Re: The Science of Futility

1

I agree with this post completely.

Specifically, "sky fairy" is possibly the phrase that turns me off most quickly to arguments made by my own side of the debate. More so even than the phrase "brown people".


Posted by: Cryptic Ned | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 9:31 AM
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PZ put me off permanently a few years ago. Smugness and an utter lack of empathy are no more attractive in an atheist than in a fundie.


Posted by: Gabardine Bathyscaphe | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 9:38 AM
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Back on the veldt, such arguments were settled with big sticks. That is all.

Not really. Back on the veldt, one shaman told the other shaman that if you included that little star on the lower left, it looked like a bison rather than a mammoth. So we must worship the bison.

Then the mammoth-worshiper hit him with a big stick.


Posted by: bob mcmanus | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 10:02 AM
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That's why until we learn to worship the big stick, we will never be free.


Posted by: Walt Someguy | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 10:04 AM
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All true. At one point I contended with Pharyngula by never reading the comments, on the grounds that Myers was more interesting and versatile than his claque. Eventually I concluded that this was no longer true, and I don't think I've looked at in in two years.


Posted by: chris y | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 10:04 AM
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4:We did, we did.

After tens of thousands of years, mankind progressed into temple culture, and worshiped many vertical thingies.

But we must thank the Greeks for helping white men know the difference between their penis and their belly-button. Science is hard!


Posted by: bob mcmanus | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 10:13 AM
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on the grounds that Myers was more interesting

Let's not turn this into the Twilight thread.


Posted by: Moby Hick | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 10:16 AM
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I don't read pz meyers either. It is kind of like a web site dedicated to the earth being round. It is correct but not entertaining.


Posted by: lemmy caution | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 10:38 AM
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It is kind of like a web site dedicated to the earth being round if you lived in a country where half the population thought it was flat


Posted by: ajay | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 10:52 AM
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David Hume says that if you start out believing in God, you can come up with all sorts of rational arguments to reinforce your belief and patch up all the logical problems associated with belief in God. (He was thinking particularly of the problem of evil.) But if you don't start out with an emotional need to believe, then all the reasoning in the world will not move you to belief. He further found the absence of an emotional need to believe quite a blessing.


Posted by: rob helpy-chalk | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 10:58 AM
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Most people are dicks.


Posted by: nosflow | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 11:02 AM
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I was pretty unimpressed with Sullivan's* series on belief. He asserted at one point (something close to the idea) that the point of our lives was struggling with the question of what happens after. That held zero resonance for me. I never wonder that at all and would consider my time wasted if I pondered it at length. There are more important things to wonder about, like alternatives for harvesting honey from my hive. Does anyone know anything about that?


*I'm embarrassed to be reading him at all. I totally broke up with him (and left TNR in the process) back in the early 90's, when he was a fucking nutcase, which somehow I could tell even as an undergrad without bloggy people to make fun of him. But he posts so much, and some of it is neat. Also, bloggers who put up emails from what would be their commenters are totally cheating. I know that's good content, which is why it is freeriding for the blogger to use it as a post.


Posted by: Megan | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 11:08 AM
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Science is a dick. Progress is a dick.

Everything that isn't a hole a flow a process (without culmination) a cycle a circle...is a dick.


Posted by: bob mcmanus | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 11:13 AM
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OT: So long as it not golf."


Posted by: CharleyCarp | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 11:14 AM
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Everything that isn't an innie, is an outie.


Posted by: heebie-geebie | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 11:15 AM
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15 IS BULLSHIT


Posted by: OPINIONATED FLATTIE | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 11:21 AM
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I quit reading Pharyngula years ago; I still read a lot of science blogs, but I'm not sure why, except for force of habit. The science blogosphere in general, and the physics blogosphere in particular, tend to suck. You either get lots of rants on tangential topics, or you get mediocrity and confusion, or on the rare occasions when people do a nice job of explaining some interesting science, you get a horde of crackpots or people with chips on their shoulder invading the comments section and making a mess of things. People who are correct get shouted down as arrogant or as representatives of the "establishment" quashing dissent. Crazy people get hailed as the next Einstein. It's a mess.


Posted by: essear | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 11:29 AM
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you get a horde of crackpots or people with chips on their shoulder invading the comments section and making a mess of things.

And that is different from?


Posted by: Moby Hick | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 11:30 AM
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I still read Pharyngula, but only because a) I love cephalopods almost as much as PZ does, and b) I also love reading loony fundie writings. I stopped commenting ages ago - the threads are unmanageably long regardless of the content. And I skip most of the posts. I find myself spending much more time on The Loom and Pandas Thumb and Respectful Insolence and a few other bio blogs.


Posted by: Ginger Yellow | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 11:31 AM
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15 :
Dream Interpretation
Everything's either concave or -vex,
so whatever you dream will be something with sex.
-- Piet Hein, Grooks


Posted by: joel hanes | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 11:32 AM
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essear: Try the Discover blogs, especially Bad Astronomy, The Loom and Cosmic Variance. The comments sections are pretty civilised.


Posted by: Ginger Yellow | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 11:36 AM
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If you practice, you can just have straight-up dreams about genitals. It really makes analysis quicker.


Posted by: Moby Hick | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 11:37 AM
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Last night I dreamed I was having a secret affair with a young and handsome Lubavitcher. This is not a fantasy of mine. Neat dream though.


Posted by: A White Bear | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 11:39 AM
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21: Yeah, I read them sometimes. I usually like The Loom. Cosmic Variance seems to have a pretty low ratio of science to random amusing stuff or annoying philosophical musings these days, and I can find better random amusing stuff elsewhere here. I think maybe my standards for physics blogs are unreasonably high.

I <3 RealClimate's posts on new research, but they're kind of intermittent.


Posted by: essear | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 11:42 AM
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23: I had the one where Rachel Weisz and Salma Hayek get into an argument about the best way to wash a car and then fight over the hose. This is a fantasy of mine.


Posted by: Moby Hick | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 11:47 AM
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25: But what does it mean?!


Posted by: A White Bear | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 11:49 AM
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I don't read much atheist stuff, but I am glad there are people out there making the argument passionately. I'd probably agree with most of what they say, even though it doesn't interest me terribly.

I know there are a lot of religious people out there, many of which are in need of various levels of deprogramming, and I'm glad there are atheist points of view available to them. That has not long been the case.



Posted by: Spike | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 11:49 AM
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It's interesting, though, that the quality of discourse on mathematics blogs is way higher than on physics blogs, or any science blogs I know of, for that matter. Plus they have that awesome MathOverflow site. I don't know what it is about the culture of mathematics that makes these things work, but I envy it.


Posted by: essear | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 11:49 AM
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My favorite science blog is probably Tetrapod Zoology. It does seem to be true though that the math blogosphere has a better signal to noise ratio than the physics blogosphere.


Posted by: Unfoggetarian: "Pause endlessly, then go in" (9) | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 11:51 AM
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Last night I dreamed that Obama got tired of being president and asked me to help him try to lay low for a while in a comic book store.


Posted by: Spike | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 11:51 AM
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26: That the judge was almost certainly right to issue the restraining order.


Posted by: Moby Hick | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 11:51 AM
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32

30 is cute.


Posted by: A White Bear | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 11:53 AM
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It may look like I was responding to 28, but in reality I was pwned.

On the other hand you all had the arxiv first, which counts for a lot!

One big difference is that most math doesn't attract cranks the way that say quantum mechanics does. Sure cranks love Fermat's last theorem, but you don't see many cranks trolling about the Hodge conjecture. This makes it much easier to discuss math in public on the internet than it is to discuss physics.


Posted by: Unfoggetarian: "Pause endlessly, then go in" (9) | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 11:55 AM
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Let me throw something out there:

Part of the reason the religious/skeptic discourse is so unpleasant, is that rationalist/atheist types are structurally unsympathetic to 'liberal' religion. All of the terms in there are badly defined, so let me unpack it a little.

I'm the sort of person I'm thinking of as rationalist/atheist -- not too far off Myers. And fundamentalist, or at any rate old-fashioned, religion makes a certain amount of sense to me: someone who says "I believe in a supernatural being with X qualities, on the basis of Y evidence (holy texts, direct personal experience of the divine, witnessing miracles either personally or as reported by someone trustworthy)" is saying something that could be true. I don't buy it myself, because I think that either the evidence is weak, or I can't evaluate it, but I can follow the argument -- it's of the same form as arguments I do accept as true.

More modern, liberal theology has a tendency to rely on arguments that I can't follow -- we had a couple of threads here where Kotsko was the voice of (I really don't have a good word here for what I'm calling modern, liberal theology. If someone has a good word for it, throw it in). And I felt as though my utter confusion as to what was believed, and on what basis was coming across as hostile and disrespectful.

Now, the correspondence between liberal politics and liberal theology isn't perfect, but it's pretty strong. So the way it works out, someone religious is almost always going to be someone whose arguments I can follow, but I think they're delusional about the evidence and their politics are brutal and unpleasant, or someone who while I sympathize with their politics, their religion is incomprehensible to the point that I have a hard time taking it seriously. There's very little scope for contact.


Posted by: LizardBreath | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 11:59 AM
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I like reading The Daily WTF occasionally, because I never fail to feel superior and it leads me to entertain the fantasy that I could get a straight job if I really wanted one.


Posted by: nosflow | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 12:00 PM
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Part of the problem is that (in my experience - which is mostly in the biology and cosmology spheres), the high-mindedness of the blogger's discourse is usually inversely proportional to the quantity of comments. MindHacks, for instance, is brilliant from a science to frivolity ratio POV, but has virtually no comments. It's kind of similar to the Spackerman conundrum (TM).

Maybe it's different in maths because it doesn't attract so many lay people, and because there isn't so much competition (just a guess, I only visit a few maths-centric blogs).


Posted by: Ginger Yellow | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 12:04 PM
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Also, what LB said.


Posted by: Ginger Yellow | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 12:05 PM
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I'm trying to think if there's a worse forum for a sympathetic and realistic assessment of religious experience than blog comments. There may be one, but I can't think of it.

These just aren't questions that one can deal with in the forum of a three-bullet-point offhand argument. Indeed, I'd say that part of the point of religion is precisely that it's not something that can be usefully thought of in that way.

LB, I think that argument can get you to the point of having strong reasons for distrusting both scientific and religious fundamentalism. To get to the point of having affirmative religious belief, or sympathetically understanding it -- no amount of argument on Unfogged is ever going to get you there, or even close.

Or, what Heebie said, sort of.


Posted by: Robert Halford | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 12:11 PM
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a worse forum for a sympathetic and realistic assessment of religious experience than blog comments

The Octagon?


Posted by: apostropher | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 12:13 PM
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I'm not sure the religion thing has anything to do with blogs in particular. It's that religious belief is not amenable to discussion or analysis, full stop, independent of the medium of the discussion. And it's annoying when someone like PZ Myers, who could be telling us interesting things about biology, instead spends his time ranting about topics that can't, almost by definition, be the subject of rational discussion.


Posted by: essear | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 12:16 PM
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religious belief is not amenable to discussion or analysis

Most adherents seem not to believe that.


Posted by: apostropher | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 12:18 PM
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a worse forum for a sympathetic and realistic assessment of religious experience than blog comments

Calvinist Geneva, circa 1553?


Posted by: Spike | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 12:20 PM
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Indeed, I'd say that part of the point of religion is precisely that it's not something that can be usefully thought of in that way.

What I meant in 34 is that I believe there are people who could meaningfully have arguments about religion in blog comments or anyplace else -- they just tend to have an old-fashioned type of religion. While odds are I'm never going to be convinced by them, it's not because of the circumstances under which we're communicating.

For someone whose religion leads them to say things like this:
To get to the point of having affirmative religious belief, or sympathetically understanding it -- no amount of argument on Unfogged is ever going to get you there, or even close.

Saying stuff like that is diagnostic of being someone I generally get along with on stuff; people who say stuff like that are pleasant liberals. But that particular statement is something I find wildly alienating, to the point where I know I'm afraid of engaging with you on religion at all because I will be unintentionally offensive and there's no chance that I'll get anything out of the conversation.


Posted by: LizardBreath | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 12:22 PM
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religious belief is not amenable
Heh.


Posted by: Eggplant | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 12:22 PM
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Don't confuse faith with religion, Apo. One is believing in the absence of evidence, while the other is trying to explain why. With a healthy dose of control of the people thrown in for good measure.


Posted by: Tassled Loafered Leech | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 12:23 PM
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It's that religious belief is not amenable to discussion or analysis, full stop, independent of the medium of the discussion.

I don't really agree with that; "discussion" and "analysis" can take a lot of different forms, many of which are quite helpful at understanding reilgion in ways that create common ground accessible to a non-believer without turning into a shouting match. But I do agree that discussion of religious belief in the form "I believe in God"; "You have no rational basis for that" are pretty damn useless.


Posted by: Robert Halford | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 12:25 PM
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But I do agree that discussion of religious belief in the form "I believe in God"; "You have no rational basis for that" are pretty damn useless.

On the other hand, "Get your friggin' commandments off my lawn" does have its uses.


Posted by: Spike | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 12:31 PM
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45: I meant that between sermons, Sunday school, seminaries, and the rest there's an awful lot of internal discussion and analysis going on.


Posted by: apostropher | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 12:31 PM
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I meant that between sermons, Sunday school, seminaries, and the rest there's an awful lot of internal discussion and analysis going on

Ain't that the truth. And a lot of really smart people have thought about this stuff for a long time. In fact, back when "science" was "alchemy", the smart guys were discussing religion. The scholarship is there for those who care to find it. Which is to say, not many.


Posted by: Tassled Loafered Leech | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 12:38 PM
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A short preliminary structuralist reading of Pixar's Up

Act One:Becoming an Object to Oneself
Critical Scene:Walking the Plank, Trusting the Horizontal. Plank failed, but trust was rewarded for fifty years

Act Two:Service to the Vertical (Images and action vert)
Science
Ambition, Isolation, Alienation

Act Three:Redemption in the Horizontal (Images and action horiz)
Love
Climax: Echo of Walking the Plank, with Trust, from House to Zeppelin

Epilogue, last scene

Contrast Vertical of House + Balloons to Horizontal of Zeppelin (much diminished in length and girth, detumescence). Note repetition and ritual of ice cream eating. Note relation of Ice cream parlour to surrounds, a horizontal among verticals, echoing the house just before takeoff


Posted by: bob mcmanus | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 12:42 PM
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But that particular statement is something I find wildly alienating

It's not meant to be alienating at all; we all have spheres of life and choices we make that aren't usefully dealt with in terms of formal argument, whether online or in real life (at least, I hope we all do). There are lots of ways of discussing/engaging with those things that don't take the form of Unfogged-style debates. If you're seriously interested in liberal religion, the place to start isn't theology, but the experience of visiting a church or temple or whatever that seems to have sympathetic people in it. Or if that's not interesting to you, don't.

(n.b., I'm sure that this comment would not be endorsed by liberal theologians. But even there, the form of argument is longer-form than what comes up in a comment box)


Posted by: Robert Halford | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 12:42 PM
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their religion is incomprehensible to the point that I have a hard time taking it seriously

There are a lot of defenses of religion that are just painful to read:

http://www.firstthings.com/article/2010/04/believe-it-or-not

http://www.lrb.co.uk/v28/n20/terry-eagleton/lunging-flailing-mispunching



Posted by: lemmy caution | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 12:43 PM
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I couldn't agree more with what LB said in 34 and 43. I really can't talk religion with people with squishy beliefs, it drives me crazy. One of my Jewish friends in college described himself as "non-practicing orthodox" and when asked why he was eating a cheeseburger on a bun during passover said "I don't follow the law the rest of the year why would I start for passover?" And I strongly identify with this sort of attitude. The christianity that I don't believe makes a lot of very serious, very important, and very wrong factual claims. I just can't comprehend people who are Christians and say don't think that christianity is the only valid religion, or who date non-christians, etc.

The one person I've had productive conversations about "squishy" religion with was Jewish and believed that God actually changed his mind about stuff as time goes on and got better at being God (I'm probably mischaracterizing his argument so blame me for any nonsense). He made a good argument from the fact that Moses managed to talk God out of some bad ideas, the flood, Abraham not killing Isaac, etc.


Posted by: Unfoggetarian: "Pause endlessly, then go in" (9) | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 12:48 PM
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52: Those were indeed pretty awful.


Posted by: apostropher | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 12:57 PM
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I just can't comprehend people who are Christians and say don't think that christianity is the only valid religion, or who date non-christians, etc.

Yes. I got in trouble in a college class for reacting argumentatively to someone who said "I'm Catholic, but I think all religions are equally true." I asked about whether she thought Zeus lived on Mount Olympus, and was rebuked by the prof.

(I could get along with someone who said "I believe X things about god (like, I'm a Christian, or something else specific) but I also believe that so long as you're sincerely attempting to be good or something like that, god doesn't care if you're wrong." A Christian Universalist would be fine. But once I'm talking to someone who can't commit to specific beliefs in facts that are true about the world in a way I understand, I can't continue the conversation.)


Posted by: LizardBreath | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 12:58 PM
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51: Certainly "Of course it's all nonsense, but church is a good way to meet nice people and meet friends and/or potential partners" is something I find totally reasonable and understandable. However, I suspect (assuming that you aren't an atheist unitarian) that my paraphrase of what you wrote is not one that you'd be happy with, and there is where the trouble starts.


Posted by: Unfoggetarian: "Pause endlessly, then go in" (9) | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 12:58 PM
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I take it, then, that many here would find this sort of thing objectionably lukewarm, and spit it out?


Posted by: nosflow | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 12:59 PM
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This guy is a great place to start even if he is a personal friend of mine.


Posted by: Tassled Loafered Leech | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 12:59 PM
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34: Man, remember that one time when I claimed religion wasn't primarily about beliefs? People went pretty crazy with that.

On the general topic of the post, I'm inclined to say that Heebie is being a little one-sided in attributing the emotional element only or primarily to the religious people -- an atheist who has to go around constantly denouncing religion, etc., obviously has a pretty deep investment in atheism (and possibly some kind of personal history where religion has injured him or her).

What makes conversations like that so unproductive is that no one recognizes the codependency involved. The doctrinaire atheist needs religion to be a certain way (hence focuses on fundamentalists and all but completely ignores liberals), just as the fundamentalist needs the patronizing evil secularist to constantly insult them.

I'm sure that for those involved it can be really satisfying -- it feels good to have "permission" to indulge in anger, and more broadly to feel like you're defending "something bigger than yourself" (whether it's Jesus or the spread of Enlightenment values).

But there's something fundamentally toxic about the whole thing in my view, something fundamentally immature. PZ Myers is a bully and a bore when he talks about religion. The people who would debate with him are thin-skinned and arrogant. The "debate" (if we're going to call it that) makes both sides moreso, respectively.


Posted by: Adam Kotsko | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 1:02 PM
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58:

He believes, as did his theological predecessor, Bishop John A.T. Robinson, that theism has lost credibility as a valid conception of God's nature.

Yeah, see, I can't possibly interact with someone of whom this is a true statement of his beliefs. I'm sure he's lovely on a personal level.


Posted by: LizardBreath | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 1:02 PM
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Or this sort of stuff, though I admit I haven't read the book so I don't know what sort of stuff it really is. (However, Johnston is responsible for one of my favorite phrases yet seen in a recent philosophical paper, "'fool's sexiness', the iron pyrites of love".)


Posted by: nosflow | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 1:02 PM
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||

Unfoggetarian: ... -- I've been keeping an eye out for you. I had a couple more bball things I wanted to mention, if you're interested shoot me an e-mail.

Thanks

|>


Posted by: NickS | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 1:03 PM
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53.2: The more usual form of that argument is that people (in fits and starts with backsliding) are getting better at understanding God, not that God is getting better.


Posted by: Moby Hick | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 1:03 PM
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The doctrinaire atheist needs religion to be a certain way (hence focuses on fundamentalists and all but completely ignores liberals)

In fact, apparently LB needs the religious to be a certain way, else she won't know what to do with them, and she's hardly Hitchens (thank god).

Yeah, see, I can't possibly interact with someone of whom this is a true statement of his beliefs.

Er, why not? It sounds interesting to me. You could interact with him by way of conversing!


Posted by: nosflow | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 1:04 PM
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51: There are lots of ways of discussing/engaging with those things that don't take the form of Unfogged-style debates.

Generalized that for you. I understand 51 overall, particularly this: If you're seriously interested in liberal religion, the place to start isn't theology, but the experience of visiting a church or temple or whatever that seems to have sympathetic people in it.

Though the sympathetic people aren't necessarily key either. Any experience of something that registers as the sacred has the potential to engender a religious feeling.


Posted by: parsimon | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 1:04 PM
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58: I think Fred Clark is the officially sanctioned go-to Christian for non-believers.


Posted by: apostropher | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 1:04 PM
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Man, remember that one time when I claimed religion wasn't primarily about beliefs? People went pretty crazy with that.

I don't think I remember that thread. How many of the people who went bonkers were Jewish?


Posted by: Josh | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 1:05 PM
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66: I used to read him when he was reviewing Left Behind. That was years ago.


Posted by: Moby Hick | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 1:06 PM
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IIRC, Labs and Adam got in a big argument. That must have been before Labs got so interested in Islam.


Posted by: nosflow | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 1:07 PM
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Er, why not?

