Friday, June 14, 2013

The Chief Rabbi on atheism.

Here. 

"[Y]ou cannot expect the foundations of western civilisation to crumble and leave the rest of the building intact. That is what the greatest of all atheists, Nietzsche, understood with terrifying clarity and what his latter-day successors fail to grasp at all."

29 comments:

Mark Frank said...

Oh dear - another naive article blaming a perceived collapse of society on a lack of religion. Has he read any history? In proportion to the population and means available, religious "foundations" have caused just as much "crumbling" as any other set of ideas.

We need less moral principles whatever the source and more down-to-earth human compassion.

ingx24 said...

I still fail to see how morality is dependent on religion. It seems like all you need for morality is sentient beings capable of feeling pleasure and pain (which is why materialism, in the long run, makes morality incoherent... but lack of religion hardly entails materialism).

Dan Gillson said...

I don't know why Nietzsche is the standard-bearer for all atheists. I mean, he's cool and all, but the we atheists needn't (in the sense provided by logic) embrace Nietzsche's morality. I myself prefer Virtue Ethics to the Will to Power, though only after we've scrubbed all the metaphysical nonsense from VE.

BeingItself said...

ingx24,

You seem to imply that subjective experience incompatible with physicalism. If I understand you correctly, why do you think that is so?

ingx24 said...

ingx24,

You seem to imply that subjective experience incompatible with physicalism. If I understand you correctly, why do you think that is so?


Because it seems perfectly coherent that there could be someone physically identical to me but with no inner mental states. A full description of someone's brain tells you nothing about that person's mind; there is always the logical possibility of zombies. If the physical facts were all there was, we should expect that everyone would be a zombie: in fact, the opposite is true. And no amount of neuroscience will change this: it is a conceptual point that any account of behavioral functioning is logically compatible with the absence of any experience whatsoever. I don't know if there's a completely separate mental substance or not, but at the very least there has to be more to the brain than what can be externally observed. And in that case, materialism is false.

Crude said...

Has he read any history? In proportion to the population and means available, religious "foundations" have caused just as much "crumbling" as any other set of ideas.

What the rabbi said was that western civilization had certain foundations, and you can't simply take away those foundations and expect everything else to remain in place. In fact, I don't even see where he says you can't have a stable society without the foundations of western civilization - but you will likely have a different society.

It's possible to have a stable atheist civilization. North Korea, whatever one wants to say about it, has stability to it - it's an example of what materialist atheists can do if they're determined. It's just a very different world than what we're used to and imagine.

Crude said...

I myself prefer Virtue Ethics to the Will to Power, though only after we've scrubbed all the metaphysical nonsense from VE.

What metaphysical nonsense?

B. Prokop said...

Crude,

Riffing off your (very appropriate) mention of North Korea, I wonder if the atheists who protest so loudly every time they're presented with the crimes of atheist states such as Stalinist Russia, etc., might just be on to something there.

Its curious how every time people attempt to establish an honest-to-God (pun intended) atheist state, it always seems to end up with a bizarro quasi-religious underpinning in spite of their best (worst) efforts. Just look how the French atheistic "Cult of Reason", in addition to their piles of corpses, ends up with temples all over the place dedicated to the Goddess Reason. Similarly, the officially atheist USSR embalms their founder Lenin and builds a temple (mausoleum) to his worship in Red Square. (This, of course, in addition to their own piles of corpses) Or Red China setting up Mao as the successor to Confucius (along with millions of additional corpses). Most extreme of all is the present day example of North Korea, where the various Kims are endowed with godlike powers and infinite wisdom (not to mention still more corpses).

(And the current day idolization by the gnus of Hitchens, Dawkins, Harris, et.al., does not bode well for that strand of atheist society either.)

Just a random thought here... think of this as a kind of brainstorming... I wonder whether it's even possible to establish a true atheistic society on Earth. Once the True God is exiled, that space has to be filled with something - and history shows that that something ain't good!

I think it was C.S. Lewis (or maybe it was Joe Sheffer) who said something like "The opposite of good theology is not no theology - it's bad theology."

Matt DeStefano said...

