Thursday, August 23, 2007

Rationalism vs. Superstition: The Enemies of Reason (Part 2)

 
Here's part 2 of Enemies of Reason, Richard Dawkins' attack on superstition. This episode focuses on medical quacks and kooks. It's very entertaining. You'll certainly like the segment on how to increase the number of strands in your DNA!

Read Orac's review at Respectful Insolence. The point to remember is that the battle is between rationalism and superstition and the atheism vs. religion controversy is only a subset of the bigger battle. And evolution vs. creationism is an even smaller subset. You are missing the point when you ask people like Richard Dawkins to align themselves with moderate theists in order to combat the extreme versions of creationism.

31 comments :

  1. You are missing the point when you ask people like Richard Dawkins to align themselves with moderate theists in order to combat the extreme versions of creationism.

    Um ... isn't that only true if someone accepts your assertion that the battle is between rationalism and superstition?

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  2. Superstition seems to me a fearful, paranoid term to adress peoples's metaphysical or religious convictions. It is demonization. Pretty cheap, if you ask me. Not all religious frameworks need to instal false fears. Why must we come up with fear mongering? is this the only way some can think that we can goad people away from religion?

    talkingn about some kind of "ominous battle" between two murky asbraction? What can I say. Bad stuff. This is what gets Dawkobots into thinking we are at the verge of disaster an "he who is not with me is just standing in the way".

    Frankly, I've never seem a more superstitious "rationalism"

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  3. John Pieret asks,

    Um ... isn't that only true if someone accepts your assertion that the battle is between rationalism and superstition?

    Right you are. You need to ask Richard Dawkins whether he agrees. I think I know what he would say but your quibble is well-taken. Get it direct from the horse's mouth. If he agrees that the battle is between rationalism and superstition—he says it in his book and on the TV program—then you should stop asking him to get in bed with moderate theists. Agreed?

    BTW, don't ask me to kowtow to the theistic evolutionists because I've already told you that my battle is the one between rationalism and superstition and not just evolution vs creationism. But you already knew that, didn't you? :-)

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  4. Sanders says,

    Superstition seems to me a fearful, paranoid term to address peoples's metaphysical or religious convictions.

    "Superstition" seems like a pretty good word to me. How would you describe the religious beliefs that require you to eat bread and drink wine while pretending that they are the blood and body of Jesus?

    What's a better word to use for the practice of dunking people in water so they can be accepted into heaven? How about the belief that some words in a book are written by a supernatural being? Wouldn't that be superstition in those cases where the book wasn't the Bible?

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  5. I think it is pretty square (and kinda dumb) not to understand the pretty plain fact those examples you mention are rituals with metaphorical-symbolic meanings: Jesus lives on in the people who cannibalize him; those who rise out of of the water enter into new life. I don't think people who perform these rituals are doing anything truly comparable with avoiding black cats and opening umbrelas indoors. "Sperstition" connotes ultimate stuidity, negativity. Yet these things you mention are completeky harmless. Yes, I do find you are inaccurate and paranoid in calling it all superstiton.

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  6. Those are rituals performed to rembr some of the basic tenets of particular faiths or vene, the cdoctrines of non-religious instituions. Consider, for instance, military or sport rituals. Is turning on the flame in the olympics nothing but a reamingin stuoid old superstition?

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  7. "Wouldn't that be superstition in those cases where the book wasn't the Bible?"

    Huh? Of course not. Silly questions are easy.

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  8. If he agrees that the battle is between rationalism and superstition—he says it in his book and on the TV program—then you should stop asking him to get in bed with moderate theists. Agreed?

    What? I'm supposed to assume that Dawkins is too hidebound, too rigid in his thinking, too certain of his righteousness to even consider changing his mind?

    What was that about "rationalism"?

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  9. John Pieret:

    I'm supposed to assume that Dawkins is too hidebound, too rigid in his thinking, too certain of his righteousness to even consider changing his mind?

    Have you awoken on your sophist side today? What I can see, Moran asks you to consider that Dawkins has a different position than some other people, moderate theists and atheists specifically.

    To change someone else's mind, the first order of business is to understand him.

