All Godless Universes Are Mathematical

At futurism.com, there is a brief article explaining why the universe is mathematical, by saying, essentially just, that’s what we invented math for, to explain the universe. But this isn’t really an answer to the question. Theists have long used the lack of an answer to that question as an argument for God:

  1. Mathematics is inherently mental, therefore a mathematical universe can only come from a Mind;
  2. Our universe is mathematical;
  3. Therefore, our universe can only come from a Mind.

I’ve addressed this argument before, as presented by Russell Howell and Mark Steiner, for example. But I think those articles of mine are clunky and confusing. And discussions that ensued from them led to better ways to distill everything to clearer essentials. So here is an article to replace all of those.

The Steiner-Howell Silliness

Cover of Mark' Steiner's book The Applicability of Mathematics as a Philosophical Problem.Of course, right from the start, Steiner and Howell’s argument is formally invalid. Just because X can only be described with a certain kind of language, it does not follow that X cannot exist or be what it is without a language to describe it. In other words, they are confusing the tools of description with the thing described. Of course all languages in this sense are the invention of a mind. That’s why no descriptive languages existed before people did. Which is rather an argument against there being a god. After all, if there has always been a Mind, why aren’t we all speaking the same one language He invented? Why aren’t we just born knowing a language; why do we have to spend years learning one as a child? And why did we have to invent all the languages? And when we did, why did we come up with completely different languages? (The Tower of Babel tale is a silly myth. So if you are still wearing that tinfoil hat, you need to learn some science.)

We invented our languages specifically to accomplish the task of describing what exists. That a language succeeds very well at that task is indeed due to humans being very clever in perfecting language as a tool of description, but that’s as far as it goes. There is no evidence any language was invented by a Divinely Clever Mind. And that languages were intelligently designed by people to work well at describing what exists, is not the result of the universe being ‘suspiciously describable.’ It’s just the inevitable consequence of every godless universe that would ever contain intelligent life. Because all such universes are describable. So the probability of finding ourselves in one if a god doesn’t exist, is 100%.

To be taken in by this Steiner-Howell argument is like being amazed at what a miracle it is that Earth had oxygen, just what people needed to breathe—forgetting that we evolved to breathe what was here, not the other way around. Half the life on this planet evolved to breathe what was around before oxygen came along: carbon dioxide. And we would have evolved to breathe that, too, if that had remained the only breathable gas around. So there is nothing miraculous about the convergence of oxygen and oxygen-breathers. Just so, there is nothing miraculous about the convergence of a describable universe and a tool for describing it.

There is no reason to expect that any universe would be somehow “undescribable.” Any godless world capable of sustaining life will logically, necessarily contain quantities and ratios of quantities. There is no logically possible world that doesn’t contain those but does contain life without a god creating or maintaining it. And mathematics is just a language for describing and analyzing quantities and ratios. Therefore, all atheist universes will be mathematical. There is really nothing more to explain. But let’s unpack this further and see what it means.

Mathematics as a Language

Math is just a language, no different from any other (like English or German) except in two respects: component simplicity and lack of ambiguity. This is, in fact, all that distinguishes mathematics from any other language. And it differs in those two respects because we wanted it to: we designed mathematics as a language specifically so we would have a language with those two properties.

Component simplicity is a defining attribute because math is a language we created for describing the simplest elements of complex patterns: primarily, quantities and relations. Every “word” in mathematics refers to a very simple pattern (like a number or a function or a quantifiable relationship). Unlike English, where most words refer to very complex patterns (like “tree” or “theorem”). Of course, mathematical sentences and paragraphs can be immensely complex. But this does not change the fact that the words are all simple, literally as simple as any words can be. And that is what makes mathematics what it is, as opposed to English or German.

And the lack of ambiguity defines mathematics as a language because every mathematical word is deliberately defined by humans in an absolutely precise way, leaving no room for optional interpretations or ranges of vagueness. This is what math was invented for: to escape the perils of imprecision and vagueness, which are a feature of other languages. Thus, while in English “tree” can refer to a plant or a hierarchical list of computer files, and while applying the word “tree” might run into uncertainty when we are looking at something that straddles the properties of a tree or a bush, in mathematics no such problems arise—because we humans made sure of it. We wanted one, so we created one: a language without ambiguity. And we called it mathematics.

Some people might restrict the definition of mathematics further, thus distinguishing math from logic, by stating that mathematics is a language dealing solely with quantities, relations, and functions applied thereto, whereas everything that is simple and precise but not a quantity, relation, or function falls into the subject of logic instead. But many mathematicians regard logic as a special subset of mathematics, since anything said in a language of logic can also be described in the language of mathematics. However, in practice, logic is used as a bridge for extending the defining advantages of mathematics (simplicity and precision) to normal language and ordinary human thought. In that respect, logic straddles the spheres of math and ordinary language. Either way, though, mathematics is definable, either broadly as a language characterized by component simplicity and lack of ambiguity, or narrowed further to just the domain of describing quantities, ratios, shapes, and other physical patterns of arrangement.

And thus that we can invent such a language and find it useful, simply means we live in a universe where there are quantities, ratios, shapes, and patterns, that are composed of simple and precisely definable components. No God needed. That we would evolve the ability to invent languages to describe things is easily explained just on its rudimentary survival advantage. And it’s inevitable that any godless universe we would find ourselves in would be constructed of quantities and ratios of things.

How We Got There

Mathematics has to be learned. And before it could be learned by anyone, it had to be invented. And humans went hundreds of thousands of years without inventing it, and thus without learning it. But the more we tried to describe our world with precision, the more we discovered by trial and error that we needed a language that can describe quantities and ratios, and shapes and patterns, without ambiguity. Because that’s what every physical universe will consist of: quantities and ratios and shapes and patterns of things. In fact, all randomly generated universes without gods in them will consist of nothing but that (and all the things those then construct and manifest).

As I wrote in Loftus’s anthology The End of Christianity (pp. 301-02)

[H]umans evolved to understand the world they are in, not the other way around. Even then, the universe is so difficult to understand that hardly anyone actually understands it. Quantum mechanics and relativity theory alone try the abilities of someone of above average intellect, as do chemistry, particle physics, and cosmological science. Thus neither was the universe designed to be easily understood nor were we well designed to understand it. We must train ourselves for years, taxing our natural symbolic and problem-solving intelligence to its very limits, before we are able to understand it, and even then we still admit it’s pretty darned hard to understand.

If you have to rigorously train yourself with great difficulty to understand something, it cannot be said it was designed to be understandable. To the contrary, you are then making it understandable by searching for and teaching yourself whatever system of tricks and tools you need to understand it. Our ability to learn any system of tricks and tools necessary to do that is an inevitable and fully explicable product of natural selection; that ability derives from our evolved capacity to use symbolic language (which is of inestimable value to survival yet entails the ability to learn and use any language—including logic and mathematics, which are just languages, with words and rules like any other language) and from our evolved capacity to solve problems and predict behaviors (through hypothesis formation and testing, and the abilities of learning and improvisation, which are all of inestimable value to survival yet entail the ability to do the same things in any domain of knowledge, not just in the directly useful domains of resource acquisition, threat avoidance, and social system management).

Thus the actual intelligibility of the universe is not at all impressive, given its extreme difficulty and our need to train ourselves to get the skills to understand it—indeed, our need even to have discovered those skills in the first place: the universe only began to be “intelligible” in this sense barely two thousand years ago, and we didn’t get much good at reliably figuring it out until about four hundred years ago, yet we’ve been living in civilizations for over six thousand years, and had been trying to figure out the world before that for over forty thousand of years. Given these facts (our universe’s actual intelligibility), [the intelligent design of the universe] is actually improbable: the probability of the degree of intelligibility we actually observe is 100 percent if there is no [intelligent design], but substantially less [likely on the assumption it was designed to be understood].

It is almost certainly far less, since a God could easily have made the world far more intelligible by making the world itself simpler (as Aristotle once thought it was), or our abilities greater (we could be born with knowledge of the universe or of formal mathematics or scientific logic or with brains capable of far more rapid and complex learning and computation, etc.), or both, and it’s hard to imagine why he wouldn’t. God gave us instead exactly all the very same limitations and obstacles we would already expect if God didn’t exist in the first place.

In fact, we are actually pretty badly designed to correctly understand our universe, which is why it took us hundreds of thousands of years of failing at it before we ever got anywhere near good at the task. So rather than looking like we were intelligently designed to understand the universe, we look exactly like we weren’t.

Which looks exactly like there is no God.

Hmm. I wonder what the simplest explanation is for why the universe looks exactly like a universe with no god in it? Three guesses. (See my article on Bayesian Counter-Apologetics.)

What About Mathematical Beauty?

As I also wrote in that Loftus anthology, “Humans evolved to see beauty in certain properties of the universe (including the beauty of languages, efficiency, and puzzle solving, three skills of incalculable value to differential reproductive success), not the other way around.” That’s why we should conclude “the universe was not designed to be beautiful,” but rather “we were designed to see it as beautiful—by natural selection.” Steiner and Howell don’t get this. They think these are supernatural signs of God’s design. After all, they argue, why would the mathematical solutions humans find beautiful happen to align with the mathematics that’s correct? Surely only gods could arrange that!

This is of course all myth. They claim scientists have found a successful scientific method in focusing on ‘beautiful’ and ‘convenient’ mathematical theories. But that’s not true. Though that has been an effective heuristic for getting at simple and focused problems in comprehensible ways, this is simply the result of human limitations: we have to start small, and solve simple problems first, in the few ways we know how and are best at. And we have the inclination toward simple and tidy solutions, solutions that don’t have unknown complexities or uncertainties, because our brains evolved a cognitive bias toward exactly those properties, which is actually not wise. Preferring simple solutions, preferring everything be certain and answered, makes our lives easier in a primitive context (and thus has some survival value), but isn’t actually a sound method for acquiring true beliefs about the world. If we were to rely solely on this heuristic, most of the greatest scientific discoveries would never have been made; and we’d be stuck believing numerous hopelessly false things—like Plato’s “beautiful” mathematical theory of the elements, or the many “beautiful” mathematical systems of astrology and numerology.

Diagram of a protein molecule, showing an dizzyingly complex geometry.Far from a “beautiful and convenient” chemistry of four elements whose atoms could be described with a simple and perfect geometry, we discovered in the end an incredibly ugly, messy, and inconvenient Periodic Table of over ninety elements and counting (never mind the bizarre complexity of the Standard Model of particle physics that underlies the Periodic Table), which form in turn countless molecular elements and mixtures, whose geometry is mind-bogglingly complex and not even precisely definable in any way that would have pleased Plato’s senses. And far from the “beautiful and convenient” planetary theory of Copernicus (which was in fact such a bad and inaccurate model, it actually was substantially less successful in a predicting planetary positions than Ptolemy’s geocentric model; and geometrically was literally false), the paths and velocities of the planets are so ugly, complex, and inconvenient that we need supercomputers to handle the messy intersection of Newtonian, Keplerian, Einsteinian, Thermodynamic, and Chaotic effects, and even then they are not always entirely accurate in their predictions on astronomical scales of time (like thousands and millions of years).

Apart from a mistake-prone preference for simple and tidy solutions that we acquired from our clunky hominid ancestry, any remaining notions of mathematical beauty are culturally invented and learned, not biologically innate. What works well, was decided should be well regarded; and consequently, we learned to react well, to what works well. That’s why equations that are nightmarishly ugly to most people, are regarded as “beautiful” and “elegant” only by mathematicians. That’s not innate. It was trained into them. And what is innate, is a reverence for simplicity and tidiness, and delight at unexpected solutions, all features we evolved for completely different purposes, and which in physics, as I’ve noted, can often lead us astray.

Christians Suck at Probability

In truth, you can use any method you want for discovering facts—including picking ideas out of a hat. As long as the result bears out in empirical tests, it is acceptable. I do not have to “assume” that there is anything mystically efficacious, anything metaphysically rational, about picking ideas out of a hat. I can still do it, simply because it is easy, and I know I don’t have to trust any results until they bear out in tests anyway. And the fact is, even such a totally random method will produce successes. And only the successes will get published and thus heard of.

A Steiner or a Howell would then come along, see that all the scientific discoveries in print came from picking ideas randomly from a hat, and foolishly conclude that there is some mystical power inherent in hats to produce knowledge of the universe. They would say the universe had to be Hatrocentric to explain this phenomenon. But they would be wrong. They would have forgotten to consider the hundreds of hatpicked ideas that fell by the wayside. Thus, even if it were the case that scientists have been using a heuristic that was contrary to the metaphysical assumptions of physicalism, it would neither follow that they were acting irrationally (since they need not assume their heuristic has a metaphysical basis—we do what is easy and engages us, what we know how to do well, because we’re human) nor that the universe was somehow metaphysically linked with that heuristic (since even a totally random method will score hits, and only successes then survive in the historical record).

But additionally, not only would their fallacious reasoning fool them into believing in the supernaturally god-designed powers even of hats, the actual heuristics that impress them are not random hatpicks, nor contrary to the metaphysical assumptions of physicalism.

Howell and Steiner are especially amazed and astonished that James Clerk Maxwell was able to discover electromagnetic radiation simply by analyzing some mathematical equations describing the behavior of electrical currents. He found that the equations when combined described a system that was losing electrical charge, but without describing where it was going. This could have been accomplished with plain English as well; there was nothing special about mathematics here, except in the one thing we designed mathematics for: to be precise with only simple components. Thus making things like disappearing quantities more obvious.

That’s why it is no more amazing that tinkering with mathematical descriptions can discover the truth about a system they describe, than that tinkering with ordinary English descriptions can do so. Maxwell combined descriptions of conservation with descriptions of current and developed a new hypothesis worth testing. This is no different than combining “my wallet just went missing” with “pickpockets are often about” and developing therefrom a new hypothesis about what happened to my wallet. No one would conclude from this that the universe was anthropocentrically designed so I could discover pickpockets; much less deduce therefrom that the English language was intelligently engineered into the structure of the universe. The inference is silly.

To start with the hypothesis that charge was disappearing from any systems described by both those equations would have been wise in every possible universe; because that’s what they described. Maxwell simply noticed something about those systems as described that others missed; and all he used to notice that, was the description of those systems, based solely on human observations, using a language humans invented to precisely describe what they observed.

And then, to start with the hypothesis that charge was disappearing due to a single phenomenon (like Maxwell’s hypothesized “displacement current“) is also reasonable in every possible universe, whether godless or not: because a single explanation will always be more likely than several explanations just “happening” to cause the same effect at the same time. Because the latter requires more coincidences, and thus is necessarily less likely—certainly in every possible godless universe, where no intelligence can mess with random chance. Thus, such an assumption is not contrary to godless physicalism; it’s efficacy is entailed by godless physicalism.

Such an assumption is also the easiest place for a human to start—hence that Maxwell would start there is fully to be expected, and would be in every possible universe, godless or otherwise. And being the first place anyone would start, statistically most discoveries will occur upon that very assumption, simply because those are the explanations we are most commonly looking for. And therefore they will always be the ones we most commonly find. And the method will often still fail, as it did with Plato’s “first try” at a chemistry of four simple elements. But, again, we ignore and thus forget to count all the millions of “simple” explanations scientists tried that ended up being false, leaving us to be “amazed” at the successes.

The reason we tried four elements first is the same reason Maxwell tried to find only one cause of a missing current first. The cause he was looking for was of the spontaneous disappearance of electrical charge in contemporary descriptions of electrical systems. Maxwell hypothesized that this ‘disappearing’ charge was never just vanishing; which entailed that, instead, energy had to be leaking from the system, in one way or another. And he first hypothesized only one leak: which he called “displacement current,” and which we now recognize as “electromagnetic radiation” (i.e. light and radio waves). And still it wasn’t declared a confirmed science until his guess was verified in empirical tests. But in chemistry this same tactic (of trying the simple solution first) failed to align with reality, as it often does not.

