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This nation is a spiritual nation (not!)

I was amused today to see the results of the latest ICM poll on religion in The Guardian — amused because it gels with my general feel for the people around me, and amused because it flies in the face of the political discourse flooding the news media these days.

63% of the UK population define themselves as "not religious" — even among people who identify as "Christian", this is more of an ethnic or cultural definition than a spiritual one. Religious identity is strongest among the elderly and women; 43% of the population never attend religious services of any kind, which is pretty impressive if you consider the potential of weddings, funerals, christenings, and school services to suck in by-standers. Only 13% visit a place of worship every week (and about triple that figure among minority religions).

Oh, and 82% of the UK population see religion as a cause of division and tension between people.

Trying to come up with a response, a Church of England spokesman said the "impression of secularism in this country is overrated".

Yeah, right. You speak for an organization that has an audience draw 40% that of a Terry Pratchett mini-series on Sky TV. Doctor Who has a 4:1 lead over the C of E in regular audience terms. Maybe we should give Russell T. Davis four seats in the House of Lords?

What makes this most poignant is that over the past six years there's been an increasing trend towards politicians admitting their superstition in public as if it's something to be proud of. We've got an Education Minister who's a member of Opus Dei, a Prime Minister who's some kind of high church god-bothering believer and thinks praying with his allies is a substitute for realpolitik and rationality, and waiting in the wings as his successor is a dour presbyterian. They've been egged on by the ascendancy of apocalyptic nonsense in America, where it's impossible to get ahead in politics without holding regular conference calls with an imaginary friend — especially if your name is George W. Bush and you're trying to stroke th evangelical base — and where secularism is a swear word to a large subset of the population. They've even been trying to infiltrate their beliefs into public life, promoting the role of "faith schools" — religious brainwashing incubators — in education, talking about reviewing the law on abortion despite a clear public consensus (68% consider it an electoral non-issue, according to ICM; only 14% want the law changed to make obtaining an abortion harder). But they don't represent us. And if they go much further down that route, they're going to reap an electoral whirlwind, because this nation is, at heart, sensible and moderate ... and pulpit-bashing went out of fashion a century ago, and is now seen for what it is: a sign of dangerous detachment from reality.

66 Comments

1:

I dunno, I've been a Jedi since the last census, and it's never done me any harm.

2:

Adrian,
I suspect you believe more in the 'farce' than the 'force'.

3:

It's interesting to compare these figures to the US, as seen in an earlier ICM poll:

"According to an ICM poll in January 2004, Americans believe in the supernatural (91%), an afterlife (74%), "belief in a God/higher power makes you a better human being" (82%), God or a higher power judged their actions (76%), and perhaps most tellingly "would die for their God/beliefs" (71%)."

Something like 60% of the US population feels that religion is very important in their lives, the almost exact opposite of the UK. I expect you'd find at least 80% felt the US was a Judeo-Christian country too...

To put that in raw numbers, that's about 180 million people in one of the most advanced, wealthy, and powerful countries on the planet...
Some more in depth info here: http://www.adherents.com/rel_USA.html#religions

I'm not an atheist, but I do find the political power of the religous right extremely troubling. It also pisses me off the way they control the Republicans.

4:

Plenty of furore over Dawkin's 'God Delusion' (check out http://richarddawkins.net/home ) which surprisingly sold quite well in America. Makes me wonder if there's a large number of closet atheists over there.

5:

Neal, I seem to recall a survey in the USA that put atheists right at the bottom of the greasy pole in the "which religion do you distrust followers of?" question, with lower public esteem than moslems. So I suspect you're quite right about atheists in the USA being closet-cases.

6:

It varries by region, of course -- in the more cosmopolitan areas a lot of people are atheist or it's fence-sitting cousin agnostic. In the more bible-belt and conservative reasons it's much more sensible to say you're a christian.

It's also just easier than trying to defend your beliefs if you're not looking for an argument. I still say I'm Catholic because that's how I was raised, and where my knowledge of christianity comes from.

What I've noticed is that the US may be a pluralist society, but it's only grudgingly a secular one. A good number of people have trouble believing that it's possible to be moral without being religious. They tend to think that atheists have nothing preventing them from going on murder sprees and robbing everyone except a fear of the law.

Then, of course, their are the "New Age" religions like western Buddhism and Wiccans, which are viewed as with loonies or closet devil worshipers.

7:

Neal, I seem to recall a survey in the USA that put atheists right at the bottom of the greasy pole in the "which religion do you distrust followers of?" question, with lower public esteem than moslems. So I suspect you're quite right about atheists in the USA being closet-cases.

Charlie, this page sums up some polls that might include the one you're thinking of:
http://www.religioustolerance.org/amer_intol.htm

Basically, atheists are less popular than Scientologists and homosexuals with the American public.

8:

Many, many decades ago, as an undergraduate philosophy major, I found discussions of atheism versus theism not only pointless but absurd because both positions aren�t open to empirical testing. In other words, both positions ultimately require faith. The rational position, it seems to me, is agnosticism. That said, organized religion certainly hasn�t been a benign force in Western history. However, given that wars tend to be more about power and wealth than ideals, I suspect most, if not all, would have happened anyway, just with another form of justification than �converting the pagans.�

As a side note, I must admit that studies about near death experiences appear to be the only empirical evidence we have indicating that something lives on beyond biological death. Notwithstanding the late Carl Sagan�s explanation of near death experiences, (i.e., the moving through a tunnel toward a light at death is simply reliving the experience of moving through the birthing canal), it is hard to explain away the information near death victims recount about discussions occurring in other parts of hospitals.

