Moral Certainty: John Dehlin as an “Atheist Who Knows God”

John DehlinA long time ago I wrote a post called Atheists Who Know God to open discussion about  a phenomenon I noticed where even outright atheists are extremely territorial about their beliefs about God.

During this discussion various ideas were offered, including a defense of the atheists on the grounds that they are just trying to show that rational inconsistency of the theist’s position. And yet, this defense just doesn’t hit the mark. How could an atheist know something with such certainty about a fictional being that no two religions even agree upon? Is it really a rationally consistent argument to argue that Santa Claus would never hire elves to make toys because it would make better sense to hire dwarves since they are better adapted to such work? The problem with trying to show logical inconsistency with fictional characters and fictional realities is that its just too easy to come up with some counter reason why that logical inconsistency isn’t a logical inconsistency.

Maybe Atheist Just Think They Know Objective Morality

Perhaps a better answer here is that atheist believe in objective (or at least universal) morality. Even moral relativists are only such in principle. In practice there are no moral relativists because, as C.S. Lewis points out, everyone will immediately act like morality is factual and objective the moment its them who has been harmed by an “immoral act.” Interestingly, this is true even though there is no known way to make sense of morality via reason if one is taking an atheistic point of view about the world. Making sense of morality rationally actually requires a supernatural viewpoint.

This theory is better because everyone knows “God is supposed to be good” and when someone believes something they see as immoral, they sincerely feel that — even though they don’t believe in God — they can at least objectively conclude that this would never be God’s will given that a) God is good, b) what so-and-so is doing is not good.

This is a more satisfying answer, I think, to the phenomenon of “Atheists Who Know God” then merely trying to show some supposed rational inconsistency via claiming to know God’s will even though one is an atheist. This theory is more like saying Santa Claus would never torture children because Santa Claus — even though he’s fictional — is supposed to like children. So perhaps “atheists who know God” really just think they know what a good being must of necessity be like under all circumstances and they simply have no doubts about their moral calculus at all.

How Often Do We Have Enough Information To Have Moral Certainty?

Now, of course, this assumption that one knows what a perfectly good being would act like — no matter how strongly held — is probably rarely true. If there really were a perfectly good Something-Like-God out there it should be obvious, at least when we’re not being overtly biased, that this perfectly good being would have to take everyone into consideration simultaneously, and would have to work with everyone wherever they are at and whatever their genetics, culture, beliefs, disposition, brain chemistry, etc.

A perfectly good being would, for example, have to work out the correct moral calculus for Jean Valjean stealing bread to survive even when there are no realistic other option currently available that allow him to survive while also taking into consideration the person he stole from having their work taken from them. He’d have to take all our biological drives into consideration, including our tendency for self deception. He’d have so many people’s true circumstances to consider simultaneously that it is pretty doubtful that His moral calculus would all that often match our own biased views.

John Dehlin Knows The Church Leaders Aren’t Following God’s Will

This whole post came about because I just noticed a link on M* entitled “John Dehlin does not believe Church leaders reflect God’s will.” Here is the quote that title is referring to:

If you forced me to speculate [about why I am not yet excommunicated]….my guess is that a disciplinary court will be held for me within the next 1-12 months…and that they have only been delaying because of some of the reasons mentioned above. In other words…the delay is due to their desire to protect themselves and their power, and to minimize the possible collateral damage to the church…and not for any other reasons….and certainly not because they are operating in accordance with God’s will. (emphasis mine)

Now granted, John is really technically an agonistic, not an atheist, though I do not see why that would change my point at all. You can easily find interviews with John where he makes it clear that he isn’t sure if God exists or not or if “God” is just a term for “goodness.” Isn’t it fascinating the level of complete certainty John expresses here about what God — if God exists — would have to be like?

John’s View is Understandable

I must say, I can understand why John feels so frustrated and upset. He is in a tough spot here for sure. John’s Mormon Stories podcast is mostly negative towards the LDS Church and John has fairly consistently gotten excited about and even encouraged people towards doubts about the Church. Members and leaders of the Church have not missed this fact.

But John isn’t necessarily someone that feels the Church is “bad” on balance. From John’s viewpoint he is just putting true information out there and letting people draw their own conclusions. Remember, he undoubtedly honestly believes he is doing nothing more than this. Of course, no one is that objective with their meaning-memes, but if you want to honestly understand where John is coming from, you must realize that he sincerely and honestly believes he’s just putting true, fair, and balanced information out there. He probably does not even realize that there are multiple types of “balance.”  (This concept of multiple types of balance is in fact the real problem here, though I don’t have time in this post to explain this.)

Given John’s sincere viewpoint, it is at least understandable that he feels that the reasons disciplinary action were delayed on him had more to do with “desire to protect themselves, and their power, an to minimize the possible collateral damage to the church” than because of God’s will.

John’s Assumed Reasons Are Mostly Moral

But here’s the rub. What exactly is wrong with two out of three of those? Is a desire to protect oneself a bad thing? Is a desire to “minimize the possible collateral damage to the church” a bad thing? Consider that “the church” is in fact a group of people. Is it immoral to minimize damage to people that happen to be a church? Surely these can’t possibly be the reasons John feels that what his church leaders are doing are not God’s will because those strike me as directly moral reasons.

The real point John is emphasizing, I think, is a desire to protect one’s “power.” Let’s face it. Here in America “protecting one’s power” is almost always seen as a negative, though truth be told, one of the reasons John is writing this post is quite literally to “protect his power” too, i.e. keep people on his side and not look bad compared to the church. Further, I am not even sure “protecting one’s power” is necessarily a bad thing in most circumstances any more, though I doubt I’ll convince most people of that.

What I want to suggest here is that even if there are some bad motives involved here — for the sake of argument, let’s assume wanting to “protect their power” is a bad motive, as that is the sole possible bad motive being offered — there are also some pretty understandable ones, and even ones that strike me as directly moral reasons.

What is Self Deception?

I have come to accept something about myself: I rarely have pure motives. Moral Psychologist Jonathan Haidt uses the analogy of an Elephant (subconscious) with a Rider (conscious mind) and makes it very clear that the Rider evolved to serve the Elephant and not the other way around. Because of that, its quite easy for the “Elephant” to have a bad motive that the “Rider” doesn’t even know about for the sake of plausible deniability. From a purely biological standpoint, this is what we actually mean when we speak of “self deception.” Haidt backs this up with considerable scientific studies.

Why Does Truth = Good?

In fact, isn’t all this — with John Dehlin and the LDS Church — just a microcosm of the point I just barely made about us rarely having enough information to run a true moral calculus? How would a real perfectly good being see all of this? Take, for example, John’s assumption that the LDS church is false. Must it then logically follow that people will not be hurt when John helps them see the truth? Why would that be?

This is why I enjoy the concept of a Lovecraftian world. The whole point H.P. Lovecraft makes — quite well — is that our notion that “the truth will set you free” has no rational basis at all and is really just a religious act of faith. Its only true if the universe happens to be so specially ordered that all truths happen to have higher utility than all falsehoods. In a non-theistic world (as John believes is likely the case) what are the odds this would happen to be true by chance? And it must be all truths have higher utility than their associated falsehood — literally without an exception, or else the notion has to be modified to “sometimes the truth will set you free, perhaps with a high probability — but there are notable exceptions.”

Is Religion False But Good?

Interestingly, the very atheistic Haidt proposes religion as just such an exception.  Haidt started out like many atheists — antagonistic towards religion. But slowly his own scientific studies and reviews of the literature literally forced him to change his mind about religion and accept that it is a net positive to society, despite being (in his view) false. Further strengthening his argument is a growing body of scientific evidence that religion and morality evolved together and are both evolutionary adaptions that all human beings have. Also, Bruce Sheiman in his book An Atheist Defends Religion collects considerable data that religion is, on balance, a very good thing for society, even though he believes it to be factually false.

John Dehlin’s Real Mistake: The Truth-Good/False-Bad Dichotomy

This is where I honestly think John has gone astray. I think he sincerely believes that the Church is not true (at least not in the sense a “TBM” would think of that phrase), but that it is good, but that it’s (in his view) the “true” parts that are good and that “false” parts are not good and need debunking. John likely therefore sees his debunking of many of the Church’s beliefs (i.e. basically all the defining truth claims, unfortunately) as only part of what he is doing. The other half of what he probably sees himself as doing is accepting and encouraging the “true” parts of the LDS Church (i.e. ethical teachings, strong community, etc.) John sincerely seems to feel that his critics are unfairly ignoring the good he does in favor of the (in his opinion) completely unnecessary defense of a series of (in his view) false beliefs.

