The Case for Civility

October 5, 2009 at 11:06 pm (By Rodjean)

I am appalled by the thread entitled, “The Case for God,” I believe it is time for us to define this site. I for one, do not want to waste my time participating in ping-pong matches of insults. Free expression will choke and die without the oxygen of respect.

We do not have to agree on everything to be civil, but we have to be civil if we want to meaningfully explore our disagreements.

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33 Comments

  1. Jason (the commenter) said,

    I can’t argue that the thread wasn’t appalling, but I learned things in it and I thank you for the experience.

    The person who started the thread was banned from several sites for their behavior in commenting on the topic of discussion in the past; perhaps they weren’t the best person to lead the conversation.

  2. Charlie (Colorado) said,

    Wow, I don’t think you guys would like a philosophy department party.

    In complete seriousness, the discussion started out, for me, with an interesting if flawed idea. It went astray, IMAO, when there was offense taken at the suggestion that terms ought to be defined and arguments made precise. Repeated attempt to bring it back to considering the ideas weren’t successful. The eventual outcome appears to be that we were supposed to divine somehow that this wasn’t meant to be a dialectic, a discussion and examination of the ideas, it was just supposed to be a pleasant and unchallenging conversation.

    Which is fine, hell, but there ought to be some kind of warning sign.

  3. Peter Hoh said,

    Simple version of the rules: don’t pee in the pool.

  4. pathmv said,

    Were people actually expecting an un-heated discussion about the existence of God anywhere on the internet? I have yet to read a single one of the 107 comments to that post, because, having been chatting online since Compuserve only had User ID numbers, over a 1200 baud modem, I wasn’t expecting the question of the existence of God to be wrapped up and civilly agreed upon.

    I would simply suggest that perhaps ONE THREAD, about the deepest philosophical question mankind faces, is not sufficient cause to be getting terribly worried about the future of this blog. Sometimes, the wiser course of action is to nod politely and move on.

    I’ve had my issues with realpc in the past, but have come to appreciate her unique perspective many times. I know, however, that we don’t see eye-to-eye on the subject matter of her last post, exactly, and so I skimmed it and ignored it.

    P.S. Would whomever wrote this post kindly identify themselves?

  5. karen said,

    i thought the definition of this site was in the title.

    i’m somewhat glad that i have been off-line for so long, and am saddened that my blogpod is- different? Ah, well. I want to go home.

    PS- i did not read the post- and when i call up Ambiance from my favourites, it isn’t current anyhow– i have to go post by post, it seems.

    oh– real?? i heart you:0).

  6. realpc said,

    Thanks Karen, I heart you too. I think they just read the title of my post and didn’t realize it’s the title of a book I was criticizing. Their little atheist brains got all frazzled up. And thank you Amba for being so nice and rational and trying to straighten things out. I am so sorry it took so much of your time because I know you don’t get much time to sleep or relax. I did not re-read my post or the hideous comments so I don’t remember it all very well. But I think it was probably just another case of gross misunderstanding. I am not saying I was right about everything — but I don’t think I ever say that and I think I always agree with Amba that no one really knows anything. And I think that was made clear in my post and my comments, but I might as well have been talking to an army of sewing machines.

    And I just want to explain that I am not a “new ager.” I used to be, but back then it had a different meaning, having to do with the study of comparative religion and relationships between science and religion. Now it means a flake who believes any old hare-brained thing. I don’t. I doubt everything, and I think I can say I am a true skeptic, not an ideological pseudo-skeptic.

    Also I don’t think it’s a problem of gender because the most horrible atheist I ever debated was a woman. Actually I didn’t argue with her because she was brainless, I just used all my willpower to ignore her hideous insults, and then finally the sarcasm demon took over, and I nailed her pretty good. But got banned. Oh gee, how will I ever survive without those atheists to insult and misunderstand me?

  7. michael reynolds said,

    Wait, there’s been heated conversation and I wasn’t even involved?

    Stop being afraid of the contest of ideas. I read back through the comments. No one threatened anyone. No one pulled a gun.

    So it got heated. Big deal. Ideas are worth defending, points of view should be argued. If you don’t want heated debate stick to talking about kittens. If you want to talk politics and philosophy understand that the temperature will rise.

    As long as intelligent points are being made let it burn.

