On atheism and agnosticism

Bart Ehrman has a post up featuring an interview on his agnosticism.  (If you’re short on time, the most relevant part is at the 2:12 point.)

As someone who myself isn’t a religious believer, but who also strives to be honest on what the limitations of knowledge are in this area, I find a lot to agree with in Ehrman’s comments.  (Although unlike Ehrman, the philosophical problem of evil isn’t the overriding cause of my non-belief.  For me, Biblical issues are definitely one of the factors.)

I long ago lost interest in the atheist versus agnosticism definitional debates, which is why you usually see me refer to myself simply as a non-believer and leave it at that.  Most people know what that means and it usually steps around the “faith in no-God” or “wimpy atheist” arguments.  When I describe my beliefs (or in this case the lack of them), I typically find that I’m claimed by both camps, which is fine since I consider myself to be both.

My observation is that whatever their epistemological position, people’s preference for one label or another has more to do with their attitude toward religion.  I went through my anti-religious phase, but outgrew it, although I remain a staunch opponent of fundamentalism.  So I’m not aggressive about my disbelief.  If you’re a believer and find comfort and meaning in your religion, I have no interest in taking it from you, at least as long as you can respect that I don’t find comfort and meaning in it.

In general, as a moderately liberal non-religious person, I find I have a lot more in common with a liberal believer than I do with, say, an Ayn Rand objectivist.  Even though the objectivist and I likely agree on God, we disagree about so many other things that I’m unlikely to see them as much of an ally just because of that one thing we do agree on.  My real opposition is to dogmatism, and I find it in many places besides religion, and that many believers are my allies in that opposition.

That being said, even though I often find myself in disagreement with them, I do have to admit that in recent years the New Atheist movement has been a source of comfort.  The idea that there are people who’ve come to the same conclusion I did and aren’t afraid to be  honest about it (even if they have a tendency to get carried away), that don’t think my non-belief is a reason for guilt, has lifted a burden of sorts.

I remember a political science professor in college pointing out that radicals of a cause can often make room for moderates in that cause to be accepted.  A decade ago in The Atheism Tapes, Daniel Dennett said that what was needed were uncompromising atheists, who might not be accepted by the public at large, but who could open up a space behind them for those who might.  In that sense, people like Dennett have performed an important service.

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54 Responses to On atheism and agnosticism

  1. Howie says:

    This was a very good post Mike. My thoughts on this topic are very much in line with yours and that’s a relief to see. I hope to find time to read more of your posts.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. guymax says:

    I admire your tolerance and dismissal of dogma, but not not your respect for the views of Dan Dennett on the claims of religion. He admits to knowing nothing about their truth or falsity and claims that nobody ever will. But if you’re after an uncompromising atheist with a popular public face, what’s wrong with His Holiness the Dalia Lama? .

    Liked by 1 person

    • I do respect Dennett, but not on every position he takes, as I hope I was clear on in the post.

      I didn’t realize the Dalai Lama was an atheist. I can see him not believing in deities, but I wonder about his attitude toward other supernatural beliefs such as reincarnation. I respect him as well, but also not on every position.


      • amanimal says:

        I can’t speak to specific beliefs but:

        “If science proves some belief of Buddhism wrong, then Buddhism will have to change.” – Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama

        ‘Our Faith in Science’

        … also author of ‘Beyond Religion: Ethics for a Whole World’, 2012, and helped establish the Mind and Life Institute, an educational/research organization dedicated to “Building a scientific understanding of the mind to reduce suffering and promote well-being”.

        Liked by 3 people

      • guymax says:

        Well, I was just being scurrilous really. It’s easy to forget that religion does not require theism and that the argument between theism and atheism occurs within religion. For instance, Buddhism rejects monotheism, and even many Muslims argue that Al-Lah is not a God, Most of mysticism reject monotheism. Hence I see the God argument as a red herring. The real challenge is to argue against religion. I think this point is becoming better understood these days, and that religion is beginning to get a better deal. Way to go yet though.


    • I think Dennett is perhaps using the technical definition of knowledge here (justified true belief). I think Dennett believes that there is no God, however perhaps he does not think that this belief can be rigorously justified or proven. For all practical purposes, Dennett is an atheist.

      Personally, I find it irritating that non-Buddhists feel the need to call the Dalai Lama “His Holiness”. We can give him respect as a learned and thoughtful human being without unjustifiably elevating him above the rest of us with the use of such honorifics. I feel the same way about royalty.

