Sunday, April 26, 2009

Brandon Thinks I'm Illogical

 
Brandon writes on Siris: Moran and the 'Courtier's Reply'.
Larry Moran suffers what looks like a complete lapse of critical thought in a recent post on the so-called 'Courtier's Reply'. As he puts it:
Atheists and theists often discuss the existence of God. Unfortunately, these discussions often degenerate into classic Christian apologetics where the main goal of the theist is to rationalize why his or her god doesn't conflict with rationality.

Before long they are rambling on about how to resolve the problem of evil or why god doesn't reveal herself. These problems only exist once you've accepted the premise that there is a god/spirit. This sort of apologetics has nothing to do with the fundamental question of whether god exists in the first place.
Now, Moran is usually pretty reasonable; but this argument is so thoroughly absurd and irrational that he should be ashamed to have put it forward. Let's abstract from the situation a bit to show why. Take a position, A, and a contrary position, B. Now suppose that A gives an objection to B. To this objection, B responds with an argument, whether good or bad, that the objection fails. To which A replies, "This sort of apologetics has nothing to do with the fundamental question of whether B is true in the first place." But this is demonstrably false, of course; B's argument was dealing with an objection put forward by A. What A is trying to do is irrational: he's trying to rig the argument so that his objections are never answered, independently of whether they can be, by dismissing any answer that might be made to them as 'apologetics that have nothing to do' with the original question.

So it is here. The reason theists talk about the problem of evil or the problem of hiddenness is that atheists typically raise these as objections to theism.
I don't talk about the "problem of evil" when I'm discussing the possible existence of supernatural beings and neither do many other atheists.

The point of the Coutrier's Reply is that theists bring up these "problems" when they should be discussing whether gods exist.

The Courtier's Reply does not apply when atheists engage in discussions about the problem of evil or any other problem that theists have when they're trying to reconcile superstition and rationality. It only applies when theists try moving the goalposts—which they do all the time.
It's unfortunate, too, because it makes Moran seem more unreasonable than he probably is. He ends by saying that he would be happy to discuss evidence for theism. This would sound somewhat more sincere if he hadn't just finished giving an argument for why he doesn't have to listen to any responses to any objections he might raise against this purported evidence.
I said I'd be happy to discuss any evidence for the existence of a spiritual world and I stand by that statement.

Brandon, if you or anyone else wants to debate the existence of the supernatural then, by all means, give it your best shot. Give me the evidence for the existence of god(s) and I promise to listen. Maybe I misunderstood your "evidence." Are you saying that the presence of evil in the world is evidence that god(s) exist?


32 comments :

  1. There is a distinction between strong atheism and weak atheism. Strong atheism attempts to disprove the existence of God by showing that the concept itself is contradictory, or by pointing out some other insoluble difficulty, like the problem of evil. In this context all the subtle theologizing IS relevant because it weakens the force of the atheist's argument, and shows that there is no inherent difficulty with the god-concept. The typical atheist response would be to resort to a probabilistic argument from evil rather than a logical one.

    The weak atheist, on the other hand, mereley states there is no reason to believe in God and therefore God-belief is not warranted. Larry seems to be arguing from this position, and from that point of view much theology would indeed be irrelevant.

    Of course, it must be admitted that it is a rare "weak atheist" who doesn't let himself indulge in a little strong atheism from time to time, especially when talking with other atheists.

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  3. Brandon makes two statements: "Moran is usually pretty reasonable" and "it [Moran's argument] makes Moran seem more unreasonable than he probably is."

    Is it always necessary to be reasonable? Doesn't it seem that, sometimes, being reasonable means being accommodating?

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  4. or by pointing out some other insoluble difficulty, like the problem of evil. In this context all the subtle theologizing IS relevant because it weakens the force of the atheist's argument, and shows that there is no inherent difficulty with the god-concept.As a 50/50 atheist/agnostic I freely admit my ignorance and wish to be educated, and I mean that with no sarcasm. How exactly does the problem of evil weaken the strong atheist argument? It may also be helpful to enlighten us as to exactly what you think "the problem of evil" is.

