Reply to Blackford

Now that I've had a chance to read Russell Blackford carefully, I want to respond to a few things he says about my post, "The Emperor's Gnu Clothes." To recap quickly:  I've compared new atheists like Dawkins and Harris to the girl in the original story--they're [admirably!] candid defiers of social convention.  In my second telling of the story, other kids along the parade route get revved up and start ridiculing the naked emperor for his corpulence.  When adults tell them to be careful how they communicate they just get mad at the adults.  So--there's a shift from candor to contempt--aimed both at the emperor and at the adults. 

Russell objects that the kids in my story are not like "gnus" and the adults are not like their critics.  Gnus are gnice, and their critics are not only against contempt, but also against candor.  He thinks the "ur" event is Chris Mooney commenting on Jerry Coyne's 2009 New Republic article--
What we actually tend to see is reasonably civil, courteous, thoughtful critiques of religion from the Gnus being met with the response that it is so far beyond the pale that it should not be said. Thus, the crucial moment that set off the current round of debates was when Jerry Coyne reviewed two books by religious authors who argued for a compatibility of religion and science. The review was as civil as one could expect from any reviewer who disagrees strongly with key elements of non-fiction books that he or she is reviewing. It was thoughtful, detailed, and followed all the courtesies. See for yourself.

The response from Chris Mooney was that such things should not be said. Again, see for yourself.
I'll come back to Mooney-contra-Coyne in a moment, but when I wrote my post, no, I wasn't looking back as far as the summer of 2009.  I wrote the post on January 25, 2011, and I was actually thinking about what I'd been reading at atheist blogs in the weeks and months before that.  There had been lots of talk about "adults" who are critical of "gnus". 

The "adults" are...whom?  At Butterflies and Wheels, Phil Plait came under withering criticism on Dec. 6, partly because he wasn't sufficiently critical of Chris Mooney and (see the comments) also  because of his "Don't be a Dick" speech.  I take it Plait is against contempt, but not against candor.  There was also upsetness (October 17) about Julian Baggini's speech at Westminister Abbey, in which he encouraged atheists not to be anti-theists.  As the author of an excellent book about atheism he's hardly a should not be said kind of a guy.   There was also upsetness about Andrew Lovley (Jan. 6), who wrote a post encouraging atheists to be conciliatory instead of antagonistic.  He's for lots of interfaith talk, not atheists shutting up.   

Of course, I'm as prone as anyone to the "primacy and recency effect"--so I was probably at least unconsciously thinking of Chris Mooney, who is the first persistent critic of new/"gnu" atheism I ever paid attention to.  At his blog, Chris said many times he was not telling anyone to shut up, and he thinks there's a time and a place for candid atheism.  But yes, he thought Coyne's stance in the New Republic article was ill-advised.

If you're for candor, should you make that a consistent stance, being for candor in all things?  Surely not.  I'm not for Constant Candor (sounds like a type of tea).   Let's move this closer to where Russell and I both live.  A  view Russell's been promoting lately is not science/religion incompatibility but atheism/objective morality incompatibility. He argues that atheism leads to an "error theory" of morality like that defended by J. L. Mackie and Richard Joyce.  Take the sentence below--
Torturing babies just for fun is wrong.
Most people think it's true.  The error theory disputes this.  Mackie says all moral statements are false, while Joyce just says they're not true.  (There's a difference--with different logical problems whichever way you go.)

Suppose Russell gets lots of fame and acclaim, and starts promoting the error theory all over the place.  So he starts influencing people to think that atheists must believe the sentence above is false, or at least not true.  I wouldn't hesitate to say I thought that was a bad idea.  It wouldn't be my place to address him in the second person and tell him what to talk about, but I'd be perfectly entitled to my opinion that spreading this view is unwise.

And it would be a perfectly cogent and respectable opinion.  This sort of meta-ethics would likely increase public distrust of atheism and discourage people from accepting atheism. I'd also make another sort of argument--that meta-ethics can't be discussed coherently in the public square.  It's a highly technical area of philosophy, where philosophy of mind, philosophy of language, metaphysics, and logic intersect. There is simply no way that the ordinary person, with little or no education in philosophy, can get a grip on the pertinent issues.

Furthermore, there's just no point in the public worrying about meta-ethics.  All sane people are committed to not torturing babies just for fun and will do the very same things to stop would-be baby torturers.  For all intents and purposes, we may as well say the sentence above is true.   Everyone in philosophy converges on the idea that roughly speaking, anyway, it's at least kind of like true. Nothing whatever is gained by associating atheism with an anti-realist view of morality.

Now, that doesn't mean the error theory should never be discussed. Of course it should.   In philosophy books and philosophy seminar rooms, and by anyone who's willing to spend a couple of years gaining the expertise required to discuss these things proficiently.  If you get yourself into that milieu, you'll find out there are big problems with the error theory, and there are many, many impressive competitors in logical space.  In fact, there's a very close competitor that [on some versions...] makes the sentence above true (moral fictionalism, which compares it to "Harry Potter is a wizard").  There is no reason at all to foist the error theory on the public (at the price of atheists seeming bizarre), and not one of these competitors, given the total lack of consensus even among meta-ethics experts.

In any event--the point is that there's nothing remotely scandalous about saying that the public square is the wrong place to promote atheism/objective morality incompatibility*.  Likewise, I don't see much point in discussing religion/science incompatibility in the public square.   We can all agree on very plain and simple things--if science, then no creation in 6 days. If science, then no dinosaurs living at the same time as humans.  Lots of limited incompatibilities like that are indisputable.  But the more sweeping assertion that science rules out most of religion is complicated and technical (what is science? what is religion?  what is compatibility?). And there are important issues about the impact of making that assertion.   There's room for debate here--I feel more confident about the meta-ethics example--but there's certainly nothing appalling about the position that sweeping assertions of science/religion incompatibility are ill-advised.

Long story (sorry!) short:  Russell has really just sidestepped what my "gnu" story was about.   It was about critics of contempt who are all for candor.  On the other hand, if some do say should not be said (about some topics), I fail to see what's surprising or upsetting about that.

I was amazed to discover that some people read this sentence as if the "/" meant "or."  So they think I'm saying it's wrong to promote atheism or "objective morality incompatibility" (what's that?)  in the public square.  But no.  "x/y incompatibility" is the incompatibility of x and y.  It's just a little shorthand.

The screaming and yelling from Coyne & Co. has been ... interesting.  More about it in the comments.

I respond to all the confusion (at other blogs) here.


s. wallerstein said...

Lots of people, like myself, read books like Dostoyevsky's The Brothers Karamazov (where Ivan K. affirms that if God does not exist, all is permitted), Nietzsche's Genealogy of Morals and Sartre's Existentialism is a Humanism at a young and impressionable age and are impressed by them as I was and still am.

The above works are partially about metaethics, and in rough terms, affirm that if there is no God, man chooses what is good and what is bad.

So in a certain sense, the relation between metaethics and atheism is already in the public forum, at least the middle-brow public forum where I hang out, and any input from you highbrow atheists is welcome.

I can only say that Ivan Karamazov's affirmation rang true to me at age 18, was extremely liberating for me (not that I felt free to torture babies, but I felt a lot freer about what used to be called "bourgeois morality") and I suspect it is extremely liberating for many young people.

Jean Kazez said...

The layman can understand what a few of the issues are just by reading Dostoevsky and Sartre, but I don't think you can make any real headway on them without expertise in very technical areas of philosophy. Some areas of philosophy are not accessible to the layman, just like some areas of math or biology or linguistics.

s. wallerstein said...

I agree. I find technical metaethics very difficult to read.

Faust said...

Anything that cannot be discussed in the public square will have no effect on it.


a) Metaethics are irrelevant to general cultural behavior and therefore are are a trivial side show


b) Metaethics have consequences and therefore we should adopt the metaethics that produce the consequences we should like to obtain (or the reversal...to avoid).

If a) then the technical philosophers can go play their socialy irrelevant games of advanced logical chess in seclusion.

if b) then people better damn well figure out how discuss these issues in the public square.

s. wallerstein said...


That seems to what Sam Harris is up to: spinning a politically correct "myth" about metaethics, that science can show us what is good and what is bad.

Since I read all this highbrow criticism of Harris, I'm not sure how Harris's "myth" has caught on with the general middle brow public, but if it does catch on, it would be politically useful for atheists.

Jean Kazez said...

"irrelevant, therefore trivial side show..."

I don't buy that at all. There are lots of philosophy problems that have no real practical relevance to anything, but lots of inherent interest. I think many issues in meta-ethics are actually like this.

On the other hand, what if metaethics was "relevant" to something practical...would it follow that it can be discussed coherently in the public square? Not really. Much of math and science is practically important, yet not accessible to anyone but experts. What comes into the public square are just results and watered down, rough-and-ready approximations to what the professionals are really up to.

s. wallerstein said...

Writing technical stuff for the public square is an art: that's what Dawkins does with his books on genetics, for example.

There's no reason why someone who writes well like you, Jean, couldn't explain metaethics to us middle-brows as well as Dawkins explains genetics.

I even have a title for you: God is dead, but all is not permitted.

Deepak Shetty said...

On Contempt - Are there circumstances in which contempt is appropriate? For e.g. is contempt an appropriate response to the Vatican? Can we show contempt to someone who defends the Vatican?

Phil Plait took heat because he accused people of behaving like dicks without any concrete examples at all. Coming on the heels of the Tom Johnson incident, is the harsh criticism really that surprising?
To most of us, Plait behaved like a dick while lecturing people not to be one.

Likewise, I don't see much point in discussing religion/science incompatibility in the public square.
Ok. But do you see a point discussing science/religion compatibility in the public square? Would you similarly criticise say Collins/Ayala/NCSE for discussing religion/science compatibility?

Jean Kazez said...

(1) Contempt--yes, let's have some, at the appropriate time. The pedophile priests deserve contempt, as does the Catholic church for shielding them.

(2) Examples are tricky. If you give them, you can seem more personally accusatory than you really want to be. Plus, you open yourself up to little, tiresome debates. Plus, you may be quite sure ahead of time that no example will ever be accepted--there will always be a way to dismiss any and all data. Given all that, I can understand why someone would paint a broad picture, and give no specific examples.

(3) That's a good point--I need to think about it more. I do think those folks are pulling the wool over people's eyes. Maybe they should also name smaller, narrower claims--not that all of science and all of religion are compatible, but that this bit of science can be reconciled with that bit of religion. But again...more thought needed.

Russell Blackford said...

I should just say as a point of clarification that I'm not arguing that atheism somehow entails error theory. I'm arguing that error theory, or something very like it, is correct and would be correct even if theism were true.

Deepak Shetty said...

Ill be honest , the answers you are giving are not what I would have expected. Part of the problem is my comprehension skills and bias for sure - but there seems to be some communication gap from the accomodationists too.

Again I can understand why Phil Plait might not give specific examples(the discussion would have probably sidetracked into defense of the incident) but coming after the TJ incident, it sounded just like another made up story.

Faust said...

"Much of math and science is practically important, yet not accessible to anyone but experts. What comes into the public square are just results and watered down, rough-and-ready approximations to what the professionals are really up to."

And that is precisely the difference. Math and science are important because they enable us to DO things. They enable us get around the world better. That's how they win culture wars. Hey look! Antibiotics work better than spirit rattles (or prayer) when it comes to healing people etc. etc. This makes the lay person curious (or not). But they know that something important is going on back there because it produces results that they can experience directly in some way, e.g. in the form of medicine, rockets, cars, and computers (or, more simply, when they can be shown moons of a planetary body through a telescope).

It seems to me that when we are talking about things that are of practical value to human behavior, to human ethics, if we are not able to point to practical material that issues forth from meta-ethics in a similar fashion, in such a way that it helps us to DO things (even if that doing is the making of particular ethical decisions), it is irrelevant to ethics as such.

It is a strange feature (to me) of meta-ethics that it's not quite clear how the "facts" of meta-ethics hook up with the (possibly non-factual) ethics they purport to analyze. So while I tend to agree with Blackford et al that there is a "dark side to objective prescriptivity" it seems to me that's a normative concern about the meta-ethical facts. Similarly for realists who think there is a dark side to "relative prescriptivity."

It would be a strange business indeed if, after a long huddle, philosophers developed a consensus that the correct meta-ethical view had such negative effects on those that held it that it would be better to promote the opposite conclusion to non-experts.

Do philosophers argue for particular meta-ethical positions because they think they are correct? Or because they think that the particular meta-ethical position they are arguing for will produce the best ethical effects in people? Sometimes it’s clear that that it’s the former, but sometimes it seems clear that they are doing the latter…and that’s odd.

Jean Kazez said...

Russell, OK--I wondered about that. It would certainly be strange to be a theist with an error theory, but I suppose not out of the question.

