doesn't mean nature is all monster. She is also a beautiful benefactor. But she is mindless in regard to when, where, and for whom she is which. And it's that fact that eliminates any sound warrant for worshipping nature. We can still enjoy nature, be in awe of it, admire its occasional beauty and creativity, but we should never lose sight of the fact that it is as prone to evil as good, that it is just as often ugly and destructive and harmful.

If industrial civilization collapses it will do so under its own weight, not because of me plotting its demise. But if it does collapse, I wonder if neopaganism will be there trying to pick up the pieces as in this little series by John Michael Greer.I hope naturalism will be there, actually picking up the pieces, with engineering and science and democracy and the wisdom of hindsight. I don't see what paganism can offer in that circumstance that naturalism already doesn't. Especially if paganism is just naturalism. Well, okay, perhaps it could give us funner parties. Maybe that should be neopaganism's main marketing pitch. :-)

Richard Carrier said...

Haukur said... I'm surprised how dogmatic you are about this. Nature being a nasty brute or genuine monster or horror movie villain etc. is just a fact and alternative views are fantasies? You seem to think I am disputing some facts about malaria or hurricanes or earthquakes. I'm not.Then you are arguing with someone else, not with me. The evils of nature are not a fantasy. They are a fact. I don't have to be dogmatic about demonstrable, undeniable facts. The facts speak for themselves. And they are monstrous and brutal. Unless you want to redefine those words contrary to English convention. But as you know, I reject such word games. You can't escape reality by redefining words.

Haukur said... Did you earlier in your life find it a fact to be admired? How did you understand the fifth poem of the Tao Te Ching?Indeed. Hence I am no longer a Taoist. Taoism was quite wrong about this, as with much else besides.

Richard Carrier said...

Q: "what on earth [do pagans] believe in the first place"Haukur said... Most pagans I know have a naturalistic world view--many are even happy to call themselves atheists (though I personally find that confusing).Then what makes them "pagan" as opposed to just naturalists?

Those who do believe in something supernatural may hold views close to the European pagans of old (more the folk religion than the Stoics or the Platonists) or to New Age people or to Taoists or to Hindus. I think there is a lot of variety there.Indeed, which is what has actually been the standard case throughout history and I would assume is what most people understand even neopaganism to be now. But what does "supernatural" mean here? Remember, this started by pointing me to an unintelligible essay by York, which remains just as unintelligible. We don't seem to be getting anywhere.

Let's forget the pagans who are just naturalists. York's complaint is utterly illogical if all he means is this, since naturalists are already represented--by naturalists. Pagans are thus not excluded at all. He is claiming something is being overlooked, but that can only mean supernaturalist pagans. So let's only talk about the supernaturalist pagans. When they say (like York) that many gods "exist" what do they mean by that?

I thought it was interesting to see Richard post the cover of a Ram Swarup book at one point. Have you read that book? What did you think?The book I posted an image of was a scholarly book on Islamic hadith. It has nothing to do with paganism, or even the philosophy of the supernatural. Hence it's not relevant here.

I introduced Gerstenfeld's article as a way to approach the immanent/transcendent divide. Gerstenfeld purports to compare a sort of timeless paganism with a sort of timeless Judaism. In reality he's probably comparing neo-paganism with his own type of modern Judaism.Indeed, but like York, his essay is completely unhelpful. It neither explains what 'supernatural' actually means or what 'paganism' actually means or what pagans actually believe. And it fails to usefully illumine any actual difference between monotheism and polytheism as such, since plenty of monotheistic sects are immanentist by his description, therefore negating any difference.

Bad history and lousy articulation only make things worse. I'd recommend avoiding such things. Circular-file Gerstenfeld.

The medieval Christian writers I'm familiar with do sometimes condemn pagans for worshiping nature but I get the impression that they regarded it as a lesser error than worshiping 'demons'.I'd question whether they even conceived a difference. Certainly, worshipping the creation (in either sense) was both blasphemy and heresy in medieval Christendom, and most modern Christendom as well. But the question isn't whether monotheists think polytheists are mistaken or damned. The questions before us here are what polytheists believe, in what sense it is "supernatural," and whether they have any evidence and arguments in favor of these supernatural whatsits that would even warrant what York wants: a full seat at the table of debate between monotheists and naturalists.

Richard Carrier said... Most actual people who saw that would assume you believe some kind of superbeing of that name exists somewhere that is somehow consciously aware of your worship and will reward you in some way for the honor you pay them.Haukur said... And this is somehow a simple and straightforward proposition to you?Yes. It is.

What is a superbeing?Any intelligent person superior to humans in abilities.

What does it mean to exist somewhere?To be located in some place or other (as opposed to being located nowhere).

Honestly, that's grade school English. Let's not pretend you really have any trouble understanding it.

Is it in opposition to existing everywhere?"Everywhere" is a "somewhere." Read my debate with Wanchick on exactly this point (Argument from Non-Location, in my opening and second rebuttal and closing).

What does it mean that Aphrodite is "of that name"?That it answers to the name Aphrodite.

(Do I need to start saying "Duh!" here?)

Does it mean that she has no other names?Why would it? This is standard English comprehension here. The sentence as stated plainly informs you the answer is "No." Do you really need to be hand-walked through a simple sentence?

Does it mean that she cares what names she is referred to with?Only insofar as she will recognize that name as an address to her (rather than someone or something else). The sentence as stated entails nothing else.

What do you mean by Aphrodite being conscious?Honestly?

Look up "conscious" and "consciousness" in a dictionary. If you are still confused, read my chapter on "mind" in Sense and Goodness without God.

