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March 14, 2006

The perfect uselessness of Warren Whitlock
Posted by Teresa at 12:09 PM *

As I keep saying, there’s a phenomenal amount of bad information out there about writing and publishing. You have to pay attention to your sources.

Warren Whitlock (see also) is the most aggressively ignorant self-proclaimed publishing expert I’ve run across since Todd James Pierce. He’s got a number of scams going. One is palming himself off as a Marketing Results Coach, whereby he charges for the kind of advice that one normally hears about in spam:

Do you need new profit centers? Would you like have several times the leads or clients you already have?
How’d you like customers that are evangelists for your company?
Would you like to use proven online and offline marketing to add markets, build sales and vastly improve your profits?
So far this year, I’ve used the same methods I used for a 279% increase in sales in one product line at my at my own company to help clients:
Do more than double annual sales in only five days Create a new seminar that did $57k in a weekend
Bring in $110,505 from sending out just one email
Add 37 new clients while the store was closed
Helped a client add $25,607.00 in one hour
Want to know how? I’ll be happy to share these true stories with you …

Another major activity of his is setting up those worthless automatically generated blogs that clog up Google searches. His blog about this activity, My Blog about Blog Marketing (subtitled “expert reviews of blogging technigues”) has next to zero original content. On balance that’s a good thing, because when Whitlock puts his fingers on a keyboard, bad things happen, like “alternative health welness health advice that wooks from expert heaylty people.” His most recent post is headed another of my marekting with blogs blog posts.

He gives a long list of his other blogs. They’re all original-content-free except for one called Sister Whitlock, which he put together for a female relative who’s a Mormon missionary. It’s kind of cute. She’s not responsible for him.

Other enterprises: Whitlock runs BookBonuses.com, a site that offers you the opportunity to read promotional material about writers and buy their books at reduced rates. It’s doubtless a helpful site for him to own, given that he’s simultaneously running a book promotion business. And there’s ZeroCostPromotions.com, which I think is what he was talking about when he said “I’m working on an experiement to cross promote some of my blogs”, and also “I’m putting a list of the sites I use in with some sites I promote.” My impression is that since this is something he’s doing anyway as an experiment, he’s promoting it as a hugely effective way to sell books. Which it isn’t.

My overall guess is that Whitlock started out in the business of selling wildly overhyped sales & promotion advice to people who want to go into the business of selling wildly overhyped what-have-you. Now he’s noticed that the world is suddenly full of gormless self-published authors looking to promote their books (fallout from other people’s scams), so he’s declared himself a Book Marketing Expert, grafted the word “book” onto separate versions of all his basic scams, and started playing to that audience.

He knows absolutely nothing about writing, publishing, or marketing books. He’s either personally dishonest, or he’s wallowed in hype so long that he’s no longer able to tell the difference between truth and falsehood, which amounts to the same thing. Don’t do business with him. Don’t give him money. And for heaven’s sake, don’t listen to his advice.

I could spend days cataloguing the notions he promotes that don’t work and ain’t so, but you and I both have better things to do. Instead, here are my comments on a short excerpt from one of his many websites:

The Secret To Becoming A Best Seller

He’s not a bestselling author, he knows nothing about selling books, and his advice won’t work.

Emerson promised us that the world would beat a path to your door. Trouble is, Emerson lived before the advent of the frenzy of mass media we seen in the past few decades.

I’m not going to be cataloguing his grammatical errors.

The world today demands better mousetraps.. and expects you to fight through the cacophony of marketing messages to get the word out. It’s getting harder and more expensive to create the stampede that will beat a path to your door!

Or his mixed metaphors.

Fortunately, we have a secret weapon that will blast through the noise and get you noticed by the people who can that stampeded, beating a path to the bookstores.

Nothing that Whitlock undertakes to do will generate even a tiny increase in book sales.

Through the technologies of online ordering, ezine and mailing lists,

That is, the spam-and-hype technologies Whitlock’s already been using,

we have successfully set up promotions that compel hundreds or even thousands of readers buy your book in a short period of time.

A fraudulent misrepresentation. A palpable lie. Whitlock can’t compel a single reader to buy or even browse your book; and he’s never set up any such promotions, successfully or otherwise.

Even if he could do everything he claims, almost none of the self-published authors who are his target audience get brick-and-mortar bookstore distribution. A stampede of readers looking for one of their books would hit the shelves at Barnes & Noble, then retreat, baffled, when the book wasn’t there, and wind up buying something else that caught their eye.

Furthermore, many of those self-published authors have gone into print through Print On Demand operations. PODs are physically incapable of generating large numbers of books in a short amount of time. If they did get serious word-of-mouth demand developing for a book, they couldn’t supply the copies to keep it going.

The resulting best selling give a real boost to your sales, acting as a catalyst to attract more attention for booksellers, reviewers and the book buying public.

Take it as an indicator of how little thought Whitlock puts into his “expert marketing advice” that he’s saying that a bestselling book is a good way to attract attention from booksellers and the book-buying public. Say what? If it’s a bestseller, those are precisely the classes of people who already know about it.

Finally, if the book is finished and available for sale, it’s too late for it to get attention from the big reviewers. They want copies months before the publication date—which is no biggie, since they aren’t going to review your self-published book anyway.

That’s getting close to the fabled 1:1 ratio of words to errors. If you’re trying to sell books, Warren Whitlock is, at the most charitable estimate, a worthless waste of your time. Let the writer beware.

Comments on The perfect uselessness of Warren Whitlock:
#1 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: March 14, 2006, 04:27 PM:

I would say that anybody who calls themself a(n) 'XYZ coach' is saying 'I'm clueless and unqualified, but I can help you spend your money.'

#2 ::: Greg London ::: (view all by) ::: March 14, 2006, 04:37 PM:

hm, uhm, well, when I'm not working as an electrical engineer, I do some work as a life coach. I was trained by Coaches Training Institute. Hopefully that doesn't make me clueless and unqualified.

#3 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: March 14, 2006, 04:48 PM:

...whereby he charges for the kind of advice that one normally hears about in spam...

Given that he claims to be an expert in internet direct marketing, are you entirely sure that spam you're talking about isn't his?

#4 ::: Greg London ::: (view all by) ::: March 14, 2006, 04:54 PM:

It is true, however, that anyone can call themselves a "coach". there is no licensing to be a coach like there is licensing to be a therapist or doctor or lawyer or whatever. But then, coaching isn't intended for someone who is suicidal, is bleeding from an artery, or is facing life in prison. You sort of need a minimum level of expertise for those sorts of things. Coaching is more for people who want more out of their lives, for whatever definition of "more" they want to use. Personally, I like helping people get more in their relationships and people who want to pursue something artistic. Not something that you can really license. Well, you could license, but it wouldn't be an indicator or competence, it would be an indicator that the license holder paid their $20 to city hall.

#5 ::: Greg London ::: (view all by) ::: March 14, 2006, 04:59 PM:

we have successfully set up promotions that compel hundreds or even thousands of readers buy your book in a short period of time.


A fraudulent misrepresentation. A palpable lie. Whitlock can't compel a single reader to buy or even browse your book; and he's never set up any such promotions, successfully or otherwise.

I wonder what "compel" can mean from a legal point of view. THe Cambridge Online dictionary defines "compel" to include "to produce a strong feeling or reaction, sometimes unwillingly". Got a lot of limbo there.

#6 ::: Adam Lipkin ::: (view all by) ::: March 14, 2006, 05:04 PM:

I'm amused by the fact that he's set up all these blogs, but he hasn't bothered changing the default link Blogger provides, thus leading to two "Edit-me" links and a link to Google News on his various blogs.

I also found his reading blog rather amusing -- a few legit business books, a bunch of books on direct marketing, and the one-two punch of The Prayer of Jabez and The Book of Mormon.

#7 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: March 14, 2006, 05:05 PM:

Greg London: No offense intended (to you, certainly). I was thinking of this chap who had an office on the floor below mine until he was discovered to have, ahem, slightly exaggerated his qualifications.

#8 ::: Greg London ::: (view all by) ::: March 14, 2006, 05:10 PM:

Fragano, no worries, none taken. People use all sorts of titles to con others. The link was good for a chuckle, btw.

#9 ::: Greg London ::: (view all by) ::: March 14, 2006, 05:12 PM:

Back to Whitlock, is there a "snopes" equivalent website that would list hoaxes for new authors to be wary of?

#10 ::: Greg London ::: (view all by) ::: March 14, 2006, 05:12 PM:

Or, more specifically, con artists to be wary of?

#11 ::: Paula Helm Murray ::: (view all by) ::: March 14, 2006, 05:16 PM:

There is always Writers Beware on the SFWA Web site. They are pretty up-to-date on Bad Things.

http://www.sfwa.org/beware/

(I've never had luck making linking text despite the instruction, you will have to cut and paste... sorry)

#12 ::: David Bishop ::: (view all by) ::: March 14, 2006, 05:38 PM:

I have to say, as a life-long Mormon, I was neither shocked nor surprised to find out that Mr. Whitlock is L.D.S. There seems to be some odd connection between being able to believe in ole' Joe Smith, and being a sucker for pyramid schemes, MLMs, and pretty much any get-rich-quick "method". I would say, at a conservative estimate, 50% of the adults in my ward are either currently involved in some sort of MLM, or have been/will be. Unfortunately, that even includes my wife (stamps, cursed be their name). In our previous ward, the Bishop was involved in some magnet selling business, and pressured almost all of the other leaders in the ward to become his "down line". It's kind of creepy, very annoying, and overall just frustrating. The third or fourth time that you go over to some "friends" house because they invited you to hang out and play games, and end up having to turn down an amway sales pitch, you start to become cynical...

#13 ::: Stefan Jones ::: (view all by) ::: March 14, 2006, 05:42 PM:

"50% of the adults in my ward"

For a brief moment after writing that, I found myself wondering: "Gee, they let people in mental institutions participate in MLMs?"

#14 ::: nerdycellist ::: (view all by) ::: March 14, 2006, 05:50 PM:

Between this Whitlock fellow, folks like Mr. Bishop mentions (my aunt and uncle, also mormons, have always been involved in one MLM or another) and the recent dust-up with Thomas Kinkade, it seems to me that the first thing a person should do upon getting the slightest whiff of religion in a sales pitch would be to RUN THE OTHER WAY!!!

I don't know if it's a naive belief in the miracles of MLM or a cynical attempt to appeal to others' naivete, but the outcome is the same.

This Whitlock guy sure has the ability to use an awful lot of words while saying absolutely nothing - I'll give him that. His sentences are like mobius strips.

#15 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: March 14, 2006, 06:06 PM:

What happened with Thomas Kinkade?

#16 ::: Stefan Jones ::: (view all by) ::: March 14, 2006, 06:21 PM:

Well, there was his public marking of his territory . . .

#17 ::: Renee ::: (view all by) ::: March 14, 2006, 06:25 PM:

Re: Kinkade:

Is this 'dust-up' in any way related to his assembly-line way of producing 'original' artwork?

#18 ::: nerdycellist ::: (view all by) ::: March 14, 2006, 06:42 PM:

Thomas Kikade, Painter of Shite
He's accused of using the "Christian" thing as an inducement for the original investors to invest. Now that he's proven himself insufficiently Christian, his investors are suing. He's being accused of deliberately acting to devalue his Kinkade Galleries shortly before swooping in and buying them out cheap.

Many investors seem to be generally surprised that a Christian could do that, but they are much more disturbed of his drunken behavior, including groping women at signings, peeing on a Winnie The Pooh figurine (?) at Disney, and being thrown out of a Siegfried and Roy show for loudly and repeatedly shouting "Codpiece! Codpiece!" (OK, so that was hysterical)

No one seems to be upset that he can't properly use perspective, figure out what direction in the painting the light is coming from, or indeed, that even the expensive schlock out there is merely mass-produced and "highlighted" with blobs of paint by random people who are not Kinkade.

#19 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: March 14, 2006, 06:56 PM:

Greg London: Thanks. I have learned from this not to trust 'life coaches' who drive Range Rovers....

#20 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: March 14, 2006, 07:09 PM:

I've got a half-written post about Kinkaid. I should just finish it.

#21 ::: David Bishop ::: (view all by) ::: March 14, 2006, 07:16 PM:

"...it seems to me that the first thing a person should do upon getting the slightest whiff of religion in a sales pitch would be to RUN THE OTHER WAY!!!"

That is 100% true. I *detest* it when a sales(sub-hu)man tries to ferret out my religion so that they can give me the "just trust me, I'm Mormon, too!"-routine. Living in southern Idaho, it's all too common.

Wow. I just had to delete a paragraph of bile and tell myself to calm down. Apparently this is much more of a hot button issue with me than I thought :-) Let's just say that people who convince themselves that whatever they do is justifiable because they're "one of the good guys" (they have to be, they're religious!) are worse in many ways than someone who knows that they're despicable and are fine with that.

#22 ::: Stefan Jones ::: (view all by) ::: March 14, 2006, 07:24 PM:

A LOT of outright scams (as opposed to "soft" scams like MLMs) are perpetrated by sincere-seeming outsiders (as opposed to pushy members of the in-group) on congregations of trusting religious people.

#23 ::: Steve Taylor ::: (view all by) ::: March 14, 2006, 07:29 PM:

Teresa Nielsen Hayden wrote:

> I've got a half-written post about Kinkaid. I should just finish it.

Please do.

I may have originally got this from the Particles sidebar - apologies if so - but there's a Kinkaid themed residential community:

http://salon.com/mwt/style/2002/03/18/kinkade_village/print.html

Gack.

#24 ::: Marilee ::: (view all by) ::: March 14, 2006, 07:45 PM:

And then there's the friends who invite you to see the slides from their just-finished vacation and instead try to sell you Amway. I didn't bother staying for the slides.

#25 ::: Dave Luckett ::: (view all by) ::: March 14, 2006, 08:50 PM:

If they invite you over to make a commercial profit from you, you're not their guest, they're not your hosts, and this is not a social occasion. Implying otherwise is misrepresentation, aka fraud and lying.

I do not remain friends with people who tell me lies for the purpose of defrauding me.

#26 ::: Vassilissa ::: (view all by) ::: March 14, 2006, 09:00 PM:

Mousetrap... stampede... ouch.

I wonder what sort of a world he lives in, what he thinks other people's motivations are. Not that it isn't obvious, but I have trouble believing it. He really thinks everyone's like *that*?

I wonder if he's making a profit from being this annoying. It seems to me like it'd take quite a lot of boring, meaningless work to scam people in that many different directions. Is it his primary job, or a sideline?

I quite badly want to believe that it's a sideline, and that he fondly hopes that it'll pay off one day but no one's buying it. Yeah, I'm an optimist.

I'd love to see his tax return.

#27 ::: Dan Lewis ::: (view all by) ::: March 14, 2006, 09:04 PM:

I too have received pitches from my LDS neighbors. Vacuum cleaners, knives, e-commerce... My wife and I got a call out of the blue from some people we used to live by; we visited them once or twice, but I would call them acquaintances.

I'm not a Mormon, so I can only speculate, but maybe it has something to do with the two-year missions, a sort of marketing baptism-by-fire.

#28 ::: Dave Luckett ::: (view all by) ::: March 14, 2006, 09:55 PM:

Vassilissa, if what I read in Brian McWilliam's "Spam Kings" is right, and if Whitlock is like the others described there, then it's most likely that he's partly a solipsist and partly simply incapable of shame. It's not that these people don't think about what they're doing. Often they do. It's just that they do it from an alienated point-of-view. They think of themselves as predators in a world of prey, and are secretly (sometimes openly) proud of that status.

Thus, if one taxed Whitlock with the fact that he profits from selling something he knows quite well is worthless, he would only be amused. If he were actually prosecuted or sanctioned for it, he would be indignant. "Everything is worth what its purchaser will pay for it", not so? If the sheep line up to be clipped, why should he not clip them?

#29 ::: Bob Oldendorf ::: (view all by) ::: March 14, 2006, 10:48 PM:

Kinkade parodies

Much better than the originals.

#30 ::: mcpye ::: (view all by) ::: March 14, 2006, 10:50 PM:

</lurk> MLM [*] <lurk>

#31 ::: Lizzy L ::: (view all by) ::: March 14, 2006, 10:58 PM:

I am ignorant -- what's MLM mean? (I really am stupid about blog abbreviations; it took me six months to figure out LOL. So now I ask. Thanks.

#32 ::: Bill Higgins-- Beam Jockey ::: (view all by) ::: March 14, 2006, 11:20 PM:

MLM is "multi-level marketing."

Amway is the best-known model. Someone recruits you to sell a line of soap products in your spare time. You sell soap, that someone gets a slice of the money. You recruit friends, neighbors, or relatives to sell soap. They sell soap, you get a slice, your patron also gets a slice.

The more people you have in your "downline," the more money you make. Especially as they recruit more people for their own downlines.

Eventually, they run out of vassals to recruit...

There's a similarity to pyramid schemes, but it's all quite legal.

#33 ::: Stefan Jones ::: (view all by) ::: March 14, 2006, 11:46 PM:

The talented and tireless Rob Cockerham did a great investigative series on the Herbalife MLM:

http://www.cockeyed.com/workfromhome/workfromhome.html

There's a letter section buried in there that has messages from scary True Believers taking on Rob for his expose. One of the correspondents wrote back, months later, after her "home business" failed.

#34 ::: Margaret Organ-Kean ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2006, 12:07 AM:

Teresa, I would also like to see your article on Kinkade. I'm afraid my own take doesn't get much beyond, "Oh, bleh." It's pretty unsophisticated, I admit, but I'll point out in my defense, I'd rather study artists who interest me and who do interesting work - and I've always thought of Kinkade as the artistic equivalent of, well, Harlequin romances.

#35 ::: candle ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2006, 12:17 AM:

You recruit friends, neighbors, or relatives to sell soap. They sell soap, you get a slice, your patron also gets a slice.

But why would I want a slice of soap? Oh, I see.

My brother works for Avon cosmetics. In Russia. Possibly he is evil. I try not to think about it.

#36 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2006, 12:18 AM:

Warren Whitlock isn't the only person plowing these fields. There's also Shaun Fawcett, M.B.A. and his acolytes:

http://instantbookwritingkit.com/

http://instantcollegeadmissionessay.com/

http://www.writinghelp-central.com/

http://www.howtopromoteaproduct.com/

http://www.readingwritinggenius.com/

(Ohh, I feel dirty. I feel like a comment-spammer.)

And last, this one (make sure you have your speakers turned on -- must be heard to be believed): http://www.awakentheauthorwithin.com/

Please notice the similar formats on these web pages. The similar pitches. The similar colors. As you look around the slimy underbelly of the web you'll be able to spot sites like this for what they are without reading a word. The template gives them away.

#37 ::: Nicole J. LeBoeuf-Little ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2006, 12:19 AM:

Had a friend did Herbalife for awhile. They make the very best brownie-flavored protein bars I have ever tasted. Then she decided it was no longer a good use of her time, and I lost my crack dealer.

Pampered Chef is another MLM too, isn't it?

And regarding this: it seems to me that the first thing a person should do upon getting the slightest whiff of religion in a sales pitch would be to RUN THE OTHER WAY!!! :sometimes it's a lot more than a whiff. Anyone else get the letters from that church that sends you a paper "prayer rug" with a pic of Jesus on it and a letter telling you that if you don't act now and tell them you want them to pray for you and thus make good things happen in your life, they'll just have to give that offer to the next person on their list...?

Once in a long while, some direct mail sales pitch annoys/offends me so badly that I stuff their propaganda into the postage-paid envelope and send it back to them. This was one of them.

#38 ::: Greg London ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2006, 01:45 AM:

Writers Beware on the SFWA Web site

But these con games work on any and all genres, so some author who is about to pay Whitlock a chunk of money to do nothing with their Romance novel probably won't be checking the SFWA site.

It almost feels like there is actually a technical solution to this problem: a single, industry-wide response website that has some sort of "author beware" list of scams and scam artists. And with sufficient legal departments to give everything the once-over to make sure the likes of Whitlock can't sue.

The site wouldn't even have to say much of anything negative about Whitlock, instead, the site could simply announce that all the publishers who sponsor said site refuse to accept any manuscripts touched by Whitlock.

