Thursday, June 25, 2009

And another thing…

My exchange with Sam Harris below has attracted some interesting comment on the Reason Project site. While it is natural that a web site like that one will have its share of cheerleaders, I’m heartened that there were several rather more thoughtful and even-handed comments than the posting of my original Nature article in the ‘Hall of Shame’ seemed to provoke. (Incidentally, now that the Hall of Shame has had a bit longer to develop, it seems clearer what kind of articles it will contain: anything that fails to match up to Sam’s uncompromising position. It’ll be a crowded hall.)

I have been thinking a little more about Sam’s last set of comments, and in particular the remark that ‘A person cannot (or least should not be able to) believe something because it “makes him feel better.” ’ I don’t want to fall for the tendency, which I saw in much of Sam’s comments, to plump always for the ‘worse case’ interpretation of any remark that permits of more than one. But I do wonder what he is implying here. It is hard to see it as anything other than an injunction that ‘you should not be free to choose what you believe.’ I guess that if all Sam mean is that we should not leave people so ill-informed that they have no reasonable basis on which to make those decisions, then fair enough. But it does seem to go further – to say that ‘you should not be permitted to choose what you believe, simply because it makes you feel better.’ Doesn’t this sound a little like a Marxist denouncement of ‘false consciousness’, with the implication that it needs to be corrected forthwith? I think (I hope?) we can at least agree that there are different categories of belief - that to believe one’s children are the loveliest in the world because that makes you feel better is a permissible (even laudable) thing. But I slightly shudder at the notion, hinted here, that a well-informed person should not be allowed to choose their belief freely. This doesn’t mean that we should desist from trying to persuade them of alternatives (so long as we do not do so with incessant and intemperate hectoring). And it doesn’t mean we must approve of their attempting to persuade others to share their belief. But surely we cannot let ourselves become proscriptive to this degree?

Although it seems to have perhaps flushed out Sam’s intolerance, however, I must say that my suggestion that for someone to believe in a religious doctrine “because it helps them in life and makes them feel better” … “seems a pretty good reason” isn’t the most transparent way I might have put it. Here, at least, Sam’s interpretation, while by no means unique, is not perverse. That’s to say, I can see how someone might imagine me to be implying not (as intended) that such behaviour is understandable, in a certain sense rational, and can in itself be socially tolerated, but that it is valid in some abstract logical way. All the more so given that this appears to be the only criterion of ‘correct behaviour’ Sam will accept. So let me be more explicit: I see no reason to try to argue out of their point of view someone who quietly and thoughtfully holds a religious faith that offers them support and solace in their life.

This raises the issue of whether or not we should actually approve of such a decision. I am honestly not sure how to answer that. I guess I feel that someone who finds comfort in religion, rather than being oppressed by it or using it as a reason to be judgemental, bigoted or dogmatic, is, in my own terms, seemingly making good use of a belief that I happen not to share.

Sam says “for a belief to be justified, our acceptance of it must be dependent upon its actually being true”. I think his subsequent comment hints at his suspicion that philosophers would tear this statement apart. I believe there was a Big Bang. Is it true? There’s very good reason to think so – but that is utterly different from the Big Bang being true. To think otherwise is to misunderstand science badly (which is why I actually suspect Sam does not mean quite what he says here).

Sam thinks that ‘my religious friends’ (I am in fact not simply arguing from my experience with friends who have a religious belief) are mistaking hope for knowledge. He says “If these friends of yours are really religious—that is, really conforming to the doctrine of Christianity, Islam, Judaism, etc.—they will have taken a further step toward delusion and mistaken this hope for a form of knowledge.” I have sad news, then, for ‘these friends of mine’: Sam Harris says you are not truly religious. Apparently Sam wants to ensure that ‘religious believers’ include only those people whose beliefs he can most easily attack. Well, that’s one way to win an argument, I suppose.


Dakobstah said...

“If these friends of yours are really religious—that is, really conforming to the doctrine of Christianity, Islam, Judaism, etc.—they will have taken a further step toward delusion and mistaken this hope for a form of knowledge.”

