Should secularists have man-free events?

This is a shorter version of a Center for Inquiry blog post.

women-onlyInspired by UNIFI and other campus groups’ activities, the Secular Alliance at Indiana University has been debating the advantages and the risks of hosting women-only events. I think some of the arguments raised by both sides will be useful and relevant to other groups seeking to reach out to different demographics and combat internal inequalities.

In the hopes of encouraging more widespread discussion of ways to concretely improve our communities, I raise four objections to the idea of an exclusive women’s group, and four responses.

A women’s group serves no purpose.

Having smaller meetings for secularists with specific shared interests or backgrounds can be very rewarding for those members. It’s a fact that women in our society tend to have a number of common experiences that men don’t, including encounters with religious strictures and expectations that don’t apply to men. If a women’s group helps members talk more freely about these experiences – and/or is just a crazy amount of fun – then it has a purpose. Statistically, men and women also tend to have different talents, interests, and beliefs, which means that diversifying in one way can help you diversify in many others.

Whether this is the best solution may vary from group to group, but most groups would probably benefit from at least talking the option over. Even groups with a well-balanced membership and leadership could benefit from having a women’s subgroup – because it erodes low-grade gender bias, for example. As Virginia Valian notes, men tend to interact with women as they do with inferiors, avoiding eye contact when the woman is speaking and taking for granted that they aren’t in leadership positions. In a 1975 study by Don Zimmerman and Candice West, men were found to interrupt women in conversation over twenty times as often as women interrupted men. Having a space for women to talk can counteract that effect. It can also draw attention to the disparity, making women more likely to speak out when they’re talked over or dismissed.

Banning men from certain events is discriminatory and alienates members.

One way of expressing this objection is to demand that if women get their own events from which men are barred, then men should also get events that exclude women.

But some forms of exclusion can be OK, even if others are not. A group that excludes women is not equivalent to one that excludes men, for the simple reason that we live in a culture that heavily privileges men over women. Creating events that increase the autonomy of men at the expense of women reinforces that disparity, whereas creating events that increase the autonomy of women at the expense of men does not, and may even erode certain inequalities.

Consider a group that was only for black Americans, to give them a safe space to share their experiences with racism without having to explain or justify things to people of other ethnic and cultural backgrounds. This might not be a completely unproblematic idea, but it at least is a lot easier to see the justification and use for such a group than it is to see the justification for a whites-only group. Similarly, a group that was only for gay men (excluding, e.g., straight allies) could be justified without appeal to essentialism or intrinsic superiority (and without endorsing groups that ban gay men!), simply by noting that our culture imposes different expectations and experiences on gay men and that there may be a need for people of this demographic to express themselves in a place where they feel relatively safe, supported, and understood. If these two sorts of groups make sense, then a group that’s only for women also makes sense.

A women’s group presupposes a clear gender dichotomy.

Not every freethinker or humanist identifies exclusively or exhaustively as a ‘man’ or a ‘woman’. How will they know whether they’re welcome at a women-only event? Genderqueer, intersex, etc. college students are likely to already be suffering as a result of our society’s mania with fitting everyone into ready-made boxes. The last thing we want is to make them feel that they have to ‘pick a side’ or explicitly justify their gender identity (which may differ from their gender expression, their genital sex, their chromosome line-up, etc.) to a bunch of near-strangers, just to participate in some light recreation and enlightening discussion.

This is probably the biggest problem with a women’s group. Even if it seems unlikely that someone who shows up to one of the women’s events and doesn’t identify as a man but ‘looks too male’ might be mistreated, the bare possibility may cause some of our members to feel anxious, confused, excluded, or erased. Adding more groups (like an LGBT one) might help in this respect, but it wouldn’t totally solve the problem, because it would still depend on forcing people to figure out the vagaries of their personal identity before they can come play Jenga or go horseback riding. Creating a group for ‘non-men’ rather than for ‘women’ would be more inclusive, but it doesn’t totally eliminate the problem, because there will always be people whose status as a ‘man’ is undefined or who fall outside the group only as a technicality.

I think the only adequate response to this objection is to talk about it and hear what individual members think. We can’t eliminate every possible way we could offend anybody in advance, before we’ve actually talked things over face-to-face. But we can raise the issue in a sensitive and open-minded way, letting everyone express why they think it’s a great idea, or why it troubles them, or how they’d like the events to be framed. There’s no way we’ll please everyone, but at least people will feel they’ve been heard.

If we end up affirming the need for events like this in spite of their dependence on defined genders, I expect it will be because we live in a culture where it’s simply a fact that ‘women’, as conceived by the masses and by cultural authorities, are a reified class. You don’t need to erase bisexuals or essentialize ‘gayness’ or ‘maleness’ in order to build a group responding to the fact that gay men are a special group defined and disadvantaged by our culture. And you don’t need to erase mixed-race people or essentialize ‘blackness’ in order to build a group responding to the fact that black people are a special group defined and oppressed by our existing culture.

Similarly, a group for women can be defined in terms of the sorts of experiences being treated as ‘a woman’ inevitably involved in our society. Even if you don’t strongly identify as a ‘woman’, if you feel you’ve had those experiences, you’re welcome to join the group. Pretending socially constructed groups don’t exist won’t make them go away, and it certainly won’t alleviate any of the inequalities that attend their construction.

Is “Islamophobia” real?

This is a shorter version of an April 8 Secular Alliance at Indiana University blog post.

My previous post on the Sam Harris / Glenn Greenwald clusterfuffle was mostly procedural. I restricted myself to assessing the authenticity of Murtaza Hussain’s citations, barely touching on the deeper issues of substance he and Greenwald raised. But now that we’re on the topic, this is a great opportunity to pierce through the rhetoric and try to get clearer about what’s actually being disputed.

My biggest concern with the criticisms of Harris is that they freely shift between a number of different accusations, often as though they were equivalent. At the moment, the most salient seem to be:

A. He’s a racist, and has a racially motivated hatred of Muslims.
B. He has an intensely irrational fear and hatred of Muslims.
C. He has an intensely irrational fear and hatred of Islam.
D. His concerns about Islam are exaggerated.
E. He doesn’t appreciate just how harmful and dangerous the United States is.
F. He advocates militarism and condones violence in general.

I’d like to start disentangling these claims, in the hopes of encouraging actual discussions — and not just shouting matches — about them. Although I’ll use Harris and his recent detractors as a revealing test case, the conclusions here will have immediate relevance to any discussion in which people strongly disagree about the nature and geopolitical significance of Islamic extremism.

Racism?

In “Scientific racism, militarism, and the new atheists“, Hussain focuses on [A], trying to pattern-match Harris’ statements to trends exemplified in 18th- and 19th-century pseudoscience. It seems chiefly motivated by the fact that Harris, like a number of historical racists, opposed the aims of a disadvantaged group and, well, is a scientist.

Commenting on my previous post, Hussain appeared to shift gears and back off from accusing Harris of racism:

[T]he point of the post [I wrote] is not “Sam Harris is racist”. Indeed, as he accurately noted, he has a black Muslim friend. The point is that he conciously [sic] lends his scientific expertise to the legitimation of racist policies. He is also an avowed partisan and not a neutral, disinterested observer to these issues. .He [sic] is not speaking in terms of pure abstraction, and he is not as a scientist immune from the pull of ideology (as the racist pseudoscientists I compared him with illustrate). […]

Politics is my field, science is his field, and I would not make dangerously ignorant comments about neuroscience. He on the other hand feels little compulsion [sic] about doing the same politically and using his authority as a scientist and philosopher to justify the actions of those who would commit (and *have committed*) the most utterly heinous acts in recent memory.

