The Basics

For thousands of years philosophers have gotten the science of our existence wrong. They have mistakenly assumed that we know or perceive the world around us; we do not, we cannot. They have believed that our sense perceptions are direct (or indirect) perceptions of the existence outside us; they are not, they cannot be.

Instead we are organisms that bump into the world—and the world bumps into us. For many of these bumps our bodies send electro-chemical signals to its brain. These electro-chemical signals are not sensations, they are not experienced. From them the brain selectively (usually but not necessarily) creates sensations which we call sense perceptions, but which in fact are simulacra—experiences created by the brain to stand in for the world around us (and in some cases stand in for our own bodies).

In some vertebrates, and certainly in mammals, the brain creates a visual simulacrum with which all other simulacra are more or less correlated or integrated. This integration creates the experience of a world around us. However, it is not the world around us: it is an assembled, (more or less) integrated simulacrum of the world around us.

We do not perceive and we do not know the world, we experience and know this simulacrum, created by the brain, which stands in for and represents the world.

The ability to create simulacra from bumps with the surrounding world is something that has evolved as organisms have evolved. This includes the evolution of simulacra which do not stand in for the outside world, but rather represent the organism’s aims or state of being in the form of urges, feelings, or emotions. These aid decision-making in a complex world.

In some species, simulacra have evolved which simulate the brain’s other simulacra; these are sensations which we experience as meanings, and which form the basis of language and cognition in humans (and perhaps in other mammals). In humans, the brain attempts to integrate these sensations of meaning into simulacra of knowledge, overall models which we can experience as understandings of the world and of ourselves.

Because we are continually bumping into the world, we are constantly in position to test these understandings of the world for reliability. In general—despite unfortunate exceptions—we strive to develop knowledge-simulacra which provide adequate (if not maximal) reliability regarding our interactions with the world and other organisms. More recently, the human pursuit of science involves using careful observation and deliberate experimentation to create models which have what Victor Stenger called point-of-view invariance. This scientific process has turned out to be extremely useful to human beings.

I have laid out a bit of the basic science of our existence. We need to understand these basics before we can build a coherent philosophical model which fits the world and our existence within it.


4-22-2016 > this was edited for clarity since its initial posting

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Naturalism and Knowledge

We are living at the crossroads between supernaturalism and naturalism: the world is gradually abandoning the first for the second. Conservative Christians like to say there is a culture war going on, and there is. But it has more than one focal point. Religious vs secular, Islam vs the West, even believers vs non-believers are minor conflicts in comparison to the major focus: supernatural vs natural worldview.

We all have a secular side, even the most religious among us. Separation of state and church is about creating public space for this secular side of us. This benefits not just atheists but theists as well. In fact, the need for secular space is the direct result of religious diversity. (The absence of such space corresponds with religious monopoly. No surprise then that the West is better at making public space for the secular aspects of our life than are most Islamic countries.) So long as there are a variety of healthy but diverse religions practiced in a population, there will be a strong need for separation of church and state.

Although separation of religious power from government power is an essential battle, it is not specifically a battle fought between the religious and the non-religious. It is instead about preventing the monopoly of a particular religion’s viewpoint being imposed through the power of government. Although an important issue, this is one that is political (a matter of basic freedom) rather than one that is strictly cultural (a matter of worldview).

It becomes cultural as well as political, however, when the majoritarian religion which attempts to dominate government embraces theocracy. All too common in Islamic nations, theocracy has its adherents in the United States as well. For example,

Cover of "Visions of Reality: What Fundam...

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So let us be blunt: we must use the doctrine of religious liberty to gain independence for Christian schools until we train up a generation of people who know that there is no religious neutrality, no neutral law, no neutral education, and no neutral civil government. Then they will get busy in constructing a Bible-based social, political and religious order which finally denies the religious liberties of the enemies of God.
—Gary North, quoted in quoted in Albert J. Menendez, Visions of Reality: What Fundamentalist Schools Teach (Prometheus Books, 1993)

The best method of forestalling theocracy is through the expansion of religious diversity. The goal must be to reduce the dominant sect to minority status. This would not be necessary in the United States if the Supreme Court consistently embraced the principle of separation of church and state. But it does not, and so the doctrines of Christianity necessarily become politicized, and appropriate targets for those who love religious freedom. Christianity will have enemies so long as Christians take advantage of government to impress their religious practices on all.

But the key cultural transformation of the age lies elsewhere: educated people around the world are converting from a supernatural worldview to a natural one. The former is inherently monotheist/polytheist/deist; the latter inherently atheist/adeist. Freethinkers tend to gravitate toward atheism or agnosticism because they see the crevasses in the various supernatural worldviews popular today. But I would assert that atheism doesn’t really work in a vacuum: it requires, or at least belongs to, a naturalistic framework.

Atheists, in other words, should not only be saying that supernaturalism is false; they should also be asserting the logical corollary: naturalism is true. I find modern atheism frustrating sometimes because many atheists seem to back away from this obvious step. They are eager to declare that theism doesn’t work, but strangely afraid to step beyond that.

What does embracing a natural worldview mean? It means more than merely saying there is insufficient evidence of a God. If atheism stops dead in its tracks there, at “insufficient evidence,” then it amounts to nothing more than doubt about some forms of supernaturalism. Like Galileo backtracking out of fear, it is equivalent to admitting “naturalism is where the evidence points, but I’m afraid to go there: let me play safe and just say there is insufficient evidence for God.”

In stopping early, atheists leave the underlying premises of supernaturalism intact and often uncontested. I must admit that doesn’t sit well with me. I became an atheist not because the evidence for theism was insufficient, but rather because I saw that the underlying premises of supernaturalism had to be false and, in complementary fashion, that the underlying premises of naturalism were sustainable and even compelling. “Supernaturalism must be false, naturalism is sustainable, therefore there is no God.”  Compare that to “There is no evidence for God or gods, therefore supernaturalism is unsupported.”

It is time for atheists to move fully to the other side of the divide between the worldviews. Too many atheists and agnostics (so it seems to me) still have a foot on the supernatural side. They hang balanced between irreconcilable worldviews for no reason at all. Except this: their misunderstanding of the underlying incompatibility of the two worldviews. Rejecting one ought to go part and parcel with embracing the other.

Perhaps the fundamental difference between them concerns the place and role of intelligence and its accoutrements. Supernaturalism places intelligence beyond the brain; naturalism places it within. Supernaturalism sees knowledge as something basic which underlays God’s creation like a blueprint: information is out there in the world, waiting to be discovered by us. Naturalism, in contrast, sees knowledge (and information) as something we create on the inside (within human consciousness) and apply to the world around us to our benefit.