Do you mean, to quote Wikipedia, something "related to the specific way in which humans are mentally aware in such a way that they distinguish clearly between themselves (the thing being aware) and all other things and events"?That definition is lexically erroneous, since by definition consciousness is not exclusively human (i.e. it is logically possible for non-humans to possess it). But remove that error, and the answer is "Yes."

Sam Harris says that "consciousness remains a genuine mystery, and anyone who attempts to study it is confronted by serious conceptual and empirical problems".He was talking about its cause, not its definition. Hence a supernatural god's consciousness would be just as mysterious as ours. Yet both Harris and I (and you) would have no difficulty telling the difference between conscious things and unconscious ones, be they people or gods or sticks or stones. Unless you talk to rocks or something and truly can't tell they aren't consciously aware of what you are saying.

To use your wording, yes, I feel that Aphrodite has "rewarded me in some way for the honor I pay her" but this will be meaningless to you unless I tell you what Aphrodite is and I can't.Then it is a meaningless sentence to you as well. Is that what paganism is? Meaningless feel-good gobbledegook? That would mean pagans don't in fact believe anything. They just mistakenly think they do. That would explain why every pagan I've read so far is completely unintelligible or incapable of explaining anything they believe. Sounds to me like a pretty good argument for rejecting it.

I'm hoping that restating it as "worship of Aphrodite has benefited me in the past" makes it intelligible since I think "worship of Aphrodite" is easy to define.You are now talking in circles, as if deliberately avoiding my every effort to pin down what you mean (and what other pagans, like York, mean). Come on.

Worship of even mindless and inanimate bobby pins can benefit someone, and that's true even on naturalism: such worship can make you feel good, focus your thoughts, or whatever (at least in principle). I will ask you (I think for at least the third time now) is that all paganism now is? A purely psychological feel-good process that harbors no actual beliefs at all whether (say) sacred bobby pins or plaster statues or universe-pervading ghosts have conscious minds and effective wills? Or are there any pagans left who actually do believe the latter (as almost all pagans once in fact did)?

If the former, then York is wrong: pagans have nothing to offer the debate between monotheism and naturalism, because pagans have already chosen sides: they are naturalists. If the latter, then York can only be right if pagans have actual evidence and arguments to place on the table supporting the existence of these supernatural beings they pray to.

So which is it?

On Epicureans: It interests me that, in spite of everything, Lucretius starts his poem with an invocation to the goddess we keep mentioning.For Lucretius (and a minority among the elite), gods were just fictional symbols of natural forces and phenomena. Worship was simply an act of social expression (as was the case among many, but not most Confucians). Most pagans were appalled by such atheistic ideas (which is why the elite rarely voiced them in public, and why many among the elite, like Plutarch or Mo Tzu, attacked them).

Lucretius was definitely a naturalist. Hence if that's all neopagans are, too, then York is wrong.

I think Hitchens would find the religious activities displayed in, say, this video abhorrent. If Richard doesn't then that's excellent.Just looks like a fun party to me. Maybe a little weirdo (depending on what they think they are actually doing at some points), but I can't imagine even Hitchens actually regarding it as abhorrent, any more than a secular wedding or Bar Mitzvah.

Haukur said...

The book I posted an image of was a scholarly book on Islamic hadith.That's a very odd way to describe the book so I'll assume you haven't read it. A pity. This is some pretty polemic stuff - it was actually banned in India.

Read my debate with Wanchick on exactly this pointI have - and I found your argument just as confusing and unconvincing as the judges of that debate did. Anyway, let's assume you mean some sort of Aphrodite-as-space-alien theory again. Do some pagans believe that? Yes. Many of the founders of the religious organization I belong to believed the gods were powerful, sentient, material beings living on other planets. They thought the gods contacted humans in visions and dreams via some naturalistic method that was, at least in principle, discoverable by science. I personally find this very unlikely and I don't think many people around here believe this anymore. But I'm sure some do.

Much of your commentary amounts to: "But if you believe this or don't believe that then you're just a naturalist!" But this isn't some big gotcha, I've been telling you all along that I'm a naturalist.

I think it's interesting that you've now more clearly outlined your vision of the future and it turns out it's the good old transhumanist utopia I see on so many atheist blogs. I personally think that's a rather unlikely (but not impossible) way for the future to unfold.

Haukur said...

You need a reality check. You need to stop conflating the serious with the trivial, and face up to the fact that the serious is indeed awful.Sigh, I *know* you and I think headaches and runny noses are trivial stuff. That was my point. I'm suggesting that people in a society where these ills had been eliminated would think differently.

But I do consider myself to have a cushy life - a substantially cushier life than that enjoyed by my ancestors. I also think that there is a very significant probability that my descendants will enjoy a less cushy life.

I hope naturalism will be there, actually picking up the pieces, with engineering and science and democracy and the wisdom of hindsight.We are in complete agreement, then. Interestingly, pagans can do engineering and science and democracy and hindsight (and naturalism!). I did democracy last Saturday, I did an engineering degree some 10 years ago and a science degree a few years later. I've sometimes fantasized about doing a degree in hindsight but I suppose that will have to remain more of a hobby :)

You keep suggesting that paganism is 'only' a way to make people feel good, apparently having forgotten that making people feel good was the whole goal of your philosophy to begin with. And of most philosophy, when it was still worthy of the name.

You're extremely fixated on beliefs in a way which I don't think most pagans are. Pagans are not so much a set of people with the same epistemological or ontological views, the way you're trying to squeeze out of us - apparently with frustratingly little success. We're happy to perform rituals together even if we have different conceptions of what exactly they're supposed to mean.

Haukur said...

Indeed. Hence I am no longer a Taoist. Taoism was quite wrong about this, as with much else besides.And do you feel you have a solid argument from first principles that shows that admiring this aspect of nature makes a person less happy?

