Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Interview with Dr. Daniel Fincke, Part 2

[Continued interview with Dr. Daniel Fincke of Camels with Hammers from Part 1]

BRET: I remember you did a post a while ago asking if atheists “worshiped” truth, at least as much as you can worship such a thing. Did you come away agreeing with that?

DAN: No, Eric Steinhart wrote that post.

BRET: I am horrible at checking by-lines.

DAN: I think the question should be framed differently than he did to get atheists not to reflexively reject the proposition without thinking. I think the real question is this:

If empirically it were demonstrable that certain falsehoods are necessary for certain people and the societies in which they live to optimally function, would we accept that those falsehoods were for the best for those people?

Or do we prioritize truth as such an intrinsic good that we’d rather let the world burn or the alcoholic who’s got an iron grip on his higher power die than let him have his fiction undisturbed?

And if we do hold truth to be valuable even where it hurts human happiness or (worse, to me) human flourishing, then it seems like we are treating it as more sacred and more valuable than is rationally warranted and you know what the word for THAT is...

BRET: Oh, right, religion. Almost missed my cue.

DAN: And a related question is whether atheists have faith in truthfulness, (do we have more belief than evidence warrants?) that truthfulness is itself a greater good than other competing values in every sphere of life.

Obviously it’s better in science and so creationists need to be fought. I think I have good reasons it is better philosophically. And we Identity-Atheists tend to be bound up with valuing truth passionately and feeling it to be the highest moral priority in all personal and philosophical matters.

So, is that tantamount to having faith in it, to holding it sacred, to being irrationally hostile to other virtues when they rival it and closed minded to any empirical facts that might threaten our belief in its wonder working powers?

Those are hard questions. I think those were what Eric was asking. It’s what Nietzsche asks a lot.

BRET: It seems short sighted to focus only on truth, especially when a lie may help the truth. And I don’t mean lying to appear correct when you know you’re right, or telling your wife she doesn’t look fat. I mean, maybe religion is a good thing for a discipline like science.

It gives people a place to go to be religious; could you imagine if religion just disappeared? Science would be overrun by dogmatic fools. Religion can almost serve as an adult day-care.

DAN: (laughs) Your ideas always surprise me, Bret.

BRET: Religion keeps those who might ruin science out.

DAN: Or it makes capable minds scientifically illiterate.

BRET: No doubt, but it also gives us a sort of Plato’s cave for the best and brightest to escape.

DAN: That’s true, and I wouldn’t be who I am without first escaping a cave. Nietzsche himself muses in an unpublished note that it might be best to give kids a religious training when they’re young because the rigor is good and the process of apostasy would be good for them. I’m not sure what in that is Nietzsche and what is just my interpretation, but that’s close.

BRET: And that’s why I’m raising my kids Amish.

DAN: Let’s look at three hypothetical people:

Let’s say that each has an equally full life of pleasure and personal flourishing in all the ‘secular” areas of life. Family, money, power, respect, physical and intellectual accomplishments, friends, etc.

So you have these three equally pleased and flourishing people.

BRET: Do they have to be pleased, or can they be equally depressed?

DAN: All that matters is their pleasure total is the same, whether low or high.

BRET: Okay.

DAN: Now let’s say that one of these three people has a practically delusional, ecstatic religious life that does not interfere with his pleasure and flourishing in any of the other areas. He is as ethical, as humane, as shrewd in business, as creative in artistic endeavors, as great a friend and family member, etc. as the other two. He just has this sphere of his life where he gets a surge of extra pleasure from his delusions.

BRET: Are they all equally pleasant to be around?

DAN: Yes

BRET: Okay.

DAN: So, the same way someone can keep their escapes into movies and novels and other fantasies totally separate from interfering with life functioning, let’s say this person keeps their religious delusions and superstitions equally tidily contained. All they lack is truth in one area of life. In the rest of life, they have as much truth as anyone and the net gain is immense pleasure and sense of identity, etc. Now, let’s say there is an atheist who has everything the same but instead of faith-based delusions some truthful endeavor (or fictions known to be fictions) fill the same role the religious delusions play for the religious person. In those two cases, I think the atheist wins because the pleasures are equal AND the bonus is truth.

