Friday, April 2, 2010

The PZ Talk

The lecture itself, while enjoyable, didn't really hold any surprises. Not that it wasn't insightful; it's just that I've heard just about all these insights before. PZ was a little more, eh, "strident" than I had expected -- closer to his blog persona than the persona I have seen in videos of other lectures by him -- but that just made it more enjoyable. Since this was at RIT, which hosts the National Technical Institute for the Deaf, there are always American Sign Language translators at all speaking events... and I think at least one of the translators was a little freaked out by the content. heh, she was a good sport though.

What was the surprise was how many dumb questions there were in the Q&A from angry theists, "militant agnostics" (I'll talk about this later), and general "why are you atheists so mean?" types. It's not even just that they asked so many questions, it's that it was all the same fucking things we've heard a million times. It was driving me nuts...!

So without further ado, a few thoughts about all that:

The One Intriguing Question
One young woman who identified herself as an atheist Buddhist had a question that I think could have been really interesting, though I think the way she phrased it was unclear, and PZ is part of the "there is no meaning" camp which I think has it slightly wrong. Well, let me back up.

The question, or rather statement, was, "I think you are missing the spirituality aspect." She went on to describe her experiences with meditation and argue that scientific studies back up the efficacy. PZ's answer was that, sure, meditation is great -- do that! And that "spirituality" was a dangerous word because it is unclear what it means... he point blank asked, "You don't mean that you believe in spirits?", and of course she said no, which is sort of an answer, but only half way there.

Reading between the lines, what I think the woman was driving at was to try and position Buddhist "spirituality" as a rebuttal to an assertion PZ had just made in answer to another question, that the answer to "Why are we here?" was "No reason at all." And this is where I diverge slightly from PZ, and where I think the woman's question maybe had a better answer.

When asking questions about meaning and purpose, the question is not fully parseable unless it is specified, whether explicitly or implicitly, what entity is doing the meaning or the purposing. We don't think about this very much, because usually the meaning-er or purpose-er is clearly implied in the question. If I ask the question, "What does 'verisimilitude' mean?", I don't need to specify who the meaning-er is, because it's pretty obvious by implication that the meaning-er is "a typical English speaker". It gets slightly more complicated if I ask "What does 'enormity' mean?" for example, because this is a word whose definition is currently in flux. A complete answer would have to answer the question for multiple different meaning-ers.

When asking a question like, "What is the meaning of life?" or "What is our purpose here?", it's critical to explicitly identify the meaning-er or purpose-er. Otherwise, the question is unaskable. When atheists like PZ deign to answer a question without an explicit meaning-er, I think they give a misleading answer. It's not so much that life has no meaning -- it's that the very concept of meaning without a meaning-er is nonsensical. Life very much has a meaning to me, and I suspect it does to PZ, and to pretty much everybody except the most hardcore nihilist. I don't like PZ's answer because it endorses this nihilistic position. It sounds cheesy, but a for more accurate answer is, "The meaning of life is whatever each person decides it means to them." (And even that is only half way, because you might be asking, "What does life mean to the government of North Korea?" for example, in which case we might answer more specifically. But in any case, any answer must specify the meaning-er, otherwise the answer is wrong.)

With this in mind, I think the questioner had a point in terms of Buddhist "spirituality" (though I share PZ's discomfort with that word) being one path to discovering this personal meaning. More generally, I think the questioner had a potentially excellent point in that science alone is not sufficient for finding this personal meaning. Science certainly ought to inform how we view life and how we find meaning in it, but ultimately the personal meaning each of us finds comes from a less rational way of thinking.

And this ties in with a theme I find myself repeating often, especially since I think a lot of the freethinking community disagrees with me on this: Science and rational inquiry do not have an epistemological monopoly. Science is always the preferred epistemology when it is practical, but sometimes it is simply more effective to employ a different, less accurate "way of knowing". The example I like to use is that science might be an excellent tool for discovering why people like me fall in love with people like my wife, but it's a lousy tool for helping me to discover the individual I am in love with. (I have a feeling that randomized double-blind placebo-controlled dating wouldn't work out very well...)

Of course I'm not going soft on faith here. While I don't believe science has an epistemological monopoly, it seems clear that religion and faith are epistemologically bankrupt. "In practice science can't provide a satisfactory answer to every question" does not imply that "Religion can provide a satisfactory answer to even one question."

The Stupidest Question of the Night
Somebody asked PZ, "What do you think about militant atheists?" PZ kind of stared at him for a minute and then said, "I love myself!" to lots of laughs from the audience. He continued, "Have you read my blog? Do you know who I am?" Funny stuff. PZ continued on to give the standard answer, that if writing books now qualifies one as "militant", that's a pretty low bar, etc. Still, it was funny that instead of saying, "Don't you think militant atheism drives people away?", he asked the question as if he was talking about some "other" atheists, with PZ being the nice respectful kind. heh...

Of course, I now think no answer to that question is complete without invoking Greta Christina's recent blog post about concern trolls. In a nutshell, she observes that the vast majority of people who are suggesting that maybe atheists' message would be better received if they were quieter and nicer are people who have a vested interest in getting atheists to STFU. Excuse us if we suspect an ulterior motive.

Two Questioners Ask About Morality Without God
Ho-hum. So fucking sick of this one, and it's not only tedious, it's downright offensive to boot. PZ answered it alright, but I was surprised he did not employ what I feel is the most powerful rebuttal to the idea that God is required for morality:

What if God commanded us that we all had to start raping children? Ignoring the obvious answer, "Catholicism!", would that mean that raping children was now good? I see three ways to answer this question.