But anyway...My main point is that I think it would be problematic for the error theory to get associated with atheism. It could get associated with it just by atheists defending it, even if they weren't saying "error theory if and only if atheism."

Russell Blackford said...

Yes, I got the point in your second para. I just wanted to clarify my position since you slightly misstated it (though doubtless in good faith).

I'm sure it's a psychological truth about theists that they are unlikely to adopt anything like a moral error theory. It doesn't follow that theist accounts of morality really do provide an intellectually satisfactory grounding for the kind of objective bindingness that Richard Joyce, say, objects to.

Of course, like anyone else (perhaps including Sam Harris?), they might offer a moral semantics that says moral language is not committed to the idea in the first place, but that becomes another story ...

Jason Streitfeld said...


It looks like you only reject public discussions of metaethics when they challenge your preferred metaethical views. You've previously stated that moral realism is the right strategy in public debates. Now you're saying the public shouldn't be worrying about metaethics, period. So experts who support moral realism should present their view to the public, and all opposition should be silenced? Even when moral anti-realism is a widely respected alternative? I find that hard to swallow.

Do you also think that economic theories should not be discussed in public? After all, you need to study economics a good deal if you want to intelligently analyze the discourse. Does this mean Krugman's NY Times column should be trashed?

You say error theory should not be foisted upon the public. Of course you're right, because "foist" implies a fraudulent imposition. I think Russell would agree that error theory should not be foisted on anyone. But what you are suggesting is that moral realism be authoritatively presented to the public as the only option. You want to give the public the appearance that not only is moral realism favored by the vast majority of experts (which isn't true), but that there aren't even any alternatives worth mentioning. If that isn't foisting a metaethical theory on the public, then what is?

Jean Kazez said...

Russell, I would have thought one of the problems with moral realism--how moral properties can be motivating--is dealt with more easily if you suppose there's a god ordering people around. On the other hand, some moral realists are externalists, so don't insist on motivatingness anyway. All very complicated....

Jason, There's not much point in atheist moral realists mounting technical arguments in public either, because they can't be understood--but at least there's no harm in it. I don't think it's a good idea to try to explain why it isn't really true that torturing babies just for fun is wrong, and we shouldn't really believe it. Whatever you say next--when you offer your non-realist meta-ethics of some stripe--you may not be able to put humpty dumpty back together again, in the public's eyes. They will think you're not against torturing babies just for fun. And (if you're an atheist) they'll be confirmed in the widespread view that atheists can't be trusted.

Re: economics--there are a lot more people around with the background needed to understand Krugman.

s. wallerstein said...

Of course, it may be true that there are a lot more people with the background needed to understand Krugman is because economists (I think of Galbraith in my youth and of Milton Friedman from another point of view) have made an effort to write for laypeople like myself, and so we (laypeople with an interest in economics) find the terminology and methodology which Krugman uses to be "familiar".

Jean Kazez said...

Faust, I can think of quite a few bits of good philosophy that are probably best kept a secret--they would have a negative impact if publicized and not well understood. That's not to say we shouldn't let students come and take courses and find out these secret doctrines! Or anybody can go to the library and read what's going on in contemporary philosophy. But no, I don't think we need NYT op eds that that all moral propositions are false. Then again, if we simply must have op eds like that, I'm glad Sam Harris (best known as an atheist) isn't the one writing them.

March Hare said...

How about we do open up the argument that it's not really true that torturing babies is wrong and then counter their claims of us being evil by telling them to vent their spleen at circumcision practitioners instead.

If we hold back our opinions from the people how can they ever make an informed decision? Look at the fury visited upon Ron Paul for pointing out that the right of people of any race to be served at a lunch counter is actually in opposition to the 1st Amendment. There was a reasonable argument to be had, one that allowed for arguments to be heard but what we got was a bunch of people who don't know the Constitution to scream and yell 'racist'.

While we may fear this reaction ourselves hiding ideas away is not the way to do it - have an open market of ideas and let them compete. That's what the Enlightenment was all about. If we have regressed from Enlightenment principles then I would suggest it is to our shame, especially for something as worthless as avoiding causing offence.

Russell Blackford said...

I'd love to see the list of secret philosophical doctrines. I'm not even being sarcastic - perhaps there are doctrines that are actually (or likely to be) true but are too explosive to be revealed to the general public. At least I'm not wholly close-minded about that possibility. But I'd be interested in anyone's views on what belongs on the list.

I might, however, then write a book called 50 Philosophical Truths That Should Not Be Made Public, or some such paradoxical thing.

Jean Kazez said...

One secret for the book (please publish in obscure press)--death does not harm us. This is supposed to be comforting, but in fact may help people rationalize murder and suicide. Definitely not for the Texas "we love our guns" crowd.

Another--tables and chairs are fictions. Danger: makes philosophers appear to be insane.

Another--there is no free will. Nobody can do otherwise. People will think now they have an excuse no matter what they do (and maybe it does mean that).

Jason Streitfeld said...


You make it out as if all discussions of error theory must proceed as follows: "All moral claims are false. If you think it is wrong to torture babies, you are making a mistake. Now, let's get clear on some technical points which support this position . . . "

But a competent and tactful public discussion of anti-realism (I prefer noncognitivism, by the way) wouldn't start off that way. Anti-realism, in my mind, is a whole lot safer than realism, and it can be very liberating. I don't see it as a public threat at all. Is there any evidence that exposure to anti-realism has led to harm?

The take home message (as Russell would call it) is that we decide what is or isn't acceptable. We can't just defer to some tradition or religious authority, as if that were philosophically sound. We have to pay attention to what we want and how we want to get it. There are no easy answers to moral disagreements. I think the public discussion of morality needs to focus on this, that religious authority has no philosophically priveleged claims to moral truth. And I think a whole lot of non-atheists are already sympathetic to that point. I think a clear, poignant and practical discussion of anti-realism could do a lot of good, and could help a lot of non-atheists better understand themselves and atheists.

The public has very scary and problematic views about the relationship between religion and morality. You seem content to let that pass. You seem to think that there is no good alternative. Why is that?

Do error theorists seem less likely to be good people? Are noncognitivists overrepresented in our prisons? Are atheists a threat to civilization just for being atheists, regardless of whether or not they speak openly as atheists?

What's the justification for thinking that anti-realism is a threat to society?

I think Sam Harris is doing more harm to atheism and philosophy than anti-realists like Russell. I think public atheism needs more philosophical sophistication, not less. I'd rather give the public the benefit of the doubt. Sure, we're not always going to be understood. But the answer is more education, not less. If everything seemed to be going fine with the public's understanding of religion and morality, then you might have a point. But it's not, and I can't imagine what harm could be done by a little philosophical sophistication and openness.

Jean Kazez said...

Jason, You seem wary of the whole topic of how philosophical ideas propagate and affect ordinary thinking and behavior. I'm not wary of it at all. In fact, that's a legit. issue on many moral theories. I'm thinking, e.g., of Hare's two-level theory. It's also legit. on any sort of rule utilitarianism. The rules you propagate are partly determined by how people respond to different rules.

Likewise--meta-ethics. It's one thing what's the best available meta-ethics, another how we talk about such things in public.

What's important in public (I think) is that people engage in ethical debate. So--they don't just settle for what their parents said, or what the local customs say, or the church says, but they reason rigorously. Deference to religion gets in the way of that--so I'm against that. But the notion that all moral claims are false would get in the way too. Fancy footwork might prevent that, but then people have to understand the fancy footwork, and chances are, they won't. On the face of it, there's no reason to have a serious debate about gay marriage, if no matter what conclusion you reach, it's going to be false.

s. wallerstein said...


The public can very simply be divided into high brow, middle brow, low brow and no brow.

Those who are likely to read your or Russell's book about the nonexistence of free will are middle brows like myself.

The low brows read books like "Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus" and no brows don't read books.

I first read the idea that there is no free will about 50 years ago, and I haven't tortured or raped any children (not even statutory rape) so far.

I agree that if you're going to prepare TV programs for mainstream
audiences, it's not prudent to emphasize the idea that there's no free will.

However, that brings us back to Dostoyevsky and The Brothers Karmazov, where Ivan's upper middle brow idea that "if there is no God, all is permitted", leads the low brow Smerdyakov to commit murder.

Jason Streitfeld said...


You say I "seem wary of the whole topic of how philosophical ideas propagate and affect ordinary thinking and behavior." I admit I'm a bit baffled by that comment. I asked you a number of direct questions about why you think the propagation of certain philosophical ideas might harm society. I wasn't challenging the idea that some ideas might be harmful to society. I was asking about specific ideas and why you think they would be harmful. And I explained why I don't think they would be harmful. Instead of answering my questions, you say I'm not interested in discussing such matters?

I agree that, in the public sphere, ethical debates are more important than metaethical debates. But when ethical debates are hampered by metaethical confusion and ignorance, then we have a problem. And this does seem to be a problem. I'm not saying we should inject metaethical sophistication into ethical debates. I'm saying we need metaethical sophistication in metaethical debates, and that for the sake of our ethical debates. I'm not advocating philosophical sophistication as an end in itself.

Sure, anti-realism might give some people an easy excuse to disregard ethical debates, but those people don't need error theory as an excuse anyway. They've already got moral relativism to back them up. So what's the danger?

Jason Streitfeld said...

Oh, and to address your last point, Jean . . .

The point of having a debate about gay marriage is what sort of public policy we want, and not whether or not gay marriage is "right" or "wrong" in some other sense. Anti-realism can help us get our heads straight on that point. Ethical discussions are important because they're about how we want to live. Their value cannot be measured by whether or not we happen upon The Good In Itself.

Your view appears to be that (1) ethical debates are very important and (2) the folk are best left ignorant about what makes them so important.

Again, I just don't see why.

Jean Kazez said...

Amos, The issue here is not about what ideas can be transmitted to the tiny non-academic audience that reads philosophy books. It's about how you speak to the wider public.

Jason, I don't think you've really responded to my point. Imagine the moderator to a debate about gay marriage starts with a preamble about meta-ethics. He/she says that inevitably, the positions on both sides will be false. Will that be hard for the audience to digest? Yes. Now, what if she goes on to tell some complicated story about how the positions are important, even if false? Will that fix the problem? I've been teaching philosophy long enough to know that most of the audience will not understand the "fix." They will simply land in some kind of moral skepticism--who knows, who cares, let's go home.

No, I'm not proposing that the moderator start with a preamble about The Good in Itself. That would be to do some sort of realist meta-ethics ahead of the debate. I say--do none. Just get started.

Both sides will of course talk about why the outcome of the debate matters. You certainly don't need to go to a meta-ethical level to make what really matters come to the fore.

Anonymous said...

Where did my commentgo? Stuck in the spam queue?

Jean Kazez said...

Simon, I saw that in email and can't figure out where it went. I thought it was interesting, so I'll just cut and paste.

Simon Rippon said...

Interesting debate. If I may first put my cards on the table: I'm a professional metaethicist and an atheist, and I'm not an error theorist - I think of moral truths as objective truths in the sense that it's not all a matter of opinion, but not objective in the sense that they were "out there" waiting to be discovered before people came along and found (some of) them.

I'm very much in favour of discussion of all views about metaethics in the public square. Why? Because I think there's a lot of truth in the saying that "ignorance breeds contempt" - certainly I've found this to be true of philosophy and metaethics. Ignorance also breeds a great deal of confusion, such as the confusions of Sam Harris and many of his fans, or the opposite confusion that there's a simple, valid argument for error theory, perhaps beginning from the premise: There is no God. (Of course, you can also be confused even if you're not ignorant, but ignorance won't help!)

The trouble is that if you hide the sophisticated debate away in back rooms (as has largely occurred in metaethics not just because of the difficulty of the subject but because of insufficient interest among philosophers in engaging the general public), then most people think these debates do not exist. But the questions occur to many people anyway: How could anything be morally required or forbidden if there's no God to require or forbid us? Then popular writers like Harris (or, possibly, an error-theorist anti-Harris) come along and people think the positions they take are highly sophisticated, and have never been seriously criticized before.

Maybe one comparison would be with arugments about evolution: Biologists could decide that evolution was just too complicated and difficult for the public to grasp even approximately correctly, and refuse to discuss it in public. But surely the result would be an even worse situation than we have today - people would think there's nobody seriously engaged in studying the questions which occur to them about where things came from, and then accept any old view as just as good as another, given just a bit of persuasive rhetoric.

Experts surely have a duty to educate non-experts that there's a rich intellectual tradition and an active and verdant contemporary debate in these fields, as it will help people to realise precisely that there *are* no easy answers to be had (as well as, hopefully, whetting their appetites for finding out more).

March Hare said...

Jean, I would suggest the moderator start by saying there is no right or wrong answer to the question but what the speakers will do is spell out the impact on your values and it may seem right or wrong for you.