Okay, let me say that I couldn't interact with him unless he were difficult-to-impossible to offend. There may be something interesting there, but I would have no shot of getting at it unless I were allowed to set forth why the quoted statement sounds like self-contradictory nonsense to me, so that he could talk me past the difficulty. IME of such conversations, they break down fast.


Posted by: LizardBreath | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 1:07 PM
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My surprise is not that man should need a religion; what astonishes me is that he should ever believe himself sufficiently strong, sufficiently protected against misfortune to reject a single one.

I have some sympathy with this position, although I 'm not surprised that strong women like Megan and LB have no need for religion.


Posted by: peep | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 1:09 PM
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67: I think a lot of the bonkers was me saying the sort of thing I said in 34 -- I was pretty involved in the threads. There's a good shot I was offensive, it's just a conversation I have trouble with managing inoffensively.


Posted by: LizardBreath | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 1:09 PM
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67: I don't know how many were Jewish, but I think Judaism is a great example of a religion that's not about "beliefs" in anything like the contemporary sense of "religious beliefs." Hell, I think that Catholicism as it's usually practiced is a great example, too. It's not like we need to look hard for these non-"fact"-based religions -- fundamentalist/evangelical Christians are actually the outliers, though it's understandable why Americans would view them as the paradigm of "religion."

65: I also have to say that as a scholar of religion, when I hear the words "experience of the sacred," I reach for my gun. Everyone needs to read Talal Asad immediately.


Posted by: Adam Kotsko | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 1:09 PM
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unless I were allowed to set forth why the quoted statement sounds like self-contradictory nonsense to me, so that he could talk me past the difficulty

I suspect he's quite used to that dialogue by now.


Posted by: apostropher | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 1:09 PM
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I liked that Kotsko post, with the exception of the last bit:

if it turns out that Christianity can't survive without the bullshit, then it's all bullshit.

which seems to be saying that only Christianity can give (human?) existence meaning. That's an irritating claim, and it doesn't seem to fit well with the rest of the "baggage-less Christianity" sketched in the post.


Posted by: Bave Dee | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 1:10 PM
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I 'm not surprised that strong women like Megan and LB have no need for religion.

Don't get me wrong, religion sounds great, if I had some way of convincing myself of the factual predicates. In the absence of that, I haven't got a religion, so whether or not I need one isn't an issue.


Posted by: LizardBreath | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 1:11 PM
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I got in trouble in a college class for reacting argumentatively to someone who said "I'm Catholic, but I think all religions are equally true." .... (I could get along with someone who said "I believe X things about god (like, I'm a Christian, or something else specific) but I also believe that so long as you're sincerely attempting to be good or something like that, god doesn't care if you're wrong." A Christian Universalist would be fine. But once I'm talking to someone who can't commit to specific beliefs in facts that are true about the world in a way I understand, I can't continue the conversation.)

What about this restatement: There are certain things religions profess, that probably aren't factually true (although contemplation of the possibility that they might be factually true can itself be enlightening and spiritually beneficial), although we're meant to live, and to understand the meaning of our lives, as if those things were factually true. Furthermore (and this is where we get to the "all equally true" part of your classmate's claim that I think bothered you): those religious professions vary across culturals, and across time within the same culture, in response to the diverse spiritual needs of different pockets of humanity, all as directed by God in his infinite wisdom (and, of course, with plenty of human error thrown into the mix, which it's the job of the theologians and the prophets (if you'll allow the term) to try to remedy).


Posted by: Brock Landers | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 1:11 PM
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would have no shot of getting at it unless I were allowed to set forth why the quoted statement sounds like self-contradictory nonsense to me

Ok, this sounds as if it's mostly your problem, with roots in tactlessness and lack of diplomacy. (Look who's talking, right?) Even I, when faced with something I find nonsensical, don't immediately start cataloging the ways in which I find it so, prior to requesting a fuller explication.

One way to try to get past the difficulty would just be to say, in fact, that the sentence as it stands sounds kind of soundbitey and could he perhaps give a fuller explication of the contrast on which it relies?


Posted by: nosflow | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 1:11 PM
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LB, I'm pretty much the last person on the internet who's going to go all "niceness police" on you. I may have gotten frustrated at points during the debate, but not offended -- and you were apparently frustrated from the get-go.


Posted by: Adam Kotsko | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 1:11 PM
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I don't know how many were Jewish, but I think Judaism is a great example of a religion that's not about "beliefs" in anything like the contemporary sense of "religious beliefs."

Yeah, that's why I asked; as a Jew, the distinction you make makes perfect sense to me.


Posted by: Josh | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 1:12 PM
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73: I certainly have no qualms at all with Jewish atheists who follow some or all of the tenants of judaism. And we can talk productively about religion. I similarly expect I would have no problem with an atheist Catholic or Hindu (though I haven't really met either). (Assuming in all cases that they avoid the sexist tendencies of their religion.)


Posted by: Unfoggetarian: "Pause endlessly, then go in" (9) | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 1:13 PM
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which seems to be saying that only Christianity can give (human?) existence meaning.

I took it to mean "if Christianity can't survive without the bullshit parts, then even the non-bullshit parts are bullshit", not "if Christianity can't survive with its bullshit parts, then GOD IS DEAD and EVERYTHING IS PERMITTED and LIFE IS EMPTY".


Posted by: nosflow | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 1:13 PM
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75: I do not intend to be saying that only Christianity can give life meaning. I'm saying that if Christianity can't survive without the bullshit, then all of Christianity is bullshit. Cursed pronouns!


Posted by: Adam Kotsko | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 1:13 PM
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the quoted statement sounds like self-contradictory nonsense to me

Basically he is saying that our understanding of God is limited by language, and is therefore both inadequate and changing. In a way that's a cop out to someone who needs hard and fast, but there ya go.


Posted by: Tassled Loafered Leech | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 1:15 PM
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82, 83: Kotsko like God is rendered irrelevant by his interpreter.


Posted by: peep | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 1:16 PM
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78: Ok, this sounds as if it's mostly your problem, with roots in tactlessness and lack of diplomacy.

Accept that I could communicate my lack of understanding with the utmost in dulcetly phrased charm? But I'm not going to get help from someone in explaining what they're talking about unless I can somehow communicate that their initial formulation seems to me to be self-contradictory to the point of meaninglessness, and communicating that sort of evaluation tends to annoy people.


Posted by: LizardBreath | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 1:17 PM
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82, 83: Thank you for the clarification, and I now like the post even more.


Posted by: Bave Dee | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 1:18 PM
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Aw, Elbee, I bet you could do it.

It's not so hard, anyway, if you're working with conceptions that render the statement self-contradictory you ask leading, but-what-do-I-know questions designed to reveal, by the very fact that you ask them, that you think the whole thing's bogus.


Posted by: nosflow | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 1:20 PM
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Fourth comma in 88 should be a semicolon.


Posted by: nosflow | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 1:20 PM
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I've heard many rabbis say that belief isn't important to Judaism. And if I had the inclination to talk back to rabbis, I would ask, "What about the belief that Judaism is important and worth troubling about at all?"


Posted by: peep | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 1:20 PM
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Yeah, if there's one guy in the world you don't have to worry about offending when discussing religion, it's Bishop Spong. And now I'm wondernig if TLL and I know people in common.

I'm going to bow out of this post, and hopefully Kotsko, who actually knows what he's talking about, will do the talking. But the point that religion is not primarily about belief is a very important one. In fact -- and here is a secret -- most religious people aren't sure at all about what they believe! (The same, by the way, is true for non-religious people, or most of them). Religious faith, IMO, necessarily contains a strong component of doubt, and isn't really about accepting a bunch of propositions about the facts of the world. It's more like accepting faith as a way of viewing the world or a component of your life, and being willing to be in a relationship with something who seems to you like a religious source of inspiration.


Posted by: Robert Halford | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 1:20 PM
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And if I had the inclination to talk back to rabbis, I would ask, "What about the belief that Judaism is important and worth troubling about at all?"

And if they said, "ok, that belief, sure", what then?


Posted by: nosflow | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 1:21 PM
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58: I think Fred Clark is the officially sanctioned go-to Christian for non-believers.

I love to read Fred Clark, but I remain somewhat confused about how such an eminently sensible person can still be a Christian.


Posted by: essear | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 1:21 PM
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84: More specifically, he's using "theism" in a more historically-specific way than "belief in God" -- traditional theism means belief in a single "unmoved mover" of the universe, existing apart from time (i.e., "eternal"), enjoying properties such as omnipotence, omniscience, omni-presence. In essence, the God of "theism" is what Pascal would call the "God of the philosophers," which the theologians of the various monotheistic religions have usually tried to shoehorn into their mythical narratives the best they can.

In the 20th century especially, many Christian theologians are saying that maybe we just need to ditch the theism thing and conceive of God/the divine differently. Perhaps God is limited, perhaps God develops and changes over time, etc. This isn't entirely unprecedented -- Kabbalah, which became the de facto "theology" of Judaism for much of the late medieval and early modern period, was in many ways a protest against Jewish theologians like Maimonides who were trying to harmonize the Hebrew Bible with the "God of the philosophers." And in the early centuries of the common era, there were a lot more types of theology than theism -- Gnosticism is the common name for them among scholars now, but there are a lot of varieties.

So really, what he's saying is moderately controversial, but not crazy.

(If "theism" just means "belief in God," though, the quoted statement is obviously self-contradictory.)


Posted by: Adam Kotsko | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 1:21 PM
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77: How's this restatement of your restatement: It is psychologically healthy for human beings to believe falsehoods like the fact-claims about the supernatural made by most religions; regardless of the religion (or for some but not all religions), believers are healthier and happier than non-believers. That's something I could be convinced of, and then would go wandering off thinking "Sucks to be me, but I don't see how to go about convincing myself of this stuff."


Posted by: LizardBreath | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 1:22 PM
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94: That's actually very helpful, thanks.


Posted by: LizardBreath | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 1:25 PM
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Perhaps God is limited, perhaps God develops and changes over time, etc.

What if God were one of us? Perhaps even...just a stranger on a bus?

I know nothing about the theology of this (Kotsko would), but isn't the figure of Jesus himself a sort of reaching toward the finitude of God? Can't get much more limited and time-bound than being human.


Posted by: PGD | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 1:26 PM
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Growing up where I did, I'm well aware of the great things religion provides people: social opportunities, a supportive community, childcare, and most centrally, fried chicken. But I'm not sure why these nice social institutions need to be tied up with a bunch of false beliefs about the world.


Posted by: essear | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 1:27 PM
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Can't get much more limited and time-bound than being human.

IT'S A GODDAMN AFFRONT IS WHAT IT IS.


Posted by: OPINIONATED SØREN KIERKEGAARD | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 1:27 PM
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92: I would say, "Ha! Belief is important! I win!"


Posted by: peep | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 1:28 PM
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97: The whole "becoming a human being who then dies" thing has long been an obstacle in the attempt to reconcile Christianity with theism -- the doctrine of the Trinity is the first systematic attempt to bridge the gap.

I should say that I personally am one of the theologians who is trying to work out something other than theism -- and you can see me in action in Politics of Redemption (my dissertation in book form), now available for pre-order! And I should say that as someone raised in an evangelical environment, I also used to regard such people as wishy-washy liberals and tried to keep the traditional concept of God for as long as I could -- but it just doesn't work, damn it!


Posted by: Adam Kotsko | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 1:29 PM
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98: I would be tempted to start a church with you, if only to schism over the fried chicken/donuts question.


Posted by: LizardBreath | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 1:29 PM
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the tenants of judaism

I don't even *have* a Jewish landlord.


Posted by: apostropher | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 1:29 PM
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73.last: when I hear the words "experience of the sacred," I reach for my gun.

I'm not surprised. I'm sorry? All I can say is that I think I've only experienced what I think is a religious feeling when, say, in the woods, surrounded by leaf-filtered dappled sunlight, with appropriate other sights, sounds, and smells attendant. Then I sometimes feel like I'm participating in the divine, that which matters.

Everyone needs to read Talal Asad immediately.

I have some various Talad Asad about. It's been a while.


Posted by: parsimon | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 1:30 PM
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102: I would say "why not have both?", but I wouldn't want to be accused of being a Unitarian.


Posted by: essear | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 1:31 PM
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102: You need a holistic synthesis that encompasses both. Plus waffles.


Posted by: PGD | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 1:31 PM
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101: (my dissertation in book form)

I may be a simple minded Catholic theist, but even I know that you don't plug a book by saying it started out as a dissertation.


Posted by: Moby Hick | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 1:31 PM
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95: That's fine, except (1) I don't think religion is about "psychological health", nor do I think the religious are generally more psychologically healthier than the nonreligious, and (2) belief in random falsehoods is not beneficial, so believing falsehoods "like" the fact-claims about the supernatural made by most religions isn't a good substitute; you have to accept there is some divine guidance behind the specific falsehoods in play. (And that's all accepting your characterization of these things as "falsehoods", which isn't necessarily the case.)


Posted by: Brock Landers | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 1:32 PM
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I would have stuck around for a God that offered fried chicken. Or donuts, really, but they'd have to have been good donuts.


Posted by: Bave Dee | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 1:32 PM
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Can't get much more limited and time-bound than being human.
Jesus should have been incarnated as a fruit fly.


Posted by: Ginger Yellow | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 1:32 PM
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There are two Dunkin Donuts that opened near where I live and now one is about to open near my office. Apparently, society wants me to buy 36 inch pants.


Posted by: Moby Hick | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 1:34 PM
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Growing up where I did, I'm well aware of the great things religion provides people: social opportunities, a supportive community, childcare, and most centrally, fried chicken. But I'm not sure why these nice social institutions need to be tied up with a bunch of false beliefs about the world.

Because otherwise they wouldn't exist.


Posted by: Cryptic ned | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 1:35 PM
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At my church, they always just had the crappy grocery store donuts.


Posted by: Adam Kotsko | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 1:36 PM
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95: Again, this kind of misapprehends the nature of religious belief. The claims about the supernatural are of the kind that (a) can't actually be fully understood or fully expressed through language by humans; (b) are not a set of propositions about the world that one accepts as true, thereby leading to happiness. It's more like a specific set of practices, combined with an attempt to think of oneself in relationship to the supernatural, that allows people to put their burdens outside of oneself and develop closer relationships with other people. You do, I suppose, have to have a certain amount of faith in that practice, but that's faith, not belief.

And this is why I'm so strongly suggesting that, if you're interested, the place to start is not through formal argument or asking yourself "can I rationally accept proposition x, y and z of religion q as true?" The point of the whole enterprise is the practice; the belief compnent is at best marginal, and something that can't really be understood until there's been a lot of other work.


Posted by: Robert Halford | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 1:38 PM
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108 cont.: I also should say that I don't think this gets you all the way to "all religions are equally true", depending on how you define "all religions"--I don't think every heresy or schism is devinely inspired. Most are the results of human error and sin. You have to separate the wheat from the chaff, so to speak.


Posted by: Brock Landers | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 1:38 PM
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divine guidance

Let me try rephrasing again -- it still probably won't be what you meant, but it'll get across the communication difficulty. "Some supernatural thing exists which it is reasonable to call divine (call it god without prejudice as to whether it's a traditional or theism-type god), and there are some set of facts about it that are true. It has caused religions to come into being, and people are improved in some sense by believing the teachings of those religions, regardless of whether they are true. Therefore, religions (or all but one religion) are false, but religious worship of several sorts is nonetheless a good thing because the god that does exist gives benefits through it."

I could believe that, but then I'd be believing in the existence of the 'god-who-benefits-people-through-worship'. I might go to a church I didn't believe in, but as a result of my other factual beliefs. And I'd still think of 'All religions are equally true' as a poor way to describe that state of affairs.


Posted by: LizardBreath | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 1:38 PM
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We had crappy donuts at "Seminary" (the early-morning weekday religion classes that Mormon kids take), but nothing, NOTHING, after services on Sunday. No donuts, no coffee/Postum, nothing. Kingdom of God my ass.


Posted by: Bave Dee | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 1:39 PM
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I thought "fellowship" meant donuts. I figured that's why all the smart guys wanted a fellowship. For the donuts.


Posted by: Tassled Loafered Leech | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 1:39 PM
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111: It's not society. It's God.

113: And yet you are the one that remained religious. You needed more than just crappy donuts. You didn't know there were delicious donuts out there. You thought you needed God.


Posted by: peep | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 1:40 PM
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119.2: But somehow "a donut shaped hole in your life" is quite confusing... Shaped is the hole like a donut or shaped like a donut hole?


Posted by: Unfoggetarian: "Pause endlessly, then go in" (9) | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 1:42 PM
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If one had a toroidal hole in one's life, what would be keeping the center in place? Wouldn't it immediately become a circular hole?


Posted by: nosflow | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 1:43 PM
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PZ Myers is a bully and a bore when he talks about religion.

That's why I stopped reading Pharyngula, although for a time I was morbidly fascinated by his willingness to turn friends into foes by excoriating his fellow atheists for being insufficiently angry and hostile. The man manages to turn being right into a grotesque vice.


Posted by: qb | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 1:44 PM
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108: you have to accept there is some divine guidance behind the specific falsehoods in play.

This is weird, Brock.


Posted by: parsimon | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 1:45 PM
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And I'd still think of 'All religions are equally true' as a poor way to describe that state of affairs.

Fair enough, but it's not a terrible shorthand either (with the caveat in 115), since we don't have any objective way of knowing what parts of which are true (by which I mean "divinely inspired", not "factually true", which is almost certainly also how your classmate meant the word).


Posted by: Brock Landers | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 1:46 PM
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118: I thought it was about religious retreats which were about sex.


Posted by: peep | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 1:46 PM
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119.1: Or the witch whose house I was eating.


Posted by: Moby Hick | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 1:46 PM
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The man manages to turn being right into a grotesque vice

That's not quite right. Try again.


Posted by: Sen Barry Goldwater | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 1:47 PM
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123: well, I was trying to accept as much of LB's phrasing as possible.


Posted by: Brock Landers | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 1:47 PM
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119: I do not currently engage in any religious practice, unless the study and teaching of theology is a religious practice.


Posted by: Adam Kotsko | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 1:47 PM
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114: I can't think of myself in relation to the supernatural, without forming some belief as to the existence (or the reverse) of the supernatural. I feel obnoxiously resistant here, but I could accept "Practice has to precede belief. If you wanted religion in your life, the way to go about it would be to enter into some form of religious practice you found sympathetic, and belief/direct experience of the divine/whatever would follow." Or "Religious practice is a good thing regardless of belief, if you practiced you'd find there were benefits, there's no need to worry about belief in the supernatural."

But combining "Thinking about yourself in relation to the supernatural" with "the belief component is marginal" puzzles me utterly.


Posted by: LizardBreath | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 1:49 PM
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129: Well, is it? You're the expert, right?

And, more importantly, do you eat donuts?


Posted by: peep | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 1:49 PM
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I can't think of myself in relation to the supernatural, without forming some belief as to the existence (or the reverse) of the supernatural.

Where's my lightning bolt? I'll show that bitch supernatural.


Posted by: Zeus the Almighty | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 1:52 PM
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Kotsko no longer has to practice. It's all muscle memory now.


Posted by: apostropher | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 1:54 PM
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130: But combining "Thinking about yourself in relation to the supernatural" with "the belief component is marginal" puzzles me utterly.

That confuses me also. I think the part of the idea that isn't coming across clearly, and this my view maybe not what the others are getting at, is that faith and doubt will coexist within the same person. You don't need to worry excessively about your faith and its strength or weakness at any particular moment so long as you don't just pull up stakes and leave when you hit a doubt.


Posted by: Moby Hick | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 1:56 PM
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But combining "Thinking about yourself in relation to the supernatural" with "the belief component is marginal" puzzles me utterly.

I suppose that you do have to have some kind of belief -- or, really, just a feeling -- that there is something out there that is emotionally or intellectually comprehensible about religous experience. But that's very different than saying "I believe in God" in the sense of "I have been rationally persuaded by arguments that I would accept in court or in a mathematical proof that God in fact exists" or "I accept as absolutely true story z in the bible."


Posted by: Robert Halford | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 1:56 PM
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I'm actually more or less in full agreement with 130.


Posted by: Brock Landers | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 1:56 PM
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130: But combining "Thinking about yourself in relation to the supernatural" with "the belief component is marginal" puzzles me utterly.

If you drop the "supernatural" in favor of "divine," the calculus changes a bit, doesn't it?


Posted by: parsimon | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 1:56 PM
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134 is missing a verb. Sorry.


Posted by: Moby Hick | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 1:57 PM
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And 135.


Posted by: Brock Landers | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 1:57 PM
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139 to 136.


Posted by: Brock Landers | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 1:58 PM
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10: I think this has something to do with my armchair Freudianism, but I question what I'm understanding as a binary of 1) people who don't believe because they don't have an emotional need to believe, and 2) people who do because they do. If religion springs from a fear and a wish for a figure of protection from that fear, I did not come to my atheism through a lack of these things, any particular emotional sufficiency. The presence of god would be a huge relief, though hopefully he wouldn't be the petty, narcissistic micromanager I hear so much about.

Unfortunately, I'm not cognitively set up to settle my fears the way most people seem to be. I remember in college hearing people describe finding Jesus as happening sort of over their objections ("and I said, ok, maybe I'll believe, but I'm going to keep some things over here in this box. And then the more I believed, the more I understood that I had to just give it all over to god.") In moments of real grief with the world, I have fantasies of losing my objections that way and gaining the comforting, impossible belief that someone is going to make sure everything turns out ok. But I can't. Not because the emotional need isn't there, but because it just doesn't make any damn sense to me.