Hence it was entirely possible that charge was not conserved (after all, we now know matter is not), just as it was also possible that charge was being conserved but that energy was leaking from electrical systems in two completely different ways at the same time (or three or ten or twenty). Maxwell guessed it was one, and got lucky. But his luck is not surprising, since statistics favor the simple answer even in a blindly operating, undesigned cosmos—for obvious reasons: absent deliberate design, the more complex a system, the more improbable it is (as advocates of Intelligent Design are always reminding us). The improbable is not impossible, just less frequent; but that still means we will luck out more often if we start with the simpler hypothesis and work our way up from there. This will be true in every godless universe imaginable. And though the causes of individual events are always incredibly complex, constantly repeating events are generally the result of the predominance of a few simple causes. Only a cosmic puppeteer could make it otherwise. In other words, only in a world made by a God could simplicity fail as a heuristic.

Thus Steiner and Howell’s contention that simple systems imply an anthropocentric universe is baseless—and in fact a little bizarre. Since their thesis entails we should expect most things to be reducible to an abundance of simple systems only in an anthropocentric universe, they apparently think if we found a completely unanthropocentric, undesigned universe, it would be fundamentally more complex than the one we are in. That hardly sounds logical to me.

Nevertheless, there will always be complex systems, as simple systems will randomly and catalytically combine and interact even in an unplanned universe. In fact, most of reality is an immensely complex fabric of interacting systems, which individually are simple but in aggregate are not. However, since humans are really only good at solving the relatively simple problems, the reason we have discovered so many “simple” laws is that these are the kinds of laws we have most often been looking for, and are most able to find, precisely owing to our limitations. Meanwhile, most of the universe is actually governed by “laws” so complex we have made little progress in predicting even commonplace phenomena governed by them, like earthquakes, or the weather, or even, in most cases, human behavior.

Artificial Simplicity

List of the equations for Newton's three laws of motion.Take Newton’s formulas for motion and gravity (which some people inaccurately call “Newton’s laws”). Many have thought these are beautifully simple (though in practice they typically require the application of calculus, a method of mathematical analysis so complicated many humans give up even learning it), but we should not let their “beauty” distract us from the fact that nothing in the real world obeys them. Even apart from the fact that Einstein found Newton’s formulas needed to be much more elaborate and complex, and even apart from the fact that the laws of thermodynamics and quantum mechanics complicate the application of simple equations like Newton’s to real-world cases—even setting all that aside—any competent scientist will tell you that if you run the same experiment several times, for instance dropping an apple from a fixed height, you will get different results every single time. We only find Newton’s laws of falling bodies in this discordant data by averaging experimental results out and rounding them off. Yet in reality, a falling apple will sometimes fall faster, sometimes slower, and this will be noticed more, the more precisely you measure its fall.

Why? Because the world is an extremely messy, complex place. Computer drawing of an apple falling toward the grass from a tree.The moon’s gravitational effect on a falling apple, for example, is constantly changing, as is the sun’s gravitational effect, and Jupiter’s, and so on, and even the earth’s, as magma and continents and oceans and masses of air are always on the move, and even the rotation of the earth is always changing, while friction against the apple in the air will constantly change in response to variations in temperature and pressure, and even the apple’s shape and mass will constantly change (as it gets dented from repeated dropping or squeezing, and emits olfactory molecules, and collects or sheds dust, and absorbs or evaporates moisture, and even as light bounces off of it, and cosmic rays pass through it, and now radio waves, and on and on), and so on (a complete list of variables would be immense).

Consequently, Newton’s equations for motion and gravity only apply to ideal situations, which never in fact exist. That humans choose to focus on the ideal as a means to get a handle on the complexities of the real world is a product of human limitations. But this means Newton’s laws are essentially human fabrications. We made them simple on purpose. Because we needed them simple to be useful. The universe, however, is never that simple. It never anthropocentrically conforms to our ideals. It never really obeys Newton’s Laws. This does not mean there is no objective truth to Newton’s laws. Rather, it means their truth is similar to that of Euclid’s geometry. As we now know, there are non-Euclidean geometries, and in fact the real world obeys them far more frequently (another example of things turning out way more complicated than humans first thought). But Euclid’s geometry often works well enough; and it does correctly describe a part of what is actually going on.

Why? Because Euclidean geometry is a description of what necessarily follows for any system that conforms to its axioms, as in fact Euclid logically demonstrated. So the more closely a real system fits those axioms, the more closely Euclid’s “laws” will describe that system. 2-pi-r written in black on a blue circle against a purple background.His geometry thus becomes a useful tool, provided we are willing to overlook all the little ways it never quite works. For example, no circle we draw is ever exactly perfect, so in the real world, the Euclidean law of circumference, of (2)(pi)(r), will always be wrong, by some tiny amount. The choice to overlook this law’s failure is a human choice, not one the universe makes. The universe is quite content with wonky circles.

That a system conforming to Euclid’s axioms will also conform to Euclidean conclusions is a product of the fact that the conclusions are already inherent in the axioms. That humans have to engage tremendous labor to discover these consequences of those axioms is another example of human limitations, but since these consequences follow from those axioms in all possible universes, even universes that have nothing anthropocentric about them, the success of Euclidean geometry has nothing to do with the universe being anthropocentric. Instead, it has everything to do with our willingness to use such an imperfect tool to describe and predict a messy world, and even then this tool only works well enough when some part of the world just happens to almost conform to Euclidean axioms. When it doesn’t, we try something else, whatever we find that happens to work. Hence if nothing ever conformed to Euclid’s axioms, we would instead be talking about a geometry based on some other set of axioms, whichever set did occasionally conform to the world, at least near enough to be useful. Since every possible universe will have some geometry that describes it, it’s just silly to act surprised when one does.

Newton’s laws operate the same way. Like Euclid, Newton began with axioms. The most fundamental of these are more correctly called Newton’s Laws of Motion, which were not mathematical formulas, but hypotheses stated in plain English (or Latin, as the case may be: for how they are stated in English see Newton’s Axioms of Motion). Newton then argued that if these three axioms held (in conjunction with certain other conditions on a case-by-case basis), then certain consequences followed regarding the motion of objects in the universe. And this is where all his mathematical formulas come from.

What is generally overlooked is that, unlike the conclusions of Euclid’s geometry, Newton’s three axioms don’t suffice to generate any of the mathematical equations that are sometimes referred to as Newton’s laws of motion and gravity. Those equations only follow when a huge number of additional assumptions are introduced, which have the deliberate effect of keeping the math simple. Those additional assumptions amount to hidden axioms, and these, like Euclid’s axioms, never perfectly describe anything in the real world, and frequently don’t even come close. Thus, reality is not making Newton’s formulas “beautifully simple.” We are. Because we are so limited, we couldn’t handle the real math.

Photo of KCET's transmission tower, above the logo for KCET.If we chose to, we could build immensely complex (and thus hideously ugly) formulas describing the motion of objects, using the same three axioms, by incorporating all the incidental factors that change from moment to moment. And yet those ugly laws would be more accurate than all the familiar Newtonian formulas everyone finds so pretty. For example, we could add air pressure to the equations. We could add elements pertaining to the position and velocity of the moon and sun. We could add variables pertaining to magma displacement in the earth’s core, the absorption and evaporation properties of falling bodies, and whether KCET is broadcasting today and how far we are from its transmitters. But we choose not to.

Why? Because the simplest equations are good enough for most human needs. But the universe didn’t choose that. It clearly prefers the reverse. Contrary to Steiner and Howell, the universe did not anthropocentrically choose the simple and “beautiful” Newtonian equations of motion. Rather than choosing to obey the simple equations, the universe chose to have bodies always falling according to the most complicated and ugly equations imaginable. In fact, apples fall according to mathematical formulas fully beyond any human ability to discover, much less work out and employ. But by sticking with the simplest equation, we get results “good enough” for us. And still, only in some cases. Sometimes we need messier equations, but even then we never end up with an equation that exactly describes what will happen. We always choose the simplest equation we can get away with. That has nothing to do with the universe being anthropocentric. It has only to do with humans being limited.

Humans thus chose to break down the complex world into simple component behaviors, to make it easier on us. But the universe couldn’t care less.

But Where Do All the Calculators Go?

Meme of Kryton the android from the TV show Red Dwarf looking incredulous and scared, tagline says No silicon heaven? Preposterous. Where do all the calculators go?I’ve written on the ontology of mathematics, and “numbers” specifically, already. Just look up “numbers, nature of” in the index of Sense and Goodness without God. As I already explained there, and just explained above, mathematics is simply a language for describing patterns (such as shapes and structures). See Resnik’s Mathematics as a Science of Patterns for a thorough peer reviewed defense of this point (which grounds my own mathematical realism, Aristotelian structuralism). But because people have a reification bias, they think what they imagine as disembodied, actually is or can be disembodied, when in fact it is always embodied: by their brain, the scaffolding that makes imagining anything possible, which they just can’t see (see The God Impossible).

This is what causes mathematical superstitions like the mistake of Platonizing numbers, imagining numbers are cosmic things “out there” somewhere, that they can’t possibly be human inventions, and must exist in some cosmic Mind Box that we mystically access with our psyches. People do that intuitively, often unaware of other theories that are far more scientifically and empirically plausible, such as Nominalism or Formalism or the Aristotelian metaphysics of mathematics that I defend in Sense and Goodness. Another example of a human attraction to simple explanations that misleads us.

There is no difficulty reducing numbers to nonmental things. There is no need of Plato’s silly metaphysics. Even so-called Platonic naturalists admit there is no way immaterial things (like Platonic numbers) can cause anything to happen (like our being aware of them), yet that renders Platonic naturalism incoherent. If immaterial abstract objects cannot cause us to know about them, how is it that we know about them? Answer: Because they aren’t immaterial. (See “abstraction and abstract objects” in the index of Sense and Goodness without God).

In Defining Naturalism, I addressed the question of how “numbers” can exist without a mind. Actually, numbers are words, and thus always the invention of a mind. But like all words, they can refer to things outside of minds. In the case of numbers, what they refer to is quantities and ratios. And quantities and ratios are real physical things. All universes unmade and uninhabited by any God or Mind will contain quantities and ratios. This is logically necessarily the case, unless you include as a “possible universe” the complete lack of any extension of space or time or substance whatever. But that describes a literal nothingness (even more nothing than empty space; because we are talking about the absence even of space), which should, honestly, be accounted the opposite of a universe. Nothing is the absence of a universe.

So when you decide thus to sensibly exclude the absence of a universe in the set of all possible universes, you cannot avoid the outcome: all universes contain something (space, or time, or material, or any combination thereof), and that something always exists in actual and potential quantities. If there is any amount of space, there is therefore a quantity of space; and that quantity of space can be divided, and it can be expanded, and thus quantities of it always exist in ratio to other quantities of it—if not actually, then always potentially.

And in Aristotelian physicalism, that’s all there is: actual and potential physical objects. And the potential for an object always exists necessarily in any actuality that can potentially be reshaped into it. If there is a two inch radius of space, that space inalienably contains the potential to become a four inch radius of space. Even if no physical means can be found to stretch it, even if it never is so stretched, the very existence of any quantity of space entails the potential for there to be more of it. At the very least, the logical potential exists. And as such, it can be referred to with words, which refer to that logical potential.

Thus, as soon as there is any quantity of godless space (or of anything whatever: any quantity of godless time; any quantity of godless bosons or leptons or fermions), all of mathematics is logically entailed. You can refer to the logical potential of that space to be reshaped, doubled, or split, of it to be stretched to infinity, or crushed to an infinitesimal, of it to be duplicated, or deleted. It would be logically impossible for you not to be able to deduce all of those potentials, and thus the entirety of any mathematics, from even the tiniest quantity of the most godless anything. You might be too dull or lazy to accomplish that deduction in practice. But if you were at all smart and industrious enough, there would be nothing to stop you figuring it out eventually. And at no point would any God or Great Mind have to exist for that to be the case.

What About Numbers I Just Made Up?

Drawing of a spural showing the system of proportions, thus demonstrating that even an organic shape like an ever-changing spural consists entirely of quantities and ratios.In Defining Atheism I pointed out that The Teapot Atheist couldn’t grasp this, and instead committed a common philosophical error, the error of not thinking things through, when he said “I have never encountered 326,519,438.004 objects.” Yet in a sense he just did: in his physical, reducibly nonmental brain. “Nor is there anything physical about it.” Yet there is. The word—that number he just contrived—refers to physical facts.

The bulk of it (the “326,519,438” part) is a count of distinguishable objects. Any godless objects can exist in that quantity. In this universe, they certainly do (this universe is well large enough for such a quantity to physically exist somewhere; indeed, practically everywhere). But even if he picked a quantity far greater than might actually exist in this universe, the potential still exists. This universe, by containing actual quantities, also contains all potential quantities: just by adding the quantities there are to each other until you get to the quantity you are looking for. Just by duplicating the contents of this universe enough, you get there. And once something actually exists, the logical potential of duplicating it exists—because there is no possible way to argue that duplicating it is logically impossible (and yes, even infinities can be duplicated; the results are just different than for duplicating finite quantities).

And the rest of that number The Teapot Atheist came up with (the “.004” part) also refers to a physical fact, actual or potential. Being a fraction, it refers to a ratio of two quantities, and quantity is, again, a fundamentally physical property: space, time, matter and energy, all necessarily entail that property. A fraction like he proposes can refer to some actual fact (odds are, such a ratio exists between some two objects in this universe—because there are so many objects in this universe to stand in ratio to each other) or a hypothetical fact (such a ratio can exist between two reducibly nonmental objects, without requiring anything irreducibly mental, e.g. I could cut two wires right now that have that ratio between them, even if, implausibly, no such ratio existed in this universe before). Thus, the potential ratio always exists. As soon as there is any actual quantity that exists. And no Mind is needed for quantities of things to exist.

Painting of a naked fairie hugging a unicorn.By analogy, there are no unicorns, either, yet the word “unicorn” still refers to a (hypothetical) physical fact: unicorns exist if the physical (and thus reducibly nonmental) entity described by that word exists. And if they don’t exist, the thought of them exists in the brain that thinks it, and as long as the brain doing that is reducibly nonmental, then by the law of transitive property, so is the idea of a unicorn. QED. What about things no one has thought of yet, but that are logically possible? They exist potentially. What does it mean to potentially exist but not actually exist? It means a physical universe is capable of producing such things in the right conditions (as long as there are logically possible conditions that would have that effect), yet those conditions still do not require anything irreducibly mental.

Photo of a cube of gold.If I have a gold ring, a gold cube potentially exists. Because I can mash it into a cube. But I require no supernatural power to do that. I don’t even require the physical ability to do it; the ability remains logically possible (because you cannot demonstrate it to be logically impossible). Nothing irreducibly mental need exist for a ring of gold to be potentially a cube of gold. Thus, potentially existing things are also not irreducibly mental. Hence the same follows for a quantity like 326,519,438.004: if not referring to an actual quantity (like the distance between two stars in ratio to some arbitrary unit of distance), then it refers to a potential quantity, and potential things are not irreducibly mental, nor require the irreducibly mental (Sense and Goodness without God, pp. 125-26).

The Teapot Atheist was still perplexed at how he can think of a number but not what it describes. But that should not be perplexing. Because a potential ratio can be a ratio of anything possessing the property of quantity. Hence, obviously, when we think solely of the ratio, we leave blank what it is a ratio of. We thus “abstract” the ratio from its particular instances, and the resulting impression is of a number divorced from any physical fact. But that’s an illusion, if we take it as anything other than a formalism of physical computation. For example, “x:y = 326,519,438.004:1” where x and y = “wires or sticks or pounds or persons or…[ad infinitum],” there being too many possibilities to state or imagine all at once, so we don’t. This was explicitly stated and explained by Aristotle over two thousand years ago. Someone really ought to get the memo.

