A dialogue continued

My last post, “Valid Sources of Knowledge,” to my surprise, generated some very good discussions. Fellow SoF contributer James Croft has offered some well-reasoned and thought-provoking retorts to my positions. It seems to me that the discussion is bearing the fruits of this shared endeavor – we are not only describing our various states of formation, but we are also, perhaps, opening ourselves up to mutual transformation and formational understanding. So, I thought, it might be interesting to continue our discussion more out-in-the-open and, perhaps, involve others in the back-and-forth. So, what I’ve written below starts mid-conversation. It is my latest response to his – all of which you can read under the comments of the original post. James was not the only person to post interesting comments, so I’d encourage you to look at the others, as well. Mostly, though, I hope this dialogue will continue and even broaden! So please join in…

James – Thanks for yet another provocative and reasoned response… I DO think we are making progress!

I agree with most of what you are saying. I am, perhaps, using the word ‘science’ in a stricter, more etymological manner continuing its Greek and Latin meaning, which distinguishes ‘science’ from ‘intelligence’ – the former pertaining to the realm of perceptions, measurements, and deductions; the latter pertaining to the realm of conjecture, induction, and cognition. You seem to be taking the term more in its everyday connotation, as “what scientists do.” I, though, think that scientists engage in many activities, as you described – some of which fall under the traditional domain of what has for millennia been called ‘science’ and some of which fall under the traditional domain of what has for millennia been called ‘philosophy’. So, to borrow your curiously authoritative prose, I think it is simply false to say “this is simply false.” (!) Inasmuch as scientists engage in the construction of theories, hypotheses, inductive reasoning, and creation of explanations (as I, of course, agree that they do!), this is not science but philosophy. Inasmuch as scientists engage in the observation, measurement, deductive reasoning, and the testing of hypotheses, this is not philosophy but science. Many/most scientists must do both of these activities. As you write – “we have to imagine a model of what the world MIGHT be like, and go out to test it” – to this I say, “Indeed! The former is the creative, constructive, meaning-making endeavor called ‘philosophy’ and the latter is the rigorously empirical endeavor called ‘science’.” We need both – but we also need to be careful in our descriptions of these two activities. That was my basic argument in the original post distinguishing the first three pramāṇas (valid sources of knowledge). The example you give of Newton’s theories would seem to support my position.

As to your last paragraph (responding to my first post – “A theological perspective on (a)theism in formation”), God-talk (theo-logy) is not simply the use and construction of “metaphorical expressions” (though theologians certainly use and construct metaphors).  Rather, it is more than this. Theology is the use and construction of symbols and “symbolic expressions.” 

Your analogy of the Loch Ness monster seems to quite miss the mark. I’m not quite sure why you are introducing a discussion of belief and ontology into this particular discussion. It would be fun, sometime, to deconstruct the analogy, but such a deconstruction would prove digressive, I think.

 In any event, I am enjoying the back-and-forth! Thanks for playing 🙂 I hope others join in, too!

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16 thoughts on “A dialogue continued

  1. Well, having clarified what you mean by “science”, I see the distinction you are making. I do not think it a useful one. I think my conception of science, including what you describe as “the construction of theories, hypotheses, inductive reasoning, and creation of explanations”, is not only closer to the common meaning of the term “science” (which is itself a benefit) but also closer to the meaning of the term in modern philosophy and history of science, and in writings by scientists about what they do. Your distinction seems to me too restrictive, and I’m not sure what purpose it is meant to serve.

    I think one of the problems with the distinction you suggest is that it seems to stem from a desire to separate “perceptions, measurements, and deductions” from “conjecture, induction, and cognition”. My reading of the cognitive science literature leads me to believe that a neat separation between these processes is undesirable. Perceptions, measurements and deductions ALL involve cognition, while conjecture can alter our perceptions. This is why I question the tripartite separation of “valid sources of knowledge” you describe: it is too pat and unsophisticated.

    On the Loch Ness monster, I brought that up because one of the initial questions was “how can you disbelieve in something that is not definable”. I replied, through that analogy, that I think it is reasonable, if someone wants you to believe something, that they should be clear about what it is they want you to believe. It’s only polite… 😉

    1. I am sorry that you don’t find the distinction between science and philosophy to be a useful one. Perhaps our disputation is nearing the end of its fecundity. Furthermore, I’m sorry that you find the distinctions between perception, cognition, and logic unsophisticated (and we haven’t even gotten to scripture!). Fortunately, I am in no short supply of discussion partners. The distinction between perception and cognition launched the postmodern philosophical movement (a mere two millennia after it was extensively theorized in India), so I am not exactly alone in finding the distinction fruitful.

