Friday, May 4, 2007

He's back...

Looks like Andrew Sullivan can't leave Sam Harris alone.

You thought that the Sam Harris and Andrew Sullivan debate was over after Andrew said that it was time to end it and Sam agreed? If you did, you were wrong. Andrew's back with a new love plea aimed at Sam called "Pax Christi."

Andrew first points to core issues they agree on:
We both accept the role of some mystery in the universe, something we cannot yet explain, something humans may never be able to explain rationally. You air this at the end of your book, "The End Of Faith," where you describe your own Buddhist experimenting and meditation. We also both accept the danger of fundamentalism. In many ways, both our books are aimed at fundamentalist politics, and the existential peril it threatens in an age when the technological capacity for mass destruction is world-threatening.

Andrew next points to two issues they disagree on:
... how best to understand mystery and how best to counter fundamentalism.

Sam had wrote:
You want to have things both ways: your faith is reasonable but not in the least bound by reason; it is a matter of utter certainty, yet leavened by humility and doubt; you are still searching for the truth, but your belief in God is immune to any conceivable challenge from the world of evidence. I trust you will ascribe these antinomies to the paradox of faith; but, to my eye, they remain mere contradictions, dressed up in velvet.

Andrew claims that he really is bound by reason but only up to the point where reason tells us little or nothing at all. What Andrew fails to understand is that the only thing you can say when reason can tell you nothing is "I don't know." All you've really got left without reason is hope, not faith. Religious faith takes an extra and irrational jump that defies reason. Real faith, which is not religious, has to be earned by those who want our faith. It's just like Sam said, Andrew offers only "contradictions, dressed up in velvet."

Andrew is claiming to have a source of information that goes beyond reason, but he cannot provide evidence that this source has ever given anyone else accurate or tested information. In fact, his supposed two sources of information are flawed because they are the same source used to make a lot of wrong assertions, the Bible and religious experience. That's having faith in something that goes against reason.

Andrew claims:
We may disagree where that boundary is. There is more space beyond my reasonable barrier than yours, more content, more meaning.


Andrew has failed to demonstrate any such extra content or meaning or space. It's an empty, unsupported claim and his religion is still just institutionalized, dogmatic Christianity that merely arises out of an, at least partly, unquestioned tradition.

I do not claim that my faith must in any way impinge on your life or on anyone else's...


That's nice. It's at least something we can live with in peace. I could also live in peace with any Muslim who adopted the same philosophy. It is still not, however, something that can go unchallenged by rational investigation. Andrew's writing evidences exactly the kind of irrationality he claims not to have.

I fail to see how my Christianity is less reasonable than your different, and more modest embrace of mystery.


Then Andrew simply fails to see the obvious which Sam has pointed out over and over again. Andrew's blinders are remarkable in that regard.

Andrew also quotes Einstein's dictum:
"Try and penetrate with our limited means the secrets of nature and you will find that, behind all the discernible laws and connections, there remains something subtle, intangible and inexplicable. Veneration for this force beyond anything that we can comprehend is my religion. To that extent I am, in fact, religious."


The "religion" of Einstein does not endorse any dogma, it really is the mystery as opposed to Andrew's irrational hope in a loving skydaddy he calls faith. Einstein did not have faith in a Bible, dogma, or believe in life after death.

I am more religious than Einstein, because I have experienced the love of Jesus and his redemptive, transformative power.


That statement doesn't hold water for this reason: Love from anyone, redemption and transformation are all rather abstract yet emotionally loaded forms of information. A raw experience cannot give you that kind of information without being heavily interpreted. An example, an African tribesman and an anthropologist, the tribesman says that he knows there are demons because he has experienced them, and in fact he's experiencing one at that very moment. The anthropologist asks, "What is the experience like?" The tribesman says, "I can feel the demon pounding away inside my skull." So, the anthropologist gives the tribesman some aspirin and the demon appears to go away. What is an experience of a demon to the tribesman is just a headache to the anthropologist. The experience was not proof of the tribesman's conclusion.

[By the way, I think that story about the tribesman and the anthropologist comes from George H. Smith, not Sam Harris or Dawkins. Smith was an earlier atheist author who never got the kind of recognition Dawkins or Harris has yet probably deserves more.]

In 1903, French physicist René-Prosper Blondlot, working at the University of Nancy, thought he discovered a new form of radiation. He called them N-rays, for the University of Nancy. Several other physicists claimed to be able to detect N-rays after reading about Blondlot's supposed discovery. Other physicists working to replicate the effects failed. Lord Kelvin, William Crookes, Otto Lummer and Heinrich Rubens failed to do so. Following his own failure, US physicist Robert W. Wood went to Blondlot's lab in France to investigate further. There Wood secretly removed an essential prism from Blondlot's detection apparatus, yet Blondlot's people still said they observed N-rays. Wood reported on this in the September 29, 1904 edition of Nature and suggested that N-rays were a purely subjective phenomenon, with the scientists involved having reported only subjective data that matched their expectations. By 1905 no one outside Nancy believed in N rays.

