Posts Tagged ‘The Moral Landscape’

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.

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.

Sam Harris: Free Will

10/09/2013

HarrisFreeWillCoverI am currently researching an epic pair of posts re-examining Sam Harris’ debate on morality against William Lane Craig from April 2011 at The University of Notre Dame and in particular Craig’s wilful misrepresentation of Harris’ written work.  This has necessitated me engaging in the mammoth – albeit wonderfully rewarding – re-reading Harris’ books, The End of Faith, Letter to a Christian Nation, The Moral Landscape and Free Will.

I have always loathed the faithful’s concept of “free will” but have never had the means to tackle it head-on.  I invariably put the term in scare quotes to signify my distain.  It is part of the disgusting branch of theological “thought” called “theodicy”, aka making excuses for your imaginary best friend’s failure to do anything about all the evil and suffering in the World.  Theists argue that God have given us “free will” to act how we please and to believe in him or not and our rejection of him.  However, poor old God’s heart is broken when we abuse our “free will” to reject his boundless love and commit atrocities against our fellow man.

For me, this concept is philosophically and semantically incoherent to the point that I had no idea how to mount an argument against it.  How can you have a choice not to believe in God?  Taking the coward’s way out with Pascal’s Wager is at best feigning a belief in God.  There are plenty of facts about the World that I do not especially like – such as the existence of famine, genocide and the wonderfully designed AIDS virus – but have to accept because there is plenty of evidence for their existence regardless of whether or not I find them comforting.

If presented with sufficient evidence for God’s existence – such as a big face and a booming voice sticking out of the clouds striking sinners down with fire and brimstone rather like the God of the Bible I was made to learn about in school – I would believe.

Harris –v- “Free Will”

In his gem of a short book Free Will, Harris explodes the concept of “free will” as philosophically incoherent and scientifically unsupportable; our thoughts and actions are entirely deterministic.  Here are some of Harris’ key points:

  • You are no more in control of the next thought you think than the next thought I write.  Thoughts appear in your head at random and you have no control over them.  As you try to concentrate on one of Sam Harris’ lectures to which I link below, you may well suddenly think, “Gosh, he does look a bit like Ben Stiller!”
  • You are not free to choose options of which you are not aware.  For example, if someone asks you to think of a film, you would not be able to choose The Maltese Falcon if you have never heard of it.
  • Modern neuro-imagining shows that our brains have formed our decisions seconds, sometimes minutes, before we are aware of them.
  • All of our thoughts and actions are governed by a string of prior causes over which we have no control: genes, upbringing and environment.
  • Even people who believe in “free will” accept that certain medical conditions will affect a person’s thoughts and actions such as depression, diabetes and brain tumours.  Therefore, you have as much “free will” to be a homosexual as you have to be black or white skinned.
  • Compromise positions on “free will” such as “compatibilism” that concede that our thoughts and actions are influenced by prior causes over which we have no control amount to saying “a puppet has free will as long as it loves its strings”.
  • As counter-intuitive as it seems, it makes no more sense than to hate a psychopath who has tried to cut you up with an axe than to hate a grizzly bear who has tried to eat you.
  • Retribution and personal hatred of people makes no sense as we are punishing people for acts for which ultimately they are not responsible.  Our criminal justice should be geared towards protection of the public at large (which does include incarceration) and rehabilitation but not retribution and revenge.
  • If we developed a pill that could cure psychopathy with no side effects, it would make no sense to withhold it from a violent psychopath as a punishment for what they have done.
  • Swallowing determinism whole by “throwing the oars out of the boat” and doing nothing but drift through life and seeing what happens is a course of action over which we have no control and is therefore impossible.  Just try staying in bed and waiting for something to happen: very soon you will feel the urge to get out bed and do something, like eating or going to the loo!
  • Good and evil, morality and happiness do not depend on the existence of “free will”:

In my view, the reality of good and evil does not depend upon the existence of free will, because with or without free will, we can distinguish between suffering and happiness.  With or without free will, a psychopath who enjoys killing children is different from a paediatric surgeon who enjoys saving them.  Whatever the truth about free will, these distinctions are unmistakable and well worth caring about.

