Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion 2:
NOT “Electric Boogaloo” Because Everyone Is Sick of Calling Stuff
“Something 2 Electric Boogaloo;” It’s Not Funny Anymore

with apologies to David Hume


The Participants:

        SACCUS CORIIHUMIDI, an Agnostic-in-Principle, background in Philosophy and Law
        DISCIPULUS LACTISCASEIQUE, an Agnostic-Temporary, background in Philosophy and Hard Sciences
        SEXO GRAMMATICUS, an active Atheist, background in Poetry and Rhetoric
        POSTULATOR PECUNIAECITRO, a sophisticated Theist, background in Politics
        TYMPANISTA BARBAPECTINICULI, a passive Atheist, background in Zombie Humor

NOTE:  This is not an illustrative dialogue by a single author, but in fact
the five participants are all actual people speaking in their own words.  

PART I: Is Agnosticism “Impoverished,” and re What Sort of “God?”
PART II: The Implications of Limitlessness / Does Russell’s Teapot Apply to a Limitless Being?
PART III: Is Limitlessness Even Possible, and Even If It Is, Why Call It God?
PART IV: “An Evolving Concept of God” vs. “God in the Gaps” / Does a       Definition of the Function of Religion Necessarily Precede a Definition of God?
PART V: Lactiscaseique Summarizes the Dialogue Thus Far / Limitlessness As a Property of a “Being”
PART VI: Whether Apparently Trivial Definitional Quibbles Are Actually Key Elements of Who Gets to “Claim Victory” / Whether Even a Minimalist Definition of God Opens the Door to an Antirational Rhetorical Nuclear Option / The Point at Which Atheists Stop Caring / More Physics from Lactiscaseique
PART VII: Public vs. Private Usage of “Atheist” and “Agnostic” / Why Does the Term “God” Even Exist As a Thing to Posit? / Can a Stripped-Down God Still Be Undiscoverable-In-Principle? / Our Mid-Sized-Object Minds
PART VIII: Back to the Teapot?! / Perceivers vs. Observers / “Using” [X] “As” a God
PART IX: Political Stances Allegedly Militated by the “New Atheism” / Is Religion Actually Based on Belief In God? / Does “Crazy” Even Matter?
PART X: Why Bother Self-Applying the Term “Atheist?”

PART I:  Is Agnosticism “Impoverished,” and re What Sort of “God?”

CORIIHUMIDI:  I am a few chapters into The God Delusion, which I have often criticized but never read.  It is entertaining and has made me think about what it is that I believe.  However, many parts are distressingly thin.  Anyone want to take me up on atheism vs. agnosticism round 100?


GRAMMATICUS:  Agnosticism in the (incorrect) popular sense of "not sure whether there is a God" or agnosticism in terms of the correct definition of "believes in God, but thinks that God's ways are inherently unknowable and that therefore all religions are false?"

    In either case, I guess my opening salvo in any atheism/agnosticism debate is Russell's Teapot.  God is just a random thing that people suddenly started saying.  So if I randomly start saying "Coriihumidi killed a guy and paid to have it hushed up," and then you say it's not true, should other people say they are "not sure" whether you killed a guy, or say that in the absence of any evidence from me, they will continue to believe that you did not?  The answer is B. 

CORIIHUMIDI:  Lactiscaseique, I have no idea if you are agnostic or atheist, or a believer for that matter. Grammaticus's feelings, however, are well documented.

   Grammaticus, I liked that this book helped me clarify some of my thoughts on this subject.  Particularly, Dawkins's distinction between a temporary agnostic (we lack full evidence so we can't say for sure) and an agnostic in principle (this is a question for which we can never have evidence to answer it).  As I understand the argument, Dawkins says that the existence of God is a scientific hypothesis that can be answered one way or another.  We lack conclusive evidence about God's non-existence so we should be temporary agnostics about God, but the burden of proof is on the proponent.  So we should be agnostic about God just like we are agnostic about the existence of the flying spaghetti monster or a tiny teapot that revolves around the sun—that is, technically agnostic, but only in the sense that we recognize that it is logically possible though there is no reason to believe it is so.  So an agnostic in principle is just punting—probably because they are intellectual cowards.


   This is a nice little argument, so long as you gloss over the fact that Dawkins has defined the concept of God downward.  In the chapter prior to the agnosticism chapter, Dawkins "clears up" a potential criticism by stating that he is not talking about a bearded man on a cloud, saying that this is a red herring.  Nevertheless the next chapter is aimed at a conception of god that is no different from the bearded man in the sky—he just relabels it "Nature's Superintendent."  

   In fact, the conception of God that nearly every believer has is that God is without limits. God causes things, but it was not caused.  A flying spaghetti monster is limited: it is spaghetti and not something else; same for a teapot, etc.  But this doesn't work so well when we are talking about a thing without limits.  First, when you ask the question "what is your evidence that there is an uncaused cause," the burden of proof does not shift.  It is perfectly natural to posit the non-existence of the flying spaghetti monster, but saying there was no thing without limits begs the question of how did the universe start, and if it didn't start... what does that even mean?

   Second, the tool we are using to ponder this question, our minds, is obviously limited.  So not only is it very difficult to solve these problems, I think it is basically impossible.  That is why I am an agnostic in principle, and I think this is the natural conclusion of someone who tries to reason their way through questions about God, and takes those questions seriously—something that Bertrand Russell didn't do and Dawkins doesn't do, as evidenced by the fact that they start off analyzing the question by dismissing it (see: teapots and spaghetti monsters). 

   In future e-mails I will explain my other problems with the book (so far), such as: defining religion downward to fundamentalism about an anthropomorphic god; making the category mistake of treating religion like any scientific hypothesis; and assuming that everything good that religion has produced would have happened anyway, while assuming that everything bad associated with religion was caused wholly by religious impulses.  

   One more point about Dawkins’s bad faith: from the introduction it is clear that he is not taking religion seriously and that he hasn't thought very hard about it.  This is the most charitable explanation for one of the stupidest things I have ever read in a book written by a smart person.  In the introduction Dawkins asks us to imagine a world without religion, in which "the Taliban does not blow up ancient statues."  Of course, these ancient statues the Taliban blew up were of the Buddha.  So without religion there not only would not have been a Taliban to blow up the statues (though there would have been some residue of the Mujahadeen that resisted the occupation of the atheist Soviets), there would have been no statues to blow up in the first place.  

   I think the fact that he doesn't think seriously about religion produces a blind spot that allows him to say something so asinine.  The only other explanation is that he knows full well what he said and he said it to fool his readers.    

LACTISCASEIQUE:  I guess I should state for the record what I think about this.  This may or may not necessarily have much to do with Dawkins, specifically, but it's just kind of my thoughts on the matter.  I am not sure I agree with there being a sharp distinction between agnostics-in-principle and temporary agnostics.  Or maybe I am misunderstanding Coriihumidi’s definitions.  But without further ado:

    Basically I think agnostics-in-principle make (or should make) a conceptual argument that has bearing on practical questions of inference-to-the-best-explanation about the existence of god.  Thus they are sort of asking the same question in different ways.  I think all the understandings of religion that demote religion to belief in a Man on a Cloud are straw men.  Charitable readings of religion that aren't straw man arguments make a point much like Coriihumidi is making.  I have personally been exposed to this more sophisticated argument from religion a lot through my mom and my stepdad, who is an early Christian Bible scholar and has been published a bunch.

    However, even the charitable, sophisticated understanding of religion does not hold water.  Kant's idea of the noumenon is useful here, but only as a kind of metaphysical punching bag that I will use as a target.  Kant's noumena were basically reality-in-itself, and the noumenon transcended any subject's ability to understand it.  I get what Kant was trying to say here, but a rigorous application of the idea of something "beyond our concepts" means that if there is a noumenon, it would seem we  a) Have no access to it in principle; and  b) Even if we did have access to it, it would not matter for anything at all.

    a) is merely a logical extension of what Kant means about noumena;  b) is a version of Wittgenstein's Private Language Argument.  If there is an object in the world that is somehow unable to be captured by our normal concepts in language, we could not even talk about it meaningfully.  Certainly, not as an existing thing (since if we can talk about it, it can be comprehended somehow by our concepts and we can refer to it when discussing it with others).  Thus, there is either no such object or the existence of such objects is ontologically irrelevant.

    This is a conceptual and semantic point, but it becomes concrete when you start applying the definition to practical questions like, "What would constitute evidence in support of the existence of God (thus defined)?"  The sophisticated versions of religious thought all involve saying that God transcends all limits and concepts—which means that by the terms of their own point of view, there is not and cannot ever be evidence for God.  This makes scientific-minded people like me (and probably Coriihumidi, and certainly Grammaticus) itch.

    There are two responses to this that I can see:

    1. To say this is basically fine and the words we use when we say "I believe in God / I experienced contact with God" are a dismal approximation of whatever experience the religious person actually had.  I.e., they experienced a noumenous perception—a moment of special access to reality-in-itself, or a moment of congress with a presence/being that transcends all concepts.  Despite not being able to argue or communicate about what this experience was like, religious people continue to hold, on this view, to the idea that they experienced God.  While they acknowledge they are flawed and limited and thus do not have 100% certainty that they did have a moment of contact with the divine, they continue to believe they did on faith.  This, fundamentally, is what it means to have Faith and be a Believer (according to my mom and stepdad).  I agree with them that this is a conceptually coherent, useful, charitable view on what Faith in God is.

    2. The alternate response is to say this conception of what-God-is is literally nonsense and not even something it is meaningful to talk about in any form, even with "dismal approximations" in ordinary natural language.  This is what I actually think myself.  Even if there were such an entity as God, it is not clear what could even in principle constitute evidence for its existence, and the concept would be irrelevant.  "God" and "Beetle in a Box" are analogous here.  By the very definitions that a sophisticated Theist sets out, the word "God" is literally meaningless and does not even refer to something that is nonexistent-but-imaginable (e.g., Flying Spaghetti Monster).  Meanwhile, humans can form a fully coherent, naturalistic account of the world as we have access to it (which incidentally seems to be pretty darn comprehensive and expansive).  This naturalistic account is science, math, and philosophy.

Paul in box

    A further iteration of this argument is to say, "Okay, but what if all your smartypants semantic mumbo-jumbo about the meaninglessness of Private Objects and God-as-a-concept is actually all just wrong, and an existing God is capable of suddenly 'drawing back the veil of reality' and revealing Himself and reality-in-itself?"  This interlocutor is basically saying, "Yeah, but what if the terms of this whole discussion are just wrong?" 

    This is still a live possibility, I suppose—it's logically possible that the terms/definitions of the discussion thus far are all just wrong.  It represents a Cartesian skepticism about the nature of the world and the usefulness of our language and concepts; thus it applies an inappropriately high standard of proof in an argument like this.  Our goal here is not to arrive at some kind of inviolable a priori knowledge of God and the world; it is the much humbler task of simply trying to understand what we mean when we talk about God in normal everyday life and see if we are operating under some kind of fallacy or trick of language that we can resolve through concept-examination.  So I guess my response to this objection is, "Are you crazy?  If you're going to raise Cartesian doubt at this point in the argument, you have contributed nothing substantive beyond what your average unsophisticated religious fundamentalist offers: a strident assertion of the fact of God's existence, with no argumentation in support."  I don't regard this as a credible viewpoint.

    Most of the theists I have met believe in God because they believe God is necessary in order for there to be moral values in the world.  Refuting this view seems easy to me, cf. the Euthyphro.  Once you establish that good and evil can and do exist independently from God/piety, the only functions religion might credibly have are as a body of propositions that explain the world (see above #2 response for my thoughts on that) or as a kind of instrumentally useful tool for promoting good behavior in the world.

    I think there are some interesting non-theistic interpretations of religion (e.g., its propositions are not literally true, but they are "beautiful"—as a poem might be; they are a metaphor about what it is like to be human and exist in the world that we do).  This is what my girlfriend thinks, as far as I can tell from our discussions of this.  Dawkins, from what I know of him, thinks there is no possible interpretation of religion where it can ever do any good, and it's better that everyone just get current with scientific truth.  If so, that is facile and dumb.  The "truth" is not a universal good.  I think there are many, many individuals who would (and do) react very badly to the idea that there is not some kind of inherent fact of reality or Moral Overseer that makes murder wrong, or theft wrong, etc.  For people like this, it is more important that they simply Act Well and Do Good; they don't need to delve into all this heavy-duty semantics and philosophic argumentation.  Thus, I think that religion, properly understood, could hold a kind of instrumental value in getting people to serve their communities and each other, like a kind of beneficial social ritual.  That gets perverted by a lot of the people that run religious organizations, and it overlaps all too often with the (what I think to be nonsense) propositions of religion.  But I think it's possible.  Religion, if disentangled from the business of peddling crummy facts about the world, could be a positive force.

GRAMMATICUS:  Lactiscaseique, Dawkins's position on the "religion is beautiful like a poem" argument is that he thinks all world religions should be studied, since they are important to understanding the development of civilization, as long as people realize they are not factually true—i.e., we treat the Bible and the Koran no different from the Iliad and the Epic of Gilgamesh: honor them, but as literature.  The text of Hamlet is basically the most important thing in the world to me, but I realize it didn't really happen, and that whether it really happened is immaterial.

    Coriihumidi, the Buddha was a real guy who was important as a philosopher/leader, so there could be statues of him without anyone believing he was divine, just like there are statues of Socrates or George Washington or Gandhi.

    The thing about "God = uncaused cause" is that now I have to be an English major and start putting things in quotation marks.  When religious people apply the term "God" to something, they do not just mean "uncaused cause."  Someone who believes that spacetime itself is an uncaused cause does not call it "God;" they call it spacetime.  Calling something "God" means, bare minimum as far as I can tell, that this thing has opinions/desires about what people should/shouldn't do and somehow "deserves" to be "worshipped."  That is a big leap from simply "thing that has always existed."  The uncaused cause definition is just what religious people reduce it to when they are debating atheists and are being careful to say the least implausible thing that they can get away with referring to by the term "God," to try and effect a stalemate, because they know if they posit anything like "being that wants you to do XYZ and will reward/punish you accordingly" they will get smoked.

    So from here the question is, if you are just going for bare minimum "uncaused cause" and nothing about reward/punishment or ethics, then why bother referring to this thing by the sobriquet "God?"  What is the point?

LACTISCASEIQUE:  A quibble, contra Grammaticus: most Buddhists do not believe Siddhartha Buddha was divine.  They just like the stuff he wrote/said.  In fact his not being divine is the whole point of Buddhism (depending on which sect you ask).  The truths that Siddhartha realized were not divine in origin; they were simply profound facts about the human experience that he realized from sitting under a tree and thinking.

GRAMMATICUS:  Okay, so much the better for my point.  I was responding to Coriihumidi, who said that statues of Siddhartha Gautama would not exist without religion.

    And maybe "divine" in the Abrahamic sense was the wrong word, but they do believe he attained some "level" of something that crosses the line into being religious mumbo-jumbo and not simply philosophy, right?

    In any case, my point (and Dawkins's, on which Coriihumidi was calling bullshit) is that you can still think Philosopher X was awesome and revere him without something that qualifies as "religion" needing to exist.

LACTISCASEIQUE:  Well, the sects vary in interpretation, some to the point that they are barely groupable under the same heading as "Buddhism."  I don't know enough about Buddhism to be able to claim any meaningful understanding of the metaphysics of various sects, but the Four Noble Truths which underlie almost all Buddhism are certainly non-metaphysical in nature and carry no metaphysical import—they just talk about the psychology of suffering and its origin.

    Some of the stuff about the cycle of birth and rebirth sounds pretty avowedly metaphysical, but like most of the Abrahamaic faiths, Buddhism is not this unified structure of one religion; different groups look at the things Buddha said in different lights and apply varying levels of literality.

CORIIHUMIDI:  Essentially, I think you are both too willing to follow Dawkins's straw-man religion.  I agree that people don't talk about god as “the uncaused cause” colloquially—I just like that description.  What I like about thinking of god as an uncaused cause is that it is an implication of being limitless—and all believers in God think that it is limitless; this is the essence of God.  What you are talking about—a celestial being with thoughts and desires and superpowers—is the Man on the Cloud.  Fundamentalists believe in this—and I recognize that it is really fundamentalists that you are after.  However, fundamentalism is a subset of religion.

    As for the Buddha statues and Buddha being an actual person, I don't see the relevance.  Jesus was a real person also; that doesn't make statues of Jesus non-religious.  Buddhism is a religion and these statutes were of religious origin.  I realize that Dawkins states—not argues—that Buddhism is not a religion but I see no reason to take that statement seriously.  

GRAMMATICUS:  Coriihumidi, your point was that there would not have been statues of Buddha to begin with if it hadn't been for religion.  My point was, yes there could have been statues of Buddha anyway because (like Jesus) he was a real person who could (and should) simply have been revered as a philosopher, like Martin Luther King, etc.   

    You say our arguments are only versus fundamentalists because we are arguing contra Man on a Cloud.  Are you saying that any belief in God punishing/rewarding based on moral behavior equals Man on a Cloud?  I.e., that only fundamentalists believe in (some version of) Heaven and Hell?  Because this is not true.  There may be some believers who believe simply in God as a limitless force but that when you're dead you're just fucked, but they are not, as you imply, the norm.  Most believers believe in some kind of immortality of the soul, and virtually all believe in God intervening to effect morality.  Not necessarily in Hell, or in the Red Sea being dropped on Pharoah's armies, but I think it's safe to say that most believers engage in silent attempts at quid-pro-quo: "Lord, show me the way and I promise to XYZ."  Someone can do this and still be addressing a limitless force rather than necessarily a man on a cloud with a long beard.  And someone who does this  a) is not necessarily a fundamentalist, yet  b) still believes in a being with superpowers and ethical preferences.

    If what we call "God" has no ethical preferences or decision-making agency but is just a force that made the universe happen, then why call this thing "God" and worship it?  You might as well worship gravity.

CORIIHUMIDI:  On Buddha statues: I understand that it is logically possible that giant statues of the Buddha could have been cut into those cliffs for non-religious purposes; it is also logically possible that the Taliban could have formed as a secular group and blown up those statues anyway as a symbol of their disagreement with that philosophy.  But there is no reason to think any of this would have happened absent religious belief, so none of this is relevant.  Do you actually think Dawkins was thinking "someone may have carved those statues anyway?"  Even so, this is a case where the burden is in fact on the proponent because there is no reason to think this alternate history would have happened.  

    Re Lactiscaseique's Witgenstein/Kant stuff: the point of the private language stuff was not to say that these are questions that are not worth considering.  The point was to show that these questions could not be answered by philosophy.  I think this is an argument for the usefulness of religion.  Dawkins seems to say that we should chuck religion for a combination of natural science and moral philosophy.  However, philosophy is reasoning about concepts, but we can't really get a concept of the universe in the way religious people want to talk about the universe, so we need another approach. 

    Re the Teapot argument: the point of that argument is to show that agnosticism is hollow and unprincipled (at least that is what Dawkins used it for).  I said that this is not true unless you subscribe to a literalist Man on the Cloud conception of God.  This isn't a conception I believe in, nor do lots of people. The fact that a lot of people do think of god as a super-powerful person is irrelevant.  The Teapot argument still fails.

The Teapot fails...

    None of us has any evidence of how many people actually believe that god is a conscious agent.  Fundamentalist Christians do, and Catholics think that the interventionist God is a facet of limitless being (that is what the trinity is actually about).  Even if it is a minority, a major thread in American Protestantism is that God is limitless and fundamentally incomprehensible.  

    As for "You might as well worship gravity," first of all, gravity isn't limitless.  Second, I think preferences, reactions, desires and volition are things that minds do.  Minds are something caused by brains, and brains are the limited tools we have to understand the universe.  If there is a God, I think it is beyond preferences.  As for worship, people do that for different reasons.  If you believe in an impersonal God then most of what goes on in church has symbolic importance.  We can't understand God, but we can understand these stories that give us some insight into our relationship with the universe.  It is analogous to a quantum physicist using an equation to describe a facet of the universe that he can't actually comprehend.  

    This is getting into another area (i.e., what is the point of religion) so I will pause here to let you concede that the Teapot argument isn't worth shit outside of the snake church.

PART II:  The Implications of Limitlessness / Does Russell’s Teapot Apply to a Limitless Being? 

GRAMMATICUS:  Coriihumidi, you are trying to dismiss my points about the big picture by dividing them.  Russell's Teapot is absolutely NOT only useful versus fundies.  The point of the Teapot is that if someone proposes something out of the blue that there is no evidence for, the correct response is to not believe it at all rather than to believe it a little.  And this is applicable to any version of "God" you care to propose, not just to an anthropomorphic Jehovah who demands child sacrifices on mountaintops.

    I realize this can't actually be what you mean because you are not crazy, but you seem to be implying over and over that only fundamentalists believe in a God who has moral preferences.  I understand that your position is that moral preferences are incompatible with limitlessness, but like .001% of the population is as smart as you.  Plus I don't even get why these would be incompatible—why would a limitless being necessarily have to be ambivalent about whether the Holocaust was a bad thing?  An all-knowing being could hypothetically perceive that in some ultimate sense Hitler was not responsible for his own actions because he was raised badly or something, but whether this being punishes individuals (i.e., whether there is a Hell) is a separate question from whether that being would prefer that the bad things not have happened.

    So let's say you are right and moral preferences and Heaven/Hell and intervention are out the window and you just have "a limitless being."  The terms "a" and "being" themselves are incompatible with "limitless."   If it is "limitless" how is it even a finite thing that you are using the term "God" to identify as distinct from something else?  At this point we are just talking about existence itself.   So, again, why call it "God" and debate whether it exists?  We already know existence exists, so why not just call it existence and have done?  What is it about explaining the universe that to you requires applying the term "God" to something?  For me, the things we already know about are called what scientists call them, and the things we don't know about yet are called "we don't know yet."  Just because we don't know something, that doesn't make it mystical.  That would be like saying I don't yet know who lives in the other apartments in my new building, so therefore witches and Bigfoot live in them.

    And let's remember how we got here (meaning into this debate).  Nothing ever actually happened to give ancient people evidence that there is a God.  You are conceding that all of the miracle/manifestation stories are made up.  So, apparently because of something about how our minds/psyches are constituted, some version of this story is a phenotype of human civilization.  People just started saying "Hey I bet there is this thing called God."  All of their reasons for initially thinking this (thunder means he is angry) are bullshit, so if they are right it is a coincidence.  That would be a pretty fucked-up coincidence, to say the least.

    And regarding Buddha statues, Dawkins's exact words were that without religion "the Taliban would not blow up ancient statues."  The fact that they were of the Buddha is immaterial; the point is the ancient part.  When the Ottoman Empire fucked up Greece they blew up statues of Zeus etc. but this was not because the Olympian religion was competing with Islam—that religion was dead.  The "ancient statues" are valuable as art/history simply because they are cool old statues; whether they are religious in origin is beside the point.  We are allowing the fact that Buddhism happens to still exist to confuse matters.  If religion stopped tomorrow, the cool old statues built way back when there used to be religion would still be cool statues.

LACTISCASEIQUE:  Re statues, I will trust you two to fight it out sufficiently on this.  I think counterfactuals are almost always stupid and Dawkins deploying one is probably stupid too.

    Re Teapot, I think Grammaticus’s understanding of the thought experiment is right—Russell's example is meant merely to show something curious about the burdens of proof in everyday discourse and everyday God-talk.  When you claim something implausible-but-naturalistic, people laugh it off unless you prove it to a reasonably high standard.  But the same standard is not applied to God-talk ("implausible-but-supernatural") and people have a lower standard of proof.

    I am inclined to agree with Grammaticus that proposing that the burden of proof is on Theists—or anyone claiming something implausible/new—is correct.  This kind of skepticism is exactly what the scientific method does, and it is why the scientific method is good at discovering things. 

    I haven't the foggiest idea of how Dawkins deploys this.  Maybe he is full of shit and doesn't understand the point of the thought experiment.  However, whether you choose to apply these thoughts to vocab words like "atheism" and "agnosticism" seems like it may be quibbling over semantics.  Maybe one of you can tell me if the question of who is an agnostic vs. an atheist matters for anything.

    Re Wittgenstein/Kant stuff,

    “The point of the private language stuff was not to say that these are questions that are not worth considering.  The point was to show that these questions could not be answered by philosophy.  I think this is an argument for the usefulness of religion.  Dawkins seems to say that we should chuck religion for a combination of natural science and moral philosophy.  However, philosophy is reasoning about concepts, but we can't really get a concept of the universe in the way religious people want to talk about the universe, so we a need another approach.”

    I guess my first response is, I either didn't make myself clear or you have not understood what I meant.  So forgive me if this rehashes or is tedious:

    One of the things Wittgenstein demonstrated in the Private Language Argument is that the idea of a private object involves a logical and/or conceptual contradiction.  Languages and concepts are public by their nature; Private Objects are not.  There is no overlap.  If something is "capturable" or describable by any human concept (i.e., in principle), it is a public object and can be talked about.  If not, then as far as we are concerned, it either does not exist or may exist but cannot figure into human thoughts and language, since we use our concepts to think.  This is not me interpreting Wittgenstein; Wittgenstein specifically wrote that "what is in the box divides out, whatever it is."

    So in that sense, private objects are not worth considering.  If they don't exist, that's the end of it; alternately, if they do exist, they are impossible to refer to or talk about in any and all discussions.

    Now, the "leap" I am making here is that by defining God as being an entity that transcends all limits and concepts, a Sophisticated Theist has essentially posited something that resembles a private object.  It's not really "private" since theoretically every person could have access to this entity, so I'll admit this analogy is not exact.  But the relevant aspects of a private object also apply to God, thus defined, so the analogy is still useful.  This entity is supposedly indescribable (and thus unrecognizable) by human concepts just as a private object is.  Thus, such an entity either does not exist or does exist but talking/thinking about it is impossible for us.  Conversely, a description of any entity that we can create will rely on human concepts, and the entity will thus be a public object (and something where we can go empirically investigate whether it exists).

    I think we agree that these considerations throw a nice sharp dividing line between what can and can't be considered with scientific and philosophic concepts.  And I can also understand the desire to find "another approach" that can get a handle on God-as-Private-Object.  That said, it sounds like you are just not carrying the logic of this argument to its inevitable conclusion.  This "other approach" would almost certainly require a flight from coherent logical thinking (as "talking about private objects" is a nonsense idea).  It might not even be recognizable as "thinking," since thinking and talking are done with human concepts, so I'm confused.  Can you clarify what kind of "other approach" you are envisioning?

    If you are suggesting that religion could provide some kind of account of itself that is pre- or non-conceptual, and based wholly on, like, "non-conceptual perception" or "perceiving-but-not-thinking"… okay.  I will probably still object to that, but before I start speculating on what you might be saying, I will stop and give you a chance to respond.

CORIIHUMIDI:  Re Buddha Statues, I don't want to go in circles about this forever, but I think Grammaticus is just being obtuse.  As a matter of fact, these statues were created for religious purposes.  Absent the religious inspiration there is no reason to think they would have been built.  Those statues were a good thing produced by religion.  Dawkins’s description of their destruction highlights a bad thing about religious inspiration and glosses over a good thing that was inspired by religion.  It is a rhetorical turn designed to make someone believe they are hearing an anecdote that leads to the conclusion that religion harms human society, when the actual facts it is describing are much more complex and do not in fact lead to that conclusion.  I think Dawkins did it on purpose and that you are bending over backwards to excuse it.

    Re the Teapot, I wasn't being clear here.  I understand that Russell's argument has a broader application.  When I said the point of the argument is to debunk theists, what I meant was that's how Dawkins used the argument.  It is the cornerstone of the section of chapter one entitled "The Poverty of Agnosticism."  Here is my understanding of the argument, and why I think Grammaticus is wrong that it is "applicable to any version of "God" you care to propose."

    Your argument is:

    1) If you propose something that is naturalistic and improbable the burden of proof is on the person                     proposing it, not the person denying it. 
    2) For example: Teapot, Spaghetti Monster, etc.
    3) [description of God here] is just as improbable as spaghetti monsters and teapots.
    4) Therefore the burden is on the theists, and until they at least try to meet that burden there is no reason          to take their hypothesis seriously.

    My response is that the third premise relies on a straw man.  You have to describe God in a way that focuses on a literal understanding of various religious traditions to make the conclusion follow ("Yes, the superpowered space psychic is just as ridiculous as the spaghetti monster").  But if you have a more stripped-down description of God, the proposition is not on-the-face absurd.  In that case the debate is "A limitless force stated our universe" vs. "Our universe just happened due to natural forces."  Each is equally improbable.  (Further, the use of the term “natural forces” in the second statement is meaningless because the phenomenon described does not cohere with any natural forces anyone has ever conceived of.)  

    When you go down this road you quickly have to posit a phenomenon that is beyond our ability to comprehend.  The fact that we fail to comprehend it does not mean that it doesn't exist; it means that it is beyond us.  Because it is beyond our limited capacities I conclude that whether or not that thing is God is beyond our capacity to say.  Therefore, I am an agnostic in principle.  This is not an "impoverished position"—it is the position you come to when you take the question seriously.

    Re Grammaticus on the meaninglessness of my conception of God, you ask a lot of questions that don't really apply to me.  For example, I can't tell you why the God I am describing is worthy of worship because I am agnostic on its existence.  I can say that the point of religion is not just bowing on command.  Ultimately I think it is about basic existential questions: what does it mean to be a finite being in a seemingly indifferent universe?  We can get into that later.

    As for your question, "why refer to the uncaused cause as God," my answer is that this definition is at least part of what everyone means by God.  Many religious people might believe a lot of other things also, but that isn't what I am talking about.  However, my conception of God is not idiosyncratic; I grew up attending a large church where people basically shared it.  I agree that it is not the majority, but I think more people—even in the Catholic church, etc.—have this conception than you believe.  I think it is apparent that at least every Abrahamic religion thinks that God is infinite, and that this is the core of their conception.

    Why if there is a god he has no ethical preferences: this is getting far afield.  My thought is that terms like preferences, desires, volitions, etc. are words we use to describe what a mind does.  I have a totally naturalistic understanding of how a mind works—i.e., it is something that is caused by natural processes in a brain.  A brain is (obviously) limited—it is an organ, not something else.  Thus a mind is a feature of a limited thing, and a preference is a feature of a mind.  A limitless being is not a limited thing so it has no preferences.  To imagine that God does have preferences is to imagine that it is a person—and then we are back to the Man on a Cloud.

    Re Lactiscaseique’s Wittgenstein stuff, I am with you on your comparison of the non-conceptual nature of god being equivalent to a private object.  The difference (it sounds like) between me and your mom (a sophisticated theist) is that she claims to have had some contact with the noumenon and I don't (in fact I think that is more or less impossible, but I could be wrong).  What I mean by “a different approach” is two things:

    First, I think that just because we can't conceptualize something doesn't mean that it is not there; it just means that our minds don't have access to it.  In a sense it is a non-thing because we posit X without ever having a concept of X.  But really, an agnostic is not talking about the thing-beyond-reason, he is talking about the possibility that our concepts have limits.  The notion of a limit to reason is not a private object—it is something we can talk about, and is even something that is practically self-evident.  A more opaque way of saying this is that I agree with Kripke that private objects entail a kind of skepticism (Pyrrhonian Skepticism, in fact).

    Second, the other approach I was talking about was not a separate method of getting concepts (and I think preconceptual reasoning is self-contradictory).  The approach is centered on the question, "what should we do," rather then "what is."  I realize that religion makes a lot of "what is" statements, but they are all in service of "what should we do" conclusions.

BARBAPECTINICULI:  Having read every book by Dawkins, I have to say that while I find him overall massively correct, I do respectfully disagree with his assessment (in books like The Blind Watchmaker) that it makes no sense to ask "Why is there something instead of nothing?"  Indeed, I think it is central to ask "Why is there the phenomenon of existence, from moment to moment, at all?"
    However, I think the only appropriate reaction to that line of inquiry is to say "Cosmic...", like Homer Simpson does in that one episode, and little more.  Jumping from "Why is there something instead of nothing?" to "Jesus is lord" or "Masturbation is a sin" is obviously wrong, false, and foolish.  And yet I once saw a celibate priest interviewed about his path to becoming a priest, and he claimed it began with "Why is there something instead of nothing."  Idiot.


