Feb 192014

PEL Not SchoolAt the beginning of this month, Carlos Franke, Phillip C., and myself spoke about Cormac McCarthy’s The Sunset Limited on a Skype call.  The call will be posted on the Free Stuff for Citizens page, which you can access as soon as youjoin up to become a PEL citizen.  PEL tackled McCarthy’s No Country For Old Men back inepisode 63, so long time listeners will be familiar with some of the features of his work.

The Sunset Limited is billed as a “novel in dramatic form,” and we all felt that we missed much less by simply reading it than with the other plays we’ve read for our group.  As Phillip pointed out, it reads like a sort of twisted Socratic dialogue.  McCarthy gives us two characters, known only as “Black” and “White,” who proceed without compromise to make their respective cases for life and death.  When the play opens, White has just attempted suicide and Black has intervened.  White’s position remains settled on death over life, while Black believes in a “life everlasting,” which he is convinced White also desires at some core level. This begins a debate between Black and White about the merits of life and death, the relationship between reality and consensus, the connection and obligation people might have to each other, and a lot more.  McCarthy is the kind of writer whose lines you can pour over again and again and still find something new.  Much of our discussion consisted of trying to get a hold on his slippery language and wrestling with these big themes.  Of course, philosophical arguments for and against suicide came up, along with Camus and Schopenhauer, and we tried to get some understanding of what relationship they bear to actual suicides.  If none of that is too morbid for you, go check it out.

Also, while The Sunset Limited lends itself very well to being read, the HBO version with Tommy Lee Jones and Samuel L. Jackson is definitely worth watching if you haven’t seen it.

- Daniel Cole

Aug 072012

In 1979, John Cleese and Michael Palin had a debate about Monty Python’s film The Life of Brian with two defenders of the Christian faith  – one an English bishop. The question is whether the film’s parody of institutionalized religion and religious hypocrisy amounts to ridiculing the personage of Jesus and Christianity in general.

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Oct 272011

One of our listeners (and contributors! Thanks again!) Ernie P. has posted on our Facebook page:

You all (on the podcast) seem to assume that ‘belief in the irrational’ is a strongly correlated with religious belief; I would argue that (depending on how you define it), it is a factor in all human belief, and the only real irrationality is to think our own beliefs fully rational…

Now, I see that Ernie and another blogger Alan Lund have a whole back-and-forth going about the justification for Christianity, so you can check that out if you want; I’m not going to attempt to inject myself into that (and honestly don’t have time to read it all right now).

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Oct 212011

I’ve written before about Eric Reitan, a modern follower of Scheleirmacher, and on this episode of Conversations from the Pale Blue Dot, Reitan gives I think a great explanation of the disagreement between the new atheists and humanistic, liberal Christians: they may agree on nearly all of the same principles (being against Biblical inerrancy and other implausible and morally pernicious parts of fundamentalist Christianity) but still have a different overall assessment of religion because they’re “playing different language games.” His explanation of religion as an essentially contested concept (a new term to me, though certainly a familiar concept in outline) is alone sufficient to make the episode worth a listen. The concept “religion” is not just a categorization of various things, but it has, like “work of art,” a normative judgment built into it. It’s just that at this point in history, some folks have a positive evaluation built into the concept, and some have a negative evaluation. So Hitchens and a liberal theologian, according to Reitan, can both agree about nearly everything, but while the theologian holds up some historical fruits of religion and say “see, isn’t religion great,” Hitchens will respond that that isn’t really religion; while Hitchens will point out horrible crimes associated with religion and the theologian (like Scheiermacher) will deny that these are part of the essence of religion. So it’s largely an argument over words at that point, though we’d have to be more specific about the particular points of remaining disagreement to determine whether they’re really worth arguing over.

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Oct 152011

A “University Lecturer living in South Korea” calling himself Skepoet responded here to our episode. He gives a nice quote from Julian Baggini and makes some salient points about our discussion.

One of his comments was that we didn’t seem to find an argument in Harris to critique. Here’s the argument as I remember it that we were focusing on:

If you suspend your critical faculties and “have faith,” then you open yourself up to believing all sorts of horrific stuff, such as, most importantly to the rest of society, commands to violence.

