Friday, January 26, 2007

Rational Discourse

Andrew Sullivan's latest post in the Sullivan/Harris debate, Truth and Consequences, is out. And Sullivan simply falls flat on his face.

We have two kinds of beliefs: Beliefs that ought to be the same for everyone, and beliefs that do not need to be the same for everyone. We have perfectly good words which denote these categories: truths and facts in the first sense, and opinions, attitudes, and feelings in the second. It is precisely because we have a moral duty to believe the truth that religions have placed their claims firmly in that category.

Every church, every religion--including the Catholic Church--has for millennia insisted that their claims have the moral status of truth: that you ought to believe them.

The insistence that religious beliefs are truth is always toxic. Either we take seriously (and this, I think, is the sense that Harris originally meant) the notion that our beliefs are true, that everyone ought to believe them, or we vacate our notion that there are any beliefs at all that everyone ought to believe, that there is no moral duty to believe the truth.

That religion might somehow be true but "incomprehensible" or unknowable doesn't help. The rational response to an unknown or incomprehensible truth is agnosticism and skepticism, not arbitrary belief. I don't know whether there's non-terrestrial life. Arbitrarily deciding to believe or disbelieve the claim would be equally irrational, so I remain skeptical and agnostic.

Even that religion might not be known with "certainty" doesn't help. We don't know anything with certainty. (Although, according to Sullivan, the beliefs we know with the highest confidence, mathematics, "may even be the closest to divine truth that human beings can achieve.") If certainty is the standard, then nothing is true, and we're back at epistemic nihilism.

In one sense, no, nobody ever has to justify any idea at all to anyone else's satisfaction ever, at least not in the United States. You can believe the Holocaust never happened, that Kennedy was assassinated by the Bavarian Illuminati, that the moon landings were a hoax. You can believe in ESP, tinfoil hats, timecubes, shape-changing lizard beings, a 6,000 year-old universe and even the causal efficacy of prayer. You can believe--and even publicly discuss--just about anything at all and you can rest assured that neither I, nor Sam Harris, nor Andrew Sullivan will punch you in the nose because of your belief. More importantly, you can rest assured that neither the FBI, the ATF, the Secret Service nor your local police department will come and arrest you and put you in jail. No matter how weird, misguided, insane or just plain stupid I think your ideas are, you have a political right to believe them and a political right to freely discuss them.

But if you're petitioning the community of rational human beings to accept the legitimacy of your beliefs, if you think you have something to say about the truth, then yes, you do have an obligation to justify your beliefs. If that's "intolerance", so be it: I'm not going to "tolerate" Gene Ray, Paul Rassinier, Uri Geller, Kent Hovind or Sylvia Browne as members in good standing of the community of rational human beings. Not because I happen to disagree with their conclusions, but because they do not use anything even remotely resembling reason in coming to their conclusions. I don't want them arrested or assaulted--I'll tolerate them to that extent--but I'm not going to tolerate giving them the slightest bit of standing, legitimacy or seriousness in the forum of rational discourse.

Sure, we'd love to have strong scientific, empirical justification of religious truth claims (I'm not holding my breath). But hey, we rational people are open minded, we'll settle for something else, so long as it's at least within spittin' distance of scientific or even historical[1] rigor. We want something more than just Making Stuff Up.

But Sullivan gives us nothing. His entire argument is nothing but an elaborate version of the "deconstructionist" theme of, "Science doesn't explain everything, therefore anything I say is just as truthful and rational as science."
My point here is to say that once you have conceded the possibility of a truth that is not reducible to empirical proof, you have allowed for the validity of religious faith as a form of legitimate truth-seeking in a different mode.
This is a pure non sequitur. The incompleteness of empirical proof, even accepted arguendo, does nothing to establish or even "allow" the validity of religious faith.[2]

Sullivan actually admits that religious faith is irrational; quoting Hobbes, "For the nature of God is incomprehensible;" and quoting himself, "God must, by definition, surpass our human understanding." It is entirely absurd to believe one can speak the truth about what one doesn't understand. By that standard, I'm an expert on medieval French poetry.

Sullivan gives us another laundry list, "We have Scripture; we have reason; we have religious authority; we have our own spiritual experiences of the divine," but yet again he fails to explain how any of these items do anything at all to establish truth in any sort of rational manner. He might as well list dance, song, sitting in a circle and holding hands, chanting 'om mani padme om', speaking in tongues or handling snakes. Even the UFO nuts and crop circle faithful have a more explicit and detailed (although still entirely irrational) methodology.