For the theist, then, knowledge is something present from the beginning of the world which our minds can pluck like an apple from the tree of existence. For the atheist, knowledge is a faculty which came into existence only after millions of years of natural selection: not an apple to be plucked from the world, but an inborn capability of our species most beneficial to pursue.

Mull that distinction if you want to understand why theists and atheists so often talk past each other.

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Secular Solemnizing Statement

Atheists don’t do invocations or prayers. We recite no magic words, beseech no deities, invoke no figments of imagination for public worship. But this doesn’t mean that atheists are incapable of language of the sort appropriate (according to SCOTUS) to solemnize a session of federal, state or local government.

Without such solemnizing language to evoke our most cherished illusions—apparently—government might fall apart. So say the Christians who have controlled such solemnizing for the past 200 years, though one might suspect they are more concerned with creating a public aura of authority for their particular religious practices than abetting democracy.

So in the spirit of providing a secular alternative to religious invocations and prayers, I submit the following for use at government functions.

Life, wrapped on each end by oblivion, is all we have.

Pale Blue Dot

There is nothing else. Let us therefore not drop our heads, but raise them and look at the world bravely and honestly.

As Carl Sagan wrote in his wonderful book, Pale Blue Dot…

Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there—on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

In the vastness of the universe, earth is small and insignificant and temporary. Sagan continued…

Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.

So it is. Life is a bright and wonderful season between walls of enveloping darkness. For one transient moment we have our day.

Like sparklers we transit the darkness, flashing into the bright rich colors of this brief day.

We each travel our short distance lit with the quiet insouciance of life, between vast walls of oblivion.

In this brief moment exists all our hopes and dreams, our pleasures and pains, our joys, our sadness, our love for one another.

In this brief and transient sparkle across the darkness, we have our all.

We live, and then we pass the brightness on to others before our own extinction in the dark.

On this fragile blue­-green planet. Alone in the vastness of the universe. Alone with each other amid the ever­stretching darkness.

But what brightness it is, this bit of life on earth! What sparkle and color and brilliance we have for our brief day! To share this with each other, to live it and joy in it together!

So we gather as members of this brief community of life, working together as we must.

Let us endeavor, collectively and cooperatively, to do our very best to preserve and improve the brightness of this transitory bit of existence. By our communal effort, let us enhance life on this small, pale blue dot we call home.

We have each other. There is nothing else.

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An Aura of Ownership

The purpose of solemnizing prayer before a legislative session is to create an aura of ownership over the proceedings which follow. Five Catholics on the Supreme Court find that permissible.

Although bringing church to work feels wholly comfortable to the Catholic conservatives on the court, no large corporation in the US would countenance invocations or prayers before business meetings: the inappropriateness would be more than obvious. It might even be seen as religious harassment, something the justices can’t imagine so long as the prayers occur in a government venue rather than a corporate one.

The court has made it clear that our Constitution is no barrier to the sense of ownership Christians love to assert over government meetings. From the beginning Christians have taken advantage of their majority status to push their particular religious practices (such as prayer or invocations to the Lord) into sessions of government at federal, state, and local levels. James Madison understood how pernicious such infringements can be. After issuing a proclamation for a national day of prayer during the war of 1812 (a war during which the British burned the white house), Madison came to regret it for “seem[ing] to imply and certainly nourish the erroneous idea of a national religion.”

But the Catholic court has decided otherwise, and if we are to dislodge this sense of Christian ownership over our government, we must attack Christianity at it weakest point. What is this weakness? It is the barbaric morality and pagan doctrines that hang round its neck like rotting flesh. This 1900 year old religion is an ancient carcass preventing Americans from moving forward and taking care of human needs in the modern world. We will make that plain. Held back by the rot of their religion, many Christians have embraced torture, prejudice, and ignorance—a fact captured repeatedly in polls.

If we are to turn American government around, we must reduce Christianity to minority status. We must ridicule and attack and expose it. We must force believers to see their religion from the outside, and face its fundamental flaws and absurdities.

The Catholics on the court have left no other way open to us. They have enshrined a political role for their religion, and in doing so have made Christianity fair game.

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Moral Realism

I strongly recommend this post on moral realism by Geoff Sayre-McCord (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy).

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Naturalism & Supernaturalism

One way of distinguishing supernaturalism and varying shades of naturalism is to consider them as providing different solutions to the “problem” of our lack of complete knowledge of the world. It is evident that we lack complete knowledge of the physical world, that is to say of “nature”. Why?

The supernaturalist says incomplete knowledge is inevitable because nature has its ultimate source in something which is beyond nature and (more importantly) beyond human knowability. This “beyond” is something immaterial (non-physical) and because of this it is something that lies outside the possibility of empirical knowledge. (There are different versions of supernaturalism which correspond to different claims about the “beyond.”)

Naturalism has to provide an alternate explanation for our lack of complete knowledge of the world, and there are different flavors of naturalism depending on the explanation given. I’ll touch on a few here.

1) Complete knowledge is possible, we just haven’t gotten there yet. This is the position taken by Bertrand Russell in Has Man a Future? Someday, scientists will know everything there is to know about the world – in a few hundred (or thousand) years, our knowledge will be complete. Advocates of naturalism who take this view today are often quick to accuse theists of a “God of the Gaps” fallacy. Sure, there is a lot we don’t know—yet. Give us time.

2) Complete knowledge is possible in theory, but not in practice. This version of naturalism maintains that although there are no theoretical limits to complete empirical knowledge of the world, there are practical limits that will prevent us from ever achieving the goal. Among other things, this means there will always appear to be room for a “God of the Gaps”.

3) Complete knowledge is impossible in both theory and practice. This is because knowing is an inventive process which in principle can be carried on ad infinitum. It is not a process of mining “facts” already embedded in the physical world because, quite simply, that’s not where facts exist (facts are sensations, aspects of animal/human consciousness). We don’t discover knowledge but invent it, and then winnow out what is most useful (i.e. “true”) by adopting point of view invariance (which provides objectivity) and by testing using the scientific method (which provides reliability). The world does not contain facts—we do.

This last version of naturalism maintains a view of knowledge that is far removed from that employed by supernaturalism. As a consequence, it can be difficult for people in one camp to understand the reasoning of those in the other. We live in different worldviews, if not in different worlds.

Supernaturalism assumes that the physical world is inherently knowable in itself, but that human knowledge will always be incomplete because there’s more to the story than just the physical world. My preferred version of naturalism assumes the opposite—that the physical world is inherently unknowable in that sense because it contains no mental substrate—no blueprint. But importantly, this is not so much a claim about the nature of the physical world as it is a claim about the nature of knowing.

