Human rights rest only on human advocacy

Are human rights anything more than legal conventions? asks John Tasioulas, Professor of Politics, Philosophy and Law at King’s College London.

Isn’t the answer “obviously not”? Human rights are collective agreements, statements about what sort of society we want to live in, and of how we want people to be treated. As such, their justification and standing derives from the advocacy of people. Anything more than that is mere rhetoric, “nonsense on stilts”, as Jeremy Bentham explained long ago.

But, as with morals, people get unhappy about the idea that their feelings on the matter are all there is. People would really like human rights to be laws of nature, objective obligations that we ought to follow regardless. Wouldn’t that put them on a sounder footing?

Professor John Tasioulas

Well maybe it would, but that’s no reason to suppose that they do have such objective footing. As Tasioulas explains: “Unfortunately, no consensus has yet emerged among philosophers or anyone else on how human rights are to be defended as objective truths”. That’s because it cannot be done, because they are not objective truths.

So why does Tasioulas think that there must be some route, some argument that we don’t yet have, for them to be objective? It’s because he wants them to be, because he thinks we need them to be:

I am convinced that we cannot sustain our commitment to human rights on the cheap, by invoking only the law or the assumptions of our liberal democratic culture. Only a deeper justification can explain why we are right to embody them in the law, or maintain a liberal democratic culture, in the first place.

Such arguments remind me of the Argument from Hitler for the existence of God. It runs like this: If God does not exist then Hitler is not currently being punished for his deeds. I want Hitler to be punished. Therefore God exists. I’ve seen this argument proposed seriously (though, admittedly, only by the — shall we say? — less thoughtful Christians).

The fact that human rights (or moral codes more generally) might be on firmer foundations if they were objective properties of nature is not any sort of argument that they actually are. Nature is under no obligation to conform to our wishes, nor to comply with what is convenient or good for us.

Tasioulas hopes for a justification along the lines of an “appeal to the inherent value of being a member of the human species” and also “the interests shared by all human beings in things like friendship”. But something can only have “value” in the eyes of someone doing the valuing. Value is necessarily subjective.

Yes, Tasioulas’s reasoning explains why humans declare human rights. We value other people, and friendship, and we want to ascribe to each other “equal moral status”.

Is there anything wrong with that, anything inadequate?

In the Middle Ages people supposed that legitimate government and political authority could only derive from God, through the conduit, by Divine Right, of a King. But we’ve long rejected that idea. Everyone now accepts that legitimate government derives from “we the people”, a bottom-up conception of political power resting on the democratic consent of the governed, and residing in everyone’s feelings about what sort of society they want to live in.

This process is of course imperfect and fraught with contention (I am aware of who Americans have currently elected as President), but we don’t, these days, hanker after a God with a big stick to come and tell us that we’re doing it wrong and to dictate commandments for the running of society. Ain’t nobody here but us chickens.

Human rights have the same foundation: the advocacy of our fellow humans. It’s no good hankering after any status more objective than that; wishing it so won’t make it so.

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102 thoughts on “Human rights rest only on human advocacy

  1. Mark Sloan

    Hi Coel,

    As you might expect, we disagree here.

    If everyone advocated for the right of a king to have absolute power, that right would be justified in your mind?

    Human rights have a much more objective basis than that. They are examples of reciprocity strategies. You respect my “rights” to life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness and I will respect your rights to life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness. By doing so we fulfill the function of human morality by increasing the benefits of cooperation (cooperating by respecting each other’s rights).

    Understanding human rights as reciprocity strategies produces many more useful insights than a “whatever fellow humans advocate” view.

    Understanding human rights as reciprocity strategies means “human rights” apply to all – “human rights” that apply only to a king make no sense.

    What is moral when human rights are in conflict? Understanding human rights as cooperation strategies tells us that the compromise that maximizes the benefits of cooperation is what is moral. What the “advocacy of fellow humans” is, is irrelevant. It might be that fellow humans advocate for the right of human fertilized eggs to live and not be aborted. Would that make life for fertilized human eggs a human right?

    Reply
    1. Coel Post author

      Hi Mark,

      You respect my “rights” to life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness and I will respect your rights to life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness.

      That sentence sounds like one human negotiating with others. That’s exactly what I’m arguing for, that “rights” are collective agreements deriving from human advocacy. What I’m saying is that there is no-one else *other* than humans to prescribe these things.

      By doing so we fulfill the function of human morality by increasing the benefits of cooperation …

      That’s a descriptive statement. And I agree, that’s why we have moral feelings, they are programmed into us such that we can cooperate with each other. But tha doesn’t change the fact that the *normativity* of any such collective agreements can only come from humans.

      Understanding human rights as reciprocity strategies means “human rights” apply to all …

      But what does that mean? Does it mean that humans want and advocate rights that apply to all? Yes, agreed, they do.

      Does it mean that if we apply human rights to all then humans overall will best flourish? Yes, that’s likely true (and that, again, is a *descriptive* statement).

      Or are you arguing for something other than human advocacy that obliges and requires humans to apply such rights to all? This would be some normative force to which humans are subject. What is that force?

      Understanding human rights as cooperation strategies tells us that the compromise that maximizes the benefits of cooperation is what is moral.

      But you have effectively *defined* “moral” to mean “whatever maximizes the benefits of cooperation”. Given that, your sentence follows tautologically. Your stance makes perfect sense *if* we have first all agreed the axiom that “moral” is a term meaning “whatever maximizes the benefits of cooperation”. But, actually, there is no agreement on that, and indeed the whole issue is what we *mean* by “moral”.

      What the “advocacy of fellow humans” is, is irrelevant.

      I don’t agree. Who says that we should “maximize the benefits of cooperation”? Humans? If so then any normative status of morality derives from human advocacy. If it isn’t humans then what? Who or what obliges us to cooperate? Whence the normative force of any moral prescription, if it doesn’t come from what humans *want*?

      It might be that fellow humans advocate for the right of human fertilized eggs to live and not be aborted. Would that make life for fertilized human eggs a human right?

      There are no *objective* human rights. These things are not natural properties of the world, independent of humans, that we can observe, deduce and inspect. All there is is collective agreements.

      Thus, if there is a collective agreement that each humans has freedom of religion and conscience, then, ipso facto, there is indeed such a “right” that would be enforced by appropriate courts. Ditto if there were “rights” granted to fertilized human eggs. But it is wrong to suppose that there is any more to the issue than that.

  2. Phil

    As usual, Coel declines to be loyal to his own chosen methodology. He makes the bold assertion, “there are no objective truths” and then declines to prove it, preferring that we accept this often repeated hugely speculative claim on faith as he does.

    What we see unfolding on this blog is an example of the great ironies that characterize the human condition. We see someone who is that which they so adamantly reject, a person of faith, a true believer. A person at war with himself.

    Reply
    1. Coel Post author

      He makes the bold assertion, “there are no objective truths” and then declines to prove it, …

      Well, the “no objective truths” was about the claim of human rights and similar moral declarations having objective truth values. It wasn’t about objective truths in general.

  3. verbosestoic

    The issue is that if human rights aren’t objective truths beyond mere legal conventions, they can’t do what we want human rights to do, which is the reason we have, care, or appeal to them at all. The first obvious problem is that if they are legal conventions then those conventions clearly only apply to the legal entity that you’re talking about, which in this case usually refers to specific countries. This means that if your country recognizes the right to freedom of expression and if another country doesn’t, you can’t say that they are denying their citizens the right to freedom of expression in any meaningful way, because all you’d be saying is the obvious point that they don’t have that in their legal framework. So what? We already knew that. You’d need to make an ought claim there, but if there’s no objective truth to whether any rights system must include the right to freedom of expression that’s an ought claim that’s difficult to make. You can appeal to the idea that any society that wants to survive or function ought to do that, but since those other societies might at least seem to be working quite well depending on how it is implemented that’s not an easy argument to make. Moreover, they could still institute that as a law and not as a right, which in most legal systems means that they are treated quite differently, but they could get the effect that you want them to have with a law or a set of laws rather than an overarching right. Which then leads to the suspicion that we don’t need rights at all, but just need laws, which leads to suspicions that maybe we should just get rid of rights altogether.

    This only gets worse when we look inside specific societies. As you are aware, most countries have a definition of “religious freedom” that makes it distinct from freedom of expression. As you are also no doubt aware, you disagree with that definition [grin]. So, when we have disagreements like this, what are we to do? The simple answer or approach is to say that the right is the right and that the person who disagrees with what the law says is the right is simply wrong. But since that would preclude any ability to change it, we can allow that person to try to convince enough people to accept their definition and thus have the legal definition changed. But on what grounds would you do so? You can’t appeal to any objective definition of what the right to religious freedom means, because that’s precisely what you reject here. And you can’t appeal to the legal definition because that’s what you think wrong. So you can appeal that your definition better fulfills a goal that others — most people, at least — have and so they should work to replace it on that basis. Which works if they share that goal, but obviously fails if they don’t. You can then argue that they OUGHT to share that goal with you, but then you either need to appeal to that goal being an objective truth, or else to another goal that they share that means that they ought to share that specific goal. At some point, it seems, you have to appeal to some kind of objective truth, or accept that if they say they don’t share your opinion that there is nothing you can say to change their mind, and that they are no more wrong or right than you are.

    This is all nowithstanding the fact that when you argue FOR your interpretation, you definitely argue as if your interpretation is an objective truth and is just correct, and NOT like it is an opinion that you want others to share [grin].

    For human rights to be meaningful concepts, we want to be able to apply them over top of those who disagree with them or don’t like them. That requires some kind of objective justification. If we don’t have that, then people can say that they reject them and the only way to enforce it becomes strong legal or social impositions … which then are equally justified if the law says that atheists are allowed to be non-religious or, alternatively, must practice the official state religion. There is no justifiable way to distinguish those cases under your view.

    Reply
    1. Coel Post author

      Hi verbose,

      The issue is that if human rights aren’t objective truths beyond mere legal conventions, they can’t do what we want human rights to do, which is the reason we have, care, or appeal to them at all.

      Exactly! Hence all the claims that human rights are objective. It’s pure rhetoric attempting to persuade. But that fact that we *want* human rights to be objective is no sort of argument that they *are* objective (see my “Argument from Hitler”).

      Which then leads to the suspicion that we don’t need rights at all, but just need laws, which leads to suspicions that maybe we should just get rid of rights altogether.

      But rights and laws are pretty much the same thing. If we make a law that a person arrested by the police has a right to consult a lawyer and cannot be held beyond a certain period without being charged and brought before a court, does it really matter if we call this a “law” or a “right”? Either way, these are rules humans have made about how we want society to operate; that’s it, that’s all there is to it.

      So, when we have disagreements like this, what are we to do?

      You can discuss the matter and seek to persuade each other. (And some people find the rhetorical appeals to “rights” persuasive, which is exactly why people make such rhetorical appeals!)

      The simple answer or approach is to say that the right is the right and that the person who disagrees with what the law says is the right is simply wrong.