I don't see what paganism can offer in that circumstance that naturalism already doesn't. Especially if paganism is just naturalism. Well, okay, perhaps it could give us funner parties. Maybe that should be neopaganism's main marketing pitch. :-)Haha, I think it pretty much already is - at least in my country.

Anyway, thanks for having this discussion. I remain pleasantly surprised about how willing you are to carry on a conversation at length with a random person you don't know about a subject which you didn't even pick.

The main outstanding issue is whether I can explain York's views better than York. I probably can't - but I'll give him another read and if I think of something I'll let you know.

Richard Carrier said...

Haukur said... "The book I posted an image of was a scholarly book on Islamic hadith." That's a very odd way to describe the book so I'll assume you haven't read it. A pity. This is some pretty polemic stuff - it was actually banned in India.

I don't see what that has to do with the matter. I don't care who is offended by it. The book is nevertheless an analysis of the historical exigencies that resulted in the production of the revered Hadiths (it's full text is available online). There is hardly any polemical tone to it. The only thing offensive about it is that it tells the truth.

I found your argument just as confusing and unconvincing as the judges of that debate did.

I don't see why. A God who exists nowhere by definition doesn't exist. What's confusing about that?

Since I specifically said in that debate that existing everywhere is existing somewhere (and not "nowhere"), the point I was drawing your attention to here, I don't know what your difficulty is.

Wanchick refused to avoid the ANL by claiming that God exists everywhere (a response that would easily have removed the ANL, as I myself said), because that would make him a panentheist and thus, in his own eyes and the eyes of his Christian peers, a heretic. But that's a problem peculiar to modern bankrupt Christian theology. Most theists in fact have no problem with panentheism, and aren't even aware this makes them heretics in nearly every Christian Church.

But that's moot here. You asked if existing somewhere is in opposition to existing everywhere, and I directed you to where I said it was not. Don't slip off the rails here. Stay on track.

Anyway, let's assume you mean some sort of Aphrodite-as-space-alien theory again. Do some pagans believe that? Yes. Many of the founders of the religious organization I belong to believed the gods were powerful, sentient, material beings living on other planets. They thought the gods contacted humans in visions and dreams via some naturalistic method that was, at least in principle, discoverable by science. I personally find this very unlikely and I don't think many people around here believe this anymore. But I'm sure some do.

Then you cannot have been endorsing this as the meaning intended by York's "A Pagan Defense of Theism."

If anyone believes paganism in this sense, they are obligated to defend it, and as you yourself admit, they are unlikely to succeed at that. But otherwise, I can now answer the original question: such a view is certainly compatible with naturalism (if nothing more is added than you describe), and is no different from many common naturalistic UFO religions that have popped up the last fifty years, most popularly Scientology (unless Scientology denies any naturalistic explanations for the elements of its weird sacred story). But Taoism in comparison is very definitely supernaturalist!

Much of your commentary amounts to: "But if you believe this or don't believe that then you're just a naturalist!" But this isn't some big gotcha, I've been telling you all along that I'm a naturalist.

You must have lost track of what we were talking about: York's essay, linked above by Yewtree, which raised two issues: what pagans mean by the word "supernatural" and whether York has any right to complain that the naturalism-theism debate unreasonably excludes the third option of paganism.

If paganism is naturalism (and just a variant thereof), then the answer to the second question is no, because paganism is already in that debate, under the rubric "naturalism." I can only assume you agree, since you haven't otherwise answered the question.

But either way, this leaves one question for me: if paganism is naturalism, then how does pagan naturalism differ from nonpagan naturalism? So far you have ruled out the "we also believe space aliens communicate with us" variant of naturalism (as something you seem to say is unlikely, and fringe even within the modern pagan community). Which leaves my last observation intact: if we cast out even that, then "neopaganism" no longer shares anything in common with ancient paganism and is itself quite alien to what most people understand the word "paganism" to mean. Which leaves me wondering why one would even keep the confusing, anachronistic label. Why not call yourselves naturalists and be done with it?

But all that aside, I have still to hear what the answer to the first question is. And conceding you don't believe in the supernatural does not suffice to answer it. I still have no idea what you are denying, or what you believe you are asserting, by calling yourself a naturalist.

I think it's interesting that you've now more clearly outlined your vision of the future and it turns out it's the good old transhumanist utopia I see on so many atheist blogs. I personally think that's a rather unlikely (but not impossible) way for the future to unfold.

Utopia is the wrong word. As I explain in Sense and Goodness without God, we will never have a utopia, rid of every evil. We will only have successively better worlds. But only if things continue apace. If any monkey wrench is thrown in, then all bets are off.

However, I don't know why you would say I've "now more clearly outlined" my vision for the future. I have a whole chapter on it in my book--far more clearly outlining it than anything I've said here.

I'm suggesting that people in a society where these ills had been eliminated would think differently.

No, they wouldn't. That's my point. There is a vast difference between the misery of TB or MS and a runny nose. The reactions to them are vastly different now, and would be no different in a future without TB or MS. You seem to be saying people will start reacting to runny noses as they react now to TB or MS, and that's just ridiculous. They will not. They will regard runny noses as trivial in all possible futures. They will not regard TB or MS as trivial in any possible future--other than those in which they are easily cured. And for that very reason, people in a world without TB and MS will consider themselves better off, even as their noses get runny.

By direct analogy, we are better off now, than the ancients were in Pompeii. And if they were given an informed choice, they, too, would rather be here than there.

Of course, anyone given an informed choice would rather be somewhere else altogether, but that better place doesn't exist yet. It may exist in the future, if all continues as it has. And it will only come to exist on the shoulders of scientific and technological progress (and, of course, progress in the organization of our social system, which has also been steadily occurring, albeit much more slowly).