The general response is, yes, if faith is actually a matter of “I can’t think for myself! Think for me!” then this is a legitimate concern, and no doubt that is exactly the experience of faith in some people. However:

1. Per Kant and William James, faith about matters over which no experiential deconfirmation is even theoretically possible isn’t irrational in this way. Granted, most actual religions are not Kant-friendly in this way (so it’s kind of goofy that we spent so much time on this when that’s not the new atheists’ target for the most part).

2. As a practical matter, people just don’t get brainwashed to the point of violence. Other forces in human motivation tend to step in to curtail violence, and when violence does occur, you generally find that the perpetrator had more things wrong with him than just the religious motivation. Religion is neither necessary nor sufficient for violence… which is not to say that they’re unconnected in all circumstances or that more critical thinking wouldn’t be very helpful in preventing the spread of violence. To the extent that religion is against critical thinking, it’s a detriment to any society.

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Oct 142011

Watch on YouTube.

A name that popped up in Episode 43 and Episode 44 was that of Oxford philosophy professor Richard Swinburne. Swinburne has made his reputation positing analytic arguments in favor of Christian theism. As Robert pointed out toward the end of Episode 43, most Christians, even if sympathetic, would probably not find Swinburne’s arguments dispositive toward their belief. Even so, it’s only fair to allow serious scholars like Swinburne to frame their own arguments before rendering judgment. Swinburne’s approach reveals the strawman nature of the arguments deployed by Hitchens, Harris, et al. when they evoke the cartoonish “I believe because the [insert Holy Text] says so” stereotype. (I will cut Richard Dawkins some slack here; he’s actually done a pretty good job of engaging non-silly theists in civil debate.)

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Oct 112011

Discussing selections from Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Daniel C. Dennett.

Should we be religious, or is religion just a bunch of superstitious nonsense that it’s past time for us to outgrow? Does faith lead to ceding to authority and potential violence? Can a reasonable person be religious? We say lots of rude things about these authors, and at times about their targets in this listener-requested episode featuring Mark, Wes, Seth, and Dylan. Read more about the topic.

Buy/read what we did:
-Ch. 1-2 of Harris’s The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason(2004)
-The last three chapters of Hitchens’s God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything

End song: “Goddammit” by by Mark Lint and the Simulacra, recorded partly in 2000 and partly just now.

If you enjoy the episode, please donate at least $1:

Sep 072011

We have long promised to more systematically cover these guys who generate so much fun sniping on our blog here, and as of last Sunday, the full as-of-now-regular podcaster lineup (myself, Seth, Wes, and Dylan; we will still have some guests on, though) recorded a discussion of:

-The first two chapters of Sam Harris’s The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason(2004)
-The last three chapters of Christopher Hitchens’s God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything

These fellows do not so much answer the question “is there a God?” as the question “should we be religious?”

Harris claims that faith, defined as believing something without evidence, is morally irresponsible: it leaves us open to believing all sorts of destructive things, and there are portions of all the major Western religious texts that, if taken literally and without the need for rational justification, command abominable things. Religious moderates, by extension, are on Harris’s view in the awkward position of not being able to condemn the extremists in the way that would be necessary to quash them: the extremists are, after all, just acting out fully the principles commanded by the faith that the moderates profess to embrace.

Hitchens presents a big book of anecdotes about terrible things done in the name of religion. Like Freud, he thinks the fundamental tenets of the worlds religion are superstitions that adults in the modern age have any business believing and thinks religious leaders to be for the most part a bunch of power-grabbing phonies.

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Aug 092011

On many episodes we’ve mentioned in passing, or given some author’s criticism of, the classic arguments for the existence of God:

-The ontological argument, whereby some quality of the idea of God itself is supposed to necessitate that such a being exists. The most famous versions are by Descartes and St. Anselm.

-The cosmological argument, which deduces from the fact that everything has a cause (or everything is contingent, or everything moves… there are several variations of this) that there must be a first cause, i.e. God. This argument dates at least back to Aristotle but was given its most famous formulations by Thomas Aquinas.

-The teleological argument, or argument from design, which says that since nature looks designed (i.e. uniformity, complicated structures that achieve impressive results), there must be a designer, i.e. God. This was given its most famous formulation in William Paley’s metaphor about finding a watch on the beach: of course, we’d assume that had a designer.