      I also think he is perhaps more agnostic than atheist.


      • guymax says:

        Oh no. Not agnostic. Buddhism is all about knowing the answer to these questions. . He’s just very careful in what he say on the topic. He publicly endorses Nagarjuna, which makes his position clear.

        I can understand what you’re saying about ‘His Holiness’, but for most Buddhists it would be a justifiable honorific. He is not being ‘unjustifiably elevated’, although of course the justification would not be accepted by those who would debate the whole notion of ‘holiness’.

        To me ‘justified true belief’ is not a correct definition of knowledge, but I accept that it is a common one. .

        Dennett is an odd person., I admire his writings at a technical level and for their style, , and he is certainly more sane and honest than his mate Prof. Dawkins, but he seems reluctant to concede that the argument against God is better made within religion than by himself, and so uses only quite ineffective strategies like blatant sophistry and very devious prose. Nagarjuna does a much better job.


        • “Buddhism is all about knowing the answer to these questions.”

          You probably know more about it than me, but I have always had the impression that Buddhism was not particularly concerned with Gods rather than flatly denying that they exist.

          “He publicly endorses Nagarjuna, which makes his position clear.”

          I know nothing about Nagarjuna apart from what I can glean from a quick scan of his Wikipedia page, which doesn’t mention his views on theism at all. It seems clear that Nagarjuna had a lot to say on a wide range of topics, and theism is not particularly prominent among them. As such he could endorse Nagarjuna without being particularly committed to atheism.

          “or most Buddhists it would be a justifiable honorific.”

          Which is why I specifically said I don’t like non-Buddhists calling him that. Are you a Buddhist? If so, I take my point back but would perhaps question your Buddhism instead, at least with regard to how it justifies his elevation.

          I don’t get how one could make an argument against God within religion. You mean Buddhism? What firm footing does being a Buddhist give one that atheist secular philosophers lack?

          Where does Dennett engage in sophistry and devious prose?

          Liked by 1 person

          • guymax says:

            Lol. Any book by Dennett should be sufficient evidence for sophistry. He’s a master of the form. Consciousness explained indeed. We should all ask for our money back.

            I suppose we shouldn’t clog up SAP’s comments section, but a brief reply to your objections …

            Nagarjuna proves that nothing really exists, including Gods. He uses a formal dialectic argument that is stripped to its essentials with no appeals to emotions or unnecessary complication of the issues. This would be the philosophical foundation for Middle Way Buddhism. It doesn’t matter whether it works as a proof or whether we agree with the result, it nevertheless makes the position of the Dalai Lama and most Buddhists very clear. Mysticism is not monotheism, albeit the word ‘God’ may appear often in certain traditions. Even today it is sometimes best to be on the safe side when living in the middle of a lynch-mob of dogmatic Christians and Muslims

            If you check out N’s ‘Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way’ you’ll find his argument against God. Buddhism does not flatly deny that Gods exist (in some sense of the word), however, only that monotheism is, at best, a mistaken interpretation of meditative experience, and at worst is received dogma that can never become knowledge and may be very misleading. The Buddha asks us to abandon theism and atheism and just go find out the truth of the matter.

            I take your point about ‘His Holiness’. I used the phrase here to stress the idea that it would be possible to be holy (or at least considered to be so) and an atheist at the same time. I always try to disentangle mysticism from theism where I can, since they are easily confused, and then the baby tends to disappear with the bathwater.


          • I’m kind of sympathetic to the view that nothing really exists, because I think existence is a problematic concept that borders on incoherent in some contexts.

            However, it seems to me that there are certain specific kinds of existence which we ought to be able to agree on. Physical objects exist by common consensus. Whether or not they “really” exist, they have some properties that leads us to agree that they exist. We might as well give the label “physical existence” to such properties and not worry too much about whether they “really” exist. Much the same kind of thing can be said for the existence of mathematical objects. So, even if nothing “really exists” there are certain concepts we can choose to call existence, and the question now is whether God exists in any of these ways. A Buddhist theist might therefore fully agree with Nagarjuna’s argument that nothing really exists but nevertheless hold that God exists in much the same way as a mathematical object or a rock pseudo-exists, whereas a Buddhist atheist would be convinced that God doesn’t even pseudo-exist.

            “Mysticism is not monotheism”

            But nor is it out and out atheism. It is entirely orthogonal to theism.