This is without a doubt an incredibly common human viewpoint. It takes considerable effort to fight down the biologically driven notion that the “truth” is somehow “The Truth” with a capital T. We are wired to sincerely believe that Truth is morally special somehow. Haidt points out that science has studied this biological drive and found it lacking. For example, the notion that rational people are good people is a) a significant and ubiquitous human belief, b) not statistically true.

This is, I think, the Non-Believing Liberal Mormon mistake in a nut shell. They sincerely believe they know with near certainty what parts of the Church are “true and good” and what parts are “false and harmful.” When believers push back (by, say, meeting with John in a disciplinary council) they can see nothing but “the old guard” protecting the “false and bad” portions of an otherwise good religion for the sake of “not wanting to give up power.” This narrative plays right into their own narrative of certainty that they know what parts of the Church are “bad and false.” The thought that maybe they are sometimes harming people (though undoubtedly also sometimes helping people) and might themselves be in need of some criticism and maybe even some forced curbing is not crossing their minds.

I suspect the real truth is that John (and maybe everybody) have little idea at all about how the various parts of the Church’s doctrines, beliefs, culture, and practices interconnect and cause “the good” (or “the bad”) within the Church. The danger John has always faced is that of becoming an untrained surgeon that cuts out parts of the body he thinks are unnecessary and does real harm to the otherwise healthy patient.

But then maybe in fairness we should admit that part of what drives Non-Believing Liberal Mormons is that they sometimes do find honest problems with the Church where we are harming people and the thought is not yet crossing our mind that we are causing unnecessary harm. What are the odds that this isn’t true in at least some cases? Might not John sometimes see us as the untrained surgeon that cause harm for lack of knowledge? (In fact this is one of non-believing liberal Mormon’s common complaints about the Church — that the priesthood leaders, without “proper training” try to resolve psychological and social issues.)

My Advice to John

I were to be in John’s shoes (I am not, of course, and who knows what I’d really do if I was, but bear with me anyhow) I think the first thing I’d want to consider is whether maybe I do have an underlying assumption, perhaps only tacitly, that  a “false and harmful” and “true and good” dichotomy is built into my current podcasting and writings.  Such an assumption would be quite natural for me to hold, of course, because there does seem to be a basic biological imperative that “truth” is “Truth”. And yet, as I’ve discussed above, there is really no reason to believe in this unless one is starting with Theistic assumptions anyhow. [1]

If the truth-good/false-bad dichotomy is actually false, then (if I were in John’s shoes) I might wonder if much of what I am judging ‘false’ also happen to be the ‘good parts’ of a religion. I’d let that little bit of doubt temper my belief that I can know with certainty which parts of the church are hurtful vs. helpful. This would give me a much more cautious approach, I would hope, and — as it turns out — probably remove the very thing that keeps causing me to find myself at odds with the LDS Church leaders so often: my very human underlying impulse to “debunk” LDS beliefs publicly when I think them factually not true rather than offering believing ways to deal with such issues.

I would also ask myself these questions:

What if those that criticize me aren’t merely the “old guard” trying to “protect their power” but actually have at least some legitimate concerns about my activities? What if my “pain ledger” isn’t a net positive like I am supposing? How could I know? How could I mitigate any harm I might do?

What if my pending meetings with my priesthood leaders isn’t primarily an immoral act? What if there are honest difference of opinion here with both sides correctly concerned about the other group doing unnecessary harm and both sides sincerely want to minimize that harm?

What if there is some way to compromise and work out our differences? Is not meeting with my leaders to talk then the right thing? If I do not believe they have any actual special priesthood authority, might it not make sense to think of the meeting not as oppressive — surely that’s natural human view point here — but instead as a meeting to discuss legitimate concerns?

Or what if there is not a way to compromise and work out my differences with the LDS Church? Can I really say that both sides parting ways (as John, in his quote seems to assume will be the case) is, of necessity, immoral? Why would that be? Is there really some objective moral rule out there that a group of religious people (i.e. a church) should never part ways with someone who they feel is harming people’s faith (which in turn cause real harm to a real person) in their church — and yet that someone may leave that church any time they choose and the rest of the church should be non-judgmental about this? Or is it more likely that both acts are really identical and are done for identical reasons and have identical moral ramifications?

I suppose if I were giving advice to John’s priesthood leaders, I’d probably give similar advice. My unwanted advice to them would probably be to accept that (one of) the question(s) being asked in this sort of disciplinary council is if it is possible to accommodate John without harming the faith of the body of believers. What are the real points of contention? What are the points that seem mutually exclusive and/or incompatible? Can those be resolved? Or, given John’s current beliefs, is it perhaps maybe impossible for him to comply with their requests — therefore forcing a separation?

I don’t really know the answers to these questions. My inner optimist believes both sides can be accommodated and that by doing so harm will be reduced on both sides.

To me the key question seems to be John’s current approach. He presents primarily faith-demoting material and he does so with little attempt to offer more believing ways to look at what he calls “the issues.” John’s whole approach sometimes seems to boil down to something akin to attempting to create greater compassion within the church by “debunking” that the church’s defining truth claims are true on the assumption that a person that doesn’t take the Church’s truth claims seriously will be more compassionate towards (what John calls) “the margins.”

But does this approach really make the most sense? Or is it maybe more akin to attacking LDS beliefs? Does not this approach have its own potential to cause harm and reduce compassion? [2]

So let’s admit that not wanting one’s beliefs “debunked” is a legitimate concern for any faith-based community and does represent a legitimate concern that is rooted in harm, not merely protecting one’s power.

The question both John and his priesthood leaders will in some sense ask themselves will be, “Does John’s moral worldview require this confrontational approach?” Or has it more just accidently grown that way over time and isn’t a requirement? If this is not required, then I suspect both sides can be accommodated. If this approach is required, then I suspect separation, at some point, can’t be avoided.


[1] I believe that the truth-good/false-bad dichotomy is actually one of the biological drives that makes belief in Something-Like-God so automatic in the vast majority of human beings.

In a past post I suggested that perhaps one could even think of religion as a serious attempt to bridge the gap between our feelings that morality exists (as some law that we have a duty to follow — even if we don’t want to) and a world that we see around us and study with our science that does not seem to support the existence of such a moral law.

I would suggest that this is another such case. We have a biological drive that tells us “Truth has special moral meaning and thus should be given a favored position over falsehood.” Religion is therefore an attempt to explain the gap between this belief and a materialistic reality we see around us every day where this clearly isn’t always the case.

I would suggest that the moment John gave up belief in God  as defining his beliefs that there was no longer a rational reason for him to continue assuming that the dichotomy was still true. The truth-good/false-bad dichotomy itself can be tested by our science and so far has not been shown to be consistently true. At least in this materialistic world we find ourselves in, it is some times better to be deluded about some things rather than to see the truth.

[2] Or is it maybe more akin to attacking LDS beliefs? Consider, for example, John’s promoting of A Letter to a CES Director. How is “In my opinion, you can’t really have an authentic LDS testimony until after coming to grips with the issues covered in this book.”  not confrontational? Or how is “Doubt those who encourage you to doubt your doubts” anything but an attack on that which the LDS Church members hold most dear? I could easily multiple such examples. The desire to “debunk” is palpable in John.


52 thoughts on “Moral Certainty: John Dehlin as an “Atheist Who Knows God”

  1. Bruce,

    I really appreciate this post. It’s much easier to read than the one you posted yesterday.

    One note – you cite Bruce Sheiman’s 2009 An Atheist Defends Religion, however I had the opportunity to talk with an editor who was involved in the publication of that book who had argued that it was a theistic diatribe against atheism, based both on their own assessment and knowledge of the response the book got (the kind of response that gets piled on a publisher in such cases).

    All people believe they are doing right and moral things, or at least have cast their personal story into a narrative that allows them to see their actions as understandable and reasonable.