Appealing to people's values rather than outraging/fortifying their moral sense makes more sense, as well as a more engaging debate. Although ultimately the 'yuck' factor is an immovable obstacle for many on a lot of issues.

Destroying objective ethics doesn't destroy subjective ethics, we still feel things are right and wrong, even if we're wrong about them.

Likewise, free will made no sense to me, I know I am simply a looping cascade of bio-electrical feedback, but I accept that and act as if I do have free will for the most part (as if I have a choice!) I expect most people would ultimately ignore the message that they have no free will, much as they ignore the idea that smoking or drinking is bad for them. Right, I'm off to the pub.

Jean Kazez said...

Simon, OK, a bit of revision is needed. In fact, people do already have some exposure to (folk?) philosophy, so they can come to the table with meta-ethical baggage. For example, they may believe the divine command theory, or that disagreement means all views are equally "valid," or that "yuck" reactions are decisive. People need to be disabused of all of that, before they get involved in a moral debate. If we take the baggage away, then what...? Should we progress from baby meta-ethics to advanced meta-ethics? I think the "error theory" is very advanced--it needs piles and piles of work to explain what it means, what its costs are, how to live with it, etc. The person who doesn't understand all of that is going to be worse off, not better off, for the exposure. A little bit of advanced meta-ethics is a dangerous thing. Or so it seems to me...

Faust said...

"You certainly don't need to go to a meta-ethical level to make what really matters come to the fore."

Ergo: the meta-ethical level is irrelevant to what really matters regardless of its "inherent interest." Chess games in back rooms.

Jean Kazez said...

To a large degree, yes. People with different meta-ethical theories can (and often do) agree 100% on all practical matters. I don't think this makes the subject worthless. Likewise, people with different views about the nature of consciousness can agree 100% on which entities are conscious, the ethical upshot of consciousness, etc. etc. So what? Consciousness is still profoundly interesting.

Anonymous said...

I don't see the clear separation between "baby" and "advanced" metaethics that you need to make, Jean, when you envisage us disabusing people of folk meta-ethical "baggage" without introducing any - what you would characterize as - dangerous ideas.
More generally, I hope that even if most students don't go away understanding what the "fix" is for normative ethics after full-blooded realism is abandoned, what they *do* learn is that the subject is really complicated. They come to know something of what they *don't* know. That's what philosophy is all about! And how can that be dangerous? What's dangerous, surely, is when people *don't know* (but rather think they *do* know) what they don't know.

"You certainly don't need to go to a metaethical level to make what really matters come to the fore."

I disagree. I think that metaethics is actually important if you want to know what really matters. Otherwise you often hit bedrock at conflicts of basic moral premises. By figuring out what moral truths are, we may getter a better handle on what they might substantively be like, and how to learn about them. (Compare Divine Command Theory and an Aristotelian virtue theory that finds a basis for moral norms in human flourishing, for example). It's true that people with very different metaethical standpoints *may* agree at a first-order normative level. But even if they are right to do so (which they may well not be), that doesn't show that metaethics has no bearing on first-order norms.

s. wallerstein said...


I may be especially dense or slow, but I've tried and tried to understand what, for example, error theory has to do with whether ethics are objective or subjective and I've given up.

Others, whom I've spoken to, none of them philosophers, speculate, as I do, about whether ethics are objective (out there) or subjective, but we don't get much deeper into the subject that than.

So Jean's distinction between baby (couldn't you call it "undergraduate"?) metaethics and advanced metaethics seem to ring true to me.

Jean Kazez said...

Simon, Different subject, but...I recently taught a class a variety of theories about death, and while they did gain by finding the issues very complicated and deep, the whole topic did prove to be dangerous. I'll leave that to your imagination, because there are rules about what I can discuss here regarding students. So...you have to balance the good of getting people to know what they don't know with other possible bad consequences.

I should say--I don't think all metaethical theories are equally dangerous. I was really trying to focus on the error theory in particular.

Yes, it would be going too far to say that different metaethical standpoints never have any practical upshot, but I think many disagreements at that level have no practical ramifications. I think a realist and an error theorist could have conversations in applied ethics and never realize they disagreed at that higher level.

Some of our disagreement might have to do with what we're calling "metaethics" and what ought to be called "normative ethics." Your choice of the latter has more bearing on how you proceed in an applied ethics debate.

But generally--yes, I think I did overstate my case a bit at first.

Anonymous said...

Amos: My point isn't that there's no difference, but that there's no clear separation between "baby" and "advanced". I can't have a sensible discussion with you about, for example, whether ethics is objective, without both of us producing progressively more advanced questions and progressively more advanced answers. I don't see where, on Jean's view, I'm supposed to stop and say (perhaps?) "that's just how it is", while holding back my views which are supposed to be reserved just for the experts. Even if it were possible, that stance sounds like what the church used to do with theology, and as I see it, it's completely antithetical to both the method and values of philosophy.

s. wallerstein said...


I'd say that if you have the patience and teaching ability to explain to people like me why error theory is important to understanding whether ethics are objective or subjective, I take my hat off to you.

In my experience, the only metaethical question which concerns non-philosophers (like myself)is precisely whether ethics are objective or subjective and the ensuing question about ethical relativism.

Jean Kazez said...

I don't think there needs to be a "clear separation" between "baby" and "advanced" metaethics for there to be a good question whether some advanced metaethics is too advanced, and not safe, in the public square.

I don't think the issue of the public square has anything to do with what Amos should learn, or how professional philosophers should talk to him. The public square means society at large. Amos is a person with a long-standing interest in philosophy, and a willingness to read difficult, complicated stuff.

p.s. "Baby Logic" is how logic teachers refer to Logic 101. "Baby Metaethics" was just a play on that.

Jason Streitfeld said...


There is a world of difference between saying (1) that ethical debates should not be preambled with metaethical proclamations and (2) that certain metaethical positions should not be discussed in public.

We probably agree on (1), with some qualifications--I mean, there are instances where the nature of the ethical debate might allow for some comments about metaethics by the moderator. But generally, we don't expect moderators of metaethical debates to commit us to any particular metaethical position. But none of this is relevant to (2), which is the issue I thought we were discussing.

Jason Streitfeld said...

Sorry, I meant, "we don't expect moderators of ethical debates to commit us to any particular metaethical position."

Jason Streitfeld said...


A couple more points, but first a question. Would you say that all of your comments about error theory are equally applicable to noncognitivism?

You say, 'I think the "error theory" is very advanced--it needs piles and piles of work to explain what it means, what its costs are, how to live with it, etc.'

First of all, does it take more work to understand that basic idea of error theory (or noncognitivism) than it takes to understand the basic ideas of the various theories in economics that Krugman talks about?

Second of all, is it worth helping the public along a bit in getting a better sense of what anti-realism is about? Is it worth trying to create a civilization which had a better grasp of what morality means?

I think the scenario of a moderator prefacing a public debate on gay marriage with metaethical pronouncements is a red herring. You're not just saying the moderator should shut up about anti-realism. You're saying the participants in the public debate should shut up about it as well.

Anonymous said...

Amos: Well, I'm not sure I'm up to the task, but I think Mackie does a very good job of explaining it at an intro level in his _Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong_ (I also think the ideas in that book are very deep and interesting indeed, even though they are explained from an intro. level)

Jean: You say there may be no clear separation between "baby" and "advanced", but still some "advanced" metaethics ideas are too dangerous for the public square. Now I don't understand what you mean, since I can't even introduce an advanced concept intelligibily without covering the basics first.
Maybe what you really mean is that we shouldn't use concepts in the public square that are liable to confuse people who lack the relevant background knowledge to understand their meaning and signicance. But that doesn't sound like a prohibition on discussing anything at all - it's just a prohibition on discussing things in misleading ways! We have to build from the ground up, as it were. We could surely all agree on that.

Having said that, maybe I overstated my own case earlier. Of course *sometimes* it can have bad effects just teaching people what they *don't* know. For example, by teaching someone that they don't know that God, or the state, will punish them for their crimes and misdemeanours, you might make them less inhibited from committing them. But it seems to me that as a general rule, teaching people the limits of what they know, and showing them that there is complexity where they didn't previously recognize it, must immunize them from numerous errors and thereby produce innumerable good consequences, apart from any intrinsic value of knowledge and understanding in itself. It's hard for me to imagine that this rule is predictably false with respect to any particular topic (even the topic of whether God punishes our sins, or of full-blooded moral realism).

Jean Kazez said...

Jason, I think you're failing to see the relevance. It's just a thought experiment to get at whether talking about the error theory would have a negative impact on moral thinking and debate. Obviously, the issue essentially what moderators should say at applied ethics debates.

Anyway--the question of impact was one thing. The original issue was whether it's good for the image of atheism for people known as atheists to go around defending the error theory. We've drifted.

Ah well. I need to get some work done, so must stop reading comments now.

Kirth Gersen said...

"I'd also make another sort of argument--that meta-ethics can't be discussed coherently in the public square. It's a highly technical area of philosophy, where philosophy of mind, philosophy of language, metaphysics, and logic intersect. There is simply no way that the ordinary person, with little or no education in philosophy, can get a grip on the pertinent issues."

With respect -- isn't this the exact same argument that theists use -- "Oh, those ignorant atheists aren't up on the nuanced theology needed to understand"? I'd submit that there is no subject so erudite, and no topic so shocking, that it should be swept under the rug with a glib assertion that "You're all much too ignorant to understand." If I'm trying to communicate geology to non-scientist clients, I don't simply tell them, "well, you're too clueless to get it, so just trust me." Instead, I give them a broad outline, with analogies, and offer to answer questions they may have. Do some things get over-simplified? No doubt. But effective communication can still occur.

s. wallerstein said...


Thanks for the reading advice. I'll see if I can obtain the book.

Roger Scruton says that Inventing Right and Wrong is "phenomenally over-rated" by the way.

Anonymous said...

Amos: Well, I don't know what Scruton's argument for that claim is, but I've often seen Mackie's arguments in that book (especially his "argument from disagreement") misunderstood and caricatured, even by some otherwise very good philosophers.

s. wallerstein said...


I have absolutely no idea why Scruton says that.

After reading your suggestion, I googled Mackie's book and saw that someone had commented about Scruton's comment, in Amazon, as I recall.

s. wallerstein said...



Here's the comment, from the customer reviews in Amazon.

Jean Kazez said...

On whether the average American can understand the error theory and its metaethical competitors--I'm just going to have to go with my own experience here. If it's hard to explain X to smart undergrads, you're not going to be able to explain it well in the public square--to the average person, in newspapers, magazines, etc.

As to the alleged dangerousness of disseminating the error theory-- You have to think about concrete situations. Suppose X is tempted to do something morally questionable. Do we want to let him in on the falsity of all moral claims? I say it's a little iffy. We can follow up with attempts to get the person to take morality seriously. For example, we might stress that morality is an important make-believe, not to be given up (as some error theorists say). But most people don't take most make-believe things seriously.

In fact, I would think many error theorists themselves would question the value of disseminating the theory. If you want a kid to keep on acting like Santa Claus exists, the last thing you'll do is tell him that Santa Claus is a fiction.

phiwilli said...

The New Republic is much closer to a philosophy seminar than it is to "the public square." TV news, Twitter, Oprah, newspapers, movies - those are the public square.

Marshall said...

I'd also make another sort of argument--that meta-ethics can't be discussed coherently in the public square.  It's a highly technical area of philosophy, where philosophy of mind, philosophy of language, metaphysics, and logic intersect. There is simply no way that the ordinary person, with little or no education in philosophy, can get a grip on the pertinent issues.

Ho boy. If you can't talk to the man in the street, then you're just somebody else doing him stuff for his own good. You don't have to prepare him for orals, you do have to be able to walk him down the main line. And if you are saying one of those folk can't grow up to sit in the big chairs with the big people, I don't like that either.

All that has nothing at all to do with rabble-rousing.

Jason Streitfeld said...

Jean, I've already explained that I don't think your characterization does justice to error theory. So, no, I don't see how the moderator scenario is relevant.

Jean Kazez said...

Jason, You'll have to explain.

In fact, the more I think about it, the more I think error theorists themselves will agree that the theory is best not aired in public (by the moderator, for example). At least Joyce wants the myth of morality to thrive, and the best way to insure that it does is not to publicly expose it as a myth.

Plus there's the issue of atheist PR--it would make atheists seem untrustworthy if they said things like "I don't believe that murder is wrong." Yes, that's what Joyce does say. He admits the theory is bound to be found "appalling" in his latest book.

Jason Streitfeld said...


What your account of error theory leaves out is the fact that error theorists still support and make "ought" statements, just not moral oughts. They do not support universal tolerance or any sort of quietism. So presenting error theory as just the statement that "nothing is wrong" is very misleading. It suggests the common correlary, "everything is permitted," when that is not what the error theorist means at all.

