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  #1  
Unread September 19th, 2006, 10:04 AM
ToddStark ToddStark is offline
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Post Andrew Brown on Dawkins and Atheism

I enjoyed Andrew Brown's discussion of Dawkins from the Guardian and found some food for thought in it:

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What is it about the jeering, smug atheism so well represented on the internet, as well as in Dawkins' books, that makes me so very angry? Perhaps this is a rage at heresy, since in lots of ways I think he's right, and our disagreements ought to be quite trivial. But the more I think of them, the more serious they become.

I certainly agree with him that religion can represent a monstrous betrayal of the intellectual's commitment to the truth, and that it can be extremely dangerous, both to its participants and to the innocent bystanders. Think how much better a place the world would be without any concept of the sacred, which has made Jerusalem so valuable to all three monotheistic religions that some of their members are prepared to risk a quite literal Armageddon to get hold of it. Wouldn't we all be better off without such beliefs? Is there any rational reason to suppose that there exists a God who cares who owns Jerusalem?

The answer to these very Dawkinsian questions looks self-evident to me. Of course such a God does not exist. Of course we'd be better off without other people's crazed beliefs about Jerusalem. But I think these arguments, true though they may be, fit very badly into a Darwinian and atheist world view. In particular, they don't fit Dawkins' own bias against explanations of behaviour that invoke the good of the species rather than smaller groups or even genes within it. Why should we expect human beings to have evolved for the good of the whole human race?

If we believe that human behaviour is a special case of animal behaviour, there is nothing that requires explanation when we find humans acting to the advantage of in-groups over out-groups. This is the kind of behaviour that will have benefited their ancestors. There's no need to suggest that there is something uniquely poisonous about religion so that people behave worse when they are believers than otherwise. The morality of the Old Testament may be reprehensible - though no worse than the morality of the Iliad - but it worked: the descendants of the children of Israel are still here and the descendants of the previous male inhabitants of the Promised Land are not.

[... TIS - skipping to the very end ...]

But I think people who talk about God are trying often to communicate something about their own experience of the world, or about their place in it.

In that case, it is more useful to try to understand what they are saying, and why, rather than dismiss them as deluded fantasists. At the very least, the atheist is required to admit the existence of widespread patterns of experience which can reasonably and naturally be taken as the experience of supernatural beings. Gods undeniably exist in this world as they do in Terry Pratchett's: wherever people believe in them strongly enough, they're there.

So the question becomes, what do we do about them? This shouldn't be essentially different, to a thoroughgoing atheist, to the question of what we do about money. Money causes quite as much misery in the world as religion does. People will commit terrible crimes to make or save it and view with the utmost indifference the sufferings of strangers who stand in their way. Yet the way to diminish these sufferings is not to abolish money or to pretend that the needs it serves are unworthy of human beings.

That's been tried. It didn't work. We've learnt, instead, how to make the capitalist system work better: to arrange for self-interest to be, so far as possible, enlightened. Similarly, if we want to diminish the suffering caused by religion we need to make superstition, irrationality and social organisation benefit, so far as possible, the human race. This isn't easy, and it may not be possible. But there really is no practical alternative. Even if God is no more than a word for luck, we should say "There, but for the grace of luck, go I"; and not "I thank you, luck, that I am not as other men." If religion is human, then humanists must try to understand it, to sympathise and not to sneer.
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  #2  
Unread September 19th, 2006, 05:54 PM
Fred H. Fred H. is offline
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Default Re: Andrew Brown on Dawkins and Atheism

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[Todd’s Andrew Brown quote:] Similarly, if we want to diminish the suffering caused by religion we need to….
Actually Todd, I think what most of us non-atheists find annoying is the typical knee-jerk presumption by atheists that suffering is indeed “caused by religion”; in fact, I’d say that POV is naive (although the more aggressive/violent forms of Islam, admittedly, certainly seem to have caused unnecessary problems). History shows us that the vacuum of atheism and/or absence of any religious/spiritual values actually seems to result in a whole lot more suffering and mass murder; certainly that’s been the case in the 20th century—consider the 20th century’s atheistic regimes and Nazism’s survival of the fittest paganism: USSR, 1917-87—62 million mass murders; China (PRC) 1949-87—35 million mass murders; Germany, 1933-1945—21 million mass murders, etc., etc.