I would not dismiss this statement too blithely. There are a great many people who do, in fact, believe that their Holy Book, their dreams/visions, and their preachers are ultimate authorities in the realm of all knowledge, including science. How many I do not have any surveys on hand to provide you.

Unfortunately this argument devolved into unquantifiable statements about who believes what. To really proceed both sides really needed to bring evidence in the form of polls and surveys to the table (actually, if I remember correctly, Mr. Harris did bring out a few figures about the number of people who believe in Creationism which I think one could accurately say is an example of religious belief trumping scientific knowledge) and then link that to their arguments (I'm not sure the figures Harris brought up were strongly tied to backing up his view of religious belief but I do think that is what he was attempting to do).

If we are going to speak about personal, subjective experiences of religious culture, however, I might point out that the fact you live in London, England may give you a rosier picture of religious culture. I live in the American Midwest where the religious culture that Mr. Harris paints is both accurate and dominant. That's just my experience of it but if that's what we are going to use as the standard then I suppose my experience is every bit as valid as both the major contenders in this debate.

Robert said...

Concerning your comment about the Big Bang "being true". Any good scientist would readily admit that we don't yet know for certain if the Big Bang hypothesis is true. Any good scientist, no matter how much they believe that the Big Bang actually happened, would be willing to change their belief in light of new and convincing evidence to the contrary. In this context, "being true" is relative. The Big Bang hypothesis, having been modified in its specifics over the decades, still remains the "most true" theory we have to date. I think it's perfectly reasonable to believe in its "truth" within that context and with those provisos.

Similarly, any good atheist should be willing to ditch their unbelief in God in the face of new and convincing evidence that God exists. Of course, to date, the exact opposite is what has happened. But people who have bought into the whole religious spiel don't apply this logic to their religious beliefs, even if they regularly do apply it to all other aspects and situations in their lives.

As Sam alluded to in your debate, if we treated God as we do Santa Claus, and by extension the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy, and even leprechauns, we would, on the whole, be doing the world a big favor. I don't speak for Sam Harris, of course, but to me, that was the main gist of his argument with you and with Nature. Science and scientists shouldn't give religion (and by religion, I mean God and the supernatural) any more credence than we do Santa Claus, unless, of course, some verifiable evidence can be found to support the claim. In fact, we should go out of our way to dissuade such believers of their belief; failing that, we should treat them as we would an adult (or near adult) who still believed that Santa Claus was real. Which would largely consist of ignoring them, or holding them up to ridicule or derision if they attempted to persuade others of their belief or even just to get others to take them seriously. Certainly, we shouldn't give them (God, the supernatural, and those who support such beliefs which would include religions) even passing (serious) acknowledgement in a scientific journal.

thepip3r said...

Philip Ball,

First I'd like to say that I applaud your efforts to maintain civility in your debate with Sam Harris. You definitely won from a perspective of keeping your cool. And I say “won” only because typically, in a formal debate, there is a “winner.” You both had some very valid points. However, on this last issue is where I must side with Sam.

With that said, I am not a fan of your other blog articles defaming the Reason Project as “militants” just because they take a more harder line on the topic of science/religion reconciliation. I find it ironic that you feel your position is “right” enough to be able to laud the Christian apologist organizations yet, you simply dismiss the Reason Project followers as, “cheerleaders.” The Reason Project members (of which I am a contributing one) are simply a group of disparate people who’ve finally found a foundation worth backing. This is absolutely nothing more than what religion has done for 5-6 millennia (and longer). And while you seem to imply some kind of extremism, I highly doubt you will see torture, book burnings, murders, and/or the systematic ignorance building of a species coming from its members—yet, you seem to try to liken the two quite frequently. I simply don’t understand people’s hatred towards atheists (except in light of the religious persecution they’ve always received). I also realize that you’re a self-proclaimed atheist which makes this conundrum even more confusing.