A thoughtful presentation of error theory would not begin by claiming that people on each side of an ethical debate were wrong. Error theorists don't consider debates over public policy to be entirely erroneous. The fact is that error theorists can be found supporting or arguing against various matters of public policy, and they are not thereby contradicting their metaethical principles.

I wish you'd answer my question about noncognitivism, because a similar argument could be made about that, as well.

You are probably right that some people are not inclined to respond favorably to error theory (or noncognitivism). These are people who don't respond well to moral relativism, either. And these same people are likely to assume that atheism entails moral relativism, and thereby think atheists are inconsistent when they take positions on public policy. If more atheists came out as anti-realists, they might be able to counter this misconception.

March Hare said...

Jean, do you not think the (non-afterlife believing) public would find the idea of the universe expanding forever into cold, lifeless matter drifting further and further apart, destroying all evidence of existence of any intelligence is a scientific theory that should be kept quiet about?

Would that theory not lead to a depression and feeling of pointlessness? For the good of the people we should keep these things secret from them. Like the asteroid that's coming next Tuesday that will wipe out all life on earth.

Surely after people are confronted by the truth there is a period of readjustment which can be unpleasant, but then we settle into a place that is better overall due to the improved knowledge of the people.

Besides, when we point out the King has no clothes and everyone laughs, it makes it much easier to then remove the monarchy and have a republic.

Jean Kazez said...

Jason, I'm not discussing noncognitivism because each theory has its own level of difficulty and raises special issues about whether it should be publicized.

A perfectly competent explanation of the error theory would have many elements that do sound appalling (as Richard Joyce puts it). There is no getting away from this, even if you present all of the other elements too.

No, of course error theorists aren't debarred from taking positions on public policy matters. That wasn't my point. My point is that when you publicize that morality is a myth--all false, or at least not true--you will be seen as very strange, and you will also undermine the myth. Some error theorists think the myth is a good fiction, not a bad fiction.

I actually think what I'm saying should not be terribly controversial, and most metaethicists would concede the point that publicity for some metaethical theories is problematic.

Jason Streitfeld said...


So you seem open to the possibility that atheists would do well to publicly promote noncognitivism. That's heartening. And you seem willing to agree that your moderator scenario--in which the error theorist claims that both sides of a public policy dispute over gays in the military were plain wrong--was not a fair representation of error theory. So where does that leave us?

I've indicated why I think injecting the public discourse with a little more metaethical sophistication is not only justified, but possibly necessary for the good of society. Your response is that you think it will do more harm than good. You're entitled to that opinion, of course, and I accept the fact that some error theorists might agree with you. But I don't think you've put forward a compelling argument to support your position. And, since it is a very controversial position--I think any position which requires lying to the public on a grand scale is going to be controversial--I think it opens you up to a whole lot of criticism. (All the more so, perhaps, because you're airing this view in public.)

Jean Kazez said...

Jason, We are going around in circles. No, there was nothing at all wrong with my moderator scenario. I have not unfairly represented the error theory.

The point of introducing the scenario was to ask the question whether being exposed to the error theory would interfere with people taking morality seriously and having a debate about an important issue, especially given the fact that their understanding of it would likely be imperfect.

No, I don't object to "injecting the public discourse with a little more metaethical sophistication." Above, I conceded the public needs "baby metaethics"--some very basic ideas. My 2007 book has a chapter along these lines. It's a very different matter to cover a theory as subtle and sophisticated as the error theory, and to put people in a position to compare it to its competitors.

"Where does that leave us?" It leaves us disagreeing. I think it's time to just leave it at that.

s. wallerstein said...

It's not difficult to find situations where a wise teacher would not emphasize certain theories.

Jean mentioned that some theories which deny free will imply that everything has "excuses". Let's say that I was working with drug users in rehabilitation or with juvenile offenders or with people who hit their wives. Would it be wise to teach them those theories denying free will?

Jason Streitfeld said...


I think we need to get clear on the moderator scenario, if nothing else. Recall what you wrote:

"Imagine the moderator to a debate about gay marriage starts with a preamble about meta-ethics. He/she says that inevitably, the positions on both sides will be false."

That's simply not something an error theorist is likely to say. Error theorists don't claim that views both for and against gay marriage are false. As you agree, error theorists are not barred from having views on public policy. So why make it out like they are?

The debaters on both sides of your hypothetical gay marriage debate could very well be error theorists arguing in full consistency with that metaethical position. No competent error theorist would start the debate by saying both sides must be false. If we can't agree on anything else, I think we should at least be able to agree on that.

Jean Kazez said...

Error theorists (like Mackie, at least) claim that all moral claims are false. So they DO say these two sentences are false.

"Gay marriage is wrong."
"Gay marriage is not wrong."

Slight variation: Joyce they're both untrue. He also says we should believe neither of them.

That's weird stuff for the moderator to say--quite undermining of the subsequent debate, at least on a certain level.

Now, error theorists (or some of them) go on to mitigate all of this by saying the myth of morality is a good one. So they don't actually want people to contantly think of the above sentences as false. Furthermore, they can be for gay marriage or against it--they can have moral attitudes pro and con.
Still, they (some) do think the sentences are false.

Jason Streitfeld said...

But, according to the error theory, they're only false (or untrue) on a moral reading of "wrong." Debates about gay marriage aren't necessarily debates about whether or not it is morally wrong.

Jean Kazez said...

It could be a debate about the morality of gay marriage, but if that's a strain, just imagine a different debate. Maybe it's about the morality of abortion, or the morality of eating meat.

Jason Streitfeld said...

It's not a strain to imagine a debate on the morality of gay marriage, but that is a qualification on your original scenario. You just said it was a debate about gay marriage, which could plausibly be a debate about public policy, and not about whether or not it was morally permissable. We might wonder why an error theorist would be moderating such a debate. Still, we could imagine an error theorist engaging in such a debate, and using it as an opportunity to dispell the myth that there is a morally right or wrong answer to be had about gay marriage, and that we need to look at the matter differently if we want a realistic and rational discussion of the topic. That would then be an invitation to discuss the arguments for and against gay marriage in practical terms, and not in terms of some incomprehensible moral authority. I don't agree that such an approach is bad publicity for atheism.

Curiously, Jean, since you seem to be of one mind about the morality and God myths, isn't your view that both atheism and error theory should be kept out of the public sphere? And if that is the case, then why are you concerned about atheists promoting error theory, per se? Aren't you against atheism in public, period?

March Hare said...

The problem with not publicising your ideas to a broader audience is that, in spite of your good intentions*, the ideas will leak.

When ideas leak into the public domain you cannot control the form it takes and so you do get the atheist error theorist asked if eating babies, according to his moral theory, is wrong. At which point you have your soundbite.

Obviously some may wish for that exact reaction in order to sell a book, or to demonise opponents, but I want the public softened up in error theory before starting a debate with someone. I want the public taught about it in a way that doesn't start off with torturing babies. I want their own morality challenged using error theory before starting on a debate about what I think. The only way to control the debate is to start it yourself in the best way you can.

Make no mistake, the conversation Sam Harris has started will lead to an atheist being sideswiped by some Fox pundit who discovers that they are atheists who disagree with Harris, so likely error theorists. They will be asked a question at the end of a slot that they cannot adequately answer in 20 seconds and so made to look at best foolish, at worst immoral, and their whole position on the previous topic (gay marriage/abortion/secularism) will be rendered null and void for most viewers.

(*) Some people would call it patronising.

Jean Kazez said...

Jason, It's just a thought experiment--it doesn't much matter whether such an event is likely ever to occur.

The sort of error theory Russell has aligned himself with doesn't want the myth of morality to be dispelled--the idea is that it's a useful fiction.

I personally think the impact of saying "no right or wrong answer" is that people stop thinking hard. They don't make the effort they would make in a truth-seeking enterprise.

Am I against atheism in public--why on earth would you think so? The original post praises candid atheists like Dawkins and Harris. Furthermore, I have written a book oriented to the public that espouses atheism.

Time to get some work done.

Jason Streitfeld said...


"The sort of error theory Russell has aligned himself with doesn't want the myth of morality to be dispelled."

Error theory has no opinion on the matter. You've noted one error theorist who doesn't want it disspelled. There may be many others. But the view itself is not necessitated by error theory, and it is not fair to say that Russell has aligned himself with that position.

Interesting that you say error theory might lead people to stop working hard in their moral disagreements. I rather think that the people who are likely to be put off by error theory aren't working hard enough.

Jason Streitfeld said...

Oh, about atheism in public:

Sorry if I got you wrong on that point. You made a comment over on Russell's blog about the God myth being "OK," and I must have read too much into it. I thought you might be thinking that the God myth should be as protected as the morality myth. But I wonder: if you think the morality myth should be protected against error theory, why don't you think the God myth should be protected against atheism?

I had also thought you were in agreement with Barbara Forrest, as quoted by Chris Mooney, as mentioned by Russell:

"Science can’t prove a negative: Saying there is no God is saying more than we can ever really know empirically, or based on data and evidence. So why drive a wedge between religious and non-religious defenders of evolution when it is not even possible to definitively prove the former wrong about metaphysics?"

That looks to me like an argument against public expressions of atheism. I had assumed (perhaps wrongly) that you were sympathetic to that cause.

Marshall said...

I don't want to talk about undergraduates and what they grasp or don't grasp. I would like to talk about socially competent adults who wonder why somebody is telling them "authoritatively" that going to church is pointless/stupid. Even "false".

Most of the financial wizards at Goldman-Sachs believe that modern financial instruments are too difficult for the average investor to understand, and if they saw what was really going on they would loose confidence in the system, which would probably cause them to put their money under the mattress, which would slow down the economy for everyone, an undesirable outcome. Don't you think you should just trust them? Don't you think they know better that you what they are doing? Possibly most gas station attendants feel that the world should be run by gas station attendants.

At the time, the point of the Reformation was to take Faith out of the hands of the "Universal" church hierarchs who referenced books that few others could read and put it in the hands of the people. Tyndale believed that people should and could cope with Scripture, messy as it is. He was strangled and burned for his presumption in overstimulating the faithful, but the idea took hold anyway and turned into the Enlightenment, characterized by the notion that people can observe and study and think for themselves, that there is no need for an ordained clergy who have been specially trained to give consistent establishment-supporting answers to the hard questions.

It didn't last, of course. The hard battles are not won that easily.

So Jean, do you have a fancy chair to sit on and a funny hat you like to wear? Wouldn't you rather come outside to play? Which side are you on??

Jean Kazez said...

Jason, The point I'm making is that candor isn't always for the best. All I need to support that is one version of the error theory on which candor would be problematic. Yes, there's one (Joyce-"The Myth of Morality"), and Russell does often mention that one favorably.

It's an empirical issue how hearing the error theory would affect moral reasoners. I've stated my own hypothesis, but I'd be happy to turn the question over to the X-phi crowd.

Jason Streitfeld said...

Russell's clearly distanced himself from some aspects of Joyce's "The Myth of Morality"; See "How disconcerting is moral error theory?" from just week or so ago.

In any case, thanks for the exchange. I've found it interesting.

Jean Kazez said...

My last comment (I think...)

(1) Personally I lean toward moral realism, so I don't think morality is a myth in the first place.

(2) I don't agree with everything in that Barbara Forrest quote. "Science can't prove a negative" is nonsense.

Now I really do have to do some work!

Anonymous said...


"the conversation Sam Harris has started will lead to an atheist being sideswiped by some Fox pundit who discovers that they are atheists who disagree with Harris, so likely error theorists"

I think the "discovers" there should be in scare quotes, since what was "discovered" was a non-sequitur.

That's also a great illustration of the trouble with keeping the metaethics debate (or any other debate) in private - it means ill-informed people like Harris get to set the terms of the popular discourse!

Jean Kazez said...

Yes, once people have read Sam Harris, they do need to go further. Fair enough. He gives people a rather distorted picture of the metaethics landscape. So--more study needed.

Jean Kazez said...

Yet more reaction (response would be too kind a word)--


Interesting from beginning to end, but this is especially fascinating--

"Jean: Let me clue you into something.
You’ve failed.
You will never win.
You cannot put the genie back in the bottle.
Live with failure every single minute of every single hour of every single day of the rest of your life.
I have no use for someone of your “intellect” telling me what I can or cannot say or learn.
And you will have to live with that abject failure forever."

Right, the "Gnu" crowd actually IS civil, and they're good at philosophy too.

s. wallerstein said...


I read that last night and I was horrified. I thought of posting a reply, but I've sworn off battling the GNU atheists and anyway, my reply could have done more harm than good.

I do admire your patience and your ability to keep calm under fire, as well as the subtleness of your reasoning.

Jean Kazez said...

