Posts Tagged ‘Religion Terror and the Future of Reason’

Video of William Lane Craig’s misrepresentation of Sam Harris during and after their debate on morality

03/02/2014

Further to my posts reviewing the debate on morality between atheist Sam Harris and Christian apologist William Lane Craig, together with Craig’s distortions of Harris’ written work, nooneleftalivekibo has cited my first post in the above video, for which I am grateful and flattered.

Having watched a few nooneleftalivekibo’s other videos, I recommend those that expose Craig’s misrepresentation and quote-mining of Stephen Law, Michael Ruse and Stephen Hawking.

Hitchens and Grayling debate ‘Among The Dead Cities’

29/12/2013

FORA TV link

I recently placed this debate in “The Good” section of my three-part post of all of Hitchens’ formal television and radio debates, but now after a recent third viewing, I am wondering whether it should have gone in “The Great” section.  The late Christopher Hitchens, journalist, author, public intellectual and polemist, debates British philosopher and author A C Grayling on the latter’s book on the morality of deliberately aiming bombs at civilians during wartime within the context of World War II, Among The Dead Cities: Is The Targeting Of Civilians In War Ever Justified? [London: Bloomsbury Publishing plc, 2007] at the Goethe Institute, Washington on 20 April 2006.

Grayling’s argument

Tellingly, the title of Grayling’s book is derived from an Allied report at the war’s end regarding a suitable venue to hold the trials of Nazi war criminals.  While acknowledging that the Second World War was a “just war” against a truly evil enemy and the greatest mistake the Allies could possibly have made would have been to lose it, Grayling brushes aside the atrocities of the Axis that have attracted the most attention since the War’s conclusion and focuses on whether the Allies’ area bombing campaign against German and Japanese cities constituted a war crime under the guidelines set out at the post-war Nuremburg Trials.

Grayling even dismisses the argument that the Allies were justified in taking such action as a means of retaliation as it was the Germans who bombed the Allies’ civilians first.  Although he does not use the school yard retort in so many words, it is a rather apt summary of his position: two wrongs don’t make a right.  Just because the Nazis carried out a campaign of sterilisation, eugenics and genocide against peoples who were unfortunate enough not to be in their favour, the Allies would scarcely have been vindicated in taking such action against the Germans at the end of the war.

Grayling concludes that the Allies’ deliberate targeting of civilians on the enemy side by area bombing of Germany and Japan and the dropping of the atomic bombs by America on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was not only a crime against humanity in moral terms, but that it did not even have the desired strategic effect of hindering the enemy war effort by destroying their workforce, supplies, munitions and lines of communication and shattering the moral of their civilian population so as to make their governments sue for peace or surrender  unconditionally.

Hitchens’ response

While Hitchens’ speech is not the kind of soaring and swirling grandstanding that we were used to from his debates on religion; repeated viewings reveal it to be among his very best.  His exposition of the Jewish-born/Protestant-convert Victor Klemperer’s diary of the Third Reich, I Shall Bear Witness, among other obscure tracts, reminds me of revealing the real joys of being a public intellectual, when commenting on the death of Susan Sontag, showing how committed, well-read and intelligent he was with his in-depth knowledge of texts that 99.9% of the population have never even heard of, much less have the time, energy or motivation to read:

Between the word “public” and the word “intellectual” there falls, or ought to fall, a shadow.  The life of the cultivated mind should be private, reticent, discreet: Most of its celebrations will occur with no audience, because there can be no applause for that moment when the solitary reader gets up and paces round the room, having just noticed the hidden image in the sonnet, or the profane joke in the devotional text, or the secret message in the prison diaries.  Individual pleasure of this kind is only rivalled when the same reader turns into a writer, and after a long wrestle until daybreak hits on his or her own version of the mot juste, or the unmasking of pretension, or the apt, latent literary connection, or the satire upon tyranny.

Although Hitchens broadly agrees with Grayling that the actions of the Allies were awful, as were some of their motives – they bombed the German cities firstly, because they could and secondly, to impress Josef Stalin whose Red Army was fast advancing on the Third Reich from the East and who could well have been the Allies’ enemy in a third world war once the second was out of the way – he stops short of calling the bombing campaign an atrocity or a war crime.  The Second World War was a truly exceptional example and Germany’s defeat had to be final, total, utter and annihilating.  There could be no repeat of what happened after 1918 with speculation about what might have happened if Germany had hung on a little longer and the Jews had not conspired against them.

Drawing on Klemperer’s diaries, Hitchens paints an astonishing image of the morning after the night of the bombing of Dresden (which, thanks to unusually favourable climate conditions “worked too well”), when Klemperer and his wife who were about to be shipped off to the death camps that very day, emerged from their shelters, saw that not one brick was piled on top of another, and so tore off the yellow stars from their clothing.

Hitler’s Willing Executioners?

Hitchens begins his speech by applauding Germany’s courage for facing up to its record during World War II and refers to Daniel Jonah Goldhagen’s controversial Hitler’s Willing Executioners, which argued that the Germans were genetically predisposed to carry out the Holocaust, as a “defamation” to the character of the German people.   He reviewed the book in conjunction with reporting on what sounded like an intellectual public raping of Goldhagen by a pair of older and wiser historians of the period shortly after the book’s publication:

Having immersed myself in this volume for a weekend, I am eager to ask one big question that cries to heaven for an answer.  It is this: Who on earth does Goldhagen think he is arguing with?  He comes to tell us there was a good deal of state- and church-sponsored anti-Semitism in German culture.  He adds that the Nazis made great use of Jew hatred in their propaganda.  He goes on to say that many Germans took part in beatings, killings, and roundups not because they were coerced but because they liked the idea.  He announces that not many Germans resisted the persecution of their Jewish countrymen.

Excuse me, but I knew this and so did you.  Moreover, the sarcastic phrase about “obeying orders” is not even a well-known explanation, only a well-known excuse.  All the way through Goldhagen’s presentation, which is one tautology piled on another, I wait to make my point.  And then the two big scholars present come to the podium with their comments, and I realize I have been wasting my time.

Sophomoric, meretricious, unoriginal, unhistorical, a product of media hype by Knopf (the book’s publisher), contradictory, repetitive, callow…  I’m just giving you the gist of what they said about Hitler’s Willing Executioners. It must have been quite an ordeal for Goldhagen, who looks about 12, to sit through this kind of thing from revered seniors.

Ouch.

Interestingly, Grayling too commented on the “questionable character of scholarship” that was Hitler’s Willing Executioners in Among The Dead Cities [p. 166].  He mentions he reviewed the book for the Financial Times when it was first published, although I have been unable to find it online.  However, I have found that of Richard John Neuhaus, which Grayling cites in the endnotes:

After Hitler and because of Hitler, six million fewer Jews remained. In the fifty years since, many Christians and some Jews have come to understand much more deeply the sources of what Rosenzweig terms the enmity and the bond between us.  The Jewish question remains because, thank God, Jews remain. In America, too, there are anti-Semites who propose solutions, if not a “final solution,” to the Jewish question.  They are and, please God, will continue to be a fringe phenomenon.  Much more important, we in America, Jews and Christians, have the singular responsibility and opportunity to work out a way of remaining together in mutual respect and unquestioned security.  For that common task we receive no help whatever from the incoherent, hateful, and dishonest tract that is Hitler’s Willing Executioners.

