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Not as rational as Sam Harris likes to claim

Here is a long blog post by Timothy Sandefur dissecting the collectivist economics and moral philosophy of Sam Harris. Harris is one of the “new atheists”, who, along with Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and Christopher Hitchens, have developed a bit of a reputation for bashing religion. I haven’t read Sam Harris, and Sandefur does not make me any more inclined to do so. (Of all these men, Hitchens is the best, in my view.)

It is interesting that those who criticise religion on the grounds of reason and logic can, as in the case of Harris, make such basic errors on subjects such as trade, notions of self-ownership, justice and the like. It is as if they are craving a secular god to fill a gap left by the traditional one. I must say I was quite shocked at the incoherence of some of Harris’s comments and his failure to examine and demonstrate his premises, such as when he talks about “fairness” without asking what he might mean by that. It is disappointing. On a related point, Greg Perkins, who writes at the Noodlefood blog, had a point about the big gaps in “new atheist” thinking a few years ago. (That link has been updated).

I suggest people brew up a coffee for Sandefur’s posting. It is not a 60-second read. Another case, in fact, of how blogging is often where the quality writing is, whatever some sneerers might once have said about this medium.

Welcome, Instapundit readers! Meanwhile, Reason’s Hit & Run blog has a related issue on how supposedly pro-science leftists can make utter tits of themselves.

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70 comments to Not as rational as Sam Harris likes to claim

  • It is as if they are craving a secular god to fill a gap left by the traditional one.

    Spot on.

  • Ed Snack

    I wouldn’t put Daniel Dennett with Harris, Dennett has relatively impeccable arguments as rather befits a philosopher of some note. I don’t see him “bashing religion” as such, but he certainly takes to irrational beliefs and much of religion is exactly that.

    However, it certainly seems a good Harris bashing, and not having read Harris’s work myself, I guess I must assume it is deserved and not selectively quoted. In what is given, Harris certainly seems a deeply confused thinker.

  • I think my problem with both Hitchens and Dawkins when they write about atheism is that both are much better writing about other things (Hitchens about the world, Dawkins about evolution). There are other things they could write that I would rather read.

  • MarkE

    Some of the comments I read recently have lead me to start wanting to draw a distiction between atheists (which is how I describe myself) and anti-theists.

    I am sure there is nothing in religion and that there is no supreme being to whom (which?) I should be praying, but if it makes you happy, I’ll not stop you doing as you wish, until you start demanding I join you, or pay for your church.

    There seems however to be a growing number of people saying all religion is evil; John Major’s spinster cycling to church is no different to the taliban; all priests should be burned, all churches converted into museums of atheism and all religious practice banned. I feel no more comfortable being grouped with the anti-theists than I would being pushed into someone’s congregation.

  • I feel no more comfortable being grouped with the anti-theists than I would being pushed into someone’s congregation.

    Amen to that, fellow athiest.

    And I must say I regard Dawkins as atheism’s version of the Taliban.

  • A long but extremely good article, that one. Well worth the time. Now to see what else Timothy Sandefur has written.

  • Actually, I rather enjoyed Harris’ “End of Faith.” Sadly, the collective review I wrote of the “Four Horsemen” was deleted through some sort of website problem. But, briefly, I thought he made solid arguments Harris made against moral relativism, and his observations on Islam, were excellent. Of the “Four Horsemen,” I thought Dawkins’ book was the most effective critique of religion, but his attempt at moral philosophy in Chapter 6 were embarrassing. Hitchens was by far the most readable and I was happy that he didn’t go soft on Buddhism the way Harris (and, incidentally, Susan Blackmore) does. Dennett’s book was interesting, but he didn’t seem able to decide whether he was speaking to believers or to non-believers about religion. So if you’re only going to read one, read Hitchens.

    An excellent review of all four: http://www.theobjectivestandard.com/issues/2008-fall/mystical-ethics-new-atheists.asp

  • chuck

    I think where most of those folks go wrong is looking at religion and seeing only the irrational. Given the fundamental role of the irrational, not to mention rationalizing, plays in everyone’s life I think that pretty much misses the point. I’d be much more interested in a discussion of *why* the irrational is such an important part of being human. It’s not like it is going away any time soon, as Harris himself illustrates.

  • John B

    Reading the definition of nihilism on Wikipedia recently it really struck me that it is just the logical outcome of modern western belief.

    I would be horrified at the suggestion that one should believe in God because everything would be better that way. My personal journey was via nihilism, I guess.

    I really do prefer to believe that which is true / real, if possible.

    My feeling is that any honest person who does not believe in God has to become a nihilist. When they get around to thinking about it.
    What else?

  • That was a bit presumptuous, John…

  • PeterT

    I’ve always found it unproductive when (Western!) people (not only atheists) point out to muslims that in order to be a good muslim they should be jihadists, killing non-believers and so forth. Hopefully they just ignore this rather than become jihadists; it doesn’t seem likely that this line of reasoning will convince them to become atheists.

    Dawkins has (on TV) pointed out to CoE types that it is more consistent to be a fundamentalist evangelist, than to pick and choose bits from the Bible. This strikes me as missing the point of religion, which is manyfold (providing purpose in life, community, etc). Of course, religion without certainty in belief is not strong and may be unsatisfactory to many. And it is a problem that some of the beliefs that are expected (by priests/mullahs/other believers) to be taken at face value (e.g. on evolution and homosexuality) has negative consequences for the believer himself and, potentially, others.

    We can think of a person’s belief system as a house. The house is the framework according to which the person leads his life. The atheist’s house is built on sound architectural principle and is comfortable to live in – a bit boring sometimes perhaps. The theists house is not as well built, some of the walls are a bit shaky and the doors don’t close properly. But the theist likes it very much. Maybe a few rooms are a bit dangerous and the theist avoids these. All in all he is happy. When the theist visits the atheist for tea he never feels completely comfortable. The toilet may flush properly but it is a cold and uncomfortable place.

    The important questions is: can the theist live happily in the house? And does its shaky architecture pose a danger to passers by?

    Only if the answer to the second question is “yes” are we justified in interfering.

  • Laird

    I’m in agreement with MarkE. Well said.

