nothing is mere

When dialogues become duels

Why did the recent blow-up between Sam Harris and Glenn Greenwald happen? Why was my subsequent discussion with Murtaza Hussain so unproductive? More, why are squanderous squabbles like this so common? Even among intelligent, educated people with similar moral sensibilities?

To a first approximation, the answer is simple: Hussain wrote a sloppy, under-researched hit piece. More worried about Harris’ perceived support for U.S. foreign policy than about Hussain’s journalistic misconduct, Greenwald happily lent Hussain a megaphone. Egos flared and paralyzed discussion, and only a few third parties called Hussain or Greenwald out on their errors. So there the story ended.

But if all we take away from this debacle is ‘well, Those People are crazy and dumb and shouldn’t be listened to’, we’ll have missed an opportunity to hone our own craft. Habitually thinking in such terms is how they fell into error. They thought, ‘Those guys are the Enemy. So they can’t be reasoned with. They don’t deserve to have their views presented with charity and precision! They are simply to be defeated.’

And, of course, recognizing that this way of thinking is harmful still isn’t enough. They think that we are the ones in the throes of us-vs.-them thinking. The parallelism is rather comical.

And the thing is, they’re right. … And so are we.

Both sides are at the mercy of enemythink, even if only one side happens to be right on the points of fact. Even my way of framing this conversation in pugilistic terms, as a ‘conflict’ with ‘sides’, reveals a deep vulnerability to partisan animosity. To make progress, we have to actually internalize these lessons, and not just use them as more excuses to score points against the Other Side.

There are four fundamental lessons I’ve taken away from the Hussain/Greenwald libel scandal. And they really all boil down to: Getting everything wrong is easy, and treating discussions like battles or status competitions makes it worse. Put like that, our task could hardly be more simple — or more demanding.

1. There but for the grace of Rigor go I.

Rationality is hard. It isn’t a matter of getting a couple of simple metaphysical and political questions right and then coasting on your brilliance. It takes constant vigilance, effort, self-awareness. We shouldn’t be surprised to see mostly reasonable people slipping up in big ways. Rather, we should be surprised to observe that a jabbering bipedal ape is capable of being at all reasonable in the first place!

Since we’re all really, really bad at this, we need to work together and form social circles that reinforce good epistemic hygiene. We need to exchange and test ideas for combating our biases. I couldn’t put it better than Julia Galef, who lists seven superb tips for becoming a more careful reasoner and discussant.

We can’t spend all our time just clobbering everyone slightly more unreasonable than we are. We must also look inward, seeking out the deep roots of madness that make humans susceptible to dogmatism in the first place.

2. Reality is nonpartisan.

By this I don’t mean that two sides in a dispute must be equally right. Rather, I mean that falling into reflexive partisanship is dangerous, because the world doesn’t care that you’re a Skeptic, or a Libertarian, or a Consequentialist, or a Christian. You and your ideological allies might have gotten lots of questions right in the past, yet still completely flunk your next empirical test. Reality rewards you for getting particular facts right, not for declaring your allegiance to the right abstract philosophy. And it can punish without mercy those whose operative beliefs exhibit even the smallest error, however noble their intentions.

Beware of associating the truth with a ‘side’. Beware of focusing your discussion on groups of people — ‘neoconservatives’, ‘atheists’… — rather than specific ideas and arguments. In particular, treating someone you’re talking to merely as an avatar of a monolithic Ideology will inevitably lead you to oversimplify both the individual and the ideology. That is perhaps Hussain’s most transparent error. He was convinced that he knew what genus Harris belonged to, hence felt little need to expend effort on research or on parsing new arguments. Too much theory, not enough data. Too much hedgehog, not enough fox.

I think Harris worries about this too. He doesn’t like identifying as an ‘atheist’, because he strongly opposes any tendency to see simply being reasonable as an ideology in its own right.