While a mistatement of fact about Whitlock could open the group to a lawsuit, a declaration of censure and/or boycott against Whitlock (without saying much of anything that could be defaming), would, I would think, pretty much dry up his customer base as far as potential authors go.

Whitlock: Pay me beaucoup bucks and I'll get your manuscript in a publishable state.

Author: Yeah, but Tor says right here (link) that they won't accept any manuscript that you've worked on.

It might not make the con games stop, but at least it might make him move to other pastures, like selling driveway sealcoat or something.

Just a thought.

#39 ::: Greg London ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2006, 01:47 AM:

yeah, I'm solution oriented, if anyone hasn't noticed...

#40 ::: David Goldfarb ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2006, 03:16 AM:

When my nephew was born earlier this year, my brother wanted to name him after a character from The Brothers K, by David James Duncan. It's due to the Painter O'Light (tm) that he's named Everett and not Kincaid.

#41 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2006, 07:34 AM:

Greg, if a really good author fell into Whitlock's hands, the big question would be how many minutes it took for me to succumb to temptation.

That said, a central info site for authors of all sorts wouldn't be a bad idea. I've been under the impression that Writer Beware and Preditors & Editors both get traffic from mainstream writers.

#42 ::: rhandir ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2006, 07:48 AM:

Teresa,
I found something deliciously over the top on Thomas Kinkade:
From Jin Wicked's Crap I Drew on My Lunch Break

Scroll down for jesusfish goodness.

-r.

#43 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2006, 08:41 AM:

Greg, you're probably looking for Preditors & Editors.

#44 ::: C.E. Petit ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2006, 08:42 AM:

Just a couple of comments:

In American legal usage, "compel" means "require," and most often implies "against the will of the person compelled." Specific example: "compelled testimony" comes from a witness who would refuse to testify but for a subpoena. That's the basis for Teresa's comment—the only "compelled" buyers of books are students and the occasional management-seminar junkie (who needs his fix of Tom Peters… which is relevant here because it's one of the common "self-publishing success stories," but originated as a compelled purchase in management seminars, not a trade book).

MLM is not inherently "perfectly legal." In fact, Amway has been fighting against changes in its taxation treatment for several years now precisely because the IRS said Amway has crossed the line to pyramid schemes. If the majority of income of early participants does not come from sale (or shares of sales) of a real product or service to end-users (as opposed to resellers inside the system), the system will probably be treated as a pyramid scheme. Thus, a scheme (such as Interplanetary Unlimited back in the 1970s) in which the early advocates earn a lot of money by charging "distribution fees" to those under them in addition to the cost of goods to be sold is probably a pyramid scheme.

#45 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2006, 08:45 AM:

BTW, as far as drying up customer bases, I have a bit of experience in warning young writers about various scams, near-scams, and Very Bad Ideas.

A very, very common reaction is this: they listen patiently then say, "Yes, but my book is different."

#46 ::: Dan Hoey ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2006, 09:11 AM:

Dave Luckett's ...they're not your hosts.... brings me back to my favorite joke: "You're the host, they're the parasites."

Sorry if you've heard this one too many times. That's the problem with favorite jokes.

#47 ::: Caro ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2006, 09:26 AM:

Fortunately, we have a secret weapon that will blast through the noise and get you noticed by the people who can that stampeded, beating a path to the bookstores

My head felt like it was going explode when I read this...

Theresa, please finish that article on Kinkade -- I'd love to hear your take.

#48 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2006, 09:44 AM:

As someone else commented, I'd love to see "Thomas Kincaide Heckles Sigfried and Roy" done as an allegorical painting.

Meanwhile, back to Mr. Whitlock: this is what I feel the deal is with those Marketing Blogs. It cuts out the middle man when you start a blog in order to post your own comment spam to yourself.

He's got links not just to other things he's promoting ("Cure Diabetes," for example, a book that's undoubtedly getting a mousetrap stampede, when you, and I, and the guy over there all know there isn't a cure for diabetes) but to tiny little pages filled with keywords whose only purpose is to display Google ads, in an attempt to bring in cash from clicks on those ads.

Fraud? Not really. Pathetic? Definitely.

#49 ::: Melissa Singer ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2006, 10:20 AM:

Greg: the solution you're proposing would simply build a layer of lies into the situation. Whitlock would tell people something like, "I'm so good at what I do, publishers are scared of me, just don't tell them I worked with you." And writers would believe it.

#50 ::: Sun ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2006, 10:37 AM:

A large amount of damage done to new writers has been observed by several people. Said person doing said damage is one Melinda Jane Harrison. She recruits people who know nothing about writing, charging some of them a good bit of money and others, she charges nothing. She claims to have been in publishing in NYC, although that is highly doubtful because of her gross evasiveness with any direct questions.

Anyone questioning her is met with condescension and scorn, insults and told they must not want to be published bad enough because her way is the only way.

Her guarantee is to turn these poor people into minions, anxiously awaiting her negative criticism like a starving animal waiting for food.

Fortunately, some people are able to get away from her venomous persona before their marriages and families are torn apart by this woman who is literally brainwashing people into her cult of ego.

(She's certainly not a bestselling author that anyone has ever heard of in any genre.)

#51 ::: Steve Eley ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2006, 10:47 AM:

Thanks, Teresa. It's been a while since we've seen you tear someone a new one. I hadn't realized how much I missed it. >8->

On my podcast a couple months ago I coined a new word for link farms and blog farms: Webfungus. I felt that "farm" was too positive a word.

The amusing part to me is that when you Google it, you get a couple of original citations back to my podcast commentary, and a greater volume of webfungus reposting the original blog posts.

#52 ::: A.R.Yngve ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2006, 10:54 AM:

The first time I heard the brand name "Kinkade" I thought, "Sounds like they sell a sports drink... or is it sex toys??"

#53 ::: Greg London ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2006, 11:14 AM:

Jim wrote:
> I have a bit of experience in warning young writers about various scams, near-scams, and Very Bad Ideas.
>A very, very common reaction is this: they listen patiently then say, "Yes, but my book is different."

Melissa wrote:
>Whitlock would tell people something like, "I'm so good at what I do, publishers are scared of me, just don't tell them I worked with you." And writers would believe it.

There will always be those who take whatever bait is dangled before them by Whitlock and his type. The question is would a central site endorsed by all the mainstream publishers who list all the individuals whom they censure, would a site like that cause Whitlock to catch more or less authors than he is now? I think it would be substantially less. I could be wrong. WOuldn't be the first time. But I think it would be a big dent in his catch.

If it saves a significant number of new authors who are savable, and doesn't save the authors who are unsavable (the "yeah, but my book is different" types), then wouldn't that be the best you could expect anyway?

#54 ::: JonathanMoeller ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2006, 11:17 AM:

I'd LOVE to see a post ripping Kinkade to little shreds.

Before I wrote off graduate school as a bad idea, I used to work nights at a Wal-Mart to pay for it. Every Christmas season, without fail, a pallet of "Thomas Kinkade: Painter Of Light Christmas-Themed Scented Candles" would arrive, with Kinkade scenes attached to the candles via cellophane. Not only did they smell foul ("Apple Cinnamon" smelled like a piece of dirty cardboard that had been smeared in apple sauce, sprinkled with cinnamon, and left out in the sun for two or three days), but the packaging disintegrated if you looked at it the wrong way, the glass cracked at the touch of a feather, and you needed a wrecking ball just to get into the pallet itself.

So I don't care if Kinkade's a hack or not, but his Official Licensed Products suck and are a pain in the butt to unload.

#55 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2006, 11:58 AM:

All right already, I'm finishing it. Hold off on the comments until.

#56 ::: Richard Anderson ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2006, 12:17 PM:

Bob Oldendorf, thank you for the Kinkade parodies! Wonderful stuff.

A friend of mine once had the brilliant idea of hiring an artist to add Disney characters and Nazis to one of Kinkade's town scenes. The only prob, though, was the price the Kincade gallery charged for the "painting." Who knew crap could be so expensive?

#57 ::: Jean ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2006, 12:22 PM:

The world today demands better mousetraps.. and expects you to fight through the cacophony of marketing messages to get the word out. It's getting harder and more expensive to create the stampede that will beat a path to your door!

This is the bit that winds me up: it admits that his activities, and those of his fellow spammers, don't in fact sell good products to people who are crying out for them, they erect a barrier between the producer and the market.

Well, yes, we knew this: but I wasn't expecting him to boast about it...

#58 ::: David Bishop ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2006, 12:24 PM:

"I'm not a Mormon, so I can only speculate, but maybe it has something to do with the two-year missions, a sort of marketing baptism-by-fire."

I've speculated about that before. I didn't go on a mission, detest (almost) all salesmen, and have never fallen for a work-at-home scam. But it doesn't explain why Mormon women are so susceptible. Only a small fraction of them go on missions, but (at times it feels like) every single one of them is hawking soap, or stamps, or cookware, or - in one interesting case - sex toys.

#59 ::: Greg London ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2006, 12:33 PM:

mormon ... sex toys ... can't compute ... mormon ... sex toys ... can't compute ...

#60 ::: Jo Walton ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2006, 12:56 PM:

Marilee -- there's a Ramsay Campbell story about neighbours who invite people round to see their holiday slides, and the holiday slides progress to "And here's where we got lost in the catacombs, and this is the nice zombie we met who converted us, and now let's talk about converting you..."

Great story.

So true.

#61 ::: David Bishop ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2006, 01:40 PM:

"mormon ... sex toys ... can't compute ..."

I believe the mlm is "Essense of Romance". It might even be Boise-specific (at least, the first google result was for a Boise address).

But if you're surprised that mormons and sex toys go together, well, where do you think all those 8-kid families come from? Hell, last Christmas my sister-in-law gave my wife and me a "doggy style support harness" and a bottle of "strawberry flavored skin spray". And those were far from the first things to go into our "kids stay out" drawer...

#62 ::: Paula Helm Murray ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2006, 01:50 PM:

oooooooh, I so should not read this on my lunch hour. OOOOOH.

But mlm sex toy operations are everywhere. Toy sales parties are a blast!

#63 ::: Stefan Jones ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2006, 01:56 PM:

Imagine if instead of posting signs reading:

LOSE WEIGHT FAST -- ASK ME HOW!

MLM distributors nailed up notices advertising:

DOGGY STYLE SUPPORT HARNESSES -- FREE DEMO!

#64 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2006, 02:03 PM:

Once you start looking, the Web underbrush is full of sites (and they honestly all do look the same) promising Vast Amounts of Something For Nothing (for a small fee).

Take this one, for example:

Instant Booster

Just imagine how pleased all those Thousands of Potential Customers will be to find that they were Diverted from the websites they were looking for to yours!

#65 ::: Michael Weholt ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2006, 02:06 PM:

Stefan Jones: DOGGY STYLE SUPPORT HARNESSES -- FREE DEMO!

I have the URL if anybody needs it.

#66 ::: Greg London ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2006, 02:10 PM:

But mlm sex toy operations are everywhere. Toy sales parties are a blast!

(sigh) I never get invited to the popular parties (mournful look)

#67 ::: John M. Ford ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2006, 02:30 PM:

"This is a side of Schtupperware I never imagined."

"Oh, be honest, Sue Ann."

"Well, you're right. This is a side of Schtupperware I imagined a whole lot."

#68 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2006, 02:31 PM:

MLM Mormon sex-toy parties? In Boise?

Greg, if you think you're having a "does not compute" moment ...

#69 ::: Xopher (Christopher Hatton) ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2006, 02:37 PM:

If they invite you over to make a commercial profit from you, you're not their guest, they're not your hosts, and this is not a social occasion. Implying otherwise is misrepresentation, aka fraud and lying.

Right on, Dave Luckett!!! I'd add that guest-host courtesies no longer apply, and that leaving at once is not rude; in fact it's the most polite thing you can do in the circumstances—letting someone be that exploitive of your alleged friendship being automatically wrong.

I do not remain friends with people who tell me lies for the purpose of defrauding me.

Even without the last six words, I agree.

David Bishop - a..."doggy style support harness"? The mind fairly boggles. Surely if you need a support harness, you're either not doing it right, or are too out-of-shape to be engaging in sex in the first place?

No, no, don't answer. Mormon kink. Eyes wide open. Soon to be shut. Moans escape from mouth (no not that kind).

#70 ::: Nancy Lebovitz ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2006, 02:44 PM:

I poked around that http://www.cockeyed.com/workfromhome/workfromhome.html herbalife expose' site, and apparently enough people who are considering becoming mlm marketers find it that they don't buy anything or get out before they get in too deep. So I think it's reasonable that an all-genre site warning writers about publishing scams is likely to do some good, even if writers tend to be more gullible than the average.

In re Mormons and mlm: My impression is that part of the culture (and possibly the religion) is to work hard and make money. This might make people more vulnerable to scams that promise money in exchange for hard work. For all I know, Mormons are less vulnerable to things like the Nigerian scams which promise lots of money for no work.

#71 ::: Sandy B. ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2006, 02:55 PM:

I figured "this stuff happens in Boise because people get bored out there." This is the same theory I use to explain why the Midwest has all the bizarre serial killers.

Then I thought, "No, I'm just really a provincial New Yorker, mocking the rest of the country when we're all watching the same TV and reading the same magazines."

Then I remembered the stories of a couple of my friends about the stuff they did during their teenage years in small towns.

They really ARE bored enough for multi-level sex toy parties out there.

#72 ::: Dan Lewis ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2006, 03:08 PM:

I saw a promo recently for a newscast about sex-toy marketing (I'm in Logan in northern Utah). Here's a similar report. "Who is coming to these parties? According to Monica [sex-toy party host], the age range is 18 to 80. 'I've been at parties when it's been daughter, mom, and grandma,' she said."

They call them "slumber parties". If you Google, it comes right up.

As for LDS women, perhaps there is a certain desire to be fiscally independent, coupled with the demands of mothering large families and some social pressure to stay at home. I imagine religion is the common thread, but you'd have to ask LDS women.

I also happened upon some pages about Utah's MLM problem. Utah leads the nation in MLM firms per capita. There is also a law passed two weeks ago, awaiting the governor's signature, that would significantly weaken state anti-MLM laws. [pdf] I hadn't heard a peep about this in the news.

#73 ::: Steven desJardins ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2006, 03:24 PM:

Xopher, I disagree strongly with your premise that people who are too out-of-shape to have sex without assistive devices shouldn't be having sex.

#74 ::: Greg London ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2006, 03:38 PM:

the age range is 18 to 80. 'I've been at parties when it's been daughter, mom, and grandma

er uhm... well... ahem... (cough)

Gees, I suddenly feel awfully squarish...

Even brief imaginations of me, my dad, and his father all in the same room having discussions about... cripes, I don't know... for example... the best lubricant to use... is... well, it's causing bits of my brain to try and tear itself off from the other bits doing the imagining.

all rather unsettling, I'd have to say...


#75 ::: bryan ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2006, 03:41 PM:

is this the thread were we dump all our comment spam?

#76 ::: Melissa Singer ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2006, 03:42 PM:

I was at a writer's conference not that long ago where the goody bag for the attending professionals included KY lubricant . . . .

Rather surprising to have it fall onto the table when I dumped out the goodies; I felt suddenly even more prudish than usual.

#77 ::: Charlie Stross ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2006, 03:43 PM:

Greg, you and me both. Especially because if you could get me, my dad, and my grandfather in the same room it would be kind of fragrant, on account of gramps having died in 1963.

#78 ::: Mark DF ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2006, 04:04 PM:

I was about to formulate a comment about the "good old days" on the internet when you popped a couple of words in a search engine and actually got fairly close to what you were looking for without having to wade through scammers and porn first (in fact, you actually had to work to find the porn. Um, so I'm told) and most of the people were fun to hang out with.

How can you not love a conversation that includes sex toys, Mormons, bad art, spam and wit. At least I can still find fun people.

#79 ::: Greg London ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2006, 04:08 PM:

My grandfather died when I was a kid. I still remember him though, through the overly simplified emotional filters that a kid would have. Attempting to translate those memories to my current vocabulary, the word "stern" comes to mind, followed by "stoic" and "distant". I have no memory of my grandfather smiling. Overall, when I take that memory and try to put it into a "slumber party" setting, well, like I said, bits of the brain attempt to disconnect from other bits. If I push really hard, I can hear a "swick"-like noise that I can only assume is the sound of neurons tearing.

#80 ::: Greg London ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2006, 04:11 PM:

sex toys, Mormons, bad art, spam and wit

I was just thinking that this thread is gonna get hit by the weirdest set of google searches, 99% of which will have nothing to do with Whitlock or writer scams.

This internet thing is groovy man.


#81 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2006, 04:18 PM:

It's been a long time since I received any spam that promised to show Brittney Spears doing the dirty deed with barnyard animals. Am I the only one in that situation? Maybe she's become passee.

#82 ::: jrocheste ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2006, 04:26 PM:

oh no, gramps would be nice and dessicated by now.
I doubt that he'd have much to say, though.

I'm shuddering at the thought of agressive Mormon missionaries doing MLM of ANY product but the image of a LDS wife with a broad cheery smile and a messenger bag full of oddly shaped devices is deeply disturbing.

However, even if they are selling 'slumberwear' I'm sure that the point is to avoid the awful sin of moving into the public sphere. Rather like Tupperware ladies. Even if you are working 8 hours a day, you're still not leaving home to do it.


Oh, and P.Z. Myers has a couple of killer posts on the "Painter of Light", himself.

#83 ::: Xopher (Christopher Hatton) ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2006, 04:26 PM:

Xopher, I disagree strongly with your premise that people who are too out-of-shape to have sex without assistive devices shouldn't be having sex.

And I disagree strongly with your premise that I said any such thing!

I said it seemed to me that someone who needed a support harness to do doggy style (not one of your more athletic positions IME, especially for the, um, receiving partner) might be in shape bad enough that having sex might be unhealthy. (But perhaps I overestimate the ease of that position.) In other words, I meant that people too unhealthy to have sex probably shouldn't have it, though I (of course) would never tell them how to run their lives.

In any case, I'm entirely in favor of technological solutions to human limitations. I consider the reach extension provided by a riding crop invaluable, for example.

#84 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2006, 04:36 PM:

My paternal grandfather ran two entirely separate families (one 'legitimate', that's my side, one not), about six miles apart, commuting between the two by bicycle. If I found myself in an MLM sex toy party with him and my father (whose photograph you'd find in the dictionary next to 'prude'), I think I'd be the most shocked. (Of course, I have to note that my granfather died in 1989, at the age of either 99 or 103, and my father died in 2001 at 81. There's a lesson here somewhere...)

Some years back I replied to an ad for an MLM (never having heard of the things before and needing work), after about 5 minutes my mind started looping the name 'Carlo Ponzi' continuously.

#85 ::: Greg London ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2006, 04:41 PM:

Never heard of MLM but knew who Carlo Ponzi was? That's an interesting combination.

#86 ::: Greg London ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2006, 04:50 PM:

Xopher, I'm afraid that your original post commits bifurcation: Surely if you need a support harness, you're either not doing it right, or are too out-of-shape to be engaging in sex in the first place?

There is at least one other alternative where someone is too out of shape to be engaging in sex au naturale, but somehow could perform the act just fine withthe assistance of a "doggy style support harness". Whether that alternative is plausible, I'm not entirely sure, but thus far it appears possible.

Now, the bits of my brain still connected are sitting here, pondering whether they dare ask, "what the heck is a doggie style support harness?" They have since decided some doors are best left unopened.

#87 ::: Greg London ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2006, 04:51 PM:

an interesting pattern recognition just kicked in. It's a YASID, actually. A story by Hemingway. I can't remember anything about it, other than there was a line in it that went something vaguely to the effect of:

"He felt like he had just opened a door to a room in a church and just saw something he shouldn't have seen."

I assume it was a reference to priests and alter boys. I think. Then again, I'm not entirey sure it was Hemingway. I think I've had a few too many neuron tears today....

#88 ::: Sandy B. ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2006, 05:02 PM:

Having a gaming acquaintance who's an MLM guy [he only invited me to a "business meeting" once; we pretty much don't talk about it] is very. . . frustrating. I think it's because I'm a programmer and I want to deprogram him.