Horrifying indeed. Also, a perfect illustration of what I am objecting to. All the contempt in that post and thread hsa nothing whatever to do with the candor of the original "new" atheists.

s. wallerstein said...

What horrifies me is the personal animosity.

After all, you are in general "on the same side" as the gnu atheists. You probably vote for exactly the same candidates, read and enjoy the same books (Dawkins, etc.), and agree on 99%of public issues, with the exception of when and where the probable incompatibility of science and religion should be debated. In fact, you, as far as I know, are more than willing to explore the probable incompatibility of science and religion within certain contexts.

Someone even asked you: "which side are you on?" That sounds a bit like Bush's "you're either with us or against us".

Actually, you are basically on the same side. If someone from the Religious Right were to quickly size you and the GNU person who attacks you up, they would probably categorize both of you as being alike.

There's a saying: the revolution devours its own children. That was first applied to the French Revolution and it has to do with how the increasing radicalization of "revolutionary" movements leads to moderates being marginalized.
Maybe it's true of the New Atheist

Jean Kazez said...

Here's where I am not on their side about--the way I think about pluralism and disagreement. This pertains both to the way atheists mix with believers, and to the way some types of atheists mix with other types of atheists. The "gnu" crowd has a crude idea about how this is supposed to work. They are warriors, in both arenas. I have other ideas about how it should work--with far more mutual respect and reflectiveness.

That's it--that's the whole disagreement. I agree about God, lean toward their side about science and religion, agree on some points about the damage done by religion, agree we needn't be hush-hush about religion.

But about how pluralism and disagreement should be countenanced and dealt with, I am in another camp entirely. I find "their" camp not just misguided, but sometimes morally repugnant. Which is why I speak up about it.

s. wallerstein said...

No, I don't find them morally repugnant. That's a strong phrase. Are you sure that you want to use it?

I find them to be "adolescent" or "sophomoric". I feel like they "should grow up". I admit that I am sometimes sophomoric myself, so I see a little of myself in them.

Jean Kazez said...

Of course I'm sure. Why else would I periodically write about this crowd's behavior? If it were merely sophomoric, I'd ignore it. I write about it because I do find it morally repugnant the way they beat up on people. It's gratuitous and ineffective, and it does people harm, so I think I'm perfectly warranted.

s. wallerstein said...

I tend to follow Grace Paley's maxim: I never argue when there's a genuine disagreement.

If they were actually morally repugnant, I wouldn't argue with them or bother with them at all. I don't frequent websites of groups which I find to be morally repugnant.

On the other hand, if I find people to be sophomoric or misguided, I might try to reason with them. With time, I've learned that it's hard to reason with most of the GNU atheists, but then again, it's hard to reason with an ultra-bright 18 year old enthused by a good, radical cause.

I guess that I've spent most of my life around people who are more radical than I am, and I've learned to accept them and at times to play the role of the "sensible" one.

However, for most normal people, I would be seen as very radical: only in radical circles, am I "sensible".

Jean Kazez said...

Ah, but I do bother with things I find morally repugnant--I do it all the time. I write about them, speak about them, and even interact with people who disagree.

Let's drop this. The whole thing's 90% boring, to be honest.

J. J. Ramsey said...

One thing I noticed in Coyne's response is that he denied that the science-religion compatibility issue was that difficult, and then pointed to a USA Today article of his on the subject that was, as you noted, self-contradictory.

Jean Kazez said...

Right, he would have written in all caps (instead of lots of caps) if I'd said it, but that USA Today article is not a case of these difficult issues being discussed clearly in a public forum. Yes, his article was self-contradictory. I think it was also very murky--with words like "compatible" and "incompatible" not well defined.

On another point--the folks over there are utterly appalled by my so-called elitism, since I've argued that some philosophical ideas (like the error theory) are going to be very hard to explain to a very wide public. But these same people routinely point out that that the average American has trouble with critical thinking. They believe in angels, hell, the afterlife, the virgin birth... and don't believe in evolution, climate change, etc. So by their own assessment, it's got to be a little iffy whether the public is ready for the most esoteric theories in metaethics. Or for a really careful discussion of the general question of science vs. religion, as opposed to more specific and local issues. (Right, no creation in 6 days, if the Big Bang theory is true--that's straightforward.)

Faust said...

lolcats can only be combated with more lolcats. Time to build an inventory.

Jean Kazez said...

Ha. I was thinking of building a new double avatar for him. Left: sweet little kitty. Right: my cat on a bad day.

Marshall said...

It was I who asked "Which side are you on?". Perhaps you are confused, I am not a Gnu or New, I am an Old Evangelical who resents Jean's (and Chris') "now now boys" meta-meta-meta talk over my head.

The song is about the Workers standing up against the Bosses who think they have total rights to the Means of Production. Nobody here wants to actually talk about that, and right now it seems to be quite impossible to talk about the actual problem on the table, which I take to be the proper role of "religion" in human social life, so I'll be off.

Faust said...

I was thinking a cat and a puppy dog hugging with the title: I CAN HAZ ACCOMODATIONISM?

Jason Streitfeld said...

Jean, if you were just saying that there might be some dangers with focusing the discussion of atheism on the issue of science-religion incompatibility, then you would be making a fair point. There might be some dangers, it's true. But your attitude is far less humble. You're claiming that there the dangers are real and terrible enough to warrant severe admonishment. Atheists simply should stop talking about the incompatibility issue, you say. That's a might strong position, and it needs a strong argument to support it. Yet, you seems unwilling to acknowledge that any argument is required.

Maybe you don't realize that, for many atheists, the issue of atheism just is the issue of incompatibility. These are not two separate ideas with unique philosophical areas of interest. They are one and the same issue. Yet, you say it's okay to publicly talk about one, but not the other.

Personally, I'm not convinced that you need any more philosophical sophistication to understand the incompatibility issue than you need to sufficiently understand the reasons and justifications for atheism. If atheism isn't too sophisticated for public consumption, then neither is the incompatibility issue.

You can disagree, but if you're going to do so with so little humility, then you really do need a strong argument. And I just don't see it.

Jason Streitfeld said...

By the way, I do admire your composure over at Jerry Coyne's blog. You reacted calmly and respectfully to a number of comments, even when confronted with aggression and anger. I wonder, though, why you chose to draw attention to the worst of the lot here. Why not just ignore those who beg to be ignored? I don't think it's fair to your more thoughtful opposition. It comes off as dismissive.

s. wallerstein said...

Hello Jason:

My remarks this morning about GNU atheists being "sophomoric" does not refer to people like you, but to those who insult Jean (or anyone else).

Sorry if there was any misunderstanding.

Jason Streitfeld said...

Thanks, amos, but I hadn't taken any offense. I don't call myself a gnu atheist or a New Atheist. I call myself an atheist, though, among other things.

Jason Streitfeld said...

P.S. Sorry for all the typos in the first paragraph of my post @3:14. I'd just written and magically lost a lengthy reply, and was retyping in haste.

Jean Kazez said...

Actually, Jason, I propose talking about local incompatibilties, not dropping the whole topic of incompatibility. And where's the shortage of humility?! I actually say I'm more certain about the metaethics example, and that reasonable people can disagree about the incompatibility issue. That's about as humble as you can be, without just saying nothing!

As to the tone over at WEIT--it's not nothing to wade through a river full of crocodiles. I'm not going to do it, and not take a few snapshots for the family album!

To be more serious--I'm very bothered by some of the shenanigans over there. Ophelia should not have said I was against promoting atheism in the public square. The sentence said nothing of the kind, the post said nothing of the kind, the original Emperor post said the opposite, and my own record of writing (book, articles, blogging) says otherwise.

And yet she said it, and even insisted on this, after I said otherwise (see #5 and #6).


That does me damage. It gets people going, down thread, and even today, there's more talk at B&W about how I'm against candid atheism.

If she wants to know why I focus on her (she does), it's because of that whole pattern. The carelessness, the deliberate stirring up of unfounded hostility. She's done this to me personally many, many times, and to others as well. I am absolutely sick of it.

"Stir up hostility now, think & check later" is not a reasonable way to conduct yourself in a debate. She does this more than any other "gnu" atheist I know. Hence, the extra attention. It's deserved and I think a lot of people know it.

Ichthyic said...

Jean, what does "local incompatibilties" even mean?

you do realize that there are basic, fundamental, epistemological differences between religion and science, right?

Assuming you mean that you can cherry pick any dogma to find bits that don't conflict with scientific evidence, that entirely ignores that the very idea of religion is "revealed knowledge" rather than "knowledge obtained through observation and testing".

sorry, but it's a fundamental difference in approach that is at the root of the conflict here; it goes far beyond what creationists think, and goes to the root of WHY they are ABLE to consider their conclusions valid to begin with.

I doubt this will help make it clearer to you, since it is already clear to anyone who has really spent time looking into the issue in anything more than a superficial manner, but maybe there are some, since we are on your blog, that haven't heard the incompatibility argument expressed in this way here.

Ichthyic said...

I don't think it's fair to your more thoughtful opposition. It comes off as dismissive.

heh, which of course was the basis for much of the vehemency being directed towards here at Coyne's blog.

If you feel you can dismiss the arguments of those who express their emotions along with their words, you're dooming yourself to miss an awful lot of information.

Jean Kazez said...

Ignoring all your snark...

I've never thought it made any sense to note that religion and science use different methods, and from that, conclude they are "incompatible." Evaluating the artistic merit of a movie and doing science involve different methods, and they obviously aren't incompatible.

You have incompatibility when religion and science come to inconsistent conclusions. The "local" approach means going through the conclusions one by one, and saying whether this (from religion) is consistent with that (from science).

If you do this, the answer will be mixed. Lots of religious claims are inconsistent with conclusions arrived at scientifically. On the other hand, some are not.

This approach appeals to me because it's precise, involves no problematic definitions of "religion" and "science" (some philosophers question whether there's any real line between the two); and involves clear definitions of "compatible" and "incompatible." There's also no foggy talk about funny types of truth and strangely non-overlapping "magisteria."

Taking this approach doesn't stop you from also asking whether religious "methods" of discovery are legitimate. You can say they're not, but then that's a separate issue from whether science and religion are "compatible."

Jean Kazez said...

A little help for Jerry Coyne, who lost his own moral compass. This little speech actually IS morally repugnant, by any measure. No contempt, just candor.

Jean: Let me clue you into something.
You’ve failed.
You will never win.
You cannot put the genie back in the bottle.
Live with failure every single minute of every single hour of every single day of the rest of your life.
I have no use for someone of your “intellect” telling me what I can or cannot say or learn.
And you will have to live with that abject failure forever.

At your blog. You let it through.

Deepak Shetty said...

I dont think allowing uncensored comments qualifies as losing your moral compass.

Ichthyic said...

Evaluating the artistic merit of a movie and doing science involve different methods, and they obviously aren't incompatible.

false equivalency, since art does not claim to be an epistemology to begin with, while religion does.

religion claims to be a way of knowing and understanding what we see around us.

so does science.

the two ways they go about achieving those ends are entirely different.

the minute you can demonstrate how revealed knowledge leads to scientific advancement, I'll consider an argument for compatibility.

The "local" approach means going through the conclusions one by one, and saying whether this (from religion) is consistent with that (from science).

which means, from the religious perspective, I can make up any fiction I wish, and you can measure it against your conclusions as if there were really any reason to do so to begin with.

sounds like a fool's game to me.

again, you entirely miss the point that the very fact that science exists at all, indicates it is not only incompatible with religion as an epistemology, but that it is the superior epistemology as well.

science works. You've certainly heard the expression, but I don't think you actually understand what it really means, Jean.


btw, are you sure you can't get yourself a different comment system? this is really clunky.

Jean Kazez said...

Deepak, I would see your point if his blog wasn't moderated, but it is. He's making decisions about what should appear and what shouldn't. Somehow that comment passed muster...which I really do find completely bewildering.

I should say--not all the comments were so off the wall. In fact there were a few commenters trying to be fair, and I appreciated that.

Jean Kazez said...

Thomas, Please, can we get rid of all condescension?

If you don't like my movie example, there are plenty of others that will do. Mathematicians and chemists use completely different methods to discover truths. Does that mean they're incompatible? Of course not. The issue about whether science and religion are "compatible" has to do with whether they reach consistent or inconsistent conclusions. It really is not about whether they use the same methods.

I have to add--Where I come from (I teach and write philosophy for a living), epistemology is the theory of knowledge, and neither science nor religion are "epistemologies."

Deepak Shetty said...

But so long as similarly critical comments about Coyne or other gnu views make it through , it doesn't count as losing your moral compass. I find the comment more silly than morally repugnant - too grandoise to be taken seriously.

Jean Kazez said...

Deepak, I once submitted a comment that was mildly critical of Coyne, and he deleted it. So--no, he is not actually completely libertarian about what appears there.

