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Teapots and spaghetti monsters

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A cluster of interesting links and discussion here about whether belief in God is more rational than Russell’s orbiting teapot or the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Check it out!



  1. Kleiner says:

    I remain dumbfounded that so many think the Flying Spaghetti Monster ‘arguments’ are a plausible objection to thoughtful theism. As William Lane Craig puts it in the article I link below: ‘The real lesson to be learned from the case of the Flying Spaghetti Monster is that it shows how completely out of touch our popular culture is with the great tradition of natural theology. ‘

    While I don’t always agree with William Lane Craig’s version of the design argument, I think he provides a nice response to FSMonster arguments here:

    Craig’s article is clear and accessible. Follow the link to his rejection of Dawkins’ argument for atheism in the ‘God Delusion’. He outs it as basically awful. There is also a link to his thoughts on the argument from contingency where he provides a very clear presentation of the argument along with reasons why atheist replies are unpersuasive.


  2. Jon Adams says:

    Here is a good, critical discussion of Douthat’s original post on teapot atheism.


  3. Jon Adams says:

    I’m willing to admit, though, that sometimes atheists give too much import to the teapot/FSM argument. When Russell came up with his teapot analogy, he used it as an argument primarily in rebuttal to those who said “Well, you cannot disprove God.” Russell’s rejoinder: “You cannot disprove the existence of a celestial teapot either, but that fact is no reason to believe in it.” In at least this line of argument, the teapot/FSM argument is valid.


  4. Huenemann says:

    I read the link to Craig and I still don’t see what’s wrong with the FSM parody. It is probably due to my skepticism. To get an Intelligent Design argument off the ground you have to assume these premises:

    1. There is some global feature in the universe (call it “designedness”) that needs to be explained — i.e., it is in some sense unnatural to the universe.
    (The proof for this that is usually given is something like, “Well, do you ever see mud forming itself into castles? Well, there you go; the whole universe is that way, on its own.” Not very compelling.) Frankly, I’m not sure what “designedness” is supposed to be anyway.

    2. An incorporeal, intelligent agent would be capable of bringing designedness to a thing essentially lacking it. Indeed, it is the only sort of thing capable of doing so.
    (The proof for this that is usually given is something like, “Well, do you ever see people forming mud into castles? Well, there you go; that’s the only way anything in the entire universe can come to be ordered.” Not very compelling.)

    I am willing to say that MAYBE 1 and 2 are true. Actually, I’d be surprised if they were, but I can’t disprove them. IDers have to say they’re not only possible, but actually (or even necessarily) true. It seems to me there’s just as much reason to believe that as there is to believe that only Flying Spaghetti Monsters are capable of bringing order to that which is neither flying, spaghetti, nor monster — i.e., none whatsoever.


  5. Kleiner says:

    I think you miss Craig’s point. His point in that article is not to make the design argument. His point is that the FSM parody does not actually call into question the design assumption. What it calls into question is – once you’ve made the move to a designer – whether or not we are justified in attributing other properties to this Designer. That is, assuming there is a Designer, we have no more reason to believe it is the personal loving God of Christianity than we have of believing it is a celestial teapot or a FSM.

    I would freely admit (as would, I think, Craig) that the claim that the world is designed/ordered has to be argued for on its own (though as a belief I would submit that it is basic to everyone’s Implicit Philosophy). Those interested in the design/order argument for God would need to first demonstrate design/order, and then would need to show that the FSM could not be this designer. The latter point would move beyond the design question on its own, and would have to appeal to other arguments from natural theology that seek to show that God is simple, eternal, immaterial, etc (attributes that eliminate from consideration things like the FSM).

    Of course this just delivers us back to our old debate – no order, no language. God (god of philosophers at least) or thoroughgoing skepticism.

    One more point – I continue to be astonished by my friend Huenemann’s odd inclination to reject the basic orderliness of the world. That sort of skepticism is utterly un-livable, for in his daily activities Huenemann presumes order every step of the way (all skeptics do, they ‘fall prey’ to what Hume calls custom). It points to the basic disconnect between modern philosophy and everyday life (common sense) that I have criticized in the past here as being the basic sickness of modernity and the primary reason why no one values philosophy anymore.


  6. Huenemann says:

    If ordered just means predictable, then I’m on board. I’m just not sure why that needs an explanation. Maybe I need to be shown some unpredictable universes, for the sake of contrast.


  7. Kleiner says:

    Order would include predictability (in fact, it would be ground of it), though I am not sure I would want to reduce it to that. But for now, let’s seize that common ground and see where we can go.

    I don’t mean to shirk responsibility here for making the case, but: I think conventional wisdom is that order is not a necessary feature of the world (this sort of insight dates back to at least Heraclitus). So, do you have an argument to show that ‘all possible worlds’ are ordered? Is it just a gut feeling? I wonder, if one cannot even imagine a disordered world, is that suggestive of a Kantian transcendental move?


  8. Huenemann says:

    Let me try this:

    1. To exist is to have power.
    2. To have power is to cause effects.
    3. Where there is causality there is (at least in principle) constant conjunction. (If C causes E, then it is true that if C were to happen, E would happen)
    4. Where there is constant conjunction, there is predictability.


  9. Clay says:

    My atheist friends love FSM argument and fail to see that it is just a straw-man. Correct me if I’m wrong,(seriously)but would it be a mistake to say that the FSM is simply an argument about the physical attributes of the designer and doesn’t actually address the possible existence of the designer?


  10. Jon Adams says:

    Again, the FSM argument is valid insofar as its used appropriately. I use it in two ways:

    1) “Even if there is a creator, what reason do you have to believe that its Yahweh and not the FSM?”

    2) “No, I cannot disprove your god, but neither can I disprove the FSM. That I cannot disprove the existence of something is not itself reason to believe in it.”


  11. Kleiner says:

    I think Jon characterizes the FSM argument correctly. My (and Craig’s) point is that there might well be other good reasons for thinking God has certain other attributes. Jon’s point (1) looks better to me than (2). With (2), I can’t imagine who he’d be arguing against. I don’t know anyone who takes the mere fact that Christianity cannot be disproved to be the reason why they believe it.

    I’ll have to think more on Huenemann’s argument, in particular (1) and (3). That said, the more I think on it the more I find myself sympathetic with the basic claim that being is ‘by nature’ ordered and intelligible. In fact, a Thomist might well be simply committed to that sort of claim.
    A few other thoughts:
    a) Does it make a difference that our question might be about becoming rather than being?
    b) Is there, perhaps, something of a substance metaphysics implicit in Huenemann’s view? It stands out that being has dynamis (power) and cause – Aristotelian key words.
    c) That the power is causal and that causal power is predictable – does this require something more than mere efficient cause? That is, does the predictability depend on final causation? In other words, (3) starts to look a lot better if you build in final cause, because it gives efficient cause some direction, and hence order and predictability. What we observe is not just the power of beings to have effects. What we observe is those powers have certain effects at certain times. We observe orderly growth and devlopment in our young, for instance. With mere disordered (from the telic point of view) efficient cause, food could at one time make Sally grow, and at another time turn her into a baboon.
    In other words, part of our question will need to be what we mean by cause and order, and if efficient cause is sufficient. Of course I am inclined to say that mere efficient cause is an insufficient principle of organization to account for the kind of order we see.


  12. Cherie Moy says:

    With Russel’s Teapot I have always considered it more of a proof-of-concept that there is no way to either prove or disprove god. The one time I have used this argument is trying to explain why the burden of proof doesn’t fall to the unbeliever unless the unbeliever claims to have proof there is no god. Then again, stating one knows there is no god is as subjective and non-provable as stating one knows there is a god. Both statements of “knowledge” are based entirely on personal feelings or experiences that cannot empirically prove their belief either way.