Photo of a spiral staircase looking down, showing the repeating pattern of its structure, representing the fact that shapes are the physical realization of mathematical equations.Even when abstracted, a word like 326,519,438.004 is meaningless unless it describes some actual or hypothetical ratio between physical quantities. The blank must be potentially fillable. Otherwise numbers would be meaningless sounds. (I discuss this mistake more broadly in Sense and Goodness without God, pp. 31-32, essential to which is the whole discussion of pp. 29-35). If, on the other hand, 326,519,438.004 “exists” independently of our physical minds (or any other physical computer), and also independently of any actual or even potential physical quantities, then it would certainly be supernatural. Because there could then be no other explanation for how or why it existed at all. Failure to face the consequences of that fact can only make naturalists look ridiculous. But as it happens, numbers are just human words that refer to actual or hypothetical quantities, and all quantities potentially exist in any actual quantity of anything. Failure to face the consequences of that fact can only make supernaturalists look ridiculous.

Hence no mathematical number or concept has any meaning, if it cannot describe some logically possible physical structure.

Negative numbers for example, are subtraction operators (e.g. physical losses or debts) or relative position or direction indicators (e.g. negative temperatures describe the relation of one physical quantity to another: how much colder the air is than water at its freezing point, for example; negative altitude, how much farther below sea level an object is located; etc.). So negative numbers also describe real physical things, potentially or actually. Can you have less than nothing? Yes, when you owe money. Or travel not zero feet toward your destination but a negative ten feet toward it—which simply means ten feet away from it.

And yes, this means even imaginary numbers correspond to potential (even real) quantities or ratios of physical things, as does every cardinality of infinity or infinitesimal.

Imaginary numbers all reduce to multiples (quantities) of a singular quantity: the square root of negative one. And that refers to a rotation operator in physical space (actual or hypothetical, i.e. potential). So-called “imaginary” numbers are actually real numbers rotated out of a given number line. Read An Imaginary Tale for the whole story on this. Or read or listen to Kalid explaining it at Better Explained (he does an awesome job at it, IMO). And yes, that means imaginary numbers, aren’t really imaginary. They manifest in real physical systems, like the behavior of electromagnetic fields (corresponding to a geometric space-time shape).

Transfinites, similarly, are physically realizable. As a simple example, the only reason the axiom of infinity is accepted in mathematics is that an extension of a set by unending iteration is conceivable; and it is only conceivable because we can imagine a physical operation carrying it out, such that nothing would logically prevent it continuing (even if something might contingently do so), and we can sum that series over an infinite timeline. This is already entailed physically by Relativity Theory, which informs us that light can traverse an infinite distance in both space and time instantly—relative to the photon’s reference frame, and hence from the POV of the four dimensional structure that thus results. And sorry, William Lane Craig, this means actual infinities are not only metaphysical possible, they are actually realized in our universe.

Indeed, there is at least one actual physical fact that is infinite, and it’s a fact from which infinity is axiomatically constructed in set theory: the number of empty sets there are is always infinite in any definable region. For example, the number of empty spaces in the solar system we can potentially put a border around, or the number of dimensionless points we can potentially count along the edge of a common ruler. Though this derives from the potential fact (of our counting, for instance), the physical fact (that which we would be counting) is actually physically there (not potentially there, but in fact actually there). Hence though counting it up would be a process, it’s not as if our counting creates the things counted. The things to be counted are already there whether we count them or not. And those things are infinite in quantity. Hence actually infinite sets exist.

Thus, in any physical universe, anything mathematicians can intelligibly imagine will refer to some potential physical fact (like endlessly counting the same stone, or rotating outside of and back to a linear number line).

Why Physics Is Always Mathematics

The laws of physics are always mathematical, because what we mean by “physics” is a study of the quantitative relations and behaviors of things in nature. All one needs is physical objects, behaving in consistent ways. That will always be describable mathematically. In every possible universe. Including the godless ones.

Consider the Submersion Law of Hydrostatics. This was discovered and deductively proved by the Sicilian engineer Archimedes over two thousand years ago. And none of the premises from which he formally deduced it was “God exists.” Instead, the premises consisted solely of descriptions of physical objects and their consistent behaviors. And from that alone the mathematical laws of hydrostatics could be logically deduced. It only remained to test the predictions of those laws, to see if the premises (and thus the conclusion) held in nature, and not just in Archimedes’ imagination. Lo and behold, they did.

Diagram from the Encyclopedia Britannica demonstrating Archimedes' Principle: a 5 kilogram weight is hung from a scale in air above a tub of water; the weight is lowered into the water, and the volume of the weight in water is pushed over the side of the tub, filling a tray with 2 kilograms of water (because the volume of that metal object in water, weights 2 kilograms); but now that the weight has been lowered into the water, the force of gravity pushing down on the water also pushes up on the weight, by the same amount as the water displaced, so the scale shows now the weight only weighs 3 kilograms, because 2 kilograms of its original 5 kilogram weight is being displaced by the force of the surrounding water.Archimedes’ law could be stated today as: the weight of an object submerged in water will equal its weight in air minus the weight of an equal volume of water. Mathematically: W[air] (V[object] x D[water]) = W[underwater]. The Weight of an object in the open air, minus the product of the Volume of the object and the Density of water, equals the Weight of the same object underwater. Notably, when the water weighs more than the object, the product of this equation is a negative number, so the object actually has negative “weight” under water. Which means instead of falling down, it falls up. In fact, it keeps falling up until the weight of the object equals the weight of the volume of water it displaces. Thus explaining why objects float. And exactly predicting how high they will float—as everyone observes at the docks, as a boat gets lighter, it rises higher above the water.

Now, is it surprising and unexpected, is it a “mystery,” that we can describe how objects behave in water with mathematics? With the equivalent of a single equation, Archimedes was able to explain not only why objects float, but he was able to predict that even submerged objects would weigh less, and exactly how much less they would weigh. He was thus led to an amazing discovery about the physical universe, all just by manipulating a mathematical equation. Of course Archimedes wasn’t using equations in our sense, but he was using geometric equivalents. Modern equations are just a way of simplifying the notation, just like shorthand is a way of simplifying sentences in English. The equation is describing the same physical geometrical facts that Archimedes was. It’s just a different way of writing it down.

Archimedes formally deduced this Submersion Law of Hydrostatics from the axioms of geometry (established by Euclid) and a single physical assumption, called Archimedes’ First Postulate:

Let it be supposed that a fluid is of such a character that, its parts lying evenly and being continuous, that part which is thrust the less is driven along by that which is thrust the more; and that each of its parts is thrust by the fluid which is above it in a perpendicular direction if the fluid be sunk in anything and compressed by anything else.

In other words, all Archimedes assumed are three physical facts: that a fluid maintains it’s volume under pressure, but transmits all pressures placed upon it; that greater pressures overcome lesser pressures; and that all things are pulled downward at a constant pressure (in other words, that a constant gravity exists). In his treatise On Floating Bodies Archimedes formally proves all the basic mathematical laws of hydrostatics from the axioms of geometry and this single postulate. (He relies on only one other postulate regarding centers of gravity, but that second postulate also follows from the axioms of geometry, as he proves separately in another treatise called On the Equilibrium of Planes).

This means Archimedes proved that the laws of hydrostatics will be true in every possible universe in which the axioms of geometry and his first postulate are physically true. He thus proved that mathematical laws will exist in every physical universe that has those same physical properties: three spatial dimensions, a gravitational force, and physical fluids and solids. Wherever those three things exist, his laws of hydrostatics will exist, and will be described in the same mathematical terms. And yet nowhere in his proofs do we find anything about minds or gods or anything at all except physical facts: the physical facts of fluids and solids and gravity, and the physical facts of physical space.

In fact, Archimedes’ proof shows that even in a purely physical universe it would be logically impossible for fluids to behave in any other way than mathematically. And we can see why. As long as every liter of water pushes as hard as every other, and as long as a stone block immersed in that water pushes by any constant amount, then nothing will prevent this system from following the mathematical behavior Archimedes deduced. In other words, as long as the weights and volumes remain constant, the mathematical law results. Always. So all you need are the weights and volumes. But you don’t need a Great Mind to have those. You just need physical objects in physical space.

This refutes one of the two things that Steiner and Howell think are strange about the universe: they claim it’s strange that physical objects would somehow obey something so inherently “mental” like mathematical laws, but as Archimedes’ proved, that’s not strange at all. In fact, it’s exactly what we should expect. Because every physical universe has quantities of things that behave in quantizable ways, every physical universe will obey mathematical laws. Because that’s what mathematics is: a description of quantities and their ratios. Those laws will differ as the physical properties of the objects in a given universe differ, but no matter how you change things, you will always end up with mathematical behavior. Because one thing particular about mathematics as a language is that it deals in quantities, and physical things always exist in physical quantities.

This also refutes the second thing Steiner and Howell think is strange about the universe: that we can discover physical facts of the universe by simply manipulating mathematical symbols and equations. Archimedes discovered that any system with these physical properties, will behave in a particular way, as described by this equation. No one else really noticed that before then. But he could find it, because once he correctly described the system, that new conclusion follows necessarily from that description. Thus it is not surprising that by understanding the pattern of behavior this physical system exhibits, Archimedes was able to discover and predict something he didn’t know before about that system, such as the fact that submerged objects weigh less, and how much less. Because all he was doing was describing a pattern of behavior, and then deducing further the consequences of that pattern. Just like I did to discover a pickpocket stole my wallet.

Mathematics was just the language Archimedes used to describe that pattern. The pattern itself is entirely entailed by the physical facts, and thus only requires a physical universe. Since using descriptions of physical systems to discover new things about them is not surprising when we do it in English, it shouldn’t be surprising when we do it in mathematics. Mathematics is just a more precise language.

Back to That Artificial Simplicity

Now for the crucial plot twist…

Archimedes was wrong.

That is, he was only sort of right. Though he correctly deduced this mathematical law, and used it to correctly predict the behavior of solid objects in water, his deduction was based on premises that aren’t entirely true. They are only approximately true. Or only sometimes true. Like Euclidean geometry: Archimedes’ conclusions are true, for all universes where the premises entailing those conclusions are true; and for all parts of universes, if those premises are not true in every part.

Archimedes could prove those premises empirically (such as the behavior of fluids, the force of gravity, the geometry of three dimensional space, and so on). And they do hold in most cases. But in general they are actually false. Water actually can be compressed, just not by an amount that would have been visible to Archimedes; and water does change its density, in response to such factors as salinity and temperature; and not all water weighs the same, for example water whose molecules are excessively isotopic will weigh more than an average liter of water; likewise, Archimedes had the wrong geometry, as we now know from Einstein, space is actually curvy and not perfectly flat as his predecessor Euclid assumed, but this curvature was also too small for Archimedes to see (actually, he knew this: he was aware the earth was a sphere and therefore the surface of any container of water will be a curve and not a plane, but he noted that the curvature is so small it won’t affect the results at any scale that mattered to him, therefore he could pretend the surface of every body of water was planar); and so on.

We could list countless other factors. And when all these correct premises are brought in, Archimedes’ Law gets incredibly complicated and is no longer anywhere near as simple as that equation I just described. A “correct” equation would have to account for all these other things, from how the curvature of space-time affects the system, to how water can vary in density and compression all across the surface area of any immersed object—or even the properties of solids, since water can interpenetrate an object; some surfaces are hydrophobic or hydrophilic; an object’s density can change in reaction to water, or to changes in pressure or temperature; and so on.

The physical universe does not behave anywhere near as simply as our physical laws would have it. We just choose to ignore all the little things that don’t make enough of a difference for us to care about, and thus we reduce everything to a few simple premises like Archimedes did, and from this we get a simple mathematical law. But this is a human invention. It’s an idealization, a fiction of our own devising. It isn’t a complete fiction, as the law will correctly describe most of the physical systems we usually deal with, just not with complete precision, only with enough precision to suit our needs.

This is an important thing to remember, because people like Howell and Steiner constantly overlook it: though we prefer simple and beautiful mathematical theories, reality is always vastly complicated and ugly. Howell, for example, thinks it’s strange that our ideals of mathematical simplicity and beauty help us discover the truth about the world. But in fact, we are using those ideals to construct idealizations, not actual correct descriptions. We make our fictions simple and beautiful, like Archimedes’ Law, and are content with that because it works well enough. But reality doesn’t obey Archimedes’ Law. There is no real system anywhere in this universe that does. Instead, taking into account all those mitigating factors (only some of which I listed), the actual behavior of solid objects immersed in a fluid would only be correctly described by an equation so nightmarishly ugly and complicated, requiring hundreds of inputted variables that we will never actually know the truth of, that it is certainly beyond any human ability ever to construct, much less easily comprehend.

Thus, we use simplicity and beauty as tools to make understanding the world manageable. But the world itself does not conform to them. Hence, for example, Steiner and Howell cannot deduce anything from the premise “the universe is surprisingly simple and beautiful,” because the real world is actually neither. Only our idealizations are both. And idealizations are human inventions.

Nevertheless, when it comes to the actual laws of hydrostatics (not the human construct, but the actual way the universe behaves, which “physical laws” are only human descriptions of), those actual laws change as the physical facts change, just as with Archimedes’ Laws: if certain physical facts are true, Archimedes’ laws of hydrostatics are true; if other physical facts are true instead, some other mathematical law will be true instead. In fact, whatever the physical facts are, there will be a description of their resulting behavior, and as that behavior involves quantities, its description will always be mathematical, and we will call those mathematical descriptions physical laws. Always.

Therefore, laws of physics being mathematical can be no indication of there being a God. To the contrary, their being mathematical is simply an inevitable product of the universe being physical. Therefore, if we see something behaving mathematically, we don’t need to propose anything else is behind it but a physical world.

Conclusion

In a sense this all began in 1960 with a physicist, Eugene Wigner, who wrote on how mystified he was by “The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences” (Communications on Pure and Applied Mathematics 13.1). Which was most decisively answered in February of 2005 by Sundar Sarukkai in “Revisiting the ‘Unreasonable Effectiveness’ of Mathematics” (Current Science 88.3). Although it had plenty of refutations before that (Wikipedia has an entire article on it). As Sarukkai points out, that mathematics is effective in describing the world is no weirder than that English is effective in describing the world. It was invented to describe what was there. And quantities of stuff behaving in quantizable ways is what was there. Which is just what we should expect to be there in any godless world.

“The effectiveness of mathematization,” Sarukkai concludes, “significantly depends on the power of symbols to act like pictures of ideas, concepts and events. The role of mathematics in the sciences seems to be essentially dependent on the possibility of using mathematical symbols as ‘pictures’.” Meaning, pictures of the systems, their shape and quantifiable relations, that we want to describe and understand. Our minds can then explore that “picture,” like exploring a 3D sim, to discover things about it that weren’t obvious before. This is how we use language to discover things about the universe. But there is nothing remarkable about that. It’s exactly the same thing I was doing when I used sentences in English to discover what happened to my wallet.

Of course, anyone would figure all this out the moment they tried to describe a universe that wouldn’t be describable with mathematics. And this necessary step of reasoning (trying to imagine what would be the case, and thus what we’d observe, if the hypothesis you wish to defend were false) is routinely ignored by Christian theologians. Because they don’t understand how the logic of evidence works. That’s why they are Christian theologians. But if there is no way to describe a universe that isn’t describable mathematically, then the probability a universe will be describable mathematically is 100%, regardless of any hypothesis about God. And that means the mathematical describability of a universe can never be evidence for a god.

There is no immaterial “thing” that you can “remove” from existence, and somehow make it not the case that all mathematics is true of any and every universe that exists. Either actually or potentially, all quantities and ratios and shapes and structures necessarily exist in every possible universe (which means, any region of existence that isn’t absolutely nothing and thus the complete absence of a universe; although maybe still even then). Because you can’t show any such universe will lack quantities—and thus shapes, patterns, and ratios. That it will contain quantities is logically necessarily the case. And you can’t show that any potential rearrangement of the physical contents of any universe that would exist is logically impossible—and if you could, it would be mathematically impossible as well (and thus moot). Yet everything that isn’t logically impossible is by definition logically possible. And everything that’s logically possible, is a potential property of everything that exists.