BRET: This third person better be a heroin addict or something.

But, yeah, let’s take an atheist who is flourishing and pleased in all those areas but the pain of seeing the truth makes that side of him miserable and so even though he’s as pleased as the others in all these other areas of his life, there’s also this dragging net loss that could only be more pleasant if he could only believe.

Now, assuming a lot---that the delusional beliefs don’t have a net negative beyond himself---is he better off than our ecstatically delusional, but utterly functional believer?

BRET: Does a person’s happiness matter?

DAN: That’s the question. Can happiness trump truth in our values ever? For me, I believe that we should aim towards maximal human flourishing, not maximal human pleasure. I’m willing to bite the bullet and say we should all prefer truth even with less pleasure. That’s a really high priority for either truth or, in my case, human perfection.

That came out wrong, I didn’t mean to suggest in my case that I’m perfect! I meant I prioritize total human power as the highest good, not any specific virtue. So for me enough other virtues taken together might make one person without the truth a better person than another who has less virtues.

If someone found the immersion in the delusion made it all the more effective at enhancing his life without detracting from real world functionality, is that for him a fantastic accomplishment of self-hypnotism and balancing competing goods and getting the most out of them?

It’s like taking a drug if it does not damage your overall functioning, it’s just a pleasure boost. Drugs are lies. Our pleasures should track goods.

BRET: Drugs aren’t lies...

DAN: The drug tells you you’re ecstatic when there’s no good reason to be ecstatic. So it makes you ecstatic in a way that does not help you navigate truth.

BRET: There’s a damn good reason you’re ecstatic---you took a drug. That’s classic cause and effect.

DAN: Right, but our brains are set up to reward us for success. If we can short circuit that and just feel good by manipulating our brain chemistry, we cheat.

BRET: Drugs don’t enter the body and whisper, “Hey, you got a promotion, feel good.”

DAN: But if it does not hurt overall functioning or make us less inclined to pursue worthier pleasures from worthier accomplishments then why not add the extra pleasure? So what happens if you swap out “drug” for “god”?

BRET: Opiate of the masses, eh?

DAN: Sure. Sports, too. My ecstasies over some baseball games are comparable to religious ecstasies.

BRET: You know... every mean thing they say about religion you can apply to sports.

DAN: Exactly.

BRET: And in many cases sports are worse. I never heard of a Baptist hooligan riot.

DAN: (laughs) It’s vicarious. You feel like you’ve won something great when you’ve done nothing but sit on the couch getting fat.

BRET: Or lost. I don’t know which is harder on a city, to win or lose.

DAN: So there are pleasures which distract us from developing our virtues or which reward us when we didn’t do anything that merited reward.

BRET: But why even value truth in that way? Truth doesn’t need us, truth exists whether we even exist or not.

DAN: Right. That’s the question. Why value truth more than it is actually conducive to our pleasure and/or flourishing?

BRET: Well, I wouldn’t make that comparison. I don’t think truth is what makes people sad, or happy.

DAN: Why treat it as a good in itself when it might mean rebuking yourself for taking baseball games seriously or being fooled by movies emotionally or by drugs, etc.? The idea is that if you take “Truthfulness” to an extreme it does interfere with other things in life. That’s Nietzsche’s point. There’s a bit of “falsity” in everything. How fanatical must we be in rooting it out?

BRET: I think the missing link is Justice. The emphasis is being put on truth, but truth is only valuable as it pertains to fairness.

DAN: Well we can talk about the justice of pleasures, no?

BRET: I suppose, but I don’t know anything about the justice of pleasure. I know about the pleasure of justice... but not the other way around.

DAN: I mean pleasures should justly track merit and displeasure demerit. If we’re being formal and anal. I do something great and you do something lousy, but you take a drug and we both feel great tonight. How’s that fair?

BRET: Hey, did you see the guy I had to go to in order to get that drug? Serious risk involved.

DAN: (laughs)

BRET: Plus, most drug addicts I have met are shamelessly harmless. They weren’t out robbing people, they just never left their couch.