      This is the problem with arguing that morality and such is subjective. People always, always try to map it into an objective scale, and make declarations as to what is “right”. But, the whole point of my argument is that there is no such thing as objectively right or wrong on such things.

      The person would not be wrong on how they want society to be, which is what they are arguing for.

      … we can allow that person to try to convince enough people to accept their definition and thus have the legal definition changed. But on what grounds would you do so?

      On the grounds of what sort of society we want! That is, de facto, how politics works.

      So you can appeal that your definition better fulfills a goal that others — most people, at least — have and so they should work to replace it on that basis. Which works if they share that goal, but obviously fails if they don’t.

      Agreed, and agreed.

      At some point, it seems, you have to appeal to some kind of objective truth, or accept that if they say they don’t share your opinion that there is nothing you can say to change their mind, and that they are no more wrong or right than you are.

      Exactly! But disliking that situation is *not* an argument that there must be some way of appealing to objective truth in order to relieve the situation.

      For human rights to be meaningful concepts, we want to be able to apply them over top of those who disagree with them or don’t like them.

      Agreed. Hence the rhetoric!

      That requires some kind of objective justification.

      Sure, but us *wanting* objective justification doesn’t mean we can have it. Most of us want justice. But Hitler escaped justice by shooting himself and was never tried and punished for his crimes. Therefore we conclude one of: (1) despite us wanting justice we can’t have it in this case, or (2) there is a God currently punishing Hitler.

      Sometimes we have to deal with the world as it is, not as we’d like it to be.

    2. verbosestoic

      Exactly! Hence all the claims that human rights are objective. It’s pure rhetoric attempting to persuade.

      But if that’s the case, shouldn’t you be strongly advocating that people not make appeals to rights at all, as opposed to making those appeals yourself and even questioning people’s understanding of them? Besides, even under your view we can appeal to rights beyond mere rhetoric, by appealing to the legally defined rights. You have in the past argued both with me and with the view of other politicians when the arguments we were making WAS in line with how rights have been legally defined and interpreted in their jurisdictions. If your view is right, then the rights arguments boil down to nothing more than “what does my jurisdiction say they are”.

      You fall into the same trap that so many people who argue against objective interpretations do, by making arguments that only make sense if the thing is objective, but then retreating to subjectivism when they don’t have sufficient objective evidence for their positions.

      But rights and laws are pretty much the same thing. If we make a law that a person arrested by the police has a right to consult a lawyer and cannot be held beyond a certain period without being charged and brought before a court, does it really matter if we call this a “law” or a “right”?

      Well, as rules of society, it obviously does, since rights are not laws but are principles that trump laws. There is no legal system that recognizes rights that sees them the same way as laws, and they serve different functions in most legal systems. Thus, this doesn’t answer the question: why should we recognize any special category of rights at all? Why shouldn’t a state that decides through the normal mechanisms to insist with a law that all people must be members of a particular religion not have that have all the weight of a right?

      This is the problem with arguing that morality and such is subjective. People always, always try to map it into an objective scale, and make declarations as to what is “right”. But, the whole point of my argument is that there is no such thing as objectively right or wrong on such things.
      The person would not be wrong on how they want society to be, which is what they are arguing for.

      Except that you are conflating two different arguments here. The first is the one that is commonly argued, which is that the state-defined right should be interpreted that way — ie that’s what that right means — which under your definition has a right answer, settled by appealing to the definition of the right by that state. The other argument is that the state should change its definition to match the other one, which fits into the argument you give here. But under your view no one is being treated unfairly if the legal right does not cover them and the state refuses to change it so it does. It just tough luck for them. So when, for example, Canadian law didn’t consider women persons and so said they couldn’t vote, women were not being denied their rights, because as non-persons they didn’t have any. And it’s those sorts of conclusions that seem so counter-intuitive that should make everyone doubtful of the idea that rights really are no more than the legally defined ones.

      Exactly! But disliking that situation is *not* an argument that there must be some way of appealing to objective truth in order to relieve the situation.

      The problem is that, as I pointed out, you yourself do not actually argue that way, nor do you seem to accept that people who take different lines from you merely have their own opinion. So either you are engaging in strong rhetoric that you know is mere rhetoric, or you aren’t being consistent with your own view.

      Sure, but us *wanting* objective justification doesn’t mean we can have it.

      But you missed the consequences of that. The consequences was that if you can’t objectively justify it, you have to use strong societal pressure or force, and if you can claim that that is justified then it is justified in all cases, including the ones you don’t like. Like forcing the non-religious to practice a religion.

      And if you claim that there is no justification for applying that strong force, then rights can’t do anything. And when I say that rights couldn’t do what we want them to do, I don’t mean that in the weak “This is what I’d like” sense that you keep trying to refute. I mean it in the strong sense of “Rights are meaningless, purposeless, and can’t fulfill their required purpose”. So you need to find a use for rights under your view or else admit and accept that we really shouldn’t have rights at all.

    3. Coel Post author

      But if that’s the case, shouldn’t you be strongly advocating that people not make appeals to rights at all, as opposed to making those appeals yourself …

      The idea of *objective* rights is pure rhetoric, but if one regards “human rights” as accepted collective agreements then there is nothing wrong with appealing to them, in the sense of “Isn’t it widely accepted that?” and “haven’t we already agreed this?”.

      Well, as rules of society, it obviously does, since rights are not laws but are principles that trump laws.

      They are still “laws”, just laws that take precedence, in the same way that constitutional law trumps a law made by a legislature. It is usual for laws to have hierarchies, for example a ruling made by a higher court trumps that made by a lower court.

      Why shouldn’t a state that decides through the normal mechanisms to insist with a law that all people must be members of a particular religion not have that have all the weight of a right?

      Well there is nothing to stop a country operating that way. But, as it happens, most people want there to be more-general agreements that everyone (including the government and courts) respect.

      But under your view no one is being treated unfairly if the legal right does not cover them and the state refuses to change it so it does. It just tough luck for them.

      Hold on, notions of “unfairness” are value judgements that people make, and people are quite capable of regarding something as “unfair” even when it is legal.

      So when, for example, Canadian law didn’t consider women persons and so said they couldn’t vote, women were not being denied their rights, because as non-persons they didn’t have any. And it’s those sorts of conclusions that seem so counter-intuitive that should make everyone doubtful of the idea that rights really are no more than the legally defined ones.

      That “counter-intuitive” is revealling. Yes, most people are *intuitive* moral realists and “rights” realists. But if intuition is the only argument going for such stances then it is weak.

      Let’s go back to the time when women didn’t have a legal right to vote. What would it even mean to say that their “rights” were being violated?

      So either you are engaging in strong rhetoric that you know is mere rhetoric, or you aren’t being consistent with your own view.

      I have to use the same language as everyone else, and since most people are moral realists the language lends itself to moral-realist interpretations.

      But you missed the consequences of that. The consequences was that if you can’t objectively justify it, you have to use strong societal pressure or force, …

      If a “right” cannot be *objectively* justified then it can still be adopted by collective agreement and common assent (indeed that is exactly what happens).

      … and if you can claim that that is justified then it is justified in all cases, including the ones you don’t like. Like forcing the non-religious to practice a religion.

      But that only follows if “justification” is some sort of *objective* justification. My whole point is that there is no *objective* justification for “rights”, or indeed for any collective agreement, and thus agreements that I would dislike (e.g. a national religion) are *not* “justified” in any sense.

      So you need to find a use for rights under your view or else admit and accept that we really shouldn’t have rights at all.

      I see their status as pretty much akin to constitutional law, basic and accepted agreements about how to run things.

    4. verbosestoic

      The idea of *objective* rights is pure rhetoric, but if one regards “human rights” as accepted collective agreements then there is nothing wrong with appealing to them, in the sense of “Isn’t it widely accepted that?” and “haven’t we already agreed this?”.

      The problem is that you know good and well that the people you are arguing with don’t think of rights that way, and so aren’t appealing to them in that way, and more importantly aren’t interpreting YOUR appeal to them in that way. This, then, leads to them arguing against you as if you are making an argument for them being objective and then you seemingly, at least, “retreating” to social convention and so, in their mind, refusing to accept a reasonable burden of proof. This is only made worse when you argue AGAINST what is widely accepted, like when you argue that freedom of religion really is a subset of freedom of expression, which almost no one else accepts. If you aren’t making a strong objective normative claim there in opposition to what is commonly or widely accepted, then you at a minimum seem incredibly misinformed about what is widely accepted [grin].

      They are still “laws”, just laws that take precedence, in the same way that constitutional law trumps a law made by a legislature. It is usual for laws to have hierarchies, for example a ruling made by a higher court trumps that made by a lower court.

      So, you seem to be using some loose definitions here, which makes things confusing (and I’d say is a common problem with your arguments):

      1) In almost all cases, rights are defined either by constitutions or with things that have constitutional power, thus using that as a SEPARATE example as you seem to do here is confusing. Rights, even under your view, just ARE constitutional laws.

      2) Court decisions are not laws in any sense of the word in pretty much any jurisdiction.

      3) There also doesn’t seem to be any such thing as specific constitutional “laws” either in pretty much any jurisdiction.

      After parsing this, what you seem to mean is that all of these things — constitutions, courts and their decisions, and laws — are all LEGAL ENTITIES. Which is fine. But the original argument was that rights, as legal entities, were essentially laws, which is false, as laws and rights and court decisions all have separate and distinct definitions and roles in almost all legal jurisdictions. Thus, it’s right to say that legal rights and laws are similar in that they are both legal entities, but they are still clearly different in important ways beyond that similarity. Thus, it is false to say that rights are basically laws. They aren’t. If you think that rights and laws are similar in a specific sense, you need to outline that and show that that similarity matters to the argument that you are making.

      And your assertion, remember, was that they were pretty much the same thing, which is obviously false.

      Well there is nothing to stop a country operating that way. But, as it happens, most people want there to be more-general agreements that everyone (including the government and courts) respect.

      Do they? Because the more reasonable interpretation is that most people would like society to impose more on the religious beliefs of others — especially for those who are completely non-religious — but don’t because they feel that religious freedom is a fundamental objective right. Certainly any religion that is in the majority tends to want to impose it, and only accepts it not being imposed because the right is seen as fundamental and objective.

      Hold on, notions of “unfairness” are value judgements that people make, and people are quite capable of regarding something as “unfair” even when it is legal.

      No, we can indeed define whether or not a situation is unfair objectively, without appeal to values. Imagine that you have a hockey team that is playing in a tournament. They take more penalties than their opponents, and claim this is “unfair”. Since we have the rules of hockey, we can look at whether they violated the rules more than the other team did. If they did, then they were not treated unfairly, regardless of any value judgement. If they didn’t, or the rules had been rewritten specifically to make things that they relied on against the rules, then they would have been treated unfairly. No value judgement is required.