Of course, defeated by this realization, religious tinfoil hatters will try to jump even further back from mathematical universes requiring a Mind (because clearly none ever would), to claiming logically possible universes require a mind, because “logic” is mental. Which is like trying to argue that paper money backed by gold is literally made of gold. A confusion of basic reasoning. I won’t go into that nonsense here, but I’ve addressed it extensively elsewhere, including in Sense and Goodness without God (index, “logic”) and in my extensive critique of the related Argument from Reason (cf. in particular the section on the Ontology of Logic, and then the related section on the AfPR).

We mustn’t confuse words with what they refer to. Numbers (and equations and operators and so on) are words invented by humans. They don’t exist without minds. But the only minds that need exist for them to exist, are our minds. God did not invent our language or teach us any mathematical words or symbols or equations. We invented all that ourselves, over tens of thousands of years of trial, error, experimentation, and testing. Quite the opposite of having any divine source for it. We had to figure this shit out wholly without guidance. Numbers and mathematics are all as invented as names and the entire English language. But we invented words in our languages to refer to actual things that exist, or could potentially exist—the things we can hypothesize or imagine.

And the real things our invented mathematics describes, are physical quantities and ratios, and physical shapes, patterns, and structures. Which all universes will contain, actually or potentially. In fact, which all godless universes will entirely consist of without remainder. Therefore all universes will be described by mathematics. Especially the godless ones. Like everything else, from thunderbolts to morals, gods have nothing to do with it.

29 comments

  1. Hi Richard,

    Excellent article. It answers questions I’ve been having for a long time.

    Are you familiar with Max Tegmark’s arguments in The Mathematical Universe? He basically seems to be arguing for a form of mathematical Platonism, but from an atheistic, fully naturalistic perspective. I’m wondering if the same basic arguments hold. I would think so, right?

    Reply
    1. I don’t know what you are asking.

      But I don’t regard Tegmark’s argument to be plausible. It has no evidence in support of it, which is already a bad sign. And it has no support in prior probability, either. It’s therefore among the least likely explanations available.

      Tegmark fell victim to Wigner’s fallacy and found the wrong way out of it.

      Reply
      1. Starr May 25, 2017, 11:08 am

        I’m not sure if I agree with Tegmark, but at the same time, I’m not sure how Tegmark’s Mathematical Universe Hypothesis is any different from what you have described in this article.

        Tegmark’s hypothesis is essentially this: at a fundamental level, the base constituents of nature seem to be nothing more than numeric quantities and the relationships between them (i.e. there is nothing fundamental in nature that cannot be described in mathematical language). This is a mathematical structure, therefore the Universe itself is a mathematical structure. Perhaps then, all possible mathematical structures (quantities and the relations between them) are also Universes.

        Perhaps I am confused but this seems to line up pretty closely with what you have said in this article. The main difference I see is that Tegmark is saying those other mathematical structure Universes exist, while you aren’t positing that they are, but that any Universe that did exist would be describable by math.

        Reply
        1. What I object to is Tegmark’s more specific thesis that all logically possible universes exist. Not his ontology of numbers, for example. That all possible universes exist does not follow from the fact that we can infer they potentially exist from what actually exists (that’s what Tegmark is wrong about: he thinks the fact that we can do that, entails those universes actually exist). And there is no evidence they exist. So his theory violates both Ockham’s Razor and the Requirements of Evidence. His ontology of mathematical objects apart from that may well be fine.

  2. Second question: Is it possible that some of our physical concepts, such as that there is a universe and that it started 13.82 billion years ago, are just artifacts of our theories?

    Reply
    1. I’d need a more specific example of how they would be.

      Otherwise, this is analogous to Cartesian Demon reasoning. Yes, Cartesian Demons are possible. No, they are not probable.

      Reply
  3. Hello Richard, I am looking forward to reading your views on this which I have only skimmed. Mario Livio, in Is God A Mathematician? explores the concept of God as a Platonic allegory for the rational order of the universe. That is a Spinozan definition that makes a lot of sense to me as explaining why the false theory of a literal God remains so influential, as allegory for how the actual rational order of the cosmos provides a framework for moral ontology.

    Reply
    1. Most believers, by far, are not that sophisticated in their motivation. Most people have no strong need for such a thing, at least in my experience. They need God usually for other reasons. One of them is the grounding of morality, but not in any rational way like that (evidence-based, reality-based, driven by discovered facts rather than inherited assumptions). Rather, on that point, people are taught to want others to behave a certain way, so they invent a perfect bogeyman to scare or tempt them into compliance. It’s childish, but then, so is most religion. But the idea only works with a real god who never misjudges and who guarantees an eternal heaven and hell (or equivalent). Abstract Platonic theology doesn’t get them that. I haven’t read Livio, but from what you describe, he’s on the margins as far as theologians go. I suspect his ideas would not be widely enough appealing to even start a religion much less sustain one.

      Reply
      1. Dear Richard

        Now I have read your blog post and have further specific comments. First I want to thank you for your lucid, clear, precise, logical insight, which shows rare gifts in discussion of the topics you treat here.

        Just on precision in language though, I question your use of the term ‘anthropocentric’, which means viewing the universe from a human perspective, and seems to be inherent in all description by humans. You use anthropocentric in places where ‘anthropomorphic’ may be clearer, meaning in human form, viewing the universe on the model of the human mind. What do you think of this anthropomorphic/anthropocentric distinction?

        Then there is the broad topic you raise of language about God. Accepting your physicalist critique that God is not an entity, how then does that address the view that religious language can be grounded in metaphor? For example, if we consider the attributes of reality – natural, rational, orderly, mathematical, coherent, consistent, single, causal, structured, – as providing a framework for human ideas about meaning and purpose, could it make sense to ‘re-purpose’ God language, to accept that literal supernatural surface claims are false myths, but nonetheless could point to a coherent moral vision?

        These attributes that the scientific worldview applies to reality were conventionally applied to God, except that God was imagined in patriarchal monotheism as having additional attributes of being an entity, having intent, personality, care, revelation, and other myths. If we strip away the supernatural fantasy from religion, going back to the etymological purpose of religion to ‘rebind’ the human connection to ultimate reality, much as ligaments bind our bones together, (ligament has the same ‘lig’ root as religion), then is such a moral ‘rebinding’ possible within a physicalist cosmology?

        On Platonism, an old debate raised by Livio in Is God a Mathematician? is whether mathematical ideas are invented or discovered. The Platonic tradition tends toward discovery while Aristotelian empiricism tends toward invention. Plato’s view, as I read him, was that true ideas are inherent in reality, so learning about questions of principle is a process of discovering what we can inherently known by logical use of reason, with the Socratic model of philosopher as midwife. This Platonic epistemic model does not necessarily entail the theistic idea you critique at the outset of mathematics as inherently mental. By seeing mathematics as using our mind to intuit necessary logical truths that have an eternal reality, inherent in the relations and ratios of quantity in space and time and matter, such relations are not invented or constructed as just a mental artifice, even though Plato was a theist. Livio appears to be promoting a non-theistic Platonism. Mathematical constants such as π and φ are eternally the same by definition, regardless of human knowledge of them, and therefore are not mental constructs.

        Lastly, I was a bit surprised by some of your comments about laws of nature, but this may reflect my inadequate grasp of science. I thought that the law of gravity, that attraction between bodies is an inverse square function of mass and distance, is a discovered attribute of reality, holding despite the warping of space and time from relativity. Do you agree?

        Thank you again for this very interesting article.

        Reply
        1. Just on precision in language though, I question your use of the term ‘anthropocentric’, which means viewing the universe from a human perspective, and seems to be inherent in all description by humans. You use anthropocentric in places where ‘anthropomorphic’ may be clearer, meaning in human form, viewing the universe on the model of the human mind. What do you think of this anthropomorphic/anthropocentric distinction?

          Oh, no, that’s not what they mean. They definitely mean anthropo-centric, which means “man at the center,” in other words man is what the universe was built for; not anthropo-morphic, which means “made to act or look like a man.” Animism, for example, anthropomorphizes storms as the intelligent acts of beings (storm gods); these fellows aren’t talking about the universe acting intelligently like that, but being built intelligently, to suit and serve man. That’s what anthropocentric means.

          Accepting your physicalist critique that God is not an entity, how then does that address the view that religious language can be grounded in metaphor?

          If it’s all metaphor, it’s atheism.

          I distinguish poetry from prose. If someone is going to write straight prose about their beliefs, they don’t use metaphors as if they were stated facts. They make clear they are metaphors; if they use metaphors at all. Anyone who doesn’t do that, is lying—possibly to themselves, definitely to their readers. Because if one doesn’t say or make clear something they say is a metaphor, and they keep saying it the same way they’d say a straight fact, then they clearly are attempting to deceive someone, whether themselves or others; otherwise, they wouldn’t use misleading language like that. To represent a metaphor as a fact, is a dishonest abuse of language (in prose; poetry changes the context to where metaphors stated as facts is expected; likewise anything represented as fiction).

          …could it make sense to ‘re-purpose’ God language, to accept that literal supernatural surface claims are false myths, but nonetheless could point to a coherent moral vision?

          I doubt it would be useful.

          First, you mustn’t do that deceitfully, so you’d have to be honest about what you are doing. But as soon as you do that, you are just promoting atheism, and that’s precisely what religious believers abhor and are trying to escape from. Meanwhile, non believers have no use for the religious language. Scientific and ordinary language does just fine. They borrow the religious stuff for poetry and fiction, not prose; and even when they adapt it to prose, it’s obvious that’s what they are doing, because they say that’s what they are doing (e.g. Sagan on spirituality).

          Second, almost all religious statements are false. So, trying to find some atheistic “truth” behind them is a waste of time, or worse, a game that will con you into finding conclusions true that aren’t.

          We should just stick with the facts. And deduce what’s true therefrom. Tricking people with language, or expecting religious people to have accidentally hit upon insights that plain fact seekers haven’t, is not admirable or wise. Even with respect to the possibility that “religious people have accidentally hit upon insights that plain fact seekers haven’t,” that’s just the foundation for proposing a hypothesis, that one then needs to articulate in plain language, not religious deepities, and test empirically. The end result will be science. Not religion. And that’s the way all religions must go in the end.

          If we strip away the supernatural fantasy from religion, going back to the etymological purpose of religion to ‘rebind’ the human connection to ultimate reality, much as ligaments bind our bones together, (ligament has the same ‘lig’ root as religion), then is such a moral ‘rebinding’ possible within a physicalist cosmology?

          That’s a deepity. It literally means nothing. We are already bound to reality. We could never have been otherwise. And if you try to invent some other meaning for “bound,” it just ends up something we already know, have, and do, without any religious language needed.

          The Platonic tradition tends toward discovery while Aristotelian empiricism tends toward invention.

          Actually, Aristotle said it was both.

          Quantities and relations are discovered; numbers and mathematics are invented to describe and analyze them.

          Plato’s view, as I read him, was that true ideas are inherent in reality, so learning about questions of principle is a process of discovering what we can inherently known by logical use of reason, with the Socratic model of philosopher as midwife.

          Actually, Plato’s view was that we are souls reincarnated endlessly from infinite past time and thus already have learned everything, therefore we just have to mystically access our past-lives knowledge to “remember” any fact of the universe.

          Needless to say, Plato’s philosophy is pretty much all poppycock.

          Livio appears to be promoting a non-theistic Platonism. Mathematical constants such as π and φ are eternally the same by definition, regardless of human knowledge of them, and therefore are not mental constructs.

          Pi is simply a property of perfect circles. What humans discovered is that wherever perfect circles are, pi is (and the more perfect the circle, the better that pi can be used to describe it). The word “pi” (and all the analytical computation procedures we invented to calculate the ratio it describes) is then invented to do that.

          Lastly, I was a bit surprised by some of your comments about laws of nature, but this may reflect my inadequate grasp of science. I thought that the law of gravity, that attraction between bodies is an inverse square function of mass and distance, is a discovered attribute of reality, holding despite the warping of space and time from relativity. Do you agree?

          Of course.

          This is just like the laws of hydrostatics: when you have physical objects behaving in physical ways, how they behave we describe with a “law.” This behavior is discovered. The language we use to describe it, and the sentences we form for that task (e.g. equations), are invented. Just like Archimedes did with floating and immersed bodies.

          But just like that example, nothing really obeys that law, because how things act is way more complicated (e.g. the actual equation for the weight of an immersed object would, among a hundred other things, have to include a factor for the constantly changing salinity and temperature of the water, another for the changing shape of the object, and so on). Similarly, the inverse square law of gravitational attraction alone never describes the actual rate of fall of any object toward earth, because to do that, we need a vastly more complicated equation that takes into account the constant relocation and distribution of the masses (e.g. where the moon is, changes how fast an apple drops from a tree). The basic law of gravitation is in there, it’s a part of the “correct” equation, and thus is “true” in that limited sense, but it can’t by itself describe the motion of anything. It “works” well enough in most cases, simply because we are fine with it being wrong at scales that humans choose not to care about (e.g. we simply don’t care if the apple hits the ground a millisecond later than the basic law predicts; so the fact that its prediction was “literally” false is irrelevant to us).

          This also gets to the difference between Newton’s laws and Newton’s equations. Newton’s laws are stated in English or Latin, not mathematical equations, and describe physical facts, just like Archimedes’ Postulate. These laws and postulates don’t actually describe any system’s behavior. They only describe parts of the behavior of parts of systems. How one then uses that knowledge (which is discovered) to predict how a system behaves, requires building an equation, using those postulates and laws. That’s where we decide to use what literally are false descriptions because they predict things well enough for our needs, and perfect equations that made perfect predictions are so complicated they are beyond any human’s ability to construct or understand.

  4. John MacDonald May 24, 2017, 5:11 pm

    I have a question for anyone on the blog who might have an answer. I’m not sure how to answer it myself so I’m looking for a bit of help lol.

    William Lane Craig still uses the cosmological argument to argue for the existence of God.

    For instance, if we start with our current state of affairs, and trace backward in time, we get to the Big Bang. The question then becomes how did the material that made up the Big Bang get there in the first place? If we posit something more original before the Big Bang, the question then becomes how this more original “something” got there in the first place. This seems to lead back to an infinite regress, and so apologists claim we must posit an uncaused cause to stop the indefinite regress chain: God.

    I’m not sure what is wrong with this line of reasoning?

    Reply
    1. There isn’t any need to stop the regress. Craig is lying when he says actual infinities are logically impossible. It could very well be universes all the way back for endless time (bi-eternal inflation theory). In fact, that should probably be the default assumption. As we need evidence for a “first moment,” and we have none.

      But even if there is a “first moment,” we have many fully adequate theories of how it went from a simple physical start-point (like a quantum moment) to a universe (or series of universes, which we are a later iteration of, either way). There is no need to stop the regress with a ridiculously complicated bodiless mind with magical powers, a type of entity we have no evidence exists and no evidence anything like it exists.

      See my Bayesian analysis of the Cosmological Argument and Fine Tuning Argument for why Craig’s argument relies on (1) lying about what we know and (2) hiding evidence that contradicts the conclusion.

      Reply
  5. Denis Gaudreau May 24, 2017, 8:13 pm

    Hello Dr Carrier,
    Great topic, I was thiking about Dr Mikio Kaku physicist and his participation into a debate with Richard Dakwins: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dmkrI-K7yBo.
    He was for that idea that if there is a God, he might be a mathematician. Same for a spiritual teacher that I read books. He was refering to a God but also a Creator or the Cosmic Intelligence, that had nothing to do with the God of the bible.