The ignorant portrayal of history aside - I'd be curious to hear more about why the Rabbit thinks that philosophers have stopped asking about "the real issues": "...which have nothing to do with science and the literal meaning of scripture and everything to do with the meaningfulness or otherwise of human life, the existence or non-existence of an objective moral order, the truth or falsity of the idea of human freedom, and the ability or inability of society to survive without the rituals, narratives and shared practices that create and sustain the social bond?".

Of course, we shouldn't be so ignorant to pretend that the science and literal meaning of scripture are irrelevant - just look at the creationist lobby in the United States. Just look at the amount of evolution-deniers, etc. However, it is far from the case that philosophers have ignored these other questions.

Has the Rabbi not read Quine? Carnap? Sellars? David Lewis? Chalmers? A.J. Ayer? Bentham? Russell? Singer? Sartre? Dewey? Blackburn? Ned Block? Thomas Nagel (he has particularly good articles on 'Absurdity')? Kagan? The list goes on and on.

If you don't think atheist philosophers are tackling the real issues, you should expand your reading horizon.

Crude said...

Matt, can you point out where in the Rabbi's article he singled out 'atheist philosophers'?

The closest he gets to identifying what group he's singling out is 'New Atheist' -- and the Cult of Gnu is quite thin on substance. I mean sure, you do have Sam Harris writing books (I wonder if his guru assists with that), but that's some pretty weak beer.

Also, I love that pointless swipe at 'evolution deniers', when the rabbi nowhere mentioned any skepticism of it. The funniest bit is, the most nasty, motivated group to move against Darwinian evolution in history were atheists themselves.

Matt DeStefano said...

Crude, at least read the article: "Whatever happened to the intellectual depth of the serious atheists , the forcefulness of Hobbes, the passion of Spinoza, the wit of Voltaire, the world-shattering profundity of Nietzsche?"

Plenty of 'em still around.


BeingItself said...

ingx24,

Sure, Zombies as you describe are logically possible. But are they metaphysically possible? That is the only question that matters, and seems to be an essentially contentious issue in philosophy.

"A full description of someone's brain tells you nothing about that person's mind"

How do you know this?


ingx24 said...


"A full description of someone's brain tells you nothing about that person's mind"

How do you know this?


I should clarify: Observing someone's brain, without knowing which mental states are correlated with which brain states, tells you nothing about that person's mental state. You have to have prior knowledge of the correlations - it's not like you'll see a little picture of a dog in someone's brain when they're thinking about dogs.

Crude said...

Matt,

I ask you again: can you please point out where in the article the rabbi singled out atheist philosophers?

He doesn't say 'philosopher' anywhere in his article. And when he talks about atheists, it's strongly implied he's singling out the Cult of Gnu - of which Nagel, manifestly, is not a member. Nor are the others, necessarily.

Reading comprehension, kiddo. I'm sure you can skirt your way through your PhD without it, but in the real world it helps. ;)

Matt DeStefano said...

I ask you again: can you please point out where in the article the rabbi singled out atheist philosophers?


I never implied that he "singled them out". He implied that the serious atheists of the past dealt with the real issues. All of those that he named were philosophers - so I said "I don't know why he thinks philosophers have stopped talking about these issues."

If he wants to single out the likes of Harris or Dawkins (who he claims to respect and, moreover, he claims partially understands what he is saying), then he shouldn't say something like "where have all of the serious atheists gone?" I can't read intentions through the internet, only what's written.

Crude said...

I can't read intentions through the internet, only what's written.

Can you read the parts where he singles out 'New Atheists' multiple times in the article? Did it occur to you at any point that maybe you should qualify your statements in light of that?

Do you have a 'be cautious, ask questions' setting when it comes to criticisms of atheism? Or is it too important to merit that approach?

Matt DeStefano said...

Can you read the parts where he singles out 'New Atheists' multiple times in the article? Did it occur to you at any point that maybe you should qualify your statements in light of that?

Let's pretend his attack is directed *solely* at the "New Atheists".

Harris has written a book defending a version of consequentialism (existence or non-existence on the objective moral order), a book on free-will (the truth or falsity of human freedom), a book on lying, and he's written at length on the ethics of war, torture, and plenty of other issues. Dennett has written a book on almost every single one of the issues the Rabbi brings up.

So, who is this attack on exactly?