Posted by: Mister Smearcase | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 2:01 PM
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I think we need to find some non-hand-wavy way of distinguishing "religious claims" and "factual claims." (Saying it's all beyond language, etc., is probably not going to satisfy LB, because it's basically question-begging.)

I would go with a secular example of a claim: "Money is a store of value." Is this true or not? On the empirical level, "money" is either a number on a ledger (i.e., you have $X in your bank account just because the bank has that written down, not because there are X bills laying around waiting for you) or a piece of paper. Yet that claim so shapes our behavior that it makes itself true.

I'd say that most religious claims, or at least the central ones, are like that. They shape your life in a certain way that then is found either persuasive and appealling or not (including by yourself -- for instance, at a certain point in my life, I realized that I didn't like what claims about biblical innerrancy were making me into).

Now you might object to this! You might say, for example, "I know there's actual money, but how do I know there's a supernatural being, etc." And I'd say that for "God" or the equivalent term, you have to subsitute "the most important thing, which gives importance to all other things." It's a structuring principle, not an empirical claim.

So historically, Christians tend to say that Jesus was the embodiment of what's most important and what gives all other things their importance. If you're a liberal Christian, you generally will think about this in terms of his earthly ministry and how he was always healing people, feeding them, etc., and that will motivate what you do. If you're a conservative Christian, you'll tend to focus on his self-sacrifice on the cross, showing that God is in judgment of this world but still loves us enough to give us a way out of its sinfulness -- so that your main energies should be devoted to making sure people are able to cash in on this supernatural forgiveness offer.

Is either of these claims true in any straightforward way? I certainly think we can agree they're not empirically verifiable. But they're clearly meaningful -- in fact, they structure people's entire sense of meaning, shaping their entire life.

The question we should ask, then, isn't whether these religious claims are true or false, but how they wind up shaping people's lives. The reason you don't like fundamentalists, for instance, isn't that they have untrue beliefs, but that their beliefs make them do a lot of bad stuff. (And incidentally, liberal beliefs tend to make liberal Christians talk in really vague and annoying ways -- I'm with you on that.) But I'd also say that belief in money as a store of value makes people act in pretty destructive ways, too, as does doctrinaire atheism.

(I know this all sounds lukewarm, etc., but hey.)


Posted by: Adam Kotsko | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 2:03 PM
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But that's very different than saying

The thing is, I believe all sorts of things (ordinary non-theological things) that I don't have solid evidence for -- I don't have the world split up into things I am certain of, and things that I am radically agnostic and opinionless about the truth of. Someone who will commit to 'I think these things are true about the supernatural (or God, or the divine) for these reasons, but sometimes I'm not sure,' makes perfect sense to me. I might not agree, but I don't have any trouble understanding what's going on.

Where I get lost is trying to understand why the belief component is so unimportant, unless, as in my 95, the whole point of religious practice would be exactly the same if all the core beliefs were false. "I believe, but without solid evidence" or "I frequently have doubts" seem completely unconnected with "the truth or falsity of my beliefs in this regard is totally unimportant."


Posted by: LizardBreath | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 2:03 PM
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142: Wait, wait, but Jesus wasn't *actually* healing people! Once you let in a little magic, why not go the whole way?


Posted by: Unfoggetarian: "Pause endlessly, then go in" (9) | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 2:06 PM
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142: Huh. That looks really interesting, and I'm going to read it again slower and think about it.


Posted by: LizardBreath | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 2:06 PM
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If one had a toroidal hole in one's life, what would be keeping the center in place? Wouldn't it immediately become a circular hole?

For neb, life is a two-dimensional surface in a 3-dimensional world.


Posted by: essear | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 2:06 PM
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144: Placebo effect. Just go with it.


Posted by: LizardBreath | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 2:07 PM
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On more thought, what I should have said in 144 is that once you start making claims like "Jesus was always healing people" then I both understand totally what you're talking about and think you're wrong as a historical factual claim.


Posted by: Unfoggetarian: "Pause endlessly, then go in" (9) | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 2:09 PM
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and 141: I have total and detailed sympathy with this.


Posted by: LizardBreath | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 2:09 PM
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So if it turns out that Jesus wasn't actually healing people, then it's not worthwhile to try to heal people? The liberal Christians are orienting their lives based on the story as such, not the empirical facts to which it corresponds or fails to correspond.


Posted by: Adam Kotsko | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 2:11 PM
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141: I actually agree with you. It's gotten to the point where I have no fucking idea what people mean or could even possibly think they mean when they talk about their "spiritual life" or "relationship with God."


Posted by: Adam Kotsko | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 2:12 PM
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Spherical hole. Whatever.


Posted by: nosflow | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 2:13 PM
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or what would be a spherical hole but for the smaller sphere rolling around on the bottom.


Posted by: nosflow | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 2:13 PM
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151 (cont.): Or else I should say, the only practical payoff of that kind of language is, "I need to spend a LOT of time analyzing my motives and feelings" or, put more plainly, "God really wants me to be self-obsessed."


Posted by: Adam Kotsko | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 2:14 PM
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143 == I think that 142 gets at most of the issue, and now the theological waters are frankly gettingh too deep for me. But, there are a lot of ways of structuring thought about meaning in ways that don't depend on empirical claims.

The point isn't that "truth" of "falsity" is unimportant -- in my own practice, I believe that it is fundamentally true, at some level, that there is something out there that I'm thinking of as God, and that this is true. But it's not empirically or demonstrably "true" in the sense of "I have rationally persuaded myself of its truth in the same manner that I persuade myself of other facts about the world" or that "I now know and am certain of the existence of God for x reason." It's something different than that.

(actually, I'm pretty sure that I don't persuade myself of most facts about the world in a rational manner, but that's another story).


Posted by: Robert Halford | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 2:14 PM
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142: And I'd say that for "God" or the equivalent term, you have to subsitute "the most important thing, which gives importance to all other things." It's a structuring principle, not an empirical claim.

This is far from lukewarm; it is quite excellent.


Posted by: parsimon | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 2:15 PM
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153: You appear to be visualizing a spherical shell shaped hole, not a toroidal hole. A toroidal hole is perfectly stable.


Posted by: LizardBreath | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 2:15 PM
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I don't understand 153. My point was that a donut-shaped hole in a solid three-dimensional mass makes perfect sense; the center piece is connected to the rest.


Posted by: essear | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 2:15 PM
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158 pwned by LB.

Why does there have to be a "most important thing, which gives importance to other things"? What does that even mean? Isn't importance a matter of subjective opinion?


Posted by: essear | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 2:16 PM
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81 I certainly have no qualms at all with Jewish atheists who follow some or all of the tenants of judaism.

Huh. As a Jewish (by birth, outlook, politics, and yiddishe punim) atheist (by understanding of the world and lack of religious practice) I can't at all understand someone like me bothering with...by tenets are we talking about practices? Like keeping kosher? I have encountered this, and I have qualms, albeit more on the level of eye-rolling than actual offense or concern.

I mean, I don't care--eat and don't eat what you want to, by all means--but I don't get. A friend of mine, a Jewish atheist, writes god as "G-d" and it just strikes me as bizarre. (Aright, I have my own tic and write it without majuscule because I am an ass, but it just seems so odd to disbelieve but retain the superstitious conventions, some of them quite inconvenient...)


Posted by: Mister Smearcase | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 2:17 PM
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And I also have total sympathy for, and understanding of, 141. That was me for a good stretch of my life.


Posted by: Robert Halford | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 2:18 PM
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"the truth or falsity of my beliefs in this regard is totally unimportant."

Are you thinking of "beliefs" like "there is a non-material component to reality, inhabited by the divine", or "Noah built a boat and put his family and two of every animal in it (other than the dinosaurs), and they survived a 40-day global flood"? (I think this is roughly the distinction being drawn between "religious claims" and "factual claims" in 142. Because the truth or falsity of the former is critically important--you're not going to be religious if you're not at least open to the possibility that it might be true (even if you're not conviced). What complicates this, of course, is that there's no rational way to ascertain its truth or falsity, and rational analysis (probability estimates, etc.) is really the wrong way to approach the question--that's why religions talk about accepting things on faith.

Whereas, for the latter claim (factual claim), your statement is basically completely correct: the truth or falsity of the claim is totally unimportant (from a religious perspective; it matters scientifically, I guess.) The truth or falsity of the factual claim has no bearing on its religious meaning.


Posted by: Brock Landers | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 2:18 PM
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Now you might object to this! You might say, for example, "I know there's actual money, but how do I know there's a supernatural being, etc." And I'd say that for "God" or the equivalent term, you have to subsitute "the most important thing, which gives importance to all other things."

Which, for an atheist (one like me anyway) results in a tautology. The most important thing is the thing we decide is the important thing. Under this description, religion becomes just another way of organising people's value systems, like political ideology or peer pressure or cultural indoctrination.


Posted by: Ginger Yellow | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 2:19 PM
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If LB could summarize her version of the liberal religious position one more time I would be grateful. This has been a very interesting conversation and gives me hope for the worthiness of a theological cage match.


Posted by: Eggplant | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 2:20 PM
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The more I think about this the more I think I don't even know what people mean by "the supernatural". The supernatural as a concept makes a certain amount of sense, if it's lumping together all of the beliefs people have ever had about exotic, non-everyday things operating in the world, whether they're god or gods or ghosts or devils or something altogether different. But when people start using the word "the supernatural" while simultaneously objecting to any specific factual claims about the nature of these things, I really can't imagine what is left -- it seems a little nebulous to talk about the "existence" of something while denying its influence on the material world and refusing to give it any concrete character.


Posted by: essear | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 2:21 PM
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159: There doesn't have to be. Getting rid of that kind of conception is a much more radical atheism than most people can handle, though -- much more radical than PZ Myers', for example, in which he doesn't believe in God, but in which "being right" is obviously the most important thing. I'd be willing to bet that, at bottom, you have somethin that fills that role: human freedom or self-actualization, or the survival of the planet, or something. Maybe you don't, but it seems to me that most people do.


Posted by: Adam Kotsko | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 2:23 PM
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What if God is an important thing that allows one to filter out other things as unimportant? That is the kind of religion I feel I see most often. The temptation to care about this or that is very intense, and living a life for "God only" means that you get to decide whether this or that issue strikes you as subsidiary to or irrelevant to your primary interest in God.

To an atheist, of course, this looks like narcissism, because it functionally works like narcissism. If "God" is merely a placeholder for a set of self-invented (or doctrinally absorbed) priorities, then it's sort of disturbing. But who among us doesn't filter priorities according to some self-invented or absorbed system?


Posted by: A White Bear | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 2:23 PM
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160: As I understand Judaism (which, goy, obviously I don't in depth), I can make observant Jewish atheists make sense to me. My understanding is that Jewish theists think of obedience to the Jewish law as meaningful and valuable even in the absence of belief -- while a Catholic theist thinks a Catholic atheist is committing blasphemy by taking Communion, a Jewish theist thinks a Jewish atheist is pleasing God by keeping kosher.

So a Jewish atheist who keeps kosher is expressing respectful connection to the religious community that's culturally important to him, by doing something that he knows they think is religiously valuable and that he can do without hypocrisy.


Posted by: LizardBreath | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 2:23 PM
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I am sort of pwned by everyone.


Posted by: A White Bear | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 2:24 PM
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163: I am purposefully "flattening out" the distinction between religion and other ideologies. I don't think it's important to have a definition of religion that clearly separates it from other human institutions or practices, and I certainly don't think that belief in "the supernatural" or "the spiritual" is going to give us anything like a workable definition (anyone heard of Buddhism?).


Posted by: Adam Kotsko | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 2:24 PM
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149: and 141: I have total and detailed sympathy with this.

I might have guessed, given that you said it better and more concisely like 50 comments earlier, but I hadn't read it yet when I wrote mine!


Posted by: Mister Smearcase | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 2:26 PM
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Yeah, "supernatural" and "spiritual" are pretty annoyingly vague, I'll grant that. "God" really is probably just the better usage.


Posted by: Robert Halford | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 2:27 PM
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(Genuinely curious) Besides arguing on blog posts, what bad behavior does doctrinaire atheism provoke? My image is that atheists mostly get on with whatever else they were doing.


Posted by: Megan | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 2:29 PM
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Why does there have to be a "most important thing, which gives importance to other things"?

You may have heard that every art and every inquiry, and similarly every action and pursuit, is thought to aim at some good; and for this reason the good has rightly been declared to be that at which all things aim.


Posted by: nosflow | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 2:29 PM
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142, 170: This gets me much further toward understanding what you're talking about than anything else I've ever read -- thanks for all the effort you've put in. I still end up with essear in 159, and GY in 163, but I'm not totally lost any more.


Posted by: LizardBreath | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 2:29 PM
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Just by way of anticipating objections to 142, I should say that I realize that virtually no religious person is going to accept my "detached" explanation of their religious belief -- probably they're going to say that they really do think there are these facts, etc. But what's really important is how their core beliefs are shaping their lives (including how they might feel pushed to defend certain "facts" as a matter of group identity, etc.). And I think that focusing on those kinds of questions can lead to a much better conversation, because if you're talking about the things people are doing, then both conversational partners are talking about a shared sphere of reality.


Posted by: Adam Kotsko | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 2:32 PM
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I'd say that most religious claims, or at least the central ones, are like that. They shape your life in a certain way that then is found either persuasive and appealling or not (including by yourself -- for instance, at a certain point in my life, I realized that I didn't like what claims about biblical innerrancy were making me into).

but are you then appealing to some kind of vaguely pragmatic or utilitarian justification to ground religion ("appealing or not")? What does ground the appeal to faith? Isn't the whole point of faith that it's self-justifying in a special way, and you don't have to look outside it for its reasons? Even if you set aside theism, that character would make faith special.

Of course, Buddhism is often presented as a pragmatic approach to suffering, almost a form of medicine, and there is a sort of relationship between religion and pragmatic self-help.


Posted by: PGD | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 2:33 PM
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176: I do start wondering where the line is between theology and sociology of religion, at that point.


Posted by: LizardBreath | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 2:34 PM
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So a Jewish atheist who keeps kosher is expressing respectful connection to the religious community that's culturally important to him, by doing something that he knows they think is religiously valuable and that he can do without hypocrisy.

Precisely, although the atheist doesn't even have to be motivated by the value to the theist; it can be valuable to keep kosher as a means of cultural connection in and of itself. (This is why, on the increasingly rare occasions I go to synagogue, I prefer to go to Hebrew-language services.)


Posted by: Josh | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 2:34 PM
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173: that's pretty much it. I didn't mean to claim equivalence by any means, but I think that it's pretty clearly bad for someone to habitually be abusive toward people when a particular topic comes up.


Posted by: Adam Kotsko | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 2:34 PM
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Buddhism, Daoism, and various Hellenistic philosophies seem, from the extremely far-off view I have of them, interestingly similar in many respects.


Posted by: nosflow | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 2:35 PM
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bad behavior does doctrinaire atheism provoke?

Small-minded materialism is pretty common. Tribalism, petty vengefulness maybe, manifested as poor water management. A belief in retribution can keep people from killing when they are angry or from suicide when they are depressed.


Posted by: lw | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 2:36 PM
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OK, good to know what you were thinking of. I was just wondering if there were other forms of socially disruptive atheist behavior that would be fun to try out I hadn't been aware of.


Posted by: Megan | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 2:37 PM
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I guess one component that I'm not getting in "the most important thing, which gives importance to all other things" and tying that into secular practice is that it seems to leave little room for an ongoing, transformative presence of God in the world. But then, your summary of your dissertation seems to suggest that this is a particular concern of yours.

In general, though, that's a very useful way of thinking about the issue.


Posted by: Robert Halford | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 2:37 PM
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175: Glad to be of service. Looks like a year of having to be nice to undergrads who ask basic questions is doing my soul good.

178: I tend to think of theology not primarily as "discourse about God" (which is admittedly its etymological meaning), but as a critical discourse within a given religious tradition -- basically just thinking things through, trying to assess whether the tradition is living up to the best of what it can be, whether it needs to start changing and if so how, etc. Sociology of religion would be more of an "outsider's" view. Of course, the line won't be completely bulletproof, as any critical intellectual is, simply as such, already somewhat alienated from the community and hence partially an "outsider."


Posted by: Adam Kotsko | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 2:39 PM
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petty vengefulness maybe, manifested as poor water management

Like when Moby threatened to let his hose run straight to the storm drainage because I wouldn't pun? Those occasions are tragic for everyone involved.


Posted by: Megan | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 2:40 PM
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Ok, 170 makes the previous posts more sensible to me. Although it does leave me asking what the point is. And 176 is precisely the sort of thing that gets me (and I imagine LB) annoyed with liberal theology - the eagerness to embrace a concept of religion that almost no believer actually holds, and then declare that this is what religion is really about. Now, as a non-believer, I'm obviously not in a position to say what religion is all about, but then I don't have that as my job description.


Posted by: Ginger Yellow | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 2:40 PM
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I was just wondering if there were other forms of socially disruptive atheist behavior that would be fun to try out I hadn't been aware of.

There's always the ignorant book followed by a speaking tour.


Posted by: nosflow | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 2:41 PM
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186: I'm a theist (all spaces intended).


Posted by: Moby Hick | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 2:43 PM
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I realize that virtually no religious person is going to accept my "detached" explanation of their religious belief

I don't know, sounds okay to me. Faith, as the mullahs would have you believe, is a submission: one relinquishes (at least some of) (the appearance of) control over one's understanding of the world to God. But I certainly wouldn't try to justify my Christianity on a pragmatic basis, and I don't buy the conservative/liberal dichotomy as described in 142.


Posted by: foolishmortal | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 2:45 PM
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Why does there have to be a "most important thing, which gives importance to other things"?

There are some of us who are anti-foundationalist or nominalist in principle, and have trouble with science as much as religion. I find Nietzsche kinda gooey with his "Ubermensch" and "Eternal Return"

Yet with no explanation or even much interest in "why" or "how" I still manage to put one foot after the other, give blood, support breast cancer research.


Posted by: bob mcmanus | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 2:45 PM
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187: Would you trust the average citizen's views of economics just because they participate in the capitalist system? If you asked most people, you'd probably find out that our system is fundamentally structured around the idea that hard work is rewarded, which doesn't seem to be the case to me.

People can do things without being able to provide valuable meta-commentary on what they're doing, in other words.

I'd also note that the "common sense" vision of religion embraced by LB and others seems to be pretty clearly based only on Christianity, and indeed only on a subset of Christianity -- and my theory does actually fit Christianity, if we include certain ways of talking about their beliefs as a "religious practice" (which in many cases it literally is: think of the imperative to evangelize).


Posted by: Adam Kotsko | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 2:46 PM
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I guess I actually have no leg to stand on vis-a-vis skepticism about practice without faith. Keeping kosher, many people's way of maintaining a connection with something they feel culturally tied to in the absence of belief, is inconvenient and a bit irrational. Moving to NYC, my way of maintaining a connection to something I feel culturally tied to in the absence of belief, is inconvenient and more than a bit irrational. The next time someone explains to me why gazelle is kosher but racoon isn't despite not believing in The Big Chef Upstairs, I am not allowed to roll my eyes because I willingly pay a fortune to live in three square feet since Zabar's is twenty minutes away on the 1 train. We all have our reasons.


Posted by: Mister Smearcase | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 2:48 PM
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193 to 179 among others.


Posted by: Mister Smearcase | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 2:48 PM
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185.2: I tend to think of theology not primarily as "discourse about God" (which is admittedly its etymological meaning), but as a critical discourse within a given religious tradition.

Flippanter already defined theology in the archive.


Posted by: Moby Hick | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 2:49 PM
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The trouble with radical atheists is that they usually seek and find other foundations:Marxists, libertarians, technocrats, natural rights liberals, feminists

The story really is about justifying or motivating practice with abstractions or meta-narratives.


Posted by: bob mcmanus | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 2:50 PM
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hard work is rewarded

Work is rewarded, but hard work is not necessarily rewarded more, nor is work the only thing rewarded.


Posted by: Average Believer in the System | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 2:50 PM
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196: Like Stalin.


Posted by: Moby Hick | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 2:51 PM
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189: Perhaps lw's categories of atheist bad behavior in 182 aren't perfectly delineated.


Posted by: Megan | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 2:51 PM
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199: But, I didn't actually waste the water. And I have a high efficiency washer and dishwasher.


Posted by: Moby Hick | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 2:54 PM
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I pile on with the thanks and appreciation to Adam, who's saying a bunch of great and helpful things.


Posted by: parsimon | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 2:54 PM
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Fancy dinner time for me. See ya.


Posted by: Moby Hick | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 2:55 PM
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I'd also note that the "common sense" vision of religion embraced by LB and others seems to be pretty clearly based only on Christianity, and indeed only on a subset of Christianity --

I call shenanigans. I get pretty much all Christianity before the twentieth century and lots up to the current date, the same for Islam, and while I think atheist religious Jews have a longer history, lots of Jews throughout history, all with beliefs about supernatural entities they would describe as factual. I get many, if not all Hindus through history, and many, although not all, assorted other polytheists, again with beliefs about supernatural entities.

I'm not saying that your definition of religion as a non-belief-based system of organizing moral and ethical beliefs is idiosyncratic to you -- there have been people with similar beliefs for thousands of years. But people with religion based on or including a set of actual beliefs in a set of facts about supernatural entities have been common in a broad set of traditions, not just a subset of Christianity.