I couldn’t care less about his atheist advocacy, I couldn’t care less if he blasphemed a million Quran’s [sic], what I care about is policies of torture and murder not being once again granted a veneer of scientific protection

I’d make three points in response. First, to my knowledge Harris has never made anything resembling the claim ‘I am a scientist, ergo my views on world politics must be correct’.

Second, although I grant that someone’s scientific background doesn’t automatically make her a reliable political commentator, experience with the sciences also doesn’t invalidate one’s future work in political or ethical theorizing. It’s possible to responsibly specialize in more than one thing in life. Moreover, interdisciplinary dialogue is a good thing, and there really are findings from the mind sciences that have important implications for our political tactics and goals. Blindly rejecting someone’s views because she has a Ph.D. in neuroscience is as bad as blindly accepting someone’s views just because she has a Ph.D. in neuroscience!

My third response is that Hussain’s attempt to backtrack from accusing Harris of racism is transparently inconsistent with his earlier statements. If he’s changed his mind, he should just say so, rather than pretend that his article is devoid of bald assertions like:

[T]he most prominent new atheists slide with ease into the most virulent racism imaginable. […]

Harris engages in a nuanced version of the same racism which his predecessors in scientific racism practiced in their discussion of the blanket characteristics of “Negroes”. […]

[Harris is in a] class with the worst proponents of scientific racism of the 20th century – including those who helped provide scientific justification for the horrors of European fascism.

That certainly doesn’t sound like an effort to maintain neutrality on Harris’ personal view of race, to merely criticize his support for “racist policies“. If such was Hussain’s intended message, then he failed rather spectacularly in communicating it.

In point of fact, I agree with Hussain and Greenwald that racism directed at Muslims is a very real problem, and that it really does lurk in the hearts of a distressingly large number of critics of Islam. (Harris agrees, too.) As Hussain rightly notes, the fact that Islam is not a race is irrelevant. It happens to be the case that most Muslims aren’t of European descent; and for most white supremacists, that’s enough.

The point here isn’t that it’s impossible to oppose Islam for bad reasons, including hideously racist ones. It’s that there may be good reasons, or bad but non-racist ones, to oppose Islam as well. In the case of Harris, we have no reason to think that any race- or skin-color-specific bias is responsible for his stance on Islam. All the undistorted evidence Hussain cites is only relevant to charges [B]-[F] in my above list. This is perhaps why Greenwald, who followed up with a much more measured article, sets the race issue aside before proceeding to make his case against Harris.

Xenophobia?

Following Greenwald, let’s momentarily bracket race. Is there any cause to be concerned more generally that the tone or content of criticism of Islam may be based in some latent fear of the foreign, the unknown?

Not in all cases, no. Plenty of critics of Islam have all too intimate and first-hand an understanding of the more oppressive and destructive elements of Islamic tradition.

But in some cases? In many cases? Perhaps even, to some extent, in Harris’ case, or in mine?

Sure.

I’m just trying to be honest and open here, and do a little soul-searching. I’m trying to understand where writers like Greenwald and Hussain are coming from. I’m trying to extract my own lessons from their concerns, even if I disagree strongly with their chosen methods and conclusions.

I can’t 100% dismiss out of hand the idea that part of the explanation for the degree and nature of our aversion to Islam really is its unfamiliarity. That’s just human psychology: When apparent dangers are weird and foreign and agenty, we’re more attentive to them, and we respond to them more quickly, strongly, and decisively. I am woefully ignorant of what day-to-day life is like nearly everywhere in the world, and no matter how much I try to understand what it’s like to be a Muslim in different societal or geographic settings, I’ll never bridge the gap completely. And that ignorance will inevitably color my judgments and priorities to some extent. I hate it, but it’s true.

Although on introspection I detect no traces of ethnic animus or cultural bias in my own head — if I did, I’d have already rooted it out, to the best of my ability — I can’t totally rule out the possibility that some latent aversion to the general Otherness of Islam is having some effect on the salience I psychologically assign to apparent threats from militant Islamism. Being biased doesn’t feel a particular way. Particularly given that we’re hypothesizing small, cumulative errors in judgment (‘micro-xenophobia’), not some overarching, horns-and-trumpets Totalitarian World-View. Everyone on the planet succumbs to small biases of that sort, to unconscious overreliance on uneducated intuitions and overgeneralized schemas.

And to say that these sorts of errors are common, and are very difficult to combat, is in no way to excuse them. I’m not admitting the possibility so that I can then be complacent about it. If I am in fact systematically biased, then I could cause some real damage without even realizing it. It’s my responsibility as a human being to very carefully and rigorously test whether (or to what extent) I am making errors of this sort.

… But the coin has two sides.

It’s just as possible that the biased ones are the people whose criticisms have been quieted by their experience with the positive elements of Islamic tradition. It’s just as possible that generally valuable heuristics like ‘be culturally tolerant’ are resulting in a destructive pro-Islam bias (‘micro-relativism’?). It’s just as possible that small (or large) attentional and inferential errors are coloring the views of Islam’s defenders, making them ignore or underestimate the risks Harris is talking about. Benevolent racism is just as real as malevolent racism.

The take-away message isn’t that one side or the other is certainly wrong, just because bias or bad faith could account for some of the claims made by either side. It’s worthwhile to set aside some time to sit quietly, to try and really probe your reasons for what you believe, see whether they are as strong as you thought, place yourself in the other side’s shoes for a time. But a general skepticism or intellectual despair can’t rationally follow from that. Perhaps we’re all biased, albeit in different directions; but, given how high the stakes are, we still have to talk about these things, and do our best to become more reasonable.

Importantly, one thing we can’t automatically take away from a discovery that some person is being irrational or bigoted, is the conclusion that that person’s arguments or conclusions are mistaken. Someone’s reasoning can be flawless even if the ultimate psychological origins for his belief are ridiculous. And, for that matter, purity of heart is no guarantor of accuracy!

It’s not good enough to feel righteous. It’s not even good enough to be righteous, or have the best of intentions. We have to put in the extra hard work of becoming right. So, with that moment of reflection behind us, we must return with all the more urgency to determining the relationships between charges of ‘racism’, ‘Islamophobia’, ‘militarism’, and so on.

Islamophobia?

In “Sam Harris, the New Atheists, and anti-Muslim animus”, Greenwald writes:

Perhaps the most repellent claim Harris made to me was that Islamophobia is fictitious and non-existent, “a term of propaganda designed to protect Islam from the forces of secularism by conflating all criticism of it with racism and xenophobia”. How anyone can observe post-9/11 political discourse in the west and believe this is truly mystifying. The meaning of “Islamophobia” is every bit as clear as “anti-semitism” or “racism” or “sexism” and all sorts of familiar, related concepts. It signifies (1) irrational condemnations of all members of a group or the group itself based on the bad acts of specific individuals in that group; (2) a disproportionate fixation on that group for sins committed at least to an equal extent by many other groups, especially one’s own; and/or (3) sweeping claims about the members of that group unjustified by their actual individual acts and beliefs. I believe all of those definitions fit Harris quite well[.]