I also think that there is a very significant probability that my descendants will enjoy a less cushy life.

I don't think such pessimism is warranted yet, especially in perspective--when we consider, for example, how most Americans actually lived fifty years ago, Republican mythology aside. Although I can't speak for your own country's history, or future prospects either, at least over here it would take something catastrophically exceptional to alter the current lumbering course. Which isn't impossible, we must be wary. But it's unrealistic to assume it's likely, and not only likely to happen, but unlikely to be beaten when it does (the way we beat the last throes of fascist imperialism in WWII and the Great Depression shortly before that and the devastating influenza pandemic shortly before that and the Civil War shortly before that and...).

Interestingly, pagans can do engineering and science and democracy and hindsight (and naturalism!). I did democracy last Saturday, I did an engineering degree some 10 years ago and a science degree a few years later. I've sometimes fantasized about doing a degree in hindsight but I suppose that will have to remain more of a hobby :)

So can and do Christians and, gasp, Muslims. Yet look how things end up in their hands anyway despite that. It's not enough to do engineering and science and democracy and hindsight. You have to stay focused on reality. Now, if paganism is just naturalism, then the word "pagan" is largely meaningless. It tells me nothing about you that "naturalism" doesn't already. But if paganism is something more, then the issue becomes: will that "something more" get in the way, just as the "something more" of Christianity and Islam has? (or the "something more" of Taoism would, IMO, if it gained cultural dominance instead)

Or, more importantly, is that "something more" even really "something more," or in fact something the rest of us naturalists already have? Or could simply adopt? For example, funner parties with more mytho-social symbolism. No need to become a pagan to have those!

You keep suggesting that paganism is 'only' a way to make people feel good, apparently having forgotten that making people feel good was the whole goal of your philosophy to begin with. And of most philosophy, when it was still worthy of the name.

First, I am asking if paganism is only a way of making people feel good, not suggesting it is. Second, as I argue in my philosophy, you cannot achieve aggregate happiness unless your goals and beliefs are factual and true. The more you allow untruths to be regarded or mistaken as truths, the more impaired you will be in pursuing happiness. Hence there is a difference between a system whose only purported function is producing happiness (say, Scientology or EST or Spiritualism or whatever cult fad), and a system that can actually deliver what it purports to (as none of those things I just listed in fact really can). Hence even if you answer my question "is paganism only a way of making people feel good?" with a "yes" that still leaves the question: but does it work? And even then, if the answer is "yes," the question remains: is what makes that answer true actually not already present in naturalism without the paganism?

You're extremely fixated on beliefs in a way which I don't think most pagans are. Pagans are not so much a set of people with the same epistemological or ontological views, the way you're trying to squeeze out of us - apparently with frustratingly little success. We're happy to perform rituals together even if we have different conceptions of what exactly they're supposed to mean.

So, too, Christians. I have no problem with sectarian diversity. I no more expect all pagans to have the same theological views as I expect all Christians to. But nevertheless, I still need to know what the most common views are, even if I must (as with Christianity) settle for a top three or four broad categories. Otherwise, the word "pagan" is meaningless to me, and meaningless words are a waste of your time to use. You may as well call yourselves hsurpflizes, and then persistently refuse ever to tell us what that means, even using lame dodges like "well it means different things to different members of our group," without ever explaining what any of those differences are, or what any of them have in common, or what variants are the most common.

And even then one must ask why you use a word that means something completely different to everyone else, and has meant something completely different throughout most of human history. But that I could at least get past, with a roll of the eyes if necessary. But not the complete absence of any definition or explanation of its meaning. That simply renders a word useless.

And do you feel you have a solid argument from first principles that shows that admiring this aspect of nature makes a person less happy?That's not Taoism. Nor even a credible method. I have a solid argument from empirically confirmed facts that many of the claims fundamentally distinctive to Taoism are false.

As for admiring nature, if you propose we assume nature will always do right by us, that we can just let go and all will be well, then I can very easily present copious evidence to the contrary, and very easily refute the claim by experiment myself. But if all you mean is admiring (and taking advantage of) the fact that nature in part and at times is helpful and operative and efficient, I already advocate that, without any need of Taoism.

For example, correct elements within Taoism are reflected in my theory of intuition (on which I have a whole chapter in my book) and the political principles of government reinvention and minimized interference (which are incorporated into my political chapters and discussed at greater length in the books cited there) and my discussion of the benefits of minimized attachment and desire (in my chapters on morality) and of awe and inspiration at the natural world and in self-reflection (in my chapter on natural spirituality).

Though I didn't have much room to discuss philosophy of technology in my book, outside I have advocated the minimization of control-focused approaches (though contrary to Taoism, we cannot do without them altogether) and the maximized employment of self-regulating systems (though contrary to Taoism, these won't work in the total absence of human management).

Likewise, I advocate the pursuit of peace and positive systems of conflict resolution and the increased employment of preventive and reform-based justice, though contrary to Taoism a philosophy of total nonviolence is inherently suicidal. We need weapons, and indeed expensive and advanced weapons technologies, and the will to use them, precisely because we face irrational and deadly enemies who would destroy our lives and freedoms, and the only way to fight them with decreasing losses is with increasing technologies. In saying that I by no means endorse the stupid way these powers were used by the Bush administration, or the naive and knee-jerk way Republicans in general seem inclined always to use them, but they must be used, intelligently, wisely, and ethically.

In these ways and more, Taoism always comes out in the end as factually naive, and unrealistic and unworkable in practice. Yet one can still cull a great deal from it that is valid and useful. But these elements are not valid and useful because that are Taoist, they are valid and useful wholly independent of Taoism. And that's why Taoism needs to be chucked over the side with every other TM-like religion (exactly as I argue in Sense and Goodness pp. 270-73), and a sound, factual, well-thought-out, and adaptive naturalism taken up in its place.

