Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Back At Him

Sam Harris comes out swinging. He's not going to win on finesse, but he has the brute force of reason and facts on his side.

Andrew Sullivan, interestingly enough, reproduces only Harris's rebuttals to Sullivan's own points. I don't think Sullivan has accurately reproduced the "flavor" of Harris's comments, but he does honestly reproduce a substantive rebuttal.

The actual truth of Sullivan's religious beliefs is, of course, indefensible. Nor has Sullivan (to compliment him) even begun to master the sort of philosophical doubletalk[1] under which theistic philosophers--especially Christian theistic philosophers--bury their underlying irrationality.

It's still kind of irritating reading Harris's work, though. Harris is good at compling lists of religious stupidity, irrationality, hatefulness and violence. But he seems to have a hard time focusing on what I see is the fundamental point: That the (relatively) mild irrationality of moderate religion[2] just feeds and supports the virulent, severe irrationality of fundamentalist religion.

Moderate religion relies on the exact same epistemic basis (scripture and tradition) as fundamentalism; on that basis, fundamentalism has a stronger case. The only bases a moderate could possibly distinguish himself from a fundamentalist are conscience and skepticism, which lead inexorably to epistemic relativism or nihilism.[3]

[1] I.e. bullshit.

[2] In just the same way as the mild irrationality of moderate conservatism just feeds and supports the virulent irrationality of neo-conservatism, and sometimes as moderate leftism feeds fundamentalist leftism.

[3] I personally hold ethical epistemic nihilism and meta-ethical relativism: We can't know that any moral belief is true just because moral beliefs are not truth-apt. Lacking any epistemic basis, we have no choice but to rely on the relativistic meta-ethical techniques of propaganda and negotiation. Then again, I'm an liberal atheist, not a conservative moderate Catholic.


  1. Hey, I just want to say that I'm really enjoying your comments on the Sullivan/Harris debate.

    And I think one of your recent posts hit the nail right on the head. Sullivan may not know the difference between "a feeling of truthiness" and the kind of fact-determination used in the scientific method. (I think you describe the latter extremely well.)

    Of course, once Sullivan does come to understand that difference, that does not mean that he, or others like him, would actually be able to be convinced that the scientific method is more reliable.

    For that, my own attitude is: the scientific method gets results. The "feeling of truthiness" method doesn't. That is, the scientific method gave us the cure for polio, AIDS treatments that are keeping millions alive who would otherwise be dead now, and all the other advancements in living, medical and non-medical, that makes the average lifespan in the U.S. something like 77 years rather than something like 25 years for the ancient Romans.

    To me, that is very strong reason to believe that there is a huge difference between the validity of the standards used to determine facts in the scientific community vs. the religions communities.

    Of course, a religious moderate would probably come back with something along the lines of "Yes, the scientific method is great for discovering practical and useful technologies, but is completely irrelevant to spiritual truth; the religious approach is the only way to discover spiritual truth."

    And perhaps there is merit to that argument AS LONG AS there is the discipline to be sure that there is ZERO impingement on the world of physical facts from the religious/spiritual world.

    As someone who has an affinity for Zen Buddhism, I think an argument can be made that Zen Buddhism fits the bill there. But Christianity, like Islam, has always led to beliefs about physical facts that are at odds with evidence and reason. (Altho, Paul Tillich's way of holding Christianity, as I remember it from reading one of his books some years ago, may also qualify as "purely" spiritual.)

    Anyway, with regard to determining physical facts, the reality that the scientific method gets useful results and the religious method does not may not be enough to convince many people that it is the better way to go. But there's still something a little fuzzy about it. While you and I think of it as a a huge and obvious difference, many in the religious community do actually believe that the Bible does make true predictions. How can they be convinced that it does not?

    For instance, a high-school friend of mine mentions some physical location where in Biblical days there was a city, and the Bible predicted that it would become barren, and in fact it's barren now (he says). So, how can he be convinced that there is an actual greater ability of fact-determination using the scientific method? My experience of this individual is that he can't be (or at least it would be very hard). Then all there is is the feeling of truthiness, and his feeling is that it's right to believe.

    To convince someone like that would require attempting to debunk every one of the Biblical predictions he holds as evidence. But, by chance, if there are enough statements in the Bible that can be construed as predictions, a number of them will actually have come true.

    A statistical analysis of the number of "predictions" vs. the number of ones that actually are true might be convincing to some people who are on the edge, although I don't believe anyone has attempted such a thing. But in any case, many would simply not grok that kind of thinking.

    My overall feeling is that attempting to attack the beliefs of believers is just too difficult to have much chance of working. Rather, another approach is needed. Believers believe because doing so serves certain purposes and also because those around them tend to believe the same things. If an alternative worldview gained popularity that served those same purposes, but that was not of a nature that it would lead to beliefs that are contrary to fact and reason, religions like Christianity could be, over time, displaced.

    Zen Buddhism will never fill that role for most people because it's just too difficult and formal. But that doesn't mean that another solution may not evolve out of the atheistic community. I think that's the way to go, and that it probably will if fanatics are restrained from killing us all for long enough, though it's not clear exactly clear how it will happen.

  2. Gary,

    Thanks for your insightful comment.

    I'm glad you're finding my description of the Scientific Method valuable. Be sure to stay tuned for part 2.

    There actually are some thorough (if not totally comprehensive) collections debunking biblical prophecy. Many can be found at the Secular Web Library, especially in the Prophecy section. Other resources can be found at the James Randi Educational Foundation and the Freedom From Religion Foundation.

    I disagree with you that there can be any merit to the idea that the religious approach is the only way to discover spiritual truth. Not because the religious approach is somehow invalid or unreliable, but because the notion of spiritual truth is itself incoherent. People have a lot of spiritual opinions, but in the most basic sense of "the same for everyone", there's just no such thing as spiritual truth.

  3. Re the biblical prophecies debunkings -- I've seen people debunk the prophecies. What I haven't seen is a) make a list of EVERY biblical prophecy that is regularly used as evidence for the supernatural nature of the Bible; b) compile an objective evaluation of each one, with reliable, accessible sources named; c) compute whether the resulting statistical evidence meets an alpha-level of, oh, .05. (In other words, determine whether there is a only at most a 5% chance that the obtained results could have been obtained if the null hypothesis that there is no supernatural agency associated with biblical predictions were in fact true.)

    With regard to the question of whether there IS spiritual truth, that's kinda difficult. I do agree with some that there is a "moral law". I think being kind and compassionate is better than being a mass murderer in some objective sense. To be oriented toward kindness and compassion is (arguably) a spiritual matter; and the preferability of that to the opposite is a spiritual truth.

    This is a very different kind of truth than that which science is concerned with, but I'd still say it's a KIND of truth. Or, at least a somewhat related kind of thing to scientific truth, which in informal use is often referred to by the same word.

    As I mentioned, I really am enjoying your writing, which I discovered due to Andrew Sullivan's link. Keep it up!

  4. I made a mistake in my last post. I can only plead being distracted with work issues.

    I mentioned finding the biblical prophecies that are "that is regularly used as evidence". Obviously that's wrong, because those are chosen according to someone's conclusion that they turned out to be true.

    Rather, a set of neutral criteria should be agreed upon by all sides as to what qualities a set of words in the Bible must have to be a "prophecy"; then all such sets of words in the Bible must be found, and then the statistical analysis done that I spoke of.


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