    John’s efforts to spread “truth” as he understands it is a bit like the individual who goes up to a young woman at a social event and informs her she really is a horse-faced abomination, that her clothing is tawdry, and that she can’t dance. This individual then leaves, self-satisfied that they have spoken truths that will allow the woman to improve, ignoring the fact that the woman’s confidence has been shattered and that the opinion stated (horse-faced, tawdry, can’t dance) is not a universal truth but merely that one individual’s opinion.

    Having shown up to many dances, shouldering this burden of truth-telling, the individual is alarmed to notice that those at parties are obviously reacting to these instances of “truth-telling.” The ‘truth-teller’ begins to suspect those in charge of the dances might even bar entry to the ‘truth-telling’ individual and others who have begun to follow suit. At this point telling the dancers that they are ugly, poorly dressed, apish in their movements, and otherwise foul-smelling and ungroomed has become a holy calling for the ‘truth teller(s).’ And so the ‘truth-teller’ prepares to make whatever sacrifice necessary to preserve the ability to tell it like it is. Or rather, tell what this individual feels to be the truth.

    For those of us who do believe in an omniscient, omnipotent, and omni-benevolent God and a final judgement in which each of us will be forced to face the “Truth” of our lives, we can only pity such self-anointed ‘truth-tellers.’ And yet I will agree to stand guard at the doors of the dance, to comfort those who have been “enlightened” by the “truth-tellers” and protect insofar as possible those I most-directly love from the cutting harm caused by unmitigated “truth” told by ignorant and self-anointed ministers.

  2. “However I had the opportunity to talk with an editor who was involved in the publication of that book who had argued that it was a theistic diatribe against atheism, based both on their own assessment and knowledge of the response the book got (the kind of response that gets piled on a publisher in such cases).”

    If by “argued that it was a theistic diatribe against atheism” you mean “an atheist made a diatribe against militant atheists” then you’d be correct about the books own statement of what it is. But of course that would be a really silly way to say it.

    I can’t figure out what else you might have meant here. Are you claiming Sheiman was really a theist and lied about it? That seems a little odd for you to say it that way too.

  3. “Are you supposing Sheiman was really a theist and lied about it?”

    That is my recollection of the editor’s opinion. This was in the context of shop talk about relative success of different titles. The book in question was cited as something that claimed to be what it wasn’t, resulting in being almost universally rejected by readers (except for theists who wished to exult about having an “atheist” validate their worldview) and something of a publishing albatross.

  4. Meg, of course I can’t possibly know for sure if Bruce Sheiman is out there living his life and secretly believes in God but keeps writing books that (as in this one) explains why he doesn’t believe in God and even proposes a fully materialistic way to understand the universe so that you don’t need God to find meaning in life.

    However, I would propose that conspiracy theories like this are very rarely true. I think the far more likely case is that militant atheists that got slammed felt that he wasn’t enough of an atheist to call himself an atheist and, ergo, he must be a theist. Having labeled him such, they were satisfied.

    I myself have argued that trying to define atheism is actually not that easy because it has multiple possible overlapping meanings and one man’s atheist is another man’s theist. So perhaps if the above took place, it isn’t entirely incorrect.

    But if I at least assume Bruce isn’t lying, I assure you the beliefs he describes in the book would fit under the label ‘atheist’ for a large swath of America on how they use that term.

  5. Interestingly, Meg, when I read the book, I honestly wondered how popular a book like this could ever be given that it violates the idea that truth=good and false=bad (as per post above.) As I said, I think this is a deep down biological impulse, so I think it would be a difficult read even for an atheist that wasn’t hostile to religion. Only theists could have liked it without experiencing constant cognitive dissonance over the truth-good/false-bad dichotomy.

    His tone is all wrong too for an atheist crowd.

  6. I like Meg’s descriptions of the “truth-tellers” but it obviously does not apply to some of the Church’s critics. It seems to apply to Dehlin, however.

  7. I imagine we could come up with dance-related metaphors for each of the different critics/attackers. Who, for example, would be like Carrie? Who might be likened to the skirt-snipping twin from the Haley Mills Parent Trap? Who would be like Biff in Back to the Future, mishandling the female lead in a car?

    I enjoyed the truth-teller analogy, because people like that seem to think they are being “good,” while almost everyone else realizes what a jerk the “truth-teller” is.

  8. No disrespect to the OP, but the Dehlin and Kelly posts are reminding me of a line from Pride and Prejudice, chapter 52:

    They battled it together for a long time, which was more than either the gentleman or lady concerned in it deserved.

  9. @ JimD,

    The interesting thing is that when Bruce goes off about John Dehlin, people engage.

    There is now a button for “liking” posts. This lets you find those posts you want to encourage and give strokes, even if you aren’t interested in making any particular comment.

  10. As someone who has been “acquainted” with John for at least as long as Bruce, I just see him as someone, who like many others before him, wants to be a martyr for his cause. So, in a way, he has challenged Church Leaders, like Kate Kelley to “knock this battery off my shoulder.”

    It somewhat frustrates him that nothing has happened. But watching him over the past years, I was never sure what he really stood for other than the promotion of “Dehlin Enterprises,” which has been in place for his financial gain while attending grad school.

    So in a way, he has promoted a position that has attempted to maximize his marketing and income potential as he bobs and weaves through Church membership. So when he eventually graduates and establishes his practice, it will be interesting to see where he stands at that time.

  11. Bruce,

    I think your own views surrounding the nature of truth and goodness are leading you to miss your target.

    Your view is very modern in nature, in that you accept truth to be an epistemological concept in which there is a fact/value distinction which allows truths to sometimes be not good and falsities to sometimes be good. But neither the pre-modern scriptures, nor the post-modernity of the social scientist see things this way at all. For them, truth is not some kind of accurate but instrumental depiction of reality. Instead, truth for the pre-modern is a soteriological concept and the post-modern sees it as an emancipatory concept. Let me address a couple passages where this leads you astray….

    “Here in America “protecting one’s power” is almost always seen as a negative, though truth be told, one of the reasons John is writing this post is quite literally to “protect his power” too, i.e. keep people on his side and not look bad compared to the church.”

    It all depends on what you mean by power. The power that John et al attack is not defined in terms of power as such, but in terms of an asymmery of power. Such asymmetries produce distortions in truth (see Marx) and constitute a form of domination which is then defined as evil. Thus, John is indeed seeking power, but (from his perspective) only for those on the wrong end of an asymmetry of power. Thus, while the church’s attempts at protecting their power constitute domination, his attempts constitute emancipation.

    “our notion that “the truth will set you free” has no rational basis at all and is really just a religious act of faith.”

    From a modern perspective, this is absolutely right. But this perspective takes the findings of the natural sciences to be the paradigm of truth, something which both pre and post moderns deny. Within the NT, the paradigm of truth is to embrace Christ as your redeemer. Within social science, the paradigm of truth is exposing the ways in which people are controlled by various powers that be. So, yes, there is a rational basis…. its just not the rationality of the natural sciences.

    “If the truth-good/false-bad dichotomy is actually false…”

    Hopefully it is clear by now that this point begs all the important questions between you and John. For him, that dichotomy is not an empirical issue that might, after the relevant empirical data has been collected, turn out to be false. Indeed, the only way that we could insist that the issue is empirical is by making various non-empirical decisions slightly little further upstream by assuming that we know what truth and falsity, good and bad just are.

  12. Jeff, I do in fact reject both the pre and post moderns view points, you are right.

    Your description of how John see ‘power’ is fine by me and I suspect accurate. But of course that very same argument can be used by the LDS Church since they undoubtedly see John as part of the greater competitive culture surrounding them that often seeks to destroy their beliefs and culture. So the LDS people would see themselves as “only seeking power from the wrong side of an asymmetry” from John and those like him that are seeking power for the sake of dominance.

    And that was actually my point — both views are fair and symmetrical even. So this is something worthy of more thought and discussion, not an absolutely obvious truth.

    “But this perspective takes the findings of the natural sciences to be the paradigm of truth, something which both pre and post moderns deny. Within the NT, the paradigm of truth is to embrace Christ as your redeemer.”

    Since I was, at that point, playing the “if there is no God” card, I can at the outset discard the NT view at that point. It would make no sense for me to engage it at all within my argument.