      As for the Loch Ness monster (really? again? Not even a flying spaghetti monster or something that is at least humorous?)… yes, I know why you brought it up. This is not my first attempt to discuss epistemology with an atheist. Nearly all (but unfortunately not all) theologians – and I am most certainly among them – argue that god is infinite. Infinite means not-finite (in-finite… that’s just what the word means). God is, therefore, not definable (i.e., incapable of being made finite). If God is not infinite, then there must be something greater than god… I don’t have to recite Anselm in full, nor do I need to appeal to his ‘authority’, nor would you accept it if I were to do so. My point though, can’t be articulated much more clearly than I have done so. The analogy of the Loch Ness monster is a parlor trick – a hetvābhāsa – it is nonhomological. If you mean to suggest that the Loch Ness monster is infinite, then it would, perhaps, be analogous and we could move on to questions of ontology, as you suggest. The question then would be in what sense we might understand the word “existence” in relation to infinity. How can something be said to exist if it cannot be defined – if it has no border (no eschaton, no limit, no finality – all of which are implicit in the word infinite). We could then progress to your statement “if someone wants you to believe something, that they should be clear about what it is they want you to believe” and discuss whether or not I care what you believe in… but then might venture into territory that might be considered “impolite” – and we want to keep this friendly and productive. 🙂

      What I do care about is the word ‘atheist’ and I am trying to figure out what it means and why someone would claim such a title. I mean that in a good spirit of camaraderie, debate, and a desire to understand. I truly don’t understand it… perhaps even less so now than when this discussion started… though perhaps my answer is in your response above and I should just settle for that. I do remain somewhat hopeful and I feel like it is important for me (personally) to try to understand – and I actually do WANT to understand, too. Also, my wife keeps telling me that I shouldn’t be so offended when people use the term. Afterall, there seem to be a growing number of people who claim that title… before long it might even eclipse the number of people who think Obama is a Muslim. 🙂

      1. I’m quite shocked by this reply – perhaps you read an aggressive or dismissive tone in my response to you. If so, I apologize – this medium is not an easy one to conduct debate in due to the inability to hear the tone of another’s responses.

        I am also unclear as to what precisely “offends” you about the term “atheist”. Perhaps if you explained that this discussion would be more focused? It is a particularly important issue for me to address, too, because if simply my stating one aspect of my belief system is offensive to you, how are we to proceed to more complex areas of discussion? I am certainly not offended by the terms Christian, Buddhist, Muslim, Sikh etc. and would be shocked if someone said those terms offended them.

        I note that in your latest response you do not say what about my reply to you you disagree with. I did not simply assert my position regarding the meaning of “science”, but gave a number of reasons for my position, which you do not address.

        Your response regarding the Loch Ness monster is clearer than the mere dismissal you offered at first – here you offer an argument as to why you feel it an inadequate analogy. So that’s progress! 🙂

        I think your response rests on a clear non sequitur. You say “Infinite means not-finite (in-finite… that’s just what the word means). God is, therefore, not definable (i.e., incapable of being made finite).” That something is “infinite” does not imply that it is “not definable”. We define various types of infinity all the time in mathematics, and manipulate them to extremely fruitful outcomes. Different types of infinity have very clear mathematical definitions and very clear uses within various branches of mathematics. So to say that because something is to be understood as infinite is to say it is therefore undefinable is to state a clear falsehood.

        I think my objection here comes down to this, if you ask me “Do you believe in God?” I am entitled to ask “What do you mean by “God”, and why should I believe in such a thing?” If you cannot give me a clear characterization of what “God” is, nor a clear set of reasons as to why I should believe in such a thing, then I seem to be left with only a couple of options. Either I believe without good understanding and without good reasons, or I say “At the present time, given my current understanding of what God is and the evidence provided, I do not believe such a thing exists”. The latter is the stance of the atheist.

        1. I agree that this is a difficult forum for a debate, but I do think we are both trying our best – so thank you for engaging. I’ll do my best to respond to all of the points you raised. Due to the format, though, substance is sometimes sacrificed for the sake brevity.