We’d planned an episode on these arguments from the very beginning of the podcast, but merely reading the source materials linked above would take us about 10 minutes. Well, we found (recommended in both theist and atheist sources) a book that does a pretty exhaustive job analyzing these major arguments: J.L. Mackie’sThe Miracle of Theism: Arguments For and Against the Existence of God

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May 162011

Not all atheists are on board with ‘the four horsemen’ of the New Atheism: Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, and Hitchens. Julian Baggini, podcaster and author of Atheism: A Very Short Introduction

The new atheism tends to get religion wrong. The focus is always on the out-dated metaphysics of religion, its belief in personal creator gods, miracles, souls and so forth. [...] However, there is much more to religion than the metaphysics. To give a non-exhaustive list, religion is also about trying to live sub specie aeternitatis; orienting oneself to the transcendent rather than the immanent; living in a moral community of shared practice or as part of a valuable tradition; cultivating certain attitudes, such as gratitude and humility; and so on. To say, as Sam Harris does, that ‘religion is nothing more than bad concepts held in place of good ones for all time’ misses all this. The practices of religion may be more important then the narratives, even if people believe those narratives to be true.

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May 102011

An interesting debate. And it continues on Prosblogion.

Update: Now that I’ve listened to the whole thing, I have to say Craig is in over his head and Kagan makes minced meat of him. I wish they had been more evenly matched.

Update II: Here’s an interesting article by Wes Morriston (who linked to it in the Prosblogion comments) rebutting Craig: God and the ontological foundations of morality. And then there are the Stanford entries on moral arguments for the existence of god, moral realism, and moral naturalism.

Apparently God is as bad at grounding morality as Science.

– Wes

Mar 312011

For our atheism episode (which has, incidentally been pushed back to be recorded in late May or possibly June… sorry, Russ!), I’m trying to read through the most popular of the “new atheist” books, and I’m sure we’ll only end up discussing some select portions of the books in any detail, so as I’m going through these, I’m going to generate a few blog posts to fill readers in on some additional points and help myself remember what I’m reading. My point here is primarily to give points from the books, not to cast judgment upon them, so don’t take this as an endorsement (or rejection).

Daniel C. Dennett is the only actual philosophy professor among the most popular of these folks. (Sam Harris was a philosophy undergrad when he wrote his major works and has just recently earned a Ph.D. in neuroscience; Dawkins is an evolutionary biologist, and Hitchens is a “columnist and literary critic.” I know Peter Singer also argues for atheism, and he’s as famous a philosopher as they come, but he’s not been considered part of this movement for some reason.) We read a little bit of him and devoted maybe 10 minutes of our discussion to him in our philosophy of mind episode, which didn’t go very well, in that Wes at least really dislikes him, yet we didn’t go into enough detail on the arguments of his article to clearly convey why Wes dislikes him. To sum up the critique, he’s not known for, say, clearly and charitably presenting the views of past philosophers and saying exactly how his position differs from them. Instead, he uses a popular style to make his points, with a heavy emphasis on specifically citing scientific work

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Feb 232011

An article by Paul Pardi (“Philosophy News Service”) at the Huffington Post sums up the significance of “new atheism:”

1. The arguments of Harris, Dennett, Dawkins and Hitchens tend not to be “new” and don’t engage the actual arguments of liberal theologians.

2. As a social movement, they’re nonetheless affecting the perception that the mass of people have on “the role religion is permitted to have int he public square:”

Political point scoring aside, serious talk that God is somehow involved in the daily workings of this world and that public life should be oriented toward pleasing Him and following His will has almost vanished. The New Atheism has succeeded in shifting broad attitudes towards public talk of this kind from one of mild amusement or irritation to one of outright fear and derision and has done so inside of just a decade.

3. An approach modeled on the natural sciences does not seem to be optimal for delving into questions of meaning and ethics. Which is to say (and this is not Pardi here:) that the history of philosophy offers multiple alternatives (e.g. Heidegger’s phenomenology or Montaigne’s “practical wisdom”) to both scientism and theology to approaching these issues.

-Mark Linsenmayer

Feb 042011
The Colbert Report Mon – Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Crisis in Egypt – Anderson Cooper & Bill O’Reilly<a>
Colbert Report Full Episodes Political Humor & Satire Blog</a> Video Archive

Here’s another brilliant take-down by Colbert of Bill O’Reilly’s argument from design (2 and a half minutes in): “Thank you Bill. You’re like St. Thomas Aquinas. … In that your understanding of the world is also from the thirteenth century.” A feel a little stung on Aquinas’ behalf by the association with O’Reilly and his half-baked theology.