Last edited by Fred H.; September 19th, 2006 at 09:30 PM.
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  #3  
Unread September 20th, 2006, 09:50 AM
ToddStark ToddStark is offline
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Thumbs up I agree with you, Fred: not religion per se

Fred,

"Not caused by religion per se ..."

I don't remember whether Brown made this point or not, but I've made it and continue to make it: I don't think it is religion per se that causes the problems that Dawkins attributes to religion. I think it is an aspect of human nature that hooks powerful motivation to abstract ideals, and is then leveraged by social and political institutions to sweeping effect. I agree with you that this doesn't have to be the ideals of religion, it can be the ideals of communism, nationalism, ethnic or race groupism, or other things.

Where I part with Dawkins and agree with Brown is that I don't see the things that are unique to religion as being uniquely bad.

I guess one of the arguments is that supernaturalism more quickly slides into justification of more horrible things than do naturalist abstract ideals, because it requires more of an initial leap of faith. For example, we may more naturally form small spontaneous groups through religious and spiritual ideals than through naturalist ones. But when you look at the formation of communist groups at the grassroots level in China, you see some terrible things perpetuated there in the name of abstract ideals as well.

I tend to agree with you, empirically, it doesn't seem that religion carries any special intrinsic negative social process with it. The powerful social nature of our species does not seem as closely tied to supernatural belief and religious faith per se, at least with regard to *bad* things, as Dawkins assumes. It is just one of the paths expressing human "groupism."

kind regards,

Todd
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  #4  
Unread September 20th, 2006, 01:37 PM
Margaret McGhee Margaret McGhee is offline
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Default Re: Andrew Brown on Dawkins and Atheism

Todd, Regarding the ideas I have expressed in my theory . . you say "from my perspective the only criticism I have of it is that I take much of it for granted" . . yet, when you write some of these posts about religion I have trouble seeing how that can be true.

For example, you seem to be struggling with whether religion can cause people to do "bad" things, or not. Just the framing of that question seems pretty foreign to me.

First, as you know, good and bad have different frames of reference. There's the "moral" good and bad - which are quite relative to the systems they exist in. There are many thing that we westerners see as terribly immoral about Muslim Sharia law - like cutting off the hands of a thief or stoning to death an adultress - yet members of the Taliban see those as the pinnacle of morality and "good" beyond question.

The only absolute notion of good and bad is one we can only make educated guesses about - and that is that our "good" behavior choices will result in more of our dna existing in future generations than if a less "good" behavior is selected. There are a thousand steps between a given behavior choice and the aggregated abundance of our dna in the human population a thousand or a million years from now. We will only be here for one generation so those will always be guesses.

But the latter version is the only one we can be expected to be bound by - in the larger biological sense. This explanation of "good and bad" seems more like an explanation for EP - which purports to connect behaviour choice to evolutionary success via psychology - and not so much about my theory, directly.

Back to religion. Like "good and bad" religious belief is very relative. There are Christians who believe in a redemptive Christ, who is a nurturing and forgiving God. These Christians enshrine the Beattitudes in their belief system. There are other who believe in a vengefull God who does not suffer non-believers kindly. He does a lot of smiting of those Christians' enemies. Or, at least he does that, when they pray sufficiently.

And that brings us to my theory:
Quote:
Belief is the strongest source of the emotions that guide most human decisions. Our brains are not so large because we can reason - they are large to hold our many millions of beliefs that we use to guide our decisions in life.

Maturing is mostly a matter of populating our belief system with a large set of useful sources for behavior guiding emotions. As we mature we build up our belief system from those memes available in our culture that best satisfy our psychological needs. Generally, we can see those psychological forces at any given time and in any given person, as existing along a liberal / conservative spectrum - and for their belief system in general to be structured from the top along those lines.

But, as adults our psychogical mind-set along that spectrum, that general bias, will have been largely determined by things that occured in our lives at earlier times as we were maturing. Psychological conservatism is born of insecurity - fear of being out of control in a scary universe. Psychological liberalism is born of security - a feeling of being in control of our own happiness in a somewhat benevolent universe that we share with other creatures that mean us no harm - even though they may be designed by evolution to eat us for dinner.