    [The first order of business should really be to understand yourself. Unfortunately it has been proven over and over again that this is not strictly necessary. :-P]

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  10. Frankly Larry, you caricature of Christianity does look a tad “theophobic”. It smacks of that all too human reaction: the strangeness of those beyond our own subculture sets our imagination racing and this distorts our perceptions of them. Although your caricature may hold good in some quarters, as Sanders points out the rituals you mention are symbols of expression.

    Some theists such as myself perceive that not only does knowledge have an edge but in fact will always have an edge. Now, I’ll accept that atheists have the right to a quiet and polite guffaw at what to them may seem a rather quaint belief akin to those who in ancient days populated the edges of maps with all sorts of products of the imagination - “here be dragons” (although I’ll maintain that theism is just a little more sophisticated than that)

    But really to turn this issue into a crusade that lumps together some very disparate parties who are themselves at odds seems out of all proportion and does no justice to a very muddled situation; it is imposing a simple black vs. white, us vs. them paradigm that is all too typical of humans when they switch to a jingoistic mode. After all, we are on the same globe and we have got to work and live together. Presumably you and I share the same desire to solve the riddles and problems our world throws at us.

    It is quite possible that I, along with many others, have got this theism thing completely and utterly wrong – a mental artifact, perhaps, of human evolutionary development that can now be left behind. If in the fullness of time the atheist argument wins the day, fair enough: but as sure as eggs are eggs theists are not going to respond to name calling and “strawmanning”. However, having said that I’ll admit that some of your neighbors do hold some quite incomprehensible views in this connection, so perhaps I can understand the name calling.

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  11. Sanders:

    Superstition seems to me a fearful, paranoid term to adress peoples's metaphysical or religious convictions. It is demonization. Pretty cheap, if you ask me.

    "Superstition" describes well the origin and practice of most, perhaps all, of religions. Beliefs that events are influenced by specific behaviors without having a causal relationship; idolatry; a state of mind resulting from such beliefs. I doubt you can abstract away the inherent idolatry.

    This is what gets Dawkobots into thinking we are at the verge of disaster

    "Dawkobots" seems to me a fearful, paranoid term to address people's convictions. It is demonization. Pretty cheap, if you ask me.

    More to the point, can you give an example of individuals that show such concern?

    Maybe you can. To not be accused of moving goal posts: If you are successful, the next steps would be to show that such concerns results in intolerance in some, and that the resulting group has practical influence.

    If you can't do this, your concern of intolerance is not well founded.

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  12. Torbojn:

    To change someone else's mind, the first order of business is to understand him.

    I'll buy that!

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  13. Timothy Reeves:

    You made a well considered comment. I can't presume to speak for Larry, but I could give my opinion:

    "Religion" is a multifaceted phenomena, which is hard to describe fully, as many other human endeavors. But we can define practical descriptions of parts that interests us.

    Here we are interested in rationalism vs superstition at large, and religion happens to fall under the later by definition. (See my comment to John.)

    I don't see any conscious attempt of caricature, it is merely an automatic result of an objective analysis. This might be upsetting for those that are analyzed and this is what much of the discussion is about. Religion has always vied for special treatment and quite frankly this looks for us outsiders as a reflexive plea for more of this.

    So here is perhaps a point that we can agree on - religion takes up an inordinate amount of this debate. As I see it partly because of those many special pleas and other contingencies touched on above, partly because of large groups of anti-rational denialists (creationists, anti-abortionists, et cetera) within religions.

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  14. Yes Torbjorn, the way we categorize reality does evidence our valued judgments and interests as do the loaded terms we use to designate the categories

    Religion has tremendous social impetus – evidence that we are not just dealing with a kind of “believe in father Christmas” movement and that we have here a deep human psychological complex.

    So atheists have a real poser on their hands (and, boy, am I glad I’m not one of them!): Do atheists attempt to marginalize religion by not giving it any space (in blogs for example) or do they embark on a vociferous campaign against it?

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  15. Timothy V Reeves says,

    Frankly Larry, you caricature of Christianity does look a tad “theophobic”. It smacks of that all too human reaction: the strangeness of those beyond our own subculture sets our imagination racing and this distorts our perceptions of them. Although your caricature may hold good in some quarters, as Sanders points out the rituals you mention are symbols of expression.