    My question is what is your view concerning “conciousness” in our Universe. I think we can say that 99.99… % of the Universe is made out of unconscious matter. So why do we have humans beings and the animals to some point evolved into self conscious beings ??? Wouldn’t that be a hint to say there’s might be something out there ??? Wouldn’t that consciousness point out to a possible God or some sort of energy into the Universe that allows such ? Because why are we than stone, dirt, even water is not conscious and we are made mostly of water.

    My second question in regard of your topic, I will take a quote from The Matrix movie, when Agent Smith told to Morpheus that humans are nothing more than viruses on the surface of planet Earth.
    I’ve been working 13 years in a medical field into an hospital and a medical facility and with all those disease like flu, gastro-enteris, my wonder is if there is microorganisms all around us and inside us, can we then consider there is also macro-organims as well.
    So if I get back to Agent Smith nice view of human beings, can we say that we are only microorganisms on Earth.

    And from there how can we be sure there is not even macro-organisms when we know that before the invention of microscope we couldn’t see any bacteria or virus with bare eye. So how can we know and kind of seeing any macro-organism, which God could be the Macro-organism, as being the whole Universe ?

    Maybe another way to look at it is a short story from H.P.Lovecraft called “From Beyond” in which a mad scientific has created a vibrationnal machinery which allow macro-organisms and aliens forms to come out from other dimensions.
    Sure that is Horror Sci-fi from the “master” from Providence, but that still even today, a possibility just because we didn’t tap into these dimensions.
    I still remind that story, mostly due to that “particule collider” they have at CERN in Switzerland.

    Merci for your time !

    Reply
    1. I think we can say that 99.99… % of the Universe is made out of unconscious matter. So why do we have humans beings and the animals to some point evolved into self conscious beings?

      No different a question than “why do we have galaxies and asteroids and algae and mushrooms.” The mere existence of matter entails none of those things.

      What we’ve learned about consciousness is that it is the output of a complex physical information processor. It is therefore not innate to the universe, but in fact requires an extremely elaborate physical machine to produce, and only arises after billions of years of stepwise physical selection. Which rules out bodiless gods. See Sense and Goodness without God, Chs. III.6, III.9-10, IV.2.3, and my Argument from Mind-Brain Dysteleology.

      So, in fact, the evidence of consciousness we actually have, argues against there being any kind of god-mind.

      So how can we know and kind of seeing any macro-organism, which God could be the Macro-organism, as being the whole Universe?

      The same way we determine a doll isn’t sentient: observe if it behaves sentiently. The one thing the universe never does, is pass a Turing Test. Hence there is no evidence of any macro-mind.

      And “Possibly, therefore probably,” is a fallacy. See Proving History, pp. 26-29.

      Reply
  6. Marc Miller May 26, 2017, 4:28 pm

    Hello Dr. Carrier,

    Actually, Plato’s view was that we are souls reincarnated endlessly from infinite past time and thus already have learned everything, therefore we just have to mystically access our past-lives knowledge to “remember” any fact of the universe.

    Needless to say, Plato’s philosophy is pretty much all poppycock.

    This is interesting. Plato’s view is of course poppycock, but my contain a kernel of truth, if you consider cultural evolution…All those trillions of memes that have lived and died throughout human history, might be thought of as our past lives’ knowledge!… Just a thought.

    And on the conscience issue, I am a big fan of Daniel Dennet, who has written some great books on the subject, and has lots of great lectures on YouTube!

    Reply
    1. Except those past memes were almost all false. That’s what the difference is between the scientific method (which originated during Plato’s day) and “traditional” methods of knowing. There were few scientific truths to recover from past knowledge; and none that could be trusted without simply relearning them in a more reliable scientific way anyway.

      Reply
      1. “They definitely mean anthropo-centric, which means “man at the center,” in other words man is what the universe was built for; not anthropo-morphic, which means “made to act or look like a man.”

        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anthropocentrism does not mention this teleological use of anthropocentrism (man is what the universe was built for). It defines anthropocentrism as “the belief that considers human beings to be the most significant entity of the universe and interprets or regards the world in terms of human values and experiences.” While theology links this idea of significance to the belief that God made the cosmos for man, anthropocentrism also has a secular meaning, that value is solely a function of human priorities. Howell and Steiner’s apologetic view that ‘mathematics is inherently mental, therefore a mathematical universe can only come from a Mind’ is clearly anthropomorphic, imagining God on the model of human mentation.

        “If it’s all metaphor, it’s atheism. I distinguish poetry from prose. If someone is going to write straight prose about their beliefs, they don’t use metaphors as if they were stated facts. They make clear they are metaphors; if they use metaphors at all. Anyone who doesn’t do that, is lying—possibly to themselves, definitely to their readers.”

        The role of metaphor in religion is a really interesting point to ponder in terms of how we explain cultural evolution. A preacher uses language that the hearers are comfortable with, even though the preacher may well know he is speaking in myth and metaphor. This function of psychological and social comfort means that religious language is not straight prose, but more like poetry.

        However, in the political evolution of faith, leaders have repeatedly found advantage in the claim that their myth is true while others are not. So the boundary of poetry and prose gets blurred in religion. Ideas that originated as imaginative metaphor gradually become reified, entified, dogmafied and ossified as they capture and then lose the imagination of a broader audience. And there need be no actual deception involved in such an evolutionary process – a misunderstanding over generational time spans, combined with motivated reasoning, can be enough to convert fluid metaphor into absolute dogma, such as on the historicity of Jesus.

        Further to this memetic mutation process, the writers of the New Testament plausibly had motive to conceal their real ideas, given the oppressive context of military domination by Rome. So their real ideas could well have been lost by the fragility of transmission from mouth to ear, but still be partly present as concealed fragments in extant texts. For example the mathematical idea of God as Tekton, including as the principle of natural order within the cosmos, evolved over time under dogmatic and political and cultural pressures into the claim that Jesus of Nazareth had a father who was a carpenter. Rather than critique the texts as literally false, I think a more productive path may be to analyse their function in the Darwinian framework of cumulative adaptation to selective factors in the causal niche of memetic evolution.

        I agree with you that atheism provides the most robust and coherent framework to explain reality, but that should then lead to a path of deconstructing the social function of religious language.

        “if one doesn’t say or make clear something they say is a metaphor, and they keep saying it the same way they’d say a straight fact, then they clearly are attempting to deceive someone, whether themselves or others; otherwise, they wouldn’t use misleading language like that.”

        You are using modern secular criteria to critique an ancient religious context where the facts are only partly known. Elaine Pagels’ doctoral book The Gnostic Paul explores claims of a systematic double meaning seen in the epistles for initiates and the public. It is conceivable that more sophisticated metaphorical meanings intended for initiates were suppressed, leaving only the barren literal desert of the miraculous supernatural interventionist God mediated by the church. When you find a desert, it is hard to imagine the forest ecosystem that used to be there.

        [to accept that literal supernatural surface claims are false myths, but nonetheless could point to a coherent moral vision] is “just promoting atheism, and that’s precisely what religious believers abhor and are trying to escape from.”

        Church goers and theologians often consider the nature of God to be a mystery beyond human ability to describe. So regardless of what God language actually means, people can find coherent moral visions (such as the Golden Rule) reinforced by the parables and legends of the Bible. My view is that the debate is cruelled by the polarised hostility, and that courteous dialogue between atheists and theologians should be a primary objective. Historic examples are Bultmann and Heidegger, or possibly Jung and Pauli.

        “non believers have no use for the religious language. Scientific and ordinary language does just fine. They borrow the religious stuff for poetry and fiction, not prose.”

        Yes, but religion provides a major social function in community cohesion and identity, and is not simply replaced by secular rituals. There is value in opening dialogue with the religious about the actual meaning of their beliefs, to shift the focus away from “what actually happened” (their adamant belief in miracles), to “what does it mean” – the moral lessons of parables and miracle stories.

        Christianity can survive the recognition that Jesus was invented, fitting that accurate reading of history within a scientific account of the scale of human depravity. I look at this against the psychology of trauma. The disruption brought by the Roman Empire was so great that the fantasy of Jesus as ‘one for all’ provided an immensely comforting myth across the Hellenistic world. Despite its fictional origins, Christianity can remain a highly adaptive meme. Its ethical core of forgiveness conditional upon repentance as explained in the story of the baptism of Christ provides the potential flexibility for Christians to recognise the spectacular mistake of believing that Jesus Christ really was God incarnate.

        Reply
        1. The phrase “the belief that considers human beings to be the most significant entity of the universe” means “man at the center.” The Wikipedia editor is just being prolix. The word itself literally translates “man-centered” (that’s what the “centric” means). And this is the way the people I’m criticizing are using the word.

          A preacher uses language that the hearers are comfortable with…

          The world is hosed until the people become comfortable with the truth. If we have to feed them sugar pills instead, then the problem is the pills. We need to get them off the drugs.

          Further to this memetic mutation process, the writers of the New Testament plausibly had motive to conceal their real ideas, given the oppressive context of military domination by Rome.

          No such motive existed, though. That’s a modern myth. Philosophers were saying and publishing the same things in plain language and receiving no punishment for it. The reason the Christians used deception was to deceive their market, their own people, not the Roman elite. Rational argument did not move a superstitious populace, who instead was resentful of elite learning and anti-intellectual (I discuss the anthropological literature on this point in Not the Impossible Faith, Chapter 10). I document all of this specifically, with quotes from the Christians themselves on why they used allegorical deception, in On the Historicity of Jesus, Element 14, pp. 114-24, with additional evidence and discussion in Science Education in the Early Roman Empire, pp. 161-64 (see more quotations in my FAQ).

          The Gospel authors themselves tell us this: Mark 4:11-12. Anthropologically, they constructed this as an insider-outsider system. They used allegory to keep outsiders ignorant so only the insiders would benefit from the “knowledge,” and thus had to invest. And the more advanced they became, the more of the actual “truth” they would be told. But the majority even of insiders remained in some stage of deception, because it was believed they couldn’t handle the truth and would only reform themselves when told a lie. Just as Plato argued had to be done in The Republic. In fact, Christianity was constructed very much on Plato’s model. The Gospels are the “myths” Plato said the people had to be told to keep them under control. While only select “Guardians” would ever know the truth, but they’d conceal it and make sure it never got out, by punishing anyone who tried to change the myths or claim they were false. Which describes pretty much the whole Middle Ages.

          I think a more productive path may be to analyse their function in the Darwinian framework of cumulative adaptation to selective factors in the causal niche of memetic evolution.

          That’s already done in the sciences: the history, sociology, and anthropology of religion.

          We can explain why false beliefs spread and others die out. That will not result in discovering any of those beliefs to be true.

          That’s a different thing to look for with science, and it doesn’t need the religion.

          You are using modern secular criteria to critique an ancient religious context where the facts are only partly known.

          No, actually, I am not. My criteria co-existed the ancient religious context. Ancient scientists and philosophers said all the same things I’m saying to you now. Plato outright spelled it out. Pagan critics of religion said it in detail and at length (Seneca, Plutarch, Lucretius, Lucian). Indeed even the Christians themselves admitted it (see links and references above). So even they knew they were lying, that the myths were false, but people had to be convinced they were true, in order to “save” them and “reform” them in the quest for a better society. That’s why they relied on forgeries (like 2 Peter), specifically to try and denounce, shun, and shut down any fellow Christians who admitted to the public that the Gospels were just “myths” (the entire argument and purpose of that fake letter: the letter itself is an outright lie; and the one who composed it, very well knew that).

          Church goers and theologians often consider the nature of God to be a mystery beyond human ability to describe. So regardless of what God language actually means, people can find coherent moral visions (such as the Golden Rule) reinforced by the parables and legends of the Bible.

          That actually is just bad philosophy. The Golden Rule leaves too much unexplained and leads to too many errors of moral reasoning (“I would want to be killed if I was gay, therefore I ought to kill gay people”; “I like being subservient to men, therefore all other women should be subservient to men”; “If God had elected me to be a slave, I’d be an obedient slave and not question it”). Far superior and better articulated systems of moral reasoning exist, indeed pre-existed the Gospels by centuries.

          God language is slippery and deceptive and lets people rationalize any prejudice or false belief that comforts them. It is therefore always bad for society. Plain truth is the only cure. Reasoned arguments based on actual evidence, instead of couching human prejudices and falsehoods in allegories is the only cure.

          The Bible is a really bad advisor. Even the teachings of Jesus are bad for society. The OT is worse. So no, we should not be “protecting” them. And there is nothing of value to rescue from them, that we can’t just build ourselves out of plain facts and reasoning, better even.

          My view is that the debate is cruelled by the polarised hostility, and that courteous dialogue between atheists and theologians should be a primary objective.

          Impossible, unfortunately. Because theologians aren’t actually interested in the truth. If they were, they wouldn’t be theologians. They use theology to deceive and control people, to attempt to make the world into their image, to manipulate voters, and mold communities to respond to their fears and prejudices. They need God to escape their fear of death and satisfy their sense of justice. They need God and god language as a tool of manipulation and rationalization to do all that. They are therefore not interested in “dialogue.” Dialogue is their enemy. It undermines everything they really want. They will make a pretense of it, so as to seem respectable and not give away their real motives (sometimes to avoid giving those motives away even to themselves, as many have deceived themselves about this), but it won’t take long before they will shut it down: the moment they see atheists being widely seen as respectable and their arguments taken seriously and paid attention to, they shut it all down and walk away to contain the damage. They might even part with some ad hominem and lies, to scare people away from the dangerous atheists.

          See my discussion of this in response to Rauser.

          Historic examples are Bultmann and Heidegger, or possibly Jung and Pauli.

          Probably in fact atheists who knew they would be vilified, marginalized, and ignored if they admitted it, so they tried spreading their views with lies and manipulation, pretending to be believers and couching their rationalism in religious language like a sugar pill, hoping they could at least get false believers to reform themselves in spite of their prejudices. In other words, they used the exact same “lie to the people” playbook Plato advocated and Christianity employed from the beginning, only to try and steer people to effective atheism without scaring them off by telling them that was their actual destination.

          That’s still all just lying.

          We need to stop lying.

          We need to start teaching the public to be comfortable with the truth. Not continuing to manipulate them with lies. Because the latter allows any lie to be used, so the people can be controlled by any ideology smartly deployed. But if they reject all lies and are comfortable with and pursue the truth, it’s very much harder to manipulate them. Because there is only one truth. And only one way to establish it’s true.

          Yes, but religion provides a major social function in community cohesion and identity…

          A bad one.

          There are far superior models of both.

          …and is not simply replaced by secular rituals.

          It already has been. Most people don’t need rituals. And those who do, can get any they want, in all manner of secular venues, without religion requiring them to have false beliefs to enjoy the rituals.

          It isn’t rituals that churches exist for. It’s manipulating the flock, trying to sway their votes, control their minds and behaviors, mold the world in the clergy’s desired image. The reason they are terrified that people are leaving churches in droves, is that this means they are losing control of those people. But the people are voting with their feet. They don’t need what churches are selling. So they are taking their dollars—and their minds and votes—elsewhere.

          There is value in opening dialogue with the religious about the actual meaning of their beliefs, to shift the focus away from “what actually happened” (their adamant belief in miracles), to “what does it mean” – the moral lessons of parables and miracle stories.

          But those are still all false beliefs, often dangerous or oppressive beliefs. They need the stories to mean things that rationalize their prejudices, so even if they treat them as literally false but allegorically true, they are not going to see reason about what the stories mean. They will either mean what they want them to mean, or they will leave the religion. There is no third option. There is no “rational” conclusion about what the stories “really” mean. Because they don’t really mean anything—beyond what the authors intended them to mean, which was almost always something still false, a false belief about the cosmos or the way people or the world works. They were not wise. They were arrogant fools, composing naive fables that were usually simply just wrong.