The definition Greenwald constructs here seems rather ad-hoc, indeed tailor-made to his criticisms of Harris. It is not the ordinary definition of “Islamophobia”; its parallelism with sexism, anti-semiticism, homophobia, and clinical phobias is unusually tenuous; and it certainly isn’t the definition Harris had in mind when he criticized the term. Greenwald’s clause (3) is uselessly vague: if I made sweeping and unjustified positive claims about Muslims, that would surely not make me an Islamophobe! Adding his clauses (1) and (2) helps, but the focus on a subminority’s “sins” or “bad acts” is a complete red herring; if no Muslims had ever done anything truly wrong, Islamophobia would still be possible.

Let’s attempt a more to-the-point and generally applicable definition. If I’d never seen the word before, I’d probably expect “Islamophobia” to mean an unreasonable, pathological fear or hatred of Islam. And it’s often used that way. But it’s also used to mean an unreasonable, pathological fear or hatred of Muslims — as Greenwald’s puts it, “irrational anti-Muslim animus”. (For a historical perspective, see López 2010.)

Already, this duality raises a serious problem: Writers like Harris happily identify as anti-Islam, but strongly deny being anti-Muslim. If “Islamophobia” is used to conceal leaps between criticisms of Islam (as an ideology or cultural institution) and personal attacks on Muslims, then it will make inferences between [B] and [C] in my list above seem deceptively easy.

The best summary I’ve seen of potential problems with the term “Islamophobia” comes from Robin Richardson, a seasoned promoter of multiculturalism and education equality. He writes:

The disadvantages of the term Islamophobia are significant. Some of them are primarily about the echoes implicit in the concept of phobia. Others are about the implications of the term Islam. For convenience, they can be itemised as follows.

1. Medically, phobia implies a severe mental illness of a kind that affects only a tiny minority of people. Whatever else anxiety about Muslims may be, it is not merely a mental illness and does not merely involve a small number of people.

2. To accuse someone of being insane or irrational is to be abusive and, not surprisingly, to make them defensive and defiant. Reflective dialogue with them is then all but impossible.

3. To label someone with whom you disagree as irrational or insane is to absolve yourself of the responsibility of trying to understand, both intellectually and with empathy, why they think and act as they do, and of seeking through engagement and argument to modify their perceptions and understandings. […]

7. The term is inappropriate for describing opinions that are basically anti-religion as distinct from anti-Islam. ‘I am an Islamophobe,’ wrote the journalist Polly Toynbee in reaction to the Runnymede 1997 report, adding ‘… I am also a Christophobe. If Christianity were not such a spent force in this country, if it were powerful and dominant as it once was, it would still be every bit as damaging as Islam is in those theocratic states in its thrall… If I lived in Israel, I’d feel the same way about Judaism’.

8. The key phenomenon to be addressed is arguably anti-Muslim hostility, namely hostility towards an ethno-religious identity within western countries (including Russia), rather than hostility towards the tenets or practices of a worldwide religion. The 1997 Runnymede definition of Islamophobia was ‘a shorthand way of referring to dread or hatred of Islam – and, therefore, to fear or dislike of all or most Muslims’. In retrospect, it would have been as accurate, or arguably indeed more accurate, to say ‘a shorthand way of referring to fear or dislike of all or most Muslims – and, therefore, dread or hatred of Islam’.

Crucially, Harris isn’t claiming that there’s no such thing as anti-Muslim bigotry. He isn’t even claiming that no one criticizes Islam for bigoted reasons. Instead, his reasons for rejecting “Islamophobia” are:

Apologists for Islam have even sought to defend their faith from criticism by inventing a psychological disorder known as “Islamophobia.” My friend Ayaan Hirsi Ali is said to be suffering from it. Though she was circumcised as a girl by religious barbarians (as 98 percent of Somali girls still are)[,] has been in constant flight from theocrats ever since, and must retain a bodyguard everywhere she goes, even her criticism of Islam is viewed as a form of “bigotry” and “racism” by many “moderate” Muslims. And yet, moderate Muslims should be the first to observe how obscene Muslim bullying is—and they should be the first to defend the right of public intellectuals, cartoonists, and novelists to criticize the faith.

There is no such thing as Islamophobia. Bigotry and racism exist, of course—and they are evils that all well-intentioned people must oppose. And prejudice against Muslims or Arabs, purely because of the accident of their birth, is despicable. But like all religions, Islam is a system of ideas and practices. And it is not a form of bigotry or racism to observe that the specific tenets of the faith pose a special threat to civil society.

These are identical to Richardson’s concerns 1 and 8. Harris objects to rhetorical attempts to blur the lines between attacks on Islam and attacks on Muslims, particularly without clear arguments establishing this link.

More, he objects to dismissing all extreme criticism of Islam using the idiom of clinical phobias, because he doesn’t think extreme criticism of Islam is always unreasonable, much less radically unreasonable. If harsh critiques of Islam are not deranged across the board, then demonstrating [D] ‘His concerns about Islam are exaggerated.‘ will not suffice for demonstrating [C] ‘He has an intensely irrational fear and hatred of Islam.‘, independent of the fact that neither establishes [B] ‘He has an intensely irrational fear and hatred of Muslims.

Greenwald says that he deems Harris “Islamophobic”, not because Harris criticizes Islam, but because Harris criticizes Islam more than he criticizes other religions. But he gives no argument for why an anti-religious writer should deem all religions equally bad. It would be amazing if religions, in all their diversity, happened to pose equivalent risks. And neither racism nor xenophobia can explain the fact that Harris opposes Islam so much more strongly than he opposes far less familiar religions, like Shinto or Jainism. As Harris puts it,

At this point in human history, Islam simply is different from other faiths. The challenge we all face, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, is to find the most benign and practical ways of mitigating these differences and of changing this religion for the better.

Ockham’s Razor suggests that we at least entertain the idea that Harris is just telling the truth. He’s unusually critical of Islam because his exegetical, psychological, and geopolitical assessment of the doctrines, practices, and values associated with contemporary Islam is that they’re unusually harmful to human well-being. He could think all that, and be wrong, without ever once succumbing to a secret prejudice against Muslims.

There remains the large dialectical onus of showing that Harris’ most severe criticisms of Islam are all false, and the far larger onus of showing that they are, each and every one, so wildly irrational as to rival sexism, homophobia, or clinical phobias. If these burdens can’t all be met, then resorting to immediate name-calling, to accusations of bigotry or malice, will remain profoundly irresponsible.

The fact that there are cases where criticisms of Islam are manifestly ridiculous, without the slightest basis in scripture, tradition, or contemporary practice, does not change the fact that “Islamophobia” is rarely reserved for open-and-shut cases. The accusation is even employed as a replacement for substantive rebuttals, as though the very existence of the word constituted a reason to dismiss the critic of Islam!

If there’s one thing contemporary political discourse does not need, it’s a greater abundance of slurs and buzzwords for efficiently condemning or pigeonholing one’s ideological opponents. As such, although I’m happy to grant that Islamophobia exists in most of the senses indicated above, I am not persuaded that the word “Islamophobia” is ever the optimal way to point irrational anti-Muslim or anti-Islam sentiment out.

Jingoism?

I’ve focused on “Islamophobia”, but I doubt that’s the real issue for Greenwald or Hussain. Instead, I gather that their main objection is to Harris’ apparent defenses of U.S. foreign policy.

Would Greenwald and Hussain consider it a positive development if Harris demonstrated his lack of bias by equally strongly endorsing a variety of other U.S. military campaigns that have no relation to the Muslim world? Surely not. Greenwald’s complaint is not that Harris is inconsistently bellicose or pro-administration; it’s that he’s bellicose or pro-administration at all. Likewise, for Hussain to fixate on whether policies like war or torture are “racist” is to profoundly misunderstand the strength of his own case. Even if they weren’t racist, they could still be grotesque atrocities.

