Posts Tagged ‘Sam Harris’

The future of happiness

April 17, 2012

Today’s our last scheduled discussion of Sam Harris’s Moral Landscape in A&P. Chapters Four & Five cover “Religion” (the center of Sam’s polemical universe) and “The Future of Happiness” (the center of mine), respectively. I’m reading the hardcover edition, which lacks Sam’s response to critics that appears in the paper and digital versions, and on his website. Maybe we’ll tackle that too, today or Thursday.

“Fifty-seven percent of Americans think that one must believe in God to have good values and to be moral.” And yet, “the least religious countries are better off than the most religious,” by many measures (life expectancy, infant mortality, crime, literacy, GDP…). Are values and morality overrated? No, someone’s just confused. Guess who.

The good news: only 42% of Americans believe life has existed in its present form since the beginning of the world. But, that also means 15% have to reconcile divine values with a changing world. Maybe their “common sense dualism” will help: they can assign change to body and timeless truth to mind, and to God. After all, “children, left entirely to their own devices, would invent some conception of God.”

It does seem

extraordinarily unlikely that there is a genetic explanation for the fact that the French, Swedes, and Japanese tend not to believe in God while Americans, Saudis, and Somalis do. Clearly, religion is largely a matter of what people teach their children to believe about the nature of reality.

But… “left entirely to their own devices”…? There seems to be a nature/nurture confusion here. I for one will continue to err on the side of assuming that what I teach kids has a chance of actually influencing their belief.

Scott Atran thinks soccer is a bigger influence than religion. Should the war on terror target the game? Or should we assume that people typically believe what they say, and act on what they say they believe?

Here’s a claim to run by our Lyceum speaker on Friday, who proposes to come to terms with the self:

The specific character of the mind’s dependency on the brain suggests that there cannot be a unified self at work in each of us. There are simply too many separable components…

Next comes the evisceration of Francis Collins, who repeats C.S. Lewis’s “pabulum” about how Jesus must have been our savior because he said such crazy things. Well, that set the precedent; Collins has extended it.

Is it really wise to entrust the future of biomedical research in the United States to a man who believes that understanding ourselves through science is impossible, while our resurrection from death is inevitable?

But at least he accepts evolution. Well, he’s head of the NIH. He’d better.

Sam makes a good point: of course it would be good to gain wider public acceptance of evolution, which is both well established and profoundly inspiring (“from so simple a beginning, endless forms most beautiful”) . But the goal is not simply to tally more evolutionists, it’s genuinely to expand the public understanding of science. That won’t happen if we’re tip-toeing on eggshells to avoid offending the sensibilities of reactionary fundamentalists. “Watch what you say, or the Christian mob will burn down the Library of Alexandria all over again.”  Better to give full voice to the best science of our day, and post a few more guards at the library gates.

And if the best rationale for their theism people like Francis Collins can come up with are trite stories about triple waterfalls, unscheduled church services, a feeling of peace, and a sense that values are not implicit in the facts of human well-being in our world, we’re fully entitled to respond: No offense, but: So?

“Anything of value must be valuable to someone…” And that means values reflect facts about how real people assess their own and others’ well-being. It is a fact, sure enough, that we differ in these assessments. Our differences are predictive of our political affiliations. But “if moral truths transcend the contingencies of culture, human being should eventually converge in their moral judgments.” Eventually, in the long run, somewhere over the rainbow.  In other words, practically never. All our judgments will never all line up. But some will, and we won’t know which those are until we’ve tried.

“We can mean many things” by happiness and well-being. Good. There are many of us, after all, and we’re all individuals. How is this pluralistic fact of life any kind of objection to Harris’s main thesis that what we’ve learned about the general conditions of our flourishing are relevant to our judgments of value? So long as “science” isn’t trying to squeeze us all into the same reductive state of valuation, I see it as nothing but a big plus to realize that there are many peaks available to choose from, and many charted valleys to avoid.

On another front:

How would you view your decision to have a child if you knew all the time you spent changing diapers and playing with Legos would prevent you from developing the cure for Alzheimer’s…?

I’ve changed plenty of diapers, and played plenty of Legos. It never felt for a  moment like a personal sacrifice or a denial of glorious destiny. No regrets here.