But anyway, I don't buy the idea that a conversation is genuinely open to the person under attack, so long as they can enter the "room." The rules of engagement matter too.

To make a long story short: echo chamber. Cass Sunstein's book about the internet is good on that.

Jean Kazez said...

...and another thing. When a lot of the flamethrowers are too cowardly to use their real names, that also makes for an uneven playing field.

Jean Kazez said...

To be clear--what I mean is that it's cowardly in a flamethrower to be anonymous. I'm not saying all anonymous commenters are cowardly.

Jason Streitfeld said...


I think you're striking a sensitive nerve with a lot of people. A lot of atheists have a strong and justified interest in upping the level of public discourse. You're challenging them on this point. They take it as an offense when somebody tells them that they shouldn't speak openly about their reasons for being an atheist or about the practical implications of atheism. It's that much more bizarre when the person telling them this is a self-describing atheist.

I'm not saying you mean to tell people that they should be quiet about their reasons for being an atheist or about the practical implications of atheism. But that does seem to be the practical consequence of your position for a lot of people. The fact is that many atheists are atheists because of their beliefs about science/religion incompatibility, and they do see atheism/objective morality incompatibility as a practical consequence of atheism which is very relevant to public debates over, for example, the role of religion in society.

Since a lot of atheists believe that atheism, science/religion incompatibility, and atheism/objective morality incompatibility are all closely connected in this way, and that they are all open to the same levels of philosophical depth, it is hard for them to accept your attitude.

It just doesn't make much sense to say that atheism is okay, but the other topics are too difficult for public consumption. At least, it doesn't obviously make much sense to say that. That's why I think your view is in need of much better argumentative support. And, since it does strike such a nerve, you're getting a lot of heat for it.

This doesn't justify the ill-treatment you sometimes get, but maybe it helps explain it.

Faust said...

"This doesn't justify the ill-treatment you sometimes get, but maybe it helps explain it."

Who cares if it explains it? I could explain all sorts of nasty behavior (e.g. the Catholic church defends its pedophile preists because xyz), but justification seems to me the only point of interest. Explainable but unjustifiable behavior is still unjustified. The end.

I tell you what: the "moral outrage" that the particular tiny subgroup of people in this subsection of the atheist corner of the internet is quite comic to me. It really reveals how much for some atheists what gives them the most pleasure is their righteousness.

It's not all that suprising, I mean, one sees a similar pattern in any highly ideological, activist blog web. Except that there is special irony when people who claim to celebrate "reason" and "evidence" and "fearless dialogue" wind up comming across as the holier than thou vanguard of a new "epistemologically based" moral order.

If Jean (or anyone arguing similar positions) is wrong, then they can be defeated on the basis of their error. The rest of it is uncessary hyberbole that merely entertains the self-satisfied moral majority of a cultural sub group.

Jean Kazez said...

Faust, Thanks for that. Agree 100%. It's really too bad a simple debate couldn't have taken place. In fact, the whole thing started without too much mayhem...

(1) I wrote a provocative post--the Emperor thing. Ok, I got some flak, Coyne said some mildly nasty things. I laughed, I moved on.

(2) Russell wrote a substantive reply. All civil, not a problem.

(3) I wrote a substantive reply to Russell. It dealt with specific points in his post. I raised what I take to be an interesting philosophical question--is "constant candor" really advisable? I presented an exception having to do with metaethics. I extrapolated to the topic of incompatibility, but without being overly dogmatic about it.

(4) There is civil discussion here, and things aren't too extreme at Russell's blog either. He comments here, I comment there. No melt down, no flame war.

(5) Then Ophelia gets upset. She feels personally maligned because there are three links to her blog in my reply to Russell. (Yes, and what of it?)

(6) Then Jerry Coyne gets upset. He apparently thinks OH MY GOD, SOMEONE'S TOLD ME TO STFU!!!! (caps because he used caps in his interchange with me at WEIT). But no, that's a crude and unphilosophical reading of my post. That leaves out all the substance. His reading is incendiary, and obviously designed to rally the troops.

(7) Wow, it works! The troops are rallied. Ophelia, being upset about the links, finds a way to add fuel to the fire. She's carelessly read the post and misread a particular sentence. She says I'm telling all atheists to STFU about atheism! Complete nonsense, and obviously so, but (evidently) who cares?

(8) How exciting, the troops are rallied. I'm one of the worst human beings who has ever walked the face of the earth.

(9) Thus, every bit of interesting philosophical content has been flushed away. I may as well be talking about politics to the local Tea Party brigade.

(10) LOL (or try).

Jason--Generally it's great to be charitable, but I think you're being too charitable. It was really very clear that the issue was not promoting atheism in the public square, but (basically) doing philosophy of science in the public square. And I wasn't even dogmatic about it.

s. wallerstein said...


The fact that so many people with advanced degrees and ultra-high IQ's misunderstood what you wrote seems to me to be the best argument so far against discussing the probable incompatibility of religion and science in all the high schools of this planet, where there are lots and lots of people without advanced degrees and without high IQ's and who therefore, will misunderstand the whole point of the discussion and may get very angry and/or violent, as, we see, even folks with advanced degrees and high IQ's do, when their ideas are challenged.

Deepak Shetty said...

To be clear--what I mean is that it's cowardly in a flamethrower to be anonymous
Hmm. Awhile ago I used to comment on a site called jihad watch using a pseudonym , and generally disagree with what a bunch of conservative religious nuts said. I'd say I was just being prudent.
when there are clear social pressures that prevent people from coming out as atheists , I think you cannot draw the conclusion you make.

Jason Streitfeld said...


My point is that you're focusing on the tone and ignoring the legitimate concerns behind it. And your continual and exclusive focus on the tone, and your lack of interest in addressing the substantive concerns being expressed, are making people that much less likely to respect your point of view, or care that you might be offended by their tone. It seems like you're using the tone issue as a means of evading very legitimate concerns about what you are saying. So, yes, some people are behaving childishly, and you have no obligation to respond to any of them at all. But, if you're going to respond, better to try to address the concerns and not just the way they are being expressed.

Jean Kazez said...

Jason, I don't need to respond to the concern that I'm against discussing atheism in the public square, becauase I never said it.

I responded substantively to Russell in this post, and I responded substantively to you and others in this long thread. I also responded substantively to folks at WEIT.

But how I'm done with that, and I think I'm entitled to a bit of post-game meta-analysis. I don't share the "gnu" distaste for the subject of communication.

Deepak--Anonymity is a tricky thing. Many people are anonymous for legitimate reasons (at the outset), but then use their anonymity nefariously. They are personally hostile in a way they wouldn't be, if they thought their colleagues, friends, and neigbhors might be watching. In other words, they take advantage of their no-risk situation to impose extra high risks on others. It's like fighting extra rough because you're wearing protective armor and you know you can't be harmed. Whatever the exact name for this vice, it's not honorable.

Jason Streitfeld said...


The concern I'm talking about is that your notion of an acceptable discussion of atheism is too restrictive. You seem to say that atheists should not be appalled by the suggestion that the public arena is not the place for a discussion of the fundamental incompatibility of science and religion. That's what got Jerry Coyne upset. A lot of atheists are appalled by your suggestion, and I think they have good reason to be. Coyne takes it especially to heart, since you're directly criticizing his own work on that front.

I've already commended you on your performance at WEIT. You clarified your position a good deal and you did so calmly and respectfully, but I don't think you dealt with this basic concern. Here, however, you're not even willing to acknowledge the concern. Instead, you seem eager to flatly dismiss Coyne and the rest.

Ophelia Benson said...

Jean - your (7) - that's not true. I didn't say you're telling all atheists to STFU about atheism. I said

That certainly looks like "the public square is the wrong place to promote atheism."

I suppose one could tease out a non-obvious but possible meaning, in the manner of a literary critic. I suppose one could interpret you as saying only that it’s not scandalous to say X as opposed to actually saying X. But if that’s really all you were saying, it looks more like a kind of trickery or teasing or joke than like straightforward arguing.

And so on. I understood what you said differently from the way you did. You of course are the author of what you say, but readers are allowed to say what they understand authors to have said. That's what I was doing. I did not simply announce that you're telling all atheists to STFU about atheism.

Your 5 - She feels personally maligned because there are three links to her blog in my reply to Russell. (Yes, and what of it?)

This is what of it. I don't post about you, but you keep posting about me. You complain of Jerry posting about you, you claim that I found "a way to add fuel to the fire" - but what else are you doing when you post about me? Those three links weren't intended as fuel to the fire? You seem to me to be very determined to keep the fight going, when it could have stopped.

I thought it had stopped.


You started it up again. I didn't; you did. That's what of it.

Deepak Shetty said...

Im not sure if my comment is stuck in moderation(and if so just delete this) or just disappeared due to the Internet Gods being unhappy
a. Do you have a copy of what you posted to Jerry?(And that sometimes comments get stuck in moderation - there was one such incident on coynes blog , so unless you have some other verification I wouldnt assume censorship)
b. Commenting on a blog is open. It is intimidating if there are a bunch of people who disagree with you , because all of them pounce at once (try complaining about profanity on pharyngula for e.g.)- but it is open.
This is of course opposed to what Stangroom currently does and what you once supported(atleast implied) Mooney for.
Again if you are right that Coyne censored a reasonable comment of yours , then I take back whatever I said with apologies.

Deepak Shetty said...

Deepak--Anonymity is a tricky thing.
Well precisely. The charge of cowardice is a strong one. Unless you know the reasons behind the anonymity you cannot conclude cowardice - because anonymity as you correctly point out is tricky.

And yes obviously there are people as you describe. But someone who has to stay in a society where he cannot reveal his true feelings can understandably vent anonymously (which is not very honorable but also not deserving of coward!)

Jean Kazez said...


Re (7): If the public square is the wrong place to promote atheism, that really is close to STFU. Surely. But anyway, I don't see how you could have understood the sentence that way, if you'd read the post. The real meaning is the obvious one. It's the only one that fits the grammar of the sentence or the message of the paragraph. That makes me think (I'm afraid): careless, maybe even deliberate strawmaning?

I clarified, but that wasn't enough. You said my meaning could only be teased out by a literary critic. But again--it's just the opposite. My meaning is the obvious one. So that struck me as a kind of willful effort to make me seem more odious to a crowd that was already geared up to attack me.

Re (5): My original Emperor post had to do with things I saw at B&W, but I studiously avoided pointing to them in order not to stir up trouble. But when Russell used the Mooney-contra-Coyne thing as a counterargument, I did need to be more clear what I was talking about. No, not that. The links weren't meant to be malicious, though I do understand why it made you feel like Big Sister is Watching.

Well, I'm not really watching. I'm just reading. It's not clear to me why I shouldn't be. It's also not clear to me why I shouldn't "spectate". I see you as a pretty major blogger (you should be flattered). Your blog is a hub, and has influence. I think it's within the realm of normal interaction to observe and comment.

Isn't it? I think it would be unfair if keeping the peace meant that you get to keep clobbering accommodationists, and I need to be quiet about it. I don't see the clobbering as a personal attack on me, and I don't really think you should see my commentary as a personal attack on you.

I do try to spread the wealth--making comments about other anti-accommodationists too. When I have done that in the past, you've complained that I was really implicitly just attacking you. You give me too little credit for having my own interest in these things, completely apart from our tensions. If you look at this blog and TP you'll see my interest in atheism goes back to the very beginning. You'll also see that my attitudes are very consistent. Same sort of topics, all the way back to 2007, and even back to my 2007 book and some Free Inquiry articles.

Ophelia Benson said...


Well, in turn, I can see why it felt like that, but really, the meaning wasn't obvious to me - as someone later pointed out, because / is ambiguous. I thought the / in "atheism/objective morality incompatibility" was an or. I really wasn't deliberately misunderstanding.

You didn't exactly avoid pointing to things at B&W in your emperor post given that you linked to a post of mine! Your emperor post took off from one of mine and one of Jerry Coyne's.

Yes, I suppose I see your point about being able to comment freely and so on. But...there is a lot of it, including stuff that doesn't name me or link to me but does dispute me (the post on the bishop of Phoenix, the one on Andrew Lovley). Given that and given all the Stuff and given the desirability (I think) of a cease-fire...well it does add up and it does irritate. (It doesn't "upset"; it irritates. I'm too butch to get upset.)

I don't think I give you too little credit for an independent interest in atheism - but I do think you choose which bits of atheism you focus on via what I focus on. That sounds very vain, but it's more like the opposite - I don't see why I'm your main source! I really don't. There are lots of other atheist blogs.

Jean Kazez said...

Deepak, He definitely rejected a comment--we discussed it by email. I'm not complaining about that. I'm just saying it's not true that he has a policy that all hostilities are permitted, no matter who they're aimed at.

s. wallerstein said...