Can someone confirm that I need to keep walking away from the "you're getting looted" conversation?

#89 ::: Xopher (Christopher Hatton) ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2006, 05:02 PM:

Greg: "I saw something nasty in the woodshed."

And my original post was intended primarily to convey my extreme bemusement over what a "doggie-style support harness" might be. One of the things I can imagine would enormously limit the mobility of the um...receiving partner, thus making the sex less fun. And THAT doesn't make any sense to me.

#90 ::: HP ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2006, 05:12 PM:

Perhaps the doggie-style support harness is not so much for people who need the support as it is for people who can appreciate a well-made harness.

#91 ::: Mark DF ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2006, 05:13 PM:

It's the "support" part I keep getting stuck on. The doggie style part I get. The harness part I get. But the support part just keeps making me think of one of those macrame plant hangers only in leather. I don't know if that makes the sex any less fun, but it sure does make it funny.

#92 ::: Sandy B. ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2006, 05:14 PM:

... less fun.

From work, I have resisted googling. I'm getting an image, involving a hook through a support beam. In my head, it LOOKS like fun. However, now the Superman theme music is stuck in my head.

dan-dananNA! DA na na NA!

My vengeance is vast and indiscriminate.

#93 ::: David Bishop ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2006, 05:18 PM:

Not to stop your over-scwicked brain from inventing even more reasons for the d-ssh, but here's one that you may not have though of: I'm 6'2", and my wife is 5'2". That is, I am naturally a few inches "too high". With some tilting and pillows, we can get into the approximately right position, but it still hurts her back. Add the d-ssh, and she is less likely to say "Well, that was fun, now it's time to go to sleep" pre-, um, liftoff.

#94 ::: Greg London ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2006, 05:19 PM:

Xopher, I was just pointing out that your text does allow for interpretations that you did not intend. One reading of what you wrote can produce the "out-of-shape people should not have sex" interpretation. That's all.

As for the YASID query, there's a neuron way in the back that's trying to tell me it is from "For whom the bell tolls" by Hemingway. Been a while since I read it. may have to skim through it again. I seem to remember not disliking it.

#95 ::: Stefan Jones ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2006, 05:23 PM:

And then there was the guy who sold an old backhoe by painting it pink and selling it as a "Badger Style Burrow Kit."

We sure miss Aunt Sal and Uncle Mort.

#96 ::: Greg London ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2006, 05:28 PM:

David,

I don't have a problem with the harness itself. It's the mormon "slumber party" with daughter, mom, and grandma, in Boise Idaho all discussing the benefits of said harness that is causing the right half of the brain to attempt to cecede from the left.

#97 ::: Juli Thompson ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2006, 05:39 PM:

I read a True Crime book a while back. I can't remember the criminal's name, but he was a nice Mormon boy, forged new papyri of the Book of Mormon, coins, signatures of signers of the Declaration of Independence, etc. When things fell apart, he started killing people. Since the LDS church had bought and authenticated some of his papyri, things got very tense, and he ended up getting very little actual jail time.

The author of the book said that Mormons are statistically more likely to fall for scams than anyone else in the country. He had some FBI data in there showing that Utah has more con men than anywhere else. He also stated flatly that it was because LDS is irrational bunk, and Mormons are taught from childhood not to ask any questions, and also to be nice and trusting of other people. (Note - he said, not me.)

If this is true, it would help explain the prevalence of MLMs.

Question - is Avon an MLM? Is Mary Kay? Since the revenue comes AFAIK from selling to customers rather than from getting a percentage of downline sales, I would guess not. But I could be wrong.

#98 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2006, 05:45 PM:

Question - is Avon an MLM? Is Mary Kay?

When I've met people selling these, and Tupperware, they've been interested in selling products, not in recruiting more salespeople. So I figure they're legitimate businesses. I'm always leery of MLMs, under whatever guise they're using. They always feel just a bit ... off.

#99 ::: J Austin ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2006, 05:59 PM:

I don't know if the Cult of Mary Kay qualifies as an MLM, but their recruiting meetings are...uncomfortable. One of my friends begged me to go with her to one so she could see what it was all about, and she ended up by Three Thousand dollars of their products to start her business off. "But it's *half* off retail," she explained patiently when I asked her if this was the type of situation she'd asked me along to keep her away from.
I just couldn't stop looking at their skin. Sandblasted smooth and perfect. You could actually tell who'd been selling the longest by the amount of visible pore.

#100 ::: Sandy B. ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2006, 05:59 PM:

I think they're more bi-level than multi-level, in that you're working for The Man directly, but I have no actual knowledge to back this up.

On the other hand, I'm attached to the largest source of information ever, anywhere.

* Mary Kay tried to show me fluffy video which I did not watch.
* Avon gives you a recruiter's fee for dragging in friends, looks like a one-time-only fee.
* Pampered Chef site makes it sound like you get a cut from people one & only one level below you, so less binary tree and more linked list [? my metaphor-thingy is failing me.] May be a pyramid.

#101 ::: J Austin ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2006, 06:01 PM:

That's "buying." Ended up buying $3,000 worth, sorry.

#102 ::: Electric Landlady ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2006, 06:02 PM:

Juli, was it one of these?

There's also a book called "Salamander" out there, that appears to deal with the same events.

#103 ::: Janet Croft ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2006, 06:02 PM:

Well, I can see some sort of "support harness" being *ahem* rather pleasant for those of us who are well-endowed enough that a certain vigor on the part of one's partner can cause unpleasant bouncing and oscillation and "okay, this isn't as fun now as it was when I was younger and flat as an ironing board." Depends what exactly the harness is supporting, I suppose...

The MLM thing is scary. My daughter's best friend's parents got sucked into one (Re-Liv?), and since we won't bite, the friendship has been somewhat cooled, I think by parental fiat. It's like the lottery, a mug's game, only worse because the sucker has to sucker other people to win.

#104 ::: David Bishop ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2006, 06:03 PM:

"He also stated flatly that it was because LDS is irrational bunk..."

Well, without trying to make this thread take (yet) another 90 degree turn, I would say that all religion is irrational bunk. As an atheist, I don't really see a big leap from "wandering street magician dying for our sins" and "farmboy find ancient manuscripts, and then dying". *shrug* And unlike comet cults, or whatever, at least Mormons have something tangible (the BOM) to read and reread, to convince themselves "It must be true!".

And to forstall the inevitable replies: Yes, I am an atheist Mormon. My family knows, my Bishop knows, all my good friends know, and it doesn't stop me from attending church every Sunday, and even holding various positions in my ward. My mere lack of belief in God isn't nearly enough for excommunication *grin*.

As for why I keep attending church, well, any culture that combines green jello and sex toys has my vote.

#105 ::: candle ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2006, 06:04 PM:

What with the family interest and all, I did a bit of looking around (ie. chose the top result on a google for "avon mlm") and got this. It seems like a pretty sceptical site but it suggests that PJ Evans is right: that most of the income of an Avon rep comes from selling actual cosmetics, and that the system is in fact set up to discourage an indefinite pyramid of recruiters. (That is, you don't get commission if there are more than three levels in the chain.)

Oddly enough, I didn't know Avon was an MLM despite the fact that my brother works for them. But then, he works in supply, so we all used to get free aftershave anyway.

(Also, as I may have mentioned, I live in Oregon and he lives in Moscow.)

#106 ::: John M. Ford ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2006, 06:19 PM:

sex toys, Mormons, bad art, spam and wit

There is, as many of the local crowd will already know, a secondary sexual meaning of "wit." But then, we're so weird about the subject that the whole [insert Anglo-Saxon verb here] language has secondary sexual meanings. And who, these days, can hear the word "coulter" without thinking of the Wife of Bath?

#107 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2006, 06:23 PM:

Greg London: I'd never come across the things before, but I did know about Ponzi schemes. At the time I was between jobs, had just moved to a new town, and was just feeling my way around.

#108 ::: Greg London ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2006, 06:26 PM:

Well, I can see some sort of "support harness" being *ahem* rather pleasant for those of us who are well-endowed enough that a certain vigor on the part of one's partner can cause unpleasant ...

Ah, the solution to that problem is a widget sized and shaped almost exactly like a glazed donut but made out of soft pliable rubber. Can't remember where I bought mine, so I'm no help there.

(groucho marx eye brow dance)

#109 ::: Greg London ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2006, 06:28 PM:

oh wait, you meant for her not him. Never mind.

(grin)

#110 ::: Juli Thompson ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2006, 06:32 PM:

Electric Landlady,

Yes. "The Mormon Murders." That was the one. Good Google-fu!

#111 ::: Greg London ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2006, 06:34 PM:

I would say that all religion is irrational bunk

Why do I keep imagining this old sailing ship letting loose with a broadside barage from all its cannons??? Curious.

Anyway, Zen koans are intentionally irrational, but I'm not sure they're bunk. But zen is a religion, so there you have it.

#112 ::: Clark E Myers ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2006, 06:56 PM:

I'd say for much of the Intermountain West Amway replaced the late lamented Sears catalog (for what was in fact useful mail ordering) during the period before Internet marketing conquered all. This led to a certain amount of mutual backscratching by folks who were going to buy things anyway - of the I'll be your Amway downstream if you join the Quality Paperback club on me - with no expectation of actually peddling the Amway products beyond the immediate family at any time; just keeping what amounted to rebates in the extended family.

I'd attribute the majority of the (well attested) LDS susceptibility to a sense of entitlement - reinforced by hearing and repeating I tithe and I am rewarded quite often. Assuming arguendo that they work, some things garments just won't protect against. On the other hand again given opportunities in the intermountain west I've known plenty of Avon/Mary Kay ladies out of desperation and hope- despair really is a sin.

FREX this new franchise opportunity -
a chain of non-pretentious Utah restaurants
named : The Steak Center ("Where There's Never a Dry, Boring Meat-ing!"). Each Steak Center will have one enormous dining area with basketball hoops at either end, and folding metal chairs and long tables covered in plastic tablecloths. The main menu items will be the Porterhouse Rockwell Steak, the Primary Rib and the Poor Wayfaring Pan of Beef, garnished with Parsley P. Pratt, also when it's in season, Eliza R. Snow crab. And let's not forget a whole line of "And It Came to Pasta", including Kraft Moroni and Cheese. Additionally, breakfast items, including Pearl of Puffed Rice and Frosted Minivans, as well as Adam-ondi-Omelettes. Also available, "In Our Lovely Desserts", including Fast Sundaes, Gadianton Cobbler and the sinful Laman Meringue Pie.
The waiters will be 12 and 13 year-old boys wearing white shirts and their fathers' ties. At the end of the night the customers will be asked to help fold up the chairs and tables and vacuum the floor.

Franchises are selling fast..

#113 ::: Marilee ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2006, 08:08 PM:

Dave Luckett, indeed, I was no longer friends with those folks, but a couple years later, the Amway convention was in Virginia Beach and they asked my father if they could stay with him so they wouldn't have to pay for the hotel. Dad knew what had happened with me, but let them stay anyway. He was much less happy when they showed up with 17 people (only three part of the family), all of whom expected meals, showers, and beds.

Xopher, there are other meanings of "out-of-shape" than being fat.

#114 ::: Anne Sheller ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2006, 08:32 PM:

I don't know what's the matter with y'all. I personally wook very hard at staying heaylty. ;-P

The confluence of bad art, sex toys, and spam is conjuring images of replicas of kitsch and odd unmentionable objects fashioned of a glistening pink meatlike substance. So far neither Mormons nor scam artists figure in these images.

Travelling from the Quad Cities to the Twin Cities via the Great River Road, one finds a stretch of twolane somewhere in northeast Iowa where the aggregate in the pavement is a very pink crushed rock, lending the road a mottled pinkish hue. My big sister and I refer to this as the Spam Road.

And re the pink backhoe - there is a construction firm in the Charleston, WV area that has an awful lot of hot pink large earth moving equipment. An amazing and appalling sight.

#115 ::: Renee ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2006, 09:02 PM:

John M. Ford: I don't think 'Wife of Bath' when I see the word 'coulter'; I think 'B grade high school movie villain'.

#116 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2006, 09:20 PM:

Those who are looking for a photo of a doggie-style support harness can find one here.

Mike: Wife of Bath? Are you sure it wasn't the Miller? Then as now, a Coulter is a pain in the ass.

Hmmm.... could we find a spammer and have him tied up in a harness and sodomized by a Mormon dinosaur wearing a strap-on, while his friends look on chanting "Downline! Downline! Downline!"?

#117 ::: JennR ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2006, 10:11 PM:

Hey, the hot pink construction equipment makes sense. Everyone in the area will know who's working that site, and it's not like anyone is going to take a hot pink generator or excavator. Besides, the owner probably got a really good deal on the paint.

#118 ::: CHip ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2006, 10:30 PM:

Greg: Never heard of MLM but knew who Carlo Ponzi was? That's an interesting combination.

Could it be a matter of location? Ponzi has been much mentioned on the east coast in recent years because of a resemblance between his practices and those of many recent blowups (and local color -- the Boston Globe did a big story in the last year because his biggest scheme was here). MLM usually requires personal selling, which I expect is much more common between the coasts. It's also possible to know the practice but not the label -- I remember vaguely hearing about Amway pyramids but not the formal term "MLM".

#119 ::: Fade Manley ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2006, 10:32 PM:

I knew about Carlo Ponzi before hearing the term MLM, but that's mostly due to the one time I had to copy-edit the back text for Burn in Hell. Unsurprisingly, Ponzi made it into that game.

#120 ::: John M. Ford ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2006, 10:57 PM:

Jim: you are correct, of course. Although my eyes were open, they might just as well've been closed.

#121 ::: Avram ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2006, 11:28 PM:

Juli Thompson -- I just this morning started reading Jon Krakauer's Under the Banner of Heaven (about Ron and Dan Lafferty, a couple of Fundamentalist Mormon brothers who killed their sister-in-law and her daughter in 1984), and Krakauer mentions that Dan Lafferty's cell-mate is Mark Hofmann, who sounds like the guy you're talking about.

#122 ::: Juli Thompson ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2006, 11:50 PM:

Avram,

Yep, that's the guy. From the book, "The Mormon Murders," he sounds like a real piece of work. He has no empathy, no consideration for anyone other than himself. Your link was interesting. I didn't realize there was a network of former Mormons.

#123 ::: Christopher Davis ::: (view all by) ::: March 16, 2006, 12:13 AM:

The repeated mentions of the "Painter of Light" keep reminding me of the Dead Alewives "Dungeons and Dragons" skit and Galstaff, Sorceror of Light! (See also THQ's video for the skit.)

#124 ::: Dave Luckett ::: (view all by) ::: March 16, 2006, 12:20 AM:

Oh, Xopher, you do so stay friends with people who tell you lies: "that looks great on you"; "you make superb coffee"; "she (he) wasn't worthy of you"; "that's brilliant!" and so on.

They just have to be the right sort of lies.

#125 ::: rhandir ::: (view all by) ::: March 16, 2006, 12:58 AM:

ah, somebody help me out here: What does "FREX" mean? I keep seeing it used herabouts, but I can't quite get the meaning from the example.

-r.

#126 ::: Linkmeister ::: (view all by) ::: March 16, 2006, 01:38 AM:

rhandir, I'm reasonably sure it's "for example." If it's being used as shorthand for "foreign exchange, e.g. FOREX, then I'm equally as confused as you.

#127 ::: Bryan ::: (view all by) ::: March 16, 2006, 03:14 AM:

"Since the LDS church had bought and authenticated some of his papyri, things got very tense, and he ended up getting very little actual jail time."

Mark Hoffman is still in prison. He will be in prison until he dies since the Utah Parole board will never release him.

I'm pretty sure he does have empathy for people other than himself, but maybe not empathy for any of the people he killed since if he did he probably wouldn't have killed them.

#128 ::: Therese Norén ::: (view all by) ::: March 16, 2006, 04:03 AM:

"One of the things I can imagine would enormously limit the mobility of the um...receiving partner, thus making the sex less fun."

I know that many would disagree.

I actually went looking for a d-ssh, and it's nothing you can't improvise with a sturdy scarf. The second hit on Google was the Wikipedia article on dildo harnesses, which was a very interesting read.

#129 ::: Michael Weholt ::: (view all by) ::: March 16, 2006, 06:35 AM:

Avram: ...I just this morning started reading Jon Krakauer's Under the Banner of Heaven...

Yikes. I just started reading it over last weekend. Must be the Zeitgeist. I have a friend whose family, part of it anyway, comes from Nauvoo, Illinois, so I've been hearing about at least that part of Joe Smith's story for years. Just finished the part about where Joe Smith comes up with Celestial Marriage, and where Emma his long-suffering wife Has Problems With It.

My God, it's astonishing who passes for a prophet these days. But then, I guess it's always been astonishing who passes for a prophet, in whatever days you live.

#130 ::: Alan Braggins ::: (view all by) ::: March 16, 2006, 07:23 AM:

> The first time I heard the brand name "Kinkade" I thought, "Sounds like they sell a sports drink... or is it sex toys??"

Both. You know how it is, you've been having sex for a few hours and need a short break for refreshment before the next session....
Probably contains a "blend of natural energy giving herbs", or similar wording.

#131 ::: bonniers ::: (view all by) ::: March 16, 2006, 08:28 AM:

...garnished with Parsley P. Pratt...

*spews breakfast coffee*

#132 ::: Sandy B. ::: (view all by) ::: March 16, 2006, 09:36 AM:

Having had a chance to google the d-ssh [I keep wanting to write d-ssh IV], I would call that "unlikely to be useful." I was thinking of something more like a swing.

. . . what?

#133 ::: Sam Kelly ::: (view all by) ::: March 16, 2006, 10:39 AM:

Thus far Sandy: Having had a chance to google the d-ssh [I keep wanting to write d-ssh IV], I would call that "unlikely to be useful." I was thinking of something more like a swing.

Presumably, it changes colour to show how your partner's feeling.

#134 ::: Faren Miller ::: (view all by) ::: March 16, 2006, 11:26 AM:

When my dad (now deceased) worked for what used to be called Permanente Cement in California, they had shocking pink cement trucks. Just thought I'd bring that up, on this delightfully twisty thread.

#135 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: March 16, 2006, 11:29 AM:

Faren: oh yes, and the gravel trucks were lavendar! 'Find a need and fill it' indeed!

#136 ::: Linkmeister ::: (view all by) ::: March 16, 2006, 12:54 PM:

Faren, that's because Permanente was part of Henry Kaiser's empire (Kaiser Permanente), and he loved pink.

#137 ::: Xopher (Christopher Hatton) ::: (view all by) ::: March 16, 2006, 12:59 PM:

Xopher, I was just pointing out that your text does allow for interpretations that you did not intend. One reading of what you wrote can produce the "out-of-shape people should not have sex" interpretation. That's all.

Oh. Well, fair enough. Thanks, then, for giving me the opportunity to correct that misinterpretation.

I don't know if the Cult of Mary Kay qualifies as an MLM

While many of us here do worship her, I hardly think of it as a cult, much less an MLM (while I tell people she's wonderful, I don't get kickbacks if they tell other people).

What's that? You didn't mean Mary Kay Kare?

Oh. Never mind then.

Well, without trying to make this thread take (yet) another 90 degree turn, I would say that all religion is irrational bunk. As an atheist, I don't really see a big leap from "wandering street magician dying for our sins" and "farmboy find ancient manuscripts, and then dying".

Your second sentence makes a certain amount of sense (though I'd argue a recent and demonstrable charlatan—why, the amateurish pseudo-archaisms alone put him in a class with Gerald Gardner, if not worse—is a different animal than an ancient and probably distorted oral tradition, frozen in written form c.100CE by people who were certainly influenced by politics and may have been insincere in other ways, but it's a fine distinction, relying more on "who you can convict" than on "what's really suspicious").

Your first sentence quoted above, though, is incorrect. There are religions which require no beliefs at all, or at any rate none that are unsupported by experience or science. (My own does allow for the temporary adoption of unsupported beliefs, but these are much closer to NLP tricks than to anything resembling dogma.)