Anyway, this is not a reasonable question. Omniscience and foreknowledge of the future are not in our toolbags, but the opportunity to nurture our successors is possibly the best shot most of us will get to plug in to that future.

It’s been said that Sam Harris, in his neuroscientist smock, exaggerates the determinative ubiquity of brain states. But he admits, “human emotions clearly transcend culture, and they are unquestionably influenced by states of the world.” Nothing internal insulates our “belief engines” from direct, immediate contact with the environments in which we must conduct ourselves. They are fitted to the world’s facts, and are reflected in our values. So long as happiness is one of those, we must attend to the facts of how we flourish.

Is that really so controversial a claim?

Russell Blackford seems to think so:

If we presuppose the well-being of conscious creatures as a fundamental value, much else may fall into place, but that initial presupposition does not come from science. It is not an empirical finding… Harris is highly critical of the claim, associated with Hume, that we cannot derive an “ought” solely from an “is” – without starting with people’s actual values and desires. He is, however, no more successful in deriving “ought” from “is” than anyone else has ever been. The whole intellectual system of The Moral Landscape depends on an “ought” being built into its foundations.

Well, wait. Sam didn’t promise a catalog of “oughts,” he just proposed a research program and an in-principle commitment to the idea that we should try to map the field of peaks and valleys in our experience so as to maximize future satisfactions. If our ultimate well-being is not a  “scientific” product, call it something else: experiential, existential, whatever. A rose is a rose is a rose, and it’s what 99.999 percent of us are chasing most of the time. Of course it’s something we reckon in terms of the fulfillment (though not the precise “determination”) of actual people’s actual desires. What else should it be?

Good and Evil

April 10, 2012

“There may be nothing more important than human cooperation.” So begins Sam Harris’s second chapter in Moral LandscapeEthics is all about devising the rules, habits, and practices that will optimize cooperation built on

kindness, reciprocity, trust, openness to argument, respect for evidence, intuitions of fairness, impulse control, the mitigation of aggression…

But does that mean science can really determine our values? It’s going to be important to clarify not only what he means by science, but what he means by “determine” too. Probably nothing so rigid as his critics will suppose. He’s just looking for guidelines and broad parameters at the terrain’s edge. He seems committed to pluralism.

Our genes may be “selfish” but our societies need to be collaborative  and our instincts need to be trained for altruism and fellow-feeling. David Hume knew that, sharing a strange finger fetish with his pal Adam Smith. Hume, I never tire of telling my Intro students, said it “would not be against reason to prefer the destruction of half the world to the pricking of [my] little finger.”

Smith echoed the thought, imagining a “man of humanity” in Europe who’d lose sleep over his finger but not over the poor victims of an earthquake in China. But sleep aside, he presumably wouldn’t choose to sacrifice them for his own comfort. “But what makes this difference?” Empathy, sentiment, mutual care and concern, the suppression of selfishness. And reason? Yes, but not “pure” or narrow reason. The sentiments can be educated, emotions can be intelligent and self-correcting.

Is Sam speaking ironically when he invokes “an angel of beneficence” to account for the desire most of us feel for justice, fairness, and progress? No, he’s just being literary and Lincolnesque.

The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature. 1st inaugural, March 1861

He’s also declaring his moral realism and consequentialism. “Without potential consequences at the level of experience- happiness, suffering, joy, despair- all talk of value is empty.” Our “oughts” reflect of the facts of life, and the “maximizing of well-being in this world.” But the facts aren’t all in, and they’re not all self-evident.  The conversation must continue.

Our assessment of consequences in the moral domain must proceed as it does in all others: under the shadow of uncertainty, guided by theory, data, and honest conversation. The fact that it may often be difficult, or even impossible to know what the consequences of our thoughts and actions will be does not mean that there is some other basis for human values that is worth worrying about.

Jonathan Haidt, whose recent and compelling TED Talk does not quite persuade that liberals and conservatives are correspondingly blind to one another’s legitimate commitments, thinks we make moral decisions on the basis of relatively un-reasoned emotion which we rationalize after the fact. [His 2008 TED Talk on “moral roots” advanced the same thesis.]