9:

I can't find the original press release; several links to it are broken. But here's

REDACTED VERSION of press release:

MINNEAPOLIS - ST. PAUL

(3/20/2006) -- Increasing acceptance of diversity doesn’t extend to ###, according to a national survey by researchers in the University of Minnesota’s department of sociology.

From a telephone sampling of more than 2,000 households, university researchers found that Americans rate ### below other groups in “sharing their vision of American society.��? ### are also the group most Americans are least willing to allow their children to marry.

Even though ### are not formally organized, they are seen as a threat to the American way of life by a large portion of the American public. “###, who account for about XX percent of the U.S. population, offer a glaring exception to the rule of increasing social tolerance over the last 30 years,��? says Penny Edgell, associate sociology professor and the study’s lead researcher.

Edgell also argues that ### play the role that [other groups] have played in the past. “It seems most Americans believe that diversity is fine, as long as every one shares a common ‘core’ of values that make them trustworthy��? says Edgell. Many of the study’s respondents associated ### with an array of moral indiscretions.

Edgell believes a fear of moral decline and resulting social disorder is behind the findings. “Americans believe they share more than rules and procedures with their fellow citizens—they share an understanding of right and wrong,��? she said. “Our findings seem to rest on a view of ### as individuals who are not concerned with the common good.��?

The researchers also found acceptance or rejection of ### is related to one’s exposure to diversity, education and political orientation—with more educated, East and West Coast Americans more accepting of ### than their Midwestern counterparts.

The study is co-authored by assistant professor Joseph Gerteis and associate professor Doug Hartmann. It’s the first in a series of national studies conducted the American Mosaic Project, a three-year project funded by the Minneapolis-based David Edelstein Family Foundation that looks at race, religion and cultural diversity in the contemporary United States. The study will appear in the April issue of the American Sociological Review.

10:

My experience in the US of A is that most people, despite what they say to pollsters, are Ignostic. That's like agnostic but with a 'who gives a shit' attitude.
BTW, just recieved 'Jennifer Morgue'. Haven't read it yet (have to finish 'Cowl' first) but I'm looking forward.

Stargeezer

11:

I'm a British expat in the USA, and sometimes I am deeply disturbed by the culture shock I experience around the deep religiosity of people over here. Admittedly I live in North Carolina (y'all) but it's been interesting, to say the least, on a personal level for me to realise just how deeply ingrained *in me* are secular and socialist ideals I never realised I had.

The nail which Charlie hits squarely on the head in TOA from my point of view is the notion of 'apocalyptic nonsense' - recently I've noticed (during my flicking through cable channels) infomercials hosted by Pat Robertson (bless 'im) exhorting me to 'Bless Israel'.

Not something I am naturally inclined to do.

I think part of the deep-rooted mediaeval attitude (at least round 'ere) comes from a complete lack of accepted social outlets for people - there are no pubs for example (American cities simply are not built with useful proximity to such a 'social club' for the most part) and the general lack of widespread adult social stuff (no professional sport venues within 60 miles, for another example) means that the church, which is the only construct which fulfils what I assume is near to a must-have on Maslow's hierarchy of needs, attracts needy people like possums to a week-old Virginia ham.

12:

Loath as I am to start religious wars on other people's blogs...

While agnosticism seems on the surface to be the only totally rational approach, presuming that something with no evidence might be true is only applied in the matters of religion. With no positive evidence of the supernatural, it seems a tad pointless to even bother thinking about it, let alone adopting a fence-sitting position.

I mean, I _might_ exist purely in a virtual simulation running inside a computer system run by AIs that won the war against humanity. But with no positive evidence that this is the case, I wouldn't claim to be agnostic on the matter...

13:

I'm with Andrew on this one. Belief in the supernatural explanation is itself insupportable on the basis of observational evidence.

14:

"I mean, I _might_ exist purely in a virtual simulation running inside a computer system run by AIs that won the war against humanity. But with no positive evidence that this is the case, I wouldn't claim to be agnostic on the matter..."

Andrew and Charlie, sounds like neither of you would claim that an AI-simulated existence is an impossibility--just a very, very improbable reality. So, with regards to questions like god�s existence or AI simulations, we are really talking about probabilities (i.e., inductive reasoning). Plausible (inductive) reasoning allows humans to come to decisions about matters without complete knowledge. Since this process is inductive by nature and, hence, not definitive, assertions in either direction can never be proven.

15:

Don: the difference between the AI simulation hypothesis and the God hypothesis is that the AI simulation hypothesis doesn't require us to rewrite the laws of physics.

16:

Interesting...

A minor comment:
43% of the population never attend religious services of any kind, which is pretty impressive if you consider the potential of weddings, funerals, christenings, and school services to suck in by-standers.

It wouldn't surprise me if people aren't counting weddings or other unique, socially driven events. My impulse, if asked a question like "How often do you attend religious services: once per week, once per year, or never?" would be to respond with "never" -- without considering weddings or funerals, because I'd interpret the question as referring to "worship" ceremonies that you attend because you feel religious. People don't go to weddings because they feel religious; they go because their friends or relatives are involved (and they've been invited).