          I am a theologian. As such I find tremendous value and fruition in the creativity of discourse on and debate about god. Theology connects me to a long line of wonderful and creative thinkers spanning millennia and countless cultures. My faith in god and my faith in the human endeavor to know god compels me to strive for greater equality, greater justice, greater humanity, and, simply, to be a better person. That I find great value in god leads me to inquire how god has been understood, expressed, and experienced by people around the world throughout the ages as we struggle to find and create meaning in this world in and through the word god and words similarly expressive (elohim, deus, theos, deva, tao, mahakaruna, gye-nyame, allah, brahman – you get the idea). The term ‘atheist’ denies the value of this struggle. I am tempted to quibble with you over your translation of the privative Greek prefix, but the fact is that even your attribution of the meaning “without God” to atheist is deeply troubling to me as a theologian inasmuch as it denies the endeavor I hold so dear. This is not, admittedly, a complete articulation of how and why the term offends me, but I hope it will serve as an initial indication.

          I do understand (or, at least, hope) that when atheists use the term it is not so much directed at me and my theological endeavors as much as it is directed against narrow and harmful definitions of god – nearly all of which I, as a theologian, seek to problematize, deconstruct, and challenge in order to liberate god from the confines of human conception and language. Nonetheless, the term atheist similarly confines god, relegating this inexpressible symbolic reality to a stilted concept or, worse still, a being.

          You are quite right that I did not respond to your points regarding science. We digressed into a silly discussion over the Loch Ness monster. I am glad that you found it to be productive, though. Your last paragraph in your previous response, however, leads me to think I failed to convey my point. I am not asking you if you believe in god. I am not asking you to believe in god. I’m certainly not trying to supply reasons that one should believe in god (in fact, I would say that if one has reasons, then one is following reason, not faith, but here again, I imagine we will differ on philological grounds). What you classify as “the stance of the atheist” sounds, to my ears, almost indistinguishable from an agnostic position. I don’t find agnosticism offensive in the least. What I do find troubling is the notion that god is a “thing” that may or may not exist. God is neither an object nor an object of knowledge.

          I think we may be at an impasse if we cannot agree that infinite means not finite. I don’t quite understand your objection on mathematical grounds. An infinite line is unlimited with respect to the first dimension and undefined with respect to the second dimension. An infinite plane is unbounded with respect to the first and second dimensions and undefined with respect to the third. An infinite circle is without limit with respect to the three dimensions and undefined with respect to time. To say that god is infinite is simply to say that god is not finite, not limited, not bounded with respect to any dimension and hence not a thing. I think, though, this is where our dialogue finally comes to fruition… if atheists understand god to be finite, i.e., a thing with borders and limits that can be de/fined and can either exist or not exist, then at the very least I can understand why they say that god does not exist, even as I scratch my head and wonder as to the point.

          In any event – thanks for the discussion!

          1. OK Brad – let me try again with this. You have more clearly stated your objection to the term “atheist”, which is helpful to me.

            I think one of the problems with this discussion comes down to the differing way in which we are using terminology. I am using “atheist” (and I think most people who describe themselves as “atheists”) as an identity descriptor which says something about the relationship of my beliefs to those of the beliefs of people who follow a religious faith. I.e. I am using the term, and most atheists I know and I read use the term, to say something about my/ourselves and our beliefs. It is not meant as a comment on anyone else’s beliefs or as a comment on the endeavour of theologians as a whole. So it seems to me that the offence you take is misdirected.

            So, when you say that you “find tremendous value and fruition in the creativity of discourse on and debate about god”, but that “the term ‘atheist’ denies the value of this struggle”, all I can reply is that you misunderstand how I and others generally use the term. The study of the ways in which human beings have used the concept of “God” to shape and give meaning to their experience is a fascinating intellectual endeavour that can continue quite happily if I conclude for myself that God does not exist in any way except as a symbolic or narrative resource. This should be obvious given the fact that many atheists engage quite happily in the sorts of theological investigations you describe.

            So I do not feel the force of your objection to the term “atheist” – it is directed at a very odd construal of that term which fits no atheist I have ever encountered. Atheism is simply not properly understood if it is seen as coterminous with the denial of the value of the study of God and religion. I would very much like to know where you got your understanding of the meaning of the term “atheist”, since I have never encountered this objection before.