I’m certainly not trying to say that you have to agree with everything every atheist says simply for being an atheist; only that, when there are so many other far reaching extremes (and extremists), why are many of your articles targeted “militant atheists”? On this issue, I must very vehemently side with Sam. You applaud liberal religious institutions while staying curiously silent about the extreme ones and yet, you are trying to defame an organization that has done nothing but try to organize a group of people to stop the spread of religious extremism. And yes, I feel as Sam does that you must have some very religiously liberal friends to have the views you do and must be blinded from the evidence that’s staring you in the face. I can’t speak for the UK but know that in the US, there have been no less than 20 cases in our high court either trying to push religious views on our populace or to try and remove scientific ones on religious grounds. There is a very silent war going on… Consider that both Kansas and Texas have flip-flopped on the idea of teaching “creationism” in schools in the past decade. That, in itself, should be enough evidence in recent events to suffice. If you find this as evidence to support your idea that religious people have a very liberal interpretation of the scriptures, then I feel you are a very well educated blind man. Trying to compare religious extremists with “militant” atheists is like trying to compare apples to astronauts—they aren’t even in the same galaxy.

What you don’t seem to understand is that there are a great number of people who still believe in the literal interpretation of the scriptures and when you take into context certain passages from the Bible—those believers present a very scary prospect. I have absolutely no doubt that the people you surround yourself with are the liberal religion idealists you seem to describe. But that ends up being a by-product of the level of education those people represent.

thepip3r said...

[..continued from above]

Regardless, I realize that, just as it always is with all people who believe strongly in their version of an ideal, nothing I say will persuade you into altering your thinking. Please just keep these things in mind the next time you start preemptively attacking athesits: the previous US PRESIDENT cited the US/Iraq war as a “crusade,” there have been a number of major pushes in numerous US states to defame evolution in our public school system (even though it is the ONLY theory that has a mt. Everest worth of evidence) on the grounds of religion, religious zealots are slowly and quietly introducing their influence over the masses. (see “under god” in the US Pledge of Allegiance, US money, etc, etc, etc).

George Polley said...

I have followed the conversation between you and Sam Harris with interest. I thought he did a fine job of making absolutely clear that to gain his approval as a person of reason (and avoid being "hurled" into the Reason Project's Hall of Shame"), one must agree with him on his views about religion, religious belief, and what constitutes rational thought. Those who do not are castigated, "hurled" into the outer darkness of his Hall of Shame (where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth?), and declared to be false scientists.

"Listening" to him has become, for me, like listening (and trying to have a conversation with) some of my fundamentalist acquaintances: If I disagree with them, I am wrong. Everything legitimate ("true", "rational", etc.) is housed within the framework of dogma.

To Sam, for instance, a person who claims to be a Christian, but does not believe in the Virgin Birth, that Jesus is THE Son of God, and that Jesus died for our sins, is not a "real" Christian because he or she doesn't believe in these doctrines, which is absurd. Though they may be in the minority, there are many Christians who do NOT believe in these doctrines.

When the Reason Project first announced their Hall of Shame, I shook my head; the whole thing smells oddly of the Vatican's Office of Inquisition (I may have the title wrong). Has Sam Harris become the Chief Inquisitor?

Sad. Thank you for stating your point of view. Sounds rational to me...and more likely to be listened to by all of us who dislike dogma and minds that tolerate only a single point of view.

Kirill said...


Isn't organised science as much a social construct as religion? Not only, as Philip puts it, "science and religion can in principle coexist (as they always have done)" - science inherits all the features of the society it resides in. Science is not driven by curiostity or love of truth alone: don't forget the big egos and big money. Science remains very much elitist (racist, sexist). Just like in religion, there are different groups which compete not only for funding but also for a monopoly on truth. And so on.

JimmyGiro said...

"Cry havoc, let slip the toothy snarly critters of war."