Papalinton said...

Not much here to write home about really. Just another droll appeal to the impending armageddon of the world without religion, particularly Christianity. I would hazard a guess and say Muslims would think that a great step forward for humanity.

It seems Lord Sachs hankers for the status quo where everyone knows what a Christian looks like and what a Muslim and Jew look like. Better the devil you know .... and all that.

Without Christianity the whole world might suddenly be confronted with ..... peace.

Crude said...

Harris has written

Utter crap, for the most part, and he's still easily accused of not taking the projects he writes about very seriously. Just take a look at how his book on morality was viewed even by many other atheists to see some of that going on. Yes, within the cult he gets a lot of 'Rah rah rah!' and I'm sure his guru tells him he's come yet closer to enlightenment. Outside observers are typically less impressed - not just with his arguments, but with the idea that Harris is approaching these things in a way that can be called anything beyond amateur.

The one way Harris is a useful example here is that he, by his own estimation, was reacting to what he saw as a strong trend of moral anti-realism and nihilism among modern gnus.

And if you want to see part of the problem the cult has, you can look Krauss' way for an example of the hostility to philosophy in general - and the fact that his attack wasn't exactly a lone voice in the gnu wilderness, even if it turned out to be a controversial one. You can look Coyne's way - watching that guy talk about free will and morality is a sight to behold. He talks about it, alright. In a way that any intelligent person can take seriously? That's a whole other question with a very different answer.

I predict the end of this conversation is going to be somewhere along the lines of 'Yes, the Gnus have some problems - but so does every movement!'

Matt DeStefano said...

Utter crap, for the most part, and he's still easily accused of not taking the projects he writes about very seriously.
This isn't the criticism from the Rabbi. His criticism is that atheists (or, in your imagined version, solely Gnus) are talking about the falsity of literalism without talking about the Big Issues.

Harris has written extensively about these issues (as has Dennett, and to a lesser extent because of their specialities, Dawkins and Hitchens), and even though your esteemed intellect finds it to be "utter crap", many don't.

An even more ridiculous reading of the Rabbi's piece than the one I imagined is that he is suggesting that modern science bloggers and popular authors (such as Krauss and Coyne) are not modern day equivalents of Nietzsche. I don't know what to say to that besides... duh? That's like expecting Rob Bell to be a modern day equivalent of Aquinas.

Crude said...

This isn't the criticism from the Rabbi.

Of course not - the rabbi wrote a pretty general article giving a broad opinion of the group. You raised some questions about the justification of his view, and I'm giving responses.

His criticism is that atheists (or, in your imagined version, solely Gnus)

If by imagined you mean 'he referred to the new atheists multiple times, and you mistakenly and unreflectively assumed him to be talking about atheists, period'.

and even though your esteemed intellect finds it to be "utter crap", many don't.

Many people find homeopathy to be an effective medical treatment. Many people are goofy - gnus included.

An even more ridiculous reading of the Rabbi's piece than the one I imagined is that he is suggesting that modern science bloggers and popular authors (such as Krauss and Coyne) are not modern day equivalents of Nietzsche.

More absurdity from you, Matt. I didn't criticize them for failing to be 'modern day equivalents of Nietzche', and that wasn't the rabbi's point - hence him citing Hobbes, Spinoza and Voltaire along with Nietzche about intellectual seriousness. Suggesting that either I or the rabbi are lambasting the Cult of Gnu reps for failing to be Nietzche is missing the point.

Crude said...

By the way - it's disingenuous to call guys like Coyne 'science bloggers', as if he sticks to his fruit fly mating experiments. Anyone who reads their blogs will see Coyne struggling to deal with theological or philosophical topics on a fairly regular basis, even speaking with authority about what was and was not refuted.

B. Prokop said...

A small comment on the earlier side-discussion about "zombies". I recall C.S. Lewis engaging in some blue-sky speculation about life on other worlds in one of his essays (I believe it was Religion and rocketry, but I'm too lazy to walk upstairs and see if I'm right) where he imagined us going to other stars and finding non-intelligent life that nevertheless possessed "souls" in the sense that human beings do (i.e., consciousness, free will, knowledge of good and evil, etc.) and alternatively, highly intelligent creatures who nevertheless were pure machines, as it were (no consciousness, etc.) Lewis's point was, of course, that intelligence and being a moral entity were not necessarily synonymous.