    “Within social science, the paradigm of truth is exposing the ways in which people are controlled by various powers that be. So, yes, there is a rational basis…. its just not the rationality of the natural sciences”

    I will be blunt here. I think post modern views are often not worthy of discussion. They are not wrong, per se, they are just so out there that they are more like being ‘not even wrong.’ I often see no way to engage them rationally at all. Once you decide 2+2 can be what we culturally decide it to be, all rational discussion is done. (Yes, I exaggerate)

    However, let me temper that a bit. You did say “Within social science, the paradigm of truth is exposing the ways in which people are controlled by various powers that be” and this is at least not incompatible with the view point I was at the time expressing (given the atheistic view I was expressing, “good” might be better thought of as “utility” maybe, since that view I’m expressing really doesn’t leave any room for “good” in the way Christians would normally think of it.)

    I see no reason why an atheist shouldn’t (given only a scientific / computational worldview) believe that use of social science is to “exposing the ways in which people are controlled by various powers that be” and then take the knowledge and use it to create a better world (obviously from within their subjective moral paradigm) out of it. This would be the “utility” or “good” in what they are doing (from their point of view.) I see nothing inconsistent with this at all with the atheistic / scientific worldview I was trying to express.

  13. I love our debates, Jeff. I feel like you introduce a lot of new ideas to me (whether or not I agree with them doesn’t really matter.) And honestly, I think you and I are really a great example of how two people can debate vigorously without being or becoming offended.

  14. Don’t let your distaste for the word “post-modern” distract you, since they make some very strong points. I actually prefer the term “critical”, but while this term is less loaded it is also less clear.

    The main point is that one would be hard pressed to find a single post-modernist that thinks embraces and “anything goes” attitude. (Indeed, your recent perspective on the objective existence of triangles is itself very post-modern!) The main point is that truth to them is not primarily structured by a logical consistency across space and time (not unlike the holy-grail of logical positivism), but is instead primarily structured by an absence of the asymmetries of power that distort our ways of viewing the world. There is not haphazard or arbitrary about this.

    “So the LDS people would see themselves as “only seeking power from the wrong side of an asymmetry” from John and those like him that are seeking power for the sake of dominance.”

    The question is, what do you mean by “John and those like him?” From their perspective, they do not make up a sociological demographic whereby the truth might be systematically distorted, this in contrast to the church which systematically excludes homosexuals, women, until recently persons of color, etc. from their leadership. Of course I fully agree with you that he is very much empowering a culture and mindset at the expense of that represented by the church, but it is somewhat difficult to nail down a sociological group that will be systematically privileged by that culture – at least to nail in down in a way that is transparently immoral from their perspective. (Hence my rather open anti-intellectualism.)

    “I see nothing inconsistent with this at all with the atheistic / scientific worldview I was trying to express.”

    The inconsistency lies in the fact that one side refuses to acknowledge the independence of facts from values that the other insists upon. Yes, modern rationality acknowledges that truth – in the instrumental sense that they endorse – can, possibly and sometimes, emancipate one sociological group from the domination of another. In these cases there is no contradiction as you say. However, modern rationality also acknowledges that truth can also be used by the latter in order to dominate the former. (This is especially the case when the natural sciences are controlled by the sociological group that is in power.) A critical social scientist refuses to accept this – thus producing the contradiction between the two views. To them, such instrumental means of control are not really truths at all but are instead ideologies that truth is supposed to expose and dissolve. To be clear, the issue is not what an atheist believes a social scientist ought to be studying, but is instead a debate over the meaning of truth and goodness, a debate that no amount of empirical research can resolve since all such research is conceptually down stream from the debate in question.

    The point here is that paint your atheistic opponent in purely negative terms such that the difference between us and them is that they happen to lack some belief or value that we do affirm. This approach, however, misses the conflicting affirmative morality that structures his efforts and arguments. His atheism is not merely a lack of belief in various religious doctrines that false because they do not accurately describe reality. Rather, it is a positive affirmation that such religious doctrines are tools by which one group of people dominates another and for that very reason are false. It’s not that these are false doctrines that happen be used to oppress people – the oppression is itself the falsity that ought to be exposed. This last part is that which your version of an atheist does not accept.

    My point in bringing up the NT definition of truth was not to push back against that particular section of your post, but to push back against the notion of truth that your post as a whole pre-supposes. John would find your conception of how truth and goodness relate to each other unconvincing – as do I. This is not to say, however, that his conception is right! My point was that there is a third path such that one party cannot establish their idea of truth merely by arguing against their opponent’s idea of it.

    If your intention was to demonstrate how John’s idea fall short of the standards of rationality set by the modern mindset of the natural sciences, then you did just fine. It’s just not clear why he or many members of the church should care. If you were, instead, to show how John’s idea fall short of the standards set by critical social theory, he would surely care a lot more, but even then I don’t see why church members ought to. In, finally, you show how he falls short of the standards set by the rationality of the pre-modern tradition found within the scriptures, the relevance becomes much more obvious.

  15. Ha! I’m guessing that’s because the conclusions we reach are so similar despite the different paths by which we reach them. I’m guessing that if that weren’t the case, I (for one) would have gone into impatient attack/defense mode long, long ago. 😉

  16. Jeff,
    “If your intention was to demonstrate how John’s idea fall short of the standards of rationality set by the modern mindset of the natural sciences, then you did just fine. It’s just not clear why he or many members of the church should care. If you were, instead, to show how John’s idea fall short of the standards set by critical social theory, he would surely care a lot more…”

    Aren’t you here assuming that John is post modern? Maybe he is, but I sort of doubt he even cares about such categories. And I suspect his rejection of my point (assuming he does reject it) would have little or nothing to do with the argument you made.

    Your presentation of why a postmodern would disagree with my understanding of truth is just fine. The problem is that I don’t care because I don’t accept their views as valid at all. It’s pretty obvious they are wrong in my opinion. Yes, I get your point that its probably impossible to prove that point given that they reject several assumptions I accept, but that’s what disagreement is. I feel under no particular obligation to “prove” (in the geometric sense) my point any more than anyone can.

    I totally disagree my view on triangles is at all post modern. Surface similarities not withstanding. Even post moderns occasionally get things right by chance. (Too be more fair, actually post moderns — as I correctly or incorrectly understand that term — are probably dead on right for a number of things human beings care very much about. None that I am currently addressing.) That’s probably too complex a discussion for this thread, however. I’d likely need to be talking to you face to face to help you understand why I believe that.

    Ultimately, though, I honestly think I’m saying something far more meaningful that you think. You’re trying to analyze it from three different points of view as to how to define truth (two of which I reject outright) and I get that your point is “if John just takes the post modern position then there is a rational argument against what you are saying” (note: based on assumptions I believe to be obviously false. And I trust that that vast majority of human beings can see that easily, so I feel no need to address it at all — not that I could if I tried. How does one go about proving 2+2 doesn’t equal 5 or what we want it to be if someone just plain won’t except the generally accepted number system? There is no way to do so, but the vast majority of human beings can immediately see that they are wrong.)

    To me (at least for this post) none of that matters. This is about human perception of the world. Never mind philosophers, never mind even rationality. The simple truth is that people do indeed have a sort of inner sense that truth is somehow morally special. I could find and deploy quotes to prove this from people that come from all sorts of different backgrounds. Even from people that honestly believe they hold a wholly scientific / materialistic worldview. I am demonstrating that *within that view* it is a contradiction. I am not attempting to address other views of truth.

  17. “Aren’t you here assuming that John is post modern? Maybe he is, but I sort of doubt he even cares about such categories”

    Well, it’s more like I’m saying that pretty much all social theory today is post-modern to some extent or another. Post-positivism or cultural marxism would probably get closer to where he is at. You’re also right that he probably has little interest in such categories, but that does not mean that they do not structure his thought and actions all the same. “Social justice” is VERY MUCH the product of critical theory.

    “Your presentation of why a postmodern would disagree with my understanding of truth is just fine.”

    It was more than that. It was an account of while social theorists and those concerned with social justice will reject it. Even if they themselves say nothing along the lines of what I said (indeed, I expect them not to), their morality is very much structured as I said. After all, my account just was an explanation of the core of the socialism that today goes by the name “social justice”.