            On agnosticism, you say “What you classify as “the stance of the atheist” sounds, to my ears, almost indistinguishable from an agnostic position. I don’t find agnosticism offensive in the least.”

            This is thorny ground which atheists and agnostics themselves disagree on. My reply here will necessarily be a sketch, but essentially I am “agnostic” as to the existence of God in the sense that I do not claim to have proof that God does not exist. However, I think it extremely unlikely given the evidence we do have, and in my judgement we have far better ways of understanding our experience that the God hypothesis. Therefore, it is correct to say both that I do not believe such a thing as a God exists (and so I am an atheist), but I do not claim to have proof that such a thing does not exist (to which extent I am agnostic). This is the same position, incidentally, as Russell, Dawkins, Hitchens, Dennett and Harris, so it is not particularly sophisticated or arcane. It is how most atheist thinkers of whom I am aware conceive of their atheism.

            Your next statement is very intriguing. You say “What I do find troubling is the notion that god is a “thing” that may or may not exist. God is neither an object nor an object of knowledge.”

            If you find the idea that God is a “thing” that may or may not exist troubling in my thinking, then presumably you must find it troubling when it appears as an article of faith in theistic belief systems and in the minds of many believers. I have encountered a few theologians and intellectuals who are theists but who would not regard God as a “thing”, but I have encountered many more theists who do precisely view God as a “thing” which may or may not exist. Are you offended by their beliefs too?

            Finally, on infinite, definite, and definable, you say “I think we may be at an impasse if we cannot agree that infinite means not finite.” I argued no such thing. I suggested that infinite does not imply “not definable”. You give a number of examples which support my position in your response: a very clear definition of infinite lines and planes. Having so precisely defined these things can you really still think that they are not definable?

            You end with the following: ” if atheists understand god to be finite, i.e., a thing with borders and limits that can be de/fined and can either exist or not exist, then at the very least I can understand why they say that god does not exist, even as I scratch my head and wonder as to the point.”

            The point is this is precisely the sort of God that many people do in fact believe in – a God with human-like characteristics, that acts in the world in observable ways, which has moral commandments for us to follow, which occasionally suspends the laws of physics for the odd miracle etc. Atheists define themselves in part as not believing in that sort of God. The point is that such conceptions have extraordinary political and social power – for a start, they stop me from marrying who I choose in most states of the USA. If you do not see the point in responding to the mainstream beliefs that most people actually hold, which in have countless consequences in the lives of human beings, then I respect ask “What is the point of such a theology?”

  2. Oh, I completely forgot to respond to your point regarding God-talk. You say:

    “God-talk (theo-logy) is not simply the use and construction of “metaphorical expressions” (though theologians certainly use and construct metaphors). Rather, it is more than this. Theology is the use and construction of symbols and “symbolic expressions.””

    Well, great! If what we’re dealing with when we say “God” is merely a symbol then we don’t disagree at all – this is precisely what I think “God” is!

  3. So, we fundamentally disagree on epistemology but don’t disagree at all on our understandings of god? I suppose that is one conclusion you could draw.

    I wonder, though… why do you put scare quotes around “God”? Why capitalize the word? Most importantly, why do you say that you think god “is” (i.e., god exists… or perhaps we have different understanding of the word “is”)? And how does it then follow that you use the term atheist? Doesn’t “atheist” mean “god is not”? My confusion is rapidly increasing… please enlighten me 🙂

    1. Well, I’m not sure how deep our disagreement about epistemology goes, since I don’t have a clear view of what epistemological system or systems you ascribe to, and I’m certain I haven’t outlined mine in any depth. We may agree rather more than you think!

      I put the scare quotes around “God” to indicate that it is a term that is currently under disputation. I’m not sure – is this is a particularly British usage? I use the capital to honour those who also use it to confer significance on the concept.

      The term “atheist” does not mean, to me, “god is not”. I use it, and I think it is generally used by those who claim it, to designate someone as a person who does not believe in a deity which interferes with the world. So such a person does not believe that the Christian God exists, or the Muslim God, the Jewish God, Zeus or Odin or Thor. We think that these are ideas created by human beings that do not exist in the same way that we generally take rocks and trees and other people to exist. Does that help at all?