Posted by: LizardBreath | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 2:56 PM
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Glad I'm making some minimal sense. Now I need to leave the house so I don't spend the whole rest of the day intermittantly hitting "refresh..."


Posted by: Adam Kotsko | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 2:57 PM
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203: Though a lot of those religions also have strong "mystic" traditions. I have no understanding of what mysticism means, but probably they don't fit into the box of having factual beliefs about anything.

Nonetheless I think your main point holds, most religious people through most of history have had strong beliefs in the actual reality of magic/the supernatural.


Posted by: Unfoggetarian: "Pause endlessly, then go in" (9) | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 3:00 PM
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203: Jeez, I probably should respond to this.

First, few religions have required a "confession of faith" and had clearly defined, belief-based heresies. This is an innovation of Christianity -- Judaism did not have a "confession of faith" until Maimonides, for instance, and Jewish thinkers have often claimed that the reason for it was different from in Christianity. Islam obviously came about after Christianity, and it uses a similar framework in this regard.

But as for believing there really are gods, etc. -- there's a difference between having a certain view of the world and having it be a "religious" matter. Obviously through much of human history, people have tended to believe in something along the lines of the "supernatural," but it was just cultural common sense, not a matter of religious faith.

For centuries, you have theologians who will sometimes bring up the possibility that someone could be an atheist, then say basically, "But that should be easy to take care of, because it's obvious to everyone that there's a God -- what the real concern is, is making sure he's saying the right things about God...." The church councils didn't condemn atheism, for example, because it basically wasn't a thing -- maybe there were a handful of Greek philosophers who were atheists, but their impact was marginal.

It's only in the modern era, with the emergence of a secular outlook, that the previous cultural common sense about the supernatural then became a matter of faith. And since the secular outlook is one in which empirical and historical facts are of huge importance, Christian apologists decided to argue that Christianity best fulfills those values (pretty unconvincingly to most, I'd say, but they tried).

So again, I stand by my claim: your view of assenting to "beliefs" as an important constituent of religious practice is a Christian innovation, and treating those beliefs as an empirical fact is a Christian reaction to modernity. There's an important difference between empirical facts being important for faith and just kind of participating in the general cultural concensus that there are gods and spirits, etc.


Posted by: Adam Kotsko | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 3:09 PM
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Anti-foundationalists are by necessity performers, and look incoherent and "phony" to those attached to identity. Rorty irritates.

I am really not interested in religion, science, Republicans, ideology as behavior by autonomous individuals in praxis since much of the preceding in this sentence is simple nonsense.

Goffman, Butler, Sedgwick, Bourdieu are more my style. I'll have to read them one of these days.


Posted by: bob mcmanus | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 3:11 PM
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It is true, LB. Many religious people believe in omnipotent or omniscient fairies. It's hard to know what to say. They're on crack?


Posted by: parsimon | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 3:13 PM
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I'm still catching up on the thread (too busy defending Excel), but I've never understood the "I'm an atheist, but only fundamentalists make sense to me" attitude. Consider these three propositions:

1. All religions are false.

2. All religions have an element of truth.

3. One religion is true.

While I believe in 1, I don't see how you can believe in 1, and not think that 2 is radically more likely than 3. Religion is such a widespread human impulse that it seems impossible to me that out of all of those religions somehow one gets it exactly right.


Posted by: Walt Someguy | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 3:13 PM
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208 to 203, before seeing 206.


Posted by: parsimon | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 3:13 PM
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206: You're saying that belief in the supernatural was universal or the next thing to it among the religious until recently, so therefore it obviously wasn't important or fundamental? I don't think that follows -- seriously, the sorts of statements of moral or ethical beliefs that you're calling religious have almost universally been accompanied by statements about the supernatural. I don't think you can dismiss that very common explicit association between the two, just because you don't share it.

208: I don't really follow this. I wouldn't say that religious people are on crack just because I think they're mistaken about the supernatural, and I'm surprised that you would.


Posted by: LizardBreath | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 3:21 PM
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Posted by: | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 3:24 PM
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What Adam is saying (I think) is that a belief in the "supernatural" -- shorthand, but let's use it -- was universally accepted until the rise of science as a set of factual propositions about the world. E.g., people believed in demons the same way we now believe in enzymes. So there was neither any need to delineate religion as some particularly "supernatural" sphere nor any need to justify it in terms of empirical science. Both are consequences of attempts to reconcile religion with modernity, and lead to anxieties about an ability to link up religion with factual propositions about the world that didn't exist previously.


Posted by: Robert Halford | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 3:26 PM
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211:LB, just read a book on Egypt that went oldkingdom to public ritual to private ritual

Old kingdom lived within the divine it was immanent. They no more needed to contact the gods than we need to talk to the air, because the gods were not distant or apart from them in any way at any moment.

An immanent divine is not a pantheism.

"Supernatural" = "transcendant" and transcendance may be a peculiar modern idea.


Posted by: bob mcmanus | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 3:27 PM
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Posted by: | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 3:27 PM
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Posted by: | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 3:33 PM
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belief in the "supernatural" -- shorthand, but let's use it -- was universally accepted until the rise of science as a set of factual propositions about the world

No, there was no "supernatural" until the rise of science.

A tree nymph was not something supernatural to the Greeks, and Zeus lived on that mountain over thataway.


Posted by: bob mcmanus | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 3:36 PM
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So there was neither any need to delineate religion as some particularly "supernatural" sphere

But historically, this is just wrong. It's true that belief in the supernatural was near universal until recently, so splitting people up into 'the religious' and 'atheists' wouldn't have worked well until the nineteenth century or so. But "religion" historically referred literally (in many instances) to the practices and beliefs governing human interaction with the supernatural. It might not have been necessary to delineate it like that, but as a matter of historical fact that's how it was delineated.

There's a different word for analysis of and thinking about morals, ethics, and the fundamental nature of reality not primarily concerned with the supernatural: philosophy, and it's been around for thousands of years as well. If the morals, ethics, and so on were the only important bits of religion, how come it looks so different from philosophy in so many different times and places, even where belief in the supernatural was universal? (Buddhists, not that different. But lots of other religions, very different.)


Posted by: LizardBreath | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 3:37 PM
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I'm not actually disagreeing with 217, although the story gets much more complicated through the middle ages and beyond.


Posted by: Robert Halford | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 3:38 PM
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211.last: I was becoming exasperated. The truth is that I don't believe in what you're calling the supernatural -- though we should note in passing that a number of things that once seemed like spooky, supernatural explanations have wound up being grounded in physical science (pheromones, say).

I dislike the "supernatural" classification. If you want to keep worrying it, you'll need to define it more clearly. As it stands, there was once, and for a very long time, little difference between the natural and the supernatural: these were forms of explanation for phenemona, not particularly differentiated.

- on preview, pwned by Halford's 213.


Posted by: parsimon | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 3:40 PM
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THe other thing about religion is that it's so damn interesting. The myths, the crazy stories, the wacky and inspirational human behavior, the ancient texts, the possible relevance to your own life.

It could be a good religio-thriller book if you had a liberal theology student like Kotsko going through musty tomes and translating things, and gradually he pieces together irrefutable proof that the Antichrist is coming and God is PISSED. He has a crisis of non-faith, his intellectual friends don't believe him, etc.


Posted by: PGD | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 3:42 PM
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religion, how come it looks so different from philosophy in so many different times and places

It doesn't look that different to me.

Ding-in-Sich WTF?


Posted by: Friedrich Nietzsche | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 3:43 PM
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218 is wrong, historically, and also misses the point. In pre-modernity, philosophy dealt heavily with the "supernatural" (as Bob says, not really the right word, since things like demons, etc., were just thought of as "natural") as did medicine and what were then thought of as the sciences. Religion wasn't a separate category that dealt exclusively with what we now think of as the supernatural. Of course, it wasn't exclusively concerned with ethics or social practice, either (it was concerned with worshipping God) but God was not conceived as some being outside of nature or reason that was the special provenance of some special, supernatural-focused practice called religion. The concept of the "supernatural" and the need to strictly delineate religious from empirical spheres is a product of modernity.


Posted by: Robert Halford | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 3:44 PM
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The truth is that I don't believe in what you're calling the supernatural

So we're in accordance. I'm bemused by your exasperation.

A tree nymph was not something supernatural to the Greeks

Sure she was. The ancient Greeks weren't insane, they knew that natural women didn't turn into trees. Something that looked sometimes like a woman and sometimes like a tree was divine, rather than natural. They actually believed that such minor divinities existed, but that didn't mean they thought they were natural, like some rare form of animal.


Posted by: LizardBreath | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 3:45 PM
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I don't know how many were Jewish, but I think Judaism is a great example of a religion that's not about "beliefs" in anything like the contemporary sense of "religious beliefs." Hell, I think that Catholicism as it's usually practiced is a great example, too.

This is actually pretty true about Catholicism. I am an atheist, but I send my kids to catholic school because it is cheap. There isn't a big stress on personal beliefs or theology. There is much bigger stress on community and ritual.

I am pretty culturally catholic. I have a big family and like to drink alcohol. Nobody really talks about religious stuff that much.


Posted by: lemmy caution | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 3:46 PM
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The concept of the "supernatural"... is a product of modernity.

Seriously, where are you getting this from? Genuine belief in the supernatural was once common, and now isn't. But people have always distinguished between the natural and the supernatural or divine -- that's not a new modern concept at all.


Posted by: LizardBreath | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 3:51 PM
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224.2:LB, I think that is just wrong. So wrong, so ahistorical, so anti-Butterfield, so Whiggish. Yes they did think that women turned into trees, and no, they weren't insane.

Plato's "forms" were not transcendant but immanent, and leaving the cave meant seeing them surround you in everyday life.

I can refer to William Blake, for whom exercising the creative imagination meant seeing reality.


Posted by: bob mcmanus | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 3:52 PM
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Yes they did think that women turned into trees

Women generally? Or some specific subset of women? Because I'd disagree that the ancient Greeks believed that women generally turned into trees. And the word for what they believed about those women who did turn into trees is that they were divine, rather than natural humans.


Posted by: LizardBreath | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 3:54 PM
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I have to go to dinner now, but I'll argue more later.


Posted by: LizardBreath | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 3:55 PM
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224.2 is so, so wrong!

Seriously, LB, read, I dunno, Keith Thomas's Religion and the Decline of Magic or Weber's Protestant Ethic or many, many similar works. It's hard to stretch our minds around today, but people distinguishing between the "real" and the "supernatural" or "magical" as opposed to treating both as just "natural" is very recent -- and not a process that's been completed around the world, even today.


Posted by: Robert Halford | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 3:55 PM
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People are seriously arguing that no one distinguished the natural and supernatural until recently? That's absurd.


Posted by: essear | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 3:55 PM
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What 223 et al. said.


Posted by: parsimon | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 3:57 PM
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Would you trust the average citizen's views of economics just because they participate in the capitalist system?

Not at all, but that's not the analogy I would make. For me, it's closer to the habit of many economists to theorise about an idealised state of the world without paying much attention to how markets actually operate in practice. Now, that said, I do take your point about religious practice vs belief, but a) I'd concur with the "sociology of religion" classification, and b) there seems to be an awful lot of conflation going on here.


Posted by: Ginger Yellow | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 4:01 PM
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The washerwomen turn into trees at the end of Finnegans Wake This is not a symbol or metaphor, it really fucking happened. As if biology isn't a story. Joyce (and Mann) resacralized the quotidian, for those who love them.

This is very hard to explain to someone with a rational-scientific outlook.

Call it overdetermination if you like, the rejection of Occam, or 4Prinsuffrea. Multiple overlapping immanent realities, available as needed

Reason and science are such fucking jealous gods.


Posted by: bob mcmanus | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 4:02 PM
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I have a suspicion that everyone here is probably in agreement about the history, in terms of what Greek people did and didn't believe, and that people on the two sides of this debate are just using the words "natural"/"supernatural" somewhat differently.


Posted by: Brock Landers | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 4:03 PM
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I think there are a wide variety of phenomena in daily life that we might today call supernatural but once could have been seen as more "natural", or at least overlapping with ordinary reality -- like faith healing, various forms of inspiration, hearing voices, perhaps predicting the future, etc. But that's still different from seeing your neighbor turning into an eagle and flying around, which casual empiricism would always have told people is highly unlikely at best. A lot of my favorite classical writers are very hard-headed and practical types. (Although admittedly you find Herodotus giving creedence to some farfetched stuff, I'm never quite sure if he's playing to the crowd with that).


Posted by: PGD | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 4:05 PM
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LB, you really think that the average ancient Greek person didn't believe that nymphs were literally true?


Posted by: Walt Someguy | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 4:08 PM
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No, of course the Greeks didn't think that all women turned into trees. But (I'm not well versed in the period, so details may be off) the Greeks took it as perfectly normal that there were creatures out there in the world that were women who could turn into trees, demons that caused disease, etc. These were part of the natural world, not something outside or above it, and many similar beliefs gave structure to daily life. And, most importantly for this conversation, the "supernatural" occurences weren't the subject of a unique discipline called religion.

As late as the late 17th century almost all educated Europeans shared similar beliefs. Seriously, I had no idea that there was such a need for people to read cultural historians and anthropologists!


Posted by: Robert Halford | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 4:08 PM
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Reason and science are such fucking jealous gods.

Gems like this are why I always read bob's comments. Must be a whole in the tinfoil.


Posted by: Tassled Loafered Leech | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 4:08 PM
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The whole finding a historical date when love, homosexuality or the supernatural was invented reminds me of this cartoon:

http://www.cooperativeindividualism.org/calvin-father-on-black-and-white-pictures.gif


Posted by: lemmy caution | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 4:13 PM
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235 is probably right, although LB's use of words makes the most sense to me.


Posted by: essear | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 4:14 PM
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Although admittedly you find Herodotus giving creedence to some farfetched stuff

The furry gold seeking ants are real I tell you!


Posted by: Alan Quartermain | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 4:15 PM
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Furry gold lobsters are real.


Posted by: Megan | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 4:16 PM
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I'm reminded of a nice bit in C. S. Lewis' Perelandra -- let me see if I can find it. Here!

The truth was that all I heard about them served to connect two things which one's mind tends to keep separate, and that connecting gave one a sort of shock. We tend to think about non-human intelligences in two distinct categories which we label 'scientific' and 'supernatural' respectively. We think, in one mood, of Mr Wells' Martians (very unlike the real Malacandrians, by the bye), or his Selenites. In quite a different mood we let our minds loose on the possibility of angels, ghosts, fairies, and the like. But the very moment we are compelled to recognise a creature in either class as real the distinction begins to get blurred: and when it is a creature like an eldil the distinction vanishes altogether. These things were not animals - to that extent one had to classify them with the second group; but they had some kind of material vehicle whose presence could (in principle) be scientifically verified. To that extent they belonged to the first group. The distinction between natural and supernatural, in fact, broke down; and when it had done so, one realised how great a comfort it had been - how it had eased the burden of intolerable strangeness which this universe imposes on us by dividing it into two halves and encouraging the mind never to think of both in the same context. What price we may have paid for this comfort in the way of false security and accepted confusion of thought is another matter.


Posted by: redfoxtailshrub | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 4:16 PM
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Sure she was. The ancient Greeks weren't insane, they knew that natural women didn't turn into trees. Something that looked sometimes like a woman and sometimes like a tree was divine, rather than natural. They actually believed that such minor divinities existed, but that didn't mean they thought they were natural, like some rare form of animal.

Why do you think thinking that actual (=human?) women don't turn into trees means thinking that divine women who do turn into trees aren't natural?

I'm reminded of your thought, expressed in the past, that "energy" in common parlance just means what it means in physics, and that's what people were dimly trying to get at even before physics defined "energy". "Natural" has not always meant what we now take it to mean.


Posted by: nosflow | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 4:22 PM
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I don't think 235 is right, or, rather, it misses a pretty key difference between pre-modern and modern thought and also a very important element of the history of religion (extra mindbender -- reformed Chrisitanity, as much as science, was actually critical in the disenchanting of the world and the creation of special categories for "religion" and "the supernatural."). The key is that the magical was not thought of as some extra-"natural" process but rather as part and parcel of the ordinary world.


Posted by: Robert Halford | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 4:31 PM
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OTOH, I am reminded of JZ Smith's dismissal of anthropologists who thought that, say, certain tribesmen really did believe that they were parrots, when they were obviously able to discriminate between men and birds.

But it just seems remarkably naïve to insist that some random ancient Greek schlub considered the extent of nature to be roughly that of what we disenchanted moderns do, except that he also added a bunch of supernatural stuff on top.


Posted by: nosflow | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 4:32 PM
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I dunno, sometimes I'm kinda in the "are we really that different from Herodotus" mindset. I mean, immortal jellyfish, black holes, DMT -- the universe is a weird place; it's enough to make you into a Juggalo!

I mean, I could probably walk outside and ask the first 5 people I meet what they believe, and in this neighborhood, I'd get the whole spectrum from woo-woo New Age mysticism, to Somali folk beliefs, to anarchist atheism, to cosmopolitan Somali disregard for radicals of any stripe to Bible-believing Christians and Native American Church adherents. Clearly some ancient Greek people must've believed in naiads and dryads and the whole bit. And some people went through the motions of that belief because it was politically expedient and/or good for business, and probably some people were cynical their whole lives and then when they were old and afraid of dying, they got real pious, real quick. I just don't figure it that there's any teleology of belief inherent in history. Lots of people are credulous, lots of people are skeptical, what changes is the accepted boundaries of the discourse.


Posted by: Natilo Paennim | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 4:44 PM
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Since she's at dinner, I'll guess that LB is saying more what 247.1 implies.

The key is that the magical was not thought of as some extra-"natural" process but rather as part and parcel of the ordinary world.

Sure, maybe dryads were part of the Greek natural world, but you knew your sister was not one of the magical woman who might be a tree some of the time. The chicks you knew weren't going to be trees and swans and stuff were regular human-type natural beings. The other ladies, who turned into other things and were half-birds and you didn't see in person quite so often, those were the magic divine-type natural beings. I would be very surprised if people got those confused very often. Even if they do believe that dryads are part of the landscape, I bet they wouldn't take bets that their mom might be a tree part time.


Posted by: Megan | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 4:47 PM
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I doubt that people confused dryads with their mothers, too. But that's not really the issue. Do you beileve that some diseases are caused by germs? And that germs are a part of the natural world? That's pretty much exactly the same way that pre-modern Europeans thought that disease was caused by demons or that angels could intervene in daily life.


Posted by: Robert Halford | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 4:50 PM
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OT- I thought this was funny:

http://laurenleto.wordpress.com/readers-by-author/


Posted by: Tassled Loafered Leech | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 4:54 PM
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Posted by: | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 4:55 PM
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The issue that LB was arguing was that people had a category called divine (224). She used the unfortunate word "natural", but (I think) her point was that people always had a conception that a distinguishable category of stuff is magical or divine. And tree nymphs are on the magic side of that. Distinguishing between the mundane and the divine is not a product of modernity, if ancient people knew that the human peoples are not going to turn into dryads, even if you believe that dryads live in your neighborhood. (Probably in a nice camphor.)


Posted by: Megan | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 5:01 PM
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Personally, I wasn't convinced by science that dryads or flying griffons were unnatural, actually science is compatible with a wide variety of super-freaky creatures. I think we learn a pretty good sense of the boundaries of "possible" and "impossible" just through observation as you grow up.


Posted by: PGD | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 5:09 PM
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I think we learn a pretty good sense of the boundaries of "possible" and "impossible" just through observation as you grow up.

Like putting a a man on the moon and bringing him safely home? Or a craft that can travel submerged under the oceans?


Posted by: Jules Verne | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 5:18 PM
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253 is good.


Posted by: essear | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 5:19 PM
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Thanks!


Posted by: Megan | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 5:24 PM
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'Cept for the unfortunate change in tenses and switch to the second person. But I'm all colloquial like that.


Posted by: Megan | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 5:26 PM
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The concept of "divine", which the Greeks certainly had, doesn't line up closely with our concept of "supernatural." They're more like a separate species of the natural world (understood as roughly everything that exists plays by the same rules) than they are something that transcends the world.

Believing in dryads is closer to my belief that there are penguins than it would be a contemporary belief in God. I've heard that there are penguins, even though I've never seen them, and get this-- they are BIRDS that FLY in ICE WATER. How totally weird! None of the birds around here do that. And of course it's possible to be skeptical of the existence of penguins (or dryads, or Greek gods, or the link between vaccines and autism) while acknowledging that if they did exist, they'd be part of the natural world.

Maybe one way to see the distinction is that a naturalist of the day trying to categorize everything in the world would think it a legitimate question to wonder if he could find a dryad, or if this was the spot where the god impregnated a random heroine. I think the distinction Halford talks about is introduced earlier than he thinks it is, but one thing it is useful for is fitting God into a scientific age. If God is supernatural, then there's really nothing that science, whose domain is the rational world, can do to prove or disprove God's existence.


Posted by: | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 5:27 PM
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And tree nymphs are on the magic side of that. Distinguishing between the mundane and the divine is not a product of modernity, if ancient people knew that the human peoples are not going to turn into dryads, even if you believe that dryads live in your neighborhood.

Contra essear, this is not good, because it the conclusion, if it's supposed to be interesting, can't possibly follow from the premise. We aren't interested in whether people thought that any given thing could turn into any other thing, but whether they thought that the divine was something other than and apart from (transcendent with respect to, one might even say) the natural world. And observing that they could perfectly well tell that no person was a god doesn't establish that; it is, in fact, completely irrelevant.