It would be nice to see the actual poll questions and the full results....

17:
Belief in the supernatural explanation is itself insupportable on the basis of observational evidence.
Very true, but it's also true that disbelief in the supernatural is unsupportable on that basis. That's why so many people are saying that it's not even a useful subject for discourse. "There's no there there." And that's why so many atheists are just as much fundamentalist zealots as the religionists they inveigh against.

I gave up many years ago trying to discuss religion with my fellow USians, except for a few who aren't a part of the conditioned majority. As I see it, religion is by it's very nature a private issue; try to make it public and you trip over the uselessness of talking about it. So, while I do have opinions about the existence of divinity, they're my opinions and have nothing to do with anyone else. I wish this attitude was a little more common; there'd be a lot fewer useless arguments.

One problem that I find with not talking about religion is that almost everyone conflates religion, morality, and ethics. So discussions of morality usually devolve to religion, where they quickly becomes name-calling and finger-pointing ("Nyah, nyah! Immoral, godless atheist tool of the Homosexual Agenda!" "Take that, mindless believer in illogical superstitions" (see note)). It also makes it difficult to talk about why you might want to study, for instance, Buddhism, because much of its teachings are moral and philosophical, without a requirement for a belief in the religious aspects. Since it is a Religion, religionists seem only to be able to discuss it from that viewpoint.

News Flash
My wife just came into the room to tell me that some sort of National Book Awards ceremony is being broadcast on national TV, not on public television, but on a commercial network. In a country where religious zealotry has led to a widely-held belief that literacy and education are bad for you, this is totally unexpected. I guess they're so thoroughly out of broadcast content (you can only show "It's a Wonderful Life" so many times before inducing mass projectile vomiting in the population), that the programming executives are actually listening to the writers.


Note: I may have the beginnings of a comic book here.

18:

Religion has had many positive effects on politics in this country (i.e. the UK), not least the abolition of slavery. Much of the support for progressive and anti-war politics over the years has come from religion; a recent example being the Make Poverty History campaign. I'm an atheist but I do recognise the good work that people can achieve as a result of their religious beliefs. Like most things, it has both good and bad sides.

What I find sad is that discussion of religion in politics now seems to be dominated by the intolerant American model, rather than our relatively moderate native version.

19:

Charles--I assume you are referring to miracles and such, when write that theist beliefs violate the laws of physics. But as Arthur C. Clarke�s third law states, �Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.� Theists might argue that god�s power is just sufficiently advanced so as to appear to violate physical laws�you know, magic. ;-)

20:

All to perfect timing for this topic to come up. The U.S. strain of CNN has recently been airing their special on the rise of early Christianity. Overall, the thing isn't that outrageous, but it fields some hilarious whitewash jobs on the early Christians' conduct, in particular that of the nebulous compilers of the original canonical gospels. The so-called "heretical" sects that grew from the earliest Christian teachings are given no quarter, dismissed as dangerous heathenry that "threatened to tear the early Church apart". The CNN program depicts the orthodox Church with its back to the metaphorical wall and expunging the divergent sects as an act of desperate self-defense. "Their writings and scriptures were burned," not to mention their children, CNN.

This is not even touching upon all those "Nostradamus/Revelations/Torah/Numerology/Kabbalah Predicted 9/11!!" 'documentaries' that are aired ad-nauseum on the History Channel. I _do_ find those rather offensive. Yes, there are courteous disclaimers at the start of every program, but simply giving airtime to such programming on a network that's called the bloody "History" channel lends the things an air of credibility past crackpot conspiracy theory.

Anyways-- as an apathetic agnostic who follows philosophical daoist precepts and metaphysics, I'm just as wary of a "tyranny of Reason" technocracy as I am of a hardcore theocracy. To believe that the sciences in conjunction with the technologies that invariably spring from them are utterly neutral and have no effect on the way one sees the world is, to me, as dangerously foolish as believing that your holy text of choice is the Pontifex Maximus over all other human law because your god said so, within that text itself.

"Life is made of limits, but understanding is limitless. Using the limited approach to the limitless-- that's dangerous. To do this and consider it understanding-- that's extremely dangerous." - Zhuangzi

21:

Mr. Stross,

Do you consider Gene Wolfe, John C. Wright, and Tim Powers to be brainwashed, superstitious morons? Just curious. I’m reading The Atrocity Archives at the moment, by the way -- a very funny, wonderful book.

22:

It's worth recalling just how much religion was presented as a motive for the violence in Northern Ireland. It's an image which obscures a great deal of what people of strong religious belief were really doing, all through the Troubles.

And counter that image of the perils of religious rivalry with the image that accumulated from such things as "Thought For The Day" on radio, almost a daily Don Camillo from the BBC in its image of how strong religious faith should lead us to behave.

And, while I'm groping a bit here, I've a feeling that in some ways the Church of England, still formally Christian, still imbued with the history and theology and the gospel, is almost pagan in its relation to the land. It's as much of England as of Christ.

And if you take that a step further, beyond overt Englishness to the sense of being a part of England, Terry Pratchett and Doctor Who fit right in, both of them providing frameworks for a combination of cultural and moral identity which we share.

