Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Globe Trotters Vs. Washington Generals

Well, I think Andrew Sullivan made a mistake even entering this debate. I don't know what he was thinking but he has been manhandled already. After reading his second post twice it became clear to me that he indeed put words straight into Sam Harris' mouth and made false assumptions. As others have done to defend themselves from reason, they have no direct reply, so they insist that Harris is dogmatic or intolerant. Harris goes after these errors first thing in his stunning and gloriously written third post. He keeps coming up with more beautiful crystal clear demonstrations of common unreasonableness. I don't feel like I am exaggerating when I say that he has made Andrew Sullivan look like a clumsy hack. I was truly surprised at how weak Sullivan's first response was. I think Sullivan would have done best just to say "I believe because I want to, now leave me alone".

Sam's 3rd post


upinVermont said...

This is a beautiful debate, if solely on Harris' side. As you say, his argument is a model of concision and clarity. Sullivan is getting his ass handed to him on a platter the size of a football field.

Sam's quote below summarizes my own feelings on the matter of consciousness:

"It is true that many atheists are convinced that we know what this relationship is, and that it is one of absolute dependence of the one upon the other. Those who have read the last chapters of The End of Faith know that I am not convinced of this. While I spend a fair amount of time thinking about the brain (as I am finishing my doctorate in neuroscience), 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. But this doesn't entitle religious people to imagine that all their crazy ideas about miraculous books, virgin births, and saviors ushering in the end of the world are remotely plausible...."

upinVermont said...

I just read Sullivan's reply to Harris's same quote -- the same that I liked but leaps much further than I ever would or would consider reasonable. Sullivan seems to miss Harris' larger point.

He writes:

"You ask legitimately: how can I, convinced of this truth, resist imposing it on others? The answer is: humility and doubt. I may believe these things, but I am aware that others may not; and I respect their own existential decision to believe something else. I respect their decision because I respect my own, and realize it is indescribable to those who have not directly experienced it."

This is still not an aswer to Harris' charge that Sullivan misreads scriptural text (even by the standards of the text itself)... I think he would say that by Sullivan's tacit approval of the scripture (through cherry-picking), he is enabling and giving legitimacy to the innerrant readings of the fundamentalists. This is the only part of Harris' assertions that are really debatable, though I personally agree with Harris.

Sullivan cliams that "skepticism" is the antidote to religious fundamentalism, but Sullivan is clearly forced into a position of selective skepticsm that has no rational basis. One can only conclude that Sullivan's beliefs are irrational. As you say: He believes what he does because he wants to.

So... what's to prevent the fundamentalist from making the same arguments as Sullivan?

Aaron said...

Andrew Sullivan is painting with muddy watercolors. Its as if he wasn't really too familiar with Sam's position to start with. Sullivan's last post seemed to be damage control, but I am quite certain that Harris will scold him soundly in his next post, in a way that is so clear and concise that it will make it very hard for Sullivan to obscure the grand finale into some sort of perception of equal footing. This is a debate with an obvious winner, even moreso than the Prager debate.

Sullivan is using a rampant technique which deserves a name. I hereby name it "the cosmic watercolor wash". The CWW is a technique whereby somebody takes a religious dogma (Jesus is the son of the creator and came to earth to save, heal, redeem humanity etc...) and washes it into the concept of belief in transcendent meaning and a higher power. Once the Cosmic watercolor wash is accomplished (slyly, deliberately) then the mixed colors are interchangable where necessary. Example of the CWW in action:

#1: I have faith in the divinity of Jesus based on historical accounts and internal intuitions. The teachings of love, forgiveness, kidness....

#2: The belief in the divinity of Jesus is historically unjustified and the beliefs adopted within the structure of your religious intuitions concerning Christianity are transparently incompatible with the religious convictions of millions of other pious religious people who use your identical arguments to defend their conflicting faiths.

#2 (Here's the CWW) To argue that there is no higher intelligence beyond our existence is just as dogmatic as fundamentalism.

Whenever I see people use the CWW (almost every debate like this) it is a red flag to me. I think it goes under the radar mostly. It's a subtle admission by believers that they have no reason to believe, but must defend the BELIEF IN BELIEF.

Its just fear and fear leads to intellectual dishonesty. We are creatures who are geared to be paralyzingly fearful of losing our lives. No degree of intelligence prevents people from believing in things without reasons to believe them.

Aaron said...

Oh, to be clear about the CWW, its just hiding specific religious dogmas beneath a belief in "something". "The universe is mysterious, therefore Jesus must have died for our sins".

The reverse method:

"The universe is mysterious, therefore you have no right to bash those who believe that Jesus died for our sins."

Frankly, I agree with Sullivan on his blog. He says that him and Harris "may be talking past one another". I don't think Sullivan (or other people of faith) are really capable of even considering that Sam is completely right. Even after I stopped believing that NDEs were true LAD experiences, it took me a long time to really be able to stand there and consider a world without any higher guidance. It may even be true that I am still not fully capable of it. People like Sullivan- not even remotely. They spend all day every day cultivating faith, which is basically the same as choosing the tint on the lenses of your glasses. "Cultivating faith" (every believer's duty), is an unwillingness to see the world as it is (Sam you can use this line, if you are reading this). They will never delve into the evolutionary biology, neuroscience and philosophy required to really get a grasp of the possibility that all human impulse and thought, including love and altruism, are just like a peacocks feathers.

Sadly, people involved professionally in politics are almost by definition utterly unaware of the depth of the most powerful arguments for atheistic materialism. Its not that the arguments might totally convert them, or even that there is no intelligence beyond our understanding, but they make so much sense and have so much evidence to support them that any valid understanding of them melts religious faith like hydrofluoric acid on skin.

To understand evolution is to know for certain that its true. To *really* understand it is to realize that it can ultimately explain everything about us,

Except consciousness.

upinVermont said...

//Oh, to be clear about the CWW, its just hiding specific religious dogmas beneath a belief in "something". "The universe is mysterious, therefore Jesus must have died for our sins".//

Right. This will probably be part of Harris's response. Admitting that there is a gap in knowledge, admitting that we can't definitively say that consciousness is bound to the physical, does not open the door to all sorts of baroque belief systems.

The difference is in admitting that we don't know what is inside a given room, and using that as a pretext to fill the room with all sorts of imaginary beasts and beings. If I had to give a name to Sullivan's argument, I would call it the "Closed Door Defense".

As long as the door is closed, he has the right to fill the room with whatever his imagination can conjure up.

Bliss really *is* in ignorance.