Matt DeStefano said...

More absurdity from you, Matt. I didn't criticize them for failing to be 'modern day equivalents of Nietzche', and that wasn't the rabbi's point - hence him citing Hobbes, Spinoza and Voltaire along with Nietzche about intellectual seriousness. Suggesting that either I or the rabbi are lambasting the Cult of Gnu reps for failing to be Nietzche is missing the point.

So... they are supposed to be the modern day equivalent(s) of Hobbes, Spinoza, and Voltaire? I fail to see how that is any less stupid than just naming Nietzsche. Look, either his complaint is that New Atheists don't talk about the "Big Issues" - which is obviously false, to anyone who has read more than news headlines. You even note that Coyne and others write about this stuff. (This is the only reading I can get from claims like this: "Where is there the remotest sense that they have grappled with the real issues...")

Or, alternatively, it's that they don't do it with the precision, profundity and intellectual seriousness of Hobbes, Voltaire, Spinoza, and Nietszche. If that's the argument, then again... duh?

I'm going to let you have the last word, Crude, because I know you can't resist. It is too often that I get lulled into the rocky coasts of internet bickering by the siren call of the anonymous troll. It's a personal fault, really. Trolls be trollin'.




Papalinton said...

It's interesting that Dr Coyne should be mentioned. He has written an excellent piece on the latest foray into ignorance from Rabbi Sachs. It can be READ HERE.

The comments section equally highlights some of Sachs's rather clownish perspective.

Crude said...

Matt,

So... they are supposed to be the modern day equivalent(s) of Hobbes, Spinoza, and Voltaire?

See, this is what I meant about reading comprehension. He's not asking them to be the equivalent o philosophical greats - he's criticizing their intellectual depth and approach to issues.

You even note that Coyne and others write about this stuff.

Yes, and that's the point. Coyne acts as if these issues are easy nonsense which are sorted out immediately, and he makes an ass of himself in the process. Harris isn't all that much better, and Krauss and company illustrate that a significant portion of the Cult of Gnu have severe trouble even bringing themselves to realize that they have an intellectual problem on their hands that isn't going to be solved by science itself, much less by bashing (all too often, caricatures of) theism.

Trolls be trollin'.

That time and money spent at the university didn't go to waste, I see. ;)

Papalinton said...

Speaking of Stalinist Russia, If you are looking for a Christian country on the go, immigrate to Russia. They have now passed legislation making it criminally illegal to tell children that gay people exist. Read this revelation here.

And Russian lawmakers are about to make it a criminal offense to insult religion READ ABOUT THAT HERE.

I guess it won't be long before the death penalty will come into force for blasphemy and heresy.

Give a Christian unbridled access to the legislature, and the ugly Medusa head of religion rises as ever.

I wonder what Sachs thinks of this? Given his track record for all things primitive, I suspect he is rejoicing.

PhaseVelocity said...

It seems that theists have elevated Nietzsche to the status of God as everything he says is taken as absolute truth (as long as it is convenient for the theist of course, just like they do with their regular god)

Steelwheels said...

"Many of today’s most obstreperous critics of Christianity know nothing more of Christendom’s two millennia than a few childish images of bloodthirsty crusaders and sadistic inquisitors, a few damning facts, and a great number of even more damning legends; to such critics, obviously, Christians ought not to surrender the past but should instead deepen their own collective memory of what the gospel has been in human history. Perhaps more crucially, they ought not to surrender the future to those who know so little of human nature as to imagine that a society “liberated” from Christ would love justice, or truth, or beauty, or compassion, or even life. The Christian view of human nature is wise precisely because it is so very extreme: it sees humanity, at once, as an image of the divine, fashioned for infinite love and imperishable glory, and as an almost inexhaustible wellspring of vindictiveness, cupidity, and brutality. Christians, indeed, have a special obligation not to forget how great and how inextinguishable the human proclivity for violence is, or how many
victims it has claimed, for they worship a God who does not merely take the part of those victims, but who was himself one of them, murdered
by the combined authority and moral prudence of the political, religious, and legal powers of human society." David Bentley Hart