Quote – Sam Harris – Tell a devout Christian…

Tell a devout Christian that his wife is cheating on him, or that frozen yogurt can make a man invisible, and he is likely to require as much evidence as anyone else, and to be persuaded only to the extent that you give it.

Tell him that the book he keeps by his bed was written by an invisible deity who will punish him with fire for eternity if he fails to accept its every incredible claim about the universe, and he seems to require no evidence whatsoever.

~ Sam Harris (link)

These sort of statements are the kind with which we Christians flatly disagree. We find them to be offensive exaggerations, manifestations of anger, a veneer beneath which lurks a heart in rebellion against God. We often respond by turning and citing evidences of all sorts to support our position. And we construct a reasonable defense of our faith from a constellation of facts supporting the Bible and the Gospel of Jesus. Against such a backdrop, Sam Harris is dead wrong.

Against such a backdrop.

But when our evidences are overturned as unsubstantiated; when the martyred apostles are debunked as uncorroborated legends; when our science is demonstrated as pseudo; when our Genesis turns out to itself have unknown origins; when our Gospels prove to be anonymous and discrepant; when pieces of our Jesus turn out to be borrowed from pagan antecedents; it is then that we retreat to the last keep of our personal intuitive knowing of The Truth.

Complaints are levied about the reasonableness of expecting hard evidence. Conversation partners vanish at the drop of a hat. Excuses are raised regarding the standards of ancient times. Special pleading reigns as the one true King, excusing Christianity from the need to provide corroborating evidence. And it is not a pleading of the meek, but of the indignant, and our claims are simply repeated at ratcheted volume. The one thing we are not, in such corners, is humble.

We do not have the evidences we think. Once the other pan is (finally) added to the scale, the whole assembly lurches and bottoms out quite the other way, which we ignore and keep ourselves from knowing.

My observation is that Sam Harris stands validated by the litany of conversations which I have had over the past year. Divorced from the evidence wish-thinking of our provincial Christian camps, and without the backstop of others who are happy to credit the same non-facts to which we are accustomed, we Christians turn into precisely the caricature that Harris skewers.

I have found no exceptions, and I’d like to.

Comments

  1. My good man, there’s an interesting guest post over on prayson’s blog which you might find interesting.

    http://withalliamgod.wordpress.com/2014/01/23/nathan-pratts-journey-to-atheism/

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  2. Great post mate

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    • Sam Harris is something of a master where reductio ad absurdum is concerned.

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      • Sam Harris is absurd in his own way and does not seem to see it. He claims in this video that we can “know” that a father killing his raped daughter is wrong. And he claims that we can know this scientifically, in some sort of an experimental way. That is BS, IMO. Yes, we “know” it. But we know it emotionally. We feel it. It has nothing to do with science or reason. Check this video again and see what facts he mentions to support his conclusion. None. He just sheds a tear upon reflecting on this thought.

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        • I’ve read three of Harris’ books at this point, though I haven’t covered his book on Lying or Free Will. He covers the framework of his moral thought in The Moral Landscape, which is a decently constructed argument, with support. I don’t pay much attention to what may be missing from shorter videos and talks if I can find more info from their longer works.

          Most of the objections to Harris’ Landscape seem to pivot around equivocations regarding the meaning of “objective”. What constitutes an objective morality? Also on the idea of moral ontology, the basis for grounding on objective moral claims.

          Two short thoughts on this. His wellbeing approach to morality is better than a lot of people credit. Wellbeing is objective. Another similar notion from my own side is ergonomics, which are also objectively measurable when we design systems and devices with which people have to interface. There are objectively bad states of health and objectively bad ergonomic designs. They are objective in that they are measurable and quantifiable.

          They also have an ontological grounding, though many people don’t like the grounding. The grounding is the human organism. Health must be defined against the objective demands of the physical/mental human body. So must ergonomics. And for the question of morality, it is the individual person and the collective of human society, which is the resulting behavior of a large set of human brains interacting with each other. Like the weather, this is a very complex multivariable system, but it is definitely objective, external, measurable, etc. Ergonomics must be grounded in the human organism. Wellbeing must be grounded in the human organism. And morality must be grounded in the human organism.