In my comments, Hussain commended biologist and antireligious activist P.Z. Myers for criticizing Islam without endorsing violence. (Greenwald has also cited Myers, with wary approval.) But Myers claims to “despise Islam as much as Harris does” (!). Writes he:

I would still say that Islam as a religion is nastier and more barbaric than, say, Anglicanism. The Anglicans do not have as a point of doctrine that it is commendable to order the execution of writers or webcomic artists, nor that a reasonable punishment for adultery is to stone the woman to death. That is not islamophobia: that is recognizing the primitive and cruel realities of a particularly vile religion, in the same way that we can condemn Catholicism for its evil policies towards women and its sheltering of pedophile priests. We can place various cults on a relatively objective scale of repugnance for their attitudes towards human rights, education, equality, honesty, etc., and on civil liberties, you know, that stuff we liberals are supposed to care about, Islam as a whole is damnably bad.

It is not islamophobia to recognize reality.

If we admit that Myers’ view of Islam is not manifestly absurd or bigoted, then we must conclude that the entire discussion of racism, xenophobia, and Islamophobia was a red herring. It is Harris’ pro-U.S., pro-Israel militarism that is the real issue.

It doesn’t take nationalism, imperialism, sadism, or white supremacism for two otherwise reasonable people to disagree as strongly as Greenwald and Harris do. Given how messy and complicated religious psychology and sociology are, different data sets, different heuristics for assessing the data, and different background theories are quite sufficient.

The simplest explanation for Harris’ more “unsettling” (as he puts it) views is that he…

  • (a) … thinks religious doctrines often have a strong influence on human behavior. E.g.:

Many peoples have been conquered by foreign powers or otherwise mistreated and show no propensity for the type of violence that is commonplace among Muslims. Where are the Tibetan Buddhist suicide bombers? The Tibetans have suffered an occupation every bit as oppressive as any ever imposed on a Muslim country. At least one million Tibetans have died as a result, and their culture has been systematically eradicated. Even their language has been taken from them. Recently, they have begun to practice self-immolation in protest. The difference between self-immolation and blowing oneself up in a crowd of children, or at the entrance to a hospital, is impossible to overstate, and reveals a great difference in moral attitude between Vajrayana Buddhism and Islam.[…] My point, of course, is that beliefs matter.

  • (b) … thinks Islam has especially violent doctrines.
  • (c) … thinks that if Islam is a significant source of violence, then the best way to respond is sometimes militaristic.

Greenwald strongly rejects (b), claiming that singling out Islam for special criticism is outright bigoted. He may also doubt (a), inasmuch as he thinks that militant Islamism is fully explicable as a response to material aggression, oppression, and exploitation. Myers, on the other hand, grants (a) and (b) but strongly rejects (c). In all these cases, rational disagreement is possible, and civil discussion may lead to genuine progress in consensus-building.

Accusing Harris of harboring a special anti-Muslim bias would be a useful tactic for discrediting his policy analysis overall. But I think Greenwald and Harris are both arguing in good faith. Why, then, has Greenwald neglected such a simple explanation for Harris’ stance? Unlike Hussain, Greenwald isn’t a sloppy or inattentive reader of Harris.

My hypothesis is that Greenwald is succumbing to the reverse halo effect. It’s hard to model other agents, and particularly hard to imagine reasonable people coming to conclusions radically unlike our own. When we find these conclusions especially odious, it’s often easiest to imagine a simple, overarching perversion that infects every aspect of the other person’s psyche. Certainly it’s easier than admitting that a person can be radically mistaken on a variety of issues without being a fool or a monster — that, here as elsewhere, people are complicated.

As more evidence of human complexity, I’d note that although Greenwald paints a picture of Harris as a kneejerk supporter of Israel and of U.S. militarism, it is Greenwald, and not Harris, who thought that the Iraq War was a good idea at the time. And while Harris has defended Israel on a number of occasions, he has also written:

As a secularist and a nonbeliever—and as a Jew—I find the idea of a Jewish state obnoxious.

and:

Judaism is as intrinsically divisive, as ridiculous in its literalism, and as at odds with the civilizing insights of modernity as any other religion. Jewish settlers, by exercising their ‘freedom of belief’ on contested land, are now one of the principal obstacles to peace in the Middle East. They will be a direct cause of war between Islam and the West should one ever erupt over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Perhaps his views are quite off-base. But they are not cartoonish, and he has argued for them. His opponents would make much more progress if they spent as much time on rebuttals as they currently do on caricatures.

The innumerable sins of the United States may be relevant to the pragmatics of (c), but recognizing these sins should not automatically commit us to dismissing (a) and (b). Likewise, writes Harris:

[N]othing about honestly discussing the doctrine of Islam requires that a person not notice all that might be wrong with U.S. foreign policy, capitalism, the vestiges of empire, or anything else that may be contributing to our ongoing conflicts in the Muslim world.

There are lots of ways to reject Harris’ doctrine (c). Myers makes a pragmatic argument (improving lives, not destroying them, mitigates dogmatism) and, I gather, a principled one (pacifism is the most defensible ethos). Greenwald might add that who we’re relying on to prosecute the war makes a vast difference — that enhancing the power and authority of the U.S. would have more costs and risks than Islam ever did, even if Islamic extremism were a serious threat.

Those aren’t utterly crazy positions, and neither is Harris’. I can say that, and endorse civil open discussion, even knowing that whichever side is the wrong one is very, veryvery wrong — and that the future of human happiness, liberty, and peace depends in large part on our getting this right.

It is precisely because the question is so important that we must not allow public disagreement over the answer to degenerate into banal mud-slinging. It is precisely because our biases — be they micro-xenophobia, micro-relativism, or the halo effect — threaten to vitiate our reasoning that we must put our all into practicing self-criticism, open-mindedness, and level-headed discourse. And it is precisely because our intellectual opponents, if wrong, threaten to do so much harm, that we must work every day to come to better understand them, so that we can actually begin to change minds.

It is not an easy task, but the need is great. If we’re serious about the underlying problems, and not just about scoring points in verbal debates about them, then there is no other way.

[UPDATE, April 11: Hussain and I appeared with human rights advocate Qasim Rashid and Center for Inquiry president Ronald Lindsay on the Huffington Post Live to discuss whether the recent attacks on Harris are overblown. Click here to watch.]

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Further reading
Greenwald, Glenn (2013). “Murtaza Hussain replies to Harris and his
defenders”. GGSideDocs.
Greenwald, Glenn (2013). “The racism that fuels the ‘war on terror”. The Guardian.
Harris, Sam (2013). “Response to Controversy”. Sam Harris Blog.
Harris, Sam (2012). “Wrestling the Troll”. Sam Harris Blog.
Myers, P.Z. (2013). “Both wrong, both right”. Pharyngula.
Richardson, Robin (2009). “Islamophobia or anti-Muslim racism — or what?” Insted.

Greenwald and Hussain on Sam Harris and racism

This April 3 post first appeared on the Secular Alliance at Indiana University blog.

I know of no living public intellectual whose views get caricatured and misrepresented quite as routinely as do Sam Harris.

What’s disheartening isn’t that people disagree with Harris. It’s that they haven’t taken the time to understand what’s there to disagree with! I don’t know whether Harris is right or wrong regarding a lot of the positions he defends. But I do know that whether he’s right or wrong is of profound importance — that these are topics that strike at the heart of our political and ethical principles. So it is endlessly disappointing when other public figures simply fail to engage with any views or assertions even in the vicinity of Harris’.