    The FSM, on the other hand, was originally created to make a point that teaching creationisms in school, alongside evolution as an attempt to include “alternate theories” did not make any sense. The point trying to be made with this was that there could be an infinite number of alternate theories on creation and that simply promoting the Judeo-Christian version of creation was 1) unfair and 2) based in theological beliefs as opposed to scientific beliefs.

    Neither of these arguments seems to be rational to me in order to say that belief in god is sillier than belief in any other sort of things whether it be aliens, ghosts or little green men on mars. I find that trying to rationalize what one has faith in is oftentimes an attempt in futility. If one believes or has faith in god because of (as I mentioned above) personal, non-observable phenomena, then it is only of use to that particular person. Similarly, if a person (such as myself) doesn’t believe a god exists, it would be outrageously stupid of me to try and convince others that god does not exist, based solely on my own observations and experiences.

    I think the irrational aspect comes into much of this when others try to rationalize their beliefs and impress them as truth on others. Beliefs are based on perceptions which may or may not be grounded in reality for either point of view.


  13. Adam says:

    Burden of proof is bandied about. And yet it is simple. Not recognizing this comes from culture bias. I will NOT tell you ‘God’ (whatever this is; you’re hard-pressed to get a consistent definition, so can one even discourse intelligibly about it?) doesn’t exist any more firmly than I will say any of the Greek gods, or Celtic, or Shinto, or Chinese folk deities do not exist. It is easy to say, well, no one ever actually believed in the Greek god! Well, no *intelligent* person ever did. But there certainly are believers in Shinto and Chinese folk religion, and I would be surprised if the coterie of Greek myth, now paraded as ‘culture’ and devoid of religious significance, never had its own believers.

    And so the problem is that being in one’s culture one thinks one’s deity(ies) more credible, or attribute some sort of ‘actual’ belief that other silly religious systems couldn’t merit.
    That is one explanation anyway. Only by excluding analogues such as Teapots, UFOs (a serious belief among many!), Bigfoot (similarly) can a thinking person believe that burden-of-proof can ever fall to the unbeliever.

    Ultimately, the neutral position is the default position, which is that a belief must be well-established before accepted. Elementary.


  14. Thanks for the link, Charlie, and everybody for the comments.

    I’ve dealt with many of the issues raised in this thread both in the substantive update and in a subsequent comment over on my blog, if anyone’s interested. I’ll just add that Russell’s original argument was lodged precisely in the context of someone’s arguing that religious belief is justified, amidst skeptical objections, by “the mere fact that Christianity cannot be disproved.” While Kleiner can’t imagine anyone arguing like this, but I can’t count the number of times interlocutors have actually made this move. (More than 20, fewer than a googol.)


  15. Kleiner says:

    Well, I must run with a different crowd. As a theist, I certainly don’t think that the mere fact that Christianity cannot be disproved is, by itself, a good reason to believe it. As I wonder why someone would resort to saying such a thing, perhaps it is a defensive response against what I frequently encounter – the overzealous confidence of skeptics (especially new atheists) who somehow seem to think that theists are so deluded they think the moon is made of cheese.

    In apologetics one might occasionally make the ‘you can’t disprove it move’ (for instance, with real presence in the Eucharist or something like that). But again, this is not done in order to give a reason FOR believing it. It is taken on faith. It is done in order to show that one is not committing oneself to something patently irrational in believing. It seems to me this is an important thing for theists to do.

    I return to this point – there are many good arguments that seek to show that God has certain attributes like eternity, immateriality, simplicity, goodness (I disagree with Adam that the idea of God is so inconsistent). Of course many do not find the arguments ultimately compelling, but they are not mere cultural artefacts (contra Adam again). But there is absolutely no reason to believe the FSM exists, aside from bare faith. This is an important, and I would hope obvious, difference between the FSM and God. Neither can be disproven, they are similar in this regard. But one has positive proofs for its attributes, the other does not. So before a skeptic brushes aside the traditional understanding of God as being as absurd as the FSM, he ought to spend some time studying natural theology. Anyone who thinks Aquinas or Augustine will be so easily brushed aside is guilty of ridiculous hubris.


  16. “[Invoking the ‘you can’t disprove it’ move] is not done in order to give a reason FOR believing it…. It is done in order to show that one is not committing oneself to something patently irrational in believing.

    But that is just to say God’s non-disconfirmability underwrites the claim that “committing oneself to something patently irrational in believing there is a god.” But the only way God’s non-disconfirmability can do that is on the assumption that the inability to prove x shows that belief in x is not irrational — for all x. (Of which gods and flying teapots are two possible values.)


  17. Kleiner says:

    I see it a different way. Two reasons:
    1) I think there are other good reasons for believing in God. I find many arguments from natural theology to be pretty damn compelling. For instance, I think you can make a compelling case from natural reason alone that God is eternal (for instance). See Summa I.1-12 for a series of nice arguments that try to sort out God’s nature.
    2) I think there is something to be said for showing that a belief (in, say, real presence in the Eucharist) does not commit you to something logically impossible. That does not seem to be underwritten by God, for the apologist makes his case using natural reason alone. Again, I am not relying on dis-comfirmability as the ground of my belief. Who the hell would do that? But it at least these apologetics retains the possibility for a faith-reason synthesis. People of faith certainly move beyond reason, but it seems worthwhile to show that they are not in some sort of necessary conflict with reason.


  18. The issue of whether one is or isn’t “relying on dis-comfirmability as the ground of [one’s] belief” is neither here nor there, Kleiner. The point of the Teapot argument is that nondisconfirmability cannot be relied upon for anything at all.


  19. Kleiner says:

    The point about relying on it as the ground of one’s belief, if neither here nor there, did not come from me. It came from you and Jon (and apparently Russell). I thought such a thing was ridiculous from the get-go.

    Anyway, I just disagree with you about whether or not it can be relied upon for anything, though I think we might be talking past each other (common on blogs). I think that showing that faith claims do not contradict reason accomplishes something. For instance, if religion X claims that ‘God is y’, and one can prove through natural reason that God cannot be y, isn’t this in some sense an advance? If nothing else, it gives people who have confidence in reason (like me) cause to reject certain faith claims. As Craig shows in his article, it is not terribly difficult to disqualify the FSM from consideration as the Ultimate, UMM, First Principle of existence, Ultimate Designer, etc. So while I may not be able to prove that the FSM does not exist, I am pretty confident in my reasons for thinking the FSM is not God.

    Here is the point: assume there are 5 religions. And we can show, from natural reason and natural theology, that 4 of the 5 religions have faith claims about God that are incompatible with what reason (natural theology) tells us. That gives us good reason to reject those out of hand. As for the last remaining religion, we don’t have any more reason to believe it, but we can say that it is not irrational to believe it. That is, if a faith’s claims pass this ‘test’, I grant that this is not in itself a good reason for believing. Religious experience, arguments from natural theology, etc, are good reasons for believing.

    Anyway, this is where the FSM arguments start to look to me like a waste of time. Let’s read Thomas instead. If his arguments are persuasive, then we can move forward. If they are not, then perhaps we remain agnostics. This was Craig’s point – the FSM does not take up the more important business – (a) the design question per se or (b) the arguments from natural theology.


  20. Rob says:

    Kleiner: “That is, assuming there is a Designer, we have no more reason to believe it is the personal loving God of Christianity than we have of believing it is a celestial teapot or a FSM.”