Haukur said...

On the future: When I look into the past I see periods of peace and prosperity punctuated by periods of conflict and catastrophe. When I try to predict the future I find it difficult to believe that the present period of peace and prosperity (in the West) will continue indefinitely. Our current civilization has enormous potential for destroying itself. Weirdly, this is something most people understood 20 years ago but don't anymore. I don't think the political changes that have occurred, though they are considerable, really warrant the currently widespread optimism.

Can we really keep the peace for the decades to come? And can we really transition to a much lower use of fossil fuels? How can we do that? Either we need some really accelerated technological innovation in this field (something which tends to be blithely assumed with, in my opinion, far too little evidence) or we are going to have to adapt to a drastically lowered level of energy usage. The second possibility will be hard to do peacefully and however it happens it is likely to lead to less affluent lives for our descendants.

Obviously, this is a discussion well beyond the scope of a comments-on-a-blog-post-about-Taoism format. I accept that people can rationally reach very different conclusions on the probability of various future scenarios.

What scares me a bit about the atheist and rationalist bloggers I read (often with enjoyment and often to my benefit) is that the more actively they want to embrace atheism and rationalism, the more they tend to embrace super-optimistic ideas about the future. Getting yourself cryogenically preserved becomes "massively overdetermined", even at 100K$ a pop. The "Singularity" is just around the corner. Stuff like that. I just don't really get this, and I'm not exactly a luddite - I'm an engineer and a computer scientist.

The only thing offensive about it is that it tells the truth.When it comes to the history of Islam, the truth is pretty polemic. But I'm glad we agree on this. You may also enjoy the online writings of Koenraad Elst (a secular humanist) on the history and politics of India. Some of his writings are, to a degree, analogous to some of yours (you argue that Christianity hasn't been of benefit to Europe, he argues that Islam hasn't been of benefit to India).

I still have no idea what you are denying, or what you believe you are asserting, by calling yourself a naturalist.It means that I don't believe myself to be in possession of convincing evidence that anything beyond nature exists, as this is conventionally understood. If I did believe myself to be in possession of such evidence I would be knocking on James Randi's door, giddy that I was about to win a million dollars.

This doesn't necessarily mean that I have a strong position on most of the philosophical questions that theists and atheists tend to debate. I just don't understand advanced philosophical arguments. By contrast, I do understand and accept the argument for the ahistoricity of the resurrection. So that's at least one reason for me not being a Christian.

As for York and theology and whether pagans need a "seat at the table" I have no idea what to tell you. I suspect the part of theology which you are primarily interested in is a fairly small subset of theology as a whole and may not be the subset which pagans would be most interested in contributing to. But I can't say for sure and I haven't read York's book.

Haukur said...

Pleased as I am that you are willing to have this conversation with me, I don't think it can fruitfully continue. We keep coming back to the fact that I haven't read your book on your worldview. I assume that this book is where you have most clearly and coherently laid out your arguments so the thing that should obviously happen before we can discuss worldviews in a satisfactory manner is that I read your book. Hopefully I'll get a chance to read it at some point but I haven't yet.

But if you want to know what neopagans think there's no need to figure out what I in particular think. I'm probably a somewhat unusual neopagan anyway, at least here in my home country. I pray to Aphrodite - or rather (I think we might as well drop the classical facade now) to Freyja - and I pray submissively. I think most of my coreligionists over here don't do personal prayer at all. Many also explicitly say that they don't have a submissive attitude towards the gods.

To leave you with at least something, I'm writing a Wikipedia article on the religious organization I am a member of. I've included quotes on theological issues from the four high priests we've had. That's not much but it should at least give the general flavor.

Haukur said...

In hindsight, anyone not already familiar with transhumanism may have no idea what I'm even talking about in paragraph 4 of post 60. So, here's an example of Eliezer Yudkowsky saying what I think is weird stuff. And I like Yudkowsky. In fact, if you like sci-fi you could definitely do worse than checking out his Three Worlds Collide novella. Thought-provoking stuff.

Oh, and I found an atheist blogger (and a good one too) who's still holding out for neuroscience to tell him whether beliefs and desires are real or not. So, Richard is right, it's not a parody, there are actual people with views like that.

Richard Carrier said...

Haukur said... Obviously, this [debate about technology and future progress] is a discussion well beyond the scope of a comments-on-a-blog-post-about-Taoism format.

Actually, it's much more on-point than you think: the facts we're surveying now are among the very things Taoism failed to predict, account for, or comprehend. It's ignorance of technological and scientific advance and their effect on social and economic advance is one of its principal failings as a religion and a philosophy, one of the reasons I gave it up.

But I'll break it off here, and instead post my last reply in a full-on blog entry, on which you can then comment there. I'll do that in the coming weeks sometime.

Haukur said... [Naturalism] means that I don't believe myself to be in possession of convincing evidence that anything beyond nature exists, as this is conventionally understood.

There's the rub. What does "nature" mean when you say this? You ambiguously couch under "conventionally understood" some unstated definition, even though I find there is no clear convention here, which is precisely my problem. Remember where we began: definition of the supernatural, and whether many neopagans believe in the supernatural and if any do, of what sort. Defining the supernatural entails defining the natural (as they are logical converses of each other).

Haukur said... If I did believe myself to be in possession of such evidence I would be knocking on James Randi's door, giddy that I was about to win a million dollars.

That doesn't really follow. Theists believe in a supernatural God without believing they can prove it to Randi with the methods his terms require. Pagans could as well. All the more so since countless New Agers and Paranormalists exist who believe in supernatural powers like telekinesis and clairvoyance and magic yet who believe Randi is conspiring to ignore their evidence or unfairly discounts it because the effect is too small. And I often get the impression a lot of these people would self-describe as pagans. I just don't know for sure.