If Sullivan's admirable secularism and pluralism do not allow him to "force or even rig laws to encourage others to share my [truthful] faith", if the truth of his faith deals "with matters that cannot be subject to common consensus," then one has to ask: If not on truth, on what basis should we create our laws? Maybe there are two kinds of truth, truthful truths and non-truthful or less-truthful truths? It's absurd.

The epistemic relativism, subjectivism and deconstructionism of this latest epistle (including the irritating "spaces" trope) might earn him a graduate degree in "leftist academia". But without any sort of explanation of his supposed methodology, a rational person is entirely justified in considering religion to be inadmissible in (rational) public debate, ludicrous, irrational, and--while the charge of "lying" is unjustified--most definitely deluded.

After all, this is precisely the sort of rational "intolerance" that Sullivan applies to liberalism.

I want to separate out this section because the points here peripheral to the main point above.

Sullivan appears to consider some controversial philosophical points as being settled and obvious[3].

The historical sciences, including the study of recorded human history, archeology, paleontology, criminal forensics and physical cosmology, are fully scientific and emprical. Both rely on the same fundamental methodology: to construct the most parsimonious falsifiable logical explanation for a given set of empirically verifiable facts. In the case of the the terrestrial historical sciences, the facts are most often written texts and artifacts; cosmology relies on the facts of astronomical observation.

Historical and forensic sciences seek to establish a different kind of truth than "universal" sciences, such many physical sciences. Universal sciences are concerned with finding universal relationships, relationships which are true independent of any particular state of the universe. (Controlled experiments are a particularly effective technique of finding these sorts of truths, but they're not a metaphysical necessity.) Historical and forensic sciences, on the other hand, are concerned with finding a particular past state of the world, usually assuming arguendo our current best understanding of scientific universals.

The goals are different, there are a few techniques peculiar to one class of sciences or the other, but the fundamental methodology is the same.

There's an enormous philosophical controversy about idea that mathematics are or are not truth-apt (capable of being true or false), beyond the trivial observation that it is true that some theorem is derivable from some set of axioms.[4]

Materialism is not a necessary metaphysical presupposition for any empirical science. Most scientists take one or another kind of materialism for granted, but only on the massive weight of evidence of the efficacy of materialistic explanations.

Sullivan also throws in an outright howler. He quotes Harris:
I do not think that the utter reducibility of consciousness to matter has been established. It may be that the very concepts of mind and matter are fundamentally misleading us.
and concludes that Harris has conceded a big point:
So you allow for a space where the logic of science and of materialism does not lead us toward truth, but may even mislead us about it, and lead us away from it.

It boggles the mind that Sullivan draws this irrational conclusion from Harris's remark. Harris himself does not draw any conclusion at all in his comment; he expresses only skepticism. Even if one reads in some implied conclusion, Harris does not at all state that he has come to that conclusion by any method other than scientific, empirical investigation. Even Sullivan's confusion about the relationship of empiricism to materialism fails to excuse this failure of rational analysis.

Moreover, why would Sullivan consider Harris's comment to represent such a big concession? Very few people--even religious people--consider religion to be specifically scientifically and empirically justified. The whole point of the debate is to challenge Sullivan to offer an alternative justification for religious truth (with empiricism serving as a template); just by participating Harris evidences open-mindedness about at least the possibility of such an alternative. But the burden is still on Sullivan to explain and justify his alternative. It is precisely because Sullivan considers this comment such a big concession that I'm rationally justified in interpreting Sullivan's argument in the logically invalid sense.

[1] The historical method is entirely scientific and empirical. See the section after the break.

[2] Sullivan uses weaselly phrasing here: He might be taken literally as uncontroversially allowing only the possibility that religion might be true; this sense, however, would be more clearly phrased as, "... allowed for the possibility..." I think the rest of the essay easily substantiates my stronger interpretation.

[3] To be fair, I don't think that any philosophical controversy at all has ever been resolved. Philosophers are still arguing over ideas that Socrates introduced almost three thousand years ago.

[4] See The Scientific Method (part 1) for more information.