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  5. The point of the Courtier's Reply is that theists bring up these "problems" when they should be discussing whether gods exist.And the point of Brandon's post is that the Courtier's Reply criticism is only reasonable when the courtier's reply is a red herring. If the atheist critic types a piece of hogwash that reveals that he doesn't know what the hell he's talking about (no matter the subject) then when he's corrected he can hardly rescue his credibility by haughtily intoning, "Courtier's Reply." You should pay careful attention to Brandon's comparison of those who misuse the Courtier's Reply retort with those who defend ID. He's right, and the distinction he's making is really important. PZ's fable is brilliant but easily misused, and those who make that mistake look foolish at best.

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  6. Anon

    I was not saying that the problem of evil weakens the strong atheist argument. I was saying that the problem of evil is an argument that strong atheists use to cast doubts on the coherence of the god-concept. Hence any response that the theist can give will weaken the strong atheist argument. Hence some theologizing may be relevant.

    This is not such a problem for the weak atheist, who simply proceeds on lack of evidence.

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  7. I'm happy to include theology as a subdiscipline within philosophy. To me theology is god-talk, and can be discussed in atheistic or theistic frameworks.
    The notion of a god can be used to make points that are not specially religious, (Einsteins determinism in "god does not throw dice" statement, or Haldane on "gods fondness for beatles")

    The Courtier's reply thing does seem anti-intellectual to me. You cannot know beforehand that any argument made assuming god's existence is not going to be worth knowing (it may even bring forth some quite well-resolved atheistic conclusions). It kind of reminds me of creationists who need not look into an evolutionary journal. What good can an evolutionary journal be, if it is evolutionary?

    Is this just a matter of simple acceptance or not of basic premises? Is there any room for...discussion?

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  8. A. Vargas:

    You cannot know beforehand that any argument made assuming god's existence is not going to be worth knowing (it may even bring forth some quite well-resolved atheistic conclusions).This is simply wrong; contrary to Logic 101. Any argument that includes a false premise is by definition unsound. Any argument that includes a controversial premise is sound if and only if the truth of the controversial premise is first established.

    The notion of a god can be used to make points that are not specially religious, (Einsteins determinism in "god does not throw dice" statement, or Haldane on "gods fondness for beatles")This is a straw man: no one objects to entirely metaphorical use of the word "God" in a purely natural context. Dawkins makes this point explicitly in The God Delusion. (And it was John Lennon, IIRC, who remarked that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus. <wink>)

    It kind of reminds me of creationists who need not look into an evolutionary journal. What good can an evolutionary journal be, if it is evolutionary?The difference is that scientists -- unlike creationists -- do not demand that one have a thorough and complete knowledge of evolutionary biology before venturing an opinion as to its truth. The evidence that evolution is true is a tiny subset of the whole of evolutionary biology.

    In the original essay, Myers does not address the entirely reasonable and moderate issue that one should understand apologetic arguments in order to rebut them. He addresses, rather, the claim that one must have a thorough knowledge of theology, the whole of religious thinking, before one can venture an opinion as to its foundational premises.

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  9. paul01 says,

    There is a distinction between strong atheism and weak atheism. Strong atheism attempts to disprove the existence of God by showing that the concept itself is contradictory, or by pointing out some other insoluble difficulty, like the problem of evil.

    I don't get this at all. There are lots of gods who are evil, take Satan for example. There are lots of gods who are silly and sometimes evil and who don't care very much about humans except as playthings—many of the Greek gods fall into this category.

    Why would a weak atheist point to a "problem" with evil as a way of disproving the existence of supernatural beings?

    The only time that a "problem" arises is if you are not only defending the existence of supernatural beings but, in addition, the existence of a particular supernatural being whose goals and wishes have been revealed to you though some special form of invisible communication. In other words, a "good" and perfect god who created humans.

    That's the particular kind of god that raises the "problem" of evil.

    Why would any strong atheist want to debate that issue when the existence of any god is in doubt, let alone one who is good?

    I'm still waiting to hear a good argument for the existence of god.

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  10. Several points:
    1) To a theist everything is evidence for their god. Existence of good? God inspired. Existence of evil? Man's fallen state from their god.