    “Yes, I get your point that its probably impossible to prove that point given that they reject several assumptions I accept, but that’s what disagreement is.”

    Right, and argument, especially if it is to be respectful and productive, ought to proceed from shared assumptions, other the differing assumptions themselves must be debated – exactly as I’m trying to do. I don’t think anybody expects you to prove your point, but they don’t expect you to beg the question either.

    “based on assumptions I believe to be obviously false. And I trust that that vast majority of human beings can see that easily”

    It’s only obvious or easy to see if you haven’t looked at the issue all that hard. “Post modernism” has come to mean so many things that it is an almost worthless category (even though I was the one that brought it up). There are quite obviously stupid ways of being a post-modern (even then, nobody is actually stupid enough to seriously claim that 2+2=5)… but there are very defensible ways of being one as well. The version of it that is built into pretty much all contemporary social theory is very much in the later camp.

    “I am demonstrating that *within that view* it is a contradiction.”

    I know, but if you’re begging the question as I claim, then you aren’t really demonstrating anything within that view, since you have it wrong.

    Here is what I currently take to be the most charitable interpretation of the critical position:

    “Authorities describe the world such that it systematically privileges their own interests at the expense of others’…. And this is the very definition of lying.”

    For example, it is quite easy (especially for teenagers) to lie to or deceive somebody by describing the world in a way that is not, technically, inaccurate. This examples shows that the falsity of such claims lies not in the accuracy of the description but in the values and interests that are furthered by that description. This is exactly the case that liberals in their pursuit of social justice bring against church authorities.

    If you don’t want to call this kind of deception or misdirection “falsity” per se, I don’t think they’ll care all that much. So long as you’re willing to grant that it is misdirection and/or deception, those terms get at their moral point well enough.

  18. Jeff, I think its safe to say that we disagree on so much, even on basic starting assumptions, that your belief that I am begging the question is in fact (within your own view point) begging the question.

    I am not going to argue any of these points — perhaps another time, but I think it would be helpful for me to list the myriad of outright disagreements I have with you and why I really don’t buy any of your conclusions. (However, the fact that I don’t buy your conclusions does NOT mean I don’t value your input here — I find it REALLY interesting, actually.)

    “You’re also right that he probably has little interest in such categories, but that does not mean that they do not structure his thought and actions all the same”

    If we’re talking about John, I completely disagree with you. I do not believe John is structuring his thoughts the way you are describing “all the same.” What I suspect the actual truth is is that John structures a few of his thoughts the way you are describing and far more right in line with the way I am arguing. Therefore I do NOT believe I’m begging the question if we’re talking about John. I think you’re factually wrong about this. However, I can’t read minds, so I will admit this: if John actually does structure his thoughts consistently the way you are claiming, then you’re right that from within that point of view I’m starting with such different starting assumptions that it might seem like (but is not) begging the question. The scientific world view (or at least the Popper version of it that gets closest to my version) I’m taking is not circular in the way you are claiming. So it could never actually be begging the question like you are claiming. You simply do not understand my view if you think that.

    “Social justice” is VERY MUCH the product of critical theory.

    I do not believe a statement like this could ever actually turn out to be true. Now if you had said “a lot of the intellectuals behind social justice justified it via post modern (or critical) thought” the I think you’d probably be right. But social justice does not need or require the critical view point to be coherent. So I disagree with your assessment here.

    “argument, especially if it is to be respectful and productive, ought to proceed from shared assumptions”
    Popper refers to what you are saying here (specially the word “productive” as “The Myth of the Framework” and does a pretty dang good job debunking it. I agree with Popper on this, so I do not agree with your assessment here. The “respectful” part might come closer to the truth, however. But then as someone that believes in he value of conflict, it should not surprise you that I consider “respectful” optional but preferred.

    “other the differing assumptions themselves must be debated – exactly as I’m trying to do”

    Actually, you are doing an excellent job of this. Apparently far better than I’m helping you understand my view point.

    “It’s only obvious or easy to see if you haven’t looked at the issue all that hard.”

    As someone that has not looked at the issue all that hard, I am in no position to assert you are wrong at this time. However, I *highly* suspect that if I went away and studied this in depth for 1000 hours and came back, my view would be unchanged. You assume too much if you assume that you know for sure my point of view won’t continually — no matter how much I look at it — continue to see it as easily dismissible.

    Real life example of this. Agellius would not leave me alone about how if I were to but read a certain book he liked on Thomism (written by Feser) that I’d see that Thomism isn’t as easily dismissible as I was claiming. He was totally and completely wrong. I feel Thomism is quite easily dismissible even after taking a harder look at it. (The book has margin notes now on literally every page documented the fatal problems of Thomism as a rational proof. I would not attempt to tackle Thomism as a revealed religion, however.)

    “nobody is actually stupid enough to seriously claim that 2+2=5”
    Yeah, I know. But you understood what I was saying anyhow 😉

    “but there are very defensible ways of being one as well.”
    Maybe, maybe not. As I said, I am not at this time in a position to refute your claim that if I look at it hard, I’d not be able to easily dismiss it.

    I think there is a practical issue here — I have limited time and resources. The world is so full of easily dismissed ideas that we all form imperfect heuristics by which to filter out the stuff we shouldn’t waste our time on. At this point in time, the only thing I can really say is that a) post modernism (even in what you say is a stronger form) didn’t pass the sniff test for me, b) while my sniff test isn’t perfect — I do sometimes think something is really stupid at first and then later am forced to admit it was stronger than I thought (many world quantum physics — not that I believe it yet, but much stronger argument than I thought) this is really not that common. Things that start out sounding silly to me usually continue to sound silly to me even on further inspection.

    There is another practical issue here. If there were some specific all encompassing book I could read on “post modernism” it would be easier to settle this. I could go read it and the new could see if I still think it is easily dismissible. But I suspect that even after reading Feser’s book, if he were in front of me and I started to walk through all the problems he’d at some point (not being knowledgeable enough to refute me on several subjects I know better than him) fall back to a stance of “well, if you *really* looked into this rather than just reading my little intro to the subject, you’d change your mind.

    I have to cut out the crap at some point one way or the other. So essentially one can always claim that “if I looked at it harder, I’d realize its not easily dismissible.” Even if I went and got a PhD in Thomism, I suspect Feser would simply claim that I got off on a wrong track that caused me to misunderstand and I’m too stubborn to see it (which *might* always turn out to be true, of course, though that is unlikely. The more likely answer is that the reason I can dismiss Thomism as a geometric style proof is because it isn’t one — thus its more a matter of opinion, i.e. it’s a religious belief system.)

    “I know, but if you’re begging the question as I claim, then you aren’t really demonstrating anything within that view, since you have it wrong.”
    Already covered this, but I do not agree if we’re talking specifically about John. I do not believe he has diverged so far from the scientific world view (as you’re calling it) that this could ever really be the case. He may never agree with me, but I doubt it would ever be begging the question.

    One more thing — I haven’t brought this up before, but I should. You describe “the scientific world view” (which you perceive as mine) as “structured by a logical consistency across space and time”

    While I do not deny that there is such an element to my view, that doesn’t encompass my view at all.

    What I would suggest is that my view is more similar to Poppers (I formed it, then found Popper and modified it a bit, of course. But it was a relief to have someone smarter than me to explain how I saw things.) I believe that Popper represents a busting of the three categories that you describe and fits most comfortably within what you’re calling a scientific world view, but isn’t really the same as it either. I suspect that if you looked at the issues surrounding this and read Popper’s responses that you’d come to realize that part of the problem is that you keep trying to put me into one of three buckets when I’m actually none of them.

  19. Well, I won’t push the point any more…. for now. 😉 Let me instead offer a few clarifications.

    1: I do not even pretend to understand some of the literary and artistic brands of postmodernism. I think we both feel the same nausea on that front. The versions that I think are most defensible are the various forms of pragmatism.

    2: It should be kept in mind that I’m not necessarily calling Dehlin a postmodern. Since the label has been abused by so many, postmodernists tend to not self-identify as such. I don’t think, however, that Dehlin would disassociate himself from the label “critical social theory.” (For the record, there are critical theorists that are modern, but they are typically postmodern in at least some sense.)

    3: I meant that the contemporary codeword “social justice” is the product of a tradition that historically descends from the critical theory identified with the Frankfurt School. I get the feeling that’s not what you understood me to be saying.