Terrorism by another means?

What really makes Hitchens’ blood boil – to the extent that it “disfigures” the book – is Grayling’s comparison of the Allied bombing and the 9/11 attacks by al-Qaeda; having spent the preceding four and a half years quarrelling with former friends on the Left that Osama Bin Laden lead a group of people who had a legitimate grievance against the United States for their misadventures abroad.  This is the “offending passage” from Among The Dead Cities in full (Hitchens quoted the first paragraph at the end of his opening speech):

A surprise attack on a civilian population aimed at causing maximum hurt, shock, disruption, and terror: there comes to seem very little difference in principle between the RAF’s Operation Gomorrah, or the USAAF’s atom bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the destruction of the World Trade Center in New York by terrorists on 11 September 2001.  And this latter, prescinding from differences in scale and drama of the target, is no different in turn from terrorist bombings carried out in Madrid by Basque separatists or in London by the IRA.  All these terrorist attacks are atrocities, consisting of deliberate mass murder of civilians to hurt and coerce the society in which they belong to.  To say that the principle underlying ‘9/11’, Hamburg and Hiroshima is the same is to say that the same moral judgement applies to all three.

No doubt these will be unduly provocative comparisons.  It can be pointed out that the Allied bombings were carried out in time of declared war, in which offensive comparisons are in effect a form of defensive operation, given that the enemy will seek to do the same if given an opportunity; whereas Pearl Harbor and 9/11 were perfidious attacks on unprepared targets, the first military, the second civilian.

This point is a good one, for there is indeed a difference here, though some will attempt to make it a debating point whether those who carry out terrorist attacks believe that they are at war and that their offence is in the same way a form of pre-emptive defence.  Very well: grant the difference; yet focus on the net effect.  In all these cases the centre-piece is an attack on a civilian population aimed at causing maximum hurt, shock, disruption and terror.  This is what these events have in common, whether in the midst of declared war or not, and so far as this core point is concerned, adjustments of fine moral calibration are at best irrelevant.  All such attacks are moral atrocities [pp. 278 – 279].

Grayling gave a lengthy account of his elaborative reply to Hitchens in the postscript to my paperback edition:

The 9/11 point is a different matter.  Those who have most belligerently opposed the comparison, such as Christopher Hitchens, are right to point out that whereas World War II area bombing occurred in the middle of a declared war between states whose military forces were engaged in combat to the death, the 9/11 attacks were acts of terrorism carried out not by one state against another but an egregiously nasty private organisation with no interest in anything other than the unrestrained furtherance of its agenda.  I grant this, and indeed all other differences, and acknowledge that there is no moral equivalence between Allied military endeavours against the Nazi and Japanese regimes, and the 9/11 attacks, both taken on their own inclusive terms.  Instead I argued that in one crucial respect – one respect only – there is a dismaying similarity between area bombing and terrorist bombings: namely, that they both seek to coerce a people by blowing up as many of them as possible and thereby terrorising and demoralising the rest.  In this single respect, all acts of mass murder are indeed morally equivalent: and their equivalence lies in their being great wrongs.  That was my point; and I adhere to it, because it is surely a profoundly educative one, since it allows one to make a simple but profound emotional connection between one’s horror at the 9/11 attacks in which 3000 people died in a single atrocity, to one’s horror at the deaths of ten and perhaps sometimes twenty times as many in each of the bombings of such places as Hamburg, Dresden, Tokyo, Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  This way of grasping the purport of what area bombing meant, really meant, is vital to making a difference to how we behave and what we accept today in the conduct of conflicts.  There is nothing abstract or theoretical about the mass murder in which bombing consists: it is real and terrible, and anything that drives the point home has its place in the debate, for in the end the effect on victims, and the atrocity of the act, are indeed one and the same in all cases – in this one crucial, central respect [pp. 292 – 293].

I find it very difficult to take a side in this argument between Hitchens and Grayling; I can well understand both men’s point of view.  Ultimately, I am more sympathetic to Hitchens’ stance by the breadth of a cigarette paper and I am glad that Grayling ruled out the drawing of moral equivalences.  Yes, it was a truly awful thing that the Allies did to the Axis countries in World War II and I would be loathed to defend it for one moment.  However, we were fighting a truly awful enemy who would have visited the same devastation on us a thousand-fold given the opportunity and – as Hitchens pointed out in the debate – the only thing more awful than an Axis defeat would have been an Axis victory.

“Perfect weapons”

I am reminded of Sam Harris’ discussion of the philosophy of “perfect weapons” and the morality of collateral damage in The End Of Faith.  I have posted an edited version of the relevant passage in my previous post (before this post spirals even more out of control!), but in summary, Harris answers those on the Left like Noam Chomsky who compared the America to its enemies in moral terms with the philosophical device of a “perfect weapon”.  If there existed a “perfect weapon” that killed/impaired/destroyed only its intended military targets and did not cause any “collateral damage” by killing or injuring innocent civilians and destroying their homes, would America make use of such a weapon in waging war in Afghanistan and Iraq in the 21st Century?  Most certainly, it would.  Would America’s enemies in the Middle East use such a weapon?  Most certainly, they would not.  This is as clear and concise a distinction between moral intentions and sheer “body count” as I have ever found.

As Harris himself said in his 2007 debate against left-leaning journalist, commentator and author, Chris Hedges, when pressed by moderator Robert Scheer as to whether there was a “fundamental moral difference” between Islamist suicide bombing and the Allies’ tactics during World War II, that we could not fight war like we did in World War II.  We have learned the terrible lessons of such actions before “going casually onto the battlefield”.

Most certainly the Allied commanders in World War II (not to mention Nixon and Kissinger in the Vietnam War) would not have made use of “perfect weapons” to wage war against the enemy.  Neither would America’s and Israel Islamic foes in the 21st Century.  However, Bush and Obama most certainly would.

And that is a good thing.

Sam Harris on ‘Perfect Weapons’ and the morality of ‘Collateral Damage’

29/12/2013

EndOfFaithCoverMy next post will be an analysis of Christopher Hitchens and A C Grayling’s 2006 debate on Among The Dead Cities: Is The Targeting Of Civilians In War Ever Justified?.  The closing paragraphs of that post cite Sam Harris’ discussion of the philosophy of “perfect weapons” and collateral damage in The End Of Faith.   So that my post on the Hitchens/Grayling debate does not spiral out of control any more than it already has, I have posted an edited version of the passage below.  (H/T: Otto Spijkers and Nick Li on Invisible College Blog for typing out and publishing most of it, so I didn’t have to!)

The End Of Faith: Religion, Terror And The Future Of Reason [London: Simon & Schuster UK Ltd, 2006] pp. 142 – 147:

Perfect Weapons and the Ethics of “Collateral Damage”

What we euphemistically describe as “collateral damage” in times of war is the direct result of limitations in the power and precision of our technology.  To see that this is so, we need only imagine how any of our recent conflicts would have looked if we had possessed perfect weapons – weapons that allowed us either to temporarily impair or to kill a particular person, or group, at any distance, without harming others or their property.  What would we do with such technology?  Pacifists would refuse to use it, despite the variety of monsters currently loose in the world: the killers and torturers of children, the genocidal sadists, the men who, for want of the right genes, the right upbringing, or the right ideas, cannot possibly be expected to live peacefully with the rest of us.  I will say a few things about pacifism in a later chapter – for it seems to me to be a deeply immoral position that comes to us swaddled in the dogma of highest moralism – but most of us are not pacifists.  Most of us would elect to use weapons of this sort.  A moment’s thought reveals that a person’s use of such a weapon would offer a perfect window onto the soul of his ethics.