Humans evolved with a capability to invent factual knowledge about anything we can detect and distinguish, and in that sense we absolutely do know the world. However, the physical world is other to that knowledge, precisely because knowledge is a simulacrum. The facts we know are experiences in consciousness, and like all aspects of consciousness they are nothing other than sensations we have. The physical world (exclusive of organisms) contains no sensations according to the natural worldview, and therefore contains no facts, no knowledge, no blueprint.

When we know the world, we do not know its nature. We know (at best) a useful model of its nature – thus our knowledge will always be incomplete. This is a consequence of the nature of knowledge—it evolved to be useful. But it is also a consequence of the inherent mismatch between knowledge and the natural world. Whatever the nature of the physical world is, it is not the same as the nature of knowledge, otherwise there would be no such mismatch.

The supernatural worldview paints an entirely different picture of these matters, so much so that it is a colossal struggle to explain the underlying concepts of a natural worldview to theists. Even among like-minded advocates of naturalism there is a great amount of confusion. This can be chalked up, I think, to the fact that we are all struggling to abandon the inapplicable terminology of supernaturalism—struggling even to recognize that it is now inapplicable—so that we may completely enter a natural worldview.

It is that different.


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Cartesian Doubt

Philosophy begins with science.

Meditations, 1641 edition

How do we know this? We can try to begin with philosophy. We can start with Cartesian doubt. Unfortunately for the history of philosophy, Rene Descartes did not take his first philosophy far enough. He began his night of doubt by questioning the reliability of his senses and came to the recognition that a demon—perhaps beneficent, perhaps malicious—could be the source of all his sensations and thoughts. But all was not lost. Asking “do I even exist?” he noticed, entailed something existing to ask the question. Furthermore, that he experienced this something-asking-the-question as himself was enough to demonstrate that some sort of himself existed, even if produced by a demon. In short, thinking about his existence proved in some fundamental way—Descartes realized—that he must exist. In this sense his existence could not be denied, even by God.

That was easy enough. But there are other things to doubt. Descartes recognized the difficulty of determining whether dreams were more real than waking life—a problem famously presented in the inner chapters of the Chuang-Tzu. But here Descartes failed to recognize that there is an identity problem. The problem is this: my thoughts often go away—when I sleep and do not dream, when I am knocked out, when I am subjected to general anesthesia (although we can excuse Descartes for not being aware of this last). When my thoughts resume, how do I know I am the same “I”? Certainly I feel that I’m a continuing entity, but that could be a simple trick of Descartes’ demon.

And there is an even deeper identity problem. My thoughts are never the same. They are diverse, not just in subject but in content and feel. What connects all these thoughts into a single “me”? We must remember that for Descartes, the word “thought” encompasses not just our internal dialog of words, but all of our feelings and sensations. What unites a pain in the knee with a feeling of elation? What unites a smell of roses with an experience of blueness? What unites any of these with my thought “Cogito ergo sum”?

And there is a continuity problem. One moment I may be thinking about what I am and if I even exist, and the next moment I may be wondering where I should eat lunch. A moment later I feel a muscle twitch in my arm. Perhaps my arm, hunger and lunch are all illusions, but nonetheless I experienced these in succession without any way of explaining (if experiences are all I am) how or why one led to the next. That is the continuity problem, and it only increases the difficulty of identifying all these experiences as the same me. (Of course, I have a sense of them as “me” but that could be a trick by the demon.)

Furthermore, what separates my thoughts from yours? What makes mine belong to me and yours belong to you? It does not seem to be something that our thoughts and feelings themselves control. They just are, and in being seem to belong to me or to you. But why?

At first philosophy, all I know about myself is that I am a bundle of experiences. Or I seem to be. But what “bundles” these experiences together? What makes them mine? What am I—what can I possibly be—that I experience this bundle as myself? These questions need answers, but at this point it is unclear how we can answer them.

Descartes’ Error

Descartes makes a logical mistake here. “I am, I exist—that is certain; but for how long do I exist?” he asks himself. “For as long as I think,” he answers, “for it might perhaps happen, if I totally ceased thinking, that I would at the same time completely cease to be.” From this he draws the invalid conclusion that “[thought] alone is inseparable from my nature.” Yet, if thinking proves his existence, it doesn’t follow that thought alone is inseparable from his nature. And it certainly does not follow, as he writes shortly afterwards, that the

knowledge of my being does not depend on things whose existence is not yet known to me, and consequently and even more certainly, it does not depend on any of those things that I can picture in my imagination. …

But what then am I? A thinking being. What is a thinking being? It is a being which doubts, which understands, which conceives, which affirms, which denies, which wills, which rejects, which imagines also, and which perceives. (All quotes from Second Meditation, Laurence J. Lafleur translation, 1960.)

In attempting to tease out his nature from cogito ergo sum Descartes has fallen into a trap. True enough, thinking about his existence is logically necessary if he is to have knowledge of his existence. But neither his existence nor the nature of his existence is logically dependent upon his having knowledge of his existence. Contrary to his claim, it is entirely possible that Descartes’ “knowledge of my being” is dependent on something whose existence is at this point unknown to him. Logically, for example, it could be dependent upon the actual existence of his physical body (even though he currently can’t be sure it’s real) since it could be his body which generates his thoughts. He has confused “knowledge of my existence” with “nature of my existence”—”I know I am” with “what I am.”

But accusing Descartes of a logical error raises the specter of another doubt. How can we know if our sense of what is logical and illogical is reliable? Where does “logic” come from? And whence my sense of what is logical? Perhaps the demon instilled me with this sense of logic—how then can I know it’s reliable? How am I to determine whether my claim that Descartes made a logical mistake has any truth value? And the same goes for my sense of “truth.” Is it anything more than a preference I have—a preference instilled in me willy-nilly by God or demon?

It seems that we are stuck. If our sense of logic and truth is not reliable, then our thoughts can never be reliable and we are at a dead end, as far as philosophy goes. We must give up on rational thought. So what next? How can we proceed? Or can we?

Of course we don’t know that logic and truth are unreliable. We don’t know if they have a universal basis, or if they’re just something locally instilled in us by the demon. And we don’t know the demon’s game—are its intentions beneficent or malicious?

Rationalism dies here. Analytic philosophy dead-ends. At this point we can only proceed with working assumptions. We are forced to be pragmatic and see where that gets us. And our first working assumption must be that logic is reliable enough, that the tools we have to determine truth are valid enough—at any rate our thoughts are useless (outside of social contexts) without these assumptions. And being pragmatic, we will try to maximize the usefulness of our thoughts. Let’s see where this approach gets us.