          And in any case, I’ve seen nothing more objective on offer from others. The Judeo-Christian viewpoint that Harris opposes so often is anything but objective and unchanging. The Biblical texts are a stretchable, elastic standard. And they were assembled by an amorphous and non-objective process. And we choose such a standard – and call it the objective standard – by a subjective sense of felt truth (faith belief). A stretchy yardstick, built by who knows, and chosen from the shelf based on my feelings.

          No, Harris’ Landscape and ontological grounding register a good deal higher on the objectivity-o-meter than competing propositions.

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      • I’d like to comment on several things, but don’t have time for a long reply. Perhaps, I’ll do it in pieces.

        Most of the objections to Harris’ Landscape seem to pivot around equivocations regarding the meaning of “objective”. What constitutes an objective morality?

        Exactly. So, what does “objective” mean? Here’s Google definition:

        (of a person or their judgment) not influenced by personal feelings or opinions in considering and representing facts.

        Now, how do you imagine “morals not influenced by personal feelings or opinions”? And what exactly is a “moral fact”? “Moral fact” seems to be a synonym for “dogma”.

        This is the first thing which sounds absurd to me in Harris’ reasoning. I’ll touch on “objective wellbeing” and the analogy with ergonomics later.

        I wouldn’t go deep into moral ontology now. It’s a philosophical question, and philosophical questions, as far as I know, do not have unequivocal answers. This is what sets philosophy and science apart and what Harris seems to ignore.

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  3. Agrudzinksy,

    Let me query you with this: can we come to objective knowledge about subjective experience? That is, can we study subjective experience objectively?

    Example: lethal injection serums. Can we establish whether they cause pain in the subject or not?

    Example: dog training. Can we establish whether some training methods develop neuroses in dogs more than others?

    Example: pig farming. Can we establish whether some farming methods lead to higher levels of anxiety and lower quality meat compared with others?

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    • > > Let me query you with this: can we come to objective knowledge about > subjective experience? That is, can we study subjective experience > objectively?

      Yes, we can. But we cannot establish scientifically whether a specific subjective experience is good or bad. Such scientific research is only possible if we *presume* that certain experiences are good and beneficial or bad and detrimental. Such presumptions do not follow from research.

      Example: lethal injection serums. Can we establish whether they cause pain > in the subject or not?

      What a perverse moral dilemma: “What is the most humane way to kill people?” Before we establish this, let’s determine if capital punishment is moral in the first place. Does it make sense to kill people to show that killing people is bad? On the other hand, is it fair and just to keep people who have, for example, raped and massacred their victims, in jail spending public money to make sure that these people have access to a gym? What kind of scientific research will give an answer?

      Example: pig farming. Can we establish whether some farming methods lead to > higher levels of anxiety and lower quality meat compared with others? > Whose well-being are you concerned with: the pig’s or the human’s? Are you concerned that pigs have anxiety or are you concerned that pig’s anxiety before being slaughtered lowers the quality of pork? And if you are concerned with pig’s well-being, why don’t you question the morality of animal slaughter, to begin with? If you do that, the quality of meat question is irrelevant. How does science answer this question: whose well-being takes priority?

      Example: dog training. Can we establish whether some training methods > develop neuroses in dogs more than others?

      Again, before we use science to tell us the best way to train dogs, we need to establish the purpose and morality of the dog training. If you train a dog for fighting, perhaps, any training can be deemed immoral. But if you train a dog to guide a blind person, may be, it’s acceptable to put up with a possibility of that dog suffer from neurosis.

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      • OK, I don’t see a major disconnect in our thinking on the specifics of those questions. However, you raise the very key question of criteria right away:

        “But we cannot establish scientifically whether a specific subjective experience is good or bad. Such scientific research is only possible if we *presume* that certain experiences are good and beneficial or bad and detrimental. Such presumptions do not follow from research”

        This is only partly true. Much of research, speaking as a researcher, is actually directed toward establishing criteria. Much of research is also directed toward evaluating presuppositions. We cannot move ahead without presuppositions, but some presuppositions will lead us to blind alleys or discrepant results. Presupposition testing is just like hypothesis testing in that way.