Our differences in politics and religion, Haidt argues, tend to reflect temperamental biases and habitual preferences more than any deep truths about the world. It’s not that one side is right and the other wrong, but that liberals fixated on fairness and justice are incapable of acknowledging conservatives’ loyalty and respect for authority (and vice versa). Each side possesses its own slice of rectitude, but neither can see the other.

But Sam finds this all too relativistic. “Many people are simply wrong about morality,” social conservatives are often hypocritical (“louche”), and many probably suffer damaged medial prefrontal cortexes that prevent their knowing how “to behave appropriately toward others.”

They probably don’t know how to resolve the trolley problem either. [YouTPhilosophyExperiments]

And then there are the psychopaths. I had to shower after reading about them on p. 96. Sam apparently has immersed himself in this literature and assures us it’s a lot worse. I’m taking his word for it.

The chapter concludes with a chunk on free will, which Sam considers (as a good neuroscientist should, apparently) an illusion. “Science has a problem with free will,” Richard Dawkins’ Oxford successor explains.

So we’re all just damned lucky not to have drawn the psychopath cards (genes, memes).  (But I think Sam made a free choice to spin this section out into a more lucrative ebook.)

It means nothing to say that a person would have done otherwise had he chosen to do otherwise, because a person’s “choices” merely appear in his mental stream as though sprung from the void… you are not more responsible for the next thing you think (and therefore do) than you are for the fact that you were born into this world.

Some of us may find this view comforting, terrifying, or even irrelevant. I’d just like Sam to address the two uneasily-yoked Jamesian views: one, that our bodies often (always?) do in fact get out in front of our conscious wills and precede them into action; and two, that we nonetheless retain a capacity for directed attention that secures the frame of mind we’re free to think of as our free wills. Sam speaks of attention at chapter’s end, but not quite in James’s sense.

Our sense of our own freedom results from our not paying attention to what it is actually like to be what we are. The moment we do pay attention, we begin to see that free will is nowhere to be found, and our subjectivity is perfectly compatible with this truth.

James on percpetion, emotion, and consciousness:

My theory … is that the bodily changes follow directly the perception of the exciting fact, and that our feeling of the same changes as they occur is the emotion. Common sense says, we lose our fortune, are sorry and weep; we meet a bear, are frightened and run; we are insulted by a rival, are angry and strike. The hypothesis here to be defended says that this order of sequence is incorrect … and that the more rational statement is that we feel sorry because we cry, angry because we strike, afraid because we tremble … Without the bodily states following on the perception, the latter would be purely cognitive in form, pale, colorless, destitute of emotional warmth. We might then see the bear, and judge it best to run, receive the insult and deem it right to strike, but we should not actually feel afraid or angry.

James on attention:

Everyone knows what attention is. It is the taking possession by the mind in clear and vivid form, of one out of what seem several simultaneously possible objects or trains of thought…It implies withdrawl from some things in order to deal effectively with others, and is a condition which has a real opposite in the confused, dazed, scatterbrained state. [WJ’s 1870 diary entry on Renouvier, attention, & free will]

But these questions, fascinating though they are to those of us who are fascinated by them, are peripheral to the central claim of chapter two: we humans are capable of doing just about everything on the spectrum between good and evil. We’re also capable of learning more about the conditions (including brain-states) under which these behaviors are most likely to be expressed, and of acting to improve the net ratio of well-being. We may be determined, but so long as we can act intelligently we’re not fated or doomed. As Dan Dennett says: freedom evolves. [Dennett at CalTech]

We can understand how our freedom is greater than that of other creatures, and see how this heightened capacity carries moral implications: noblesse oblige. We are in the best position to decide what to do next, because we have the broadest knowledge and hence the best perspective on the future. What that future holds in store for our planet is up to all of us, reasoning together.

And really, is Sam finally wanting to say anything different? The conversation continues.

Moral Truth

April 5, 2012

Sam Harris says questions about values (meaning, morality, purpose) are really about the facts concerning the well-being of conscious creatures. David Hume and G.E. Moore were wrong. Navigating the moral landscape involves getting the facts right. “Science” (but does he really just mean experience?) can generate moral truths capable of informing values and guiding conduct.