It doesn’t lead us to certain knowledge about our nature or the nature of the world—we’ve already seen that. Analytically, we can’t get to final answers. But we seem to have other tools—we can use our senses to study the world empirically, we can develop synthetic knowledge of ourselves and the world using the scientific method (which seems to be a method of maximizing the usefulness of our thoughts). How does this help? Well, we can lay down some possible world views—supernatural, natural, and so on—and see which one seems to fit best with what we discover. Our answers will never be final, since they will rely on empirical knowledge—but maybe this fact itself is an essential component of understanding ourselves.

Back to Identity

But let’s not get too far ahead. We still have an identity problem. Before continuing, it may be fitting to summarize where our Cartesian doubt has left us. Our senses are sometimes not reliable, but it may be that neither are our thoughts, even our sense of logic and truth may be something local instilled in us by a demon. We can know that we exist (at least when we ask the question), and we can presume that we exist whenever we have experiences, but we can’t say what we (as these experiences) are or where we (as these experiences) come from, or what (outside of the demon) provides identity to these experiences we think of as us, or what separates your experiences, dear reader, from mine.

We have not yet—but we must—push these questions to the demon. We will want to do this because if we are reliant on the demon for our existence and identity, then we have to seek the answers to our questions there. When we do so, we discover that if the demon also has thoughts and experiences—if it is through thinking and experiencing that the demon instills us with the same—then it also has an identity problem. Where do its thoughts come from, and what makes those thoughts belong to it? What gives the demon its continuity and identity? We could postulate a regression of demons, but that seems never-ending.

Maybe we are thinking about this wrongly.

The problem with thoughts, we saw earlier, is that they are never the same. Because of this simple fact, there is a problem of continuity and identity. And we must remember that when we talk of “thoughts” we are talking about consciousness—about everything we seem to experience. The smell of cinnamon, the redness of a cardinal flying past the window, the taste of garlic, the dull throbbing of a headache, the excitement of winning a poker hand, thoughts about existence, even thoughts about gods and demons—these experiences are so diverse, so unlike each other that we are hard pressed to identify anything they have in common. (Note that we are not talking about what these experiences reference, but about their internal content. It doesn’t matter to the point at hand whether their references are valid or invalid, exist or do not exist.)

Now, one thing that seems to unite them is that they are all sensations of one sort or another—they are all experienced, yes. But what provides continuity from one to the next, what unites them into my experiences, my sensations? Perhaps I can point outside myself to the demon. But if I attribute these experiences which make up me to an external demon—how does that demon go about creating the experiences that become me, and separating them from the experiences that become you?

Of course, the demon faces the same dilemma—if it also experiences thoughts and feelings.  It seems, logically (and therefore provisionally, given our uncertainties about logic), that the only way to resolve this without an infinite regression of demons, is to assume that the demon does not have thoughts and feelings. Whatever the demon is, it is not like us. It is not experiential. Making this step allows us to have a demon who is our source and accounts for our identity, yet does not have to face its own Cartesian doubt. This move, it seems to me, brings clarity.

In fact, it seems that the only good way to resolve the continuity and identity problems which exist when we consider experience by itself, is to postulate a source for our experiences which—whatever it is—is not experience. If this source is our demon, then it is a demon that does not think or feel. This doesn’t mean we know what the nature of the demon is, but we do know what it is not. And that is a start.

However, one thing we can say about the demon’s nature is this: whatever that nature is, it encompasses the capacity to create our experiences. We must still ask how the demon distinguishes my experiences from yours—the answer, perhaps, is that it doesn’t have to. Perhaps we are products of different demons, since nothing forces us to conclude that there must be a single demon. This thought raises the interesting prospect that Descartes’ demon—and ours—is none other than the body itself. By postulating physical bodies, we have a potential (and common sense) resolution to the continuity and identity issues that have been raised. It would follow that the nature of our bodies must encompass the capacity to create the sensations (including thoughts) which we experience as us.

Previously we saw that when Cartesian doubt is followed to the end, we reach a point where we must abandon rationalism. Even our sense of logic and truth can be questioned, and our only resort is to embrace them with reservations. Like our senses, we cannot be sure of their reliability. Nevertheless, we seem to have no other tools with which to know the world. We have no other manner of addressing our doubts. Answers with rational, logical certainty are beyond us. But we have the usefulness of the scientific method and that is the next best thing. It allows us to move forward from our Cartesian doubt in a pragmatic manner—by postulating alternative world views (naturalism, supernaturalism, etc) and seeing which one best fits the evidence from science and fits the results of our attempt at first philosophy.

I said at the beginning that philosophy begins with science. Perhaps that is not correct. But Descartes’ method has demonstrated, if nothing else, that philosophy must end with science.

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Are Atheism & Morality Compatible (part 2)

We ended part one with three barriers to postulating an  evolutionary source of human morality—obstacles which Henderson considers insurmountable. First, he claims that evolution is incapable of leading to the development of animals who are altruistically unselfish or compassionate. He argues that if morality evolved through biological processes, it would have to be because humans needed it to survive. But, he continues

If this were true, for any claim to be moral, it would have to serve the practical purpose of advancing the human race. So compassion for the dying would be immoral, and killing mentally handicapped children would be moral. Perhaps the most moral action would be men raping many women and forcing them to birth more children.
Morality, in this view, can only mean those actions that are helpful to make more fit humans. It does nothing to help us grapple with the truth that it’s always wrong to torture diseased children or rape women.
Pastor Rick Henderson: Why There Is No Such Thing as a Good Atheist

He then introduces a second obstacle. Namely that

…morality was developed to ensure the success of societies, which are necessary for human survival and thriving. Like the rules of a board game, morality is contrived to bring us together for productivity and happiness. If this were true, there is nothing to which we can appeal when we find the behavior of other societies repugnant and reprehensible. Because morality is the construct of a social group, it cannot extend further than a society’s borders or endure longer than a society’s existence. —Pastor Rick Henderson: Why There Is No Such Thing as a Good Atheist

Like most theists, Henderson is convinced that a single, objective morality is absolutely needed, and since evolution can’t yield a moral code that is objective, a natural worldview is a non-starter. Without an objective source for morality outside of us, so the argument goes, we lack the necessary foundation for moral judgments about the actions not just of other individuals, but also of other social groups outside our own.