          Hence the “what does it mean” depends on the “what actually happened.” That’s why to get their racism and sexism and greed and prudery and everything else they want to rationalize, they look for that as “the meaning” inside the “stories,” and that’s why it’s so important to them to defend the truth of the stories, or of their authors’ original intentions. Because if those weren’t true, the stories wouldn’t have any fixed meaning anymore, and they become useless. If the stories or their original intentions aren’t true factually, then there is no reason to believe they are true allegorically either—after all, these allegories were written by superstitious liars with little science background and little honest understanding of how the world actually works. So even as allegory, their message is usually still false. There is little of value to recover from them.

          Rational evidence-based philosophy has always been and remains a far superior way to get at these things, when science hasn’t; and when science has, it’s even better.

          Religion is practically by definition what you have left when you abandon science and rational evidence-based philosophy as the means to understanding people and the world and what we should do with both. It is therefore exactly what should not continue. The sugar pill needs to go.

          Christianity can survive the recognition that Jesus was invented, fitting that accurate reading of history within a scientific account of the scale of human depravity.

          Not really, IMO. There is no evidence it won’t just dissolve, retaining only a few fringe adherents, once it’s admitted Jesus and all his stories were invented by an ancient, ignorant, and naive people, who didn’t really know what they were talking about.

          Better to read Aristotle than Mark any day. Aristotle is only 50% false, and we can plainly see when. Mark is 99% false. And his writing so obscure, it’s impossible to get anyone to agree even on what he meant.

          I look at this against the psychology of trauma. The disruption brought by the Roman Empire was so great that the fantasy of Jesus as ‘one for all’ provided an immensely comforting myth across the Hellenistic world.

          On which structure was built a thousand years of fascism and horror.

          Not a hot recommendation.

          Its ethical core of forgiveness conditional upon repentance as explained in the story of the baptism of Christ…

          There is no such story there. Jesus has nothing to repent for…that’s exactly what the Gospels say (e.g. Matthew 3:13-15).

          The story was actually written to symbolize submission (literally the meaning of the word “Islam”), allowing a symbolic death and rebirth, that would assuage the god’s anger and win you a piece of his inheritance.

          All poppycock.

          The New Testament actually has no coherent position on whether forgiveness is conditional or not, or on what, or who is supposed to do the forgiving, or why.

          As social theory, it’s complete shit.

          From anthropology and psychology we have a far better scientific understanding of forgiveness and what social function it serves and how to improve that function. It’s not in the bible. Or in any religious language of any religion anywhere.

          That’s why religions are useless.

          We figured out a better way to answer questions like this. It’s called evidence-based reasoning. It’s high time that replaced religion. The world will continue to be a sick place until everyone has figured that out and made the switch.

        2. Richard, I really appreciate your detailed responses here, as this problem of the contradictions between theology and mathematics seems to me to be fundamental. I have again replied in detail, sorry for length, and will provide my comments in instalments.

          It is scandalous that the ideas you raise seem marginal to public debate, but perhaps unsurprising, since people prefer to vague out on religion and don’t want clarity.

          The problem I have with your argument here is that while I agree we should see the universe in mathematical terms, we should not simply apply binary yes/no true/false logic to religious questions that are ambiguous and allegorical. Just because a Bible claim is not literally true does not make it meaningless.

          RC: “The world is hosed until the people become comfortable with the truth. If we have to feed them sugar pills instead, then the problem is the pills. We need to get them off the drugs.”

          Ethical focus on truth is a completely reasonable and sensible point of view. Where it falls down is its unduly high estimation of human intelligence. Plato thought the bulk of humanity had moronic tendencies, making people susceptible to emotional myth over rational argument or evidence as the basis for their opinions. Sadly I fear little has since changed, even with rising literacy and technology.

          The main problem of Plato’s Noble Lie in the Republic is not just with the principle of deception, but emerged as The Republic was used as a template for Christianity. My hypothesis is that the results of claiming that Jesus was real were a bit like the flooding mops in the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, a spell that could not be broken until the return of the master. My reading is that once the Platonic Gnostic Guardians lost control of their message, the Gospel Big Lie took on a life of its own to sweep its creators aside. The would-be Platonic philosopher kings and their Noble Lie of the Historical Jesus were shunted by political bishops who were happy to ally with the empire in using the story of Jesus as a basis for military stability and secular power.

          RC: “The reason the Christians used deception was to deceive their market, their own people, not the Roman elite.”

          That can be questioned. The Jewish Wars were among Rome’s biggest ever conflicts. It makes sense to posit second century Christianity as a social weapon of war, a way of organising against Rome before the new faith was co-opted and corrupted by the Empire. The Jesus story presents a psychological way to sublimate the trauma of the destruction of Jerusalem and to forget its attendant suffering through a comforting myth. Jesus was the ‘one for all’, representing all the Jews killed by Rome. If Christianity aimed to subvert the Roman Gods, then concealing their true agenda from Rome would be expected, in order to avoid charges of sedition. For example that would explain use of Nazareth rather than mentioning Nazarenes as a secret society, whether or not Nazareth existed. The view that the church evolved out of secretive mystery societies lends plausibility to the hypothesis of an original Platonic/Pythagorean/Hermetic/Gnostic community with a more intellectually robust theology including links to Babylon and Egypt, as well as the Jewish messianic prophecies. These founding fathers of Christianity, well before the known Church Fathers, could have aimed to inculcate the masses with the noble lie of the Gospel Jesus while promoting a Platonic cosmic wisdom to initiates and deceiving the Roman state about their aims. If they existed these originators were swept aside by the fervour of the mass appeal of the Jesus story and their memory obliterated by the next thousand years of imperial censorship.

          RC: “Rational argument did not move a superstitious populace, who instead was resentful of elite learning and anti-intellectual”

          Yes, which helps explain why the possible Platonic/cosmic origins for the Gospels were kept secret. Divulging a rational theology that understood Jesus as fiction would have tended to weaken and confuse mass faith. This situation of concealment would have left these Platonist Proto-Christians vulnerable when later leaders emerged who argued that the gospel accounts were literally true in every respect and that only heretics questioned the incarnation dogma. The literal argument had originally been designed to play to the superstitious believers, but now that it was turned against its creators it could win by force of numbers. Any mathematical high theology, including links to astronomy and hermetic wisdom, would have been well and truly swamped by orthodoxy.

          RC: “quotes from the Christians themselves on why they used allegorical deception …The Gospel authors themselves tell us this: Mark 4:11-12.”

          Orthodox Church Fathers came much later than the authors of the Gospels, from a time when literalism was entrenching. Mark’s account indicates that the moronic quality of public intelligence was a key driver for the use of allegory. An audience who ‘see but are blind and hear but are deaf’ are hardly able to comprehend complex ideas except as simplified and dramatized myth.

          RC: “They used allegory to keep outsiders ignorant so only the insiders would benefit from the “knowledge,” and thus had to invest. And the more advanced they became, the more of the actual “truth” they would be told.”

          That sounds like a Ponzi Scientology scheme. Perhaps instead the would-be Gnostic philosopher kings were too clever by half, imagining they could orchestrate Christianity as a mass movement under their secret control, based on a messiah invented out of the Isaiah blueprint and similar sources, without realizing their creation would escape their power. There is a difference between using allegory ‘to keep outsiders ignorant’ and using allegory as the best method to generate popular appeal.

          RC: “But the majority even of insiders remained in some stage of deception, because it was believed they couldn’t handle the truth and would only reform themselves when told a lie. Just as Plato argued had to be done in The Republic. In fact, Christianity was constructed very much on Plato’s model. The Gospels are the “myths” Plato said the people had to be told to keep them under control. Only select “Guardians” would ever know the truth, but they’d conceal it and make sure it never got out, by punishing anyone who tried to change the myths or claim they were false. Which describes pretty much the whole Middle Ages.”

          That is an excellent point which is central to the social origins of Christianity, but I see the history a bit differently. Plato’s 1:10:90 social model of guardians, auxiliaries and producers as ideal class proportions looks like the origin of the Gnostic vision of the pneumatic, psychic and hylic groups in society with the pneumatic Gnostics as philosopher kings. This class structure has its modern analog in the communist vision explained by Orwell in 1984 of the inner party, outer party and proles. The difference I suggest between Gnostic proto-Christianity and the orthodox church is that the Gnostics imagined they could achieve social strata based on Platonic ideas, with themselves at the top, whereas the orthodox accepted subordination to the real 1%ers from the Roman military.

          Literal faith in Jesus as the main church doctrine was in my reading a corruption of a previous mathematical Platonic cosmology, and was designed to neuter the messianic subversion inherent in the original Gnostic imagination so the church could ally with the state to support military stability.

        3. It makes sense to posit second century Christianity as a social weapon of war, a way of organising against Rome before the new faith was co-opted and corrupted by the Empire.

          I think you are confusing contexts. I’m taking about what’s actually true. You are now talking about what ancient people’s believed was true. Those aren’t the same thing.

          Because certainly Christianity was a weapon of war just as you mean, as in a cultural war, rather than a physical one. I detail this explicitly and how it worked in Not the Impossible Faith (esp. Chapters 8 and 10; see also my discussion of the anthropology of the Cargo Cults and non-Christian martyrdom movements as analogs in OHJ, Ch. 5, Element 29). They were still wrong—that is, the side they were defending, the beliefs and worldview and social system they wanted to prevail, was false. And indeed damagingly dangerously false. Which is why the Middle Ages sucked.

          Let’s not confuse what the authors of the Bible meant, with what’s actually good.

          95% of it is not good. And the remaining 5%, we have no use for the Bible to discover, teach, or learn.

        4. Some more on your response above.

          RC: “We can explain why false beliefs spread and others die out. That will not result in discovering any of those beliefs to be true.”

          The hypothesis that Christianity evolved in part from earlier solar religions makes a case that the false belief in Jesus Christ spread because it was a more accessible way to present the earlier religious focus on the sun as the orderly source of light and life. Anthropology, sociology and psychology can potentially find a kernel of truth behind the false veneer of the literal Bible stories, for example in the ritual celebration of natural cycles. Just proving to standards of reasonable doubt that the Jesus story is fictional should be the starting point of analysis on how that story evolved and what neural buttons it pushed.

          RC: “Ancient scientists and philosophers said all the same things I’m saying to you now. Plato outright spelled it out. Pagan critics of religion said it in detail and at length (Seneca, Plutarch, Lucretius, Lucian).”

          Plato thought the Noble Lie was a good thing, given popular stupidity and the great difficulty of getting reason into dumb noggins.

          https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Noble_lie explains how Socrates described the ideal classes in terms of admixtures of gold, silver, bronze and iron, a classification which goes back a long way, even to India.

          I don’t think the populace has smartened up enough to change this problem of being suckers, as Trump has recognised by triumphing through the use of largely mythical language. As the USA scales up like Rome from a democratic republic to an empire, the idea that democratic government without deception is possible appears increasingly unlikely. The question then becomes who guides the deceivers.

          RC: “superior and better articulated systems of moral reasoning exist, indeed pre-existed the Gospels by centuries. God language is slippery and deceptive and lets people rationalize any prejudice or false belief that comforts them. It is therefore always bad for society. Plain truth is the only cure. Reasoned arguments based on actual evidence, instead of couching human prejudices and falsehoods in allegories is the only cure.”

          What constitutes “plain truth” in moral reasoning can be just as slippery as God talk. That may be why Hume said you can’t get an ought from an is. Deriving values from facts (reasoned argument based on evidence) always requires principled agreement on axiomatic values, but moral axioms are tough to find consensus on. Reforming religion to base it on science, to retain the social value and heritage of faith while making evidence and reason our highest values, should be considered a way to build a coherent framework for moral discussions.

          RC: “the teachings of Jesus are bad for society.”

          You need quite a selective gnat strainer to swallow that camel. The Sermon on the Mount, the Last Judgement, and the moral core of the passion story are good for society, even if some of Jesus’ teachings are dubious. Recognising that these stories are fictional should not detract from their moral value, but rather should enhance it, by helping to reveal the scale of human depravity in inventing the Son of God.

          RC: “there is nothing of value to rescue from them, that we can’t just build ourselves out of plain facts and reasoning, better even.”

          You are downplaying the role of precedent in the evolution of moral thinking, as well as neglecting great teachings like the centrality of works of mercy in the Last Judgement in Matt 25, which I consider the central ethical teaching of Jesus. Recognising that Jesus Christ was fictional should be a basis for opening debate about how we recognise and assess the moral lessons of the Bible, not a reason to discard the Bible. The goal should be reforming Christianity to place it on a scientific basis, through rigorous assessment of evidence. Aiming to abolish religion in favour of a better moral framework is unrealistic and counterproductive. The enthronement of Supreme Reason by the Jacobins is just one example of the cautionary moral lessons about the dangers of that path . https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cult_of_Reason

          RC: “theologians aren’t actually interested in the truth. If they were, they wouldn’t be theologians. They use theology to deceive and control people, to attempt to make the world into their image, to manipulate voters, and mold communities to respond to their fears and prejudices. They need God to escape their fear of death and satisfy their sense of justice. They need God and god language as a tool of manipulation and rationalization to do all that.”

          This depiction of prevailing theology as inherently hypocritical, pharisaical and manipulative is sad but true. At Matt 23:27, Jesus condemns such people as ‘whited sepulchres’ that look clean but conceal corruption. I certainly have never seen any genuine dialogue between theologians and genuine critics like yourself. That totally amazes me, given scholarly claims of integrity, but it also indicates we are on the cusp of a paradigm shift involving a replacement of traditional beliefs by views that respect reason and knowledge.

          As Richard Dawkins argues, talking to creationists only gives them oxygen. Despite that, I still think it is possible to reform Christianity, as long as the view that Jesus was fictional can be a central topic of discussion.

          RC: “They are therefore not interested in “dialogue.” Dialogue is their enemy. It undermines everything they really want. They will make a pretense of it, so as to seem respectable and not give away their real motives (sometimes to avoid giving those motives away even to themselves, as many have deceived themselves about this), but it won’t take long before they will shut it down: the moment they see atheists being widely seen as respectable and their arguments taken seriously and paid attention to, they shut it all down and walk away to contain the damage. They might even part with some ad hominem and lies, to scare people away from the dangerous atheists.”

          That is all an accurate depiction of the shameful scandalous shambles of theology. The real losers here are the theologians and their supporters, who are increasingly confined to a brittle narrow cultural ghetto of their own making. Theology is viewed with disdain and mockery by the broad secular world, seen as incapable of participating sensibly in public debate and restricted to a sectarian audience. This problem is just because they insist their magical Jesus is above criticism, even though Jesus himself in their sacred texts says that such hypocrisy is immoral.

          RC: “See my discussion of this in response to Rauser.”

          Thanks, great review. I have a different take on ‘the fool has said in his heart” psalm. My reading is that it is an assertion of ultimate accountability. The fool is one who thinks he can get away with crimes, expecting that fate will never catch up with him. This logical equation between fate and God is akin to Spinoza’s equation between God and nature, based on the Biblical idea at Matt 10:29 ‘not a single sparrow can fall to the ground without your Father knowing it.’

          RC: “Probably [Bultmann and Jung were] in fact atheists who knew they would be vilified, marginalized, and ignored if they admitted it, so they tried spreading their views with lies and manipulation, pretending to be believers and couching their rationalism in religious language like a sugar pill, hoping they could at least get false believers to reform themselves in spite of their prejudices.”

          Richard, the debates around German Protestant theology in the mid twentieth century were more honest and informed than your caricature suggests. The theologian Rudolph Bultmann’s debates with the atheist philosopher Martin Heidegger were central to Bultmann’s influential idea of an existential demythologisation of Christian faith, even though he did not take the decisive step of seeing that Jesus was entirely mythical. Like the related work of the great Paul Tillich, much of this tradition has been forgotten as inconvenient to conventional faith, but it illustrates a capacity within Christianity for higher intellectual coherence. The psychologist Carl Jung’s discussions with the great physicist Wolfgang Pauli explored the role of mystery in physics, a highly complex intellectual topic. Such discussions illustrate that mockery of all theology is an inadequate portrayal.