GRAMMATICUS:  Coriihumidi, my problem with your excellent last e-mail comes by virtue of its being so excellent.  I.e., since you have successfully argued away the idea of God as a consciousness that has any commerce with ethics, I must continue to ask why anyone should bother referring to whatever is leftover as "God."  You admit towards the end that religion is primarily concerned with ethics and (with the exception of fundamentalism) only posits explanations of natural phenomena as a sort of warm-up before getting to the ethics part (concerned with "what should we do" not "what is").  So taking these two points together, you have shown that religion as it has always existed (indeed the only thing we would/could ever even refer to as religion) inherently has absolutely nothing to do with God.  That, in other words, as someone once said of music critics, religion is "dancing about architecture."

    So, it would appear that you have in fact come around to one of Dawkins's assertions that you opened by pooh-poohing: that "God exists" should be treated as a scientific hypothesis like any other.  Stephen Jay Gould argued that religion and science are "non-overlapping magisteria," since science tries to explain the physical world and religion is concerned with ethics, but if we are for our purposes reducing "religious belief" simply to "belief in the existence of (something called) God" and chucking ethics, then we are very neatly back to Dawkins's "treat it like any other hypothesis" suggestion.

    Barbapectiniculi, I agree that the only non-silly thing is to start with "why is there something instead of nothing?"  Coriihumidi, what I don't agree with is the idea that "God" and "not God" are equally probable answers to that question.  You are dealing with an uncaused cause in the Universe itself, or with God itself, so if you say "God has to exist because the universe does" then you might as well say "God's God has to exist because God does, and God's God's God has to exists because God's God does, etc. infinity."   Plus if you are just using "God" to mean "whatever started the universe" then that is tautological bullshit and you might as well be saying "God is love" or "God is a warm puppy" or something.  I can choose to call my shoe "God" if I feel like it, but that doesn't either make any sense or support the hypothesis "God exists" in any sense that people are accustomed to conceptualizing it (or feel like bothering to defend).

    You are defending the use of the term God here (which has been used 99.9% of the time by 99.9% of the people who use it to mean something very different) as it could be applied to some "limitless force that effected being."  Again: why bother?  When we discovered what oxygen was, we didn't keep calling it "dephlogisticated air" just because the word phlogiston was cool; we called it something else.  Yes, we do not understand what caused matter or time to come into being.  But it seems to me like it only makes sense to use the word "God" if the answer is something that is in some way supernatural, and there is no reason the believe that the answer is supernatural.  Again, it would be like saying "I have no idea who put this book on the table, so it makes just as much sense to assume it was put there by a vampire as by a regular person."

    In short, and I think Lactiscaseique agrees with me, you are unduly privileging the "God" concept.  If you felt like it, you could spew just as sound-seeming philosophy in defense of the idea that ghosts exist and houses can be haunted.  But you don't feel like it.  And this is not a joke: ghosts are a thing that people originally thought up because they couldn't explain stuff that we can now explain, and as more and more stuff got explained the belief in ghosts got refined to avoid being entirely debunked.  At this point, why defend some term/idea that started for reasons you admit were bullshit and has had to be changed to mean something completely different every X years in order to continue to exist ("God of the Gaps")?  Why is this any more logical than saying "maybe there used to be an Atlantis, but it is disintegrated now?"

LACTISCASEIQUE:  Re "Uncaused Causes" and infinite regression issues in cosmology/science, don't count science out just yet.  Firstly, the best available theories suggest that a universe like ours was not actually improbable, but was in fact a statistical inevitability.  I can explain more if you like.

    Second, it may actually very well be possible that a future cosmological theory could admit the possibility that there can be a natural uncaused cause.  Newton's Second Law of Thermodynamics suggests that there are no uncaused causes in our universe, but there is actually a really, really good chance that the 2nd Law just does not apply in this theorized higher-dimensional (actually, 10-dimensional) space physicists are currently contemplating with M-Theory.  This 10-dimensional space is called "The Bulk" and is thought to contain a lot of really exotic types of objects... including objects to which the whole idea of "time" does not apply.

    This throws a huge wrench into a lot of what we mean by "causality," since causality requires time to pass.  One billiard ball hits another and transfers force into it at a particular time and then after that time has passed, the second billiard ball is said to be "experiencing a result" of being hit by the first ball.  But if you take a radically atemporal view of this little event that is, at least notionally, "outside of time," the second ball was basically "fated" to start moving; "causality" never enters into it.

pool table

    Put another way, spacetime seems to be able to run "forwards" and "backwards" equally.  Physicists have operationally defined "time" to be measured by the increase in entropy, but they are all 100% aware that this is an operational definition that is merely useful for solving equations that involve a time component.  Nobody thinks there is some kind of "energy" or "force" that permeates all reality which constitutes "Existential" or "Absolute" time.

    Viewed in this light, the notion of there being some kind of chain of "causal events" going back to some uncaused cause is a complete red herring that is an artifact of our subjectivity and a trick of our language.  This sounds bizarre, I'll admit, but this is real, bona fide serious physics these days—not some quack theory.

    Re Wittgenstein etc., I'm sensitive to the possibility that there is something out there—entity, uncaused case, what have you—that may simply be beyond our concepts.  I think this is a version of the Cartesian Doubt objection I mentioned before.  I would observe, though, that this suggestion is really nothing new.  Humans have been making mistakes since forever.  Observing that our concepts seem to have limits is a "cheap" observation; it contributes nothing to factual questions like "What things exist?"

    This matters because the lesson of Descartes's Meditations is that absolute certain knowledge is either circular (and thus represents vacuous analytic truths) or nonexistent.  If all we have is uncertain knowledge, then the task of philosophy, science, etc. is to simply do the best we can with what we have, and provide reasons for belief as best we are able.  Saying "Well maybe you're wrong" does not assist in that project.

    Viewed in that light, I think what we return to is the difference between arriving at your beliefs based on rationality or on an irrational belief that our human concepts are all equally fallible, and just picking one set of concepts arbitrarily is okay.  (I.e., this amounts to saying that science and religion are on the same footing, epistemically, but this appears to just not to be the case, as science's success has shown).

    There are many sophisticated, convincing and impressively coherent explanations of the nature of reality that do not involve something outside our concepts.  And further, when you have to pick between a well-argued and supported scientific worldview and grasping at the possibility that our concepts are insufficient, it clearly seems to present a choice between rationality and irrationality.  We have reasons to think our concepts are adequate, but no reasons to think they are not.

    I think a rational person who takes these issues seriously is compelled to acknowledge they might be wrong—but that is not saying very much.  The admission that you might be wrong is merely what drives the scientific method and does not, in itself, compel you to reject out of hand the whole progress of science and rationality and the belief that our concepts are adequate to cover the entire universe in favor of some other starting conceptual scheme.

    "Second, the other approach I was talking about was not a separate method of getting concepts (and I think preconceptual reasoning is self contradictory).  The approach is centered on the question, "what should we do," rather then "what is."  I realize that religion makes a lot of "what is" statements, but they are all in service of "what should we do" conclusions."

    So, you are offering actions as being the only way a person could metaphorically describe something they saw in a noumenous perception?  E.g., "I saw God's limitlessness, and I am now inspired to do X, Y, and Z by the sight?"  Is that right?

GRAMMATICUS:  Lactiscaseique, I think you are being a little unfair to Coriihumidi.  Much of what you said seemed directed at someone whose position is "Science is or might be wrong," and I don't read Coriihumidi as anywhere having said that science was actually wrong about any specific thing—just that it may be inherently limited to such a point as makes it not inherently ridiculous to refrain from rejecting a "God."

    I disagree with him, of course, as you do.  But we should try to keep straight what he is or is not saying.

LACTISCASEIQUE:  Clearly Coriihumidi is not saying that science is factually wrong on a large scale.  However I think he and I both agree that science might be wrong.  We can easily conceive of how human concepts may have limits (which in fact this whole discussion we've had about the limits of concepts illustrates).

    A specific example of how an object might be beyond our concepts is this "post-conceptual God" of a Sophisticated Theist.  Coriihumidi and I both agree that such an entity is relevantly like a Wittgensteinian Private Object.

    I officially take no position on whether there are things beyond our concepts; I think the question is incomprehensible.  Since I don't understand the question, I don't know how I could coherently hold an opinion on it.  However, we have reasons to think there are no things beyond our concepts, because science has had a pretty successful track record of understanding the world since it started taking on its current form in the Enlightenment.  Conversely, we have no reasons to think there are things beyond our concepts, and in fact have reasons to think such things might make no sense.

CORIIHUMIDI:  I think Lactiscaseique is misrepresenting what I am saying and that Grammaticus is shifting the terms of the debate to avoid what I am saying.

    Lactiscaseique, you are trotting out all the anti-postmoderns to counter a position I don't ascribe to.  I never said science might be wrong, with the implication that Catholic cosmology (or something) is right.  We agree that foundational knowledge is a pipe dream.  We also agree that there is no reason to think that science is wrong.

    You then go a step further and say that we have reason to think that science can eventually have a complete understanding of the universe that encompasses all that exists.  I think this positivism is unjustified.  You dismiss my skepticism based on two premises.  

    First, "I officially take no position on whether there are things beyond our concepts; I think the question is incomprehensible." This premise is clearly wrong.  We already have a bunch of examples of things that we can't conceive of: infinity, 10-dimensional space, events without causation.  We can poke around the edges of what we are capable of understanding by assigning these things variables and plugging them into equations, but this is different from actually grasping them.  The theoretical physics you are talking about do exactly this: what they provide is a model that maps on to reality, but the further up abstraction they go (and math is our highest form of abstraction), the more we should keep in mind that our model is an attempt at description—not the real thing.

    Second, "Conversely, we have no reasons to think there are things beyond our concepts, and in fact have reasons to think such things might make no sense."  Sure we do, and no we don't.  Why should we think that human brains aided by instruments and computers (which we know are limited) are capable of a limitless understanding, especially because we know there are things we can't understand?  

    I agree that the argument "skepticism, therefore not natural science" is "cheap"—but I never made that claim.  Further it is just as cheap to say that any discussion of skepticism's implications is meaningless (i.e., "shut up," you explain).   

    Put another way, the statement "It makes no sense to talk about things that are beyond reason" only implies that fanciful theories of what goes on beyond our concepts are fairy tales.  That is very different from saying that everything that exists is within our grasp to comprehend and that to say otherwise is stupid.

    Grammaticus, you have an interesting point about me dividing ethics from theism; I need to think more on that.  In the meantime, you are still not addressing my main point.  Instead, you keep asking me to justify ideas I obviously don't agree with, and refuse to respond to my points head on.  The basic structure of your arguments have been:

    1) I am using an idiosyncratic conception of God, so there is no reason to engage with it, or                               even recognize the thing I am talking about as God.

    You are factually incorrect that 99.9% of people don't share this concept of God.  In fact, I bet that nearly 100% of believers agree with the concept that God is infinite.  In every Christian service I have been to, I have heard exactly that from the altar.  It is true that many religious people believe other things about God that I do not (the specifics of various dogma).  Ask them about those things.

    2) What God actually means is the Man on the Cloud, which is a ridiculous thing to believe in.  

    For the last couple thousand years, virtually no religious people have had a conception of God as being less than infinite.  For the Teapot argument to work, your definition of God has to be "God is powerful but less than infinite."  As I explained in previous emails, the absence of some cause without a cause is just as paradoxical as its presence.  

    You keep restating the Teapot argument as if I don't understand it.  However, ghosts, vampires, Bigfoot, Atlantis, witches, God the Warm Puppy, and whatever other Teapot Replacement you have in mind are dissimilar from the nearly universal understanding of what God is.  Bigfoot is limited.  He is a big forest ape, not a desert ape and not a forest lizard.  As such, Bigfoot is not infinite.  God—as it is universally understood—is infinite.

    For the same reason, your “God's God” infinite regress makes no sense.  By definition an uncaused cause has no cause.  BTW, Dawkins briefly talks about an uncaused cause.  His counterargument, in its entirety, is "sometimes infinite regresses have a stopping point."  ("Shut up," he explains.)

    You and Dawkins both import probability talk to characterize an agnostic’s viewpoint in a way that just distorts it.  An agnostic does not think that there is a 50% chance God exists and 50% chance it doesn't.  An agnostic thinks that in principle we can't know.  As neatly as I can put it, infinity is something we know is there, but it is too big for us to actually conceptualize.  God is infinite, and as such we can't form a concept of it.  If we can't conceptualize it, we can't reason about it.  Therefore, we can't know if God exists.

    I think that that both the statement "God 100% exists" and the statement "God 100% does not exist" are the equivalent of saying that "the infinite is perfect."  They are grammatically correct sentences that don't mean anything.   

PART III:  Is Limitlessness Even Possible, and Even If It Is, Why Call It God?

GRAMMATICUS:  As for "God 100% does not exist," of course you are right that as a point of honor science does not admit of certainty.  Even Dawkins says that on a scale of 1-7 where 7 equals "100% certain that God does not exist" he is a 6.  In other words, he is as sure that there is no God as he is that a hydrogen atom has one proton and one electron, that the flowers are real and not paper flowers souped up by a wizard, etc.

    I get what you are saying about all theists agreeing that God is infinite.  I guess I have not made my objection clear.  My problem with what you are doing is that you are starting with "theists agree that God is infinite" and then proceeding from there to logical implications of limitlessness that you are smart enough to figure out but they are not, and then acting like they all also believe the logical implications too, when they don't.  It is like if I said "every five-year-old knows that vampires can't see their own reflections," and then did a bunch of complicated physics about what would have to be true of vampires in order for them to have no reflections, and then said "every five-year-old knows that vampires are surrounded by a billion tiny massless black holes but are also able to psychically project images of themselves around these black holes" (or something).  In short, you are not alone in conceiving of God as infinite, but you are very nearly alone in applying logic to this to the extent you are doing.  Or even in wanting to: if you started to explain to these people the stuff you have explained to us about these logical implications, they would get unbelievably pissed at you.

    The reason that all these other people bother using the word "God" for this Mystery Thing is because of stuff that they don't realize is negated by their belief that the Mystery Thing is infinite (it loves you, it has ethical preferences, it will do quid pro quos with you if you are good).  So once again: in terms of whatever you believe to be the case with this Mystery Thing, why bother calling it "God?"  You have been avoiding this question at least as much as I have been avoiding any of yours.  It may be impossible for us to conceive of this Thing, but it was impossible for cavemen to conceive that earthquakes are caused by plate tectonics too.  That doesn't mean they were factually correct in believing they were caused by God.  Your stuff about the limits of our ability to conceptualize are actually a point for me, and not for you.  Your goldfish probably thinks you are God when you come to feed him every day, but he is wrong, because he is just a dumb goldfish.  There is a wholly scientific explanation for the fact that you come to feed him every day.  Whether he can understand it is immaterial.

    The question "what started the universe?" is a question about what did or did not happen in the past, just like the question "did Robin Hood really exist?"  Science so far cannot answer either of them.  But that does not give people carte blanche to propose extra-scientific explanations.  Even if we can not figure out exactly what they are, the maxim "All explanations of everything should be assumed to be scientific ones until we have reason to believe otherwise" seems like a good one.

    Finally, there is a difference between our ability to "conceive of" something and our ability to compose a sentence that truthfully answers a question.  Just as math is an approximation, so is language.  We can construct the sentence "Before the Big Bang, there was a singularity with infinite mass and infinite density," as an answer to the question "What was up with the thing that existed before the Big Bang?"  Whether we can successfully meditate on (which seems like an emotional state way more subjective than the math or the language) what infinite density is "like" is immaterial—we can still answer the question.  A dumb guy cannot meditate on how long ago 65 million years is, but that doesn't mean there weren't dinosaurs.  Maybe Stephen Hawking is perfectly capable of "thinking about" infinite density, but everyone else is too dumb.  But everyone else could still memorize a sentence that answers the question once Stephen Hawking tells us how.  So, it is entirely likely that eventually scientists will be able to compose a sentence to the effect of "The universe started because _______________," and we will learn to memorize it in school just like we memorize "Force equals mass times acceleration" or "background microwaves leave heat fingerprints."  We may not know what the fuck it means, but dumb people don't know what the other two sentences mean either.  Makes no difference.

LACTISCASEIQUE:  When Grammaticus says this:

    "We can construct the sentence "Before the Big Bang, there was a singularity with infinite mass and infinite density," as an answer to the question "What was up with the thing that existed before the Big Bang?"  Whether we can successfully meditate on (which seems like an emotional state way more subjective than the math or the language) what infinite density is "like" is immaterial—we can still answer the question."

    ...he is saying something physicists think is totally wrong. 

    The problem with older cosmological theories was that they seemed to suggest that something—the pre-Bang universe—could have an infinite mass and energy level.  If that were true, the pre-Bang and post-Bang universes would have exactly the same mass and energy: infinite.  Infinity cannot be added to or subtracted from, and the post-Bang universe just factually has less mass and energy than the pre-bang universe did.  There is also no variation in a universe with infinite energy—energy level would be uniform everywhere, filling all regions of space infinitely.  But our universe has a lot of variability in mass and density from location to location—we have vast empty stretches and dense areas (i.e. galaxies).

    Therefore, any theory that suggests that the pre-Bang universe involved infinite anything is wrong.  M-Theory presents a pretty cogent picture of what the universe was like pre-Bang and it does not involve any infinities, which is why it made/makes theoretical physicists salivate. 

    Re Coriihumidi’s observation about infinity being evidence of some kind of conceptual limit to our understanding, the presence of infinities in our theories about the universe is not at all a sign that we are bumping up against some kind of a fundamental limit to our concepts.  If anything, infinities popping up in physical theories is not evidence of the poverty or limits of our concepts; it represents merely a poverty in a particular theory. 

    The world we see is finite.  Infinity may be a useful and interesting mathematical concept, but every physicist will acknowledge that its presence in the math of physical theories is a somewhat artificial formalism.  If you want to question the applicability of mathematical formalisms in physics, okay, but infinities in physics is a crummy example of a "limit" to our concepts.  The infinities in physics have always been shown to be pseudo-infinities.  Their presence suggests we need to adjust one of the fundamental entities in a physical theory so that the infinity is no longer needed to do the math.

    We already had this happen with quantum mechanics.  The infinities in the math of studying radiation and waves were eliminated by Max Planck, who suggested everything broke down to noninfinite entities, or “quanta.” This became quantum physics.

    I think the universe being finite is just self-evident, but if you wish to object, feel free.  But for example, the speed of light is always limited at approx. 186,000 mi/s, no matter what frame of reference you look at it from.  There are also objects of supposedly infinite density (black holes), but they are not really infinitely dense—they have a definite size, radius, mass, etc., meaning their density is actually calculable.

CORIIHUMIDI:  Grammaticus, you say:

    "My problem with what you are doing is that you are starting with 'theists agree that God is infinite' and then proceeding from there to logical implications of limitlessness that you are smart enough to figure out but they are not, and then acting like they all also believe the logical implications too, when they don't."

    But this is not at all what I am doing.  I am defending my own position.  You are just wishing I were defending a much weaker position so you could trot out your collection of anti-theist arguments.

    I am a motherfucking agnostic.  AGNOSTIC!  Jesus fucking christ.

GRAMMATICUS:  Lactiscaseique, sorry that my reading on the pre-Bang universe is not up to date, and thanks for the correction, but in any case that example was just obiter dicta.  My point ("we can speak a sentence that is the answer to a complex question even if contemplating what the words mean blows our minds") stands.

    Coriihumidi, your response to my accusation was funny, but I still think my accusation is fair.  I know your position is distinct from that of the average churchgoer, and that you are an agnostic and do not "worship" anything.  My point is that we are arguing about the application of a term ("God") that exists because of the things that those people want it to mean (loves us, is "good," rewards/punishes us).  You are admitting that in your definition it is absent those attributes.  My question is, why keep using the term that was developed for the definition of the thing in which it possesses them?  If all you are positing is "a limitless force that started the universe," doesn't it make more sense to call it "Q-Force" or something and just add it to the list of shit we think might be around but can't find, like "dark matter?"  It seems like by insisting on calling it "God" and then if they find it going "Aha! God exists!" you are just fucking with atheists as revenge for the fact that we annoy you.

CORIIHUMIDI:  My answer to your question is that I refer to the supreme being as God because that is the common conception of god that I think is most interesting.  It is stripped down and entails little or no dogma, but it is the one I think is most relevant.  I share this definition with at least the entire Unitarian Church, a large part of the Congregationalist and Episcopal church, most Jesuits I have met, Thomas Aquinas, Moses Maimonides and a whole bunch of other people. 

    The notion of god as the supreme being is not unique to me nor particularly rare.  Just browsing this Wikipedia entry it comes up about a dozen times, and it is not like Wikipedia is some elite publication.  I can think of about two dozen people I know who go to various churches and synagogues and say they think God is the supreme being but that beyond that we can't say much.  I think Lactiscaseique described his mom and stepdad as believing that a few e-mails ago.

    You insist that the only thing "those people" believe in is an anthropomorphic deity.  If that is all you are interested in discussing, fine, I agree that there is no reason to believe in it and I am convinced by the five or six versions of the Teapot argument you have used.  If you won't acknowledge my conception of god as valid, maybe we are done here.

LACTISCASEIQUE:  Re Grammaticus’s outdated big bang stuff, no harm no foul.  I simply seized on that as a handy example of something Coriihumidi and I can quibble about if we want to—namely that certain specific examples of the limits of our concepts are less problematic than he thinks, and when we look carefully at things like infinity, higher-dimensional spaces, and causality infinite-regression problems, these "problems" pretty often turn out to be pseudo-problems.  I am pretty much solidly with Coriihumidi on the Wittgenstein/conceptual considerations I've been talking about. 

    This way of putting his POV:

    “I never said science might be wrong, with the implication that Catholic cosmology (or something) is right.  We agree that foundational knowledge is a pipe dream.  We also agree that there is no reason to think that science is wrong.  […]  You then go a step further and say that we have reason to think that science can eventually have a complete  understanding of the universe that encompasses all that exists.  I think this positivism is unjustified.”

    ...pretty much clarifies away most of the disagreements I might have had.  Once you accept that foundational knowledge is a non-starter and that science is the best method we have available of arriving at uncertain-but-well-founded beliefs about the world, you have basically rejected the Man on the Cloud and all its iterations, which I do.  Further, I also agree with Coriihumidi (perhaps pro forma as Grammaticus’s "point of honor," perhaps not) that there may be things in existence, somehow, that we literally cannot form any concept of at all, and that God may be lurking somewhere among these trans-conceptual things.  I guess that makes me an agnostic-in-principle.

    Re confidence in science's ability to eventually "complete" its understanding of the universe, maybe someone who thinks that science can craft a comprehensive account of the universe (though this project is not yet complete) is an “atheist-in-principle.”  I don't know.  I'm certainly not willing to go that far just yet. 

    I think Coriihumidi and I could quibble about specific examples he has given of the limits to our concepts.  The physics stuff I mentioned Grammaticus being wrong about was re infinity and how it's treated in actual belief-formation about the world.  Scientists don't like it because it means their concepts are breaking down and have outlived their usefulness, so they find new concepts that more accurately describe reality, which appears to have no infinities.  In that sense, infinity is still something we can't conceptualize very well, but we don't need to.  The universe, empirically speaking, does not appear to involve infinities, so when an infinity pops up in our theory, our theory is fucked up.  It doesn't say something fundamental about our, like, "fundamental concept-forming capacity."  It just says that we need better concepts if we want to probe the aspect of the world that has infinities messing with our math.  I have similar arguments re 10-dimensional spaces, infinite regressions, and the applicability of conceptual/mathematical models onto reality, but I don't feel like going into it unless you want, Coriihumidi.   

    I think our discussion of the limits of our concepts, and him admitting the possibility of God being some kind of entity that is transconceptual, pretty much insulates him from the standard atheist arguments against agnostics.  He is not making any mere empirical claims; Coriihumidi is analyzing concepts and showing that they have limits.  Because this is not an empirical argument, the Teapot and all variations on it are non-starters against him.  I agree with that anyone who takes seriously the idea of God being limitless winds up rejecting any Man on the Cloud aspects pretty quickly because they are incompatible with God being limitless.  This is why I kept referring to someone who believes in a transconceptual God as a Sophisticated Theist: they have thought through the real logical implications of something beyond our concepts and thus regard a God with any Man on the Cloud aspects as being a sham.  (I suppose you could go the other way and just wholeheartedly embrace the Man on the Cloud, but that is retarded.)


    However, I think Grammaticus is factually correct that most of the religious people of the world have a concept of God that is partly the Man on the Cloud and partly this limitless transconceptual God that Coriihumidi admits may theoretically exist.  God is a supreme being with limitless power, limitless knowledge, limitless benevolence, and is just generally limitless.  This is definitely the God I was supposed to be learning about in Sunday school when I was growing up.  God was both limitless and deeply interested in humanity and our fate, so much so that he went out of his way to save us, etc.  This is the God my parents insist they believe in, as far as I can tell.  I run these same conceptual arguments we've been on about since the start of this thread and the response is, "God is not limited by your logic, either."  So much for consistency, I guess.  Their God is a Limitless Man on the Cloud.  I think such a God is chimerical.  It incorporates stuff I think is possible ("limitlessness," "transconceptuality") with stuff that is empirical and extremely, extremely implausible Man-on-the-Cloud stuff (interested in the fate of humans, etc.) 

    The point of Grammaticus's that is good is: the non-chimerical, transconceptual God that Coriihumidi admits may be possible is, indeed, very far from what most religious people think of God as being.  I think Coriihumidi has singled out a few aspects of common conceptions of God that dovetail nicely with a transconceptual God, but I think he should acknowledge that there is a gulf between him and a lot of religious folks on what role God plays in cosmology.  This matters because God doesn't just sit there in most of the world's religions: God is active, and does things.  A totally disinterested God that does not intervene with or maybe not even have awareness of human affairs is definitely contrary to the Abrahamaic religions—it would mostly falsify the Torah, the Bible, and the Koran.  Certainly it would falsify the idea that God had a son, Jesus of Nazareth, whom God resurrected after he died because he was willing to die to save humanity from eternal suffering.  This resurrection is the defining miracle that makes Christians Christian, and a disinterested God who didn't intervene in the universe's course to make such a thing happen is not the Christian God.  I am going to take the falsification of canonical texts as being a sign that a disinterested God is not the God these religions describe.

CORIIHUMIDI:  I think the other point you two are making is there is no reason to think that there is a limit to what we are able to have a concept of.  I think that this is self-evidently false.  We know there are things out there that we can't conceive of.  Because we know they are there we can give them a name, but that does not mean it has any meaning for us other than a variable.  When Lactiscaseique says the universe is finite, this entails that there is something beyond it.  The universe equals everything that is.  What does that mean?  I have no idea, nor does anyone. Lactiscaseique also was talking about a part of space where time doesn't occur and there is no causation.  We might be able to write a formula about that, but we have no concept of it.  If we visited that corner of the universe (I know that is impossible, but this is a thought experiment) nothing that came in through our sensory organs would produce any concepts because they evolved to deal with our corner of the universe.

    As for Grammaticus's point that there are smarter and dumber people, I say that all these people are using a brain, which is limited.  Why should I suppose that a tool that evolved to help us find food and fuck should be capable of actually understanding 10-dimensional space? 

    Finally, I am calling bullshit right now on you two calling your arguments "natural" and mine positing something "supernatural."  All natural means is "part of nature."  If god exists, it is a natural god (because, after all, it exists).  All three of us agree that the best method we have for understanding nature is science.  To say that god is beyond science is not to say it is supernatural; it is just saying it is beyond our ability to understand it. 

    Even if you equate “natural” with what is described by science, you two's optimistic claims about the perfectability of human knowledge are no more or less naturalistic than my agnosticism.  To say that we are capable of obtaining a complete understanding of our universe is not a statement supported by observable evidence that can be falsified by running an experiment.  That is, it is not a scientific statement.   So your positivism is every bit as non-naturalistic as my belief that an infinite being cannot be shown to exist or not in principle.  You support your belief with induction (science is doing great so far).  I support my belief with a deductive argument about the nature of the concept of God.   Neither of these gets to enjoy any special claim to our scientific patrimony. 

    Drawing the distinction between the empirical Man on a Cloud and analyzing the concept of infinity makes the point I have been trying to make for a while in a much more crisp way.  As for "I think he should acknowledge that there is a gulf between him and a lot of religious folks on what role God plays in cosmology," I absolutely acknowledge that there are huge numbers of dogmatic literalists.  Fundamentalist Christians, Conservative Catholics, Jews and Muslims, to name a few.  These are a lot of religious people.

    But they are not all religious people.  Have you guys seriously never heard of a religious person saying he interprets the Bible figuratively?  [Our religion professor at college] was one of these people.  In Sunday school I was taught Bible stories without the caveat that they were stories, but that caveat came pretty quick once I graduated on to the regular services.  Many churches have services in which the pastor takes up a bunch of time saying stuff like "Noah actually and literally had two of each kind of animal on his boat," but I guarantee there is a church within walking distance of each of you where this story is treated wholly figuratively. 

    I will happily concede that theists and agnostics with a pared-down concept of god like mine are in the minority.  They are not, however, de minimus, which is what Grammaticus wants me to concede.  And I think Lactiscaseique's parents are right that a limitless being is not constrained by logic, but we are arguing about stuff so it is just a non-starter to go down this road.  

LACTISCASEIQUE:  A couple things in response:

    1)  I don't think I ever said that the God you're admitting is possible is supernatural, just that it transcends the concepts science works with.

    2)  I think that our ability to come up with new concepts is pretty impressive in its scope, but the conceptual/deductive argument you are making is rock-solid and almost impossible to counter.  I think that science will continue to be very successful in coming up with new concepts to explain the problems it encounters when the concepts of whatever going theory is in the lead develop problems.  But that doesn't really touch your main argument.

    3) A finite universe does not entail something beyond it, at all.  It simply means that there are a non-infinite (i.e., vast, but limited) number of locations one can be, within a given space.  It makes no reference to what might or might not be outside that space, because the "space" is definitive of every location it is possible to talk about.  This is what physicists mean when they talk about "space." 
    4) Yeah, I hate it when my parents and I arrive at that point in the argument.  It's like, so what was the point of all this discussion then?  I understand their point, though, and can acknowledge that it's a nontrivial possibility.  This is, basically, the possibility that God could "draw back the veil of reality" and show me that all my semantic what-have-you doesn't amount to jackshit in the face of his power, and that he is simultaneously limitless and interested in humans, personal, etc. and this doesn't cause some kind of hellacious logic problem or something.  Eh.

    (This sounds a lot more credible when you take a "descriptivist" view of logic, rather than "prescriptivist," by the way—the idea that logic does not compel one to accept conclusions, and that the "laws of logic" describe the way humans do, as a matter of fact, extract inferentially relevant conclusions from other propositions, ideas, etc.  A Modus Ponens syllogism is still valid logic under this idea, but it says nothing about what "must" be—only what contingently is about the way humans think.  Thus Socrates can be a man, all men can be mortal, but while humans may draw from these two facts the conclusion that Socrates is mortal, maybe's he not.)

    5)  Of course I have had contact with Biblical "figurativists."  These folks are certainly worth our attention and the short (and possibly unfair/glib) version of the theology of the two most prominent ones I know is encapsulated in #4.  I can acknowledge that they, and the literalists too, both might be right, but they will always have an escape hatch in the "Well, maybe logic does not apply to God!" position, so arguments concerning God are pointless with them.  I have to admit that what they say is possible conceptually (which is different from saying it's possible empirically), but there is little reason to believe that they are right.
    6) I would like it if you, Coriihumidi, could unpack what you mean by thinking it good if religion focuses more on what we should do rather than a set of beliefs about what is the case—but Grammaticus has not yet had a chance to respond to your email and may have further objections before we move on.

