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Nate
02-01-2009, 12:36 PM
Our old Bloggingheads friend Ross Douthat got Pharyngulated:
http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/2009/01/teapots_seem_to_infuriate_them.php

563 comments so far; Must have been a popular post. I usually disagree with most of what Ross has to say, but I usually respect him for having well-thought-out arguments. (Unfortunately, that was not the case this time.)

AemJeff
02-01-2009, 12:53 PM
Here's an email I sent to Ross via his blog in response to this post (http://rossdouthat.theatlantic.com/archives/2009/01/probably_and_perhaps.php). I don't know if he read my email, or was considering it when he posted this (http://rossdouthat.theatlantic.com/archives/2009/01/the_teapot_analogy.php), but I'd like to think I had some responsibility for starting this exchange.


Hi Ross, I’d like to point out that there’s a simple rejoinder to Cardinal Ratzinger, penned by Bertrand Russell:

Russell’s Teapot (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Russel%27s_teapot)


If I were to suggest that between the Earth and Mars there is a china teapot revolving about the sun in an elliptical orbit, nobody would be able to disprove my assertion provided I were careful to add that the teapot is too small to be revealed even by our most powerful telescopes. But if I were to go on to say that, since my assertion cannot be disproved, it is an intolerable presumption on the part of human reason to doubt it, I should rightly be thought to be talking nonsense. If, however, the existence of such a teapot were affirmed in ancient books, taught as the sacred truth every Sunday, and instilled into the minds of children at school, hesitation to believe in its existence would become a mark of eccentricity and entitle the doubter to the attentions of the psychiatrist in an enlightened age or of the Inquisitor in an earlier time.

Atheist “dogma” can easily be viewed as simple, economical empiricism.
-Jeff Howard (AemJeff)

bjkeefe
02-01-2009, 05:00 PM
Here's an email I sent to Ross via his blog in response to this post (http://rossdouthat.theatlantic.com/archives/2009/01/probably_and_perhaps.php). I don't know if he read my email, or was considering it when he posted this (http://rossdouthat.theatlantic.com/archives/2009/01/the_teapot_analogy.php), but I'd like to think I had some responsibility for starting this exchange.

Good effort. I read Ross's posts and would say that you do deserve credit.

I am also happy to say that my immediate reaction to his views on Russell's teapot -- that he Just. Doesn't. Get. It. -- matched what PZ said in the post Nate linked to and agreed with.

Ross should just believe whatever he wants to believe in this regard and stop writing about it. He's just hurting his own credibility.

(NB: The preceding sentence is not a call to ban Ross.)

uncle ebeneezer
02-01-2009, 05:14 PM
I never quite understand why intelligent human beings like Ross, will concede to the FACT of life that our brains misrepresent reality to us all the time (see: Predictably Irrational, This Is Your Brain On Music, and any of a thousand books on: our inability to accurately assess probability, inability to even remotely grasp quantum mechanics/relativity, all the way down to simple optical illusions.) They also will usually admit that our perception of the world is also noticably refracted by our emotions and political beliefs. Our beliefs just aren't very trust-worthy. Even a completely healthy brain is subject to all kinds of misperceptions. But as soon as someone applies this logic to the most obvious example (believing in something with little/no evidence for it's existence) they draw the line and take offense. Sadly, it's exactly the response one would expect. You almost get more rationality from someone at AmWay. (sorry for the sarcasm, Bob.)

AemJeff
02-01-2009, 05:18 PM
Good effort. I read Ross's posts and would say that you do deserve credit.

I am also happy to say that my immediate reaction to his views on Russell's teapot -- that he Just. Doesn't. Get. It. -- matched what PZ said in the post Nate linked to and agreed with.

Ross should just believe whatever he wants to believe in this regard and stop writing about it. He's just hurting his own credibility.

(NB: The preceding sentence is not a call to ban Ross.)

Ross really doesn't understand the argument. PZ is harder on him than I am; but, I think you're right. On this issue, I don't think Ross can engage in a way that would strike me as intellectually honest.

bjkeefe
02-01-2009, 05:24 PM
[...]