A case in point: Yesterday [April 2], Glenn Greenwald retweeted an Al Jazeera article by Murtaza Hussain, “Scientific racism, militarism, and the new atheists“. The article argues for a strong continuity between the pseudoscientific racism of many historical thinkers, and the contemporary criticisms of Islam by “new atheists” like Harris.

Although I’m unfamiliar with Hussain’s other work, my past experience with both Greenwald and Al Jazeera has generally been very positive. So I was stunned to find the article in question packed with misinformation and outright libel. A relatively careful and sensitive attempt to defend a thesis like Hussain’s might appeal to psychological studies and sociological models indicating that our fear of the Other can sometimes unconsciously skew our priorities, potentially causing anyone — even an avowed anti-racist like Harris — to misunderstand the causes for his own concerns. But this sort of armchair psychoanalysis is not Hussain’s approach. Instead, he simply misstates Harris’ actual, on-the-record views, making him out to be an overt supporter of racism, fascism, and genocide.

Harris confronted Greenwald, pointing out that the article was simply not accurate. And Greenwald… stuck by the article.

I profess bafflement. I cannot imagine that if Greenwald took the time to do a little more research, he would continue to endorse Hussain’s transparent journalistic misconduct. Even if you remain inwardly convinced that someone is a racist, you should not hesitate to retract demonstrable falsehoods presented as evidence for that accusation. It is one thing to castigate and condemn a person; it is quite another to publicly endorse intellectual dishonesty as a means of defaming that person.

What did Hussain write? I’ll assess eight representative assertions.

[1] [I]n the case of Muslims Harris has publicly stated his support for torture,

No. This suggests that Harris has called for the torture of actual, real-world individuals or groups. Moreover, it suggests that he somehow thinks Muslims, and Muslims alone, are uniquely deserving of torture. Both of these claims are false.

Harris has certainly said that it is not impossible for torture to be justified in hypothetical extreme scenarios; but this is a view primarily about general ethical theory, and not about political practice. As it happens, it is the same position endorsed in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s article on torture; so as philosophy it is perhaps not as deranged as it initially sounds. But what’s relevant here isn’t whether Harris’ brand of consequentialism is right or wrong, noble or despicable. It’s that his view simply isn’t what Hussain claims it is.

[EDIT: Harris’ view on torture is actually somewhat complicated. If you want more details on his current position, I suggest reading this 2011 article. Even though Harris thinks there can be extraordinary circumstances in which torture is ethically justifiable “in principle“, he thinks it should remain illegal, and he thinks that known instances of torture (e.g., at Abu Ghraib) were “sadistic“, “stupid“, and “patently unethical“. Most relevantly, Harris’ reasoning, be it right or wrong, holds equally for Muslims and for non-Muslims, contrary to Hussain’s “in the case of Muslims” qualifier.]

[2] [In the case of Muslims Harris has supported] pre-emptive nuclear weapons strikes,

No. The source of this falsehood is the fact that Sam Harris once described (with explicit horror and revulsion) a scenario in which pre-emptive nuclear weapons strikes might occur. Relatively scruple-free journalists like Chris Hedges then took this passage and, well, lied about it. It’s… actually no more complicated than that. See Harris’ response.

 [3] [Harris has supported] the security profiling of not just Muslims themselves, but in his own words ‘anyone who looks like he or she could conceivably be Muslim’. Again, while Islam is not a race, those who are identified with Islam are the predominantly black and brown people who would be caught up in the charge of ‘looking Muslim’ which Harris makes.

This is at least not literally false. Instead, it leaves out the fact that Harris thinks the profiling should be primarily non-racial, and insofar as it is racial it should focus to a significant extent on white people like himself. Quoting Harris in the very article on profiling Hussain cited:

When I speak of profiling ‘Muslims, or anyone who looks like he or she could conceivably be Muslim,’ I am not narrowly focused on people with dark skin. In fact, I included myself in the description of the type of person I think should be profiled (twice). To say that ethnicity, gender, age, nationality, dress, traveling companions, behavior in the terminal, and other outward appearances offer no indication of a person’s beliefs or terrorist potential is either quite crazy or totally dishonest.

If Harris’ views on profiling are to be taken simply as proof of his racism, are we to gather that he also harbors a racial bias against white people? To be clear, I’m not endorsing Harris’ view on profiling here. I’m only endorsing discussing these issues without reliance on caricature.

[4] Harris has also written in the past his belief [sic] that the ‘Muslim world’ itself lacks the characteristic of honesty,

No, he’s written that Muslims routinely refuse to honestly evaluate the doctrines of Islam. Quoth he: “Who will reform Islam if moderate Muslims refuse to speak honestly about the very doctrines in need of reform?

Summing Harris’ view up as “the Muslim world itself lacks the characteristic of honesty” is deliberately modifying Harris’ statements to sound maximally simplistic and culturally essentializing. This, of course, helps make it tie better into Hussain’s chosen narrative. But if Harris’ assertions reflect a skewed world-view, should it not be possible to critique them without going to the trouble of distorting them first?

[5] [Harris has written that] Muslims as a people ‘do not have a clue about what constitutes civil society.

No. The source of the misquotation is this statement by Harris:

A third of young British Muslims say they want to live under sharia law and think that anyone who leaves the faith should be put to death. This is a third of British Muslims. 68% of British Muslims think that their neighbors who insult Islam should be arrested and prosecuted. 78% think that the Danish cartoonists should be brought to justice. These people do not have a clue about what constitutes a civil society.

To my knowledge, he does not say this of “Muslims as a people“. If he does, then Hussain should cite that, and not cite a random mistitled Youtube video.

[6] As he has said: ‘It is time we admitted that we are not at war with terrorism. We are at war with Islam.’ This belief in the need to fight open-ended war against Muslims […]

No. Stop right there. ‘War with Islam‘ does not have the same semantic content as ‘Open-ended war against Muslims‘.

The former quotation makes it sound like Harris thinks the doctrines of Islam are causally responsible for terrorism, and that these doctrines must be undermined if the violence is to end. Plenty of people would contest this claim. But in so doing they need not pretend that Harris is making the latter assertion, as though Harris thinks we should violently attack any and all Muslims indefinitely. This is simply not an honest paraphrase.

[7] Indeed he argues in his book that the only suitable form of government for Muslim people is ‘benign dictatorship‘, an echo of the 19th century social theorist George Fitzhugh who argued in favour of slavery by saying: ‘The Negro is but a grown up child, and must be governed as a child.’

This is a transparent lie. In at least five different respects.

  • (a) Harris is not talking exclusively about countries with large Muslim populations in the relevant passage. At least, North Korea was not a predominantly Muslim country the last time I checked….
  • (b) Harris is talking about relatively oppressive states, not states with populations of any particular cultural background.
  • (c) Harris is differentiating these states based on political and economic freedoms, not based on race or skin color.
  • (d) Harris does not endorse ‘benevolent dictators’ in general, but merely, citing Fareed Zakaria, raises the hypothesis that such dictators may not be a terrible idea in all cases. His worry seems to be that rushing to democratize the entire world will have a destabilizing, schism-producing effect.
  • (e) Harris does not endorse such dictators as a permanent solution in any circumstance, at most merely as a transitional one.

Note: Strongly attacking any or all of these views does not require deceiving anyone about what is actually being asserted! Really. It doesn’t.