  1. I think both Harris and Sullivan are completely off base on consciousness. Sam Harris thinks consciousness and matter are fooling us?

    That's demonstratively ridiculous. If consciousness is not contained and directly effected by matter than we wouldn't be able to cause people to lose consciousness by effecting the matter with drugs.

    Worse if the matter is damaged the consciousness can go away and then someone is in a vegetative state. This kind of magical thinking about consciousness somehow outside of matter is not warranted. There is not a shred of evidence for it and reams of it against.

    Sam is still exploring the mysticism in Buddhist religion. There is less of it than in others religions but it is no more "true" than Jesus Christ rose from the dead and appeared to dozens or hundreds of people (depends on which gospel you cite) and yet this amazing feat wasn't recorded until nearly a hundred years later.

    I understand Harris exploring Buddhism. When reason won out over my Catholic indoctrination I too flirted with Buddhism to fill the gap of spirituality unfortunately the Buddhist mystical claims about consciousness also didn't bear out and I moved on to agnosticism and finally when no form of mysticism seemed anything but human created, atheism.

  2. I think it's more accurate to say that Sullivan thinks that Harris thinks that yada, yada.

    Harris expresses skeptical agnosticism about a particular conclusion. While I don't share his agnosticism (I'm persuaded by the same sorts of arguments as you present), presumably his agnosticism is principled and resolvable by empirical investigation and scientific experiment.

    As a philosopher, I do agree that much of our discourse about mind and matter is considerably, fundamentally confused, but I don't believe--as Sullivan apparently does--that it is science which has caused this confusion; my prime suspect is philosophical bullshit.

    I admire Harris's willingness to experiment. The fundamental rule of any scientifically-minded person is just this: If you have any doubt, the way to resolve it is to go and look.

  3. that you ought to believe them.

    Tangential question: There's some sort of reasoning, often trotted out by Christians, that is (or can; I'm never very clear) implies ought. I've never understood this, even going back to some basic texts. Can anyone explain it in very simple terms, as though to a complete nincompoop?

    The rational response to an unknown or incomprehensible truth is agnosticism and skepticism...

    Precisely! I remain skeptical, and therefore agnostic, about the existence of the metaphysical. It's entirely possible that there are areas of existence outside the human ability to perceive. This doesn't mean I have to perforce lend credence to tales of a magical sky god who rains hellfire and benevolence on us in a fairly petulant manner. Especially when the "evidence" for its existence is inconsistent by its own standards (God is unknowable? Golly, that's convenient!)

    We don't know anything with certainty.

    I've become convinced that many, many, many of the religious don't understand this, on a very fundamental level. I blame the lack of high school classes on epistemology and logic.

    ...but I'm not going to tolerate giving them the slightest bit of standing, legitimacy or seriousness in the forum of rational discourse.

    Here we find the crux of the matter when we talk about religion in the public square. Moral valuations are going to be reflected by how one arrives at them, whether via religious teachings, a sense of common empathy and purpose, strict logical deduction, or having them implanted by the Mystical Ant Gods of Dimension 12. I view the treatment of religion in the public square much as we treat schizophrenics - we tolerate them, the nicer among us give them an ear, but we don’t let them make decisions affecting public welfare based on their delusions. We don’t reward them with power. A public policy may be arrived at through a process that is inflected with one’s morals (often of religious origin), but that process - especially in a pluralist nation - must have rational substance to it, in order to be considered valid.

    Which brings us to a related question: Is something always good just because it’s moral? It’s a question I’ve asked in relation to Iraq, and have never received a satisfactory affirmative answer. Something can’t be good in and of itself; its affect on the human condition matter. But I’m waxing tangential. Please continue.

  4. James,

    The Wikipedia articles for the is-ought problem and the related naturalistic fallacy are worth reading.

    Keep in mind that I'm all for including opinions as opinions in the public discourse. I argue for the exclusion of religious opinion as truth claims. Even though Sullivan admirably does appear to himself exclude his own truth claims from public discourse, his insistence on asserting the truthfulness of his religious claims is still toxic.

    As to your question about the relationship to morality and goodness, the answer is "yes", but the "yes" means different things: If you're speaking nominally, the word "moral" can be considered a synonym for "good"; if you're speaking prescriptively then by definition one always has a moral duty to promote the good.

    Neither view really helps us understand anything, though.