The incident is now a cautionary tale among scientists on the dangers of experimenter bias. Blondlot and the others deceived themselves into thinking they were seeing something when in fact they were not. They saw what they wanted to see with their instruments, not what was actually there. The Blondlot episode illustrates the human fallibility of scientists and the self-correcting nature of science.

Science, these days, has become systematic in its attempt to get around these limitations. We try to remove subjectivity and purely personal experience from the scientific process. We have "Double blind experiments," lots instrumentation recording everything and doctors are advised not to diagnose people they're emotionally involved with. Instead of trying to achieve any similar kind of objectivity, Andrew just wallows in his subjectivity and ambiguity and so called "paradox."

If you know anything about psychology, you know that the human brain is a powerful simulation engine. Your brain conjures up dreams almost every night of things that never existed. We all go temporarily insane and delusional in our dreams. And the dreams, if you're not a lucid dreamer, are experiences that feel real when having them. We only believe them simulations of a fantasy world inside our heads after we wake up. When we get a dream-like event happening in our waking lives some people might call it a vision of God or say "God talks to me."

Our normal perceptions do not correspond directly to reality. The things that we perceive are not entirely determined by what our senses detect. Our perceptions are also determined by what we expect, what we know, what we believe.

Andrew's claim that he has experienced the love of Jesus and his redemptive, transformative power is exactly the kind of thing a fundamentalist's would say. They'd call an experience like that being born again the first time it happened. Andrew thus offers to the stupid and potentially violent strain of fundamentalism that he opposes a kind of endorsement of unexamined experience as a valid means of gaining "knowledge."

He is irrational as long as he endorses such emotionally loaded subjective experiences as a source of information on anything other than the state of his own brain.

Fundamentalist religion is on the march, its certainty dangerous, its ambitions terrifying, its capacity for destruction incalculable.

That same fundamentalist religion is rooted in the same "beyond reason" argument Andrew has.

In my more realistic moments, I have come to accept the inevitability of large-scale global destruction in my lifetime.

It's not actually necessary except for human stupidity. The Islamic terrorists cannot possibly win; they're acting in a suicidal and stupid way. Bush taking out whole states trying to get a few people within them is like using a cancer drug that also destroys healthy tissue. We should get better drugs now that we know the disease exists. We should be able to get into foriegn lands and extract only the quilty leaving the rest of the country intact.

Islamists are not only capable of inflicting Armageddon, they clearly want to. They are not subject to intimidation, which is what makes religious faith at its most intense so powerful. They cannot even be stopped by force. We have learned that in Iraq. Bullets cannot change hearts. It is so easy to destroy; it is so hard to build.

And there is it, your basic Republican fear mongering. I bet those Muslims are saying the same thing about America.

Your answer to this crisis is an attempt to abolish the legitimacy of all faith-based discourse, to end the toleration for religiously-rooted argument, to "end faith."

There's that word "abolish" again. More fear mongering against us. Did Sam ever use that word "abolish" himself?

… by attacking and undermining those of us who sustain a non-fundamentalist faith, you may make the problem worse.


Really? How is it any worse than just having yet another religion on the planet? Are we somehow too convincing?

The irredentist and fundamentalist remnants, freed from any internal religious discourse with the rest of us, and cordoned off from respectable discourse, may well become even more extreme.


And what kind of productive internal religious discourse is Andrew engaged in with people like Dobson, Robertson, bin Laden...? Is Andrew any better at convincing those with other views than Sam?

Convinced that the choice is solely between fundamentalism and atheism, the vast majority of believers will then be trapped perforce in the fundamentalist camp.


Andrew's facts are wrong, the fundies must be coming from Andrew's moderate camp, not ours, because the stats point to moderates losing ground while both atheism and fundamentalists gain.

Here's some data, "WHY THE GODS ARE NOT WINNING," by Gregory Paul & Phil Zuckerman.

In general, moderate, liberal, churches are shrinking while atheism and fundamentalism gain converts and in general, the relative increase goes to atheists and Muslims. The Muslims are gaining more through just giving birth to more Muslims, while the atheists are doing all most all of the converting. The old religions can only indoctrinate children.

Given the ubiquity of faith, given the absence of any civilization in human history that has been free of it, given the evolutionary and biological inclination toward faith, given the respect that a man even as rational as Einstein paid to the "veneration" of the force beyond all of us, your project is absurdly utopian. And like many utopians, you may, I fear, be making hell on earth more likely.


Andrew is using the same straw-man argument he got called on before in projecting goals onto Sam. Certainly, the urge toward religious belief is very old, perhaps as old as mankind and allusions to religious belief can be found even in the traces of the most ancient civilizations. But there is something else in that evidence – a continual evolution and change in religion as it has to adapt to new knowledge and circumstances. Atheism really is the only rational adaptation of religion to modern scientific knowledge.