      The value judgement comes in when we decide whether we CARE about them being treated unfairly. We can easily note that they were treated unfairly but decide that we don’t like them so we don’t care that they were treated unfairly. But that would not mean that they weren’t treated unfairly. And you should recall that I noted the same thing about morality: whether or not something is moral or immoral does not necessarily mean that someone won’t want to do the action. They can easily decide that something is immoral and yet choose to do it anyway, for various reasons.

      That “counter-intuitive” is revealling. Yes, most people are *intuitive* moral realists and “rights” realists. But if intuition is the only argument going for such stances then it is weak.

      It relates to burden of proof. You, as I recall, support the principle “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof”. What can that statement mean, if it doesn’t mean that a claim is incredibly counter-intuitive? If we cannot demand strong evidence for strongly counter-intuitive claims, when CAN we demand it?

      Let’s go back to the time when women didn’t have a legal right to vote. What would it even mean to say that their “rights” were being violated?

      Well, since the argument was made that denying them the right to vote violated their rights, it seems that a coherent claim can be made. Which is general is that no matter what the laws or constitutions say, there is an objective right that is being violated, and that society has an interest in and that arguably the whole purpose of legal rights is to reflect those objective rights. While pragmatic arguments are often mustered, in general it’s the moral arguments — you cannot violate someone’s objective rights morally — that hold the most sway.

      Your argument here seems to be trying to imply that the question or argument is meaningless, but the entire history of rights says that it isn’t.

      I have to use the same language as everyone else, and since most people are moral realists the language lends itself to moral-realist interpretations.

      But you don’t have to use the same language as they do. Your underlying argument is always that what you want to see is either in the best interests of the individual, or in the best interests of society, or most of the time that it is in the best interests of society and therefore in the best interests of the individual. You could limit yourself to just those sorts of arguments and have a clearer argument that avoids a number of confusions and implications. The only reason for you to continue to use that language if you hold the view you claim to hold is to take advantage of the assumption that rights are objective to get that stronger emotional appeal. Argumentatively, you would be relying on beliefs that you do not hold but that others do to get them to support your position, relying on the emotional boost while making what you consider to be entirely invalid arguments. And then also wondering why everyone thinks your positions are objective [grin].

      If a “right” cannot be *objectively* justified then it can still be adopted by collective agreement and common assent (indeed that is exactly what happens).

      And how is that, exactly, supposed to work? Have you explicitly agreed to all of the rights in your jurisdiction? Do you agree with all of them? What happens if someone disagrees? Is that still common assent? How do we determine collective agreement? There are a huge amount of issues in just DEFINING what that would mean, let alone dealing with issues where the collective denies rights to a minority because they have the power and the minority don’t.

      But that only follows if “justification” is some sort of *objective* justification. My whole point is that there is no *objective* justification for “rights”, or indeed for any collective agreement, and thus agreements that I would dislike (e.g. a national religion) are *not* “justified” in any sense.

      The justification I’m looking for here is not for the right itself, but for using strong force to impose a right on the members of a society that disagree with it. If you can’t justify doing so, then rights are meaningless. And if you can, then without rights being objective any such imposition by force is justified, and it is only having the most force that determines what rights people get. And yes, before you use force to impose things on other people, you need to justify that imposition [grin].

    5. Coel Post author

      This is only made worse when you argue AGAINST what is widely accepted, like when you argue that freedom of religion really is a subset of freedom of expression, which almost no one else accepts.

      Lots of people agree that, for example, having a religious opinion is *not* a licence to discriminate against others (or be excused from any other law), such as when operating a bakery that bakes cakes. And that puts their opinion pretty much in line with my suggestion that religious freedom is a subset of freedom of expression.

      In almost all cases, rights are defined either by constitutions or with things that have constitutional power, thus using that as a SEPARATE example as you seem to do here is confusing. Rights, even under your view, just ARE constitutional laws.

      That’s certainly the case in the US, where the Bill of Rights is part of the Constitution. It’s less clearly so in the UK where things like the European Convention on Human Rights are not generally regarded as a “constitution”. But anyhow, that’s mere labeling. The point is they are all human-made agreements that societies agree to operate by.

      2) Court decisions are not laws in any sense of the word in pretty much any jurisdiction.

      I beg to differ. Case law is an accepted term.

      3) There also doesn’t seem to be any such thing as specific constitutional “laws” either in pretty much any jurisdiction.

      Constitutional law is also a thing. Quoting that link: “all such states have a jus commune, or law of the land, that may consist of a variety of imperative and consensual rules. These may include customary law, conventions, statutory law, judge-made law, or international rules and norms.” But, again, distinguishing different sorts of human-made law is not important for my case.

      the more reasonable interpretation is that most people would like society to impose more on the religious beliefs of others — especially for those who are completely non-religious — but don’t because they feel that religious freedom is a fundamental objective right.

      Well maybe lots of American Christians feel that way, but in Europe, yes, the idea of a secular state is widely supported by the people.

      No, we can indeed define whether or not a situation is unfair objectively, without appeal to values.

      I don’t think you can, but go ahead and try …

      Imagine that you have a hockey team that is playing in a tournament.

      But a game such as hockey is governed by a set of rules, where the whole point is that the rules are designed by humans to be fair. The human value-judgments about “fairness” are there in the very rules; why else would teams have an equal number of players?

      Let’s say I define “x-hockey” in which one team has twice the number of players. One can objectively declare that “unequal”, but one cannot declare it “unfair” without a human making a value judgement about it.

      The value judgement comes in when we decide whether we CARE about them being treated unfairly.

      No. The value judgement comes in when we decide whether we CARE about them being treated UNEQUALLY.

      If we cannot demand strong evidence for strongly counter-intuitive claims, when CAN we demand it?

      While my claims are counter-intuitive, they are actually pretty parsimonious and prosaic. They are parsimonious in doing away with a whole domain of troublesome concepts of “objective morals” and “objective rights”, which no philosopher has ever succeeded in putting on a proper footing. And they are prosaic in merely requiring people’s intuition to be wrong. Well, most people would be intuitive geo-centrists, with the sun going round the Earth once a day. I would only trust human intuition where it can be backed up by corroborating evidence.

      By the way, one thing I’ve noticed is that philosophers seem to be far more trusting of human intuition, and far more willing to base arguments on it, than scientists are.

      While pragmatic arguments are often mustered, in general it’s the moral arguments — you cannot violate someone’s objective rights morally — that hold the most sway.

      So you’re pointing to the persuasive rhetorical power of such moral-realist arguments? I agree! And that’s why I think people are mostly intuitive moral realists. The moral-realist meme out-competes the anti-realist meme, not on being true but merely on being rhetorically effective.

      And how is that, exactly, supposed to work?

      By the usual political and decision-making processes in society.

      Have you explicitly agreed to all of the rights in your jurisdiction?

      Nope, but then nor have I explicitly agreed to all the laws.

      Do you agree with all of them? What happens if someone disagrees?

      (1) Nope. (2) Generally they have to still abide by them, since the police and courts will tend to enforce them.

      The justification I’m looking for here is not for the right itself, but for using strong force to impose a right on the members of a society that disagree with it.

      There is no such “objective” justification for anything, and never will be. All there is is people and their wants and desires.

      If you can’t justify doing so, then rights are meaningless.

      They still have meaning as collective agreements (even if not universally held or abided by).

      … and it is only having the most force that determines what rights people get.

      A factually correct descriptive statement!

      And yes, before you use force to impose things on other people, you need to justify that imposition [grin].

      That’s a factually INcorrect descriptive statement!

    6. verbosestoic

      Lots of people agree that, for example, having a religious opinion is *not* a licence to discriminate against others (or be excused from any other law), such as when operating a bakery that bakes cakes. And that puts their opinion pretty much in line with my suggestion that religious freedom is a subset of freedom of expression.

      That last line doesn’t follow, though. People accept the right to religious freedom as a separate right from the right to freedom of expression, but note that rights are not absolute, and argue that in those cases the right to religious freedom does not trump the right to non-discrimination. But in general people accept that the right to religious freedom includes acts as well as direct speech, in that the state cannot, at least, legally mandate someone to act against their religious beliefs in the absence of a clash with another right. This has been borne out with many legal decisions in many jurisdictions. The right to expression does not so easily cover acts, and so how people talk about the right to religious freedom and how it gets applied is far more consistent with the idea that they are two separate rights than the idea that they are the same right, and they are, in general, explicitly separated in most Constitutions or Bills of Rights. Thus, despite your claim that rights really are just as defined by those things, you do consistently argue that that isn’t the correct interpretation of them, which you have no reasonable argument for if you really accepted the position you advocate for.

      But, again, distinguishing different sorts of human-made law is not important for my case.

      Sure, but let me point out that you’ve equivocated here: “law” in that sense describes a body of legal entities, not what is generally considered to be an actual “law”, which is what is produced by legislatures. And for some reason you avoid taking the easier and in my opinion more reasonable way out and accepted that they are all legal entities (but different ones). Given all of that, you’d still need to justify your claim that “rights are essentially laws”, by pointing out what you mean by that, given that the two differ radically in almost all jurisdictions. What exactly did you mean by that, and can you make an argument showing that those differences don’t matter to your overall argument?

      Well maybe lots of American Christians feel that way, but in Europe, yes, the idea of a secular state is widely supported by the people.

      Precisely because they believe that freedom of religion is an objectively justified right. If they didn’t, then they likely wouldn’t accept that as far as they do now. That seems certainly true for Canada.

      But a game such as hockey is governed by a set of rules, where the whole point is that the rules are designed by humans to be fair. The human value-judgments about “fairness” are there in the very rules; why else would teams have an equal number of players?

      How can humans define a set of rules to be “fair” if there is no objective concept of what fairness is? Again, you are conflating caring about fairness with fairness itself. As I pointed out, we could redefine the rules of hockey to be unfair to one team, and yet decide that we didn’t care that the rules were unfair for whatever reason. That wouldn’t suddenly make the rules fair.

      Also note that even in your example we might not declare the rules unfair, and just because things are “unequal” that doesn’t make them unfair. If a beer league team was playing against three NHL stars, they might well decide to go to your policy on the basis that it would, in fact, be more fair, even though the number of players was unequal. In general, we call something fair when no one is being treated differently without good reason, and everyone has a reasonably similar chance of coming out with a good outcome, with the only differences being individual skill and things that no player has control over. That’s pretty objective to me, and I can’t imagine you can find a definition of fairness that doesn’t pretty much boil down to this one in the end.

      By the way, one thing I’ve noticed is that philosophers seem to be far more trusting of human intuition, and far more willing to base arguments on it, than scientists are.

      In some sense, but as I said in the last comment this is because if we come up with a concept that strongly violates human intuitions we have to stop and wonder if we’re still talking about the same thing as everyone else. Science generally doesn’t do that, which often causes issues (like with the Pluto “planet or dwarf planet” kerfuffle.)

      So you’re pointing to the persuasive rhetorical power of such moral-realist arguments? I agree! And that’s why I think people are mostly intuitive moral realists. The moral-realist meme out-competes the anti-realist meme, not on being true but merely on being rhetorically effective.