Maybe you are her main source, because you have the most entertaining and best written atheist blog.

I enjoy reading your blog, which is not always the case with atheist blogs.

That I enjoy reading your blog does not mean that I agree with it.

Now if you could dedicate all that talent to a worthy cause......

J. J. Ramsey said...

"I thought the / in 'atheism/objective morality incompatibility' was an or."

But why? When our host mentioned "religion/science incompatibility," no one assumed that the "/" meant "or" in that instance, so why should one assume that it would in another phrase of the form "x/y compatibility"?

Jean Kazez said...

Ah, right. There was that one link in the original. But it was pointing to something substantive, and actually kind of interesting. I avoided giving any examples of What I Do Not Like, only giving examples of appealing candor.

I don't see all that stuff at my blog as being as provocative as you do. You wrote something interesting, actually, about the Phoenix abortion business. I thought about it a lot, and wrote something else.

The Lovley thing--I followed a link, saw what he (or maybe it was someone else, actually) was saying about pressing his face against the window (or whatever). It reminded me of my own experience with deciding whether or not to become a member of a Jewish congregation. So yes, I saw it differently than you did, but just disagreeing with you isn't all there was to it.

Hmm. I actually do read many atheist blogs besides B&W. In fact, I spend more time at other blogs...truth be told. But I'm more likely to have something to say about a B&W post. Is this because of Tension? I have a hard time knowing for sure. I attempt to write things not because of tension, but also attempt to not avoid subjects because of tension. It's tricky, and I do understand that you wonder.

I'm going on and on. OK, I think I'll stop now.

Deepak Shetty said...

I'm just saying it's not true that he has a policy that all hostilities are permitted, no matter who they're aimed at.
Ok then I retract with apology.

Jean Kazez said...

JJ--!!! I hadn't noticed that.

Amos-- I certainly came to B&W initially out of sheer interest and liking for Ophelia's writing. I had a link to it in my blogroll for about 3 years. The debate about accommodationism has been a bit of a stressor ...shall we say?

Ophelia Benson said...

JJ Ramsey - I don't know why, for god's sake! I just did! I didn't "assume" - I didn't hold it at arm's length enough to assume, I just read it. I didn't know I had misread it. If there is a why I guess it's just that I didn't make the connection...I don't have a slot in my brain for "atheism: objective morality incompatibility" - it's not a familiar phrase the way "religion/science incompatibility" is (although I don't think I usually use / for that). I didn't recognize it, so I parsed it wrong. That's not a totally new thing under the sun.

Ophelia Benson said...

Jean - ok. That all makes sense. I did make some effort not to see the emp post as because of Tension...but the nasty children yelling fatty made it a little difficult! I have something of a phobia about that - I've seen people literally do that in public places, and there are few things I hate more.

Jason Streitfeld said...


You said (addressed to me), "I don't need to respond to the concern that I'm against discussing atheism in the public square, becauase I never said it."

I didn't mean to imply that you needed to respond to that concern, or any other. And I didn't mean that that was a legitimate concern. The concern which I think is legitimate, and the one I think motivated Coyne's STFU post, is that you have a too-restrictive view of what is an acceptable public discussion of atheism.

Jean Kazez said...

Jason, Sure that's his concern. But in fact, I do respond to the concern...in the post! I don't just say "don't talk about x." I discuss candor and how there are exceptions to a policy of "constant candor." I'm not just someone from the temperance union, saying "tut-tut, never say X in public!"

Coyne never looks at the argument. He just makes fun of the conclusion. So I certainly don't owe him yet another argument, if that's what you're suggesting. If my argument isn't actually read and understood, but just triggers someone's fears of being muzzled, it ain't my fault!

I'm not muzzling anyone. In fact, I do think public atheism is A-OK. I also think some types of public metaethics are a good idea--the Fort Worth bus campaign is a case in point. "Millions of Americans are good without God." Perfect message. I also think it's good to talk about religion vs. science. But how to talk about it? It's good to talk about that as well--not scandalous, not pernicious, not a question of muzzling anyone.

Speaking of muzzling. The way accommodationists are so vilified and ostracized and personally attacked by the super-gnu crowd feels to me like muzzling.

Jason Streitfeld said...


I've responded to your last comment on my blog: Public Displays of Atheism. I figured I may as well get my thoughts a little organized. The short answer is, I don't think you owe anybody anything, but it's not my place to say one way or the other. But I don't think you're being completely fair to Coyne, either.

Jean Kazez said...


I haven't been the slightest bit unfair to Coyne. Russell brought up Mooney-contra-Coyne, not me. He made it seem as if being anti-candor in that instance was offensive and beyond the pale. I said "not so" by making an argument. Coyne ignored the argument, and just repeated that it's offensive and beyond the pale. And then he insulted and mocked me. I certainly have no desire to keep that non-conversation going.


However, I'm happy to discuss the issues with you. I read your post, and will try to respond.

What I am saying is that it's just normal--just business as usual--to separately think about what's true and how to talk about the truth to the broad public.

An example from animal ethics-- The morally correct command might be "Eat no meat," but the command that reduces meat consumption most is probably "Eat less meat." I think it's a good idea to say the second in certain contexts.

An example from public health-- In very poor countries with extremely high fertility rates, there's often the belief that there should be no sex for a very long time after childbirth, and children should be nursed for years. Modern medicine says "not true". Do you tell this to desperately poor, illiterate women at clinics, or do you let them go on with a false belief that keeps fertility rates from climbing even higher? Arguably the latter. (This example is from the book I'm discussing in my most recent post.)

Examples from philosophy--there are dangers to telling just anyone the Epicurean view that death does not harm us (I have personal experience that bears on this); or that there is no free will.

So it's not offensive, or beyond the pale, to suggest there's a difference between what you (or the experts) think is true and what is promoted in public. Saying atheists should think in these terms has nothing--really, absolutely nothing--to do with muzzling atheists because they're atheists.


Next question--what is the truth about science/religion compatibility? I don't personally think they're wholly incompatible. There's nothing that stops a completely rational person from accepting all of science, plus some religion. However, accepting all of science will rule out a great deal of religion. That's because the two are flat out contradictory on some topics. In other cases, there's not so much a contradiction as superfluity. The scientific explanation makes the religious explanation superfluous--an offense against Occam's Razor (or other rational principles). But that's not always true. In principle, I think you you could be rational, and buy all of science, and also some religion.


But what if I did think science and religion were completely incompatible--that accepting all of science meant (for a completely rational person) accepting no religion? Would I see that as the right public message?

Not necessarily. I'd have to think about all sorts of things first. What are my goals? What is human psychology? How will people react to this message vs. that?

All of that thinking (as I said) would have absolutely nothing to do with with muzzling atheists. It would just be the normal business of thinking about truth first, and the appropriate public message separately.

So whatever my stand--whether I'm for or against the TNR article, for or against the USA Today article...none of those positions are anti-atheist, or pro-muzzling. People who disagree about the right answer can be equally reasonable, but just reasoning from different assumptions about relevant facts and values.


Thanks for your civility throughout this discussion.

Jason Streitfeld said...


You are right that it is not always offensive to suggest that what you think is true should not be promoted in public. Nobody's saying it's always offensive. But sometimes it can be offensive, and I've explained why I think it is offensive in this case. You're just responding with cases where it's not offensive. You can provide all the examples of such cases you want, but you won't thereby have addressed my concern.

What it looks like you are saying is this: public atheists are not thinking about whether or not their beliefs are the sorts of beliefs that should be expressed in all available public venues, and that they should stop and think a little bit about what they are doing.

I'm surprised you don't see why that might offend some people. As if the atheists expressing these views didn't think about whether or not they should do what they do. As if they weren't doing it precisely because they thought these views were a very important message for the public. Now you're not just disagreeing with them about the importance of the message. You're telling them they're not even thinking about it.

I keep repeating this same point: For many public atheists, public atheism just is the voicing of these particular concerns that you say shouldn't be voiced. Okay, so you're not against public atheism in toto. I recognize that. But you do seem to be against a particular variety of public atheism.

About science/religion incompatibility: Sure, a person can pursue both and have both scientific and religious beliefs. Obviously they are compatible in that sense. But if you frame it in terms of authority and methodology, as I have, then I think we can see the sort of incompatibility I described in my post. Religious institutions can accommodate scientific discoveries by changing their dogma, but science cannot accommodate religious dogma without compromising its principles.

s. wallerstein said...


I don't think that Jean is saying that GNU atheists don't think about whether it is appropriate to
talk about certain issues in the public square or in some public squares, let's say, Coyne in
U.S. Today.

Her point is that Coyne makes a mistake when he insists that U.S. Today is an appropriate place to talk about those issues.

There is a big difference between claiming that people don't think about something and that people make mistakes when they think.

I can't address the specific issue of U.S. Today because I don't live in the U.S., and I haven't read U.S. Today in about 30 years. Thus, I have no idea of what readers are targeted by U.S. Today at present. It used to be the only national newspaper available almost everywhere, but now the NY Times is available almost everywhere, which was not the case 30 years ago.

Jean Kazez said...


I don't think you're seeing the relevance of my examples. I brought them up in the context of a certain debate. The issue Russell raised was about Mooney challenging the candor of Coyne. It was the very idea of challenging candor that bothered him. In light of that, it was reasonable for me to examine the policy of "constant candor." My examples show that it's the wrong policy in lots of contexts.

Since it's the wrong policy in lots of contexts, there's no reason to think it's going to be the right general policy for atheists either. It would be odd if "constant candor" was unwise for ethicists, other philosophers, and public health experts (my three examples), but wise for atheists.

OK, so that gets us as far as showing that in principle, it makes sense to distinguish between the truth about science/religion incompatibility, and what we tell the public. I don't agree with you that all atheists are thinking in these terms anyway. In fact, many are actually very hostile to the whole idea of thinking in these terms. It's precisely that hostility that I'm trying to counteract and challenge.

Now, as to public atheism being necessarily bound up with saying that science and religion are incompatible...I don't think that's the case. Atheism is just atheism--it's the view that there is no god. But say it's very near and dear to someone to be both an atheist, and to think science and religion are incompatible. I actually said nothing about whether this individual should speak up. What I was talking about was speech addressed to a broad public--remember, I said "if Russell gets fame and acclaim" it's questionable whether he should be broadcasting the error theory (when speaking as an atheist). Likewise, what I'm saying about how incompatibility is discussed just relates to very public discussions.

Re: incompatibility. I didn't say what you seem to think I said. I didn't say that whether science and religion are compatible is just a question of what people can stuff into their heads. What I said is that it's a question of what claims can be combined, without contradiction. I don't agree with the idea that different methodologies and institutions make for "incompatibility." Math and chemistry differ a great deal in that regard, but are obviously compatible. The issue of religion/science incompatibility is about logical contradiction. It's about how much religion you can believe, in combination with science, without contradicting yourself. The total compatibility view says "lots" by finding ways to separate the domain of science from the domain of religion. I think that's bogus, and a great deal of religion does logically clash with science. But not all of it. As I said, I think you can believe all of science, plus a bit of religion, without contradiction.

Finally, I see nothing "offensive" about any of the above!

s. wallerstein said...

Hello Jean:

One of my comments, a reply to Jason, got lost in the moderation filter.

Since I said nothing offensive to you or to Jason, I don't see why that comment should not appear.

Given your posterior reply to Jason, my comment is totally superfluous and mistaken about your intentions, but obviously, I had no way of knowing that when I wrote it, before your reply to Jason appeared.

At this point, given your reply to Jason, it little matters whether my comment appears or not, but one does like to receive an explanation why one's comments, written in good faith and with no intention to offend, do not appear.

Jean Kazez said...

Amos, Just a matter of not being at my computer for a few hours.

Jason Streitfeld said...


I think you're misconstruing a lot of what I'm saying. First, you say, "I don't agree with you that all atheists are thinking in these terms anyway."

I never said all atheists think in these terms. I've been clear about that.

Then you say, "as to public atheism being necessarily bound up with saying that science and religion are incompatible...I don't think that's the case. Atheism is just atheism--it's the view that there is no god."

No, Jean, that's what atheism is to you. That's not what it is to all atheists. For some atheists, it really does entail the rejection of religious authority.

Then you say, "What I was talking about was speech addressed to a broad public."

I know that. That, in fact, seems to be the very issue I've been addressing. Why do you think I didn't know what we were talking about?

As for whether or not people are getting upset because you are challenging constant candor in general, or whether or not they are just upset about the way you are challenging it in particular cases . . . I think it's pretty obviously the latter. I don't think everybody is upset just because you're suggesting that some things, in some contexts, are better left unsaid. They're upset because you're claiming that very specific things in very specific contexts are better left unsaid. (And, by the way, there is plenty of room for disagreement about whether or not it is the right policy in the examples you've indicated. You haven't shown its the wrong policy, but you've suggested that there's a good reason to think that's the case. But that's just nit-picking.)