  8. El Pollo Real said,

    Jason said:
    The person who started the thread was banned from several sites for their behavior in commenting on the topic of discussion in the past; perhaps they weren’t the best person to lead the conversation.

    Jason-I think you should instead thank RealPC for giving us all the opportunity is see how smart you are. :)

    Michael Reynolds said:
    No one threatened anyone. No one pulled a gun.

    Well reference was made to an imaginary gun-that was bad enough (see comments #63 and #66 in that thread).

    Really guys, that thread was no where near as “bad” as a nasty Althouse thread.

    As for civility when discussing the existence of God- I think that’s a hopeless wish these days. Especially when you guys go at each other dragging all this past baggage about each other’s beliefs and previous statements.

    @Jason: If the existence of God were so easy to disprove, how come “Mythbusters” hasn’t done it yet?

  9. Ron said,

    El Pollo Real, I believe the Mythbusters schedule has “Spanish Fly”, “Publishers Clearing House”, and then “Albigensian Heresy” in order, coming up, so be cool, they’re gettin’ there…

  10. Ron said,

    oops, sorry, it’s “Couples who orgasm at the same time, like in the movies”, “Nixonian Charm” and then “Albigensian Heresy” on that there Mythbusters schedule…

    :)

  11. Jason (the commenter) said,

    El Pollo Real: @Jason: If the existence of God were so easy to disprove, how come “Mythbusters” hasn’t done it yet?

    Advertisers would run scared!

  12. El Pollo Real said,

    Advertisers would run scared!

    PBS or BBC then.

  13. Jason (the commenter) said,

    El Pollo Real: PBS or BBC then.

    Well, PBS has advertisers. The BBC, I don’t know how to answer that as part of your counterfactual condition.

  14. El Pollo Real said,

    OK then, the Russians would have gotten around to it; Правда would have published the results of such experiments long ago.

    See how civil this can be?

    I’m reminded of a rather civil exchange I had with an anonymous commenter concerning faith and free will a while back at Sundries. Aside from the lack of other commenters, it probably helped that my antagonist remained anonymous, otherwise I might have (a) responded otherwise, or (b) flounced off.

  15. Ron said,

    I miss Sundries! I hope Victoria is not like, dead, or something…

  16. trooper york said,

    Hey everytime I help a woman get a really well fitting bra….well then I know God exists.

    Just sayn’

  17. trooper york said,

    Sorry I missed the fight. I love a little donnybrooke to get the blood flowing don’t ya know.

  18. Jason (the commenter) said,

    El Pollo Real: See how civil this can be?

    Yes, but we both agreed to begin with. With uncivil conversation I learned stuff.

  19. Rod said,

    I am the unnamed person who posted the plea for civility. It is not that I do not appreciate debate, and I have been accused of possessing “the gift of sarcasm.” Rather, a certain combination of condescension and ad hominem attack inhibits the expression of some ideas. Many of the thoughts we have about metaphysics are uncertain and held tentatively. People need a little breathing room to explore their own ideas on sensitive topics. A probing of those ideas in a respectful tone usually advances the conversation farther that insults.

    Of course, there are plenty of alternative places to go if people prefer disrespectful discourse.

  20. realpc said,

    “Rather, a certain combination of condescension and ad hominem attack inhibits the expression of some ideas.”

    That was their intention — to prevent ideas being expressed. Any suggestion that the world might be infinitely beyond human comprehension threatens the scared little atheist brain.

  21. Icepick said,

    That was their intention — to prevent ideas being expressed. Any suggestion that the world might be infinitely beyond human comprehension threatens the scared little atheist brain.

    This is why I didn’t even bother with the post, much less the comments. RealPC, for all her guts and charm, cannot help but be an insulting ass whenever it comes to discussing scientists, athiests or anyone who does not share her concept of spirituality. Having spent a large protion of my life studying science and being around scientists, I find her characterizations of them to be way off the mark. But she will not accept that her conceptions are wrong.

    I have yet to meet the materialist scientist that she claims most of them to be. I KNOW of a few, but haven’t met any. And several of those I have known (and known of) have had a fear, hatred or respect for God that does not allow for any claim of athiesm on their part, nor have they done so.