But that mind-set remains very adaptable during our lives. We apply conservative or liberal beliefs differently depending on the context - like in how we deal with family vs. strangers. Also, external events can greatly affect our mind-set at any time. It is said that a conservative is a liberal who has been mugged - and there is great truth in that. We also compartmentalize our liberal and conservative beliefs. For example, many who consider themselves politically liberal - like me - have very conservative feelings about terrorists who would kill many Americans if they could - and how we should deal with them - again like me.

I have lately moved even further in this direction - I come to the conclusion that our brains hold memes of both conservative and liberal design. The environment we matured in will give us a default bias as to which memes we we embrace as strong beliefs - which memes become a part of our personality - our cognitive identity. As time goes by though, we have a great ability to convert memes from that pool to "belief" status and demote others back to just memes - as conditions change during our lives. That's another way that we mammals adapt to our environment in very sohisticated ways. In this way we can become more conservative - such as if circumstance require us to join the police force - or more liberal - if we find a necessary job working for Planned Parenthood, for example - but we still remain basically the same person.
So, the question of whether religion causes humans to do good or bad things - is a non-sequiter on two levels. Within any epistomological system, a native religion can only do good things - by definition. When asked to compare religions on that scale - the adherents of each religion will tend to see the other religion as "bad" - and their own religion as "good".

On the other level, that of evolution, I'd say it is not so easy to predict that the dna within the cells of followers of a "smiting" God might not become more numerous in succeeding generations than the dna of a more charitable and forgiving deity.

My guess is that, for good evolutionary reasons, societies where resources are plentiful and enemies few, engender liberal belief systems where "live and let live" and "do unto others" are the guiding principles - and those where resources are scarce (or becoming so) and enemies abound, produce belief systems that are conservative where "don't take chances with anybody who is different or not from here" is the rule. (I will not go into the interesting parallels in religion where both liberal and conservative memes are available for harvest depending on the context - as this post is becoming way too long already.)

Even within larger societies, those who grow up in a harsh environment where others are constantly trying to harm them - and often succeeding - will develop a psychological preference for belief systems that are conservative in nature - and vice versa. Note that love, help and nurturance are the first "resources" that an infant must find - and that psychological preferences seen later in life are often established during the first months of life.

Finally, beliefs are the source of the most powerful emotions that guide our "cognitive" behavior choices. I can say that again and again - and you can agree and even say that it is (rationally) obvious. But, rationality is not knowing. Knowing is an emotional process. Rationality is worthless in terms of behavior choice. Only when rational conclusions become beliefs (and acquire the necessary emotional tags) - can rationality, imperfect as it is, influence behavior choice.

I must add (for some here) that religions are just belief systems. There is no difference between communism or National Socialism, the Taliban or the Catholic Church in any motivational sense. They are all very psychologically conservative belief systems that were produced from the cultural memes and historical contexts that Karl Marx, Adolph Hitler, Muhammed and the Apostle Paul found themselves in at the time. And they all contain liberal memes that can be applied according the needs of their current leaders, as needed.

Conservative belief systems by nature have very strong emotional tags - and will tend to displace psychologically liberal systems (with their weaker tags) where they exist side by side. Built from very strong emotional tags they also try to destroy each other.

I would guess that the numbers of violent deaths that eventually resulted from each of these fundamentally conservative systems is somewhat comparable - give or take a few percent of the available polpulation here, a few percent there. Also, that comparing them on their violent death quotient - is beside the point, anyway - in that the violent attacks against heretics may or may not result in the propogation of one's dna. In WWII we killed far more Germans and Japanese than they did of us.

And I'd guess that most of us carry in our cells the dna of the majority of our ancestors who found themselves in a violent, unpredictable world where fundamentally conservative beliefs enhanced their survival - rather than the few who found themselves in more benign times and circumstances where they had the luxury to foster more psychologically liberal belief systems in their minds.

Best regards, Margaret

Last edited by Margaret McGhee; September 20th, 2006 at 03:30 PM.
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Unread September 21st, 2006, 12:50 AM
Fred H. Fred H. is offline
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Default Re: Andrew Brown on Dawkins and Atheism

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[MM says to Todd:] For example, you seem to be struggling with whether religion can cause people to do "bad" things, or not. Just the framing of that question seems pretty foreign to me.
Well sure, people doing “bad” things” would “seem pretty foreign” to MM since MM is a moral relativist (and is convinced that “people believe [only] what feels good to them - and use their brains to justify it”), whereas Todd, as I recall, has indicated elsewhere that he’s not a moral relativist; although I never quite understood how he squared that with his atheism.