    Assuming there is a Designer, I would have thought, is all the less reason to believe it is the personal loving God of Christianity — and all the more that it is a celestial teapot or FSM.


  21. Kleiner says:

    Huh? Why would the FSM announce itself as a more likely candidate than the Christian God? Was that remark meant to be serious?

    In fact, since the FSM or Teapot are physical beings (even if not visible), they are basically excluded from candidacy as the [ultimate] Designer / UMM / Necessary Being since they themselves are a part of the material universe about which we are seeking some ground.

    By the way, I am not that enthralled with the contemporary intelligent design (complexity) argument. In fact, I think it abuses final cause and plays into the wrong-headed god of the gaps view of the divine. I just think the FSM is dumb, and is very often cited (not always, so don’t jump on me) by arrogant atheists who don’t know anything about natural theology but think theism can be easily tossed aside with some stupid manufactured reductio or argument from analogy. That is my only dog in this fight.


  22. “I am pretty confident in my reasons for thinking the FSM is not God.”

    Well Kleiner, I’m certainly happy to hear that! ;-)

    On that, I’ll submit.


  23. Kleiner says:

    Har har. Taken out of context that does look silly. My point, though, remains. It is, to my mind, the obvious intention of many who put forth the FSM ploy to suggest that the FSM and the Christian God (or even the God of the philosophers) are basically on the same footing. I continue to find that absurd.
    I’ve checked out some of your blog and enjoyed it. Thanks for stopping by our humble site.
    Ta ta.


  24. Thanks, Kleiner, your visit to my humble site is equally appreciated.


  25. Rob says:

    Kleiner, what I’m getting at is that, assuming there is a designer, we have less reason to believe it is the personal loving God of Christianity and more reason to believe it is a celestial teapot or FSM because the latter don’t require for their acceptance that we abandon, suspend or compromise our moral bearings, as the former (all-powerful, all-good, all-knowing) does.


  26. Huenemann says:

    Here’s my own 2 cents. It seems to me that Russell’s teapot is aimed at making the small, tidy point that not being able to disprove something never counts as any evidence at all for thinking it exists. It doesn’t even lend an aura of “possibility” toward the entity, unless we also want to take seriously the possibility of his teapot floating around in outer space.

    The FSM is aimed at a bigger and more interesting idea, namely that there is more than one candidate for the god of the gaps (an argument Kleiner isn’t much interested in anyway). This is essentially Hume’s point in book 9 (I think??) of his Dialogues. There are many different entities and forces which could be postulated to explain the existence of order in the universe, and a single, personal, conscious, intelligent designer is just one of myriad options. People often don’t take the other options seriously because familiar religions haven’t been built around them, but they are still theoretical possibilities nonetheless.

    What is misleading about the FSM, I think, is that the folks who originally invoked it had in mind the functional equivalent of “some silly damn thing other than the Christian god,” and out came the FSM. It’s a stand-in for Hume’s general point, that maybe something you aren’t taking seriously only because it is culturally unfamiliar to you can do just as good a job at explaining the apparent order of the universe as the god whose existence you’re so anxious to prove. So of course it is a silly idea. That’s the point.


  27. Well, the FSM is a silly image. But obviously it’s not meant to be taken literally; it refers to when the divine substance inheres in any wheat products.


  28. Kleiner says:

    Huenemann is right, I am not interested in defending a god of the gaps view in the first place. But since academia (and apparently the blogosphere) is really short on people wanting to defend theism, I find myself as the only contrary voice on the blog.

    I am going to dodge Rob’s point, seems to big to take on here. We’d have to argue through what it means for faith to ‘suspend the ethical’, work through the relationship between natural and eternal law, etc etc. My view in brief: we’ll bump into mysteries, but it hardly seems to me that Christianity requires some radical breach of our moral bearings. I am basically Thomist on these points. (Rob would have a few difficult cases that he could keep throwing in my face, I grant that).

    Huenemann summarizes the point well. But I don’t know anyone who thinks you could prove the Christian God. Faith is taken on, well, faith. The heart has its reasons, and some might be better than others. In particular, there might be lots of existential questions answered by the faith (in particular, the lived tension between transcendence and immanence that is the drama of every human life). But there is no ‘philosophical’ argument for Christianity in the ‘colder’, less personal, sense of the word ‘philosophical’.

    For me it is a question of natural theology. What can natural reason demonstrate about God and God’s nature? No serious person thinks natural reason can prove Christianity. But lots of serious people think one can demonstrate that God must be eternal, simple, infinite, and immaterial. Even if we only have negative ideas for each of these, the argument still eliminates some entities from consideration. The FSM is material (even if not visible) and is complex (not simple).

    So who is the FSM arguing against? Some options:
    (a) People that do natural theology.
    (b) A particular religious or cultural understanding of God

    If it is (a), it is a lousy argument. For the FSM does nothing to undermine good natural theology, and in fact outs itself as a totally insufficient substitute for the god of natural theology.
    If (b), then it is better. Let’s assume (as, in a sense, the FSM does) that the design argument is good and that there is a God. The FSM asks if we are justified in attaching the ‘extra’ attributes to this God that we assign (personal, loving, etc), or if these attributes are just cultural heritage. Since religion always goes beyond the god of the philosophers (the god of natural theology), what justification do we have for adding these extra attributes?

    This seems like a good question. And it points to apologetics. Again, assuming the natural theology of design, as the FSM point does, if the god of Religion A can be shown to be incompatible with the god of natural theology, then Religion A is false. But if Religion B can show that its god is compatible with the god of natural theology, then we have a different situation on our hands. While this does not prove Religion B, and does not count as a reason to believe Religion B, it at least shows that Religion B is not absurd on its face (that is, that Religion B does not commit one to beliefs about god that are known by natural reason to be false).

    The FSM fails miserably on this score. It can be shown rather easily the the FSM is not the god of serious natural theology. Some might think Christianity fails miserably too, on the same score – that Christianity cannot be Hellenized. Obviously I think Christianity has a much better chance of synthesizing its god with the god of natural theology (though I freely confess to some ‘mysteries’/’problems along the way, and I don’t pretend that this compatibility is assured at this point with any certainty).

    Point is, the FSM is not just a silly idea. In a way I think it does a bad job of making its point. If the FSM was eternal, immutable, immaterial, and infinite, AND THEN had a few other properties added on, it would start looking like a more functional equivalent of the Christian God and we could start asking ‘why this one and not that one?’. As it is, the FSM argues against either bad religiousity or really bad philosophical theology. Hoorah for it. It makes something dumb look dumb. But what about much more serious natural theology and apologetics?

    By the way, while I will stay on the topic for a while if people are interested, I am ready to move on. Our time would be better spent looking seriously at arguments like the contingency argument and sorting out whether telic significations are real or posited.


  29. Clay says:

    “we have less reason to believe it is the personal loving God of Christianity and more reason to believe it is a celestial teapot or FSM because the latter don’t require for their acceptance that we abandon, suspend or compromise our moral bearings, as the former (all-powerful, all-good, all-knowing) does.”

    I’m confused as to why the God of Christianity requires one to abandon, suspend or compromise his moral bearings. How does one’s moral conduct come into jeopardy? If he does indeed ACCEPT the God would it now make sense for him to align himself with his God’s teachings?


  30. Huenemann says:

    I think Rob’s point is that, when you take an objective look at human history, there is so much unnecessary suffering and death that you ought to conclude that the Big Designer is either impersonal or unloving (or both). The FSM or teapot (both of which are apathetic) fit the data better. If you stick to the God of Christianity, you have to say repulsive things like, “Well, it must be better somehow to have a world with torture in it than to have a world without it.”


