Food for thought

readingsOur regular Friday diet of suggested readings for the weekend:

Senator Rand Paul was until very recently supposed to be the most interesting politician in America. And yet, indications are that the Libertarian movement he spurred is already fizzling. This article asks whether there is such a thing as a coherent Libertarian movement, in practice or even in theory.

Should we genetically engineer human beings to better withstand climate change? This seems to me not just a really, really bad idea, but yet another techno-non-solution put out there while the planet goes to hell in a hand basket and we keep doing little or nothing to avoid it.

And speaking of awful ideas, get ready for the November release of “Peeple,” an app that bills itself as “Yelp for People.” Right, so you’ll be able to “rate” other human beings you come in contact with, including co-workers, friends and lovers. And no, you won’t be able to opt out of it, if someone starts publicly rating you. Absolutely ghastly.

SETI, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, is getting a much needed shot in the harm, financially speaking. But the question remains: is an enterprise that is based on little more than vague hopes and unsubstantiated assumptions about alien technology and psychology really science? And is it worth hundreds of millions of dollars and thousands of scientist-hours to pursue?

Gary Gutting, over at the New York Times’ Stone column, puts out what he terms “Pascal Wager 2.0,” an allegedly improved version of the 17th century argument that you really ought to believe in God, as a matter of statistical odds. Too bad he doesn’t address the well known arguments that are fatal to the original, and against which the new version doesn’t do much better.

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Categories: Plato's Suggestions

74 replies

  1. Massimo, the subtitle is “Energy, Evolution, and the Origins of Complex Life,” which is a good explainer. I’ve already learned about things like the five supergroups of eukaryotic cells, how eukaryotes may have been a one-off merger between an archaeon and a bacterium and more. His previous book was “Life Ascending: The Ten Great Innovations of Evolution.”

    He’s already stimulated me to think of eukaryotic life as similar to a catalyst, like platinum in chemistry. Their evolution became such a catalyst for energy control that only they, not archaea or bacteria, went on to form more complex life.

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  2. Massimo, I should add that, per the SETI issue, and him referencing Monod in his introduction, Lane seems to lean toward the “contingency” side of evolution. I have long done so myself; this, in addition to the fact that Dennett’s claim is unprovable at this time, possibly forever, is why I reject the “algorithmic” idea.

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  3. Labnut: And, many others don’t find them deeply affirming. Beyond that, “deeply affirming” has no logical connection as to whether some degree of religious belief or practice has some logical, or empirical, necessity for an ethical life.

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  4. Gadfly,
    And, many others don’t find them deeply affirming

    That great numbers of people find it deeply affirming is sufficient grounds to pay it real attention. Or do you perhaps think we should ignore this real and important phenomenon?

    “deeply affirming” has no logical connection as to whether some degree of religious belief or practice has some logical, or empirical, necessity for an ethical life.

    Your statement is akin to boxing with your own shadow. Nobody made that claim, neither Gutting nor myself. So why drag this into the discussion??? I fail to see the relevance of your remark, except maybe as a smokescreen.

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  5. labnut,

    to be fair, yes, the fact that many people believe X is sufficient reason to pay attention to X. But it is not at all sufficient reason to think X is real, true, a positive thing, and so forth. I’m sure you can come up with a large number of “X’s” in humanity’s past that fit the bill…

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  6. “Nobody made that claim, neither Gutting nor myself. So why drag this into the discussion???”

    Because if Gutting (or you) didn’t believe that religion has those characteristics neither of you would bother defending it.

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  7. Massimo,

    One wonders how many X’s in humanity’s present fit the bill….

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  8. Massimo,
    this is what Gadfly actually said, please note the use of the word ‘necessity’. I have italicised it to highlight its central role in the sentence. For further confirmation see the other comments I quote below.

    whether some degree of religious belief or practice has some logical, or empirical, necessity for an ethical life”

    Never, ever have I made that claim and judging by the tenor of Gutting’s writings he has never made that claim either. Nor is it even likely that he or I would make such a far reaching claim because it would be a preposterous overreach.

    In an earlier comments Gadfly made similar false attributions[1]:

    Gutting also seems to believe, as one gets deeper in the piece, that religion is necessary for a truly ethical life.
    and
    he still seems to believe religion is a necessary part of the moral life.

    Such false attributions are harmful to the discussion. I challenge you or Gadfly to read Gutting’s piece again and show where he claims that religious belief or practices are necessary for an ethical life!

    Please let’s stick to what I really said and what Gutting really said. I have certainly never claimed that religious practice or belief was a necessity for an ethical life and I do not believe that.

    [1] Note: I am using the phrase ‘false attribution’ in the narrow sense of falsely attributing a belief or position to another and and thus wrongly biasing the discussion. Yes, I know the phrase is used in other ways but in this case I am defining it to mean what I said above.

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  9. Massimo,

    But it is not at all sufficient reason to think X is real, true, a positive thing, and so forth.

    Once again, that was not the claim, so why contest a claim that was never made??

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  10. Massimo,
    Because if Gutting (or you) didn’t believe that religion has those characteristics neither of you would bother defending it.