CORIIHUMIDI:  I haven't gotten into what I think the value of religious institutions is because I don't want to move off Teapot stuff until we have had it out.  Lactiscaseique says "I have to admit that what they say is possible conceptually (which is different from saying it's possible empirically), but there is little reason to believe that they are right," and I think this is also what Grammaticus’s position is.  I think that when we are talking about God we are talking about a label for a thing we can't actually conceive of (the more I think about it, the more I like the Private Object analogy).  A precondition to say X is more or less likely, or that I do or do not have reason to believe in X is that you have some concept of what X is.  When X is God I think that is impossible in principle. 

LACTISCASEIQUE:  I think I see what you're saying but am not fully sure.  I may disagree with you, but before I do I want to make sure I'm understanding you.  Is this a fair way of rephrasing what you are saying: You are saying that, basically, we cannot fully conceptualize what infinity is, but we are able to imperfectly conceptualize it.  This is what you mean when you say that you have “some concept of what X is.”

    You are saying that we can sketch the outlines of infinity (e.g., "Infinity - 1 = Infinity"), but cannot ever grasp it in the same way that we can a more easily understood example like "five," which we can just recognize at an almost sensory level.  Like when you see five things, you rarely have to ever individually count them; you just see them as five things.  We are just not built to have the conceptual capacity to ever be at that level with something that is infinite in scope.

    Finally, you are saying that because the best we could ever possibly do is imperfectly conceptualize an infinite being, then although such a being may exist, we cannot really recognize it or talk about it if it does exist.  Therefore, one cannot really form an opinion either way about whether it exists, since we are too limited to understand a question that involves an infinite being.  Accurate, Y/N?

GRAMMATICUS:  Lactiscaseique, a few e-mails ago you suggested that to be an atheist you have to believe that science can/will explain everything.  This is not true, because God vs. Science is not a zero-sum game (and atheists are not ipso facto 100% science fanboys; we do tend to be, but it is not a part of the definition—technically someone could disbelieve in God but believe in vampires or in astrology or in dreams that predict the future).  The warrant underpinning your statement was "If science cannot explain everything, therefore God exists," which is self-evidently fucked up.  There can be things science can't explain without those things being "God."  Especially since, as I pointed out already, per Coriihumidi's definition of God we are talking exclusively about what did/didn't happen re one specific event in the past (Coriihumidi's questions are all "what started the universe" and nothing about what "God" is doing currently—which is another good question).  So you could just as easily say "Science cannot tell us who wrote Beowulf; therefore God exists."

    Coriihumidi, at this point, your incapacity to see my point is making it seem like you experienced some head injury that made you selectively blind to it.  I realize that the defining attribute of your "God" is that it is a limitless "supreme being," and that this is also an attribute of the definition used by Aquinas et al.  But it is also a defining attribute of your "God" that it is by definition entirely indifferent to whether I give all my money to charity or set a pile of babies on fire, and this is hardly the same conception of God shared by Aquinas, Moses Maimonides, Unitarians, etc. (okay maybe a few of the Unitarians).

    You keep saying that my arguments are powerless against everyone but "fundamentalists" or "dogmatic literalists."  Bullshit.  Even people who interpret scripture very figuratively (or people who are spiritual but don't really hold to scripture at all) would answer "yes" to the general question "Is God 'good'?"  In your definition, God is mutually exclusive to concepts of good/evil, has no desires or agency, and (I presume) is not even self-aware, since self-awareness is a "function of a brain" just like a host of other stuff you have conceded.  So there goes the term “supreme being,” since to call something a "being" rather than a "force" at least some of that stuff is necessary—even an earthworm or bacterium or virus that is not really "thinking" still behaves instinctually based on the fact that it is an organic thigamajig trying to perpetuate itself, whereas gravity is not. 

    If you ask all of these people you keep claiming are in your corner "If there is some force that started the universe and that’s it, and it is not self-aware, has no desires/preferences, cannot even make choices, has absolutely nothing to do with morality and is utterly indifferent to everything that happens, should we call it God?" they would say no (again, except for a few Unitarians).  In fact they would find the idea insulting.  They might say yes if they realized it was their only choice and the only other thing is to admit there is no God, solely so as not to give atheists the satisfaction, but this is not people seriously defining "God;" it is just sour grapes.

    The entire historical process of this conversation is, religion defines God as A, science disproves A, religion goes Just kidding God is B, science disproves B, religion goes Just kidding God is C, science disproves C, etc., etc.  So if we are now at "God is Z" and you have managed to articulate a definition that is impossible to disprove, then congratulations but what is the point?  Don't say this is just the Teapot again—I guess it is Teapotesque, but that is because you are doing a form of God-of-the-Gaps and any response to a form of "God of the Gaps" has to be Teapotesque.  I'm sorry that you are "sick of" Teapotesque responses, but then maybe you should stop making claims that demand them.

    I am reminded of when in college you would be prevailed upon to explain philosophy tracts to people who had not done the reading, in exchange for beer.  You would explain it, they would say "that's too hard, give me the short version," you would give them the short version, they would say "dumb it down again," you would do so, they would ask for it to be stripped down even more, and you would finally have to say "okay, but keep in mind at this point it's wrong."

    My point is that with your “limitless force” definition you have passed the border of "Okay, but keep in mind at this point it's not God."  And not just according to me, but according to the vast majority of the people who use the term God (not just fundies, because it is not like only fundies think God has desires/morality), in terms of their main reason for using it—which is morality, not limitlessness.  If you ask them "limitlessness means you can't be self-aware or have preferences, so which is God, limitless or self-aware?" they would say self-aware.  Actually, they would just say "God can do anything, so ha ha ha," but if you could somehow force them to answer they would say self-aware—which is another thing: an essential part of all these other people's definition is "God can do whatever it wants," and you are saying that "God" does not want anything and cannot even "do" anything in the sense of "choose to."

    What you are positing is "there is some limitless force that created the universe."  Okay.  That is a physics hypothesis, not a theological one.  It could be true just like some version of M-theory could be true.  But when you say "created the universe," you are not saying it chose to create the universe.  You are saying by virtue of its existence it governs certain occurrences in certain ways (which I am assuming are—in theory if not practice—predictable).  So what you are positing is a force or a process, like electromagnetism or radioactive decay.  I.e., if we knew enough we could develop an equation about it, but we don't know enough, and it may be inherently impossible for us to ever know enough.  That is all fine with me.  I am not signing off on Lactiscaseique's (former?) degree of scientific positivism that we have to eventually be able to.  My point (explained here quite clearly so please don’t just tell me again that it is only useful against Pat Robertson and Kirk Cameron) is that if this is just an (in theory) predictable force (or even if it is chaotic, it still has no agency), even a really really really big and cool one, there is no reason to call it "God" rather than some science name, unless you just want to call something "God" for the sake of calling something "God," just so atheists can't say they won.

PART IV:  “An Evolving Concept of God” vs. “God in the Gaps” / Does a Definition of the Function of Religion Necessarily Precede a Definition of God?

CORIIHUMIDI:  I am saying we can not conceptualize an infinite being. I don't really know what the difference is between an imperfect conceptualization and an incorrect conceptualization.  I would point out that an infinite number is a different concept from an infinite being.  The former is more finite than the latter. 

    Grammaticus, you are conflating two things I said.  My argument for agnosticism is not "something had to create the universe."  My argument for agnosticism-in-principle is this: 1) If God exists it is a limitless being, 2) Our minds are finite, 3) Therefore, if god exists it is beyond our capacity to conceive of it.

    The stuff about "god may have created the universe" is an illustration of why the Teapot argument does not work against an agnostic that has a (admittedly) minimal conception of what God is, i.e., either there was an uncaused cause (theist position), or there wasn't (atheist position).  Nether of these things makes any sense because we can't form a concept of the subject or either sentence.  At this point we are (I believe) beyond the reach of our conceptual capacity so we can't (literally can't) say anything about it.  

    Am I just making up a weird definition to fuck with you?  First, I think, in your own pugnacious way, you concede that the Teapot argument does not work against my conception of God.  Rather your argument is that the definition of God I am using is not valid.  Please confirm that this is so.  Second, you have admitted that my definition of God is not completely idiosyncratic since you have allowed that "a few Unitarians" share it.  So the number of people who share it is at least enough that it counts as a genuine belief that people have and not my ad hoc redefinition employed to piss you off.  Beyond that, the number of people who share it is irrelevant.

    That said, the minimalist conception of God is way more prevalent than you suggest.  There is an elite/academic and a popular version of it.  There have been about a dozen thick books written about this conception since the middle ages.  Aquinas and Maimonides both wrote a few.  Descartes talked about a minimalist God, as did Bishop Berkeley.   In many cases they went on to talk about other things they believed about God, but usually these were believed on faith alone. 

    In a more popular sense, there are a lot of people who say they believe in God, but that it is so far beyond us there is not anything more we can say about it.  They understand stories in the Bible figuratively, so while talking about God as a person is not a literal description of the truth, it helps them to think about God.  I suspect that you don't hang out with a lot of progressive people who go to church, but they exist and many of them believe this.  Thus all your thought experiments about how "these people" will react are unconvincing.  When you say “these people” you are imagining a Long Island Catholic and George Bush.  I am imagining my old boss. 

    Whether they have worked out all the logical implications of limitlessness is not the point.  And btw, I did not say that it is impossible for a limitless being to have agency; I said that the words you use to describe a person don't apply to something that is limitless.  Something that is limitless both is and is not capable of agency—but this gets us to angels-on-the-head-of-a-pin stuff so I don't want to get into it.  Like I have said, if god exists it is limitless so we can't conceive of it, period.  

    It may be that in the past there was consensus that God was at a minimum both limitless and an agent of some kind.  But concepts evolve.  The 10-dimensional space Lactiscaseique was talking about would have been gibberish to Newton, John Coltrane would have been noise to Mozart, and Jackson Pollock would have been scribbles to  Michelangelo.  If we say a minimalist idea of God is no longer meeting the definition of God, why say that Hawking, Coltrane and Pollock are a physicist, a musician and a painter?  Why are ideas about God, alone among human ideas, etched in stone and can never change?  Put another way, atheists in the Dawkins vain and fundamentalists (among others) have decided that the definition of God is essentially anthropomorphic. Why do people who have a more sophisticated view have to concede the term to people with a less sophisticated view?


    Re a minimalist conception of God and morality: if God is not an astral judge and lawgiver, this does not entail that it has nothing to do with morality.  The cafeteria Catholics I know would say something like “God created the universe, and there is such a thing as right and wrong in it, so even if we can’t say much about God, we can say something about his creation.” 

    Agnostics don't believe or not believe one way or the other.  However I think there are ethical implications to the possibility of God’s existence.  In our day-to-day life we experience ourselves as the center of the universe because, of course, everything we are directly aware of is happening to us.  The idea of a limitless force draws a contrast between us and it.  This begins us thinking about what is right and wrong without reference to ourselves.  I realize that this process is compatible with being an atheist.  But a traditional way people do this stuff is in religious services—and by and large we are better off for it, I think. 

    Re “God of the Gaps,” as I understand it God in the Gaps is arguing that whenever science doesn't explain something God does explain it (until science catches up).  That is not what I am doing.  You will note that I don't try to say God explains anything—as I have said a dozen times now, if god is beyond our concepts we can't say anything about it.  I am not sticking God in the gaps between things that science has settled.  I am saying that I think there are things we can't conceive of.  If we can't even form a conception of something, we can't run an experiment about it, or even meaningfully think about it.  So I am not saying that God is in the gaps; I am saying that god (if it exists) is beyond what we can rationally know (science being one of the tools we use to get rational knowledge).  I could be wrong that rational thought is limited, but I am pretty confident about this one. 

GRAMMATICUS:  Re "either there was an uncaused cause (theist position), or there wasn't (atheist position)."  Wrong.  An atheist can easily say "there was an uncaused cause, but it was not God."  Saying that any uncaused cause by definition equals God is stacking the deck, and is totally a God-of-the-Gaps argument, which you keep saying you are not doing. 

    "the number of people who share [my definition] is at least enough that it counts as a genuine belief that people have and not my ad hoc redefinition employed to piss you off."

    It is a genuine belief, but it is motivated by people's desire to apply the term "God" to something.  No-one who defines God this way is indifferent to whether there is a thing that gets called God—they want there to be one (as you admitted re yourself by saying "I think this is a good thing" about church attendance).  No-one who was impartial would choose to apply the term "God" to the thing you are positing.  That is why my "God of the Gaps" accusation is relevant—even though you are not using your "God" to explain something, you are retreating not with the motivation of being probably right about the explanation for the universe, but with the motivation that there gets to be a thing we call "God."

    "In a more popular sense there are a lot of people who say they believe in God, but that it is so far beyond us there is not anything more we can say about it.  They understand stories in the Bible figuratively, so while talking about God as a person is not a literal description of the truth, it helps them to think about God.  I suspect that you don't hang out with a lot of progressive people who go to church, but they exist and many of them believe this."

    I assume you are conceding, as per your definition of "God," that it is inherently random bullshit that these people read the Bible as opposed to Shakespeare, Moby-Dick, Harry Potter, etc.  I guess you will point out that as "progressives" many of them read these things too, but they are still privileging the Bible.  I guess you will say it is a work of literature about the literary character of "God," but I (and Dawkins) have already admitted that it is valid as great literature.  At this point we are talking about whether religion is a social good and not about whether God exists.

    "I did not say that it is impossible for a limitless being to have agency; I said that the words you use to describe a person don't apply to something that is limitless."

    You said that it is impossible for your "God" to have preferences since they are features of a material brain.  That makes it impossible for this thing to "choose" to do something unless it is flipping a cosmic coin or something. 

    "If we say a minimalist idea of God is no longer meeting the definition of God, why say that Hawking, Coltrane and Pollock are a physicist, a musician and a painter?  Why are ideas about God, alone among human ideas, etched in stone and can never change?"

    We are defining "physicist," "musician," and "painter" by specific actions that a being we have sensory evidence of is definitely performing (or, more accurately, by what they receive money for doing, since your examples are all professionals—there can be an amateur "musician" who sucks and we would have to argue about whether to apply the term, but whatever).  In the case of "God," there has never been any evidence and the term was invented to explain things that we can now explain in other ways, but the term has stuck around just because people like it. 

    "The cafeteria Catholics I know would say something like ‘God created the universe, and there is such a thing as right and wrong in it, so even if we can’t say much about God, we can say something about his creation.’"

    This is pretty cheap.  Right and wrong aren't features of the universe; they are features solely of human existence.  It is neither right nor wrong when a star goes nova or when a lion eats an antelope.  And your "God" did not sculpt Adam from 100 pounds of clay; it just caused there to be such a thing as spacetime or something.  Then a thousand trillion other things happened and eventually there were—totally by accident—people.  I assume you are conceding that in the universe of your minimalist "God" it is 100% a random accident that there is such a thing as people (or life at all)?  If you are not, then your definition is suddenly very different.

    "I think there are ethical implications to the possibility of God’s existence.  In our day-to-day life we experience ourselves as the center of the universe because, of course, everything we are directly aware of is happening to us.  The idea of a limitless force draws a contrast between us and it.  This begins us thinking about what is right and wrong without reference to ourselves."

    It is true that contemplating the fictional character "God" can effect this in humans, as can contemplating the fictional characters King Lear, Captain Ahab, and Superman.  These are not "ethical implications to the possibility of God's existence"—they are ethical results of the fact that people believe in it.  Whether the statement "God exists" is true is 100% independent of this stuff.  There are other spiritual traditions that effect the same stuff by having people contemplate nothingness or their own belly buttons.  The ability to make people go into a trance and feel motivated to be nice when they get out of it hardly has an exact correlation with God.  Getting a massage does the same thing.

    Obviously, I cannot disprove your agnosticism-in-principle.  But I still think the "If X exists it is beyond our understanding, so therefore the positions 'X exists' and 'X does not exist' are equally rational/logical/defensible" position is fucked up.  I am sure if I look for them I could produce sources that posit ghosts are beyond our understanding. 

    As far as I can tell, our positions now are:

            "Thing XYZ may well exist, and it is a good idea to call it God."


            "I guess I have no authority to say it is any less likely that Thing XYZ exists than any number of other                possible explanations, but it is silly to call it God, absent qualities QRS."

    If this is so, then I don't think we can proceed any further, but we have done quite an impressive thing: reached the point at which conceptual arguments about the existence of God segue by force into pragmatic arguments about the usefulness of religion, since we would now need to determine exactly what is/isn't useful or essential about religion in order to determine what is/isn't a necessary quality (my "QRS") of a thing to be called "God."

CORIIHUMIDI:  I agree that we are probably done, but I am less impressed.  This is my summation of where we are.  I infer that you agree that Dawkins’s use of the Teapot does not in fact demonstrate that my agnosticism is vacuous.  Rather, you think my definition of God is invalid.

    I think you also concede that this conception of God is shared by a nontrivial number of people (it is, after all, used by a slew of theologians and is in a fucking Wikipedia article).  However, you feel free to ignore this position because you assert it is inspired by “people's desire to apply the term "God" to something.” 

    I am not going to argue with this because you are speculating about the bad-faith motivations of complete strangers, from Thomas Aquinas to my uncle.  Unless you have gone psychic, you don't have a scintilla of evidence for this.  Because you have posited that anyone who has the most defensible position is acting on ulterior motives, you have given yourself permission to not take seriously two concepts that are important to my position: the notion of a "limitless being" and how conceptually that idea has different properties from every other idea, and the notion that our concepts have limitations.  Because you assume that everything I say about a limitless being is in bad faith, you have again defined it downward.

    You say that God can only authentically be defined as something like a very powerful person.  You are characterizing my position as talking about some weird kind of quasar or some far-out astrophysics shit, which we shouldn't arbitrarily label god.  Both of these things are limited; they are one thing and not another.  I am talking about a limitless being.  I am at a disadvantage because I don't think anything useful can be said about the properties a limitless being has or does not have.  So please just do me this courtesy: pretend for a second that I am not motivated by a controlling desire to deprive atheists of victory or a pathological urge to label something God.  Then think for at least 30 seconds about how "limitless" is different from "ghost."

    1) I said: "The cafeteria Catholics I know would say something like God created the universe, and there is such a thing as right and wrong in it.  So even if we can’t say much about God, we can say something about his creation."

    You responded: This is pretty cheap.  Right and wrong aren't features of the universe; they are features solely of human existence.  It is neither right nor wrong when a star goes nova or when a lion eats an antelope.  And your "God" did not sculpt Adam from 100 pounds of clay; it just caused there to be such a thing as spacetime or something.  Then a thousand trillion other things happened and eventually there were—totally by accident—people.  I am assuming you are conceding that in the universe of your minimalist "God" it is 100% a random accident that there is such a thing as people (or life at all)?  If you are not, then your definition is suddenly very different.”

    I respond:  Be clear I am talking about other people's beliefs, not mine.  As I understand this line of reasoning, God created the universe and all its laws, forces etc.  In this universe humans came about, so if morality is just a "feature of human existence," it is nevertheless part of God's creation.  Let’s not get on too much of a side track with this.  Things get confused when I am both arguing for what I believe and what others believe by proxy.  I was only citing this as a common thing that people with a minimalist conception of God often say (as evidence that a fair number of people actually share this conception), and thought maybe you had heard it. 

    2)  I said (in part): "If we say a minimalist idea of God is no longer meeting the definition of God, why say that Hawking, Coltrane and Pollock are a physicist, a musician and a painter? Why are ideas about God, alone among human ideas, etched in stone and can never change?"

    You responded: “We are defining "physicist," "musician," and "painter" by specific actions that a being we have sensory evidence of is definitely performing (or, more accurately, by what they receive money for doing, since your examples are all professionals—there can be an amateur "musician" who sucks and we would have to argue about whether to apply the term, but whatever).  In the case of "God," there has never been any evidence and the term was invented to explain things that we can now explain in other ways, but the term has stuck around just because people like it.” 

    I now respond:  You only quoted half of what I was saying.  As a result you are way misinterpreting what I said.  I was not arguing for the existence of painters or something.  I was disputing your insistence that any definition of God that does not involve agency is no longer a definition of God.  I was conceding that this might have once been true, but the idea has evolved, just like the idea of a painting has evolved.  

    As I see it this debate has moved from "Is Dawkins’s attack on agnosticism sound" to "Is my definition of God valid."  On second reading of your last e-mail I think that is what you are saying in the last paragraph, so maybe I am a little more impressed than I said.

LACTISCASEIQUE:  Grammaticus, your entire entire first paragraph appears to be in response to me saying this:

    “Re confidence in science's ability to eventually "complete" its understanding of the universe, maybe someone who thinks that science can craft a comprehensive account of the universe (though this project is not yet complete) is an "atheist-in-principle."  I don't know.  I'm certainly not willing to go that far just yet.”

    In which I specifically say I do not think what you're on about.

GRAMMATICUS:  Lactiscaseique, my infamous "entire first paragraph" was a response to your saying this:

    "Maybe someone who thinks that science can craft a comprehensive account of the universe (though this project is not yet complete) is an "atheist-in-principle.”

    My response, which was fair, was that one can not believe in God but still think that the scientific picture will never be complete.  Now that I think about it further, one could also believe in God but think that eventually science will prove/include God (science crafting a comprehensive account of the universe that is theistic—e.g., what Newton evidently believed).  In short, though "atheist" has a lot of overlap with "science fanboy" (especially on teh internets), it is not an essential part of the definition.  There is actually a lot of debate in the atheist community about whether someone can call himself an atheist if he believes in, say, astrology.  The consensus seems to be that we should be careful about the potential dogmatism of expanding the definition beyond "doesn't believe in God" (i.e., crossing the line from the literal denotation of the word into a club that you join), and that people who want to signify "believes in no supernatural or weird stuff whatsoever" should use "Bright" or "Expanded Atheist" or something.  Although there is also general agreement that people who call themselves atheists simply because they are not Abrahamic but who do believe in some stupid alt-faith instead should stop applying the term (e.g., teenagers whose motivation is just to upset their parents should stop simultaneously self-applying the terms "atheist" and "wiccan," or "atheist" and "satanist," etc.).

    Coriihumidi, if the Teapot is inapplicable to your definition of "God," it is only because you have wriggled into a crevasse where what you are positing cannot be defined, and so the formula "there is no good reason to believe [blank]" cannot be applied to it, because to apply that sentence requires a definition of [blank].  It forces me to say something to the effect of "There is no good reason to believe whatever the fuck you are talking about," which sounds dismissive and premature.  For lack of a better way of calling bullshit on this, I am characterizing it as a very advanced form of playing "God of the Gaps" (even though you are not using your definition to explain anything, you are using it to evade the possibility of disproof).  So even though your "God" is not a finite thing like a Teapot or a Flying Spaghetti Monster, it is equally unfalsifiable.  And it even goes one step further than Man on a Cloud conceptions, in that (apparently) the very point is that it is unfalsifiable.  Whether it is unfalsifiable because its properties preclude the existence of evidence (Invisible Pink Unicorn) or unfalsifiable because our minds cannot conceive of it (Infinite Being) is a distinction without a difference.  In fact, the "our minds cannot conceive of it" point is equally applicable to some of the joke conceptions of God as well (we cannot conceive of something that is simultaneously invisible and pink).  So you might as well be saying "The Teapot is inapplicable to my belief that the universe was started by a square circle" (there are not different levels of "cannot conceive of"—either we can or we can't).  So you were right that I was flip to sub in terms like "vampire" and "ghost" because those have specific definitions.  From now on I will say "square circle" instead of "vampire."

    In any case, I stand by what I said in my attempt to close (stage one of) the discussion.  This is a debate about whether to apply a word to something.  The word itself largely just captures an emotional reaction we have to a thing (or possible thing) that we then attempt to pin down in words, so whether to apply it to any given thing, especially one we cannot see, means that we have to agree on a definition of it first, and we just fundamentally don't.  It is actually not that much different from, say, the question of whether to apply the term "marriage" to a same-sex relationship, whether to call ballroom dancing a "sport," and such like freshman-comp examples of the perils with which arguments of definition are fraught.

    I will readily concede the possibility that a "limitless force" started the universe (note that I say "force" and still object to the term "being").  The argument then becomes about what bare minimum attributes are necessary to apply the term "God" to it.  For you (apparently), the very "limitlessness" itself is sufficient, and for me, it is not.  Is all of this fair/correct?

LACTISCASEIQUE:  Grammaticus, I am totally confused.  I said, specifically:

    “Maybe someone who thinks that science can craft a comprehensive account of the universe (though this project is not yet complete) is an "atheist-in-principle".  I don't know.  I'm certainly not willing to go that far just yet.”

    Your response:

    "A few e-mails ago you suggested that to be an atheist you have to believe that science can/will explain everything.”

    No, I did not suggest this.  I said that maybe, theoretically, someone who thought that science can explain everything in the universe is an "atheist-in-principle"—which is a term I am inventing.  I do not know and do not care whether my invented term appears in any contemporary discussions of atheism or anything.  I mentioned this because Coriihumidi and I were discussing whether I thought that science could comprehensively explain the universe, i.e, he was not sure whether I thought "Well, while science has not at this time affirmatively disproved the existence of God, it is possible in principle."

    I then rejected this view, saying, "I'm certainly not willing to go that far just yet."  Now in this most recent email you're upset with me, I guess, for believing that science can explain everything.  I am now totally confused.  You appear to be objecting to a view I do not hold and do not care about. 

    So I don't understand what your text below is meant to address.  It deals mainly with intra-atheist-community debates about what atheism and agnosticism should be defined as.  I have no thoughts on this and basically no interest at all in that question.  I have striven to avoid discussion of this question so far because I think that labels like "agnostic" and "atheist" gloss over subtleties in belief and are counterproductive, and driven a lot by "political considerations" w/r/t who self-identifies as an atheist and how many atheists there are, etc.

    In this entire email thread, I am merely explaining and defending my own points of view.  I do not really care what "agnostics" or "atheists" generally think.

GRAMMATICUS:  Lactiscaseique, I don't get what is confusing to you.  I will explain it again in one sentence:

    Your statement implied that beliefs about X (where X = "science can explain everything") and beliefs about Y (where Y = "God exists") are in some way linked or dependent on each other, when actually they operate completely independently of each other.

    Someone can logically consistently believe X ^ Y, or ~X ^ Y, or X ^ ~Y, or ~X ^ ~Y.

    That is all I was saying.  I then added just as a point of interest (which I guess was not interesting, sorry) that internet atheist groups talk about this.

LACTISCASEIQUE:  First of all, no-one else seems to think I was implying whatever you think I was implying.  This makes me think you are just reading what I wrote wrong.  This is neither here nor there, because second of all, what you are saying about how these two beliefs are compatible is true.  It is correct.  Congrats.  But you keep presenting it as though you are objecting to something I either implicitly or explicitly said.  But I never explicitly said whatever it is you thought I said, and I have now twice confirmed I didn't meant to imply what you thought I said.  So I don't understand how it has relevance to anything.

CORIIHUMIDI:  Grammaticus and Lactiscaseique, this quibble about what Lactiscaseique said is the least interesting thing ever.  Grammaticus, just accept that this is not what he meant.  The "maybe"s and "I don't know"s pretty well couch this statement as musing or speculation.  In any case, we are not trying to convict Lactiscaseique of perjury, so even if he was inconsistent about something, who cares.

    Lactiscaseique, I have no idea what your position is on this stuff at this point.  You seemed to agree with my extrapolation of the Private Object stuff, and I am not sure where that leaves you.  So why don't you positively tell us where you are at, which will be more interesting than commentary on what Grammaticus and I are saying anyway.  

    Re Grammaticus's last e-mail, alright, I think I see where we are better.  Honestly, it wasn't until this last e-mail that I was convinced that you understood what I was saying about the Teapot argument.  

    First minor point, can we just drop this stuff about people's motivations?  Just assume I am saying things because I believe them.  You are suggesting that I am crafting my arguments only to get at atheists for some reason.  Realize for me this is not an emotional issue.  As applied, your atheism and my agnosticism are identical—neither of us thinks revelation is a genuine source of knowledge, both of us realize that there is no good reason to believe that miracles have happened or that there is intervening super-intelligence.  It is true that I don't like Dawkins, but it is not because he is an atheist.  It is because he arrogantly dismisses the viewpoints of very smart people with (often) bad arguments and rhetorical flourishes.  So let’s just drop the speculation about why people hold beliefs and concentrate on the beliefs themselves.    

    To help me structure my thoughts, I'd phrase Grammaticus’s response like this: He admits that the Teapot argument does not work against my conception of God.  However, to pull this off he says I have to adopt a definition of God that  1) is too minimal to apply to God and  2) is in any case vacuous.  I disagree with 1) and kind of disagree with 2).  You say my conception of God is a God-in-the-Gaps bobbing and weaving, and that it is equivalent to "pink unicorns and square circles."  On these points I think you are completely out to lunch, so I'll start with them.

    Re what is and isn't conceivable: first, an invisible pink unicorn is obviously conceivable.  Imagine a horse, put a horn on it, make it pink, now make it invisible (though I guess now you have undone the pink part, but I don't think that is what you are after).  There, you have just conceived of an invisible pink unicorn—it is conceivable, stupid and irrelevant to what I am talking about.  Further, a square circle is inconceivable only because it is a contradiction.  That fact that it is inconceivable is irrelevant because it is also impossible.  Limitlessness is different: it is just as inconceivable as a square circle, but it also might be a thing that exists.  But unlike a pink unicorn, we have as good reasons to think it exists as reasons to think it doesn't exist.  If the universe has no limits: wow, cosmic.  If the universe has limits, it has a border, beyond which is nothing: wow, cosmic. 

    Re God in the Gaps, I see where you are coming from with this, but I think you are misapplying it for two reasons.  It is a good argument against theists because they affirmatively say, God explains this unexplained phenomena, so don't bother looking for a natural explanation.  I am saying something different.  I am suggesting that there are limits to what we are able to conceive of and thus reason about, and the concept of limitlessness is one of them.  If we can't reason about it, it can't be the subject of scientific analysis.

    This is not the same thing as an unfalsifiable statement.  I admit that I could be wrong about the limits of our conceptual ability, or alternatively that limitlessness is a concept beyond our conceptual ability.  If Lactiscaseique is right that the universe is finite, and that this concept can be explained in a coherent way, then limitlessness is just something we imagine (as the opposite of limited).  If there is no reason to believe there is such a thing as limitlessness, then there is no reason to believe that God might exist.  At this point I think it is just as rational to believe in an infinite universe as a finite one, but as I said I could be wrong.  Thus I am not making unfalsifiable statements.

    In my next e-mail I will address your contention that I am not talking about God, and that whatever I am talking about is vacuous.

PART V:  Lactiscaseique Summarizes the Dialogue Thus Far / Limitlessness As a Property of a “Being”

LACTISCASEIQUE:  Some of this may be rehashing, but I will explain what I see us talking about so far so that I can say what I think about it:

    Re what we all seem to agree on, it appears that I, Coriihumidi, Grammaticus, and Dawkins all agree that 100% certain foundational knowledge is impossible and that, in a world of uncertain knowledge, the process of doing science is the best way we've got available for arriving about affirmative beliefs about the world (i.e., "It is the case that X").

    Even though scientific knowledge is still not certain knowledge, it is at least something we can have rational arguments about.  A person is entitled to hold some belief if they can show their conceptual or empirical basis for belief.  This contrasts with belief systems where someone claims to have privileged access to the world and truths about the world ("revelation"), and we are supposed to take what they say on trust.

    I think that in a scientific worldview, what you define as your object of study/research/evidence-gathering is the main thing that matters when trying to answer questions about what is the case.  Your definitions set out the "conditions of success" for some investigation.  Empirical questions—matters of fact—are what the Teapot is all about.  If you posit the existence of something as an empirical question, then the burden of proof is normally on the person advocating its existence.  This is why science works.  It's inherently skeptical, and skepticism drives argumentative and experimental rigor.