Haukur said... I suspect the part of theology which you are primarily interested in is a fairly small subset of theology as a whole and may not be the subset which pagans would be most interested in contributing to.

Which if true requires explaining what parts of theology they have anything novel to contribute to.

Haukur said... I pray to Aphrodite - or rather (I think we might as well drop the classical facade now) to Freyja - and I pray submissively. I think most of my coreligionists over here don't do personal prayer at all.

But what does all that mean in terms of belief? What do you believe prayer accomplishes and why do you do it? And why in that particular way? (e.g. why to Freyja and not The Spaghetti Monster; why "submissively" -- submissive to whom? or what? submissive how?). Is it just a psychological exercise, self-tuning your brain to some purpose? Or what exactly?

Richard Carrier said...

And finally:

The Wiki article you point to demonstrates at least some of these pagans believe actual gods physically exist, and think and act, and aren't just ideas in their mind. Though it doesn't discuss what exactly they think these gods are (supernatural beings; advanced space aliens; genetically engineered Cylon lords from planet Cobol; ???), so whether they are supernaturalists is unclear. Nor is it said what evidence they purport to have (and thus I still can't see how they would contribute anything to the debate between Atheism and Theism).

At any rate, some sure seem to be supernaturalists (e.g. Beinteinsson claims direct mental apprehension of these gods, which suggests a nonphysical mechanism, since there is no organ in the brain capable of this). Others are more ambiguous and frustratingly unclear, and that's even less helpful (e.g. Hansen says the gods are the forces of nature, but then it's not clear why he calls them gods, and IMO an explanation of what jotnar is would be helpful in any case, since according to him it's supposed to be another force that, evidently, isn't among the forces of nature; Hilmarsson is thoroughly ambiguous to the point of unintelligibility; etc.).

Haukur said...

I think Randi's test is fair and I think it would be easy to prove the effectiveness of, to take one of your examples, telekinesis if it did in fact work. Even if the effect is small or fickle it could still be picked up by an extensive enough test. Is there any possible way in which telekenises would work but could never be demonstrated to work in controlled circumstances? Yes, if some higher power was deliberately toying with us. Or maybe if the mental states necessary to carry out a scientific experiment work as a thoroughly effective anti-magic field of some sort. Or if there was a thoroughly effective conspiracy among scientists to suppress knowledge on this. But every explanation like this seems far, far less likely than the explanation "it just doesn't work". So that's what I'm inclined to think.

As for what Sveinbjörn Beinteinsson* believed, well. The same page I quoted that from also has: "The gods are not the main thing in my faith. I don't take literally the gods that the books tell about. They may have sprung from some sort of perception, either imagination or visions." So what did he mean when he said he had sometimes become aware of the gods? I don't really know.

On my beliefs (in general, not just my religious beliefs): I don't think there is a large coherent system of non-contradictory logical statements mapped onto my brain and corresponding to "my beliefs". The whole thing just seems to be a lot more muddled than that. I very much suspect the same is true for every other human being. Can I hold this position without being an eliminative materialist?

"Is it just a psychological exercise, self-tuning your brain to some purpose? Or what exactly?"

Maybe it is. If I could tell you exactly what it is I would have done so already. (And I tend to dislike sentences about the human mind with the word 'just' in them.)

Maybe you'd find Eric S. Raymond's thoughts on this subject more intelligible. Can you parse this one as "naturalistic pagan"? Or do you just get more confusion?

I hope you do write a blog post on the future and if you haven't already read Nick Bostrom's Existential Risks I hope you do that first.

* Side note: Icelanders usually don't have family names, just patronymics, and in Iceland are always referred to by their given name. That's also the style followed on English Wikipedia (though not it's not followed universally, patronymics are sometimes used as ersatz surnames).

Richard Carrier said...

Haukur said... I don't think there is a large coherent system of non-contradictory logical statements mapped onto my brain and corresponding to "my beliefs". The whole thing just seems to be a lot more muddled than that. I very much suspect the same is true for every other human being. Can I hold this position without being an eliminative materialist?



Don't mistake uncertainty of coherence for accepting incoherence. Certainly any or all of us may have some inconsistencies in our worldviews, but we all believe (or should believe) that that is a defect and therefore we should constantly seek out and remove such inconsistencies (by living the self-examined life) and will readily do so when others point them out to us (or else give up the inconsistent beliefs as untenable).

Accordingly, I don't expect you to already have a coherent belief system. But I do expect you to want one and to thus abandon any inconsistencies you or I expose, and to test your beliefs for consistency (with self-examination if necessary) when any specific test is requested (as I am requesting here).

Maybe it is [just a psychological exercise]. If I could tell you exactly what it is I would have done so already. (And I tend to dislike sentences about the human mind with the word 'just' in them.)



I will take this to mean you do not specifically believe (or make any specific point of believing) any gods exist apart from our mental conceptions of them (i.e. you may allow agnostically the possibility of more, without affirming anything more as known). I had already ascertained that from you earlier.

Such a position does not have anything to offer the atheism-theism debate. So the question is whether any pagans believe the gods are anything more than that (you've adduced evidence the answer is yes, you just aren't one of them), and whether those pagans have anything to offer the atheism-theism debate. So far, it would appear the answer is still no.

Maybe you'd find Eric S. Raymond's thoughts on this subject more intelligible.



Insofar as he says there are no actual gods nor anything supernatural, just ideas in human minds, yes, more intelligible, but of no use in expanding the atheism-theism debate. He's just a variety of metaphysical naturalist who's overly fond of metaphor and perhaps adheres to some pseudoscientific (albeit still naturalistic) beliefs.