      Yes, and if as you believe that isn’t true then not only should those arguments not be made, but no one should ever accept them because they are EMPTY RHETORIC. Thus, you definitely should stop using them. Moreover, I made this argument showing what it means to say that women deserved rights before they had them, which is something you said you were puzzled by. Do you now accept that you know what that means, or was that line aimed at something else, something more rhetorical?

      Nope, but then nor have I explicitly agreed to all the laws.

      But laws aren’t justified on the basis of collective agreement and common assent, but simply on the basis of legal enforcement. The closest thing like that we have for laws is a democracy, and we still don’t really have that. If you go this far, you drop right into justifying it simply because you can enforce it, and so might as well stop talking about collective agreement and common assent, because that never happens.

      There is no such “objective” justification for anything, and never will be. All there is is people and their wants and desires.

      I want an argument for why I shouldn’t punch you in the nose if you try to impose your values on me … or, even, for why I shouldn’t impose my values on you if I can get away with it, which you generally won’t want to do. Put aside the obsession with objectivity and tell me why you think it a good thing for you to impose your values on someone else over what they want or for one society to impose their values on another over what they want, or else concede that you have no reason for thinking that (and don’t think that).

    7. josh

      “The issue is that if human rights aren’t objective truths beyond mere legal conventions, they can’t do what we want human rights to do, which is the reason we have, care, or appeal to them at all. ”

      The issue is that nothing can do what you apparently want “human rights” to do, which is why Coel is correct. No “objective” human rights prevented or halted the Nazis, Pol Pot, the Inquisition, Slavery, etc., etc., etc. The only thing that stopped any of those things (to the extent they were stopped) was a consensus of opposition among enough people to get it done. An appeal to objective values only works if people share a version of what those values are and how important they are, but that exactly shows that they are only subjective.. History is littered with examples. If rights were objective, they would do something independent of people’s subjective feelings. Alternatively, if you claim that they are objective, but don’t have any impact in the real world, then, besides abusing the term objective, you would be conceding that they don’t do what you want them to do.

    8. verbosestoic

      The issue is that nothing can do what you apparently want “human rights” to do, which is why Coel is correct. No “objective” human rights prevented or halted the Nazis, Pol Pot, the Inquisition, Slavery, etc., etc., etc. The only thing that stopped any of those things (to the extent they were stopped) was a consensus of opposition among enough people to get it done.

      But we don’t expect rights appeals to automatically stop people from committing heinous rights violations. Even if we could convince, say, Hitler that what he was doing was violating the rights of his citizens, he could easily say that he doesn’t care and impose that on them regardless. This is true even if he thinks there are objective, universal rights. So while it would be nice if everyone would just accept that something is a rights violation and stop immediately, that’s obviously not going to happen. Some people will accept that it is and continue anyway.

      What we need them to be universal for, though, is to justify intervention on our part, and possibly having an obligation to intervene. To use Hitler as an example, the Nazi Party was the legitimate legal power in Germany and could define what legal rights people had and didn’t have inside their borders, which arguably could apply to the countries they had occupied. If legal rights are all there is to it, then Germany didn’t violate any rights and we’d have no reason to intervene on those grounds. We’d have to use mere political threat to intervene. So no stopping a Holocaust because to do so we’d have to appeal to simply imposing our own values on them, which they could use to justify imposing theirs on us. So either you justify imposing the values of one society on another in general, or have no justification for intervening on the basis of rights. Thus, rights become meaningless in those precise cases where you claimed that they should have meaning, if your view is correct. Only if they are objective can they justify the actions necessary to stop those things you mentioned.

    9. Coel Post author

      So no stopping a Holocaust because to do so we’d have to appeal to simply imposing our own values on them, which they could use to justify imposing theirs on us.

      Yes, and yes, that is, de facto, what happens.

    10. verbosestoic

      Yes, and yes, that is, de facto, what happens.

      However, most people of good conscience, if they believed that, would insist that we are not justified, then, in imposing values on other people, if for no other reason than we don’t want them imposed on us. Allowing imposition of values will destroy societies, and allowing it will allow those with what are generally considered “evil” values to impose them on others if they are strong enough. Both of these are negative outcomes, but there is no rational way to avoid those outcomes if your view is correct.

    11. Coel Post author

      However, most people of good conscience, if they believed that, would insist that we are not justified, then, in imposing values on other people, if for no other reason than we don’t want them imposed on us.

      There is indeed no *objective* justification for imposing values on other people. One might still, though, want to do it.

      Yes, indeed, people might be concerned about not having other people’s values imposed on them. This is a good description of how, de facto, things work.

      Allowing imposition of values will destroy societies, and allowing it will allow those with what are generally considered “evil” values to impose them on others if they are strong enough.

      De facto, evil societies can indeed impose on others if they are strong enough — whether they are “allowed” to (whatever that’s supposed to mean) or not.

      Both of these are negative outcomes, but there is no rational way to avoid those outcomes if your view is correct.

      Do you think that saying: “Hey, you’re not allowed to do that!” would have stopped the armies of the Third Reich?

    12. verbosestoic

      There is indeed no *objective* justification for imposing values on other people. One might still, though, want to do it.

      We want to do a lot of things. The notions of rights and morals are there, in fact, to stop us from acting on some of our worse wants. Like unjustly imposing our values on other people. If we reduce rights and morals to mere wants, they can’t do their job anymore, and so we might as well abandon them.

      De facto, evil societies can indeed impose on others if they are strong enough — whether they are “allowed” to (whatever that’s supposed to mean) or not.

      Good societies often intervene when evil societies do things like that because they think the societies are objectively evil and so ought not be allowed to do that. Yes, if the evil society is stronger than anyone else, it can do that, but it would still be considered wrong by everyone else. If you abandon that, then most societies will not want other societies to impose on them and so wont be able to intervene against “evil” societies without becoming hypocrites. And if you start stopping caring about even that, then anything goes and chaos is the only result.

      (Also, calling a society “evil” would be pretty much meaningless [grin]).

    13. josh

      Replying to verbosestoic above:
      As Coel has already pointed out, you make my case for me. Rights don’t stop bad things (things we don’t like) from happening and therefore “objective” rights don’t either. Imposing our values on the Nazis, in spite of theirs, is exactly what happened.

      “What we need them to be universal for, though, is to justify intervention on our part, and possibly having an obligation to intervene.”
      “Only if they are objective can they justify the actions necessary to stop those things you mentioned.”

      Here you have conflated universal and objective. I’ve only been talking about objectivity. We have a specific term, universal rights, which indicate something we think should be universal, as opposed to legal rights, which are protections specifically written into law. Universal rights can be written into law, but not all legal rights are universal. (Incidentally, the Nazis were of course convicted of numerous violations of international law, although my impression is that some of that law was written during or for the trials.) Anyhow, none of that has to do with objectivity.

      Your underlying claim seems to be that objective rights are needed to justify our intervening with those who disagree, but this is simply a non sequitur. I believe rights are subjective and I am perfectly content and capable of acting to impose them on others. Others may wish to impose their values despite my preferences. It makes no difference to me whether they do so believing their values to be objective or subjective. (Except perhaps that persuading them of their subjective nature would make them reconsider them.)

      If values are objective, they obviously don’t compel people to intervene in a dispute since, e.g. in WW2 many parties remained neutral and many acted on one side or the other. They obviously aren’t needed to justify actions since both sides justified their own but only one could have done so from objective values. Maybe you need to think about what you mean by the word objective.

      “Thus, rights become meaningless in those precise cases where you claimed that they should have meaning, if your view is correct.”

      I didn’t say anything about rights becoming meaningful, so can’t respond directly to this. In my view, rights are protections that I want everyone to enjoy. These are my preferences and I would like everyone to share them. These are preferences important enough to me that I would impose them on others to the extent I am able. In many cases, I accept a larger legal/societal framework that I don’t directly interfere with others because the agreed upon framework protects me and I think it serves my overall interests better. None of this is objective, because there is no way to determine what “rights” I have or should support that doesn’t ultimately devolve to my own preferences.

    14. verbosestoic

      As Coel has already pointed out, you make my case for me. Rights don’t stop bad things (things we don’t like) from happening and therefore “objective” rights don’t either. Imposing our values on the Nazis, in spite of theirs, is exactly what happened.

      Your case, as I understand it, is to argue that rights should not be seen as objective because if they were they should have impacts on the world that they don’t have. However, I don’t see what those impacts should be and noted that your alternative doesn’t have those impacts either, and so is at least no better off. So, what impacts, in detail, do you think rights should have if they were objective that they don’t have?

      Here you have conflated universal and objective. I’ve only been talking about objectivity. We have a specific term, universal rights, which indicate something we think should be universal, as opposed to legal rights, which are protections specifically written into law. Universal rights can be written into law, but not all legal rights are universal.

      Recall that Coel’s argument is that the only rights we have are rights granted by a specific legal entity. By his argument, then, there is no such thing as a universal right, since you would need a legal entity to endorse it and we all participate in different legal entities, and if any person or country left a specific legal entity that had it those people, at least, would no longer have that right. Thus, to try to distinguish universal from legal rights in that way is to argue against Coel, which is what I’m actually doing. Second, it seems impossible to have anything like a right that applies to everyone if that right is not also objective. You can believe that a right applies to everyone, but if Coel is right then you are mistaken — as that belief is only true inside a specific legal entity — and to hold outside of a legal entity or even specific person it has to have an objective status.

      Regardless, this isn’t really relevant to the discussion. Substitute objective for universal where ever I’ve used universal and my arguments won’t be impacted.

      It makes no difference to me whether they do so believing their values to be objective or subjective. (Except perhaps that persuading them of their subjective nature would make them reconsider them.)

      And ought to, since we ought not want to impose subjective values on other people. But then you’d need to convince them that rights are subjective, and as soon as you do that they will obviously be much more willing to oppose you attempting to impose your view of rights on everyone else.

      If values are objective, they obviously don’t compel people to intervene in a dispute since, e.g. in WW2 many parties remained neutral and many acted on one side or the other. They obviously aren’t needed to justify actions since both sides justified their own but only one could have done so from objective values. Maybe you need to think about what you mean by the word objective.

      Both sides viewed their view of rights and being objective, which is why they felt justified in trying to impose their view on others. If rights are objective, then we can say that one group was right and one group was wrong. If they are subjective, we can’t, so the Nazis were JUST AS RIGHT as the Allies were. That’s as far as we want rights to go: to the idea that there is a right answer and that we want to act on the right one, not the one that we personally like the most.

    15. Coel Post author

      So, what impacts, in detail, do you think rights should have if they were objective that they don’t have?

      Isn’t that for the rights realists to explain? One of my big problems with rights realism (and moral realism more generally) is that I have no conception of what it would even mean, and thus could not construct a sensible answer to such a question.

      By his argument, then, there is no such thing as a universal right, since you would need a legal entity to endorse it …

      Though there is such a thing as rights that people *want* to be universal. Thus the European Convention on Human Rights is something that many people want to apply universally, though de facto it is enforced only in a subset of the world.