    I understand your objection—really I do. The problem is that in order to have this debate there has to be a certain degree of simplification and bluntness. When someone objects to my use of the word "superstition" it helps to point out the most obvious examples. That person can then come back and admit that they engage in these superstitious actions or reject them in favor of a much less superstitious version of religion.

    I presume you are taking the second option. That's fine by me. We can now move on to a discussion of the much more "sophisticated" versions of religion and decide whether those versions meet the definition of superstition or not.

    Perhaps you could start by telling me what you believe so that I can address your concerns? Do you believe that Jesus Christ is the son of God and that his mother was a virgin? If so, how would you characterize the other religions, such as the religion of the ancient Greeks, that held similar beliefs about their gods? Where those beliefs superstitious but your's aren't?

    But really to turn this issue into a crusade that lumps together some very disparate parties who are themselves at odds seems out of all proportion and does no justice to a very muddled situation; it is imposing a simple black vs. white, us vs. them paradigm that is all too typical of humans when they switch to a jingoistic mode. After all, we are on the same globe and we have got to work and live together. Presumably you and I share the same desire to solve the riddles and problems our world throws at us.

    There are two issues here.

    First, is it a black and white issue to debate whether or not supernatural beings exist? Yes, it is. There is no middle ground. The concept of a God who partially exists is not a viable option.

    What you're objecting to is being lumped in with Hindus, Satan worshippers, and Jehovah's Witnesses. This is insulting because, according to you, they are kooks and your versions of religion is the only true religion. I understand that perspective. I understand the perspective of all your colleagues who claim that their religion is ever so much more sophisticated than the false ones that the atheists rave against. The Hindu scholars share your point of view and so do sophisticated Jehovah's Witnesses.

    From my perspective you are all believers in supernatural beings and I don't think those beings exist. Therefore, from my perspective, you are all in the same lump.

    The second issue is one of tolerance. Yes, it's true that we all live on the same planet and we all have to live and work together. What's your point?

    I also have to get along with right-wing conservatives and pre-med students but that doesn't mean I have to agree with them. We can have wonderful and stimulating, no-holds-barred, debates and then go out for a beer.

    The problem with many religious people is that they can't handle such debates. They seem to be extremely sensitive to anything that challenges their way of thinking. Unlike all other kinds of disagreement, the questioning of religion seems to be out of bounds. Or, at least that's what the believers would like.

    Please don't accuse me of intolerance, which is what you're implying. We can discuss these issues freely and openly and agree to disagree. Just because you are a religious person does not mean that I wouldn't vote for you.

    If in the fullness of time the atheist argument wins the day, fair enough: but as sure as eggs are eggs theists are not going to respond to name calling and "strawmanning".

    I hate it when people set up a strawman version of what I believe then attack it. This is wrong and I try not to treat other people's arguments that way. However, you've got to understand that in dealing with religious beliefs we atheists have a really difficult time. Those beliefs are all over the map so we need to make some generalizations. Whenever we do so you can be certain that we'll hear from someone who doesn't fit the generalization and raises the specter of the strawman.

    As for "name-calling," you are just being overly sensitive. If you don't like my use of the word "superstition" to describe religion then, please, show me why the definition doesn't apply.

    You could help by describing what you do believe instead of what you don't believe. I can't deal with your particular version of religion unless I know what it is.

    Finally, I note the irony of your claim that, "as sure as eggs are eggs theists are not going to respond to name calling and 'strawmanning'." It didn't apply to you and it sure isn't applying to the thousands of other theists who have spoken out against Dawkins, Dennet, Harris, and Hitchins. At long last, we are having a debate about the existence of God and it's happening because of, not in spite of, the "name calling" and (presumed) "strawmanning."

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  16. Torbjörn:

    Moran asks you to consider that Dawkins has a different position than some other people ...

    No, what Larry has done is claim that the battle is the one that he and Dawkins want to fight and what everyone else considers important, such as science education, is secondary. Here is what he said:

    The point to remember is that the battle is between rationalism and superstition and the atheism vs. religion controversy is only a subset of the bigger battle. And evolution vs. creationism is an even smaller subset.

