Another point about this strawman argument we keep getting from rabbis and bishops, this ‘argument’ that boils down to claiming that non-theists have a ‘belief that the only things that are real or can be known are those that can be empirically observed and measured’ and then following that absurd claim with the equally absurd claim that love, morality, beauty and god are all ‘face[s] of human experience that [are] not subject to empirical verification.’

The other point (see above) is that that endlessly repeated pseudo-argument is a crap argument from two directions, not just one. It’s bad and stupid first, as I mentioned, because it dishonestly or woollily or confusedly makes a truth-claim about the existence of an entity, a being, in the view of theists a person, equivalent to evaluative thoughts and emotions such as love, ethics, awe, beauty, when they are quite different kinds of thing. That amounts to a large and glaring category mistake. On the one hand you have questions, controversies, discussions about whether Napoleon, King Arthur, Achilles, Marco Polo, Paul Bunyan, Mata Hari was or was not a real person who actually existed. On the other hand you have discussions of what we mean when we talk about love, beauty, good, bad, better, worse. Those are different kinds of thing. I think we can all agree on that? Am I right? Napoleon did or did not exist; a yes or no question; an empirical question. Napoleon was good or bad; a complicated question, not a yes or no; a question with empirical elements but also with other elements.

That’s one reason Lerner’s argument is a bad one, but there’s another reason, that comes from another direction. It’s bad because it relies on a claim that questions about the evaluative as opposed to the factual category are absolutely and entirely non-empirical questions, and I think that’s nonsense, and stultifying nonsense at that. It is not the case that there is nothing empirical to say or to discover about love or ethics or beauty (though it may be the case about god, though not about religion or belief). It is not necessary to think that statements such as ‘beauty is an excitation of this particular set of neurons’ are all there is to say on the subject, to think that they are some of what there is to say on the subject. The idea that empirical inquiry is completely beside the point and even profanation is just a way of sealing off one whole useful way of exploring the subjects; what would be the point of that? Why not inquire into both what is going on in the brain when we watch the sun set over mountains and what we experience when we watch the sun set over mountains? Rabbis and bishops don’t get to monopolize whole areas of life such as emotions and judgments merely because they want to assimilate them to their fuzzy ideas of what god might be. They also don’t get to wall them off from close examination merely because they want to protect that fuzzy god who tends to melt away into nothing when people look at it too hard.

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