      And ought to, since we ought not want to impose subjective values on other people.

      Why not? It seems coherent to me to hold that the rights in the European Convention on Human Rights are subjective, deriving from the desires of those who promote and defend the convention, *and* to want such rights spread worldwide (and to want to impose them, for example, on Islamist-run nations).

      If rights are objective, then we can say that one group was right and one group was wrong. If they are subjective, we can’t, so the Nazis were JUST AS RIGHT as the Allies were.

      That doesn’t follow. In objective terms, there is no such thing as “objectively right” or “objectively wrong” and thus it is not true that “the Nazis were just as right” (which implies that there *is* objective right and the Nazis and Allies scored equally against that objective measure).

      In subjective terms, we indeed CAN say that one group is right and the other wrong. In fact, I’ll do it: The Nazis were wrong. See, I just did!

      That means that in our opinion they were wrong. Human opinion and feelings on the matter are all there is to it; it is a mistake to look for any objectivity beyond that.

    16. josh

      To verbose, again:

      However, I don’t see what those impacts should be and noted that your alternative doesn’t have those impacts either, and so is at least no better off. So, what impacts, in detail, do you think rights should have if they were objective that they don’t have?

      No, no, you were the one who introduced the idea that rights have to do some unspecified thing that we want them to do, and it was your contention that they had to be objective to do whatever it is. I gathered from your conversation that they were supposed to compel us universally to do something, or that they were to justify our actions in some unclear way. But to be objective they would have to do those things and be independent of human emotions and desires. There’s no way to square that circle, as with any “objective” morality. You’ll have to figure out your own conception if you want to argue for it in any more detail. Also, my “alternative” is simply a coherent and accurate description of rights, I don’t think it gives them special powers that are otherwise lacking.

      Recall that Coel’s argument is that the only rights we have are rights granted by a specific legal entity…. Thus, to try to distinguish universal from legal rights in that way is to argue against Coel, which is what I’m actually doing.

      Coel will have to speak for himself, but I don’t see any substantive differences in our positions. It seems rather like you don’t understand them and are trying to catch me on a verbal quibble. Coel says we only have rights as they are given to us by societal convention, formal rights are enshrined in law. I agree. However, we can also speak in an aspirational sense: Everybody should have such and such rights. Meaning I want all of society everywhere to uphold those protections. In casual speech, since we are coming from a historic background, I might say everyone has the right to such and such, meaning I want them to, even though I know that in Coel’s sense not everyone actually has it. It’s sloppy, but rhetoric often is. I’m sorry if this confused you. Think of it like laws I would like enacted and laws that are currently on the books.

      Second, it seems impossible to have anything like a right that applies to everyone if that right is not also objective.

      Not at all impossible. If I want a right to apply to everyone that means I want it to be a universal right. This is a subjective preference, I can’t guarantee that you want it for everyone. That is of course the aspirational sense I mentioned. As a matter of law, a legal body might declare a universal legal right, but in practice it may not be able to enforce it outside its recognized jurisdiction. In practice it may not be able to enforce it within its jurisdiction!

      Regardless, this isn’t really relevant to the discussion. Substitute objective for universal where ever I’ve used universal and my arguments won’t be impacted.

      As I’ve just explained, things may be universal without being objective, so your argument that started in “universal” and tried to conclude with “objective” doesn’t follow.

      And ought to, since we ought not want to impose subjective values on other people.

      I don’t know where you got this idea from. An “ought” is a subjective value, so this view would be rather self-defeating within my framework. I do want to impose my values on other people. E.g., I’m against slavery and I subjectively want that value imposed on others who may not share it.

      Both sides viewed their view of rights and being objective, which is why they felt justified in trying to impose their view on others.

      It’s irrelevant to the discussion whether they thought they were being objective.

      If rights are objective, then we can say that one group was right and one group was wrong. If they are subjective, we can’t, so the Nazis were JUST AS RIGHT as the Allies were.

      If, but you can’t. The Nazis were JUST AS WITHOUT OBJECTIVE CORRECTNESS as the Allies, because no objective answer is to be found. The Nazis were subjectively wrong, in my, and I presume your, view.

      If they were objective then there would be a way to determine the correct answer independent of human preferences. But no such measurement can be made. Moreover, if there were some way to objectively measure “rightness”, that would not compel the Nazis to change their behavior. There behavior depends on their desires, which are subjective by definition. So either rights are subjective, or you arbitrarily redefine rights and then they don’t do what you want them to do.

  4. Phil

    Coel, let’s consider these two statements.

    1) Human rights have an objective foundation.
    2) Human rights do not have an objective foundation.

    Both of these assertions, like all assertions, bear the burden of proof. As a party making assertions you have your own burden to bear which is independent of anything somebody else is claiming.
    You don’t win by default simply because the other fellow has failed to meet their own burden. Such an assumption is not reason, but something rather different, ideology.

    All I’m doing in most of my posts across your blog is challenging you to be loyal to your own chosen methodology, reason. Reason inconveniently requires you to bear the same burden you reasonably require of those making objective foundation claims. If you wish to claim there is no objective basis to human rights, ok, fair enough, so please prove it. And if you can’t, please admit it.

    Once you’ve done that, the theme of this blog will collapse. And that could open a door to new lines of inquiry beyond the repetition of the same basic point, an experience a person of your obvious intelligence might find rewarding.

    You’ve chosen a useful methodology. All that’s left is to use it.

    Reply
    1. Coel Post author

      Hi Phil,

      You don’t win by default simply because the other fellow has failed to meet their own burden.

      In this case (and in many cases) yes you do. If you can show that there is no good reason to suppose something exists, then you can dismiss it with Occam’s razor. Thus, to conclude that unicorns and faeries and BigFoot don’t exist, all you need do is show that all claims that they do exist are inadequate.

      In this case, we know that there is a subjective aspect to human rights (that is, we know that people argue to get rights established, based on their own subjective values and desires about what sort of society they want). If people want to argue that there is more to it than that, that human rights have objective normative standing, then it is up to them to make the case.

    2. Jonathan Lewis

      Phil,


      1) Human rights have an objective foundation.
      2) Human rights do not have an objective foundation.

      Both of these assertions, like all assertions, bear the burden of proof.

      You are ignoring the lack of inherent symmetry.

      If I say “X exists” all you have to say is “Show me X” or “Show me evidence of X”, or perhaps “Show me Y, which we will agree must exist if X exists and can exist only if X exists.”

      If I say “X does not exist” you will agree, I hope, that I could (in principle) enumerate everything that does exist and show that X was not included in that enumeration. More realistically, however, I might be able to say: “If X does not exist then Y must exist and there is no other way that Y could exists – and here’s Y”. Or I could say “There is no evidence for X, and here’s why X appears to be redundant and any argument in favour of X requires more complexity than the argument against X (or has to ignore the facts)” … which is basically what Coel’s post does.

  5. Phil

    As example, you wrote, “Sometimes we have to deal with the world as it is, not as we’d like it to be.”

    And how the world is, is that we don’t know how it is. The history of science alone is more than enough to demonstrate that, no philosophy or religion etc is required.

    Theists would like it to be that we know, you would like it to be that we know, but it just ain’t so. That’s where a real inquiry begins, with that simple fact. We just don’t know.

    Reply
    1. Coel Post author

      That’s where a real inquiry begins, with that simple fact. We just don’t know.

      There are plenty of things that we do know, to sufficient levels of reliability. That unicorns don’t exist one. That the Earth orbits the Sun is another. That germs can cause disease is a third.

  6. Phil

    Hi Johnathon,

    As I see it, you’re engaging in overly complex calculations, perhaps so you can arrive at the conclusion you wish to reach. I offer this simpler logic formula in reply.

    All assertions bear their own burden of proof.

    To me, this is what intellectual honesty entails. Everybody is subject to the same rules. This principle of reason seems quite important for atheists to grasp, given that reason is their chosen methodology.

    Imho, the most outspoken atheists typically confuse reason with ideology. Reason doesn’t care who wins, and winning is all the ideologist cares about. Reason is a process of surrender, just like faith. Ideology is the opposite of surrender, it is instead a process of building of conceptual forts.

    My complaint is not with an atheist choosing reason as their methodology, but rather with their failure to be loyal to what they have chosen. Such a loyalty becomes visible when they stop calling themselves atheists or theists.

    Reply
    1. Jonathan Lewis

      Phil,

      Quote: As I see it, you’re engaging in overly complex calculations, perhaps so you can arrive at the conclusion you wish to reach

      I’m sorry you found my attempt to highlight the problems of assymetry complex, I tried to make it as simple as possible.

      Quote: All assertions bear their own burden of proof.

      I don’t think I’d argue against that statement though I might want to clarify terms rather carefully. However I’d like you to supply the proof of your assertion, and then show your efforts at quantifying the burden when faced with the contradictory assertions:

      “X exists”
      “X does not exist”

    2. Phil

      Hi again Jonathan,

      Well, it seems to boil down to what a particular person will accept as proof. It seems unlikely there is any logical formula which can produce a universally accepted guaranteed true answer.

      The ancients were being completely reasonable when they assumed the sun rotated around the Earth, because a totally reliable universally shared empirical observation seemed to confirm this beyond any doubt. There appeared to be no speculation of any kind involved, because even a child could look up and see this fact for themselves.

      One of the things this story might teach us is that the real answer is often simply beyond our ability to conceive at a particular moment in time. How could the ancients have known that there are billions of galaxies each large beyond comprehension and that even the Sun was only the tiniest fragment of the whole?

      My assertion, which I can not of course prove, is that we are still in this same situation in regards to the true nature of reality as a whole. Perhaps we have progressed from level 3 to level 15 in our understanding, but there are probably a thousand levels left to explore.

      Point being, any assertion about whether or not there is an objective non-human source of morality or human rights etc seems wildly speculative, whatever position one might take. So many seem to wishful thinkingly assume that they have the correct answer, when the chances are we don’t even have the question right.

      But, to join the silly game, :-)….

      I’d suggest readers might wish to explore an interview with Raymond Moody on Amazon Prime. I’m watching it now, pretty interesting. As you may recall, he’s a leading researcher on near death experiences, and does a good job of offering a perspective on above human sources of morality etc that is not explicitly religious.

      Another interesting area of related investigation can be found in a documentary called The Spirit Molecule which reviews test subjects experience of the drug DMT. Available on Netflix. These people also report experiences in which profound experiences of death and love transcend what can be reached through mere logic.

      What’s interesting to me is that both of the above really aren’t dependent upon religious doctrines. One can look at these experiences through that lens if one prefers, but it’s not at all necessary.

      I have no idea myself how true any of the above may be, but I am convinced there’s most likely a lot going on over our heads that we have no real clue about. Imagine trying to explain the Internet to a squirrel. Like that.

    3. Jonathan Lewis

      Phil,

      Quote: “Well, it seems to boil down to what a particular person will accept as proof.”

