Friday, September 14, 2007

Harris on Haidt

Sam Harris has responded to Jonathan Haidt’s article on Edge.org. Harris must be the neo-atheist one-man rapid-reaction force! His reply is instructive for a number of reasons because it perfectly encapsulates the neo-atheist position. As Dawkins calls the article “brilliant as usual,” we can assume it accurately reflects his position as well as Harris’s.

Three points are worth noting as they form the foundation of the neo-atheist critique.

Firstly, although Haidt was talking about American religious people being a bit healthier and giving lots to charity, Harris responds by citing Aztec human sacrifice and Islamic fundamentalism. He seeks to invalidate the point that some religions are a force for good (in this case modern Christianity) on the grounds that the religion of ancient America and some sections of Islam are not. This is the first pillar of the neo-atheist argument. It doesn’t matter if your religion is kind and gentle because some other religions are not or have not been in the past. This is purely guilt by association, which should repel anyone with any liberal sympathies at all.

Harris’s second pillar is that beliefs have consequences. This is undeniably true. However, he takes it as read that a false belief has negative consequences. He cites the individual who thinks that immoral acts will incur the wrath of God. Is this belief a bad thing? We cannot automatically assume that it is. Societies are bound together by shared rules and the fear of God acts as one form of enforcement. It is a particularly important form of enforcement because it remains valid even when no human agency is watching. Harris cites cases where he disagrees with the rules that particular societies have deemed important. His disagreements are largely about sex, which is where his sensibilities conflict most obviously with more traditional values. Haidt’s argument, that the rules and regulations of religion help societies cohere and survive, is completely ignored by Harris. This is despite the fact that sociologists have long recognised that taboos, however, pointless to the outsider, have a valuable role is binding people together.

In Harris’s own words, the third element of the neo-atheist critique “is that religion remains the only mode of discourse that encourages grown men and women to pretend to know things they manifestly do not (and cannot) know. If ever there were an attitude at odds with science, this is it.” Thus, science is the only legitimate way to gain knowledge and belief and the attitude of religious people is invalid because it is at odds with science. The sheer bulk of the philosophical critiques of this argument, once known as logical positivism, is so immense that it is a miracle that any educated person can still hold it.

Harris makes hardly a dent in Haidt’s argument, but he does us all a favour by being so explicit about the pillars of neo-atheism.

Click here to read the first chapter of God's Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science absolutely free.

6 comments:

Kzer-za said...

That was a pretty poor article. There was one major self-contradiction I noticed from just a cursory read: at the beginning, Harris says "When does scientific detachment become perverse? When might it be suicidal?" in reference to cannibalism and human sacrifice. Then at the end, he argues that even if religion does more good than harm and encourages people to do good things, it doesn't matter - science takes priority over everything.

I'm tempted to go on a tirade pointing out how someone like Harris who talks about irrational theories has no business appearing in a terrible documentary claiming Jesus never existed, but I won't.

Kzer-za said...

One of the commenters linked to this article:
https://www.blogger.com/comment.g?blogID=5074683&postID=7650452970840012919

There's some interesting stuff in the comments, including a mini-debate about abortion and stem cells where someone says that a fetus is no more a human than tumor (at least that position makes more sense than the "right to choose" argument) and where someone compares the Boy Scouts to the KKK.

Al Moritz said...

Bede wrote:

“In Harris’s own words, the third element of the neo-atheist critique “is that religion remains the only mode of discourse that encourages grown men and women to pretend to know things they manifestly do not (and cannot) know. If ever there were an attitude at odds with science, this is it.” Thus, science is the only legitimate way to gain knowledge and belief and the attitude of religious people is invalid because it is at odds with science. The sheer bulk of the philosophical critiques of this argument, once known as logical positivism, is so immense that it is a miracle that any educated person can still hold it.”

Yes, this scientism is quite entertaining. The irony is that many of the same atheists who defend it and shout “Evidence!, Evidence!” support the conjecture that there is a multitude of universes (the multiverse), in which each universe has its own different physical laws, in order to “explain away” the extraordinarily precise fine-tuning of the observed (our) universe, necessary for life. Yet of course this unobserved and unobservable multiverse is supported by no evidence whatsoever.