  31. Kleiner says:

    If what Rob meant is what Huenemann says, that Christians have to deal with the problem of evil/suffering – then I agree.

    After having talked with Huenemann, I think I am guilty of arguing against a stupid version of the FSM. That is in part because I too often encounter silly versions of it (those that have a caricatured view of Christianity).


  32. Clay says:

    Great stuff. I believe that the FSM argument was misused by the people that have talked about it with me in the past, and that they did not fully understand it. It could have even been that I was too dense to get it the first time around.

    Thank you for clarifying Rob’s point.


  33. Mike says:

    I’d still like to hear Rob’s explanation if he’s paying attention to this thread. Perhaps he’s thinking of perspectives on God’s sovereignty or certain eschatological views that lend themselves to theistic fatalism but I imagine there are a number of other possible explanations. His use of the term “suspend” makes me think of Kierkegaard (and Abraham).


  34. Rob says:

    Charlie pretty much sums up my point.

    Only those whose perception of suffering in the world is tarnished by theology and its nauseatingly copious sophistries could think that, given the bare assumption of a designer, the Christian god is a stronger candidate than really ANYTHING whose defining features fall short of its perverse triad (all-knowing, all-good, all-powerful) of essential attributes (qualities, features, or whatever is the right term of art).

    And, yes, I meant to hint at Kierkegaard’s F&T with “suspend”. (What a shame Nietzsche never managed to follow up on Brandes’ suggestion that he read Kierkegaard!) Kierkegaard is, for me, one of the few respectable ‘Christian thinkers’ because he seems to me to have had a ruthlessly honest grasp of the ‘death of god’ problem of modernity, only he was, of course, too corrupted by Christianity have any other other than its morbid resources to draw upon in addressing it. (Hence, the admiration, compassion, revulsion and fascination I think Nietzsche would have taken in K, perhaps as the greatest casualty of Christianity since Pascal.)


  35. Kleiner says:

    What remarkable hostility toward Christianity from Rob! I am not going to respond since I think his mind is already made up. That being said, I think he is right – too many Christians simply gloss very difficult problems like the problem of evil, and I share his admiration for Kierkegaard.


  36. Rob says:

    By the way, Bill Maher’s amusing “Religulous” is due on DVD February 17th. Since I generally consider that “vast moth-eaten musical brocade” (Larkin) of theology (‘apologetics’ or whatever other term the more intelligent of the pious use to distinguish themselves from their less-witted confederates who constitute the vast majority of believers) to be little more than an elaborate exercise in post hoc rationalization and reinforcement of pre-established hankerings, the efforts of the literary ‘new atheistists’ to mainstream mockery of religion and the respectability of being nontheist strike me as fairly trivial compared to folks like Maher who work in non-literary media. (How, I wonder, is critiquing a rationalization supposed to alter the allegiance someone has to what the rationalization is for? It always annoys my evangelical atheist friends when I suggest that there’s some cruety at work in their critiquing, that it’s pretty much useless, and that it’s more an exercise in exasperated self-ventilation.)


  37. Rob says:

    Yes, there’s a sternly settled ethical animus at work in my views on these matters. Christianity seems quite obviously to be a horrifying affront to its very source: human suffering.


  38. Clay says:

    Bill Maher is so smug it makes it hard for me to watch him when he discusses religion. While he is funny, he surrounds himself with a bunch of chuckle heads that will laugh at all his jokes. This somehow makes his criticisms legitimate.

    Remember in “Religulous” how he brings along a young lady to laugh at everything he says when he is mocking the Muslim gentleman in the Muslim clothing store?

    He just comes off mean-spirited when he talks about religion. Although I will admit I have laughed really hard at some of his monologues on his show “Real Time”.


  39. Rob says:

    Yes, but isn’t it thanks to that smugness that Maher can peremptorily dismiss the British Muslim rapper’s prevarications over free speech during the conversation in the tunnel?


  40. Kleiner says:

    I hope these dogmatic verbal ejaculations from Rob are in some ways cathartic for him.


  41. Rob says:

    There’s very little opportunity for catharsis, given my assumption that discourse over religious matters, for and against (and in between), is largely an epidermal affair. But then, it seems like a very open question as to what the proper form of expression is supposed to be for a Nietzschean diagnosis of Christianity? Should the horror and dismay communicated by such a diagnosis be dissimulated?


  42. Kleiner says:

    Nz might say that one should cease to be a lion (no-sayer) and become a child (a yes-sayer). Rob sounds like a lion to me.

    Or – just to raise a possibility over and against Rob’s certainty – might it be that Nz misdiagnoses Christianity (by understanding it as Platonism)? In other words, might it be that the roar of the lion here is actually hollow?

    I will let Rob have the last word.


  43. Rob says:

    The flip side of the hostile Nietzschean diagnosis is that it would scarcely do justice to the power of Christianity to fancy one is any more than a camel in lion’s clothing, deluding oneself that the load has been shucked that one is in battle with the great dragon but in fact merely one of its emissaries (which is what all of us are who pledge our allegiance to Western liberal democractic values, as I do).


  44. Clay says:

    Just to clarify, is Christianity the great dragon? Simply a yes or no will do.


  45. Rob says:

    Yeah, I take it that in “The Three Transformations” (in TSZ Book I) to which Kleiner was referring, the dragon is roughly equivalent to Christianity, and since democracy is its heir, those who saucily oppose Christianity in the name of liberal democratic values (such as, perhaps, the ‘new atheists’ like Sam Harris) are in fact, like the camel, serving the values they were loaded with. And I was simply admitting that, as a liberal, that despite all my Nietzschean posturing, I’m a camel like most everyone else.


  46. Rob says:

    After reading this piece by Roger Scruton on how the West should confront Islam, I now wonder if I should have been so concessive to Clay’s characterization of Maher (at least in Religious, my only sustained exposure to him) as “smug”; now, I’m more inclined to think of Maher as less smug than ironic — in Scruton’s (non-Rorty-esque) sense of the word as a positive virtue one of whose expressions is in the aforementioned tunnel scene:


  47. Rob says:

    A nice little review of the growing empirical evidence for my dogmatic ejaculations about the generally epiphenomenal and post-hoc nature of religious discourse (as well as for my corresponding dogma concerning the futility of first-order, substantive, as opposed to clinical, engagement with the pious):

    “Born Believers?”


  48. Kleiner says:

    Meh. Reductionism. Just because the brain is involved in thought/belief/faith by no means demonstrates that only the brain is involved. Aquinas would likely welcome such conclusions – nothing would be less surprising to him than scientific evidence which shows a ‘corporeal organ’ is involved in the activities of the intellect. This is hardly groundbreaking – Aristotle knew this thousands of years ago.
    Justify the hidden dogmatic materialism (a metaphysical, not an empirical position!) implicit in the conclusions of this study, then get back to me. For my part, I’ll refer you to several old posts on the materialism debate and my (Aristotle/Aquinas) basic view: no [immaterial] soul = no language.


  49. Kleiner says:

    Reading over the article, it claims:

    ‘The ability to conceive of gods, however, is not sufficient to give rise to religion. The mind has another essential attribute: an overdeveloped sense of cause and effect which primes us to see purpose and design everywhere, even where there is none. “You see bushes rustle, you assume there’s somebody or something there,” Bloom says.’