    Dawkins and Larry are entitled to their opinion and so are we. We are not "missing the point," we are disagreeing with their assertions. And the attempt to portray us as confused, rather than as opposed, is cheap rhetoric.

    To change someone else's mind, the first order of business is to understand him.

    That may be true but you are telling the wrong person.

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  17. Thanks for the reply Larry; you've really put me on the spot! I'll be back!

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  18. I am not paranoid about religion and I am certainly not paranoid about dawkins (and his all too like-minded and predictable followers).
    They can toot all the nonsense they want.
    Those who show more convincing points will actually grow. Those who don't mind about the accuracy of their arguments will simply "extremize" their own.

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  19. John, you'd make a good lawyer.

    Why, thank you!

    Lawyers at their best (and I actually strive for that -- at times, at least) attempt to apply logic and clearly stated principles to difficult fact situations and argue in favor of a rational outcome. I don't apologize for that part of the profession ... though there is plenty else I do.

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  20. John Pieret says,

    Lawyers at their best (and I actually strive for that -- at times, at least) attempt to apply logic and clearly stated principles to difficult fact situations and argue in favor of a rational outcome. I don't apologize for that part of the profession ... though there is plenty else I do.

    And their other important characteristic is that they are obliged to defend a position to the best of their ability even is it is illogical and they don't personally believe it. In other words, they are experts at obfuscation.

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  21. I don't think Pieret is unsincere. We are not in court, he's not getting paid here, haha

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  22. In other words, they are experts at obfuscation.

    Which means we have great training in recognizing it when we see it.

    And Sanders is right ... the only client I have here is myself and, as you well know, we all believe that we are the ones defending the truth.

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  23. Thanks again Larry for your reply and challenging points. Sorry to over burden your blog with this tediously long comment, but you asked for it: “Perhaps you could start by telling me what you believe so that I can address your concerns? …. You could help by describing what you do believe instead of what you don't believe. I can't deal with your particular version of religion unless I know what it is.” Anyway, at least you can lay claim to your blog being an active and stimulating forum that gives space to views of different shades.

    I’ll concede that as there is a fundamental conceptual discontinuity in the thinking of theists and atheists and therefore atheists have a right and an interest to sharply distinguish themselves from the broad mass of theists who they presumably regard as having a fundamentally flawed mindset. However, when it comes to working with those who are also anxious to illuminate the human predicament I guess that you would relate better to theists who don’t hold young creationist or ID views, so in that context you might find distinguishing yourself so sharply is a little strained and has less utility; hence my comment about working together.

    My reference to name calling and ‘strawmanning’ seems fair comment upon what, in some quarters, is the polarized and degenerated state of the atheism/theism debate. However, I would not want to just accuse atheists of this: Guilt is to be found on both sides of the debate. The persons concerned probably know who they are. If the cap fits wear it!


    ‘Superstition’ is a word with pejorative connotations: it refers to beliefs that fly in the face of evidence, rationality, unintelligibility, coherence and may be mixed up with notions of ‘spirits’ lurking round every corner. Whether my own ‘beliefs’ classify as such you will have to judge for yourself, although I think one needs to resist the temptation to automatically categorize as superstition any views that cut across our own implicit ontological paradigm. It is difficult to be fully self-aware of the deeply embedded assumptions in our Weltanschauung; when faced with strange ontologies these assumptions surface in thought as a vague intuitive sense that something is wrong. For example, remember Einstein’s reference to “SPOOKY action at a distance”? I think we are all having intuitive problems with the non-locality of quantum mechanics. Superstition has more to do with bad epistemology than it does with alienation from certain ontological categories. (However, it’s true that epistemology and ontology are coupled in mutual interaction)

    In an attempt to forestall any sense of personal affront let me concede from the outset that what now follows is a thin strand of conjecture which is certainly NOT sufficient to bully anyone into belief. I have yet to see any “killer evidence” in favor of God’s existence; My own view is that ‘God’ along with other non-trivial highly complex objects (such as society, the human psyche, history, evolution and even science itself) have such complicated logical structures that “killer evidence” is not easy to secure when trying to pin down their nature - hence the disputations surrounding subjects like religion, politics and history. Perhaps that’s why the subject of ID generates so much heat – Listening to some IDers one gets the impression they have such evidence.