Marilee: Xopher, there are other meanings of "out-of-shape" than being fat.

Absolutely, and my intention was to cover any condition that calls one's ability to safely engage in sex into question.

Oh, Xopher, you do so stay friends with people who tell you lies: "that looks great on you"; "you make superb coffee"; "she (he) wasn't worthy of you"; "that's brilliant!" and so on.

You're assuming anyone ever says any of those things to me. How about "You're not wearing that, are you?" and "Christopher, let someone else make the coffee from now on, OK?" and "Well you fucked up another relationship; I hope you're happy" and "Honestly, don't you think we've thought of that?" Much more likely to hear any of these than any of the ones you cited.

Not terribly likely to hear any of them, though.

Therese: I know that many would disagree.

Well, if your PURPOSE is to restrict the mobility of the receiving partner, that's a whole different drawer of dildos. But even so, you want hir to be able to writhe.

#138 ::: Linkmeister ::: (view all by) ::: March 16, 2006, 01:05 PM:

From an Oct 24, 1960 Time magazine article about Kaiser:

Hawaii Kai, which Hawaiians call the "Pink Dream," will eventually contain about 11,000 single-family houses—ranging from $25,000 to more than $45,000—for some 75,000 people. Plans call for 20 miles of man-made beach, schools, country clubs and marinas. Like all of Kaiser's other Hawaii projects—including his hotels, his fleet of 200 vehicles, bulldozers and cranes, and his private navy of dredges—the houses in Hawaii Kai will feature Kaiser's favorite color: shocking pink. His engineers say the job will take ten years, but Kaiser insists it will be five.

You have to be a subscriber to read the thing, or I'd link it.

He may have had to give up on the pink houses in Hawai'i Kai, or else they've all been painted (not unlikely) in the 45 years since; I don't recall seeing too many pink homes on that side of the island last time I ventured East.

#139 ::: Lisa Goldstein ::: (view all by) ::: March 16, 2006, 01:06 PM:

My God, it's astonishing who passes for a prophet these days. But then, I guess it's always been astonishing who passes for a prophet, in whatever days you live.

This reminded me of a bizarre conversation I had with my mother a few years ago, when she heard about The Salamander Papers.

Mom: Joseph Smith claimed to have heard the word of God from a salamander. A salamander, can you believe it?

Me: Well, Moses heard God through a burning bush.

Mom: Yes, but that was a bush. This is a salamander.

To this day I have no idea what she meant. A salamander is actually higher up the chain than a bush, and so would be presumably closer to God ... or so you would think. I guess it goes to show that religions don't operate from logic, but from, well, something else.

#140 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: March 16, 2006, 01:22 PM:

Wait. Did Smith mean the lizard-like amphibian crittur, or a Fire Elemental (also called a Salamander)? Remarkably like a burning bush, but also not something that occurs in everyday life, even where the amphibian gitchies are common.

OTOH, the bush burned and was not consumed, which is a horribly (IMO) unnatural thing as well.

Did Joseph Smith even know the magical kind of Salamander even existed?

(Btw, the other elementals are Air - Sylph, Water - Undine, Earth - Gnome.)

#141 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: March 16, 2006, 01:24 PM:

On a more serious note: Lisa, what makes you think that "closer to human" is "closer to God"? I know a lot of people assume that, but it's not at all logical.

In fact in my opinion, and in view of the crimes of humanity against itself and the rest of nature, it's a downright bizarre assertion.

#142 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: March 16, 2006, 01:25 PM:

Would using a sylph as the medium by which a cod religion is transmitted amount to sylph-abuse?

#143 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: March 16, 2006, 01:29 PM:

Fragano - yes, but since cod are fish, Undines are much more likely victims.

#144 ::: Greg London ::: (view all by) ::: March 16, 2006, 01:45 PM:

A salamander is actually higher up the chain than a bush, and so would be presumably closer to God

which begs the question: where, exactly, is God on the food chain? The very top, meaning he eats humans? or by virtue of being God and not having to eat food, he is not even on the food chain?

Inquiring minds want to know...

#145 ::: Clark E Myers ::: (view all by) ::: March 16, 2006, 02:00 PM:

Some reports put humans in Satan's mouth (obs sf Niven and Pournelle)
At every mouth he with his teeth was crunching
A sinner, in the manner of a brake,
So that he three of them tormented thus.
Dante

See also Lewis - Screwtape Letters - for a discussion of the food chain.

According to historical record loaves and fishes are an important part of the diet.

As an artificial construct it's more tautology than information when we call something top I think. The worms crawl in.....

#146 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: March 16, 2006, 02:02 PM:

Invites, Greg. Begging the question is something else, which (of course) most God-based religions also do. "The Bible is true because it says it's true, and since it's true, we have to believe it." That's begging the question.

#147 ::: Greg London ::: (view all by) ::: March 16, 2006, 02:10 PM:

beg pardon

#148 ::: Greg London ::: (view all by) ::: March 16, 2006, 02:10 PM:

invite pardon

#149 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: March 16, 2006, 02:15 PM:

Clarke, your Steak Center riff can't possibly have gotten the appreciation it deserved, but it made me snarf my Odwalla.

If the waiter's reading your order back to you and he makes a mistake, does he have to start over from the beginning?

(Bless everyone who didn't eat here this time that they may eat here next time, amen.)

#150 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: March 16, 2006, 02:36 PM:

respond ("Greg London", pardon, "invitation to pardon", pedantry);
.
.
.
sememe function respond(person, a1, a2, a3){

   being person;
   sememe a1, a2, a3;

   grant(person, a1);
   accept(person, a2);
   apologizefor(a3, person);

   return
}

#151 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: March 16, 2006, 02:41 PM:

Teresa, your comment made me go back and read Clark's comment. Clark, that WAS funny (though I'm sure I got less than half of it).

Teresa! You added a letter to Clark's name! I'd think that, as an editor—

bang!

(slump)

#152 ::: Suzanne ::: (view all by) ::: March 16, 2006, 02:45 PM:

Sandy B. wrote:
From work, I have resisted googling. I'm getting an image, involving a hook through a support beam.
and then later: I was thinking of something more like a swing.

A while ago when I was indiscriminately link-surfing I found myself at this site, which may be more like what you'd been imagining.

(goes off now to blush furiously for a while and hope my carefully-cultivated aura of innocence remains mostly undamaged)

#153 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: March 16, 2006, 03:03 PM:

Xopher: That's undine-iable.

#154 ::: Clark E Myers ::: (view all by) ::: March 16, 2006, 03:09 PM:

NOT mine (mostly) - but nice to be reminded folks can - sometimes - laugh at themselves.

"next time you think of dismissing the person next to you on the bus or at the office as a polyester-suited mundane schmuck, remember that he or she could be ....something even stranger, that neither you nor I have ever heard of."

#155 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: March 16, 2006, 03:14 PM:

Fragano: Is making sure each elemental has its pun a gnomalization process?

#156 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: March 16, 2006, 04:16 PM:

Xopher: It's all a mander (er, matter) of taste.

#157 ::: David Bishop ::: (view all by) ::: March 16, 2006, 04:27 PM:

"Your first sentence quoted above, though, is incorrect. There are religions which require no beliefs at all, or at any rate none that are unsupported by experience or science. (My own does allow for the temporary adoption of unsupported beliefs, but these are much closer to NLP tricks than to anything resembling dogma.)"

This may be exposing my provincialism, but what sort of religion requires no belief, and what is NLP? Unless you're declaring secular humanism to be religion...?

And I laughed out loud (as in literally, not just LOLed) at the Steak Center. Adam-ondi-Omelettes was what tickled my fancy (though Parsley P. Pratt got a good *heh*).

Finally, I would guess that 'being human means being closer to God' is based on 'humans are made in His image'. That's actually something about the Mormon religion that I can grock: if he is our literal Father in Heaven, why wouldn't he want us to be gods - like him - when we "grew up"? I mean, I want my kids out of the house *now*, and the oldest is only eight. Having them hang around for eternity telling me how great of a dad I am doesn't really appeal...

#158 ::: Mark DF ::: (view all by) ::: March 16, 2006, 04:36 PM:

You know how Google remembers searches as you type? Has anyone else had to explain to someone who's used their computer why "d-ssh" shows up? I used say things like "Oh, I was looking for support HOSE for dogs and must have mistyped it" but then I discovered it's easier to say "sex toy research" cause then the conversation ends.

I recently read Under the Banner of Heaven. Fascinating. Made me marvel how easy it is to start a religion.

1) Think up some biblical-type stuff that's weird, but not too weird
2) Get some close friends to become apostles
3) Start a marketing campaign.
4) Ascend.

When you think about it, it's just like opening a book publicity firm with no experience and no real skills. Except for the Ascend part. Teresa won't let you Ascend without credentials.

#159 ::: Lisa Goldstein ::: (view all by) ::: March 16, 2006, 05:13 PM:

Xopher sez: On a more serious note: Lisa, what makes you think that "closer to human" is "closer to God"? I know a lot of people assume that, but it's not at all logical.

No, no, I didn't mean this at all. Sorry if I gave that impression. I was just trying to figure out what bizarre logic my mother was using to get to her conclusion that God can speak through a bush but not a salamander. I could imagine someone coming up with this explanation (not me), but it seemed to invalidate her point. I still don't know what she meant.

As for which type of salamander -- I really don't know. But there are people here who do know, I'm sure.

#160 ::: Greg London ::: (view all by) ::: March 16, 2006, 05:22 PM:

I was just trying to figure out what bizarre logic my mother was using to get to her conclusion that God can speak through a bush but not a salamander.

Simple. the logic is "Other people are crazy, not me."

#161 ::: Epacris ::: (view all by) ::: March 16, 2006, 05:53 PM:

My thought on seeing "chain" in that religious context is not the food chain, but the Chain of Being. This idea started off with Plato & other Greek philosophers, but was enthusiastically taken up in Christian thought.

One end - seen as the top - represents the highest degree of perfection &/or God, the other end is not absolute evil but nothingness. The first material 'links' are inanimate like rocks, humans "here on this isthmus of a middle state" are halfway, being both spirit and matter, and there are orders of spiritual beings ranged above us from elementals to angels. Every set has its hierarchy. I remember gold being the highest of non-living matter, dolphins of 'fish', eagles of birds and lions 'the king of beasts'. Was oak the chief plant?

It was used to support human social order with the king & nobles above peasants & artisans, and disrupting the hierarchy was 'unnatural' and against the holy natural order that God had ordained. It carried into some evolutionary thought in the nineteenth century as well. Part of a very human tendency for classifying.

Oh, and it's Clark E so that maybe TNH elided those. In any case, surely confession, contrition and so forth could lead to absolution for Teresa?

#162 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: March 16, 2006, 06:13 PM:

Fragano - *bows, continues into a prostration, with palms upraised to support the feet of the Fragano*

David Bishop - belief isn't actually central to Judaism, I'm told. "But Rabbi, I just don't believe any of this stuff!" "That's OK. God will understand." That's why it's possible to be both a good Jew and an atheist. But I could be wrong about that.

What I do know is that no specific full-time beliefs are required in Wicca. We do magic, but "magic is the art of changing consciousness at will" - we change many things about our mental condition, including beliefs, when we go into circle.

For example, outside circle Aphrodite is a name for a specific metaphoric construct which has been used since ancient times to personify Love and Sex. Inside circle She's a person, albeit nonphysical, Whose help on matters of Love and Sex I can implore. She likes roses.

By being able to change between these states at will (and as appropriate, with lots of safeguards in place to guarantee that), I am able to keep myself sane and rational, while still enjoying the benefits of a rich spiritual life. Wicca is far from the only such religion. (In fact, I'm working on an even more extreme example myself: Radical Pantheism, in which the universe alone, and the laws of physics and mathematics etc., are quite sufficient for the spiritual life. This not only doesn't require any unsupported beliefs, it celebrates experimental validation and elevates it to a holy thing.)

Frequently people will define religion as a system of beliefs unsupported by facts, use 'faith' as if it were a synonym for 'religion'. Neither is accurate. Wicca is a religion but not a faith. Faith is a gift, one I don't have or want.

NLP stands for Neuro-Linguistic Programming. That Wikipedia article is quite hostile, but I can personally attest to NLP's effectiveness in certain areas, notably phobias. *shrug*

Your analogy about God holds water only if all of us are "begotten not made." Having things you've made (say, little statues of clay, or computer programs) try to be human is not a wish, but a nightmare.

#163 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: March 16, 2006, 06:35 PM:

Xopher: It's good to get proper recognition.

#164 ::: Clark E Myers ::: (view all by) ::: March 16, 2006, 07:15 PM:

belief isn't actually central to Judaism, I'm told. "But Rabbi, I just don't believe any of this stuff!" "That's OK. God will understand." That's why it's possible to be both a good Jew and an atheist. But I could be wrong about that.

I'd swipe a line - of thought at least - from Chesterton and say the atheist knows what he does believe and therefore what he doesn't believe. Easier for the atheist to feel at home in a reform congregation IMHO.

It's quite possible to base a spiritual life on belief in the anthropic principle with weak and strong denominations at each others throats.

Notice too Mr. Bishop forestalled criticism by beginning if he is our literal Father ... hence the often overlooked, except maybe in the hymnal, literal Mother so necessary for the begotten. Mothers so often do want the best for their children.

#165 ::: Greg London ::: (view all by) ::: March 16, 2006, 07:57 PM:

first of all, atheism may mean
(1) a belief in the non-existence of God,
or
(2)a lack of belief in the existence/nonexistence of God.

So, depending on which definition you're using, atheism may be a belief in and of itself. You can't prove the non-existence of God, but you can believe God does not exist. Alternatively, you can refrain from holding any belief whether God does or does not exist, which is essentially agnosticism.

personally, I view atheism as the belief in the non-existence of God and use the term agnosticism to refer to those who withold from having a belief either way.

In any case, I think some people are meaning the agnostic version of atheism when they say "atheist" and I'd just like to point out that ambiguities exist in your current texts.

#166 ::: Greg London ::: (view all by) ::: March 16, 2006, 08:08 PM:

That Wikipedia article is quite hostile

Wikipedia is run by cabal. NPOV is the standing rule, but any particular point can be overridden by mass vote. If the dispute is taken to the next level in an attempt to resolve it, the question is settled by yet another group (arbitration committee) that simply votes their opinions. Members of arbcom are now popular voted into their respective positions. So, in truth, wikipedia works according to one rule: he who is most popular, wins.

To stick around on wikipedia, you generally need to see your edits and contributions to an article stay in the article. otherwise, why bother editing if you'll always get deleted? But to keep your edits in, you need allies to support you. If you watch wikipedia, you'll notice that the poeple who have been around the longest generally have a group of allies they can call in when their edits are disputed.

People who favor NPOV editing over anything else generally don't make allies, get their edits deleted, and eventually leave.

Administrators, who have generally been around a long time, have shown an amazing tendancy to accumulate allies to call in in the event of someone disputing their edits.

So, neutral articles are a myth. I used to contribute to wikipedia some time ago, but gave up.


#167 ::: David Bishop ::: (view all by) ::: March 16, 2006, 08:20 PM:

"Your analogy about God holds water only if all of us are "begotten not made." Having things you've made (say, little statues of clay, or computer programs) try to be human is not a wish, but a nightmare."

Ah, but a God that regards me like I regard computer programmes that I've written, well, he wouldn't be someone that I worshiped. Though, (and I know I'm not the first to make the comparison) if our human frailities are in fact bugs in God's code, that would explain a lot. Including The Flood (dammit! It'd be easier to start over in python...).

"That's why it's possible to be both a good Jew and an atheist."

That's interesting. I'm a "good Mormon" (don't drink, don't smoke, no coffee, go to church every week, etc). However, I've decided for myself that I would be happier following those "rules" (going to church excepted: that's solely to promote marital harmony). I don't need yet another addiction (smoking/caffeine) and drinking doesn't really appeal to me (also, it's expensive). But could I follow the rules of being a good Jew, if I didn't believe? I'd have a hard time not turning on lights on Saturday, if I didn't have some sort of compelling reason. Same with not eating bacon. Mmmmmm, bacon.

Which, of course, is the point that Greg made a couple of posts up. "Other people are crazy, not me." I'm sure other people are looking at my decision to not drink coffee as "Ah, self-justification for a previously held belief. Cuz who wouldn't drink coffee if they had the chance!?!?!?!!!" - in the same way that I can't even imagine not eating pork. So who am I to judge the conservative atheist Jew?

Oh, my point! I almost forgot. I'm a "good Mormon" and an atheist, but I don't have religion. At least, how I define religion. I'd be interested in a definition of religion that covers everything from me to you to Jimmy Swaggart. For instance, in 'Radical Pantheism', you say experimental science is elevated to be a 'holy thing'. What's the religious meaning of 'holy', if there is nothing to, well, bless it?

I'm probably exposing myself as all sorts of hay-seed here, with obvious questions. I apologize if I am, but I'm absolutely adoring this thread, and this is about the only conversation I've had in months that doesn't revolve around American Idol or computers...

#168 ::: Lizzy L ::: (view all by) ::: March 16, 2006, 08:25 PM:

Xopher, Wicca as you describe it sounds a lot like Santeria.

#169 ::: Janet McConnaughey ::: (view all by) ::: March 16, 2006, 09:30 PM:

Sam Kelly -

> Presumably, it changes colour to show how your partner's feeling.

Preferably very good, very well, and me all over.


#170 ::: candle ::: (view all by) ::: March 16, 2006, 09:41 PM:

So, depending on which definition you're using, atheism may be a belief in and of itself. You can't prove the non-existence of God, but you can believe God does not exist. Alternatively, you can refrain from holding any belief whether God does or does not exist, which is essentially agnosticism.

I don't know that I agree. Can't I also believe that the question regarding God's existence is invalid? Or am I obliged to remain agnostic regarding everything whose lack of existence I cannot prove? That is, am I also meant to describe myself as agnostic regarding fairies, UFOs, flying spaghetti monsters, and that forty-foot-long pink centipede that just climbed out of the dumpster behind you?

Disbelief is the opposite of belief, but they both seem to make positive claims. A lack of belief may be something different. Just as darkness is the absence of light rather than its (positive) opposite. (Stolen from Terry Pratchett, by the way.)

What about:
apostate: [your/this] God doesn't exist
agnostic: maybe God exists, but who knows?
atheist: what is this "God" of which you speak?

Not that I'm claiming to have the answers here.

#171 ::: Marilee ::: (view all by) ::: March 16, 2006, 09:41 PM:

Xopher, I've been dancing around the word "disability." It's entirely possible for one's body to be "out-of-shape" literally, and need an assistive device for sex, without being unsafe.

#172 ::: Dave Luckett ::: (view all by) ::: March 17, 2006, 01:02 AM:

Xopher: Personally, I think that the wit and wisdom that you display here and hereabouts more than makes up for any deficiency in making coffee, and that ain't no lie. I would never have believed that I could actually carry on a civilised conversation with a pantheist pagan with (harrumph!) an alternative outlook on gender, but there you go. The very fact that I can do this here is good for me, and who was it said that friends are people who are good for one?

Greg London: I would have thought that your distinction was the difference, as you imply, between atheism and agnosticism. I look around what little I know of the Universe and can find no evidence for the existence of God, but I am not so foolish as to think that I know everything. That makes me the latter rather than the former. And I find that it allows hope, a quality I admit I can't manage without.

#173 ::: Greg London ::: (view all by) ::: March 17, 2006, 02:03 AM:

Can't I also believe that the question regarding God's existence is invalid?

You can believe the question is invalid. You just can't prove it is invalid.

am I obliged to remain agnostic regarding everything whose lack of existence I cannot prove? That is, am I also meant to describe myself as agnostic regarding fairies, UFOs, flying spaghetti monsters, and that forty-foot-long pink centipede that just climbed out of the dumpster behind you?

One of the hardest things for people to come to grips with is getting how little they actually know and how much they believe.

If you can trust your memory and your senses, then you can probably go through your day to day life not checking over your shoulder for the possibility of a 40 foot pink centipede spontaneously appearing behind you. But that's day-to-day practicalities based on assumptions and it just happens that for most people, it works.