    4: I think if you look the more Darwinian flavors of neo-pragmatism, you wouldn’t won’t be totally turned off. But then many people wouldn’t call them postmodern in the truest sense of the word. This is roughly how I self-identify.

    5: One quick resource that you might check out would be this series:
    He is very much against postmodernism, so it gets dress up in some pretty ugly clothes (he picks out the most provocative quotes and presents them as standard), but the simplicity and (biased) clarity of his presentation is a breath of fresh air. I also like how he relates the ideas within a more political than a philosophical context so its easier to recognize these ideas in the people around us.

    6: Your rejection of the pre and postmodern value systems (I prefer feudal and critical systems) is expected. In his The Open Society and its Enemies, Popper sort of attacks one in the first volume and the other in the second. It’s been a while since I read my Popper though. I always felt that Quine and Kuhn kind of put him to test – even though it probably best represents what actual scientists believe about what they are doing.

    7: I didn’t think that logical consistency was a sufficient account of your position, but only a necessary part that lies very close to the heart of it.

  20. I still like my analogy of a guy who thinks he’s being amazing by telling the “truth” about how ugly everyone is, instead of realizing that’s just rude and harmful.

  21. While I can’t contribute to that amazing discussion on philosophical leanings/theory, I do appreciate the latest articles. One thing I just don’t understand– why John wants to be seen as connected to the LDS church if he does not believe the truth claims of the church and in fact sees it as harmful. The only thing I can think in regard to that is that he stands to gain more followers that he can lead away by having them believe that he is a member in good standing.

    Once upon a time, a while back, I was asked if I might like to participate in one of his podcasts about the singles in the church. I was flattered that I was invited to speak about something I was passionate about…until I realized that the intent would be to gather more evidence about how the church hurts people. I listened to some prior podcasts and realized that they were off and I definitely did not feel the spirit with them. I realized then, to use the cliche saying,that he was a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Needless to say I did not follow up with doing that podcast, even after I was contacted a number of times.

    I have had a few friends who have fallen for his tactics and quite a few have left the church completely and the rest are slowly on their way out. They always dismiss any piece of evidence that doesn’t come from the sources they want to hear from, those who are questioning or doubting themselves. Why is it I always have to read their evidence and their articles about their point of view but when I ask them to read my evidence and my point of view, its always dismissed out of hand because its from a believer?

  22. Meg,

    I like your example, too — it is perfect in its simplicity and sincerity, and is intended to be helpful to others. I can understand it far easier than the Bruce-Jeff dialogue here, which is far too obtuse for me.

  23. jennvan40,

    I collected a quote from John in this post where he explains his own thinking about whether or not he should stay Mormon. It was a statement he made in private only to his followers that “leaked out.” I found it on a message board quoted by a John Dehlin follower and discussed approvingly, thus increasing the changes considerably that its authentic. Though of course its impossible for me to know that for sure without John confirming it. But I believe it is a true quote.

  24. Jeff,

    Thank you for the clarifications. That does help some.

    You often send me links and I always intend to read or watch them when I have time and then sometimes I do and sometimes I forget. I wish I had made a big “Jeff reading list” so I wouldn’t forget them. I take it as a given that if you’re sending it to me, I’ll at least find it interesting.

    One point I want to clarify about my own position.

    You made two statements that you claimed were “post modern” (or critical.)

    One was in response to my statement about triangles and one was… if I can find it quickly…
    “However, modern rationality also acknowledges that truth can also be used by the latter in order to dominate the former. (This is especially the case when the natural sciences are controlled by the sociological group that is in power.) A critical social scientist refuses to accept this – thus producing the contradiction between the two views. To them, such instrumental means of control are not really truths at all but are instead ideologies that truth is supposed to expose and dissolve”

    I believe where you are going wrong is that you are trying to take truth statements and assign them to a bucket. So my true and correct statement about triangles was thus in your mind “post modern.” Likewise, (if I might try to summarize the above) a statement like “asymmetries of power cause falsehoods” you might also assign to the post modern bucket.

    I reject this entirely. Both of those statements are true, so post moderns have no special claim on them at all. I DO buy the idea that post moderns would be particularly interested in such truths, but the real point of departure from my (semi) Popperian world view and theirs is NOT in such statements.

    The point of departure is in conclusions drawn from such statements. For example post moderns (at least the way you seem to be to be describing them) take a statement like “triangles do not always have to have 180 degrees” and “asymmetries of power cause falsehoods” and then draw the conclusion “all falsehoods are caused by asymmetries and all truths are just a certain point of view determined by one’s values.” But that conclusion is wholly bad logic. Its a simple non sequitur. Now those conclusions *are* uniquely post modern and in fact define post modernism (I know I’m so over generalizing here, but remember, I just clarifying my position. I’m sure I could write a book better nuancing this.)

    To me this is just a fancy way of saying “Post modernism takes some truths, misinterprets them, draws false conclusions, and those false conclusions define their position.”

  25. Heterodox LDS and non-believers alike seem to not understand the God of the Bible. In Lectures on Faith, JS said that a -correct- understanding of the attributes, character and perfections of God was necessary to have faith. It seems like their lack of faith is based on a misunderstanding or a non-understanding of what the Bible says.

    The heterodox believe wrongly. The non-believers misunderstand what is written and say that they can’t believe in a God that does X or doesn’t do Y. But their assumption that if there is a God then He must do Y and not do X is based on a faulty understanding or a non-understanding of what the scriptures describe as God’s character, perfections and attributes.

    I once conversed with an LDS person who accepts the basic foundational truth claims of the church, but rejects some of the teachings of prophets since JS. And somewhere in the discussion I realized that the reasons for his rejections were based on not accepting or not understanding what the scriptures and JS taught about the character/personality/etc of God.

    The answers/rejoinders to all his objections were obvious to me, but seemingly nonsense to him, because we had very different ideas about who or what kind of being/personality God is, or should be, as described in the scriptures.

    There is also a seeming lack of imagination among heterodox/nonbelievers, or an inability to connect the dots in the scriptures. They can’t imagine how to reconcile seemingly contradictory descriptions of God in the scriptures.

    For instance, in the case of the sacrifice of Isaac, they seem to ignore that God has the power of resurrection/re-animation, which Paul connects to the sacrifice in his letter to the Hebrews. Paul wrote that Abraham expected God to resurrect/re-animate Isaac in order that God’s promise of seed through Isaac could be fulfilled.

    If you don’t simultaneously keep all those things in mind – that God promised Abraham seed through Isaac (which hadn’t occurred yet), that God keeps his promises, that God has the power to bring someone back to life – then you can’t understand why a supposedly loving God would command a father to kill his son or why Abraham would or could obey.

    This failure to -fully- understand the character, perfections and attrubutes of God is not just among heterodox and non-believers. I think this lack of a -full- understanding exists among most, or at least many, rank-and-file orthodox and fully participating LDS.

    As the “rider”, I still see myself as woefully ignorant of “what would Jesus do” let alone trying to get my elephant to do it.

    Heterodox, non-believers, and the politically correct are not only ignorant, ie without knowledge, but often act upon incorrect beliefs which they assume to be correct, while presuming to do believers a favor by spreading their incorrect beliefs.

  26. I’m on my phone so there will be typos.

    At first I was surprised by how strongly you’re resisting my tripartite topology since I see my account as dovetailing nicely with Haidt’s ideas. I forget how much further than Haidt I actually go.

    In particular, I argue that truth itself is a concept which follows from the rules and values we endorse. Thus, not only do I see three political cultures rather than Haidt’s two and not only do I also go on to articulate the structure beneath these three views, but I also reverse the relationship between facts and values.

    You are not unlike Haidt in that you see the political cultures that he describes as being different ways in which people appropriate facts and truths- that all sides can unproblematically agree to- to their own purposes. In other words, there are facts and then there are moral values and these two ingredients can be combined in different ways. I reject all of this.

    Since there is nothing, practically speaking, to truth beyond the norms and rules by which we identify and use it, it makes no sense to speak of facts that are logically prior to our fully independent of moral values. In other words, three different sets of rules for navigating the world will see truth itself as being different from one another.