Of course, I'm not writing in Edinburgh, but I do get the imnpression that the strong religious beliefs are more common on the fringes of Englishness. One might almost say that an English Bishop can believe in steam engines, or cricket, as easily as he believes in Christ.

So I'd say that England is still a religious country, but the nature of religion has changed, just as every other invader has changed. "And did those feet in ancient times"? Maybe He should have stayed, married a local girl, settled down, found a village that needed a good carpenter.

That's another way to change the world.

23:

Charlie, you might want to look at the area that ICM poll was done in.

I, personally, am Jewish. Which encompases aspects of a a religion, a people, a land and a society in one, and ones engagement in these - while calling yourself a Jew - can vary wildly.

(For reference, moderate Masorti, born Jewish, Zionist and moderately involved).


I see - and allways have - the strong denial of faiths as a religion in itself, and a creed who in my experience the practioners of tend towards the intollerant.


"They tend to think that atheists have nothing preventing them from going on murder sprees and robbing everyone except a fear of the law."

I know no less than seven atheists who have downright STATED this to me. And one satanist.

24:

"They tend to think that atheists have nothing preventing them from going on murder sprees and robbing everyone except a fear of the law."

I know no less than seven atheists who have downright STATED this to me. And one satanist.

Personally, I distrust anyone who relies on fear to prevent themselves from doing things like that. Whether it's a fear of the law, God, or the ghosts of their victims haunting them.

25:

Don Barker: you're misapplying Clarke's Third Law egregiously there. "Indistinguishable from magic" is an observation of appearances, not a statement of equivalence. And magic is, luckily, entirely unreal.


John Touhey ...

"Brainwashed" and "morons" don't fit the folks you mention at all. But "superstitious" is a good enough label. (Belief in miracles that violate the observed laws of physics is a good enough reason to apply it.)

As for belief in God ... I take it that you don't believe in the Tooth Fairy, mighty Zeus and Hera on Mount Olympus, Osiris and Isis and Thoth and Set, or Odin -- do you? The only difference between us is that my list of deities I don't believe in is just a little bit longer, and includes Jehova, Allah, Jesus, and the Buddha.

(Actually, I'm quite glad I don't believe in the Christian (or Jewish, for that matter, or Moslem) God. If I did, then on the basis of his attested behaviour I'd feel morally bound to fight him. Bloody handed bullies like that deserve opposition, not worship ...)

26:

Andrew Crystall- to add to your list, I've seen several Christian USA'ian bloggers saying that if it wasn't for god they would not have any compunction coming over and shooting someone they disagree with.

27:

Of course, the other thing you need to consider is religious substitution. A lot of folks who aren't "religious" or who are self-described atheists or agnostics aren't really areligious. They just find some other silly idea to replace the other thing they managed to decide was a silly idea.

I've had more than one "non-religious" person segue straight from "there is no God" to "Gaia hates what humans are doing to the planet."

How many people do you know who have become dietary faddists, claiming that all of your problems will be solved if you eat gluten-free products (or soy, or whatever)? Or animal-rights crazies who can talk about little else? Exercise freaks? Home-decorator monomaniacs?

Religion is still as popular as ever, it's just camouflaged- and multiplying.

28:

I suspect you believe more in the 'farce' than the 'force'.

I am of course deeply wounded by your unwarranted scepticism about the sincerity of my lawfully-registered Jedi nature. But in fact a true Jedi needs both.

I've seen several Christian USA'ian bloggers saying that if it wasn't for god they would not have any compunction coming over and shooting someone they disagree with.

The prospect of life imprisonment has no effect on their cost/benefit calculations?

I think I'm going to continue with the hypothesis that some of these people have less than eight different great-grandparents on average for the time being.

29:

And magic is, luckily, entirely unreal.

Funny you should say that, since it seems that about 1/3rd of the US public believes in some form of non-miraculous magic. http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,99945,00.html

But before the US starts looking full of hicks, keep in mind that similar beliefs are more common in the UK:
http://www.prnewswire.co.uk/cgi/news/release?id=86400

30:

I've found that one safe way to answer questions about my religious beliefs is to say: "You may call me Reverend Jonathan Vos Post. I have performed legal marriages in the State of California."

Is it a contradiction for an agnostic to say: "Thank God for separation of church and state?"

If pressed, I'll admit that most of those were as favors for friends whose parents wanted a religious ceremony, which the fiancees did not really want.

In one case, between an astrophysicist and another JPL employee, I hitched them in the Dabney Garden of the Caltech campus. Rather than read from a flimsy laser-printed page, I held the page in a copy of Volume 1, The Feynman Lectures on Physics.

"I've never seen that edition of the Bible," said the mother of the bride. What denomination did you say you were?"

Other Caltech and JPL people were having a hard time not ROTFL.

Still, all this discussion evades the core question, so hard to answer:

"Why be rational?"

31:

The argument that atheists are believers is useless, it depends on an orwellian redefinition of terms. All reasoning except in the mathematics is probabilistic, so appealing to a tiny chance of a God doesn't make an agnostic out of me any more than I am agnostic on whether there's an invisible pink baby elephant under my bed. Could it be? In the mathematical sense of could, sure, but it would take such dislocations to the prior probabilities of things that it's pointless thinking about it.

32:

It's not so much that atheists are believers, as that many (by no means all) of them are as much zealots as the religionists they argue with. Surely there's something overzealous in repeating the same arguments over and over to people who are incapable of agreeing with them?