    We defend it because religion is an important source of ethical conduct but we do not claim it is a necessary source of ethical conduct. There is a world of difference between the words ‘important‘ and ‘necessary‘. But then you are the master logician and you know that very well. Gadfly dragged in the words ‘necessary‘ and that was just plainly wrong. He should read the article more carefully.

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  11. labnut,

    I agree with you that neither you nor Gutting said or reasonably implied that religion is necessary for ethics.

    But I was responding to your comment that if something is followed by a lot of people then it deserves attention. It does, but the number of followers says pretty much nothing about whether that something is good, bad or what.

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  12. Per my “Gutting also seems to believe (please note one word there) … that religion is necessary for a truly ethical life,” I quote:

    The argument begins by noting that we could be much happier by making appropriate contact with such a power. The next question is whether there are paths we can take that have some prospect of achieving this contact. Many people, including some of the most upright, intelligent and informed, have claimed that there are such paths. These include not just rituals and good deeds but also private spiritual exercises of prayer, meditation and even philosophical speculation. A person’s specific choices would depend on individual inclinations and capacities.

    So far, then, we have good reason to expect much greater happiness if there is a beneficent power we could contact, and we know of paths that might lead to that contact. …

    Religious agnosticism may accept the ethical value of a religious way of living and even endorse religious ideas as a viable basis for understanding various aspects of human existence.

    Since he is arguing for a modified Pascal’s wager over the desirability of pursuing all of this, And, that’s where I derived my observation.

    That said, his idea of what would constitute a “religion” seems to be a big tent indeed. But, the fact that he mentions ONLY “religious agnostics” and not atheists as his “target audience”?

    Contra both Massimo and Labnut, I’ll stand by my take on Gutting.

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  13. Massimo,
    but the number of followers says pretty much nothing about whether that something is good, bad or what.

    Agreed.
    For that we would have to look to other evidence, both internal and external. We would find examples of good and counter-examples of bad. We would weigh that evidence against each other and assess whether good is a natural intrinsic result. Similarly we would examine the bad and assess whether the bad is a natural, intrinsic result. As part of that we would have to take into account my Bad Man Argument[1]. We would consider the history and then would have to take into account whether we are falling prey to presentism[2]. Finally we would examine the forms of the institutional practice and apply the Cultural Clothing Argument[3].

    I mention all this because I have been through the process with great care as part of my exercise to weigh the theist hypothesis against the atheist hypothesis. In order to do this I inhabited atheist forums so that I could learn from them. I read the atheist ‘bibles’. I closely studied all the arguments on both sides. I looked very carefully at the science.

    The process that I went through is what I call an Informed Pascal’s Wager, which I described in an earlier comment, although I did not name it as such. After all, should a rational person not first carefully inform himself before making a wager? The term ‘wager’ captures the uncertain nature of the outcome, that no proof is possible, that we must make do with choosing the most reasonable and likely outcome, as we do in the rest of our life. I devoted so much care and effort over an extended period of time to informing myself before I made my wager. The process was a hugely rewarding experience that has changed my life, repaired my family and increased my value to society.

    To sum up, we have the original Pascal’s Wager, we have Gutting’s v2.0 of Pascal’s Wager and we have my version, the Informed Pascal’s Wager. I recommend the Informed Pascal’s Wager over the other two. Gutting’s version is useful and can be seen as a consideration that feeds into my Informed Pascal’s Wager. I agree that the original Pascal’s Wager was flawed and this is why I adopted the Informed Pascal’s Wager.

    Notes

    [1] Bad Man Argument:
    1. There are bad people everywhere, doing bad things, all the time;
    2. Bad people infiltrate every institution known to man, without exception;
    3. Therefore bad people do bad things in every institution known to man, without exception.

    [2] Presentism, an example:
    Is it reasonable to blame Prince Charles, Prince William and Prince Harry for the rapacious misdeeds of King Henry VIII? Obviously not.

    [3] Cultural Clothing Argument:
    Beliefs become institutionalised and when that happens they are clothed in the culture of the prevailing milieu. No belief system is or could possibly be immune to this process.

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  14. Gadfly,
    “Contra both Massimo and Labnut, I’ll stand by my take on Gutting.”

    Your reasoning baffles me. How could you possibly reach that conclusion from this statement by Gutting?

    Religious agnosticism may accept the ethical value of a religious way of living and even endorse religious ideas as a viable basis for understanding various aspects of human existence.“.

    Please help out by explaining your reasoning clearly and explicitly.

    To me it seems as though Gutting is saying:

    1. A religious way of living has ethical value. (uncontroversial)
    But note he is not in any way claiming that only a religious way of living has ethical value. It is impossible to read that meaning into the sentence.

    2. Religious agnosticism may</strong accept this value. (poorly worded)
    I think his wording is a little clumsy. I think what he means here is that the ethical value of a religious way of living is one reason for adopting ‘religious agnosticism‘. He gives other reasons earlier.

    I really do find it impossible to conclude, as you do, that Gutting is saying that a religious way of living is ‘necessary‘ for an ethical life. But then, why don’t you ask him? I am sure he will deny your charge as ill founded and not capable of being read from his words.

    In any case this discussion has been a useful way of clarifying Gutting’s arguments. Contending claims do that and so I thank you.

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