You're not going to turn into a dryad and moreover you're probably not going to encounter a dryad hanging out, sitting in the tree, but mightn't you hear Triton blow his wreathéd horn, or engage do odd things in the autumn and the spring, or endeavor to have unpleasantness befall someone toward whom you have some animadversion, on the basis of having recovered something formerly, but no longer, contiguous with him? And think, moreover, that these are all just sort of the way things are in nature?

Anders gesagt: it's one thing to say that of course no one thought he could just go out and shake the hand of a river deity, but and it's quite another to say, on that basis, that for the far-off them there was just the river, and as something else, its elusive deity. Is it so hard to imagine that the significant divinity was just in the river? Doofy paintings of lissome girls wearing leaves (in the dryad case) are not to be relied on as a guide to worldviews here.

(I mean, almost all of my anthropological/sociological knowledge is over a century old—or rather drawn from texts over a centuray old—but come on, people!)


Posted by: nosflow | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 5:33 PM
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The ancient Greeks folks down the block weren't insane, they knew that natural women didn't turn into trees... people aren't really abducted by UFO's... people weren't supernaturally healed by Jesus back in biblical times... it's neither rational nor helpful to insist that "everything happens for a reason". That is, as Natilo said, people seem to believe all sorts of things.

I'm more behind Kotsko than LB in this, but I have to admit the phrase "doctrinaire atheism" produces eyerolls, and I found lw's 182 frankly insulting, if it was in earnest.

244- Oh, Perelandra, that's the one where the Christian hero has to battle an arrogant atheist scientist who doesn't realize he's OMG doing the bidding of Satan!, and triumphs by bashing said scientist's head in with a rock, in a moment of fervent religious joy? Totally put me off C.S. Lewis, that book did.


Posted by: persistently visible | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 5:38 PM
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I would have so many clever responses were I not in an airport writing from a phone. Sigh.


Posted by: essear | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 5:42 PM
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Clever responses to li'l ol' me?


Posted by: nosflow | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 5:43 PM
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Plenty of people today believe they can see auras, or their mom can. I'm sure Greeks knew fruity people who professed magical abilities, and believed them.

At the baby shower on Saturday, a fruity woman described how when she is in a grocery store, she'll get a feeling that someone she knows is in the store, and then she'll see that person. It came up a few times and everyone took it in stride. But I was just being polite.


Posted by: heebie-geebie | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 6:05 PM
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but you knew your sister was not one of the magical woman who might be a tree some of the time

But if you conquered Persia or became the Roman Emperor, you were either secretly or conditionally divine. Kotsko's emphasis on ritual and practice is very important:the divine was that which was worshipped.


I am also not so sure, that in an average household the reaction to your sister claiming to be a tree or a tree nymph would not be different than most of us today would have. I am more confident that a Roman might see his dead sister's spirit in a poplar. The ancients weren't animists, but they were much closer to it than we are.


Posted by: bob mcmanus | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 6:08 PM
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259: I think the distinction Halford talks about is introduced earlier than he thinks it is

Unlikely, unless you think it was largely a product of the high middle ages (I have a pet, somewhat crackpot theory that the development of canon law in the Western tradition is the foundational moment of a separate sphere for the religious, and that the creation of the secular world is basically a byproduct of the Investiture Controversy. But I'm not asking anyone to believe that fooilshness!).

It is clear, though, that the creation of the concept of the supernatural and the general disenchantment of the world is a slow process that has taken a long time.

And the strict notion of incommensurability between, or inevitable conflict between, "religion" and "science" is even more recent than the disenchantment of the world and the decline of magic. Even in, say, 1850 or so very few Western scientists saw any inherent conflict between science and religion, and assumed that the one simply supported the other -- although by that time the sense of a distinction between the two spheres was much clearer.

It's also important to understand that, in premodern societies, we're not just talking about a few fruity people who thought they could see auras. Concepts that we would now think of as supernatural were generally accepted as descriptive of reality, in the same way that we now have a folk understanding that electricity or ions or penguins are "real."


Posted by: Robert Halford | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 6:11 PM
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But if you conquered Persia or became the Roman Emperor, you were either secretly or conditionally divine.

TELL ME ABOUT IT DUDE


Posted by: OPINIONATED VESPASIAN | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 6:11 PM
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I can believe in giant squid without believing that it's easy to see one.


Posted by: k-sky | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 6:12 PM
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general disenchantment of the world is a slow process that has taken a long time

We're expecting a ruling on penguins any day now.


Posted by: Megan | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 6:13 PM
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Says Michael Forster ("On the Very Idea of Denying the Existence of Radically Different Conceptual Schemes", p 158) "An early Greek would have been on pretty firm ground had he claimed that it was a conceptual truth that the sun was intelligent".


Posted by: nosflow | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 6:19 PM
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On the Very Idea of Denying the Existence of Radically Different Conceptual Schemes

I hope you're not making this up. Next we'll have "On the Very Idea of a Conceptual Scheme's Having Ravished Your Mom".


Posted by: Standpipe Bridgeplate | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 6:35 PM
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Not at all.


Posted by: nosflow | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 6:39 PM
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I've lost track of what the argument with LB regarding present-day believers is. The shift to discussion of just what "factual," "natural," and "supernatural" means seems to have occurred with her 203, and then 211.

The problem is that LB is stuck on the notion that modern day religious persons (unspecified) believe in something supernatural, right? She hasn't said whether substitution of the word "divine" suffices -- the implication is that it does not, for the divine is still supernatural.

Just trying to catch up.


Posted by: parsimon | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 6:39 PM
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Aw hell. I'm only about half through the thread, but I want to throw this observation out there to dumb down the discussion of faith versus belief more to my own intellectual level... In certain ways, my experience of Unfogged is very much like my experience of religion. Not just the diving in like an instant zealot at a time of emotional upheaval and then falling off as things settle part. Like Unfogged, I experience faiths an opportunity for exploring ideas, challenging my values, grasping for an ever better approximation of "Truth" or clarity. Some of it pisses me off, some is deeply comforting, some is just cock jokes.

Upon reflection, this may be less helpful an observation than it seemed in my head before I started typing.


Posted by: Di Kotimy | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 6:40 PM
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Don't know LB's beliefs on this, but for me, supernatural, magic and divine are all about the same for me. (And most technology as well, but I know I'm wrong on that one.)


Posted by: Megan | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 6:41 PM
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Assimilating "divine" and "magic" seems pretty ham-handed to me.


Posted by: nosflow | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 6:44 PM
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I'm an illusionist.


Posted by: Gob Bluth | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 6:45 PM
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Assimilating "divine" and "magic" seems pretty ham-handed to me.

You mean you don't think David Blaine is a god?


Posted by: Brock Landers | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 6:48 PM
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Not verifiable by experimentation? All goes in the same loose category. Fine distinctions in abstract categories are for humanities majors.


Posted by: Megan | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 6:49 PM
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I'm sort of with essear at 241 on this. On the one hand, miracles were always miracles not just because they were unusual but because they were involved suspensions of the course of nature.

Aquinas: Nothing prevents a thing's getting from another cause what it is not in its own nature to be the cause of... We say this because ... [otherwise some might imagine] ... that God cannot bring it about that the dead should rise and the blind have their sight restored to them.

But now, on the other hand, it gets complicated. Isn't it in the nature of a dryad to sometimes look like a woman and sometimes a tree? Isn't it in accordance with God's nature to sometimes intervene in history? So why are they nonetheless divine and somehow supernatural, even for premoderns? One possibility is that the premodern distinction is more epistemological/pragmatic than metaphysical - the supernatural is what is somehow occult - badly understood by us.



Posted by: One of Many | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 6:49 PM
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You know, not every religion traffics in "miracles" or "the miraculous" at all.


Posted by: nosflow | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 6:52 PM
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Damn, I missed my Marshall McLuhan moment! It just so happens that I had the Regius Professor of Divinity (Emer.) here just a little while ago, whom I surely could have produced to great effect in this thread. Somehow.


Posted by: Gonerill | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 7:03 PM
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"How you got to comment on blogs at all is totally amazing!"


Posted by: nosflow | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 7:05 PM
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282- You're bluffing. It's silly to believe in the supernatural, and there's no way a Professor of Divinity could fit into that top hat.


Posted by: persistently visible | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 7:07 PM
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Not verifiable by experimentation? All goes in the same loose category. Fine distinctions in abstract categories are for humanities majors.

That's fine for you, but I don't see why this means you have to think that all the ancients made the same solitary distinction.


Posted by: redfoxtailshrub | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 7:11 PM
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Possibly Megan was being glib. Hard to say.


Posted by: parsimon | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 7:13 PM
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281 - Sure. I only wanted to note that the religions that did are evidence that a natural/supernatural distinction was in some recognizable form extant in premodern times. I agree, though, that lumping the ancient Greeks in with this is a bit quick (cf. Halford at 261)


Posted by: One of Many | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 7:15 PM
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Semi-OT.

Hitchens: "I have been advised by my physician that I must undergo a course of chemotherapy on my esophagus. This advice seems persuasive to me."

Sullivan: (in what is actually a very sympathetic post): May the God he believes poisons everything be with him.


Posted by: JP Stormcrow | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 7:24 PM
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s/b "Halford at 266.1"


Posted by: One of Many | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 7:28 PM
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261 is right, I think, in the sense that in some sense the development of the natural/supernatural distinction is itself a product of Christianity (and, I would argue, the high medieval and then reformed Church). The miracle/non-miracle distinction drawn by Aquinas in the passage you cite is, I think, tied into the distinction between the sphere of law/sphere of faith that was very much a product of the high middle ages. On the other hand, it's important to recognize that this process of disenchantment-through-Christianity took (at least) 1600 years and is still ongoing today, and that there is a VERY complicated story involved.

Also, two related points (a) the concept of the "miracle" isn't the only relevant issue for the presence of the supernatural in the premodern world -- demons, witches, and angels were not seen as outside of the natural order, but were rather non-visible, natural beings that were also non-miraculous; (b) there's often a tendency to read back modern scientism into its precursors (Aquinas couldnt really have believed that miracles were part of the natural order, right, so he put that passage in to stay in good standing with the Church!) that's pretty ahistorical; Aquinas was smart enough to realize that a distinction could be drawn, but that didn't mean that he didn't think that miracles really happened.


Posted by: Robert Halford | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 7:29 PM
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Aggh. 290 to 280 and 289.


Posted by: Robert Halford | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 7:32 PM
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Fuck Aquinas, how many divisions does he have?


Posted by: The Ahistorical Stalin | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 7:33 PM
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I'm an agnostic brought up by agnostic parents. Agnostic rather than atheist mostly because I don't give a shit about faith per se. I mean, does it really make any difference whether folks are explaining that homosexuality is evil because it violates god's law or socialist morality? Not to me. Leave me alone, don't tell me what theistic beliefs are good, and which ones are bad, and I'm fine with you. That's why the militant atheists rub me the wrong way. I also have no interest in nor sense of spirituality of any sort. The only exception is great art - when I look at wonderful religious paintings and sculptures and I can get a certain sense of the feelings the artist is seeking to evoke. That said, I refuse to eat meat on Christmas Eve. It just feels wrong, just like not eating fish, vegetarian barszcz, and pierogi feels wrong on that night.


Posted by: teraz kurwa my | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 7:50 PM
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237: This question is the easiest one to answer. Yes, I think that (at least some) ancient Greeks literally believed in gods and nymphs and so on as persons who they might actually encounter. But I think they believed that gods and nymphs and so on were supernatural/divine persons, distinct from non-divine humans or ordinary animals.

I'm understanding that Halford, at least, is arguing that even if pre-modern people thought of gods and demons and so forth as something distinct from people, so that there was a category for people and ordinary animals and so forth, and a category for gods and demons and fairies, both categories were contained within the category "natural". I'm fine with whatever words you want to use -- all I want to insist on is that as far back as you want to go, people had a category for gods and demons and such distinct from ordinary people. Call it schmupernatural if you don't like the terms I was using, as long as we can agree that people could make the distinction.


Posted by: LizardBreath | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 8:06 PM
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The problem is that LB is stuck on the notion that modern day religious persons (unspecified) believe in something supernatural, right?

I'm pretty committed to the idea that at least some do. If you're committed to the idea that none do, can I ask on what basis?


Posted by: LizardBreath | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 8:08 PM
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142 is a remarkably good comment. So good, in fact, that I may be inspired to buy a copy of the dissertation


Posted by: di kotimy | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 8:17 PM
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142 is a remarkably good comment. So good, in fact, that I may be inspired to buy a copy of the dissertation


Posted by: di kotimy | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 8:19 PM
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I agree that it's complicated, and that there is some sort of gradual progression involved before we arrive at a full-blown modern era distinction, so it's reasonable to point out some facets of the modern conception were not present earlier on. (And I'm surprised to hear that anyone would think that Aquinas didn't really believe in miracles.)

But I don't think it's quite right to think that demons were seen as just another natural species, albeit invisible. True, they were thought of as non-miraculous and as genuinely existing, but they operate according to principles very unlike the principles underlying ordinary processes of growth, locomotion, etc. They're magical, in some sense. Dealing with them and controlling them requires knowledge qualitatively different to that required for dealing with ordinary creatures. You have to use symbolic means, incantations etc., that are inefficacious for ordinary creatures. (But I may be pushing things beyond the point of diminishing returns here - blog comments aren't the place for complete precision.)


Posted by: One of Many | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 8:22 PM
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298 to 290


Posted by: One of Many | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 8:25 PM
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295: It stands to reason. Also maybe Kobe.


Posted by: Mister Smearcase | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 8:30 PM
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224

Sure she was. The ancient Greeks weren't insane, they knew that natural women didn't turn into trees. Something that looked sometimes like a woman and sometimes like a tree was divine, rather than natural. They actually believed that such minor divinities existed, but that didn't mean they thought they were natural, like some rare form of animal.

Not to pile on or anything but I also think this is dubious. How about being naturally lucky (blessed by the gods) or unlucky (cursed by the gods)? And more recently an awful lot of people believed women could turn into witches.


Posted by: James B. Shearer | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 8:35 PM
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295: I'm pretty committed to the idea that at least some do. If you're committed to the idea that none do, can I ask on what basis?

I'm not committed to the idea that none do. In the modern day conception of the notion, there is space for the idea of the supernatural, and it seems to me that a number of religious people believe in it. I'm not on board with the sky fairy version of religious belief.

The subthread here about what premoderns believed is just that: a sidebar. It goes some way to explaining where the modern conception might be coming from, but in our actually existing rationalist, materialist, scientistic modern conceptual scheme, there's not much continuity between the natural and the supernatural, *unless* you reconsider this term "supernatural" in terms of the divine, or as neb put it somewhere upthread, the transcendent.


Posted by: parsimon | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 8:46 PM
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This thread is like the blog version of Paul Veyne.


Posted by: Gonerill | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 8:50 PM
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298 -- I think we're close and agree we're out of blog comment range, but I'd resist the notion that the distinctions between magical/nonmagical practices meant much until the high middle ages -- and I'd say only meant very little thereafter until about 1700. You had trial by ordeal until 1215, and the law of Deodans made it to Blackstone. Even in late 17th century people were still invoking legal process against witches in the same manner (roughly) as would be used against ordinary criminal defendants, and even Francis Bacon believed in monsters. So, there's a long and slow development.

To LB's comment, I'm not sure why it matters that people understood that there was a distinction between themselves and wood nymphs, or whatever -- the point Kotsko was making is that religion was originally a specific set of practices in a generally enchanted world. not a set of practices that dealt with (and walled off) some special and hard to explain category of the transcendent.


Posted by: Robert Halford | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 8:52 PM
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all I want to insist on is that as far back as you want to go, people had a category for gods and demons and such distinct from ordinary people.

I remain unhappy with a "categorical distinction". Of course Gods and demons were at the apex and nadir of the "sacred" hierarchy and continuity, but a continuity.

So I picked up a book about paganism in Europe from antiquity to the moderns. 3000 sacred springs and wells in Ireland. Servius:"'nullus enim fons non sacer', 'there is in fact no spring that is not sacred' Not to mention trees, rocks, stones, places.

And why were these springs and trees sacred? Because you performed rituals at and with them. Every grove you passed, every source of water provided an opportunity to engage the sacred and divine. At some point, a ubiquitous sacred becaomes an immanent sacred, and you cannot be categorically, qualitatively separate from an immanent sacred.

The Christians worked like mad to desacralize the quotidian.


Posted by: bob mcmanus | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 8:55 PM
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And I totally agree with 302 -- the conversation about premodern belief systems is very much a sidebar.


Posted by: Robert Halford | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 8:55 PM
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Mostly pwnd by Halford.


Posted by: bob mcmanus | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 8:59 PM
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And more recently an awful lot of people believed women could turn into witches.

Well, recently. In historical terms, sure, that was fairly recent. But still pre-modern, or at least early modern, no? (and a good example of what Halford is getting at, I think).

I believe John Emerson has an ancestor who was hanged for a witch, or for being a lewd and lascivious woman, which almost amounted to the same thing. She was harangued by one of the Mathers, I think.

The night before I was married, my mother hung a rosary from the clothesline outside. For good weather the next day, naturally (or supernaturally, maybe, except that that category doesn't quite seem to fit: which is to say, I agree with Halford in this thread).

142 is very good.


Posted by: Mary Catherine | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 9:06 PM
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Contemporary witches accused in court.

I think that religious attitudes are most essential at critical times in life-- birth (which is pretty miraculous even if it is mundane-- when everything works, it's hard to be satisfied with materialism) and death (over completely just like that?) being the most common.

It's possible to believe that what's objectively determinable is all that's knowable, but is incomplete. People are very good at fooling themselves about even objective truths-- is it possible to believe that one has faith but to be wrong about that? If so, then practice or clean living or something is central. Faith seems very demanding to me-- Buddhism and Kierkegaard seem sensible on this point.

Premoderns are a sidebar, but Carlo Ginzburg has written a lot and IMO well about popular beliefs in early modern Europe.


Posted by: lw |
Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 9:45 PM
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Shit, link fail for witches
http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2010/06/hex-appeal/8103/


Posted by: lw | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 9:45 PM
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Mean-spirited note on Hitchens esophogeal cancer

Concepts that we would now think of as supernatural were generally accepted as descriptive of reality, in the same way that we now have a folk understanding that electricity or ions or penguins are "real."

This strikes me as almost self-evidently true. There are plenty of conceptual constructs that are perfectly sensible ways to order reality but could be seen as "supernatural" by current scientific standards -- Aristotle's biology is full of that stuff. In everyday life, some of the things people are referring to as evidence of supernatural are so intuitively appealing that you have to restrain people from believing them naturally -- like the quasi-divinity of celebrities or the exceptionally succcessful.

The only issue is, and this may be an area where people are talking past each other, that this would not prevent people from engaging in a lot of pragmatic reality-checking based on what they saw around them. E.g. the classical world seemed to have a near-literal belief in imperial divinity, but it also clearly had a very sophisticated understanding of the ways in which it was false and dangerous for people to believe they were divine.


Posted by: PGD | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 9:58 PM
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311: I don't like "Hitch" at all at all, but I think that's too mean.


Posted by: Mary Catherine | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 10:11 PM
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I'd resist the notion that the distinctions between magical/nonmagical practices meant much until the high middle ages -- and I'd say only meant very little thereafter until about 1700.

This just doesn't seem right to me. Marlowe's Doctor Faustus? The ghosts in Hamlet? There's a clear distinction between the natural and the supernatural in literature a century earlier than what you're saying. And I'm pretty sure it runs back much further.


Posted by: essear | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 10:29 PM
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I'm glad no one in this thread has tried to push the Durkheimian view of religion.


Posted by: essear | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 10:36 PM
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Think about this -- the ghosts may be real!

But the concept of magic and the supernatural in Shakes. is quite complicated, as is the whole subject at the time of the Reformation. Keith Thomas, quoted above, is quite good on this, as are about 10 million Stephen Greenblatt inspired books. Basically, you can see Shakespeare as part of a process of a disenchanted world, but he's a long way from being there.


Posted by: Robert Halford | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 10:37 PM
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I'm glad no one in this thread has tried to push the Durkheimian view of religion.

How come?


Posted by: nosflow | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 10:43 PM
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Real, sure - but part of a realm that's separated from the mundane, even if the two interact. (I still think a lot of this might be ambiguity about what is meant by "natural" and "supernatural".)


Posted by: essear | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 10:43 PM
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Basically, you can see Shakespeare as part of a process of a disenchanted world, but he's a long way from being there.

E.g. the prodigies following MacBeth's murder.

Old Man

'Tis unnatural,
Even like the deed that's done. On Tuesday last,
A falcon, towering in her pride of place,
Was by a mousing owl hawk'd at and kill'd.

ROSS

And Duncan's horses--a thing most strange and certain--
Beauteous and swift, the minions of their race,
Turn'd wild in nature, broke their stalls, flung out,
Contending 'gainst obedience, as they would make
War with mankind.

Old Man

'Tis said they eat each other.

ROSS

They did so, to the amazement of mine eyes
That look'd upon't. Here comes the good Macduff.


Posted by: nosflow | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 10:45 PM
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Anyway, it's not as if anyone who believes in a process of disenchantment thinks there was, say, a decade prior to which everything was hunky-dory and enchanted and whatnot and after which it was all at a single go disenchanted.