          RC: “In other words, they used the exact same “lie to the people” playbook Plato advocated and Christianity employed from the beginning, only to try and steer people to effective atheism without scaring them off by telling them that was their actual destination. That’s still all just lying. We need to stop lying. We need to start teaching the public to be comfortable with the truth. Not continuing to manipulate them with lies. Because the latter allows any lie to be used, so the people can be controlled by any ideology smartly deployed. But if they reject all lies and are comfortable with and pursue the truth, it’s very much harder to manipulate them. Because there is only one truth. And only one way to establish it is true.”

          You appear to use the phrase “effective atheism” to include all religion that accepts that its language about God is non-literal. I agree with that analysis, since the scientific consensus – that we have no evidence for miracles or supernatural entities – entails atheism. The religious avoid this obvious atheist conclusion by invoking a metaphorical view of religion. That allegorical attitude is actually quite widespread within theology, but people are mostly intimidated to keep quiet about it.

          Part of the debate here is with your phrase “only one way to establish it is true”. “To establish” is a much higher bar than “to believe”. People find it comforting to believe things are true even though they cannot establish them rigorously. The broad society has to use belief, lacking time and expertise to establish the grounds for claims made from authority. The result is pervasive mythological thinking, constructing meaning on the basis of flimsy evidence. The problem of establishment of truth can be turned around to ask how established institutions can reform to promote true ideas rather than delusional fantasies.

          RC: “to get their racism and sexism and greed and prudery and everything else they want to rationalize, they look for that as “the meaning” inside the “stories,”

          To some extent, Christianity is changing away from the Christendom convention of the blessing of stable social traditions. What I find interesting is to distinguish between messianic and stabilising visions of Christ. Throughout Christian history, there has been tension between authorities who seek social stability and heretics who read the Bible themselves and use it to call for messianic transformation of the world. The sins of Christendom that you describe – prejudice, greed and restrictive morals – can be countered by informed reading of the Bible, even though such views remain deeply entrenched. There is a good case for example that sexist and racist views of the old Mosaic covenant were a key theme that the messianic equality teachings of Jesus rejected, but this rejection was not well accepted by Christian societies.

          RC: “and that’s why it’s so important to them to defend the truth of the stories, or of their authors’ original intentions.”

          If we move away from the Christendom model of alliance of church and state, focussing more on the respectful teachings in the Gospels, then this attitude of literalism itself becomes seen as a pharisaical sin, rejected by the Bible itself, for example by the statement attributed from Jesus to Pilate that he had come in to the world to bear witness to the truth. The problems you describe of defending the citadel of fundamentalism, understood broadly, are not intrinsic to Christianity, even if they are widespread in the church.

          RC: “If the stories or their original intentions aren’t true factually, then there is no reason to believe they are true allegorically either.”

          That does not follow. If we consider Jesus Christ as an allegorical representation of the imagined connection between the changing world of experience and some posited unchanging eternal truth, it is possible to construct a model in which Christian theology contains allegorical truth. The existence of untrue fables in the Bible does not make coherent Christology impossible.

          RC: “Rational evidence-based philosophy has always been and remains a far superior way to get at these things.”

          Very true, but philosophy is only possible for a small elite, and does not achieve the important task of simplifying learning to share it with a popular audience. My reading is that just that process of popularisation was applied to Platonic philosophy in the Christian gospels, but the popularised version was then stolen and corrupted by the church.

          RC: “There is no evidence [Christianity] won’t just dissolve, retaining only a few fringe adherents, once it’s admitted Jesus and all his stories were invented by an ancient, ignorant, and naive people, who didn’t really know what they were talking about.”

          The rise of Christianity to world domination in alliance with Western colonial capitalism is a historic achievement that suggests Christianity could be resilient and adaptive against the likely impending broad social acceptance that the Gospels are entirely fictional. The durability of faith will depend, in my opinion, on the coherence and popularity of a reconstructed Christian Platonic Gnosticism to replace dogmatic faith.

          RC: “a thousand years of fascism and horror. Not a hot recommendation.”

          That is an unduly negative portrayal. Yes Christendom was fascistic, but Christianity laid the foundation for the emergence of modern capitalism, with its abundant innovation and growth. The surface story is that Christianity held back change, but the fact is that modernity did occur in a Christian society, not elsewhere on the planet.

          RC: :There is no such story there [ethical core of forgiveness conditional upon repentance as explained in the story of the baptism of Christ]… The New Testament actually has no coherent position on whether forgiveness is conditional or not, or on what, or who is supposed to do the forgiving, or why.”

          The surface inconsistencies on forgiveness in the Bible illustrate the complexity of the topic, and do not mean there is no underlying coherence. Even John 3:16, the saying that belief produces eternal life, can be read as meaning that belief requires a transformative integrity, rather than just that Christians are automatically forgiven for sin if they assent to formulas, as it later came to be read under the suzerainty of the universal creed.

          Just believing in the saving blood of the lamb won’t cut it. Forgiveness is presented as conditional in several Gospel texts, notably Mark 1:4 – “John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” That is the intro to the baptism of Christ. The point is that you can only be fully forgiven for a mistake if you understand why what you did was wrong and are genuinely sorry about it. That applies even if the person you wronged accepts that the past cannot be changed, since an unrepentant criminal struggles to be pardoned by the courts.

          One of the longstanding errors of Christendom was the church assertion that adamant delusions were not only forgivable but were necessary to endorse. While Christianity continues its unrepentant error of insisting that Jesus Christ was a real person, it is inflicting ongoing psychological trauma on the world.

          You are right that there is ambiguity in the Biblical teaching on forgiveness. The Bible search http://biblehub.net/search.php?q=forgive illustrates that Christians are told to offer unconditional forgiveness, as in the Lord’s Prayer, but also to see forgiveness as conditional upon repentance. The teaching that Christians are forgiven just by believing appears in Peter’s speech at Acts 10:43, but at Acts 2:38 Peter said repentance is also needed. In Matt 25 Jesus says anyone who does not do works of mercy will go to hell, indicating that belief alone is not enough to secure forgiveness from God.

          RC: “From anthropology and psychology we have a far better scientific understanding of forgiveness and what social function it serves and how to improve that function. It’s not in the bible. Or in any religious language of any religion anywhere. That’s why religions are useless. We figured out a better way to answer questions like this. It’s called evidence-based reasoning. It’s high time that replaced religion. The world will continue to be a sick place until everyone has figured that out and made the switch.”

          Biblical teachings can reconcile with modern thinking on restorative justice and related topics. Yes, modern psychology provides scientific understanding, but that does not necessarily provide better tools for practical operation of forgiveness. It is easy to critique Christianity based on the errors of believers and their beliefs, but that critique often reflects a deeper political agenda, a view that the ethical shift to making evidence a primary value means religion should die out, given its epic fails in the evidence department. I just think the evidence on that score is far more complex than is often recognised.

        5. Biblical teachings can reconcile with modern thinking on restorative justice and related topics. Yes, modern psychology provides scientific understanding, but that does not necessarily provide better tools for practical operation of forgiveness.

          Yes, it does. Anything else is quackery. And what we haven’t gotten at scientifically yet, we can’t trust until we do get at it scientifically. We tried nonscientific psychology for thousands of years before the 20th century. It sucked. And often did more harm than good. Because it isn’t informed or rational.

          If you want to know what actually works, you need to ask psychology and sociology. Not primitive religions. Least of all a religion whose primary basis for the psychology of misconduct was demonic influence or possession.

          The Sermon on the Mount, the Last Judgement, and the moral core of the passion story are good for society.

          No they aren’t. They are horrific.

          The Sermon abolishes all self-defense, even to prevent slavery or murder, or to right any economic wrongs. That is acid to any coherent flourishing society. No such system can survive. It devolves into tyranny. Always.

          You’ve been told the Sermon on the Mount is glorious so often, you believe it is, without even having checked if in fact its recommendations even make sense. They do not. That sermon reflects the worst social system theory ever devised by man. You’ve just bought into The Christian Lie. Simply because you heard it so often, you assumed it must be true. That’s why religion is evil.

          And the Sermon itself is not evil merely because of its radical abolition of all self-defense and pursuit of functional justice. The Sermon fails on nearly every other mark.

          It praises poverty and disempowerment, rather than industry and empowerment, which caused the neglect of poverty in subsequent Christian political systems: at no point in the Middle Ages did Christendom recognize poverty itself as a problem to solve. Because the Sermon says poverty is good and glorious. So why fix it? Likewise, that same principle suppressed democracy, because it praises meekness, rather than activism and making your voice and vote heard.

          The Sermon also teaches a childish denial of mortality by promising an afterlife for suffering in this life, which dis-incentivizes solving and preventing suffering in this life, and causes countless people to waste their lives expecting to get a second one, and worse, it empowers fascists to use this hope of immortality to manipulate people by telling them what they have to do to get a ticket.

          The Sermon also upheld the entire Torah law (not one jot or tittle is to be disregarded it says; not even the least of its commandments is to be neglected). That means the murder of witches and blasphemers and anyone who eats bacon and every other horrific or absurd thing the Torah law commands and imagines. (Just as an example.)

          The Sermon equates insulting someone with murder—indeed, in the mildest way: merely calling someone a fool is equal to murder—a moral absurdity, which encourages the suppression of free speech, and leads people to false feelings of terror of hell at the mere thought they have “committed murder” by voicing an opinion. Which is in fact emotional abuse.

          The Sermon condemns all sexual thoughts whatever; it condemns divorce; it condemns marrying a divorced woman; it condemns all sex outside of marriage; it condemns all nonmonogamy. It even commands self-mutilation at even thinking of sex (commanding the gouging out of eyes and cutting off of hands).

          The Sermon falsely promises the lazy but faithful will be miraculously fed and clothed; rather than describing any coherent model for an effective industry or economy, yet the latter is essential to any functional society.

          The Sermon condemns evaluating the trustworthiness or dangerousness of other people; yet no society can function if people do not evaluate their fellows, and act on those evaluations to protect themselves and others from exploitation.

          The Sermon claims anyone who seems to act morally and claims to speak for God, is actually speaking for God—a recipe for endless horrors and abuses worldwide for centuries.

          The Sermon on the Mount is horrible. It absolutely must never be revered or regarded as any sort of way to behave or organize a society.

          And you need to think twice in future before endorsing the garbage that’s in the Bible.

        6. Hello Richard, can I say how much I appreciated reading your forthright direct criticisms of the Sermon on the Mount. You make a great case against how this core Christian text is often read. However, as you do with other Biblical texts in OHJ and your other writings, if you look back to the most probable original meanings, there may be scope for more positive readings.

          RC: “The Sermon on the Mount abolishes all self-defense, even to prevent slavery or murder, or to right any economic wrongs. That is acid to any coherent flourishing society. No such system can survive. It devolves into tyranny. Always.”

          Your critique of the Sermon on the Mount addresses how it was used by the corrupt churches of Christendom, not what current critical theology and liberation theology argue it originally meant. There are very different interpretations between the submissive attitudes prevalent in the church-state alliance doctrines and some more critical and subversive possible readings. For example, ‘turn the other cheek’ actually when analysed closely is a defiant response of integrity against a dismissive backhander from a military invader, not an abolition of self-defence. ‘Go the second mile’ is similar, a subtle way to humiliate the Roman army demand for forced labor, and ‘give your coat and cloak’ is a way to insult exploiters by standing naked before their rapacity. These readings should be considered before you accept negative possible portrayal of the teachings of Jesus based just on church practice. Honouring the dignity of those who are treated with contempt, which is what turn the other cheek and these other sayings mean, is not a recipe for tyranny, but rather is profoundly democratic. An excellent short essay on this re-reading of Jesus as standing in solidarity with the oppressed is Jesus’ Third Way by Walter Wink, available free online. And the transformative liberation morality here is even more valid, extending the critique of literalism, if we see Jesus as fictional, as a way to get away from all the corrupted misreadings of Christendom.

          RC: “It praises poverty and disempowerment”

          No, again that is a misreading. ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit’ is indeed about honouring frugality and a simple life, rather than seeking salvation just through material possessions, but this is a highly complex teaching, that should be considered in the context of the line that Christ came to provide abundance. Poverty in spirit is fully compatible with growth oriented teachings, such as the saying in the parable of the talents that the faithless servant should have at least got interest from a bank, if they lacked the courage to invest as an entrepreneur. This is the Matthew Principle, to those who have will be given, which hardly praises penury.

          RC: “rather than industry and empowerment, which caused the neglect of poverty in subsequent Christian political systems: at no point in the Middle Ages did Christendom recognize poverty itself as a problem to solve.”

          That failing can be sheeted to the church, not to the Bible. Similarly, ‘blessed are the meek’ signifies honouring the humble, not a convenient call to social obedience. Calvinism, with its return to the Bible, found a completely opposite view on prosperity theology, illustrating that the ‘be poor’ misreading is unbiblical. In my comment that you respond to I mention the Last Judgement, which presents seven works of mercy as the basis of salvation, in a way that does clearly recognise poverty as a central problem. The Gospel morality is summed up there by Jesus as “Feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, visit prisoners and the sick, welcome strangers, and treat the lowly as if they were me.” That is a great model for economic development, especially coming straight after the parable of the talents has said investment is the path to prosperity.

          RC: “The Sermon says poverty is good and glorious. So why fix it? Likewise, that same principle suppressed democracy, because it praises meekness, rather than activism and making your voice and vote heard.”

          Sorry Richard, but such questions are precisely where respectful dialogue is most important. I addressed some of your critique on the Beatitudes already, but am also concerned that you are just presenting a caricature. That is what Richard Dawkins did in The God Delusion, which overall is a great book, but only as a critique of popular fundamentalist delusion, not as a critique of critical theology, and therefore not as a critique of the Bible itself. Dawkins said with 40% of Americans being YECists there is great cause for alarm about religion. That is true, but as Bishop Spong and other progressive theologians like Crossan and Borg have argued, a better path is to read the Bible constructively rather than abandon it with caricatures. You could try to get scholars like Crossan to take the argument of non-historicity seriously, and you won’t do that when you paint such a false caricature of the Gospel Jesus.

          RC: “The Sermon also teaches a childish denial of mortality by promising an afterlife”

          How ironic that after suggesting I have fallen for Christian lies you fall in the same trap. I re-read the Sermon on the Mount after seeing these comments. All the mentions of hell and heaven are allegory, not literal. It makes no mention of afterlife. That is shown by the wide and narrow gate story, where the choices are between destruction and life, indicating these are the intended this-worldly meanings of the language about hell and heaven. Popular Christianity has misread the Sermon on the Mount in the way you describe. That does not make the comforting story of personal immortality or the threat of hellfire into an accurate reading. A critic could equally say that the popular view that the Gospels prove Jesus existed must be the only way to read the Gospel intent. Yet if Jesus was invented, the original authors were obviously responsible for the invention and were using the story to represent some deeper truth, as allegory, just like heaven and hell. The teaching in The Lord’s Prayer, thy will be done on earth as in heaven, calls for transformation, not afterlife, and is the proper context.

          RC: “The Sermon upheld the entire Torah law”

          Despite the tittle line, this same sermon replaces the Mosaic Law of eye for eye with love your enemies, as the core of a new covenant. The two teachings contradict. What you are doing is taking one of the contradictory teachings and exaggerating it to absurdity, where a more reasonable approach is to see the contradiction as indication of tension between respect for tradition and need for a new ethic.

          RC: “merely calling someone a fool is equal to murder—a moral absurdity”

          You are taking this text far too literally. Perhaps instead it is painting a vivid picture of an ideal future world, an imaginary heaven on earth where there is no need for angry condemnation. Even if that is thousands of years away it is a worthy goal, and painting it as a way to restrict freedom of speech is a distortion of the possible intent.