  • Brad

    Well, if the first article at the time I visited How Rich Is Too Rich gives a flavor of the man’s point of view, he gets off to a bad start. He doesn’t seem to comprehend that it isn’t by taxation that a blow would be struck against the uber-rich, but by breaking their control over the money supply and successful rent seeking (regulating competition out of the market). And he doesn’t seem to have a very subtle understanding of what “conservative” fiscal values to be if he thinks they are just agaisnt taxation, but instead are against all non-market forces FOR OR AGAINST. The free-market is a consummer driven function, not a ballast for the rich. A proper fiscal conservative would be against “too big to fail” just as much as taxation.

    I have little doubt if I read more of the man that he, indeed, wants to replace God with State, and for the same motivations. He, and like minded people, will be the Priests of The New Order. Such people come from the same cloth – over simplify reality into bits that they can comprehend, recycle those bits over and over to a point of creating catechisms, be so self assured that offensive Force is justified. Delusions are one thing, probably no individual would survive without them, but to delude oneself to a point of offensive Force and interference in others private affairs, instead of remaining properly disinterested, is the problem – whether originating from a book of fantastical tales or from a book of actuarial tables.

  • I really liked Peter’s house metaphor.

  • Kevin B

    For me the only rational metaphysical belief system is agnosticism, but it takes a fair amount of research – and not a little humilty – to attain sufficient insight into the various different ways of explaining what is and why it is, in order to conclude that there is insufficient evidence.

    That’s not to say that exploring various theist or atheist beliefs is not enlightening, particularly when it comes to the moral and ethical foundations on which people base their dearly held opinions, as Mr Sandefur amply demonstrates in his take down of Mr Harris’ economic views.

    As for whose house is built on sounder foundations, I can think of many varieties of theist I would prefer to live next to than some of the more convinced atheists – and of course vice versa -but the bottom line for me is that theism and atheism are two sides of the same coin, especially when used to attempt to justify some imposition on my life ‘for my own good’.

    The search for meaning in life is admirable, but when people – theist or atheist – think they have found it – they, or at least some of them, can be pretty dangerous to the rest of us.

  • John B

    The search for meaning in life is admirable, but when people – theist or atheist – think they have found it – they, or at least some of them, can be pretty dangerous to the rest of us.

    Yes, absolutely. That’s what I mean. The logical conclusion of objective logic is that there is no meaning: Nihilism.

    One cannot prove anything other than it is stupid to really think one can prove anything.

    So what does one do?

    It’s not presumptuous, Alisa.

    It is taking (or trying to take) all the presumption away and seeing what is left.

    I don’t believe in God because He makes satisfactory furniture in my life.

    I want to know what is true!

    PeterT, by the way. I would not be too worried about a person who truly accepts the Lord Jesus as their Lord and Saviour as being any danger to you or anyone else.
    To Satan, perhaps.

  • My feeling is that any honest person who does not believe in God has to become a nihilist. When they get around to thinking about it.
    What else?

    I was going to reply at length but to be honest I do not know where to begin…

    The very very short answer: as I have concluded ‘god’ in the generally accepted sense, is a delusion, it cannot add any meaning to anything for me (hence it seems to me that religion can only lead someone away from nihilism if they can convince themselves it has any basis in reality beyond that of a psychological construct).

    I derive ‘meaning’ from life in all sorts of ways, with the most basic being my critical preference from the ideas that ‘existence exists’ and to understand existence requires theorising. Moreover life cannot have no ‘meaning’ for me for the simply reason I find value in all sorts of levels from experiencing it… indeed I suspect is not ‘honesty’ that can lead an atheist to nihilism but rather wilful blindness and irrationalism.

    I do not expect you to share my perspective but I am a bit surprised a bright fellow such as yourself do not even seem to understand such a perspective is even possible and that all ‘honest’ atheists must be nihilists. I find that a bit bizarre. I have no trouble understanding the theist perspective so why is the reverse so often not true I wonder?

  • One cannot prove anything other than it is stupid to really think one can prove anything.

    No. One forms theories to explain reality… and if a theory is falsified, one looks for a better theory. No nihilism required.

    If god appeared in my room and brought my loved one back to life, after first getting a scan to see if I had a brain tumour, I would consider my atheist theory falsified and start acting accordingly, such as spelling God with a capital G, for a start.

  • veryretired

    The alliance between collectivism and the traditional christian churches goes back a long way, and it is not surprising that there is some friction between the two.

    Most collectivist theories, and marxism in particular, are secular heresies derived from several basic christian concepts, communal altruism and a future utopian existence being two of the most obvious.

    Recently, a group of christian authorities published a letter in the US criticizing the call for reduced government expenditures, and making the claim that christian ethics demand collectivist programs to achieve “social justice”.

    Apparently, the pope also just made a sermon in Spain stating that too much austerity was in error, and too much capitalism is dangerous to the poor. These views are so conventional, unfortunately, as to be utterly unremarkable.

    During the rise of the progressive agenda in Europe and the US, the mainstream churches made a pact with the collectivists that they would support the statist agenda if the state adopted the “sermon on the mount” as a political program. (Of course this is a bit of an overstatement.)

    The resulting alliance relieved the churches of the duties to aid and educate the poor, and transferred these tasks wholly or partially to the state, while collectivist political leaders accepted the clergy as authentic voices speaking for the very poor they had abandoned to the tender mercies of the apparat.

    For all the endless hullabaloo over the mixing of religion and politics, it is clearly the collectivist side which has done so from top to bottom of their entire program.

    Indeed, the supposed wall of separation between church and state is conveniently honey-combed with exceptions when a leftist policy is being considered, and churchmen regularly lead the way in advocating the social issue du jour on the collectivist agenda.

    Some people are surprised when the collectivist elite seems to support islamic fundamentalists, who should be anathema to them.

    All the former want is the moral endorsement of the latter, as they wished in previous eras from judaism, and christianity, in their endless war against all forms of individualism, especially capitalism and limited state power.

    Atheism, theism, ideology, theology, it’s all just grist for the mill—political power is all that matters.

    That’s the whole point, the only point, and nothing but the point, of this entire miserable business.

    To the collectivist, any deity is just a tool in the toolbox, as is denying its existence when that’s trendy and convenient.