Henderson’s third obstacle, takes this a step further. Without this external source of morality, he argues, social reformers would have no leg to stand on.  Since a culture’s values represent the preferences of the majority and are important for social cohesion, it follows that under a natural worldview the most immoral citizens would always be “not merely the ones who transgress [a particular moral] code but the ones who intend to change it”. Abolitionists such as James Oglethorpe and William Lloyd Garrison would have to be considered immoral for opposing the values of their society—albeit once the abolitionists succeeded in changing attitudes about slavery their opposition becomes praiseworthy. But (and this is Henderson’s point) without an objective morality, whether social reformers are doing good or doing ill depends entirely on whether they are successful or not. And this will not do.

Is Objectively Morality Possible?

Henderson’s argument, in short is as follows: (1) morality must have its source in something objective and outside of us in order for morality to work as needed; (2) God is the only possible objective source for human morality.

But as we will see, both points are wrong. We will see that objective morality simply can’t work—not even within a supernatural worldview. And it can’t work for God because, as it turns out, God is in the same boat we are when it comes to morality. If you remember, I pointed out in part one how different beings in different places must have different values to drive their behaviors. But now let me draw your attention to a more fundamental problem.

Theists say that only when there is an objective set of moral values existing outside of us, does it becomes possible to judge our actions by their rightness (that is to say, to make valid moral judgments). They reason that if values exist within us then they are subjective, not objective, and consequently we cannot prove that they are right—that is, we cannot prove they are preferable to the subjective values claimed by someone else.

This sounds sensible, until we attempt to apply it to God. And it is appropriate to test it by applying it to God. After all, God must be a moral agent too—else it cannot be claimed that God’s actions are good. Let’s look at this more carefully.

If something is good because it is what God dictates (because it comports with God’s values), then God’s goodness is just whatever God prefers. In other words, God has no way of knowing if His chosen values are truly good; all He can confirm is that they are his values. And likewise for us. We have no independent or objective source for determining the goodness of God. We can’t rely on the Bible (or any other holy book) because first we need some objective way of determining if the moral advice in that book is good or bad—i.e. was the holy book inspired by a good God or by a devil falsely claiming to be a good God?

If the Christian insists on reliance on the Bible no matter what, it means that they are declining to judge the goodness of God’s set of values (versus, say, the Devil’s set of values), and instead have decided to arbitrarily defer to God’s power—or at least, to the power of whatever being inspired the Bible, and hope it’s the “one righteous God” the Bible claims.

The problem here is that without a source of morality that lies outside the Bible—and in fact lies outside of any holy writ—we can’t know the true source of that holy writ. But actually, we are in even worse shape than this. Even if we can somehow determine that the morality of the Bible came from God, we have no way of knowing if that morality is actually good or bad. We have got to be able to judge it independent of its source in order to really know whether that source is to be trusted. Is the God behind the Bible really good?

God is more powerful than the Devil, a Christian might argue, therefore his values should be preferable to us. But clearly this is not right. First, how can we ever be sure that the values of the Bible are from this God unless we have an independent way of judging goodness. And second, if we do have an independent way of recognize the goodness of certain actions and the badness of others—then it follows that goodness is not good because it is what is dictated by God, or because God is all powerful and we fear God’s wrath, but rather because we contain our own moral compass to judge what is good and what is bad.

It follows that for objective morality to work, it’s source must be something independent not just of our personal desires and wishes, but also independent of any words written in a particular book—and independent of God himself.

Furthermore, consider this. If an action is good because God dictates it, or because the goodness of that action depends simply on the fiat of the values instilled in us by some greater being, then we have no independent way to know if those values are truly, objectively good. Perhaps the devil instilled them in us rather than God. Or perhaps the being we think is God is really devil, and the being we think devil is the “True and Righteous One”. We are incapable of brokering such questions unless we have an independent source for determining goodness. But what independent source can we have, if not something from within our own nature? We have no manner of determining the reliability of anything else.

Put another way, all that we have to go on is our own sense of goodness and justice. But that is not reliable to judge between God and devil—and specifically not reliable to determine the goodness or badness of the being we worship—unless it provides us a basis which is independent of that being to use as a reference point. But morality based on something within our nature cannot be independent of the creator of that nature. And yet, if there is goodness within us, or a moral sense within us, we have no choice but to rely on it.

This means, for the theist, that we cannot judge whether the values instilled in us by our creator are objectively good. They are simply the values given us. And that has to be good enough. If it happens that those values are objectively evil, that our creator was imperfect, we cannot point to a set of objective values lying outside both us and God to broker the question (and if we could, it would follow that our God is not the true God.)

Perhaps this becomes clearer when we look at it from God’s point of view. Where does God get his sense of right and wrong? If it is from a source outside himself, who created that source? Is there a God beyond God? And how can God answer the question of the actual goodness of the values coming from this outside source? Only by referring to the sense of morality he has within himself. But whence did that come?

To summarize: for God to objectively judge the true goodness of his actions, there must be some referent outside himself. Yet how can he judge the correctness of any outside referent? Only by comparing it to his own internal sense of values.

As we have seen, what applies for God applies for us as well. Morality must stop at a source inside of us. And this solution—the only one which can possibly work—is applicable whether or not our worldview be theist or atheist. It applies whether God or evolution is the source of our human nature.

Thus Henderson’s plea for an objective source of morality is unworkable, It fails no matter the worldview. Morality must be subjective; it must stem from something inside of us. It must be a product of our human nature.

This should make it clear that a natural worldview is at no disadvantage regarding morality—at least, no disadvantage that does not also affect theists and their worldview.

What is Needed for Morality to Work

In order for morality to work in a manner that allows us to legitimately use it to judge individual behaviors as good or bad, or to judge the mores of our society, or to make valid judgments about other cultures and societies, three features are absolutely necessary.

(1) there must exist a difference (at least potentially) between what individuals desire to do and what is right to do.

(2) the source for determining what is right to do must be independent of our individual desires.

(3) this source for determining what is right to do must be the same for all human beings.

Working backwards, if we examine point 3 we notice that the source does not have to be objective; that is, it does not have to come from outside of us. It it perfectly fine if the source lies within us, within our common human nature. As we saw earlier, an outside source doesn’t work anyway—neither for God nor us.

We know already, if we think about it, that morality is species-specific. What is right behavior for a lion differs from what is right for us. We know that we cannot morally condemn a hungry lion for pouncing on a child. We will curse the lion and kill it if we can, but we cannot fault it on moral grounds. It is not human; it is not bound by human  values.

