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Feb 23, 2023Liked by Massimo Pigliucci

I figure. If God wants to quit hiding and let me know that he exits, then he knows how to do just that. I am thoroughly convinced that it won't be old Jehovah. So whoever she is she knows what it takes. In the meantime I'll just go on talking to my invisible unicorn 🦄. What do you mean, that I'm probably not interested?

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Just a reminder that it is possible to find an actual implementation of the Library of Babel here: https://libraryofbabel.info/

Maybe some of you my get extremely lucky and find the accurate description of the universe and its history!

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Nice!

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Connecting this post to your recent post on “bad Stoicism,” where you, among other things, distinguish those who adopt the philosophy itself, from those who simply leverage and apply its learnings and techniques to their life. Your point there was to take-down the most egregious manipulators of this wisdom tradition, but I think it begs a further question as well: If a person (any person, not just the obnoxious) rejects the core metaphysics of a wisdom tradition, can they ever be seen as having “adopted” that philosophy?

It seems to me that no person can claim to adopt a philosophy if they reject its core metaphysics. You’ve made similar arguments in the past with respect to the embrace by many in the West of Buddhist learnings and techniques outside of its metaphysical envelope. Nothing wrong with that. But “being” a Buddhist means more than meditating - it means adopting its metaphysics. Same here with respect to Stoicism, it seems to me.

Belief in the Logos lives at the core of Stoicism. It’s its core metaphysics, and it’s a transcendent and spiritual concept. It’s belief in an enchanted Nature (and is the rationale for a life lived in accordance with the Cardinal Virtues). Atheism, by definition, calls for the rejection of that belief. Which means, it seems to me, that an atheist cannot “be” a Stoic.

Interestingly enough, it seems to me that an “atheistic Stoic” is actually an Epicurean, a person who does not strive (or embrace Virtue Ethics) to align themselves with the Logos, but rather to advance toward Eudaimonia as an end in and of itself. It’s personal excellence and personal flourishing for one’s personal sake (even if the person feels called to self-sacrifice out of a sense of duty - they answer the call because it does, in its own way, bring them pleasure).

There is a positive (and I’d argue necessary) role for the Cardinal Virtues and Stoic learnings and techniques within Epicurean philosophy - much of Epicurus speaks to or hints at that. But it’s not Stoicism.

I suspect you disagree. Interested in your perspective! (And apologies for the long comment!)

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David, interesting comments. Let me address your two major points.

First, the connection between a tradition's metaphysics and the coherence of thinking of one self as belonging to that tradition.

I think this is one of the areas where religions and philosophies of life disagree. In the case of a religion, metaphysics is the crucial aspect. One cannot reasonably be a Christian if one doesn't believe in the divinity of Jesus.

But in the case of philosophies, the core, I would argue, is the ethics. Which is why one can be a secular Buddhist, rejecting the metaphysics and yet acknowledging the four noble truths and embarking on the eightfold path. If you check those two, there is no mention of any metaphysics.

Similarly with Stoicism. I do not believe that the universe is a living sentient organism. But I do believe that virtue is the chief good and that we live in a cosmopolis and should act accordingly. That makes me a Stoic.

(There is one caveat: I am not arguing that the ethics, even in Stoicism, is entirely independent of the metaphysics. But much of Stoic metaphysics--materialism, cause-effect, and so on--still works. And one can drop certain aspects of the ethics--like the notion of a providential cosmos--if one rejects certain aspects of the metaphysics. Larry Becker has articulated this in his A New Stoicism, and I've argued this at length here: https://www.basicbooks.com/titles/massimo-pigliucci/a-field-guide-to-a-happy-life/9781541646940/)

Second, Epicureanism. Even if you were right in your first point, I still wouldn't be an Epicurean. The central tenet of Epicureanism is not that we want to live a eudaimonic life--most Hellenistic philosophies assumed that--but rather that a eudaimonic life consists in the absence of pain. I do not believe that for a moment, so I'm not an Epicurean.

Thanks for the challenging thoughts!

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I regard science not as a body of knowledge nor a method of acquiring knowledge but as an 'ethic':

"Thou shall not believe shit without sufficient evidence"

with 'sufficient' defined by Hume's criteria.

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Hmm, I think the ethics of science, or more broadly the ethics of belief, is distinct from the methods of science and the body of knowledge they generate.

