Sunday, 18 May 2014

Peter Boghossian’s Manual for creating atheists



Let me start by saying, Peter is an excellent writer. His style of having a further reading section at the end of the chapters is brilliant for expanding on concepts, he knows his stuff when it comes to the philosophy of knowledge (epistemology) and his writing is direct and to the point. You know there is a but coming, of course there is, otherwise I wouldn’t have posted this.

I don’t agree with the need for taking epistemological interventions (seems like a high-brow way of saying attempting to beat common sense into the senseless) to people, uninvited. If they are preaching on a street corner then the invite is implied, if they are telling people they are damned to hell then the invite is emblazoned in fiery letters 50ft high. I am talking from experience here; I have performed my own fair share of as Peter likes to call them “epistemological interventions”. Actually as I write this I sit on a plane having spent the last hour attempting to disabuse the girl next to me of her obsession with naturopathy, and raw-whole foods, as well as attempting to convince her no cure for cancer is being suppressed by pharmaceutical companies (which cancer I asked, likening cancer to a bacteria of which there are millions of species), and that there isn’t a conspiracy by Phillip-Morris in owning a medical company that produces chemotherapy medicine, this is the way big business works buying other businesses to make money.

I have also debated theists, even creationists (although I think I did poorly, I should have tried a bit of Peter’s disabusing them of faith, rather than fighting the science of which I am not qualified but passionate) and debated street preachers with Brisbane atheists. I really enjoy it, and as the theists do, I care for my fellow human being, and hate to see them wasting their brain cells on magical thinking.

I just don’t think you can go to someone and question their faith or ridiculous beliefs uninvited. The girl that now sits next to me reading her “Crazy Sexy Diet” book (something that needs a thorough debunking), has several times stopped reading to ask my opinion on something she has thought off or just read, I have given it honestly and there has been a little banter back and forth. I like to think I have raised her mind to the idea that some of it may not be true, that she should question it.

Maybe I am misunderstanding Peter, but it seems to me he is suggesting we should actively intrude; this is something I am heavily against. I don’t care what people believe in the privacy of their own homes or heads, I am even fairly sure I am OK with them having the freedom to teach their children their beliefs. But I think their children should be exposed to the same schooling as others and part of that should include critical inquiry. I also agree with Peter that perhaps belief in the supernatural via religion should be treated as a mental disorder, though this one would be hard to pass and makes me uneasy that it could be cause to put well-meaning people in care just because of their personal beliefs.

I also don’t agree there is no epistemological relativism, the belief that there isn’t necessarily one bet way to come to truth. I believe that knowledge could in fact be relative, there may be many ways of arriving at a truth, and not all truths are equal. But this may be an argument in terms.
Sure science is the best way to truth right now, but as others have said science could discover a new method of reasoning and discovering things that is faster and more accurate, but the scientific method will be the only way to evaluate this and the only way to come to a conclusion that this new as yet unknown method (if it even exists) is better. There is likely an ultimate truth, but it can be tuned so much that it does become relative. Eg I am typing this on a laptop. But a laptop by who’s definition. Am I really typing it, as my fingers at the sub-atomic level aren’t actually coming into contact with the atoms of the keys, it is merely the electromagnetic repulsion that makes me feel like I am touching the keys, this fine tuning could conceivably go on for a long time so that one may say I am not typing based on their definitions, while one may say I am typing based on theirs.

If you can’t tell from that last waffle, I have also been reading and writing a bit of philosophy myself lately.

I think he also went down the route of moral absolutism as well, but I have been reading multiple books at the same time so this may not have been him. I don’t agree with Moral absolutism, and I have argued against it partially here but will flesh out this position later. It can be summed up as AC Grayling has rather aptly done, what morals exist to a man alone on a deserted island, surely they are different than a man in society. I like to use other species to further illustrate this; it is wrong for humans to rape, sane people will agree on this. But what if it is the only way to further the species, as in the case of the deep-sea angler fish, where the tiny male will force himself upon the female to ensure his continued lineage? Where is the absolute morality in those situations? 

Some may argue it comes back to Peter Singers doing the least harm argument, or my childhood ideology of creating the most amount of pleasure,  but this is problematic. The male angler dies in the process, he also burrows into the female, presumably causing her pain. So the least harm/most pleasure would actually possibly be for the species to cease procreation, and thus cease to be. The same could be said for a particularly ravenous, over-populating, polluting species of the Great apes that we have a bit of a bias for.

Overall though, I thought it was a damned good book. I did contact Peter about one of his references as I had some questions, he passed me onto a Steven. The reference was to do with a Viking societies collapse in Greenland due to starvation due to not eating shellfish(1). Something I found interesting as I know a few people who love their Vikings enough to call their children Viking names, have a home with authentic Viking fire pit in the middle and even cry out Thor’s name in a thunderstorm as a sign of worship, I have never known one of them to turn down shellfish. I also thought it could be an interesting cross-pollination of dietary restrictions from Jewish culture, an interesting study in memetics. 

Steven cited Jared Diamonds book “Collapse”, but this doesn’t seem right as Diamond was talking about the Nordes in Greenland having an aversion to eating fish(2), not shellfish. Besides it was only an aversion, not a religious restriction. Hence why they didn’t simply die out straight away(3), it instead took almost half a millennia. There is also some recent (circa January 2013)(4) that shows that it may have just simply been too harsh and isolating, and that the society didn’t collapse as such, but just left.


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