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Ultimate Religious Debate; Sam Harris And Andrew Sullivan

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http://www.beliefnet.com/story/209/story_20904_1.html

 

Here's a summary by my brother, who summed it up well;

This is a recently started and ongoing debate between an athiest "celebrity" and a fairly well known Catholic. Both have authored multiple books, the athiest specifically is one that sides with Richard Dawkins, who is the author of the book I read - The God Delusion.

 

It's long, entertaining, but most importantly civil, without taking open stabs like you'd usually see in forums. And so far has gone alittle beyond just proving religion wrong, but what should be happening instead.

 

Certainly doesn't cover everything, or even alot, but some really good points.

 

Here's a quote from Sam that I like. It is in response to Andrew's stance that its important to excersise religious moderation, then bad things like suicide bombers won't happen.

Religious moderation is the result of not taking scripture all that seriously. So why not take these books less seriously still? Why not admit that they are just books, written by fallible human beings like ourselves?

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I read it all, seems it's not finished yet. Damn. It's really starting to go somewhere...

 

Pretty interesting. I totally beleive there's a place in the world for someone's own idea of truth, something that makes them happy. Nothing essentially wrong with that guy finding comfort in something. As long as that sort of thing doesn't get preached to someone else. Shared with maybe, just put out there for someone to take or leave.

 

It's not right to assume there's that one way of thinking that will cause perfect harmony in the world, that's just not possible. Everything and everyone is too different. If it were possible it'd take the fun out of everything.

 

But ultimately, for the purposes of the argument, I have to side with Sam - yes, religion is ultimately a bad thing. If two people disagree on scientific principals, they just disagree on the idea. But if two people disagree on religious principals, the possibility is very much there for them to make assumptions about what kind of person they might be and the way they live their life, and that kind of system is the reason for all the religious violence.

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It's not right to assume there's that one way of thinking that will cause perfect harmony in the world, that's just not possible. Everything and everyone is too different. If it were possible it'd take the fun out of everything.

"Why did you say that, why would it take the fun out of everything?" (sorry just saving someone else the trouble :))

 

Well, basically - I'd like to use the movie and video game industry as an example. Pretty much, the majority of movies or games involve some sort of conflict. Even romantic comedies. And pretty much, the majority of them have a happy ending. That's what people want. But you can't have the happy ending without something to solve and make it happy.

 

Why? Well, people get sick of the same old thing. Ultimately, we are creatures that want variety.

 

And you might say "BAH! Happy endings - I'm sick of all the happy ending movies, I enjoy movies that have sad but realistic endings."

 

Sometimes you do. This is the same craving for variety. But I doubt that the majority of the movies you watch have sad endings, because I think you'd become a very depressed person. You still need the optimisim injected into your life.

 

 

Of course I'm wording those things as if they were fact, but they are of course my opinons :) It's just the way they're worded, I couldn't be bothered putting "I beleive, I think" etc. before every paragraph, hence this blanket disclaimer.

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We have to dump religious belief. There are no two ways about it, I do not believe that it ultimately serves any positive purpose. Faith is a veil, a fraud, a horror that needs to be dashed to pieces.

 

This will not happen anytime soon in my homeland.

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Not exclusively, there are a couple of believers. However, the development of a mod is typically a very scientifically-oriented sort of activity, so naturally attracts a disproportionate number of atheists. This is also an international audience, which means that the persecution you speak of is not universal.

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Wow, that is interesting. I look forward to reading the next reply from the Christan guy. It's getting to the point where ducking the hard questions is getting fairly difficult. :)


My games | Public Service Announcement: TDM is not set in the Thief universe. The city in which it takes place is not the City from Thief. The player character is not called Garrett. Any person who contradicts these facts will be subjected to disapproving stares.

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What I find funny about these sorts of religious debates is that they rarely seem to cover the issues for which people find it so important to have religion.