It’s a big challenge to an old sacred cow in philosophy. We’ll see if he pulls it off. I’m pulling for him to succeed, and betting that he and Hume aren’t really poles apart. Both possess sound moral instincts, both value compassion and empathy, both laud experience over mere reason as a moral teacher, both are sure good people are genuinely good without god.

For the record: Hume and Moore on the underivability of “ought” from “is” and the fallacy that results when derivations are attempted:

In every system of morality, which I have hitherto met with, I have always remarked, that the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary way of reasoning, and establishes the being of a God, or makes observations concerning human affairs; when of a sudden I am surprized to find, that instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought, or an ought not. This change is imperceptible; but is, however, of the last consequence. For as this ought, or ought not, expresses some new relation or affirmation, it is necessary that it should be observed and explained; and at the same time that a reason should be given, for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it. A Treatise of Human Nature

Good, then, denotes one unique simple object of thought among innumerable others; but this object has very commonly been identified with some other—a fallacy which may be called the naturalistic fallacy”… What is good? logically depends upon the answer to the question What is the nature of supersensible reality? All such systems obviously involve the same fallacy—the naturalistic fallacy—by the use of which Naturalism was also defined.” Principia Ethica

The touchstone Sam will claim, but that Hume et al really could claim to know nothing much about, is the brain. “Human well-being entirely depends on events in the world and on states of the human brain.” We can study both “scientifically,” and can use the resultant knowledge to go beyond mere idle academic debate to improve lives.

So what do we know about values? The other crucial disclaimer, at the outset: the absence of answers in practice is no proof of no answers in principle. But if we’re talking (for instance) about how to raise children, and whether it’s ok to beat the nonsense out of them, there must be a right answer.  “That’s only your opinion” is, well, only your opinion.

My favorite bit in the opening chapter conjures William James’s Rock in “The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life“:

Were all other things, gods and men and starry heavens, blotted out from this universe, and were there left but one rock with two loving souls upon it, that rock would have as thoroughly moral a constitution as any possible world which the eternities and immensities could harbor… while they lived, there would be real good things and real bad things in the universe; there would be obligations, claims, and expectations; obediences, refusals, and disappointments; compunctions, and longings for harmony to come again, and inward peace of conscience when it was restored; there would, in short, be a moral life

Against that backdrop,

Imagine if there were only two people living on earth… a man and a woman alone on  earth would be better off if they recognized their common interests… given the structure of their respective brains, the immediate facts of their environment, and the laws of Nature.

…Why would the difference between right and wrong answers suddenly disappear once we add 6.7 billion more people to this experiment?

I don’t want to give the game away prematurely, but so far as I’m concerned this just about captures the point, the game, and the match. The facts about how our behaviors and interactions register on our flourishing meters are the crucial facts. The quality of experience maps the quality of life.

There’s much more to say, but as an applied ethicist I must agree with Sam that “changing people’s ethical commitments is the most important task facing humanity.” We need to get them to commit to the notion that there are in fact moral and ethical truths beyond the culturally-embedded preferences and conventions, and that we should all act accordingly. We must not allow the term ‘morality’ to become a mere euphemism for one’s own preferred dogmas.

Just gimme some truth.


P.S. Here’s some truth, from Opening Night: Cards 4, Marlins 1.

Best of Sam Harris

April 3, 2012

I don’t know if it’s his absolute best, but some of it’s pretty darned impressive. His former teacher Owen Flanagan told me Sam’s “stubborn.” Well, he has a lot to be stubborn about.

One of the greatest challenges facing civilization in the 21st century is for human beings to learn to speak about their deepest personal concerns—about ethics, spiritual experience and the inevitability of human suffering—in ways that are not flagrantly irrational. Nothing stands in the way of this project more than the respect we accord religious faith.


One of the enduring pathologies of human culture is the tendency to raise children to fear and demonize other human beings on the basis of religion. Many religious conflicts that seem driven by terrestrial concerns, therefore, are religious in origin. (Just ask the Irish.)


A person can be so well educated that he can build a nuclear bomb while still believing that he will get 72 virgins in Paradise. Such is the ease with which the human mind can be partitioned by faith, and such is the degree to which our intellectual discourse still patiently accommodates religious delusion. Only the atheist has observed what should now be obvious to every thinking human being: If we want to uproot the causes of religious violence we must uproot the false certainties of religion.