      I think this is the only part of your reply that addresses my previous post. I’d be quite happy to discuss some of the other points you raise, but I’d rather finish with one topic before addressing a new one. I’m happy to leave aside the requirement for your to prove your assertion that “All assertions bear their own burden of proof”, but I would still like to hear your comments on the asymmetry of the burden for the contradictory statements:

      “X exists”
      “X does not exist”.

    4. Jonathan Lewis

      Phil,

      Since you didn’t bother to reply to this thread at the correct point I’ve copied your entire reply into my follow-up:


      Hi again Johnathon,

      I’m putting this reply to you at the bottom of the page, because trying to keep track of nested conversations on a WordPress blog is more work than it is worth, imho.

      Sorry, I thought I had replied to your concerns about asymmetry when I claimed, an assertion is an assertion is an assertion. I don’t see an asymmetry between the claims “X exists” and “X doesn’t exist”, I see two competing claims, each subject to the same rules.

      I will agree that there are many situations in life where we are required to make a decision and thus have to work with whatever we have at the moment.

      But, the bottom line topic of this blog “is there a God, or some other non-human source of morality and human rights etc?” is not one of those situations. People are not coming to conclusions on that topic because they have to, but because they want to.

      I of course can not prove that all claims are subject to the same rules. I agree that this is a subjective judgment on my part, and of many others concerned with intellectual honesty. If some people wish to have one standard for their claims and another standard for the claims of others, they are of course free to do so.

      Again you have failed to make any constructive comments about the asymmetry in the burden of proof when considering the two statements
      “X exists”
      and
      “X does not exist”.

      You first claimed that my “calculations” were over-complex when I supplied a brief sketch of the difference; then you simply avoided saying anything relevant at all; and now you claim that saying “an assertion is an assertion is an assertion” addresses the issue. Perhaps you chose to place your final reply out of sequence so that it was not immediately obvious that you were avoiding the actual issue with your statement: I don’t see an asymmetry between the claims “X exists” and “X doesn’t exist” .

      Proving “X exists” is, in principle at least, a logically simple exercise.
      Proving “X does not exist” often requires a non-trivial approach.

      If you do have any constructive comments on this lack of symmetry I would be interested to hear them – by now, though, I’m not really expecting a worthwhile response.

    5. Phil

      Johnathon writes,

      “Again you have failed to make any constructive comments about the asymmetry in the burden of proof when considering the two statements
      “X exists”
      and
      “X does not exist”.”

      I’ve already addressed this point multiple times. The asymmetry you are hoping to find does not exist. A claim, is a claim, is a claim. You appear to want one rule for you, and another rule for those you disagree with. That’s not reason, that’s ideology.

      If I claim that UFOs exist and I can’t prove it, that doesn’t equal UFOs not existing. That equals me failing to make a compelling case which is widely accepted.

      The UFO case seems helpful because it basically boils down to what someone will accept as credible convincing evidence. As example, will we accept an observation from someone else, or do we have to see the UFO ourselves? If the former, what standard to observers have to meet for us to judge them credible?

      I’m learning about an interesting example at the moment. Robert Hastings (http://www.ufohastings.com/) has interviewed over 100 military officers stationed at nuclear bases who claim UFOs have repeatedly inspected and sometimes interfered with our nuclear weapons. So, do we believe multiple nuclear launch officers who all report the same thing? Do we find them credible as a group? Do we feel they are lying or mistaken?

      Every person decides for themselves what standard evidence must meet before they will label it as proof.

      Before you ask the question yet again, please read this.

      A claim is a claim is a claim, and all claims by all parties bear their own burden. Nobody gets to win by default.

    6. Coel Post author

      A claim is a claim is a claim, and all claims by all parties bear their own burden. Nobody gets to win by default.

      The stance: “I see insufficient evidence to assent to the claim that UFOs exist and so discount the existence of UFOs” is not a claim that needs to be proven.

      Discounting things for which there is no evidence (Occam’s razor) is how we all live, and indeed how we need to operate.

      Ten minutes ago you did not run as fast as you could Westwards to avoid the aircraft falling out of the sky to crash exactly where you were, did you? Why not? Because there was no evidence of such an aircraft. Did you need to first meet a high burden of proof of the aircraft’s non-existence before not running Westwards? Err no, you just acted as though there were no aircraft because there was no evidence of such an aircraft.

  7. Phil

    Coel, of course there are things can be reasonably declared known, agreed. But not on the scale your blog typically addresses.

    Declaring that human rights have no objective foundation assumes that we know what forms of life or intelligence may transcend our own. It’s not rational to declare “I don’t see such things, therefore they don’t exist” because the history of science reveals a pattern of things we didn’t see actually being there, the microscopic, the atomic, quantum, the cosmic etc.

    I would of course agree that there is no proof such higher realms exist. I’m not arguing that they do, because like everybody else, I have no idea.

    You’re determined to reach a particular conclusion, which is of course your right. But you don’t have the right to label that determination reason, for it is not, it’s ideology.

    Reply
  8. Phil

    Coel wrote, “In this case (and in many cases) yes you do. If you can show that there is no good reason to suppose something exists, then you can dismiss it with Occam’s razor.”

    For endless centuries there was no good reason to suppose that the microscopic, atomic, quantum realms existed. There was no good reason to suppose that the sun and stars did not revolve around the Earth. There was no good reason to suppose the Earth wasn’t flat. There was no good reason to suppose that there are billions of galaxies, each larger than our minds can grasp. There was no good reason to suppose that the complexity of life is shaped by a process of random chance. On and on it goes….

    Do I really have to explain the history of science to a scientist??

    Here’s what’s really happening, in my annoyingly inconvenient opinion. It’s part of the human condition that we tend to craft self flattering personal identities out of whatever ideas resonate with us. Theists declare themselves the holy people, atheists declare themselves the smart people etc. No ideology is built upon a claim to be the stupid wrong bad people, it’s always self flattering.

    Once a set of ideas has been used to create the self flattering personal identity, those ideas tend to become almost impossible to dislodge, because reason is no longer in charge.

    What confuses this issue considerably is that that logical arguments are often used to promote and defend the self flattering personal identity we’ve built out of some set of ideas. On the surface it appears we are reasoning, but an inch below the surface the emotional engine is churning away driving the process.

    Sadly, it’s possible to build a delusional self flattering personal identity even out of the declaration “I don’t know”. I’ve heard that can happen to people. I wonder who they are?? 🙂

    Reply
    1. Coel Post author

      Phil,

      Our knowledge is always provisional. We don’t know everything, and we might well encounter evidence that means we change our minds.

      But, we do the best we can with the evidence we have. And if there is no good evidence for something (e.g. unicorns, faeries, or objective human rights) then we adopt Occam’s razor and declare (provisionally) that they don’t exist.

      Thus “human rights are not objective” is a shorthand for: all the evidence we have suggests that they are subjective; them being subjective adequately explains everything we currently have to explain; there is no evidence for any objective rights beyond that; therefore we (provisionally) adopt the stance that there are no such thing as objective human rights.

      Now, if you think we can go beyond that sort of thing with non-existence proofs, then please show us how it is done with, say, unicorns.

  9. Phil

    Hi again Coel, ye of significant patience,

    I propose that on the scale of issues you like to address on this blog our knowledge is not provisional, it’s non existent. What do we know about death, or about what may or may not be going on over our heads? Basically nothing, only whispers of rumors.

    What you’re doing is taking our non existent knowledge on these huge subjects, labeling it provisional, and then using that hedge to arrive at the conclusion you so clearly want to reach. That is, wishful thinking, fantasy knowings, ideology, the very same process used by theists.

    Given that there is no credible evidence that this fantasy knowing process will ever lead to anything but more of the same, reason suggests we abandon failed methodologies and look for other ways of proceeding. Which may bring us to….

    PROPOSAL: The reality of our ignorance is more interesting and useful than an endlessly repetitive quest to develop and defend fantasy knowings.

    Such a level headed embrace of the fact of our ignorance is fully inline with atheist principles. (But not with typical atheist practice.)

    We conduct an epic investigation over thousands of years. We discover we are ignorant. We don’t discard the discovered ignorance in favor of the answers we were hoping to find, we instead constructively engage what the investigation actually revealed.

    We found something. Not what we were hoping to find, but what is actually there. What shall we do with what we have discovered?

    Reply
    1. Coel Post author

      What do we know about death, or about what may or may not be going on over our heads? Basically nothing, only whispers of rumors.

      I’d argue that we know quite a lot about death and what happens to an animal after death. We can readily observe dead animals.

  10. Phil

    In reply to your request, here’s an example of how just looking at something from a different angle can sometimes turn the ridiculous in to the real. Let’s talk about the atheist deity, The Invisible Pink Unicorn. Yes, she exists, holy be her name! 🙂

    A tiny seed will someday grow in to a big tree. Is the seed real? Yes, of course. Is the seed a tree? Yes again, an infant tree.

    The idea of the The Invisible Pink Unicorn exists today. It is the seed form of the coming mature IPU. Here’s what happens next.

    Some clever theist genetic engineer will take the invisible seed of an idea and craft it in to a real life pink unicorn, specifically in order to shut up the atheist ideologues and deny them their deity. 🙂

    The Holy Invisible Pink Unicorn does exist, is currently invisible in her womb, and will soon be born pink. You read it here first!!

    Is this example silly? Yes.

    Could it also be literally true? Yes again. Why not?

    Reply
  11. Phil

    Coel wrote, ” And if there is no good evidence for something then we adopt Occam’s razor and declare (provisionally) that they don’t exist.”

    Indeed. So let us now apply the Occam’s razor process you claim to believe in to your own position.

    There’s no credible evidence that Coel, a human being on one tiny planet in one of billions of galaxies, has the ability to know whether or not there is some form of intelligence at the heart of all reality, a realm no one can define in even the most basic manner.

    Thus, such an ability is reasonably said to not exist.

    All I’ve been arguing all along is that atheists might be loyal to their own stated principles. You like Occam’s razor? Ok then, feel free to go ahead and use it.

    Reply
    1. Coel Post author

      Thus, such an ability is reasonably said to not exist.

      I’ve never claimed that we have brains able to know everything, or that are guaranteed to be reliable on such questions.

  12. Jonathan Lewis

    Phil,

    Quote: “There’s no credible evidence that Coel, a human being on one tiny planet in one of billions of galaxies, has the ability to know whether or not there is some form of intelligence at the heart of all reality, a realm no one can define in even the most basic manner.”

    By your standards you have to prove that assertion. Until you do there is, presumably, no requirement for Coel to pay any attention to it.

    Reply
  13. Phil

    Well, nobody is required to pay attention to any of this from anybody, gotta agree there. And in fact, pretty much nobody does pay attention to it. No amount of logic dancing here or elsewhere is likely to change much of anything because these topics are not driven by reason, but deeper human forces.

    That would be the effective rebuttal to my posts across the blog. My own wishful thinking disease arises from the fact I was born with a knack for logic dancing, and thus I want logic dancing to be important on these subjects. And even though I see that it is not, I continue anyway because I too am not driven by reason, but deeper human forces.