The lesson here is that morality is not and need not be absolute and universal. We can state it this way: the source of human morality must be broad enough to include all human beings, but not so broad that it includes lions and other non-human species. The first part of this, of course, is necessary if we are to legitimately be in a position to condemn a human being who kills a child. From this analysis, it becomes clear that morality is species-specific. We don’t condemn the praying mantis that eats its mate after copulation, but we would certainly be morally shocked if a human being did the same.

Point 2—that the source for determining what is right must be independent of our individual desires—is really the crux of the issue we are facing here. That is because if 2 is present then 1 follows necessarily. And without at least a potential difference between the choices we make and the choices we should make, there can be no valid judgments about human behavior. This is so whether we are a product of divinity or a product of evolutionary history. There must be some way for us to compare what we did to what we ought to have done.

So the question is a simple one, really. Is it possible for a species (specifically us, of course, but more generally any species) to evolve so that there comes to be this potential difference between what an individual member of the species desires to do and what is right as a member of its species for it to do? Is there a potential gap between the decisions an individual actually makes and the decisions the individual should make? Can a species evolve with a decision-making process which allows for this kind of disjoint between actual behavior and behavior that should (or should not) have been carried out?

Henderson can’t imagine it possible, at least not within a natural worldview. Most atheists (and I would suggest most scientists who study the subject) don’t see any theoretical problem in this regard. In part three, I will try to explain why.

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Are Atheism & Morality Compatible? (part 1)

“Why There Is No Such Thing as a Good Atheist” That’s the title of a recent blog post by Pastor Rick Henderson on Despite the provocative title, Henderson is sincerely trying to engage atheists in a constructive manner. The title is merely to draw us in.

His goal, not surprisingly, is to lay out an analysis that gets our attention and makes us wonder if atheists have overlooked something important. To accomplish this Henderson doesn’t target atheist arguments directly, but rather focuses on the underlying atheist worldview. He writes,

While it is true that there is no definitive atheistic worldview, all atheists share the same fundamental beliefs as core to their personal worldviews. While some want to state that atheism is simply a disbelief in the existence of a god, there really is more to it. Every expression of atheism necessitates at least three additional affirmations…
Pastor Rick Henderson: Why There Is No Such Thing as a Good Atheist

Henderson then presents three propositions which he believes are necessary to any atheist worldview; denial of any of the three, he asserts, “will strike a mortal blow to atheism”. And what are these required propositions?

1. The universe is purely material. It is strictly natural, and there is no such thing as the supernatural (e.g., gods or spiritual forces).
2. The universe is scientific. It is observable, knowable and governed strictly by the laws of physics.
3. The universe is impersonal. It does not a have consciousness or a will, nor is it guided by a consciousness or a will.
Pastor Rick Henderson: Why There Is No Such Thing as a Good Atheist

We have our first indicator that at a fundamental level Henderson does not understand the natural worldview behind modern atheism. Propositions 1 & 3 are fine, but proposition 2 (as I’ve pointed out elsewhere), is incompatible with a natural worldview based on our modern scientific understanding of the universe and evolution.

Wait—don’t scientists think the universe is scientific? No. Scientists are scientific, but the universe is not. This may seem like nit-picking, but to understand “the atheist worldview” the distinction is vital. Let’s break it down. Is the universe observable? Only indirectly—we are incapable of observing the world directly. Is the universe knowable? Again the answer must be No—our models of the universe are knowable, but the actual nature of the universe (including whether or not it even has a “nature”) lies forever beyond our ken.

Origin of the Laws of Physics

Well then, is the universe not—at the very least—”governed strictly by the laws of physics”? The theist hopes so, since a universe based on uniform natural laws fits well with a worldview where a supreme being lays down the rules of existence at the creation. But atheists must reject this. Nor does it fit with the empirical nature of science.

Science is not prescriptive, but descriptive. The “laws” of physics are part of our model of the universe, not part of the universe itself. The physicist Victor J. Stenger has made this case most forcefully.  “[T]he laws of physics,” he writes

do not follow from very unique or very surprising physical properties of the Universe. Rather they arise from the very simple notion that whatever mathematics you write down to describe measurements, your equations cannot depend on the origin or direction of the coordinate systems you define in the space of those measurements or the space of the functions used to describe those laws. That is, they cannot reflect any privileged point of view.
Stenger, The Comprehensible Cosmos: Where Do the Laws of Physics Come From, pp 112-113

Stenger uses the term “point-of-view invariance” to describe this scientific goal of eliminating privileged points of view. The drive for point-of view invariance has led to the laws of physics that we have today, and they tell us more about how to obtain point-of-view invariance within the standard model, than anything else.

In order of having a decent chance of representing an objective reality, physicists formulate their models in such a way that they are the same for all observers. When they do so, they find that little more has to be postulated in order to derive the most important of what are traditionally termed the “laws of physics.” Indeed, we only need to make up a few mathematical rules, as simple as possible, add a large dose of randomness, and we have about all we need to describe nature.
Stenger, The Comprehensible Cosmos: Where Do the Laws of Physics Come From, p. 157

The natural worldview underlying modern atheism is based on a fundamentally different understanding of the relationship between matter and mind—one where the underlying physical reality exists independent of knowledge or mind. Stenger again,

So, where does point-of-view invariance come from? It comes simply from the apparent existence of an objective reality—independent of its detailed structure. Indeed, the success of point-of-view invariance can be said to provide evidence for the existence of an objective reality. Our dreams are not point-of-view invariant. If the Universe were all in our heads, our models would not be point-of-view invariant….
Point-of-view invariance is thus the mechanism by which we enforce objectivity. If we did not have an underlying objective reality, then we would not expect to be able to describe observations in a way that is independent of reference frame.
Stenger, The Comprehensible Cosmos: Where Do the Laws of Physics Come From, p. 187 

In contrast, supernaturalism puts mind at the forefront of things; the supernatural universe is essentially thought into existence by God’s conscious effort. This entails a universe in which the currency of knowledge (concepts, properties, relationships, laws of physics, etc) are endemic in such a way that the universe becomes inherently knowable. Even if humans cannot themselves ultimately know the universe, the point is that God can know it; and that is because it was created by divine mind or consciousness.

But if matter is primary, rather than mind being primary, it follows that the currency of knowledge will not be endemic. The universe will not be knowable for the simple reason that it won’t contain within itself any of the artifacts of knowing. Physical things will not possess any inherent, knowable properties—for properties are artifacts of knowledge and are brought into the picture at a later time (when organisms with scientific minds attempt to model the world).

In short, mind or consciousness had no part in the universe’s creation—it only arrives later through the evolutionary process. And this is where any sustainable natural worldview must begin.