    2) Weak and strong atheists both will attempt to show that the descriptions of some gods are so contradictory that such an entity cannot exist and no amount of theological meanderings will rescue that god from its morass of contradictions (at least, not without a great deal of cognitive dissonance). Strong atheists will use (I think, wrongfully) induction to show that no gods exist.

    3) I have yet to see any convincing argument for any traditional, interfering god's existence. Plantinga tries to trot out Anselm's ontological argument and wrap it up in S5-modal logic but fails to get around Hume's original rebuttal and opens the door to the argument "if any world exists with no god, then all worlds have no god".

    4) Of course some strong evidence that any god or a non-natural/spiritual world would be pretty convincing. But nothing yet.

    --
    Martin

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  11. paul01:

    Hence any response that the theist can give will weaken the strong atheist argument. Hence some theologizing may be relevant. -

    This is not correct. It is not the case that any response will weaken the atheist argument: "La la la I can't hear you," for example, is a response that would not weaken the atheist argument.

    Any direct response to the problem of evil would be, by definition, an apologetic argument. All "theological" response are of the form, "By 'all good', we mean something different than 'all good.'" Which, I suppose, is all right: if you don't want to hold that your God is all good (or, alternatively, that what we call "good" by ordinary usage has nothing whatsoever to do with the completely different concept of God's goodness), that's just an admission that the atheist PoE is valid.

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  12. Strong atheists will use (I think, wrongfully) induction to show that no gods exist. -

    If you think atheists wrongly use induction (or whatever you want to label the scientific method) to show that no gods exist, on what basis do you accept the "inductive" basis for all of science?

    If we don't know that God does not exist, we don't know anything at all. Why should we hold atheism to a higher standard than all of science, to which each of us daily entrusts our prosperity, health and very life?

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  13. Larry

    "Why would any strong atheist want to debate that issue when the existence of any god is in doubt, let alone one who is good?"This kind of illustrates my point. The weak atheist simply demands evidence and finds it lacking. For him the PoE is a little beside the point.

    There are, however, strong atheists who do employ the PoE as an argument, declaring a contradiction bewteen omniscience, benevolence and the existence of "evil" (suffering). Such atheists are targeting a particular God with certain attributes (omniscience, benevolence), and it is they who are choosing the ground. So why would any stong atheist want to debate that issue? I don't know. Ask him.

    On the other hand, if you were to ask "Why would any weak atheist want to debate that issue, you would have a point.


    Barefoot

    Of course I did not mean "any" respone, just a response that might make the atheist reformulate his argument, find a different mode of expression, etc. I did not mean to imply anything about the ultimate conclusion of the argument, just the relevance of considerations that the theist might raise.

    Actually, I agree with something you said in your reply to A. Vargas, which probably resolves the isuue for me. I will quote:

    "In the original essay, Myers does not address the entirely reasonable and moderate issue that one should understand apologetic arguments in order to rebut them. He addresses, rather, the claim that one must have a thorough knowledge of theology, the whole of religious thinking, before one can venture an opinion as to its foundational premises."It would be a rare atheist who did not bring up the PoE from time to time, and such an atheist should not step into the fray unprepared.

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  14. Just for the record, and a little off the beaten track.

    I agree with MartinDH's point #3, and have had similar thoughts myself. Plantinga opens the door to a sort of Modal Problem of Evil.
    He would end up having to defend against the PoE in all possible worlds.

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  15. paul01: Of course I did not mean "any" respone, just a response that might make the atheist reformulate his argument, find a different mode of expression, etc.I understand, which is why I went on to address responses on point, which would by definition be relevant apologetic arguments, not irrelevant theological arguments.

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  16. "This is simply wrong; contrary to Logic 101. Any argument that includes a false premise is by definition unsound"

    You're being anal. Sure, the argument is "unsound" but may still be interesting or even correct. Correct arrguments and discoveries CAN be made despite false premises. Study a little history of science,

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  17. I object to being called "weak".
    And discussing theodicy just gets stupid.