        We have to establish the criteria for morality much the way we establish it for law. We have found that establishing the law in a decentralized manner, with democratic forms of representative government, etc., has led to far greater societal and human flourishing than the old method of kingly dictates. One set of presuppositions is simply less effective than another in a range of measurable outcomes.

        We could say that a religious text forms the criteria for morality. That would be one presuppositional type. But then we have to argue about how to interpret the text, which necessitates yet another presupposition regarding hermeneutics.

        We could say that societal measures of wellbeing are a good criteria. That’s another presupposition, and it requires an interpretive grid as well.

        My point is that our talk about the objectivity of a moral framework winds up necessitating the same parts and pieces no matter how it is viewed. Good and bad are defined quantities, per some set of criteria. Good ergonomics is defined with respect to comfort in human interface. Good law is defined with respect to effective management of society, or what have you. Good morality would have to be defined by … societal wellbeing, if you’re Sam Harris … fidelity to the Qu’ran, and your brand of reading it, if you’re a Muslim … etc.

        The keypoint for guys like Harris and Dennett are that they admit to the actual situation. Folks from the spiritual side of the fence often have the illusion that there is a different kind of objective morality that is possible, and there isn’t.

        If there is one thing true in Christianity, its that nobody agrees upon what the Bible even says, and that eliminates the possibility that it can serve as a chimerical objective moral ontology.

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        • Regarding your ergonomics analogy. I think, when we talk about objective criteria to measure ergonomics, you and I talk about different things. Ergonomics of a product is defined by the purpose of the product. It is possible to measure efficiency of the product in achieving a certain goal. It seems, when you say “criteria” for measuring ergonomics, you really mean methods. E.g. for software user interface, you can measure the number of mouse clicks or steps to achieve a certain goal or you can measure the total time to achieve the goall or evaluate the intuitiveness of the software by measuring the learning time of new users. Indeed, we can experiment to find the best way to measure ergonomics. But fitness of the product for a certain purpose is determined by the purpose. And purpose of the product does not seem to be determined scientifically. It’s a creative process which often takes an irrational path and heavily depends on subjective “likes” and “wants”.

          If you transfer this analogy onto morality, once we agree on what constitutes “well-being”, we can use science to determine the best way to achieve it. But “well-being” means different things for different people. Take euthanasia, for example. Can you say that “death” can ever constitute “well-being”?

          I would compare science to a car navigation system. It can help you to get where you want, but you have to set the destination. Navigation system will never tell you where you want to go and it needs a compass. Similarly, we need to define the “well-being” (destination) for ourselves and we need the “moral compass” to be already set to get there.

          Another issue. How do you determine the morality of the research itself? E.g. is it ethical to test a potential cure for cancer on monkeys? Potential benefit is saving millions of human lives. But that’s “two birds in the sky”. “The bird in the hand” are the suffering monkeys who may die as a result of this research. Another example — eugenics. Is it ethical to breed people for a certain purpose (e.g. prominent mathematicians) like people breed milking cows or meat cows? This question needs to be answered before the research, not in the process of the research.

          Not sure if the analogy with law works. Law making is, by far, not a scientific process. Law is based on morality. If we determine morality as we determine law, we face a circular reasoning problem. This, sometimes, works. E.g. to establish trust you need to trust someone first and then base your judgement on the results. But establishing trust between humans is not a scientific process either.

          Regarding

          Folks from the spiritual side of the fence often have the illusion that there is a different kind of objective morality that is possible, and there isn’t.

          This is what surprises me in Harris reasoning. If he suggests that there is an objective morality which can be determined by science, doesn’t this imply that nature has a moral agency? Although, perhaps, this refers to “moral ontology” whereas Harris is talking about “moral epistomology” which is a different subject.

          I would like to note that religion works, roughly, the way you suggest. It does adjust moral precepts as society develops: slavery is abolished, women can speak in churches, most societies no longer stone adulterers and sabbath breakers. I think, accepting homosexual marriages are next in line.