    It’s not what they say that matters, it’s what they do, inevitably, once they get the power in their hands—the creation of hell on earth.

    No serpents or fire pits required.

  • 'Nuke' Gray

    Isn’t hutchins one of those authors who did a hatchet job on Mother Teresa, the nun who did more to bring happiness to dying people than he has ever done?

  • Midwesterner

    John B,

    You are wrong about non belief in God leading to unavoidably to nihilism. But only just. What leads to nihilism is the arrogant certainty of doctrinaire atheism. There is a difference between ‘not believing there is a god’ and ‘believing there is not a god’. Having reached the decision that there is no God to dictate a ‘greater purpose’ in life, doctrinaire atheists conclude non unreasonably that meaning of existence is subjective or even not possible.

    To impose one’s own will onto others requires certainty which can only be found in doctrinaire theism or atheism. Agnosticism is not the rejection of knowledge, it is the qualification and weighing of it based on continually updated perceptions. Agnostics must restrain themselves from imposing their own will on others because they cannot claim any higher authority than their own will. Agnostics cannot claim authority over others because to do so is to claim a higher purpose; a claim they believe cannot be supported. Deeply thoughtful atheists are drawn to nihilism in the form of rejecting all possible values including their own. Less thoughtful atheists know that there is no higher authority and, exempting themselves from that exclusion, they choose a ‘greater good’ that rewards some drive, lust or ambition of their own and impose it on others as they see fit.

    Theists are constrained only by what they believe God is telling them, some make good neighbors, some do not. Christianity, being fundamentally based on individual acceptance and accountability, generally makes for good neighbors although there is no shortage of would be despots who attempt to reforge it to serve their purpose.

    Kevin B in his clear and thoughtful comment, uses an important word, “humility”. Humility and certainty are not found together. A wise person makes his best estimate of what his perceptions mean but always retains enough doubt to be open to correction. Along with accepting the possibility of error, a person who retains the capacity for self doubt will confine their will to their own self and not impose their will on others. Thoughtful analysis of available facts leaves agnosticism as the only non-faith based beliefs system. Allowing only confidence, not certainty, agnosticism leads those who accept it to naturally recoil from exerting control over others.

  • 'Nuke' Gray

    Incidentally, though Perry might disagree, there are benefits to belonging to a church. Other than increasing your life span by a few years, as a Time magazine article pointed out a few years ago, scientists who study prayers are coming up with some positive results. As an esoteric christian, I could even interpret the evidence as proof of psycho-kinesis, as humans seemed to be able to influence small things and life-forms very easily- if we could just get whales and elephants to pray for us, we’d all be quickly cured!

  • Johnathan Pearce

    The idea that lack of belief in a Supreme Being or some other “force” beyond human comprehension means that this leads to nihilism is a non-sequitur.

    It is like a weird pact we make in our minds: “we have to believe in this stuff even though we think it is wrong because bad things might happen”. Not surprisingly, many feel this line of thinking has a hole in it. It sounds like a sort of cynical con-trick.

  • John B

    Looks like spambot is letting his guard down. What a fine line he/she has to tread, indeed!

    Re nihilism.

    The problem being that all knowledge and experience is subjective.

    My experience is what goes through my head.

    What, even, is thought? Electric pulses crossing synapses. Zillions of them.

    What determines that which becomes my concrete, concious thoughts, rather than the unrealised and unperceived firing of the rest of the zillion synapses?
    It almost seems rather random. (Sometimes it can seem quite scary as to what passes for common sense in our experience, if it is such a random, almost accidental process.)

    Sure. It works. The system hangs together and takes us from day to day without anything too serious going wrong.

    But one cannot get away from the fact that all knowledge is subjective, if one takes the commonly held western idea that the human mind and being is a system that has randomly evolved from random processes. Even my perception of that is a random process (accident?).

    How can a western materialist, logically, be anything other than nihilist?

    Wiki:

    Most commonly, nihilism is presented in the form of existential nihilism which argues that life is without objective meaning, purpose, or intrinsic value.[1] Moral nihilists assert that morality does not inherently exist, and that any established moral values are abstractly contrived. Nihilism can also take epistemological, metaphysical, or ontological forms, meaning respectively that, in some aspect, knowledge is not possible, or that contrary to popular belief, some aspect of reality does not exist as such.

  • John B

    Perry, I suppose you could turn that around.

    Propose the hypothesis that God exists, put the theory to the test, and see what comes up.
    How?
    Act on the assumption that He does and see what happens.

  • Midwesterner

    The idea that lack of belief in a Supreme Being or some other “force” beyond human comprehension means that this leads to nihilism is a non-sequitur.

    No, just a sequitur one step removed. If one believes that all that exists is purely random and accidental (believes it as a certainty) it is to believe existence is (certainly) without higher meaning or purpose. This leaves only two options. Either one can believe (existential-atheistically) that meaning can be created internally within ourselves (which is not much of a constraint on moral codes) or one can believe that there is no such thing as meaning (which is no constraint at all). It is that latter where the nihilism comes from.

    ‘Aburdism’ is a translation from French that may have lost or gained implications along the way. Basically it acknowledges that this existence, carbon molecules thinking thoughts while while orbiting one of countless balls of fusion in some mathematically estimable existence, is incapable of finding intrinsic meaning to existence but none-the-less feels compelled to try. Rather than denying the absurdity of the search by embracing religion or saying “I’ll choose its meaning” (atheistic existentialism) an absurdist accepts existence as it is, accepts that its possible meaning is unknowable by available means, and seeks only to understand their individual place in it.

    The critical difference is here in questions two and three. Only absurdism is constrained by reality as perceived by the individual. For an absurdist, the perception of ‘other people’ must be accommodated even if no meaning for the distinction is apparent. Atheistic existentialists, having decided conclusively that there is no inherent meaning to existence, have no constraints on how they deal with existence (which includes the rest of us). Atheistic existentialism may begin as an individual choice but once the decision is taken that there is conclusively no intrinsic meaning to existence, the mind of that person is morally free to create and impose meaning of its own choosing. Unless the atheistic existentialist consciously chooses individualism, boundaries between people fade away as ‘not meaningful’.