If religious war is ever to become unthinkable for us, in the way that slavery and cannibalism seem poised to, it will be a matter of our having dispensed with the dogma of faith.

When we have reasons for what we believe, we have no need of faith; when we have no reasons, or bad ones, we have lost our connection to the world and to one another. Atheism is nothing more than a commitment to the most basic standard of intellectual honesty: One’s convictions should be proportional to one’s evidence. An Atheist Manifesto

SamHarris.orgTED: Science can answer moral questions… Daily Show October 2010…Sam @dawn… Sam DS


Final score: nothing to nothing

January 14, 2012

I find myself thinking this morning about Lawrence Krauss and Billy Beane, an unlikely pairing unless you spend as much time as I pondering the mysteries of the universe and the diamond.

Krauss was on SciFri talking about his new book, spun out of his viral video, making the case that there’s enough something in “nothing” to make a universe. Or multiverses.

And Beane was in Moneyball, the movie based on Michael Lewis’s book.

What I think about Krauss is that he’s a terrific expositor of complicated astrophysical ideas, but I wish he’d stop taking potshots at philosophers. We’re his natural allies, and we’ve been thinking about nothing  a lot longer than he and his colleagues in the theoretical equation-mongering class have been. To his credit, though, he does talk to us… as he did in 2010 with Sam Harris and Simon Blackburn (and Steven Pinker) on science, morality, facts & values on SciFri. (We should return to this in March, in A&P.)

Beane, I think, at least as depicted in the film, is ultimately a sad figure who can’t celebrate his victories because he expects never to suffer big defeats. His daughter’s serenade is painfully accurate: “You’re a loser, Dad,” not because he loses but because he can’t fully accept his passing victories, can’t “enjoy the show.”

Still waiting to win the last game? None of us wins the last game, it all ends in a draw. Nothing-nothing.


October 11, 2010

Sam Harris may be onto something that will change the moral landscape more profoundly than anything. “Imagine how our world would change if, when the truth really mattered, it became impossible to lie.” Would “zones of obligatory candor” put us all on candid camera?

And would compelled candor be a prime example of what a critic called treating one another as packets of information? (I saw “Social Network” over the weekend, it was terrific and disturbing cinema. A generation gap of response has been noted. Is that also an indication that we’re well down the Information rabbit-hole already?)   Q-&-A

Wonder if Sam’s seen that Ricky Gervais film [man in sky]:

Thereafter, civilized people would share a common presumption: that wherever important conversations are held, the truthfulness of all participants will be monitored. Well-intentioned people would happily pass between zones of obligatory candor, and these transitions will cease to be remarkable. Just as we’ve come to expect that many public spaces will be free of nudity, sex, loud swearing, and cigarette smoke—and now think nothing of the behavioral changes demanded of us whenever we leave the privacy of our homes—we may come to expect that certain places and occasions will require scrupulous truth-telling. Most of us will no more feel deprived of the freedom lie during a press conference or a job interview than we currently feel deprived of the freedom to remove our pants in a restaurant.

So keep your pants on, tea partiers.  You’ve got no freedom to lose in this future. Still, there’s a difference  between wanting to remove your pants but deferring to conventional propriety, and not wanting to at all. Would we lose that distinction, in the world of ubiquitious and reliable lie detection?

Also worth noting in today’s reading:

Alison Gopnik on perpetual childhood, asking “Who will be the grown-ups?”- a question that came to me in the movie theater, watching the world’s youngest billionaire behaving badly and barely flinching at a $65 million dollar time out.

Kevin Slavin’s overconfidence in the perfectability (compared to biological memory) of data storage. Memory is slipping away, isn’t it, behind vaults of personal cloud data?

Susan Blackmore‘s apparent complacency regarding the rise of technological memes: “Temes are now turning us into teme machines.” (Stone nyt, Third Replicator)

Charles Seife‘s moment of sanity, after evoking a “Borgesian nightmare”: “Our knowledge is now being limited not only by our ability to gather information and to remember it, but also by our wisdom about when to ignore information—and when to forget.” Or as William James said, wisdom is knowing what to overlook.