    Anyway, as requested, a summary of my own ‘beliefs’, if such they are:

    1). The notion of God, for me, has a theoretical position: ‘God’ is the conjectured asiety inhabiting the region beyond what seems to be a mathematically necessary edge to human knowledge. Not so much God of the Gaps as God of THE gap. True, this is just a rehash of the old cosmological argument but a rehashing, that when worked out in more detail makes the dichotomy of “deism” vs “interventionism” look passé.

    2.) The complexity spectrum starts from relatively simple systems like the laws of physics, tracks its way through the complex self-sustaining systems of biology, and has an end point in the ultimate complexity of randomness. Some theorists posit a hidden background of infinite randomness as the underlying creative substrate of our cosmos. But what if the creative substrate is to be found in that vast region in between randomness and simple systems? Our own self-sustaining biology is suggestive of the vast potential of that platonic domain. Given that this domain is infinite what else can be found inhabiting it? – A self-sustaining and infinite system that locks itself in for eternity?

    3) My theism does have some isomorphisms with the SETI project: SETI is based on a theoretical possibility (rather than a certainty). Some people think it is worth spending some time and money on. It’s a gamble but SETI might find something big. Well, I’m going for even bigger stakes; the theoretical notion of aseity; like a gap in a table of fundamental particles the existence of aseity is hinted at by the edge of knowledge. As with SETI my theism takes more the form of a search, and less a system of dogmatic belief. But with stakes so high, the wager is that much bigger; theism demands nothing less than one’s life. (Even so, many touchy-feely Christians with a deeply felt inner conviction which they are apt to impose on others tends to despise this ‘theoretical’ take on faith)

    4) The widespread notion of deity is one that clearly finds fertile ground in the human psyche; in short “deity” is not a notion that is merely idiosyncratic of our times and culture, although it is mediated by that culture. Given the cultural gravitas of the notion of deity I feel justified in giving the subject research time that I wouldn’t give the spaghetti monster. One area of research is this: As the socio-biologists have attempted to do with altruism, can we find a developmental reason why humans are so susceptible to the notion of deity? Is it just a quirky random result of some evolutionary legacy - a developmental delusion? Atheist evolutionists ought to take theism seriously on a socio-biological and cultural level at least. Tentatively mooted teapots orbiting the Sun don’t quite need the same attention


    5) Grace is a very important concept here: If aseity has the traits of personality/sentience/intelligence we are very dependent on aseity choosing to put itself under the microscope. That’s what theologians call a grace revelation.


    6) Why I opt for the Christian model of revelation is yet another facet that I won’t give much space to here. Christ the ‘Son of God’? That’s a metaphor and symbol for the express nature of the Christ revelation. Virgin birth? – yes, given the powers of aseity and the message ‘He’ might want to convey by imprinting it upon the story of history – this is what they call theology. Much of the sustenance for belief comes from personal anecdote and experience, but this would not (rightfully) classify as formally acceptable evidence and therefore should not be used to try and force the issue with unbelievers, so I won’t insult you with that.

    7) No! I do not, repeat DO NOT accept that mine is the only true version of Christianity/Religion; if Southern Baptists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Catholics, Jews, even hindus’ and ancient Greeks have somehow found themselves in a position of grace I’m in no position to deny the free gift of God. True, religions, cargo cult style, go in for some weird (& sometimes debauched) elaborations on the theme, but if grace is really that amazing willful and unintentional faults in perception (theirs and mine) will be covered and forgiven, if forgiveness is sought for. The parent-child metaphor is quite a good one.

    Now you are going to tell me I’ve got wrong…. So?… can’t I get it wrong? Aren’t I allowed to be fallible? Isn’t fallibility part of the human job description? But the stakes are particularly high here - as high they come, in fact. Sorry to go round the same old loop again, but at least I’m conceding (unlike some) that I haven’t got any killer evidence for you, so you can go to sleep peacefully tonight and wake up the same old atheist Larry untroubled by even the remote possibility of a demanding, concerned aseity that asks for nothing less than your life…. Ahhh… Sacrifice! That’s another well established albeit perversely elaborated theme of history!