Science lives from evidence (I know this firsthand since as a biochemist I am confronted with experimental evidence every day, sometimes in an exhilarating manner, more often in a humiliating one – naked facts quickly bring you down to earth). That something is a naturalistic explanation, dressed up in scientific language, does not automatically mean that it is a scientific explanation. The multiverse is not a scientific explanation since it is not backed up by evidence. To turn Harris’s words against his own crowd, when it comes to belief in the multiverse: “If ever there were an attitude at odds with science, this is it.”

In my view there is good evidence – even though not scientific evidence – for divine revelation, which justifies religion, for those who are willing to have an open mind. Certainly more evidence than for a multiverse for which there is, to be precise, none – scientific evidence or otherwise.

Of course there are those that claim a multiverse from certain physical theories (or rather, conjectures). Leonard Susskind, one of the fathers of string theory, claims that there must be 10 to the power of 500 (!!) universes out there (book “The Cosmic Landscape”). However, this is not an outcome of the predictive strength of string theory, but an outcome of its utter weakness and fuzziness when it comes to mathematical results and concrete predictions. The lack of predictive power makes it highly questionable that string theory is a scientific theory or even just a scientific hypothesis at all; several prominent physicists, including two of those who won the Nobel Prize for their work on the current Standard Model of physics (Gerardus ‘t Hooft and Sheldon Glashow), hold that it is just a conjecture.

For the quite damning Glashow interview, see:
http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/elegant/view-glashow.html

I would recommend to anyone to read the outstanding “The Trouble with Physics” by the prominent physicist Lee Smolin, an insider on string theory, on this topic. The author has no religious agenda, on the contrary, from his book it seems that he is an atheist or agnostic; he has developed his own multiverse theory of evolving universes which has been approvingly cited by Dawkins in “The God Delusion”.

***

To dispel any doubts about where I come from: I fully accept the weighty scientific evidence for the theory of evolution and hold that, from a scientific point of view, an origin of life by natural causes is highly probable, see my review of the research in this area on one of the leading evolution web sites, talkorigins.org:

http://talkorigins.org/faqs/abioprob/originoflife.html

For some thoughts on Intelligent Design, see the last three paragraphs of the chapter:
“Origin of the homochirality of amino acids and sugars”

Al

Niall said...

Oh Christ, what are we going to do with these lunatics? New Atheism takes on more and more of the trappings of a religion everyday. These men are suffering from group-think of the worst kind. They are convinced that they are right, everybody else is wrong, they're fighting against a great evil and that their spokesmen are great moral heroes. They just aren't capable of reasonable debate when it comes to religion. Failing to distinguish between different varieties of religion is just ridiculous - akin to claiming the modern-day British Tory party is harmful because of the actions of the German Nazi party in the 1940s.

A Dude said...

It's pretty bizarre to say that beliefs have consequences and then to compare Aztec religion with Christianity. Okay they both have human sacrifice as an "element". But one says we need more and one says we have only ever needed one--God himself.

If beliefs have consequences, then these beliefs when weighed independently have consequences. One of them makes you round up captives to sacrifice to the Gods, one of them makes you stand in awe of God's love for us (for believers).

Harris wants also to use it as "having beliefs" has consequences. And that maybe true, but they are different ones.

If God exists, which even Dawkins will come flat out and say he absolutely does not, then the idea "There is no God" or even "It is likely there is no God" is nothing more than a belief. What is that consequence?

I've long grown tired of the debate where you have to conclude that all religion is equal just to avoid looking like a bigot--but of course, it still does not keep the atheist from looking like one (by the same criteria I am yoked with). And because there is a fair chance that any other one might be right. But if you say that beliefs have consequences, then either all possible consequences have equal weighting or we can sum up the weights of bad and good and they shouldn't all come out even.

Joel McDurmon said...

Bede, I have loved visiting your site many times.

Thanks for the notes, guys. I have found Harris' articles to be growing ever more hard to read.

I have published a lengthy refutation here.

http://www.christianfaithandreason.com/index.html

Thanks.