But you can't make that same assumption when discussion the existence of God. We start out not knowing, and unless we accumulate sufficient evidence to prove that God exists, we remain in the "not knowing".

#174 ::: David Goldfarb ::: (view all by) ::: March 17, 2006, 02:54 AM:

Mark DF: The version of Safari that comes with Tiger has a nifty little feature called "Private Browsing". With it on, pages are not cached, links are not remembered, google searches are not put in history. Handy, sometimes.

#175 ::: Xopher (Christopher Hatton) ::: (view all by) ::: March 17, 2006, 10:59 AM:

David Bishop -- Obviously, in a non-revealed religion, terms like 'holy' and 'sacred' take on somewhat different meanings. But a holy person is one who devotes a substantial amount of time to, well, devotions—that is, to activities of a religious and/or spiritual nature. (A sacred person is something different, and not relevant here.)

For a person who worships the universe and its laws, exploring those things is being a holy person, and the more rigorous the scientific inquiry, the more spiritually elevating it is. Thus scientific rigor is holy.

Lizzy L. -- Santeria is a blending of West African religious Pagan traditions with Roman Catholic Christianity. It's not surprising that there are similarities between it and Wicca, since both are Pagan, but Wicca is "a loving reconstruction of the pre-Christian traditions of tribal Europe," as Judy Harrow has put it. It borrows and invents to fill in the gaps, but the only relationship to any form of Christianity is the cultural overlay which virtually all Wiccans have grown up with.

Marilee -- Two stances: I understand, and I stand corrected.

Dave Luckett -- Wow, thanks! I think very highly of you, too. You cemented my positive opinion of you long ago, in a discussion on same-sex marriage in Electrolite. Intellectual honesty is a character trait I value highly; you proved that you have it, in spades (or maybe notrump). As for friends being good for one, I agree. I just don't think it's good for me if my friends lie to me, especially when they're telling me something is good when it isn't! My highest goal is learning, and how can I learn without honest, accurate (even if painful) feedback?

#176 ::: Lori Coulson ::: (view all by) ::: March 17, 2006, 11:50 AM:

To expand a little on Paganism, and 'holiness' of things:

To some Pagans, ~everything~ is sacred.

All things contain God/dess, and if God/dess is holy, then so is everything that contains her/him.

"...You think the earth's a dead thing you can claim: But I know every rock and tree and creature has a life, has a spirit, has a name..."

{Ah, Disney, sometimes your Imagineers do hit the nail on the head.}

Wicca's main advice is 'An it harm none, do what you will.'

Think about the 'harm none' part, trust me, it isn't as simple as it might sound.

#177 ::: Mark DF ::: (view all by) ::: March 17, 2006, 12:15 PM:

David Goldfarb: That advice sounds downright Mac-ish. I going to be in the market for a new computer soon, and I'll be looking at Macs too.

I'm not much of a conspiracy nut...not that there's anything wrong with that!...but I just loathe all the tracking that can be done to you in routine life.

#178 ::: Melissa Singer ::: (view all by) ::: March 17, 2006, 02:00 PM:

Xopher wrote: belief isn't actually central to Judaism, I'm told. "But Rabbi, I just don't believe any of this stuff!" "That's OK. God will understand." That's why it's possible to be both a good Jew and an atheist. But I could be wrong about that.

David wrote: But could I follow the rules of being a good Jew, if I didn't believe? I'd have a hard time not turning on lights on Saturday, if I didn't have some sort of compelling reason. Same with not eating bacon. Mmmmmm, bacon.

Xopher: You are right. You do not need to believe in God to be a good Jew. Nor do you even need to follow all the hundreds and hundreds of rules to be a good Jew. To be a good Jew, you should stick to the basics: Respect for others, the Golden Rule, no lying/cheating/stealing, no adultery, etc. All the rest is layering and window-dressing. Live a righteous life, in other words, do good deeds, make charitable contributions, and do your part toward tikkun olam (healing the world). That's all it takes. Belief not necessary.

David: That's only one kind of Jew. There are many (many) others. Remember this old joke: Two Jews, three opinions. That's what it's like.

#179 ::: candle ::: (view all by) ::: March 17, 2006, 02:50 PM:

One of the hardest things for people to come to grips with is getting how little they actually know and how much they believe.

Well, yes, says the Cartesian tradition. But if I don't believe my memory or my senses, I don't see how I can know anything at all. Possibly even my belief in my own existence is nothing more than a belief. (I always found cogito ergo sum to be unconvincing.) But I sure don't know anything else exists. Perhaps you would restrict knowledge to things proved with deductive logic. But that in itself requires belief in your premises - in the rules of the game as we have invented them. And I don't see why it should be privileged over inferential logic, for example.

If we are strict Cartesians we have to do away with epistemology entirely and never use the word "know". But since our language currently maintains a distinction between "know" and "believe", I think it may be useful to keep them as separate categories. What is the conventional meaning of "know" and "believe"? And into which category does God fall?

The rest of this argument is left as an exercise for the reader. But my own conclusion is that I know that there is no such thing as the giant spaghetti monster, and I believe that my students are not currently doing their Latin homework. And my negative attitude towards this divine being I can't imagine is a lot closer to the former than to the latter.

Still, this is possibly not advancing the discussion very far. All I really wanted to establish was that believing the question about God to be invalid is a different thing from remaining neutral about the answer to the question.

Is God? (yes/no/maybe/what..?)

#180 ::: Sandy B. ::: (view all by) ::: March 17, 2006, 03:30 PM:

That's why it's possible to be both a good Jew and an atheist. But I could be wrong about that.

The way I heard it [Judaism, like all religions, being a spectator sport for me] was that to quit being a Jew you must select another religion; atheism, not being a religion, doesn't get you thrown out.

I, also, could be wrong about that. And the only rabbi I offhand know argued for an estimated five hundred posts on the Monty Hall question, so I'm reluctant to have discussions with him.

#181 ::: Greg London ::: (view all by) ::: March 17, 2006, 03:42 PM:

candle,

I'm willing to accept as a premise that my memory and my senses are not decieving me to get beyond the trap of solopsism, and the possibility that you're being decieved of what is "real" when you're really plugged into God's "matrix".

I'm also willing to accept as a premise the notion that the physical universe is run by rules that are constant. Even if those rules may change over time, those changes are part of a superset of constant rules that define how they change.

At this point, you have enough basis for the scientific method to operate, to allow humans to expand the sum of knowledge as we learn, experiment, and eventually "know" things about the rules that govern the universe.

I'm willing to operate with these two premises as a basis to bootstrap the scientific method into a workable solution.

If you're not, then you are reduced to solopsism, the Matrix, decieving Gods, and other issues. You could retreat to "logic", but there is absolutely nothing that says logic must apply to the universe. Any logically found conclusion is vaporware, an idea, and you have no way of "knowing" if it has any application in the real world until you can get to the scientific method, which requires two premises to bootstrap it.

All I really wanted to establish was that believing the question about God to be invalid is a different thing from remaining neutral about the answer to the question.

Well, we were talking about Atheism. You may be able to go through historical records and whatnot and find enough evidence, etc, to say that you "know" that something written in the Christian Bible didn't happen. But when you're talking about Atheism and Agnosticism, you're not just talking about disbelief or suspension of belief in Mainstream Deities. Strong atheism states "I believe that there are no realms of existence beyond those I can sense." Agnosticism states "I refrain from making any assertions of fact regarding teh existence/nonexistence of any realm beyond those I can sense."

You can safely say "I know the earth wasn't created in 6 days and populated with all its beasts and animals in that first week."

But it becomes problematic to assert that you know there are no levels of existence beyond what you can sense. An atheist will believe that. But an agnostic would refrain from making an assertion either way.

#182 ::: candle ::: (view all by) ::: March 17, 2006, 04:09 PM:

Greg: fair enough. I think what I want to include in this system is your implied category of "Weak atheism". "Agnostic" seems to me an unhelpful term if it is to be applied to everyone with any remnant of uncertainty, whether they believe the probability of God to be 99% or 0.0001%. A weak atheist is a convinced agnostic.

For example, I am as sure that there is nothing supernatural or divine as I am sure that if I drop a coin in my office now it will be subject to the law of gravity. I don't think either fits well into the category of agnosticism.

I'm also not convinced that it is fair to make assumptions that allow your preferred (scientific) system of knowledge to work and no others. Science works for me and God doesn't. Either both fall under the category of knowledge or they both fall under belief, and I don't mind either way. But I don't see that there is any essential philosophical distinction.

I hope I'm not causing any offence, by the way. I should probably leave the point alone so that I don't.

#183 ::: Greg London ::: (view all by) ::: March 17, 2006, 04:49 PM:

candle,

I still think you aren't getting what agnostic means. It isn't a term that gets applied to anyone experiencing the slightest remnant of uncertainty. It applies to people who are certain in their refusal to assert that they have any knowledge in subjects metaphysical.

You can be agnostic and be an atheist, so long as you hold your atheism as a belief rather than fact. You could also be agnostic and a christian as long as you hold your christianity as something you believe and not something you could ever know.

Agnosticism isn't universally applied to anyone with uncertainty. Quite the opposite. Even though most of the people on the planet have doubts and uncertainty, most of them have beliefs that they hold to be true, which is the antithesis of agnosticism.

Someone who says "there is no god" is no more agnostic than someone who says "there is a god". The agnostic is the rare person who says "I don't know, but I believe this."

I'm also not convinced that it is fair to make assumptions that allow your preferred (scientific) system of knowledge to work and no others.

Fairness has nothing to do with it. It is simply a matter of "assume as little as possible until you get to a point where you can know something". There is no way out of the solopsistic trap other than to assume that your senses are not generated by the Matrix. And the assumption that the universal rules are constant is based on observations that seem to support some level of consistency.

You can assume that the Earth is held up by Turtles and that it's "turtles all the way down", but that assumption is fundamentally bigger than the simpler assumption that your senses are not fundamentally deceptive.

I don't mind assumptions if, once assumed, they are then supported by other means. Once you assume these two, they appear to be supported by observation. Assumptions such as the world being held up by turtles can also be made as your bootstrap, but they are not then followed up with observation to support that the asusmption was true in the first place.


#184 ::: JennR ::: (view all by) ::: March 17, 2006, 05:13 PM:

candle: An agnostic isn't uncertain, necessarily. Agnostics realise that there is a difference between knowing and believing. Most/many agnostics are actually fairly certain that they don't know. They can believe in any number of gods, from none to uncountable, but they admit that they don't know whether that god exists. (Agnostic myself (realio-trulio), nominally Methodist (because the church is around the corner, I don't disagree with most of the Church policies too much, and I like the people there).)

#185 ::: Mark DF ::: (view all by) ::: March 17, 2006, 06:02 PM:

My atheism and/or agnosticism is still evolving, but one of the things this very discussion points to for me is, why is the label so important? Does assigning these labels do anything more than facilitate conversation between two individuals having a discussion so that they know ("know") the other's point of reference? Or does it somehow validate one's own understanding of their place in the universe by defining the thought process? Or both? But more importantly for me is, does any of it change my behavior in any kind of meaningful way that does not evolve from my own free will? (He paused and wondered about free will)

It's not so much I don't believe God exists. While I would not be uncomfortable saying flat out that God does not exist, for me it's much more that I don't care if he does. And if he does exist, I pretty much think I'd punch him in the nose.

I know what I know, but I don't know what I don't know. So I'm willing to be surprised and not surprised by a god-goddess-serpenthead. What does that make me? Atheist? Agnostic? Or Spiritually Lazy and Confused?

#186 ::: Greg London ::: (view all by) ::: March 17, 2006, 07:19 PM:

why is the label so important?

Because when you look at the debate between fundamentalists and atheists, the problem gets split down the axis of whether or not God exists. Fundamentalists might try to explain life on earth via God and creationism. Atheists might violently reject that and go to the point of rejecting God.

But that doesn't actually address the problem. The problem isn't whether God exists or not. The problem is the more fundamental question of what we can actually "know" versus what we "believe".

When fundamentalists and atheists think they "know" the truth about God existing or not, then the problem of knowing-versus-believing remains unidentified.

Fundamentalists and Atheists "knowing" neccesarily excludes the other side. Agnosticism creates the distiction of knowing versus believing, which gives both sides a place to stand. i.e. one side believes in god, the other side believes in the non-existence of god. And both get to hold their beliefs.

The problem then comes when both sides still dont get it and try to assert that their belief is "true". Then you need to go back and explain the difference between knowing and believing.


#187 ::: candle ::: (view all by) ::: March 17, 2006, 07:22 PM:

I know what I know, but I don't know what I don't know.

Whereas, as Dick Cheney pointed out, it is most important to know what you don't know. And I am yet to reach that blessed state, alas. I think my position is actually much the same as Mark DF's, although that's not what I'm currently arguing about. (I just like to argue. I mean, in the hope that I might learn something, rather than just to be contrary.)

It applies to people who are certain in their refusal to assert that they have any knowledge in subjects metaphysical.

Now this is evidently a difference between us, because as far as I'm concerned that's a definition of (Academic) Scepticism, as in the position that Cicero argued for. It's a perfectly consistent position, but all it does is deny the possibility of knowledge. It has no consequences whatsoever for belief. (That is, even the Pope doesn't claim to *know* that God exists, but that he *believes* it. And he would not call himself an agnostic, I suspect. Agnostics have not only to deny the possibility of knowledge, but to remain neutral on the belief. At least, that's the only way can seem to understand the position.)

Agnostics realise that there is a difference between knowing and believing.

I'm not sure this can be the crucial distinction either: no doubt many believers suppose there to be a distinction there too. (Earlier I was arguing that this difference may not be as philosophically well-founded as we imagine; and I'm still not convinced that choosing to believe only a small number of things - ie. making Greg's assumptions - is sufficient to mark that set of things off as "knowledge".) What I want to suggest is that there is a form of atheism which doesn't make positive claims - whether the claim that (any) God exists, or the claim that knowledge is impossible.

Most/many agnostics are actually fairly certain that they don't know.

Well yes, but they are certain about their uncertainty, if you see what I mean. They are sure of their answer to the question of God's existence: their answer is "I am uncertain about it". The kind of atheism I want to define here is one which refuses to answer the question. That's a different thing, I think.

(1) "Strong" atheism, on this model, makes the claim that no gods *can* exist.
(2) Scepticism claims that it is impossible to know whether any gods exist or not.
(3) Agnosticism admits that gods might exist but is uncertain about their actual ontological status.

I don't really identify with any of these positions. I'm not interested in making claims about metaphysics. And to answer Mark DF's question, it matters because I don't want to be taken for (3). (Because that to me is the same argument as Wittgenstein refusing to believe that there was not a rhinoceros in his lecture room, even after Bertrand Russell had looked all over for it - and I personally would feel it was a cop-out.)

What I think would be closer to my position is a kind of "weak" atheism: in that I am totally sure that no supernatural entities exist, whether they are possible or not. I know this as much as I know anything: as much as I know that the law of gravity is not suspended in Oregon, and for the same reason (ie. by empirical experience and inferential logic, which I assume will hold true and which assumption Greg at least supports).

I think both of these fall under 'knowledge'. If not, then I am happy for them both to be beliefs. What I don't get is the reason for distinguishing them. Either you fall back on it being impossible to prove a negative (which is not true - I hereby prove that I am not dead); or else you make the further assumption that metaphysics does not deal with our ordinary categories of 'truth' and 'reality', in which case I don't understand the question.

I don't have a position on the ontological status of God. I just don't see why the question arises. Again, no offence meant.

#188 ::: Greg London ::: (view all by) ::: March 17, 2006, 08:12 PM:

(3) Agnosticism admits that gods might exist but is uncertain about their actual ontological status.

What is it with "uncertainty"? You are missing the point. Agnosticism is getting that you will never know anything about anything metaphysical with any certainty at all. Ever. Agnosticism is saying that Science and the metaphysical are orthogonal, never to meet.

If you want certainty about anything metaphysical, you will have to get it from your certainty of beliefs about the metaphysical.

my position is a kind of "weak" atheism: in that I am totally sure that no supernatural entities exist, whether they are possible or not. I know this as much as I know anything: as much as I know that the law of gravity is not suspended in Oregon,

No, the position you are describing is hard atheism. Hard, absolute atheism. You cannot be "totally sure that no supernatural entities exist" and be weak atheism.


#189 ::: CHip ::: (view all by) ::: March 17, 2006, 09:58 PM:

candle: I'm also not convinced that it is fair to make assumptions that allow your preferred (scientific) system of knowledge to work and no others. Science works for me and God doesn't. Either both fall under the category of knowledge or they both fall under belief, and I don't mind either way. But I don't see that there is any essential philosophical distinction.

The distinction is that large parts of science can be demonstrated, reproducibly, by anyone, to independent observers; where there is \nothing/ that can rigorously show the existence of God. (The studies about the efficacy of prayer for the sick did not meet modern standards from what I recall reading.) One can argue that God is (deliberately?) too remote and/or unknowable to recognize by rigor; but there is little parallel between the reasonings of science and belief. I don't think you intended this, but your argument sounds to me very much like the deliberate blurring done by those "science teachers" who are trying to warp the teaching of science on religious grounds. (cf Dover. wrt which, my favorite quote from an onlooker, responding to one of the IDer's saying that he feared the ACLU more than Al Qaeda: "He should -- Al Qaeda never turned over his rock.")

#190 ::: Keir ::: (view all by) ::: March 17, 2006, 11:42 PM:

CHip: Studies about the effiacy of prayer on health don't prove anything about God, really. Mainly, they are studies of the placebo effect, and its variations.

Of course, it is possible that they are proof of the existence of God's intervention, or it could just be that thinking `good' thoughts helps with sickness. I think that the second possibility is much the more likely, personally.

#191 ::: candle ::: (view all by) ::: March 18, 2006, 12:15 AM:

Yeah, I admit I'm in over my head here, and trying to argue too many things at once. And I should probably say before I start that I think I misattributed the "known unknowns" - it was actually Rumsfeld, wasn't it? Sorry. Although the irony is quite neat.

And as CHip generously assumed, I don't mean to be undermining science here. I think science is by far the most useful framework - or perhaps I mean foundation - we have for knowing things, and I'm willing to call the things we derive from it "knowledge". My point - I think! - is that doing that also allows me to call my "belief" that no supernatural entities exist "knowledge" too. After all, science by definition rules out the supernatural.

So, I guess I've proved that it is possible to be an atheist. Which isn't much of an achievement, really. Never mind. That wasn't really what I set out to do. So, now what?

Agnosticism is getting that you will never know anything about anything metaphysical with any certainty at all.

Well, I still think this is a definition of Scepticism rather than agnosticism, but maybe they are the same thing. But this does at least show you where my "uncertainty" thing comes from. On the definition here, an agnostic would reply to the question "Does God exist?" with the answer "I don't know" (and possibly "because it can't be known"). Surely this implies uncertainty as to the existence of God. Or have I got the anticipated reply wrong?

And is it "knowing" this or "believing" this? Your "getting" implies that it is trivial and obvious - which is another reason why I don't think this can be a sufficient definition of an agnostic. I still think that on this definition the Pope would be an agnostic. He may know/believe/get/understand that nothing can be *known* about God, but that's no reason not to *believe* certain things. Augustine certainly drew this distinction: the whole point was that Christianity was belief and not knowledge. (Tertullian too: at least, that's how I understand "credo quia absurdum est".)

Let me try a different model, again - and different from what I was trying before. Perhaps we should start with the assumption that everyone is sceptical - unless there are Gnostics out there, who believe they possess knowledge of God which is in a different category from belief. (I suppose people who have received direct revelation fall into this category too.) So everyone else agrees that nothing can be *known* about metaphysics. This, after all, is philosophy 101, and maybe it's as trivial as you imply.

So, starting from there, this is how I understand the various positions:

Belief: I believe in God(s).
Atheism: I believe in no God(s).
Agnosticism: I believe in the possibility of God(s).

If pushed to define myself, as Greg rightly pointed out, I fall into the atheist category here. And the reason is that I find agnosticism as phrased here philosophically unsatisfactory. (I had a stronger word there, but I've cut it.) Note that none of them make any claims about knowledge, so Descartes can't touch them.