With my l33t computer game playing skills, I can see the problem here, at a multicultural glance:

Sam lives in a place where Christians lobby parliament and effectively make law; whereas Phil lives in a realm where Christians make tea. It follows then that each is seeing a different battle, hence each is more likely to have a different strategy than the other, not due to differences in integrity, but simply due to differences in opponents.

As Sun Tzu put it: "In times of peace, prepare for war. In times of war prepare for peace." If you live in the US, then you would want Sam as your inspiration, whilst heeding the words of Phil, to prepare for peace. If you lived in Britain, you would be better off with Phil keeping the peace, but harken to Sam his words of preparation for war.

Be warned; when the infantry tell the cavalry how to fight war, it's the enemy that gains the advantage. The god squad are going to have a field day selectively quoting from all that free ammunition you two have given them.

Philip Ball said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Philip Ball said...

I agree with you: many religious people do, I'm sure, think their faith is a kind of knowledge. Religion takes many forms, and a common one is depressingly simplistic and prescriptive. I wouldn't want to deny that. My point is simply that this is not necessarily the case, nor do I believe it is the one to which more thoughtful believers would subscribe.

You're right about the relevance of our different environments, as JimmyGiro says too. I think this is probably a key aspect of my differences with Sam. I will comment briefly on this in a later post.

Robert: I agree with your points about 'truth', but my point is that belief in God doesn't come into this category, because I strongly suspect it can't be disproved. That's precisely the problem with it, if it is meant to be a statement about the objective world. My point is simply that, for this reason, I don't believe Sam's remark on this issue is relevant.

thepip3r: I don't wish to defame the Reason Project, and indeed I stated in my original article that, insofar as it will campaign to curb religious extremism, it deserves support. (You seem to have missed or forgotten that, which accounts for the cognitive dissonance you experience.) In any event, my impression, from Sam's comments, is that its net is actually far broader than that. I'm not convinced that it need be - that's really the only extent of my scepticism.

I'm amused in a friendly way that you seem to feel I 'surround myself' with religious liberals. It just so happens that a few of my friends and acquaintances have religious beliefs of one sort or another (many don't - perhaps most don't, but it's such a non-issue that I couldn't really estimate the proportions). And yes, I agree that education is often (though not always) the key. Purely from a tactical viewpoint, I suspect it will be easier to improve education than to extinguish religion.

I don't wish to imply that anyone who supports Sam's views on the Reason Project site is a mere cheerleader. Some of those comments are considered and thoughtful. But the ones that effectively just say 'Yo Sam, way to go' are a bit wearisome, in my view.

Michael said...

The point is that a metaphysical claim cannot be considered true simply because you wish it so. And this "thoughtfully and quietly" thing is deceptive: you're implying that they won't then apply these quiet thoughts to the way we run society, and the power that they exert over others. Which simply has not been the case.

Robert said...

Philip, in response to me, you said:

Robert: I agree with your points about 'truth', but my point is that belief in God doesn't come into this category, because I strongly suspect it can't be disproved. That's precisely the problem with it, if it is meant to be a statement about the objective world. My point is simply that, for this reason, I don't believe Sam's remark on this issue is relevant.

I don't think we need to disprove God's existence. There are many things we can't currently (and maybe never) disprove: the teapot in space, the flying spaghetti monster, the idea that we're all living inside a complex computer simulation, that life on earth was seeded by an alien race, etc.

I think those who believe in God need to prove, or at least give some reasoned evidence, that God exists before science and scientists should include it in any serious discourse, e.g. the pages of Nature. To be clear, I'm talking about science (physics, biology, chemistry, astronomy, cosmology, etc), not philosophy or psychology or sociology or similar areas. Even there I would hope that the notion of God's existence were treated as an aberration to be studied in areas such as psychology and sociology, and as a thought experiment in philosophy.

In that respect, I believe that a belief in God's existence, which hinges on God actually existing, should fall into the same category as The Big Bang theory in terms of being taken seriously by science. Call it The God hypothesis as it has not yet accumulated enough enough evidence to reach the level of a scientific theory, and until there is some evidence for it, it shouldn't be given any credence.