  • Personal effort and choice do still count even on a deterministic view of “free will”:

Might free will somehow be required for goodness to be manifest?  How, for instance, does one become a paediatric surgeon?  Well, you must first be born, with an intact nervous system, and then provided with a proper education. No freedom there, I’m afraid.  You must also have the physical talent for the job and avoid smashing your hands at rugby.  Needless to say, it won’t do to be someone who faints at the sight of blood.  Chalk these achievements up to good luck as well.  At some point you must decide to become a surgeon—a result, presumably, of first wanting to become one.  Will you be the conscious source of this wanting?  Will you be responsible for its prevailing over all the other things you want but that are incompatible with a career in medicine?  No.  If you succeed at becoming a surgeon, you will simply find yourself standing one day, scalpel in hand, at the confluence of all the genetic and environmental causes that led you to develop along this line.  None of these events requires that you, the conscious subject, be the ultimate cause of your aspirations, abilities, and resulting behaviour.  And, needless to say, you can take no credit for the fact that you weren’t born a psychopath.

Of course, I’m not saying that you can become a surgeon by accident—you must do many things, deliberately and well, and in the appropriate sequence, year after year. Becoming a surgeon requires effort.  But can you take credit for your disposition to make that effort?   To turn the matter around, am I responsible for the fact that it has never once occurred to me that I might like to be a surgeon?  Who gets the blame for my lack of inspiration?  And what if the desire to become a surgeon suddenly arises tomorrow and becomes so intense that I jettison my other professional goals and enrol in medical school? Would I—that is, the part of me that is actually experiencing my life—be the true cause of these developments?  Every moment of conscious effort—every thought, intention, and decision—will have been caused by events of which I am not conscious.  Where is the freedom in this?

  • Determinism does not undercut the human concept of “love”, yet assists in a better understanding of “hate”:

What many people seem to be missing is the positive side of these truths.  Seeing through the illusion of free will does not undercut the reality of love, for example—because loving other people is not a matter of fixating on the underlying causes of their behaviour.  Rather, it is a matter of caring about them as people and enjoying their company.  We want those we love to be happy, and we want to feel the way we feel in their presence.  The difference between happiness and suffering does not depend on free will—indeed, it has no logical relationship to it (but then, nothing does, because the very idea of free will makes no sense).  In loving others, and in seeking happiness ourselves, we are primarily concerned with the character of conscious experience.

Hatred, however, is powerfully governed by the illusion that those we hate could (and should) behave differently.  We don’t hate storms, avalanches, mosquitoes, or flu.  We might use the term “hatred” to describe our aversion to the suffering these things cause us—but we are prone to hate other human beings in a very different sense.  True hatred requires that we view our enemy as the ultimate author of his thoughts and actions.  Love demands only that we care about our friends and find happiness in their company.  It may be hard to see this truth at first, but I encourage everyone to keep looking.  It is one of the more beautiful asymmetries to be found anywhere.

Harris differs from Daniel Dennett, who defends “free will” simply by redefining its terms:

Fans of Dan’s account—and there are many—seem to miss my primary purpose in writing about free will.  My goal is to show how the traditional notion is flawed, and to point out the consequences of our being taken in by it.  Whenever Dan discusses free will, he bypasses the traditional idea and offers a revised version that he believes to be the only one “worth wanting.”  Dan insists that this conceptual refinement is a great strength of his approach, analogous to other manoeuvres in science and philosophy that allow us to get past how things seem so that we can discover how they actually are.  I do not agree.  From my point of view, he has simply changed the subject in a way that either confuses people or lets them off the hook too easily.

Sam Harris lectures on the illusion of free will

Caltech, 2012:

Festival of Dangerous Ideas, Sydney Opera House, 2012:

Bon Mot Book Club, Vancouver, 2012:

Reddit.com Q&A, 2011:

Having children does not make you happy – Part 2

03/09/2013

FatherBabyUnhappy

What would it mean for a couple to decide that they should have a child?  It probably means that they think that their own well-being will tend to increase for having brought another person into the world; it should also mean that they expect their child to have a life that is, on balance, worth living.  If they didn’t expect these things, it’s hard to see why they would want to have a child in the first place.

However, most of the research done on happiness suggests that people actually become less happy when they have children and do not begin to approach their prior level of happiness until their children leave home.

Sam Harris, The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Happiness (London: Black Swan, 2012, p.239)

My previous post aired my personal reservations about becoming a father and the possible adverse effects such a course of action would have on my own life.  When I first read Sam Harris’ The Moral Landscape at the end of last year, I read the above passage with much delight as the scientific analysis appeared to be very much on my side: parents have children because of their perception of the enjoyment and satisfaction they will of being parents.  However, the studies indicate that they become significantly less happy after their children are born and only re-attain their previous levels of happiness when their children leave home!