I'm not going to go deeper into the issue of religion/science incompatibility here. Maybe I'll post about it when I have more time to explain my views in detail. Suffice it to say, for now, that we don't agree on that issue.

Jean Kazez said...

"No, Jean, that's what atheism is to you. That's not what it is to all atheists. For some atheists, it really does entail the rejection of religious authority."

Atheism really is just the belief that there is no God. That's not up for grabs--it's definitional. Sure, atheists have additional beliefs, and some are important to them. But no, atheism doesn't literally "entail" any position on science/religion incompatibility.

"Rejection of religious authority" is certainly natural for atheists. If I don't believe in God, I'm not going to think the pope or the bible, or whatever, are authoritative. But that has nothing to do with the more philosophical question of which religious claims can be combined with science without contradiction. I think that's what the science/religion compatibility debate is about, or ought to be about.

"What I was talking about was speech addressed to a broad public."

The reason I thought you'd lost sight of that was because you were talking about how atheists have been oppressed and kept in the shadows--as if I was trying to silence them and keep them in the shadows. But that's not the case. I'm talking about communication to the broad public. I'm talking about messages that are going to be carefully crafted, no matter what -- like what people write in mass circulation newspapers and put on billboards.

Just to repeat what my point really was--because I think the way it was embedded in a debate with Russell does make it hard to keep track...HE was making a point about Barbara Forrest and Chris Mooney being anti-candor, so challenging my assertion that critics of new atheism are just anti-contempt. HE was making it seem as if that was appalling.

My response was two-fold. (a) The critics I actually had in mind were anti-contempt. (b) Even if someone is anti-candor in some specific instances, it's not appalling. It's perfectly normal and very common to think X is true but not simply say X to a broad public. I backed that up with many examples. (Yes, one could discuss the example more...but they're suggestive.)

So the anger about these critics is inappropriate and overblown. It's perfectly within the bounds of reasonable opinion to question whether a certain message is best in a very public place.

In short: there should be "normal debate" about what to put in editorials and on billboards, not emotionally intense debate, with one side portrayed as the party of STFU.

I think we're about done...I suspect. Yes, we don't agree!

March Hare said...

Jean, I think it's a reasonable discussion to have about whether people in possession of advanced knowledge should control if or how their opinion is presented to the public (google Prof. Nutt to see an example of this from the UK.)

I am of the view that any experts lying to the public immediately lose their credibility regardless of their motives. The outcome might be seen to be worth the sacrifice but my view is that more information is usually better.

In this situation, where Russell is being counseled to hide, or possibly even lie, about his position on morality when speaking as an atheist I think it is plainly wrong. I think that an article in a popular magazine/newspaper detailing the position and explaining the reasons and outcomes is far better than either lying or being written about by a right wing religionista where the nuance is ignored and only the headline claim that nothing is wrong is highlighted.

Incidentally, I also think that in the 3 situations you mentioned the truth is the best option, although I would be happy that lying by omission is perfectly acceptable too.

Jason Streitfeld said...

I'll just address one important point, and let the rest go, for the sake of closure. The point is about the definition of the word "atheism." You say it is belief that there is no god, nothing more and nothing less. I say that's not necessarily true. You say it's not up for grabs. I say it is.

Here's why. Atheism can mean belief that there is no god, or a conscientious lack of belief in god. In my case, it's the latter. This sort of atheism is also known as theological noncognitivism. It rejects all theological claims as lacking truth conditions. Theological language has social functions, to be sure, but it does not coherently represent any propositional attitudes. Yet, theists systematically misconstrue god talk as having existential import, as being something other than purely emotive group speak. Religious authority relies on this error, and that's why some varieties of atheism are by definition against it.

Faust said...

Interesting. But I'm having trouble getting from "conscientious lack of belief in god," to theological noncognitivism. Where does the conscientious part come in? And does this mean that one can have a "conscientious" lack of belief in morality, due to one's moral noncognitivism?

Jean Kazez said...

Following up on a different point in your post, Jason...

I don't follow why you think it would keep the status quo in place, if people asserted just the partial incompatibility of science and religion. That's seems bizarre to me, because I would never have thought challenging religious authority depended much on taking a stand about incompatibility to begin with. I could challenge the authority of the Pope without having a clue about science--even if I never thought about it for a second.

The Pope's authority is challengable for innumerable reasons: he makes crazy ethical pronouncements, he operates in a wierd, undemocratic church hierarchy, he's done terrible things in the past, he believes in things that can be refuted with good arguments, he presumes the nutty idea of papal infallibility. I have so many reasons to challenge the authority of the pope! So honestly, I just even follow why you'd think that, for simply wanting to talk about partial rather than total incompatibility, I'm doomed to be a supporter of the status quo.

As to theological non-cognitivism. As an atheist, I can sum up my belief quickly: there is no God. Now if that is really a meaningless sentence, there are surely meaningful sentences in the same environment. "There is no person who created the universe." "There is no invisible being who cares about me personally." Etc etc. If I can't believe the first ("There is no God") because it's meaningless, I can believe the others. So atheism is going to involve beliefs.

Jason Streitfeld said...


I don't think everybody who conscientiously lacks a belief in God is a theological non-cognitivist. But I do think everybody who conscientiously lacks belief in God could be considered an atheist. And I do think theological noncognitivists fit that bill. But I wouldn't say moral noncognitivism entails a lack of belief in morality.


I didn't say your position was in support of the status quo in all things. But it does not challenge the status quo as far as the public's understanding of atheism.

As for theological noncognitivism, it doesn't necessarily mean "there is no God" is meaningless. I just means it does not express a proposition. It has no truth conditions. I'd say the same about "there is no creator of the universe," since "creator of the universe" does not seem like a coherent concept. Anyway, I didn't say atheism didn't involve any beliefs. In my case, for example, it involves beliefs about how people talk.

By the way, I do want to make one more comment about the old issues, if you don't mind. You said, "The issue Russell raised was about Mooney challenging the candor of Coyne. It was the very idea of challenging candor that bothered him."

To be more clear, it was the idea of challenging candor about specific topics in specific circumstances that bothered him. As Russell wrote:

What we have here is not a call for politeness or some degree of communicative restraint in the interest of social harmony. It quite plainly says that we should not "criticize" or even "question" the religious views of (so-called) "liberal" Christians or "moderates", and in particular we should not say "there is no God"

So I still don't think that your examples are relevant. Nobody's taken offense at the very general idea that candor, in some cases, should be checked. The issue is whether or not it should be checked in specific ways and in specific contexts. So it really doesn't matter if you can come up with examples of when candor might not be wholly appropriate.

Jean Kazez said...

Re non-cognitivism: right, the issue is truth conditions. I think atheists have beliefs about the universe, not just about how people talk. They believe the universe has no personal creator, for example. That's a perfectly clear idea. The Mona Lisa has a personal creator, the universe doesn't. That's (at least part of) what atheists believe.

Re: status quo. Yes, of course you didn't say I support the status quo in all things. But you did say my position gets in the way of atheists challenging religious authority. As I explained above--no, not true. It does not get in the way. There are lots and lots of grounds for challenging religious authority. To do it, you don't need a sweeping statement about religion/science incompatibility.

Re "the issue": I don't think you have the logic of the debate right. You have to follow it back to the post Russell was replying to.

I say: critics of new atheism are right to worry about contempt, but candor is good.

Russell says: but the critics don't always think candor is good. He gives one example to prove that point. I think he's intimated that crossing over from objecting to contempt to objecting to candor is crossing some sort of line. Now we're in really problematic territory.

You are ignoring that whole backstory, so you're thinking of this as a debate about exactly what Barbara Forrest said in that passage. So you want me to either disagree or agree with Russell about that in particular. But that's giving way too much centrality to the example. The issue is what sorts of things critics of new atheists are justified in saying, not what they should say about a particular article Coyne wrote back in 2009.

Jason Streitfeld said...

As I said, Jean, I don't think "creator of the universe" is a coherent concept. Same goes for "personal creator of the universe."

I think your argument about the status quo issue is erroneous. You are arguing that (1) your position doesn't get in the way of all challenges to religious authority (2) therefore, it doesn't get in the way at all. That's not a valid argument.

As for what Russell is or isn't concerned about, I'm sure he can speak for himself about that. But I don't see where he's responded negatively to the general suggestion that candor isn't always the best policy. I think he's just concerned about particular cases and contexts. So I think you're misrepresenting a bit.

Jean Kazez said...

If "personal creator of the Mona Lisa" make sense, it would be pretty odd if things fell apart when you said "personal creator of the universe."

The important question is whether most important ways of challenging religious authority are still cogent, given my story. I say yes.

Yes, Russell and I are not really extremely far apart on this issue--that's become clear in subsequent comments and posts. That's fine...I don't have any preference to remain polarized.

Jason Streitfeld said...

Right, so we just disagree about what are the most important ways we should be challenging religious authority.

By the way, I don't think the Mona Lisa and the universe are the same sort of thing. They're not in the same logical category. We could fuss over how best to define these terms, but let's say "universe" denotes the natural world, and "creator" denotes something which causes something to come into being. The natural world is, as far as I can comprehend, everything that happens. I do not see a coherent notion of what could happen, apart from the natural world. So, to me, "universe" just denotes everything that happens. If something we to cause everything that happens to happen, then that something would also have to happen. So it would have to create itself, and it could not use anything to do so, because whatever it could use would also have to be created by it. So now we have a creator creating itself out of nothing. This is incoherent. I can understand what it means to create a painting. No problem. But for something to create itself out of nothing? There you've lost me.

Even if we were to say that the universe did, somehow, come into being out of nothing, that is not the same as saying something created it out of nothing. I'm not sure if the former could happen, but that's a matter for physicists to ponder, I suppose. But the latter is just nonsense, as far as I can tell.

Jean Kazez said...

To my mind, the reasons you give are reasons to find it really obvious that there is no creator for the universe. There just couldn't be one--the whole idea makes no sense. It's like "the number 4 is green." Utter nonsense, but the sentence still has truth conditions.

I should say--these things are interesting and complicated (see...I actually think everything that's interesting is complicated!). So I don't really want to reject what you're saying conclusively. Georges' Rey's essay on atheism makes some similar claims and there's a big literature on the semantics of God talk. So...

It's definitely a "more thought necessary" type of topic.

Jason Streitfeld said...

I don't see how utter nonsense could have truth conditions.

Jean Kazez said...

Sentences can make claims that are utterly nonsensical because truth conditions are generated through syntax plus the meaning of words. "The number 4 is green" is nonsense (it's false, obviously false, necessarily false), but it has perfectly clear truth conditions. "God exists" could be like that. I'm not saying that it is--just saying that "nonsense" is one thing and "no truth conditions" is another.

Jason Streitfeld said...

Yes, but I don't suspect that truth conditions are generated that way. I think it has more to do with how sentences are used. It's not just syntax and word meanings. There's plenty of room for disagreement here, of course. Plenty to think about, as you said.

s. wallerstein said...

How about Saint Augustin saw God in a vision? Is "God" meaningless in that sentence?

I don't think so.

Jason Streitfeld said...

Hi, amos. Sorry for not responding sooner. I didn't notice that you'd posted before. (I don't think I got an email for some reason.)

Anyway, if you are saying that St. Augustine saw God in a vision, I would have to wonder what you were talking about. I don't know what it means to see God in a vision. Do you mean that Augustine saw something and believed it was God? Okay, you could be using the word "God" to refer to whatever Augustine happened to see. But what you seem to be saying is that what he happened to see was God, in which case I think you're saying something without sense..

s. wallerstein said...

Right. Augustine saw a fictional character, God, in a vision, just as I would like to meet, Hamlet, another fictional character.

I don't think that talk about fictional characters, either God or Hamlet, is meaningless.

The email thing here doesn't always work for me either.

I'm Amos, by the way.

Jason Streitfeld said...

Yes, of course, I gladly acknowledge that "God" can refer to a fictional character. But when people say "Augustine saw God in a dream," they likely do not mean he saw a fictional character. They're presumably not using the term in that sense.

s. wallerstein said...


But we were talking about whether the term "God" is nonsense, and "God", the fictional character who speaks out of the burning bush, is as meaningful as Hamlet and Madame Bovary are.

All or almost all statements about "God" can be seen as statements about an imaginary being, that is, a fictional character.

Jason Streitfeld said...

I disagree with your last sentence, amos. Some statements using the word "God" are about a fictional character, but I think that accounts for a very small percentage of the cases in which the term is used. But I don't think this is the place to debate the topic further.

Jason Streitfeld said...

For a more elaborate presentation of my thoughts on the literary and theological uses of "God," see Clarifying Theological Noncognitivism.