Which is not to say that I disagree with the atheist's position or arguments, nor is it to say I agree. One of the things I've learned over time is that often if a question gets no closer to being answered no matter how much effort is expended on it, it's probably not the right question. For instance, I figure anybody who can accept the Copenhagen Interpretation is not in a good position to discuss the nature and origins of reality.

I try to follow my own version of the Law of Least Hypothesis, which I call Occam's Broadsword: "Do not multiply enemies beyond necessity."

33:
Still, all this discussion evades the core question, so hard to answer:

"Why be rational?"


Yes, that is a hard one. It's made harder still by the fact that there's no general agreement on what rationality is. It's not simply the application of logic, since the most flawless logic is still at the mercy of the axioms you accept. It's not the application of "value-free" reasoning; that usually results in answers that make no sense in human terms. And, like it or not (and there are people who don't like it, such as Singularitarians) we are all human, and need to consider that in our decision-making.

From my point of view, the ultimate issue here is not God or religion, it's superstition that affects the way you treat other humans. I don't see any reason to argue with someone else's ideas about divinity, as long as they don't result in a lack of recognition of other people's humanity and rights, or a lack of recognition of important physical outcomes of their actions (e.g., the likely result of global warming from overuse of petroleum fuels).

34:

Bruce: "why be rational?"

From a pre-scientific perspective, belief in supernatural forces made sense -- was consistent with the observed view of the universe -- because the human brain is a marvelous organ for detecting coincidences. (Brother Ook not there today? Leopard spoor around the watering hole? Avoid watering holes with Leopard spoor, lest the gods steal away another sibling.) "Gods" came along later, as a cognitive malfunction -- the projection of a theory of mind onto a seemingly-malevolent natural environment, its malevolence the product of false positives thrown up by the coincidence detector -- and their consolidation into one big God was a consequence of primate pack hierarchy awareness.

We like to know why things happen around us because, when you get down to it, we rely on an understanding of causality to stay alive. "Gods" were just a stop-gap explanation that helped, at one stage. Now we have better cognitive tools for understanding how those sinister coincidences happen (and instruments for determining whether they are coincidences, or just observational artefacts). But along the way, pace Dawkins, they spawned an industry, the employees of which have a vested interest in maintaining belief.

35:

It is not merely God that has become obsolete, but love, friendship, beauty, loyalty, honor, charity, good and evil -- according to Mr. Dawkins, all have been proven to be biochemical reactions in our brains which arose because they gave humans an evolutionary advantage. They were “stopgaps��? to use your lingo. To believe that they possess an intrinsic value in and of themselves is as naïve (and irrational) as believing in the Tooth Fairy. It seems to me this is precisely where positivism demonstrates its ineffectiveness in describing the totality of reality. Any method which requires you to dismiss so many amazing things that are so palpably part of your everyday experience should be treated with skepticism. If I have melanoma I definitely want an oncologist on the case, not a poet. But if I’m pondering the meaning of life, give me a “superstitious��? companion like Shakespeare or Dostoevsky (or Wolfe) any day!

36:

John: rubbish.

Sure, emotional responses are just emergent neurological phenomena. But they're also definitive components of the human organism (which, let us not forget, is basically just a variation on your general hominid mammalian chassis, and therefore predisposed to throwing a tantrum when you steal its banana). Their importance has nothing to do with theology and everything to do with biology ... a field of natural science, as we used to call it, as opposed to the supernatural.

Again, let me emphasize this: specific religious beliefs are not an intrinsic part of the human condition. (Walking on two legs and getting upset if someone pokes us with a sharp stick are another matter.) You might make a case that a predisposition to religion is part of the human condition, but that's another matter entirely ... and in any event, I reserve the right to get upset if you christianists and your imams start dissing the great and holy spaghetti monster who I worship and revere.

37:

Sorry, but aren't you begging the question? I assert that love, friendship, beauty, truth, etc. have an extrinsic reality that cannot be measured by the scientific method. I assert that these things are as real as the computer that I am typing this message on -- not just emergent neurological phenomena or emotions, but realities that I can have a real experience of. Am I irrational to assert this? I'll leave the discussion at that on my end, because I don't want to take up any more of your valuable time. Truly, all the best and thank you for your responses. I really do enjoy your work!

John

38:

Nope. I'm taking a strict materialist stance. I deny your assertion that love, friendship, beauty, truth, etc have any extrinsic reality. (And I'd also assert that some of these -- truth, for example -- are not the same as others: truth is a mathematical quality, love is a neurological condition.) I deny that they are unmeasurable, and I don't believe we have to go outside of the natural sciences in order to explain them.

However I still consider them to be important to me, because I'm a human organism and they're wired into our neurobiology at a very low level such that without them we are not fully functional as people: take away empathy, for example, and you get a psychopath.

To generalize my argument a bit, humans aren't the centre of the cosmos, and neither are human qualities. The universe is much bigger, older, weirder, and scarier than any orthodox theology would have us believe ...

39:

Well said!