What Atheism Requires

Henderson says that denial of any of the three underlying atheist affirmations he listed would deliver a mortal blow. Presumably he means by this that the resulting worldview would not be atheist if any of the three were rejected. He provides no support for this assertion. And indeed, is it unsupportable.

The first proposition—that the universe is strictly natural and contains nothing supernatural—certainly seems to be necessary for the atheist. Likewise for the third proposition—that the universe does not have a consciousness. Of course, the universe does contain organisms which have consciousness. The universe in itself is impersonal, but it contains many beings who are in fact personal.

Likewise, the universe is itself inherently meaningless (a result of not being infused with meaning by God, since in the natural worldview there is no primal mind or consciousness.) But it is nevertheless quite possible for beings within the universe to assign meaning to things, and live lives that are valuable. The universe does not have to be inherently meaningful for this to be so.

However, the second proposition (even if you ill-advisedly believe it true)—that the universe “is observable, knowable and governed strictly by the laws of physics”—is simply not required by atheism‚ just as it is not required by a natural worldview.

Perhaps Henderson may be under the mistaken impression that his second proposition is necessary for science to do its thing. Although scientific progress is not a requirement for atheism, it is certainly important to scientists. On top of that, many scientists are atheists, and of course most atheists think very highly of science. But these are preferences, not logical entailments.

As a matter of fact, Henderson’s second proposition is not necessary for the scientific method. The universe may not be knowable, but our scientific models certainly are. Scientists continually test those models by experimentation in order to judge their usefulness. Models and hypotheses that turn out not to be useful (e.g., are falsified, or display no statistical significance) are discarded and new ones devised. In this manner, knowledge which has proven most useful rises to the top and becomes accepted as reliable. We call this the scientific method.

We have seen that space, time, and motion are part of a systematic description of observations that provides no independent evidence to confirm their objective existence. Space or the void does not kick back. Motion does not kick back. All that kick back are, by definition, material bodies. The information they kick back to us leads us to assign to these bodies intrinsic properties such as mass, electric charge, spin, isospin, baryon number, lepton number, and so on, which are all operationally defined. That is, they are empirical but not wholly independent of our theoretical constructs. Within the space-time model, rules of behavior for these properties , called laws, arise from applying point-of-view invariance in a particular, idiosyncratic mathematical scheme that might have been formulated in a number of completely different ways if physicists in different cultures had been isolated from one another. Again, this does not imply any old scheme will do, or that physics is just another cultural narrative. The scheme still has to work. The particular scheme adopted by the world’s physicists does work, but this does not allow us to conclude that it is the only one possible.
Stenger, The Comprehensible Cosmos: Where Do the Laws of Physics Come From, p. 175

The point is that the underlying nature of the universe doesn’t have to be knowable for the scientific method to work. Nor does the knowledge thus created have to be true in some absolute sense. Indeed, all we can really say about scientific knowledge is that it is useful. And this is because the scientific method is nothing but a test for usefulness.

As Stenger puts it in describing the standard model of physics,

Note that this space-time description is a model invented to describe those observations. We have no other way of “seeing” the objects so described and no way of verifying that reality is “truly” composed of those objects or that the terms distance, velocity, and acceleration are “true” elements of reality. We can only argue that this model is simple and consistent with the data. As long as it agrees with all the data, we are not being irrational to apply it as far as we can.
Stenger, The Comprehensible Cosmos: Where Do the Laws of Physics Come From, p. 156

Science makes progress because it utilizes this pragmatic empiricism to create a body of knowledge about the world by repeatedly testing our intellectual constructions for maximum usefulness. Of course, deterministic descriptions are preferred whenever possible simply because when they are obtainable they are more useful than descriptions of probability. But it does not follow that any of our models, whether deterministic or probabilistic, reveal the true underlying nature of the universe. All we can say is that they are useful, they work. And if they don’t, we invent better.

Indeed, not only is science not tuned to discover the “true” underlying nature of the universe, the scientific method does not even require that there be an underlying nature of the universe. It is only once the importance of this last point has sunk in, that the coherence of the natural worldview behind atheism begins to emerge.

I have lingered on this issue because, perhaps unsurprisingly, theists often lack a clear understanding of atheist fundamentals. Unfortunately, the same is true of many atheists.

Meaning and Value

The reader may be forgiven for wondering what any of this has to do with Henderson’s article, which after all is entitled, “Why There Is No Such Thing as a Good Atheist”.

Specifically, what does the knowability of the universe have to do with morality?

Good question. Let’s see if we can figure it out.

In his blog post, Henderson jumps from his incorrect assertion about the three propositions required for atheism to what appears—at least initially—to be an unrelated argument that morality and atheism don’t mix. Speaking of the atheist worldview, he says,

Anything and everything that happens in such a universe is meaningless. A tree falls. A young girl is rescued from sexual slavery. A dog barks. A man is killed for not espousing the national religion. These are all actions that can be known and explained but never given any meaning or value.
Pastor Rick Henderson: Why There Is No Such Thing as a Good Atheist

But of course, we can give an action or object any meaning we want to. We do it all the time, whenever we use language. Under Henderson’s worldview, apparently if meaning is not imparted by God it doesn’t really count. But why think this?

Henderson believes meaning is something that is inherent in the things and actions of the universe—as would be the case if the origin of the universe was mind or consciousness. But atheists hew to a different worldview. We see meaning as something that begins and end in consciousness, that is to say as something inherent in language, not in things. This is a vital point. It means that God is no more capable of infusing the universe with meaning than we are—and no less.

In fact, from an atheist perspective, one of the essential underlying mistakes of theism—perhaps its most fundamental mistake—is this confusion about the nature of meaning. Theists think that meaning exists out there in the things and actions of the world. It does not. Meaning is a property of words. It exists in consciousness, and only in consciousness. To be trite, meaning is all in your mind. But in your mind is where it must to be, in order to be useful to us.

So if we think something is meaningful, it becomes meaningful for us. Just as if God thinks something is meaningful, it becomes meaningful for God—or would, if God existed. But God is no more capable of making something meaningful for us, than we are of making something meaning for God. Meaning is necessarily private to each consciousness—and this is because it is the essential stuff of language. Things don’t have meaning, thoughts do. And thoughts are privately experienced.

A similar heuristic applies to value. Whereas meaning is central to words, value is central to organisms. Organisms act within the world by determining what is valuable to themselves and then behave accordingly. Our values drive our behavior. I value foods which my senses make appealing to me. I value the love or companionship of others if that is what my body desires. If I belong to a social species, I value other organisms in my community. There is no shortage of things to value, and without assigning value to things we would be incapable of making decisions in our complex environment—we would literally not know what to do.