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  18. It is certainly "logical" that if a premise is false, many arguments constructed on the basis of this false premise are likely to be false. It does not take the marvelous brain of a genius logician to figure that out. A creationist uses "logic" in exactly the same way. They think the basic premise of evolution is wrong: hence, they can blissfully ignore all of evolutionary biology.

    So far, this sounds perfectly "logical", but the question then is how in first place do we accept or reject premises. By pure whim? Nope.

    You need to be able to play ball, that is at least consider the alternative possibility. If not, you have a non-discussion. That means you need to be able to at least conditionally accept the validity of the debated premise.

    How is PZ's argument NOT an invitation to ignore ALL of theology? Think about what you said "The evidence that evolution is true is a tiny subset of the whole of evolutionary biology". It is also true that only some of theology is required for debating whether god exists or not. Why should atheists have to use an argument to ignore ALL of theology,?


    Larry's posture seems very close-minded to me "I don't accept your premise, therefore we have nothing to debate about". It is "logical", but only in a very restricted domain. Zoom out a little and you see it is actually very unreasonable.

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  19. If you think atheists wrongly use induction (or whatever you want to label the scientific method) to show that no gods exist, on what basis do you accept the "inductive" basis for all of science?I didn't say induction, in and of itself, is wrong (although Hume seems to think so, it has stood mankind good stead in his scientific endeavors, so, at least, it has a pragmatic utility).

    I feel that strong atheists make the inductive conclusion from too few corner cases. I.e. the Abrahamic, Hindu, Nordic, Grecian &c. gods are all related cases of "making it up as you go along". But, IMO, the god of the panentheists and deists is harder to dismiss. Few (if any) distinguishing properties are claimed for these.

    So extending the induction from "no man made gods" to "no gods", I feel, is wrong.

    --
    Martin

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  20. "I'm still waiting to hear a good argument for the existence of god."

    Your...umm...prayers have been answered! Here's not one but more than 300.

    http://www.godlessgeeks.com/LINKS/GodProof.htm

    Some convincing ones:

    MORAL ARGUMENT (I)
    (1) Professor Larry Moran, a well-known atheist, was morally inferior to the rest of us.
    (2) Therefore, God exists.

    ARGUMENT FROM GUITAR MASTERY
    (1) Eric Clapton is God.
    (2) Therefore, God exists.

    ARGUMENT FROM INTERNET AUTHORITY
    (1) There is a website that successfully argues for the existence of God.
    (2) Here is the URL.
    (3) Therefore, God exists.

    Surely now you will bow

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  21. A. Vargas: You're being anal. Sure, the argument is "unsound" but may still be interesting or even correct. Correct arrguments and discoveries CAN be made despite false premises. Study a little history of science, -

    This is pure, "I'm rigorous, you're fussy, he's anal," bullshit.

    The conclusion of an unsound argument might be true. I am not, however, in any way obliged intellectually or ethically to consider unsound arguments: the space of unsound arguments is probably of a higher cardinality than that of sound arguments.

    If you (in the rhetorical sense) want me to consider an argument, it's your problem to make the argument sound. I'm not being close minded, just efficient.

    You need to be able to play ball, that is at least consider the alternative possibility. If not, you have a non-discussion. That means you need to be able to at least conditionally accept the validity of the debated premise. -

    To what end? To do your heavy lifting for you? I don't need to do squat. You have to make the premises plausible. You can't just take any old premises and make it my responsibility to make discussion possible. And what specifically do you mean by "conditionally" accept? On what conditions should I accept? I take plausible soundness as a condition, but you don't like that condition. What alternatives do you suggest?

    You may be confusing hypotheses of evidentiary arguments with premises of syllogistic arguments. If you think you can explain the evidence in a serious, rigorous manner, I'm willing to entertain a wide range of hypotheses. But even when theists venture evidentiary arguments, those arguments do not explain the evidence, they exist to argue that no possible evidence could falsify their position, which is no argument at all.

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  22. MartinDH:

    I didn't say induction, in and of itself, is wrong (although Hume seems to think so, it has stood mankind good stead in his scientific endeavors, so, at least, it has a pragmatic utility). -

    Hume proved only that one cannot rigorously deduce the principle of induction: it must be accepted as a premise or not at all. The scientific method, however, is not at all inductive in Hume's sense: we do not reason directly from repeated phenomena to a universal; the process is more akin to the hypothetico-inductive model, with a strong exhortation to look for exceptions, not confirmations.