We should not call ourselves “atheists.” We should not call ourselves “secularists.” We should not call ourselves “humanists,” or “secular humanists,” or “naturalists,” or “skeptics,” or “anti-theists,” or “rationalists,” or “freethinkers,” or “brights.” We should not call ourselves anything. We should go under the radar—for the rest of our lives. And while there, we should be decent, responsible people who destroy bad ideas wherever we find them.

[... R]ather than declare ourselves “atheists” in opposition to all religion, I think we should do nothing more than advocate reason and intellectual honesty—and where this advocacy causes us to collide with religion, as it inevitably will, we should observe that the points of impact are always with specific religious beliefs—not with religion in general. There is no religion in general.

I’m not sure this is the best strategy for banding together to save the world. Labels can be useful tools for pooling our efforts. But it’s absolutely a good strategy when it comes to improving our intellectual clarity on an individual level, any time we see ourselves starting to use tribal allegiances as a replacement for analytic vigilance.

philosoraptor

Partisan divides lead to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to you committing inferential fallacies. Therefore, don’t just get mad, and don’t just get even; get it right. You have far more to fear from your own errors than from your adversary’s.

3. When you have a criticism, talk it over first.

It sounds banal, but you’d be surprised how much mileage this one gets you. Starting a direct conversation, ideally someplace private, makes it easy for people to change their minds without immediately worrying about their public image. It lets them explain their position, if you’ve misunderstood something. And it establishes a more human connection, encouraging learning and collaboration rather than a clash of egos.

Neither Hussain nor Greenwald extended that basic courtesy to Harris; they went for the throat first. Harris did extend that courtesy to Greenwald; but Greenwald wasn’t interested in talking things out in any detail, preferring to go public immediately.

Like Harris, I tried actually talking to Greenwald and Hussain. The result was revealing, and relatively civil. I still came away disappointed, but it was at least several steps up from the quality of Hussain’s dialogue with Harris. Had we begun with such a conversation, rather than waiting until the disputants were already entrenched in their positions, I suspect that much more progress would have been possible.

If you intensely oppose a view, that makes it all the more important to bracket egos and get clear on the facts right at the outset. All of this is consistent with subsequently bringing the discussion to the public, if the other party doesn’t respond, if you’re left dissatisfied, or if you are satisfied and want to show off how awesome your conversation was.

4. To err is human. To admit it, tremendously healthy.

Everyone screws up sometimes. The trick to really being a competent conversationalist is to notice when you screw up — to attend to it, really ponder it and let it sink in—

— and then to swiftly and mercilessly squish the mistake. Act as though you yourself were pointing out an enemy’s error. Critique it fully, openly, and aggressively.

Making concessions when you’ve screwed up, or when you and your opponent share common ground, makes your other positions stronger and more credible. Because you’ve proven that you can change your mind and notice conflicts between your theory and your data, you’ve also demonstrated that your other views are likely to track the evidence.

Don’t think, ‘Well, I’m right in spirit.’ Don’t think, ‘My mistake isn’t important. This is a distraction. I should keep a laser focus on where I’m right.’ If you ignore too many small errors, they’ll add up to a big error. If you don’t fully recognize when you’ve misjudged the evidence, but just shrug it off and return to the battlefront, then, slowly but surely, you and the facts will drift further and further apart. And you’ll never notice — for what evidence could convince you that you aren’t listening to the evidence?

Constant vigilance! That’s the lesson I take from this. Be uncompromisingly methodical. Be consistently reasonable. Never allow your past intellectual triumphs or your allegiance to the Good Guys to make you sloppy. Always seek the truth — even when the truth is a painful thing.

Realities to which you have anesthetized yourself can damage your person and your mind all the same. You just won’t notice in time to change them.

19 Comments

  1. Thanks to Chana Messinger (of The Merely Real) and Kate Donovan (of Ashley Miller) for helping proofread this! Go read their blogs, and become enlightened.

  2. alconnolly

    A lot of good points. But all in service of an interpretation of the brouhaha that leaves Harris completely innocent and misunderstood. When in reality for instance the quotes by Harris in the piece espouse a wonderful ideals that are belied by Harris actual actions. He does when it comes to Islam present his fight as with “Islam in general” in many overreaching comments rather than particular bad ideas. Your characterization of the original article (which I agree did not have nuance) as a “hit piece” shows you do not even see it as a legitimate debate, but rather an unfair attack, so applying all the “learning principles” you promote, you come away with well the other side is wrong and promoting “hit pieces”. Where is the learning and nuance?