Posted by: nosflow | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 10:47 PM
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It's also worth pointing out that the attack on magic was the product of the Church, which saw magic as an affront to the Christian God. The notion that God is "supernatural" and that there is a fundamental incommensurability between science and the existence of God is really much later -- you see it a little in the French enlightenment, but it doesn't really get going, at least in Protestant countries, until after 1850.


Posted by: Robert Halford | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 10:47 PM
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If this thread is still going on tomorrow maybe Gonerill can have his McLuhan moment after all.


Posted by: nosflow | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 10:50 PM
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316: I feel like Durkheim is an extreme case of attempting to describe religion while completely ignoring what the practitioners of the religion think they are up to.


Posted by: essear | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 10:54 PM
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Well of course if you're an anthropologist the last thing you do is ask what the subjects of study think they're doing!

There is an amusing application of this principle in JZ Smith's "God Save This Honorable Court".


Posted by: nosflow | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 10:59 PM
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The notion that God is "supernatural" and that there is a fundamental incommensurability between science and the existence of God is really much later

These aren't the same notion, though. The notion that God is "supernatural" is very old. Quoth the OED:

1526 Pilgr. Perf. (W. de W. 1531) 190 Fayth is a super~naturall lyght, & therfore it is indiuysyble, as all graces supernaturall be. 1555 BRADFORD in Foxe A. & M. (1570) III. 1822/1 If a woman that is natural, can not finally forget the child of her wombe,..God which is a father super~naturall,..wyll not forget you. 1561 T. NORTON Calvin's Inst. II. 73 Of nature is giltinesse, and sanctification is of supernaturall grace.

The notion of an incommensurability of science and religion is, clearly, not older than science itself, although it is probably roughly as old.


Posted by: essear | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 11:00 PM
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||
Hitchens said that I wasn't funny, so as far as I'm concerned, he can enjoy his esophageal cancer.

Also off topic, someone wrote to OtPR today asking whether I am really a low-level civil servant, as I describe myself there. Now I am contemplating a reality in which bloggers all pretend to be stateworkers for the groupies and abundant recreational drugs.
|>


Posted by: Megan | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 11:06 PM
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Here, as Durkheim does persistently with respect to Australian data, the scholar must reject the native's claimed pragmatic results in favor of a social scientific interpretation; an interpretation from the outside, dependent on the scientist's theories and comparative knowledge. That is to say, translation is required.

In the case at hand, the native informative predictably stressed the economic and pragmatic consequences of the [nativity] display. This understanding was, from Durkheim's view, erroneously accepted as true by the Court. The informant claimed that the exhibit "benefits merchants and their employees", it "serves commercial interests", it "promots retail sales", it causes folk to "let loose with their money". Durkheim might remark that embedded in this economic discourse is a second language of sociality, specifically tied to a particular season.

[…]

In Durkheim's sense of the term, this coming together in the shopping center constitutes Pawtucket's "church".

From this perspective, Durkheim might go on to argue two reinterpretations of the native informant's account. Both would reject the Court's understanding that Pawtucket's beliefs are secular. On the one hand, Durkheim might arge that, in religion, the experience of the collectivity is objectified, often as an impersonal force, sometimes as a supernatural being. In the native's erroneous understanding, it is this force (or being) rather than the coming together that is thought to "engender" the powerfully experienced sentiments of collective life. In Pawtucket, this objectification is variously named the "Season", the "Christmas Season", or the "Christmas Spirit". This is a sacred power in that it can be profaned. Think of the canonical example of Scrooge.

Alternatively, Durkheim might argue that as these sentiments are "engendered" by this periodic coming together, seasonal shopping in Pawtucket constitutes that society's religious ritual.

[Etc.]


Posted by: JZ Smith | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 11:06 PM
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247, 323: Does JZ Smith transcend the "natural"? It seems possible.


Posted by: essear | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 11:07 PM
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His hair certainly does.


Posted by: nosflow | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 11:08 PM
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The Calvin quote you have there is the key to that distinction -- the concept is that the world is sinful, and that God is therefore outside of it. That's an important part of the disenchantment of the world story -- and gives a good clue into the origins of the natural/supernatural distinction -- but it's something very different than what I think you mean.

And 324.2 is, no offense, ludicrously wrong to the point that I wonder what they actually teach at the University of Chicago. Try Pierre Duhem or Amos Finklestein or Hans Blumenberg or Thomas Kuhn or Andre Dickson White or . . . I mean, I know that's name-dropping, but seriously.


Posted by: Robert Halford | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 11:08 PM
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I ♥ JZ Smith, if that wasn't already obvious.


Posted by: nosflow | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 11:08 PM
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Ok, I'll bite. To what end are Duhem and Kuhn being namechecked?


Posted by: nosflow | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 11:10 PM
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Obviously everyone is still reading 326.


Posted by: nosflow | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 11:17 PM
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For the notion that pre-1850 or so science saw itself in fundamental opposition to the existence of God or religion. Probably better name-checks would have been Newton. Linnaeus, Descartes, etc.

To be sure, before someone cites Gallileo's death, there was sometimes conflict between Catholic doctrine and emerging science -- but the notion of incommensurability or inevitable conflict, as opposed to just intra-religious disagreement, is really (with a few very rare exceptions) very recent. I just read a general history of the US to 1850 that makes the point nicely.


Posted by: Robert Halford | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 11:19 PM
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And 324.2 is, no offense, ludicrously wrong to the point that I wonder what they actually teach at the University of Chicago. Try Pierre Duhem or Amos Finklestein or Hans Blumenberg or Thomas Kuhn or Andre Dickson White or . . . I mean, I know that's name-dropping, but seriously.

Enlighten me, then. I'm no historian. Obviously the idea of an incompatibility of science and religion is around by the time of Laplace's famous remark that "I have no need of that hypothesis". I wouldn't date anything that's recognizably modern science much earlier than 1600. That already doesn't seem like a huge gap to me, and given the risk involved in being an open atheist at the time, I would bet there were more of them than we know about. Maybe I'm being stupid about what I call "science", though.


Posted by: essear | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 11:22 PM
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334 crossed with 333.

For the notion that pre-1850 or so science saw itself in fundamental opposition to the existence of God or religion. Probably better name-checks would have been Newton. Linnaeus, Descartes, etc.

Oh, sure, plenty of scientists saw no opposition. But some of them did; I'm claiming the idea is old, not that it was widely accepted. After all, even today, a lot of scientists are still religious, even some pretty smart ones.


Posted by: essear | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 11:25 PM
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I'll try to put together a rough bibliography later tonight. But first I need to drink some scotch and read a deposition about film financing -- I'm just a procrastinating amateur here, people! (In the meantime, one key is that Newton's religious beliefs were quite real).


Posted by: Robert Halford | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 11:26 PM
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Actually, on a quick glance, the Wikipedia "history of atheism" page does a pretty good job. It's not very scientist-specific, though.


Posted by: Robert Halford | Link to this comment | 07- 1-10 11:34 PM
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Cat and Girl weighs in.


Posted by: k-sky | Link to this comment | 07- 2-10 1:21 AM
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Substance dualism is important historically for having given rise to much thought regarding the famous mind-body problem. Substance dualism is a philosophical position compatible with most theologies which claim that immortal souls occupy an independent "realm" of existence distinct from that of the physical world
Wiki article on Descartes

The case is made, by Jonathan Israel for instance, that the substance monism of Spinoza is the starting point of both modern science and modern atheism (also much of modern politics, but never mind). Descartes was accused of monism but was not guilty, at least in his own mind, but his dualism was so fraught with difficulties that the Church was not quite sure. Ref Pascal.. Spinoza, on the other hand, was considered Christianity's greatest enemy for a century.

Both sides understood the importance of substance monism. The proto-scientists needed their laws to be universal, general, explanatory.

What this means is that for Spinoza, questions regarding the reason why a given phenomena is the way it is (or exists) are always answerable, and are always answerable in terms of the relevant cause(s).
for instance, the PSR requires a substance monism. Spinoza spent a lot of time refuting Biblical miracles.

Substance monism is close enough to pantheism that the Church cant see a difference. And Pantheism or Deism are version of atheism at least for Christian theists.

The reason I don't think the ancients and pre-moderns are a "sidebar" is that substance monism or pantheism was so much more dominant than theism in the ancient world. I also believe that modern science is based largely on dualisms (synthetic vs analytic;reason vs emotion;facts/values;real/imaginary;Capital/labor) and has not yet escaped the Church, if it is at all possible for "Science" to do so.

The ancients were not stupid. I prefer them to moderns.


Posted by: bob mcmanus | Link to this comment | 07- 2-10 1:26 AM
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OK, deposition read and scotch drunk. Essear, here are a few books:

First, I haven't read this book, but it looks quite good on the general topic, and may be a better overview than anything below.

Books I have read:

This book by Amos Funkenstein is seriously great, and does a tremendous job of showing how deep the connection is between Christian theology and the origins of the scientific revolution before 1600.

This book is, I believe, the definitive biography of Newton, and emphasizes the extent to which he was not only religious, but the extent to whch religion played a role in the development of his scientific thought.

This is a biography of Boyle, that emphasizes the centrality to him of his religious life.

I can't find the US history I was reading recently, but I''ll try to do so.

For bonus points, here's Francis Bacon on atheism


Posted by: Robert Halford | Link to this comment | 07- 2-10 1:31 AM
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Also, I'm pretty sure that the Laplace no-need-of-that-hypothesis story is myth, not validated, but I'm too tired to check that now. In any case, the French enlightenment was more atheist than any other.


Posted by: Robert Halford | Link to this comment | 07- 2-10 1:39 AM
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The night before I was married, my mother hung a rosary from the clothesline outside. For good weather the next day I
It's very common in Ireland to leave out a Child of Prague statue the day before. Until recently I hadn't heard of something my aunt did before an auction - burying a statute of St. Joseph for good luck. This aunt, incidentally, is a university graduate and not elderly.


Posted by: emir | Link to this comment | 07- 2-10 4:32 AM
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re: 339

I wouldn't necessarily set much store by Israel's thesis re: Spinoza. It'd be fair to say that a lot of other writers on the same topic think he's [being polite about it] a little over-stating his case.


Posted by: nattarGcM ttaM | Link to this comment | 07- 2-10 4:37 AM
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re: 341

I don't think the major figures of the Scottish Enlightenment tended to be religious, either. Hutcheson, maybe, but not so much the others.


Posted by: nattarGcM ttaM | Link to this comment | 07- 2-10 4:40 AM
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I entirely endorse Robert's implicit assertion that immersing yourself in the 17th century (or the 7th century BCE) is a good corrective to the assumption that LB and some others seem to be making that people's conceptual universes are pretty much historically invariant and distinguished in different periods primarily by differences of emphasis. But we also need to challenge the equivalent assumption that contemporary conceptual universes can be understood in terms of their quantitative distance from the outlook of an idealised secular educated urban westerner.

Frex, Kotsko somewhere upthread says, "If you're a conservative Christian, you'll tend to focus on his self-sacrifice on the cross". So you will, but this is also absolutely central to, e.g. Fred Clark's world view, which answers the people who wonder why he continues to be a Christian. Clark and liberal Christians like him love the stories of Jesus feeding the poor and healing the sick, but they experience the crucifixion and resurrection as a profoundly liberating reality which actually changes their world. I suspect, though I can't be sure, that if it could be shown that the events in question never occurred, they would argue that the mere fact that they are imaginable changes their world for the better.

Such a view of the resurrection, which I as an atheist don't share for a moment, is firstly completely orthogonal to secular liberal rationalism, and secondly requires a certain understanding of Christology to appreciate in its fullest extent. An Arian theology would tend to diminish the significance of the crucifixion and resurrection, which is presumably one reason why the Chalcedonians went so hard for the jugular.

None of this matters to an atheist one iota, but for an atheist to dismiss the whole construct because it seems weak if interpreted through an atheist intellectual toolkit misses the point entirely.


Posted by: chris y | Link to this comment | 07- 2-10 5:22 AM
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344. I don't know enough about it, but how far was the Scottish enlightenment influenced by the French. There seems to have been a lot more intellectual interplay between those two countries than between either and England at the rather earlier date usually assigned to the English enlightenment, or between them and Germany. Of course the non-religious nature of the movement doesn't necessarily mean that the people involved were unbelievers (pace Hume) - they may simply have regarded their belief as beside the point.


Posted by: chris y | Link to this comment | 07- 2-10 5:30 AM
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I don't remember their exact positions (it's been a long time), but Democritus, Epicurus, Lucretius, etc., seem to have been pretty critical of the supernatural, no? There's that Xenophanes (?) fragment about how if cows had gods they would look like cows, which I take to be skeptical of the whole divinity thing.
Also, the Republic is basically one long answer to atheists.
This could have been a longer, better expressed comment, but I'm going swimming with the Naiads to eat.


Posted by: Awl | Link to this comment | 07- 2-10 6:01 AM
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I entirely endorse Robert's implicit assertion that immersing yourself in the 17th century (or the 7th century BCE) is a good corrective to the assumption that LB and some others seem to be making that people's conceptual universes are pretty much historically invariant and distinguished in different periods primarily by differences of emphasis.

Just because this conversation has been making me cross, I'll say that while the above advice is good -- immersing yourself in any historical period is useful if you're going to form opinions about it -- I don't recognize the assumption you say I'm making. Asserting that a belief in a distinction between ordinary reality and the supernatural or divine has a long history doesn't entail believing that the conceptual structure within which that distinction resides has been fundamentally unchanging.

None of this matters to an atheist one iota, but for an atheist to dismiss the whole construct because it seems weak if interpreted through an atheist intellectual toolkit misses the point entirely.

The funny thing here is that I'm one of the atheists in this conversation, and it makes perfect sense to me that Fred Clark's Christological beliefs are central to his religious experience. I've been reacting against Kotsko's claim in 192 that the importance of that sort of beliefs about the divine are only important to a subset of Christians, rather than to religious people in any other sects or historical periods.


Posted by: LizardBreath | Link to this comment | 07- 2-10 6:03 AM
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Re: religious people not agreeing with what I'm saying about religion -- no one practices "religion as such." They practice particular religions.

So a Christian might be able to tell you a lot about Christianity, but they won't necessarily know about religion in general (because that's an additional realm of knowledge) -- and they might actually just be talking about Christianity when they think they're talking about "religion in general." This is an additional problem, beyond the general problem that people's meta-discourse about what they're doing isn't necessarily reliable.

I'm also still going to maintain that there's a difference between "of course gods exist" and "saying the proper things about God is an important boundary-defining thing for us." It's different for religious practice to presuppose certain beliefs and for the religion to enforce beliefs, or make belief as such an important goal (which it didn't need to be back in the day when basically everyone would agree that there are gods, for example). Obviously religion tends to include or presuppose certain beliefs, but that doesn't mean that religion is about those beliefs, unless you want to say that every religion is secretly just like Christianity.


Posted by: Adam Kotsko | Link to this comment | 07- 2-10 7:47 AM
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burying a statute of St. Joseph

I like the idea of small gods, personally. Take for example the belief in ghosts-- it's a way of expressing faith that the dead are not completely gone sometimes, maybe even our own dead. I am myself a small-minded materialist, so unfortunately there is no consolation for me in this idea, but I think it deserves to be taken seriously.


Posted by: lw | Link to this comment | 07- 2-10 7:49 AM
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348.1 I think I only partly accept this. In modern ordinary parlance, a "distinction between ordinary reality and the supernatural or divine" implies a binary differentiation which I actually think is quite a recent idea. In Homeric or early Norse society, you actually did encounter the supernatural pretty regularly in everyday life. Thor hurled thunderbolts, and you cowered in your houses; Poseidon shook the earth and you sacrificed somebody or something to avert a full scale volcanic eruption. It's possible that there was a small layer of proto-intellectuals who understood the whole relationship as symbolic, but for your average iron age peasant I'm fairly confident that there wasn't a clear distinction between natural forces and supernatural causes. How would they have made such a distinction?

You might recognise that representing the genius loci of an oak tree in the shape of a woman was a convention, but it didn't make the Dryad any less real, and if you wanted that tree for timber, you'd have to placate her in the prescribed manner before you picked up your axe. It was both supernatural and profoundly mundane. No clear wall.

As a matter of fact, the supernatural wasn't booted out of everyday life until the early 18th century at the earliest (in extended Europe - it's still very much present in some parts of the world); whoever it was who recommended Keith Thomas' "Religion and the Decline of Magic" upthread, I can only endorse it.

Now you can argue that this is all very well for low level magic and paganism, but the big monotheistic faiths are different; but I'd challenge you to support such an argument before the 17th century. Not merely did Christians and Muslims believe in, and practice, everyday magic, but their belief in divine intervention as part of the natural scheme of things seems pretty clear to me.

Which is to say that the orthogonal belief that allows an intelligent and rational guy like Fred Clark to centre his life on the crucifixion of Christ wasn't a exercise in double think to the early modern mind, but a perfectly integrated view of the world. (AFAIK it still is to Clark today and to many similar liberal Christians, though not to the fundies who find it necessary to reject evolutionary biology to preserve their faith in God - they're more like Myers.)

Someone - it must have been Pratchett - remarked that it was perfectly possible to believe that God would favour the side of right in a battle, but most successful generals also felt that a large, well trained army helped. Certainly Oliver Cromwell would have felt both propositions were important. Probably George Washington would have been less concerned about the former.


Posted by: chris y | Link to this comment | 07- 2-10 7:50 AM
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340: Thanks! I'll do some reading.


Posted by: essear | Link to this comment | 07- 2-10 7:56 AM
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316: I feel like Durkheim is an extreme case of attempting to describe religion while completely ignoring what the practitioners of the religion think they are up to.

Hm. There is certainly this characteristic bait-and-switch in Durkheim's thinking on religion. He professes to take its reality much more seriously than any of his intellectual competitors (Frazer, Tylor, Spencer, etc), but the religious reality he discovers is of course society, and his explanation of things is not one that would be accepted by believers. By contrast, someone like Weber insists on the centrality of putting yourself in the shoes of the first-person believer and trying to understand how the world looks to them, and what that means for how they act. And yet it's Durkheim who seems to have a much better grasp than Weber of the guts of religious life, especially in its experiential and communal aspects.


Posted by: Gonerill | Link to this comment | 07- 2-10 8:19 AM
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351: In Homeric or early Norse society, you actually did encounter the supernatural pretty regularly in everyday life. Thor hurled thunderbolts, and you cowered in your houses; Poseidon shook the earth and you sacrificed somebody or something to avert a full scale volcanic eruption. It's possible that there was a small layer of proto-intellectuals who understood the whole relationship as symbolic,

I'm hearing an implicit definition of supernatural as "things the speaker doesn't really believe in except in a symbolic sense", and that you're saying that pre-moderns didn't think of things as "supernatural" because they actually believed in them in a literal sense. The same implicit definition, of 'supernatural' as 'true only in a symbolic sense' seemed to underlie Walt Someguy's question in 237.

While that implicit disbelief is certainly a component of how many moderns think about the supernatural, and was less common (although it existed) among pre-moderns (and may be underlying whatever's annoying parsimon -- Pars, are you annoyed because it's rude of me to talk about people silly enough to have supernatural beliefs in a literal sense?), I don't think it's a fundamental enough aspect of the concept to make it reasonable to say that supernatural, as distinct from mundane/non-divine/non-magical/ordinary, was a distinction that arose only in the modern era.


Posted by: LizardBreath | Link to this comment | 07- 2-10 8:22 AM
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345: that people's conceptual universes are pretty much historically invariant and distinguished in different periods primarily by differences of emphasis

Maybe it's just being surrounded by Merkins, but I still haven't been convinced otherwise. The proposition I'm advocating is not that Bronze Age people were avidly discussing metaphysical topics with an eye towards reconciling the disjunctures between their religious beliefs and their everyday experience of quotidian reality. Rather, I'm arguing that many, many people nowadays aren't having those discussions, and in fact that they are not operating at a level where they could have such a discussion without recourse to "well it must be so, because it's right there in the Bible!"

Yes, Europeans like to strut and preen about how rational they are, but what about all of your lottery players and neo-Nazis? I guess it just seems like this discussion is falling into a category error. I don't think the history of philosophy/natural philosophy is even slightly relevant. Then, as now, it's the elites talking to the elites. If we're talking about superstition (and I believe that's where this started out, in terms of wondering why we should bother to read Myers and his commenters) then the positions of the grandees are pretty much moot.


Posted by: Natilo Paennim | Link to this comment | 07- 2-10 8:22 AM
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Even in late 17th century people were still invoking legal process against witches in the same manner (roughly) as would be used against ordinary criminal defendants

Most recent conviction in England under the Witchcraft Act: 1944.

(But this is a bit of a cheat because unlike previous Witchcraft Acts the 1735 Witchcraft Act assumed that magic didn't exist and just imposed penalties on people who pretended to be witches.)


Posted by: ajay | Link to this comment | 07- 2-10 8:29 AM
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To put some numbers on essear's 334, what we would recognize as modern science begins with the publication of Principia in 1687. However, Newton was an alchemist, so certainly it took a little while after that for there to be any idea of what the scope of modern science should be. But as essear points out the idea of the incompatibility of science and religion goes back at least as far as Laplace whose Mécanique Céleste was published from 1799-1825. So at the most we're talking about at most a century from science to science and religion are incompatible.


Posted by: Unfoggetarian: "Pause endlessly, then go in" (9) | Link to this comment | 07- 2-10 8:30 AM
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I believe in ghosts, because I've actually seen ghosts. but I recognize they are antithetical to my general worldview and bracket them in some way such that they don't appear to have any impact on my ontology generally. but then, I've seen ghosts, dude.