            “Buddhism does not flatly deny that Gods exist (in some sense of the word), however, only that monotheism is, at best, a mistaken interpretation of meditative experience”

            But that’s all I’m saying. Hence the Dalai Lama is not an atheist.


          • “I suppose we shouldn’t clog up SAP’s comments section”
            No worries guymax. This is relevant and interesting.


          • guymax says:

            DisagreeableMe – Sorry that this post is out of order. Erm, I mean in the wrong order. For some reason there is no reply button available below your post.

            I seem to have misled you in certain ways. Middle Way Buddhism is atheistic. No provisos. If it seems sometimes to allow talk of Gods this is for convenience, politeness and, as you say. because we can talk about ‘existence’ as being less than a fundamental concept. What you call ‘pseudo-existence’ is not existence. It would be what Buddhism calls ‘conventional’ existence. We can, as you say, treat this as some sort of real existence, as we do by convention, but not in metaphysics, where we need to speak from an ultimate and accurate perspective. There would be one real phenomenon and it would not be called God. As a teaching this is easy to verify.

            How you conclude that the Dalai Lama is not an atheist I cannot imagine. I would have thought it obvious that Buddhism is not monotheism. No need to argue though, now that we have google.


          • Monotheism/atheism is a false dichotomy. Polytheism, pantheism, agnosticism, deism and apatheism are viable alternatives.

            I’m not arguing that the Dalai Lama is not an atheist. I just haven’t seen much evidence that he is.


  3. Well said, I’m of a similar mind here. I like that you touch on how us non-believers can agree with believers about other normatively crucial things. Some very influential epistemologists have been deeply religious, but in their work make no reference to god, which accedes to non-believers that there can be knowledge without foundations in god, but also does credit to believers by showing that ingenious epistemologists believe in god. Everybody wins.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. amanimal says:

    I go with *non-believer* for the most part myself or *theistically disinclined* on occasion. I’d go with *naturalist* but I’ve found that too often people think it entails nudism 🙂

    Liked by 3 people

  5. guymax says:

    DM – Again I have no ‘reply’ button to put this in order.

    I think the issues are too subtle to deal with like this. I can only repeat what I’ve said in any case. Mahayana Buddhism, the brand endorsed by the DL, is not theism. You’re welcome to read my thoughts on this topic at greater length elsewhere, and I’ll respond to any comments. I see no need to argue on a point that is so easily settled but I’m always happy to chat about these topics. . .


    • guymax,
      The reply button thing appears to be a limitation in WordPress. I can increase the number of replies, but not infinitely (I think the limit is 10) and it indents with each one distorting the formatting of successive comments more and more. I don’t know why WordPress doesn’t just let us reply infinitely (stopping the indention after two or so).

      To cope, you can reply to the email notice, which will continue replying under the comment (although if you’re using an anonymous alias it sometimes doesn’t stick). Or if you’re using a WordPress account, you can use the top toolbar to reply also.


      • guymax says:

        Oh yes. Of course. I forgot the notification.email. Thanks. That should sort me out.

        I noticed that having an alias can affect things. I was thinking of changing my name to the real one, but I’m not sure what the fallout of the change will be. I just changed my name elsewhere and lost all my contacts.


    • Hi guymax,

      Thank you for your patience. It’s not necessarily a subject I am massively interested in pursuing, but I keep commenting because you keep saying things which make me feel like I haven’t communicated my point successfully.

      Like this.

      “Mahayana Buddhism, the brand endorsed by the DL, is not theism.”

      Of course it isn’t. I never said it was, and I certainly don’t think it is. But not being a theist does not automatically make you an atheist.

      This podcast explains my point.


      The question of whether the Dalai Lama is an atheist is just the wrong question to ask. As such, he is not a good example of an atheist. Buddhism is simply not concerned with Gods. Buddhists can be atheists or deists or pantheists or perhaps even monotheists. The Dalai Lama could be an atheist but he has never given me the impression that he is particularly committed to a view regarding the existence of something that might be called God or even interested in the question.


      • guymax says:

        No, it’s okay. I do see your point. I get it, And what you say is true, Buddhists can be whatever they like. But obviously this can only be so up until the point that they discover the truth, and there can be only one. .

        The Dalai lama endorses the metaphysical view expressed by Nagarjuna. This view is fundamental. It is not a menu of choices, it is a statement of what is actually true. It clearly states that God is a false idea, at least by any definition a theist would want to use. There is no equivocation. The universe would be a unity, all in all.