I would guess that two of the factors are as follows. First, religious teachings are usually presented starting very early in life, long before the brain has developed fully. Things learned at that stage (from trusted sources, especially, like parents and the local shaman) are deeply implanted and really hard to let go of completely. I speak from experience.

Second, there is a whole societal apparatus that has been built up to support the notion that religious belief is to be privileged and is to remain unquestioned, that to do so in even the most polite and measured tones is to be delivering the most caustic of insults. Thus, when someone like Ross hears an atheist question the idea of believing in something for which no evidence is seen, he is unable to hear it intellectually. More deeply ingrained and faster to fire is the instinct for indignation.

bjkeefe
02-01-2009, 05:28 PM
Ross really doesn't understand the argument. PZ is harder on him than I am; but, I think you're right. On this issue, I don't think Ross can engage in a way that would strike me as intellectually honest.

Yes, that's it exactly. As I said to Uncle Eb, he's working more from an emotional level here, and can't really process the argument with intellectual remove.

Reminds me of the misinterpretation of criticism of conservative ideas and diavloggers on the part of some of our rightward-leaning commenters -- they can't hear dissent in any way other than as a personal attack.

[Added] Which is not to say that there have been no personal attacks. It is just to say that too often, this cry is raised without merit.

testostyrannical
02-01-2009, 09:36 PM
To defend Douthat, this seems to reduce to an irreconcilable difference between the perspective of a theist and the perspective of an atheist. The atheist characterizes religion in a manner consistent with his notion of it. When he points to CTP, he is not necessarily asking his theistic interlocutor to agree with him that belief in God is as ridiculous as belief in an undetectible piece of china, but that, from the point of view of an Atheist, the idea of God and the idea of the cosmic teapot are equally incredible posits. The theist has two choices at this point. He can accept the Atheist's description as a reliable self-report (without altering his own convictions regarding God), and decide that he has learned something new, not about God, but about how Atheists think about claims regarding God. Or he can choose to be insulted. If the theist chooses to be insulted, he will point to all the smart people who also believe in God, to counter the notion that belief in God is as incredible as belief in the cosmic teapot. This response makes a kind of sense, but is really neither here nor there, since the Atheist is not (at least, should not be) actually trying to dictate how the theist should construct his opinion on the matter. Now, at this point, the Atheist has two choices-he can take the theist's rebuttal as a reliable self-report, acknowledge that there exists between the two positions an irreconcilable difference of opinion. Or the Atheist may take the theist's rebuttal as an argument against his own point of view, and point to historical examples of many ideas held by smart people that are now considered invalid. At this point the whole discussion has gotten out of control. The whole problem with these discussions is that two things are being conflated simultaneously-descriptions of the construction of belief and arguments for or against belief. I think we can agree that neither CTP nor "the epistemic authority of smart theists" really constitute actual arguments about God, since they do not actually touch on the plain factual question (of course, I have no idea what would) of God's existence. They are meta-arguments not about God but about the belief in God, and since the two interlocutors have opposing beliefs, they are not even talking about the same thing.