    • I see the article as a hit piece because of its lack of concern for the facts, not because of any of its main theses in isolation. Interesting arguments could be given for at least some of Hussain’s points; he just didn’t provide any. So I’m not ruling out the possibility of a productive discussion about this. And I hope that if you disagree with me (or with Harris) you can still gain a lot from the ideas I brought up above.

      The mark of a good article is that I can disagree with it vociferously, but learn a lot in the process. That I learned almost nothing from Hussain is thus a far more serious indictment than that I happened to disagree with his claims. As you note, Hussain’s article wasn’t nuanced; and to act nuanced about something that isn’t nuanced in reality is to deceive (or be deceived).

      In any case, I’m happy to talk about those issues in a more serious way now. The specific concern you raise is that Harris talks too much in Big Generalizations when he criticizes Islam. This is so, and it’s largely because he thinks that the Qur’an itself is not a nuanced book. He thinks its message is relatively unified, simple, and transparent. Hence inasmuch as Islam is the religion advocated in the Qur’an, Islam itself is simple, and its doctrines can be expounded in most cases without ambiguity. Harris then concludes from the fact that Muslims nowadays disagree radically about all sorts of issues, not that his original take on the Qur’an was wrong, but that many Muslims these days (to varying extents) are not adhering to Islam well, or indeed aren’t adhering to Islam at all. In fact, he’d probably say much the same about most contemporary Jews. Recognizing that goes a long way toward understanding why he feels so free to make quick generalizations. To show that he’s wrong, then, you’ll need to either show that the One True Interpretation of the Qur’an is different from the militant interpretation he prefers; or you’ll need to show that there are many comparably plausible interpretations, and no easy way of adjudicating which is right.

      • Anonymous

        Thank you for attempting a rational response. I do not see the bar you set of having to prove one individuals arbitrary definition of true Islam to be false as requiring proving what true Islam is. by the same token I could do the same thing with the bible. the whole approach ignores completely how religion works. people in different situation at different times emphasis particular understandings of holy texts that are useful out convenient to their particular needs. So Islam is what it is to people who define themselves as Muslims. even Harris accepts that his definition is not what the majority of Muslims find legitimate. those who practice the faith get to show by there actions and life what their faith is.

        • I think Harris would respond that you’re mainly quibbling with his word meanings here. By ‘Islam’ he means a religion (plausibly) prescribed by the Qur’an, not just any religion that a lot of people have ever thought was prescribed by the Qur’an. For instance, if a bunch of people decide that advocating the exact doctrines of Christianity is itself a legitimate way of being a devout Muslim, that does not make them correct; such people are following Christianity, not Islam. ‘Islam’ is not an infinitely malleable concept.

          One way of clarifying the disagreement is to distinguish these two different concepts of ‘Islam’ in writing. For example, we can define ‘Islam-A’ as religion(s) reasonably based on the Qur’an (what Harris thinks ‘Islam’ is), and we can define ‘Islam-B’ as religion(s) that some people think are based on the Qur’an (what you think ‘Islam’ is). This will discourage equivocation. Harris’ criticisms are all focused on Islam-A, not on Islam-B; it is Islam-A that he thinks cannot be benign, whereas Islam-B he is happy to acknowledge can be perfectly harmless, even good. But inasmuch as Islam-B continues to mostly just be a manifestation of Islam-A, Islam in both senses will remain destructive of human welfare.

          To show he’s wrong, you need to show that Islam-A isn’t what he thinks it is; simply switching the topic of conversation to Islam-B won’t help.

      • decourse

        I have one slight nit about the last paragraph.