– Wes Alwan

Jan 282011

Brian Leiter bizarrely endorses this idiotic review by Aristotle scholar Peter Simpson of Richard G. Stevens’ Political Philosophy: An Introduction. It’s clear that the logic behind this endorsement is that Simpson criticizes the book because it has been written by a Straussian, and Leiter despises Straussians. Unfortunately, the logic behind the review is that Simpson is a Christian and he despises Leo Strauss because he thinks he was anti-Christian (Strauss and Straussians are more typically controversial for their interpretative esoterism and association with neoconservativism).

Whatever one thinks of Strauss (who incidentally taught at my alma mater St. John’s College toward the end of his life), Simpson’s review is unforgivable.

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Jan 112011

Pigliucci strongly rebukes the organization of which he is a lifetime honorary member, for an ad calling all religions “scams”:

First, the ad is simply making a preposterous claim that cannot possibly be backed up by factual evidence, which means that, technically, it is lying. Not a good virtue for self-righteous critical thinkers…

Yet, several atheists I have encountered have no problem endorsing all sorts of woo-woo stuff, from quasi-new age creeds to “alternative” medicine, to fantapolitics. This is partly because many of them seem to be ignorant of the epistemic limits of science (in which they have almost unbounded faith) and reason (ditto). At the very least it seems that we ought to treat factual evidence with due respect, and claiming that religions are scams flies in the face of the available factual evidence. Hence, it is a bad idea that damages our reputation as an evidence-oriented community.

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Oct 202010

Some of our ongoing atheism discussion here brought to mind an analogy that I think is best illustrated by a comic from Lore Sjoberg’s Bad Gods.

Comic about Twilight

See the comic on Lore’s site.

Punch line aside, the point should be clear. To argue effectively against religion, you have to be familiar with religion, and to argue it on a point-by-point basis means you have to ingest it point-by-point. However, disdain for religion usually equates to nausea about the whole thing, which means you certainly don’t want to ingest it point-by-point, therefore the theist wins by fiat.

On second thought, even the punch line is relevant here, because those atheists who do take time to sift through the sermons and the tedium to charitably recount the best theistic arguments are then urged to just chill out and let everyone have their own views, which (if you don’t buy some sort of strong Kantian argument for agnosticism) is at least as antithetical to the spirit of philosophy as theistic or atheistic dogmatism and intolerance.

-Mark Linsenmayer

Oct 122010

Dawkins and PopeHow philosophically uninteresting are the atheist debates?

Yes, it’s nice that something akin to philosophy is actively debated in the media, that ongoing disputes about religious matters will hopefully keep the spirit of the times moving forward by providing active intellectual and/or spiritual alternatives to people beyond whatever religion they may have been brought up with.

But as a veteran now of Dawkins’s book The God Delusion, I can say that it’s about 15% actual philosophical argumentation and 85% tedious debunking of poor arguments foisted by and/or upon the general public.

In this 9/17 USA Today article, we see Dawkins “incandescent with rage” (and even though that phrase is a self-description from Dawkins, I’m still going to sneer at the media for always emphasizing how supposedly raving these generally calm atheists are supposed to be) at the Pope for equivocating atheism with Nazis, or (says the article) maybe Dawkins misinterpreted the Pope, so we’d better go look up the Pope’s actual speech to confirm but… wait… who the hell cares?
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Aug 172010

This is a follow up to my last post, which you should look at the comments on for some good comments by Wes. I’ve now read the part in Armstrong where she addresses Dawkins directly (from p. 304 of “The Case for God”):

For Dawkins, religious faith rests on the idea that “there exists a superhuman, supernatural intelligence, who deliberately designed and created the universe and everything in it.” Having set up this definition of God as Supernatural Designer, Dawkins only has to point out that there is in fact no design in nature in order to demolish it. But he is mistaken to assume that this is “the way people have generally understood the term” God.

In discussing Sam Harris, she says:

Like Dawkins and Hitchens, he defines faith as “belief without evidence,” an attitude that he regards as morally reprehensible. It is not surprising, perhaps, that he should confuse “faith” with “belief” (meaning the intellectual acceptance of a proposition) because the two have become unfortunately fused in modern consciousness.

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