    Whether it is correlative or causative I don’t know but people who are willing to make a conclusive assertion in the absence of conclusive evidence in one case (there is no god) are likely to do it in all cases (ie anthropogenic global warming). Both theists and atheists are willing to make conclusive assertions without conclusive evidence. While history shows that theism is inherently capable of Utopian genocide, for shear numbers atheism wins.

    Human beings have a compulsion to know. To know with certainty. This compulsion is so strong that most human beings when faced with an unanswerable but compelling question will just make stuff up. Religious people find God and derivative meaning of existence, anti-religious people find no-god and derivative carte blanche to either invent their own meaning of existence or deny meaning entirely. Absurdists (by definition agnostic) accept that conclusive meaning is unavailable and live within their perceptions. Pancritical rationalism fits into the framework of absurdism and agnosticism.

  • Midwesterner

    “Aburdism”? That should be “absurdism”.

  • PersonFromPorlock

    As I’m fond of pointing out, the functionalist dismissal of God (unnecessary, physics explains process) applies equally well to us: nobody here because physics also explains our processes.

    Of course, we know perfectly well we’re here (it’s the one thing we do know with certitude), which tends to make the logic of dismissing God look a little wobbly. In fact, it’s very hard to see how we can be ordinary parts of the world, and function by will, and claim that the other ordinary parts don’t.

    And yes, we do function by will: whatever ‘will’ is, it has at least the physical effect that we talk about it.

    I have no great use for religion except as a repository of sometimes beneficial ethics, but confusing religion with what is basically a nature-of-reality question about how the world works is just sloppy thinking. Most of the atheists I’m aware of seem to be arguing against the evils of religion and merely assuming the non-existence of God so they can cut to the chase. But God is just us writ large, and whoever argues He doesn’t exist had better be willing to go pfft! himself.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    This leaves only two options. Either one can believe (existential-atheistically) that meaning can be created internally within ourselves (which is not much of a constraint on moral codes) or one can believe that there is no such thing as meaning (which is no constraint at all). It is that latter where the nihilism comes from.

    No. It is possible to develop a moral code that is objectively real, given the context of a life-orientated person who wants to flourish without it being some sort of subjective piece of whim. Here(Link) is a good example of how this can be explained.

    I have seen the point made several times that if you take God away, that all you get is chaos, madness and mayhem. I am not convinced. One of the dangers of that mindset is that people might be frightened to enquire too deeply about the nature of life for fear they know “too much”, etc.

  • Propose the hypothesis that God exists, put the theory to the test, and see what comes up.
    How?
    Act on the assumption that He does and see what happens.

    Well that was the first 25 or so years of my life. Nothing much happened 🙂

    So I started looking for better theories.

  • How can a western materialist, logically, be anything other than nihilist?

    Well you do not really explain why that is, so it seems a non-sequitur… our thought are the product of electrical impulses and our Self is an emergent property of those impulses. So what? One can accept that and be a theist or atheist. What has that got to do with assigned value to life? How does the biological nature of our brains change anything?

    I moved in the atheist direction because I found ‘god’ was not so much a bad explanation of the nature of reality as no explanation at all. If I find an interesting theory of reality plonked in front of me that actually explains things and that features god, or Azathot or whatever you want to call it, I am happy to listen, but thus far the theist approach seems to me to be substitute for enquiry rather than an actual theory of anything let alone everything … which is to say I dumped the whole god thing because I am looking for better and deeper meaning in life, so the whole nihilist accusation strikes me as bizarre 🙂

  • ManikMonkee

    Its sort of the human condition to be spiritual, I’ve always had kind of (non-organised religion) pan-deist sentiments but drift more and more atheist as time goes on.
    I used to agree with the animosity of posters here to the new-athesists when living in non-religious Europe, it just seems like picking on a minority.

    Since I’ve emigrated to Africa I’m finding more and more sympathy with them. Everyone claims to be christian, and the more vigorous they are about it, the more they steal, lie and cheat. I think the forgiveness aspect seems to be interpreted as an excuse to act like a complete cunt.

    You have to be somewhat anti-thesist as they won’t respect your opinions in the slightest and will insult, harass and hassle you when they find out what you personally believe.

    Personally I don’t use Dawkins and all to troll them (he is a cock) just a few academic papers linking IQ and belief in organised religion.

  • John B

    Religion is mainly about humanity’s attempts to get to grip with the reality of the unseen and unknown. It is caught up in those efforts, rather than just meeting with Him as one might meet with anyone.
    My experience is to let God deal with things.
    That might seem a cop out but, God does not need our efforts.
    I think the logical bridge between randomness and order, if one can just get around taking for granted the things we take for granted, is significant.

  • Midwesterner

    My Rand books (I have all or nearly all of her published works) are all in storage in a box somewhere among many boxes and it’s been some years since I’ve read them. If you can give me some guide as to how she deals with the need to impose individualism onto others while at the same time denying a value system superior to the individual, I need a refresher. I’m speculating, but it seems to me that she must be declaring the putative boundary between ‘self’ and ‘others’ to be a good thing while at the same denying others the right to declare it a bad thing. In other words, she is imposing a subjective definition of life as being isolated in the individual (and the value system that infers) onto others based on her interpretation of her own perceptions. That way be dragons because some other people really do perceive God through sensory experience and others really do perceive ‘life’ as residing in a societal unit. I certainly do not want to have to defer to their perceptions and derivative interpretations; why do hers merit special treatment? I need a refresher on Rand.

    The point I am making is not one of “taking God away” from value judgments but rather making the unprovable declaration of the impossibility of any intrinsic (higher than the person experiencing it) meaning to existence. Whether one concludes that there is or that there is not intrinsic meaning and purpose to existence, there is a catch-22. Either there is no meaning external to ourselves (in which case the boundary between ‘self’ and ‘others’ is subjective) or we have to find ‘truth’ of individualism that we can impose on others. It is in proving the ‘truth’ of individual identity that the can of worms grows fangs.

    The danger is found in accepting any declarations at all regarding intrinsic meaning/purpose. Whether that declaration is “God tells us his meaning and purpose” or “There is no intrinsic meaning or purpose” the result is the same. The declarer can without moral or logical conflict impose his purposes onto us either in the name of God or as his own whim. It is only by accepting that the possibility of meaning and purpose to existence is beyond one’s capacity to know that one is morally and logically restrained from imposing their beliefs on others.