[8] Harris has stated that the correct policy with regard to Western Muslim populations is in fact that which is currently being pursued by contemporary fascist movements today. In Harris’ view: ‘The people who speak most sensibly about the threat that Islam poses to Europe are actually fascists.’

No. Harris was not citing fascists approvingly. (Good grief!) He was criticizing liberals for getting a moral issue wrong that is so obvious (in his view) that even some extremists — or, as Harris calls them in the same passage, “lunatics” — have figured it out. If I half-jokingly noted ‘Even Hitler saw that vegetarianism was a good idea,’ I would not be citing Hitler approvingly; I would be suggesting that the sanity waterline is very low indeed.

In quoting Harris out of context here, and failing to in any way indicate Harris’ actual meaning, I do not think it an overstatement to say that Hussain forfeits any claim to journalistic credibility.

Hussain, Greenwald, and Al Jazeera have betrayed an important trust to their readers today. They now owe them, and Harris, an apology and a retraction for writing, promoting, and publishing without disclaimer, respectively, such an irresponsible hit piece.

Here’s hoping they do better tomorrow.

 

 

[UPDATE, April 8: The above doesn’t really address the deeper significance of Murtaza’s thesis, or the truth of his and Greenwald’s more general claims. It merely reports on an instance of journalistic misconduct. Since there’s so much interest in the more substantive issues here, I’ve written a follow-up post to continue the discussion: Is “Islamophobia” Real?]

Evolution: Six myths

MYTH 1: Evolution is just a theory, not a fact.

When I say I have a theory, it means that I have a guess, a conjecture. But when a scientist says she has a theory, it means that she has a working explanation for a large set of facts. When we confuse these two senses of ‘theory’, we can misunderstand the scientific standing of the ‘theory’ of evolution.

In science, a theory is one of the most sturdy and well-tested ideas, rather than one of the least. Strictly speaking, a scientific theory can never become a ‘fact’ no matter how well-supported it is, because a theory is an overarching explanation rather than a mere observation. Thus, the idea that matter is made of atoms is still the ‘atomic theory’, and the idea that microorganisms cause disease is still the ‘germ theory’.

Because theories make predictions about what will happen in the future, they can be tested and refined over time. Around the 1930s, Darwin’s original theory was replaced by the modern synthetic theory. This “neo-Darwinian” theory incorporated Gregor Mendel’s account of how offspring inherit traits. Mendelian genetics has helped produce the scientific definition of the actual observed process of evolution — as ‘change in a population’s inherited traits’. A common source of confusion is mixing up the physical process, ‘evolution’, with ‘the theory of evolution’ (with explains the process). The process — which can be seen every time children aren’t exact clones of their parents! — can be called a ‘fact’ in the strict sense, whereas the theory of evolution is only a ‘fact’ in the looser sense of being ‘something we know is true’.

So what does the theory actually tell us?

In biology, evolution is the change in a population’s inheritable traits from generation to generation. It boils down to 4 core ideas:

  1. Heredity. Parents pass on their traits to offspring.
  2. Variation. Offspring differ slightly from their parents, and from each other.
  3. Fitness. Some of these differences are more helpful for reproducing than others.
  4. Selection. Offspring with more helpful traits will in turn have more offspring, making the traits more common in the population.

Over time, this simple process of small incremental changes can have dramatic results. As traits become more common or rare in the population over millions of years, a species gradually changes, either randomly or by the environment’s selection of certain helpful traits, into a new species — or branches off into several. This process is called speciation.

MYTH 2: Evolution teaches that we should live by ‘survival of the fittest’.

‘Survival of the fit’ is a better characterization of Darwin’s theory of selection than ‘survival of the fittest’, a phrase coined by the social theorist Herbert Spencer. Selection simply states that whatever organisms ‘fit’ their environments will survive. When resources are limited, competition to survive certainly plays a role — but cooperation does too.

The idea of ‘survival of the fittest’ has been used to justify Social ‘Darwinism’, which amounts to a philosophy of ‘every man for himself’. However, a number of biological misunderstandings underlie the notion that pure selfishness helps the group or the individual. First, even if this were true in nature, that would not automatically make it a good thing — germs cause disease in nature, yet that doesn’t mean we should try to make ourselves sick. Do we want to emulate nature’s brutality, or mitigate it?

Second, the ‘fittest’ species are often the best cooperators — symbiotes, colonies of insects and bacteria, schools of fish, flocks of birds, herds and packs of mammals, and of course societies of humans. Moreover, most ‘weaknesses’ are not genetic, nor so severe that they make the individual unable to contribute to society.

‘Fitness’ also changes depending on the environment. There is no context-free measure of fitness, and what is ‘weak’ today may be ‘strong’ tomorrow. Mammals were ‘weak’ when dinosaurs dominated the planet, but strong afterwards. Which brings us to the next myth…

MYTH 3: Evolution is progress.

When we speak of something’s ‘evolving’, we usually mean that it is improving. But in biology, this is not the case. Most evolution is neutral — organisms simply change randomly, by mutation and other processes, without even changing in fitness. And although evolution can never be harmful in the short term, since a harmful trait by definition won’t be selected, the problem is that evolution only cares about the short term. Although in the long run small evolutionary improvements can add up to massive advantages, it’s also possible for short-sighted, immediate benefits to evolve which doom a species in the long run. This is especially common if the environment changes.

The illusion of progress is created because all the evolutionary ‘dead ends’ tend to end up, well, dead — dead as the dodo. But the idea that evolution has any long-term ‘goals’ in mind derives from us not noticing two things. First, we don’t notice how meandering evolution is — an animal might become slightly larger one century, slightly smaller the next. And the reason neither process amounts to ‘evolving backward’ is because neither process is ‘evolving forward’ either — all hereditary change is evolution, regardless of ‘direction’.

Second, although we enjoy thinking of ourselves as the ‘goal’ of evolution, we don’t think about the hundreds of millions of other species that were perfectly happy evolving into organisms radically different from us. Bacteria make up the majority of life’s diversity; if intelligent bipeds were the aim of all evolution, we would expect them to have evolved thousands of times, not just once.

MYTH 4: We evolved from monkeys.

You may have heard the question asked: ‘If humans descended from monkeys, why are there still monkeys?’ Next time you hear this, feel free to reply: ‘If Australians descended from Europeans, why are there still Europeans?’

Biologists have never claimed that humans evolved from monkeys. Biologists do believe that humans and monkeys are related — but as cousins, not parent and child.

But then, biologists also claim that all life is distantly related. This theory, common descent, is the real shocker: You’re not only related to monkeys, but to bananas as well! This is based on the fact that all life shares astonishing molecular and anatomical simliarities, and these commonalities seem to ‘cluster’ around otherwise-similar species, like lions and tigers. Just as DNA tests make it possible to determine how closely related two human beings are, so too, by the same principle, do they allow us to test how closely related two different species are.

In the case of humans, the molecular evidence suggests, not that we descended from monkeys, but that we shared a common ancestor with them tens of millions of years ago. This ancestor was neither a modern monkey nor a human, but a now-extinct primate. Humans and monkeys have both evolved a great deal since that time. We’ve just evolved in very different ways.

It should also be noted that we are much closer to the other apes than to true ‘monkeys’ (which have longer tails). Humans are classified in the great ape family, the hominids. This makes our closest living cousins the chimpanzee, gorilla, orangutan, and gibbon — but we didn’t evolve from them, any more than they evolved from us.

MYTH 5: Evolution is random.