Consider the all too facile comparisons that have recently been made between George Bush and Saddam Hussein (or Osama bin Laden, or Hitler, etc.) – in the pages of writers like [Arundhati] Roy and [Noam] Chomsky, in the Arab press, and in classrooms throughout the free world.  How would George Bush have prosecuted the recent war in Iraq with perfect weapons?  Would he have targeted the thousands of Iraqi civilians who were maimed or killed by our bombs?  Would he have put out the eyes of little girls or torn the arms from their mothers?  Whether or not you admire the man’s politics – or the man – there is no reason to think that he would have sanctioned the injury or death of even a single innocent person.  What would Saddam Hussein or Osama bin Laden do with perfect weapons?  What would Hitler have done?  They would have used them rather differently.

It is time for us to admit that not all cultures are at the same stage of moral development. . .

Consider the horrors that Americans perpetrated as recently as 1968 [during the Vietnam War], at My Lai: . . .

(…)

This is about as bad as human beings are capable of behaving.  But what distinguishes us from many of our enemies is that this indiscriminate violence appalls us.  The massacre at My Lai is remembered as a signature moment of shame for the American military.  Even at the time, US soldiers were dumbstruck with horror by the behaviour of their comrades.  One helicopter pilot who arrived on the scene ordered his subordinates to use their machine guns against their own troops if they did not stop killing villagers.  As a culture we have clearly outgrown our tolerance for the deliberate torture and murder of innocents.  We would do well to realize that much of the world has not.

(…)

Any systematic approach to ethics, or to understanding the necessary underpinnings of a civil society, will find many Muslims are standing eye deep in the red barbarity of the fourteenth century.  There are undoubtedly historical and cultural reasons for this, and enough blame to go around, but we should not ignore the fact that we must now confront whole societies whose moral and political development – in their treatment of women and children, in their prosecution of war, in their approach to criminal justice, and in their very intuitions about what constitutes cruelty – lags behind our own.  This may seem like an unscientific and potentially racist thing to say, but it is neither.  It is not in the least racist, since it is not at likely that there are biological reasons for the disparities here, and it is unscientific only because science has not yet addressed the moral sphere in a systematic way.  Come back in a hundred years, and if we haven’t returned to living in caves and killing each other with clubs, we will have some scientifically astute things to say about ethics.  Any honest witness to current events will realize that there is no moral equivalence between the kind of force civilized democracies project in the world, warts and all, and the internecine violence that is perpetrated by Muslim militants, or indeed by Muslim governments.  Chomsky seems to think that the disparity either does not exist or runs the other way.

Consider the recent conflict in Iraq: If the situation had been reversed, what are the chances that the Iraqi Republican Guard, attempting to execute a regime change on the Potomac, would have taken the same degree of care to minimize civilian casualties?  What are the chances that Iraqi forces would have been deterred by our use of human shields?  (What are the chances we would have used human shields?)  What are the chances that a routed American government would have called for its citizens to volunteer to be suicide bombers?  What are the chances that Iraqi soldiers would have wept upon killing a carload of American civilians at a checkpoint unnecessarily?  You should have, in the ledger of your imagination, a mounting column of zeros.

Nothing in Chomsky’s account acknowledges the difference between intending to kill a child, because of the effect you hope to produce on its parents (we call this “terrorism”), and inadvertently killing a child in an attempt to capture or kill an avowed child murderer (we call this “collateral damage”).  In both cases a child has died, and in both cases it is a tragedy.  But the ethical status of the perpetrators, be they individuals or states, could hardly be more distinct.  Chomsky might object that to knowingly place the life of a child in jeopardy is unacceptable in any case, but clearly this is not a principle we can follow.  The makers of roller coasters know, for instance, that despite rigorous safety precautions, sometime, somewhere, a child will be killed by one of their contraptions.  Makers of automobiles know this as well.  So do makers of hockey sticks, baseball bats, plastic bags, swimming pools, chain-link fences, or nearly anything else that could conceivably contribute to the death of a child.  There is a reason we do not refer to the inevitable deaths of children on our ski slopes as “skiing atrocities.”  But you would not know this from reading Chomsky.  For him, intentions do not seem to matter.  Body count is all.

We are now living in a world that can no longer tolerate well-armed, malevolent regimes.  Without perfect weapons, collateral damage – the maiming and killing of innocent people – is unavoidable.  Similar suffering will be imposed on still more innocent people because of our lack of perfect automobiles, airplanes, antibiotics, surgical procedures, and window glass.  If we want to draw conclusions about ethics – as well as make predictions about what a given person or society will do in the future – we cannot ignore human intentions.  Where ethics are concerned, intentions are everything.

Sam Harris: It Is Always Now

10/11/2013

Sam Harris has recently invited the World’s YouTube auteurs to create a montage based on an audio file of his first rebuttal from his debate on morality against Christian apologist/hack/con artist William Lane Craig in 2011.

The above video is taken from Harris’ speech at the 2012 Global Atheist Convention in Melbourne called “Death and the Present Moment”, and is a soothing meditation on the meaning of life to which I have listened more than once in the last week.

William Lane Craig’s misrepresentation of Sam Harris’ written work during their debate on morality

23/09/2013

William Lane Craig –v- Sam Harris, “Is the Foundation of Morality Natural or Supernatural? / Is Good from God?”, University of Notre Dame, Indiana, United States, 7 April 2011

MP3 Audio

Transcript of Craig’s and Harris’ main speeches and rebuttals
(I have removed the irritating ‘Er, uh’s in my citations below)

Video edited to be only Sam Harris speaking
(So the rest of us can cut to chase!)

As part of my post discussing Sam Harris’ debate against William Lane Craig on whether the foundation of human morality was natural or supernatural, I discuss Craig’s presentation of Harris work alongside their true context in Harris’ books The End of Faith [London: Simon & Schuster UK Ltd, 2006], The Moral Landscape [London: Transworld Publishers, 2006] and Free Will [New York: Free Press, 2012], together with his articles “Response to Critics of The Moral Landscape and The Moral Landscape Challenge” and give my verdict on how Craig sought to misrepresent Harris.

Craig’s opening statement:

[Harris] rightly declares, “If only one person in the world held down a terrified, struggling, screaming little girl, cut off her genitals with a septic blade, and sewed her back up, … the only question would be how severely that person should be punished …”

This quote appears on pp. 66 – 67 of my edition of The Moral Landscape and is in fact Harris citing psychologist Steven Pinker’s book The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature [New York: Viking, 2002, p.273], who in turn is quoting Donald Symons.  The full quote continues:

…, and whether the death penalty would be a sufficiently severe sanction.  But when millions of people do this, instead of the enormity being magnified millions-fold, it suddenly becomes ‘culture,’ and thereby magically becomes less, rather than more, horrible, and is even defended by some Western ‘moral thinkers,’ including feminists.