And I’m delighted that Todd and I “tend to agree” that “it doesn't seem that religion carries any special intrinsic negative social process with it.”
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Unread September 21st, 2006, 10:17 AM
Fred H. Fred H. is offline
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Default Re: Andrew Brown on Dawkins and Atheism

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[MM to Todd:] Finally, beliefs are the source of the most powerful emotions that guide our "cognitive" behavior choices. I can say that again and again - and you can agree and even say that it is (rationally) obvious. But, rationality is not knowing. Knowing is an emotional process. Rationality is worthless in terms of behavior choice.
Interesting how MM draws conclusions that so often seem to be opposite of a more rational POV—in this instance, a far more rational POV, based on currently available neuroscience and evidence, would be that “emotion” is the source of the most powerful “beliefs,” especially irrational beliefs that may guide our "cognitive behavior choices.”

For example, I think it may just be a rather nasty case of phonemophobia that is a source of MM’s irrational beliefs that “rationality is worthless in terms of behavior choice,” that “knowing is [merely] an emotional process.”

Last edited by Fred H.; September 21st, 2006 at 10:38 AM.
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  #7  
Unread September 21st, 2006, 12:50 PM
ToddStark ToddStark is offline
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Question Re: epistemology and brain theory

Margaret,

1. Regarding Fred's charge of moral relativism ...

Personally, I don't think the evidence supports the claim that morality is "quite relative to the system it exists in." Your examples are all very specific things that differ from culture to culture, not counter-examples of human universals. Every culture opposes killing: some make exceptions for unfaithful wives, some make exceptions for people who worship the wrong gods, some make exceptions for strangers in their temple. But it seems to me consistent with the evidence that they all derive from common principles with different variations.

I've read Mead and Benedict and the others in 1960's-era anthropology, and I think their version of cultural relativism was eventually soundly disconfirmed by their own evidence. But let's say it were true in some new sense. It seems to me it would only be because we assumed that the systems themselves are constrained in some way. It seems perverse to deny the hard facts of human universals that have been so carefully documented by biologists, neurologists, psychologists, and anthropologists for the past couple of decades. Not that culture doesn't vary a lot, it just varies in some domains within the bounds of human shared biology. One of those domains surely to me seems to be moral decision making.

I recommended Hauser because I think he deals with it in as good a way as we can currently manage, that human beings have a common moral faculty which gets tuned to different parameters in different environments. If true, then the goal of research would be to discover the common part and the parameters. There are clearly things that everyone who is developmentally normal considers bad in every culture. Every culture is against killing, and every culture has its own exceptions. It is important to distinguish true moral decisions, which have some very special characteristics, from social conventions. Social conventions appear to be much more arbitrary than morality.

The idea that morality itself is simply "quite relative to the system it exists in" is quite abhorrent, I think, in addition to being implausible, because it implies that we cannot or should not change a horrendous situation caused by a totalist or maladpative culture, because it is "ok relative to itself." No, I insist that we can and should derive judgments about the good and bad aspects of each culture, for the sake of humanity, particularly when people are suffering. Or is instinctive disdain for suffering related to one of those human universals that you don't believe exists?

2. Regarding emotions, beliefs, knowledge, etc.

Quote:
Finally, beliefs are the source of the most powerful emotions that guide our "cognitive" behavior choices. I can say that again and again - and you can agree and even say that it is (rationally) obvious. But, rationality is not knowing. Knowing is an emotional process. Rationality is worthless in terms of behavior choice. Only when rational conclusions become beliefs (and acquire the necessary emotional tags) - can rationality, imperfect as it is, influence behavior choice.
I looked at this for over 2 hrs trying to figure it out. To my frustration, I couldn't discern anything radically different from our previous discussions. I agree with aspects, yet it goes into weird directions for me as well.