    What an odd example. If I see bushes rustle, I assume that there is something that caused them to rustle (a person, an animal, the wind, etc). That is an ‘over-developed sense of cause and effect’? Finding our world to be basically orderly? What comes of their science if we do not assume this ‘over-developed’ sense has something to it?

    I am amazed at what neuro-science is learning about the brain. But I can’t help but see some of the pseudo-science (actually, pseudo-philosophy) that tends to travel with it to be little more than ‘brain fetishism’.

    Actually, I already regret posting. I told myself I was going to take a break railing against materialism. It is worthwhile, but also grows tiresome. Every once in a while I feel the need to pull back to my own kind.


  50. Rob says:

    I agree that there’s nothing groundbreaking in any of this. For the pious themselves, of course not. And for the advocatus dei-types among the intelligentsia, such as yourself, it’s barely more than an occasion to slightly update one’s sophistical craft. But for thoughtful non-theists, I think it should provide occasion for self-scrutiny concerning what, if any, purpose is served by substantive, first order engagement with the pious and their intellectual advocates over the propositional content of their religious commitments.


  51. Scene: It is a dark and stormy night. Al and Bob are holed up at a camping spot they staked about two and a half days out of Nacogdoches.
    Al: Did you hear that bush rustling over there.
    Bob: I reckon it’s probably just the wind.
    Al: No, I tell yer — there’s something in there.

    What Al’s talking about? That’s what Bloom’s talking about. It ain’t the wind, and it probably ain’t varmints neither.


  52. Mike says:

    I think it should provide occasion for self-scrutiny concerning what, if any, purpose is served by substantive, first order engagement with the pious and their intellectual advocates over the propositional content of their religious commitments.

    Refutation/argumentation can also have the opposite of the intended effect.

    But seriously, I’ve never made much headway with Kleiner but I have fruitful conversations with Christians and Mormons all the time. I think it helps to work contextually and in that case you need to have some sort of shared space. If I were to try to change one of a Christian’s beliefs I’d work on something that’s not so epiphenomenal and try to come at it from a number of directions including the best argument I can find that works within the belief system they recognize as their own. Then I’m working with a set of beliefs that’s different than the ones Rob is talking about I think. But I’m also unsure; what constitutes “first order” engagement?


  53. Rob says:

    Yes, Mike, that’s sort of how I look at it. Genially indirect approaches, or gently expand upon the commitment to truthfulness even they must at least dimly acknowledge as making potentially undesirable demands for piecemeal adjustments in their outlook. And then, of course, just hope that such encounters have planted a few seeds of self-criticism which will, in time, blossom into self-lacerating heresy. Or at least domesticate them into harmless liberal religious types, and away from their allegiance to right-wing political orthodoxy.

    Michael, your scene reminds me of the exchange between the kid and tobin the expriest in ‘Blood Meridian’ (page 124; when the horses are grazing…).


  54. Rob, I though you might have picked up on the allusion, though you should have included a spoiler alert — I’m only on page 68.

    Good article, Mike.


  55. Kleiner says:

    Two thoughts;

    a) Is the liberal orthodoxy and the Nzian naturalism also subject to needing ‘seeds of self-criticism’ which will in time lead to its own overthrow? The answer should be ‘yes’ – but the tone does not suggest much self-criticism of the atheist dogmas (I am referring to anti-theism in general, but also Rob’s ‘verbal ejaculations’ above). Rob is quick to point out my alleged ‘sophistical craft’. Might he be seeing the speck in the eye of the other while ignoring the beam in his own eye?
    Rob above graciously admits that he is just a camel too. But his pseudo-lion-ness is oriented in a non-Nzian way. Nz is interested in an overcoming of the self. Rob’s fiercest remarks above are for others. Wouldn’t Nz have you turn that fierce, sarcastic, and unrelenting criticism at your own dogmas, not the dogmas of others?

    b) Is the problem that religious people have the wrong political orthodoxy, right-wing instead of left? Who does Rob have in mind here? Catholic social thought hardly fits tidily into ‘right wing political orthodoxy’. Much of Catholic social teaching would make American liberals blush.
    Nz’s attack is extremely effective against a straw man. Now, there are lots of American Christians, for instance, who live out and believe this straw man (your stereotypical small town midwest evangelical comes to mind). If Religioulous and other anti-theist attacks mean to make dumb things look dumb, well then good and congratulations. But let’s not pretend that all Christian thought is so cartoonish and easily pigeon-holed. Rob has already supplied a response, though, in his extremely dismissive remarks above about apologetics (‘little more than an elaborate exercise in post hoc rationalization and reinforcement of pre-established hankerings’.).
    Apparently my sickness is worse than his. I need ‘domestication’ which justifies his clinical engagement with me. But what of Kierkegaard’s diagnosis – isn’t Nz’s sickness the sickness unto death? (something of a hybrid of the second and third types of despair discussed in that text).

    None of this will move us anywhere. Rob probably thinks I am loony and dogmatic. I am pretty sure Mike thinks that. Oh well. Here is perhaps the common ground – do we all agree (with Plato and others) that philosophy is therapeutic? If it is, then let’s set aside the attacks and the ideologies. I agree with Rob that this direct engagement accomplishes little (whether it is the atheist trying to directly upend the theist or the theist trying to directly upend the atheist). Natural reason is the common ground. Despite differences in ‘metaphysical’ commitments, I am generally optimistic about political ends which depend as much on common sense as on metaphysics or theology. — What is the good of man? How to best order our society so that the dignity of all persons is respected? What are our obligations to the poor and marginalized? What does it mean to love? etc etc I never get to talk about these things with anti-theists because either I do something that rubs them wrong (probable) & / or they can’t seem to get over their hatred of my beliefs enough to talk much about anything else. So everyone digs in their heels, considers the other irrational (actually, I don’t think atheists are irrational, in fact I used to be an atheist), and we name call. Thanks, Hitchens, for setting this sort of tone.
    My proposal: let each side read the best of the other side in a charitable way. Let’s assume that the other side has something to say, instead of fancying ourselves as the savior of the other’s clinical disease. I am suspicious of any point of view (political or intellectual) that depends on viewing the opposition as either patently stupid or simply evil.


  56. Mike says:

    Rob probably thinks I am loony and dogmatic. I am pretty sure Mike thinks that.

    I don’t hold any ill will toward you. I don’t think I’d have much of a problem with you if we met in a natural context. As it is we only interact within two unnatural contexts: academic philosophy and the internet. But I think I regress (I mean the opposite of progress, not the philosophical technique) in conversation with you. Also you’re a bit outside my definition of what a philosopher is although I recognize you’re institutionally certified (I myself am only institutionally certifiable in that other way). But as I’ve said previously if some posts were organized around elucidating a text I think that would be useful.

    The philosophy of healers is therapeutic. Diggers are prevalent enough among non-philosophers though they’re a bit less rational about their digging (and so much more human). But I still think in computer science terms so what do I know? “technological thinking” and all that.


  57. Kleiner says:

    I think I am a digger. Perhaps that is why we don’t get very far together, Mike. You don’t see philosopher-diggers as being all that necessary (since diggers are ‘prevalent enough among non-philosophers’) nor helpful (since the non-philosopher diggers are ‘more human’). Of course, I think I am pretty human – essentially human even!
    You are, in short, a Huenemanniac about your philosophy. I am not. That I don’t fit your definition of what a philosopher is might speak to how influential Huenemann has been for you. (And you could do worse as far as mentors go!). For my part, while I don’t think philosophy can be ‘completed’, I don’t think it is characterized principally by skepticism. Skepticism (of the Socratic sort) is instrumental, it is not an end in itself. Like Socrates, I am ever optimistic that the ends of reason are, in principle, achievable. Like Socrates, I have to keep my chin up as we keep failing.
    Of course this is the odd thing – both the Huenemanniac and those like me think we are on the side of Socrates. The former emphasizes elenchus, the latter emphasizees the final cause of inquiry.