"humans aren't the centre of the cosmos, and neither are human qualities. The universe is much bigger, older, weirder, and scarier than any orthodox theology would have us believe ..." neatly compresses the following revolutions:

(1) Earth is not the center of the cosmos (Aristarchus, Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, et al.);

(2) Humans are not the "crown of creation" but a specific evolved relative of the apes [Darwin et al.];

(3) Human qualities are not what we thought [John Stuart Mill; Freud & Jung; William Morton Wheeler; Oskar Heinroth & Julian Huxley; W. Ross Ashby, Stafford Beer, Humberto Maturana & Francisco Varela, Gordon Pask, Norbert Wiener, et al; Alan Turing, John McCarthy, Marvin Minsky, et al.];

(4) The universe is bigger than we thought [William & Carolyn Herschel; Guiseppi Piazzi; John Couch Adams & Urbain-Jean-Joseph Le Verrier; Clyde Tombaugh; Bruce Campbell, G. A. H. Walker, and S. Yang; Michel Mayor & Didier Queloz; Henrietta Leavitt, Harlow Shapley, Edwin Hubble, et al.]

(5) The universe is older than we thought [ Niels Stensen, a.k.a. Nicolaus Stenonis or Steno; James Hutton; Alfred O. C. Nier; Clair Patterson; Hertzsprung and Russell; Lawrence Krauss & Brian Chaboyer et al.]

(6) the universe is weirder and scarier [Herbert George Wells; Howard Phillips Lovecraft; et al.]

If Charles Stross can see farther, and write better, it is because he stands on the shoulders of giants. And not all those giants are human...

40:

Charlie,

Welcome back. Antipope has been out to lunch for the last couple of days, at least from here.

My point about rationality was not that we shouldn't be rational, but that we really don't know how to be, because we don't have a good place to start. We do pretty well figuring things out, even things that aren't at all obvious (quantum theory, for instance), but we largely use the strictly logical, step-by-step prove-the-theorem approach for confirming and proving the results we get by other means. Consider the empirical, experimental side of science. Often the results of an experiment are far from unambiguous, and it comes down to techniques that have mostly evolved from our pattern-matching abilities to pick the "right" one (scare quotes because we usually don't know if we're right until shortly before the Nobel ceremony). We match against patterns like "probably like what we've seen before", and "elegant", and "explains other stuff, too". Now those pattern-matching techniques are the outcome of a lot evolutionary trial and error, and they work pretty well, but are they rational?

truth is a mathematical quality, love is a neurological condition.
I believe this is a fundamental category error. Truth means several different things, all of them abstract. There is a truth which is a mathematical quality; that's different from the truth that is a measure of the match between a statement and a real-world condition. The mathematical truth is an absolute (there are only 3 values of truth: true, false, and undecidable). Measuring a real-world condition makes truth a continuous value because it's essentially a measure of coorelation. In any case, truth is a symbolic object we apply from inside our thoughts to the outside world (or reflectively to our thoughts).

Love, and other "subjective" objects are not neurological conditions (that is they don't coorelate 1-1 with neural states). They're emergent properties of the complex systems that evolve out of neural states (hence the difference in category). The fact that they can evolve out of different sets of states (in different people, or in the same people at different times) into recognizably similar objects, with similar behavior, indicates that they have an objective nature in their emergent state, just as whirlpools, which are not made of matter but of organizational patterns have an objective nature.

This is why I disagree that love is less real than truth (and while we're at it, what about beauty? Was Euclid right?). Franciso Varela and Humberto Maturana, both well-known biologists, wrote quite a bit about a hierarchy of development based on the notion that there is a real (read "objective") existence to the concept of "value" based on the notion that self-organized and self-sustaining systems generate value by their actions (a horrible explanation, I'll try to do better if you're interested, but it's 4 in the morning here and I'm about to go back to bed).

41:

Bruce: it threw a kernel panic at 7:25pm on Christmas Eve. (Its first in about a year.) What do you expect? :-/

More when I've recovered from the seasonal overindulgence ...

42:

Charlie,

Welcome back. Antipope has been out to lunch for the last couple of days, at least from here.

My point about rationality was not that we shouldn't be rational, but that we really don't know how to be, because we don't have a good place to start. We do pretty well figuring things out, even things that aren't at all obvious (quantum theory, for instance), but we largely use the strictly logical, step-by-step prove-the-theorem approach for confirming and proving the results we get by other means. Consider the empirical, experimental side of science. Often the results of an experiment are far from unambiguous, and it comes down to techniques that have mostly evolved from our pattern-matching abilities to pick the "right" one (scare quotes because we usually don't know if we're right until shortly before the Nobel ceremony). We match against patterns like "probably like what we've seen before", and "elegant", and "explains other stuff, too". Now those pattern-matching techniques are the outcome of a lot evolutionary trial and error, and they work pretty well, but are they rational?

truth is a mathematical quality, love is a neurological condition.
I believe this is a fundamental category error. Truth means several different things, all of them abstract. There is a truth which is a mathematical quality; that's different from the truth that is a measure of the match between a statement and a real-world condition. The mathematical truth is an absolute (there are only 3 values of truth: true, false, and undecidable). Measuring a real-world condition makes truth a continuous value because it's essentially a measure of coorelation. In any case, truth is a symbolic object we apply from inside our thoughts to the outside world (or reflectively to our thoughts).

Love, and other "subjective" objects are not neurological conditions (that is they don't coorelate 1-1 with neural states). They're emergent properties of the complex systems that evolve out of neural states (hence the difference in category). The fact that they can evolve out of different sets of states (in different people, or in the same people at different times) into recognizably similar objects, with similar behavior, indicates that they have an objective nature in their emergent state, just as whirlpools, which are not made of matter but of organizational patterns have an objective nature.