        Nagarjuna’s view, usually called the ‘theory of emptiness’, is the philosophical foundation of Mahayana Buddhism. It is very clear rejection of theism. His argument against theism is the best one I have ever come across, and it knocks spots off Dawkin’s inneffective attempt.

        To give another example of religious atheism, Kabbalism, Jewish mysticism, states that God is not fundamental, that He is some sort of contingent creation. It would be the orthodox view in mysticism. The universe, we ourselves, would originate before time and space, and thus before Gods with intentional consciousness, desires, plans of action and so forth. This may often be a useful metaphor – a loving father, a judge of our behaviour, etc. – but as a metaphysical theory it is clearly anthropomorphic and naïve.


        • I don’t recognise your description of Kabbalism as atheism. Only certain monotheistic religions hold that God is fundamental. A conception of God as contingent is not atheism, it’s just a different kind of theism.

          You seem to have a dichotomous view that anything that isn’t traditional abrahamic monotheism is atheism. This is not how I interpret the terms at all.

          In Nagarjuna’s philosophy, all is one. There are two ways that this could be interpreted non-atheistically. One way would be to identify God with the one. The other would be to identify God as part of the one, just like any other being.

          I think the key to the disagreement is where you say “at least by any definition a theist would want to use”. I think you have a narrower conception of what constitutes a theist than I do. I would count as theists people who believe in contingent, fallible, non-omnipotent gods such as the gods of Olympus. If Buddhists can believe that people exist in some practical sense then they can believe that superhuman aliens exist in some practical sense and they can believe that gods (which might be little more than superhuman aliens, although I would say they would have to be somewhat supernatural to be called gods) exist in some practical sense. I’m not saying they hold such beliefs, only that I can’t see how such beliefs would contradict the philosophy of Nagarjuna as you describe it.


          • guymax says:

            Okay. I can only suggest checking the facts, There is no need to guess at these things or argue, the literature is easily available. I can make mistakes, of course, so best if you verify the facts for yourself. But if this is your view of Buddhism I’m surprised you don’t reject it out of hand. For goodness sake, the gods of Olympus.

            Of course, it’s all of no consequence. For Buddhists with any ambition the truth is what matters, not what we happen to believe.


          • Again, I’m only replying because you seem to have misunderstood me.

            I’m not saying Buddhists believe in anything like the Gods of Olympus. I’m just saying you seem have a narrow conception of what theism means (or else mine is broad).

            It’s not that easy to check the facts because my interest in Buddhism is not sufficient to justify reading long tracts. If there’s a quick short reference I can check online I will by all means read it.


  6. guymax says:

    Okay. I can’t think why you would be arguing about Buddhism when you don’t wish to read about it. I assumed an interest, so sorry for banging on.

    In the context of SAPs article my point was only that a rejection of theism is not a rejection of religion, and I think the point has been made. .


    • I’m only arguing about Buddhism because you seemed to be misunderstanding what I was trying to say. I have moderate interest in discussing and learning about Buddhism but not enough to read long texts. It seems to me the point of disagreement is not so much what Buddhists believe but what ought to be understood by the terms “atheism” and “theism”. This is a topic that interests me.

      I agree with you that a rejection of theism is not a rejection of religion. However I do think religion needs to endorse supernatural beliefs. Some Buddhists do not. But since the Dalai Lama does (he believes himself to be reincarnated), then I would agree that he is not theistic but he is religious.


      • guymax says:

        Oh hell. Sorry DM, I don’t want to just argue, but this is not just about me misunderstanding your view. The DL does not believe in reincarnation. Whole books have been written explaining that he does not believe in it. No Buddhist does, since the Buddha does not endorse it.

        Yes, you could call the teachings on rebirth, Karma etc. ‘supernatural’. But for Buddhists these would be perfectly natural phenomenon. Who is to say that they are not? The idea that are supernatural is an unnecessary conjecture. Personally I cannot make any sense of the idea of a phenomenon is supernatural and yet real. It seems to be a blatant contradiction.

        The problem seems to arise because scientists assume that they have the right to define what is natural on the basis of a metaphysical conjecture about the structure of the universe. In fact they have no idea whatsoever as to whether Buddhist doctrine is naturalistic or not.

        Do you see this point? To know what is natural and what is not you would have to know how the universe works.