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  24. Timothy,

    Thanks for your lengthy reply. I don't have time to engage in a detained discussion of every point so let me stick to the big issue.

    Timothy V Reeves says,

    Now you are going to tell me I’ve got wrong…. So?… can’t I get it wrong? Aren’t I allowed to be fallible? Isn’t fallibility part of the human job description?

    I'm going to make the point that none of your arguments are convincing to me so I'm not going to follow you down the path to theism. Furthermore, to me your beliefs are indistinguishable from what we would both call superstitions in other contexts. What that means is that I don't hesitate to label your beliefs—which I don't share—superstitions as well.

    But the stakes are particularly high here - as high they come, in fact.

    I agree. Deciding whether or not to actively believe in the existence of supernatural beings is one of the most important decisions you can make. Nobody can avoid this decision, even agnostics.

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  25. You should not sweep away everything that Timothy says, you are reacting like a robot. Timothy KNOWS he cannot say his religion is the only true one. Seeems like at least some christians DID get what the story of the good samaritan is about. Larry himslef could benefit from reflecting on that particular "supersititious" tale.
    This pretty much disables what was Larry's best point in the exposition above, Larry. Of course Particular faiths are obviously not lobjective touchable realities, but see, if those who belive in a faith acknowledege they have "belief" and do not pretend to to impose it on you....what is you problem? Your stuff looks more like a tirade of righteousness , getting into those people's businesses if you ask me.
    The religious people you want to beware of, are those who say they posses the only coirrect view, the "truth": Unfortunately, plenty of "scientists" or "rationalists" similarly insist on having THE ONLY possibly approach while at the same time showing flaws so obvious, that the net result is the caricaturization of science and reason.
    Larry, think about this: if your "war on superstition" (gee...sounds familiar, this "war on something" fear, fear, fear!) is truly a war against superstition "in general", I would recommend that you arguments were appilcable to ANY religion, and specially so, Buddhism. Seems to me you get caught attacking the specific beliefs of some faiths but are incapable of providenind a general refutation taht is appplicable to ANY religion that may show up. Time to stop beating the bush and find the heart of te question.
    Maybe you WILL find out that religion is not 100% "superstiton"

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  26. For example, what to say about his piece of "superstition"?

    "Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might, for in the grave, where you are going, there is neither working nor planning nor knowledge nor wisdom." - Ecclesiastes 9:10

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  27. "I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all."
    Ecclesiastes 9:11

    This little bit of "superstition" seems to me actually MUCH wiser than the intuitions of modern social darwinism and evolutionary psychology.

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  28. Thanks for giving that a bit of consideration Larry as I know you are a busy man. Hope there are no hard feelings. If there are then perhaps the sort of things Sanders is talking about will help – those complex intangibles of attitude and wisdom. In fact I believe these things are a vital part of the scientific mental toolkit - in particular the need to constantly review oneself and what one believes, although this always raises the specter of self-error and all the issues of social kudos, self image, pride, moral strength that that raises. We need to make it as easy as possible for scientists to err and to admit to error. They are explorers and they may not have the luck to return with bounty – the less social stigmatization when the fail the better. The greatest bounty they will find in their explorations is moral strength and courage.

    At the very least I hope you don’t see me as barricading myself into a corner and not facing the difficult challenges that atheism provides for theists such as my self. In actual fact I keep a little box in my brain labeled “atheism” and occasionally I look in it to see if I might have erred. Anyway, perhaps I can now dispense with that box and replace it with a link to ‘Sandwalk”!

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  29. BTW: Larry, there was no realistic expectation that you would follow me into theism - may main object here was to see if you would apply that naughty little emotive word "superstition' to my current take on the theism/atheism issue!

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  30. Sorry for the late answers, I have had too much other stuff in my hands.

    So FWIW:

    John Pieret:

    Nothing of what you say denies that Moran simply asks you to consider that Dawkins has a different position. If it's not sophism, when it's a blindness.

    you are telling the wrong person

    As I said, seems like blindness.

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