Posted by: alameida | Link to this comment | 07- 2-10 8:33 AM
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357: I feel compelled to count Galileo as the beginning, if only because I want to keep hanging out at the Gali/leo Gali/lei Insti/tute in Florence whenever I get a chance.


Posted by: essear | Link to this comment | 07- 2-10 8:40 AM
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Against 354: I think the supernatural was and is present in the everyday life of many premodern people, indistinguishable to them from unusual natural events (volcanoes, eclipses, comets, say, maybe plagues). From the link in 310: His principal advice to clients, he said, was to act normally and refrain from casting any spells in the courtroom.

There were certainly premodern skeptics like say Epictetus, but the worldview of people interested in abstraction is often atypical in any society.

My father believes in ghosts. Out of curiosity, did the ghosts appear in a family home, a place where you know the personalities and history?


Posted by: lw | Link to this comment | 07- 2-10 8:42 AM
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you're saying that pre-moderns didn't think of things as "supernatural" because they actually believed in them in a literal sense.

Not really. To a pre-modern mind, things had their virtues, attributes, whatever, some of which could be used directly, or affected directly, some of which could only be affected indirectly by imprecation, successful or otherwise. By "things", I'm including people with souls, plants with signatures, places with resident nymphs, swords which could be salved to heal the wounds they had inflicted, planets, etc. Beliefs varied obviously - we're talking about most of human history here.

But I think it's a stretch to say that there was a firm distinction in any pre-modern society between "natural" and "supernatural" rather than between "natural things we can do something about" and "natural things we can't do anything about except try to placate them". If you want to say that these distinctions are the same, we'll have to differ.


Posted by: chris y | Link to this comment | 07- 2-10 8:46 AM
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Obviously religion tends to include or presuppose certain beliefs, but that doesn't mean that religion is about those beliefs, unless you want to say that every religion is secretly just like Christianity.

I'll agree with the first part of this sentence, and to the second say that it's hard to have a reasonable conversation about what some set of practices is actually about, as distinct from what the practitioners say it relates to, unless you're both an insider and distinctly introspective. Mostly, it doesn't seem to me to be a welldefined question when put in those terms. At which point what we're disagreeing over seems to me to be pretty much unknowable and unresolveable.


Posted by: LizardBreath | Link to this comment | 07- 2-10 8:46 AM
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The supernatural is just a term to describe things most often perceived in an altered state. When alone, on hallucinogens, dreaming, or in religious ecstasy (all these experiences are, to a certain degree, fungible) one encounters what appears to be another world. Of course, most people have thought it is real and interacts with the mundane world constantly, but to think they didn't recognize a difference is, I think, silly.


Posted by: Eggplant | Link to this comment | 07- 2-10 8:48 AM
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357: I feel compelled to count Galileo as the beginning, if only because I want to keep hanging out at the Gali/leo Gali/lei Insti/tute in Florence whenever I get a chance.

If you're going to count Galileo as doing science (and it's crazy not to count Galileo) then you should count Copernicus. And if you're going to count Copernicus, you ought to count Ptolemy.

Seriously, I don't think there's any interesting account of science where Ptolemy doesn't turn out to be a practitioner.


Posted by: beamish | Link to this comment | 07- 2-10 8:48 AM
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Against 354: I think the supernatural was and is present in the everyday life of many premodern people, indistinguishable to them from unusual natural events (volcanoes, eclipses, comets, say, maybe plagues). From the link in 310: His principal advice to clients, he said, was to act normally and refrain from casting any spells in the courtroom.

I don't see anything to disagree with here, but also don't see the conflict with 354.

361: You're raising a complex issue -- going from the natural/supernatural distinction (if there were alternative terms that seemed useful to you, I'd use those instead) as a means of classifying entities, to a classification of different types of means of interacting with or affecting entities. I'm not quite sure what to do with it, but I'll come back if I think of something. (BTW, where are you geographically in relation to London, particularly next Friday? Any shot you'll make the meetup?)


Posted by: LizardBreath | Link to this comment | 07- 2-10 8:57 AM
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re: 364.last

Damn right. I think imposing a cut off date before which people weren't 'doing science' is silly; and it's fairly obvious that a lot of what people were doing, going right back to antiquity, looks pretty damn science-y. What you can certainly point to in the 17th century is the arrival of an explicit 'meta' position about scientific methodology and the identification of science as a particular type of activity.


Posted by: nattarGcM ttaM | Link to this comment | 07- 2-10 9:06 AM
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But I think it's a stretch to say that there was a firm distinction in any pre-modern society between "natural" and "supernatural" rather than between "natural things we can do something about" and "natural things we can't do anything about except try to placate them".

A number of Hippocratic texts--On the Sacred Disease leaps to mind in particular--seem to me to do exactly this, arguing against the belief that, e.g., epilepsy is some kind of divine possession, and that the causes can be found in the balance of (physical) humors and so on. Of course, presented as an unorthodox view at the time, but the distinction very much like what I think of as supernatural vs. natural was certainly available.


Posted by: potchkeh | Link to this comment | 07- 2-10 9:20 AM
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What you can certainly point to in the 17th16th century

FTFY.


Posted by: nosflow | Link to this comment | 07- 2-10 9:23 AM
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365. 200 miles north. Sorry, there's no way I'll make it. Various chronic conditions are playing up, plus I've just been on holiday, so they'll expect to see me at work. but I'll be there in spirit. If you want to see some nice country and impressive stately homes on a future visit, feel free to come this way.

You're raising a complex issue -- going from the natural/supernatural distinction (if there were alternative terms that seemed useful to you, I'd use those instead) as a means of classifying entities, to a classification of different types of means of interacting with or affecting entities.

I would argue (though probably not today) that how you interact with things is an important attribute of the things, to the extent that they are constraining your possibilities for interacting. I'd also say that I'm not denying that pre-modern people would have regarded some entities as supernatural in much the way you're arguing for; just only at the extremes. I think you're seeing a continuum , rather than a clear distinction in how people saw things and dealt with them. Pre-modern thought tended to be analogue; modern thought is inclined to be more digital.


Posted by: chris y | Link to this comment | 07- 2-10 9:29 AM
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(back from eating) ... And actually, the Republic tells a similar story to the one told by several people here: The old guy at the start (don't remember his name) represents the earlier generations, where everyone just grew up with the myths and never even thought to question their factual accuracy (and immanence and all the rest of it), and suddenly the 'modern' generation starts doubting everything.


Posted by: Awl | Link to this comment | 07- 2-10 9:34 AM
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Seriously, I don't think there's any interesting account of science where Ptolemy doesn't turn out to be a practitioner.

Also Eratosthenes and Aristarchus. But these early examples aren't really continuously connected to the modern ones.


Posted by: essear | Link to this comment | 07- 2-10 9:34 AM
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I'd also say that I'm not denying that pre-modern people would have regarded some entities as supernatural in much the way you're arguing for; just only at the extremes. I think you're seeing a continuum, rather than a clear distinction in how people saw things and dealt with them. Pre-modern thought tended to be analogue; modern thought is inclined to be more digital.

This is fair -- I'm arguing for a distinction, but not necessarily a clean or sharp distinction; there were certainly borderline cases such as someone like Odysseus, who while not divine himself was a locus of divine activity. And of course it's easier to cleanly distinguish between things you believe in and things you don't at all, than between two kinds of things you believe in: a skeptical modern isn't going to misclassify a volcano as supernatural, because supernatural isn't a live option for him. But a pre-modern, even one who thinks of some things as natural and others as acts of the gods or whatever, might just put a volcano into the supernatural category because of lack of knowledge of the natural explanation.


Posted by: LizardBreath | Link to this comment | 07- 2-10 9:40 AM
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re: 371

I don't know, it's just the connection runs through the Arabs and others, rather than directly.


Posted by: nattarGcM ttaM | Link to this comment | 07- 2-10 9:41 AM
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Rather than directly … through other Europeans? What's indirect about that?


Posted by: nosflow | Link to this comment | 07- 2-10 9:42 AM
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But who was the first mad scientist? Giordano Bruno?


Posted by: foolishmortal | Link to this comment | 07- 2-10 9:43 AM
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Wait, no, Paracelsus was earlier.


Posted by: foolishmortal | Link to this comment | 07- 2-10 9:44 AM
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Tycho Brahe had a metal prosthetic nose, which I think scores a few points in terms of mad scienciness.


Posted by: ajay | Link to this comment | 07- 2-10 9:45 AM
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Checking wiki, I see that he also had a pet elk, which fell down the stairs while pissed and died.


Posted by: ajay | Link to this comment | 07- 2-10 9:46 AM
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If he could only have been struck by lightning on the nose, and so acquired either superpowers or a horrible deformity, that would have cinched the deal.


Posted by: LizardBreath | Link to this comment | 07- 2-10 9:46 AM
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If you allow alchemists in, you're spoilt for choice.


Posted by: ajay | Link to this comment | 07- 2-10 9:50 AM
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Is Tycho Brahe's nose preserved anywhere? I found myself wishing I could see it when I was in Denmark, but not enough to make an effort to learn if it still exists.


Posted by: essear | Link to this comment | 07- 2-10 9:53 AM
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... acquired either superpowers or a horrible deformity or turned into a tree, ...

Her name was Lucky Dryadia.


Posted by: JP Stormcrow | Link to this comment | 07- 2-10 9:54 AM
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375, 376: Kircher was late to the game, but shone so very brightly.


Posted by: Sifu Tweety | Link to this comment | 07- 2-10 9:56 AM
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372 -- What is the concept of the "natural" that you are assuming --on the basis of no evidence-- people used? I don't think anyone has suggested that people could distinguish (sometimes!) between immediate physical causes and things that were the acts of gods, spirits, demons of other immaterial but real beings (as in, sure, you knew that if someone hit you in the face, their doing so was a cause of you getting hurt); in general, people could distinguish between what they could and could not see (but not always -- don't discount visions and the like). But I am assuming that you, LB, believe that electricity and atoms and enzymes and DNA are part of the natural world today and have real consequences for physical, immediate reality- not part of some mysterious spirit realm accessible only through a specific practice called religion. It is in that sense that premoderns thought of things like angels and demons.


Posted by: Robert Halford | Link to this comment | 07- 2-10 9:59 AM
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LB is just practicing radical interpretation, Halford. The Forster article is more relevant than it seems!


Posted by: nosflow | Link to this comment | 07- 2-10 10:02 AM
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re: 375

I was just going with essear. I mean, in the sense that there's no continuous historical continuity within Europe. There's a gap, and then the tradition gets rediscovered from the Arabs. There's a continuous tradition in Islamic world, of course.


Posted by: nattarGcM ttaM | Link to this comment | 07- 2-10 10:02 AM
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Also Byzantium.


Posted by: lw | Link to this comment | 07- 2-10 10:04 AM
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There's a continuous tradition of scholarship that runs through the Islamic world. But as far as I know the tradition of combining empiricism and deductive reasoning - things like Eratosthenes coming up with a clever way to measure the size of the Earth, or Aristarchus estimating the distance to the sun and the fixed stars - was pretty intermittent. Could be I'm just ignorant.


Posted by: essear | Link to this comment | 07- 2-10 10:06 AM
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re: 388

There was quite a strong empirical tradition in Islamic science, I think, combined with an equally strong mathematical tradition, and even some meta-scientific writings.


Posted by: nattarGcM ttaM | Link to this comment | 07- 2-10 10:13 AM
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I feel like we deserve some follow-up to 358.


Posted by: Brock Landers | Link to this comment | 07- 2-10 10:13 AM
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e.g.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ibn_al-Haytham


Posted by: nattarGcM ttaM | Link to this comment | 07- 2-10 10:20 AM
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384: This is off the top of my head, but natural or mundane, in the sense I've been using the words, would refer to entities not possessing supernatural/miraculous abilities or capacities, and events not caused by the volition of entities possessing supernatural/miraculous abilities or capacities. I'm certain there are flaws in this definition, and I'm ready to adjust it if you point them out. (Your focus on immateriality seems misplaced to me -- immateriality doesn't seem to me to be a necessary quality of a supernatural entity, although it's one that comes up.)

Certainly, a pre-modern would be likely to believe that supernatural entities affected the physical world: if you were Japanese in 1281, you were very likely to believe that the gods brought a typhoon that sank the Korean/Mongol fleet. I would think of that as a belief in a supernatural/divine cause that brought about a physical effect, so the typhoon was real and physical, but not, in the sense I'm using the word, 'natural'. Depending on the belief system, someone might believe that all weather, for example, was the result of divine volition, making the realm of the 'natural' as opposed to the 'supernatural' fairly circumscribed -- limited to something like physical consequences of human actions.


Posted by: LizardBreath | Link to this comment | 07- 2-10 10:20 AM
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I don't know, it's just the connection runs through the Arabs and others, rather than directly.

I'm pretty sure that Copernicus read Ptolemy's work in Greek. I guess it's indirect in that the text had to be reproduced and make its way across space and time, but not really in any other sense.

Copernicus's astronomy is part of the same enterprise as Ptolemy's, though, of course, they came up with different answers. (Nor is there any interesting sense in which Copernicus and Ptolemy weren't doing astronomy, as we now think of that project.)


Posted by: beamish | Link to this comment | 07- 2-10 10:54 AM
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(I'm only in a position to comment very intermittently, and the thread has moved on a bit, but anyway...)

I'd resist the notion that the distinctions between magical/nonmagical practices meant much until the high middle ages -- and I'd say only meant very little thereafter until about 1700.

I might do the same, for some values of 'meant much', but maybe not for others.

What's clear is that for premoderns both magical and nonmagical phenomena are supposed to operate according to principles that by modern standards are spooky or enchanted. There are supposed to be objective purposes in nature that drive the ordinary nonmagical growth of organisms; growth is not determined by principles that are nonteleological and mechanical in feel, etc. What's also clear is that they straightforwardly believed that magical phenomena - miracles, bewitchings, etc. - do sometimes occur. From our point of view all the principles they believed in would count as spooky. These are points worth making, but I was taking them as read.

What's not clear is that therefore they would also see these things as an undifferentiated field, with the valence simply changed from spooky to unspooky. After all, they had words corresponding to distinctions within this field - magical, miraculous. A teleological principle like the one supposedly governing the growth of a plant, one that acts predictably, does not involve a hidden intellective soul and hence can reliably be controlled without being propitiated, etc. would be considered unspooky. In contrast an explanation that involves an occult intelligence whose behaviour is unpredictable, would count as spooky. This magical/nonmagical contrast may not mean much to us, given that both sorts of explanatory principle strike us as spooky, but it may have meant quite a lot to them.


Posted by: One of Many | Link to this comment | 07- 2-10 10:55 AM
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multiply pwned...


Posted by: One of Many | Link to this comment | 07- 2-10 10:58 AM
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the gods brought a typhoon that sank the Korean/Mongol fleet.

Protestant wind my ass


Posted by: Alonso Perez de Guzman | Link to this comment | 07- 2-10 10:59 AM
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Just to be a little more clear: Ptolemy combined Greek geometrical models of the heavens with Babylonian empirical observations, to produce a model of the world that made refutable predictions about where heavenly bodies would be. Copernicus's work was impossible without Ptolemy's and was the same sort of thing, only with a different model. What they did doesn't count as science only if astronomy doesn't count as science. That isn't to say that people were doing worthwhile astronomy at every moment between the death of Ptolemy and the birth of Copernicus, but that doesn't seem relevant to questions about the beginning of science.


Posted by: beamish | Link to this comment | 07- 2-10 11:03 AM
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396: Protestant wind my galleass


Posted by: Natilo Paennim | Link to this comment | 07- 2-10 11:05 AM
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I didn't mean to claim that there weren't people doing good science before Newton... I'm having a little trouble phrasing exactly what I did mean, something more like that prior to Newton there wasn't enough science to really have a scientific worldview.

A good example of what I mean is that Kepler's laws 1-3 all look like science to us, while Kepler's 4th law looks like magical mystical nonsense (the radii of the orbits of the 5 planets are given by inscribing and circumscribing the 5 platonic solids). But Kepler didn't see any important difference in kind between his four laws, and in fact the experimental evidence for the fourth was just as strong as for the others. But once you have Newton you can see the difference between rules 1-3 and rule 4.


Posted by: Unfoggetarian: "Pause endlessly, then go in" (9) | Link to this comment | 07- 2-10 11:17 AM
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I get the problem. LizardBreath, you clearly have a case that people used to believe in what we now would call "supernatural", but what you're not getting is that no one believed in what we would now call "natural"; there was nothing that was "real and physical" that excluded the supernatural stuff; they suffused everything, no matter how ordinary and mundane.


Posted by: mealworm | Link to this comment | 07- 2-10 11:38 AM
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I'm not sure that I fully understand 394, but, I think I agree with you that there were distinctions drawn (I think now we're talking basically about medieval Europe, not "pre-modern" culture as a whole) between the ordinary operation of things (which could be magical or nonmagical, depending on the thing and the theory) and extraordinary events like miracles. But I'm not sure how that's relevant for (what I see as) the crux of the discussion -- whether there was a firm distinction even in the premodern world between a "supernatural" realm of gods, demons, fairies, etc., and a natural order devoid of those things. Critically, even "ordinary" theories of disease, for example, demons were conceived of as playing a role, and magic played a role in ordinary, daily life -- not just exceptional miracles. (But I think you agree with that, right?) Which leads to the original point of this discussion -- that religion was not, in the premodern world, a radically separate sphere, but something integrated into one's concept of the immediate, natural world. That's surely true even for "high" science in the middle ages -- even if, from today's perspective, we can see the origins of what would later emerge as the distinction between the natural order and the sphere of religion.

As for LB in 392, you really seem to me to be saying "people believed in things that look supernatural to me, and probably knew that the supernatural things weren't some other things that do look natural to me (like people), so therefore they had a firm concept of the distinction between the natural and supernatural." Or, more simply, "premodern people believed in Gods, and knew Gods weren't human, so therefore they must have known about the difference between the natural and the supernatural." Which is logic that just doesn't work, at all, and also misses the point. The point isn't that people believed in Gods. Nor is it that they knew were somehow different than humans. It's that they thought that the Gods had real, practical, efficacious, physical, material presence in the world. Gods, yes, but gods integrated into nature, not transcedently out of it, and therefore able to interact with humans in ordinary life, not in a separate religious zone or as transcendent beings. That's a fundamental difference between the premodern and modern conceptions of the world. This seems so basically obvious to me that I'm wondering why we've discussed this at such length.

Maybe you mean a distinction more like the one drawn in 394, which I think was real -- at least in medieval Europe -- but is hardly evidence for resisting the general enchantment of the world hypothesis or for rejecting Kotsko's argument that religious practices emerged in a time in which there was nothing remotely like the modern distinction between religious "beliefs" in the "supernatural" from empirically-revealed nature.


Posted by: Robert Halford | Link to this comment | 07- 2-10 11:39 AM
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I don't find 399.2 completely convincing, although it sort of depends on Kepler's mindset. Finding interesting mathematical structures that correspond to observed data is sometimes apophenia, and sometimes the beginning of good science. The deciding difference is whether one looks for more evidence and gives up the pattern if none is found. So suppose that better and better observations matched the platonic solid model to more and more decimal places; even if we still didn't understand the reason for it, we would probably consider it important.

Sometimes these mathematical regularities turn out to be misleading numerology, sometimes important clues, sometimes it can still be unclear which one even after years of effort.


Posted by: essear | Link to this comment | 07- 2-10 11:42 AM
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Kepler's 4th law looks like magical mystical nonsense (the radii of the orbits of the 5 planets are given by inscribing and circumscribing the 5 platonic solids)

Interesting. I've never heard of Kepler's 4th law, though, and google isn't really helping.


Posted by: Brock Landers | Link to this comment | 07- 2-10 11:42 AM
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403: It went something like this: start with a tetrahedron. There is a largest sphere that can be fit inside it (inscribed), and a smallest sphere that fits around it (circumscribed). The ratio of the radii of these two spheres is approximately, at least up to what was known in Kepler's time, the ratio of the size of the orbits of Mercury and Venus. Now suppose the outer sphere of the tetrahedron is also the inscribed sphere of a cube. This tells you the size of the cube. Now take its circumscribed sphere. This gives you a new radius. And that turns out to be roughly the right radius for the Earth. Continue the pattern with the other platonic solids; you end up with six radii for the six planets known at the time.


Posted by: essear | Link to this comment | 07- 2-10 11:48 AM
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404: interesting, thanks. But mostly what I don't get is why I've never heard of it, or why I'd always been taught there were only three. (Which is how Wikipedia presents it, too.) Why not acknowledge all four, and just note that the fourth isn't valid? (At least on wikipedia--I'm actually fine with high school students not hearing about it, since it's basically a minor footnote in the history of science at this point.)


Posted by: Brock Landers | Link to this comment | 07- 2-10 11:52 AM
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And while we're talking about astromony, can someone explain to me what I'm sure is the super-obvious-but-for-whatever-reason-I-don't-understand-it reason that it's lighter at 8:00 pm than at 6:00 am. The sun's directly overhead at noon. I can't figure out why it would rise more quickly than it sets.


Posted by: Brock Landers | Link to this comment | 07- 2-10 11:58 AM
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405: Wikipedia does mention it on the Kepler page, and it looks like I got the order of the solids wrong, you start with an octahedron and the tetrahedron and cube are last. Based on that page it looks like it was actually earlier than the famous 3 laws, and it claims that Kepler himself later decided it was false, so maybe that's why it's not so well-known.