In the first of his two wonderful anti-self-help life guides, Help! How To Become Slightly Happier And Get A Bit More Done, The Guardian’s psychological columnist, Oliver Burkeman, states:

When you don’t have children – as I don’t, thus far – one entertaining thing to do with friends who do is as follows.  Wait until they’re gazing, lovestruck, into the eyes of their newborn baby, tucking their toddler into bed, or proudly watching their 21-year-old graduate.  Then creep up behind them, slap down a copy of the Journal of Marriage and Family, volume 65, number 3 and triumphantly declare: ‘Ha!  You may think parenthood has changed your life for the better, but, in fact, the statistical analyses contained herein, along with numerous other studies, demonstrate conclusively that having children makes people, on average, slightly less happy than before!’  Then walk away cackling.  They may never speak to you again, but that won’t matter: you will have won the argument, using Science. (Edinburgh: Canongate Books, 2011, pp. 42 – 43)

These findings clearly fly in the face of what parents say to you in everyday conversation: that having a child was the best thing that could have happened to them and it will be the best thing that will happen to you.  It is tempting to write-off the studies’ methodology as flawed.  However, as Burkeman states this is no reason to think that this attitude would skew the results against the supposed joys of parenthood: “If anything, the taboo against admitting to regretting having kids may put things the other way.”

Nattavudh Powdthavee’s overview of the research published in The Psychologist explains the discrepancy with the notorious “focusing illusion”: contemplating any major alteration in our circumstances, we overate the effect it will have.  We imagine living idyllically after making millions when in fact sudden wealth leaves most people largely emotionally unchanged:

According to Daniel Kahneman and David Schkade, part of the problem with stated preferences, or any judgement requiring the comparison of two or more alternatives, is that they suffer from inherent focusing illusion, best captured in the maxim ‘Nothing in life is quite as important as you think it is while you are thinking about it’.

Daniel Gilbert states that the “meme” of having children axiomatically making us happy is a “super-replicator”: the advancement of human civilisation depends on it and those who disagree tend not to have children so their views do not percolate down the generations

Like the Jenny McCarthy-ites who claim that the MMR vaccine leads to autism based on nothing more than personal perception and social interaction, the idea that having children will lead to personal happiness is an illusion which has been burst by the force of science.

In an excellent summary of the scientific research, Jennifer Senior writing in The New York Magazine perfectly encapsulates the “rose tinted spectacles” factor:

About twenty years ago, Tom Gilovich, a psychologist at Cornell, made a striking contribution to the field of psychology, showing that people are far more apt to regret things they haven’t done than things they have. In one instance, he followed up on the men and women from the Terman study, the famous collection of high-IQ students from California who were singled out in 1921 for a life of greatness.  Not one told him of regretting having children, but ten told him they regretted not having a family.

“I think this boils down to a philosophical question, rather than a psychological one,” says Gilovich.  “Should you value moment-to-moment happiness more than retrospective evaluations of your life?”  He says he has no answer for this, but the example he offers suggests a bias.  He recalls watching TV with his children at three in the morning when they were sick.  “I wouldn’t have said it was too fun at the time,” he says.  “But now I look back on it and say, ‘Ah, remember the time we used to wake up and watch cartoons?’ ”  The very things that in the moment dampen our moods can later be sources of intense gratification, nostalgia, delight.

It’s a lovely magic trick of the memory, this gilding of hard times.  Perhaps it’s just the necessary alchemy we need to keep the species going.  But for parents, this sleight of the mind and spell on the heart is the very definition of enchantment.

Nevertheless, parents are not immunised from these stress factors while it’s all going on.  A recent study by the relationship charity OnePlusOne (download PDF) examined the effects that the “Baby Quake” has on new parents.  The report included a survey of 1,403 parents, which revealed that ‘lack of sleep’ is the biggest single cause of relationship strain for couples who have just had a baby.  The research also revealed that two-fifths (42%) of parents who are no longer with the parent of their first child separated during pregnancy or before the child reached three-years-old.

So what does a 31 year old Henry Higgins take from these astonishing findings?  I have found no better guidance than an astonishing frank piece of relationship advice, “relationship coach” David Wygant phrases the dilemma in no uncertain terms and his advice is worth quoting at length:

Do you understand the picture I’m painting for you?  You’re with a woman who so desires to have children, but you see children as parasites.  You think kids are nuisances.  You just don’t see yourself as a father, but since she came along, you’ve asked yourself every day, “Can I do it?  Do I really want kids?  If I don’t want kids, can I keep dating her anyway?”