But I still think there is room for the position I'll attribute to Mark DF (perhaps unfairly - I hope not), which is that it is unnecessary to hold beliefs on metaphysics.[*] Am I obliged to accept the question as valid? Am I obliged to even accept the category of "metaphysics" as valid? "Do you believe in qxaazdzzx?" is no more or less valid a question in my book. I usually tell people I'm an atheist, but in an important way it makes no real sense to me.

All of which, I imagine, is what Wittgenstein was getting at with "whereof we cannot speak, thereof we must remain silent". Which advice I should probably have taken. I apologise for continually derailing these discussions into bad theology. I shall try to stick on topic in future...!

[*] This is what I was calling "weak atheism". You're right that it's a totally unhelpful phrase. Sorry.

#192 ::: HP ::: (view all by) ::: March 18, 2006, 01:22 AM:

Various strands in this thread remind me of an unfulfilled dream of mine to start my own religion. What I want to do is find a '50s, Saarinen-style high-modern church for sale, buy it, and create a religion derived from various Indo-european paleo-pagan traditions, only substituting Hollywood stars of the mid-20th-century for the various deities. Imagine the nave lined with 8x10 glossies of Marilyn Monroe (Venus, Aphrodite, Inanna, Kama...), Katherine Hepburn (Artemis, Diana, Ishtar, Freya...), Marlon Brando (Heracles, Thor, Mithras, Krishna...), etc., etc.

The music would be based on jazz trombones and amplified arch-top guitars, and the sermon would involve the priest reading from the local Sunday paper and then riffing on what the stories told us about morality, illustrating this with plot lines from classic films. (Scholarship would be an important part of the priesthood, and a priest who could illuminate current EU foreign policy by referring to the Poverty Row pictures of Bela Lugosi would be especially prized.)

I just need to figure out something equivalent to the ancient cult of the sacrifice that would also be legal. I'm tending toward impromptu public barbecues held in the middle of the ghetto. Who wants another burger? Can you think of a better way to spend a Sunday? And remember, at HP's Church of the Stars, Wednesday night is movie night!

#193 ::: Anne Sheller ::: (view all by) ::: March 18, 2006, 01:48 AM:

Apparenyly by Greg London's definition I'm an agnostic Catholic. I'm OK with that. Can't see trying to explain it to Father Ted or the rest of the choir though.

#194 ::: A. J. Luxton ::: (view all by) ::: March 18, 2006, 05:23 AM:

David Bishop: It sounds like less a matter of religious devotion and more a matter of habit-forming and not-forming.

You are addicted to bacon, in the weak sense of the word, which is to say you are a habitual user of bacon. And not of coffee. These things probably have less to do with Mormonism and Judaism as religious tenets, and more to do with cultural backdrop and how it plays into habit.

I was raised sort of sloppily Jewish, and vegetarian. I'm still vegetarian by habit: fish doesn't seem to hurt me, but it makes my system uncomfortable in a sort of anxious, sped-up "why have you eaten strange proteins? Get up and find some real food!" way, so I haven't pressed farther.

Conversely, coffee was a way of life in my family. I can't really conceive going without it. But I can't really conceive eating bacon either. When the sweeties cook it, I wonder aloud what that nasty smell is mixed in with the eggs and potatoes?

And these days I'm Pagan.


Xopher and others, on the subject of harnesses:

There are various devices available for making sex more comfortable, not least because, in sex where a female partner is involved, there is a substantial risk of "OW you're not supposed to be hitting that!" in a number of positions. Also the back strain David Bishop mentions. Missionary and reverse-missionary (no Mormon puns intended, but others are free to make them!) usually doesn't cause these problems, as far as my observations run, which may be why they're so popular.

Having worked, albeit briefly, in a porn store, I can advise that those who wish to look at sex harnesses should google "love swing", and for other types of ergonomic support, check out the liberator wedge...

#195 ::: John M. Ford ::: (view all by) ::: March 18, 2006, 06:13 AM:

What I want to do is find a '50s, Saarinen-style high-modern church for sale, buy it [...]

The old TWA terminal at JFK (which is now inadequate for major carriers -- the last time I looked, was being used by JetBlue, meaning it may well be available soon) might do nicely; it's more than "Saarinen-style," is accessible by subway/Airtrain, limo, and of course international flight. The sect's tenets could include something about "preparing for a journey" -- most of them do anyway -- and anybody would be invited to stop in before departure or after arrival to say something nicely propitiative to the Relevant Spirit. A duty-free shop could sell Thoughtful Items for the Worshipful Traveler, like imprinted garments reading "The Spirit of the Open Way Protected My [insert here] from Hazard, and All I Got Was this Blessed T-Shirt" (tote bag, prayer shawl, inflatable neck pillow), and of course, "got wings?"

#196 ::: Jonathan Shaw ::: (view all by) ::: March 18, 2006, 06:24 AM:

Candle: I haven't been following the discussion closely, and I know I shouldn't take your apologies for derailing the conversation with bad theology too literally, but please keep doing what you do. It's a huge pleasure to read your mind at work.

#197 ::: Greg London ::: (view all by) ::: March 18, 2006, 12:08 PM:

"Does God exist?" with the answer "I don't know" (and possibly "because it can't be known"). Surely this implies uncertainty as to the existence of God.

candle, this may sound subtle, but it is heart of the problem: you are confusing "certainty" with "knowing".

Agnosticism puts "knowing" in the realm of science. You cannot know anything unless you can know it by scientific methods, observation, repeatability, yada, yada, yada.

Agnosticism also has a place for "believing" and I've always taken this as agnostics version of Luther saying that each person has an individual (personal) relationship with God, for whatever form of God (or lack thereof) you wish to believe.

The thing is every time I start talking about "knowing", you bring up "certainty". They are not the same. You can know with certainty that the earth goes around the sun. You can also believe with certainty that God does not exist, if that's what you choose to believe.

To "get" agnosticism, you have to grok the difference between knowing, believing, and certainty. When the discussion is running between Fundamentalists and Atheists, the distinctions sometimes collapse, and both sides think they "know" the truth about God.

In bringing up the definitino of agnosticism, I was simply trying to point out that neither side "knows", that both sides "believe" (possibly with certainty) that God does/does-not exist.

Surely this implies uncertainty as to the existence of God.

It implies uncertainty as to knowing about the existence of God. It might even imply that God is something we may never "know". But it does not rule out certainty as to your belief in the existence of God (or in your case, the belief in the non-existence of God).

#198 ::: Greg London ::: (view all by) ::: March 18, 2006, 12:11 PM:

After all, science by definition rules out the supernatural.

No, it doesn't. They are orthogonal. They do not overlap or intersect. They are completely different realms.

Science simply says we can't know anything about the supernatural unless it can be put under natural examinations.

#199 ::: Greg London ::: (view all by) ::: March 18, 2006, 12:12 PM:

And to say "we can't know" is not the same as saying "it must be ruled out".

#200 ::: Xopher (Christopher Hatton) ::: (view all by) ::: March 18, 2006, 12:48 PM:

In my experience, people who are certain are generally wrong. Or at least more often wrong than people who are perpetually uncertain. This is because, being uncertain, they verify and examine and think more, and thus come to correct conclusions more often.

I don't believe in anything supernatural. But then, since I believe that the Divine IS Nature...well, pretty hard for it to be supernatural, eh?

#201 ::: Xopher (Christopher Hatton) ::: (view all by) ::: March 18, 2006, 01:02 PM:

And Greg, science doesn't rule out the existence of the supernatural. But science rules out the supernatural as a subject of study, (what you meant by orthogonal, but I think 'skew' would be more accurate) and as a source of explanations. Science is the process of finding natural explanations for observed phenomena (oversimplified, but the natural part is always there).

So: Science doesn't rule out the existence of God([s | dess(es)]), but it has no business trying to explain Him/Her/It/Them. It certainly cannot ever resort to saying "well, Arioch makes this next bit happen"!

Shorter: Science doesn't rule the supernatural out of existence, just out of consideration.

#202 ::: candle ::: (view all by) ::: March 18, 2006, 02:01 PM:

Thank you, Jonathan Shaw - although you may be less impressed the more closely you read me.

The apology was (mostly) sincere, if only because doing this takes over way too much of my time and my mental space. (I have trouble leaving alone an argument until I at least know what I think.) And I'm aware this isn't necessarily the right forum for all this.

Greg: yes, when I said science 'rules out' the supernatural, I only meant it doesn't have anything to say about it - what Xopher said, basically. So definitions of scientific knowledge have no effect on the supernatural - which, if it exists at all, requires wholly different arguments.

But there is certainly something about your definition that I still don't understand. If I grasp what you are saying in your last post, you want to draw a distinction between "knowing" and "believing", and you want to limit "knowing" to scientific knowledge. That is fine with me. I not only see the difference, but I am perfectly happy to agree with it.

But then you seem to define this position as agnosticism, and that seems wrong to me. In large part this is because it means that Anne Sheller, the Pope, St Augustine and myself are all agnostics; which is to say, that your definition of an agnostic has nothing whatsoever to do with belief in God. I think this is what you are saying here:

Agnosticism also has a place for "believing" and I've always taken this as agnostic's version of Luther saying that each person has an individual (personal) relationship with God, for whatever form of God (or lack thereof) you wish to believe.

So your definition of agnosticism has nothing to do with whether a person believes or disbelieves in (any) God? Well, fine: we are all agnostics. But does that seem right to you? I think a lot of atheists and Christians would be surprised to be told that they were in fact (also?) agnostics. To define the term like this is to render it irrelevant to the discussion.

I think you are actually defining (academic) scepticism, which is a perfectly tenable philosophical position and one which is usually taken for granted in western tradition. In fact, the Catholic Church assumes it: it is a heresy to claim *knowledge* of God - which is what the Gnostics were condemned for - in a church where the defining feature is a creed ("We believe.."). But I don't think the Pope would define himself as an agnostic.

I wonder if the root of the problem is that you imagine Fundamentalists and atheists to be making (science-like) knowledge claims about God. My understanding is that both sides would draw the line at "firm belief" (or as you say, "certain belief"). "Know" tends to get used as shorthand or hyperbole in some contexts, but I think it's a misapprehension to take that as a claim to scientific (ie. provable) knowledge. After all, I just *know* that I am going to win the lottery tomorrow.

But perhaps you have succeeded in explaining to me why I don't like to be described as an agnostic. If I'm asked the question "Do you believe in God?" I can either say "no" or "yes". To say "I don't know (whether he exists or not)" is to answer a different question. Nobody was asking whether or not I know him to exist; and neither the atheist nor the believer has claimed as much. Or perhaps the agnostic doesn't know what (s)he believes? But again, that isn't a position on the question so much as a failure to think about it.

But perhaps an agnostic would say "I don't believe in his existence *or* his nonexistence" - but I don't see that as being a tenable position either. I can't see that there is a third category which can be believed in there; and the alternative is that the agnostic is claiming to have no beliefs at all, which seems at best unsatisfactory and at worst dishonest.

[rant]
This is what I meant, I think, when I said that agnosticism strikes me as a cop-out. It seems to be an unwillingness to own up to having beliefs. And I don't think there is anyone who is really without beliefs of one sort or another, even if they are vague or inconsistent. Again, if I ask you whether you believe that a 40-foot pink centipede is climbing out of the dumpster behind you, it's irrelevant to tell me that it is possible or that it can't be known for certain: what do you *think*? Are you seriously lacking in beliefs about giant pink centipedes? Or are you just refusing to think about the question?
[/rant]

So, in answer to the question "Do you believe in the existence of (a) God?", I can see a variety of reasonable answers: yes, no, I haven't thought about it, I don't care, I don't understand the terms of the question. To say "I don't think it can be known" is an answer to a different question.

Well, I guess I've learned something here, anyway. I'll try to keep future posts down to a more manageable size.

#203 ::: Jonathan Shaw ::: (view all by) ::: March 18, 2006, 04:15 PM:

See what I mean? That's a terrific post.

#204 ::: Marilee ::: (view all by) ::: March 18, 2006, 10:07 PM:

A.J. Luxton, my mother's religion forbid stimulants, but she occasionally failed and had chocolate or coffee. So on her birthdate, I memorialize her with a couple bites of chocolate and a couple sips of coffee. I hate coffee and I'm not that fond of chocolate, but I remember how much she liked them.

#205 ::: Dave Luckett ::: (view all by) ::: March 19, 2006, 12:08 AM:

candle: I hope for the best, but I don't know, and have no reason to believe, not even a mystical sense of the Divine, for I haven't one; but on the other hand I don't not know, either. Is that a statement of agnosticism? Or is it really theist in the first part, atheist in the second, escapist in the last, and therefore merely confused?

I suspect it is merely confused. Dear me, and such a small return for so many bad late nights, to boot.

#206 ::: candle ::: (view all by) ::: March 19, 2006, 12:25 AM:

Really, Dave L., I put that much effort into finding a definition I'm happy with, and you set out to undermine it?

This isn't about what real people think, this is philosophy. ;)

#207 ::: Epacris ::: (view all by) ::: March 19, 2006, 04:48 AM:

Ah, yes. The problems of Knowledge and Certainty. A really important part of my beliefs, if I am permitted that word :) See The Danger of Knowing for Sure (www.ratbags.com/skepticism) Best read with a longer quote from the original "Knowledge or Certainty", episode in the 1973 BBC series The Ascent of Man (USA) at www.ronrecord.com/Quotes/bronowski.html (Also mentioned before here, and on my blog and its lj mirror.)

#208 ::: A. J. Luxton ::: (view all by) ::: March 19, 2006, 06:59 AM:

Marilee, that's incredibly sweet.

And it speaks to me of why indulgence (in my own opinion) is sacred.

#209 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: March 19, 2006, 09:33 AM:

Sort of on topic: yesterday I was behind a pickup truck with a license-plate frame reading 'Post Hoc Ergo Propter Hoc'.

No, I don't know what it had on the front end. But it's a wonderful example of the fallacy.

#210 ::: Greg London ::: (view all by) ::: March 19, 2006, 10:37 AM:

In my experience, people who are certain are generally wrong.

But you haven't distinguished between people who are certain of their beliefs versus people who are certain of what they know, so you haven't really made the distinction between (1) knowing, (2) believing, and (3) certainty.

I am certain of my personal spirtuality. And that certainty shows up in the form of being centered, of having a certainty that what I believe is right for me. But how would you be able to tell if my belief, of which I am unshakably certain, is wrong?

You can't. But you said people who are certain are generally wrong. That's because you're talking about people who are certain of what they know, not what they believe.

Perhaps another way to distinguish "belief" versus "knowing" is that belief, ultimately, is personal. But once you go outside of yourself and begin to interact with the physical world and physical human beings, then you enter into the world of knowing.

Knowing is empircal, it is physical, it is grounded in the scientific method. knowing is a function of what you can sense with your body. It is external. It starts from what you sense and works its way in.

Belief is internal. It starts from inside your mind, and it may make its way out into the physical world, but it always remains a belief, an internal process. We each have our own personal relationship with our beliefs, with spirituality, with God.

How can you possibly determine if anyone's belief, anyone's relationship with God, is wrong?

I will guess that the people you are talking about, the people who are "certain" who are generally wrong, are people who have taken their beliefs and brought it out into the physical world and relate to it as if they "know".

your belief ends where my nose starts.

Candle argued that the Pope would claim that he didn't "know" God existed, that he only "believed" god existed. But when you take a belief and turn it into a physical, real, blood-letting, holy war against others, then you are saying "belief" but really acting as if you "know".

That is where the distinction between knowing and believing is missing. When an aetheist argues that there is no god and uses that to argue against prayer in school, they are taking their belief in the non-existence of God and relating to it as if they KNOW. When a Christian argues that there is a God and that we should mandate everyone pray to him in school, that is relating to it as if they KNOW. When "belief" becomes external, it enters the world of "knowing", and the two become collapsed.

Agnosticism would that we don't KNOW if God exists or not, so we can't mandate prayer in school. Agnosticism says that we should relate as people based on what we KNOW, and that each individual has a right to their BELIEF. And how we relate to each other as a people is, essentially, defining ourselves as STATE, so, agnosticism is basically saying that there should be a separation of church and state, of belief and knowing, not because church is evil or religion is bad, but because belief is a personal thing and knowing is an external thing, and never the two shall meet.

#211 ::: Greg London ::: (view all by) ::: March 19, 2006, 10:40 AM:

This is what I meant, I think, when I said that agnosticism strikes me as a cop-out. It seems to be an unwillingness to own up to having beliefs.

candle, read my most recent post to xopher. all of it. agnosticism isn't a cop out to avoid owning up to beliefs, it just separates out what you believe from what you know.

#212 ::: CHip ::: (view all by) ::: March 19, 2006, 12:32 PM:

Keir: Mainly, they are studies of the placebo effect, and its variations.

Which is what I was raising as an objection; the placebo effect involves the subject being told that something is being done (or even witnessing it), where a formal test would require that neither the subjects nor the people who weighed the subjects' conditions know which subjects were actually prayed for. (cf one of the deficits of the TV preachers being Jesus's instruction to pray in secret rather than as spectacle.)

candle and Greg are illustrating the slipperiness of small words (cf Valentine Michael Smith's observation.) People -- even people without the conceit of Carroll's Humpty Dumpty -- assign individual meanings to "know" and "believe"; many consider personal experience, even experience they might admit to be ecstatic rather than rational, to be knowledge without the need for comparison or confirmation. ("I know that my Redeemer liveth, and that he shall stand upon the earth"(*)). Almost all of us accept reports from other people according to our personal standards of comparison & confirmation and our measures of these in the reporters; we don't demand rigorous reproduction of everything (which I think Greg leans toward and I was perhaps too precise about).

(*) I remembered this from part 3 of "The Messiah" and was surprised to find it comes from Job rather than the New Testament.

#213 ::: Marilee ::: (view all by) ::: March 19, 2006, 08:43 PM:

Dave Luckett, I thought Divine had a marvelous mystical sense, especially when it came to clothing.

#214 ::: Bob Oldendorf ::: (view all by) ::: March 19, 2006, 09:05 PM:

HP: Various strands in this thread remind me of an unfulfilled dream of mine to start my own religion...substituting Hollywood stars of the mid-20th-century for the various deities. ...The music would be based on jazz trombones...

Someone in San Francisco may have beaten you to it:

Do you know of the St. John Coltrane African Orthodox Church?

#215 ::: candle ::: (view all by) ::: March 20, 2006, 02:37 AM:

Greg: I have read your post to Xopher - all of it (and I'd thank you not to imagine that I would take parts out of context - I hope I deserve more generosity than that).

agnosticism is basically saying that there should be a separation of church and state, of belief and knowing, not because church is evil or religion is bad, but because belief is a personal thing and knowing is an external thing, and never the two shall meet.

Well, I disagree. I think this is a different argument entirely. What the Pope chooses to do on the basis of his belief is entirely up to him - at least in the sense that he might well judge that his certainty of belief, even if it falls short of knowledge, might justify him in starting a holy war. Of course, with the Pope there is no issue of separation of church and state.

The separation of church and state has nothing to do with one's private beliefs, as you say, but as far as I understand the term it also has nothing to do with knowledge - or with agnosticism. It's about secularism: that is, the political agreement that there are areas in life to which belief (and indeed, knowledge) is irrelevant. (I also don't agree that states are (usually) based on knowledge claims, scientific or otherwise - the Declaration of Independence arguably makes a knowledge claim about God in the first sentence, but the US constitution and the amendments do no such thing.

The First Amendment didn't separate church and state because of a belief that knowledge of God was impossible, but because private religious beliefs were considered irrelevant to public life. Respecting laws like this is part of what it means to be a member of any society, but they don't commit anyone to philosophical scepticism. It has nothing to do with private beliefs, and is confined to public actions. As long as they don't break any laws, then gnostics can be Americans too!

Again, I agree that the separation of church and state is an important thing, and I agree with what I take to be your stance on it. But I don't agree that it defines agnosticism. As far as I have ever seen the term used, "I am an agnostic" usually has reference to the speaker's beliefs (or otherwise) about the supernatural. I have never, before today, seen it used to refer instead to the actions one takes on the basis of those beliefs. Perhaps I've been moving in the wrong circles. Perhaps we should take a straw poll.