        To disagree with Harris on the interpretation of the Qur’an, you don’t have to show that he’s wrong. He has to show that he’s right. It’s therefore sufficient to show that at least one other (non-militant) plausible interpretation has a sufficiently long and widely-held tradition within Islam, and then it’s up to Harris to show why his interpretation should be understood as the One True Interpretation.

  3. decourse

    The Dunning-Kruger may play a role here too.

    Being an intelligent person, especially if you are accomplished in one field, means that you run the risk that you think that you have something useful and correct to say about other fields in which you lack expertise. Being an expert journalist does not make you an expert on modern atheist thinking any more than being an expert neuroscientist makes you an expert on moral philosophy (to pick two completely hypothetical examples).

    The problem could be even worse if you have attracted a crowd of fanboys. (Still hypothetical, you understand.)

    It’d be nice if there were a way to publish a half-baked opinion as a half-baked opinion to let other people shoot holes in it, and there be no social repercussion for having done so if it turns out to be wrong.

    • I absolutely agree with your last paragraph. I think this would be a very healthy practice to start cultivating, particularly if it got people into the habit of publicly changing their mind on a regular basis.

      I don’t think Dunning-Kruger is the right bias here. Dunning-Kruger is really a combination of two biases: Illusory superiority in people who lack the experience needed to carefully assess their own skills, and typical mind fallacy in people who have acquired that competence but mistakenly think that other people have somewhat similar levels of competence. The result is that competent people underestimate their ability, while incompetent people overestimate it.

      If ‘skill’ here is being assessed as a single property, then Dunning-Kruger predicts that as you get more ‘skill’, you across-the-board think you’re worse at everything. If instead skills are individualized to different fields, then Dunning-Kruger predicts that an expert will underestimate the level of her high-level-skill and overestimate the level of her low-level-skill. But those are independent effects; they don’t necessarily interact. What you want is instead a causal effect where the presence of high-level skills makes one overestimate one’s low-level skills, which is very different from Dunning-Kruger.

      Anecdotally I can think of a lot of examples of expertise causing people to be overconfident about beliefs regarding things outside their area of expertise. But are there studies showing that this is true in general?

  4. Anonymous

    The Anonymous comment was me as I was on my phone and could not login. As Decourse mentioned Sam Harris does not have a legitimate claim to take what the vast majority of self defined Muslims on the planet consider their faith to be, and say that is incorrect. Regardless if he wants to rant about the dangers of “Islam” then he needs to say that a very proportionally small number of self identified Muslims people have a belief system which he considers to be “true Islam TM” and that they are dangerous. The funny thing is the quote you had from Harris basically says just that. But it is very different from how he operates. The dunning Krueger effect was, I believe mentioned, as it seems to apply to Harris holding forth as an expert in areas he is not particularly experienced in, an overconfidence seemingly born of his confidence in his expertise in unrelated fields.

    • To be clear, I was not just referring to Sam Harris when I was talking about the Dunning-Kruger effect or general problem of people overstepping their bounds of expertise. I do hope that was clear from what I wrote.

      I’ve personally seen more of Harris’ blunders than those of others (e.g. his “contributions” to the debates over airport security and gun policy; the fact that he hasn’t weighed in on the electronic surveillance debate makes me think far more highly of him), largely because of the blogs I’m subscribed to.

      However, I’m well aware that he’s not the only smart person out there to whom this happens.

      • Aladdin Connolly

        Thanks for the clarification Decourse. I did understand that the point was being made broadly, but focused on it’s relevance in regards to the subject matter being discussed.

    • “Harris does not have a legitimate claim to take what the vast majority of self defined Muslims on the planet consider their faith to be, and say that is incorrect.”

      Why not? If most people think the Earth is flat, that doesn’t make it flat. People can be wrong, en masse. Some argument has to be given against Harris’ view of Islam besides ‘most Muslims disagree with him’.

      You might respond that by definition Islam is whatever most Muslims take it to be. But this doesn’t seem quite right; if a group of Muslims thought that they could best follow Islam by adhering to all and only the doctrines we think of as Christianity, then they would be Christians, not Muslims. These labels are not infinitely plastic. Moreover, if your argument is merely definitional, then you risk equivocating when you suggest that Harris is wrong about Islam, as opposed to suggesting that he is merely using the word ‘Islam’ in an infelicitous way. Read my Islam-A / Islam-B distinction above, and ask questions if you didn’t understand what I was getting at.