          On Sun, Jan 26, 2014 at 11:07 AM, Jericho Brisance wrote: > (Matt) Brisancian commented: “OK, I don’t see a major disconnect in our > thinking on the specifics of those questions. However, you raise the very > key question of criteria right away: “But we cannot establish scientifically > whether a specific subjective experience is good or bad. Suc” >

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        • Another issue with Harris’s “well-being” approach to morality.

          Who said that morality is or ought to be based on a fuzzy concept of “well-being”? There are several approaches to morality known to philosophers since Aristotle: consequentialism, virtue ethics, deontological ethics are the major ones. Harris eschews over 2000 years of philosophical thought on this topic because they “directly increase the amount of boredom in the universe”.

          His idea of “well-being” roughly fits into the consequential ethics approach. There is no (and cannot be, I believe) any scientific evidence that consequential ethics is the best approach to ethics, and others are wrong. This is simply Harris’s belief, which is OK as long as it is not presented as a fact. It’s quite obvious that a person who commits harakiri or an honor killing is driven by some sense of duty rather than considerations of well-being and his actions are justified within a deontological paradigm rather than consequentialism. They do use logic and reason, but in a different framework of moral reasoning. Harris, you, and I may disagree with their reasoning or their deontology, but this is not a scientific argument, by any means.

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          • Hey, sorry for not responding. Stupid WP is not alerting me. Second time. I can’t figure out why it is intermittent. Anyway, at another locale now and don’t have any thoughts at the moment. Have appreciated the dialogue though, and I’m chewing on your input. 🙂

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  4. @agrudzinsky,

    I don’t disagree with very much of what you’ve written here. But I am wondering a little what you think is the primary disconnect…

    One point of clarification regarding criteria. I do not mean to imply method at all. For example, in blunt trauma injury for vehicle occupants, there are established injury criteria that are based on a time-window integration of the acceleration history of the head. The criteria is that this measure cannot be above a certain threshold. The method of making the measurement is not the same as the threshold value of the criteria. Criteria is often a defined type of measurement, combined with a value for that measurement. That is, head acceleration is what matters, and the value cannot be above a certain limit.

    In any case, I concur that there are difficulties establishing what the moral criteria and metrics should be. But what I would say is that this is no different than any other realm of human study in terms of objectivity. Its very difficult indeed to determine what a proper injury criterion should be, and there is a great deal of arguing that goes on, as well as a great deal of growth and learning in the field, but that does not mean it is not an objectively driven enterprise. And much like morality, the objective basis is the human organism. Everything revolves around the human organism, and a defined objective: to minimize injury.

    We do not have to have that objective. We could change it. We could say that proper automotive design should not be done to minimize head injury. We could say something else. Something like, “Don’t minimize injury in all cases. We don’t want anyone partly injured and partly brain damaged. Make sure that automotive design results in either a perfect survival, or instant death. There should be no in-between. We don’t want any partly injured people.”

    Perhaps that is a better objective. I don’t think so, but how would we arrive at that? Much the same way we arrive at law… by consensus of the group involved in making that decision, pressed upon by the larger society, etc.

    And that is how theologians decide what they will take scripture to mean. And what principles apply today, etc.

    I think the danger is in the false chimera of a WL Craig-like absolute moral ontology, grounded in a divine being, about whom nobody can agree regarding anything, and for whom all descriptions and claims are unprovable. This combination of absolute expectations and entirely subjective means of access just muddies the waters.

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    • I would agree regarding the remarks of “absolute moral ontology grounded in a divine being”. But I wouldn’t argue with this view. It’s rather philosophical than practical.

      Minimizing injury in car accidents isn’t much of a moral dilemma. Most people would agree that injury is bad. When most people agree on the objective, yes, science can be useful to show the best way to achieve it.

      Consider euthanasia. I have no idea how science is going to help here. First, I can’t even say that death is a state of “being”, leave alone “well-being”. Second, can science determine how much pain can a person tolerate? The person himself cannot know this. How can some physician judge whether pain is tolerable or not and decide when it’s OK to assist a patient with a suicide?