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Two questions:

First question:

"the mystical / supernatural view of the world has produced exactly no advance in human knowledge, understanding, or ability to manipulate the world. None."

It is damned hard to prove a negative. How do you prove this statement is true? Or is this a statment made because you believe that "I don’t think there is sufficient reason or evidence".

I am wondering if this statement is a belief of yours, or is it simply because you "don't think" it, which can just as well be attributed to a lack of imagination.

Second question:

Recently, there has been a lot of discussion of Chat-Gpt and large learning models. This has led to increased speculation about the possibility of eventually producing what is now termed an "Artificial General Intelligence". As someone who has worked in the field, I don't think there has been any evidence that an AGI can be eventually constructed.

The question is: what is your position on this question? Are you an a-AGI-ist, without a positive belief in an eventual AGI, or do you think it would be eventually possible?

The reason why I ask this question is that it involves matters of insufficient reason, belief and other epistemic matters, but it is entirely "scientific" in the sense that it involves no reference to the supernatural. After all, there is a natural case of human intelligence, so an appeal to the supernatural is not necessary.

This is my attempt to carve up this problem at the joints.

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Antony, good question. Regarding the first one, it seems fair to ask what sort of examples of advancements made by humanity in terms of understanding of the world made possible by supernaturalism are available? I can't think of any. As you say, perhaps this is a result of my limited imagination, but I haven't come across even theologians that list any such advancement. So I'm standing by and see if anyone has examples that we can discuss.

Regarding AGI, like you I don't think it's possible, for a number of reasons that include the nature of intelligence, what so-called AI actually does and how it is built, and so forth. So, yes, I am an a-AGIist. But, like in the case of god, I'm open to be proven wrong, which should be easier for AGI--which as you say does not involve the supernatural--than in the case of god.

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As a naturalistic Pantheist, my response involves termonology and language as much as anything. I basically define "supernatural" away, by declaring the Universe is equivalent to the natural world. This argument says: if there is some supernatural event, to be known it must be perceived by the mind or the senses, so in that case it is natural. Ergo - no supernatural realm.

As to my belief in the Pantheist God, there are two arguments: Anselm's Ontological argument postulates an entity "nothing greater than can be conceived". Which is of course the Universe, which is my God. Or, I can take the argument of theists that my God is uncaused and uncreated, a statement explicitly made in Article 1 of the 1933 Humanist Manifesto I.

As to the question of whether or not there is a "person" - an entity - that created our space-time continuum, my repsonse is that, if you can provide natural evidence for this person, then I just add a new scientific specialty - that of TheoBiology to my science, thus folding the Creator God into my Naturalistic Pantheism as a separate entity. Note that this solution is as much a play on words as it is a conceptual shift. But I end up with less agita about the Ontological Argument this way than Bertrand Russell did.

As to the AGI viewpoint, this, like any knowledge amenable to science, will eventually be addresed either way by a combination of theory and experiment. Personally, I have faith that, despite all evidence, an AGI will be constructed in my lifetime. I do consider neural nets as a dead end, though. I am most impressed with the recent work on consciousness by Lenore and Manuel Blum https://www.pnas.org/doi/10.1073/pnas.2115934119

I wouldn't be in this field since 1973 if I didn't believe!

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I respect your approach, but I'm not a fan of defining away issues. I think "supernatural" is a perfectly intelligible concept and we need to take it seriously, if nothing else because it has informed the actual lives of countless people over the past several millennia at least.

I think Anselm's argument is pretty silly, so I'm not inclined to take it seriously. More generally, I think it is a serious mistake to imagine that one can establish the existence of something purely on logical grounds. Empirical evidence is required.

I honestly never understood the need to call the universe "god." Given the huge cultural baggage that "god" has, why not just say "the universe"?

Interesting article you linked to, but as a biologist I don't buy one of their key premises: "The CTM is not a model of the brain or cognition, nor is it intended to be, but a simple substrate-independent computational model of (the admittedly complex concept of) consciousness."

I don't think one can study consciousness in a substrate-independent fashion for the reason that consciousness is an evolved biological phenomenon. It would be like studying photosynthesis by modeling it in a computer. It can (and has been) done, but one think you don't get from the model is (physical, real) sugar. Which is what is most important thing that photosynthesis does.