Can you parse this one as "naturalistic pagan"?



Sure.

I hope you do write a blog post on the future and if you haven't already read Nick Bostrom's Existential Risks I hope you do that first.

Thanks for that link. I'll look it over, and possibly respond in the thread of my recent blog on doomsday.

Haukur said...

I don't have much to add here - I've nothing against increasing the coherence of my beliefs when opportunities present themselves though I (perhaps unfashionably) am something of a behaviorist.

As to whether pagans have anything to contribute to debates you're interested in, I ask in turn: Does the idea that there is good historical evidence for the resurrection of Jesus deserve a "seat at the table"? Is it such a compelling historical theory that it's worth spending books on discussing it? How about the historical theory that the rise of Christianity in the Roman Empire is impossible on naturalism? Another winner? Isn't the pertinent fact, rather, that there sure are a lot of Christians and so you think there's a certain utility in debunking their ideas, however absurd? I'm sure that if neopaganism ever gains some sort of dominant position in our societies, atheist thinkers will find the time to engage with neopagan ideas, even ideas they think are incoherent or without any merit.

Your doomsday post and its discussion thread are interesting and I think it turns out that we disagree less on that topic than I thought at first. Like someone mentioned over there it would be quite interesting to see a debate between you and John Michael Greer - either on the causes of the fall of the Roman Empire or on the likelihood that our current period of progress will come to an end in the not very distant future.

I hope you have fun reading Bostrom - his scoring system seems quite similar to yours; repeated cycles of rise and decline still count as a win if one of the cycles eventually breaks through. Basically only human extinction really counts as a loss.

Richard Carrier said...

Haukur said... As to whether pagans have anything to contribute to debates you're interested in, I ask in turn: Does the idea that there is good historical evidence for the resurrection of Jesus deserve a "seat at the table"? Is it such a compelling historical theory that it's worth spending books on discussing it?

Objectively, no. No more than the teleportation of Apollonius or the magical defenses of Delphi or the snake that shagged Alexander's mum. The only reason so much ink is spilled on "the resurrection of Jesus" is that such a large, powerful and influential group (Christians) keep insisting it's an exceptional case, and then distort and abuse history and logic in defense of it, misleading and misinforming the public, and taunting us (as a rhetorical tactic to win votes from the public) with claims that we can't disprove them without begging questions or standing on our biases (ironically), which compels educators and experts like me to correct them, and thereby inoculate the public against their propaganda, educating the public instead on sound facts and logic and historical method.

By analogy, holocaust denial and creationism don't objectively deserve any respect, either, but the pernicious influence of their sophisticated and sophistical defenses only increases if left unanswered, hence we are sadly compelled to deal with them, ad nauseum. It's just the contingencies of history really. Had the Mithraists won out, we'd be wasting our time debunking the miracle of Mithra's birth from a rock. It would always have been one thing or another. Until everyone joins the Enlightenment. Still waiting on that.

Haukur said... How about the historical theory that the rise of Christianity in the Roman Empire is impossible on naturalism? Another winner?

Actually, apart from "ditto," I find that claim an excellent launching pad to educate people on ancient culture and historical method in general--including an extensive examination of paganism. Some people find the pyramidiot stuff such a launching pad, or the Exodus story, or the "lead poisoning" theory of the decline of Rome, and so on. Again, there would always be some lame thing worth debunking (Roswell, anyone?), not because its respectable, but because its popular and thus doing significant damage to public knowledge and understanding. The unpopular can be safely ignored. Thank goodness. Saves us time.

Haukur said... Isn't the pertinent fact, rather, that there sure are a lot of Christians and so you think there's a certain utility in debunking their ideas, however absurd? I'm sure that if neopaganism ever gains some sort of dominant position in our societies, atheist thinkers will find the time to engage with neopagan ideas, even ideas they think are incoherent or without any merit.

I quite agree. Do you have a timeline on when that's going to happen. :-)

Scientologists, the Amish, Victor Hugo worshippers, countless religious minorities could make the same claim. But it backfires. Because the whole point is that addressing them out of proportion to their influence lacks any utility, precisely because they are insignificant.

In any case, this is certainly no sound argument for asking pagans to join debates over the existence of God. If all they have to offer is even more lame nonsense, what would be the use in hearing them out? They can't even persuade the general public. And they're supposed to persuade atheists? Seems too improbable to credit. Which is why we ignore them.

The argument we began with is that pagans had something worth hearing to contribute. If they do, let's hear what it is. So far, you've come up short on that request. And sorry to say it, but that's been my point from post one.

Haukur said...

Maybe I wasn't clear enough - I completely agree that it makes sense to rebut influential wrong ideas and that it's much less urgent or important to rebut obscure wrong ideas. I have no particular desire for atheists (or New Atheists or what have you) to turn their guns on paganism. And I do enjoy your historical writings, including your exhaustive debunking of very bad ideas. I'm also happy for you guys to idolize pagan philosophers, whether Hypatia, Epicurus or Confucius.

The original point was whether pagans had something to contribute to theology but as far as I can tell the only sort of theology you're interested in is "debates over the existence of God" (with monotheism apparently built right into the question). I'm sure pagans are every bit as capable as participating in this discussion as Christians are. Some of the arguments deployed are pagan to begin with (first cause yadayada).

Personally I just don't have the philosophical training to even understand this debate and it doesn't really attract my interest. I enjoy pagan worship, pagan music, pagan literature, pagan community. Things like that are, to me, "what pagans have to contribute". If it's not for you then that's no skin off my nose. You say that you found many things of value in Taoism, which is a pagan tradition under at least some definitions of pagan, and that you still retain the insights you found valuable there. That seems fine to me, I assume that's what paganism had to contribute to your life.