      “The dunning Krueger effect was, I believe mentioned, as it seems to apply to Harris holding forth as an expert in areas he is not particularly experienced in”

      That’s the opposite of how the Dunning-Kruger effect paradigmatically works. Dunning-Kruger says that if you’re more competent, you’ll be underconfident of your abilities, whereas people without expertise are overconfident.

      • decourse

        If I’m reading you correctly, you seem to be arguing that the land between Canada and Mexico is not the United States of America, because the United States of America by definition has inviolable laws against unreasonable search and seizure, against cruel and unusual punishment, and against wholesale spying on its own citizens. Since it doesn’t do that, it can’t be the United States of America.

        In fact, the only useful definition of Islam is that it’s an umbrella term which describes a number of related religious traditions which trace those traditions back to Muhammed. Like all non-techincal words, “Islam” is not infinitely plastic, but nor does it have fixed or strict boundaries. That which we call “democracy” is not the same as what the Ancient Greeks did.

        Similarly, the denotation of the word “Islam” changes over time. It must, because language change is inevitable and unstoppable.

        I think the problem with the Islam-A/Islam-B argument is that once again, it starts with the assumption that what “Islam reasonably based on the Qu’ran” and “what Sam Harris thinks Islam is” are the same thing. It’s a matter of historical record that the kind of Islamic fundamentalism that Harris sees as authentic dates back to the 18th century, and only gained a significant following in the 19th. To say that a form of Islam which has existed for 20% of Islam’s history is the most reasonable interpretation doesn’t seem to be a historically valid argument.

        If you’d called it “Harris-Islam” instead of “Islam-A”, that would probably have made more sense.

        Incidentally, that’s exactly how I understand the Dunning-Kruger effect as well, and that’s why I think it’s appropriate to apply to these “duel dialogues”. An intelligent person who lacks expertise in some area is more likely to overestimate how valuable their contribution to that area will be. Hence, Sam Harris on airport security.

        • You’ve proposed a third definition for ‘Islam’, so maybe it’s time to adopt names that are more descriptive than ‘A’, ‘B’, ‘C':

          A. Qur’anic Islam – the religion espoused by the Qur’an

          B. self-label Islam – any religion thought to be based on the Qur’an

          C. lineage Islam – any religion in the lineage of Muhammad and his followers

          “If I’m reading you correctly, you seem to be arguing that the land between Canada and Mexico is not the United States of America”

          This is a good argument, enough that I think a defense of the ‘Islam-A’ definition is required, else we should ditch that definition. But I think such a defense isn’t too difficult to make. For starters:

          1. The definition of ‘U.S.’ isn’t perfectly rigid, as you note. But it too also isn’t infinitely plastic. A historian studying the nation wouldn’t conceptualize that nation so fluidly that absolutely any changes, as long as they were gradual or incremental, would leave the original nation intact. For instance, it’s not easy to determine when the Roman Empire ended, and people have long claimed to be the legally and/or culturally legitimate continuation of that empire; but that doesn’t prevent historians from recognizing that the Roman Empire did in fact end, and this ending need not coincide with the period when most people stopped thinking of themselves as ‘Romans’.

          The take-away here is that there isn’t a single universal rule we can use to determine the legitimate use of ‘Islam'; the Rome example shows that even common usage isn’t sufficient. (Words like ‘Muslim’ and ‘Islam’ can come to mean something completely different than they initially did.) Rather, we have to look at the details of Islam’s history, define an explanatory project, and figure out what definition will be most useful in the context of that project. Here the project seems to be ‘Evaluating the factual and moral status of the Qur’an and of the traditions inspired by it’. Do we agree about that?