        • OK, I’m obviously ignorant, but what’s all the business with the Buddha’s toys and finding the right child who is born to be the next Dalai Lama about then? If there is no such thing as reincarnation, why would you choose the next spiritual leader of your religion when he is just a child?


  7. guymax says:

    You would need to check out the difference between reincarnation and rebirth to sort this out.

    The choosing of Dalai Lama’s is a complicated issue and I can see why it would bother you. All I can say for now is that you can see the process a number of different ways. It can, of course, be dismissed as superstition or supernaturalism. Still, the system is perfectly designed to avoid any political in-fighting or too much career-focus in the sangha. It also allows a highly promising candidate to be chosen while they have sufficient time to do the work which, as for a musician, must begin very early in life. (The Dalai Lama may be one the best trained scholars anywhere – the best scholars as his personal tutors throughout his life, and, on top of that, a practice that has taken up hours of his time every day for almost all of his life).

    It is also not so odd an idea in a country where even as late as the 1950’s around 40% of young men became monks.

    We should not forget that this is a very ancient tradition. It’s customs are not all explicable in scientific terms, and sometimes they are not – it’s just that they are found to be useful. Whatever works is what a Buddhist would say, since progress is all about method. The Dalai Lama has made is perfectly clear that in his view where a religious doctrine contradicts science the former must be abandoned. Of course this is the case, but it is important that he has stated it so clearly. In his view Buddhism a science of mind. (Yes, he knows Popper and all that) This little Zen story is indicative of the Buddhist attitude.

    “When the spiritual teacher and his disciples began their evening meditation, the cat who lived in the monastery made such noise that it distracted them. So the teacher ordered that the cat be tied up during the evening practice. Years later, when the teacher died, the cat continued to be tied up during the meditation session. And when the cat eventually died, another cat was brought to the monastery and tied up. Centuries later, learned descendants of the spiritual teacher wrote scholarly treatises about the religious significance of tying up a cat for meditation practice.”

    (Zen Stories to Tell Your Neighbours)


    • guymax, I love that story. It tracks far more history than most people realize.


    • What would be a good source (brief, preferably) to distinguish between reincarnation and rebirth?

      I accept that there is a somewhat reasonable naturalistic interpretation and rationalisation for the process of choosing a Dalai Lama. I am finding it hard to find any sources which support that this is the official view.

      “The Dalai Lama has made is perfectly clear that in his view where a religious doctrine contradicts science the former must be abandoned.”

      I know this and I think it’s great. It doesn’t automatically commit him to naturalism, however. Many supernatural claims are unfalsifiable, and so they are not contradicted by science but merely unsupported by science.

      As with atheism and theism, part of the problem is not only my ignorance of Buddhism but a difference in how we are interpreting the terms ‘naturalism’ and ‘supernaturalism’. You seem to think that anything which exists must be natural, by definition. If, say, reincarnation/rebirth (delete as appropriate) were true, then reincarnation/rebirth would have to be natural.

      I do and do not agree with this. I agree that only natural things exist, and if we find any new phenomenon it must be natural, but this is not because I define “natural” as “that which exists”. Such a definition seems to me to be relatively useless, because it doesn’t help to distinguish between phenomena such as animals and phenomena such as ghosts for those who believe in both. It seems to me that any satisfactory definition of supernatural should not make a trivial contradiction of claims that supernatural phenomena exist.

      For me, naturalism means that there is no physical event which cannot be completely accounted for (in principle) with reference to laws of physics which are expressible mathematically. Supernaturalism is the view that some phenomena are not reducible to mathematics, but are fundamentally explained with reference to high level intuitive concepts – concepts such as spirits, magic words, gods, destiny, karma and luck which make for great stories but prove impossible to analyse or model mathematically, I think that everything which exists in the physical world is natural, not by definition, but because I regard the supernaturalist position to be incoherent.

      With these terms so defined, I am not yet persuaded that Buddhism as taught by the Dalai Lama is free from supernaturalism, and if I were so convinced then I would no longer regard the Dalai Lama as a religious figure but as a secular philosopher.


      • guymax says:

        Fair enough. I would agree with you generally about naturalism, except that I do not assume that I am omniscient in the way that scientist often do (and you by the sound of it). You cannot have any idea of whether all natural phenomenon can be described mathematically, and yet you lay down the law. That’s okay, most scientists do the same, but to me such an approach seems arrogant and unscientific. It also causes a problem for cosmological theories that have their origins prior to mathematics but which are not supernatural. Your view places an anthropomorphic or artificial limit on what can be true, and yet it may be entirely wrong. Why do that? .