DAN: Then they’re unjust to themselves! They fail themselves.

BRET: What if them leaving the house had resulted in them hurting people? If you’re a danger to others, then please... sit at home stoned all day long, I beg of you. And maybe the guy who got a promotion and achieved so much isn’t really doing the world any favors.

Suppose he makes boxes, which people need, right? And he increases his profits by convincing people they need another box inside the outer box, doubling his sales. He succeeded, right? Until one day he drives by a landfill and he realizes it’s filled with all his boxes.

And he kills himself.

DAN: I had not considered the possible tragic consequences of what I was saying.

BRET: So few do...

DAN: (laughs) So none of this is to advocate against truthfulness. I only think atheists need to be scrupulous about not letting their truthfulness on this point--one on which the majority are such astonishing self-deceivers--lead them to thinking this makes them by default, generally more virtuous or even generally more honest people.

Things are more complicated than that and the temptation towards self-flattery is great in all of us. And I will say this too and this is an important qualification: often sometimes people want to attack atheists for being too interested in truthfulness in areas that themselves require truthfulness. And that’s unfair. In the public discussion of ideas to attack one side for caring too much about truth is perverse.

BRET: I fear the emphasis on truth and logic in atheism makes atheists more blind than some theists, because at least many theists acknowledge a difference between knowledge and faith. For atheists, they see themselves literally aligned with truth. As if it is a companion who follows them everywhere.

DAN: Yes, at least the religious admit that some of what they say is bullshit. And because they’re comfortable with faith (though they shouldn’t be) some of them are more comfortable with degrees of belief and degrees of uncertainty also in cases where that’s a good thing. It’s not as all or nothing. Fundamentalists on both sides risk being absolutist.

Atheists need to embrace what Nietzsche described as perspectivism, the constant shifting of perspectives for the sake of new truths. One has to not only consider more evidence but consider it with different feelings and from different social and political dispositions.

BRET: Feelings? Atheists don’t have those...

DAN: (laughs) Right, it’s that conception of perfectly detached truthfulness that Nietzsche thinks is self-deluded. Yes, science is about detachment. But most of our thinking does not involve double blind tests or quantitative analysis.

A lot of it--and especially when discussing philosophy and religion and ethics and practical choices--involves emotions and social and political dispositions. And there is no way to think void of emotions and in Nietzsche’s view to successfully do so would actually be to neuter reason. Our emotions make our reasoning about some things potentially more virile, as long as we feel things from multiple perspectives rather than with one prejudicial feeling and learn the most honest ways to rank the importance of what we learn from each feeling perspective we take on.

This perspectivist approach to knowledge is what led to recent shifts in my thinking and blogging. I was writing totally in lion mode at first. Then one day I decided to adopt the perspective of those who talk about “True Religion” about religions they don’t believe in. Like George W. Bush saying there is a “True Islam”. What could that POSSIBLY mean? I got into his possible perspective and feelings and it illuminated a range of truths for me that I couldn’t see when my only way of feeling religion was as an apostate atheist obsessed with the virtue of truth. I convinced myself of some of the merits of moderate religion in a way that its advocates never could for me.

I did that in the midst of writing a blog post that was an open ended exercise in perspective taking.

BRET: I’m not sure I could ever see things from W’s perspective. I don’t think there’s room up his ass for both of our heads.

DAN: (laughs)

BRET: Feelings are sort of an atheist corollary to the devil. The greatest trick your feelings ever pulled was to get you to deny you have them. The atheists who pretend they have no emotions... boy do they get emotional. Usually anger, but also sometimes pride.

DAN: Right, whenever anyone is viscerally committed to denying they do some particular thing, watch out because the dangers of projection and hypocrisy and self-deception go way up.

BRET: So, you’re saying don’t bend over in front of Rick Santorum.

DAN: (laughs)

BRET: What is that about? How did atheists get religious hypocrisy? We supposedly don’t have a book which instills us with views counter to reality...

DAN: Most religions don’t. Part of our problem is we keep saying “religion” as though it means only “Abrahamic monotheism.”