  • John B

    Midwesterner. There is no need to impose anything on anybody else as part of finding reality/the truth, that I can see.

    God does not impose His will on us. There is free will. I don’t see where that would come in to any part of establishing what is or is not true?
    We are all free agents with the freedom to choose and I don’t want to judge or accuse or in any way talk down to anyone.

    Perry, my thought is, a western materialist pretty much believes in what can be measured and sensed with the senses.

    If one is to have a logical base by which other things can be verified then there must be something that is true (absolute) on which to base it.

    How does the brain establish whether something is true or false? By comparing it with existing data stored as chemical processes, electrical activity and nerve endings.

    Basically we have verified ourselves because that seems to us to be true.

    Okay. It’s all we have to go on.

    However, if one is going to make man the measure of all things, well, we don’t really know what that is or how the brain computes data to establish truth or error as verifiable, absolute fact.

    It seems to me one can only come down to the conclusion that: I don’t really know (whatever that is – knowing).

    Regarding thinking, my preference is to give us all a break and leave the final conclusions about everything, unfinalised. Because ultimately, logically, that is all one can do.

    It was in that state of personal confusion God met with me, quite a long time ago now.

    For what my personal experience is worth, I know what He has done for me.

  • If one is to have a logical base by which other things can be verified then there must be something that is true (absolute) on which to base it.

    Nope. The essence of Pancritical Rationalism (the Scientific Method really, but a rose by any other name would smell as sweet) is that everything… every… single… thing… that we ‘know’ is a falsifiable theory of varying degrees of robustness and depth… and we try to form a critical preference for the theory that seems to explain reality most fully, until a better once comes along.

    As we cannot directly experience the totality of reality via our sense, we have to form theories to explain the things we cannot by their nature sense. So the notion a materialist must only believe what his senses tell him is simply not true (indeed any materialist who thinks that is daft). Quantum theory is not amenable to one’s senses, but it is to ones reason. Even theorising the existence of god can be perfectly ‘pancritically rationalist’ (I personally do not think ‘god’ works as a theory but I can see how one could be an impeccable pancritical rationalist and come to a different conclusion).

    My critical preference is for the theory is that objective reality is, well, objectively real, but I cannot *prove* everything is not a figment of my imagination… but the theory that existence exists and it exists objectively seems a better and deeper theory that explains more than the one which suggests I am trapped in a subjective delusion of my own making, so the former is the one I go for.

  • 'Nuke' Gray

    I find God in physics. Chaos is much touted as an explanation of the Universe- we are only one universe in a whole Multiverse, so to have the right laws in place to allow life to exist is ‘explained’ as an inevitability of an infinite array of laws and interactions, etc. The trouble with this idea is that they never think it through to a conclusion. If Chaos is the big be-all, then there is nothing to limit chaos in any way- not even chaos. In that infinitude of universes (all manifesting at the same time, whatever time means in Chaos), there would be at least one universe which coalesces into an Organism which can manipulate Chaos- in the same way that chance is supposed to have produced life from lifeless clay, with life then manipulating the material from which it came.
    If God did not create the Chaos from which the Universe is posited to have been created, then God would /did be generated by, and from, the initial Chaos.
    So all physics points to A God, though not the nature or beliefs of that God.

  • “I think my problem with both Hitchens and Dawkins when they write about atheism is that both are much better writing about other things (Hitchens about the world, Dawkins about evolution). There are other things they could write that I would rather read.”

    Michael, spot on. I was bought “The God Delusion” for Crimble a few years back. Now it’s not a good book. It is frankly laughable in parts. It is boiler-plate atheism of a vehemence that would make an ayatollah blush. But it has it’s moments and they are when Dawkins writes about evolution sort of in passing. Wonderful stuff. About 0.5% of the book but still…

  • Dan

    As an atheist, I find most vocal “atheists” quite off-putting. I just don’t think there is a god…I’m not furious at god as so many seem to be.

  • It seems to me one can only come down to the conclusion that: I don’t really know (whatever that is – knowing).

    Regarding thinking, my preference is to give us all a break and leave the final conclusions about everything, unfinalised. Because ultimately, logically, that is all one can do.

    Amen to that, fellow agnostic;-P

  • Geoff

    Let’s be honest. The major problem is an atheist attempting to appeal to any type of morality.

    If all we are can be reduced to matter in motion, then there is no objective morality. Your moral thoughts amount to the same thing as a Dr. Pepper fizzing in a glass. You have a collection of atoms which shouldn’t take another collection of atoms from another collection of atoms (this is reductive atheist account of stealing). Who cares?

    There just aren’t any consistent atheists. There are some things you just can’t unknow. And one of those is your God-given knowledge that there is a right and wrong. Your beliefs about right or wrong may differ based on several different influences, but you will know that right and wrong exist.

  • I would argue that atheists who believe in the supremacy of science and aren’t nihilists don’t understand science well enough. Nihilism is an inescapable conclusion. Atheists like Hitchens and Dawkins haven’t disproved God so much as they have disproved you.

    The typical claim is that we can explain the Universe without God, provided you grant us some explanation of the beginning which none of us can prove. If you believe that, then we can certainly explain you, a minute subset of the Universe, and we need no granting of explanations since we know precisely how you started. No consciousness needed, game over.

    A more rigorous proof comes from proof by induction. Choose one molecule in your body at random. Can you make it do something it wasn’t going to do anyway? That is, can you make it do something that doesn’t obey known laws of chemistry? Of course not. Now choose a second one at random. How about that one? Nope. Now a third. No way. Now assume you can’t make any N molecules in your body do something they weren’t going to do anyway without your so-called “consciousness”. Can you make molecule N+1 do something it wasn’t already going to do? Nope. If you could, then you don’t believe in chemistry and you’re whole anti-God argument falls apart.

    In theoretical math, you only need one proof to establish a fact. Game over. You don’t exist. Nihilism.

