Sunday, February 17, 2008

Sam Harris: You are a boob - Part 1?

Okay, as promised in the comments to my February 13 post, here are my complaints responses to the first 14-pages of Sam Harris' stupid thought-provoking book, The End of Faith. I've only been able to read one or two pages at a time because I've been filling the margins with notes and then getting too irritated to go on. I'll put my comments in order, with his section titles and page numbers. I have the 2004 Norton & Co. paperback version, which starts on page 11. Is there a foreword or an epigram? No. But the publisher is counting the title pages, table of contents, copyright page and the page of review pull-quotes in the page count. Maybe they always do this and I've just never noticed. But I thought those pages were supposed to be on some sort of other numbering system, using lowercase roman numerals.

"Reason in Exile" pgs 11-
11-12: I hate this first vignette. It provides this picture of a suicide bomber that is both callous and facile. Harris implies that the specifics are irrelevant because ultimately all suicide bombers are the same: they have no regard for life, no second thoughts, they're totally calm and devoid of personality. Oh, and they're Muslim. Through his generalized vignette, he intimates that the parents of suicide bombers are all proud of their children's actions and find them not just laudable, but cause for a neighborhood-wide celebration. While this may be true some of the time, it's certainly not true all of the time. The only reason to make such an intimation is to manipulate and inflame anti-Arab and anti-Muslim sentiment.

12: He equates "belief" in science with belief in religion, aliens and politics. So let's see here: that's science=culture, science=crazy, and science=personal preferences for cultural products.

13: Here is a fun syllogism. Most people in the world believe that the creator of the universe has written a book of some kind. Each such book claims to be infallible. THEREFORE all people who believe in sacred texts believe that those texts are infallible.

13: All of these texts agree on one point: God does not endorse respect for other religions, their values, their believers or the views of those believers. "Intolerance is thus intrinsic to every creed." Next to this I wrote, "You are a boob." The implication is, of course, that if you believe in a religion, you must also be intolerant. He follows up the previous quote with "Once a person believes - really believes - that certain ideas can lead to eternal happiness, or to its antithesis, he cannot tolerate the possibility that the people he loves might be led astray by the blandishments of unbelievers. Certainty about the next life is simply incompatible with tolerance in this one." Why is this an absolute statement? By stating this as an absolute, I am forced to think, "Not all the time." And then I thought, "Wait, so you're telling me that adherents who don't try to convert everyone they know don't really believe?" I mean, it's just disrespectful to everyone.

13: He actually says, "...criticizing a person's faith is currently taboo in every corner of our culture." Yes, because Mormonism and Scientology aren't real faiths. And depending on what part of the country you're in, neither is Catholicism.

13: "...religious beliefs are simply beyond the scope of rational discourse." My note reads, "That's because they're not rational! What are you? A Vulcan?" Seriously: anyone who has ever gone through an uebermensch phase in high school knows how irrational emotions are and how difficult they are to ignore. This was the first clue that Sam Harris has not matured past the 10th grade.

13: Okay, here is a link between my problem from page 12 and the above problem also from page 13: "Criticizing a person's ideas about God and the afterlife is thought to be impolitic in a way that criticizing his ideas about physics or history is not." That's because someone who believes gravity is one of the unappreciated "sticky" forces is a buffoon. Physics is objective. And history is really meant to be an interpretation of objective data. You can ask someone to explain their interpretation, to back it up with evidence. You can't do that with religion because it's a different kind of thing. It's silly to compare them. You might as well say, "Criticizing a person's personal taste in clothing and food is thought to be impolitic in a way that criticizing his ideas about addition or what his name is are not."

13: "And so it is that when a Muslim suicide bomber obliterates himself along with a score of innocents on a Jerusalem street, the role that faith played in his actions is invariably discounted." Whaaa? Are we reading different newspapers? Are we watching different tv stations? Because from where I sit it's far from discounted: it's so obvious, it's taken for granted. There is the second sign that Sam Harris has a 10th grade perspective on the world: he can't tell the difference between taking something for granted and discounting it. He follows this up with, "Faith itself is always, and everywhere, exonerated." That is just not true. What he sees as exoneration is, in my opinion, respect for complexity. If every suicide bomber were touted as Muslim Faithful Kills Dozens, it would leave no room in the discourse for the millions of Muslims who have not and would not blow themselves up. We talk about political alliance and economic state not because we're saying, "Faith is never dangerous," but because we want to say that faith isn't always dangerous, isn't usually dangerous.

Okay, that is just three pages and this is already really long. I'll post more later. There's fun stuff to respond to: Harris believes beauty is objective! He uses bad examples! He assumes a null hypothesis of "God doesn't exist" instead of "God does exist"! It's fun fun fun!