Posted by: essear | Link to this comment | 07- 2-10 11:59 AM
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A good example of what I mean is that Kepler's laws 1-3 all look like science to us, while Kepler's 4th law looks like magical mystical nonsense (the radii of the orbits of the 5 planets are given by inscribing and circumscribing the 5 platonic solids). But Kepler didn't see any important difference in kind between his four laws, and in fact the experimental evidence for the fourth was just as strong as for the others. But once you have Newton you can see the difference between rules 1-3 and rule 4.

Eh, there isn't really much difference between rules 1 through 3 and rule 4 except that, in the end, rule 4 turns out to be false. Newton's work allows you to deduce rules 1 through 3 from prior principles, but that doesn't show that you couldn't have a scientific world view before Newton. I don't think that Newton had a scientific world view that Ptolemy, Copernicus, and Kepler lacked. Newton was obsessed with Biblical interpretation is a way that his predecessors were not.


Posted by: beamish | Link to this comment | 07- 2-10 12:00 PM
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In fact the more I think about it the more strongly I disagree with 399.2, because I really feel like I recognize what Kepler was up to here. You have data you don't understand, you have these beautiful mathematical objects, and damned if there aren't tantalizing hints that they have something to do with each other. When they don't, of course, you give up and sigh, but it was such a beautiful idea, it would have been nice if it were true.


Posted by: essear | Link to this comment | 07- 2-10 12:02 PM
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I can't figure out why it would rise more quickly than it sets.

Amun-Ra's joy at rebirth and fear of the dark river of night.

You're welcome.


Posted by: bob mcmanus | Link to this comment | 07- 2-10 12:09 PM
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Gods, yes, but gods integrated into nature, not transcedently out of it, and therefore able to interact with humans in ordinary life, not in a separate religious zone or as transcendent beings. That's a fundamental difference between the premodern and modern conceptions of the world. This seems so basically obvious to me that I'm wondering why we've discussed this at such length.

Possibly because there are modern people, living in the world today, who believe in a god or gods able to interact with humans in ordinary life. Some of them are Christians, some aren't. But I'm really bemused by the position that religious believers who think of the divine or supernatural as having the capacity to have physical effects on the mundane world no longer exist -- there are certainly plenty of people who say they do, and it seems dismissive to discount them.

I don't see a sharp distinction between modern believers in that sort of supernatural, and premodern believers in the supernatural.


Posted by: LizardBreath | Link to this comment | 07- 2-10 12:15 PM
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412 to 410.


Posted by: peep | Link to this comment | 07- 2-10 12:16 PM
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Possibly because there are modern people, living in the world today, who believe in a god or gods able to interact with humans in ordinary life.

The earlier people aren't just those people with different stuff.


Posted by: nosflow | Link to this comment | 07- 2-10 12:18 PM
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"Modern" in this sense is just shorthand for rationalization in the Max Weber sense -- of course there are still lots of folks with a premodern conception of the world or religion.


Posted by: Robert Halford | Link to this comment | 07- 2-10 12:24 PM
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413: I haven't claimed they are.

Seriously, all I've been doing in this phase of the conversation is taking issue with Kotsko's claim, as I understood it, that thinking of religion as largely concerned with relations with supernatural or divine entities was specific to some subset of Christians. This seems somewhere between obviously wrong (if you look at what people have historically explicitly said about their religion), or undecidable (if you're talking about what religion has always fundamentally been about). (I have probably misunderstood Kotsko, but that's the position I've been arguing against.) While I've been taking positions necessary to support that argument (i.e., that it was possible for premodern people to conceive of entities as supernatural/divine) all I'm really attached to is the proposition that many religions, throughout history, have been explicitly concerned with the relationship between human beings and gods or other supernatural or divine entities.


Posted by: LizardBreath | Link to this comment | 07- 2-10 1:03 PM
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415: You seem to be misunderstanding me. It's obvious to everyone that most religions (but not all: see Buddhism) have been concerned with people's relationship to the divine. And obviously that presupposes that something divine exists. What I'm saying is that it's only after Christianity arises that belief as such becomes a religious act. That is, there are plenty of religious practices where everyone could pretty much just go through the motions without consciously worrying about the empirical questions that their actions imply -- Christianity introduces the need to explicitly believe rather than simply implicitly believing. Christianity introduces a certain kind of reflection on the beliefs implied by its practice and presents that reflection as itself a religious practice.

But I think this is going to keep running aground because you're just going to say: "See, I was right -- people in various religions believed there were gods!" You seem to fundamentally either reject or misunderstand the kind of distinction I'm drawing here. And you keep going back to what religious people would say -- but I don't think people in religions other than Christianity (or those strongly influenced by Christianity, such as Islam -- or now you even see "fundamentalist" Hinduism, which again is based on the Christian model) would say that working up the "faith" necessary to believe in God is a really important aspect of their religious life. As I've already said, Jews and Catholics often have a practice-centered understanding of their religion and don't spend a lot of mental energy on whether they "believe in God" or not. The kind of Christianity that you are implicitly using as the model is actually an outlier.


Posted by: Adam Kotsko | Link to this comment | 07- 2-10 1:17 PM
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Kotsko's claim is a fairly standard one in religious studies. You don't have to believe him, but he has a lot of his academic discipline on his side.

Buddhism, as he mentions, is the standard place to look for examples. The focus of the religion is not a relationship to a supernatual power, but on individual enlightenment, which is achieved by understanding the emptiness of reality. Spooks and magic can play a role, but they are not considered to be ultimate reality.


Posted by: rob helpy-chalk | Link to this comment | 07- 2-10 1:22 PM
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I'm sorry I've missed so much of this thread. The last few exchanges could be fertile ground for a discussion of the oft-proposed "religionless Christianity" or, alternatively, the odd attractiveness of gnosticism for the educated class, but don't get sidetracked; it's interesting as it is.


Posted by: Flippanter | Link to this comment | 07- 2-10 1:23 PM
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There are supposed to be objective purposes in nature that drive the ordinary nonmagical growth of organisms

Things happen for a reason.


Posted by: Standpipe Bridgeplate | Link to this comment | 07- 2-10 1:27 PM
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The principle of sufficient smugness.


Posted by: nosflow | Link to this comment | 07- 2-10 1:31 PM
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406: reason that it's lighter at 8:00 pm than at 6:00 am. The sun's directly overhead at noon.

Because it isn't (in that scenario--and surely not when DST is on)

Figures for Pittsburgh for instance for July 2:
Sunrise, Solar Noon, Sunset
5:54 AM 1:24 PM 8:54 PM


Posted by: JP Stormcrow | Link to this comment | 07- 2-10 1:37 PM
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The supernatural is just a term to describe things most often perceived in an altered state. When alone, on hallucinogens, dreaming, or in religious ecstasy (all these experiences are, to a certain degree, fungible) one encounters what appears to be another world. Of course, most people have thought it is real and interacts with the mundane world constantly, but to think they didn't recognize a difference is, I think, silly.

I think this is true.


Posted by: lemmy caution | Link to this comment | 07- 2-10 1:39 PM
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I mostly just wanted to make a "fungible" joke.


Posted by: Eggplant | Link to this comment | 07- 2-10 1:41 PM
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422. Actually, I think it's not even wrong. But I can't face another argument from first principles today.


Posted by: chris y | Link to this comment | 07- 2-10 1:43 PM
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406, 421: And for the place that I understand that you are, solar noon is currently about 1:47--very far west in the time zone in addition to DST.


Posted by: JP Stormcrow | Link to this comment | 07- 2-10 1:44 PM
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416 -- Thinking about this a bit (and,hopefully, moving on from the historical discussion) I find AK's precis of the development of Christianity to be basically right, but I'm not sure I understand or agree with the affirmative prescrition (although AK's a professional, and has apparently actually written a dissertation about this, while I'm just some amateur reading blog comments). Personally, I like the notion of faith as practice a lot, but -- and this is probably closer to ordinary mainstream liberal protestant Christianity -- I don't see much of a problem with having a faith based on practice, a conception of religious practice based on something other than a set of "beliefs" and still understanding a transcendent God as revealed truth, with a basic message of unconditional love for humanity and redemption of the world. I'd be pretty uncomfortable jettisoning that last part, although I'd describe it more as an experience of understanding than as a "belief."

I'm actually not sure whether that comment makes any sense, and it's probably not theologically particularly interesting (although my own religious practice has very little to do with theology).

I really like Chris Y/artist formerly known as OFE's interventions in this thread.


Posted by: Robert Halford | Link to this comment | 07- 2-10 1:44 PM
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421/425: that makes sense; thanks. I'm not sure how I was totally unaware of the concept of "solar noon".


Posted by: Brock Landers | Link to this comment | 07- 2-10 1:46 PM
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Only mostly, though. I'm curious why chris y disagrees.


Posted by: Eggplant | Link to this comment | 07- 2-10 1:48 PM
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I'd also be pretty loath to simply give up on the questioning/development of the experience of belief -- i.e., the questioning and thinking about what you're thinking, not simply asserting credos -- which is one of the more attractive features of non-fundie Protestantism. Simply going through the motions endlessly doesn't seem like a particularly attractive or psychologically-sustainable practice.


Posted by: Robert Halford | Link to this comment | 07- 2-10 1:58 PM
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428. Desolado, mi buena berenjena, but it's 9:00 here and I'm far to drunk to try and explain. If this thread is still going tomorrow, I'll try.

Basically, I think that religious people see perception in an altered state is an approach to investigating the supernatural, not that they find themselves in an altered mental state and think they have discovered it. This may not apply to first generation hippies and Carlos Castaneda. I need to go and eat.


Posted by: chris y | Link to this comment | 07- 2-10 2:01 PM
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the odd attractiveness of gnosticism for the educated class

The relationship of the demiurge to the world makes a nice metaphor for the relationship of an author to a novel. That's part of it, at least.


Posted by: foolishmortal | Link to this comment | 07- 2-10 2:04 PM
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I liked what I took to be nosflow's point in 374: the tradition is the tradition, whoever participated in it. The medieval Arabs have just as much of a claim to be the heirs of the ancient Greeks as we do, and we are just as much entitled to claim that we are the heirs of the medieval Arabs as do the ancient Greeks.


Posted by: Walt Someguy | Link to this comment | 07- 2-10 2:21 PM
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I am the heir of the pre-Clovis Native Americans who inhabited Meadowcroft Rockshelter.


Posted by: JP Stormcrow | Link to this comment | 07- 2-10 2:29 PM
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I am the heir of the pre-Clovis Native Americans

Bummer about those death taxes. You could be worth like, eleventy zillion dollars if you still had that property.


Posted by: Tassled Loafered Leech | Link to this comment | 07- 2-10 2:35 PM
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The first reason these "religion" arguments never make any sense (to either party) is that the participants are all mildly Apsergery. They can't imagine that someone could *actually* think, feel or believe something different than they do - the poor helpless twit that does see things differently only needs to be properly disabused. And so they keep trying to persuade them to think, feel or believe differently.

The second reason is that there are way too many of you peeps out there who *believe* (without irony) that rational thought is the most valid way to "think" - or even the only way. Because of this, you only think with your cortex, can't grasp anything that you can't put into words or categorize, and are missing out on half of the experience of being alive in a world that is way, way too complex and subtle for you to comprehend. If you did grasp it, you wouldn't spend so much time arguing about it. Your knowledge and education are big double-boxing clumsy hammers and you're living in a world of glass.


Posted by: cassanthropy | Link to this comment | 07- 2-10 2:40 PM
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OK, I'm skipping from about 205, because (a) it's the end of a long hard day and (b) my mortgage is paid by running a site for the discussion of just these questions, though usually with a lot less acuity and courtesy than is on display here.

But one thought I would throw in is that "religion" doesn't exist. It's not a natural kind. Further, a martian anthropologist would look at this gathering and say that obviously you have a religion. You believe in America, and in American values. You really do hold some truths to be self-evident. Now this belief is so deep and so culturally general (as belief in what we now call the supernatural once was) that it doesn't seem to you really truly possible that there is anyone who wouldn't share it if they saw the world you live in.

Sorry -- this is full of a lot of "you"s, which is rather rude. Forgive me.

There are people who worry a lot about what America should mean. Some of them are here. But being an intellectual of that sort isn't necessary for being an American. (It's not un-American, either, any more than Socrates was unAthenian). You know perfectly well that someone can be a good American who can scarcely read or write and has no idea who is on the Supreme Court. That's the condition from which Christianity has declined, or perhaps evolved. And this is why I am suspicious of the Lizardbreath assumption that religion is about conscious belief. A lot of the time it's about things so deep that you don't even know you believe them in the sense that they might be contested - eg that democracy is the natural and proper state for human flourishing.

Again, please forgive if this comes across crashing and aggressive. I don't mean it that way, i think.


Posted by: Nworb Werdna | Link to this comment | 07- 2-10 2:46 PM
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Whenever I hear the phrase "martian anthropologist", I reach for my cyanide pills.


Posted by: nosflow | Link to this comment | 07- 2-10 2:50 PM
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cassanthropy makes a good point. Why are you people so goddamn stupid? I ask myself this daily.


Posted by: Walt Someguy | Link to this comment | 07- 2-10 2:51 PM
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I got some Apsergery but I still don't have a six-pack.


Posted by: nosflow | Link to this comment | 07- 2-10 2:53 PM
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435 is hilarious.


Posted by: essear | Link to this comment | 07- 2-10 2:56 PM
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I don't just think with my cortex … laydeez.


Posted by: nosflow | Link to this comment | 07- 2-10 2:58 PM
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I like 435. It finally explained why I have these small abrasions all over my arms.


Posted by: Robert Halford | Link to this comment | 07- 2-10 2:59 PM
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438: My cortex is telling me to blame my cortex, but something is wrong with that. Although I can't quite put it into words, so it must be right.


Posted by: JP Stormcrow | Link to this comment | 07- 2-10 3:00 PM
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437: well, shit, clearly more successfully aggressive than I thought


Posted by: Nworb Werdna | Link to this comment | 07- 2-10 3:12 PM
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436 is brilliant, and to this especially:

You believe in America, and in American values. You really do hold some truths to be self-evident.

I will add this dazzling breaking news about the Declaration of Independence, which is that Jefferson apparently slipped up and wrote "subjects" instead of "citizens" in an early draft.

And today it is bone-deep in every American that we are not subjects. So deep that nobody even bothers to deny it.


Posted by: Witt | Link to this comment | 07- 2-10 4:14 PM
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And is 435.2 meant to be an illustration of 435.1, or did it just come out that way?


Posted by: Witt | Link to this comment | 07- 2-10 4:17 PM
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435 is so true. There are even people around here who think that the mind can be modeled through computation.


Posted by: PGD | Link to this comment | 07- 2-10 4:19 PM
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445. My cynical self has never been a fan of the "great man" theory of history. But when you think how many moving parts had to align for first the Declaration of Independence and then the Constitution, I am not so sure.


Posted by: Tassled Loafered Leech | Link to this comment | 07- 2-10 4:29 PM
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Yes, the hard thing about Jefferson is the cognitive dissonce from recognizing his extraordinary achievements while...good God, are we actually calling a man who thought it was okay to own other human beings "great"?


Posted by: Witt | Link to this comment | 07- 2-10 4:34 PM
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are we actually calling a man who thought it was okay to own other human beings "great"?

Freedom for me but not for thee. Sucks to be you, Sally.


Posted by: Thomas Jefferson | Link to this comment | 07- 2-10 4:47 PM
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Perhaps the right conclusion to draw here is that there are two different dichotomies that don't exactly line up:
1) Religious vs. non-religious
2) Belief in magic/supernatural vs. not

Just because someone is religious and because their church expresses a belief in magic, doesn't necessarily mean that belief in magic is at all an important part of their religion/religious experience.

Nonetheless, many people believe in magic and people who do are more likely to be religious in some way. However, it need not follow that this belief in magic is what their religion is *about*.


Posted by: Unfoggetarian: "Pause endlessly, then go in" (9) | Link to this comment | 07- 2-10 4:52 PM
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Ur spelling magick wrong.


Posted by: Aleister Crowley | Link to this comment | 07- 2-10 5:02 PM
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LB way back at 354:

Pars, are you annoyed because it's rude of me to talk about people silly enough to have supernatural beliefs in a literal sense?

Not at all. I'm over my annoyance; it stemmed, or at least what remains of it stems, from the odd way in which I've felt you're using the term "supernatural." I'm just not sure it goes anywhere. I also don't really want to open this up again, since it seems rather mired in cross-talk, talking at cross purposes.

I will say that as I went to bed last night I found myself constructing the following LB-led cross-examination (imagine a courtroom):

LB to witness: Do you believe in God?
Witness: Yes. I do.
LB: Ah, so you believe in the supernatural.
Witness: Uh, no, I wouldn't put it that way. You mean like ghosts and hauntings and stuff? No, not really.
LB: Well, you do believe that God is divine, He is a divinity, and you believe in Him, right?
W: Yes, true.
LB: So you believe in the supernatural!

Heh. I'm not really going to try to parse what's going wrong in that imagined conversation, but something's clearly going wrong.


Posted by: parsimon | Link to this comment | 07- 2-10 6:01 PM
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The first reason these "religion" arguments never make any sense (to either party) is that the participants are all mildly Apsergery

At first I thought this was funny because you said "ass-burgery", but then I read it again and realized you actually said "app-surgery", and I don't know if that's funny or not. It's certainly not as funny as ass-burgers.


Posted by: Brock Landers | Link to this comment | 07- 2-10 7:48 PM
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Ok so I've now caught up on and missed this entire intersting/maddening thread, but for my own satisfaction I offer a couple thoughts.

On natural vs super-natural: Ghanaian philospher Kwesi Wiredu, as part of a larger reflection on the ability to translate common Philosphical categories across language/culture, has argued that the Akan of West Africa wouldn't recognize the category "metaphysical," because for them the unseen world isn't on some different plane, the way that modern western concepts of spirit are. They are just differently physical from the sort of creatures or objects that you interact with directly. The same applies to super-natural, I think. As others have argued, the difference isn't between the people/creatures/objects that you see every day and the ones that you hear about but never encounter directly. It's that there are some things that you encounter rarely or never but have heard about and others that you encounter all the time, but some of them have something extra going on, wherein they're not just a tree but also a spirit/god/creature. T. H. White's Beastiary shows that these categories could be quite permeable and that, as with the penguin example above, bears or salamanders could be just as simultaneously mystical and mundane as unicorns.

LB upthread said something like, the ancients knew that the creatures we now think of as mystical weren't part of their everyday life, that their mothers and sisters weren't dryads. Probably on that last bit, but, from my interactions with and study of people who actively beilieve in (a category of persons that can be reasonably translated as) witches today, I would say that those same people (in a virilocal society) were not so sanguine about their wives or sisters-in-law, much less the strange women they encountered while traveling. These creatures were meaningful not becuase they were fun stories to tell, but because they were/are part of people's social and physical worlds.


Posted by: Jimmy Pongo | Link to this comment | 07- 2-10 10:45 PM
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Also, I'll just say for myself that mine own non-theistic faith contains a positive belief in the factual existence of an unseen world, and thereafter a bunch of secondary beliefs about what the nature of that world is and our interations with it, about which I might or might not be correct. As long as I'm not persecuting or otherwise penalizing those who believe diferently than I do (including those who don't believe in the unseen world, becuase how would their disbelief hurt anyone) I don't see what the problem is. In that way, I guess I believe that atheist are worng in about the same way that I don't believe what monotheists believe, but I don't actually care or them being wrong or beiliving differently, while the fundamentalists, both theist and a- seem to care a great deal about what I believe and its correctness.

And now to bed


Posted by: Jimmy Pongo | Link to this comment | 07- 2-10 11:03 PM
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But when to the mouth of the fair-flowing river
he came swimming, here then seemed to him the best place,smooth of rocks and there was shelter from the wind, and he recognised it as it flowed out and prayed in his heart:'Hearken, Lord, whoever you are: I come to you, who receive many prayers, trying to escape the sea and the threats of Poseidon...'
Homer, Odyssey 5.441-6

There was a gentle steady windless rain yesterday afternoon, warm 75 degrees, very unusual for thunderstormy Dallas. After I washed the towels and sheets, I and the female dog sat in the garage doorway for a halfhour just watching the trees and grass revive in the neighborhood. It was serene but empty. I wondered how I might re-animate my world, currently with no science no religion no spirituality this great insoluble lump.

Cult cultus care cultivate culture the tending and maintenance of sacred places including sacrifices great and small silver time so I cut the bitch's throat and let her blood bless so I pulled the grass that had grown in the crack dividing the concrete halves of the driveway.

Gaia did not answer my prayer. Paganism is hard.


Posted by: bob mcmanus | Link to this comment | 07- 3-10 4:43 AM
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456: Belief in unseen worlds? String theory? Is there a difference?


Posted by: peep | Link to this comment | 07- 3-10 5:40 AM
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There are even people around here who think that the mind can be modeled through computation.

Are there? There are people around here who think that intelligence might be achievable through computation, but that's predicated on the assumption that the human mind need not be the only valid model of intelligence.


Posted by: chris y | Link to this comment | 07- 3-10 6:39 AM
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It was late, and I said that I might be.


Posted by: Jimmy Pongo | Link to this comment | 07- 3-10 12:36 PM
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