 

Things like cosmology, evolution, political dynamics (maybe it's just my narrow perspective, but to me radical fundamentalists blowing things up looks a lot more like politics-by-another-name than serious theology) ... such debates don't seem to me to really getting to the heart of what's at issue with religion, which is how we ought to live good, fulfilling lives and find meaning in what we do and where we find ourselves in the universe.

 

In that respect, I respect groups like the existentialists, because they seemed to take more seriously that arguing religion is a lot more than just quibbling how old the earth really is or how to reconcile aberrant social behavior with religions doctrines. Get rid of religion and you still have the tough job of explaining why any of this means anything and what our little lives has to do any of it; or actually, even keep religion and you still have the same problem, IMO. That's the part that I want to know, and these debates never really seem to get seriously near to an adequate reply for me. This isn't to disparage this interesting debate for what it is, but it doesn't do much for me personally because of that.

Edited by demagogue

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Get rid of religion and you still have the tough job of explaining why any of this means anything and what our little lives has to do any of it;

 

You only have to explain the "meaning" behind anything if you assume that there is a meaning to start off with. I don't understand that assumption myself, since "meaning" is entirely a human concept and the universe has been around a lot longer than humans have.

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Yes ... in a sense you have put your finger on exactly what I was thinking about, although I realize that my last post is misleading since I wrote it quickly and with a slightly different point in mind.

 

But instead of taking your point as an ending point to debate, I'd take it as a starting point. I wouldn't assume the meaning of "meaning". I feel like it has to be found the hard way like any of the deep concepts of life, and that's exactly what I feel like is missing in these kinds of debates. Trying to explain meaning and value as it actually exists -- at the same time personally for me but also here in this universe we all share -- is exactly what I think we should be spending our energy trying to do.

 

---------------------

 

As a sort of taste of what I'm thinking about, you say that "meaning" is an entirely "human" concept, as if it were "outside" the rest of the universe, but of course humans are a part of the universe like everything else. The question for me precisely would be, how do we get human concepts of and, more importantly, the conscious, very personal experience of things like meaning and value out of a universe that doesn't seem to care (or even if it did care), and then how do we reconcile our experience the fact that we know our experience is nothing more than our brains, a physical system playing by the same rules as the rest of the universe (in that sense, the rest of the universe, even back the near beginning when all forces were unifed *does* have to "care" something about human meaning, because those same rules will have to be able to support our experience of it later on, although maybe in a similar way that natural selection "cares".)

 

Some try to reduce such talk totally, folk psychological concepts are physical concepts, like the elimativist materialists a la Churchlands. The phenomenologists took value as a given in conscious experience with the concept of "throwness" and the existentalists took it the next step to "abandonment"; we have been abandoned into an indifferent universe so create our own meaning. Their motto is "being precedes essence". First we and the universe are here, then we posit reasons and values into it after the fact. But even that doesn't seem entirely adequate because our experience of values isn't that we're all just "making them up". They seem to have an essence outside of ourselves we can in part agree on. And another perspective that could get at this is from the cognitive sciences, including economics (neuroeconomics), semantics, evolutionary psychology, within a cultural context, which you might study by macro economics, sociology, politics, anthropology. For me, each discipline adds a piece to the grander puzzle about what "meaning" and "value", very personally, for me trying to live a good life and make sense of the world around me, mean ... and the great religions and literature also seem to add pieces to the puzzle, which is why I like to study them even though I am basically on board with the metaphysics and cosmology that modern physics fought so hard to give us.

 

Sorry, that's a long response for a simple point, lol, but I hope you get the idea. For me, we're all in this quest together ... even if some, like fundamentalists, don't realize it; I'm still curious to see their spin on the world because part of that may be part of the puzzle, too. But it seems like a story that's really converging somewhere. Something about our brains really lets us have an experience of value and meaning in life, and the classical virtues like reverence and courage and "spiritual" values seem something of which we have a real experience, and I want to know how, and just what kind of meaning is it. At the same time, I won't care much about pieces that don't seem to get me any closer to understanding how it all fits together, and so many of these debates seem completely beside the point, getting bogged down by what should be the little stuff for humanists and believers both.