It’s sometimes suggested that evolution is too ‘blind’ and ‘random’ to result in complicated structures. But natural selection is only ‘random’ in the sense that physical processes like gravity are ‘random’. Although the genetic differences between organisms derive in part from random mutations, natural selection nonrandomly ‘filters’ those differences based on how well they help the organism survive and reproduce in its environment. The overall process of evolution, therefore, isn’t simply random: Species change in particular ways for particular reasons, such as because of a new predator in the region, or for that matter because of the absence of a predator.

A related myth is the notion that evolutionary theory claims ‘life arose by chance’. This is not an aspect of the theory of evolution, which only describes how life changes after it has already originated. Instead, this is relevant to the study of abiogenesis, the origin of life.

MYTH 6: We still haven’t found a ‘missing link’.

It’s not always clear what this fabled ‘missing link’ is supposed to be, as thousands of fossils of early humans and hominids have been discovered. The problem is that every time a new fossil is found that fills a ‘gap’ in the evolutionary record, it just creates two new gaps — one right before the fossil species, and one right after.

Transitional fossils linking major groups of organisms are also abundant in the record. One of the most famous dates back to Darwin’s day: Archaeopteryx, a proto-bird with feathers, teeth, and clawed fingers. More recent examples include Tiktaalik, a fish with primitive limbs (including wrists) and a neck, predating the amphibians.

More to the point, the central lesson evolution has to teach us is that every organism is a ‘link’ — all life is connected, and every organism that has offspring is equally ‘transitional’, because life is constantly changing. The change is gradual, certainly, and seems minute on a human time scale — but one of the profoundest lessons science has to offer is that drops of water, given time, can hollow a stone.

For more information, see Talk.Origins.

What is a self?

This is a revised version of an IU Philosophical Society blog post.

At the Philosophical Society’s first spring meeting, I opened with a methodological point: Semantics matters. Misunderstanding is everywhere, and it is dangerous. If we don’t clarify what we mean, then we’ll never pinpoint where exactly we non-verbally disagree.

But the importance of semantics doesn’t mean we should fetishize which particular words we use. Just the opposite: In analyzing what we mean, we frequently discover that the world doesn’t neatly break down into the shape of our linguistic categories. We may have one word (“monkey”) where there are really two or three things, or two words (“electricity” and “magnetism”) that pick out the same phenomenon in different guises. Thus we talked about the value of “Tabooing your words”, of trying to find paraphrases and concrete examples for terms whose meaning is unclear or under dispute.

This is of special relevance to discussions of the self. People mean a lot of different things by “self”. Even if in the end those things turn out to be perfectly correlated or outright identical, we need to begin by carefully distinguishing them so that we can ask about their relatedness without prejudging it.

For example: DavidPerry noted that many classical Buddhist texts denied the existence of a self. But what they actually denied was what they called ātman, which some people have translated as “self”. Even had they written in English, for that matter, it wouldn’t necessarily have been obvious which ideas of “self” they had in mind — and, importantly, which they didn’t have in mind.

What are some of the concepts of “self” that we came up with? I lumped them into five broad categories.

1. Thing

EMpyloriWhen we say “That’s an ugly coat of paint, but I like the house itself,” we don’t have the same thing in mind as when we say “I have a self”. It may seem trivial to note that objects in general can themselves be called “selves”; but this has real relevance, for example, to the Buddhist critique of “self”, which really does generalize to all objects — for early Buddhists, humans lack a “self” for much the same reason chariots lack a “self”, because they aren’t things in quite the way we normally take them to be.

Some things, of course, may be more intuitively “selfy” than others. The idea of discrete organic selves, or organisms, is applied to everything from viruses to humans. In this biological sense, I am my body, even though my body can change drastically over time.

Two troubling questions arise here, and they’ll recur for our other ideas of “self”. First, can my concept of myself as an organism be trumped by other (say, more psychological) conceptions? If not, then if my brain were turned into a sentient machine, or if my body perished while my soul lived on, I would not survive! Some ghostly or robotic impersonator would survive, while the “real me” perished with my body. Could that be right? Or is the “real me” something more abstract? And why does the question of which “me” is “real” feel like it matters so much?

2. Persona

By “self” or “person” we sometimes mean the specific things that make you who you are. We mean someone’s personality, character, life-experiences, social roles, and so on. As the Stanford Encyclopedia article on selfhood notes:

We often speak of one’s “personal identity” as what makes one the person one is. Your identity in this sense consists roughly of what makes you unique as an individual and different from others. Or it is the way you see or define yourself, or the network of values and convictions that structure your life. This individual identity is a property (or set of properties). Presumably it is one you have only contingently: you might have had a different identity from the one you in fact have. It is also a property that you may have only temporarily: you could swap your current individual identity for a new one, or perhaps even get by without any.

3. Subject

png;base646bdd8702569ffd85We may also have a more generic idea in mind — a “self” as a subject of experience. But this too conflates several ideas.

First, there’s the idea of an experiencing subject, an experiencer. At a minimum, this could be whatever directly brings experiences about. But does this causal notion adequately incorporate our intuition of a self that “undergoes” or “has” its experiences? What would we have to add to turn an experience-generator into an unconscious self? And if some brain region or ectoglob can be “me”, where do we draw the line between the parts of the world that are me and the parts that aren’t?

Jonathon, for one, voiced skepticism about there being any fact of the matter about the dividing line between Me and Everything Else. Some philosophers even reject the very idea that a self exists “outside” or “behind” experience:

But even so, there remains the distinct idea of an experienced subject. Our self isn’t just hidden behind our experiences; it’s also indicated within them. Thus we can speak of experiences that are “self-aware”, in different ways and to different extents. This ranges from the self-awareness of explicit thoughts like “I am getting rained on!” to primitive perceptual impressions that a certain hand is Me while a certain chair is Not Me.

At the outer edge of this category, DavidPerry raised the idea of a bare “phenomenological” subject, which I took to be the perspectivalness or subject-object structure in experience. Here our discussion became very murky, and DavidBeard expressed some skepticism about the possibility of disentangling this idea from the very idea of consciousness.

In general, we had a number of difficulties reconciling the philosophical method of phenomenology, or describing how things appear from a first-person perspective, with the method of third-person science. Most basically, Neeraj asked, can the fact of first-person experience itself be accounted for in objective, scientific terms? As Briénne put it: Supposing I were an intelligent zombie or automaton, could you explain to me what this thing you call “consciousness” is? This brought us to another way of conceiving a self — behaviorally.

4. Agent

png;base64f4b49a5756f7bece“Self” can be defined in behavioral terms. We generally say that humans and animals can perform actions and deeds, while beaches and kaleidoscopes, metaphors aside, cannot. So agency is an important way of distinguishing persons from non-persons.

Of course, “action” is a vague category. It’s easiest to tell persons from non-persons apart when we’re dealing with intelligent agency, i.e., behaving in a skillful, adaptive, goal-oriented way. We debated whether intelligent behavior can occur in the absence of conscious thought, and if so how we could ever identify subjects of experience based on how they act. Sam noted that we very readily ascribe agency, and perhaps even awareness, to beings based merely on their superficial resemblance to humans and other animals — suggesting that our agent-detecting intuitions are prone to leading us astray.

We might also distinguish deliberative agency, which makes decisions, from rudimentary animal behaviors that possibly lack real “choice.” Even more narrowly, we can ask what gives deliberative agents (or agents in general) free agency. Does social or political freedom, as Nathaniel suggested, inform our concept of “person”? Does psychological or metaphysical freedom help determine whether something is a self in the first place?