Freeman Dyson‘s radio-telepathic inter-species empathy, again reminding me of “Avatar” and its natural wisdom.

experience directly the joy of a bird flying or a wolf-pack hunting, the pain of a deer hunted or an elephant starved. We will feel in our own flesh the community of life to which we belong.

But I’m not so sure person-to-person, brain-to-brain telepathy is such a great idea. Quiet public spaces are nice, but may not be worth swapping your privacy for.

Barry Smith wonders “why be alone?” Indeed, we seem in this age to place little value on solitude. We may soon no longer value quiet, either.

Peter Schwartz spells out what this is all about: “computer mediated reality in every sense.” Is it real enough?

NOTE to FoL students, and other futurists: the excellent Public Radio International program “To the Best of Our Knowledge” featured the Long Now Foundation and its mountain clock on a program called “Facing Time” yesterday. Hear it here.

Don’t forget to post your questions & comments, and to try & decide by Wednesday if you plan to do a midterm essay or a presentation.

avoid boring people

May 9, 2010

Sam Harris‘s recent public utterances on the old fact-value/ought-is debate, particularly at TED, have re-ignited a lively discussion and rekindled my interest in doing a course on the subject. [Thanks to my unpaid but not unappreciated quasi-research assistant D. for bringing “Toward a Science of Morality,” in the Huffington Post, so quickly to my attention.]

Harris’s forthcoming new book, due out in October, is called The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values. It already has Richard Dawkins’ endorsement. Not, probably, Karen Armstrong‘s.

Here’s a statement sure to infuriate many of my professional friends and colleagues:

Many of my critics fault me for not engaging more directly with the academic literature on moral philosophy. There are two reasons why I haven’t done this: First, while I have read a fair amount of this literature, I did not arrive at my position on the relationship between human values and the rest of human knowledge by reading the work of moral philosophers; I came to it by considering the logical implications of our making continued progress in the sciences of mind. Second, I am convinced that every appearance of terms like “metaethics,” “deontology,” “noncognitivism,” “anti-realism,” “emotivism,” and the like, directly increases the amount of boredom in the universe.

Ha! “Avoid boring people” is solid counsel; but Jim Watson should have added, and Sam should heed: avoid pissing people off if you want them to give you a respectful listen. (From what I’ve heard, Watson also missed that lesson.)

The line between boredom and depth of insight is difficult to draw. Academics and philosophers need to attempt it. I might argue that one’s capacity for boredom is in direct proportion to one’s receptivity to reasonable persuasion. Sometimes you have to wade through some stuff to get to the goods.

Jennifer Hecht is not boring. Her account of Hume’s salon party with the French atheists Diderot, d’Holbach et al in 1763 suggests that he has been misunderstood all these years. His ought/is distinction was in service of moral skepticism, but not an attempt to de-nature our ascriptions of value.

Well, not wishing to bore you on such a lovely Mother’s Day morn I’ll just state a couple of facts: (1) someone really ought to do a course on this; and (2) nobody loves you like your mother, so you should go and call her. Right now.

end of Hitch

March 25, 2010

Today in A&S we finish Hitch’s Portable Atheist. The most striking fact noted in our selection from Sam Harris‘s End of Faith, the book that really kicked off the current New Atheist era in 2004:

Unfortunately for fanciers of Mary’s virginity, the Hebrew word alma (for which parthenos is an erroneous translation) simply means “young woman,”  without any implications of virginity. It seems all but certain that the Christian dogma of the virgin birth, and much of the church’s resulting anxiety about sex, was the result of a mistranslation.

Unbelievable. And yet, not. How remarkably credulous we’ve been (as a species) silently to tolerate a faith centered on so preposterous an error for so many centuries.  Western civilization has endured two millennia of consecrated sexual neurosis simply because the authors of Matthew and Luke could not read Hebrew. Miraculous. “I should not be a Christian but for the miracles,” said Augustine. Like transubstantiation, established by mere reiteration, aka “the Big Lie.” Honest inquiry seems clearly the better course. And honest feeling.

We need not believe anything on insufficient evidence to feel compassion for the suffering of others. Our common humanity is reason enough to protect our fellow human beings from coming to harm.