Edited by demagogue

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As a sort of taste of what I'm thinking about, you say that "meaning" is an entirely "human" concept, as if it were "outside" the rest of the universe,

 

That's not at all what I meant - I don't consider meaning to be "outside" the universe as much as "inside" human brains. Of course, brains are still part of the universe as you say, but I think there is a difference between the concepts that exist only in human minds and the actual physical parts of the universe which exist independently of human beings.

 

The question for me precisely would be, how do we get human concepts and, more importantly, the conscious, very personal experience of things like meaning and value out of a universe that doesn't seem to care

 

That is certainly a common area of debate, I think the reason I have such difficulty understanding it is because I don't see meaning and value in the universe -- it is just a bundle of atoms moving about in certain patterns -- which means that for me there is no question requiring an answer, and asking "What is the meaning of life?" makes as much sense as "What is the Sun's favourite colour?".

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Sorry if I misread your thinking. I wonder if we actually disagree about something, or if we just have different ways of saying the same thing but are just interested in different parts of it. I'm thinking its the latter. So I don't want to sound confrontational since I think I agree with the basics of what you are thinking, but I don't want to put words in your mouth either.

 

I think there is a difference between the concepts that exist only in human minds and the actual physical parts of the universe which exist independently of human beings.

 

Well, human minds are nothing more than patterns of networked charged ions, although cognitive science doesn't have to care what the wetware is. The great brilliance of Turing was to come up with a theory that allowed the study of patterns of thought (which matured into computer science) that could become uncoupled from the underlying physics manifesting it in the real world (within certain boundaries). So in that sense, there are two independent sciences, the physical sciences and the computational cognitive sciences. This is how I read your "I think there is a difference", but anyway I think that's the right way to think about it.

 

I don't see meaning and value in the universe -- it is just a bundle of atoms moving about in certain patterns -- which means that for me there is no question requiring an answer

 

First, is it just me, or does this quote seem to contradict the spirit of the first thing I quoted from you? If there is a difference between the rules explaining "meaning in people's head" and "meaning as it might exist as part of fundamental physics", then it just means that it's a question you can usefully ask under one domain (cognitive science/phenomenology, where it does seem to exist) and not usefully in the other (where it doesn't exist). If this is what you mean, then I can agree, and then maybe you are just saying the questions that you really care about are in the "physics" box and not the "cog sci" box, when I care about what's in both boxes, which is a difference in preference. But I don't see it as any special problem to asking the question at all, as long as one keeps one's boxes straight.

 

If it helps, substitute "meaning" with "our experience of meaning", and then you have a different question from "what is the ultimate meaning of life" maybe, but still a live one it seems to me, and the one I'm interested in.

 

I don't have any reason to think the sun has conscious experience so I don't care about what it's favorite color is either. But I do think that normal humans can and do understand/experience certain values of life all the time -- that a good life is better than a miserable life, etc -- even if they might disagree on the details, which just makes the puzzle of value more interesting. This by itself seems to demand some kind of explanation.

 

I still feel like I'm misrepresenting my thinking. To the extent I think the "answer" to this kind of "puzzle" is a final "meaning of everything", it is far from something like some new particle you can find in the universe. It's more like a theory of computational semantics/neuroeconomics that explains how humans (brains) experience value and meaning in the world, something you could use to model/predict human experience of value and the meaning (from "what ice cream do I buy?" to important "spiritual" or existential decisions like "who do I marry?" or "what is life worth to me?", it should all fit into the same thoery) in the same way General Relativity could let you model/predict particles moving in a gravitational field. A lot of religious people probably won't recognize it as relevant to their concerns, but they should be able to if they were being honest with themselves and their experience.

 

I'm not saying everyone should care about such a theory; maybe some people would be horrified to have such a theory; others just won't care. I just say that *I* care about it. But I also tend to think that when a lot of people talk about religious or spiritual values, they are actually talking in terms of such a theory, probably without realizing it. But if they really cared about these values, they *should* care about how such a theory turns out (again, whether they ever realize it or not). That's why I keep feeling like these kinds of debates are missing an opportunity to get at what's really going on at the heart of their own debate.