SonicLlama said...

Where to begin...

I thought Harris overstated his case a bit. His hammering away at Western monotheism did get a bit trying at times.

But, you'll be interested to know that Harris is anti faith and anti religion. He is not anti spirituality. I was quite surprised to find, shuffled away in the back of the book, his ideas about how great spirituality are, and how he's a fan of Buddhism and mysticism.

Is he splitting hairs? Yes, perhaps another symptom of having a 10th grade maturity level. But, I think that his distinction between faith and spirituality clears up what you have problems with.

For instance-

Let's say I believe that the earth came out of a giant egg. I really believe this. In my mind, this is utter truth.

It follows then, that I necessarily believe that Yaweh did not make it over a period of seven days, that the Titan did not create it from nothing, that Shiva had nothing to do with it's creating, that there was no Big Bang. In my mind, these are all lies.

In this model, my belief is utterly absolute. It is exclusionary, and cannot be changed by outside stimuli. On top of it all, my belief is objectively wrong.

This is bad. Really bad. This claim to truth and lack of flexibility is what Harris calls "faith," and it's a way of knowing (or rather, a way of not knowing) that we'd be better off, as a species, getting rid of.

I agree with this. I think that exclusionary, inflexible beliefs, objectively wrong beliefs are bad for people in a very fundamental way. Whether or not you label such as "religion" or "faith" is another matter. Harris ascribes the above qualities to the above two words. You might not.

And what's wrong with coming from a null hypothesis that "god doesn't exist?" I come from a null hypothesis that unicorns, leprechauns, fairies, mermaids, and dragons don't exist. That's fine. No one's going to call me unfair or hypocritical for that. If anything, god seems far more improbable than any of the above creatures. A null hypothesis seems fair to me.

I do agree with you, though, where you say that there is a difference between discounting things and taking them for granted. I do think that most people just assume a suicide bomber's religion. I certainly do. I'm not proud of admitting that, by the way.

Oddly enough, though, the book influenced me in something of a spiritual way. I hesitate to use the word "spiritual" because I'm as non-believing as ever, but it got me thinking about different uses of religion. There's religion, I think, that people use as a substitute for truth (which is what Harris doesn't like) and then there's religion that acts as a certain focus on someone's psychological life.

I think most people who go to practice religion don't really use it as a substitute for truth. We live in an age where rationality has won, were everyone takes science classes, and where those who would stand in the way of rationality are mocked in the popular media. Most people, I think, use religion as a kind of mental salve, a way to feel part of something larger than themselves, prayer as an excuse to delve into their own minds, to give names and shape to those feelings that we cannot explain. This is not a bad thing, but it's also not entirely a necessary thing.

Anyway, you know who I have respect for? Soren Kirkegaard. He was awesome. He said "Yeah, belief in God is wholly irrational. But that's okay with me. I'm still a Christian." After centuries of people trying to prove that god exists (Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Descartes, Spinoza...) Kirkegaard gets up and says "It's irrational, bitches! That's how I roll!" For some reason, I like that.

Sydney said...

I am not ignoring your comment! But I'm giving it thought so that I can properly respond. But for now, I will just say this: My real complaint, more than anything else, is that Harris repeatedly asserts that religion is solely to blame for all the bad things he describes. I'm sorry, but that's absurd. Anyone who wants to talk about terrorism and fanaticism, but who discounts the roles of socioeconomics, culture, resources and the weight of regional history, is not looking at the whole picture. In fact, s/he's not looking at even a corner of the picture. You cannot decontextualize this stuff and call it "science." And that's what Harris does, again and again. Yeah, maybe it's crazy to believe in God or the Bible or whatever. (I personally can't fathom believing that there is an all-powerful diety out there somewhere who cares one lick about me or my needs, let alone my vague aspirations and petty quarrels with other insignificant blips in space and time.) But that doesn't inherently make you dangerous. If we only believed in things we could prove to ourselves, I wouldn't believe in TV, in hearing, in speech, in my heart beating... These are things that work, and I have faith that they work, but whose operation I don't really understand. I mean, theoretically I get how a TV works. Electricity + signal in, picture + sound out. But I can't provide you any more evidence that it works than turning it on. And I could do that if I believed it was operated by fairies and corn dogs. I'm only on page 25 or so. (Or maybe I've read 25 pages now; I don't really know.) So maybe he starts to make more sense and fewer ridiculous claims in Chapter 2. I guess I'll find out if I ever manage to get that far.

I'll try to respond to your comment for reals (and not just off the top of my head) this weekend. But now I must sleep because it is about an hour later than I thought it was.
:( <-- me tommorrow morning