        It may be your opinion that rebirth (say) is unnatural, supernatural, meta-natural or whatever, but let’s face it, opinions are not very interesting in science. For Buddhists and their like the universe would be entirely law-governed, all the way from beginning to end. Einstein thought Buddhism was the best religion and no doubt this was part of the reason, and Schrodinger staked his reputation on its truth in the form of the ‘advaita’ cosmology, and neither thought they were abandoning science by doing so. . . .

        I would borrowing a book by the DL. Perhaps ‘The World in a Single Atom’. His books for lay folk are always an easy read but also always thought-provoking. Or, how about one of two books by physicists. There is ‘What is Life?’ and ‘What is Mind?’ by Erwin Schrodinger (published together in one book), or ‘The World According to Quantum Mechanics’ by Ulrich Mohrhoff, or ‘Rationalist Spirituality’ by Bernado Kastrup. Many physicists, a growing number. endorse the Buddha’s philosophy and experience no cognitive dissonance. ..


        • I certainly wouldn’t mind putting some of those on my reading list. My progress through my reading list is painfully slow, unfortunately.

          Neither I nor scientists make any claim to omniscience. I disbelieve in the supernatural for the same reason I disbelieve in square circles. It seems incoherent to me. I don’t get how some process or entity is supposed to exist but which cannot be described robustly. That’s all mathematics is. The study of robust definitions. If something cannot be described mathematically, it is necessarily vague or ambiguous. This cannot be the basis of reality, because reality is not some subjective notion but an objective thing we can all perceive.

          I don’t get what you mean by cosmological theories which place their origins prior to mathematics.

          For what it’s worth, I also think Buddhism is perhaps the most admirable religion I have come across, and that is simply because it is the least religious. It is much less about preaching dogmatic supernaturalism and much more about reflection and meditation. That’s great. However just because it is the “best” of the religions does not mean I buy into it.

          “For Buddhists and their like the universe would be entirely law-governed”

          But what do these laws look like? If their primitive objects include souls, minds, thoughts and so on, then I don’t think they have much hope of being described mathematically. The kind of laws I think govern the universe must be expressible mathematically, so their primitive objects must be numbers, groups, sets and so on.


          • guymax says:

            Hmm. So you already know that minds and souls do not exist, since they cannot be described mathematically. Is that what you’re saying? It seems a strange kind of knowledge, and looks much more like a theory. Your theory seems to be that Buddhism, Taoism, Sufism, Kabbalism, Theosophy, Advaita Vedanta and more generally the perennial philosophy is all nonsense, since it makes claims that cannot be modelled in mathematics. I do not think this is a sensible way to form a worldview.

            It is also a bit dodgy even in mathematics. In a famous book called ‘Laws of Form’, George Spence Brown gives a mathematical description of the origin and evolution of form. His calculus has its origin in an axiomatic theoretical primitive that is not a mathematical object. On your argument this description cannot be accurate. You rule it out without examination. This is not free-thinking, and I would argue that it is not even a rational approach. I would recommend my recent post on Hermann Weyl.

            If it’s okay with you I think we’d best stop here. It’s been a good chat but I feel like I’m just arguing now, and I’m only saying things that are often said much better by other people. In the end all that matters is what is true, and it seems a bit pointless to argue about what form the truth is allowed to take before we know what it actually is.

            . . .


          • Well, I’ll sill clarify a few things, if you don’t mind.

            ” So you already know that minds and souls do not exist, since they cannot be described mathematically.”

            No. I think that if they exist they have a mathematical description. They cannot be primitive. In particular, I think that minds exist because I think minds are algorithms.

            “is all nonsense, since it makes claims that cannot be modelled in mathematics”

            Claims that cannot be modelled in mathematics are often fine. For example, I can claim that killing babies is wrong. Since this is not really a claim about physical reality but more a claim about what kinds of behaviour should be tolerated, this is orthogonal to naturalism. Similarly, I can claim that Louis CK is funny, or that I like chocolate, or that philosophy is worth doing. These are all valid meaningful statements which cannot be reduced to mathematics.

            “His calculus has its origin in an axiomatic theoretical primitive that is not a mathematical object.”

            I find that hard to imagine. I imagine, not having read the book, that this theoretical primitive is something I would call a mathematical object. Or is it really just a vague, wooly intuition? If so, it seems like it is not a good foundation for any kind of calculus.