It is enough. It was enough during the Inquisition and the witch-hunts, and it’s still enough. When will we ever learn?

Harris followed End of Faith with Letter to a Christian Nation in 2006. “To the degree that our actions can affect the experience of other creatures positively or negatively questions of morality apply. The idea that the Bible is a perfect guide to morality is simply astounding.” Indeed. Have you read that book?! Or any of the holy books, for that matter? Hardly “untouched by human hands” wielding righteous weapons. As Sam Harris says, if you think those texts embody the summit of evolved human compassion and love, you need to expand your reading list.

Harris’s latest mission is to clarify the factual basis of values. David Hume led us down a rabbit-hole with his rigid distinction between “ought” and “is.” There are facts about values, we need to state them as unambivalently as we can.

Also today: the very visible English public intellectual A.C. Grayling denies that atheists are fundamentalists, and Infidel author Ayaan Hirsi Ali tells the inspiring story of how she let go of Allah and survived. And flourished.

NOTE TO STUDENTS: We’ll review for Tuesday’s exam briefly today. Remember, you’re invited to solicit questions & will get extra credit if they’re used. Send ’em on by Sunday so I can send out a review update.

this they believe

March 23, 2010

Speaking of Unitarians, Elizabeth Anderson was one. Her parents had been raised Lutheran and (culturally) Jewish but as adults rejected the local representatives of those traditions who rejected them in their recombinant marriage and turned to the UUs.

“Unitarianism is a church without a creed; there are no doctrinal requirements of membership. (Although Bertrand Russell once quipped that Unitarianism stands for the proposition that there is at most one God, these days pagans are as welcome as all others.) It was a pretty good fit for us, until the New Age spiritualists started to take over the church. That was too loopy for my father’s rationalistic outlook, so we left.”

Pretty much my story too.  But I’m as down with the interdependent web of all existence as anybody. Guess that strikes some traditionalists as pagan too.

Anderson leads off today’s readings in A&S with an impressive rejection of the canard that you can’t be good without God. (Sam Harris has interesting new thoughts on the fact-value distinction he shared at TED recently.)

The other canard we’ve scrutinized this semester is the stereotype of atheists as negative nay-saying nabobs who only know what they’re against. That’s the regrettable, sordid legacy of Madalyn Murray O’Hair, but most thoughtfully-Godless folk are for plenty. The magician Penn Gillette offered his “This I Believe” testament in an affirming spirit– “No God means the possibility of less suffering in the future, with more room for belief in family, people, love, truth, beauty, sex, Jell-O…”  —but it was still purveyed under the barely-affirming title “There is no God.” Sigh.

More of us need to speak up, in that forum and others, to dispel the false perception of Godlessness as akin to Scrooge-hood. Gillette’s is at the top of the queue of (as of this writing) 136 atheism-themed essays. [Click here to submit your essay to “This I Believe.”  I did. ] When I found the little piece I’d dashed off to celebrate the lunar landing anniversary back in the summer posted on TIB’s website recently it was like Christmas in January.

Also today: Ian McEwan’s “End of the World Blues” (aka “Day of Judgment“*), Steven Weinberg from Dreams of a Final Theory (not taking back his famous gut-punch statement “the more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it seems pointless,” but adding “I did not mean that science teaches us” this), Salman Rushdie humming Lennon and imagining God as a dispensable concept, and the pseudonymous Ibn Warraq’s Why I am not a Muslim. (Muslim Spirit– has Hitch been abducted? Unofficial Warraq site)

*McEwan says it’s time to tell a new story:

“Thirty years ago, we might have been able to convince ourselves that contemporary religious apocalyptic thought was a harmless remnant of a more credulous, superstitious, pre-scientific age, now safely behind us. But today prophecy belief, particularly within the Christian and Islamic traditions, is a force in our contemporary history, a medieval engine driving our modern moral, geopolitical, and military concerns. The various jealous sky-gods – and they are certainly not one and the same god – who in the past directly addressed Abraham, Paul, or Mohammed, among others, now indirectly address us through the daily television news. These different gods have wound themselves inextricably around our politics and our political differences.”

Biophilia would be better.