… several experiments in atheist and rationalist government were indeed carried out. You may recall the guillotine - synonymous with the dawn of the rational Enlightenment.


Yea, so? France is still here, it's a nice place now, and it's fairly atheistic. Does Andrew think there should have been no French revolution? Does he also think there should have been no American revolution?

Religion was also extirpated by force in the Soviet Union and Communist China; it was coopted by the state in Nazi Germany; in Pol Pot's Cambodia, the record of atheism in contrast with religion is quite clear.


Is it? The Soviet Union overthrew the Czars. Should they have remained under the Czars and stayed one of the most backward countries in Europe? And when the next change came, and the wall came down – not a shot was fired. At least those deadly atheists had enemies worth fighting, can Andrew say the same about the Inquisition's enemies? And why does Andrew leave out how Americans almost exterminated the Indians? Why does he leave out Darfur where religious groups war? Rwanda? Sudan? And so many other mass killings going on that are not atheistic?

It seems Andrew doesn't bother to read the links he puts up on his blog. I recall Andrew linking Pinker's article, "A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE."

In spite of the big atrocities Andrew lists, violence is actually way down according to Pinker:
In the decade of Darfur and Iraq, and shortly after the century of Stalin, Hitler, and Mao, the claim that violence has been diminishing may seem somewhere between hallucinatory and obscene. Yet recent studies that seek to quantify the historical ebb and flow of violence point to exactly that conclusion.
Some of the evidence has been under our nose all along. Conventional history has long shown that, in many ways, we have been getting kinder and gentler. Cruelty as entertainment, human sacrifice to indulge superstition, slavery as a labor-saving device, conquest as the mission statement of government, genocide as a means of acquiring real estate, torture and mutilation as routine punishment, the death penalty for misdemeanors and differences of opinion, assassination as the mechanism of political succession, rape as the spoils of war, pogroms as outlets for frustration, homicide as the major form of conflict resolution—all were unexceptionable features of life for most of human history. But, today, they are rare to nonexistent in the West, far less common elsewhere than they used to be, concealed when they do occur, and widely condemned when they are brought to light.

… choice to focus on relative rather than absolute numbers brings up the moral imponderable of whether it is worse for 50 percent of a population of 100 to be killed or 1 percent in a population of one billion.


Andrew claims:
The relevant categories are therefore not, I would submit, faith and reason. The categories are those who rely on reason alone, those who use faith to trump reason in all respects, and those who understand that human life is inherently a balance between the two.


There is no such thing as a person, at least one who isn't psycho, who uses "faith to trump reason in all respects." Even the worst of fundies and terrorist try to balance reason and faith. It's a battle between ancient superstitions versus modern reason.

Your faith-free world is not a human one;


Is Andrew saying Sam and me are not human? Isn't that called "dehumanization?"

…and it is not in that sense a rational one. My response is a balance, a triangulation of sorts. And a triangulation is not a contradiction.


Triangulation, well, yea, like Bush trying to weasel his way around the stem cell debate and getting his facts wrong about the stem lines. Andrew's facts are wrong. Atheism is growing in Europe and the religion that does exist there is getting vaguer and abandoning the Bible. The group that's being recruited from is Andrew's moderate group.

But the second and deeper response is Christianity itself, at the core of which is a radical refusal to force anyone to do anything.


Really? No burning heretics like Giordano Bruno at the stake, no Inquisition, no putting Galileo under arrest, no crusades, no witch burning? Why, because Andrew Sullivan, after almost 2000 years of his Church forcing everyone to say what the Church wants, has finally figured out what Christianity is about, and it's the opposite of what the Church has been about:

That is what the cross means to me: voluntary submission to violence as the only way to transcend violence; submission to death as the sole means to overcome death.


That's right Andrew; go singing to meet your death as lion food in the Roman circus.

Jesus was not speaking to his generation. He was speaking to the future. He was speaking to us, …


He was speaking to Andrew personally about Andrew's blogging?

That does not preclude self-defense.


But other things Jesus said do preclude it, such as “But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil.” (Jesus, Matthew 5: 39)

I am not a pacifist. I believe in just wars when necessary and a strong defense to deter mischief. I supported Clinton's war in the Balkans and Bush's war in Afghanistan and, at first, in Iraq.


Then Andrew is contradicting himself. All people who endorse wars say "only when necessary." The problem is figuring out what necessary is.

…our preference for material gain over spiritual calm.


Like the spiritual calm and gentle voice of Osama bin Laden?

Instinctively, I am a realist. I know the odds of surviving this with our civilization intact are low.


That's not realism. That's the worst kind of pessimism and fear mongering. We've killed more people in car accidents than the terrorists have killed over the same period.

3 comments:

Scholar said...

Norm, people have (often) said that atheists are just as bad as a fundamentalists. ie atheists "believe" that God doesn't exist. I fall into this catagory, I think.

Do you know any snappy response to that?

normdoering said...

snappy response:

So, you're agnostic about unicorns, Zeus and mermaids -- right?

apostate said...

Norm, marry me.