          • guymax says:

            Well, that’s the thing. Brown’s calculus works like a dream. Russell praised it highly, largely because it is simple and it solves his famous set-theoretic paradox, which is intractable for your view. B’s calculus is also the basis for subsequent work in other fields. for instance Varella’s work on autopoetic systems.

            Your approach to metaphysics, by which every phenomenon must have a mathematical description, will let you down in the end, as Russell discovered to his cost. I do not think it is a coincidence that he also had strong but unverified metaphysical views. They always act as obstacles to progress.

            Btw I wasn’t imagining that you would want to reduce all statements to mathematics. It is the idea that all real phenomenon can be given a mathematical description that seems unnecessary. It would immediately imply that the Tao is not real, and thus render the Tao Te Ching a lot of nonsense. Also, some proof is required, since we should not be rejecting Lao Tsu on the basis of whatever happens to be our opinion. After all, the opposite view has quite a few proofs to back it up – Kant, Hegel, Nagarjuna, Weyl, Brown, Bradley, me et al, and there are countless first-person reports.


          • Brown’s calculus may indeed be great. If that is the case, I claim that it is not based on a non-mathematical object. His axiomatic theoretical primitive is indeed mathematical, I suspect. Do you have a reference to show me it isn’t?

            I’m not convinced by your cautionary tale from Russell. Russell assumed that powerful mathematical systems could prove themselves to be consistent, and he was wrong. This only affects what can be proven and not what is true or what is actually consistent and so I don’t think it really has much relevance to my metaphysics

            Believe me, I’m quite open to the idea that the Tao Te Ching is a load of nonsense.

            But I’m also open to the idea that it isn’t, because it is not a model of physical reality but a guide to how humans can think about reality. As a precise description of reality it cannot be true because it is a work of literature and so necessarily vague. But it can be approximately true and it can be of immense benefit to readers.

            Of course, it could also be of benefit if it were complete bullshit. There are plenty of bullshit religious texts out there that plenty of people will testify brought great joy into their lives.

            Finally, I want to distinguish between two claims I am making that you seem to be conflating somewhat.

            The first is that the best way to think about the distinction between supernaturalism and naturalism is that naturalism holds that physical events can be explained mathematically. I don’t think you need to be too committed to opposing this view. If you think that some physical events cannot be explained mathematically, that just means you are not a naturalist. That is the position most religious people find themselves in. It would seem to me that you should only oppose this view if you can think of a belief that is commonly considered to be naturalistic but which does not meet this definition, or a belief which is commonly considered to be supernaturalistic which does. If you can’t do this, then it seems to me that you are simply determined to be considered a naturalist for some reason best known to yourself.

            The second claim is that naturalism is true. This is the view I think you should be disputing, and it’s a view that I’m less inclined to defend because it’s less clear how I can do that even though, intuitively, I find it hard to imagine how it could be false.


          • guymax says:

            Time to stop I think, DM. Your opinions cannot be shaken by the facts even when references are given. I don’t just want to have a pantomime argument. Nice chatting, but I’ll stop before it kicks off.


          • A useful reference is a snippet, not a whole book.


          • guymax says:

            These days a useful reference is a name or idea that can be googled immediately with hardly any effort at all. Like an author’s name or a book title. .


          • The problem is that googling a book does not immediately bring to light the particular part in the book that is relevant to the discussion.

            Even reading the book might not help, because the point you are making which stood out so clearly to you might be interpreted differently and so missed by me. It’s really much more helpful to find a more specific reference.


          • guymax says:

            Okay. Then I apologise for being unhelpful. But let’s move on regardless. I don’t; know any sources that cut it all up into bite sized chunks. .


          • That’s fair enough guymax, and it’s not your fault if you don’t have handy references.

            But please understand that if I don’t immediately change my mind when you list books for me to read that it’s not necessarily a simple case of my being close-minded.


          • guymax says:

            I don’t know whether you are closed-minded or not DM. I just wish you’d take the trouble to check your facts. I’m explaining things here that are public knowledge and can be verified, and you are telling me that you do not agree. This is not a good for my equanimity. Best that I just drop out.


      • guymax says:

        Oh no. I posted a careful reply but it has not appeared. Hopefully this a moderation thing and it will later, but if not my apologies, I just can’t face writing t again.

        If this one does not appear then please disregard it…


  8. guymax says:

    Phew. Perhaps your blog is developing sentience and made a judgement.


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