    What Grammaticus and Coriihumidi appear to have had a lengthy and continuing disagreement over is what we quote-unquote "should call God" and the relative appropriateness of one or another definition.  This discussion appears to me to have gotten totally bogged down in details and is barely productive anymore.  I am inclined to agree with both of you that this line of discussion is just about played out and we'll need to move on soon.  But I think an exposition of the steps of how we got here might be useful:

    A)  Re the analogy between Private Objects and God: this was a thing I threw out as evidence for my view that "God talk" is unintelligible.  Coriihumidi agreed and cited a Private-Object-esque God as an example of a definition of God that is not so easily felled by the Teapot. 

    The reasoning goes, a Private-Object God does not entail any empirical claims, so the Teapot just does not engage with it.  Viz.: If God is like a Private Object, then there are two possibilities: 1) It is impossible for God to exist, because such a supreme being involves a logical contradiction; or 2) It is possible that God may exist, but humans cannot conceive of what such a limitless supreme being is like, even a little bit.  Therefore, sentences that reference God are either false (#1) or impossible to understand (#2).  The upshot of #2 is that it's impossible for humans to form beliefs about the existence or nature of such a being because we cannot conceptualize what it might be like.  Thus, empirical claims about the nature of God are unintelligible.

    To be painfully clear, the God-as-Private-Object analogy does not somehow affirmatively advocate for the empirical existence or non-existence of such a limitless supreme being, so let's completely dispose of the notion that Coriihumidi thinks there is an empirical reason to believe in the existence of even this minimalist God.  (Right, Coriihumidi?) 

    However, what this analogy does cover is the logical possibility of such an entity, and whether we as humans could ever recognize it, think about it, or talk about it.  My sense is, Coriihumidi appears to be admitting that it's at least logically possible that a minimalist God does exist, and furthermore that if so, we would in principle never be able to know it.  Thus, it's not really possible to do empirical investigations into whether a minimalist God does/does not exist.  It's not clear what sort of thing might constitute evidence for/against, there.

    Where this more nuanced position fits into whatever definitions of "atheism" or "agnosticism" are current in Bright discussion forums or publications, I certainly do not care, and I suspect Coriihumidi doesn't either.

    B)  Re the appropriateness of this minimalist conception of God: Here is where Grammaticus sank his teeth in about how many of the world's religions also attach additional qualities to their concept of God, beyond the minimalist conception of God outlined in the Wittgenstein stuff.  These include but are not limited to:

    1.  Has moral preferences w/r/t human behavior ("Thou shalt not kill");

    2.  Is interested in the welfare of humans ("I wish to redeem humanity, so I will send my Son to you");

    3.  Has effected causal action on or in the universe ("Let there be Light," the ressurrection of Jesus of                  Nazareth, destroying the walls of Jericho, the Great Flood of Noah, etc.);

    4.  Etc.

    Grammaticus also goes a couple of steps further: He says first that the views of religious types whose God involves these above qualities and being a limitless supreme being involve a logical contradiction.  I agree with Grammaticus on this.  I think you can't have it both ways—either your god is an existing entity with vast power, but verifiable empirical predictions (Galactus from Silver Surfer, basically, or whatever other iteration of the Man on the Cloud you prefer), or your god is wholly trans-conceptual and something so utterly alien that humans can't even form a concept of what it's like and probably can't even build a sensor to detect.  I think the chimerical view of "Well, God is so great he's not even constrained by logic!  Ha!  He can be both limitless and have qualities 1-4!" is a total cop-out and an admission that your argument is out of thread.  This person would now be arguing in bad faith.  I say, if you're going to just subvert logic at some point in your argument, don't even bother arguing; just be honest that your whole ontology rests on a revelation-based epistemology and move on.

    Grammaticus goes on to say that any concept of "God" that does not involve these things does not really deserve to be called "God."  I.e., based on what people actually believe, Coriihumidi has an idiosyncratic definition of God, which is where things really go crazy.

    Then you guys got into what appears to be a slap-fight over who has better historical precedent for your respective concepts of God.  Coriihumidi highlights supreme beings, limitlessness, etc.; Grammaticus highlights the sheer number of actual believers whose God involves a lot of Teapot-vulnerable, empirical predictions; Coriihumidi concedes that "minimal theists" are a numerical minority but says it does not matter; Grammaticus says it does matter because anyone who has anything to say about whether some kind of limitless impersonal force should be called "God" has a vested interest in the outcome of such a question and is arguing in bad faith; etc.

    I don't want to sound like I'm totally dismissing these issues, because if Coriihumidi is doing something funny with his definitions and the analogy between God and Private Objects is not really that good, Grammaticus is right to object.  That would separate the conceptual Wittgenstein stuff from, generally, "God stuff."

    But I seriously have no idea how to adjudicate any of this.  There is enough variety in the history of human belief that you could somehow find historical precedent, or at least an analogy in prior beliefs, for almost any arbitrary current belief.  On that basis, you could come into a debate like this one and highlight things that support your particular argumentative strength.  I think this is what you both may be doing.  I don't know how this debate could ever—even in principle—get resolved.

    I think we all agree that a God with empirical consequences is kind of ludicrous—so the only viable possibility up for debate at this point is whether a God with no empirical consequences is possible.  Whether that fits into some historical overview of human belief or not sounds like a less interesting topic to me and like it's mostly covered by the argument thus far.

    I am stopping to give Coriihumidi and Grammaticus a chance to disagree, but up next I think I need to grill Coriihumidi about what he really thinks can and can't be said about the limits to our concepts, and by extension this supposedly limitless being.  My instinct is, nothing.  As I have suggested before, I think it's not even worth trying to think about.  I interpret the Private-Language argument to be saying that even concepts like "infinity" are fundamentally human concepts, and the notion of a limitless being is a contradictory mashing together of concepts that don't actually fit together—sort of conceptually like a "round square."  I think the universe is finite, the phenomena in it are finite, and the notion of something in the universe that is infinite is either a troublesome aspect of a physical theory that deserves to be expunged or is an "artifact" of imprecise language.

GRAMMATICUS:  Lactiscaseique, that recap was useful, thank you.  Here are my responses to it:

    1.  My pointing out that limitlessness and preferences are contradictory is not something I deserve kudos for pointing out, as it is something Coriihumidi pointed out when he opened by conceding it.  I just brought it up a lot thereafter.

    2.  "I think the chimerical view of "Well, God is so great he's not even constrained by logic!  Ha!  He CAN be both limitless and have qualities 1-4!" is a total cop-out and an admission that your argument is out of thread.  This person would now be arguing in bad faith."  I agree, but unfortunately this is the position of the majority of theists (Coriihumidi, do not call this speculation on my part; you know perfectly well it is).  Coriihumidi will bring up the fact that his progressives exist, in however small numbers.  Fine.  My point is that, whether we like it or not, the statement "It is possible that God exists" would be taken to mean the italicized above by 99% of the human race—so my point that a term other than "God" should be used if you want to signify something other than this is fair.

    3.  I am sorry that my information about what Brights say bores you, but it is as relevant as Coriihumidi's information about what New England progressives say.  They are all groups of people who invest time and energy into defining God and trying to back that definition up with argument.

    4.  How is it that my and Coriihumidi's argument about what we "should call God" has gotten "bogged down" and is "not useful?"  It's not like it is some sideline—it is the sine qua non of what we have been talking about this whole time; the debate cannot exist absent this question.

    Coriihumidi, assuming that Lactiscaseique's recap of your position (you are not saying there is good reason to believe in your Limitless Being, just that it makes as much sense as not believing in it) is correct, my core—and I guess only—objection at this point is to your use of the word "being."  If the statement posited is "There is as good a reason as not to believe that a limitless Force started the universe" I concede that the Teapot does not apply.  If the statement is "There is as good a reason as not to believe that a limitless Being started the universe" then I still say the Teapot applies, because the defined thing you are positing and in reference to which the burden is on you is that Thing X is a "being" as opposed to a "force."  You specified several e-mails ago that you are not positing "some fucked-up physics shit."  I say there is no good reason to believe that something other (more complex and less likely) than "some fucked-up physics shit" is at work.

    Now, maybe in your definition it is possible for something to be "God" and "some fucked-up physics shit" simultaneously.  That is interesting (in mine it is not—I hereby propose that the terms "God" and "some fucked-up physics shit" be held mutually exclusive).  Please address the distinction you are drawing here, with special reference to the difference between a "force" and a "being."

CORIIHUMIDI:  I think Lactiscaseique slightly misrepresents my position.  I think that you two and Dawkins believe that God is logically possible but there is no reason to believe it exists.  This is technically agnostic but since you are both 99.99% sure that God does not exist, it is practically the same thing as atheism.  I, on the other hand, am a true agnostic.  This does not mean, pace Dawkins, that I am saying that there is a 50/50 chance God exists.  Maybe a way to phrase my position is this: I agree with an atheist that God talk is in a sense meaningless, because what we mean by God is either a caricature or unintelligible…  However, I agree with the "sophisticated theist" that just because something is unintelligible, this does not entail its non-existence.  The upshot is that we should say nothing definitive at all about God, including any statements about its existence.

    Or put another way: if you think about it, theists have a point when they say that God is not limited by logical possibility; after all, God is (at least) limitless, and being restricted to logical possibility is a limitation.  This statement is perfectly logical, and I don't think it is cheap.  What is cheap is to say both that God is beyond logic and is further XYZ other things, because God may be beyond logic but we are not.  Whatever God's theoretical (lack of) limitations, we humans are limited to the laws of logic if we wish to have coherent thoughts.  Thus, if you think God is beyond logic, you should have the humility to admit that you know nothing about him (at least via rational thought).  So God's limitlessness should militate our agnosticism.

    Also, I emphatically do not believe that "the process of doing science is the best way we've got available for arriving about affirmative beliefs about the world."  We get a tiny minority of our beliefs from experimental science and I think it makes no sense to create a hierarchy of what sources of belief are best.  On what basis is science superior to direct sensory experience?  I would say that a better thing to focus on is that we all agree that faith and revelation are not independent sources of rational belief.

    As for Grammaticus throwing down the gauntlet re “force” and “being,” I don't really understand what you are after.  I like the term being better than force because being just means "thing that exists" and force seems like a way to categorize the "limitless X" as something like a gravity that we haven't discovered yet.  This seems to entail that we will find out about it eventually, which I explicitly rejected.  

    You both seem to agree that 1) I am not using the word “God” correctly, and 2) the thing I am describing as god is vacuous.  Grammaticus emphasizes the 1) (though the force v. being stuff is aimed at 2) I think), and Lactiscaseique emphasizes the 2).  So:

    1) Is "a limitless being" a fair definition of God?  I still say yes.  A concept is not the same thing as a technical term (which has a fixed unchanging definition).  A concept almost always captures a category of things that share some function or purpose (a chair may or may not have arms, a flat seat, legs, etc.).  Furthermore, concepts have the capacity to have more or less sophisticated forms, as well as modern and old-fashioned forms.  My point about Newton not recognizing 10-dimensional space as part of "physics" is an example—the concept of "physics" has evolved since the last time Newton used it.

    A more illustrative example is one Grammaticus mentioned: marriage.  Marriage has come to mean, at least in part, a more or less exclusive union between two people based on mutual love.  The "two people" part has not always been part of the concept, and the "based on love" part hasn't been either.  But as of now, marriage includes both.  Most people think that marriage also definitionally means a union between a man and a woman.  200 years ago, I think that would have been virtually unanimous.  Nevertheless, many people (including everyone involved in this debate) believe that the heterosexual part of traditional marriage is not at the core of the concept, and that it is arbitrary to exclude gay people from the institution.  

    In the case of the conception of God, there are similar debates.  Thomas Aquinas and Maimonides are the first people I know of to discuss God as simply an infinite being (though I am sure they were not the first).  I am saying that the concept of limitlessness is the core concept of God, and that limitlessness gobbles up any other positive attributes that might be applied to it.  I know that at least the Catholic Church has incorporated this into their theology.  The "fact" that God is both infinite and specific is the holy miracle, and we come to understand the holy miracle through faith.  Obviously this is a non-starter for us because we don't believe in revelation as a source of knowledge—but that doesn't mean that the concept of God is different.

    Now, if you took a poll most people would say that at a minimum god is infinitely good (though not all for the same reasons).  But I don't think this is relevant.  The opposite of a straw man is to use the strongest possible version of the idea you are attacking.  I am using a conception of God with a long and established lineage.  The onus is on you two to tell me why God is not God if it is only limitless.  

    2) Is a conception of God as a limitless being vacuous: Maybe.  Lactiscaseique has asserted that the universe is limited so a limitless being is just some abstractions we have glommed together.  This is possible, but 1) my understanding of the current going theory is that the universe will continue expanding forever into whatever is beyond the (this) universe.  Thus if we use universe in the colloquial sense (all that there is) then the universe is infinite.  Second, the conception of a finite universe is equally baffling as an infinite one.  If something is finite, it has borders, and a border has something beyond it.  If the universe (i.e., all that there is) has a border with nothing beyond it—what does that mean?  By our concepts it means nothing at all.  When you are confronted with two mutually exclusive options in a situation where one must be true but neither makes any sense, the appropriate response is agnosticism.   

    Otherwise the force v. being stuff I addressed above. 

GRAMMATICUS:  Coriihumidi, I think that your last e-mail was more than was required by my objections, to the point where you were effectively dancing around them.

    Your opening paragraph I think basically ended the debate.  You correctly characterize my position as "God is logically possible just like anything is, but I am as sure that there is no God as I am that a hydrogen atom has one proton, penguins can't fly, etc."  You categorize this as agnosticism, and I characterize it as atheism.  To use a non-science example, I am at least as sure that there is no God as a jury is that the murderer is guilty (in a case where there is tons of evidence, not some bullshit one), and we feel confident sending him to jail.  No-one says we should be agnostic about all criminal proceedings and not have such a thing as jail.  I know your response is that criminal guilt is a thing you can define and God is not, but according to your definition there is logically no such thing as atheism, so these analogies are the best I can do within a framework where it is logically possible for atheism to exist.  The word means "pretty fucking sure there is no God," and I am.

    (I think) Lactiscaseique's way around this is to say maybe there is no such thing as limitlessness.  And honestly, this is a question for Stephen Hawking and none of the three of us.  I read his books and know that what "time" and "distance" mean as you get farther out there are all fucked up, but I don't get it well enough to use it in an argument.  But I do think that your "When you get to where the universe stops, what's behind that?" question is invalidated by it.  It is like you can't ever get there because time hasn't gotten there yet or some shit.  Or the way directionality works changes so you end up inadvertently going backwards, or at least not in a straight line.  It is like a much more complicated version of, “you are telling us to put something in the corner of a round room.”

    Anyway, force vs. being is still a sticking point for me.  "Being" doesn't just mean "thing that exists;" it means living thing (or at least self-aware, if "God" is beyond a "life" distinction).  You don't call a rock a "being;" you call it a thing.  You don't call radiation a "being;" you call it some stuff.  "Essent" means thing-that-exists, so as for a limitless essent, maybe that is spacetime itself.  Maybe by "God" you mean the stuff that spacetime is "in" or "of" or "by" or whatever preposition fits.  

    But now we are back to the "who is dumber than whom" stuff I brought up a while back that you said was irrelevant.  It is not.  A key point of yours is that "we cannot conceive of" this Limitless X and so cannot discuss it, and so cannot eliminate it.  But maybe we are just not smart enough.  If Lactiscaseique is right that Stephen Hawking (or whoever) can figure out that limitlessness is not possible, then this destroys you.

    As for the marriage analogy, the key difference there is that marriage is a thing we made up, like the rules of basketball.  It is not—like "God"—a thing external to us that we are claiming to have discovered or proved or sensed or whatever.  (I mean, *I* agree that it is a good analogy, because *I* think we made them both up—but presumably you do not.)  The fact that the definition of something changes has nothing to do with whether it exists.  The statement "marriage does not exist" makes no sense, because it exists as long as people say it does.  Conversely, a debate about whether there "really" is a God is not only possible, but essential.

    I don't know why you think your position is any stronger than "You cannot prove the absence of God."  No shit we can't, because one cannot prove the absence of anything.  You are even conceding "there is no good reason to believe there is a God," which certainly is good enough to call atheism for me.

CORIIHUMIDI:  Grammaticus, I have no idea what you mean that I am dancing around your objections as I have addressed them in as complete and head-on a way as I can.  I am pretty sure that you didn't read what I said correctly.  I basically said what you did about your position, which as you have noted is technically agnostic but only because you concede you can't prove a negative.  I.e., you are 99.9% sure that God does not exist.  We agree this is just atheism (I'll even call it sophisticated atheism).

    My position is different from that, because we can't put a number on the chances of God existing because we don't have that concept in our head.  If I ask you to give me the odds of whether a tack line fastens to a clew, you can't do it (if I am right that you don't know much about sailing) because you don't have the concept of a clew or a tack line in your head.  Limitlessness is an idea that  a) none of us actually has a positive conception of, and  b) is implied by other pretty firm ideas we have.  Thus, none of us can assign a probability to its existence.  

    I don't believe I actually ever said "there is no good reason to believe there is a God" other than to characterize your position.

    Re force vs. being:  Your definition of "being" as only meaning “living thing” is bizarre and obviously incorrect to any English speaker.  Do you read the sentence, "The United States came into being in 1776" as “the United States became a living creature in 1776”?  I would apologize for not being clear about which definition if I hadn't been perfectly clear for a while now.  

    Re Marriage vs. God: Your disanalogy has shit to do with anything.  When you object that my definition of God is vacuous, we are arguing about the possibility that our concept of God can evolve, not God's existence.  I would use another analogy, but you would just point out a superficial disanalogy.  So instead I will just state our positions: I am saying that human beings’ conception of God, like every other human concept, evolves and has more and less sophisticated versions.  Your position is that the human concept of God stopped evolving in the middle ages at which point Aquinas, Maimonides, and St. Augustine started using a different concept that they called God in an effort to thwart the atheists of the future.  

    Re Stephen Hawking: He doesn't have a clear conception of limitlessness any more than we do.  He had a theory as of the time he wrote A Brief History of Time that the universe is limited.  If that is correct then "limitless" is imponderable but vacuous because it is only the conceptual opposite of limited.  However, my understanding is that his hopes for "quantum gravity" theory collapsed and we are back to a limitless universe that will expand forever (as is alluded to by Dawkins in The God Delusion).  It doesn’t really matter because none of us knows enough to have an argument about physics.  I conceded in my last e-mail that if it is established that the universe is limited then the concept of limitlessness becomes empty.  I don't know why you are throwing this back in my face.

    Here is where I see this argument as of now.  I am saying that our ability to understand the universe is limited, whereas you say that as long as someone is smart enough, they can explain everything.  I have an argument for my position (our brain evolved only to comprehend this corner of the universe, and it evolved only to comprehend mid-sized objects), whereas you have just asserted yours.  I have never rested on pointing out that you can't prove God's non-existence and I am offended that you claim I have.  At this point I have explained my position in as clear as terms as I can about half a dozen times.  So you can address my position head-on and explain why it is indistinguishable from a weaker one, or just continue to pull some straw-man bullshit.    

GRAMMATICUS:  It is correct to say "the United States came into being in 1776," but no-one would say "the United States became a being in 1776."  Being can govern all sorts of things—"the rock, being heavy, hurt when it fell on me"—but you can't switch any and all of these around to call something "a being."  The United States is a place, and so is my apartment.  Is my apartment "a being?"

    You are right that I can't tell you what a tack line and a clew are.  From my perspective, those could be actual sailing terms, or they could be nonsense words you made up.  If I say I don't believe they exist, you can produce boating manuals, or an actual boat, to show me they do.  You cannot do the same with God.  Regardless of whether I can conceive of it, it is still from my (and everyone's) perspective indistinguishable from a thing someone made up.  So my response to the tack line and clew would be "I won't assign a probability to it until you tell me what you are talking about."  If your response is then "I can't, because no-one can conceive of tack lines and clews," my response would be "Fuck this, you are wasting my time."  I am not obliged to say it is equally likely that the conversation is deep and important as that it is retarded; I am in a perfect position to say it is retarded.

    When I said you signed off on the statement "There is no good reason to believe in God," I meant that you conceded that there is no reason to believe it more likely that it exists than not.  Like if I say "there is no good reason to believe the defendant is guilty" it doesn't mean it is impossible that he did it, just that there is no reason to think it was probably him as opposed to someone else.

    I never said that someone could explain everything if they were smart enough (well, they can if by "smart enough" we mean Dr. Manhattan, but in real-life terms no).  But I don't think that this has to be true for the statement "there is no God" to be true on a footing with "penguins can't fly," "hydrogen is flammable," "O.J. did it," etc.

Dr. Manhattan

    To come back to force vs. being: you said you are not positing "some fucked-up physics shit."  This strongly implies that by "being" you mean something higher than "thing that exists."  If all you meant was "limitless thing that exists" then why would spacetime itself (or what-have-you, if spacetime is in fact limited) not fit this definition?  Whenever I try to pin down attributes, you fall back on "it is inconceivable"—yet you are conceiving of it enough to say what it is not (i.e., some fucked-up physics shit).  Here is my objection as it now stands, as a point by point:

    —You claim by God you just mean "limitless thing-that-exists"

    —You also say that by God you do not mean "some fucked-up physics shit"

    —You also say that by God you mean something inherently inconceivable

    —I point out that a limitless thing-that-exists could easily fall under the heading of "some fucked-up physics        shit."

    —You say that physics is by definition conceivable in principle, and so the inconceivable aspect of the                  thing means it can't be part of physics ("physics" here means not the discipline itself, but the object of its        study).

    —I say that if you truly cannot conceive of this thing, then you have no basis to distinguish it from physics;          i.e., you are saying that you have no information about this thing, but also some information about it              ("The murderer could be absolutely anyone, but the murderer is not Steve because Steve is no murderer").

    —Your exemption from the Teapot requires you to be positing that X and ~X are tied for "the most likely             explanation."  I agree if X = "a limitless thigamajig," but not if X = "a limitless being that is not a physics         dealy, but instead something greater."  How can something greater than the simplest possible explanation       be just as simple as it?

CORIIHUMIDI:  Here is the definition of being from the fucking dictionary.  You will note that your definition kicks in at number 5.


    1. the fact of existing; existence (as opposed to nonexistence).
    2. conscious, mortal existence; life: Our being is as an instantaneous flash of light in the midst of eternal night.
    3. substance or nature: of such a being as to arouse fear.
    4. something that exists: inanimate beings.
    5. a living thing: strange, exotic beings that live in the depths of the sea.
    6. a human being; person: the most beautiful being you could imagine.
    7. (initial capital letter) God.
    8. Philosophy.
        a. that which has actuality either materially or in idea.
        b. absolute existence in a complete or perfect state, lacking no essential characteristic; essence.
    9. Nonstandard. since; because; considering that (often fol. by as, as how, or that): Being it's midnight, let's go home. Being as how you cooked supper, I'll do the dishes.

LACTISCASEIQUE:  A definition of God where God is not limited by logic but in addition has XYZ additional qualities may be the definition of "the majority of theists" in a raw numerical sense.  But Coriihumidi has made clear he does not subscribe to this view, so let's just remember who we are addressing—"The majority of Theists" or Corrihumidi.  He explicitly disavows this view in saying:

    “if you think about it, theists have a point when they say that God is not limited by logical possibility; after all God is (at least) limitless and being restricted to logical possibility is a limitation.  This statement is perfectly logical, and I don't think it is cheap.  What is cheap is to say both that God is beyond logic and is further XYZ other things, because God may be beyond logic but we are not.”

    It looks to me like you keep trying to drag Coriihumidi back into being an "unsophisticated" theist, and he isn't one.  Your argument is basically that his definition of God is not appropriate, on the basis of historical precedent, which precedent admits of only one definition of God (viz., "God transcends logic but has X, Y, and Z additional qualities").
    I think the discussion of historical precedents has become bogged down because I think Coriihumidi and Grammaticus can both make a pretty credible claim to historical precedent for the concepts of God they respectively think appropriate.  I think you are both highlighting important, relevant aspects of the different definitions of God throughout human history, and that this is important to anyone who wants to make a serious study of these issues.

    However, because we're addressing Coriihumidi’s views here, the key issue is Coriihumidi’s thoughts about a being/entity/etc. that is limitless.  If such a being existed, it would be beyond human concepts; ergo, this being can be productively thought about using some of the same argumentative and theoretical tools Wittgenstein developed for the Private Language Argument. 

    Coriihumidi has never argued that his definition of a possible God is the only definition of God found in human history, merely that it is one of many.  His definition of a possible God is not without historical precedent, and it is enough supported by historical precedent to be credible as one of various concepts of God throughout human history.

    It is true that a huge number of religious people would think Coriihumidi’s "God" isn't really God—but who cares?  None of us is an unsophisticated theist here.  Why use their definitions of what God is, rather than the one Coriihumidi has outlined (several times now)?  I think when we start arguing about historical precedent, all Coriihumidi needs to do is argue that his definition of God is one that has been found in the history of human ideas.  He has indubitably done this.  I don't see what the problem is.

    Grammaticus, broadly speaking, I am started to think Corrihumidi is right that you keep trying to run straw-man arguments against him and are just getting frustrated that he refuses to be drawn into the trap.  This frustration comes out in quibbling semantic arguments about what "beings" are, etc.

    I do think that when you engage Coriihumidi’s ideas about limitlessness, infinity, etc. head-on, they are still pretty darn implausible, at least in our universe.  I think humans are built with a very impressive ability to conceptualize about the universe, and as the growth and evolution of our scientific concepts through history has shown, our descriptions of the universe keep getting more and more accurate (and the idea of the universe having infinite aspects has become less and less plausible).

    When Coriihumidi said:

    “We get a tiny minority of our beliefs from experimental science and I think it makes no sense to create a hierarchy of what sources of belief are best.  On what basis is science superior to direct sensory experience?  A better thing to focus on is that we all agree that faith and revelation are not independent sources of rational belief.”

    …that's a better way of expressing what I was trying to express: rational argument is where it's at.  This is in contrast to revelation, which does not admit of arguments.  In revelation-based epistemologies, you don't challenge or show entitlement to belief; you just claim absolute accuracy based on your revelations.

    Re Coriihumidi’s saying this:

    “Is a conception of God as a limitless being vacuous: Maybe.  Lactiscaseique has asserted that the universe is limited so a limitless being is just some abstractions we have glommed together.  This is possible, but 1) my understanding of the current going theory is that the universe will continue expanding forever into what ever is beyond the (this) universe.  Thus if we use universe in the colloquial sense (all that there is) then the universe is infinite.”

    Yes, I think the concept of a limitless being is vacuous, re whatever definition of being you care to choose, because such entities involve contradictions.  It is like saying that something exists "that both exists and does not exist," or that an object "has a shape and does not have a shape." 

    I think if something is a "being," that entails finiteness, because if something can even be recognized as an individual "being" (let's call it Being #1), you are recognizing it as being distinct from some other entity (Being #2).  This entails a limit on the things that Being #1 might be (for example, it's not Being #2).  And in fact, this chain of reasoning gets more and more forceful the greater the number of things you compare Being #1 to.  Being #1 is not me, it's not Coriihumidi, it's not Grammaticus, and it's not even one of the 7,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 atoms that make up an average human body, let alone the environment that surrounds us (air, earth, cars, houses, etc.).  Then you try and graft on this concept of "infinity" or "limitless" to Being #1 and you just start arriving at huge logical contradictions or empirically false implications.

    If Being #1 is not "limited," it is indistinguishable from anything else, because being distinguishable from something else would mean a kind of limit on what this Being might be.  But wait: Being #1, being limitless, is not limited by unlimitedness either, which means, I guess, that it really is distinguishable from other things after all.  And thus, we arrive at descriptions of Being #1 that are both tautological and contradictory at the same time, which entails that these descriptions are vacuous and meaningless.

    And if you want to say that Being #1 is "infinite"—okay, but in what regard?  When you transplant the concept of infinity from math to the real world, it might seem like there is a kind of poetical or metaphorical usage of the concept that looks like, "generalized infiniteness," or a way for all of something's attributes to be somehow infinite.  (Maybe this is a variation on the theme of "limitedness," as in, such an object has no limits in terms of any of its qualities.)  But when you really think about what an object that is just infinite in all regards might be like, you start seeing that such an object would entail tons of empirical consequences that we can falsify by just looking around.  Infinite in size?  Sorry, no: look around you; there is no infinite entity filling every region of space.  Infinite in energy level?  Again, no: empirically false.  All the objects that we see in the universe have a finite shape, a finite energy level, a finite mass and density, a finite direction of travel, etc.  This is why physicists go to great lengths to purge concepts that entail mathematical infinities from their conceptual repertoires.  Objects with "infinite" qualia just violate an even moderately realistic empirical view of the universe. 

    Hawking's Brief History of Time was written before we had experimental reason to think that the universe has a positive spacetime curvature.  The going conception of the topology of the universe at the time Hawking was writing was that the universe was either flat (Euclidian) or "negatively curved"—i.e., saddle-shaped—when you looked at it from the fourth dimension.  If the universe had either of these shapes, it would be possible to travel in a straight line of arbitrary direction and never return to your starting point.  Note: This is not the same as the idea that the universe is going to expand forever.  "Dark Energy" appears to be driving space itself apart (i.e., adding to the number of points at which things can exist) regardless of what the general topology of the universe is.

    It was around 2004 that we started to get a better idea of how to take empirical data on the distribution of radiation in the universe and make inferences from that data about the curvature of the universe.  Which is to say, we developed an experimental procedure that let us test whether the universe was actually curved.  The result was, yes, it's curved.  It's basically spherical.  This curvature means that the universe is "bounded" or "limited" by its shape in a higher dimension—i.e., not limitless.  While physicists may change their minds about this bounding, it seems unlikely, since this concept of the universe involves actual empirical data.

    To be clear: if it turned out that the universe was Euclidian/flat or saddle-shaped, I would be a lot more receptive to the idea that maybe, somewhere out there in the void, exists something infinite.  The idea would be, well, maybe at some vastly distant point in space there was an explosion that really does have infinite energy, somehow.  When we start speculating about what space and time look like outside our observable universe, you start getting into all kinds of weird conceptual jams like "Does time exist there?  How fast does 'time' pass there, if at all?  Is the maximum energy level a lot higher somewhere else?  Or maybe even subject to just radically different rules we can't even begin to imagine?"  These all represent alien conceptions of what might theoretically be possible in a universe like ours.  The shockwave from this supposed very distant, infinite-energy explosion might travel at the speed of light, or might not, given that our only experience of light is the one from our universe, and then once the shockwave catches up to our universe, bang, that's it.  Infinite energy everywhere.  Brian Greene contemplates some possibilities like this in his book The Fabric of the Cosmos.

    I should observe, though, that all these things about logical contradictions are only problematic when you are trying to think logically and coherently.  In a rational debate, this is simply pro forma.  But even the most rational person will still admit there is always some chance that our ability to think about the universe rationally is just not up to the task.  But when we start contemplating things-that-exist that violate even the most basic ideas we have about what it is to exist and be a thing—I'm thinking of the Moderns' whole thing about Primary Qualia—our ability to even understand what it is we're talking about starts to break down.  We start talking nonsense.  And that's partly what I've been on about all this time—if we're really, truly contemplating something outside our ability to conceive of it, we're contemplating something so illogical that it's literally nonsense. 

PART VI:  Whether Apparently Trivial Definitional Quibbles Are Actually Key Elements of Who Gets to “Claim Victory” / Whether Even a Minimalist Definition of God Opens the Door to an Antirational Rhetorical Nuclear Option / The Point at Which Atheists Stop Caring / More Physics from Lactiscaseique

GRAMMATICUS:  I think stuff about the nature of the universe at the level we've brought it to is irrelevant—or rather, should be, to anything that we are calling "God."