In any case, I personally was only interested in agnosticism as it pertains to belief. And that is the only sense in which I think it is a cop-out: probably I shouldn't have used the term, though, as it is perhaps more offensive than I meant. All I meant to say is that I don't think it can be true to claim that one has no beliefs regarding the supernatural, or that one possesses something that lies between belief and unbelief. That sounds to me like confusion (with which I guess I am hereby diagnosing Dave Luckett - sorry!). But this was part of my rant, and my excuse on this point is that I don't want to think about it too hard.

As far as I'm concerned, your sceptical and secularist stance is wholly admirable. But I don't see any reason to call it "agnosticism" - and for me it is downright confusing to do so. Still, it's possible that all I've established is that *I* have no use for the term, or have been labouring under a misapprehension, rather than that you are using it wrongly.

In any case, I'm much clearer on all this myself, even if I've confused anyone else. So, er, thanks for sticking with it.

Should we go back to talking about sex toys?

#216 ::: candle ::: (view all by) ::: March 20, 2006, 03:12 AM:

Actually, Greg, I think I was being overly touchy there about the "all of it" remark. Probably you only meant to say that all of it was relevant, and I overreacted. Sorry.

And yes, ultimately this is a disagreement over semantics. I don't mean it as an attack on anyone.

#217 ::: Greg London ::: (view all by) ::: March 20, 2006, 10:50 AM:

People assign individual meanings to "know" and "believe"; many consider personal experience, even experience they might admit to be ecstatic rather than rational, to be knowledge without the need for comparison or confirmation.

There is no way to know anything about the physical world without physical observations, physical experimentation, physical measurments, and physical repeated tests. You can bring in "Logic" and "Math" and other word/idea based concepts to help, but they are fundamentally ideas and there is nothing that says your idea has anything to do with the physical world.

When people talk about whether or not they "know" something, in the context of the above thread that started it all regarding atheism versus religion, they cannot "know" God exists in any sort of physical sense of the word "exists".

They can claim they "know" God exists but it will always be a "knowing" based on mental exercises which fundamentally reduces to "belief".

So, while people do assign their individual meaning to "know" and "believe", agnosticism is trying to clarify that when an atheist or fundamentalist says they "know" the truth about God, they are really saying they "believe". Because when you're in a discussion between atheists and the religious, the discussion comes down to one basic principle:

To have enough certainty of a belief to enforce that belief on others.

People say "knowledge" but more often mean "certainty of their belief". And while the belief remains in your head, it is just a belief, but as soon as you start enforcing your belief onto others in the physical world, you are talking about whether you actually know something.

As long as people continue to collapse their beliefs and call it knowledge, you will continue having holy wars over abortion, prayer in school, sex education, and similar topics. Once people get the difference between what they believe and what they know about the physical world, then you have a chance to find resolutions that are reality based, rather than faith or belief based.


#218 ::: candle ::: (view all by) ::: March 20, 2006, 04:35 PM:

agnosticism is trying to clarify that when an atheist or fundamentalist says they "know" the truth about God, they are really saying they "believe".

I still wouldn't call this agnosticism, but I don't think there's any way (or much reason, really) to resolve that here and now. FWIW, I agree with the rest of what you say - I mean, that to point out that there may be a difference between belief and knowledge is a useful service, and that a lot of intolerance comes from using one when you really mean the other.

(OK, I'm cheating there by leaving myself room to claim that science isn't necessarily "knowledge" either, but that's not really a point I'm that attached to - feel free to replace "may be" with "is" if you prefer.)

So, er, I guess I agree on all the important stuff. This is nice to know. Cheers!

#219 ::: Greg London ::: (view all by) ::: March 21, 2006, 10:47 AM:

Merriam Webster defines "agnostic" as: a person who holds the view that any ultimate reality (as God) is unknown and prob. unknowable; broadly : one who is not committed to believing in either the existence or the nonexistence of God or a god

Bartelby gives this history of the word: An agnostic does not deny the existence of God and heaven but holds that one cannot know for certain whether or not they exist. The term agnostic was fittingly coined by the 19th-century British scientist Thomas H. Huxley, who believed that only material phenomena were objects of exact knowledge. He made up the word from the prefix a–, meaning “without, not,” as in amoral, and the noun Gnostic. Gnostic is related to the Greek word gnsis, “knowledge,” which was used by early Christian writers to mean “higher, esoteric knowledge of spiritual things”

On looking through various online definitions, I do find some definitions will turn the word to include terms such as "doubt" and "uncertainty", which I find a bit disturbing, and attribute to common usage by people who don't know the meaning of the word and using it for other things.

But I think the original use of the word, the inventor of the term makes it fairly clear that his intent was to define "knowledge" to be limited to the physical world. "Belief" then would still be allowable for spiritual matters, since they cannot be "known".

#220 ::: TexAnne ::: (view all by) ::: March 21, 2006, 11:04 AM:

It seems to me that this is a rare case of Madame Teresa being wrong. Warren Whitlock, having inspired a discussion of great subtlety and civility, is merely imperfectly useless.

#221 ::: Greg London ::: (view all by) ::: March 21, 2006, 01:47 PM:

what a looonnnnggg, strange thread it's beeen...

#222 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: March 21, 2006, 02:50 PM:

And it speaks to me of why indulgence (in my own opinion) is sacred.

Actually, I think way too many people indulge in their own opinions.

Oh, wait, you meant...never mind.

Greg, I really don't make the sharp distinction you make between belief and knowledge. If I understand your distinction clearly, however, I was indeed speaking of certainty of what they 'know'.

But I also take that more radical view, that sometimes you're wrong even about your own internal processes. I take that view because I have experienced false beliefs as a result of physiological conditions. Moreover I would not now contend that I have no such beliefs, nor that my current physiological condition is optimal for unbiased judgement (a mythic thing that no human can ever achieve...I believe), nor even that the evidence of my own senses is necessarily accurate.

I have to take some position about these things, or life is impossible; but those "beliefs," if beliefs they are, have the status of operational assumptions. Some are more deeply held than others; you'd need a fair amount of data to prove to me that Einstein was wrong (say), but not as much as you'd need to prove to me that ice cubes are boiling hot.

It's not exactly comfortable, being willing to entertain doubts about literally anything given evidence of sufficient quality (and quantity). That's why most people choose otherwise. I'd hold that they remain ignorant all their days! And I must say, by maintaining that suspension of certainty as much as I possibly can, I have learned some marvelous things. Also, I've kept some friends I might otherwise have lost.

It's worth it to me. *shrug*

(And yes, I'm uncertain even about what I believe...and about my uncertainty. It can get very confusing if I think about it too much, so I tend to reserve that kind of thought for my deeper meditations—not least because if I get dizzy and fall down, I'm already sitting on the floor!)

#223 ::: Greg London ::: (view all by) ::: March 21, 2006, 03:13 PM:

Xopher,

If I can ammend your earlier statement to reflect your more recent post, you meant:

people who are certain of what they know are generally wrong.

I also take that more radical view, that sometimes you're wrong even about your own internal processes.

I believe we are in agreement on both counts.


#224 ::: Christopher Davis ::: (view all by) ::: March 21, 2006, 07:48 PM:

Quoth Xopher: I'm uncertain even about what I believe...and about my uncertainty

Ah, another lapsed agnostic!

#225 ::: candle ::: (view all by) ::: March 22, 2006, 01:23 AM:

way too many people indulge in their own opinions.

I'm guilty on that count, I think. I knew the dictionaries were against me, having checked for myself in the middle of the discussion (but I didn't know about the Huxley - thanks, Greg). I don't plan to change what I think, but right now I can't actually remember what that is. I'm tired.

Ah, another lapsed agnostic!

All I know is that I know nothing. Or do I?

Altogether now:
deus does not exist. But if he does, he lives in the sky above me...
deus does not exist. But if he does, I always notice him...

#226 ::: Vicki ::: (view all by) ::: March 22, 2006, 08:50 AM:

If someone were to ask me "Do you believe in god?" I would ask them which one.

There are gods-as-defined who I am fairly confident do not exist. There are others I'm uncertain about. There are none that I am sure exist.

By the standards of U.S. culture as a whole, I probably count as an atheist, because the gods I don't believe in include any omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent deity.

#227 ::: Faren Miller ::: (view all by) ::: March 22, 2006, 12:12 PM:

Even scientists seem to live in a welter of arguments and uncertainties -- for every "eureka!" a response equivalent to "no way!". Somehow, knowledge advances (more than it can in the realms of religion/metaphysics), but it's a combination of slog and slug-fest. [Just watched the Nova on "Ancient Explorers" last night, and that was a good example of competing theories, crumbling certainties etc.]

#228 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: March 22, 2006, 12:21 PM:

Ah, another lapsed agnostic!

So I was raised, but the teachings did not take.

#229 ::: CHip ::: (view all by) ::: March 22, 2006, 09:37 PM:

Greg: When people talk about whether or not they "know" something, in the context of the above thread that started it all regarding atheism versus religion, they cannot "know" God exists in any sort of physical sense of the word "exists".

Why not? Why (in your opinion) is God, like (e.g.) gravity, not observable by results on the physical world? People do see results that they attribute to God, and consider this knowledge; I do not see your arguments convincing them -- which would be useful long-term, although I'd settle for them accepting that there is a difference in intangibility between, say, God and evolution.

#230 ::: Greg London ::: (view all by) ::: March 23, 2006, 03:30 PM:

People do see results that they attribute to God, and consider this knowledge;

Well, if you brought an "Intelligent Design" advocate in here, they'd probably argue exactly along those lines.

I do not see your arguments convincing them

I don't know that any argument would convince them. I'm more interested in convincing those who are actually convincable, the moderates who might hear intelligent design or prayer in school arguments and say, "oh, all right, what's the harm", and convince them that they've just crossed the line from knowing to believing.

And I was introducing agnosticism and the difference between knowing and believing here, because the people here seem just a tad smarter than the average bear, so I figured people could hear it and maybe get something out of it.

As for specific arguments to cleave apart the difference between Evolution and God/Creationism/IntelligentDesign, well, that's a whole other sticky wicket, but a lot of the creationist's argumetns are actually based on myths and misunderstandings about evolution ("It's just a theory" being popular enough to be invoked by the Shrub monkey.) And a lot of progress could be made in simply stamping out the myths that creationists spread.

#231 ::: candle ::: (view all by) ::: March 24, 2006, 01:21 AM:

People do see results that they attribute to God, and consider this knowledge

To agree with Greg, for a change - well, maybe - I think the point is that these people are not actually wrong: God is a perfectly valid theory with which to explain real-world phenomena. As Greg pointed out earlier, though, it actually requires a lot of hidden assumptions - and so it isn't as neat or as elegant or as powerful a theory as what we call "science". So that's a philosophical objection right there.

(William of Ockham would hate us for that, of course.)

For me, the best objection is that the God-theory isn't very useful. Perhaps it has some explanatory power in abstract speculations, but as far as I'm aware no-one has invented a God-powered engine. So far God-based technology has tended to be difficult to manufacture and unpredictable in its effects.

Not that it wouldn't be handy to have around a big stone box with the power to melt your enemies' faces.


#232 ::: Greg London ::: (view all by) ::: March 24, 2006, 01:44 AM:

Candle, that wasn't me, I was quoting CHip.

God is a perfectly valid theory with which to explain real-world phenomena

No, not unless by "theory" you mean "guess", which is what creationists usually make it mean. And if so, then by "guess" you mean that you can't ever actually "know" what you're talking about.

"Theory" has a specific meaning that ties in directly with what I've been saying about "knowing".

The question then becomes, Am I redefining words so that "theory" means only the scientific meaning? Or did some unscientific knuckleheads keep using the word "theory" when they meant "guess", and if so, is it proper to reclaim the original definition? Or am I falling for the lure of "small words"?

#233 ::: Keir ::: (view all by) ::: March 24, 2006, 04:22 AM:

I have heard the usage of theory explained as follows:

The difference between say Newton's Laws and Einstein's Theories are pretty small, in terms of scope etc. However, one system gets called a `law', even though Newton made more mistakes than Einstein, while the other only gets theory.

Why are they named differently? Fashion. I don't know the details, but at some point law fell out of favour, as too didatic or something, and theory took over.

I'm not sure how realistic this is, but it seems plausible, at the least.

There is no way to know anything about the physical world without physical observations, physical experimentation, physical measurments, and physical repeated tests. You can bring in "Logic" and "Math" and other word/idea based concepts to help, but they are fundamentally ideas and there is nothing that says your idea has anything to do with the physical world.

But the point of any `God' worth its salt is to bridge that gap. Doesn't mean that it is a good approach, but I would think that any `God' that is only definable in terms of physical reality would seem to cease being a `God'.

(Where `God' refers to an omnipotent deity, like the Abrahamic God.)

Agnosticism as intellectual laziness.

I agree, kind of. I would say that if you define laziness to not solving problems that you don't need to, then, yes agnosticism is `lazy'.

But then, is that a bad thing? After all, as the poisoned arrow pours out your life-blood, does it matter if the archer is of the Brahmin, or Kshatriya caste?

#234 ::: Greg London ::: (view all by) ::: March 24, 2006, 09:39 AM:

the point of any `God' worth its salt is to bridge that gap.

Agnosticism as intellectual laziness.

No, the guy who doesn't understand some physical process, and who invents a supernatural explanation such as "rain gods" to explain a meteorlogical phenomenon, is the lazy one. Rather than figure out what he does and does not know, he say "well, it must be the gods."

The distinction between knowing and believing requires constant work to maintain. The easy route, the path of the dark side, is to say they are the same, that there is no difference, to say that "knowing god causes the rain" is somehow the same as "knowing meteorology".

So don't talk to me about laziness. And don't talk about "salt" as if someone's mythology is the same as "knowing". If you think they're the same, you clearly need to learn the difference between knowing and believing. Because to suggest your salty god has anything to do with knowing shows just how much myth you've swallowed as knowledge.


#235 ::: Lizzy L ::: (view all by) ::: March 24, 2006, 10:39 AM:

Anybody here read Sam Harris's The End of Faith? "Knowing " vs. "believing" is one of his topics.

I do believe in God, but that belief does not bring with it emotional certitude. I doubt, I struggle -- I spent many years away from faith -- and I question, all the time. I don't think that makes me an agnostic.

#236 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: March 24, 2006, 10:46 AM:

This exchange reminds me of an old cartoon - it was a Hart series:
'Why does bees buzz?'
'There's an angry spirit trapped inside them.'
'Why does lightning bugs twinkle?'
'Their bulbs are on a thermocouple-type resistor in their electrical system.'

#237 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: March 24, 2006, 11:18 AM:

Update: the cartoon was 'Tumbleweeds' and it was a circuit-breaker, not a resistor.

Now that those synapses have tripped, I guess my brain is on.

#238 ::: Greg London ::: (view all by) ::: March 24, 2006, 11:51 AM:

Lizzy,

you may be an agnostic, but I think the discussion is moot. Wikipedia has an article on Huxley and Agnosticism, and it seems fairly clear that Huxley wanted to define "knowledge" to be separate from "belief".

I have never had the least sympathy with the a priori reasons against orthodoxy, and I have by nature and disposition the greatest possible antipathy to all the atheistic and infidel school. Nevertheless I know that I am, in spite of myself, exactly what the Christian would call, and, so far as I can see, is justified in calling, atheist and infidel.

The above shows Huxley does not sympathize with atheists, since he says they cannot "know" that god does NOT exist (anymore than the religious can "know" that god DOES exist). He also admits that he does not believe in God, that he is rightly an atheist in belief, but at the same time he doesn't sympathize with atheists who say they have any knowledge regarding the non-existence of God.

Huxley is clearly struggling to distinguish knowledge and belief, to separate what is knowable from his personal beliefs which he says is atheism.

However, the wikipedia article seems to point to the fact that the distinction is lost on the religious and the atheists:

the term "agnostic" was soon misused to cover any and every variation of scepticism. And just as popular preachers confused it with atheism in their denunciations, so callow freethinkers—following Tennyson's path of "honest doubt"—classed themselves with the agnostics—even while they combined an instinctively Christian theism with a facile rejection of the historical evidences for Christianity.

So, it seems people either get it, or they don't. And if they don't, they tend to make "agnosticism" mean something other than what it really is.

The religious call agnosticism just another word for atheism. (i.e. if you can't know that god exists, then you are saying he does not exist, so you must be an atheist)

Atheists call agnosticsm "laziness" or a "failure to commit to atheism". (i.e. if you know that you can't know that god exists, then you should simply take the next step and admit that he does NOT exist at all.)

So, it seems pretty clear what Huxley meant. And I'm pretty certain that I'm using the term "agnostic" the way he intended it. It was intended to distinguish knowing from believing, not to make any statement about one belief being better than another.

However, it also seems pretty clear that the believers and nonbelievers cannot separate their certainty of belief from actual knowledge, and so continue to mangle the word into atheism or laziness.

At this juncture, I'm clear I've made my point, and further attempts to try and convince the unconvincable, to distinguish the term to the undistinguishable, is a waste of everyone's time, and will likely invoke Godwin's law if continued.

I've said my peace and counted to three.

Greg "we thought you was a toad" London


#239 ::: Greg London ::: (view all by) ::: March 24, 2006, 12:03 PM:

On the other hand, there is a really funny Monty Python-esque skit in this thread somewhere.

Huxley: "Agnosticism makes a distinction between knowing and believing. You can believe what you want about God, but you can't know it."

Priest: "So you're saying you don't believe in God.

Huxley: "I don't believe in God, but that wasn't what I was saying. I was saying there's a difference between knowing and belief. Knowledge is limited to the physical world. Belief is limited to the metaphysical world."

Atheist: "So, you're saying that if you can't know about God, then he doesn't exist."

Huxley: "No, I'm saying you can't know whether God exists or not, either way."

Atheist: "Well it seems obvious if you can't know he exists, then he doesn't exist. Why don't you just take the next natural step and say that God doesn't exist?"

Huxley: "I believe that God does not exist. I just don't know it."

Priest: "Aha! So you are an atheist!"

Huxley: "But that isn't the point. The point is I can't know that God doesn't exist, so it must remain a belief."

Atheist: "Look, its the religious folk who have beliefs in fairy tales and stuff that isn't real. I don't have any beliefs."

Huxley: "You belief in the non-existence of God."

Atheist: "God does not exist."

Huxley: "But you don't know that, you believe that."

Priest: "God DOES exist."

Atheist: "Now, THAT is just a silly belief."

Huxley: "They're both beliefs."

Priest/Atheist (together): "No they're not."

Huxley: "Oh, never mind"

#240 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: March 24, 2006, 01:29 PM:

Greg, I like your MP sketch.

Sometimes people still disagree, even after all the arguments have been made on both sides. This doesn't necessarily mean there are any blockheads anywhere. It's also true, though, that people tend to channel their inner mule when it comes to religion.

Atheists call agnosticsm "laziness" or a "failure to commit to atheism".

Hmm, much as some gay people call bisexuality "lying to yourself" or a "failure to commit to homosexuality." Having unreasonably fixed categories is a kind of prejudice, IMO. Especially when one thing is considered "pure" and another "impure." Having the slightest taint of the impure puts you entirely in the impure category; there's no middle ground.

If you want to be even more annoyed, try explaining to people that you don't have all the same beliefs all the time. (No one here gave me flak about that, though they may have just quietly decided I'm a loony, but I've gotten plenty of derision for it in the past.) In my hyper-rational mode, I'm an agnostic, not in the sense that you describe, of holding the existence or lack of same of God to be unknowable, but the way I was raised, which is that it's simply not known. Unknowability is too mystic a quality for my rational mind to accept (in mystical mode I'm fine with it). I believe that no one knows, and that no one has ever known for sure, but not that it's impossible that anyone ever will.

I'd (only half jokingly) suggest you use the term 'mystical agnosticism' to describe Huxley's original concept...even though I know how REALLY annoying that is. The addition of the word 'mystical' will bump people off the big log in their minds where the word 'agnosticism' lives, and let them understand when you talk about your own belief system (or Huxley's, or whatever you want).