The passage appears in Chapter 2: “Moral Truth” in The Moral Landscape under a segment entitled “Moral Blindness in the Name of ‘Tolerance’”, which includes Harris’ transcript of his conversation with a female advisor on President Obama’s Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues who thought that it was better to “respect” a hypothetical ancient culture’s crackpot religious tradition of removing the eyeballs of every third child than to declare them morally wrong.

Craig’s quotation of this passage (notwithstanding that it was not even from Harris’ pen!) is misleading in that it gave the audience the impression that Harris simply advocates stern retribution to those who carry out female circumcision.  However, Harris’ argument runs much deeper than this as he is decrying the appalling moral relativism of secularists who are too afraid to criticise the practices of religious cultures in respect of actions that they would find morally repugnant were they carried out in isolation by individuals.

Craig’s opening statement continues:

So how does Sam Harris propose to solve the Value Problem?  The trick he proposes is simply to re-define what he means by “good” and “evil”, in non-moral terms.  He says, “We should “define ‘good’ as that which supports [the] well-being” of conscious creatures.  So, he says, “questions about values … are really questions about the well-being of conscious creatures.”  And therefore, he concludes, “it makes no sense … to ask whether maximizing well-being is ‘good’.”  Why not?  Because he’s redefined the word “good” to mean the well-being of conscious creatures.  So to ask, “Why is maximizing creatures’ well-being good?” is on his definition the same as asking, “Why does maximizing creatures’ well-being maximize creatures’ well-being?” It’s just a tautology. It’s just talking in circles!  So, Dr. Harris has quote-unquote “solved” the Value Problem just by re-defining his terms.  It’s nothing but wordplay.

If Harris actually uses the term “Value Problem” with the pages of The Moral Landscape, let alone explicitly redefining what we mean by “good”, then I must have missed it.  The term seems to have been something constructed by his critics.  However, in his article “Response to Critics of The Moral Landscape published in January 2011, three months before his debate against Craig, Harris discusses the issue in detail; too much detail for me to include in this post in its entirety, but I present some relevant extracts.  Harris is responding to philosopher Russell Blackford’s review:

The Value Problem

My critics have been especially exercised over the subtitle of my book, “how science can determine human values.”  The charge is that I haven’t actually used science to determine the foundational value (well-being) upon which my proffered science of morality would rest. Rather, I have just assumed that well-being is a value, and this move is both unscientific and question-begging.

(…)

[T]he same can be said about medicine, or science as a whole.  As I point out in my book, science is based on values that must be presupposed—like the desire to understand the universe, a respect for evidence and logical coherence, etc.  One who doesn’t share these values cannot do science.  But nor can he attack the presuppositions of science in a way that anyone should find compelling. Scientists need not apologise for presupposing the value of evidence, nor does this presupposition render science unscientific.  In my book, I argue that the value of well-being—specifically the value of avoiding the worst possible misery for everyone—is on the same footing.  There is no problem in presupposing that the worst possible misery for everyone is bad and worth avoiding and that normative morality consists, at an absolute minimum, in acting so as to avoid it.  To say that the worst possible misery for everyone is “bad” is, on my account, like saying that an argument that contradicts itself is “illogical.”  Our spade is turned. Anyone who says it isn’t simply isn’t making sense.  The fatal flaw that Blackford claims to have found in my view of morality could just as well be located in science as a whole—or reason generally.  Our “oughts” are built right into the foundations.  We need not apologise for pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps in this way.  It is far better than pulling ourselves down by them.

Harris clearly acknowledges that he is starting with a scientific and philosophical presupposition, but one that is both reasonable and applicable to other areas of science.  It certainly makes far more sense than the theist presupposition of goodness which is whatever God commands is automatically good.

It is also rank hypocrisy on Craig’s part to accuse Harris of tautology and wordplay since throughout the entire debate he offered no evidence whatsoever of the goodness of God’s character but simply engaged in Anselm-esque ontological word games that God’s character was the definition of goodness rather like the definition of a bachelor is that he is unmarried.

Craig’s opening statement continues:

Sam Harris believes that all of our actions are causally determined and that there is no free will.  Dr Harris rejects not only libertarian accounts of free will but also compatibilistic accounts of freedom.  But, if there is no free will, then no one is morally responsible for anything! In the end, Dr Harris admits this, though it’s tucked away in the endnotes of his volume.  Moral responsibility, he says, and I quote, “is a social construct,” not an objective reality: I quote: “in neuroscientific terms no person is more or less responsible than any other” for the actions they perform.  His thoroughgoing determinism spells the end of any hope or possibility of objective moral duties because on his worldview we have no control over what we do.

Harris discusses his views on “free will” on pp. 135 – 147 of The Moral Landscape under the sections entitled “The Illusion of Free Will” and “Moral Responsibility” as well as in his short book Free Will.  It is clear to me that just because Harris believes that human thoughts and actions are governed by prior causes over which we have no control (“determinism”), this does not negate the existence of human choice and moral responsibility.  On p. 143 of The Moral Landscape under the section “Moral Responsibility”, Harris writes:

Of course, we hold one another accountable for more than those actions than we consciously plan, because most voluntary behaviour comes about without explicit planning.  But why is the conscious decision to do another person harm particularly blameworthy?  Because consciousness is, among other things, the context in which our intentions become completely available to us.  What we do subsequent to conscious planning tends to fully reflect the global properties of our minds – our beliefs, desires, goals, prejudices, etc.  If, after weeks of deliberation, library research, and debate with your friends, you still decide to kill the king – well, killing the king really reflects the sort of person you are.  Consequently it makes sense for the rest of society to worry about you.

The endnote in The Moral Landscape to which Craig refers is endnote 109 on p. 279 of my edition which itself refers to a passage in the main text on pp. 143 – 144 under the section “Moral Responsibility” and again is Harris quoting another author; this time the neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga from his paper “Forty-five years of split-brain research and still going strong”, Nat Rev Neurosci, Volume 6, Number 8, 653 – 659.  The full passage from Gazzinga, with the parts that Craig quoted in bold, is as follows:

Neuroscience will never find the brain correlate of responsibility, because that is something we ascribe to humans – to people – not to brains.  It is a moral value we demand of our fellow, rule-following human beings.  Just as optometrists can tell us how much vision a person has (20/20 or 20/200) but cannot tell us when someone is legally blind or has too little vision to drive a school bus, so psychiatrists and brain scientists might be able to tell us what someone’s mental state or brain state is but cannot tell us (without being arbitrary) when someone has too little control to be held responsible.  The issue of responsibility (like the issue of who can drive school buses) is a social choice.  In neuroscientific terms, no person is more or less responsible than any other for actions.  We are all part of a deterministic system that someday, in theory, we will completely understand.  Yet the idea of responsibility, a social construct that exists in the rules of a society, does not exist in the neuronal structures of the brain.

The endnote continues in Harris’ own words with the extracts that Craig quoted in bold:

While it is true that responsibility is a social construct attributed to people and not to brains, it is a social construct that can make more or less sense given certain facts about a person’s brain.  I think we can easily imagine discoveries in neuroscience, as well as brain imagining technology, that would allow us to attribute responsibility to persons in a far more precise way than we do at present.  A ‘Twinkie defence’ would be entirely uncontroversial if we learned that there was something at the creamy centre of every Twinkie that obliterated the front lobe’s inhibitory control over the limbic system.