    Remember that Coriihumidi specified he is not talking about "some fucked-up physics shit" and that his "God" is fundamentally external to science.  Even per Coriihumidi's stripped-down God, the answer to the question "is the possibility of the existence of God dependent on what the universe is like" has to be No.  If we are calling the thing God, then it has to be the case that the universe exists because of It, and not the other way around.  Coriihumidi, I read you as pretty consistently signing off on this; correct me if I am wrong.

    And I do not see why I am now supposed to think I am wrong about the word "being" when it is a noun with the article "a" in front of it.  If you say "the pen is a being" to someone, they respond, "no it's not, it's a pen, do you think pens are alive or something?"  Maybe people use the word differently in philosophy class and you got used to that way or something.  I am not letting this go: it is not a sideline; it is the best response to Coriihumidi's position.

    I realize Coriihumidi is not arguing a traditional dumb theist position.  My point is not to pretend that he is; my point is that certain aspects of the traditional theist position are the only reasons to bother calling something God.  I realize definitions can change and that music used to mean jazz and now it means rap, but we do not insist on calling rap jazz; when it became different enough, we gave it a different name.  So Coriihumidi, please clarify how your version of God absolutely cannot possibly be "some fucked up physics thing."

LACTISCASEIQUE:  Grammaticus, I don't want to sound dismissive of what you're saying, but you're just blatantly running a straw-man argument now.  There are a variety of acceptable definitions of "being" that are out there.  I admit when I hear the phrase, "supreme being," my first thought is of a vast extraterrestrial intelligence.  But Coriihumidi has explicitly said that is not what he means when he's talking about this "limitless being"—he is using "being" in the somewhat more abstract sense we find in philosophical discussions.  He just means "a thing," whose qualities remain to be cashed out (or whose qualities can't be cashed out, since they defy human concepts). 

    That is why the semantic thing about the word "being" is a sideline.  The best argument you can make is that he's picked the wrong definition or that it is not in keeping with historical precedent.  I think you both have credible arguments there, but all Coriihumidi needs to do is show that his definition is plausibly like some religious tradition that has existed.  Speculations on whatever other role God is supposed to fill for various religious people in history is interesting, but not what Coriihumidi is saying.  The best argument to make against Coriihumidi at this point is not to quibble about his definition, but rather to show that his definition entails a bunch of shit that makes no sense (logical contradictions, empirically false consequences, etc.).

CORIIHUMIDI:  The reason I got frustrated is that your bizarre argument that "a being" only means a living thing is something that someone as smart as you could not possibly believe if you were actually taking something seriously.  It was as if you were looking for the first opportunity to dismiss what I was saying with some rhetorical maneuver.  As for what being is, you are digging in your heels and are effectively arguing with the dictionary, and so my only response is going to be to cite the dictionary.

    As for the definition of God, I have almost literally said everything I have to say about it.  If "a limitless being" is unacceptable to you, so be it.  All I can say is that you have written out a huge portion of theologians as talking about something fundamentally other than God.  All I can say to this is, on what authority do you get to do this?

    Re whether God is "some fucked up physics shit," obviously I was being glib here.  Here, and in various objections you have to my definition of God, you fail to make a distinction between the thing itself and the concept humans have of that thing.  When we are arguing over whether my definition of god is recognizably god and/or is vacuous, we are arguing about the concept, not the ultimate existence of the thing the concept refers to.  For the same reason, when I say “God is not some phenomenon described by future physics,” this is not the same thing as saying God exists in some separate realm beyond what is described by physics.  “Physics” and the things named in physical theories are not the same thing as the things they are describing.  Rather they are the labels we have given things we have observed or inferred to exist in the natural world.  So physics is a tool by which we understand the world.  For a concept to be included in a physical theory, you have to have a concept of it.  For the reasons I stated above, we do not have a concept of limitless, so a limitless being can't fit into a scientific theory. 

    Put another way: when I say God is beyond science, I do not mean that it exists in some extra-physical, supernatural magic land outside the natural physical universe.  I mean that science is something that fundamentally goes on inside our mind.  If our mind can't deal with limitlessness, it can't incorporate a being into that theory—and in fact that is what theists do that we both find objectionable.  

    Lactiscaseique, I have an observation, a small objection and a big objection.  My observation is that the view that God is everywhere and imbues everything is pantheism.  This idea was supported by Spinoza, and has been incorporated into various Protestant theologies, and to some extent into Catholicism.  I'd have to think more about it, but you may be right that an infinite God implies that it is everywhere.  But this isn't a contradiction; it is just pantheistic.  

    The small objection is that infinity being does not entail that there is infinite matter and energy at every point.  It only entails that matter and energy at whatever density goes on forever.  Mathematically speaking this means that some infinities are bigger than others (mind bending as that is), so a series that goes up by 2s infinitely has a lower value (when added up) than an infinite series that increases by 5s.  As you point out, this universe is not composed of an infinite block of infinitely large and dense particles and/or energy, but it could still be infinite nonetheless.

    My bigger objection is that although infinity (or limitlessness) entails contradictions, its absence entails contradictions as well.  I think we agree that the state of physics now is that the universe will expand forever.  Something expanding must have a border, and a border has one thing on one side and one thing on another.  If the universe was truly infinite then it couldn't expand into something.  As I see it, saying that the universe is positively curved along some dimension that is greater than three doesn't solve this problem; it merely pushes the border out into the 8th dimension or something.  This explains why our minds, which can only process three dimensions, will never perceive gazing at the edge of the universe—but it does not rule out the possibility of such a border, with the implication that something is beyond it. 

    Now, I am fully aware that what I described above may not actually reflect the nature of the universe.  Maybe we do expand into a true nothingness.  My point is only that it makes no sense, just like it makes no sense to posit infinities.  Like I said before, I think our shared conceptual scheme includes a fork in the road: the universe is either limited or limitless, and neither makes sense.  The proper response is agnosticism.     

GRAMMATICUS:  Maybe it will help to explain the reason I harped on the "being" thing.  If you are just using it to mean "thing that exists," fine, there is no problem, since this would include forces and processes as well, since they exist.  So if you have no problem with the sentence "gravity is a being" or "radioactive decay is a being," then we are done with this point.  If you do, however, then we are not.  My point was that this "Infinite X" could just be a force like electromagnetism or whatever, and the use of the word "being" seemed like a way for theism to sneak around that, since it would not be commonly said that "electromagnetism is a being."  In other words, if the debate ended with me saying "We agreed that the existence of an infinite being is possible," theists would run around celebrating that as a victory, whereas if I said "we agreed that the existence of an infinite force is possible," they would not know how to take that.  This is not me "arguing with the dictionary"—it is a huge component of who gets to declare victory at the end of this.  So if you just mean "thing that exists" then be a philosopher and say "essent" from now on, since theists will not as readily figure this as something that plans to send me to Hell for porking people I am not married to.  Since this is being published on 1585, what outside observers would take a word to mean is an issue.

    The arrows in my quiver right now are:

    —The stuff about the universe is interesting but irrelevant, since if we are calling something "God" then we mean it created the universe, not the other way around—i.e., we can't figure out whether God exists by talking about what the universe is like, even if we knew everything about the universe.  If it is dependent on the nature of the universe for its existence, then it is not "God."

    —Based on this, I think the debate is going on forever because Coriihumidi is being too nice.  I.e., there is an obvious next step for Coriihumidi that he is unwilling to take because it is cheap.  Coriihumidi, you are positing that your "God" lies outside of physics—as you said, not because he is magic but because physics is limited by our minds.  At this point, the distinction between "magic" and "science" disappears, like with that Flash villain who was a magician but was really just from the future and using gadgets that are normal in the future but look to our primitive 20th/21st century minds like magic.  So rather than the normal theist sentence "God can do anything" you end up with "Since we cannot know, it makes just as much sense to believe that God can do anything as that it cannot" which is more intellectual but effectively the same.  So your response to our physics stuff about whether God is possible could logically be "Ha ha, God can do whatever he wants."  Admirably, you are reluctant to do this because it is retarded and you want to argue in good faith.  But there is basically no reason for you not to do this.  True, you would be basing it on the 8th dimension instead of the Holy Ghost, but you still end up with the position "Nothing is impossible where God is concerned because it's a mystery."  For a while, you have just been saying the long version of this so as not to sound like a shithead.  So just say the short version, and we are done, because it is impossible for an argument against this to exist (which, obviously, is not the same thing as a positive argument for the existence of God).

CORIIHUMIDI:  It is profoundly weird that you want me to use "essent" over “being” so that this several-thousand-word dialogue will be fit for publication on the internet.  Otherwise, I will not “be a philosopher and use essent” because I don't know what the fuck that is, other than it looks like a noun form of essential, which is at least as misleading as being.  In fact, being is much less confusing because it has a common usage to which I am referring (and is btw what most philosophers use to mean "thing in existence").  “Essent” also isn't in any dictionary I have access to (my OED is in storage).

    As for “a force can be a being,” I guess that is true, but in the sense that meatloaf can be a being.  The whole thrust of this discussion has been about what the consequences of a limitless being are.  You readily observe that limitlessness gobbles up pretty much all dogmas associated with God and is incompatible with the idea of a Holy Rulegiver and Judge.  However, you refuse to recognize that it also undoes most of the stock atheist arguments against God’s existence (or, more accurately, against having belief in God's existence).  By this I mean, you are happy to strip the concept of God of positive attributes in order to rebut religious traditions, but you are eager to lay on positive attibutes in order to debunk the concept itself.  

    That is what you are doing by saying a limitless being is the same thing as a limitless force.  Force is a more particularized term than being.  At its most general it means "strength or energy exerted or brought to bear; cause of motion or change."  This is pretty general but it is more particular than “thing that exists.”  Once you get particular about what God is, you create a contradiction with the concept of “limitless.”

    “The stuff about the universe is interesting but irrelevant, since if we are calling something "God" then we mean it created the universe, not the other way around—i.e., we can't figure out whether God exists by talking about what the universe is like, even if we knew everything about the universe.  If it is dependent on the nature of the universe for its existence it is not ‘God.’”

    What do you mean by “the universe?”  Are you talking about the thing created by the big bang that will expand forever and contains all observable objects and forces?  If so you are talking about something smaller than what I am suggesting.  I agree that when we talk about things that exist, we are doing so based on the forces and objects we can observe, which are necessarily inside this universe.  That means that it makes no sense to talk about what is beyond it, but that is a statement about ourselves, not about independent reality.  A "sophisticated theist" would say there is an infinite force beyond the universe (or maybe imbuing everything in this universe—if limitless implies pantheism, which I am still not sure about).  A deist says there is a god outside of this universe but he has walked away.  An atheist says there is nothing, or just more forces that are identical or of a kind as those observed in our universe.  A sophisticated atheist says there is a 99.9% chance that there is nothing, or just more forces that are identical or of a kind as those observed in our universe.

    I, as an agnostic, am calling bullshit on all of that.  We have no access to anything other than our universe, and even here there is a bunch of stuff that we can't figure out (for example our theories about big things—relativity—is completely at odds with our theories about tiny things—quantum theory).  Any statement we make about the fact of the matter outside our universe is less than speculative; it is projecting what we know on to what we can't know.    

    It’s like Hume's observation: science assumes that one place will be like another and the future will be like the past.  In our corner of the universe that turns out to be a pretty good assumption.  When we are talking about a place to which we have no access, even in principle, it is an absurd assumption based on absolutely nothing.  We should form no beliefs about such a place.

    BTW, I am increasingly uncomfortable with us batting around the term "sophisticated theist."  None of us knows that much about religion or religious studies, so based on what do we get to separate up theists into “sophisticated” and “not sophisticated” based on their beliefs that we don't know much about? 

    Based on this, I think the debate is going on forever because CORIIHUMIDI is being too nice--i.e., there is an obvious next step for CORIIHUMIDI that he is unwilling to take because it is cheap.  CORIIHUMIDI, you are positing that your "God" lies outside of physics—as you said, not because he is magic but because physics is limited by our minds.  At this point, the distinction between "magic" and "science" disappears, like with that Flash villain who was a magician but was really just from the future and using gadgets that are normal in the future but look to our primitive 20th/21st century minds like magic.  So rather than the normal theist sentence "God can do anything" you end up with "Since we cannot know, it makes just as much sense to believe that God can do anything as that it cannot," which is more intellectual but effectively the same.  So your response to our physics stuff about whether God is possible could logically be "Ha ha, God can do whatever he wants."  Admirably, you are reluctant to do this because it is retarded and you want to argue in good faith.  But there is basically no reason for you not to do this.  True, you would be basing it on the 8th dimension instead of the Holy Ghost, but you still end up with the position "Nothing is impossible where God is concerned because it's a mystery."  For a while, you have just been saying the long version of this so as not to sound like a shithead.  So just say the short version, and we are done, because it is impossible for an argument against this to exist (which, obviously, is not the same thing as a positive argument for the existence of God).”

    I kind of agree with some of this, but I don't draw the same conclusion.  I think it is a logically sound argument to say that “If God is limitless then it is not bound by the rules of logic.”  I don't think this is cheap at all.  I think it is frustrating because it means that a rational debate is fruitless, but I'd say that the frustration stems from a glimmering realization that our ability to reason does not entail an ability to perfectly understand all of objective reality.

    What would be cheap is what potentially gets said next.  If one goes on to say "therefore, XYZ tenet of the Catholic (or whatever) faith is true, or at least not disturbed," then I think that is cheap, or at least not rational.  I think the statement "If God is limitless then it is not bound by the rules of logic" entails "therefore, we are sealed off from ever being able to make any rational sense of God."  Most religious people come back to claiming they “know God through faith”—but that has no sway on any of us.  In fact it seems to suggest that what we know by faith makes no rational sense, which is a lot like going crazy.  I suppose that there could be "non-overlapping magisteria" inside our own minds, where faith-knowledge and reason-knowledge operate independently of each other according to their own separate grammar.  But few religious people seem to be eager to seal off their faith beliefs from their reason beliefs.   

    So to loop back to what Grammaticus was saying: I think atheists and theists are both going beyond where rational argument takes them.  In both cases they make definitive (though opposite) statements about a thing to which they have no access, i.e., God exists or it doesn't.  By slapping a percentage onto the odds of God's existence (it is no more likely to exist than fairies), Dawkins & co. only compound this problem by dressing up an irrational conclusion with faux open-mindedness.  

    Here is another way to characterize my idea: Grammaticus seems to think that I am open-minded to the existence of God and this makes me say that atheists and theists are tied.  I would say that I am closed-minded about belief in God: we have no idea, nor could we ever.  Therefore both the theists and atheists lose.  If we ever move on from the existence of God to the value of religion, I will be happy to explore this more.  

    I think Grammaticus is going to jump on the “Dawkins’s faux open-mindedness” comment.  What I mean is that when Dawkins says he is 99.99% sure that God doesn't exist, he is making it sound like he has run some experiments and he is reporting the results.  But in this case the "experiment" was just the Teapot argument, which only shows that the Man on the Cloud doesn't exist.  Let’s not go back through that again. 

GRAMMATICUS:  I will do a version of jumping on the “Dawkins’s faux open-mindedness” comment, which you are absolutely right is exactly what I was going to open with.  The reason he admits the 99.99% thing but in a dismissive way is not to three-card-monte the distinction between experimentation and the Teapot—it is because he basically does not care anymore about the God argument when it gets to the level of "it is just as logical as not to believe that existence exists as an aspect of a limitless thingy."  Remember why he bought his ticket to this party: he is a scientist and got fed up with shitheads telling him all his life "Ha ha you don't know anything, my magic book does."  What he is concerned with is demonstrating that Kirk Cameron and the Taliban are crazy, and Kirk Cameron and the Taliban are equally as crazy by Coriihumidi's beliefs about God as they are by mine.

    The structure of The God Delusion is mowing down theist arguments that posit contra science.  This is what he is concerned with doing.  In the course of doing this, occasionally he has to pass by some version of Coriihumidi's argument.  He dispenses quickly with these (I would imagine) not because he knows he is licked and is running scared, but because he could give two shits, since how people should behave as a result of believing in God but defining it Coriihumidi's way is no different from if they called themselves atheists (outside of how they answer the question "are you an atheist?" itself).  

    Unfortunately, trying to explain this would defeat the whole point of what he and others are doing.  If you start a sentence with "Okay, it is entirely possible that a limitless force started the universe, but remember it is inconceivable, which means..." people will just cut you off and go "Great, then it is possible that this force has desires so it is possible that he hates homosexuals, so I am going to go beat some up now because you just admitted that this is just as good as your decision not to."  

    I tried this in class, back when I used to teach.  Sometimes, to be a dick (and, I guess, accurate), I would answer the question "Do you believe in God?" with the request "define God."  The funny part is supposed to be that they can't.  But, being stupid, they just go "Yeah, I guess it is a mystery, which is great news because it means no-one can disprove my shitty paper about how you are not supposed to have sex."

    Now your response to this, if you are sharp, which you are, would be to say that I am doing the same thing religious people are doing, i.e., lying about what is or is not technically true because I suspect other people cannot control themselves and need to be told something that is a little bit fudged in order to behave morally. 

    But no I'm not, because "God will send you to heaven/hell" is not shorthand for something effectively indistinguishable, and "There is no God" is.  There could be square circles in the 8th dimension, but we still say "there are no square circles."  Coriihumidi, you used square circles a while back as something that is both impossible and inconceivable, instead of merely inconceivable, but now that we are talking about other dimensions that argument is off the table.  There is some fucked-up math thing you can do to prove that infinity actually equals some fraction or something (additionally, 0.9999 infinity is equal to one), but we still regard the concepts as distinct in conversation, and certainly when we are measuring shit on the wall to hang a painting.

    I call myself an atheist because not everyone who asks me about my beliefs has two hours to listen to (or the brains to comprehend) a series of proofs about how even a strong atheist is technically an "agnostic-in-principle," with a rider attached about the definition and implications of limitlessness, greater/lesser values for infinity, etc.  Or, to put it another way, because I agree with the statement "There is no good reason to believe that there is a God."  Everyone who asks that question has a specific thing that they mean when they say it, and whatever the specific thing that they mean is, it is bullshit.

    BTW, Lactiscaseique is going to make fun of you for not knowing the term "essent" because it is from Heidegger.

Mina with Heidegger
                                                                                                    photo: Matt Gaynor
                                                                                                        model: Mina Méchante

LACTISCASEIQUE:  Now this email thread is starting to go places.  I am immensely pleased.  Not infinitely, mind—just immensely.

    Grammaticus is right that most people use the word "being" to mean an intelligence, at least casually; I very rarely, if ever, see the word "being" used to mean "a thing."  I suppose essent (as in Heidegger—lulz) or being or whatever is fine in technical discussions of metaphysics, but in colloquial English, people just say, "a thing" rather than "a being."  Certainly, I was operating under the impression you meant "being" as an extraterrestrial super-intelligence until these couple of recent emails.

    Making this clearer earlier could have saved us a lot of runaround.  In retrospect, I am glad Grammaticus held your feet to the fire about this—certainly w/r/t how Dawkins appears not to give a shit about or address your definition of "beings" or "God" in his book.  So, you complaining that Dawkins's dismissal of agnosticism is too quick appears to be you getting upset about something Dawkins doesn't actually address.

    On the other hand, if Dawkins is only chasing after the Man-on-the-Cloud definitions of God, who cares?  I could here insert some wildly condescending remark about how Dawkins has written an entire book and not moved the flag forward from Russell's Teapot one iota, but I won't.  What I will say, though, is that if all Dawkins is interested in doing is simply making rational arguments against Men on Clouds, it doesn't really touch Coriihumidi’s arguments at all, which gets us to physics.

    “The small objection is that infinity being does not entail that there is infinite matter and energy at every point.  It only entails that matter and energy at whatever density go on forever.  Mathematically speaking this means that some infinities are bigger than others (mindbending as that is), so a series that goes up by 2s infinitely has a lower value (when added up) than an infinite series that increases by 5s.   However, as you point out this universe is not composed of an infinite block of infinitely large and dense particles and/or energy, but it could still be infinite nonetheless.”

    Re the first part of this, I think you're again misapplying a mathematical concept.  When you are talking about a "sequence of things" in math, it can go on infinitely, because in math things are not bounded by reality; they're bounded only by what we're clever enough to imagine.  Math is not beholden to match empirical experiment, so I think your analogy is just wrong.  When you posit an infinite value for something in an equation that appears in physics, that equation just stops describing reality.  Like, "F = m*a."  If you stick an infinity anywhere in this, you're no longer describing Forces, Masses, or Accelerations that appear in our universe—you're describing some oddball scenario a mathematician cooked up to explore infinity.  And that is really, really the case when you stick unexpected infinities into equations that describe things like particle energy levels.

    Re the second part, the universe could still be infinite in some way: a Euclidian 3D space, or a negatively curved saddle-shaped space, would entail a universe in which the observed universe and its finite phenomena is not all there is in space.  It would entail the possibility of things existing beyond the observed universe (i.e., beyond the light that we can see that's just now arriving from 14B years ago).  Those regions of space could have radically different properties from the regions of space we can observe.  However, we have rational reasons to believe those two scenarios are just hypotheticals that do not describe our universe.  The possibility of a universe that has infinite aspects has been considered, and empirically rejected by experimental physics, when the determination was made that the universe appears to be positively curved in the fourth dimension.  (This means that if the data suggesting the universe's curvature is positive is wrong, then infinity is back on the table.)

    “My bigger objection is that infinity (or limitlessness) entails contradictions, but its absence entails contradictions as well.  I think we agree that the state of physics now is that the universe will expand forever.  Something expanding must have a border, and a border has one thing on one side and one thing on another.  If the universe was truly finite then it couldn't expand into something.  As I see it, saying that the universe is positively curved along some direction that is greater than three doesn't solve this problem—it merely pushes the border out onto the 8th dimension or something.  This explains why our minds, which can only process three dimensions, will never perceive gazing at the edge of the universe, but it does not rule out the possibility of such a border, with the implication that something is beyond it.”

    You appear to not understand what I was saying about how that the universe is "bounded" in the fourth dimension, and maybe what "space" means when used in physics.  The "space" that physicists talk about as "expanding" in cosmology does not expand "into" something.  You may be basically imagining a sphere inflating when you say that space is "expanding into something"—with the thought, "Hey look, it's expanding—so what's all this negative space around the sphere?  It's expanding into that negative space!"  This is what you get if you use "space" with the colloquial English meaning of "a volume in which things happen."  Suddenly, the volume of "emptiness" around the sphere looks like it matters—and if it's emptiness, then that is a "thing" that's "outside the universe."  But that is the wrong way to visualize this.  This visual metaphor of a "sphere" is just a metaphor.  To your credit, though, you appear to have correctly identified one of the places in which the metaphor breaks down.

    A less metaphorical way to state what is happening when physicists say that "space is expanding" is that, with each passing moment, there spring into existence more places at which things can exist.  "Space," as used by physicists, is a technical term that brackets the kinds of things we can talk about.  It is not all that inapt to figure "space" as used by physicists to be sort of like a "problem space," because that suggests the closer connection to math that it has for them.  Basically, if it's possible for something to exist at a location, that location is in space; conversely, if it's not possible for something to exist in a place, that location is not in space.  This entails that there is no "border" to space— because then you could travel past that border and something would exist outside of places where it is possible for things to exist.

    This probably strikes you as some kind of arbitrary semantic bullshit, because it basically defines away the concept of "outside the universe"—but that is the point of using "space" as a technical term.  It's impossible to formulate a coherent cosmology if we construe "space" to exist outside of itself.  So, while this might sound like I'm just saying "Shut up with your boundary," I'm not.  What it amounts to is that the idea of a "boundary to space" is itself incoherent, because space as we have it in our universe does not have a "boundary" in the way you are imagining it does, as being sort of like a "fence" beyond which exists more open space for the universe to expand into.

    Incidentally, the way all this abstraction manifests itself as empirical consequences in cosmology is that, regardless of where you look out at the universe from, everything is moving away from you.  That is, every galaxy in the universe is receding from every other galaxy, because the space between all of them is itself expanding.  Everywhere you look at the universe from appears to be the "center of the volume" from which everything is receding, because there is no center to the volume: it's just the volume.

    Re "bounded in the fourth dimension"—this, again, is somewhat misleading terminology.  "Bounded" does not mean there is a "boundary" to space (except I've shuffled it off into some kind of higher dimension as a kind of three-card monte hide-the-boundary thing).  I am using "bounded" in the sense of a bounded set in mathematics, which is simply to say, not-infinite.  This means that when you model the universe in the fourth dimension, it is shaped in a way (i.e., hyper-spherically, a 4D sphere) that precludes the infinite dimensions that are entailed by either a Euclidian 4D space (a "hyper-volume") or a negatively curved space (a "hyper-saddle").  Additionally, because the universe is positively curved, and thus bounded, this logically entails that the number of places that exist in the universe is always also finite (however vast in number or however vast in light years the universe is in diameter), even with the constant expansion of space.  At any given moment, the number of places in space at which things can exist is, in principle, countable, even if actually counting them is practically impossible.

    Now then, you claim in the above-cited passage that a lack of infiniteness entails contradictions.  I invite you to admit that the above exposition clarifies matters such that your concerns do not arise.

    "I am increasingly uncomfortable with us batting around the term "sophisticated theist."  None of us knows that much about religion or religious studies, so based on what do we get to separate up theists into sophisticated an not sophisticated based on their beliefs that we don't know much about?"

    Ok, fair enough.

    Re Spinoza, absolutely an apt comparison.  I think that a somewhat logically contradictory definition of God as "both everything and nothing in particular" is almost the only credible position on which you can claim that God (meaning a limitless essent) has any involvement with the natural world.  "His Presence is everywhere," and piety is not so much conformance to a particular belief, activity, or attitude, but a kind of openness to seeing the divine that involves living mindfully.  This is pretty much what my mom and stepdad think, as far as I can tell.  Even if it doesn't make for a coherent belief system, it makes for a nice kind of poetry.

    Re atheism, agnosticism, and the usefulness of these terms as shorthands, we appear to be all starting to unite around a common theme here.  I think we are all coming to a place where we agree that words like "atheist" and "agnostic" gloss over the subtleties involved in having reasons for belief, or not having reasons for belief.  "Atheist" and "agnostic" are relational, and related to what you define as "God."

    If "God" is defined as "Man on the Cloud," everyone here is an "atheist."  (Grammaticus believes that this is the only credible concept of 'God,' and this may just remain an open point of contention between him and Coriihumidi).  Which is to say, we all have no reason to believe in the existence of a Man on the Cloud-esque entity called God.

    If "God" is defined as a "limitless essent," I think none of us even knows what that means, since it's sort of inherently contradictory.  Maybe this means we are all "agnostics," since we cannot form beliefs about the existence of these essents?  "Being a thing" entails limitedness; a limitless thing isn't recognizable from other things because it's not limited by being one singular thing.  Coriihumidi didn't even disagree with this train of thought about distinguishability I gave before, so I am going to claim that this sort of "contradictory syllogism" is an accurate example of why a limitless essent entails contradictions.  This makes sense nicely with what Coriihumidi said here, which I think is very helpful:

    “Put another way, when I say God is beyond science, I do not mean that it exists in some extra-physical, supernatural magic land that exists outside the natural physical universe.  I mean that science is something that fundamentally goes on inside our mind.  If our mind can't deal with limitlessness, it can't incorporate a being into that theory—in fact that is what theists do that we both find objectionable.” 

    I think what Coriihumidi is saying here is that rational beliefs are constrained by logic, if they're going to be rational.  This does not, in any necessary sense, entail that rational beliefs are correct.  It simply means they are rational.  Thus, when we start talking about objects/essents/whatever that are limitless or beyond our concepts, we are talking about objects that are of no use to rational argument, because they entail logical contradictions—and our brains, arguments, theories, etc. just cannot handle that.  "Limitless objects" entail logical contradictions.  That does not necessarily preclude the existence of things that are limitless—but it does preclude our understanding things that are limitless.  Our sense of logic and coherency just rebels at the thought.

    For that reason, forming beliefs about a limitless essent requires someone to use in an argument something that cannot used in arguments.  This is getting abstract now, but the contradictory nature of limitless essents makes me think that what they really represent is a limit to our rationality.  We cannot rationally argue about things that are just incoherent by their nature.

    The upshot of this is that you cannot imagine one of these limitless essents as "evidence" for something, because even if you could talk about one (and you can't; see Private Language Argument), introducing it as evidence would seem to compel you to accept both the conclusion you were trying to prove and to reject the conclusion you were trying to prove.  Similarly, the flipside of this is that you cannot imagine anything else as being "evidence" for the existence of a limitless essent, because if the thing you are trying to show exists is itself contradictory, it's not clear what could provide adequate evidence for your conclusion.  Almost anything and everything could be submitted as "evidence."
    What should a rational agent do with this contradictory mess?  Abstain from taking a position on any proposition that supposedly involves a limitless being/essent.  This, I think, is Coriihumidi’s position that started this whole thing off.  When you cannot coherently form beliefs about the existence of a limitless essent, you don't try to form coherent beliefs—you just refuse to take a position.  Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.

    Whether we call this "agnosticism" or "atheism" or what, I do not give a shit.  This is what I meant before about how shorthand glosses over subtleties in belief.  Coriihumidi’s position is not that he merely doesn't know whether God exists; it's that if you conceive of God as a limitless essent/being, he cannot have a reason to believe one way or the other, since forming reasons involves rational argument about something that you can't argue about.

    Grammaticus, for his part, seems not to really have anything to object to here in terms of the logic of the conceptual arguments glossed above, so it sounds like we basically all agree.  The caveat with this though is that Grammaticus thinks—I would say correctly—that most of the people who talk about God don't have Coriihumidi’s conceptual considerations about limitless essents in mind when they define God.  Instead, they define God to have some kind of "function" they need a divine janitor to perform, or they have some ulterior motive going on whenever they start talking about God. 

    If we all agree with the summary I have provided so far of where our conceptual arguments have wound up, this makes for a great opportunity for Coriihumidi to segue into his thoughts on the "function" of religion, independent of the existence or non-existence of God.

PART VII:  Public vs. Private Usage of “Atheist” and “Agnostic” / Why Does the Term “God” Even Exist As a Thing to Posit? / Can a Stripped-Down God Still Be Undiscoverable-In-Principle? / Our Mid-Sized-Object Minds

CORIIHUMIDI:  Lactiscaseique, I think your beliefs would entail that you are an atheist: if you think limitless is only a mathematical abstraction, then you think that no actual being has that quality.  You keep saying that you don't care about the labels "atheist" or "agnostic."  I don't see why this is so.  Those words mean different things, though there is some diversity within each category.  

    I have heard and comprehended both of your objections to my use of the word being.  Having understood and considered your objections, your requests are denied.  I grant that I am using being in a sense that would be confusing in a mall food court.  However, in this context, debating theological questions with two people who have very similar educations to mine, I am using it in a perfectly normal way.  Replacing being as it is used routinely in philosophy on this subject with "essent"—which is apparently Heideggerian jargon—is in fact much less clear.  Let us never speak of this again. 

GRAMMATICUS:  What this comes down to is the fact that Coriihumidi's position actually lies right on the agnostic/atheist line.  Agnostic is supposed to mean "I think there is (or probably is) a God, but its ways are inherently unknowable."  Coriihumidi retains the "inherently unknowable" part, but never said he thinks the chances of a God are >50%.

    So let's say I am charitable/vague and say my position is "I think there probably is not a God, but if there is, its ways are inherently unknowable, so it comes to the same thing," and leave out specifying whether "probably is not" means 0.01% or only <50% .  Coriihumidi says that admitting the unknowable part makes me an agnostic—based, I guess, on the idea that theist/atheist is a dyad where they both admit evidence could exist, with the theist saying "there can be evidence, and we have some (or don't but don't care)" and the atheist saying "there can be evidence, and we have none."  So admitting that there can't be evidence means you can't say you are an atheist—in other words, you can only even be an atheist about the Man on a Cloud (i.e., a version of God to which the Teapot applies).