    By the way, I am going to put in my diary tonight the one compliment I have received today: ‘I don’t think I’d have much of a problem with you if we met in a natural context’. Thanks, Mike.


  58. Mike says:

    Also there’s a divide between academics and non-academics. Especially those of us who think there’s good reason not to go the academic route. That probably separates me from both of you.

    Also I would guess Charlie thinks my take on Wittgenstein is retarded (and it may be). Charlie is more skeptical than I am but I do consider it a core practice. But essentially since I think it makes some sense to identify myself in relation (though at places in opposition) to Huenemann’s take on philosophy I guess that makes me a Huenemanniac. His take on philosophy is a variant of existentialism, no? It seems broad enough to make all philosophers Huenemanniacs, including me and you.


  59. “I don’t think I’d have much of a problem with you if we met in a natural context.”

    That is very sweet.

    Here’s the thing: Of atheists and theists, at least one group is surely deluded about the existence of gods. (There is of course another group, self-dubbed “agnostics,” who may themselves be deluded, viz., in respect of whether the existence of gods poses A Very Difficult Question.) The delusion(s) is (or are) notoriously stubborn and resistant to updating (particularly after a certain, critical period of development). Which means that by and large, something is simply broken in the belief formation processes of the relevant group. This predicament, it seems to me, forecloses the road to interpretive charity; how could interpretive charity to a delusion be a virtue?


  60. Rob says:

    Michael, as much as I would like to believe it’s so, and more or less assume as much — when it comes to that class of gods for which there’s a problem of evil — it’s unclear to me why one of the two groups is surely deluded for even every other kind of god, such as a First Mover or an all-powerful, all-knowing, and more-or-less-malignant-to-apathetic variety.

    Kleiner, a quotable for the diary:

    One should honor even the enemy in one’s friend. Can you step up close to your friend without going over to him?
    In one’s friend one should have one’s best enemy. You should be closest to him in your heart when you strive against him.

    Zarathustra, ‘On the Friend’


  61. Kleiner says:

    Mike – Yes, that account of philosophy from Huenemann is quite good, broad enough to include just about anyone who thinks of himself as being a ‘philosopher’ in some sense. That makes it a good definition. It is actually very close to what I think, it has very classical tendencies (surprisingly lots of talk about ‘ends’) that have been ‘existentialized’. In practice, I see Huenemannianism emphasizing the skeptical aspect in practice more than I (or Thomas, my model philosopher) would like. In that sense, I resist the claim that we are ‘all Huenemanniacs’. Sorry Charlie!
    By the way, I think we agree on academic philosophy. I went into academic philosophy since I love teaching and I hoped that I might be able to do more philosophy ‘as a way of life’ with this as a career rather than being a shepherd. I might have been wrong, though I think academic philosophy can be instrumentally useful to the broader aim of living philosophically.

    Michael – I see charity as possible because I reject the language of ‘delusion’ from the start. While ‘delusion’ can just mean a fixed false belief, its connotations are much broader. We usually think of delusions in the context of a kind of psychosis, irrational behavior, deception, and illusion. I don’t see that it is necessary to think of atheism or theism as ‘delusional’ in this sense. I think a reasonable case can be made for atheism. And I know atheists (William Rowe of Purdue comes to mind) who think a reasonable case can be made for theism. You are right, one group is wrong, but I don’t see all wrongness as being ‘delusional’. In fact, it is just that kind over-heated rhetoric from the anti-theists (Hitchens, Dawkins, etc) that I find so counter-productive to dialogue between the two camps. As I say above, I am always skeptical of those who think that anyone who disagrees with them is ‘stupid’, ‘delusional’, or ‘evil’. Honest differences of opinion are possible here, are they not?


  62. Rob says:

    Per Benatar (see link below), it seems at first like a fairly straight-forward affair to rank-order kinds of gods according to the relative degree of delusion required to believe in them. Whereas the Christian god would of course entail more delusion than either a First Mover or an all-powerful, all-knowing, and malignant-to-apathetic (PKM), I must confess to some waffling over which of these latter two should rank closer to the Christian god. The epistemically safe pick — PKM — just doesn’t seem to me to reflect an accurate assessment of how truly awful the suffering in the world really is. Whereas ranking PKM farther from the Christian god than the First Mover does.


  63. Clay says:

    David Benatar and his “Optimism Delusion” post was very amusing. He really wants to stand out from his peers. If he really believed the crap he was writing about, he would have chosen to either

    A) Kill himself.


    B) Found some way to help alleviate the suffering that he sees all around him.

    How did you come across this guy’s stuff?


  64. Clay says:

    How do we measure delusion? Do you have a table that shows the amount of delusion required to believe in different religions?


  65. “I am always skeptical of those who think that anyone who disagrees with them is ’stupid’, ‘delusional’, or ‘evil’.”

    That’s not what I’m suggesting. Almost all atheists and all theists are (more or less) equally competent believers generally. But each group believes it has a claim to knowledge about the existence of God about which the other group is (generally) epistemically incorrigible. The only thing for either group to conclude, then, is that the others are simply deluded about the very narrow question regarding the existence of God.

    Again, this is not to say that anyone should go around calling those afflicted with this delusion as “delusional” simpliciter. Besides being impolite, it’s just inaccurate. I certainly do believe that theists are deluded about the existence of God (along with some collateral matters), but otherwise are as nondelusional as the next atheist (including about the nonexistence of gods generally, save, of course, the “One True God” of their own idiolect). Now, exactly what the appropriate stance is to take toward the other group regarding this subject is an interesting question, and I’m not sure I know that answer. But one stance that strikes me as thoroughly inappropriate is interpretive charity. Other kinds of charity — “therapeutic” charity, or perhaps quietistic charity — sure, but not the interpretive kind.

    Caveat: I’m talking about mature interlocutors here who have more or less settled views on the matter. I would take a very different attitude about the value of talking to someone in their late teens or early twenties or was in a period of apparently honest self-searching toward such questions than I would to someone in his late 20s or older who claims to know the answer and is steeped in the ueberabstract natterings of the (a)theologians. At that point, the game is almost certainly lost, whichever team you’re on. Life is short, and if your goal is persuasion (and there are other, legitimate reasons to engage in (a)theological discussions than immediate persuasion, I think), your task lies elsewhere.


  66. Clay, as far as I can tell, David Benatar relates some common sense observations and ties them together in a coherent, appropriately tentative challenge to what he says as the overoptimism displayed by a well-known evangelizing secularist. It would be interesting to know exactly what claims or arguments, precisely, you thought were “crap.” Extra points if you can use actual material from that post to support the conditional reasoning you based on your nonquoting and nonparaphrasing of it.


  67. Rob says:

    Clay’s reaction to Benatar is one that has found striking expression (though in astonishingly varied and nasty forms) in the comments to a recent Psychology Today post (linked below). As someone who finds the basic assumptions of Benatar’s book (condensed into the fourth paragraph of the Dawkins book review) utterly intuitive, I’m genuinely bewildered by the regularity with which the hostile non sequitur (‘he should kill himself’) is hurled at him in place of an understanding of his argument. This can’t help but raise some doubts about the blessings of parenthood.