    Be that as it may: that no god or gods exist is just as well-justified (by whatever means you choose) as any scientific belief. If one is epistemically consistent, to be agnostic about one is to be equally agnostic of the other.

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  23. Let me add further: scientists have come up with absolutely killer arguments establishing any number of wildly counter-intuitive propositions beyond a reasonable doubt, e.g. the germ theory of disease, continental drift, quantum mechanics. And that's just in the last couple hundred years.

    Theists do not deserve a priori the benefit of the doubt any more than scientists, and after five thousand years of theistic "thinking", they have come up with even a moderately good argument for exactly nothing. Zero. Zilch. Nada.

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  26. A good bit of theology and metaphysics is made assuming that god exists, and you guys are right in pointing out that much of it is not relevant to discuss whether god actually exists or not. BUT this does not imply that any argument propagated in association to a theological framework is going to be bullshit. Example: do unto others, buddhist cognitive philsophy, and St Augustine's return to the classics that would ultimately help bring on "rationalism" to the highly mystical world of medieval europe. This is not "nothing zeit nada". You are just predisposed to assume beforehand that nothing good can come from theology, that's why you keep yourself ignorant (and wrong)

    Certainly: you don't need to read the reflections of the pope on the existence of limbo, but a little knowledge about the most relevant aspects of theology and religion means you don't need to resort to this pig-headed argument and chest-out pride about your ignorance of anything theological. It is silly, and it LOOKS silly, too.

    I can cite to you right here bits of the bible that actually sound wonderfully atheistic. Have you read ecclesiastes?

    There's a reason why the courtier's reply is not a part of phislosophy. It's just a cheap trick and self-delusion by part of some internet neoatheists.

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  27. do unto others, buddhist cognitive philsophy, and St Augustine's return to the classics that would ultimately help bring on "rationalism" to the highly mystical world of medieval europe. -

    None of these positions depend at all on the existence of God (at least not to the extent they're sound), and are thus not theological positions. Just tacking God onto a good argument doesn't make it theological.

    The (correct) position that theology is 100% bullshit is different from the (incorrect) position that anything a theist says is 100% bullshit.

    A little knowledge about the most relevant aspects of theology and religion means you don't need to resort to this pig-headed argument and chest-out pride about your ignorance of anything theological. It is silly, and it LOOKS silly, too. -

    I — and most other atheists — do have a little knowledge about the the most relevant aspects of theology and religion. Myers Courtier's Reply essay is a response to those theists who demand a comprehensive knowledge of theology to gain standing to address apologetic arguments. The Courtier's Reply is just a particular rhetorical form of the fallacy of shifting of the burden of proof.

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  28. I think the "the burden of proof" arguments are for those afraid to provide proof. An argument about nothing, for the ignorant.

    Neoatheists are always saying there is no "evidence" of god but at the same time they never say exactly WHAT would they accept as evidence. In good science, you need to be pretty clear on that.

    You were talking about the accomplishments of science, with theology as zero-zeit-nada, you now say the accomplishments had nothing to do with theology, alienating yourself from the historical fact, denyig nay role of religion in the origin and perpetuation of these achievements.

    How much of science's achievements do you think depend on atheism? Things are interesting in themselves, you know, not only in relation to that (boring) debate. I'm not thinking "atheism" when I'm doing my research. Jeez.

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  29. I think the "the burden of proof" arguments are for those afraid to provide proof.Indeed. Which is why theists are always trying to evade the burden of proof.

    Neoatheists are always saying there is no "evidence" of god but at the same time they never say exactly WHAT would they accept as evidence. In good science, you need to be pretty clear on that.We also need an univocal definition of "god". Vague definitions get vague rebuttals. Precise definitions directly specify the required evidence.

    ...you now say the accomplishments had nothing to do with theology, alienating yourself from the historical fact, denyig nay role of religion in the origin and perpetuation of these achievements.Indeed. If you can take god out of an argument without the argument losing its force, it's not theology.