The best I can determine, you believe that there is such a thing as "rationality" which is some sort of cognition that is completely devoid of brain mechanisms (?), or at least independent of the brain mechanisms shared with emotional responses and states. Some sort of purely cold reason, of the sort the mythical Vulcans from Star Trek would approve. I can't see how such a thing could exist, much less have evolved. You seem to have taken the traditional notion of a split between emotion and reason and made it a metaphysical principle. I honestly don't think the brain can or does work that way. I think most of what we traditionally call reasoning is really the result of a mixture of different tacit knowledge systems, emotional feedback, and mechanisms specialized to make deliberation (slow, careful, systematic thinking) possible. So I disagree with your model of hot emotion vs. cold rationality, I think all reasoning is part hot and part cold.

I gave a very specific example of successfully applying rational process to a problem, because you claimed that in essence, rationality doesn't work.

You responded:

Quote:
You are probably no more rational than your clients - although you do seem like a very smart person. You are just motivated by different emotions - that are more conducive to solving their problems.
Again, it took me a long time to try to figure out what you were trying to say here. I guess you thought I was trying to say that I use what you think of as our "cold reasoning faculty" and my clients don't. That wasn't my point. Since I don't think anything of the kind exists, I didn't mean that at all. I was saying that deliberation and systematic thinking do make a positive difference in certain situations, and that is what I imagine "being rational" to mean. I don't see "rationality" (as a thing that could be contrasted with "non-rational" thinking) being much more than that. All sorts of things go into the decision of what sorts of methods to use, saying that these factors can be simplified to "using different emotions" seems vacuous. Your theory seems to take something fairly specific, which you call emotion, and attribute far too many magical powers to it for my taste. An emotional response of some sort is supposedly responsible for everything we think and do, and choosing the method for solving a problem is simply a matter of finding the right emotion to apply. I don't buy it, nor do I think it even makes sense?

It seems to me as if you are just taking the traditional complexities of "mind" and calling them "emotions" instead without shedding any light on the subject.

I think your interpretation that applying a rational method to solving a problem is "using different emotions" must in some sense mean that I must be listening to different inner voices than they do in choosing the methods to apply, and I suppose that is true, albeit somewhat trivial. Thinking is always a matter of balancing the effects of different influences. My point was just to make a counter-example to your claim that rationality doesn't work for us in decision making in general. Regardless of how infrequently we might use it, or how frequently we might misuse it. Deliberation and systematic thinking are among our most powerful and important and under-utilized tools in my experience. I don't find people using them very often, and I suspect many people justify this by a philosophy similar to yours, that it simply doesn't work, or that there is some alternative hidden in "intuition" or "emotion."

More commonly, they just don't have the skills to use it well and the expertise in the specific domains that is needed.

Since we seem to define: reason, belief, knowledge, and similar abstracts somewhat differently, and we keep going back to arguments where those terms are central, it is tremendously difficult to discuss these things with you and I feel as if we most often talk past each other. Today in particular after working so hard to understand your posts, I feel as if it costs more time and effort perhaps that it is worth. But I appreciate your efforts and patience regardless.


kind regards,

Todd

Last edited by ToddStark; September 21st, 2006 at 02:47 PM. Reason: Added more when more time was available.
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  #8  
Unread September 21st, 2006, 08:51 PM
Fred H. Fred H. is offline
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Default Re: Andrew Brown on Dawkins and Atheism

Quote:
[MM to Todd:] Finally, beliefs are the source of the most powerful emotions that guide our "cognitive" behavior choices. I can say that again and again - and you can agree and even say that it is (rationally) obvious. But, rationality is not knowing. Knowing is an emotional process. Rationality is worthless in terms of behavior choice. Only when rational conclusions become beliefs (and acquire the necessary emotional tags) - can rationality, imperfect as it is, influence behavior choice.

[Todd to MM:] I looked at this for over 2 hrs trying to figure it out. To my frustration, I couldn't discern anything radically different from our previous discussions. I agree with aspects, yet it goes into weird directions for me as well.

The best I can determine, you believe that there is such a thing as "rationality"….
Well, yeah, maybe, sort of, Todd, as long as you keep in mind that MM also believes that “rationality is not knowing,” that “knowing is an emotional process,” that “rationality is worthless in terms of behavior choice,” and that “only when rational conclusions become beliefs”—beliefs being, by MM’s reckoning, “the source of the most powerful emotions that guide our "cognitive" behavior”—“can rationality, imperfect as it is, influence behavior choice.” Got that?