If everything I’ve just said resonates with you, then you are going to be miserable with children.  You’ll basically give yourself a prison sentence for the rest of your life.  You’ll give up the great car and drive a minivan instead.  Your girlfriend, who will now become your wife, will no longer make you feel desired.  You liked being the apple of her eye, but you’ll come second to the children.  It’s everything you don’t want.

The bottom line is that she wants children and you don’t.  So how do you compromise?  How do you keep her and still be fair to both of you?  Here’s the answer: You don’t compromise.  You don’t stay with her.  Unless you can see yourself changing diapers or as the guy on the airplane, apologising for your baby’s incessant crying, you’re not cut out for having kids [My emphasis].

(…)

If you don’t want children, you can’t stay with her.  You have no choice but to let her go. You have to be completely honest with her and let her find somebody who shares her vision of having a family.  You understand that her vision is beautiful – it’s what she wants out of life — but you don’t want the same thing for your life.  So there’s no way in the world you can stay together.  Because if you end up getting her pregnant and having a child with her, it’s a child you never wanted, and that’s not fair to the child, and it’s not fair to either of you.  You’re not going to want to be there as a father when your child needs you.  Either your life will be miserable, or she’ll end up a single mum, but the bottom line is that you don’t have any right to remain with her.  You need to set her free and allow her to live her life as she envisions it.

Well, I suppose then the next time I enter a lucid phase in my attitude to women in general and romantic relations with them in particular, I will tick the box on eHarmony or Matchdotcom that indicates in so uncertain terms that I am only interested in the first stage of procreation, not the last…

Having children does not make you happy – Part 1

03/09/2013

FatherBabyUnhappy

As I career headlong into my thirties as a bachelor and with neither the hide nor hair of a member of the opposite sex with whom to grow old, I am becoming increasingly bemused at how many of my friends are lumbering themselves with spouses and rug rats.  The writer James Friel published a wonderful piece towards the end of last year addressing this very question.  Like me, Friel writes:

In the course of my life, I have loved and lost and sometimes won, and always strangers have been kind. But I have, it appears, been set on a life of single blessedness.

And I haven’t minded.  Or rather, I realise, I haven’t minded enough.

I had a comparatively solitary upbringing.  I had to make do with my own company and now I have become used to it rather well.  I can undertake solitary activities without feeling an overwhelming sense of loneliness: reading, writing, watching films (either on DVD/Blu Ray or at the cinema – I regularly go to the cinema on my own) and a variety of physical exercise.  I am also trying to get into meditation and mindfulness.  Maybe one day I will take Sam Harris’ suggestion of being an atheist who can still have amazing “spiritual” experiences in consciousness by going off to a cave and meditating for years on end.

I have never really understood why so many other people seem to think that finding “The One” and having children is the apex of human existence.  No matter how pretty and interesting the lady, no matter who well we get on together as friends or as lovers, no matter how passionate the sex, invariably I get bored with the monotony and routine of a relationship.  I begin to resent my partner for impinging on my free time and generally find that I have better things to do.  However, I am facing increasing stigma from those who do give the pretence to be happily shacked up.  Friel continues:

They look down from the high castle of coupledom, protected from such a fate. But if I were to ask: “Why have you settled for him?  Why are you stuck with her? Were you so afraid of being alone?” such questions would be thought rude, intrusive.

Last week a friend of mine went on a date.  A foolish thing to do.  The man she met had been married three times and had a child by each wife.  An example of emotional continence I’m sure you’ll agree.  And he asked my friend, single and childless, why she had failed at life.

It was a shortish date.  Failed at life?

An even greater bugbear for me is the issue of having children.   I did not have an abusive childhood at the hands of my parents by any stretch of the imagination, however, I always wondered from a very early age why they decided to have my older sister and I since so much of their time with us was taken up by shouting at us.  I did not enjoy my school education whatsoever.  This topic is for another blog post for which I am researching extensively, but I could not in good conscience send a child to any school knowing full well the potential humiliations and brutalities that awaited them there.

When I was 11 or 12 years old, one of my cousins who was in her thirties at the time and had just had the first of four children breastfed him directly in front of me in a restaurant.  Without warning, she exposed her breast to me in public place.  My instinctive feeling was one of deep embarrassment: I did not know where to look.

When I was travelling in New Zealand and Australia in 2006 and 2007, I stayed on small farms and worked for my room and board.  Along with feeding sheep and cattle and mucking out stables, I had to look after the farm owners’ children.  With the exception of one sweet little two-year old boy who was mercilessly bullied at the hands of his older brother, I did not take well to any of them.  Furthermore, I could not see what enjoyment the parents did garner from their children as they seemed to spend so much time disciplining them and had little or no free time or money to themselves.  The experience made it vastly less likely for me to have children myself.

