Sunday, February 14, 2010

50 Smart Atheists, Chomsky and Nonbelief in the Incoherent, and the US as Mafia Don

Someone recently linked to this list over at Pharyngula: “The 50 Most Brilliant Atheists of All Time.” For some reason, I can’t get the page to display at the moment, but PZ made it, right on top of Jodie Foster (to his apparent delight). Not enough women and not enough anarchists. No Emma Goldman? No Voltairine de Cleyre? No Peter Kropotkin? To that I say Harumph. But Chomsky made the list, and I liked the quotation from him. I think I’ve found the longer version:
Do I believe in God? Can't answer, I'm afraid. I'm not being flippant, but I don't understand the question. What is it that I am supposed to believe or not believe in? Are you asking whether I believe there is something not in the universe (or the universes, if there are (maybe infinitely) many of them), and that somehow stands above them? I've never heard of any reason for believing that. Something else? What. There are many concepts of spirituality, among them, various notions of divinity developed in the Judaeo-Christian-Islamic religions. Within these the concepts vary greatly. St. Augustine and others, for example, argued that one should not take seriously the Biblical account of God as an exaggerated human, and other Biblical accounts, because they were crafted so as to make the intended message intelligible to humans -- and on such grounds, he argued, organized religion ought to accept persuasive conclusions of science, a conception that Galileo appealed to (in vain) when he faced Papal censure.

Anyway, without clarification of a kind I have never seen, I don't know whether I believe or don't believe in whatever a questioner has in mind.
Exactly. This has long been a source of annoyance to me. I’m bothered by these “God is beyond science” and “God is an untestable hypothesis” claims. No. If you can’t describe clearly the nature of something, it isn’t beyond science. It’s beneath it. It isn’t a hypothesis. It’s incoherent rubbish. The clarification Chomsky notes as lacking concerning “God” is the responsibility of the person speaking or asking about belief. If it can’t be provided, the question isn’t worth answering (and indeed cannot be answered due to its unintelligibility).

Since I’m talking about Chomsky, I’ll put up the recent video here that I linked to at Pharyngula a while back, in which he situates the current situation in Honduras within the longer history of US policy in the Americas, characterizing the US as a mafia don:

I’ll have more to say about Honduras when I’m up to it. Lobo sworn in, more people killed, more repression, World Bank funds,... It’s depressing. But it’s far from over.


  1. I don't agree with Chomsky on the "Do you believe in God" question. I'd simply answer "No" - since, whatever the questioner has in mind, that would be my answer. That's true even if the sense is the one Einstein used, because I think it's misleading to anthropomorphise natural regularities. If the questioner wants more than that (e,g, reasons for disbelief), then I'd ask that they specify what they mean more precisely.

  2. I completely see what you're saying, but I agree with him. It's like being asked "Do you believe in Blfhrrotgh?" It's not a meaningful question, so it's impossible to answer. Same with the "hypothesis" business. Before people can even talk about whether it's testable, they should have to describe the concept clearly enough that it could be a hypothetical entity, mechanism, etc., in a scientific paper. Casually, I'm tempted to just say "No," but I think that lets them off the hook since it's responding to an essentially meaningless query.

  3. SC,

    No, I still don't agree. "Blfhrrotgh" has no meaning, while "God" just has a vague one, and natural language works not by words having precise meanings, but by our ability to specify the intended meaning more precisely as needed - and linked to that, not requiring more specificity than is needed in a given context.

  4. I still can't agree. This seems to hinge on word "vague." I think "God" is much more vague than, for example, "unicorn" - in practice, closer to "Blfhrrotgh." People have idiosyncratic definitions, and keep coming up with more; worse, they don't really seem to have thought through a complete definition at all, and are relying on the responder to conceptualize a logically-possible form for them. Chomsky makes a point of noting that he doesn't believe in certain popular conceptions of "God," but asked the question in general I don't think it rises to the level of answerable until the questioner can provide the necessary clarification. That's why I like the fuller quote, which implies: "Do you believe in God?" "I don't believe in any conceptualization I've heard. What specifically do you mean by 'God'?" I think the specificity should have to precede the response.