Besides, it IS mystical. How can you know that something's unknowable? I don't think I could even believe it, let alone know it. No knowledge exists until we (or some other sentient beings unknown to us) discover it; therefore by saying something is unknowable you're saying not only that the knowledge does not exist but that it could not come into existence in the future. If knowledge is limited to the physical world, then knowledge about knowledge is similarly limited.

This gets Zen very quickly, as you discover that the knowability or unknowability of the existence of God is unknowable...but then the knowability of THAT cannot be resolved either, and recursion becomes infinite. Sort of a "there is no knowledge, but also no absence of knowledge" kind of thing.

I'm not trying to start things up again. I understand that's what Huxley meant by 'agnosticism' and how you're using the term, just as I understand that devout Christians believe that Jesus was the Son of God. I respect their belief without sharing it.

#241 ::: d ::: (view all by) ::: March 24, 2006, 02:20 PM:

from away up thread:

re: MLM sex toy parties in the heartland - these are often billed as for married women to improve their married lives with their husbands, a brilliant marketing ploy imo. i believe this.

re: the Krakauer book - highly recommended, very fascinating and educational read. i'm almost certain of this.

#242 ::: Greg London ::: (view all by) ::: March 24, 2006, 03:40 PM:

therefore by saying something is unknowable you're saying not only that the knowledge does not exist but that it could not come into existence in the future.

Well, there is what you know and what you don't know. In the space of what you don't know, there is room to "believe".

Huxley starts by saying absolute knowlege exists only in the physical world. Beyond that you dont know. Not knowing is not the same as never knowing. He then says we can't know God because God is not physically knowable. From what I've read of huxley, he doesn't seem the type to be saying we can never know God, just that we can never know God as long as he remains nonphysical. i.e. If god appeared before Huxley in physical form and agreed to submit himself to physical tests, then Huxley seems the type willing to add "God" to the list of things we know.

There are two different distinctions: "knowing" and "believing". But there is nothing that says the list of things in either category is static. We might know things today that we didn't know last year.

The only thing Huxley says is that since we are physical, the only things we can know are physical.

#243 ::: candle ::: (view all by) ::: March 24, 2006, 04:10 PM:

Sorry for misattributing, Greg. I guess I don't agree with you after all. :(

I may be responsible for the "agnosticism as intellectual laziness" thing, which I suspect I said somewhere upthread. What I meant was only that agnosticism is intellectually lazy if it refuses to take a position on questions of belief. Of course it isn't lazy to be what I call a sceptic and to make the distinction between belief and knowledge. But to answer the question "Do you *believe* in gods / the supernatural?" by claiming to be an agnostic is - well, failing to answer the question.

Evidently nobody (using Greg's definition - or rather, Huxley's and the dictionaries' definition) would in fact do that. That was my misunderstanding. I stand corrected.

I also wouldn't accept the parallel with calling bisexuals lazy, since I don't imagine that sexual attractions to men and to women are mutually exclusive in the way that belief and not-belief are. And I'm not interested in having everyone be consistent in what they believe, even day to day. Still, sorry if I caused any offence.

I do still find it odd that I have never met an actual gnostic - atheist or otherwise. That is, no-one I have ever met has claimed to know the truth, where knowledge has not been directly reducible to "strong belief". But that's not meant as an argument so much as an observation. I have lived my life among agnostics. Probably it's a hugely skewed sample.

#244 ::: Greg London ::: (view all by) ::: March 24, 2006, 05:00 PM:

I have never met an actual gnostic - atheist or otherwise. That is, no-one I have ever met has claimed to know the truth, where knowledge has not been directly reducible to "strong belief".

Unless you're a hermit, you've met plenty of people who held their beliefs as if it were true knowledge. They may pay lip service to it being a belief, but once they start messing with other people's lives, they are acting as if they "know", not "believe". And to act as if you know what is right, to force your beliefs on someone else's life and to say you don't "know" it to be right, you only "believe" it to be right, to pretend it is but a mere personal belief when you are trying to force into a physical, real-world, truth that others must follow, then you're talking about the world's biggest cop-out.

The pope may say he doesn't "know" god exists, that he only "beleives". But if he advocates against abortion, if he tries to force those "beliefs" on others, then he is acting as if he "knows" the truth.

#245 ::: candle ::: (view all by) ::: March 24, 2006, 06:20 PM:

They may pay lip service to it being a belief, but once they start messing with other people's lives, they are acting as if they "know", not "believe".

Well, no. There has to be a difference between what people say they know and what they act as if they knew. I don't claim to know whether God exists or not, and I take no position on whether or not he hears the pleas of the innocent. But if I see a child drowning, I will try to save her, rather than leaving it up to God. Implicitly I'm denying His existence; and I'm acting on that assumption in a way that affects someone's life. Perhaps therefore you have outed me as an atheist. But would an agnostic really have to refuse?

If being an agnostic only allows you to have beliefs on which you may not act (in such a way as to affect someone's life), or even *advocate for*, then it seems to me to rule out beliefs entirely. Or you have limited agnostics to holding only those beliefs which have no consequences whatsoever. In which case, what is the point of having them? Do they even count as beliefs? "Believing" must surely mean more than just "entertaining a possibility".

Remember the parable of the ass equidistant from two bales of hay? If you never act on anything but certain knowledge, you starve to death. That food may be poisoned. God may be angry. The devil may get you. How could you even get up in the morning?

#246 ::: Greg London ::: (view all by) ::: March 24, 2006, 07:16 PM:

candle, I don't know where to start.

Put an agnostic on a beach. Out in the ocean, he sees a little girl drowning. He KNOWS he can save her. So he saves her. no indecision. just action on what he knows.

There were a hundred other people on the beach beside the agnostic. His saving her does not mean that he KNOWS they wouldn't, only that he would. And his saving her doesn't mean he KNOWS that GOD won't save her either.

You are trying to prove a negative in an open and not-totally-defined system. Since the system contains unknowns, it is impossible to prove a negative. All you can prove in such a system is positive knowledge. I know she's drowning. I know I can swim. So I save her.

Agnosticism doesn't get locked into indecision simply because the system (the universe) is not completely known. It operates on what it does know.

So, no, you saving the girl does not say you KNOW God does not exist.

On the other hand, if you BELIEVE that God DOES exist, and you BELIEVE that God intervenes on a constant basis in the physical world, if you BELIEVE that you can simply PRAY and God will save her, and then if you turn that belief into action by PRAYING and the girl drowns because you didn't even yell to the lifeguard, then you acted as if you KNEW god would save her and you were proven wrong.

So, back to the anti-abortion protester. You said you don't know of a single person who claimed they "know" something when it was really just a "strong belief". And I'm telling you that you're wrong. You've met plenty of people who take their beliefs and force them onto others as if they KNOW they are right. But for some reason, if they say it is only their personal BELIEF, you beliefe what they say and ignore what they do.

I'm telling you that you need to look at a person's actions to see what that person thinks they KNOW. Because when their actions start bulldozing over other people, then they don't just believe anymore, think they KNOW what's right.

#247 ::: candle ::: (view all by) ::: March 24, 2006, 08:09 PM:

So let me get this straight. Any belief that provides a sufficient basis for action is equivalent to a knowledge claim. So you save the girl because you know that you *will* save her. (Not that you *can* - because presumably as an agnostic you acknowledge that it is also possible for God to save her, but you aren't acting on that basis.) And you *know* that the sun will rise tomorrow morning. Because you wouldn't act on it if it were a mere belief.

That doesn't seem right to me. I judge it most likely that the sun will rise tomorrow; and that belief, while not amounting to a knowledge claim, is sufficient for me to base my plans around it.

Presumably you would say that this belief is so firm that it amounts to a knowledge claim, and this is evidently where we differ. In ruling out the legitimacy of acting on a belief, you are effectively forced to categorise every decision you make as being based on knowledge. I don't want to claim that, and I would have difficulty seeing that as a sustainable position. I don't see that Thomas Huxley would have claimed that, either. (He presumably acted on his belief that God did not exist - by, say, refusing to go to church - while nevertheless acknowledging the possibility that He did.)

On the other point: well, I have never met an anti-abortion protestor; I have never met anyone who has tried to force beliefs upon me or (to my knowledge) anyone else. I've met people who have advocated certain beliefs (usually political ones, but also in arguments such as this one). But in my experience, this hasn't been the same as forcing them upon anyone.

Perhaps I've had a sheltered life. You are free to disagree with anything I say, of course, but it looks to me as though you are claiming to know an awful lot about my life which you can't scientifically verify.

Telling me that I'm wrong, indeed. :)

#248 ::: Bob Oldendorf ::: (view all by) ::: March 24, 2006, 08:12 PM:

I recently ran across this interesting interview (in - ironically enough - The Believer magazine) with psychologist Jonathan Haidt, who has done some actual research into the differences between belief and certainty.

#249 ::: Lizzy L ::: (view all by) ::: March 24, 2006, 09:35 PM:

Candle-Greg: It made my head hurt to read your posts, so I didn't. Maybe tomorrow... However, I have two comments.

One: Greg writes that Huxley says we can never know God as long as he remains nonphysical. i.e. If god appeared before Huxley in physical form and agreed to submit himself to physical tests, then Huxley seems the type willing to add "God" to the list of things we know. Without commenting on Greg's reading of Huxley, I was reminded of a certain moment in John's Gospel, when Jesus walks through a locked door and invites Thomas to touch him. He then says, Blessed are they who have not seen, and believe.

Two: with regard to the drowning girl, I believe that God acts through YOU, and you, and me. It is our charge on this earth (and possibly on all the others) to take care of each other, and so do God's work. Love one another, as I have loved you... In fact, candle, God is leaving it up to you (and me, and all the other people on that beach) to save that little girl. Sometimes we can't, but more often, alas, we are too busy with our own stuff, or distracted, or frightened, or just not watching...

#250 ::: Keir ::: (view all by) ::: March 24, 2006, 09:50 PM:

No, the guy who doesn't understand some physical process, and who invents a supernatural explanation such as "rain gods" to explain a meteorlogical phenomenon, is the lazy one. Rather than figure out what he does and does not know, he say "well, it must be the gods."

The point I was making is that the purpose of God is to be both `logic' and physical. That is the part of the allure.

If God were to be a purely physical concept, most people would think that that `God' wouldn't really be a God, just a Leviathian. And if God were to be a purely mental construct, most people would think that a cop out. I know I would, for one.

That doesn't mean that there is such a God. I just think that that is an important part of the notion of God, that there is a bridge between `logic' and reality.

In the beginning was the word, etc., would seem to indicate that the Christian God is held to be both real and logical; that His existence transcends those boundaries.

Personally, I think that that is all rather far-fetched, and unbelivable, but that seems to be the position of the Abrahamic God.

Re: Agnosticism. What would you call someone who has no position on religion? Someone who thinks that it is all irrelevant, and holds a position similar to the Buddhist sutra I paraphrased above?

#251 ::: candle ::: (view all by) ::: March 25, 2006, 02:19 AM:

In fact, candle, God is leaving it up to you (and me, and all the other people on that beach) to save that little girl. Sometimes we can't, but more often, alas, we are too busy with our own stuff, or distracted, or frightened, or just not watching...

For what it's worth, I think that's a perfectly tenable and totally praiseworthy belief. And I would be glad to see people acting on it. (I also think they generally do: I don't imagine that many religious people - or anyone at all, really - would leave the child to drown. That's my fault for picking such a stupid and unnecessarily emotive example. Sorry.)

For the purposes of this discussion, though, what matters to me is that it is possible to hold that belief and act upon it without having it transformed into a claim to *know* that God was counting on me to save the child.

But I think I've dragged this discussion back to well-covered ground, so I should probably try to keep quiet again. Perhaps a truce, Greg, as far as this thread goes? Without meaning to deny you the last word if you want it...

#252 ::: Greg London ::: (view all by) ::: March 25, 2006, 01:12 PM:

So let me get this straight. Any belief that provides a sufficient basis for action is equivalent to a knowledge claim.

If the action affects another, then the person is acting as if they know the truth, they know what is right.

THey can say it is only a belief, but a belief is personal. Once you start messing with other people's lives, you're operating in the physical world, and you are operating on what you think you know.

So, your anti-abortion protester can try to BS you into thinking its just his personal belief, but when he's trying to push his belief on others, he thinks he knows what is right.

The distinction agnosticism is trying to make is separate knowing from believing, to separate empirical observation and physical action from the unobservable, metaphysical, and supernatural.

But that isn't how you read it, candle. It seems that you've made "know" mean "certain" and you've made "believe" mean "uncertain", regardless of whether it is based in the natural or the supernatural. SOmething like that, anyway.

However you keep defining Knowing versus Believing: that is not agnosticism.

Agnosticism basically says you can only know the physical world. And it leaves belief to cover what you don't know, either physical or metaphysical.

#253 ::: Greg London ::: (view all by) ::: March 25, 2006, 01:15 PM:

Jesus walks through a locked door and invites Thomas to touch him. He then says, Blessed are they who have not seen, and believe.

Agnosticism does not require seeing to "believe". But it would require seeing to "know".

For some reason, agnosticism gets reworked to mean "atheist" by most religious folks. And while Huxley was an atheist in belief, agnosticism doesn't require any particular belief, only that it is separate from knowledge.

I'm an agnostic. And I am not an atheist.

#254 ::: Greg London ::: (view all by) ::: March 25, 2006, 01:19 PM:

Re: Agnosticism. What would you call someone who has no position on religion?

Agnosticism demands nothing of your beliefs. You could be agnostic and believe in god, agnostic and believe god does not exist, or agnostic and withold from believing in anything at all.

It just says that knowledge is limited to the physical world. that you can never know anything about the supernatural or metaphysical. What you believe (or not) about the metaphysical is your business, including avoiding any beliefs at all.

#255 ::: Greg London ::: (view all by) ::: March 25, 2006, 01:54 PM:

For the purposes of this discussion, though, what matters to me is that it is possible to hold that belief and act upon it without having it transformed into a claim to *know* that God was counting on me to save the child.

Uh, yeah, as soon as you said the word "God", you went metaphysical on me, so you're talking about belief now. What happened in the physical world was based on what you thought you know about the physical stuff: you see girl drowning, you know you can swim, you save the girl.

Once you start bringing in explanations about the physical, then you start getting back into beliefs.

You know it is raining right now. You believe that God made it rain.

#256 ::: CHip ::: (view all by) ::: March 25, 2006, 02:51 PM:

Greg: I think that you are insisting on an definition of "believe" that does not accord with the way other people use it -- which means you're committing the same misbehavior of which you accuse anti-choice types; you only believe in your definition of "believe" but act as if you know this definition is correct, despite the fact that definitions of words are (by definition?) plastic and certainly not material. (Yes, a dictionary is material. No, it is not the equivalent of the Rubber Bible.)

#257 ::: candle ::: (view all by) ::: March 25, 2006, 11:47 PM:

Agnosticism basically says you can only know the physical world. And it leaves belief to cover what you don't know, either physical or metaphysical.

That seems clear enough. Thanks for the discussion. And see you on a different thread - with no hard feelings, I hope!


#258 ::: Greg London ::: (view all by) ::: March 27, 2006, 10:09 AM:

chip, I was explaining the definition of "know" and "believe" according to agnosticism and it's founder, Huxley, in which case, the dictionary definition is crap. The dictionary also says that "know" means to have had intercourse with a person, but that's not very relevent either.

One-Look dictionary shows 11 definitions of the word.
numbers 1,2,4,5,6,7,8,9 all come back to physical knowledge: perceptions and observations committed to mind. Definition 3 allows "know" to include "belief" and "faith". Definition 10 is defining "acknowldge" rather than "know". And definition 11, is defining sexual intercourse.

So, it would seem that if you wish to invoke the dictionary, then "know" is connected to physical observations.

And if you wish to invoke the argument that words are defined by how people decide to use them, I would agree that may be true if an entire culture decides that a word means something, but I don't buy it on the individual level.

A lot of creationists use the word "theory" in scientific contexts but use the word to mean something other than what the scientific meaning of "theory" is. I see no difference between correcting the misuse of the word "theory" and correcting the misuse of the word "know".

Allowing folks to redefine and reframe every word in the english language to include their religous, supernatural, metaphysical point of view, would make it impossible to distinguish anything scientific without it having ambiguous and religious interpretations as well.

If "I know god exists" becomes functionally equivalent to "I believe god exists", then how do you talk about knowledge and what we really know without clarifying what exactly "know" means? It turns into the monty-python skit I wrote above where everyone uses "know" and "believe" to make their point of view the right poitn of view.

Agnosticism says you can only know the physical world. It doesn't say anything about which belief is right. But when the religious types and the atheist types try to redefine the word "know" to include their belief (I know god exists, or I know god does not exist) then how do you expect to have a conversation that can get anywhere?

How would you allow someone like Plato distinguish what it means "to know" if the reason the meaning needs to be distinguished is because people have used the word to mean a variety of things that have nothing to do with knowledge?

Sorry, Plato, people use "know" to include "beliefs". You'll just have to come up with a different word for your dialogues.

I hope not. I hope that if people are using multiple words to mean the same thing because they haven't distinguished the difference between the words, I hope in that situation that distinguishing the difference is preferred over letting people glob unrelated words together.

#259 ::: CHip ::: (view all by) ::: March 27, 2006, 07:00 PM:

Greg: since definition #3 is there, what gives you or Huxley or anyone else the right to invalidate it?

#260 ::: Greg London ::: (view all by) ::: March 27, 2006, 07:47 PM:

CHip,

Because there is a place where devout atheists and devout religious people can peacefully co-exist and that is a place where they give up the demand that they know God does/does-not exist, and accept that it is a belief. And if peaceful coexistence can be achieved by changing the dictionary rather than killing someone, I think its worth it.

And didn't you just say that the definition of words were plastic? If so, then why not try to bend them in a way that helps?

See, you say I'm doing the same "misbehavior of which you accuse anti-choice types", but I'm not. Because the misbehaviour is defining "know" and "believe" in a way that includes one belief in the field of knowledge and excludes all others, making one belief better than another. I"m excluding all beliefs from knowledge and putting them in a separate field where they are all equal.

The misbehavioru isn't simply in changing or distinguishing a definition. The misbehaviour is in changing or misusing the definition in an attempt to put your beliefs in better standing than all other beliefs. Agnosticism treats all beliefs equally by clarifying that they are NOT the same as knowledge.

Those who say they "know" God created the earth in 6 days, and that "knowledge" should be taught in class, well, if you can't see the difference between abusing language for your own gain and clarifying language to distinguish science while allowing for equal freedom of all religions, then I don't know what to tell you.


#261 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: April 03, 2006, 11:24 AM:

Back to the original topic, spam blogging, today's spam filter brings us this:

Over the past year or two people have become more and more obsessed with blogging.

Blogs have proven themselves over and over again to be great methods of generating a huge income from part-time work.

With Google experimenting with blog technology more and more, this is surely not a fad.

Creating blogs in niche topics is a very easy and effective way for the beginning home busines owners to see their first success.

More specifically, if you write a blog covering niche topics, you'll easily generate traffic to the blogs which then turns into income with the help of Adsense.

You may have a bunch of products with private label rights sitting on your desktop with no use.

I'll show you how to quickly turn the private label content into some nice Adsense and affiliate income.

What you'll need is:

1.) Content (taken care of) 2.) Blog (very simple)

A blog is just a form of content management and publishing platform. You no doubt have heard about the benefits of using blogs for search engine traffic.

Google, Yahoo and MSN (the big 3) gobble up blog content like a feeding frenzy.

Simply set up a WordPress blog, add the private label content as posts on those blogs and watch as the search engine spiders take over your visitor stats and drive your rankings through the roof!

Then apply for the Adsense program through Google or Yahoo and place the ads right on your blogs.

Two prime examples of the niche blogging sensation are Jason Calacanis and Darren Rowse.

Learn what these two guys are doing and see how you can build a nice nest egg by niche blogging:

http://theinternetmarketingsecrets.com/recommends/WordPressElite

Niche blogging is apparently their term for splog: content-free Google-traps whose purpose is to skim off pennies from pay-per-click advertising hits.

Come, see the origin of this evil, with its roots in cupidity.

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