This is why I disagree that love is less real than truth (and while we're at it, what about beauty? Was Euclid right?). Franciso Varela and Humberto Maturana, both well-known biologists, wrote quite a bit about a hierarchy of development based on the notion that there is a real (read "objective") existence to the concept of "value" based on the notion that self-organized and self-sustaining systems generate value by their actions (a horrible explanation, I'll try to do better if you're interested, but it's 4 in the morning here and I'm about to go back to bed).

43:
3) Human qualities are not what we thought
True. They are both more and less complex than we thought, and both more and less directly determined by our biology than we thought. I think what this means is that human qualities are as much worth study as astrophysics or geology. I agree emphatically that it is not the case that "Man is the measure of all things", but I think we have to respect a self-organized system with more degrees of freedeom than any other we know of.

Examples of complexity/lack of complexity. These come, interestingly enough, from the same research institution: an AI research group at the University of Indiana, run by Douglas Hofstadter.

1) It turns out that analogy-making, which is arguably one of the fundamental techniques of human cognition, is much more complex than we thought. Despite the effort of at least 4 AI research programs, there is as yet no satisfactory theory or simulation of the use or development of analogy. See, for instance French

2) Hofstadter, as a serious amateur concert muscian was disconcerted to discover that an algorithm has been developed that successfully composes music recognizably in the style of (and often indistinguishable from) the work of any classical composer. The real disquiet lies in the fact that the algorithm is quite simple and shallow (in the computational complexity sense).

44:

it is hard to explain away the information near death victims recount about discussions occurring in other parts of hospitals.
Got any citations for that, Don? Such a thing would be a very ompressive proof of a number of paranormal effects, but I've never come across any reliable references to it.
Charlie has already explained your nisapplication of Clarke's 3rd Law; please don't try the similar argument of "They said {insert famous scientist's name here} was mad, but he was right in the end!"
That particular non-argument always brings to mind a scene from a Marx Brothers film (either Duck Soup or A Night at the Races?):
Groucho: "They said Marconi was mad! They said Einstein was mad! They said my Uncle Herbert was mad...!"
Chico: "Your Uncle Herbert? But I ain't never heard of him!"
Groucho: "Aha! That's because he was mad!"

45:

"Got any citations for that, Don?"

Perhaps the most famous reference would be the original New England Journal of Medicine article documenting near death experiences among children (the subjects were actually screened out for religious beliefs). I don;t have this reference handy, but it can be found in Dr. Morse's landmark 1990 book, "Closer to the Light."

http://www.amazon.com/Closer-Light-Learning-Experiences-Children/dp/0394579445/sr=8-3/qid=1167165886/ref=pd_bbs_sr_3/102-5850652-4832914?ie=UTF8&s=books

46:

Ah. NDEs. If you think there's a supernatural explanation, you might find this paper a bit of a let-down.

(There was an in-depth piece on the glutathione pathway and NDEs in New Scientist a couple of months back, but I can't get through to their archives right now to get a citation.)

See also this (laymans treatment) and this.

47:

Oh yeah: here's the New Scientist article (subscription required if you want to read the whole thing).

48:

I'm a British expat in the USA, and sometimes I am deeply disturbed by the culture shock I experience around the deep religiosity of people over here.

I have a friend. She has a boyfriend. The boyfriend is just completing a PhD in [hotsexytopicredactedasprobablepersonalidentifier] and has been invited to study for two years in the States. She wants to go with him, and his sponsors are looking into it.

She and he are into BDSM. She is a sorta on-again off-again Wiccan, and he is (I think) pretty much atheist. Neither of them is by any stretch of the imagination Christian, and they tend to have allergic reactions to the culture.

Did I mention this study opportunity involved two years in Tennessee?

I think she's going to go mad. Possibly both of them will.

49:

There are ways to be rational. Rationality, unlike most people think, dazzled by the amazingly beautiful swindle which is formal logic, isn't found there. Rationality is found in probabilistic analysis of the world.

An interesting link for you: http://yudkowsky.net/virtues/

And yes, I'm a Singularitarian.

50:

Tony, my brother-in-law spent several years teaching philosophy in South Carolina. He's British, he's black, he thought it'd be a good route to tenure track. Go figure.

51:

Did I mention this study opportunity involved two years in Tennessee?

I think she's going to go mad. Possibly both of them will.

What part of Tennesee are they going to? If it's Nashville or Memphis it might not be so bad. The whole state is pretty christian and the music scene is devoted to country, blues, and christian rock, but the metro Memphis and Nashville areas should be much more livable for them than a small town would be. Memphis also has some of the best BBQ in the country... just don't go there if you're a vegetarian -- you'll never be able to dine out.

I should qualify the above a bit. My sister went to an evolutionary biology conference (or similar) in Memphis earlier this year. She love the city, but said that the locals looked at them like they were crazy when they said they were there for an evolution conference. They also tended to refer to the visiting academics as "pointy-heads".

52:

What part of Tennesee are they going to? If it's Nashville or Memphis it might not be so bad.