But perhaps ‘responsibility’ is simply the wrong construct: for Gazzaniga is surely correct to say that in ‘neuroscientific terms, no person is more or less responsible than any other for actions.’  Conscious actions arise on the basis of neural events of which we are not conscious.  Whether they are predictable or not, we do not cause our causes.

The relevant paragraph on pp. 143 – 144 of the main text to which the endnote refers reads as follows:

While viewing human beings as forces of nature does not prevent us from thinking in terms of moral responsibility, it does call the logic of retribution into question.  Clearly, we need to build prisons for people who are intent on harming others.  But if we could incarcerate earthquakes and hurricanes for their crimes, we would build prisons for them as well.

Accordingly, it is clear to me that Harris’ views on “free will” are far more complex and layered that Craig let on in the debate.  It is equally clear that Craig has simply skimmed through Harris’ book, noted that Harris does not agree with the theist concept of “free will” and hastily concluded that Harris thinks there can be no moral responsibility on a deterministic view of “free will” without actually reading the remainder of Harris’ views, or at least reading them properly.

See also my recent post setting out Harris’ views on “free will” which links to a number of relevant web articles and lectures he has given on the topic.

Craig’s first rebuttal

Dr Harris has to defend an even more radical claim than that.  He claims that the property of being good is identical with the property of creaturely flourishing.  And he’s not offered any defence of this radical identity claim. In fact, I think we have a knock-down argument against it.  Now bear with me here; this is a little technical.  On the next-to-last page of his book, Dr Harris makes the telling admission that if people like rapists, liars, and thieves could be just as happy as good people, then his “moral landscape” would no longer be a moral landscape.  Rather, it would just be a continuum of well-being whose peaks are occupied by good and bad people, or evil people, alike.

Now what’s interesting about this is that earlier in the book, Dr Harris explained that about three million Americans are psychopathic.  That is to say, they don’t care about the mental states of others.  They enjoy inflicting pain on other people. But that implies that there’s a possible world, which we can conceive, in which the continuum of human well-being is not a moral landscape.  The peaks of well-being could be occupied by evil people.  But that entails that in the actual world, the continuum of well-being and the moral landscape are not identical either.  For identity is a necessary relation. There is no possible world in which some entity A is not identical to A.  So if there’s any possible world in which A is not identical to B, then it follows that A is not in fact identical to B.

Now since it’s possible that human well-being and moral goodness are not identical, it follows necessarily that human well-being and goodness are not the same, as Dr Harris has asserted in his book.

Now it’s not often in philosophy that you get a knock-down argument against a position.  But I think we’ve got one here.  By granting that it’s possible that the continuum of well-being is not identical to the moral landscape, Dr Harris’ view becomes logically incoherent.

For once, Craig has actually quoted Harris’ own words (although notice the rather ominous and accusatory description that they appear “on the next to last page of his book”).  The full passage is at pp. 241 – 242 of The Moral Landscape in Chapter 5 “The Future of Happiness” under the section “On Being Right or Wrong”:

It is also conceivable that a science of human flourishing could be possible, and yet people could be made equally happy by very different ‘moral’ impulses.  Perhaps there is no connection between being good and feeling good – and, therefore, no connection between moral behaviour (as generally conceived) and subjective well-being.  In this case, rapists, liars, and thieves would experience the same depth of happiness as the saints.  This scenario stands the greatest chance of being true while seeming quite far-fetched.  Neuroimagining work already suggests what has long been obvious through introspection: human co-operation is rewarding.  However, if evil turned out to be as reliable path to happiness as goodness is, my argument about the moral landscape would still stand, as would the likely utility of neuroscience for investigating it.  It would no longer be an especially ‘moral’ landscape; rather it would be a continuum of well-being, upon which saints and sinners would occupy equivalent peaks.

Worries of this kind seem to ignore some very obvious facts about human beings: we have all evolved from common ancestors and are, therefore, far more similar than we are different; brains and primary human emotions clearly transcend culture, and they are unquestionably influenced by states of the world (as anyone who has ever stubbed his toe can attest).  No one, to my knowledge, believes that there is so much variance in the requisites of human well-being as to make the above concerns seem plausible.

Like all good scientists, Harris has actually armed his opponents with the tools that they need to disprove his thesis.  Yet, contra-Craig, he has only admitted that in one possible World his thesis would require amendment, but would not be completely invalid.  However, Harris spends all of Chapter 2 “Good and Evil” arguing that love, compassion and well-being can be understood as good for us at the level of the brain and that psychopaths do not in fact occupy the same peaks of happiness and well-being as those who exude love and compassion toward their fellow creatures.

Just because it is possible to imagine a scenario where Harris’ thesis does not apply does not invalidate is applicability in The Real World.  Yet again, Craig takes Harris’ words out of their true context, cobbles together a possible World where they do not makes sense and declares Harris’ thesis null and void on that basis.

Conclusion

As I stated in my main post discussing the outcome of the debate, at the time of publishing this post, this is actually the last debate of William Lane Craig’s that I have watched.  As with many other atheist bloggers, after seeing so many of his debates and lectures, I am fed up of the lies, distortions and dishonest tactics that he uses in his attempts to overthrow his opponents.

I only wish that Sam Harris was not the only one to call him out on it.

Sam Harris beats William Lane Craig in their debate on morality

23/09/2013

William Lane Craig –v- Sam Harris, “Is the Foundation of Morality Natural or Supernatural? / Is Good from God?”, University of Notre Dame, Indiana, United States, 7 April 2011

MP3 Audio

Transcript of Craig’s and Harris’ main speeches and rebuttals
(I have removed the irritating ‘Er, uh’s in my citations below)

Video edited to be only Sam Harris speaking
(So the rest of us can cut to chase!)

Although I watched this debate when it was first posted online over two and a half years ago and intended to do a full write up of it then, I was still on an extended blogging sabbatical and had not read Sam Harris’ book on morality and ethics, The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values.  Now that the dust of their clash has settled, I have read Harris’ book more than once and offered my own thoughts on the burden of proof in showing that the source of human morals is divine, and Harris has issued The Moral Landscape Challenge”, I now feel that I can dissect this encounter properly.

Debate overview

As with most religious debates, opinion on the blogosphere is divided with as many handing the debate to Harris as to Craig.  Luke Muehlhauser at the now-archived Common Sense Atheism (who I repeated described as the web’s most fawning Craigophile atheist, both on my blog and his!) declared Craig the winner on rhetorical grounds (which I believe he consistently overvalued in any event), yet conversely considered the debate a victory for the New Atheists as it gave the wider the public the hear their arguments for secular morality

It is abundantly clear – even more than is usually the case with Craig’s atheist opponents – that Harris has a different speaking and debating style.  The format for this debate with 20 minute opening statements and then rebuttals for each side of 12, 8 and 5 minutes, was much more structured than any other debate I have seen Harris participate.  At most, Harris and his opponents have been given a few minutes to state their case before the debate turns to a back-and-forth discussion between the two participants and the moderator.  In many of Harris’ debates, he has been faced with a very biased moderator who has turned out to be an additional opponent to him!

Harris received much criticism for supposedly straying off-topic in his rebuttals by discussing the problem of evil, Yahweh’s atrocities in the Old Testament, the plurality and diversity of the World’s religions, and the contradictions of Christian theology regarding the supposed existence of a good God and hell.  However, from the opening sentence of his first rebuttal – “Well, that was all very… interesting…” – it was clear to me that he was not going to conform to Craig’s rules of debating and let him railroad the discussion in an argument of semantics, syntax and philosophical “logic”.

