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atheism versus agnosticism

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Emma Woolgatherer
Posts: 2976
Joined: February 27th, 2008, 12:17 pm

Re: atheism versus agnosticism

#181 Post by Emma Woolgatherer » October 7th, 2010, 4:20 pm

Latest post of the previous page:

animist wrote:Well yes he is, sort of ; this paradox is the subject of the original article, but I think Ben, who does not mention it, is indeed saying that inconsistencies in empathy can distort judgement in this way, not only because of his article's title but because he actually mentions cases of big corporations getting with murder, virtually, because the number of victims was a barrier to empathy; obviously, as you say, if one of the many victims is made the focus of attention, the effect lessons. Surely the implication of the article is that irrational (ie capricious) variations in empathy, whatever the cause, can overcome reason and consistency in this way, whereas there is no "reason to question the value of reason", in your words.
But this particular example of irrationality is just one among many. I've just lent my Stuart Sutherland book to someone, so I don't have it to hand, but he looks at several types of errors in reasoning (including overconfidence, conformity, biased assessment of evidence and inconsistency) and the roots of the errors are not specifically about empathy. They're about ... being human.
animist wrote:This is only to point out that empathy is fallible and manipulable, not to deny its value altogether: without empathy there would be no philanthropists and probably no utilitarians. The utilitarian reckoning must, however, surely be more comprehensive and therefore reliable than mere empathy as a basis to making such judgments, simply because that is its intention: it is active, not passive.
To clarify, I'm not advocating empathy as the basis of human morality; I just believe that it inevitably is, along with other things like egoism and a sense of fairness, as well as, of course, reason. All these things have their problems and limitations, and we have to acknowledge that. But they're what we have to work with, and all have to be taken account of if we want a workable, practical morality. I don't think utilitarianism does take account of them all.
animist wrote:The video - thanks, have run it twice; it is very worthy, but IMO pretentious and naive nevertheless, being nearly self-contradictory and hubristic in its jumps, and simply wrong in many ways. I must admit it seemed odd in its own context, yet oddly appropriate in the context of this dialogue between us, that Rifkin lists utilitarianism along with terms like violence, aggression, and self-interest!
Yes, I thought that was interesting. Rifkin's view of utilitarianism is not at all like yours. He sees it as being all about maximising utility rather than minimising suffering. (See, for example, "An afternoon with Jeremy Rifkin".) He's not the only one who thinks that way, though. And it's not entirely surprising; the name "utilitarianism" does rather suggest it. But yes, I agree with "pretentious", "naive" and most definitely "hubristic". It's an old idea dressed up to look novel and given a sense of urgency and excitement by the speed of the delivery and of the cartoon. Still, I think there's a kernel of something useful in there, and I want to look at the science in more detail.
animist wrote:What is so new about empathy, and how about sadism and callousness, also the comfort that many get from knowing that others are in a still worse situation? Sorry to be negative, but I am sceptical out new ideas which claim to "show" what humans are like ("soft-wired" and all that). As I am quite old, I remember various things like this, including sociobiology, and I think that humans are infinitely variable and that societies both reflect and amplify, in incomprehensible ways, this variability.
Although I think "soft-wired" is a considerable improvement on "hard-wired", I dislike that sort of language, too. But I like the idea that empathy isn't new at all, but very, very old. Did you see the news the other day about archaeological evidence for compassion (see this York University press release)? Perhaps compassion is different from empathy, but it's all the same sort of thing, innit?
animist wrote:He mentions aggression towards the end, but I feel that it is a bit unbalanced to hope that empathy may win out over this (I appreciate that he is not taking this for granted); what about the competitive side of human nature, which - much as I dislike it in principle - has no doubt been a stimulating force for creation as well as destruction?
Yep. I agree.
animist wrote:Leading on from this, his mention of the planet etc reminds me that I am a pessimist about global warming: I just don't see empathy (or even enlightened self-interest) as defeating the forces of darkness without some political upheaval, which itself seems unlikely. It induces me to think that a benevolent, socialist - and emphatically utilitarian - dictator may at some point be needed after all!
I'm a pessimist, too. But I'd be equally pessimistic about a benevolent utilitarian dictator, even a socialist one!
animist wrote:I thank you for your all feedback, which is making me - for the first time in many years - convinced that utilitarianism is both meaningful (if flawed) and practicable.
Ooh-er. What was it exactly that convinced you that it was practicable?!

Emma

thundril
Posts: 3607
Joined: July 4th, 2008, 5:02 pm

Re: atheism versus agnosticism

#182 Post by thundril » November 2nd, 2010, 3:02 pm

Isn't this one of those lovely situations, in which, as so often, the impossible turns out to be unnecessary?
Of course one cannot prove the non-existence of a story-character, however improbably presented.. Neither can anyone prove the existence of a story-character, however vividly imaged. But why would anyone want to?
I feel completely, one hundred percent certain of the fictionality of the gods, goblins or costumed heroes whose stories I have devoured or been force-fed over the years.
I knew a guy once who was certain he was Gandalf.
What would be the point of breaking his little dream?

OTOH, when the likes of Bush, Bin Laden or Blair uses a version of the god-story as justification for violence, it is understandable if some people see the proof of god's non-existence as a way of undermining the war-mongers' lies. But, a; it doesn't work, and b; there are perfectly sound arguments against war which do not involve embarking on an interminable, and indeterminable, philosophical wrangle.

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