Since that time, I have ended relationships on the issue of parenthood.  I fail to understand why it is such a deal breaker for women.  At least two of my close female friends in their mid-thirties have ended what seemed like otherwise perfectly happy relationships because their partners at the time either did not want children or did not want any more children on top of those he already had from previous relationships.  Now they have no one, yet they are not so comfortable with being single as I am.

I have told two women that I wanted to have children with them.  The first time was in an effort to get back with a girl I before my June 2010 layoff as I realised I had taken the blogging way too far and let it interfere with my personal life.  We had split up six months earlier on the very question of having children because I didn’t want to go there.  When I told her we could get married and have children if that’s what she wanted, I was not in my right mind and now I am glad that my efforts to get things back on track with her failed.

The second woman was already married (!) and had a daughter who was then two and a half years old.  She had been dropping hints about wanting another child as practically all of her other “mummy-friends” had given birth to a second child by the time their first was two and she felt left out by the disintegration of her marriage.  I sensed at the time, and I know for certain now, that I was not being honest either with her or myself: I was simply telling her what I thought she wanted to hear in an effort to woo her away from her hellish hubby.  I also believe that I was attempting to atone for the failure of my previous relationship on the children question.

Society damns people who remain childfree as “selfish”.  Selfish?  Surely the main reason why people decide to have children in the first place is because of the enjoyment they perceive they will have in being parents.  Where does the child’s view fit into all of this?  This dark, nihilistic, existentialist thought is for another post, but I firmly believe that some people’s lives are so hapless and miserable that they are not worth living.  Life is very hard, even for those who have many material advantages.  I saw Woody Allen’s Deconstructing Harry recently and his character, Harry Block, a typically Allen-esque neurotic, depressed, sex addicted writer quoted Sophocles’ play Oedipus Rex to a hooker as an explanation for his depression: “To have never been born is perhaps the greatest boon of all.”  Perhaps those who choose to remain childfree are not so selfish after all.

There is also the terrifying matter of what kind of child you will bring into the World.  A morbid and perverse thought though this may be, but think of any psychopath, despot and mass murderer from Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin and Pol Pot to Harold Shipman, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold: they were once cooing bundles of innocent joy in their parents’ eyes and arms.  Lionel Shriver explores this shocking concept in relation to the upbringing of a future high school mass murderer in her novel, We Need To Talk About Kevin, and its equally compelling film adaptation starring Tilda Swinton and Erza Miller.

Having removed the personal issues of relationships and parenthood from my chest, my next post will examine the scientific research on the topic.

Sam Harris: On God

15/11/2010

manicstreetpreacher presents another gem from the master of the reductio ad absurdum

The beginning of the above clip is taken from ABC Nightline’s Face-Off from 23 March 2010 featuring atheists Sam Harris and Michael Shermer against sophist-merchant Deepak Chopra and believer in belief Jean Houston on “Does God Have a Future?”

Harris’ opening statement is a brilliant description of the basic characteristics of the Almighty creator of the universe adhered to by the vast majority of religious believers.  Stick this in your pipe and smoke it, all you sophisticated “scholars” of religion:

We can talk about religion as it is for most people most of the time, or we can talk about what religion could be, or should be.  Or perhaps what it is for the tiniest minority of people…

If we talk about consciousness and the laws of nature, we won’t be talking about the God that most of our neighbours believe in, which is a personal god, who hears our prayers and occasionally answers them…

The God that our neighbours believe in is essentially an invisible person.  It’s a creator deity, who created the universe to have a relationship with once species of primate.  Lucky us!

He’s got galaxy upon galaxy to attend to but he’s especially concerned with what we do, and he’s especially concerned with what we do while naked.  He most certainly does not approve of homosexuality.  And he has created this cosmos as a vast laboratory in which to test our powers of credulity.  And the test is this: Can you believe in this God on bad evidence, which is to say on faith.  And if you can you will win an eternity of happiness after you die.

And it’s precisely this sort of god or this sort of scheme that you must believe in if you are to have any kind of future in politics in this country, no matter what your gifts.  You could be an unprecedented genius, you could look like George Clooney, you could have a billion dollars and you could have the social skills of Oprah, and you are going nowhere in politics in this country unless you believe in that sort of God.

So we can talk about anything we want – I’m happy to talk about consciousness – but please notice that when we migrate away from the God that is really shaping human events or the God-talk that is really shaping human events in our world at this moment.

Full Debate Video

Full Debate Audio