February 2, 2010

(Happy Groundhog Day! Rise and shine, Hitch, it’s time to get out of Punxsutawney. Remember, Phil’s only a god. Not the God…)

Christopher Hitchens is the Bad Boy of New Atheism, the most strident,visible non-accommodationist out there. He stands to Dawkins roughly as T.H. Huxley stood to Darwin, a bulldog and verbal brawler who loves polemical confrontation and takes no prisoners, a lightning rod who seems only more energized by reciprocal jolts of scorn and hostility.

Dawkins is nobody’s wallflower, but next to Hitchens he’s positively courtly.

So it might seem a challenge to find in Hitchens a continuation of the positive theme we’ve been accentuating with all our A&S authors so far. More than anyone, Hitchens has earned the reputation and perpetuated the stereotype of atheist-as-naysayer, and of atheism as  a negative and depleted worldview.

And yet, his editor’s introduction to The Portable Atheist: Essential Readings for the Non-believer commences with a nod to Albert Camus’ Dr. Rieux (“The Plague”): there are more things to admire in men than to despise. Hitchens is not a misanthrope, he is not Schopenhauer.

A couple of pages on, he’s upholding atheism as the impassioned defender of life in our world:  atheists have always argued that this world is all that we have, and that our duty is to one another to make the very most and best of it. That’s affirming and positive, no?

And: The Golden Rule is innate in us...the miracle is that there are no miracles or other interruptions of a wondrous natural order. We don’t need ’em, nature’s wonder enough. The onus shifts, from this perspective, to those whose “death wish” is to leave it all behind on a wing and a prayer for an unseen heaven. What’s nihilistic about loving the world?

Hitchens reiterates a Dawkins point that really ought to go far towards neutralizing the stereotype: everybody is an atheist in saying that there is a god– from Ra to Shiva– in which he does not believe. All that the serious and objective atheist does is to take the next step and to say that there is just one more god to disbelieve in.

He repeats Jonathan Miller’s analogy (I’ve heard this from Sam Harris too): “I do not have a special word for saying that I do not believe in the tooth fairy or in Santa Claus.” But then, the fans of the tooth fairy do not bang on your door and try to convert you. They do not insist that their pseudo-science be taught in schools. They do not condemn believers in rival tooth fairies to death and damnation. A measure of push-back is in order, he’s saying. That’s not pure negativity, it’s strategy.

Then again, his insisting on the more descriptively-accurate moniker “anti-theist” might be construed as a bit gratuitously aggressive. But there’s a positive rationale, to distinguish his view from that of atheists who say that they wish the fable were true. That’s the utter negation of human freedom, which we should be happy to repudiate.

Human life is worth living, on its own terms. And what lovely terms they are, any one of them enough to absorb a lifetime and none of them implicated in the supernatural or the oppressions of the coercive-communal: the beauties of science and the extraordinary marvels of nature; the consolation and irony of philosophy; the infinite splendors of literature and poetry; the grand resource of art and music and architecture. You can love the Parthenon without joining the cult of Athena.

Hitchens shares Dawkins’ anger about childhood indoctrination, inflicting the terrors of hellfire upon the most innocent, trusting, and vulnerable members of our species. At least the Vatican’s put Limbo on the shelf.

But he also appreciates the power of gentle humor to deconstruct theistic pretense. Why wouldn’t an all-knowing creator reveal some knowledge we might recognize as beyond the ken of uneducated bronze-age shepherds?

Hitchens has no use for Stephen Jay Gould’s Nonoverlapping Magisteria or for theistic evolution in general. Either one attributes one’s presence here to the laws of biology and physics, or one attributes it to a divine design. If you try to have it both ways you must embrace what he caricatures as a most ridiculous scenario: for all these millennia, heaven watched with indifference and then– and only in the last six thousand years at the very least– decided that it was time to intervene as well as redeem… The willingness even to entertain such elaborately mad ideas involves much more than the suspension of disbelief.

Hitchens’ combative posture, let’s admit, makes for entertaining spectacle. But will it succeed strategically, in winning non-theists a more prominent and respected  voice in the public discourse of our times? Can it be balanced and modulated by the more temperate tones of a Sweeney or a Hecht or… or who? Where will the next generation of Sagans and Goulds come from, when the time for armed resistance has passed?

Here he defends the subtitle of his God is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.