BRET: You don’t think it’s a little hypocritical that Buddhists claim to want to destroy the self, and yet they meditate alone in their own thoughts for hours?

DAN: Never thought of that.

BRET: I criticize all religions, I even got material on Jains. Like, should a Jain even floss? They’re killing millions of bacteria.

DAN: I think the issue is that religion is any interconnected set of ways of believing, valuing, ordering one’s life, ordering communities, developing rituals and celebrations, and forming identities, in which each of these things is mutually determinative of the others. That’s what it is. It’s not any one set of beliefs.

BRET: I was always taught in philosophy that religion is ritual.

DAN: Well you can have ritual without religion but ritual is often a key component in making other things become religious. Ritual helps make the religious link between things you can have apart from religion.

BRET: Well, right, you can have ritual without religoin, but you can’t have religion without ritual. Which is why atheism can’t be a religion. It may have charismatic leaders, it may cut family ties, it may take donations... but that’s a cult, not a religion.

DAN: I don’t think you can boil anything down to one secret ingredient like that.

BRET: I’m sure not.

DAN: Or even say any human community is devoid of rituals. Sure, disconnected atheists with nothing in common and no organized groups would have few if any rituals.

BRET: Of course not, but what makes a ritual religious is the reasoning behind it, not the act of ritual.

DAN: But the more we interconnect with each other and form a shared identity, it naturally starts to happen. Like listening to the way some atheists say “atheism is not a belief, it’s a lack of belief just as bald is not a hair color” it starts to sound like a recitation of a creed. A really ironic recitation of a creed. And it’s not that what they’re saying is false. It comes off sounding like the brain has been stimulated to recite the right response.

BRET: Too true. But they don’t say that because they think it pleases Atheismo, the great and powerful.

DAN: No, but you can argue that neither is that what makes religious people recite their creeds. They recite creeds as affirmations of group membership—to view it from an external, sociological point of view, irrespective of what they consciously are thinking and saying.

BRET: Are creeds even part of religion though? I see politics and religion as being hard to separate, but that might be the line. If you do something to be part of a group, it’s political.

DAN: Sure, the Apostle’s Creed, for example.

BRET: Oh no, I know of creeds. I was raised Catholic for Christ’s sake.

DAN: This is something Eric Steinhart and I have talked a lot about. When we are dealing with our students and talking to them about God and trying to get them to open up the question as simply a philosophical issue and they say, “Well, I believe because I’m a Catholic.” They have not given a reason they’re making an identity statement.

BRET: Sure they did.

DAN: Right.

BRET: Because they popped out of a Catholic vagina. What more could you want?

DAN: But they are not even cognizing seriously that this is a question of truths about the world. Or if they are, what’s driving what they say is identity, not philosophy. So when atheists attack people’s religious ideas, so many people think we’re attacking their identities. Implicitly, that’s what they hear. And in part, we are, and we need to figure out what to do about that.

BRET: Especially when they get specific, like “white Christian males.”

DAN: Because their identities are intertwined with very false ideas and irrationalistic habits of thought. To address this we need to take seriously how religions function on the non-cognitive level. We can’t just say, “Oh it’s a set of propositions. Look, they’re false! Now you can stop being religious. You’re welcome.”

This works only on those capable of thinking like a rationalist or a scientist or a philosopher. The rest look at us like we have three heads and no idea of what religion is. This is not to say that they don’t have beliefs. Especially the Abrahamic faiths have beliefs. And they take them very seriously.

But the key is to understand that they take them religiously seriously and this is a distinct way of thinking things, or a range of distinct ways of thinking things. But where were we? What was the question?

BRET: There was a question?

DAN: Did I answer it?

BRET: Who cares, this sounds good to me.

DAN: Okay. Me too.

BRET: Staying on topic is for suckers.

[Part 3, Part 4]


  1. Posting on SOPA protest day? For shame!

  2. This day of protest is resulting in more actual annoyance than I think the bills would result in. I'm not supporting SOPA or PIPA, but neither of them will stop anything. I've watch anti-piracy measures increase dramatically since the days of Napster, and in that same time I have witnessed piracy reach the point where I can download a DVD quality version of any movie I can think of in minutes, while its still in theaters.