    Human beings are like an M&M candy. There’s a thin hard shell of reason on the outside obscuring a much larger soft and squishy center of emotion.

    This is why religion flourishes for thousands of years, even in the age of science. Unlike philosophers, scientists and logic nerds like us, religious leaders tend to be realistic about the human condition. They are, if you will, a species which is well adapted to it’s real world environment.

    Reply
  14. Phil

    Hi again Johnathon,

    I’m putting this reply to you at the bottom of the page, because trying to keep track of nested conversations on a WordPress blog is more work than it is worth, imho.

    Sorry, I thought I had replied to your concerns about asymmetry when I claimed, an assertion is an assertion is an assertion. I don’t see an asymmetry between the claims “X exists” and “X doesn’t exist”, I see two competing claims, each subject to the same rules.

    I will agree that there are many situations in life where we are required to make a decision and thus have to work with whatever we have at the moment.

    But, the bottom line topic of this blog “is there a God, or some other non-human source of morality and human rights etc?” is not one of those situations. People are not coming to conclusions on that topic because they have to, but because they want to.

    I of course can not prove that all claims are subject to the same rules. I agree that this is a subjective judgment on my part, and of many others concerned with intellectual honesty. If some people wish to have one standard for their claims and another standard for the claims of others, they are of course free to do so.

    Reply
    1. Jonathan Lewis

      Phil,

      If something is worth saying then it’s worth the little extra effort to help people hear it.
      To that end I’ve quoted your response into the thread at the location where it ought to appear.

    2. Phil

      Hi Johnathon,

      Any site serious about conversation uses forum software. Blog software is great for speeches, but it’s not designed for what we’re trying to do with it. Blog software is for a handful of people saying “nice article, I enjoyed it” or similar.

  15. Phil

    “I’ve never claimed that we have brains able to know everything, or that are guaranteed to be reliable on such questions.”

    And yet you pen a blog which routinely presents the appearance of adamant certainty on the largest of subjects.

    Reply
    1. Coel Post author

      And yet you pen a blog which routinely presents the appearance of adamant certainty on the largest of subjects.

      I argue for my position. One cannot put every caveat in every sentence otherwise the writing would be unreadable. And I note the usual trick of an agnostic attributing “adamant certainty” to atheists!

  16. Phil

    “I’d argue that we know quite a lot about death and what happens to an animal after death. We can readily observe dead animals.”

    We know a lot about what happens to bodies after death. We know a lot about the transition from life to death. That’s different than knowing about what, if anything, lies beyond that transition.

    Perhaps you think you know. Theists do as well. Yep, me too. A wishful thinking society.

    Reply
    1. Coel Post author

      That’s different than knowing about what, if anything, lies beyond that transition.

      If theists wish to speculate it’s up to them to provide the evidence. If there is no evidence for supernatural souls and life after death then we ignore such notions with Occam’s razor.

  17. Phil

    “If theists wish to speculate it’s up to them to provide the evidence. If there is no evidence for supernatural souls and life after death then we ignore such notions with Occam’s razor.”

    This is the usual “we win by default” strategy Coel which is so common to the atheist perspective. It’s not an intellectually honest stance. Here’s what intellectually honest would look like.

    Theists have a position which they have failed to prove. Atheists have a theory which they have failed to prove. Two competing theories, both of which lack proof.

    To quibble further, there is evidence for both positions. But neither party has sufficient evidence to label it proof, a widely accepted conclusion.

    So it has been for thousands of years. And so it will be for thousands of years to come. Thus, reason suggests that rather than endlessly recycle a repetitive debate which show no signs of producing anything but more of the same, it would be more rational to face the reality of our ignorance and see what constructive uses we might be able to put it to.

    Such a rational process tends to be obstructed by the fact that so many theists and atheists have become addicted to their fantasy knowings. Both parties began conducting a sincere inquiry with good intentions, but then ego hijacked the process, thus ending any real inquiry. After all, once one feels one has The Answer, what’s the point of further inquiry?

    Reply
    1. Coel Post author

      This is the usual “we win by default” strategy Coel which is so common to the atheist perspective.

      It’s simply a strategy of going on the evidence and not going beyond the evidence.

      Atheists have a theory which they have failed to prove.

      The atheist position is “you want to argue for life after death? Then you provide the evidence for it; until then we’ll discount the idea”.

  18. Phil

    Coel said, “It’s simply a strategy of going on the evidence and not going beyond the evidence.”

    You only apply this to other people’s assertions, not to your own. That’s NOT reason, but ideology. Again, everybody is entitled to their ideology, but they aren’t entitled to label it reason.

    Coel said, “The atheist position is “you want to argue for life after death? Then you provide the evidence for it; until then we’ll discount the idea”.

    See? Here it is yet again, over and over. You clearly have an opinion on the matter, but you don’t label your opinion as an assertion. Thus you give yourself a free pass on the burden of proof all assertions inherit.

    Here’s the REAL atheist position, stripped of fantasy….

    “Unless the other fellow proves his case, as defined by us, then whatever our opinion on the subject is automatically wins.”

    You want to win by default. You want the other fellow’s opinion to bear the burden of proof, and you want your own opinion to be free of that burden. That’s not intellectual honesty, that’s ideology.

    If atheists wish to declare reason as their methodology, an entirely valid thing to do, they have to actually use the methodology they have chosen or their credibility vanishes.

    Reply
    1. Coel Post author

      You only apply this to other people’s assertions, not to your own.

      No I don’t.

      Here it is yet again, over and over. You clearly have an opinion on the matter, but you don’t label your opinion as an assertion.

      Do you think: “I’m going to walk down to the supermarket to get some groceries”, or do you think: “I’m going to walk down to the supermarket to get some groceries but it’s possible that a dragon will fly down and eat me, so I’d better take precautions, and it’s possible that I’ll be teleported into another dimension, so maybe I shouldn’t go at all . . . “?

      No-one can go through life making decisions based on all sorts of possibilities for which there is no evidence. We need to operate taking into account evidenced possibilities, but we simply discount those for which there is no evidence.

      “Unless the other fellow proves his case, as defined by us, then whatever our opinion on the subject is automatically wins.”

      Or, translated: we don’t worry about the dragon coming to eat us on the way to the supermarket, unless we have evidence of such dragons.

  19. Phil

    First, you’re doing the usual atheist thing of trying to equate situations where we do have knowing with situations where we don’t. Going to the supermarket = knowledge about death. C’mon Coel.

    But anyway, I think we will likely agree that we’re stuck in a rut making the same arguments to each other over and over. I’ll make an attempt to open some new ground for us to explore in a bit, please stand by.

    Reply
    1. Coel Post author

      Going to the supermarket = knowledge about death. C’mon Coel.

      It’s a good comparison. The “soul lives on after death” bit is equivalent to the “dragon flies down and eats me” bit.

  20. Phil

    There clearly is an arena where we have knowledge and can use that knowledge to examine new claims. If I claim there is a giraffe in your refrigerator, you can credibly state there is not based on years of accurately examining the contents of your refrigerator. Or If I claim jello is a good building material for bridges, you can credibly dispute this based upon centuries of experience in bridge construction.

    You’re attempting to conflate arenas where we have proven expertise with arenas where we don’t. When it comes to HUGE questions such as whether there is anything above us which could provide an objective source of human rights, you have nothing, no track record, no proven expertise, no demonstrated competence in such an arena. All you have is an answer of your own invention which you passionately wish others to accept, ie. an ideology.

    New angle still coming…

    Reply
    1. Coel Post author

      You’re attempting to conflate arenas where we have proven expertise with arenas where we don’t. When it comes to HUGE questions such as whether there is anything above us which could provide an objective source of human rights, you have nothing, …

      These days, we do actually have a good idea of what sorts of things exist in the biological world.

    2. vampyricon

      Here’s my evidence against life after death: Life is a self-replicating chemical system that is capable of Darwinian evolution. Since the reproductive organs of a corpse does not disappear, anything that happens after death does not fit the definition, thus there is no life after death.

  21. Phil

    One level of investigation is to challenge various competing claims _within_ the theist vs. atheist debate, a very familiar routine participants on all sides have become comfortable with.

    Another level of investigation is to challenge the theist vs. atheist debate itself. Given the repetitive nature of that debate, and it’s failure to advance the inquiry after centuries of earnest effort led by some of the best minds among us, it seems reasonable to question whether the theist vs. atheist debate really is a useful methodology. What is it accomplishing other than inflating the egos of the enthusiastic participants?

    Yes, yes, I know, ideologists on all sides are earnestly convinced that it’s only a matter of time until everyone sees the correctness of their position. Except that, um, this fantasy has never happened once in human history.

    Einstein defined insanity as doing the same things over and over expecting different results. Perhaps that’s where we are, and if so, it could be time to clarify our goals.

    What is our highest priority? Is our highest priority pursuing this inquiry by whatever methodology shows promise? Or is our highest priority sticking with a particular methodology which we’ve become comfortable with?

    As example, if it could be shown that playing golf was the best way to advance this inquiry, would we abandon intellectual debate and join the country club? Or would we stick with debate because that’s this process that we find enjoyable?

    We might consider this question carefully, because if it is a particular methodology which is our real interest, that might explain why we’re making so little progress with the inquiry. Perhaps we aren’t actually that interested in the inquiry?

    Each of us is entitled to make whatever choice we prefer, and I’m making no judgement about what anyone should do, other than the suggestion that it would likely be helpful for us to be as clear minded and honest with ourselves about where our real interests lie.

    I’m only arguing against a possible fantasy that maybe we think we are interested in X when really we are interested in Y.

    If there is anyone here who feels the theist vs. atheist debate has come to match Einstein’s definition of insanity, we could perhaps investigate other methods of pursuing these interests.

    Or, if we prefer, we could also choose to continue with the same dance we’ve been dancing the last 500 years. All of us already know all the steps to that dance, so continuing to go endlessly round and round in the same familiar circles would be the easiest choice.

    Reply
    1. Coel Post author

      Another level of investigation is to challenge the theist vs. atheist debate itself.

      Personally I’m not that interested in the theist vs atheist debate. I don’t see it as an intellectual debate (it stopped being do a hundred years or more ago). Instead, theism is just wishful thinking and anthropomorphic projection. It won’t go away because of the foibles of human nature; plenty of people will always want the comfort of a god.

  22. Phil

    Coel is that not interested in the theist vs. atheist debate???

    Ok, whatever dude, I will interpret that as you not being interested in an honest intelligent discussion. Fair enough, that’s your right, asked and answered.

    Reply
    1. Coel Post author

      I will interpret that as you not being interested in an honest intelligent discussion.

      No, wrong interpretation. It’s just that, as I said, I’m not aware of any arguments for gods that are not just wishful thinking and anthropomorphic projection. If there ever were any decent evidence then I might get interested.