 

Anyway, again, I don't think I'm actually disagreeing with anything you are saying, though. Just seems like a difference in what questions interest us.

Edited by demagogue

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It will not happen anytime soon anywhere. The predisposition towards irrational and superstitious beliefs is a flaw in humans for which no patch is available.

 

 

Yes I tend to agree, its something I have to fight with myself at times, not so much the superstition as the irrational, everyone does, you make an "argument" about x or y then when you sit back you realize you were injecting your emotions or predispositions or whatever into it. As we all know, good thinking is hard work.

 

But at least the public, organized forms can be changed. Look at the levels of disbelief in *most* of the developed nations. I dont have the #s in front of me but many, like Canada and Britain, have adult populations who decidedly eschew organized and to a lesser extent personal religious belief systems.

 

But its not realistic to think it will simply wither away, I know. But I think its important for non-believers to really start to speak out publicly, like this debate which I have to check out now. Especially here in the U.S. And its not just the far out believers we have to be addressing, its the moderates, they are the ones that unwittingly allow a space for their far flung brethren to carry on. The root that must be hacked out of the ground is the notion of faith as a viable way to view the world.

 

Time and again here in the States I hear the comment "Science and faith are two different things, they needn't be at odds with one another." I, and I believe some fundamentalist believers, disagree with this. They would say that faith is the ultimate source of truth and would perhaps allow science only as a system for organizing God's wonders. I say that science, not just applied science but the scientific method, dismisses faith from the stage as useful tool for understanding the world. Faith has no self examining mechanism, it has no way of correcting itself nor does it see any reason to. Its the reasoning of a child who simply decides to believe there are no more boogeymen cause Dad chased them away with the flashlight.

 

The scientific method, which is applicable to ANY area of ones life, not just science, demands that theories about the world be put to the test against the best evidence available. And then tested again. And then again. And those tests are made public, for the community of scientists to chew on and make recommendations and such. As Carl Sagan pointed out, and this isn't just some liberal ideological pap, the scientific method is an inherently democratic process, in the sense that it works best when all voices get heard. This isn't a perfect fit but there are important similarities.

 

Here is a website with a great talk show about Freethought, Athiesm, and Humanism:

 

http://www.njhn.org/etff_archives.html

 

I've enjoyed this for a while, I recommend it highly. Check out the debate between two bible scholars over the revolutionary nature of Jesus, its lively!

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Let me add some points to the discussion of the nature of and need for "meaning" please. There is plenty of "meaning" in life within the freethinking point of view. I already know of a multitude of experiences that I have found enjoyable, rewarding, and which have made life more meaningful. None of them had a thing to do with supernatural powers or what have you. So I think its fair to say that simple immediate existence can be rewarding, meaningful, in and of itself. My niece's little face, the fantastic +vegan+ peppery butternut squash bisque (yes, a vegan bisque, and Ill defend that classification!) I made the other night, the sun setting over a frozen field, whatever, the little things, the roses we have to remember to smell.

 

But what about the "Big Picture" questions of meaning, what does my life mean, what does the world mean? I agree that they mean nothing outside of our minds, but even within our minds they don't really need to mean that much. They are there, mysterious, the meaning for me is the unraveling of that mystery, or the glorious attempt at least.

 

I guess what I'm trying to say is that I disagree with those who demand a need for "meaning", on one hand simple, experiential, immediate life should be its own meaning and on the other the search for deeper answers is its own meaning.

 

It has to be said too that we live in a world, and under an economic order, that is busy not only exploiting people, enslaving them to dangerous or dull or otherwise life-consuming routines but also busy trying to pump them full of its own brand of "meaning." Here in the imperial heart the meaning of life take on a Frankenstein-like form of religious superstition imperfectly wedded to rank consumption. The immediate meaning of life is to own a home, a few cars, take lots of vacations, buy lots of appliances. The long term meaning is to make it to the Disney Park in the Sky. Only good Mousekateers get to go!