    The Five Year Ban: Because A Billion Less People Is A Great Place To Start


  68. Mike says:

    Not exactly related but my favorite pessimistic website is life after the oil crash. I especially like how they sell survival/wilderness equipment on the site.

    Not much time for sophistry and illusion this week. I’ve been job searching, going to interviews.


  69. Kleiner says:

    I don’t think the ‘he should consider killing himself’ response is a ‘hostile non-sequitur’. Camus, who like Benatar thinks that life is basically despair and suffering, thinks that suicide is the ‘only serious philosophical question’. Camus opts out of suicide because he thinks one can be happy in the face of the absurd. From what I have read, Benatar does not share that optimism. From Camus’ point of view, then, he ought to either kill himself or is guilty of escapism.
    Anyway, far from not taking the argument seriously, it seems to me that this response takes his argument very seriously.


  70. Rob says:

    I’ve not yet read the book, but I have read some of his trenchant responses to critics (see link below) in which he addresses such a response (which, indeed, in the mere form of ‘should consider is reasonable, but still reflects one hasn’t engaged in Benatar’s argument because, presumably, of resistance to its [for some] counterintuitive conclusion, which, by the way, is not a counsel for suicide).

    Also, I take it that Benatar’s response to Clay’s second point would be that his argument is guided the belief that were his argument accepted, it would result in the reduction of suffering in the world.

    (I guess it’s a function of the fact that the intuitions about human suffering animating Benatar’s argument are ones I share that I find it so deeply ironic that of all of people, it should be Judea-Christian religious ones scoffing at it.)


  71. Rob says:

    As for Clay’s question as to how to measure the degree of delusion entailed by belief in various gods, the metric I invoke is: faithfulness to human suffering. Which is why I’m only half-jesting when I suggest that an all-powerful, all-knowing, but malignant-to-apathetic god may be a relatively more delusion-free deity to believe in than a First Mover or its even further refinement into a Spinozian wisp. Think about it. Not ‘natural’ disasters, tortuously long-drawn-out diseases, and other stuff we typically attribute to a deconsecrated ‘nature’. Think about all the suffering undergone by people at every moment that is conscious of the glee with which it’s being rained upon them by their destroyer. That, it seems to me, is a species of happening in the world that transcends the bounds of a merely godless or First-Mover-made world, and intimates something truly malignant at the heart of being, no?


  72. Kleiner says:

    Rob powerfully presents the problem of evil (though I think natural evil is more problematic than moral evil). No religious person should gloss over it.


  73. Rob says:

    Yes, there are certainly some instances of ‘natural evil’ I would include in my What was He thinking? scrapbook, albeit because of their homage to the ‘moral’ variety, such as this recent case of Pseudomonas aeroginosa bacterium, a truly breathtaking testament to His glory and providence:

    I mean, really, — surely by the first two limbs most of us got the point. But granted that some still didn’t, was the full nine yards really necessary, was such a protracted and complete dismantling of beauty, piece by piece really necessary?


  74. Clay says:

    For Michael Drake,

    I have taken three of Benatar’s statements that I feel are “crap”. He uses these statements (and other statements like these) to support his premise and convince his readers of their own gloomy existence.

    I even put numbers next to the original quote.

    1. “Optimists tend to forget just how much pain and suffering there is in the world.”

    I surmise that optimism is a choice. A situation presents itself where one is given two possible choices and the optimist chooses. He makes the choice that begets hope. The choice that can even activate the reward centers of the brain. The optimist tries to overcome his suffering, instead of just bitching about it.

    I would revise Benatar’s line to say:

    “Optimists CHOOSE to forget just how much pain and suffering there is in the world.”

    2. “The planet is not to blame for all our ills, however. Our own bodies fail us, causing vast amounts of suffering. There are millions of victims of human evil. Even the luckier inhabitants of our planet suffer much discomfort, pain, anxiety, disappointment, fear, grief, death and much else, All of these harms could have been avoided if the people suffering them had never been brought into existence.”

    I wasn’t suggesting that Benatar kill himself. I was pointing out that if he really believes his argument, he would have only a few courses of action. What reason would he have for sticking around? Does he stay here to protect the unborn from existence? Is he reflecting on his own life? If this is how he feels about his own existence, suicide is a valid option.
    However, if he is arguing on the behalf of the non-existent then he should now make a case on why he should be they’re mouthpiece.

    3. “The belief that people are benefited by being brought into existence is, then, an extremely harmful delusion, for it only encourages the creation of further generations of suffering people.”

    It is harmful to encourage pro-creation and should be discouraged. This guy should propaganda for the PRC.

    I just can’t shirk the feeling that his primary motive is to gain attention and sell books.


  75. 1. I don’t see the “tending” vs. “choosing” to forget is a distinction that makes a difference. His claim is that they forget, which I take it you’ve conceded. If the further claim is that it is unambiguously good to “forget” whatever disvalue there is in the world, well, maybe that’s arguable (though I doubt that ‘optimism’ is the correct term for this strategy), but even then, that hardly renders “crap” the suggestion contra that we ought to “remember” and mark well the disvalue that is in the world.

    2. One reason Benatar has for sticking around is that like most humans, he has an innate psychological attachment to life, and to preserving his life. Which in turn is one reason that weighing the benefits of suicide has a different “feel” to it than weighing the benefits of not having a baby.

    3. Yes, writing a book telling everyone that their lives are meaningless and so should sterilize themselves — sheer marketing genius. Move over Tony Robbins!


  76. Clay says:

    1- I believe that optimists by definition choose to move on. I think the difference between choose and tend is significant.

    2- If one is really dedicated to this outlook, death would be very sweet escape from suffering. Suicidal people often fantasize about killing themselves because they ACTUALLY are miserable. Suicide to them seems like a bargain. Since man is a rational animal he can overcome his psychological attachment to life by weighing costs and benefits. If the world is as bad as Benatar describes, the choice should be an easy one.

    3- A didn’t say his book would be a NY Times Bestseller. I do think however that he is trying to distinguish himself from his peers, and that there is at least a small market for his books. Your sarcasm was a lovely deflection.


  77. Rob says:

    Clay, your stipulation that optimism is a choice strikes me as akin to the mishandling of psychological and conceptual reality Christianity celebrates in the form of the virtue of ‘choosing’ to believe. In both cases, the essentially receptive nature of an involuntary psychological phenomenon is treated as something optional (for which, of course, one can then be blamed for having wrongly chosen it). Just as one is to be blameworthy for pessimism (the evidence for whose cognitive [as opposed, admittedly, to practical] advantages over optimism is plentiful, in case it’s not obvious), one is also to be blameworthy for not finding salvation through Christ any more plausible than the existence of unicorns.

    But back to Benatar. The claim that, for most, if not all of us who are in existence, it would be better had we not been born does not, without further argument, mean that we should kill ourselves.

    First off, since the reduction of human suffering is what is fundamentally at issue here, the suffering one’s suicide might cause others may well be reason enough to remain alive. (Who knows, given the truly gauged severity life’s miseries, perhaps that’s the most rationally defensible reason most people have to remain alive?)

    Secondly, please note the syntax: better never to have been. Killing ourselves won’t in itself reduce the number of us unfortunates who, in being, cannot opt for never having been, which is preferable, per Benatar, to being brought into existence. What seems to follow instead is that we should direct our efforts towards discouraging procreation, which perpetuates the harm of coming into being, if not also figure out a way of phasing out the species, so such harm could be brought to a complete end. (I wonder, though, how, psychologically, the executors of such a program, especially during its terminal stages, could proceed without delusion or tremendous anguish. Perhaps their predecessors would have to have poisoned them with some variety of hinterworldy expectations? But then, I suppose, that might raise the risk of a preventing the program’s completion.)