    For those who want to explore the philosophical aspects of faith journeys deeper, I highly recommend CS Lewis’ Surprised by Joy. Lewis was an atheist surrounded by atheists and was a philosopher of no small talent. Surprised by Joy is a very deep read and it took me five times through it to understand his arguments, but it was worth it.

    Finally, not all faiths have problems with science. Catholic catechism states that when faith and provable science collide, faith needs to be reexamined as God would not have created a Universe that contradicted his own teaching. I’m a devout Catholic and a scientist and have no problems with either.

  • It is so lucky to read your blog,it is full of useful message.

  • Boston Patriot

    Ayn Rand has the answer for both of you. The secular Left is a false alternative to the religious Right. Both are wrong.

  • Given Harris’ poor arguments in other areas, should we assume that his critique of religious belief is untouched by irrationality?

  • Given Harris’ poor arguments in other areas, should we assume that his critique of religious belief is untouched by irrationality? Regarding his “caracture” portrayals of conservatives, should we expect Harris fairer to religious folks?

  • Sarah Rolph

    I’m surprised Sandefur enjoyed The End of Faith. I found that book to have the same maddening irrationality that is described in Sandefur’s current post. Harris does not think clearly, and he is a terrible writer for this reason. As Sandefur points out in his thoughtful post, Harris doesn’t define terms or even use them consistently. He fully expects to be taken on, well, faith.

    For example, he claims that all the worst atrocities have been committed by religions. This of course is not true; yet his rebuttal to those who point out the mass killings by atheists (Stalin, Pol Pot, Hitler, etc.) is to say that any ideology that kills lots of people is also a religion. They may not think of it that way, but take it from Harris, that’s the way it is.

    He doesn’t seem to notice that defining his primary term (religion) out of existence destroys his entire argument.

    In short, he is an idiot.

    I agree with chuck that human beings are naturally, in part, irrational. We have a dual nature. In my view, mental health requires that we respect both sides of our nature, rather than pretending that one or the other doesn’t exist.

    To learn more about the complex human mind, I recommend the book Mindsight by Dan Siegel. (There is a lot of material at his website, too.)

  • Weird to see someone calling out Sam Harris only to turn around and recommend an essay praising Dinesh D’Souza. Pot, meet kettle.

  • Oops..misread the Greg Perkins piece. However, it is still fallacious. New Atheists do make exactly the criticism of D’Souza that Perkins implies they do not.

    Just google “god of the gaps” sometime.

  • BM

    ” On a related point, Greg Perkins, who writes at the Noodlefood blog, had a point about the big gaps in “new atheist” thinking a few years ago. ”

    Huh? That article did no such thing. It didn’t even address new atheist thinking.

  • MarkE

    And one of [the things you can’t unknow] is your God-given knowledge that there is a right and wrong

    But right and wrong are always defined in terms of humans acting in their own enlightened self interest as herd animals. “Right” tends to be actions that support the herd and thus cement the individual’s place in it; “wrong” tends to be actions that harm the herd and thus expose the individual to the risk of ostracism or exclusion.

  • John B

    Alisa. Well. Not quite.
    The kingdom of God is spiritually discerned.
    But that’s not to say it’s not there.
    In fact without His guidance I would be at a loss.

  • Matt

    he claims that all the worst atrocities have been committed by religions. This of course is not true; yet his rebuttal to those who point out the mass killings by atheists (Stalin, Pol Pot, Hitler, etc.) is to say that any ideology that kills lots of people is also a religion.

    I think Marxist-Leninism has a lot in common with religion, but it is not religion per se that should be indicted, but the belief in absolute certainty and collectivism underlying some forms of religion. When these traits are present in an ideology, whether theistic or secular, mass murder often follows.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    BM writes of Greg Perkins:

    “Huh? That article did no such thing. It didn’t even address new atheist thinking.”

    My error, I direct you to here(Link). I will update the link.

  • Indeed, John. As you say, all our perceptions are subjective – the point is being aware of that subjectivity.

  • Sarah Rolph

    “I think Marxist-Leninism has a lot in common with religion, but it is not religion per se that should be indicted, but the belief in absolute certainty and collectivism underlying some forms of religion. When these traits are present in an ideology, whether theistic or secular, mass murder often follows.”

    Exactly so. And this invalidates the essence of Harris’s argument against religion. So he pretends not to get this point, in order to continue with his lucrative religion-bashing. (Or else he is an idiot. Or both.)

  • AT

    I have found Antony Flew to be an interesting conversion case – from a truly philosophical atheist to a theist of sorts. His book There is a God recounts his journey (his father was an English Methodist minister) and the arguments which finally convinced him albeit very late in life.

  • richard40

    The problem though is not atheism, it is leftism. For example, lots of libertarians are atheists, but they dont fall for crackpot leftist economic theories, and base their economics entirely on reason and fact. It is only when religion is replaced by leftism that you have a problem.

  • BM

    Greg, I read her article and was not impressed. She apparently hasn’t read books by the new atheists, like Sam Harris. Here’s my reply:

    Diana,

    “You’ve just plagiarized Sam Harris’ book ‘End of Faith’. He argues that it is rationality vs. irrationality that matters and classifies the Marxist/Communists as irrationalists. He explicitly gives the argument that he has nothing in common with them other than non-belief, which is not a valid point of classification.

    The rest of you arguments are old hat to the new atheists. D’Souza just ignores the strong arguments and runs off on irrelevant tangents. The mistake here is listening to an idiot like D’Souza. ”

    I do find Sam Harris to be an ignoramus on issues of economics and moral theory. He’s not very well read at all. Same goes for PZ Myers. Dawkins isn’t knowledgeable in this area either. I think Hitchen’s love of socialism speaks for itself, he’s read the wrong stuff and fallen for it.

    It’s sad really. I know of no group I could proudly join. They all tend to be wrong about something or another. That includes the ones most close to my own beliefs.

  • Steven

    “It is as if they are craving a secular god to fill a gap left by the traditional one.”

    They are. It’s the State. Thank Plato for that.

    “The best ordered state will be one in which the largest number of persons … most nearly resembles a single person. The first and highest form of the State … is a condition in which the private and the individual is altogether banished from life …” (Plato’s _Republic_ & _Laws_ c. 370 BCE)

    Recommended reading: The Ominous Parallels: The End of Freedom in America, Leonard Peikoff; 1982.