  5. Well, assigning precise degrees of vagueness is tricky of course. :-p

    "Unicorn" may be less vague than "God", but what about "Do you believe in ghosts?" Would you give the same answer there as for unicorns, or for God?

  6. "Unicorn" may be less vague than "God", but what about "Do you believe in ghosts?" Would you give the same answer there as for unicorns, or for God?

    In casual conversation, unicorns, definitely. I think there's a pretty widely shared concept of ghosts. But I may well be wrong, in which case Chomsky's response would be more appropriate. If there were going to be a big discussion about the existence of ghosts and what a complex and difficult subject that supposedly was to wrestle with, I think people should insist that the term be defined clearly upfront. It's strange for people to have these interminable discussions about the existence of "God" without people ever being required to define the term. Then they can always say, "Well, you seem to be talking about the OT god, but that's not my God [at least not unless I'm in my church, when it is]!" and then still never have to clarify what they mean while continuing on. I think if you want someone to bother to engage in a discussion with you over, or even answer a question about, the existence of X, it's your obligation to clearly and consistently define X.

    It may not be so much a matter of the word's vagueness but of its flexibility or mutability - its openness to being filled with enormously varied content. It think that makes the question, as such, meaningless. It's not that I don't know I disbelieve in whatever they may come up with - if they do anything at all - but that coming up with something should be a prerequisite to their asking the question and expecting it to be answered.

    (By the way, please feel free to link to this post over at Pharyngula ;).)

  7. Right, I think I get your point, and presumably Chomsky's. It's the "mutability" (good term) that's key. Two theists, two Christians, even two members of the Reformed Universal Primitive Baptist Church of the True Redeemer (1873 reformation) can both say "I believe in God", and mean completely incompatible things by it. I still wouldn't use Chomsky's approach, because I think it risks being mistaken for a claim that "I believe in God" is meaningless, when the problem is that it has a host of meanings, and a specific one has not been picked out. If my "No" was met by "Why not?", then I'd ask for clarification. I do sometimes specify the different ways I don't believe in the God or doctrinally orthodox Christianity (logically impossible), an omnipotent and omnibenevolent (or omnimalevolent) being (overwhelming empirical evidence against), and any god at all (no evidence, plus parsimony).

  8. I still wouldn't use Chomsky's approach, because I think it risks being mistaken for a claim that "I believe in God" is meaningless, when the problem is that it has a host of meanings, and a specific one has not been picked out. If my "No" was met by "Why not?", then I'd ask for clarification.

    Hm. I've been trying to think of whether I see it as an approach. I agree that it poses risks to say it in this way - although since Chomsky elaborates here I think they're much reduced - but I view it as more than a tactic or an approach. If people are asking me if I believe in something and I don't know precisely what they have in mind, I think it's necessary to demand that clarification upfront. Tactically, though, it also calls attention to the fact - which in most cases the religious appear to wish to see glossed over - that those who say they believe are talking about very different things, and a lot of the time are unable to define the term in any concrete way at all. If they want to resort to ineffability, they should get back to us when they can eff it; until then they shouldn't be bothering us with their gibberish.

    (By the way, the religious portions of the Sullivan affair would be hilarious were they not so sad. Wieseltier: "[The Trinity] is completely inconsistent with everything that my mind instructs me to believe about God’s essence. (I leave aside what my mind instructs me to believe about God’s existence. We are in the realm of theology here, not the realm of philosophy." Heh.

  9. To add to the shades of vagueness: at what point on the scale do you think the question "Do you believe in Love?" should lie? I think that it is a more 'meaningful' question than one concerning God, but I would still be hard-pressed to define it (even though I tell my wife I love her every day).