Just because Craig does not want to debate certain issues such as the problem of the “unevangelised” and his own repugnant “divine command theory” in justification of Yahweh’s atrocities in the Old Testament, does mean that they are irrelevant to the topic under discussion.  In his second rebuttal, Craig makes the extraordinary (and presumably unintentional) concession:

[Harris] then responds, “But there’s no good reason to believe that such a being exists.  Look at the problem of evil and the problem of the unevangelized.”  Both of these, as I explained in my opening, are irrelevant in tonight’s debate because I’m not arguing that God exists. Maybe he’s right; maybe these are insuperable objections to Christianity or to theism.  It wouldn’t affect either of my contentions: that if God exists, then we have a sound foundation for moral values and duties; if God does not exist, then we have no foundation for objective moral values and duties.  So these are red herrings.  [My emphasis]

This would be like Craig arguing, “It’s irrelevant as to whether or not unicorns do in fact exist; I’m arguing that the foundation for human morals are unicorn tears.”  Craig offered no evidence to show that God’s character was good other than Anselm-esque word games such as (in his final statement):

Dr Harris [argued]… against this position is to say that you’re merely defining God as good, which is the same fallacy I accused him of committing.  I don’t think this is the case at all.  God is a being worthy of worship.  Any being that is not worthy of worship is not God.  And therefore God must be perfectly good and essentially good.  More than that, as Anselm saw, God is the greatest conceivable being, and therefore he is the very paradigm of goodness itself.  He is the greatest good.  So once you understand the concept of God, you can see that asking, “Well, why is God good?” is sort of like asking, “Why are all bachelors unmarried?”  It’s the very concept of the greatest conceivable being, of being worthy of worship that entails the essential goodness of God.

Similar to atheist objections to the ontological argument for God’s existence, this is still nothing more than mere sophistry.  Word games will not suffice, Dr Craig; we demand evidence in support of your arguments.

As Harris posted shortly after the debate:

While I believe I answered (or pre-empted) all of Craig’s substantive challenges, I’ve received a fair amount of criticism for not rebutting his remarks point for point. Generally speaking, my critics seem to have been duped by Craig’s opening statement, in which he presumed to narrow the topic of our debate (I later learned that he insisted upon speaking first and made many other demands.  You can read an amusing, behind-the-scenes account here.)  Those who expected me to follow the path Craig cut in his opening remarks don’t seem to understand the game he was playing.  He knew that if he began, “Here are 5 (bogus) points that Sam Harris must answer if he has a shred of self-respect,” this would leave me with a choice between delivering my prepared remarks, which I believed to be crucial, or wasting my time putting out the small fires he had set.  If I stuck to my argument, as I mostly did, he could return in the next round to say, “You will notice that Dr Harris entirely failed to address points 2 and 5.  It is no wonder, because they make a mockery of his entire philosophy.”

As I observed once during the debate, but should have probably mentioned again, Craig employs other high school debating tricks to mislead the audience: He falsely summarises what his opponent has said; he falsely claims that certain points have been conceded; and, in our debate, he falsely charged me with having wandered from the agreed upon topic.  The fact that such tricks often work is a real weakness of the debate format, especially one in which the participants are unable to address one another directly.  Nevertheless, I believe I was right not to waste much time rebutting irrelevancies, correcting Craig’s distortions of my published work, or taking his words out of my mouth.  Instead, I simply argued for a scientific conception of moral truth and against one based on the biblical God.  This was, after all, the argument that the organisers at Notre Dame had invited me to make.

While fellow-atheist blogger Chris Hallquist initially sided with Craig that Harris had strayed off the topic of the debate, he subsequently conceded:

In two paragraphs, Harris just owned Craig and proved he’s smarter than probably everyone else who’s ever written about Craig, myself included.  I’m embarrassed to say that, in my initial write-up of the debate, I unthinkingly accepted Craig’s claims that Harris had strayed off topic.  This was partly, I guess, because I knew going into the debate that Craig would try to frame it as a debate about the conditional claim “if God does not exist, objective moral values do not exist.”  Had I been debating Craig, I probably would have figured it wasn’t worth the energy to fight him on the framing.

But thankfully, Harris was debating Craig, not me, and he never forgot that Craig’s interpretation of the topic wasn’t the actual topic.  They were supposed to be debating “Is Good from God?” and it’s completely ridiculous to claim that questions like “does God exist?” and “if there were a God, what could we infer about his character?” are irrelevant to that question.  Similarly, it isn’t at all obvious that the “God” there can only be referring to some very abstract god, and not the god that Craig actually believes in.

I still think Harris would have benefited from taking 30 seconds to point out how ridiculous and hypocritical Craig’s accusations of “irrelevance” were.  Nevertheless, I think he largely had the right strategy, and it’s humbling to realise I’m still vulnerable to such silly debating tricks after years of watching Craig.

I maintain that Victor Stenger and Bart Ehrman retain their joint-crown of Atheist Opponent Who Has Made Craig Look Like A Complete Fool At The Lectern, however, Harris in his own quiet and subtle way utterly destroyed Craig and everything for which he stands.  Craig simply defined God as good and argued from inside the “theological bubble” (aka “CraigWorld”) whereas Harris argued from the Real World and discussed scientific examples of human behaviour about which religion as little, if anything, useful to say.

Harris also demonstrated with reference to the World’s appalling suffering and the Bible (which after all Craig maintains is the inerrant word of the creator of the Universe) that if some kind of supernatural being is at the heart of the Universe, he must be cruel, capricious and unworthy of worship.  Craig dismissed these arguments as “red herrings” and “village atheist objections”, but ultimately Harris won the evidential case as to God’s true character.

It was also a stark contrast in presentation styles.  Harris in his plain black suit and open-necked blue shirt was calm, collected and considered.  If anyone needs some lessons in public speaking before taking the podium, they could do no better than to watch a few Sam Harris lectures.  Craig on the other hand, in his gold-buttoned navy blazer, starched white shirt and neck-crunching tie, looked and sounded harried as the debate progressed as evidenced by the increased volume of his smug, nasally voice at the beginning of his second rebuttal when he became severely irate at Harris’ description of certain Christian beliefs as psychotic.  His Gish Gallop was turned all the way up to eleven, particularly in the rebuttals, and stood ill at ease with Harris’ slow and methodical delivery that was filled with pauses at key moments.

As fatuous as some of these comments may appear, there is always an element of “beauty parade” in all public appearances.  Harris was JFK.  Craig was Nixon.

Craig’s quote-mining of The Moral Landscape

In the middle of Harris’ opening statement he warned the audience not to trust Craig’s reading of his work and that half of the quotes Craig gives in his opening statement are not from Harris himself, but are in fact Harris quoting other authors and “often to different effect”.

I have been through Harris’ book and Craig’s remarks in the debate with a fine tooth comb and on another post I discuss Craig’s presentation of The Moral Landscape together with their true presentation by Harris.

Psychogate

During Craig’s second rebuttal, he upped the Southern nasally drawl aplenty when he accused Harris of accusing all Christians of being psychopaths.  When Harris next took the lectern he invited the audience to “sort it out on YouTube”.  I have taken up Harris on his invitation and now present the full transcript of the subject under disagreement.