    At the far edges of science (which typically takes place in the minds of physicists and cosmologists) the debates are often about existence itself, with questions about what constitutes matter or energy, and what the hell is the missing part of the universe (dark energy, dark matter), taking center stage in the debate. THEY don’t think they’ve settled the issue, so why RealPC persistently claims that it is a religious conviction among most scientists has always irked me.

    (One interesting hypothesis from physics: A sufficiently advanced civilization could build computers of astonishing complexity. Such computers could run simulations with self-aware components living in a virtual world which, for them, would have every appearance of being real. From what we know of our own computers, one such device can run multiple simulations, sometimes at the same time. In other words (worlds?) one such real civilization could run many, many virtual realities that would be indistinguishable (to the simulcrums/resiudents) from being “reality”. So, most “realities” would actually be simulations. Now for the nasty comeupance: If that’s the case, then the chances of any given “reality” NOT being a simulation become almost vanishingly small. In other words, we and our entire Universe are most likely nothing but a simulation. Call this the Worlds of Warcraft Reality Conjecture. Physicists like to tell this as a joke. But it always seems like they’re a little uncomfortable with the idea! It’s especially uncomfortable when coupled iwth the idea that the Universe may be (analogous) to a hologram.)

    So, I just skip over the conversations where this comes up.

    But it’s also true that the athiests often run around prosletizing like a bunch of crazed Baptists, accepting no deviation from their POV. All in all, it’s a recipe for disaster whenever it comes up.

    On a broader note, if you have to implement POLICY then you will need Authoritah* figures to enforce it. By the time that happens on the internet you may as well just quit the forum if you’re looking for lively debate. It’s guaranteed to kill the spirit every single time.

    Take my word for it: I have been a moderator before. Yes, I find that as absurd as anyone reading this will. All the more so because I was chosen to be one of three initial moderators for a forum by acclamation. I don’t know what the hell they were thinking. (I have mellowed in my middle age. I was much more combative then. – Ah, hell, even I don’t believe that. Then I was pretty much as I am now.) As it turned out I lasted about a week before quitting the whole thing outright. The three moderators agreed to various policies beforehand about what would be out of bounds and how we would go about removing posts. One of the other moderators immediately started violating our agreed polcies (God, how I hate polciy) and started deleting the posts of anyone and everyone he didn’t like. (That turned out to be a substantial bit of the forum.) When I and the other moderator started taking him to task for this, he started deleting out comments in the private moderator forum! I quickly decided that nothing was worth that much trouble unless I was getting paid or laid for my efforts, and promptly quit the whole damned thing.

    That case was most extreme but I’ve seen similar problems elsewhere. And it is ALWAYS true that debate & discussion become muted. Gains can only be paid for with loses elswhere, even gains in civility.

    * Not a misspelling, just a South Park reference.

  22. Icepick said,

    Most broadly, definitional arguments can kill just about every debate. I once saw mathematics described as “the study of words with precise meanings.” So very true. After studying mathematics for a while even physics starts to seem a little muddy at times, and it’s far more precise than any other field of human study. By the time one gets to philosophy? Forget it.

  23. realpc said,

    “I have yet to meet the materialist scientist that she claims most of them to be.”

    It depends what you mean by “materialist.” If you mean someone who literally believes everything is matter, then there probably aren’t any. But almost all the scientific people I have known, in person or on blogs, tend to keep a distance from religion or mysticism. Many of them are atheists, who strongly disbelieve in anything spiritual or mystical, or even anything not already known to science. All, or most, of my professors in graduate school were that type of atheist. After I graduated I had a very long email argument with one of them, and it was almost identical to every subsequent argument I had with atheists. The main points were the same, at least.

    But there are scientific types who consider themselves agnostics, not atheists. Usually they feel that theological arguments are a waste of time because the answers can’t be known. They claim to be open to the possibility of some kind of supernatural forces or beings, but they don’t find the subject interesting.

    That has been my experience, so it seems to me that atheism has become very popular among Americans who are educated in science.

  24. amba12 said,

    I believe the Mythbusters schedule has “Spanish Fly”, “Publishers Clearing House”, and then “Albigensian Heresy” in order, coming up, so be cool, they’re gettin’ there…

    Priceless.

  25. amba12 said,

    “Rather, a certain combination of condescension and ad hominem attack inhibits the expression of some ideas.”