    2. A, I think that I see the point which might be causing you offence and which is leading us to an impasse. Perhaps you are thinking that by saying I am an atheist I am making the declarative statement or assertion “God is not”, or “God does not exist”. This is not how most atheist thinkers use the term. Rather, we use it to mean “without God” (I think a more accurate translation in any case). I.e. it describes the lack of a belief in God, not an assertion that God definitely does not exist (a claim I see as insupportable).

  4. Hey James, I think this will be my last contribution to the dialogue here, but we can certainly continue the discourse through our future contributions to the blog. I do sincerely appreciate the time and effort you’ve devoted to the conversation thus far and look forward to many more exchanges like this one in the future – hopefully with others involved in the conversation, as well. Forgive the format below, but it was just quicker to do a point-counterpoint response…

    “I think one of the problems with this discussion comes down to the differing way in which we are using terminology.”
    Indeed! I thought that was the point of the debate from the beginning. I disagree (vigorously) with the way you are using the term atheist.

    “I am using “atheist” (and I think most people who describe themselves as “atheists”) as an identity descriptor which says something about the relationship of my beliefs to those of the beliefs of people who follow a religious faith. I.e. I am using the term, and most atheists I know and I read use the term, to say something about my/ourselves and our beliefs. It is not meant as a comment on anyone else’s beliefs or as a comment on the endeavour of theologians as a whole. So it seems to me that the offence you take is misdirected.”
    I also agree that this is how most people use the term. It is precisely that to which I have been objecting all along. I continue to take offense at the term. I understand why you think this is misdirected… I was simply hoping to convey my perspective. I acknowledge that most atheists use the term as you describe. I hope to convince all of them not to do so – but oh what a struggle it is!

    “So, when you say that you “find tremendous value and fruition in the creativity of discourse on and debate about god”, but that “the term ‘atheist’ denies the value of this struggle”, all I can reply is that you misunderstand how I and others generally use the term.”
    I’m not sure how you’ve shown that this term does not deny the theological project that I am a part of. I am glad that you don’t “mean” it this way – but language and words are powerful and often unwieldy symbols. It is the term that I object and take offence to, regardless of your intentions or beliefs.

    “The study of the ways in which human beings have used the concept of “God” to shape and give meaning to their experience is a fascinating intellectual endeavour that can continue quite happily if I conclude for myself that God does not exist in any way except as a symbolic or narrative resource. This should be obvious given the fact that many atheists engage quite happily in the sorts of theological investigations you describe.”
    Again, I feel like we are having a parallel discourse rather than a dialogue. Also, it seems as if here you are describing the study of religion rather than theology as a constructive existential praxis.

    “So I do not feel the force of your objection to the term “atheist” – it is directed at a very odd construal of that term which fits no atheist I have ever encountered. Atheism is simply not properly understood if it is seen as coterminous with the denial of the value of the study of God and religion. I would very much like to know where you got your understanding of the meaning of the term “atheist”, since I have never encountered this objection before.”
    Interesting. This also sounds like a repetition of the appeal to popular usage of the term as constitutive of its meaning. This is precisely what I am objecting to. Also, it seems as if you are equating theology with the “study of God” rather than God-talk or śabda-pramāṇa (the third ‘valid source of knowledge’ I wrote ever so briefly about earlier).

    “On agnosticism… This is thorny ground which atheists and agnostics themselves disagree on. My reply here will necessarily be a sketch, but essentially I am “agnostic” as to the existence of God in the sense that I do not claim to have proof that God does not exist. However, I think it extremely unlikely given the evidence we do have, and in my judgement we have far better ways of understanding our experience that the God hypothesis. Therefore, it is correct to say both that I do not believe such a thing as a God exists (and so I am an atheist), but I do not claim to have proof that such a thing does not exist (to which extent I am agnostic). This is the same position, incidentally, as Russell, Dawkins, Hitchens, Dennett and Harris, so it is not particularly sophisticated or arcane. It is how most atheist thinkers of whom I am aware conceive of their atheism.”
    OK. I’m not quite sure how this advances your argument. It seems largely to be an elaboration of what was said before. Who is Russell? Bertrand Russell? If so, perhaps we can find something to discuss after all. The others you mention have extraordinarily small notions of god and I share their rejection of such gods – but still object to the term atheist, so I’m not sure how this helps us.