    To take the loadedness out of the question, Coriihumidi says we should answer the God question the same way we would answer the question "Do you think there is a 27th Dimension?"  I.e., I would not respond "No, I am pretty sure there is not a 27th Dimension," I would respond "I have no fucking clue because what the fuck does that even mean?"

    My problem with this is, there is a paper trail of sorts there.  There is credible evidence based on the shape (or whatever) of the observable universe that there is a fourth dimension, and that this fourth dimension also has a shape.  It then stands to reason that there is a fifth dimension and so on.  There may be a point where this stops for some reason that we cannot comprehend (e.g., there are no dimensions beyond the 16th because the 16th dimension is "perfect," or mathematically equivalent to the first, or some wack shit like that), or there might not.  But re something like the 27th dimension, you rationally cross the line into "Eh, why the fuck not?" territory (i.e., it makes no less sense than saying "probably not").

    But there is no paper trail—not even the first little beginnings of one—that does the same thing for "God."  There is no "Eh, why the fuck not?" line that we cross.  I will concede—and this is my best offer—that we may come closer and closer times infinity but never reach it, like the snail that keeps getting half the distance to the top of the well.  Remember Coriihumidi’s goldfish?  Well, maybe (way far out in our universe, or in the 4th dimension, or the 9th) there are beings who are as superior to us as Coriihumidi is to his goldfish, and then someplace beyond them, more beings who are as superior to them as they are to us, etc.  I do not consider this religion—I consider it Carl Sagan after a few rips from a two-footer packed with purple haze.  At no point do you hit "God."  You hit some guys who might as well be God, just like Coriihumidi might as well be God (is incomprehensible to him, is wholly in control of the terms of his existence, can destroy him) to the goldfish, but actually isn't (did not actually cause him to exist with his mind).  I realize that we cannot actually define "life," but only life on Earth, or in our universe anyway (bacteria on Titan, comprehending how there could be silicon rather than carbon-based life).

    But this is all just science.  It is not science we will likely ever be smart enough to do, but that does not make it mystical.  No-one may ever be a talented enough composer to compose a piece of music that makes every woman on earth instantly fall in love with him, but that doesn't mean we refer to the possibility of such a melody as something other than "music."  It is just music we can't do, and this is all just science we can't do.    

    BTW, here is Bertrand Russell himself on atheist/agnostic:

    “As a philosopher, if I were speaking to a purely philosophic audience I should say that I ought to describe myself as an Agnostic, because I do not think that there is a conclusive argument by which one can prove that there is not a God.  On the other hand, if I am to convey the right impression to the ordinary man in the street I think I ought to say that I am an Atheist, because when I say that I cannot prove that there is not a God, I ought to add equally that I cannot prove that there are not the Homeric gods.”

CORIIHUMIDI:  That Bertrand Russell thing is interesting.  I understand why you have a public/private label of your view; I just don't agree that your view (which I understand to be identical to Russell's) is correct.  But the spirit of it does point out something interesting: from the standpoint of what many (maybe even most) religious people are concerned with, our viewpoints have the same consequences.  

GRAMMATICUS:  This is certainly the position of many theists, including the Catholic Church: you can either live as if there is a God, or not, so the agnostic/atheist distinction is an illusion.  I understand Coriihumidi's “27th dimension-esque” God (if my analogy was in fact a good one), find it fascinating, and agree that the Teapot doesn't apply to it, just as the Teapot doesn't apply to the 27th Dimension itself.

    My problem is, as I've said, the 27th Dimension (or what-have-you science mystery) has a "sure, why not" trail leading in its general direction, and God does not.  We know that there is such a thing as Dimensions, and know of the first few for a fact, and know that one dimension implies the next up to a point, but not up to what point, and cannot conceive of any beyond the very early ones anyway.  For God (which of course means anything that could be called God, which is why Russell's agnostic/atheist distinction quote does not exactly apply, because it makes clear that by God he meant the Judeo-Christian Jehovah as opposed to Zeus et al.), the best "sure why not" trail we have is that there is such a thing as existence and such a thing as consciousness, and this seems to me to be inefficient.  The reason that "27th dimension" is a term that exists for us to posit is because of the factual existence of the first few.  The reason that "God" exists as a term for us to posit is because cavemen needed an explanation for thunder and earthquakes, desert nomads thought it would be awesome if bad people who got away with things didn't actually get away with them, etc.  Coriihumidi has conceded that everything God was thought up or refined to explain is bullshit—in other words, if everyone in the past had known what we know now, the term/idea "God" would not be around for us to argue about.  If the term only exists as a thing to posit because of bullshit, why posit it?

LACTISCASEIQUE:  I had a couple of thoughts that probably won't affect the course of the discussion but feel like saying:

    In talking about higher-dimensional theories in physics with you guys and others, I have noticed a pattern.  I am not sure, really, if anyone in this particular discussion about God is confused about this, but just in case: positing higher-dimensional aspects in physics is not done arbitrarily, and it is not the case that "one dimension implies the next [higher dimension]."  The extra dimensions are not just added because they're deductively necessary from the other dimensions, or added arbitrarily—they are more like an incidental upshot of making the starting concepts that a theory incorporates explain observed reality.  That is why infinite regressions in these theories is not an issue.  While another dimension might be mathematically possible, almost anything is mathematically possible, and physicists only add what is necessary to explain what we see.

    There are some theories that involve as many as 26 dimensions (25 space, one time), but even that theory has the same regard for these higher dimensions—no more than necessary, please.  When you take that theory's fundamental constituents of reality and try to describe our observed universe, 26 dimensions are necessary to make the formalistic descriptions of the fundamental entities make sense.  In contrast, M-Theory only involves 11 (10 space, 1 time) because it starts with "strings" as the basic element.

    If some of the current theories in physics that involve "other dimensions" in a "multiverse" are correct, we—meaning humans, or at least denizens of the observable universe—will almost certainly be able to eventually take experimental measurements of what those other universes are like.  They will be taken in the form of gravity sensors, because "gravitons"—the carrier particle for the force of gravity—are thought not to be bound to only one universe, and can travel between universes.

    Thus, we could maybe build some kind of enormous gravity resonator that sends out gravity waves into other universes, as well as a network of sensors that listen to gravity waves, sort of like a sonar network.  Such an apparatus would be absolutely enormous, and is certainly hundreds and hundreds of years away technologically, since it would probably involve deliberately creating and managing a black hole—but it's possible in principle.


    What this means for us, I think: something being part of our observable universe is to some extent limited by our sensors.  We have been long past the point for a while where we gather information about what is "out there" with our senses, but still we regard electrons as “real.”  Something being in another universe does not mean it's "outside our concepts"—just that it's part of the same set of things that we will get access to in time, not part of the set of things that are inaccessible to us in principle.

    Here are some additional thoughts regarding what my own point of view looks like when put into practice.  I think this touches to some extent on what I said before about how "agnostic" and "atheist" gloss over subtleties in belief.  Maybe this is tedious, but I've been trying to put my finger on something with the difference between negative views and affirmative views when it comes to God, and I'm going to try to put it into a formulation that makes sense.

    I do not believe in God at present, in either the Man on the Cloud or Limitless Being versions.  I think this is different from the question of whether I think either God could possibly exist—and most of the conversation up to this point is more about the possibility that God exists.  Stated another way, I currently have no reason to believe that either of them exists, and this represents simply a lack of evidence for the conclusion that either of them exists.

    Re Man on a Cloud, this conception of God seems to be knocked out by virtue of a generally scientific worldview (and I do mean scientific, not just rational).  The idea of an intelligent being with limitless power, knowledge, benevolence, that is somehow corporeal and incorporeal at the same time, etc., just seems crazy, and "evidence" for this God is typically explainable as observer bias or just bad reasoning.

    Re Limitless Being, I've already gone round on my view of this and won't rehash it at length.  I think that our past experience of the universe is that it contains no such beings, and that our future experience of the universe will be like our past experience.  I also think that rational belief-formation about the existence of limitless beings is impossible, because if one did exist, it would appear to entail logical contradictions. 

    But while I am not convinced there is reason to believe either of these Gods exists, this does not imply that I have the affirmative belief that there is no God.  My rejections of these conceptions of actually-existing-Gods leaves open the possibility that one of these God exists.  In that sense, my view is "atheist" and "agnostic" at the same time.  I don't affirmatively believe in the existence of a God; this, according to some people, is "atheism."  However, based on the conceptual considerations involved in conceiving of God as being like a Private Object, I do affirmatively think it's possible that Limitless-Being God could exist—even if that involves logical contradictions, and even if I do not have a reason to think it exists at this particular moment.  This, according to some people, is "agnosticism," since I haven't authoritatively made up my mind on whether God exists.  I don't know whether God exists.

    The particular reasons I have for rejecting belief in either of the two conceptions of God are different, though.  My reasons for absence of belief in the existence of the Man on the Cloud are that the existence of such a God would require basically the entire corpus of beliefs generated by science to be wrong. 

    My reasons for absence of belief in a Limitless Being are partly empirical (I think we don't observe such beings), but also partly conceptual as well.  That is, I don't think we can have reasons to believe in such a limitless being, because a Limitless-Being God is sort of like a Private Object.  In that sense, rational argument just can't assess a question like whether such a being exists, so it's impossible to form a belief one way or the other about whether a limitless being exists.  I am not sure what, if anything, could be offered as "evidence" for such a being, since trying to reason rationally about its existence seems to entail logical contradictions, and thus irrationality.  If you want to call an inability to form beliefs about a Limitless-Being God "agnosticism," okay.  But it looks an awful lot like atheism to someone who defines "atheism" as "absence of belief in God."

    This is partly what I meant before about how I do not care whether my view is "really atheism" or "really agnosticism" or what in someone's eyes.  To me, it seems like either of these labels gets away from the real issue, which is whether we have an actual reason to believe that something, call it God if you like, exists.

GRAMMATICUS:  Lactiscaseique, the dimension stuff was fascinating, but just fyi I wasn't saying that the 27th Dimension had formally been posited.  I realize it hasn't officially.  And besides I didn't even mean specifically the 27th, just "some given high-ass dimension."  I was using it as an example of another thing that the Teapot doesn't apply to (i.e., we don't understand it and have no more reason to say "I think it exists" or "I think it doesn't").  Apparently it is a moot point if Corrihumidi says this was a bad analogy for his position.

    But your e-mail brought me back to the question of whether Coriihumidi's stripped-down God is undiscoverable in principle or as a property of it.  He said we could inherently never know it, but also said he didn’t go for the non-overlapping magisteria stuff—i.e., he concedes that all that exists is part of existence.  So this brings us to the question of whether (in principle, not based on specific machines someone is planning to build in 200 years) we could ever scientifically "discover" Coriihumidi's God.

    A moderately traditional theist would say that even if God is discoverable in principle, God does not want us to discover it (at least not scientifically, because this would screw up "faith" or something), and so would deliberately evade scientific detection (by whatever means this would entail).  But Coriihumidi's stripped-down God does not have desires or choose to do things.  So Coriihumidi, is your God discoverable in principle or not?  And if not, why not, since you have admitted 1) it exists in the material multiverse, and 2) cannot deliberately evade detection?

CORIIHUMIDI:  I think a lot of the cosmological implications of cutting-edge theory that Lactiscaseique has raised are really interesting and I am inspired to read The Fabric of the Universe.  I am not dismissing what Lactiscaseique has to say, but I am not convinced either.

    This discussion has to some extent veered into Lactiscaseique asserting conclusions from a book that only he has read.  I don't know the scientific consensus, the author's biases (after all, this is a book for a popular audience), or Lactiscaseique’s own understanding and biases.  So the what I have to say to the facts Lactiscaseique is reporting is that I can't really say, but it is an interesting idea and I intend to learn more about it.  However, I don't think any of us has enough knowledge to seriously debate this.

    That said, I do have a decent understanding of the history and philosophy of science and the state of pop-science as of 2000, when Pecuniaecitro and I took a class in it senior year, and based on that I am suspicious.  First, if we'd had this conversation at any point since the 18th century you would have said to me "You make an interesting point about the limit of our concepts, however natural science has fully explained the universe  with the exception of [X], which is about to be explained by the cutting edge theory of [Y]."  Each couple of years, X is a problem with the current grand theory and Y is the cutting-edge theory proposed to explain it.  This process gives us a deeper and greater understanding of the universe but has consistently shown us that whenever we think we are about to explain it all, the bottom falls out and we realize there are a whole new set of problems.  The upshot of this is that the statement "we are about to explain the universe" is not a scientific statement—it is a statement of your faith in science.  So this is not an argument, it is a conclusion, and a conclusion that is not borne out by history.

    Lactiscaseique and Grammaticus have both said that they do not in fact believe one way or another that "science can explain everything."  Nevertheless, this belief is implicit in their arguments.  Grammaticus has repeatedly said that what I am talking about is just what will be scitntifically discovered by really smart people in the future.  Lactiscaseique is leaping on a contemporary hypothesis and going for a ride with physicists about where this theory will shake out.  I think Grammaticus is not taking seriously the idea that something can be incomprehensible to us yet still exist, and Lactiscaseique is just getting way out ahead of himself.

    Re why I don’t buy Lactiscaseique’s M-Theory shtick, here is my understanding of how science works: science is not reality; it is a description—a model.  It is a model we have reason to have faith in, but it should not be confused with reality.  Here is how we build the model. We observe something, we infer that the best (i.e., simplest, most coherent with other things we understand) explanation is the correct one.  We then design an experiment to test the theory by looking for data that is predicted by the theory or is inconsistent with the theory.  We then take that data and incorporate it into the theory.  So there is a creative part, and a painstaking gathering part.  Every so often, our criteria for what counts as the best theory breaks down.  To remain coherent with other theories, the working hypothesis becomes more and more extravagant, so we either have to sacrifice simplicity or coherence.  Sometimes this means that reality is complicated, and sometimes it means we are trying too hard to hold onto old theories.  

    The origin of M-Theory is that it is needed to make the various super-string theories cohere with one another.  The reason we have these super-string theories is to make the theory of relativity (which explains gravity) consistent with quantum theory (which explains the other fundamental forces).  Relativity and quantum theory are, of course, well-tested and established.  There are ideas to test super-string and M-Theory, but they haven't been tested yet.  So they are currently only candidates for a solution, not facts.

    Treating them as such, as Lactiscaseique did in his last few e-mails, overlooks the likelihood that once these theories are tested (if they ever can be), some new incongruent data will cause some major rethinking.  It may even be that that super-strings and M-Theory are just epicycles that we have invented to keep alive quantum mechanics and relativity, when either or both might be wrong in some fundamental way.  

    To cycle back to our discussion, your description of a graviton pulse expanding the reach of our knowledge into other universes is at this point just sci-fi.  The concept of a graviton is describing gravity in terms of quantum theory, which is gibberish until quantum theory and relativity are made consistent.

    The move both you and Grammaticus seem to make is that religious understandings are correct that the nature of the universe is explicable, but are just wrong about the explanations, whereas science gives us the correct explanations.  However, at the present time quantum theory does not do that at all.

    The account you are giving of a future grand unifying theory is notable for the fact that it leaves out the aspects of quantum theory that are most damaging to your position—and most support my idea that our concepts have limits.  That is, quantum theory does not claim to give us a picture of the state of the universe as it is independent of us.  Rather, it couches the entire theory in the caveat that this is what the universe looks like at this level to us when we try to observe it.  So this theory explains our understanding without making the cosmological statements that many other theories do.  Maybe the grand unifying theory will say the same thing about really big objects as well—once we get to a large enough scale, the universe doesn't make logical sense, just like it doesn't at a small scale.

    This makes perfect sense from a naturalistic point of view.  Our brains evolved to help us survive a world of medium-sized objects (i.e., not subatomic and not galactic).  This world is adequately described by Euclidian geometry, with time running in one direction at a more or less constant rate, and effects following causes.  Our minds are more or less hardwired to understand the universe in this way.

    We have the ability to abstract beyond this structure, but like all abstraction, this ability is circumscribed by the everyday reality we are abstracting from.  For example, what are we actually talking about when we talk about the 5th and 6th dimensions and how are they different from one another?  I realize there is a technical answer for this question, but the terminology is telling.  We are saying that beyond a dimension of which we have no real concept there are another several spatial dimensions and the 6th relates to the 5th in a similar way to the 3rd relating to the 2nd.  So we have no real idea about what this aspect of reality is other than variables in an equation.  We are putting things that are beyond the limits of our ability to conceive into language that makes them seem more manageable.

    Another way to think about this is that when we talk about the objective world, what we are doing is talking from a point of view that we have imagined.  We start from our own subjective understanding and take several objectifying steps where we remove elements of our own subjectivity.  However, our starting point will always be our subjective viewpoint, which will affect where we end up.  I don't mean this in a gender-studies sense—I am just pointing out that, however objective we get, we will always be using a brain that evolved to outcompete the other erect apes.

    Grammaticus, I didn't say that God could exist in a high dimension but doesn't exist here.  I said that if God is a limitless being it exists in all places, both conceivable and not.  This idea is usually called pantheism, and I guess it has convinced me that if there is a God it is a pantheistic one.  Dawkins says this is just atheism, but since he just asserts this, I don't understand why it is so (I do know he asserts it in order to claim Einstein as an atheist, despite Einstein's claims to the contrary).  

    If I were saying that God exists in a high dimension it would be a God-in-the-Gaps evasion.  What I was trying to do was use spatial infinity as an example of something that we can't conceive of to illustrate that there are things that may exist that we can't conceive of, but then we lost track of this being an illustration and not my main point, and things got confused.

    My view is that, if God exists, it is the "greatest" thing, as it is limitless.  This would put it among the set of things that exist, but which are beyond our ability to understand.  So I would say that it is not logically impossible that God could be known.  I do think that it is impossible for us to understand it, given our limitations.  

    When you and Lactiscaseique say that "I have no reason to believe in God" you are emphasizing the lack of a necessary place for God in our scientific cosmology.  You are both willing to concede that, from a scientific worldview, you can't rule out God (or dragons, or fairies), but this is sort of a technicality.  

    When I say "we can't know whether God exists," I am emphasizing the limit of our abilities.  I am not being skeptical of our knowledge because I have to be to be a good scientist; I am skeptical because I think an honest confrontation with what humans are involves acknowledging that we are limited—and this is a huge part of what religion is about.

    When you ask, "If there is no good reason to posit that God exists, why posit it?", you are imagining that religion is merely pre-scientific cosmology.  I think that the power of religion to explain the natural world is basically nothing.  However I think that the point of religion is, and has always been, more than that.  The point is to help us understand our place in the universe from another point of view.  I think the idea of God helps people do that.  Other people might stare at their belly button to get to the same place.  Just because this activity isn't scientific doesn't mean that this process is worthless; it just means it isn't science.

PART VIII:  Back to the Teapot?! / Perceivers vs. Observers / “Using” [X] “As” a God

GRAMMATICUS:  Lactiscaseique, in your last big e-mail, the problem seemed to be (Coriihumidi, do you agree here?) that although we have both conceded that the Teapot does not apply to Coriihumidi's God, and you are in keeping with this concession in the last half of your e-mail, in the first half you basically give the textbook definition of the Teapot argument as the explanation for your stance:

    "I do not believe in God at present, in either of the Man on the Cloud or Limitless Being versions.  I think this is different from the question of whether I think either God could possibly exist—and most of the conversation up to this point is more about the possibility that God exists.  Stated another way, I currently have no reason to believe that either of them exists, and this represents simply a lack of evidence for the conclusion that either of them exist."

    If that is not just the Teapot, explain why.

    Coriihumidi, you simply misunderstood my "27th Dimension" point.  What I was saying is the exact same thing—seriously the exact same—that your "correction" of me was saying.  I wasn't saying you said that God could exist in a higher dimension, e.g., the 27th.  What I was saying is that your characterization of God involves having no better reason to say "it probably doesn't" exist than "it probably does" (i.e., the whole reason the Teapot does not apply) and a fundamental inability on our parts to understand it anyway.  These are the two pillars of your argument.  Based on this, I said a helpful analogy would be, instead of using the word "God," to use an example that is less loaded, i.e., one where no-one has any emotional attachment to the outcome.  For example, if you ask me "Grammaticus, do you think the 27th Dimension exists?" my answer is not "No, I think it probably doesn't, because we have no evidence" (Teapot).  Instead, my answer is "I have no way to even begin to say yes or no, and besides what the fuck would that even mean, it is effectively gibberish to me, I can't form an idea of it, there is no such thing as yes/no probability regarding this thing from my standpoint, the only rational answer is I have no idea."  This, as I understood you, is what you think our answer about God should be. 

    Then, based on this (accurate and helpful) analogy about your position, I explained what I thought the differences were (i.e., the reasons my answer to the God question is not the same).  That was the stuff about how with dimensions (or whatever) we have a "paper trail" and with God we don't.

LACTISCASEIQUE:  My view isn't the Teapot because the Teapot argument is 100% negative in nature.  It is all about impeaching empirical predictions.  My view is more subtle than that.  While I think we have no empirical reason to think that a limitless being exists, it is virtually impossible to deny the possible existence of a limitless being that science just cannot understand (and maybe for which "reasons to believe it exists" cannot be rationally formulated).

    Thus, while I agree with the negative arguments about the empirical existence of something, I affirmatively think that it is possible for a limitless being to exist.  That is the real point of that whole email—to explore the difference between negative and affirmative views of things.  The Teapot argument is negative; the conceptual/Private-Object-God considerations cover affirmative belief in the possibility of such an entity.

GRAMMATICUS:  Your response was complex, but avoided the question.  The Teapot isn't about "impeaching predictions," it is simply an analogy for "Hey, you are the one who proposed something, so the burden is on you to produce evidence."  In the example itself, predictions about future events aren't being based on the Teapot—nothing is posited aside from the existence of the Teapot itself.  And Russell doesn't go into whether a space teapot is "impossible in principle" (of course it is possible in principle—an astronout hucks a teapot into space and it ends up orbiting a planet), so admitting God is possible in principle does not differentiate your position.

    Your position as you just explained it is "I am open to the possibility of X, but have no evidence, and will be happy to believe it once you present me with some."  That is the Teapot.  Remember, I am not criticizing you for this: my position is also basically the Teapot (with a detour into my 27th-Dimension analogy where I made certain allowances).  I am just reminding you that seriously 50% of this thread was Coriihumidi getting us to concede that the Teapot does not apply.  If you are saying it still does (which is what I wanted to do all along), fine, but just come out and say "Fuck you Coriihumidi, the Teapot applies."

LACTISCASEIQUE:  Sigh.  Grammaticus, you are now trying to run on me a version of the straw man you kept trying to run on Coriihumidi and I'm starting to feel the same impatience with having to re-explain myself.  The point of the conceptual and Private Object considerations of a limitless object that is beyond human concepts is that rational entitlement to belief, empirical or otherwise, cannot be presented for such a thing.  Even talking about such a thing may not be possible.  So, you cannot have rational arguments about such a thing, because these arguments will involve an operator (a "limitless essent") that has a nature that is logically contradictory.  That means an object, thus conceived, entails no empirical consequences. 

    So the Teapot argument, which involves rational discussion of entitlement to belief in some entity that someone posits, does not affect this.  And, if you take seriously the idea that human rationality has limits, and that the universe may go beyond them, the conclusion you are compelled to accept is that we cannot take a position on whether such a limitless essent exists.  It may or may not exist, but either way, we cannot form rational beliefs about it.  The appropriate response is not to take a position.  I mostly agree with Coriihumidi in thinking that the Teapot does not apply to a limitless being; in fact, it can't even engage with such a being because I think presentation of rational arguments pro or contra such a being's existence is impossible.  I need to clarify certain aspects of my view, though, so that's the email I'm working on next.

CORIIHUMIDI:  I think the best presentation of my view was my last e-mail.  As for the paper trail to the 27th dimension, this is just another way of saying “I have no reason to believe in a limitless being,” which is just the Teapot presented in a more respectful way.  Briefly, I would say that the thrust of my theological views is not “God might exist so we should be concerned about that”—it is more like an awareness of how limited we are, which has important moral and epistemological implications.

LACTISCASEIQUE:  First of all, Coriihumidi, both your responses to me and Grammaticus were excellent.  I am sorry if I somehow conveyed the impression that M-Theory is regarded as scientific fact.  It is not.  It is a largely speculative theory that uses strings and membranes to effect the unification of quantum mechanics and gravity/Einsteinian mechanics.  It has generated a few testable predictions.  Once the Large Hadron Collider comes online at CERN later this year, they will test some of them.

    M-Theory is not the only new untested theory that proposes a unification of general relativity and quantum mechanics; it's just the one that I know the most about.  There are lots, and their credibility varies as whatever new paper comes out.  However, there are two that are considered leading candidates: M-Theory and "Loop Quantum Gravity," which Greene mentions tangentially towards the end of The Fabric of the Cosmos.  I know much less about LQG, but I am going to read the book Greene recommends once I get through The Selfish Gene (which, by the way, is pretty neat).  LQG, by the way, involves zero higher dimensions—just 3 space and 1 time.  This is a big mark in its favor.

    I do not think science is near to being complete, now or in 250 years' time.  That's not just because of generalized scientific skepticism; it is because any even slightly realistic description of the way science works in the real world shows it doesn't yield "completeness," only generates incompleteness and new problems to solve.  Scientists eventually get stumped and then work out a big conceptual leap (Kuhn's "paradigm shifts") and then refine the new paradigm down until it's time for the next conceptual leap and identification of new problems.  That is why the conception of science as a "body of facts" is wrong.  What is currently regarded as "scientific fact" can change, as we see when someone comes along every so often and shakes everything up by framing the same problems in a new way.

    I am loath to draw some generalized conclusion from the way science works about whether "our minds are incapable of understanding the universe in itself in principle."  I think that is probably a kind of skeptical overreach.  I think that involves forming an affirmative belief about something (i.e., the universe): the belief is that it is outside our concepts in principle

    As I've said, I think we can't really form rational beliefs about something that is outside our concepts in principle, even if we think we can.  The only things we can form rational beliefs about are things about which rational beliefs can be formed.  This is obviously a tautology, but I'm writing the sentence this way to illustrate that when you say the universe's true nature is outside our concepts, in principle, the question arises of how you are entitled to this belief about its true nature.  It's an affirmative belief, meaning it is question-begging to just assert its truth.  So, you are reasonably expected to show your entitlement to the belief, by argument.  But the catch is that we humans forming rational beliefs about something that transcends logic, rationality, and human concepts is not possible (even if its existence might be possible).  You have to acknowledge the possibility that the universe is beyond our concepts out of a good-natured skepticism about humans' ability to form correct beliefs, but I think committing yourself to one or the other possibility is an overreach.

    If you affirmatively argue that the universe or things in it are beyond our concepts, negative arguments like the kind I made about how every observed thing in the universe appears to be something we can quantify or at least minimally conceptualize, even abstractly, directly engage your view and cast doubt on the existence of things we can't conceptualize.  Saying, "Oh, well, we have no sensory access to these theoretical entities like 'electrons' or 'strings'—it's all just ways of describing an infinite reality," seems kind of like question-begging to me.  We've been theorizing about entities beyond the limits of our sense organs for almost 200 years now, and science is clearly making progress at about the same pace, or faster even, as it was during Newton's era when we were still talking about eyeball-observable bodies.  It's a bit late in the game to suddenly be claiming that the inferences to the best explanation of modern science have crossed some conceptual veil and suddenly everything we've learned about electromagnetic fields, for example, is just arbitrary terminology that is mutually compatible with another theory.

    On the other hand, if you affirmatively argue that the universe is not beyond our concepts, you are basically making the case for an unreflective scientism or blind faith in humans' complete sufficiency to understand the universe, and ignoring the way science operates in the real world (i.e., to never reach "completeness").  I therefore think the appropriate, principled response to all this is to not take a position on whether the universe exceeds our ability to conceptualize it—neither negative, nor affirmative.

    I am not sure if Coriihumidi agrees with this or not.  Maybe he and I are coming at the same idea from different directions, or saying the same thing with different words, but that's about as clear as I think I can make this thought.  But Coriihumidi, I think you are being a bit too quick with your description of how quantum mechanics poses some limit of our concepts in principle.  You are correct that QM, as of 2009, is "metaphysically minimalist."  It does not propose anything about why electrons behave as they do or make any claims about their fundamental nature (other than maybe the particle/wave duality thing and the associated concepts involved, which appear to be incidental to the way we see waves and particles in time).  The relationship between the quantum field equations humans have developed and objective reality is something that not really anyone working in plain old non-M-Theory/non-LQG quantum mechanics understands.  QM could mean one of four things:

  1. An electron's probability wave is the electron;
  2. An electron's probability wave is associated with the electron somehow;
  3. An electron's probability wave mathematically describes an electron's motion; or
  4. An electron's probability wave is a formalistic description of what we can in principle know about the electron.

    Plain vanilla QM as it exists in 2009 does not favor any one of these.  That lack of commitment is partly why the incompatibility with General Relativity arises.  If you've got an object made up of particles that should have mass, but whose constituent atoms have this goofy ontological status of probably existing at some given location in space, you can't calculate something's velocity.  Einsteinian mechanics do not allow you say something is probably someplace—it is someplace, dammit, and that's where we start calculating its trajectory from.

    Regardless, the relationship between QM's probabilistic equations and reality is something that M-Theory and Loop Quantum Gravity set out to explain, from a causal standpoint.  That's why they're important—they both represent deeper understandings of what "particles" are that would explain the incredible predictive power QM has.  We'll see what the Large Hadron Collider tests look like and hopefully get some decisions made between the two theories in another five or so years.

    Anyway, the reason I'm getting into all these details is because quantum mechanics looks not like some big heavyduty example of how our concepts have limits in principle, but like simply another causal question physicists haven't worked out yet, but will eventually wrap their heads around.  It won't be the last problem physicists solve, but it will probably get solved.  All this might not really matter anyway, I guess, since Coriihumidi’s discussion of an object/being that is limitless or infinite is not meant to be understood as having to do with "some science stuff", i.e., about something we might really find out there in the universe.  His whole engagement with science was something Grammaticus and I kind of pushed on him.

    Rather, the science stuff is meant merely as one example of how our concepts have limits (currently).  We see an example of how our concepts have limits because the universe has, time and again, been something whose nature we keep changing our mind about.  Even the most sophisticated scientific understanding of the universe is still circumscribed by our having to start with the data set that our senses and brains are capable of recognizing.

    To wrap up where I'm at now:

    —I agree with Coriihumidi that a limitless being is like a Private Object;

    —I agree that if a being/essent exists that transcends our concepts, we do not have access to it in principle, and thus we cannot in principle form beliefs about it (Upshot: empirical arguments like the Teapot argument cannot grapple with a limitless being);

    —I agree with Coriihumidi that there is an argument to be made that a limitless being/Private Object fits some religions' definitions of "God";

    —I think Coriihumidi may be begging the question a little bit if he just flatly asserts that the universe exceeds our concepts in principle, but I am not sure if this is something he really thinks or if it's a view I am imputing to him.

    So, unless Coriihumidi cares to object to the above, I think I'm pretty much done.

CORIIHUMIDI:  I am with you on most of this.  Just two points.

    1) The thing about quantum theory is that the probabilistic stuff isn't a problem with the theory—it is the theory.  So saying it will be solved is a way of saying that the theory will be supplanted, which it might.  But its approach might also supplant other theories.  Also, a reason that quantum theory sounds so weird is that people talk about it as if it is a description of the objective world.  My understanding is that quantum theory couches everything in the caveat of “this is how the world looks to us.”  So the perceiver is an ineliminable part of the theory.