  23. Phil

    “These days, we do actually have a good idea of what sorts of things exist in the biological world.”

    Face it Coel, on these kinds of topics, you just can’t keep up. No crime in that. I can’t keep up when it comes to astrophysics. Stick to science my friend, stick to science.

    Reply
  24. Phil

    Hi again Coel, and before I yell at you again, could I please wish you a Happy Holiday. 🙂

    Here’s my interpretation in a bit more detail. You decline to face the evidence that the theist/atheist debate, including our own exchanges, goes endlessly round and round over the same ground for centuries, and never leads us to any kind of new understanding or experience.

    I do respect that some people really enjoying riding this Merry-Go-Round to nowhere, and so I won’t press this point further. If anyone here should ever express frustration with the repetitive unproductive nature of this 500 year old conversation, ok, that would perhaps be a good time to explore further.

    Until then, I wish all happy holidays full or free of gods as each of you prefer. For myself, I will now attend to the serious business of consuming mass quantities of chocolate chip cookies, my favorite holiday ritual.

    BURP!

    Reply
    1. Coel Post author

      You decline to face the evidence that the theist/atheist debate, including our own exchanges, goes endlessly round and round over the same ground for centuries, …

      Wrong. I fully face and accept that evidence. The atheist vs theist debate does indeed go round and round and never gets anywhere.

      As I see it, that is because — as I said — it is not “an intellectual debate (it stopped being do a hundred years or more ago). Instead, theism is just wishful thinking and anthropomorphic projection. It won’t go away because of the foibles of human nature; plenty of people will always want the comfort of a god”.

  25. Phil

    Coel said, “The atheist vs theist debate does indeed go round and round and never gets anywhere.”

    Ok, thank you for this correction of my understanding. This is why I pester you, because you are clearly intelligent enough to have become bored with the routine. Whether you are impatient enough to explore beyond the routine, as yet unknown.

    You went on to say…

    “It won’t go away because of the foibles of human nature; plenty of people will always want the comfort of a god”.”

    Let’s edit that to be more intellectually honest…

    “The theist/atheist debate won’t go away because of the foibles of human nature; plenty of people will always want the comfort of a fantasy knowing.”

    So the question for me personally is, should I just mind my own business and leave both theist and atheist true believers alone to enjoy their fantasy knowings in peace?

    I most likely should, given that the evidence clearly shows my interruptions of theist and atheist fantasy knowings accomplishes exactly nothing. Instead of priding myself on being intellectually inconvenient perhaps I should just accept that actually I’m just rude. I really do accept that.

    However, because of the foibles of human nature; plenty of people will always want the comfort of a hearing the sound of their own voice. 🙂

    Hello, my name is Phil and I’m a typoholic. I’ve been clean now for, um, well, uh, never actually.

    Reply
  26. Phil

    Coel,

    First, please consider moving this to a forum, just a suggestion. Forums are specifically designed to facilitate these kind of exchanges, and the site owner can still make speeches, with or without the opportunity for others to comment.

    Second, I agree that a person reporting their own situation is of course free to do so. Me saying that I do or don’t believe in UFOs says nothing about the reality of UFOs, it’s just a report on my own relationship with the topic.

    If I were to claim that UFOs exist, I bear the burden for that claim. If I were to claim that UFOs don’t exist, I’d bear the burden for that claim as well.

    What skeptics of various kinds typically want is to always be on the offensive, never the defensive, and to win by default if the other fellow can’t prove their case. One rule for you, another for me.

    I’m sorry, but such a stance is both fueled by emotion, and intellectually lazy. What typically obstructs skeptics from seeing this is that they’ve built an elaborate self flattering personal identity out of their skepticism (we are the smart people!), which then becomes the dominant agenda.

    As I’ve already explained multiple times, you’re confusing situations where we have to make a decision and take action with situations where we don’t. There is no requirement to come to conclusion on either gods or UFOs, because whatever the truth may be in either case, we can’t do anything about it.

    I was just reviewing a debate Robert Hastings (UFO researcher) had a few years back on a skeptic forum. The emotional agendas of most of the skeptics is screaming out from the pages, but they can’t see it because they’re enjoying those emotions so much. We are the smart people, we have the big brains, we are the masters of logic, the Great Debunkers!, we are saving the world by sweeping away all the silly bunk!!! etc etc etc.

    It’s just like the religious forums. People gather together in groups of the like minded to reinforce their own fantasies. A mutual validation society.

    Reply
  27. Phil

    Coel offered the example….

    “I see insufficient evidence to assent to the claim that UFOs exist and so discount the existence of UFOs.”

    The statement in this example seems accurate. You don’t see what _to you_ would be sufficient evidence. You discount the existence of UFOs. In this example, the statement would appear to be an accurate representation of _your relationship_ with the UFO issue.

    If this is what you meant, I have no complaints. You are reporting your personal situation. I have no reason to believe your report about your situation is inaccurate. I accept your report as credible.

    The above is something entirely different than you proving there are no UFOs. If you wished to make that claim, you would bear the same burden of proof as someone claiming UFOs do exist.

    You can chant the phrase “Ockham’s razor” as many times as you wish and any objective observer will see that for what it is, an ideologist making a lazy attempt to win by default.

    You’re undermining your own credibility by not accepting for yourself the same rules you insist everyone else is bound by.

    Reply
    1. Coel Post author

      The above is something entirely different than you proving there are no UFOs.

      So? Did anyone claim it is the same? Can you think of a reason why I might have phrased it: “I see insufficient evidence to assent to the claim that UFOs exist and so discount the existence of UFOs”, and not: “We have proved there are no UFOs”?

      The frustrating thing about you is that you take no notice of anything we say to you. We give carefully stated explanations and you treat them as though we were making simplistic and dogmatic declarations of certainty. And no matter how many times we explain that we’re not, you still cling desperately to that idea.

      We atheists are the ones who understand this stuff. You agnostics can’t get beyond your dogmatic article of faith, that you repeatedly trot out: “Atheists are making simplistic and dogmatic declarations of certainty and we’re superior because we don’t”.

      You’re undermining your own credibility by not accepting for yourself the same rules you insist everyone else is bound by.

      See, there it is again! After admitting that you “have no complaints” about what I actually said, you then insist that I was really saying something else, and that I am “undermining my own credibility” by saying what … err … I did not say.

  28. Phil

    Here’s an example that may illustrate how self defeating adamant skepticism can be for the scientific community.

    The Pentagon has recently released video of a UFO Navy pilots encountered over the Pacific. Here’s an interview with a former Deputy Secretary of Defense here in the U.S.

    UFOs were radar tracked simultaneously by both an airborne command post, an aircraft carrier, and 2 Navy jets in pursuit of the UFO. The pilots got a visual sighting, which is recorded on video.

    The Pentagon is NOT claiming this is aliens, only that these are unknown craft with flying ability beyond our current understanding of the laws of physics.

    Here’s the point. The existence of UFOs is being increasingly proven by ever more credible witnesses. What’s going to happen next is that it’s going to start to dawn on lots of people that the scientific community stubbornly ignored what may be the biggest story in human history.

    The credibility of the scientific community is about to take a huge hit, and it will be because they chose chanting occam’s razor over open minded investigation.

    Reply
    1. Coel Post author

      Here’s an example that may illustrate how self defeating adamant skepticism can be for the scientific community.

      You’ve never shown that you really understand skepticism.

  29. Phil

    “You’ve never shown that you really understand skepticism.”

    You’ve never shown that you’re willing to apply skepticism to anything but other people’s conclusions. Which isn’t actually skepticism at all, but ideology.

    Here’s an example to illustrate how it works.

    As you’ve seen, I’m a compulsive typist who’s never met an idea I don’t want to inspect, challenge, test etc. I don’t just do this routine on your site, or atheist sites, I do it everywhere, on every topic. And as you’ve seen, I have sort of a knack for ripping things apart. Which brings us to…

    Skepticism applied to other people’s idea accomplishes pretty close to exactly nothing. Well, ok, it’s entertaining for we of the incurably nerdy class, that is granted.

    What skepticism applied to other people’s ideas typically accomplishes is to inspire the target to grasp whatever their belief system is even more tightly. And if one’s skepticism should be effective, then you will simply be ignored, dismissed, banned etc, and the mutual validation society of that group consensus will continue without interruption.

    Point being, the process we are engaged in and that I feel I have a knack for is essentially illogical, because it accomplishes very little, if anything. Thus, applying skepticism to my own actions I observe that what I like to think of as a knack for reason, is actually essentially an emotional agenda run wild.

    We of the nerd class are superficially clever, but emotionally unsophisticated. Thus, in the kinds of conversations we both enjoy we rarely see anything too real because for us, that is too scary, it takes us out of our depth, beyond our comfort zone.

    Point being, applying skepticism to ourselves, arguably the only place it could really do any good, is rarely engaged in because it’s simply too inconvenient.

    What I’ve been trying to share with you from the beginning is that if we are truly loyal to reason, everything including our most cherished poses will get ripped to shreds in the skepticism meat grinder and then we are left with nothing.

    And THAT is where the most interesting investigation begins.

    As an astrophysicist it might interest you to reflect upon the fact that the overwhelming vast majority of reality is what we commonly refer to as “nothing”. So, as a sincere atheist determined to face reality, that is what it overwhelming is, this thing we call “nothing”.

    The mediocre astronomer focuses on things in space, the tiniest fraction of reality. The more serious astronomer focuses on the space between the things, the dominant characteristic of reality.

    That’s what I’m attempting to intellectually. Undermine the importance of all the idea “things” by ripping them all to shreds and demonstrating how weak and insubstantial they really are. Once we’re lost faith in the idea things, we are liberated to shift our focus to the space the things exist within.

    So, as you can clearly see for yourself, I don’t believe in words or thoughts or ideas or typing, or any of that. 🙂

    It’s true, I don’t. But I do it anyway. Because like everyone else, I am a ridiculous human creature.

    Reply
  30. Phil

    Coel wrote,

    “The frustrating thing about you is that you take no notice of anything we say to you. We give carefully stated explanations and you treat them as though we were making simplistic and dogmatic declarations of certainty. And no matter how many times we explain that we’re not, you still cling desperately to that idea. ”

    What’s frustrating about me is that I understand your cherished ideology better than you do, and I do agree that being true, and me saying it out loud, is indeed annoying. And irrational.

    You think your atheism is a process of reason. It’s not. It is instead fueled by the very same emotional agendas that power theism. Which is not an insult, but simply stating the obvious fact that you are, like me, a human being. And human beings, all of us, are like an M&M candy, a thin hard shell of reason on the outside obscuring a much larger soft and squishy center of emotion.

    Theists, the better ones anyway, are willing to face this reality of the human condition. That’s why their enterprise goes on for thousands of years, they are dealing with reality.

    Atheists, and me as well, are dreamers. We think we can conquer emotion with reason. It’s a fool’s errand.

    But the fantasy is fun. And life is short, so fun is good. So there is a fragment of rationality to the process, just not the way we normally think of it.

    Reply

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