So I’d say there’s really nothing to “figure out” here—these are merely MM’s obtuse embellishments on her circular notion (and perhaps also on her moral relativism) that all humans believe only whatever feels good to them and “use their brains to justify it”; and I think we have to conclude that for MM herself, that actually is more or less the case. And I also think that you, Todd, probably spent about 1 hour, 59 minutes, and 59 seconds more than you should have trying to figure out whatever the hell it is that makes MM feel good and that she therefore believes.
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Unread September 21st, 2006, 10:47 PM
Margaret McGhee Margaret McGhee is offline
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Default Re: Andrew Brown on Dawkins and Atheism

I'm not sure what's going on in this thread. My post had nothing to do with "Fred's charge of moral relativism ... " at all. I don't pay much attention to Fred's posts since he just keeps repeating some absurd notions he seems obsessed with.

I was responding to your post that you started this thread with "Andrew Brown on Dawkins and Atheism". That should be evident from the graphic tree at the top of each page. It's important that you reply to the thread you mean to reply to. For example, in this case you are technically replying to Fred's post #6, even though it's addressed to me.

Not paying attention to the to/from address on posts - can cause confusion. That could account for my inability to fully understand your post (that I am now replying to).

My discussion was about epistemology - not morality. From the viewpoint of systems of knowledge and belief, morality is defined within the systems it exists in. You say,
Quote:
Every culture opposes killing: some make exceptions for unfaithful wives, some make exceptions for people who worship the wrong gods, some make exceptions for strangers in their temple.
What you are saying is that no culture actually opposes killing - they just have different circumstances for which they prescribe it. That seems to be a perfect example of - morality being defined within the systems it exists in. That is the sense in which I intended it.

I was not arguing for a moral relativity within societies. I believe moral systems within societies are quite necessary - just as five persons playing poker would not have much fun if they did not all abide by the same principles of fairness, honesty, the need to follow the rules, etc. I strongly approve of a well-reasoned moral system within our society. I think our Constitution is a quite enlightened document in that regard that embraces many good moral principles that I approve of and follow. Nothing I said in my post would (or should) indicate otherwise.

I also believe that our values are worth exporting to those places where human rights are not respected. I'd prefer persuasion to force - but sometimes force is necessary - as it was in Kosovo and as it may now be in Darfur. It should never be undertaken lightly or unilaterally.

The question of absolute morality is interesting. Are you suggesting that there are absolute notions of "good" morality that span all human cultures - that would enshrine a code that would result in less dna in future generations - from those who follow it? If not, then how is that "morality" different from a disposition?

You say that I am making no sense to you. However, your criticism sounds more like I said some things that you found emotionally unpalatable - for whatever reasons. This was possibly caused by you thinking I was responding to Fred's charges rather than to your original post.

I'd be happy to reply to the second half of your post but if you actually think that trying to reach some better understanding would . . "cost more time and effort perhaps than it is worth" . . then I would not want to waste my time or your effort.

Margaret

Last edited by Margaret McGhee; September 22nd, 2006 at 12:38 AM.
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Unread September 22nd, 2006, 09:10 AM
Fred H. Fred H. is offline
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Default Re: Andrew Brown on Dawkins and Atheism

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[MM to Todd:] I'm not sure what's going on in this thread….
True enough.
Quote:
[MM to Todd:] I don't pay much attention to Fred's posts since he just keeps repeating some absurd notions he seems obsessed with.
I’m hurt; but regarding obsession with absurd notions, I’d say MM is projecting.
Quote:
[MM to Todd:] My discussion was about epistemology - not morality….

You say that I am making no sense to you. However, your criticism sounds more like I said some things that you found emotionally unpalatable - for whatever reasons.
Well, since MM believes that “knowing is an emotional process,” and that “rationality is not knowing,” I suppose we can imagine how MM might actually perceive that her “discussion”—on whether “religion causes humans to do good or bad things” and on her theory that “belief is the strongest source of the emotions that guide most human decisions”— was actually somehow “about epistemology.” And since, according to MM’s so-called “emotion theory of behavior choice,” her so-called “axiom,” that “people believe [only] what feels good to them - and use their brains to justify it,” we can also see how it is that MM will perceive virtually any “criticism” of her POV as being something that is merely “emotionally unpalatable” by whoever is making the criticism.

So, in an odd sort of way, there actually does seem to be a more or less rational explanation for MM’s irrational (and circular) view of things.
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