    The problem is that religion usurped morality–thanks to Jedeo-Christianity, then Hume & Kant. No one today has the slighest notion of a secular morality, save one that is Hegelian or Spencerian or Benthamian or pragmatic in nature: the World Spirit, or the collective (greatest good for the greatest number) or the expedient–all of which boil down to the State–as the moral standard.

    Well, this much those advocates have in common with religion (God’s will as moral standard): both require obedience and self-destruction (self-sacrifice & selflessness).

    For an alternative that is rational and life affirming, I recommend Ayn Rand’s Objectivist ethics and the morality of rational self-interest, with man’s life as the moral standard. Man qua man. Man as rational being.

    As for the gods and ‘republiks’: Good luck with all that.

    Signed,
    A Moral Atheist

  • 'Nuke' Gray

    To boston Patriot- Ayn Rand claimed to have based her ethics on sound principles, as a science. All of her statements pre-dated the acceptance of the Big Bang as the cause of the Universe, and the idea of a universe appearing from nothing would have seemed too much like magic!

  • BM

    Boston Patriot,

    Yes, and Ayn Rand is another false choice.

  • John B

    People are believing things all the time. Or they simply would not bother to live.
    The rational basis for believing anything is not really there.
    Are we all irrational?
    No. Just rather sophisticated survival mechanisms ultimately believing whatever best furthers that end, says the rationalist.
    Ah. Do I now understand the basis of reason?

  • Brian Macker

    Ed Snack,

    I’ve read Harris and it is deserved and not selectively quoted.

    Also Harris makes dubious arguments in the areas he is a specialists in.

    Harris will make good arguments, like Ayn Rand, and like Rand don’t expect a consistent rationality.

  • Also Harris makes dubious arguments in the areas he is a specialists in.

  • Unlike several of the posters on this thread, I read both of Sam Harris’ and honestly, though I do not wholly agree with every point made by Harris, I find Sandefur’s blog to be pretentious and focused on irrelevancies, not unlike much of the libertarians on Youtube who are drunk on logic and debate skills, but who also fail to see the forest for the trees getting stuck in petty logic while missing the actual point. Here is my short rebuttal to Sandefur’s first section (there is not enough space to rebut the whole post)

    1. Sandefur goes into “left field” with his response to Harris’ statement about the “the quasi-religious abhorrence of ‘wealth redistribution’”. While Harris is simply referring to the anti-tax hysteria of the right wing these days, Sandefur thinks Harris is referring to an actual religion and when he cannot rectify the anti-tax hysteria to any actual religion he thinks he has refuted Harris’ label, but that wasn’t the point. Harris called it quasi-religious meaning like a religion not derived from a religion, and certainly, the anti-tax hysteria on the right, after witnessing the recent debt ceiling debacle is unreasonable and is quasi-religious.

    2. The next paragraph Sandefur makes an issue over Harris’ lack of clear definition of ultra-rich, but why does that matter? Any of the arbitrary levels proposed for recent progressive tax increases must be placed on practical reasons, not theoretical. There is no need for a theoretical classification of ultra-rich, so Harris never tries to. This is just another trigger happy libertarian who hasn’t left the high school debate team mentality.

    3. Sandefur rightly notes that the excessively rich do not sit on their wealth, unlike the fellow who kept 99 million in a bank account most wealthy keep their assets in investments. However, Harris’ main point is that with the level assets these wealthy have today, their personal investments are starting to come at the expense of the rest of America, while any unbiased observer can easily see that an infrastructure bank or support to the poor and unemployed in America will help more people than those personal investments in hedge funds and such.

    4. Sandefur makes an argument from a false analogy when he equates wealth, which is a quantifiable amount of assets, with non-quantifiable values such as freedom. No one person can hold on to freedom or exchange an amount of freedom to another person for a good or service. False analogies should be embarrassing for anyone who calls himself a scholar.

    5. Sandefur ends his first section with an attack on Harris’ sectionalism. While I do think the Harris does not clarify his sectionalism, instead merely asserting it, however Sandefur commits a cheap attack by ignoring the fact that the World is currently made up of Nation-States. Considering that America is a sovereign nation, at the very least, those Americans who live absolute luxury should be required to provide at least something for those Americans who cannot live such lives, after all, it is those poorer Americans who are dying daily across the world for the security of the ultra-rich. Is this member of the Cato Institute so unpatriotic so as to suggest that the investor class in America may assist the Chinese people over the American people?

  • 1… and certainly, the anti-tax hysteria on the right, after witnessing the recent debt ceiling debacle is unreasonable and is quasi-religious.

    Unreasonable? Why? How is opposing raising a debt ceiling ‘quasi-religious’ (i.e. opposing the profoundly irrational “more of the same” approach that so many statist support)? I really can’t see the unreasoning or irrational aspect here, but then I am a long time supporter of idea sovereign default is a *good* thing, not a bad thing, and the sooner and more widespread the better.

    3… while any unbiased observer can easily see that an infrastructure bank or support to the poor and unemployed in America will help more people than those personal investments in hedge funds and such.

    Unbiased? Do you realise how loaded with value judgement you points are? Sure, taking money from a few people and giving it to a larger number of people ‘will help more people’ in the crude sense of help = giving them money, but you act as if that is therefore unarguably a ‘good thing’. My view is it ain’t for all manner of reasons, both moral and utilitarian.

    4… Sandefur makes an argument from a false analogy when he equates wealth, which is a quantifiable amount of assets, with non-quantifiable values such as freedom.

    Sure, wealth does not equal freedom… however the more several wealth is confiscated by a state, the less freedom there is. State appropriations of several wealth are a fairly meaningful scale by which to measure the decline of liberty in a state, albeit not the only one of course.

    5… however Sandefur commits a cheap attack by ignoring the fact that the World is currently made up of Nation-States. Considering that America is a sovereign nation, at the very least, those Americans who live absolute luxury should be required to provide at least something for those Americans who cannot live such lives

    Your point that America is a sovereign state is relevant to what? Are you saying America is a sovereign state, therefore redistributive ‘welfare’ must follow as a consequence? Huh? Unless I misunderstand you, it seems a bit of a non sequitur.