    “Your next statement is very intriguing. You say “What I do find troubling is the notion that god is a “thing” that may or may not exist. God is neither an object nor an object of knowledge.”… “If you find the idea that God is a “thing” that may or may not exist troubling in my thinking, then presumably you must find it troubling when it appears as an article of faith in theistic belief systems and in the minds of many believers.”
    I do! I do! But then “articles of faith” aren’t scripture, are they? Hence, they are not pramāṇas.

    “I have encountered a few theologians and intellectuals who are theists but who would not regard God as a “thing”, but I have encountered many more theists who do precisely view God as a “thing” which may or may not exist. Are you offended by their beliefs too?”
    YES!!! But I also understand them and I know how to talk to them and debate with them and find common ground with them. If that person is a Christian, then we can discuss theology and scripture and tradition (although, only the second of those is a pramāṇa). We can discuss the various ontological and epistemological lenses through which scripture has been read and interpreted. We can discuss how certain doctrines contradict scripture… I could go on, but I think you get the gist.

    “Finally, on infinite, definite, and definable, you say “I think we may be at an impasse if we cannot agree that infinite means not finite.” I argued no such thing. I suggested that infinite does not imply “not definable”. You give a number of examples which support my position in your response: a very clear definition of infinite lines and planes. Having so precisely defined these things can you really still think that they are not definable?”
    YES!!! I think you are confusing the de/finition of a word or phrase with the de/finition of its referent. Inasmuch as an “infinite line” refers to an actual line that is infinite, the former can be defined but the latter cannot. If an infinite line qua infinite line were infinite, then it cannot be defined. This is precisely why I say that god is a symbol. Inasmuch as the symbol can be defined it falls infinitely short of the symbolized, which is not finite. I think your confusion here is interesting, and it is precisely why I started this discussion with epistemology. We, unfortunately, were quickly sidetracked.

    “You end with the following…The point is this is precisely the sort of God that many people do in fact believe in – a God with human-like characteristics, that acts in the world in observable ways, which has moral commandments for us to follow, which occasionally suspends the laws of physics for the odd miracle etc.”
    Yes, that is true. I argue with them, too, as I indicated above. Their God is not infinite. Again, popular conception does not constitute truth. Most Americans, by the way, don’t know how long it takes the earth to revolve around the sun.

    “Atheists define themselves in part as not believing in that sort of God.”
    So do I. But I still find the term “atheist” objectionable on theological and philosophical grounds. Atheists can define themselves however they want to – and I can argue vigorously against their usage of the word atheism. I’m not going to argue against what they believe. People have a right to believe in whatever they want to. I keep saying over and over again that this debate is not about belief – at least that is not what I am debating… perhaps this is why we are having trouble?

    “The point is that such conceptions have extraordinary political and social power – for a start, they stop me from marrying who I choose in most states of the USA.”
    Indeed, conceptions of god have ENORMOUS political and social power. Perhaps here is a place where I can restate my point through analogy. The word “marriage” is a powerful word and, more than this, a powerful symbol. The ways in which “marriage” have been defined and the struggles to redefine it have enormous implications, as you rightly point out. I have long been a partner in the arduous struggle to (re)define marriage and a partner in legal efforts to separate the church from the state on this issue. The word “marriage”, the symbol “marriage” and the union that it symbolizes is of enormous importance and it shapes not only what people ‘believe’ or do not believe, but also how people interact with one another, how they respect one another, how they love one another. If you were to say “I do not believe in marriage because marriage is between a man and a woman and I am gay” I would reply, “no, marriage is not between a man and a woman. Marriage is a sacred union between two people.” Would you reply, “that is not how most people use the word ‘marriage’.” Or would you say, “Daniel Dennet says that marriage is x” or “Pat Robertson says that marriage is y”? If you did, I would still say that those people are wrong to define marriage that way – no matter how “popular” that notion is. Populism might be how we run our government these days, but it is not sufficient for the careful construction of symbols like marriage. In the days of Bartolommeo de las Casas, the word/symbol “human” was defined in such a way that Native Americans were not considered human. That was wrong, Las Casas argued, even if “most people” think that way. It does not matter to me how many atheists define god in the way that you describe, and it does not matter to me how many books Dawkins and the others sell. It does not mean that their de/finition of god is correct.