    How much of science's achievements do you think depend on atheism?You have it backwards: atheism depends on the achievements of science.

    I'm not thinking "atheism" when I'm doing my research.Think of whatever you please. What's it to me?

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  30. "Indeed. Which is why theists are always trying to evade the burden of proof"

    What do you demand to be shown, that you would accept as "scientific proof" of the existence of god? (that is, at least sofar, lacking?)

    Notice that this 'there is no proof" posture means that proof could show up. This is just stupid, in my opinion. There is never going to be anything like uncontroversial "scientific evidence for the existence of god"

    "We also need an univocal definition of "god". Vague definitions get vague rebuttals. Precise definitions directly specify the required evidence."

    Supernatural conscious entity is a common denominator to many religions as far as "god" goes.
    In my opinion, any idea that calls for the supernatural is a topic simply unworthy of science, which deals with the natural world.

    "Indeed. If you can take god out of an argument without the argument losing its force, it's not theology"

    But these were not achievements made or upheld by scientists, weren't they? And here science can fail utterly. How much longer do you think it will take for a scientific conclusion of "do unto others"? This, as a scientific agreement, is currently non-existent.

    Religion, including "god", is aimed to social organization (which is where its real powers reside, if not, the religion eventually goes extinct) You may want to think again about the importance of religion in the origin and maintenance of certain achievements of social-humanist philosophy

    "You have it backwards: atheism depends on the achievements of science"

    How is this? Is this because of a "lack of evidence" for a god? What evidence?
    Or is it because you mean to say that science has positive "evidence that there is no god"? What evidence? Please enlighten us.

    "Think of whatever you please. What's it to me?"

    Much of theology, AND much of anything, including evolutionary biology, is highly dissociable from the underlying truths/assumptions. You seem to think this is only the case with theology, Do you think all of science's achievements are the simple result of applying the 'scientific method"? It's a bit more human, and complex, than that.

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  31. Supernatural conscious entity is a common denominator to many religions as far as "god" goes.
    In my opinion, any idea that calls for the supernatural is a topic simply unworthy of science, which deals with the natural world.
    -

    Indeed. One definition of "supernatural" is "unavailable to methodological naturalism". If your definition of God includes unavailability to naturalistic epistemology, then by definition you can't offer scientific evidence.

    For example, any report of a miracle sufficient to compel skeptical belief is also ipso facto sufficient to compel disbelief in the physical law the miracle contravenes; an event which contravenes no physical law is no miracle at all.

    If you mean something different by "supernatural", I invite you to give us a rigorous, univocal definition.

    How much longer do you think it will take for a scientific conclusion of "do unto others"? This, as a scientific agreement, is currently non-existent. -

    It appears to be the case that there are no objective ethical truths. Our ethical beliefs appear to reference only subjective truths: properties of individual minds, or statistical truths of many individuals' minds.

    Religion, including "god", is aimed to social organization. ... You may want to think again about the importance of religion in the origin and maintenance of certain achievements of social-humanist philosophy. -

    I'm always interested in thinking. I'm also now unsure of what sort of claim you're making: is religion true, or is it important? If religion is merely important, it seems likely that we can perform the same tasks without religion's violence to truth, sensibility and character.

    How is this? Is this because of a "lack of evidence" for a god? What evidence?Good question: what evidence?

    Much of theology, AND much of anything, including evolutionary biology, is highly dissociable from the underlying truths/assumptions. -

    I'm not at all clear about what you mean by "highly dissociable" in this context. In the sense that discussion of a scientific subject would be valuable even if its underlying assumptions were substantially false or if its evidentiary basis compelling its belief absent, then you are simply mistaken.

    It might be the case that the truth or validity of theology is irrelevant to its value (to thelogians); so much worse for theology then.

    Do you think all of science's achievements are the simple result of applying the 'scientific method"? It's a bit more human, and complex, than that. -

    Granted, science is indeed complex. But although not sufficient, the scientific method is still necessary. Take out the scientific method, and all the rest of the complexity of science as practiced by human beings falls apart... into theology.

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