    2) Your argument suggests that I am starting with a statement about the universe’s true nature to argue that the universe’s true nature is beyond our ability to comprehend, and that this is contradictory.  I disagree for two reasons: First, my main argument makes a statement about ourselves (not the universe) and concludes with a statement about our own limitations.  Second, I am not arguing that the universe is wholly concealed from us; I am arguing that it is not wholly open to us.  I don't see the contradiction in saying "we know X, which implies something we can't understand, so we will call it Y."  I am convinced by our conversation that giving such an example is not persuasive because it is always an open question if X does imply Y or if Y is actually beyond our concepts.

LACTISCASEIQUE:  The caveat you mention is real, and what makes M-Theory and LQG novel is that no such caveat is needed.  However, for what it's worth, the language that physicists use is not "perceiver" but "observer."  This is for a very good reason: things that cannot "perceive" have been shown to be capable of "observing" a particle—for example, a photographic plate or other experimental apparatus that humans are not even aware is operating.  What this means for our discussion here is simply that humans don't necessarily need to be involved in acts of observation for the behavior of atomic particles to still be best described by QM.  In that sense, QM is not merely how humans are somehow forced to describe particles at the very small scale; rather, quantum mechanical descriptions of particles would seem to be the inevitable conclusion of any species that investigates particle behavior mathematically.  I may be splitting hairs, but I think this is an important aspect of QM.  Namely, it's not an incidental by-product of humans; it's more like the inevitable upshot when a species uses math to describe particles.

    But I'm not sure this matters to your point.  Your point is that human beliefs about the nature of matter in the universe, i.e., rational human beliefs, have to involve certain features (like logic, perhaps certain mathematical features, etc.).  It is conceivable that there exist life-forms who do not need to deal with the universe using mathematical formalisms, and who interact with it on very small scales and presumably have minds suited to doing so.  I am thinking of some kind of life-form that has like a pre-conscious awareness of quantum states of matter and, I guess, “use” that for something.  In any case, all this leaves quite open the possibility that human rationality has a limit.  So it goes.

    In the 1950's the idea of "quantum decoherence" was developed, and it became much more popular in the 80's.  Basically it said that when you look at particles in a lab, you're not looking at them in normal situations, and that there is something about the mechanics of particles at that size that makes them, when isolated, go kind of insane and display behavior they wouldn't otherwise.  When matter and energy exist in the real world, they are constantly being bombarded with energy, jostling with other matter, etc.  "Decoherence" is the idea that the wave functions "decohere" and collapse into a well-defined state when matter is not being bottled up in a magnetic field and having all other particles excluded from the area being observed.  This means that classical mechanics emerges from quantum mechanics due to the jostling.  In a lab, under heavily artificial conditions, matter looks crazy; in the real world, it does not.

    I think just asserting that the universe is not wholly open to us (and I assume you mean in principle not wholly open to us) is precisely what I was saying is question-begging.  I am going to press this point because it is precisely what I think we cannot do: form beliefs about the nature of something that is beyond our ability to reason about it.  On what basis do you believe that the universe is not wholly open to us?  I would assume it is based on something more substantive than "Well, we make mistakes sometimes, which could be attributable to some in-principle insufficiency"—i.e., general skepticism. 

    Also, to be clear, I read and (I think) understood what you were saying about how something we know and understand can imply something we don't understand.  However, one way of stating my objection here is that when we don't understand something, we have a range of options to choose from for "what we're missing"—and one of those choices being "inability to conceptualize an answer, in principle" is not really anything new.  This option is forever going to be on the table when wondering what we're missing when we don't understand something.  That's what your thought about human thoughts necessarily involving rationality and logic means.  What I am saying is that it's impossible to rationally argue for picking that option when we're trying to figure out a problem, because it involves using logic to form beliefs about something about which beliefs cannot be formed.  I do think that the mere statement that human thoughts seem to be limited by our own rationality would establish a firm basis for the rest of everything you're saying (which I agree with).  This matters because it's a broader point not about ourselves, but about the universe that we're trying to understand. 

GRAMMATICUS:  Lactiscaseique, the physics stuff was, as always, damned interesting, but I think we have passed the point where I have any reason to engage with it as far as the God argument goes.

    Coriihumidi, I don't think my God/Dimensions distinction was just the Teapot.  I (accurately, right?) came up with an analogy about two "inconceivable things that might exist," and then made the distinction that whereas the word "dimension" exists because humans correctly proposed that there were earlier/lower dimensions (e.g., the 1st 2nd and 3rd), the word "God" exists because humans incorrectly proposed that there were earlier/lower Gods (e.g., the one in the sky who makes thunder and the one in the ground who makes earthquakes).  The crux of my argument isn't about whether a limitless essent is a private object; it is about whether to call this thing God.  Sure, you could call it God and say that the Abrahamic religions were right, but you could also call it The Force and say that George Lucas was right.  So my argument didn't reduce to "I will believe in your limitless essent when you produce some evidence," it reduced to "I will refer to it as God when you give me a reason to use that word as opposed to another."  We are falling into this cycle where if someone says anything other than "Okay, I give up, you win" they get accused of just using the Teapot.  You did it to me, and then I did it to Lactiscaseique on your behalf because I was pissed you were doing it to just me and not him when I thought I wasn't Teapotting any more than he was.

    Here is the distinction between our terrain here and the Teapot, as I think you and Lactiscaseique are making it by way of Wittgenstein or something: whereas theists say "you have a reason to believe in God" and the Teapot says "I have no reason to believe in God," Coriihumidi's position is "you have neither a reason to believe nor disbelieve in God."  Is this correct?

    Okay.  Analogize this to another situation.  Someone tells me "Coriihumidi is a murderer," and my response is "I have no reason to believe that Coriihumidi is a murderer," because there is no evidence and because Coriihumidi is a specific being that I can define.  It is the second part that makes this (your basic Teapot) unlike your God situation.

    Your God situation, then, would be like if someone tells me "Joey Joe-Joe Junior Shabbadoo is a murderer."  I have no idea who this guy is, or even whether there is such a person (although I guess I have some knowledge of his properties, because if someone is using the term "murderer" then he is probably a human being).  So my response wouldn't be "I don't believe you" (Teapot), it would be "I need you to tell me who this guy is first," and then if the response to that is "you can't ever know," then my response has to be "then I guess I can't ever know whether he is a murderer."

    So, I do understand the incompatibility of Coriihumidi's God and the Teapot.  What annoys me about this is, it just seems like shitheads finding a clever loophole in the Teapot: "As long as what I propose is incomprehensible, no-one gets to tell me I'm wrong, so ha ha ha."

    Now, in the case of Joey Joe-Joe Junior Shabbadoo, even though I don't have a reason to say he is or is not a murderer, I do definitely have a reason to walk away from the conversation and never think about his name again even for one second in my life: there is no point to thinking about it; it is gibberish; I might as well just be reciting strings of random numbers in my head.

    In the case of God, however, even though it is logically the same situation, I am compelled to consider it again and again and again, because others force me to do so by continuing to bring it up.  This is the reason for Russell's private/public agnostic/atheist distinction.  I would be free to do the most rational thing and call myself an agnostic (which would entail never thinking about this ever again) if others allowed me to be free to do so, but they do not.  The fact that I have to keep considering this, as a result of the even greater irrationality of others, forces me to call myself an atheist. 

    If we "cannot form a conception" of something, there should not even be a word for it (or, more accurately, whatever word we do use for it is inherently a word that does not actually refer to anything, or at least not to the thing to which it purports to refer).  I am happy to be an agnostic about something that there is no word for, because no-one can ever bug me about something for which there is no word.  As long as the word "God" exists, however, so will the word "atheist," which I will apply to myself.

    Coriihumidi is doing this thing where he says "Of course God means something that we can define, it means Limitless Being—and oh, btw we cannot define a limitless being."  This is like saying we know who Joey Joe-Joe Junior Shabbadoo is because he is definitionally the son of Joey Joe-Joe Senior Shabbadoo.  Now, I realize that Language Dickheads (Derrida, etc.) point out that this is actually how all language works to an extent, which occasionally even comes up in Law (striking down obscenity laws because it's impossible to define "obscene").  So it makes no less sense to say that there is such a thing as God than to say there is such a thing as a chair.  We can even apply that word to an object vis-a-vis compelling it to meet the definition ourselves, e.g., "I am using this box as a chair."  This is what I think Coriihumidi is doing: "I am using this Limitless Essent as a God."

    So what does it mean to "use" something as "a God?"  That you contemplate it in order to feel humbled and effect Freud's "oceanic feeling?"  As Coriihumidi has admitted, for some people it is their own navels, and for others it is the possibility that a limitless thing exists (which cannot be rejected because it cannot be comprehended).

    I think Lactiscaseique's attacks via physics were the wrong medicine.  I do not read Coriihumidi as ready to say, if physicists prove tomorrow that limitlessness is actually impossible, "Okay, you win, fuck it there's no God and I now call myself an atheist."  I think it is a matter for Language.  Coriihumidi has proposed a thing that cannot be comprehended/disproved, and then, more importantly, that we should call this thing "God," not for a scientific reason, but because it is morally advantageous to do so. 

    Maybe this is true.  If it is true, however, it is equally true that if in 100 years the majority religion was "Star Wars Fan," it would make just as much sense for exactly the same reasons to call this thing “The Force,” and Coriihumidi would be e-mailing us to say that we should be agnostics instead of atheists about The Force.

SW pic

PART IX:  Political Stances Allegedly Militated by the “New Atheism” / Is Religion Actually Based on Belief In God? / Does “Crazy” Even Matter?

CORIIHUMIDI:  My reason for starting this discussion was to get into it about Dawkins and his brand of atheism.  I had previously just thought Dawkins was obnoxious, but now I think he is wrong; not so much about his conclusions but about how he got there.  I also think that, while Dawkins has a more plausible and sympathetic worldview than Ted Haggard, he shares his myopic certainty.    

    What Dawkins and the new breed of aggressive atheists do is define down an important part of human culture.  Rather than actually deal with sophisticated understandings of God and the divine, Dawkins insists that the only genuine definition of god is the one used by the most simplistic religious literalists.  Dawkins uses a Man on the Cloud definition of God, and every time he is called out on it he has a little temper tantrum and orders you not to point this out again.

    I think this conversation has mirrored this (plus science trivia).  As Grammaticus concedes, "my argument reduces to ‘I will refer to [a limitless essent] as God when you give me a reason to use that word as opposed to another.’"  My reason for using a limitless being as a definition of God is that this is the understanding used by thoughtful religious people across many monotheistic religious traditions.  If you are interested in using arguments as a way to uncover the truth, then you should always consider the strongest possible form of the position you are attacking.  Otherwise it is just wisecracks and propaganda.  So I guess my argument reduces to “you have no principled reason to use the least plausible understanding of God and no authority to re-write the history of religious thought to fit your preferred argument.” 

    I think your reason is actually that the people you are really concerned with—the religious right, intelligent-design promoters, etc.—do have an unsophisticated understanding of God.  So why don't you just fucking say that?  

    This “public atheist, private agnostic” stuff just expresses contempt for your audience, as if they can't make a distinction between Pat Robertson and the Archbishop of Canterbury.  The fact that you and Russell admit that being an atheist (even an atheist about your impoverished conception of God) makes no sense only amplifies the problem.  In effect your position is that you prefer to call yourself something stupid because nearly everyone is so stupid that they will be more impressed with the stupid position you claim to have than the plausible position you actually have.

    Aside from its total bad faith, this strategy is an utter failure.  The majority opinion (i.e., that held by religious moderates and the religiously uninterested) is that the fundamentalists and the new atheists are mirror images of each other and neither has an appealing world view.  Majority opinion is actually pretty easy on the atheist.  Fundamentalists at least have a coherent story on how they know what they claim to know: they have a mental faculty, faith, which allows them to perceive religious truths directly.  It is not plausible, but it is coherent.  Atheism, on the other hand, is just incoherent and unsupported.

    The heart of Dawkins’s anti-religious campaign is he thinks that religion (though it is really only fundamentalism) creates bad habits of mind: it trains people to believe things without firm evidence.  However, Dawkins exhibits an equally pernicious mode of thinking: rather than taking a topic seriously, he is happy to draw firm conclusions based on cartoon understandings. 

    Here is an example of why this is bad.  When Dawkins and/or Christopher Hitchens discusses terrorism, they say the way to understand terrorists is to take what they say seriously—i.e., that they are motivated by their literal understanding of the Koran.  Thus, when dealing with terrorism you should understand yourself to be dealing with people who are unreachable by reason and are motivated by weird legends and myths.  So they are shoulder to shoulder with Bush and Cheney on this one.  I don't think that Dawkins has thought much about the proper approach to terrorism, but Hitchens’s atheism has led him to be a neoconservative nutjob.

    A better approach is to consider the culture and history of the situations that gave rise to terrorism rather than jumping to the easy answers.  Bush (maybe) got to the easy answers via religious fundamentalism and Hitchens got there via atheism.  For all its faults, non-fundamentalist religion teaches people that they actually don't know most things and should proceed in the world with caution and humility.

PECUNIAECITRO:  Your saying that Grammaticus and Dawkins like to fight strawmen seems fair to me (Grammaticus calling theists “crazy” when he knows they aren’t, for example), but I thought Dawkins was fairly to the left on foreign policy, and that he opposed the Iraq War back in 2002-3.  I really don’t think he is shoulder-to-shoulder with Bush/Cheney.  And I strongly disagree with the idea that Hitchens is representative of anyone besides himself (maybe some conservatives who are atheists and just like bombing the savages, I guess—and is atheism at the heart of Hitchens's political worldview anyway?).  If you want more anti-Islamic atheists, I think a better example is Sam Harris.  I would bet there are a lot of people who are unwilling to bomb Muslims overseas (so not Hitchens), but who agree with Harris's preemptive defensiveness on social issues domestically, particularly in Europe.  I expect most atheists/agnostics fall into that second category but not the first.

CORIIHUMIDI:  Re the link between atheism and hawkishness, I sort of overstated but mainly underdeveloped my point.  Dawkins, Hitchens, and Harris all discuss religion as if it is a mental disease.  They claim that faith in God forces one to act based on irrational beliefs and harms one's ability to form rational beliefs.  Furthermore, they contend that anything bad that has happened in human history that has any religious dimension was wholly inspired and caused by religious influence.  The example of Dawkins blaming religion for the Taliban destroying Buddhist monuments, but failing to credit religion for inspiring their creation, is a good example. 

    Therefore, Isreal/Palestine, jihadist terrorism, and the Spanish Inquisition are all caused or at least abetted by religious thought.  If you believe that any conflict with any religious aspect is caused by a mental disease, then you will not inquire into root economic or political causes of a problem—that would be like trying to understand the grievances of a schizophrenic.

    Dawkins stops there and does not ask what is to be done if these fanatics attack us.  However, Sam Harris and Hitchens (whom Dawkins cites approvingly on all other matters) give the only answer their ideology would allow: you hit them back harder and faster so that they are afraid of you.  This "they only respect strength" mentality is militated by their hard atheism and has been a manifest disaster.

    Dawkins may well have been against the Iraq war, but that has a lot to do with him not considering the policy implications of his beliefs.  Another example is his insistence that bringing up children in a religious tradition is child abuse, and in many cases is worse for them than sexual molestation.  Thus, society has a responsibility to protect children from religious indoctrination.  He doesn't recommend any way to do so, but I defy anyone to come up with a policy that doesn't come out like the Khmer Rouge. 

    Another example is his attack on multiculturalism.  In Dawkins’s mind this is just a condescending aesthetic belief that the world is more interesting if we have different people with different cultures in it.  Dawkins argues that this toleration condemns the children in these cultures to a life of backwardness and various forms of ritualistic abuse.  The assumption underlying this attack is that Dawkins—armed with the wisdom of the eminences of the Fellows of the Royal Academy—knows what is best for the benighted children of the Muslim, African and Asian worlds.  In other words, why tolerate difference when we know what is right?  What he fails to see is that multiculturalism is an essentially conservative position that says since no-one has a monopoly on the truth, we shouldn't try to disturb cultural traditions that have evolved over centuries in favor of our own preferences.  Instead, his position is the White Man’s Burden framed in language that appeals to baby boomers.  

    My broader point is that the new atheism has its own bad habits of mind that are every bit as pernicious as those you get from religion.  Dawkins and company are too easily satisfied with strawman understandings of things with which they disagree, and they are far too certain in the virtue of their own beliefs.  This is not only unfair to religious people, but also results in manifestly bad policy decisions when put into practice.   

    Lactiscaseique specifically asked that I comment on the benefit of religion in human society.  This is a hard question because the history of human society is inextricably bound to religion (the notion of equal rights under the law is the descendant of the golden rule, etc.).  I would instead like to make this conceptual point about the relationship between God and religion.  The new atheists treat religion as if it is the result of a false proposition (God exists).  This is pretty clearly not true.  Religion is a universal human impulse, like sexual attraction.  Like lust, it is not rationally derived from various statements of fact, but is just fundamentally part of the human condition.

    I would say that the core of religious institutions is the religious community and the ethical message of those religions.  For example, in their contemporary iteration, nearly every Abrahamic religion is subdivided into various sects organized by how literally they take their dogmas, ranging from completely literally to completely figuratively.  What these various sects agree on is the core ethical teachings of their religion.  The golden rule is central to both the Pentecostals and Unitarians.  So attacking religion by attacking belief in God is another form of cherrypicking.  

GRAMMATICUS:  A lot was said about the (my?) "New Atheism," but my response is brief.  First of all, I don't know how "new" it is.  The positions of Dawkins and Hitchens seem identical to that of, say, Voltaire, but Voltaire was not in a position where he could afford to be as openly flippant.

    My main criticism of your criticism is this: you say Dawkins et al are being unjustifiably militant about dismissing the proposition "God exists."  But all the people they criticize aren't merely saying "God exists"—they are saying "God exists and wants XYZ," or some version of "God exists and because of this I know what we should do and here it is" (which Coriihumidi opened by conceding is bullshit).  It is flatly not the case that only fundamentalists or literalists do this.  You say that Dawkins fails to "distinguish between Pat Robertson and the Archbishop of Canterbury," but in terms of their relation to the heart of the matter, why should he?  Both of them think that the Bible is true and that people should do what it says—the fact that Robertson pays more attention to Leviticus and the Archbishop pays more attention to the Sermon on the Mount is immaterial.  That just means that one of them is a mean crazy guy and the other is a nice crazy guy.  Even if Person A thinks that the correct response to homosexuality is to beat gay people up in the street, and Person B thinks that the correct response is to pray that God will show gay people the light and make them not be gay anymore, it is still the case that both Person A and Person B think there is something wrong with being gay because a magic book says so.

    As for "multiculturalism," Dawkins is not saying kids need to be protected from wearing a red dot on their forehead—he is saying kids need to be protected from female genital mutilation and having their arms chopped off after being vaccinated.  In terms of those examples, if thinking that the scientific secularists of the First World are in sole possession of the truth makes me a racist, then I guess I'm a racist, but I don’t think it does.  If I can think that a sick kid should be saved from his or her loony faith-healing parents when the family in question is Caucasian, then why can't I think the same thing when the family is not Caucasian?

    As for how this protection gets enforced (within America/Europe), there is no reason it logically has to "end up like the Khmer Rouge."  Re extreme matters like life-threatening faith healing, the courts are waking up to that shit as we speak, and re religious indoctrination itself, just analogize "religious indoctrination" with "racist indoctrination" and look at how we as a society have dealt with that.  Not so long ago, a majority of the (white) kids in the US grew up being told racist things.  Now that number is much smaller, and in fact lots of kids grow up being told anti-racist things.  Did the government have to take racists' kids away from them or round up racists and kill them to effect this sea change?  No.  In fact, we managed to do it without even having to step on the Free Speech rights of the KKK.  The way we did this is, the media elite made a point of making fun of racists.  We equated racism with being a backwoods retard, and gradually it became less fashionable/acceptable to be racist, and this had an effect on education, the laws, etc.  Now, we are attempting to do the exact same thing with religion, and it appears to be slowly working, so why is there any reason to believe we will one day just suddenly say Fuck it and start putting people in camps?  And I am not just speaking for myself here: go on atheist websites, and the standard response to the accusation "are you planning to make religion illegal and take religious people's kids away?" is "No, we are planning to use our Free Speech to make fun of them until religion is socially frowned upon."  I.e., the solution is not for the government to do something, it is for citizens/artists to get active.  Most atheists would be firmly against the government getting involved (there's a huge overlap between atheism and libertarianism, at least in the U.S.).

    Anyway, my main criticism of your criticism (that my public-atheist/private-agnostic distinction is stupid and based on thinking poorly of people) is that no-one, even the most moderate religious people, is saying "God possibly exists but we can't know anything more so it makes no difference."  They are saying some version, however humble, of "God might exist so obviously that means we should do/believe XYZ."  At least, no-one that Dawkins/Hitchens/Harris cares to argue with is only saying the first thing.  As for the accusation that I am the one who thinks poorly of people here, I must object that it is actually you who do.  I am the one who is saying "People can handle the news that religion is a bunch of bullshit," and you are saying "No they can't, they need it, don't let the cat out of the bag."

    Coriihumidi, you have already admitted that desires/preferences are a function of a brain, and that your God does not have these.  Your way around the objections that logically stem from this was to say "God might exist, and might be responsible for the universe, and morality is a thing that exists in that universe, so therefore it makes sense to connect theories about morality to the possibility of God."  But everything that exists is a feature of existence, so you could just as easily say bumper cars are part of God's universe, so let's go ride bumper cars every Sunday.  As far as I can tell, your defense for all of this is "It makes no less sense than anything else, and it is what people feel like doing, and contrary to what Dawkins says they are not necessarily hurting anyone, so just leave them alone."  This is not a very persuasive argument that they are right and I am wrong.  If instead of saying I am an atheist, I instead said only that fundamentalists "have an unsophisticated understanding of god," that would just sound like I believe in God but disagree with the fundies about what god wants—i.e., like I am making a counterargument that is equally faith-based but just nicer.

    Saying that something is a natural function of the human psyche does not make it good.  To bring things back to race, I think it is pretty clear that (although racist assertions are empirically false) racism is a natural function of the human psyche.  Being racist is what human beings in a state of nature very strongly want to do, and we need to be taught not to do this, and steering people away from it is a huge pain.  But racism is still wrong, in both the sense of "not true" and the sense of "morally inadvisable."  Sure you can use religion for good ("a Christian shouldn't behave that way"), but you could theoretically also use racism for good ("a white person shouldn't behave that way").  But you wouldn't buy that excuse for racism, so why buy it for religion?

PECUNIAECITRO:  Being irrational is not the same thing as being "crazy."  Do you really think Gandhi and MLK were merely “nice crazy guys?”  I don't believe I've ever met an atheist who thought that way.  I don't even believe that you believe it.  But it's clear that it's not helpful for you to keep using these terms.  Mockery of religion is fine, but dishonesty is not helpful.  The burden isn't on the theists to prove you wrong; the burden is on you to demonstrate why going after theists so hostilely is helpful to society or productive or beneficial to your cause.  You are certainly right that even liberal churches see the Bible as prescriptive—the question is why you feel so threatened by that.

    I think the best case for the New Atheism is that with this cadre of assholes raising awareness for the cause, it provides room for mainstream theistic American society to become more accepting of more moderate atheists who distance themselves from the asshole atheists, like how the freaks in the gay-pride parades make Ellen Degeneres look more palatable by comparison.

BARBAPECTINICULI:  I think someone can be crazy and still be a good person.

GRAMMATICUS:  What I know about Gandhi and King's beliefs is that they thought racism was bad and nonviolence was good, and I agree with them about those two things.  I have no information about their beliefs on other matters.  So if they, say, believed that gay dudes could stop being gay dudes by praying a lot and that God wanted gay dudes to do this, then in fact yes I do believe they were nice crazy guys.

    I am a huge Prince fan, and Prince doesn't believe in bloodwork or dinosaurs.

    Prince = simultaneously awesome and batshit insane.


LACTISCASEIQUE:  I don't know who, specifically, Dawkins attacks.  My sense is, "every religious person," theoretically.  That said, Grammaticus, I am seriously starting to wonder if you're being deliberately obtuse on this just to spite me and Coriihumidi, because you seem unable to understand that religious people may think things about the world, and think we should do certain things, for reasons other than those provided by their holy texts.  You are once again obviously choosing to attack only fundamentalists and literalists, the weakest possible definition of religion.

    The point of not being a literalist is that you are disconnecting the reason for thinking or doing something from the truth of some proposition in a religious text or from the divine authority of a cleric.  The text/cleric's views are meant merely as an interpretive aid that vividly illustrates some facet of human life that is the case independently of whether the text/cleric's story is true or not.  This is why al Qaeda's brand of Sunni Islam is regarded as a monstrous aberration by Sunnism at large—they interpret the Koran in a way that highlights only the most violent responses to problems.

    A much more thoughtful and credible religious viewpoint is: "God exists.  I don't know much (if anything) about it, but upon thinking about this, I feel inspired to think that X, Y, and Z are what we should do."  Or, "God exists.  Independently of God's existence, X, Y, and Z are what we should do because doing so is moral."

    The latter is basically the argument that Plato lays out in the Euthyphro.  Plato/Socrates dealt much more effectively with religious zealots than Dawkins does.  They pointed out that our understandings of morality involve good and bad being independent of piety/religiosity.  Good and bad is something we can come to our own conclusions about regardless of whether God approves of it or not.  They admit that it's logically possible that the true nature of the Gods is that they are cruel and really do have specific preferences for our behavior ("Kill the Thebans," "Be nice to this old man," etc.)  But even if it's the case that the Gods are cruel, it is still the case that for us humans, it's morally right to be generous, kind, forgiving, etc.

    Viewed that way, there are many religious people who can think the stuff that supposedly happened in the Bible is not literally true, but are nice stories that illustrate points about human nature and human life.  Many, many religious people in the West hold precisely this view. 

    Now, they may also hold the view that Jesus literally was resurrected.  I am not saying that the majority of religious people’s beliefs are coherent—they aren't.  And that is a bona fide problem for them.  But you are saying that the majority of religious people have given no thought at all to the question of whether Jesus's resurrection was an actual fact or a figurative notion that illustrates how one can feel newly alive—"reborn" or "resurrected"—after discovering the virtues of being a nice guy versus being a mean and selfish guy.  That is just wrong.  As imperfect and incoherent as the reasoning of most religious people in the West may be, the vast majority of them have at least given some thought to this and many of them do not take the Bible as literal truth.  And that is why you are attacking a straw man.  You can object for the 500th time that Dawkins is not addressing these people—fine.  But in that case the scope of Dawkins's book is small and consists mostly of bluster and grandiose claims with little connection to actual religious faith in the West.  He is addressing a minority view.

    I will take no official position on whether Dawkins is full of shit re multiculturalism, but regardless of what Dawkins says about it, I do have positions, because this has caused me some cognitive dissonance before.  Basically I think that respecting the personal and cultural autonomy of other cultures is more morally important than the "sin of omission"—e.g., letting people die of preventable diseases.  I think we have a moral obligation to present them with the facts as best we understand them.  However, the moral obligation to let them make their own decisions about what to do with the facts is more important than getting them to do what I think is right.  That is because acting morally is not as simple as just achieving some result: it is partly about the means by which you achieve the result.

    This sounds abstract, but it has far-reaching ethical and political implications.  This is basically my argument for why the invasion of Iraq was morally wrong.  Saddam was a brutal fascist; a prime candidate for removal if anyone is.  Kim Jong-Il is another.  But while I think we had/have a moral obligation to promote democracy around the world, we have an overriding moral obligation to not just topple the governments of undemocratic regimes, because setting up stable democratic governments is a process and how you get there matters.

    The religious analogy in the Christian faith here comes from the way God doesn't intervene in our daily moral decisions because those decisions cease to have moral meaning and moral import if we are just robots executing his will.  This is a very mainstream Christian belief, and I think it underlies a lot of the uneasiness Americans have with how we prosecuted the war in Iraq.  Mainstream Christians realized, in retrospect, that the moral reasoning we applied was faulty and we forgot for a minute that Iraq getting to determine its own future matters as much, if not more, than just achieving some desired arrangement of the government by whatever means necessary.  If the country disintegrates into civil war when our combat brigades withdraw, mark my words that we will soon hear the virtues of self-determination extolled loudly.

    Re Coriihumidi’s “I defy anyone to come up with a policy that doesn't come out like the Khmer Rouge,” I am not sure whether this is going too far or not, and maybe you can clarify: if you mean the government getting into the business of policing thoughtcrime with secularism being the only acceptable belief system, clearly that is awful and fascist.  We already pretty much keep prayer and religion out of school curricula; if the government is going to actively monitor kids to see whether they've been religiously indoctrinated, the only way to do it is with a surveillance society infiltrating every home and bans on religious organizations.  That is 1984 if anything is.  (Weren't there even references in the book to religious types being rounded up because they didn't absolutely and only love Big Brother?  There's a nicely secular society.)

    However, several European nations, most notably France, are already banning hijabs and burqas, and even making the wearing of them punishable by a small fine.  Personally I think France is making a big deal out of nothing much with this, but at least it serves as an example of how they've banned an activity based in a cultural and religious tradition and not started mass murdering people who defy the law.

    The general idea is to simply say that religious activities—and not beliefsmay be made illegal.  Whether the banning of any particular specific activities is legally permissible or not is a different question that will probably be different based on the legal traditions of different countries.  At least in France, the hijab ban is legal.  In any case, keeping the focus on actions and not beliefs keeps the state out of the business of policing thoughtcrime.  The French's thinking goes, "We don't care what your beliefs are, and you can act however you like in private, but in public, citizens of the Republic shall act in accordance with principles of secularism (laïcité)."  My sense is that this is sort of equivalent to the way the United States tolerates U.S. citizens who advocate violent overthrow of the U.S. government, but won't charge them with a crime until they act on their beliefs by conspiring to commit a crime.  The French just place a higher priority on secularism, and in fact enshrine it as a civic virtue, whereas the U.S. does not.

    Outside these considerations, I think Grammaticus has a nice point about how making fun of religious people can be a potent cultural tool to advance a secular agenda.  It's not "hard" power as wielded by the state; it's "soft" power that uses rhetoric and wit instead.  That seems fine to me.  But when Grammaticus says “And as for the accusation that I am the one who thinks poorly of people here, I must object that it is actually you who do.  I am the one who is saying ‘People can handle the news that religion is a bunch of bullshit,’ and you are saying ‘no they can't, they need it, don't let the cat out of the bag,’” this defensiveness is so bizarrely incoherent that I think I must be missing something.  The premise of like, all of 1585, and maybe Dawkins's book too, is that religious people are too lazy or too bad at reasoning (aka “stupid”) to understand that there is no reason to believe in God and that religion is bullshit, and if they'd just correct their bad reasoning or get smarter they'd get with the program.  This is pretty darn high on the condescension scale.  But on top of that, you're misinterpreting what Coriihumidi is even saying.  He's not saying we need to protect the stupid religious people from a big scary secular truth because they can't handle it; he's merely saying that Dawkins's and your arguments that religion is bullshit are not nearly as comprehensive and persuasive as Dawkins/you think they are.  He's mostly arguing negatively against Dawkins, not pro-religion.  Perhaps Coriihumidi can correct me if I am misinterpreting him here.

PECUNIAECITRO:  For the purposes of this discussion, MLK and Gandhi believed  a) there is a God, and  b) He wanted them to correct injustice in the world.  Both of them prayed to Him for guidance and strength.  I don't believe you when you claim this is new information to you.  Frankly, your claiming otherwise is bizarre.  I also don't believe you mean it when you say that this makes them "crazy."  Why are you relying on dishonesty and irrelevancies about gay conversion and Prince (an actual crazy person) to make your points?

    If your goal is to make it more acceptable for politicians and public figures to say they're atheists/agnostics, then I'm with you.  But I really think you should tell us why you're so upset by run of the mill theists who  a) believe there's a God,  b) think he wants us to do good works, and who  c) sometimes pray for consolation or guidance.  That's a fair, non-strawman description of the average believer I've known, and I really don't get your animosity.