    “If you do not see the point in responding to the mainstream beliefs that most people actually hold, which in have countless consequences in the lives of human beings, then I respect ask “What is the point of such a theology?””
    I have no idea what you are basing this claim upon. I absolutely “see the point in responding to the mainstream beliefs that most people actually hold.” That is not the ONLY point of theology, but it is certainly an enormously significant one. It is so significant to me that I am even willing to vigorously argue with someone like you – who probably holds more than a few beliefs in common with me (but this is not about belief!!). I am a believer in god and I am a believer in Scripture as a pramāṇa, but that has remarkably little to do with my taking offense at the word atheist. This may be difficult to understand, but I am not offended by the term ‘atheist’ because I am a believer in god… I am offended by the term ‘atheist’ because I am a theologian. As for the “point” of my theology… perhaps we’ll tackle that another day!

    I do much appreciate your willingness to engage me on these discussions. And I am sorry if my tone occassionally seems edgy… my convictions run deep here, as I imagine yours do, too.

    1. Brad – as you suggest, I think it better to leave this topic at this point. I’m not sure we really are speaking to each other as much as past each other at this point.

      I do want to say three things though.

      First, you say, regarding definitions of things like an “infinite line”, the following: “I think you are confusing the de/finition of a word or phrase with the de/finition of its referent. Inasmuch as an “infinite line” refers to an actual line that is infinite, the former can be defined but the latter cannot.”

      With respect, it is not I who is confusing the two. When you offered as a definition of an infinite line “An infinite line is unlimited with respect to the first dimension and undefined with respect to the second dimension”, you are offering a definition of the concept to which the phrase “infinite line” refers. You are NOT offering a definition of the phrase “infinite line”. Such a definition would look something like this: “A two word phrase constituted of twelve letters and one space, in the following order…” Both can be defined quite happily. If I asked you to provide me a definition of the concept to which the words “infinite line” refer, what you offered would be an adequate response. This demonstrates that concepts which include infinite aspects are not undefinable, although they are in part indefinite.

      Secondly, I think I understand the source of your objection to the term “atheist” now. As far as I can tell, you see within that term an assumption about the nature of God which you feel is incorrect. By saying “I am an atheist”, a person says not only “I do not believe in God” but also, by implication, “God is a thing that can exist or not exist”. It is this second aspect, the implied definition of God, that seems to exercise you. Well, I still don’t see why it should. An atheist is still at liberty to believe in all sorts of other conceptions of God that are not ruled out by the normal use of the term “atheist”, and many do. There are plenty of atheist deists around, for example. So it might be more fruitful, rather than taking offence, to recognize that the term “atheist” is not designed to be a denial of all concepts of God nor as an attack against theologians, and may be compatible with the sort of god you wish to engage.

      Finally, and most important, I feel it crucially important that identity groups, particularly minorities (like atheists in America), maintain the right to define themselves using the words that they choose. Part of what frustrates me in your response is that, while you say you wish to understand atheists, you seem rather committed to getting us to use terminology to describe our beliefs that YOU prefer. You at once recognize that most atheists would use the term in the way I suggest, while at the same time asserting that they should not use it in such a way, for reasons you have not provided except for some vague source of personal affront.

      When someone asks me and my community to use different words to describe myself than the ones I myself choose, they better have a very good reason indeed. I do not deny that such reasons might exist – I just deny you have presented them.

      I end with a question: if not “atheist”, how would you like me to term this important aspect of my identity and belief system?

      1. Ah James… I give up. Let’s move on to more productive uses of our time and energy. It seems that we have moved further apart, rather than closer together. I would not have expected our disagreement to rest on our understandings of finitude… alas, at least I tried.

        1. Sorry – I should have said “we tried” – I truly do appreciate the effort and time you put forward and I do not mean to be dismissive.

    1. Hey Josh! Thanks for chiming in… Didn’t you know I’m a pracchanna-bauddha, like all good Sankara disciples? 🙂

      Actually, I’ve spent the day reading Mandana Misra’s refutations of Madhyamika views of error (vibhrama). His response to the asat-khyati view (cognition of the non-existent) is anirvacaniyatva-khyati (cognition of the indescribable). At face value, it sounds like an escape from the problem – but when you go deeper, it is extraordinary. It has definitely influenced some of my responses to James – how shrewd of you to notice! (I’m like seriously impressed)

      I’ve never studied madhyamaka – but they are so often the purvapaksa of the vedantins because the views are so close on so many points. Actually, I think if I understood madhyamaka better, I’d understand advaita better… so perhaps you can enlighten me sometime! Did you study Sanskrit, or only Tibetan?

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