          2. Is Islam more like a nation? Or is it more like an ideology? Nations are often distinguished by a continuity in transference-of-power and in symbology (e.g., name), more so than by the exact degree to which they adhere to founding documents. (Though such documents still matter. ) In contrast, it very much is the norm to identify ideologies with the actual doctrines espoused by key intellectual founders, and to say that the original ideology is gone when enough key tenets from the founding documents have been abandoned.

          3. Muslims themselves routinely claim that Islam just is the practices and beliefs espoused in the Qur’an. If you assume that ‘Muslim’ just means ‘anyone who claims to follow a religion they call “Islam”‘, or ‘anyone strongly influenced by the Qur’an’, then you (ironically) dismiss the perspective of most Muslims, who routinely accuse one another of not being ‘true Muslims’ (because of failure to adhere to the Right Interpretation of the Qur’an) and routinely deny that there even are denominations of Islam. So even if our goal is to construct a definition that is deferential to Muslims, it’s still not clear whether we should favor Qur’anic Islam, self-label Islam, or lineage Islam.

          4. Lineage Islam doesn’t conform with standard usage any more than Qur’anic Islam does — for instance, it classifies Bahá’ís as Muslims because they consider Muhammad part of their lineage. Moreover, we’d get even more wrong answers if we consistently employed definitions like these; we’d have to categorize Christianity and Islam as denominations of Judaism, for instance.

          • decourse

            This an interesting discussion, and I wish I had the time to devote to it that it deserves. I’m going to skim a bit, and I apologise if I left anything out that is important.

            Here the project seems to be ‘Evaluating the factual and moral status of the Qur’an and of the traditions inspired by it’. Do we agree about that?

            I’m not sure that I do. Even a Muslim who says that Islam is just following what’s in the Qur’an will concede that the tradition of interpretation and jurisprudence is deeply built-in.

            Is Islam more like a nation? Or is it more like an ideology?

            I don’t think those questions have a simple answer. Some aspects of it are more like a nation, some aspects are more like an ideology, some aspects are more like an ethnicity, and so on. Even then, it would depend on the specific tradition; Sufism is much less like a “nation” than Salafism.

            Lineage Islam doesn’t conform with standard usage any more than Qur’anic Islam does — for instance, it classifies Bahá’ís as Muslims because they consider Muhammad part of their lineage.

            I think that’s stretching what I said, or perhaps what I meant to say. Bahá’ís are not Muslims because they don’t claim to be. But there are interesting fuzzy cases, like whether or not the LDS movement is Christian.

            For better or worse, there are no firm boundaries on what most non-technical words mean. Linguists have known this at least since Wittgenstein.

            • “says that Islam is just following what’s in the Qur’an will concede that the tradition of interpretation and jurisprudence is deeply built-in.”

              “Deeply built-in” according to the Qur’an itself?

              Regardless, I agree it’s relevant. But it’s mostly relevant insofar as it helps us actually better understand the Qur’an in its own right (hence Qur’anic Islam) or helps us better understand the modern beliefs of a large portion of humanity (hence Lineage Islam). Those are two different projects, and they both matter.

              “I don’t think those questions have a simple answer.”

              I agree. My intent was to problematize your analogy to the U.S. and suggest that Harris’ treatment of Islam as an ideology isn’t completely illegitimate. But I don’t want to dismiss the existence of lineage Islam, as an intellectual, cultural, and political reality. We don’t need to choose just one of the three definitions I mentioned as the be-all end-all; but we do need to agree on which one we’re talking about at a given time.

              “Bahá’ís are not Muslims because they don’t claim to be.”

              So it sounds like you’re abandoning Lineage Islam here in favor of the concept I was originally criticizing, Self-Label (or ‘Type B’) Islam. Here my objection was that if we define ‘Muslim’ as ‘anyone who claims to be a Muslim’, it loses its content; we’ll end up with people who are far closer to the Qur’an and hadith in beliefs being labeled as non-Muslims if they happen not to like the word ‘Muslim’ (and its counterparts in different languages), while people with virtually no Islamic beliefs or heritage are called ‘Muslims’ merely because they like the word. That’s too much elasticity to be useful, at least if our goal is to have substantive religious and political debates.