AemJeff
02-01-2009, 10:37 PM
To defend Douthat, this seems to reduce to an irreconcilable difference between the perspective of a theist and the perspective of an atheist. The atheist characterizes religion in a manner consistent with his notion of it. When he points to CTP, he is not necessarily asking his theistic interlocutor to agree with him that belief in God is as ridiculous as belief in an undetectible piece of china, but that, from the point of view of an Atheist, the idea of God and the idea of the cosmic teapot are equally incredible posits. The theist has two choices at this point. He can accept the Atheist's description as a reliable self-report (without altering his own convictions regarding God), and decide that he has learned something new, not about God, but about how Atheists think about claims regarding God. Or he can choose to be insulted. If the theist chooses to be insulted, he will point to all the smart people who also believe in God, to counter the notion that belief in God is as incredible as belief in the cosmic teapot. This response makes a kind of sense, but is really neither here nor there, since the Atheist is not (at least, should not be) actually trying to dictate how the theist should construct his opinion on the matter. Now, at this point, the Atheist has two choices-he can take the theist's rebuttal as a reliable self-report, acknowledge that there exists between the two positions an irreconcilable difference of opinion. Or the Atheist may take the theist's rebuttal as an argument against his own point of view, and point to historical examples of many ideas held by smart people that are now considered invalid. At this point the whole discussion has gotten out of control. The whole problem with these discussions is that two things are being conflated simultaneously-descriptions of the construction of belief and arguments for or against belief. I think we can agree that neither CTP nor "the epistemic authority of smart theists" really constitute actual arguments about God, since they do not actually touch on the plain factual question (of course, I have no idea what would) of God's existence. They are meta-arguments not about God but about the belief in God, and since the two interlocutors have opposing beliefs, they are not even talking about the same thing.

I think I see this differently. CTP is a direct attack on theistic epistemology. Ross says:

The story of our civilization, in particular, is a story in which an extremely large circle of non-insane human beings have perceived themselves to be experiencing an interaction with a being who seems recognizable as the Judeo-Christian God (here I do feel comfortable using the term), rather than merely being taught about Him in Sunday School. I am unaware of anything similar holding true for orbiting pots or flying noodle beasts.

but fails to note the fundamentally uncorroborable (is that a word?) nature of the perceptions of the millions of people he flags. The point of the teapot is that it's randomly chosen and utterly mundane - substitute anything you like and the argument is unchanged. The problem for a theist is to explain why this particular perception is to be treated differently than any of the essentially infinite variety of other feelings and perceptions experienced by huge numbers of people, for which there's similarly no provable externality involved. UFO abductees and psychics have no lesser claim to the truth of their beliefs. As Russell noted, the only real difference for theists is the support of tradition.

pampl
02-02-2009, 12:27 AM
The point of the teapot is that it's randomly chosen and utterly mundane - substitute anything you like and the argument is unchanged. The problem for a theist is to explain why this particular perception is to be treated differently than any of the essentially infinite variety of other feelings and perceptions experienced by huge numbers of people, for which there's similarly no provable externality involved. UFO abductees and psychics have no lesser claim to the truth of their beliefs. As Russell noted, the only real difference for theists is the support of tradition.
And that it's more common. That's the thing, the main thing that makes any perception real is its commonality. I don't think there's enough commonality between religions to make it possible to claim there's direct perception of some God-like thing out there, but if I had had some sort of profound religious experience of my own I'd probably be a lot more open to arguments that the Hindu pantheon, for instance, is actually just God's multiple personalities. There's the problem of falsifiable religious claims being consistently falsified, but that's really more of an indictment of religion's ability to handle the empirical world than of the mushier God and morality stuff.

Anyway, that blog's comments section makes me glad I found this site. There aren't a lot of places on the internet where I can get all atheistic without any embarrassment.

uncle ebeneezer
02-02-2009, 12:31 AM
There aren't a lot of places on the internet where I can get all atheistic without any embarrassment.

Pampl, hopefully this is changing. After all, even the President is acknowledging us now.

Great discussion guys!

Nate
02-02-2009, 08:36 PM
Anyway, that blog's comments section makes me glad I found this site. There aren't a lot of places on the internet where I can get all atheistic without any embarrassment.
PZ's blog is great. He is so harsh on believers sometimes, though, that it makes me blush a little.

(..and then I feel all warm and fuzzy.)

bjkeefe
02-03-2009, 02:26 AM
PZ's blog is great. He is so harsh on believers sometimes, though, that it makes me blush a little.

(..and then I feel all warm and fuzzy.)

It's not only his appropriate harshness that makes me a fan. What most impresses me about PZ is his patience, persistence, and indefatigability. Check out his recent rigorous and exhaustive shredding of IDiot Kirk Durston (http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/2009/01/durstons_devious_distortions.php), for example, if you haven't already.