  5. Sullivan had to resort to muddying the waters to avoid the real issue. Suddenly we are treated to mention of something called "aesthetic truth" - the mere existence of which undermines scientific realism. And his discussion of "religious truth" mixed the "truth" of moral propisitions with the "truth" of claims that a series of events occurred. Can Sullivan really claim that any of his indescribable experiences specifically gives him a good "non-empirical" reason to believe that Jesus was born of a virgin?
    I doubt Sullivan would tolerate the kind of sloppy semantics he's using in this article were we talking about a socio-political topic

    I hope Harris can managed to stay focus about this. He just needs to come out and say it: An intellectually honest religious moderate can only be a Unitarian or a Pantheist. Andrew Sullivan can't claim a sophisiticated spirituality and still profess that he believes in the truth of something as arcane as transubstantiation.

    As long as he's willing to concede that it's merely a coincidence that he has the particular religious faith that he does based on his personal, indescribable truth - and that jihadists are just as scrupulous in that regard - I am happy to concede that his religious faith, in the abstract, is not irrational.

  6. Instead of jihadists I should have said Scientologists - despite his claim to utter ecumenicalism in this debate, Sullivan loves to harsh on the "indescribable truth" of Tom Cruise.

  7. Kipp,

    Good points all. I had my own personal wtf moment over "aesthetic truth", but I couldn't find a way to work it into my essay.

    Although one can add deism to your list, I might even go so far as saying that even those on such a short list could not qualify as "religious moderates". Stated another way, all of those labels are absolutely devoid of even an iota of "religious" meaning and are entirely vacuous.

    Can you give us some examples of Sullivan's harshing on the clam-bakers? I have a hard time reading Sullivan long enough to spot general trends.

  8. "...two kinds of beliefs: Beliefs that ought to be the same for everyone, and beliefs that do not need to be the same for everyone. We have perfectly good words which denote these categories: truths and facts in the first sense, and opinions, attitudes, and feelings in the second."

    Well, I'll admit my atheism is merely my opinion, but I think there is another way to look at Andrew's abuse of the term "truth" that gets at why Sam Harris should consider Andrew an "enabler."

    Are you familiar with a book called "The Social Construction of Reality"?

    "The Social Construction of Reality" is by a pair of conservative sociologists, Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann. It's several decades old.

    I think it would be better to call Andrew's "truth" a "socially constructed public 'truth'" because it is more than an opinion to Andrew. People don't go to church and participate in rituals because of mere "opinions."

    As a participant in the construction of that "socially constructed truth" Andrew is helping to create the environment in which fundamentalism breeds.

    As atheists are job is difficult because we are using an opinion against the socially constructed reality of a large group.

  9. I don't know to what extent atheism is an opinion. I personally don't view my atheism in the same sense, for instance, that I view my political liberalism. My liberalism is very much an existential choice; my atheism is a result of rational examination of religious claims.

    At heart, I labor in the (almost) Sisyphean task of moving the idea that to be important, our moral, ethical and political beliefs have to be true in the exact same sense that gravity, thermodynamics and even evolution are true. If being an atheist is part and parcel of this labor, it is only because so many people have written "God says, 'thou shalt...'" on that rock.


Please pick a handle or moniker for your comment. It's much easier to address someone by a name or pseudonym than simply "hey you". I have the option of requiring a "hard" identity, but I don't want to turn that on... yet.

With few exceptions, I will not respond or reply to anonymous comments, and I may delete them. I keep a copy of all comments; if you want the text of your comment to repost with something vaguely resembling an identity, email me.

No spam, pr0n, commercial advertising, insanity, lies, repetition or off-topic comments. Creationists, Global Warming deniers, anti-vaxers, Randians, and Libertarians are automatically presumed to be idiots; Christians and Muslims might get the benefit of the doubt, if I'm in a good mood.

See the Debate Flowchart for some basic rules.

Sourced factual corrections are always published and acknowledged.

I will respond or not respond to comments as the mood takes me. See my latest comment policy for details. I am not a pseudonomous-American: my real name is Larry.

Comments may be moderated from time to time. When I do moderate comments, anonymous comments are far more likely to be rejected.

I've already answered some typical comments.

I have jqMath enabled for the blog. If you have a dollar sign (\$) in your comment, put a \\ in front of it: \\\$, unless you want to include a formula in your comment.