Harris’ first rebuttal

We are being offered a psychopathic and psychotic moral attitude… it is psychopathic because this is a total detachment from the well-being of human beings. It so easily rationalises the slaughter of children.  OK, just think about the Muslims at this moment who are blowing themselves up, convinced that they are agents of God’s will.  There is absolutely nothing that Dr Craig can say against their behaviour, in moral terms, apart from his own faith-based claim that they’re praying to the wrong God.  If they had the right God, what they were doing would be good, on “divine command theory”.

Now, I’m obviously not saying that all that Dr Craig or all religious people are psychopaths and psychotics, but this to me is the true horror of religion. It allows perfectly decent and sane people to believe by the billions, what only lunatics could believe on their own [my emphasis].

Craig’s second rebuttal:

[Harris] also says it’s “psychopathic” to believe these things.  Now, that remark is just as stupid as it is insulting.  It is absurd to think that Peter Van Inwagen here at the University of Notre Dame is psychopathic, or that a guy like Dr Tom Flint, who is as gracious a Christian gentlemen as I could have ever met, is psychopathic.  This is simply below the belt.

Harris’ second rebuttal:

Well, perhaps you’ve noticed Dr Craig has a charming habit of summarising his opponent’s points in a way in which they were not actually given, so I will leave it to you to sort it out on Youtube.  Needless to say, I didn’t call those esteemed colleagues of his psychopaths, as I made clear.

Right here, Craig well and truly lets his mask slip.  He gives up the pretence of honest debate and intellectual discourse for the sake of scoring a cheap and dishonest point against his opponent.  In his post-debate podcast Craig stands by the accusation saying that Harris has argued in his written work that religious belief is a form of insanity.  However, this is another misrepresentation of Harris’ work; he makes clear in The End of Faith:

Clearly, there is sanity in numbers.  And yet, it is merely an accident of history that it is considered normal in our society to believe that the Creator of the universe can hear your thoughts, while it is demonstrative of mental illness to believe that he is communicating with you by having the rain tap in Morse code on your bedroom window.  And so, while religious people are not generally mad, their core beliefs absolutely are.  [London: Simon & Schuster UK Ltd, 2006, p. 72]

This incident, together with my comments in respect of Craig quote-mining Harris’ book is the strongest evidence yet that Craig has no interest in advancing science and human knowledge, but simply to reinforce his own dogmatically held religious convictions.

At the time of publishing this post, this is actually the last debate of William Lane Craig’s that I have watched.  As with many other atheist bloggers, after seeing so many of his debates and lectures, I am fed up of the lies, distortions and dishonest tactics that he uses in his attempts to overthrow his opponents.

I only wish that Sam Harris was not the only one to call him out on it.

The clinching moment?

I fully accept that one of the other “Four Horsemen”, Christopher Hitchens, lost his debate against Craig on the existence of God at Biola University in April 2009.  Hitchens conceded the debate at Craig’s final rebuttal before the audience Q & A: he smiled and chuckled to himself when Craig invited him to become a Christian, he raised his arms and applauded when Craig walked past him on his way back to his seat and he leaned forward to the moderator, Hugh Hewitt, to give up his five minute rebuttal so there could be more time for questions from the audience.

There was no such gesture from Harris throughout his debate with Craig, but possibly a glimmer of concession from Craig towards Harris.   During the audience Q & A period (c. 1 hour 23 minutes on the tape) the two men locked horns on the question of Craig’s “divine command theory”.  Harris states that if God issued such a command to exterminate an entire race of people he would be evil.  Craig retorts that Harris has no basis for making such objective moral judgements.  Harris replies, “I’ve tried to give you a basis… sorry.”  The audience laughs and applauds.  Craig glances towards the moderator, raises an eyebrow and then suppresses a frown with a goofy smile that betrays his frustration and confusion.

Craig lost the argument that day, and he lost badly.  Not even his attempt to re-write the debate in his two-part post-debate podcast that runs to nearly an hour and features extra encouragement by the fawning Kevin Harris – who clearly gets his money by turning up to kiss CraigButt – can repair the damage.

The Moral Landscape Challenge

Harris has recently issued The Moral Landscape Challenge: readers can win $20,000 if they can disprove his central thesis in an essay of 1,000 or less and Harris will recant his thesis.  Even if none of the essays can make Harris recant his thesis, the best essay will still win $2,000.

It has been nearly three years since The Moral Landscape was first published in English, and in that time it has been attacked by readers and non-readers alike.  Many seem to have judged from the resulting cacophony that the book’s central thesis was easily refuted. However, I have yet to encounter a substantial criticism that I feel was not adequately answered in the book itself (and in subsequent talks).

So I would like to issue a public challenge.  Anyone who believes that my case for a scientific understanding of morality is mistaken is invited to prove it in 1,000 words or less.  (You must address the central argument of the book—not peripheral issues.)  The best response will be published on this website, and its author will receive $2,000.  If any essay actually persuades me, however, its author will receive $20,000, and I will publicly recant my view.

Submissions will be accepted here the week of February 2-9, 2014.

(…)

Here [is my central thesis]: Morality and values depend on the existence of conscious minds—and specifically on the fact that such minds can experience various forms of well-being and suffering in this universe.  Conscious minds and their states are natural phenomena, fully constrained by the laws of the universe (whatever these turn out to be in the end).  Therefore, questions of morality and values must have right and wrong answers that fall within the purview of science (in principle, if not in practice).  Consequently, some people and cultures will be right (to a greater or lesser degree), and some will be wrong, with respect to what they deem important in life.

You might want to read what I’ve already written in response to a few critics.  (A version of that article became the Afterword to the paperback edition of The Moral Landscape.)  I also recommend that you watch the talk I linked to above.

This is either an admiral display of honest inquiry from a brilliant scientist who wants his views to be criticised in order to facilitate self-improvement or a display of unbridled arrogance, depending on your point of view.

Whichever is true of Harris’ motives, suffice it say, a certain Dr William Lane Craig is already out of pocket.

Sam Harris: The Ultimate Elvis Presley Gambit

22/09/2013

My final post on Sam Harris’ finest moments before re-examining his 2011 debate on morality against Christian apologist William Lane Craig is quite simply the best put-down I have ever heard in response to religious pseudo-mysticism about personal experience being an argument for God’s existence.  Harris debated Jewish apologist David Wolpe at the American Jewish University, Los Angeles on 6 November 2007 on the topic “Does God Exist?” which in reality turned into a discussion on whether religion was good for the World.

Partway through the debate, Wolpe, to atone for the rather awkward fact that he does not have any evidence for God’s existence, starts harping on about “deepities” such metaphysical reality and everyone having something more in them than they realise.  Harris delivers like Bertrand Russell doing stand-up:

People do this all the time.  You can broadcast this.  This is constrained by our common sense in every other domain of discourse.

Just take, for example, the people who think Elvis is still alive.  What’s wrong with this claim?  Why is this claim not vitiating our academic departments and corporations?

I’ll tell you why, and it’s very simple.  We have not passed laws against believing Elvis is still alive.  It’s just the problem that when anyone seriously represents his belief that Elvis is still alive in a conversation, on a first date, at a lecture, at a job interview, he immediately pays a price [Audience laughs].  He pays a price in ill-concealed laughter.  [Audience laughs louder].