              “For better or worse, there are no firm boundaries on what most non-technical words mean.”

              My objection to ‘Lineage Islam’ and ‘Self-Label Islam’ isn’t that they’re fuzzy at the edges; it’s that the former radically diverges from standard usage, while the latter is contentless.

              P.S. In case you didn’t notice, my reply has a second part that follows. You don’t need to respond if you’re only interested in this portion, though.

        • “That which we call “democracy” is not the same as what the Ancient Greeks did.”

          I take that as good reason not to use the word ‘democracy’ without qualification. You take the modus ponens road, I’ll take the modus tollens one. I’ll happily admit that most people don’t understand ‘Islam’ in the exact sense Harris uses it, and don’t understand ‘democracy’ in the exact sense I use it; that’s a good reason for us to spend some time explaining what we mean, but it’s not a good reason for us to defer to common usage, because common usage is a confused mishmash.

          “Similarly, the denotation of the word ‘Islam’ changes over time. It must, because language change is inevitable and unstoppable.”

          We’re not talking about language change over historical periods; we’re talking about what ‘Islam’ should mean for the purposes of contemporary discussions. I take it as a given that we shouldn’t see the word change in meaning over the course of this conversation, since that would lead to equivocation. And I take it as a given that the word won’t mean the same thing for this conversation as it’s meant in all times and places. But it should still have a fixed meaning right now, else we’ll run into contradictions or fallacies. ‘Nice’ meant something different in the 16th century than it means today, but that doesn’t mean that when we talk about historical events from the 16th century we switch to using the word in its archaic sense; no, we speak about the past primarily using the language of the present.

          “it starts with the assumption that what ‘Islam reasonably based on the Qu’ran’ and ‘what Sam Harris thinks Islam is’ are the same thing”

          That’s being asserted based on evidence, not assumed without argument. http://www.truthdig.com/images/diguploads/verses.html

          “It’s a matter of historical record that the kind of Islamic fundamentalism that Harris sees as authentic dates back to the 18th century, and only gained a significant following in the 19th.”

          The kind of militant Islam Harris is concerned about is one that believes in the inferiority and subjugation of women, that supports killing apostates, that supports the imposition of religious law onto non-Muslims, that valorizes war, that assigns martyrs special reward in Heaven, and that endorses hellfire and damnation for non-Muslims. What is your evidence that these attitudes originated in the 18th century, or that they had no significant following until the 19th century?

          “To say that a form of Islam which has existed for 20% of Islam’s history is the most reasonable interpretation doesn’t seem to be a historically valid argument.”

          I haven’t accepted your dating, but if I did, you’d still have more to demonstrate. 20th-century Christian fundamentalism has in many respects had a more careful, faithful, and defensible interpretation of passages of scripture than even the Church Fathers had. Augustine, for instance, believed that Genesis 1 was largely metaphorical, whereas modern historians generally accept that it was initially intended to be literal. Sometimes fundamentalism and literalism are historically sound hermeneutical perspectives; not everything the ancients wrote was a labyrinth of riddles, parables, and campfire stories.

          “If you’d called it ‘Harris-Islam’ instead of ‘Islam-A’, that would probably have made more sense.”

          That would be begging the question in my favor, since it would be assuming that Harris’ conception of Islam is the same as Qur’anic Islam (i.e., the same as Islam-A). What we’re debating is whether Islam-A (i.e., Qur’anic Islam) is as Harris claims it to be. I only brought up ‘Islam-B’ and ‘Islam-C’ to make sure we didn’t accidentally conflate these different conceptions of what it would even mean to be ‘Islam’. Once we agree on what it takes to qualify as ‘Islam’, we can then have a substantive debate about whether some description meets the relevant criteria. In the case of Qur’anic Islam, the criteria are that the description be faithful to the text of the Qur’an, on its most historically credible interpretation(s). We could also incorporate hadith, but that would complicate the picture since Muslims disagree about which hadith are ṣaḥīḥ or hasan.

  5. Dammit I guess that last one went up as anonymous as well this is alconnolly

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