          RC: “self-mutilation at even thinking of sex (commanding the gouging out of eyes and cutting off of hands).”

          Surely, the absurdity of this literal command demands that we simply regard it as an exaggerated symbolic statement of the benefits of the spiritual life, in the context of the call to avoid material corruption and desire in favour of a focus on the word, which is broadly what a spiritual life means.

          RC: “The Sermon falsely promises the lazy but faithful will be miraculously fed and clothed”

          An uncharitable reading of the lilies of the field. I suppose you are right that plants are lazy and faithful, but this is just an imagined natural model for a possible future ideal human society, a parable that does not involve any literal miracle. Imagining a future world where trust and peace are the prevailing values can be open to exploitation by the lazy, but the overall meaning is that in an ideal vision of heaven on earth such free-riding is limited by the prevailing social values of trust, belonging and loyalty. Yes it is a very different world from today, but imagining such a future paradigm shift can’t simply be rejected as impossible.

          RC: “The Sermon condemns evaluating the trustworthiness or dangerousness of other people”

          ‘Judge not lest ye be judged’ is a rather obscure saying, but should be read with the following text condemning hypocrisy, meaning we should improve our own standards and values before criticising others.

          RC: “The Sermon claims anyone who seems to act morally and claims to speak for God, is actually speaking for God”

          No, Matt 7:15 contradicts your claim, saying ‘watch out for false prophets’ who do not actually speak for God.

          RC: “what we haven’t gotten at scientifically yet, we can’t trust until we do get at it scientifically. We tried nonscientific psychology for thousands of years before the 20th century. It sucked. And often did more harm than good. Because it isn’t informed or rational. If you want to know what actually works, you need to ask psychology and sociology. Not primitive religions. Least of all a religion whose primary basis for the psychology of misconduct was demonic influence or possession.”

          Good argument in general, but to balance it, consider the voluntary role of churches in building community, something very important for mental health and difficult to deliver just through professional expertise. Churchgoers are to some extent free to interpret church teachings for themselves these days, and that brings a balance between the Bible and science as sources for morality. Leaving psychology to the experts also has the big risk that with lack of time and money for counselling, there can be an excessive focus on medication to manage symptoms. In psychology, my main interest is the thought of Carl Jung, whose work emerged from the empirical atheism of Freudian psychoanalysis to recognise the centrality of spirituality for mental health, to focus on discussion, and to respect religious rituals and symbols even while deconstructing them from a scientific perspective.

          Many thanks again Richard for your clear and direct comments, which I am sure resonate strongly with many readers and reflect an accurate analysis of how religion operates in practice. But just as for mythicism, original sources reflect a different story from prevailing Christian mythology. Sources such as the Sermon on the Mount, and even the passion narratives and other literal impossibilities in the Bible, can be reconstructed to achieve some rehabilitation and reform of faith. Such an endeavour can be in line with your basic principle that the universe exhibits elegant mathematical order, which provides the primary framework for sound analysis.

        7. Your critique of the Sermon on the Mount addresses how it was used by the corrupt churches of Christendom, not what current critical theology and liberation theology argue it originally meant…

          It was written to mean what it meant. Any “reinterpretation” today is a lie: it is a lie about what the words mean, it is a lie about what their author meant.

          Why try defending a lie? Why not just admit it’s awful, and write something better?

          This is like trying to “reinterpret” Mein Kampf into a treatise on love and racial reconciliation. Not valid.

          This is everything I’ve been explaining to you: we absolutely must not try to “reinterpret” the Mein Kampfs of the world to say what they didn’t say. We must condemn them for what they said. And admit we can say something far superior. And then say it.

          That is the only honest course of action. And it is the only safe course of action. Because as long as you keep revering the horrid words, it’s just a matter of time before people “reinterpret” them back to what they originally meant, and act accordingly. All evil results. This is what fundamentalism did with the Bible after liberals tried “reinventing” what it meant in the 19th century. Those liberals, created those fundamentalists.

          We must stop that.

          We must go to just being honest, and saying what we want and why; and stop revering primitive ignorant bullshit.

          An excellent short essay on this re-reading of Jesus as standing in solidarity with the oppressed…

          Complete 100% bullshit. A total lie. Not what the author of that text meant. At all. (And we know the author wasn’t Jesus; mainstream scholarship establishes it was a Greek speaking Jew after the Jewish War of 70 A.D. who composed the Sermon.)

          Stop defending lies.

          I’m sure Wink has wonderful ideas. Why can’t they just be Wink’s ideas? Why do we have to lie to the public and claim they were “Jesus’s” ideas, when they weren’t even Jesus’s words!?

          …such as the saying in the parable of the talents that the faithless servant should have at least got interest from a bank, if they lacked the courage to invest as an entrepreneur….

          That wasn’t about money. That was about sacrifices (giving all your money away, to earn treasure in heaven: radical poverty, as the magic spell for immortality).

          It is a lie to claim the parable was advice about money management.

          This is the Matthew Principle, to those who have will be given, which hardly praises penury.

          He is indeed praising absolute poverty. Giving everything away, resisting no one who asks or takes. He even outright says so: Matthew 19:21-25. And that wasn’t a parable. He was talking about money there.

          This is because the authors of that text believed God would end the world soon, so all the suffering caused by absolute poverty would be rewarded, and by abandoning all material things, we’d be assured of not accidentally sinning and being excluded from the magical immortality spell God cast.

          Superstitious nonsense. That does absolutely nothing to advocate for ending poverty itself as a thing. Which is why Christianity has never even attempted to do so. Not in two thousand years.

          That failing can be sheeted to the church, not to the Bible.

          Sorry, but no. It’s what the Bible says. It’s what its authors meant. Any new mumbo jumbo you make up as what it meant, is just stuff people made up thousands of years later. And that’s called lying.

          Similarly, ‘blessed are the meek’ signifies honouring the humble, not a convenient call to social obedience.

          Um…he explicitly says it’s about radical total social submission: Matthew 5:39-42.

          That’s what he wrote. That’s what he meant. What you are now saying, is shit someone made up thousands of years later. In other words, a lie.

          The Gospel morality is summed up there by Jesus as “Feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, visit prisoners and the sick, welcome strangers, and treat the lowly as if they were me.”

          That’s Matthew 25. Not the Sermon on the Mount. And all tied to promises of magical immortality and threats of eternal hellfire.

          The radical Marxism in the Christian community surrendering all wealth to clothe and feed its members (the ravens parable in the Sermon, reified in Acts 4:34-35, with actual use of Stalinist murder to enforce it: Acts 5:1-11) is bad social system management. It has consistently failed everywhere it has been tried. It abolishes actual investment, and pretty much the entire system of economics that has been proven to be functional and actually leads to solving problems like poverty, rather than just throwing blankets at the poor. It was also fascist: only Christians were meant to benefit from the system proposed (and in fact, the author of Matthew, says only Jews who are Christians; so non-Jewish Christians, go to hell: the one jot or title section). So social obedience was required, absolute, radical social obedience to an onerous system of superstitious and barbaric rules, complete with commandments to murder the disapproved, including gays and women who have sex outside of marriage (men get a pass on that). That is in the Bible.

          The Sermon on the Mount never clearly says anything about ensuring all poor people are supplied with means, certainly nothing practical. You can wish it had said all these great things. But wishing does not get us facts.

          All the mentions of hell and heaven are allegory, not literal. It makes no mention of afterlife.

          You may wish they were. But there is no evidence of that. The author of Matthew certainly believes in a literal coming hell of fire and worm, and a literal immortality of the resurrected dead. He says so repeatedly and is very explicit throughout the entire Gospel.

          Stop lying about what Matthew believed and meant. Stop replacing what he actually meant, with what you wish he meant. Because that’s just lying.

          That is shown by the wide and narrow gate story, where the choices are between destruction and life…

          Matthew is not an annihilationist. Paul may have been. But the author of this Gospel believes the suffering of hellfire is eternal. How do we know that? Because that’s what he says. Several times. Throughout his Gospel.

          The teaching in The Lord’s Prayer, thy will be done on earth as in heaven, calls for transformation, not afterlife, and is the proper context.

          No it isn’t. The proper context is the actual context, what the author actually meant. Not what you or anyone else wishes he meant.

          Matthew’s context is: He believes the dead will all be raised to eternal life (he even has specific views about how marriage will be arranged at that point: Matthew 22:23ff.); he believes Jews who follow every commandment (every jot and tittle), which they can more easily do by radical poverty and social submission, will live forever, and everyone who doesn’t, will forever burn (Matthew 25:46; including all non-Jews who claim to be Christians; Matthew is condemning them all, only Jews get a ticket).

          Despite the tittle line, this same sermon replaces the Mosaic Law of eye for eye with love your enemies, as the core of a new covenant.

          No, it does not replace it. Read the text. At no point does Jesus say replace the law with loving enemies. It says radically submit to your enemies, because God will avenge you soon and reward you with paradise. That way you can be sure you don’t sin and thus get excluded and thrown into hell. It’s wildly superstitious thinking. And it is completely dysfunctional as a social system. Even at best, he meant saying let gays and self-minded women run rampant, because God will burn them for their crimes soon, rest assured. A horrific worldview. But that’s not even a credible reading. Because he doesn’t actually say don’t kill sinners when God commands it. He says uphold every commandment. Every commandment. He makes no exceptions and is so explicit that there are no exceptions he even says not even a single jot or tittle is to be disregarded.

          So when the author of Matthew describes his notion of radical submission, he only references the victim, not the society. He is thus proscribing vengeance, not justice. He never says, “don’t kill people who steal from others and are convicted for it by the procedures laid out in God’s commandments,” but only “don’t take any personal action against people who steal from you.” And this doesn’t even relate to abominations like homosexuality or eating bacon or women who have sex outside of marriage: those are not “enemies” of anyone but God; they are abominations to God, whom the jot and tittle of God’s commandments compels adherents to kill. And at no point in the Sermon does Jesus say “except, disregard those commandments that have you killing people.” He only says disregard human law (hence, no monetary lawsuits) and don’t act in self defense or take any private vengeance outside the justice system (hence, don’t resist your own murder or enslavement).

          You are taking this text far too literally.

          No, I am not. I am reading the text as it was written and intended. You might not like what it says and intended. But that does not justify lying about what it says and intended.

          Surely, the absurdity of this literal command…

          Why do you think absurdity matters? Jesus even recommends men castrate themselves (Matthew 19:12). The whole Marxist radical submission system Matthew promotes is absurd. To us. Because we know better. He does not. He really thinks this is a sensible and indeed the best way to organize a system. What you think is absurd, he thinks it’s absurd of you to think absurd. Of course we should cut off any organ that is causing us to sin; because that’s the only way to be sure we will get immorality in paradise instead of hell. That’s not absurd at all. It’s perfectly sensible. If you believe the superstitious mumbo jumbo behind it. As they did.

          Think about it. If you could make yourself immortal by cutting your eyes out, knowing you’d get them back, would it be even at all absurd to do it? Not at all! That would be a pretty cheap price to pay: temporary pain and loss, for perfect eyes and eternal life? That’s a sensible exchange. It is therefore not even remotely absurd. It is only absurd to someone who rejects the worldview assumptions of the author. In other words, it’s only absurd to someone who recognizes this author is horrifically wrong about how the world works, and thus his recommendations for how to get the best outcome in it, are likewise horrifically wrong.

          I suppose you are right that plants are lazy and faithful, but this is just an imagined natural model for a possible future ideal human society, a parable that does not involve any literal miracle.

          It’s utopian Marxism. Loyal Jews who pledge faith to the Torah laws and Christian community (and only loyal Jews who pledge faith to the Torah laws and Christian community), will be fed and housed, even if they do absolutely nothing for it. That’s what Matthew means. It’s a really, really terrible idea. Empirically, we know it never works. It is literally the worst way to try and solve poverty as a problem (I can think of exceptions, in highly developed capitalist economies that can realize a Universal Basic Income, for instance, but Matthew never describes constructing any such system or what’s actually required to make it functional and just). But remember, Matthew does not regard poverty as a problem at all; it need not be solved, because the earth will be dissolved any day now, and then there won’t be any economy, we’ll just be immortal and get everything for free.

          ‘Judge not lest ye be judged’ is a rather obscure saying…

          No, it isn’t.

          Remember, Matthew believes eternal fates are coming, hell or paradise. And sinners go to hell.

          What he means is therefore clear: if you judge, you might judge wrong, and thus accidentally sin, and go to hell; therefore it’s better to not judge at all, and suffer all the earthly consequences of not judging, because it won’t matter, because it will all be destroyed soon and everything set right supernaturally. But this is superstitious nonsense. And not functional socially. Judging others is necessary for any effective social system to work. The author of Matthew has no knowledge of what actually makes societies functional. And he makes no recommendations conducive to that end.

          Matthew does have one almost admirable notion in the Sermon, which is that God will judge us, by the same terms we judge others (so everyone will be subject to a different standard of judgment: the one they themselves employed). That actually doesn’t work (if true, it could easily be exploited by evil people) and is literally false (no God is coming to judge us at all, much less by any standard). But it’s at least almost a good idea. One Christians consistently ignored for thousands of years.

          RC: “The Sermon claims anyone who seems to act morally and claims to speak for God, is actually speaking for God”

          No, Matt 7:15 contradicts your claim, saying ‘watch out for false prophets’ who do not actually speak for God.

          Um. Read the whole thing. Including the part about how you identify false prophets and true ones. It says bad fruit cannot come from true representatives of God, therefore anyone who acts morally is speaking for God. Exactly as I said. A stupid and naive notion, corrosive to any society that adopts such a principle.

          Good argument in general, but to balance it, consider the voluntary role of churches in building community, something very important for mental health and difficult to deliver just through professional expertise.

          All science shows any secular system works just as well. Even bowling clubs have the same exact beneficial effects.

          So why do we need to lie to people and tell them they have to adopt a slate of dogmas, superstitions, bad advice, and primitive outdated morals that contradict all evidence-based reasoning, in order to “build community” and be “mentally healthy”? That’s lying. And it’s worse than lying, because all that needless baggage, is bad.

          All rational sense says: Cut the baggage. Just stick with what works. Which will have nothing to do with any religion whatever.

  7. Marc Miller May 27, 2017, 3:39 pm

    In my experience, religious aren’t interested in the truth, or investigating the sources of their religion. As Daniel Dennet points out in his great book Breaking The Spell, it is the more fundamentalist types of religion that are the most popular, because they sell the best product. Believers no longer have to sorry about the future…God has it under control. They don’t need to worry about death… it’s a glorious rebirth, etc…Convincing these people otherwise is mostly a fruitless endeavor.

    Reply
    1. That’s true, if by most popular one means by measure of zeal.

      There is a second type of religion that’s even more popular than fundamentalism, and it’s actually in some ways more dishonest, but much less obnoxious, because it’s less dogmatic and more open to accepting social progress (albeit usually behind the curve, they at least tend to follow the curve of majority sentiment). That’s the kind of religion people just want not because they believe all that much of it or even care about its doctrines or anything, but simply because it comforts them in various ways. The same various ways. But they are apathetic about defending it. They don’t need to defend its truth, not because they agree it’s all myth, but simply because they can’t be bothered to argue the matter, and simply just won’t. They’ll resort to platitudes like “why do you have to ruin it for everyone, can’t you just keep your criticisms to yourself?”

      They don’t really want to waste time thinking about or defending their religion. They just don’t want their belief in it to be challenged. Because it’s useful to them, and replacing it is work, and they’re too lazy or scared to shift perspective.

      Reply
  8. Marc Miller May 27, 2017, 6:12 pm

    Secularism offers average people nothing but a lot of extra time thinking about things they can’t understand anyway… So maybe William James was right, and religion has it’s place!

    Reply

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