    Thus, there is no independent and value-neutral way of deciding whether a group of people are systematically misinterpreting truth, whether they have it right and your group is wrong, or that the two groups are simply different from one another in their understanding of truth. There is no way of placing ourselves outside of all moral systems in order to decide the question.

    Put in terms of the triangle, we can all agree that once we accept some assumptions and rules, the existence of triangles becomes an objective matter. But, there is nothing about triangles that compels us to accept any such assumptions and rules. Triangles lie conceptually downstream from those contingent assumptions.

    The same goes for truth. Truth lies conceptually downstream from the rules and assumptions that we, for whatever reason, accept. Thus, when I speak of the different moral assumptions that people bring to a moral disagreement, there is, because truth itself lies downstream from them, no objective or independent way of saying that they are wrong and you’re right without entirely begging the question. In other words there is no truth that is itself outside of all buckets.

    Thus, when you dismiss a critical version of truth, it’s clear that you disagree, but you have given no independent reason to support this disagreement. Indeed, no-one can be given. You have only said, in effect,”your definition of truth is different from mine and, since mine just is the right one, yours must be false.”

    Now I can better articulate what I think is a better response to the liberal attack on the church. Since there is no truth outside of all buckets, what matters is that we choose the right bucket, namely the Lord’s bucket. If we can show that their attack is foreign to and incompatible with the Lord’s bucket, we can thus show that church members ought to reject them. This is in contrast to your attempts at showing that, according to the truth that exists apart from all buckets, their attacks are objectively wrong. This, I insist, can never work.

  27. Jeff, “no objective or independent way of saying that they are wrong and you’re right without entirely begging the question”

    This is where I keep trying to push on you as not understanding. Let me try to make it more clear. This is precisely what Karl Popper (and myself) reject. We do not feel we need an objective independent way of saying “you are wrong and I am right.” It’s needless and unnecessary. The fact that you keep telling me that and I keep rejecting it is because I disagree with that as a starting assumption. Popper is not about a way to objective and independently say “know we know we are right”. That’s impossible and its honestly just a silly pursuit for philosophers with too much time on their hands.

    You keep calling it “begging the question” when I declare post modernism wrong. Just not true. You’re making this mistake because you keep thinking I’m trying to *prove* post modernism wrong. I am not. All my statements were within my own belief system and were not intended to convince a post modern that they are wrong. If you look a bit more closely, you’ll realize that the issue I’m actually solving is whether or not I should waste time on post modernism. And what I did was (as a true Popperian) describe how I derived my hypothesis that it is was a waste of time and even how I’ve tested that hypothesis that my procedure at least generally works. I also admitted it wasn’t a certain procedure, but explained why that didn’t matter to me.

    Having said all that, I think the other thing we strongly disagree over is whether or not me arguing with someone that has different starting assumptions than me is a waste of time or not. Your logic is “since you hold different assumptions that means there is no way to disprove each other, so it’s a waste of time.” If the world were that starkly logical, you’d be right. But it isn’t and never will be.

    The real truth is that every human being on the planet will ultimately have some shared assumptions if for no other reason than we live in the same material world that obeys the same physical laws and evolved similar natures. So in fact I will never in my life meet a human being that I have absolutely no shared assumptions with. So all discussions will always have potential for communication even though there is no procedure by which we can prove someone right or wrong.

    The real question for a Popperian like me is not “how do I prove myself right” but more like “what are the ramifications of your beliefs and can you accept them?” That’s a more universal question by which probably any two human beings can share enough to communicate about something.

  28. Of course I realize that you aren’t arguing against postmodernism and as such could not beg the question against it. Rather, you are arguing against Dehlin and it is he that you’re begging the question against. In other words, you’re arguing against a man that doesn’t exist. I’m sure there is a point in doing such a thing, but it seems pretty problematic all the same.

    I really regret bringing up postmodernism, since it only lived up to its reputation for distraction rather than clarification. I have good reason to believe that Dehlin rejects positivism, correspondence theory and realism, all things that Popper defended in some form or another.

    I would also point out that there is nothing about “truth” that makes my argument interesting. We can rerun the same argument with “falsity” or “rational” or any other word that Popper defends and the result will be the same: there is no Archimedean point from which to gain the necessary conceptual leverage necessary to pass the kind of universal and objective judgment you seek.

    “So all discussions will always have potential for communication even though there is no procedure by which we can prove someone right or wrong.”

    To be sure! This is exactly what I’m trying to do in showing you how to communicate with and understand the advocates of social justice. I’m pointing toward the yet unrealized potential for communication.

  29. Jeff, you do it your way I’ll do it mine 😉

    Honestly, Jeff, I realize you are trying to help me. But you have yet to convince me that your approach works better than mine. Presumably any such discussion like this is difficult, especially via text and comments. But I honestly believe your way isn’t as good as mine. I doubt John Dehlin, for example, if I were *really* sitting down with him and discussing this would react to your approach as well as mine. I have in fact has such discussions with John at lunch face-to-face and so I have pretty good reason to believe that would be the case. You’d lose him within minutes and he’d be never follow what you’re saying. My approach he does respond to and reply to and even sometimes come to agree with me — at least in principle if not practice (principle vs. practice is a whole ‘nother thing.)

    That being said, I suspect your approach would beat mine with most of the people at BCC or T&S.

    Begging the question is assuming the conclusion. I honestly haven’t the foggiest idea how even a single or your uses of that term related to anything. Starting out with different assumptions is not begging the question.

    John Dehlin does exist 😛

    Besides, technically speaking, I’m not really even arguing with him per se. If we’re being honest, its more of a façade of an argument with John. (Though I sent him a link to participate if desired.)

    Popper was an anti-Positivist. The fact that you think he has at any point defended positivism just means you’ve bought too far into the Vienna Circle’s distortion of Popper. I think you’d benefit from another look at Popper via a Popper himself again.

    It would be a lot easier to explain Popperism to you in person because you already think you understand it and, in my opinion, you’re mixing truths and falsehoods about Popper’s views together in away that is making it difficult for you to understand me. Or at least that is my current hypothesis.

    Okay, granted Popper is most famous for so-called falsification. I have written elsewhere that this is something Popper clearly got wrong — or rather he was right, but only vacuously so. I have no interest in that aspect of Popper and feel it has to be reworded into something less misleading. What he really meant — in my opinion — is just that the way we advance knowledge isn’t via ‘falsification’ per se but via comparing to explanations (or theories) together and determining through various means (not the least of which is empirical testing, though that is NOT the only way) to figure out which explanation has the higher verisimilitude. Popper lays out how to tell this. It’s convincing. I don’t have time to get into it right now and it’s a long complicated subject to some degree.

    The golden example of this was, of course, Newton vs. Einstein. Most people think of this in terms of “prediction” (which Popper entirely rejects) and they say “Einstein’s theory made better predictions than Newton’s, so it was the better theory.” This is just close enough to the truth in a variety of circumstances that it almost seems true. But actually, it false. The reason Einstein’s theory is known to have higher verisimilitude than Newton is because general relativity created a model by which Einstein realized that the positions of stars in the sky should change near a gravity well. Before Einstein’s theory existed there wasn’t even a scientific framework by which to even think of such a thing to go try to predict it and then experiment on in the first place. In other words, something went on here far more than merely a better prediction. The new model — because it had higher verisimilitude– allowed Einstein to conceive a previously unthinkable experiment and then show that reality matched it. At that point, Newton had fallen and it was obvious enough that it was just a matter of time (though longer than most people think) before General Relativity would conquer entirely.

    I realize it is possible to take that same story and word it in such a way as to show that it’s “really about prediction” but to do so it to miss a deeper truth. That is to say, it cause you to have a lower verisimilitude view of epistemology that keeps you from understanding many things that, if one can give it up and accept the Popper version instead, would allow them much greater power of thought that is also much more useful. This is because Popper’s epistemology is higher verisimilitude than the Vienna circle’s. In so far as someone gives heed to the Vienna circle instead of Popper, they actually will be stuck in ways of thinking that will hinder them by comparison. Popper does a great job outlining the myriad of problems with the Vienna Circle’s positivism. I recommend that you don’t bother with anything about Popper for the moment (if you are so included to study him further that is) except his attacks on Positivism. His political theories are great and all, but honestly if you think Popper is a positivist, there is no way you can possibly really understand his political theories yet until you’ve got that out of your mind.