"Yes". Um, okay then. Only the most fundtastic of fundies is going to answer this way, but even if you have the cajones to do so, this reduces "morality" to a worthless concept. "Morality" now means nothing other than blindly doing what a more powerful being tells you to do. That's "obedience", not "morality" as most people understand it. If people want to take this position, let them hoist themselves from their own petard.

"No". Boom, argument won. If God's commands don't necessarily line up with morality, then morality cannot come from God.

"Invalid question -- God is good so He would never command such a thing". Slightly trickier, but argument still won. This acknowledges a set of criteria external to God by which we can evaluate God's goodness. If "God" is defined such that anything he or she commands must be good, then God cannot also be used to define "good", or else you are stuck with a circular argument.

This, by the way, is why even the vast majority of modern theologians have abandoned the idea that morality comes from God. It is a philosophical impossibility.

"Militant Agnostics"
At least two questioners -- and maybe more -- were clearly pushing the agnostic position heavily. One used the tired old line about how it takes faith to be an atheist. PZ had already told the story about The Dragon in My Garage, and repeated it for this questioner, but he didn't seem to get it.

I think we need a name for these folks. Perhaps we should ironically call them "fundamentalist agnostics", in a hat-tip to the absurdity with which "fundamentalist" is now bandied about in regards to those to whom it could not possibly apply. Or perhaps "militant" would be even better, since "militant" is a label that gets unfairly applied to feminists as well as atheists. (And FWIW, though I would consider myself a feminist, I acknowledge that a tiny minority most certainly go too far... but you can't call them "militant" until they are suggesting retaliatory violence against men. Seriously.)

If I Were Two Rows Closer to this Fuckwit...
Near the end, a question was asked that was very much on my mind: How do you deal with raising a child in a skeptical/non-believing household, particular in such a god-soaked society? The questioner specifically alluded to fears of bullying and such as a result of his children's (lack of) beliefs.

PZ's answer was both enlightening and depressing. First, he said that raising a child to be a skeptic is easy: Just let them know from the start the daddy is not always right, and they will quickly realize that everybody else is not immune from questioning either. That's good advice, and I will take it to heart.

The second part of his answer, though, was that in many ways it is inevitable that a young skeptic/atheist will get picked on, and that you just need to be there for them as best you can. He acknowledged that his kids had a very tough time going through school. And then...

...this dickwad who had asked the first question (actually, the first three questions) and had been fairly confrontational, though more or less civil, muttered "Thanks to you!", to the titters of some of his nearby godbot friends. He was probably eight rows back, otherwise I would have turned around and given that asshole a piece of my mind.

You know what? I was raised Mormon. And I got shit for it. I got shit for fucked up beliefs like not drinking caffeine, going to church for three hours every Sunday (plus a two hour young men's meeting on Wednesdays!) (plus seminary four days a week for an hour before school started!!), and just generally being different. Is this fucking shithead going to now say that my parent's beliefs were invalid because I got picked on for them? (Their beliefs are invalid anyway, but that's beside the point) What about Jewish or Muslim kids who get picked on for being different? Is it their parents fault they are being picked on?

Does this shit-eating motherfucker really think that any good parent should raise their kids in whatever the dominant religion is in their society, for fear their children will be ridiculed? Is that seriously his contention?

If so, he should be kicked in the fucking nuts until he's sterile. If not, then he is bigoted against atheists in the worst possible way -- criticizing our parenting! -- and should also be kicked in the fucking nuts until he's sterile. What a fucking asshole. I could fucking punch that guy. Thinking now about everything that was wrong with what he said, I should have turned around anyway. What a worthless fuckhead.

On a lighter note...
I thought of a couple good questions after I left, but it was too late then of course. Still, I wish I had asked PZ the one question I did think of: "Did you bring any crackers with you?"


  1. James, I was the one with the question about raising kids ... I pretty much already knew the answer, but was hoping PZ would be able to supply some nugget of knowledge I hadn't considered. Unfortunately, no - I guess I just need to be prepared.

    Regarding the sign language interpreter: since I was pretty close to the front, I was close to where they were. On the first break (where they traded off from one interpreter to the other) it seemed like the interpreter was just overwhelmed with trying to keep up. I think translating a science (or other technical) talk is rough, because there are a lot of words and names for which the interpreter has to fall back to spelling. That takes time and puts them further behind.

  2. Jeez, somehow I missed that you had commented, otherwise I would have replied right away. Sorry!

    Anyway, thanks very much for asking that question, even though neither of us got an answer we were hoping for. As I said, it has been very much on my mind as a new parent.

    I do still worry a little bit about how I will handle certain inevitable questions, like what happens after you die, etc. I'm committed to never lying to my son about important things like that, but there is a part of me that feels like it would be a relief to say, "We all go to heaven and eat birthday cake!" heh...

    On a related note, I'm still a little leery about things like Santa Claus. hahaha... I don't want to lie about it, but I don't want to deny him the fun of that sort of thing. I've discussed it with my wife, and I think we have decided we're just going to talk about Santa Claus in such a tongue-in-cheek over-the-top way that it will be obvious it's not real. I think my parents must have more or less succeeded in that, because even though I remember kind of believing in Santa Claus, I don't remember any specific time when I lost that belief... which I think means I never took the belief that literally to begin with.

    I'd also like to be able to celebrate some Jewish traditions (my wife and I very much enjoy lighting the Channukah candles and doing/attending a Passover seder) and it will be tricky to explain that to my son... but I'm sure we'll figure it out :)

    Re: The interpreter... I'd almost wondered if that was what was going on. There was some terms PZ used that made me wonder how that would translate into ASL. I guess it doesn't! heh...