Just one note - I see this "had the Mithraists won out" idea again and again but I don't really get it. The underlying assumption seems to be that religious pluralism was always doomed in Europe - it was just a question of which cult would establish an oppressive state religion. But why would that be the case? And why are the Mithraists always brought up in this context? Is there anything to suggest that the Mithraists aimed to destroy every religious tradition except their own?

I see you've written some interesting stuff on those Bostrom articles. Maybe I'll make a couple of notes on that thread.

Richard Carrier said...

Haukur said... The original point was whether pagans had something to contribute to theology but as far as I can tell the only sort of theology you're interested in is "debates over the existence of God" (with monotheism apparently built right into the question).

Not at all. You've evidently forgotten where this did in fact begin: we were indeed talking exactly about whether polytheism really needed a place at the table. Your response waffled on whether neopagans are even polytheists in any relevant sense to begin with, which led to me trying to figure out what the hell else pagans are supposed to be if that's the case.

If now you want to come down as actually defending polytheism (and not semantic pseudopolytheism, as in "ideas are gods" or "gods are ideas" or any such nonsense, which is just atheism in the form of bad poetry), then get to it. But you haven't. You can't even show me a clear case of any neopagan making any kind of case for the real existence of multiple real gods. So what exactly is it that they are supposed to add to the debate? I'm still waiting for the answer to that question, the very question with which we began. After all this time, no answer has been forthcoming. Not a good sign.

I'm sure pagans are every bit as capable as participating in this discussion as Christians are. Some of the arguments deployed are pagan to begin with (first cause yadayada).

Technically, the first cause arguments as used today were invented by Muslims--monotheists--and Aquinas--a Christian. I assume you must be thinking of Aristotle's case for a first mover, but that is not quite the same argument (no one today uses his argument, because no one today believes God pushes the planets around). But even insofar as Christians now use revamped versions of pagan theology, they are already doing this a far sight better than any neopagan author I know. Unless you can point to anything any neopagan author has to add to current debates, then, de facto, they have nothing to add. That's my point.

I enjoy pagan worship, pagan music, pagan literature, pagan community. Things like that are, to me, "what pagans have to contribute".

That's all great, but it's a complete change of subject. If all that pagans have to offer the atheism-theism debate is an empirical case that paganism is more fun, I would be delighted to see that case made, but only in a fashion that would actually hold up in a serious debate. Otherwise, it makes for a great joke, but not a lot else.

Richard Carrier said...

Haukur said... I see this "had the Mithraists won out" idea again and again but I don't really get it. The underlying assumption seems to be that religious pluralism was always doomed in Europe - it was just a question of which cult would establish an oppressive state religion. But why...?

Oh, no, don't get me wrong: I didn't mean Mithraism would have won out (had Christianity not), I was only positing an alternative scenario that paralleled the present one. I actually think Mithraism was very unlikely to do this, and had there been no Christianity, we would most likely still be polytheists (that is exactly what I argue in Chapter 18 of my book Not the Impossible Faith).

And why are the Mithraists always brought up in this context?

Because Mithraism was the only religion chronologically parallel to Christianity that had both a massive, empire-wide institutional organization, and strong inroads into the army and political machine, and was suitably evangelistic. In fact, it was one of the first true "-isms" in the history of religion (Orphism, by contrast, was never an organized or unified anything, and other mystery cults were never "-isms" in any relevant sense). It was also prominently in competition with Christianity in Constantine's court (Mithraism and Sol Invictus worship had by then become closely linked, and their advocates in his entourage had as prominent a place as Christian advocates, like his tutor Lactantius, and he eventually sided with the latter and turned it into a repressive religion with which to control society, thus creating the perception that had his decision gone the other way...).

Richard Carrier said...

Haukur said... Is there anything to suggest that the Mithraists aimed to destroy every religious tradition except their own?

Not at all. But there are many theorists who argue that it would never have survived unless it did. The theory is that monotheism has a memetic survival advantage precisely because it suppresses competition and thereby monopolizes religious resources (money, time, energy, personnel, intellectual capital, etc.), and is more rhetorically coherent and therefore more effective at persuading devotion (which is not to say it's more logical, only that it has a number of rhetorical advantages that give it an edge over the competition). One element of the latter is that a group devoted to defending monotheism can more easily unite behind a common raft of arguments, whereas polytheists never agree (indeed, do not view agreement as required), which puts them at a distinct disadvantage in the war of ideas.

That's why American politics degenerates into extreme camps who suppress internal dissent and attempt to fabricate a common front even when it makes no sense, because a party that allows it's members to disagree with other members will tend to lose arguments and, consequently, power, ergo conversely those groups who gain power are those who give the appearance of being the most ideologically consistent. As in politics, so in religion.

Thus, the idea is not that Mithraism was on track to act like Christianity, but that the fact that it wasn't is exactly what did it in. Consequently, the most obvious contrafactual history is one in which Mithraists instead did what they would have to have done to prevail, which entails picking up the same track Christianity was on.

Personally, I'm not entirely convinced by the theory, even though a lot of scholars are (both secular and Christian scholars; Rodney Stark, for example, though he doesn't discuss Mithraism of course). It is certainly true that a religion that combines an evangelistic fervor with intolerance and then gains political power, will have enormous survival advantages over all other religions, provided it is well organized and maintains its hold on power. But I don't think this conjunction of factors is itself inevitable. It was entirely possible that no intolerant evangelical religion would ever have gained (or kept) political power, in which event I suspect the most successful religious zeitgeist would be polytheism (most likely henotheistic polytheism). The failure of monotheism in early Egypt is an apt example.

But this is open to debate, since history hasn't left us with many proper examples of control groups. Hinduism is perhaps the only significant example of a still-successful national polytheism.