    If SOPA passes, I expect my pirated content to reach the point of being viewed in 3D.

    1. You're hilarious, Bret. Overconfident and underestimating of the power of authoritarian governments to suppress freedom of speech. But hilarious.

    2. Why not protest SOPA by watching a pirated movie? Or e-mailing your local congressman a computer virus?

      I just don't see the point of the "blackout" protest.

      By the way, if you want to use Wikipedia today, just go into your browser's Options and disable JavaScript.

    3. You don't see the point of the protest?

      Members of Congress Support for SOPA/PIPA Jan 18
      Supporters: 80
      Opponents: 31

      Members of Congress Support for SOPA/PIPA Jan 19
      Supporters: 65
      Opponents: 101

      Source: ProPublica

  3. "I never heard of a Baptist hooligan riot."

    Ever heard of The Troubles in Northern Ireland? How about the Thirty Years War? The Boko Haram killings in Nigeria and the Christian retaliations?

    1. Technically, none of those are Baptists.

      While I get what you're saying, hooliganism occurs year after year like clockwork. I didn't say, "Religion has never caused violence."

      But I appreciate you taking the time to erroneously try to take a joke out of context. Much appreciated.

  4. I absolutely LOVED this conversation. So much so, that I'm going to have to post some comments on it on my own blog.

    I will say here, though, that I really appreciate atheists acknowledging that there ARE other virtues besides the pursuit of cold, hard, objective truth; that atheists - just like everyone else - are at times blinded by their intellectual commitments, suppositions, and emotions; that atheism IS a sort of religion in many ways and, if it becomes fundamentalist in nature, can be as damaging to human flourishing as any fundamentalist faith.

    I say, "Amen"! :)

    P.S. - You're also both quite was a very entertaining read.

    1. Please feel free to quote as much as you'd like.

      Though I don't think either of us would see atheism as a religion, merely that it can have some traits similar to a religion. Sort of like how you can put a microscope on a stack of papers to keep them from blowing away, but a microscope isn't really a paperweight.

  5. Great post. I'm an agnostic, sometimes athiest. However, as to the question of whether truth based upon logic or empirical evidence should always be the ultimate value, I would have to shout out a hardy 'No!'

    Someone close to me lost her son: he committed suicide by pointing a gun to his head. She found him, and he died in her arms. She was somewhat religious before, but afterwards she became very religious, praying a lot and attending church multiple times a week. Fortunately, she belonged to a church that did not believe that suicide consigns one to hell, and she believes that she will see him again in heaven.

    I believe that her faith allows her to function in life. Would she have fared better if she had renounced religion and turned to psychiatry and psychiatric drugs? I don't think so. She had had minor depression prior to her son's death and had met with a psychiatrist before. In effect, her faith serves as a palliative to despair.

    In some cases, embracing that which allows you to function or even enhances your life may be more rational than insisting that your beliefs are empirically or logically true.

    From time to time she tries to share the gospel with me, but I won't engage. I don't want to use logical arguments that may shake her faith.

  6. Great interview. About a third of the way thru part 2, Dan imagines 3 people. He compares the happily delusional theist with the unhappy atheist (vs the happy atheist), to ask the relative values of truth and happiness. I see both sides.
    On one side, I would not ask my 90 year old mother to give up God, even though it is a delusion.
    But for myself, I think of Mark Twain's Mysterious Stranger story. In one version, the magic stranger befriends a boy who wants to help the good priest. So the stranger agrees to do something to benefit the priest. So the stranger arranges for the priest to get brain damage. Now the fictional priest is able to live and always be happy, but is an idiot.
    I would rather be the depressed atheist than the happy idiot. But I won't argue with what I think is my mother's choice.
    So my answer is that either choice is possible. But for people with a chance of an intelligent life still in front of them, truth is better than happy delusion.
    My mother would say it is better to free a drunk from his drink. But she wouldn't want to hear that her faith is like being drunk.
    I guess I would deconvert my mother IF I thought I could do it with no stress to either of us. Thanks for your interview.


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