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From a Christian perspective the answer is quite simple. When the skies open (whatever that means) and the new Jerusalem descends, the dead leave their tombs, the seas give up their dead, and Jesus takes control of all the governments, then I would probably change my mind. For other religions, if knowing god is really that important to god, then shouldn't an all powerful and all knowing being who is apparently desperate for affection be able to demonstrate its existence effectively?

Also bravo on incorporating Star Trek into your post. Live long and prosper.

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Andrew, thanks for the appreciative comment about StarTrek. I actually use that episode when I teach Philosophy of Sci-Fi at City College.

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I’m also an atheist. However, I don’t dare to discard that I will no longer believe in God again. Perhaps, in the proximity of imminent and inevitable death, I will return to the faith I was raised in. Or some mental decline will render me again submitted to it. I don’t know. That faith is Catholicism and has a clear advantage over others: I you repent sincerely at the last minute, you will be granted eternal pardon. It’s a good ace to keep in the sleeve. So rather than being an atheist, I prefer to say I’m a Catholic on leave.

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Feb 20, 2023Liked by Massimo Pigliucci

But if I accept Jesus as my lord and savior even once in other Christian sects I am always saved, so that one ups Catholicism. Plus you get to bypass purgatory, which doesn't exist in the Protestant world. Or you could go Unitarian Universalist and everyone is saved.

Seriously though, I was also raised Catholic and I have some family members who embraced the faith on their death bed and I don't hold it against them. Some did it out of fear, some to be buried with their loved ones in a Catholic cemetery, who knows if I won't do the same? Being Irish I think the faith runs deep in an more than religious sense with us. Well I'm starting to babble...

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Carles, I don't exclude my own dementia or fear either. But those wouldn't be rational reasons to re-embrace the faith. I'd rather stick with Stoicism and remind myself that death is natural and in fact necessary and be done with it.

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How does one disbelieve God yet believe in Fate, another invisible non empirical belief system tirelessly used to explain life’s occurrences? God willing. Or, if Fate allows. I’m trying to work out the differences. Isn’t fate also considered as some kind of dominant, decisive force?

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Lisa, good question. "Fate," in my view, is not a force, it's simply a shorthand for "the web of cause-effect as determined by the laws of nature." So referring to fate isn't an act of fait, it's the result of empirical observations and scientific theorizing.

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Feb 20, 2023Liked by Massimo Pigliucci

Clarifying and helpful. Thank you. The ‘web’ is intricate.

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Feb 20, 2023Liked by Massimo Pigliucci

Interesting that atheists are often asked this question, whereas it is considered bad manners to ask a theist what would lead them to abandon their faith

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I know right? The world just ain't fair...

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Doubly unfair. In any area except religion, whoever holds an opinion is expected when challenged to give reasons for holding it and to be prepared in principle to change their mind in the face of new arguments or new evidence. But in religion, unswerving faith is a virtue, and even, as in much of Christianity, a virtue necessary for salvation

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Exactly. As you know, I think of faith as a vice, not a virtue, in accordance with Clifford's classical essay on the ethics of belief, despite James' attempt to ridicule it. See: https://philosophyasawayoflife.medium.com/the-ethics-of-belief-f1d459c572e3?sk=571c754f1244d14044039a637a8b80b1

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Yes, I remember this now. Yet people often do say "I choose to believe that…"

I thought that it was virtuous to believe in God, specifically the mid-20th century United Synagogue's version of God, until reading Bertrand Russell convinced me otherwise. Looking back, I speculate that believing that belief was virtuous was itself a central part of the belief package. This may be quite generally true for religion, and also for other packages of beliefs, especially those that involve entitlement to an identity.

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Agreed about beliefs connected to identity. And of course Bertie was what got me onto the path of atheism as well. When I was a teenager!

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I completely agree. I might add that the human brain is, in part, a three-pound hallucination engine. Normally, it does a great job in representing reality, however imperfectly in some respects, and it's a little off-putting to realize that most if not all of our perceptions of reality are mediated by our brains.

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Well put.

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A grand and thoughtful essay, one I’m honored to be mentioned in. Thanks, friend.

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You are welcome, Ed, and thanks for stimulating this essay with your thoughts!

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Morton, I think I see all the comments you posted.

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