 

Perhaps if humans ever collectively got a chance to, as we did in our earliest and still do today in our most "primitive" societies, actually get to "live for ourselves", spend our time and energy on stuff that actually changes our lives and our world, not with stockpiling pecuniary value for private hands but creating real human value for human consumption, we will find that questions like "whats it all mean" start to fade away a bit. Humans can make their own meaning, and with the scientific method and other forms of rational thinking, it can be a robust, progressive meaning.

 

And one more point, "meaning" for humans is going to change as our natures change, as they are doing with a rapidity never before seen. Although natural selection pressures have been at least temporarily ameliorated, we live within that technosphere which is changing us daily. What would "meaning" mean to a human who lives for five hundred years? Or who has changed its physical form more than once in its life? Or that exists as a computer construct? In one way or another, all of these things are beginning to seem like possibilities, some argue probabilities. Heres a minor case in point:

 

http://www.centredaily.com/128/story/11460.html

Edited by Maximius

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Anyway, again, I don't think I'm actually disagreeing with anything you are saying, though. Just seems like a difference in what questions interest us.

 

Yes, I think there is just a variety of definitions of "meaning" which can lead to confusion. Initially I thought you were referring to the "Ultimate Purpose of Existence" kind of definition, which is a staple of religion but to me is nonsense, whereas if you are talking about the sort of conscious value-judgements that we make all the time (like why do I like certain foods which others don't, etc), then I agree that these are interesting and merit investigation.

 

Yes I tend to agree, its something I have to fight with myself at times, not so much the superstition as the irrational, everyone does, you make an "argument" about x or y then when you sit back you realize you were injecting your emotions or predispositions or whatever into it. As we all know, good thinking is hard work.

 

Exactly. Even if organised religion were to disappear tomorrow, there are plenty of irrational and superstitious beliefs in society which are not often thought of as such, but are just as fallacious. For example:

 

"Strong patent and IP laws encourage innovation".

"Policy X is a vital tool in the fight against terrorism."

"Exposure to violent video games/pornography harms children."

"There must be something to homeopathy, since the insurance companies pay for it."

 

Note that I am not stating these to be categorically false (except the last one), they are just currently unsupported by any valid body of scientific evidence; we are nevertheless expected to just believe them without question.

 

The root that must be hacked out of the ground is the notion of faith as a viable way to view the world.

 

Agreed. The notion that it is Right and Proper and Moral to have "faith" in a supreme being is an asinine one, and should be treated with the same contempt that would be shown to someone who claimed that believing in UFOs makes one morally superior.

 

But what about the "Big Picture" questions of meaning, what does my life mean, what does the world mean? I agree that they mean nothing outside of our minds, but even within our minds they don't really need to mean that much.

 

Yeah, that's what I meant in reply to demagogue. I see no reason to postulate the existence of that kind of "higher meaning".

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I just started to read this posting, but I find it a bit amusing that both are in agreement that Islamists are the bad boys. Especially that claim "... is not just its willingness to use violence (in the Islamist manifestation)." As if Islams were the only ones that use violence. Last time I looked, Bush was no islamist, but he also uses religion to justify his agenda.


Gerhard

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I just started to read this posting, but I find it a bit amusing that both are in agreement that Islamists are the bad boys. Especially that claim "... is not just its willingness to use violence (in the Islamist manifestation)." As if Islams were the only ones that use violence. Last time I looked, Bush was no islamist, but he also uses religion to justify his agenda.

 

 

Yes, its safe to decry Islamic fundies but the Western ones are off limits. If those are the terms of this debate, they needs a lot of broadening.

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Later in the discussion it is allowed for more general fundamentalism, but it's never being said as explizit being violent as the islam is supposed to.


Gerhard

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It's long, entertaining, but most importantly civil, without taking open stabs like you'd usually see in forums.

It's still pretty bitchy.

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As I get older, though raised without a religion, the more good and less bad I see in it.

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