It's not. Pardon me if I can't get more specific, but it really would identify them (or him, if he goes on his lonesome). Suffice it to say the website prides the place as having been bypassed by the "hustle and bustle of big city life", the percentage in poverty is above average, and the median household income below.

A bit of research suggests he's either at a private research facility, he's mistaken a town in Virginia for one in Tennessee, or he's staying in [Hicksville] but working at a rather large place with the initials "ORNL". I'll have to quiz him on that when I next see him.

If it's the last, the security check is going to be interesting. I suspect the Alliance Party translates into "Raving Commies" by American standards, and God alone knows what they'll make of the connections to teh McGillicudy Serious Party...

53:

If I did believe in a conventional God, he/she/it would probably be some sort of celestial SF writer, or experimenter on a grand scale. The Earth could then be the equivalent of a petri dish, swarming with tiny, ever-changing critters. I can imagine the sense of gleeful expectation it would experience, wondering what was going to evolve next...

Of course, were I that kind of God, I wouldn't be able to resist meddling, or leaving great big hints to help emerging sentients. Like making the Sun and Moon roughly the same diameter, when seen from the planet's surface, and arranging frequent total eclipses to engender awe and curiosity...

Or placing some kind of huge anomalous Moon fairly close to the planet, firstly to strand sea creatures on beaches by the tide and get them to explore the land, then as a sort of baby step for space explorers to get to.

It might get boring though, after a while, so I'd have lots of spare asteroids and orbiting space junk ready to drop onto the world just to stir things up or wipe the slate clean.

54:

Charlie�I would respectively disagree that I am, ��misapplying Clarke's Third Law egregiously.� In fact, not only do I understand that it refers to ��an observation of appearances, not a statement of equivalence,� that what my point. Miracles to theists could be the result of �technologies� well beyond their understanding, but appear as magic. Hence, rather than something magical, these events might well be explainable. Perhaps the explanations might require a deeper understanding of the universe than we currently possess. The laws of physics continue to evolve.

Let me be clear, my original point is that arguing god�s existence is, IMHO, a fruitless endeavor. Unlike unicorns and other mythical creatures, a �first creator� of the Big Bang at least holds merit; however, it hardly qualifies as a deductive proof. On the other hand, the syllogisms attempting to prove god�s existence also fail. Indeed, the very nature of god�s existence begs the question, which is why I see such speculation as pointless.

55:

"Rationality"

Right. If there's one thing science has done, it's to provide more questions.

56:

What part of Tennesee are they going to? If it's Nashville or Memphis it might not be so bad.

Wherever you go, you find your own kind.

I have the good fortune to live near Chapel Hill (in North Carolina, for Shub-Niggurath's sake) which a former governor once suggested should be 'walled off from the rest of the state' for being a libertarian, artsy kind of place.

57:

Didn't I read somewhere That Intelligent design is going to part of Schooling in the uk? Not impressed!

58:

.....So, with regards to questions like god�s existence or AI simulations, we are really talking about probabilities (i.e., inductive reasoning). Plausible (inductive) reasoning allows humans to come to decisions about matters without complete knowledge. Since this process is inductive by nature and, hence, not definitive, assertions in either direction can never be proven. ....

IIRC there was something in new scientist a while ago that probabilities suggested that we were more likely to be in a sim than not. In which case a reboot is in order :-)

59:

Dave: You're thinking of the simulation argument. Lots of meat on that website ...

As for ID in the UK, an attempt to introduce creationist materials into the science curriculum (funded by an ID advocacy group) was spanked out of the schools, but the education minister is considering allowing it to be taught about in religious studies classes "as part of developing an understanding of different beliefs".

Note that in the UK, far from religious teaching being banned from schools, it's actually compulsory. And there are a number of god-botherers among the cabinet, including at least one minister with responsibility for education.

60:

I invariably stumble across these arguments long after everyone else has drifted away to new diversions, but on the off-chance that anyone is still around, AC Grayling wrote an
interesting piece for the Guardin recently on why atheism is not a faith position.

To paraphrase Bertrand Russell, I disbelieve in a god in the same way as I disbelieve in a giant teapot orbiting Mars: on the basis of what we know, it seems unlikely, but if new evidence comes to light, my view would change to accomodate that. But I could be standing before St.Peter in my burial shroud, and I'd still argue that, on the facts available to me at the time, my disbelief was sound. Avowedly empirically contingent beliefs are in important ways the antithesis of faith beliefs. To conflate the two is, at best, sloppy, and at worst disingenuous.

61:

Why aren't I suprised That Charlie has simulation arguement addresses at his fingertips ? (or possibly extremities would be a better description) :-)

62:

http://education.guardian.co.uk/schools/story/0,,1957858,00.html

I'm not all that keen on the idea of RE in schools. I'm even less keen on whats suggested in the above snippet.

I quite liked the Kansas FSM idea though?
Thanks for the sim site Charlie, head spinning reminds of something I can't imagine what though :-)

63:

Hmm, First Kernel crash for a year shortly after discussing the existence of God etc Someone is trying to tell you something......

64:

Dave, the little Ayrshire town where I grew up had its church manse trashed by lightning at new year, so I guess the celestial messages are a tad mixed this winter.

65:

Idle thought, God must be a net user he has a website www.god.com Wonder if that ever crashes :-)

66:
take away empathy, for example, and you get a psychopath

obSF: Or Siri Keeton. (Or Jukka Sarasti.)

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