What is valuable to one organism or one species will differ from what is valuable to another, simply because we are different beings in different places at different times with differing needs. Even if we throw God into the mix, God is simply a different being with differing needs and values. What is valuable to God and what is valuable to us will, as a consequence, not be the same. We have different natures and exist in different environments and therefore will have different behavioral choices to make.

So if Henderson thinks that an atheist world leaves us without values, then he is ignorance of the nature of value in an atheist world, and of where value comes from. It come from us, and informs all of our decisions. Whether God exists (or doesn’t exist) has nothing to do with it. Our values can’t be God’s values because, simply put, we are not God and God is not us. We are different beings in different places, and therefore will have different values.

Common Values

Yet having said that, common values are crucial to group morality. If we lack common values, we will be unable to agree on which behaviors—among members of our species—are morally acceptable. Moral agreement is essential for social species, otherwise their communities will fall apart. Not all values need to be held in common, but values which are destructive to the community will be harmful to the well-being of the species. Think of it this way: evolution will weed out those social species which lack sufficient community cohesiveness, and those which do survive will as a result have a subset of common values which members share. These values will be built into the nature of each member organism in the form of instincts of one sort or another.

Hold on. Not so fast, says Henderson. He presents three objections to the hypothesis of an evolutionary source for morality.

First, altruism would never develop. There is no evolutionary advantage, Henderson argues, to feeling compassion for the old and sick, nor any advantage to caring for mentally handicapped children. He goes further and suggests that evolution would be likely to reward the practice of raping women and forcing them to bear children. After all, from a strictly biological perspective, passing on one’s DNA is the definition of success. If our values derived from evolution, rape would have to be seen positively rather than negatively—so claims Henderson, at least.

Second, he argues that there must be an objectivity to morality which places it outside the whims of a particular community or society. Otherwise we can have no legitimate basis for objecting when other societies allow behavior we find repugnant, or when they punish actions we find praiseworthy. Morality becomes nothing more than a matter of personal—or cultural—preference.

Third, without an external moral code as reference, social reformers must be seen negatively. Since a culture’s values represent the preferences of the majority and are important to social cohesion, it would follow that under a natural worldview, the most immoral citizens would always be “not merely the ones who transgress [a particular moral] code but the ones who intend to change it”. Henderson presents a modern example,

This would make those fighting for marriage equality the most immoral—that is, until they become the majority and institute change. I suppose they then become moral, and traditionalists become immoral. But it’s the math that determines rightness or wrongness of a side, not the content of any belief or argument.
Pastor Rick Henderson: Why There Is No Such Thing as a Good Atheist

These are serious concerns which advocates of a natural worldview must address satisfactorily. I will attempt to do so in part 2.


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Diagoras of Melos

Diagoras of Melos was a lyric poet and the first Greek philosopher known specifically for his atheism. Heavily influenced by Democritus, the early Greek natural philosopher and advocate of atomism, who in fact was his tutor, Diagoras ran afoul of religious conservatives in Athens and had to flee the city with a price on his head (he was wanted dead or alive).

About Diagoras, Jennifer Michael Hecht, author of Doubt: A History, wrote

The poet Diagoras of Melos was perhaps the most famous atheist of the fifth century. Although he did not write about atheism, anecdotes about his unbelief suggest he was self-confident, almost teasing, and very public. He revealed the secret rituals of the Eleusinian mystery religion to everyone and “thus made them ordinary,” that is, he purposefully demystified a cherished secret rite, apparently to provoke his contemporaries into thought. In another famous story, a friend pointed out an expensive display of votive gifts and said, “You think the gods have no care for man? Why, you can see from all these votive pictures here how many people have escaped the fury of storms at sea by praying to the gods who have brought them safe to harbor.” To which Diagoras replied, “Yes, indeed, but where are the pictures of all those who suffered shipwreck and perished in the waves?” A good question. Diagoras was indicted for profaning the mysteries, but escaped. A search was out for him throughout the Athenian empire, which indicated that the charges were serious, but he was not found.
“Whatever Happened to Zeus and Hera?, 600 BCE-1 CE” in Doubt: A History, Hecht, Jennifer Michael, Harper, San Francisco (2003), pp. 9–10

The Christian writer Athenagoras of Athens (2nd century AD) writes about Diagoras:

With reason did the Athenians adjudge Diagoras guilty of atheism, in that he not only divulged the Orphic doctrine, and published the mysteries of Eleusis and of the Cabiri, and chopped up the wooden statue of Hercules to boil his turnips, but openly declared that there was no God at all.

Not only did Diagoras chop up a wooden statue of Hercules, but exhibited his wit by declaring that Hercules thirteenth labor would be cooking turnips.

Of Diagoras, JM Robertson writes,

It was about that time [415 BC] that the poet Diagoras of Melos was proscribed for atheism, he having declared that the non-punishment of a certain act of iniquity proved that there were no Gods. It has been surmised, with some reason, that the iniquity in question was the slaughter of the Melians by the Athenians in 416 B.C., and the Athenian resentment in that case was personal and political rather than religious. For some time after 415 the Athenian courts made strenuous efforts to punish every discoverable case of impiety; and parodies of the Eleusinian mysteries were alleged against Alkibiades and others. Diagoras, who was further charged with divulging the Eleusinian and other mysteries, and with making firewood of an image of Herakles, telling the god thus to perform his thirteenth labour by cooking turnips, became thenceforth one of the proverbial atheists of the ancient world, and a reward of a silver talent was offered for killing him, and of two talents for his capture alive; despite which he seems to have escaped.
A History of Freethought, Ancient and Modern, to the Period of the French Revolution, J.M. Robertson, Fourth Edition, Revised and Expanded, In Two Volumes, Vol. I, Watts, 1936. p173 – 174

The following account of Diagoras is translated from the Suda

[Diagoras], son of Telekleides or Teleklytos; a Melian, a philosopher and a lyric poet; whom Democritus from Abdera,[1] seeing that he was naturally talented, bought — since he was a slave — for ten thousand drachmas and made a pupil. And he also applied himself to the lyric art, being in time after Pindar and Bacchylides, but older than Melanippides:[2] he flourished in the 78th Olympiad.[3] And he was called Atheos since he held such an opinion, after the time when someone of the same art, being accused by him of stealing a paean which he himself had made, swore he did not steal this, and performing it a short while later, met with success. Thereupon Diagoras, being upset, wrote the so-called Apopyrgizontes Logoi, which includes his withdrawal and falling away from his belief concerning the divine.[4] But Diagoras, settling in Corinth, lived out his life there.

Diagoras has a Facebook page.

Read more here:


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