  78. Rob says:

    Clay: “Optimists CHOOSE to forget just how much pain and suffering there is in the world.”

    I think you’re on to something here, but that there might be more voluntariness at work in optimism than in pessimism — because the former is in a sense parasitic on the latter, perhaps akin to the way that hinterworldliness is parasitic on the world, slave morality is parasitic on noble morality, and what Zarathustra is getting at when he observes:

    Verily, not in worlds behind and redemptive drops of blood: but the body is what they too believe in most, and their own body is their thing-in-it-self.


  79. Clay,

    1. Al says to Bob, “You tend to have breakfast in the mornings.” Bob replies, “No, I choose to have breakfast in the mornings.” Has Bob rebutted Al’s claim that Bob tends to have breakfast in the mornings?

    2. Rob’s made the point clear enough: as a simple matter of logic, “x ought never to have been” does not entail “x ought now cease to be.”

    This talk about suicide as “sweet escape,” besides mischaracterizing the psychology of suicide, is really neither here nor there. Our drive to persevere isn’t simply some rationally inert fact to be “overcome”; it is itself a consideration (and only one among others) that factors into the very “weighing [of] costs and benefits” of persevering to which you refer.

    3. My sarcasm embedded a pretty straightforward point that your response simply ignores (not to say “deflects”): given that the strategy outlined is a manifestly bad one if one’s goal is to sell books, the claim that Benatar’s “primary motive is to gain attention and sell books” doesn’t appear to make a whole lot of sense.


  80. Clay says:

    I think the eternal optimist can be summed by the old saying “Ignorance is Bliss”. Ignorance is awesome because it leads to less suffering. Perhaps we should recommend that everyone stop reading and thinking too.

    Suicidal people can have many different reasons for killing themselves. I still believe that if I adopted Benatar’s theories completely, suicide would seem to be a “sweet escape”.

    The basic premise is “Existence is bad because one suffers.” this leads to “It is better to never have been born”.

    The defense “x shouldn’t kill itself because all the other letters will suffer more” is a good one.

    Maybe X is really just afraid that there is a God and that killing himself will bring on more suffering.

    This is a fun debate.


  81. Clay says:


    I checked and the man is indeed selling books.


  82. Rob says:

    As a psychological matter, you might be right, Clay: maybe genuine acceptance of Benatar’s argument would have the effect of inducing one to suicide — at least for those it induced to compellingly assess the bad experience of their lives as considerably greater than the good. As one reviewer of Benatar’s book concludes:

    I highly recommend it, noting that the beneficial soul searching that it can cause feels quite harmful at times. I am glad that I did not miss the experience!

    perhaps for some, it would do more than feel harmful, but be harmful.

    (Perhaps the same could be said about the different kind of acceptance of the thought of eternal recurrence Nietzsche intended. I know that, for my part, I find it abhorrent with greater frequency than a stimulus for celebration.)


  83. Clay, yes, the book is currently ranked no. 165,386 — not bad for a work of analytic philosophy. I guess that definitely proves Benatar’s primary goal was to sell books. You just don’t shoot up to 165,386 without picking a really sensationalist topic.

    Though Benatar could have picked something much sexier, like, say, Old English (current ranking: #109,114),
    The Constitution of Agency (#94,071), or
    Hegel’s Practical Philosophy (#81,683). Now these people know how to sell books!


  84. robsica says:

    Although a obdurate sense of cleanliness has prevented me from indulging in a comprehensive survey of the full treasury of anesthetics devoted to the Problem of Evil, this one, as noted by AC Grayling, must surely count among the genre’s most dismayingly curious of contortions:

    I found the Beale-Polkinghorne explanation of natural evil (tsunamis and earthquakes that drown or crush tens of thousands, childhood cancers, and other marks of benign providence) as disgusting, though it is novel, as any that other apologists trot out. They say that the deity allows natural evils to happen because “he” has given creation “freedom to be and to make itself” – thus imputing free will to “creation” to explain natural evil in the same way as moral evil is imputed to the free will of humans. Heroic stuff.


  85. Rob says:

    Here, if anyone’s interested, is an extremely lucid, accessible and — which really should preempt god-apologists’ favorite subterfuge of whining over tone or rhetoric — decorous presentation of the problem of evil:

    It appears in, THINK, a fairly recent journal that is nicely geared towards a general audience. (Simon Blackburn, Marc Hauser, Antony Flew and Colin McGinn are among some of its previous contributors. A free issue can be accessed here:


  86. Rob says:

    This Plantinga interview is priceless — especially the final minute in which he offers a solution to the problem of natural evil:


  87. Well I’m certainly glad someone solved it.

    Closer to Truth has gotten very weird. It used to be a simple round table with a range of speakers, some interesting and thoughtful, some not. Now it’s become this bizarre, ersatz, mostly unwatchable account of One Man’s Personal Journey to track these guests down in remote locations and ask them fawning questions designed to elicit Wisdom.


  88. Rob says:

    I’ve actually enjoyed the few I’ve watched thus far — characteristically funny Dennett on God, Weinberg nailing Pascal’s wager, Chalmers on consciousness, and, especially, Plantinga ( –it’s one thing to merely read a contemporary exemplar of that “canny skepticism”[AC 10, 55] which provides that “secret path on which [the god-hankering] can pursue their ‘heart’s desires’ on their own initiative and with the best scientific decorum” [GM 3.25], but an entertainment of an entirely different magnitude to actually see!).


  89. Rob says:

    Chastened by the good advice of the article Kleiner recommends, I’d like to make some amends for my snideness above by sharing a passage from Kierkegaard.

    If there were no eternal consciousness in a human being, if underlying everything there were only a wild, fermenting force writhing in dark passions that produced everything great and insignificant, if a bottomless, insatiable emptiness lurked beneath everything, what would life be then but despair? If such were the case, if there were no sacred bond that tied humankind together, if one generation after another rose like leaves in the forest, if one generation succeeded another like the singing of birds in the forest, if the human race passed through the world as a ship through the sea, as the wind through the desert, a thoughtless and futile activity, if an eternal oblivion always hungrily lay in wait for its prey and there were no power strong enough to snatch it away — then how empty and hopeless life would be! But that is why it is not so, and as God created man and woman, so he fashioned the hero and the poet or orator. (Fear and Trembling, beginning of second chapter)

    This passage (like Dylan’s acoustic recording, with barking dogs, of Every Grain of Sand) somehow commands an entirely different response from me. It’s as if his starting point is such a painfully and truthfully acute grasp of reality as to render criticism of where he proceeds from it petty, impertinent, and beside the point ( –Wittgenstein: “laugh, if you can”); or as if it makes me doubt my own saucy atheist’s glib endorsement of life as a wretched and transitory affair of absurdly complicated pieces of meat in a bottomlessly indifferent universe — as if the challenge rang: ‘If you really grasped, as I do, how awful it is, then you’d go my way, too!’ In any case, I truly admire how Kierkegaard here scorns argumentative engagement of the Plantinga sort.


  90. Huenemann says:

    I have nearly the same response you do, Rob, minus the angst. I’d rather say: “If [there were no purpose, and everything is accidental], then … well, what did you expect, you moron? Can you conceive of some great big purpose that would make existence anything other than an ironic satire of meaningfulness?” Good riddance to the kind of significance Kk invents.


  91. Rob says:

    A nice talk radio show episode featuring David Benatar (Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming into Existence):


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