    No one is stopping you giving your wealth charitably to anyone who you think needs it. However you are very generous with other peoples when you ‘require’ (i.e. with threats) they provide something to someone because you think deserves it.

    And strangely I find the world made up of individuals. But then I see states as something that should revolve around civil society whereas you clearly think it should be the other way around, with politics determining what people may do with their wealth.

  • How is opposing raising a debt ceiling ‘quasi-religious’

    Preferring the collapse of the US economy to any possible revenue increase is evidence of the quasi-religious fanaticism of the right-wing anti-tax movement.

    Sure, taking money from a few people and giving it to a larger number of people ‘will help more people’ in the crude sense of help = giving them money, but you act as if that is therefore unarguably a ‘good thing’. My view is it ain’t for all manner of reasons, both moral and utilitarian.

    Interesting that though you do agree that some reasonable levels of wealth redistribution will help more people, you disagree with the notion that helping more people is good. If your thinking is along the lines that the private sector help more people by creating more wealth…that is a different argument, but do you really think that helping others is not good?

    however the more several wealth is confiscated by a state, the less freedom there is.

    This is a total red herring. The issue Sandefur brought up was not a correlation of freedom with wealth, but that the same arguments for Religious Freedom apply to wealth, thus we ought have the same policies for both Religious Freedom as wealth.

    To put it another way, Jefferson defended religious liberty by saying that it does me no injury for someone to believe in one god or twenty gods or no god at all; it neither picks my pocket not breaks my leg. It’s therefore not my business or the government’s. The same is true of Warren Buffett having billions.

    However, the same is not true of wealth. Wealth correlates with the power to create goods and services, and even influence over the state, so Warren Buffet’s billions affects you and me orders of magnitudes greater than his opinion on the existence of gods.

    Are you saying America is a sovereign state, therefore redistributive ‘welfare’ must follow as a consequence? Huh? Unless I misunderstand you, it seems a bit of a non sequitur.

    Huh? Did you read Sandefur’s original post?

    it’s hard to see his point here: what’s wrong with investing in China? Doesn’t that “create jobs” there? Isn’t that “spreading the wealth” to people who really need it? It seems that Harris’ assumptions about the justification of wealth aren’t just collectivist, but nationalist as well: the wealth should create value for others—but not for Chinese others!

    Like it or not we are a nation-state, and if the millionaires and billionaires wish to be protected by this nation’s military, then they should at the very least help out those suffering within this nation first. It blows my mind that the same people from whom the extreme right-wing Tea Partiers look to for philosophic guidance are those who would oppose Patriotism. And note that my Nationalism would not lead to murderous wars, but a little extra help for those who desperately need it.

  • Preferring the collapse of the US economy to any possible revenue increase is evidence of the quasi-religious fanaticism of the right-wing anti-tax movement.

    The notion that the collapse of the US state’s ability to cover its debts would lead to the collapse of the US economy is laughable. Sovereign default would lead to the collapse of the US government’s ability to borrow money. But the US government is not the same thing as the US economy. You may not agree with that contention (although I would love to hear why) but there is a great deal of Austrian economic theory behind my notion, so it is hardly ‘religious’.

    Interesting that though you do agree that some reasonable levels of wealth redistribution will help more people, you disagree with the notion that helping more people is good

    I think you misunderstand my point: I was suggesting that giving people other people’s money is only ‘helping’ them in the euphemistically sense of the term ‘help’… as in a mugger is ‘helped’ by talking money from the person he mugs. Well yeah. In truth people are better off when severalty is respected but of course that actually requires so much engagement with messy reality that many people prefer to use force to just take what they see euphemistically as ‘help’ from other people. Some people become muggers and others do it by voting and deputising someone else to do the mugging.

    However, the same is not true of wealth. Wealth correlates with the power to create goods and services, and even influence over the state, so Warren Buffet’s billions affects you and me orders of magnitudes greater than his opinion on the existence of gods.

    In one sense we agree on this point: wealth can give a person more influence over the state. But that is not an argument against allowing wealth, it is an argument against allowing states to accumulate too much power and therefore be used wealthy people… or mobs of less wealthy people… to manipulate the state in their favour. It is a compelling argument for stronger constitutional (and other) limits on state power. Warren Buffett is a rent seeking swine and sawing off some of the levers of power so he, or ANYONE ELSE, cannot manipulate them is a very worthy objective.

    Huh? Did you read Sandefur’s original post?

    Yes, but I was addressing *your* point that if the USA is a sovereign state it follows as a logical consequence that rich people must be forced to give money to less rich people, as if it is simply axiomatic that states exist for that reason.

    Like it or not we are a nation-state, and if the millionaires and billionaires wish to be protected by this nation’s military, then they should at the very least help out those suffering within this nation first.

    Well surely if they want to be protected by the military, they should contribute to the cost of the military rather than to redistributive ‘welfare’. Your point strikes me as a non-sequitur.

    It blows my mind that the same people from whom the extreme right-wing Tea Partiers look to for philosophic guidance are those who would oppose Patriotism.

    Well I am am certainly someone who has no time for ‘patriotism‘. States are at best a necessary ‘nightwatchman’ but the momemt they become more than that, ie they do not content themselves with defending against foreign armies, brigands, fires and plagues, they tend to be functionally indistinguishable from mafia protection rackets, steadily imposing themselves into almost everything you do. To be ‘patriotic’ towards any state which has moved beyond a nightwatchman function is to accept acts as moral when imposed collectively that which is immoral individually and that is a serious error.

    But I agree that trading with China is a Very Good Thing and it has lifted a vast swathe of humanity out of abject poverty. But people-in-China are not the same thing as the Chinese state and it is the Chinese *state* which is holding all that US Government Paper… and that is not such a good thing. If the US State is monstrous (as are most states), the Chinese state is even worse.

    It is not people in the US trading with people in China that is the problem, it is US state debt being bought by the Chinese state and the interest being used to (in effect) fund their military.

  • Brian Macker

    “Well surely if they want to be protected by the military, they should contribute to the cost of the military rather than to redistributive ‘welfare’. Your point strikes me as a non-sequitur.”

    Strikes?