    That was their intention — to prevent ideas being expressed. Any suggestion that the world might be infinitely beyond human comprehension threatens the scared little atheist brain.

    Real — careful, this is what I meant about becoming a mirror image of your enemies!

  26. realpc said,

    “Real — careful, this is what I meant about becoming a mirror image of your enemies!”

    I understand what you mean, but I don’t really claim to be a nice person. Being considered “nice” was always terribly important to me, as I guess it is to most women. I still try hard to be nice, most of the time, and am terrified that someone might not like me. If these online “enemies” actually knew me in person I would be mortified — just the idea of having enemies is pretty foreign to me.

    But along with my desire to be nice and to be liked I also have a passion for understanding, which prevents me from going along with some of the mainstream ideas of our culture. So I love getting into debates on certain controversial subjects.

    Not at work, usually, and I avoid having arguments with relatives. But I love challenging scientific or philosophical debates. It really makes you think hard and question your own views.

    I don’t think I ever start the insults. But eventually I get angry and fight back. It’s ridiculous when adults resort to calling each other stupid, but it often happens online.

    I don’t know if I should spend less time on blogs, and much less time arguing. I thought it would make me a better writer, because you have to be so careful when writing for people who strongly disagree.

    But I never ever expected to bring nasty insults to your blog because for one thing I expected everyone to be as open-minded and respectful as you are. I was not ready for that degree of condescension and I got angry and reacted.

    And I guess I am still angry about it. Partly at myself for reacting without stopping to think.

    I still think the idea of Mind existing beyond “matter” needs to to proven and accepted by our mainstream culture. I want to continue learning more about it, and maybe trying to convince people. At this point the backlash will always be intense, because the implications are profound.

  27. jason said,

    First: I’m not that Jason.

    Second: I couldn’t wait to read the comments of the other thread because I thought a vigorous conversation about t he book had ensued. Then I lost interest when it fizzled into fist waving and stomping feet and personal attacks. As I told Annie recently in an e-mail conversation: “[D]ebate is marvelous and invigorating, but no matter the subject, the only way to stay sane is to be able to walk away from it without having feelings hurt, to enjoy it as an intellectual exercise only. Unfortunately, politics and religion are the two most vile topics imaginable since most people can’t see disagreement as anything less than a personal attack. Very sad…”

    Third: So I come to this thread and the attacks kick off in comment #1, and then I stopped reading when it culminated in the “little atheist brains” nonsense. Here I thought this thread was about being civilized. (I won’t bother drawing your attention to the fact that the fist waving and name calling started with a believer rather than one of those evil atheists.)

    Truth be told, this is always a heated topic no matter where you go, but seriously: Too many of the participants in the discussion did nothing more than shout over the heads of people on the other side of the topic. More unfortunate still is that the comments took off based on people who didn’t read the post and assumed it was about the question of god instead of the book about the question of god.

  28. realpc said,

    “the comments took off based on people who didn’t read the post and assumed it was about the question of god instead of the book about the question of god.”

    I think that ‘s why it got so crazy. I didn’t realize until later that they had started commenting without reading my post. At the time I couldn’t understand why some of the comments were so irrelevant. I think I was trying to be rational and to explain why the Turing test wasn’t relevant to my point, for example.

  29. Danny said,

    Late to the party but I’m surprised by this post’s accusations. Maybe that previous thread was a little bit heated (how could such a public discussion not be?) but it was light years away from “appalling” in my opinion. I think it was quite interesting and I always count on Amba to provide a civil forum for people who vehemently disagree with each other.

  30. realpc said,

    Some people became emotional. And I eventually became crazy, probably. It didn’t occur to me at the time that they mistook the title for the content.

  31. realpc said,

    And then finally the F word was used, which I had never seen on even the angriest blog before. I guess that’s what got to me.

  32. trooper york said,

    Dude you haven’t been to my blog. We have the f bomb all the time.

    But it’s said with love!

  33. realpc said,

    Yes I have noticed that everybody is saying it now, just about every other word. But I came from a different era I guess, when you didn’t way it unless you were really really angry, or a teenager.

    But it was more than just that word. I think there was a determined effort to distract from the main points. And some commenters just read the title of the post and were off to the races.

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