    Obviously we’re both quite passionate about our views — and that is a good thing by the way. And you’re, of course, under no obligation at all to study Popper. But even if I can’t convert you to Popper’s views, I think you’ll find it very enlightening to come to realize what he actually taught and how it is quite literally mutually exclusive from Positivism.

  30. Positivism is not at all the same as logical positivism, as such the Viennese interpretation of Popper isn’t all that relevant. The positivism I speak of goes back to Comte and stands in contrast to a hermeneutic or emancipatory approach to social science. These later approaches are very much the bread and butter of social theory today. Popper did just fine in his attack on scientific marxism, but he did not touch the cultural marxism that came into vogue after the 1960’s that was the foundation of emancipatory social theory.

    I guess a better word than begging the question would be tendentious in that each side’s conclusions are already embedded to a large extent within their differing assumptions.

    Finally, I’m not at all surprised that john wouldn’t understand let alone use my approach. Mine is geared at finding neutral assumptions that both sides can accept when in reality neither side is all that interested, really, in mutual understanding. To sacrifice their own definitions of key terms is very much to risk losing the battle. I have little doubt that your approach might be better at winning the war, but I’m convinced that mine is better at understanding the war.

  31. “I have little doubt that your approach might be better at winning the war, but I’m convinced that mine is better at understanding the war.”

    It takes all kinds 🙂

  32. Oh, one thing. Popper was against both logical positivism and positivism.

    “Positivism is the philosophy of science that information derived from logical and mathematical treatments and reports of sensory experience is the exclusive source of all authoritative knowledge”

    Popper thought that was utter bunk.

    I’m currently reading (and by that I mean I read a little months ago and then put it down) Popper’s attack on Comte style positivism. So I still recommend you take another look at Popper if only to understand him correctly.

  33. I did a little looking and I think that positivism itself is a term that is not settled between the two sides. Here is a quick Wikipedia article that discusses the actual debate that went down between Popper and the Frankfurt School (the latter being very influential in leftist politics):

    I think it pretty accurately mirrors our disagreements.

  34. Well, while I can’t say much about the rest of the article, this line was correct for sure:

    “According to Popper, individuals, including scientists, are free to decide, and are perhaps restricted by their social existence, but not totally determined by it. Changes may then look ineffective and very slow, but will accumulate over time. Popper thinks it is the lesser evil compared to violent revolutions, since such reforms can be undone if they turn out to only make things worse, while revolutions usually lead to lengthy periods of tyranny. Thus, for Popper, the method of reforms should be preferred.” (emphasis just parts I particularly liked)

    Jeff, haven’t we — years later now — at least seen that Popper was right that changes accumulated just like Popper said? Can we at least agree he got that right? Popper was staunchly against utoptias for the reason libertarians dislike communism. No matter how smart the guy determining prices, he’ll be an idiot compared to the collective intelligence of a whole country determining prices via capitalism.

  35. Actually I thought the whole point of Kuhn’s work was that Popper’s work was incomplete at best. Falsification simply doesn’t happen, etc.

  36. The heart of my disagreement, though, would be his acceptance of a correspondence theory of truth. As a pragmatist I could never agree with that.

  37. It’s not, but I understand why you say that. It’s a common misunderstanding of Popper that is frankly partially Popper’s fault for the way he worded things. Plus, it’s probably safe to say that since Popper was really only interested in how we gain knowledge, “normal science” was of less interest to him and he spent all his time trying to understand where knowledge comes from.

    I actually explained in what sense Popper addressed Kuhn a couple of posts ago when I explained Popper’s actual point of “falsification” which Kuhn is right can also be called “verification” or “falsification” because it’s actually a comparison between two theories. Since Popper’s real point was that Bacon was incorrect that we can ever “verify” something is true. But Kuhn was right that we can “verify” that one theory is better than another. We just can’t tell how close to the truth it is. Since “verifying” one theory is better and “falsifying” one theory is worse are actually just two ways of saying the same thing, actually Kuhn and Popper were not in disagreement. It was a battle over a word. Or in other words, it was just a misunderstanding.

  38. You say that Popper describes scientific knowledge while denying that they get at truth. This seems like a strange tension.

    While I certainly agree with his rejection of certainty in the traditional philosophical sense, I think his critique of it falls short by not being radical enough. His account retains the false image of scientists doing something totally different and separated from normal moral life. It seems to presuppose that the rules of scientific activity and thought are not moral in nature, the only way by which a fact-value distinction could survive.

  39. That tension is what Popper is all about. It is his crowning achievement.

    The rest of what you say… sadly, I agree with you (though Popper would not). I do not see how Popper’s views can preserve a fact-value distinction (if I understand what you mean there.) I think Popper’s views create a totally moral-less value-free world as far as I can tell. (Again, Popper would probably disagree with me. But what little he wrote on that subject I find — hard to explain… its not like I disagree with him, its just that it seems to me to amount to very little.)

  40. Btw, I don’t think I realized until right now that one of your main objections was that it split values out from science. I don’t know how I missed that. In many ways that makes a lot of sense to me why you’d feel strongly about “pragmatism” then (I had no idea that it somehow allowed science to fit in with values… my only intro to pragmatism was Martin Gardner, who was no fan.)

  41. I think you misunderstand my objection.

    I see Popper (and most philosophers of science) as depicting science as if it were something more than a mere human practice which is both social and governed by rules that need to be enforced. In other words, it’s not that it separates facts from values, it’s that it pretends that the facts that they seek are something other than one culture’s application of rules, norms and values.

    Thus, whether science describes a world without value is of little interest to me. What does interest me is how science tries to suppress the historically contingent values by which it is fueled and structured. This is why I see Kuhn doing something very different than Popper – he describes science in terms of people making a living within a particular craft rather than somehow seeking, or even gaining access to timeless and exclusive truth. This is why I object to a correspondence theory of truth.

    Once we get rid of that mistaken conception of science, and instead see it as a social craft whereby better and better conceptual tools are developed in order to do new things, there is simply no need to worry about the certainty of scientific theories. This mistaken idea thinks that engineering is the application of the (potential) truths discovered by science. Pragmatism, by contrast, reverses this relationship, seeing science as the R&D department for engineers. The knowledge of scientists is a knowledge of how to do things, not a knowledge of how things really are.

    In this way, I totally reject the fact/value distinction. Facts are simply descriptions that are properly constrained within and thus the manifestation of various rules and values. Furthermore, since these values are no different than the other moral rules that govern our words and deeds, the rules of science can and often do come in conflict with other moral rules creating moral dilemma for which there is no guaranteed escape. One perfect example of this would be a critical social theory. Another would be the gospel.

  42. So many intricate philosophical arguments here…my head is swimming. I will boil the Dehlin approach down to a fairy tale. It is reported that he professionally will be counseling individuals and groups as to whether they should remain in the Church or not. That is like the wolf and Little Red Riding Hood’s grandma huddling together to discuss “what’s for lunch?”

  43. Stephen, I am sure you are right about him counseling people about staying in the church or not. I know other therapists who are “LDS” or at least are still considered members but do not believe the truth claims or are in a “doubting” place or something like that. We must be very careful about whom we are vulnerable to. I know many who are being turned from truth by LDS therapists who encourage their clients to continue in their questioning and doubting. I am a therapist and see it often. Makes me mad, exploiting the church in that manner.

  44. For what it’s worth, I like the practice of interviewing several potential providers when considering entrusting someone with your mental health.

    For better or worse, I live far from the location John Dehlin calls home, so distance alone eliminates him from consideration for any mental health services that might be sought by me or mine.

  45. I totally agree with you Meg about interviewing several mental health providers when seeking services. Unfortunately, many people don’t know the questions to ask or don’t understand that they can ask questions. Often they only know that they are hurting and need relief. Its why it makes me so mad that so many people are treated so terribly.

  46. I think it would be somewhat hilarious if the Church denied John a platform to crow from.

    On the other hand, perhaps excommunication would make a difference and help John come to God.

    Ironically, the only reason I would expect to hear about John’s excommunication would be because he has decided to make a public display of the matter. Certainly the Church rarely issues public statements regarding such discipline, and John Dehlin is not John Bennett.

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