That is a good thing.  Then he could rattle on about, “This is not a scientific claim.  This is a matter of faith.  You know, when I look at you.  I see you.  You might be Elvis.”  He could do this!  [Audience laughs uproariously]

Magic!

Full Debate Video

Full Debate Audio

AllSamHarrisContent: Video Edited to be Only Sam Harris Speaking

Sam Harris: Spirituality for atheists

20/09/2013

As I continue my trawl through the works of Sam Harris in preparation for my posts on his 2011 debate on morality against Christian apologist William Lane Craig, I now turn to Harris’ thoughts on consciousness, for which he has received much criticism from both atheists and theists, some of whom exaggerate his views by making the false allegation that he believes in reincarnation, extra sensory perception (ESP) and telepathy.

The above video is an edited except taken from Harris’ speech to the Atheist Alliance International Conference 2007.  His thoughts on consciousness begin around the 23 minute mark and you can read an edited transcript of his speech on his website:

Those of you who have read The End of Faith, know that I don’t entirely line up with Dan [Dennett], Richard [Dawkins], and Christopher [Hitchens] in my treatment of these things.  So I think I should take a little time to discuss this.  While I always use terms like “spiritual” and “mystical” in scare quotes, and take some pains to denude them of metaphysics, the emails I receive from my brothers and sisters in arms suggests that many of you find my interest in these topics problematic.

First, let me describe the general phenomenon I’m referring to.  Here’s what happens, in the generic case: a person, in whatever culture he finds himself, begins to notice that life is difficult.  He observes that even in the best of times—no one close to him has died, he’s healthy, there are no hostile armies massing in the distance, the fridge is stocked with beer, the weather is just so—even when things are as good as they can be, he notices that at the level of his moment to moment experience, at the level of his attention, he is perpetually on the move, seeking happiness and finding only temporary relief from his search.

We’ve all noticed this.  We seek pleasant sights, and sounds, and tastes, and sensations, and attitudes.  We satisfy our intellectual curiosities, and our desire for friendship and romance.  We become connoisseurs of art and music and film—but our pleasures are, by their very nature, fleeting.  And we can do nothing more than merely reiterate them as often as we are able.

If we enjoy some great professional success, our feelings of accomplishment remain vivid and intoxicating for about an hour, or maybe a day, but then people will begin to ask us “So, what are you going to do next?  Don’t you have anything else in the pipeline?”  Steve Jobs releases the iPhone, and I’m sure it wasn’t twenty minutes before someone asked, “When are you going to make this thing smaller?”  Notice that very few people at this juncture, no matter what they’ve accomplished, say, “I’m done. I’ve met all my goals.  Now I’m just going to stay here eat ice cream until I die in front of you.”  Even when everything has gone as well as it can go, the search for happiness continues, the effort required to keep doubt and dissatisfaction and boredom at bay continues, moment to moment.  If nothing else, the reality of death and the experience of losing loved ones punctures even the most gratifying and well-ordered life.

In this context, certain people have traditionally wondered whether a deeper form of well-being exists.  Is there, in other words, a form of happiness that is not contingent upon our merely reiterating our pleasures and successes and avoiding our pains.  Is there a form of happiness that is not dependent upon having one’s favourite food always available to be placed on one’s tongue or having all one’s friends and loved ones within arm’s reach, or having good books to read, or having something to look forward to on the weekend?  Is it possible to be utterly happy before anything happens, before one’s desires get gratified, in spite of life’s inevitable difficulties, in the very midst of physical pain, old age, disease, and death?

Harris is a philosopher and a neuroscientist and a harsh critic of organised religion in his books The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation.  However, he recognises the range of extraordinary mental experiences that people of religious faith profess to have when praying and meditating.  Harris himself has gone on meditation retreats and practised mindful meditation for up to 18 hours a day.

Harris accepts that Jesus, the Buddha and many gurus, yogis and mystics were/are “spiritual” geniuses due to their inspiration and cultivation in their followers of feelings of self-transcending love, awe and ecstasy.  These experiences are available to everyone regardless of their religious faith and ought to be taken seriously by atheists and studied by mainstream science.

Harris is so impressed with the contemplative literature that while he is not an outright “dualist” in believing that the body and the mind are separate and divisible and that we have a “soul” that is capable of surviving death, he has not ruled out the possibility that consciousness can exist outside of the brain.

Harris also gave a speech at the Global Atheist Convention in Melbourne, 2012 called “Death and the Present Moment”, which I highly recommend as an introduction to the concept of mindfulness meditation.

Harris’ ideas on “spirituality” recently persuaded me to go to a meditation and mindfulness class studying the book Going Home: Jesus And Buddha As Brothers by Thich Nhat Hanh; a Vietnamese Buddhist monk who has been heavily involved in the peace movement throughout his life and was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by Martin Luther King, Jr.  While I attended all but one the 10 sessions and have gained much from them, I have found certain elements of Hanh’s book frustrating and have been unable to get behind the meaning.  Perhaps my atheistic naturalism and material means that I am unable to let go of my mind as readily as religious believers in the group.

During the course, someone emailed us this TED talk by Jill Bolte Taylor from 2008 called “My stroke of insight” where she recounts visiting nirvana upon suffering neural haemorrhaging.   It is an interesting talk and well worth watching.  It reminds me of a recent news story about a man called Malcolm Myatt who had a stroke that completely eliminated his ability to feel sadness, which in turn reminds me of the film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind starring Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet.  The film’s “high concept” is a medical agency that manipulates and eliminates a person’s memories so they can get over a relationship break up by forgetting the entire relationship and thereby taking away the emotional pain.

This has been a tempting option for me on more than one occasion after a relationship break up and I have researched the possibility of undergoing hypnosis to eliminate the memory of an ex-partner.  However, the general consensus is that it would not work and may even have undesirable consequences.  We (our “selves”) are products of our memories and that is how we learn to live in the World.

It seems lamentable that Jill Bolte Taylor has to have a stroke in order to experience nirvana, while Malcolm Myatt has one to eliminate sadness from his life, and that many other people have to alter their chemical composition of their minds with recreational drugs to achieve a higher level of bliss that is temporary and ultimately false.

Work like you don’t need the money,
Love like you’ve never been hurt,
Dance like nobody’s watching,
Sing like nobody’s listening,
Live like it’s heaven on earth.

– William W. Purkey

I see the above quote cut and pasted on people’s blogs and Facebook pages and it seems a trite and impossibly optimistic statement given how difficult it is to disconnect ourselves emotionally from our memories.

However, in the last few days, a small change has taken over me.  As I will hopefully soon discuss in my upcoming review of Oliver Burkeman’s wonderful anti-self-help guide, The Antidote: Happiness For People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking, happiness (and therefore perhaps nirvana as well) is a concept that all too often considered to be something that will happen to us in the future as long as we eliminate all negative thoughts from our lives and invest as much time, effort and money as we can in our “preferred version of the future”.

Now, I am more mindful of my surroundings, down to the texture of the keys on my laptop as my fingers touch them, the sound of the rain outside my study window, the sounds and smells of my food as I cook it and the feeling of the clothes on my body.

And for my next holiday, whenever that will be, I will look at going away on a meditation retreat in order to learn to focus on the present moment every waking hour of the day.