    I think your true belief is that these average believers are non-crazy people participating in a part of our culture that you think is pointless and incomprehensible.  But there are lots of cultural traditions like that.  Why is calling these people crazy helpful to your cause, or at a minimum, even an honest representation of your views, rather than just you being an asshole?

PART X:  Why Bother Self-Applying the Term “Atheist?”

GRAMMATICUS:  As far as strawmen go, what I have to work with is what religious people claim to believe with their own mouths.  According to multiple polls, a clear majority of Americans believe in the Genesis creation account as opposed to evolution, and believe that Noah's Ark happened literally.  I am sure many of them are lying (and devoted an entire essay to the possibility that they are lying), but since any attempt at pinning down what percentage of them are bullshitting would be pure speculation, I have to go on what they themselves identify as their beliefs.  So "acting as if" most religious people in this country believe in Noah's Ark is not a strawman, because they themselves say that they do.

    "A much more thoughtful and credible religious viewpoint is, ‘God exists.  I don't know much (if anything) about it, but on thinking about this, I feel inspired to think that X, Y, and Z are what we should do.’  Or, ‘God exists.  Independently of God's existence, X, Y, and Z are what we should do because doing so is moral.’"

    Okay, but you could just as easily say "God exists, and also I am in the mood for Mexican food."  If the two things are unconnected, why bother acting like they are connected?

    Here is a better explanation of why I self-apply the term "atheist" as opposed to "agnostic:" if someone asks me whether I believe in God and the person I am talking to is not that bright and/or I have to give a short answer, then "atheist" does a better job of accurately indicating my beliefs to this person.  Partly, this is because we usually use the term "God" in this society not to mean any possible deity, but specifically the Judeo-Christian deity.  So if I say I am an agnostic (no information is possible) about "God" they will think I am an agnostic about Jehovah, and I am no more an agnostic about Jehovah than I am an agnostic about Zeus or Odin.  I could ask "do you mean the Judeo-Christian Jehovah or just anything that could possibly be referred to as God?" but odds are they will say I am showing off or fucking with them.  So reason one is that asking follow-up questions about how they are defining the term God in their question will very likely be pointless.

    And even if I make this distinction and say Jehovah is bullshit but I am an agnostic about something or other that you can call God if you want, they will likely assume that I am also agnostic about, say, an afterlife or the efficacy of prayer (for non-placebo reasons), when I disbelieve firmly in those things.  So reason two is that using the term agnostic will likely cause incorrect assumptions to be made about my other beliefs.

    From now on, if the person I am talking to is smart enough and I have the time, I will be happy to work up to the following statement: 

"It has been suggested to me that the term "God" could justifiably be used to refer to a limitless thing, and that science has no better reason to assume that a limitless thing does not exist than that it does, and that the human psyche is so constructed that contemplation of, or meditation upon, the concept of limitlessness has a statistically significant correlation with increased motivation for right action in the subject.  I would not be inclined to refer to such a thing as "God" myself, but if others choose to, then I have no more leverage to suggest they desist than I would if they decided to refer to a newly discovered ape species as Bigfoot.  Therefore, I am logically obligated to refer to myself as an agnostic in reference to a God so defined, but to no other, and in reference to no properties beyond its mere existence.  I remain firmly a disbeliever in the propositions of its having either agency or consciousness, of its having played a role in the appearance of human beings specifically or life at all, and of any suggestions that human beings survive biological death in any possible sense, all to at least the same extent that I am a disbeliever in astrology or clairvoyance."

    It will take me a while to memorize this, but if this is logically what I have to do then I will abide by the dictates of logic and do it.

    Why am I so miserable about having to do it?  Because, as you perfectly well know, it will cause shitheads to claim victory and start dancing around going Ha ha you just admitted God could be true.  Admittedly, by my own prescriptions, this is an insufficient reason to fudge the results of a logical/scientific inquiry (e.g., a Feminist may not lie about brain differences between the genders just because sexists would gloat; she has to admit the truth and then fight with them about what conclusions to draw).

    Furthermore, I suspect that you are all just fucking with me.  I.e., I suspect that one day about a month ago Coriihumidi e-mailed everyone but me and said "Watch this, I bet I can make Grammaticus stop saying that he is an atheist," and that by conceding the above I am opening the floodgates to a wave of mockery that will eventually escalate into my not being friends with any of you anymore.  But unfortunately, once again by my own prescriptions, this is also insufficient reason not to concede a point (e.g., If I am talking to a fat woman about how being fat is bad for you, I may primarily be motivated simply by a desire to make her feel bad because she disgusts me, and only secondarily motivated by concern about her health, but even if I come right out and admit this, it is still logically insufficient reason for her to deny that being fat is bad for you).

    My recourse at this point is to hope that eventually I can find a credible physics source that says limitlessness is in fact impossible.  If I do this, I guess Coriihumidi will just come up with another definition of God, since he apparently can just keep doing this into perpetuity as long as he can find a few people willing to define God that way (which he will always be able to find, since there is no shortage of people willing to define God any way they have to in order to be able to say it might exist).  This does not seem fair, but I cannot prove it is not fair, so the fault is on me.

LACTISCASEIQUE:  Paranoid speculation about what we are trying to influence you to admit or change your mind about is just that.  All I am interested in is getting to the bottom of these issues, and Dawkins's viewpoint on them sounds kind of asinine.

    I will say, though, that I don't understand why you feel the need to obscure your own actual beliefs in order to feel like you win arguments with people you know are shitheads whose opinions you don't respect.  You could basically just do what I do and say that religion as far as you can tell is a pretty complex, important thing and in order to answer their question accurately, you want to make sure you're understanding them, so can they just be painfully clear what they mean by God and what is a method by which you might learn of its existence?  How they choose to respond to that is up to them.  You just assert that asking questions like this is pointless, but that's going to vary by the person you're talking to, and how you ask them.  Then you can (if you want) laugh at them when they can't, or say they're too lazy or not willing to help you understand when they won't.  Asking them to define what they mean also brings out how really muddled this issue is.

    My point about religious people often having incoherent beliefs is meant to address their attestations that they believe in Angels, Genesis, etc.  These same people are often the ones that, when pressed, will say they also believe the Bible does not provide literal truths about the world.  These are not compatible beliefs, but I have met lots of people who have just never been challenged to think through their beliefs coherently.  This includes most of the Christians I have met in my life.  What bothers me about these people is not that they're "crazy" or "unethical" or something, but merely that they are not very thoughtful and say stuff that is dumb when you take it seriously.  In the worst instances, you have hypocrites and people who really are in bad faith, but those people are in the minority.  Never ascribe to malice what can more easily be ascribed to thoughtlessness.

    This is different from just taking the least plausible thing they say at face value as the only thing they think, which is classic strawman argumentation (which is what Dawkins does and I think what you often do).  It's also different from saying they are lying and/or in bad faith (which you are avowedly doing and Dawkins also is doing).

    “Okay, but you could just as easily say ‘God exists, and also I am in the mood for Mexican food.’  If the two things are unconnected, why bother acting like they are connected?”

    Because the connection between God's supposed existence/preferences and the ethical propositions of a religion need not be rationally connected; they're metaphorically connected.  The things that seem like propositions in the Koran or something aren't normally a reason someone believes something, they are just a post hoc metaphor meant to encapsulate or be poetical about something that is true anyway.  Whether Muhammad meant for his teachings to be read that way does not matter.  That is how people read it and think about it now, and those are the people we're responding to.  You can find this in the deep wilds of the Wikipedia article: "The Qur'an itself expresses that it is the book of guidance. Therefore it rarely offers detailed accounts of historical events; the text instead typically placing emphasis on the moral significance of an event rather than its narrative sequence."

PECUNIAECITRO:  Grammaticus, I challenge you to apply your theism/sanity test and rank the following in order of sanity:

        -bin Laden


CORIIHUMIDI:  So my tactic in the last e-mail was to stop defending the various weak points in my theological position and go after Dawkins’s much weaker position.  This was all too successful because I guess Grammaticus feels like we can't be friends anymore if we continue. So I will tone down the invective.

    As I see it, on the topic of the existence of God, we basically all agree on the facts but we have different takes on them.  We all seem to agree that the literal truth of the Bible is as implausible as the literal truth of The Hobbit.  We agree that it is at least likely unknowable whether there is a limitless being.  And we agree that a limitless being is at least a mainstream understanding of what God is.  So therefore we also agree that atheism is actually an unsupportable position.  What we disagree on is how interesting or significant the possibility of a limitless being is.  I think that the major disagreements we have now are centered on whether religion should have a place in modern society.

GRAMMATICUS:  Pecuniaecitro, people who lived a long time ago don't count.  E.g., Socrates did not believe in dinosaurs, because he lived before dinosaurs were discovered, but he was not crazy, although someone who doesn't believe in dinosaurs today is crazy.  Also, is the inclusion of Hitler supposed to mean he was an atheist?  He wasn't; he was Catholic.  The only atheist you have on there is Mao, although I am inclined to argue that Communism of the Mao/Stalin variety is in fact a religion (the same way I argue that Academic Feminism is a religion—i.e., it mandates belief in empirically disprovable things on pain of excommunication).  And Milton was less religious than people assume; in his personal life he actually didn't think there was such a thing as Satan or Hell. 

    As for Lactiscaseique’s "I don't understand why you feel the need to obscure your own actual beliefs in order to feel like you win arguments with people you know are shitheads whose opinions you don't respect."  Think about it for a second, and you will see that lots of people do this all the time.  E.g., you might admit to your friends that you think rap music is a bad influence, but wouldn't admit this if you were talking to a Klansman.  You might have been disgusted with Bill Clinton's sexual mores, but would say it wasn't a big deal if you were talking to Rush Limbaugh, etc.
    I would love to live in a society where I could answer the question "do you believe in God" with the request "define God."  It makes for a fun discussion, and causes people to think more without feeling like I am out to get them.  This is the way I taught students to respond to the question back when I was teaching (not that they had to, but to illustrate how we sometimes all use the same word for something without stopping to consider that everyone in the room may define the term a different way).  Unfortunately, if I respond with anything other than "No, I don't believe in God," a religious person will think that I am on his side, and I don't want him to think that I am on his side, because I am not. 

    The problem I now have with my own inclination to think about it this way, as I pointed out in my last e-mail, is that it feels no different from a P.C. person fudging the fine print of a complex issue to keep everyone in line (e.g., Academic Feminism being rigid/censorious about brain differences).  This is something I will need to work out for myself.

    "We agree that it is at least likely unknowable whether there is a limitless being.  And we agree that a limitless being is at least a mainstream understanding of what God is.  So therefore we also agree that atheism is actually an unsupportable position."

    There is a huge leap in there.  If I concede that a "limitless thing" is a "mainstream understanding of God," that doesn't mean I think it is also a justifiable one.  Atheism is still supportable if the credo "I don't believe in God" is amended to "I do not believe that anything that exists constitutes a God."  And I didn't say we couldn't be friends if you kept arguing—I said we couldn't be friends if the point of this whole thing was to play a prank on me, i.e., you trick me into saying the secret word and then embark on a campaign of introducing me to people as a Christian for the rest of our lives.

CORIIHUMIDI:  That is not what atheism means; it is what you wish it to mean to avoid my arguments.  Atheism is universally understood to be the belief that God does not exist.  Saying "I don't believe in God" is much weaker, and it includes agnostics of all stripes because if you refrain from forming a belief about God then you obviously don't believe in God.

    The imagined confrontations you have with dancing/gloating "shitheads" are easily avoided.  A big chunk of my family are fundamentalist Christians and another big chunk are serious Catholics.  I also interact with other Orthodox Christian types.  When I am asked if I believe in God, I say "Whatever God there is, I think its nature is so far beyond me that I can't understand it."  Like clockwork, they say that if I let God in he will make himself known to me.  To which I respond something like "I hope so" or, if I am feeling more combative, "It hasn't happened for me yet."  These conversations nearly always end harmoniously, and with them at least understanding that I have given the mater some thought.  

    True, this is a little more effort than saying "atheist."  But if you stick a corn cob up a pig’s ass 50 times you might get it to make a sound that sounds like “atheist” also—but that doesn't mean the pig is being more clear.  And here is the real problem: if you actually get into these conversations, you will come across people who are smarter than you think they are.  If you just say that you are an atheist, they will think to themselves "this guy's position makes no sense; he either hasn't thought about it or he is a moron."

    And if you actually were an atheist, he would be right, and his belief in god would be far more rational than your certitude of God's non-existence.  He thinks he knows God because he has perceived it directly via faith.  All you can say about that is that you don't believe in it because it doesn't happen for you (which is also what I believe).  But a blind man doesn't understand vision, and that doesn't mean that we can't see.  So if you would just be honest about your beliefs people would by and large respect you for them, and fewer people would leave conversations with you thinking that you are dumber than you actually are.   

    “I have to go on what they themselves identify as their beliefs.  So "acting as if" most religious people in this country believe in Noah's Ark is not a strawman, because they themselves say that they do.”

    You bring this up a lot, but we all know that this survey is wrong.  Only 40% of American adults report going to church most weekends—and you know lots of people felt like they should be going to church each weekend but aren't so they lied to the pollster.  If a "clear majority" think that Noah's Ark is true then that means that a third of the country believes this but doesn't bother to attend church.  That is just not plausible. 

    I live in a fairly conservative place.  There are at least four fundamentalist megachurches in the area that I can think of.  Still, the fundies are a tiny minority out here.  I am sure that the vast majority around here don't believe in the literal truth of Noah's Ark, but would also be cagey about talking about this.  There is a reason that it is considered rude to grill people on their religious beliefs.

LACTISCASEIQUE:  I submit that one of the biggest reasons it is rude is that it exposes inconsistencies, and that makes people feel cognitive dissonance, and sometimes feel dumb.  That is why I think it is unfair to most religious people to cherrypick the least plausible thing they think as the definitive religious position.

GRAMMATICUS:  See, this is exactly the sort of thing I am concerned about.  Coriihumidi, you are an extraordinarily smart person who is trying to be logical and err on the side of caution, and even you have not been able to stop yourself from taking a mile once you have been given an inch.

    Somehow, we just went from "I admit I have no reason to say it is more unlikely than likely that a thing without limits exists in another dimension," to:

    "All you can say about that is that you don't believe in it because it doesn't happen for you (which is also what I believe).  But a blind man doesn't understand vision, but that doesn't mean that we can't see."

    …I.e., a politic admission about the limits of logic re this issue led directly and instantly to the assertion that religious people have full use of their faculties whereas I am retarded.  Fuck you in the ear.  Every concession that I (and for that matter Lactiscaseique) have made in all 100+ e-mails on this subject has been made under the assurances that we were discussing only a version of God so limited that it is exempt from the Teapot.  But the paragraph quoted above could just as easily be applied to psychics.  That is not what I call "exempt from the Teapot."

    "Like clockwork, they say that if I let God in he will make himself known to me.  To which I respond something like, ‘I hope so’ or, if I am feeling more combative, ‘It hasn’t happened for me yet.’   These conversations nearly always end harmoniously." 

    Here is what do you not get about this: I realize I can fucking avoid fights by allowing myself to be categorized in an inferior position to these people, but I don't fucking want to allow myself to be placed in an inferior position to these people.  I do not see how logic dictates that instead of saying prayer is bullshit I have to say that I believe prayer works but I am such a retard that I just suck at it.  Blow me.  What you just told me to do is as offensive as telling a Jewish guy that he can avoid awkward conversations by changing his name and getting a nose job so no-one knows he is Jewish.

CORIIHUMIDI:  Grammaticus, chill out.  That was not my point at all.  My point is that atheism makes no sense by its own terms, but orthodox religion does.  I think the atheist’s terms are the correct ones, but that is obscured by the illogical leaps atheism makes.  By comparison, fundamentalism ends up looking more plausible than it actually is.  I am making a point about your tactics, not your beliefs.

    Keep in mind that this is all in the context of you asserting that everyone is too stupid to understand simple conceptual distinctions.  What I am trying to do is to suggest that the illogical leaps made by your "public" position undercut your whole project as soon as you talk to an intelligent person.

    Let’s be clear on the three positions:

    1) Theist: "God exists, and I know this because I perceive it directly through faith." [I don't believe that faith gives one propositional knowledge, but this makes sense.  I also observe that my own lack of faith is not an argument against this possibility, i.e. "a blind man doesn't understand vision, but that doesn't mean that we can't see."]

    2) Atheist: "I know that God does not exist because...?"  [This position that claims to be supported by reason alone is rationally irresponsible.]

    3) Agnostic:  "I don't know whether God exists."  [This is seems to me to be the most rational belief.]

    You keep talking about wanting to avoid being put in an inferior position.  The way you put yourself in an inferior position is by publicly espousing a belief that is way weaker than both your actual belief and the beliefs that you are so concerned with arguing against.  

GRAMMATICUS:  Most atheist resources these days distinguish between "strong atheist" and "weak atheist," with the first meaning "I know for a fact God does not exist" and the second meaning "I consider it extremely unlikely that God exists," and even Dawkins says that the strong atheist position is illogical.  I guess you see this as a ploy concession on our parts where we admit that the position is logically unsound but then don't change anything about what we say or how we act.

    I guess I am fine with identifying myself as a theological noncognitivist.  In a way, this is even better, since it allows me to be effectively indistinguishable from an atheist with a whole added dimension of getting to be a dick about language at the same time.  So I could see how, on a personal level, it would be even more fun.

    The problem is, people who don't get that it is more or less atheism would still get to turn to atheists and say "Ha ha, Grammaticus doesn't agree with you," when I basically do but just have more training at dressing it up.  And an even bigger problem is, I am not sure how I would go about expressing my theological noncognitivism on a public level.  They don't make theological noncognitivist t-shirts, there are no theological noncognitivist clubs/websites, etc.

    In other words, even if “God” is a sufficiently meaningless term to mandate theological noncognitivism as opposed to atheism (which it is), it is impossible to organize around the principle that the central term of the issue is impossible to discuss.  It is like how there are feminists who don’t believe that there is such a thing as gender, but in order to advance this viewpoint they have to self-apply a term (“feminist”) that only makes sense if there is such a thing as gender (because if there is no such thing as gender then the word "female" doesn't mean anything).

CORIIHUMIDI:  One problem is, people who don't get that it is more or less atheism would still get to turn to atheists and say ‘Ha ha, Grammaticus doesn't agree with you,’ when I basically do but just have more training at dressing it up.”

    I just realized, on e-mail 110 or something, that while I was trying to argue with you about positions and the various dumbshit things Dawkins says, you were arguing with a malevolent imaginary friend.

    So I will wrap up with this:  I just finished with The God Delusion.  As someone with no dog in this fight I was struck that on every third page he makes an egregious strawman argument, flatly contradicts himself, or offers a poorly thought-out policy position.  Rely on him at your own peril.

    And for the record, Dawkins does not say that only female genital mutilation et al is abusive—he says multiple times that raising a child in a religious tradition is a worse form of child abuse than sexual molestation.  It is in one of the last chapters; look it up.  If he was serious about this, then society would have a duty to affirmatively protect children from this abuse.  We don't combat rape by making arch comments at rapists’ expense—we throw them in jail.  If Dawkins took what he himself says seriously then he would have to come up with some way to prevent parents from raising their children in an orthodox religion.

BARBAPECTINICULI:  Speaking of myths, the zombie-themed nonprofit that put me on its advisory board has been working with the producers of Mythbusters to develop a zombie-themed episode of the show.  In this connection, they've asked for ideas for zombie myths that the Mythbusters could test.  The two I submitted are below, and somebody already suggested "Is it possible just to bite through somebody's skull?"  But let me know if you have any ideas for zombie myths you want tested, and I will pass them along.  My suggestions were:
    #1 Emerging from the grave 
    Myth being tested: "A zombie can break through a coffin and crawl through six feet of dirt to rise from the grave and feed on the flesh of the living."
    Proposed Test: Bury one of the Mythbusters in an old, rotted coffin under a bunch of dirt.  See if he can dig his way out.
    #2 Running
    Myth being tested: "Zombies can/can't run."
    Proposed Test: Create a suit that mimics the effects of rigor mortis—i.e., certain limbs no longer bend, massive overall stiffness, etc.  Then one of the Mythbusters puts it on and sees if he can run without falling over or whatever.

LACTISCASEIQUE:  I hate to rain on the parade, but they already tested and busted the Beatrix Kiddo from-the-grave myth.  They did an episode where they were going to bury Jamie in a coffin under about six feet of earth and turns out it's not even possible to get a few feet of earth onto it before it starts to buckle and crush under the weight.  They let him out after his heart rate and blood pressure went crazy because the coffin was about to collapse under three feet of earth.

BARBAPECTINICULI:  Hmmm.  Maybe we are meant to cover different zombie topics.  I will alert my contacts of this fact.

LACTISCASEIQUE:  Yeah.  I should maybe add that the myth may still be true, but just difficult to test.  Zombies wouldn't breathe and supposedly have super-strength, so maybe if they put a robot in a rotted wood coffin if could dig itself out.  I'm skeptical though.  The pressure from even three feet of earth was enough to visibly (and kind of dangerously) buckle the reinforced steel of the coffin they buried Hyneman in—so it would seem that anything with human-like flesh would be crushed to a pulp if buried underground.

GRAMMATICUS:  Wait a minute—so in every case where the cops had to exhume a body, the body/coffin had actually been crushed to a pulp by virtue of burial, and the cops were just bullshitting?  Something is off here.  There have been many times where someone had to dig up a coffin and they got down there and the coffin was intact.  I agree it is impossible to dig out, but I don't think the casket always gets instantly destroyed.

LACTISCASEIQUE:  Well, I mean, the general shape of it would still be sort of intact. Coffins are made of steel or lacquered wood anyway and burying one isn't like putting it in a car-smashing machine.  But there was a camera inside the steel coffin they buried Jamie in and it was visibly, obviously starting to buckle inside.  Maybe the cops just leave out references to damage in such exhumations?  I dunno.

GRAMMATICUS:  Coffins were not reinforced with steel 500 years ago, and the body was still in good enough shape for people to dig it up and go "There is blood around the mouth and his hair and fingernails look longer—he must be a vampire."  Maybe they didn't bury people as deep then?

PECUNIAECITRO:  My questions are mostly bite-related.  How about: "Is it possible to bite a chunk out of somebody's bluejeans-clad leg?"  'Cause I think it'd be hard as shit to do that, yet zombies do it all the time.  I think you would bruise your target, sure, but ripping the flesh has got to be difficult.

    Also, while barricades may be boring from a storytelling perspective, I think they'd be a pretty good anti-zombie protection method.  I think the best defense would be to stand at the top of a wall, crushing the skulls of zombies at the foot by dropping bricks on their heads or swinging a long heavy rod.  Do it in shifts when you get tired.  Yeah, it would be hard work, but it seems more workable than zombie fiction has made it out to be.  So test that one using some homeless people or something.

    Also, how about testing a chainsaw as a weapon?  Whenever it's in a movie it works like a lightsabre, but I think it probably wouldn't cut very well, and would be way too cumbersome.

CORIIHUMIDI:  Three points:

    1)  Is it really necessary to bury a guy in a steel coffin six feet under to see if he could get out?  In modern cemeteries the coffin is inside a concrete tomb.

    2)  Chainsaws are actually really difficult and boring to use.  If you cut into something that puts downward pressure on the blade it pinches and gums it up.

    3)  I think Pecuniaecitro's barricade idea is workable but would take a lot of planning.  If you had too small an area barricaded, the constant stench and moaning would make people inside crazy.  You would need some interior space to retreat to.  However, that is basically a castle, which would be hard to construct in the period between learning of the outbreak and the appearance of zombies. 

LACTISCASEIQUE:  Pecuniaecitro's question about biting is good.

    Re weapons, I dunno about chainsaws.  The one time I picked one up it was kind of heavy.  And if you are working with one that has a long enough blade for you to keep zombies at a reasonable, non-biting, non-clawing distance, it'd be heavy enough that its usefulness would decline rapidly even if it didn't jam or break.  As Coriihumidi said, you can't just swing the thing and have it cleave through people; you have to hold it in place.  This would tire anyone out eventually, and probably take too long when there's another zombie next to your target.

    If we are constraining ourselves to reality, I'm not too sure about Pecuniaecitro's scenario.  A heavy metal rod would never run out of ammo, it's true, but my sense is that any metal rod heavy enough to be swung and crush a skull (even with gravity assisting) is probably too heavy for a person to lift.  Maybe some kind of specially designed, long-handled, top-of-wall zombie-killing mace would do that job; something with a 12-foot handle and a very heavy mace-head.  Either of these might be testable.

    Really though, if we're talking about the shambling, stupid zombies of most zombie movies, you ought to just build a fortress with a really deep moat and a hinged, breakaway bridge.  You lure the zombies onto the bridge, throw the switch, and down they go into a pit of acid or something.

GRAMMATICUS:  My main beef with zombies is how hard they are to "kill."  You have to shoot them in or otherwise obliterate the head (in keeping with their general brain-centrism).  Zombies are supposed to be science-fiction, not magic, and I doubt the science of a halved body continuing to crawl at you, or a sliced-off arm continuing to flop after you on its own.  Scenes where a decapitated zombie head talks somehow (minus larynx, etc.) are obviously also dubious.  But I guess these myths are pretty much ipso facto busted just by being uttered.

BARBAPECTINICULI:  Grammaticus, you raise an awesome question about what exactly creates zombies.  There is less general agreement than you might think.  Depending on the movie/book/comic/role-playing game, it can be magic, or aliens, or nuclear waste, or religion, or drugs, or something else entirely.  I once tried to make a list of all the different things that can create zombies.
    In the new zombie novel I hope to have finished by the end of this month, zombies are created by Earth passing through the tail of a comet that leaves behind zombie-creating space-dust. 

LACTISCASEIQUE:  I second this objection.  If destroying the brain of a zombie is the way you kill it, severing the connection and having the severed limb flop after you is beyond retarded.

CORIIHUMIDI:  Lactiscaseique and Grammaticus...

    "I second this objection.  If destroying the brain of a zombie is the way you kill it, severing the connection and having the severed limb flop after you is beyond retarded."

    Agreed.  I thought a plague of dead people advancing on the living with unquenchable desire to cannibalize made good plain sense until [cough] I considered a [teeth suck] cut-off arm coming after you.  ASSHOLES!!

    But I think Lactiscaseique's idea of a moat is good.  You don't even need a drawbridge, just a narrow bridge that a human can walk across carefully and a zombie would stumble off of.  The problem is getting stuck behind the moat, because starvation also sucks.

LACTISCASEIQUE:  Come to think of it, how would one go about getting food in a zombie-infested world?  Clearly large-scale agriculture would cease, so food would be either found caches or probably the kind of semi-nomadic agriculture that was thought to herald the transition from hunter-gathering to fixed agriculture, where a nomadic group would just throw down some seeds someplace and move on.

    My zombie fort would be built large, with mortars and heavy machine-guns on the battlements, and a big moat filled with acid.  There would be a subterranean system for managing the circulation of acid so that it continued to stay acidic, and would not lose its corrosive pH.  There would be a large two-lane drawbridge for driving APCs out so that we could go and kick zombie ass and find food and ammunition.  Zombies are not smart enough to mess with vegetables that we plant out there in the world, so diet would be mostly vegetarian.  Perhaps some chickens or swine could be raised within the walls.

    Barbapectiniculi, can zombies die of “natural causes” or “starvation?”  If not, then from our zombie fort we must endeavor to purge the lands of the undead scourge.

PECUNIAECITRO:  Re Lactiscaseique’s "A heavy metal rod would never run out of ammo, it's true, but my sense is that any metal rod heavy enough to be swung and crush a skull (even with gravity assisting) is probably too heavy for a person to lift."

    I'm thinking a 15 lb. steel rod, about ten feet long.  You don't have to swing it.  I bet you could just thrust it downward and punch a hole in their heads.  Agreed that the stench would be horrible, but better than being eaten.  Food production would definitely be a huge problem. You'd have to have fields and silos behind those walls.

LACTISCASEIQUE:  I'm envisioning another problem: zombie pileup.  Zombies are definitely too dumb to deliberately form a human pyramid to reach the top of your perch, but they are definitely smart enough to stagger up a ramp made of the dead bodies of their kin.  I guess this could be an issue for any zombie barricade, really.  It almost makes me wonder if a better means of ensuring zombie-proof openings into a structure would be a tunnel that steadily narrows into a cone shape, with a little human-size trapdoor at the end, with acid jets or giant blades of whirling death lining the corridor and basically a big mechanical dead-zombie squeegee device.  If zombies in tunnel, activate mechanism and then squeegee.  If not zombies in tunnel, human has plenty of time to crawl on hands and knees through opening, but zombies will eventually bonk their heads and fall over if chasing a human.

PECUNIAECITRO:  You're right.  Zombie pileup would be a problem.  Maybe you could lure the horde to the other side of the castle with the smell of fresh babies or something while you send out a crew to clear the pile on side 1.

GRAMMATICUS:  Well, if you have enough acid to install “jets” of it in the tunnel, surely you have enough to simply dump off the side of the castle on the zombie pile.

    Plus I don't think a pile of rotting corpses would be that long-term stable anyway.  Can vultures, etc., eat from the pile without turning into zombie vultures?

BARBAPECTINICULI:  What if the acid were strong enough to dissolve the zombies?

LACTISCASEIQUE:  Tha's wot I'm talkin' bout.



Editor’s Note:

This having been legitimately a book-length dialogue—several times over the longest document on The 1585, and quite possibly on the whole damn internet, excluding the genres of Harry Potter fan fiction and stories about female celebrities wrestling in pantyhose—it is entirely possible that no-one will ever get to the bottom and read this.  In case anyone does, however, I have prepared these closing statements.

    As I specified in Part X, I am happy to identify myself as a Theological Noncognitivist, or simply “non-believer,” rather than an Atheist, if Reason dictates that I do so.  Indeed, this decision was made with a precept of my own devising in mind—namely, that one who is beaten in an argument is bound not only logically, but also ethically, to amend his former position.  My fondest wish, in so doing, is that I may serve as an example of a man who would rather have his world turned upside-down than be called a hypocrite.  It is personally important to me, however, that this clarification in no way be taken as a rebuke by, or to constitute disapproval of, the Atheist community, for the past support of whom I am very grateful, and whose future respect I shall still endeavor to deserve. 

    Hopefully, it is obvious to everyone that an admission that there are insufficient grounds to reject out of hand the possibility of a limitless essent does not mean that I can’t insist upon the veracity of dinosaurs, make fun of gay-conversion centers, or call Kirk Cameron stupid.  My thoughts on these matters have in past works been made clear, and remain so.  But what I have been asked more recently to admit, and now do so admit with neither apology nor annotation, is that someone who merely wishes to devote time to thinking about ethics while meditating upon the concept of limitlessness because he or she feels humbled by the implications of limitlessness probably isn’t raring to take a black marker to the science textbook.  As far as I am concerned, such an individual is free to go about his or her business with my best wishes.  He or she is probably not inclined to join 1585, but neither are any number of others, for any number of reasons, who are probably perfectly harmless people nonetheless.

    What this experience has forced me to confront is the sobering fact that, in the absence of Atheism, I have for several years now had no idea of who I was, or why I had any business rising in the morning.  At several points over the course of this dialogue, I was panicked—far too panicked, I now realize—at the possibility that I might lose.  A strong motivator in my Atheism was the belief that no-one should ever go so far into any “ism” that he or she begins to feel as if existence would be meaningless without it.  And I have not always done the best job of remembering that this goes for Atheism too.  I have now the comfort neither of religion, nor of the organized opposition to it, and must find some other question within which to store my hopes of its ever having mattered that I had lived and died.

    To those who consider themselves to have been at any point enriched by my work here over the last two-and-a-half years, I now ask in return for your forgiveness if I have let you down, and your patience while I take the time to find how best to serve you in the future.

                                                                                            —SEXO GRAMMATICUS, Lord High Editor, The 1585 

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