      Consider abortion. How science can help to draw the line when a fetus becomes a person? This is not a scientific question at all. Science, perhaps, can say, when the heart starts to beat, when the brain starts to feel pain, etc. It can offer different criteria, but which criteria to use is not a scientific question.

      I think, to have a clear picture of the world we need clear definitions of what things are and what they are not. With this in mind, I believe, it’s quite dangerous to believe that science can answer moral questions for us. Religion must be kept out of science classes and out of politics. Science must be kept out of religious debates. “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” Jesus had a good way of answering trick questions.

      Thanks for interesting examples with the automotive designs.

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      • Automotive criteria were mentioned only to dilineate criteria and method, nothing more. The texts of Judaism and Christianity are no help with the conundrums you mention either. Not without major interpretational battles. I see no distinction.

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      • Thanks. It’s my pleasure. I also think that placing labels on each other and ourselves isn’t a good idea. Just because someone dares to criticize a dogma, like Harris, does not mean that he is free from dogma himself. I don’t see accepting what he says without skepticism as “independent thinking”. Calling oneself completely rational and free of absurdity is absurd. “Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall.” — Proverbs. “The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool.” — Shakespeare

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        • Not quite per topic, but I’m still an Ecclesiastes man: “whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, to it with thy might; for there is no work nor device nor knowledge in the grave whither thou goest.” Ecc 9:10

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          • Ecclesiastes is my favorite book of the Bible. After Ecclesiastes, it’s difficult to say anything new or original. While the book itself never seems to get old (although, perhaps, it wasn’t new or original in its time also). Despite the obvious absurdity, there is some charismatic enigma in those religious texts. 🙂

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  5. ignorantianescia says:

    Not to be querulous, but I wondered what you were at with this:

    when pieces of our Jesus turn out to be borrowed from pagan antecedents

    I’m sorry if I seem to overreact, but the typical alleged pagan parallels are not accepted by mainstream scholars. Could you explain what you mean here, please? If your point is that the gospels use typical clichés of ancient biographies, that there are older examples of the Golden Rule, that some of the more implausible portions of the gospels have pagan parallels and that there may be some traditions ascribed to Jesus that he didn’t say, I suppose there’s not much diversity of opinion among us.

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    • ignorantianescia says:

      Borked the layout, only the first line should be read as a quote.

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    • Ignorantianescia,

      Lot of suffixes there. 🙂

      Anyway, sure. My take on the mythology thing is that people seem to divide into two equally errant camps: (1) Christianity is fully original and didn’t borrow anything from mythology, and (2) Christianity has nothing original and is entirely borrowed. Both are just flawed to the roots.

      I’m also very careful about “consensus” statements. Consensus among whom? NT Scholars? Gee, that includes linguists, papyrus experts, apologists, and yes, historians too. The consensus among historians – corrected adequately for ideological precommitments – is harder to tease out. We can’t pay any more attention to a blind “NT scholar consensus” than we can a “Qu’ranic scholar consensus.” Common sense, but neglected.

      I think Jesus really existed, that it wasn’t all mythology by any stretch. But it remains very difficult to assert that guys like Richard Carrier are wrong about all the connections they make. Its silly, and the reason I say that is because of the manifold evidence, and because of Christian apologists like Justin Martyr…

      Definitely look at this prior post: https://jerichobrisance.com/2013/09/28/dangled-over-a-flame-jews-and-jesus-among-pagan-gods/

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      • ignorantianescia says:

        Okay, I’ll have a look at your link. I’ll place any further comments on this subject there instead of here.

        I’ll explain my current position: I reject both 1 and 2, though apart from its Jewish roots I think much of the mythological borrowing is with respect to art style and some liturgy. My take with NT scholars were people who studied the contents of the texts, including historians, NT sociologists and scholars of comparative religion. I prefer to read the more sceptical side of historical NT studies, but I’ve never seen even them mention highly significant antecedent pagan figures.

        Beside the above, I’m Christian, so that also is a relevant bias.

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