This brought to the forefront the important fact that our idea of “self” is not merely descriptive; it is also prescriptive. What things we call “person” is bound up with our values, preferences, and principles. Thus we have to ask how the above ideas relate to moral agency, a being’s responsibility for its own actions. A storm can make bad things happen, but it’s not the storm’s fault. What sorts of things can be at fault?

5. Patient

png;base643f39801d7f0875daJust as an agent is something that acts, a patient is something that’s acted upon. Thus, along similar lines, we can ask what beings are moral patients — beings that can be harmed or benefitted. And we can ask whether there is a special, narrower category of personal patients — whether, for example, humans or intelligent agents have their own special rights above and beyond those of other sentient beings.

But the normative concepts of self aren’t just about morality. We also need to know what it takes to count as a prudential patient. Or, to ditch the jargon: What does it take for something to be the proper object of my self-interest? What sorts of things can be me, when it comes to my looking out for my own welfare?

The question seems so basic as to be bizarre. But in fact it’s not a trivial matter to figure out why I should care about myself — or, given that I do care about myself, what it takes for a thing to qualify as “me” — or how to go about discovering which things so qualify!

More generally, we can distinguish two questions:

1. What does it take to be a certain kind of self? What makes Bob, say, an agent?

2. What does it take for two things to be the same particular self? What makes Bob at 3:00 am and Bob at 3:45 am the same agent? Why aren’t the two hemispheres of Bob’s brain two different agents?

Thus far, we’ve only even begun to address the first of these two questions. And we’ve barely scratched the surface of the normative concepts of self, and of the relationships between the above concepts of agent, patient, subject, and persona. But we’ve made real progress, and we can use the distinctions we’ve drawn as tools for beginning to make headway on the remaining riddles.

For those interested in further reading on these two questions, I recommend John Perry’s A Dialogue on Personal Identity and Immortality, a rousing and very accessible introduction to the philosophy of self.

What can we reasonably concede to unreason?

This post first appeared on the Secular Alliance at Indiana University blog.

In October, SAIU members headed up to Indianapolis for the Center for Inquiry‘s “Defending Science: Challenges and Strategies” workshop. Massimo Pigliucci and Julia Galef, co-hosts of the podcast Rationally Speaking, spoke about natural deficits in reasoning, while Jason Rodriguez and John Shook focused on deliberate attempts to restrict scientific inquiry.

Julia Galef drew our attention to the common assumption that being rational means abandoning all intuition and emotion, an assumption she dismissed as a flimsy Hollywood straw man, or “straw vulcan”. True rationality, Julia suggested, is about the skillful integration of intuitive and deliberative thought. As she noted in a similar talk at the Singularity Summit, these skills demand constant cultivation and vigilance. In their absence, we all predictably fall victim to an array of cognitive biases.

To that end, Galef spoke of suites of indispensable “rationality skills”:

  • Know when to override an intuitive judgment with a reasoned one. Recognize cases where your intuition reliably fails, but also cases where intuition tends to perform better than reason.
  • Learn how to query your intuitive brain. For instance, to gauge how you really feel about a possibility, visualize it concretely, and perform thought experiments to test how different parameters and framing effects are influencing you.
  • Persuade your intuitive system of what your reason already knows. For example: Anna Salamon knew intellectually that wire-guided sky jumps are safe, but was having trouble psyching herself up. So she made her knowledge of statistics concrete, imagining thousands of people jumping before her eyes. This helped trick her affective response into better aligning with her factual knowledge.

Massimo Pigliucci’s talk, “A Very Short Course in Intellectual Self-Defense”, was in a similar vein. Pigliucci drew our attention to common formal and informal fallacies, and to the limits of deductive, inductive, and mathematical thought. Dissenting from Thomas Huxley’s view that ordinary reasoning is a great deal like science, Pigliucci argued that science is cognitively unnatural. This is why untrained reasoners routinely fail to properly amass and evaluate data.

While it’s certainly important to keep in mind how much hard work empirical rigor demands, I think we should retain a qualified version of Huxley’s view. It’s worth emphasizing that careful thought is not the exclusive property of professional academics, that the basic assumptions of science are refined versions of many of the intuitions we use in navigating our everyday environments. Science’s methods are rarefied, but not exotic or parochial. If we forget this, we risk giving too much credence to presuppositionalist apologetics.

Next, Jason Rodriguez discussed the tactics and goals of science organizations seeking to appease, work with, or reach out to the religious. Surveying a number of different views on the creation-evolution debate, Rodriguez questioned when it is more valuable to attack religious doctrines head-on, and when it is more productive to avoid conflict or make concessions.

This led in to John Shook’s vigorous talk, “Science Must Never Compromise With Religion, No Matter the Metaphysical or Theological Temptations”, and a follow-up Rationally Speaking podcast with Galef and Pigliucci. As you probably guessed, it focused on attacking metaphysicians and theologians who seek to limit the scope or undermine the credibility of scientific inquiry. Shook’s basic concern was that intellectuals are undermining the authority of science when they deem some facts ‘scientific’ and others ‘unscientific’. This puts undue constraints on scientific practice. Moreover, it gives undue legitimacy to those philosophical and religious thinkers who think abstract thought or divine revelation grant us access to a special domain of Hidden Truths.

Shook’s strongest argument was against attempts to restrict science to ‘the natural’. If we define ‘Nature’ in terms of what is scientifically knowable, then this is an empty and useless constraint. But defining the natural instead as the physical, or the spatiotemporal, or the unmiraculous, deprives us of any principled reason to call our research programs ‘methodologically naturalistic’. We could imagine acquiring good empirical evidence for magic, for miracles, even for causes beyond our universe. So science’s skepticism about such phenomena is a powerful empirical conclusion. It is not an unargued assumption or prejudice on the part of scientists.

Shook also argued that metaphysics does not provide a special, unscientific source of knowledge; the claims of metaphysicians are pure and abject speculation. I found this part of the talk puzzling. Metaphysics, as the study of the basic features of reality, does not seem radically divorced from theoretical physics and mathematics, which make similar claims to expand at least our pool of conditional knowledge, knowledge of the implications of various models. Yet Shook argued, not for embracing metaphysics as a scientific field, but for dismissing it as fruitless hand-waving.

Perhaps the confusion stemmed from a rival conception of ‘metaphysics’, not as a specific academic field, but as the general practice of drawing firm conclusions about ultimate reality from introspection alone — what some might call ‘armchair philosophy’ or ‘neoscholasticism’. Philosophers of all fields — and, for that matter, scientists — would do well to more fully internalize the dangers of excessive armchair speculation. But the criticism is only useful if it is carefully aimed. If we fixate on ‘metaphysics’ and ‘theology’ as the sole targets of our opprobrium, we risk neglecting the same arrogance in other guises, while maligning useful exploration into the contents, bases, and consequences of our conceptual frameworks. And if we restrict knowledge to science, we risk not only delegitimizing fields like logic and mathematics, but also putting undue constraints on science itself. For picking out a special domain of purported facts as ‘metaphysical’, and therefore unscientific, has exactly the same risks as picking out a special domain as ‘non-natural’ or ‘supernatural’.

To defend science effectively, we have to pick our battles with care. This clearly holds true in public policy and education, where it is most useful in some cases to go for the throat, in other cases to make compromises and concessions. But it also applies to our own personal struggles to become more rational, where we must carefully weigh the costs of overriding our unreasoned intuitions, taking a balanced and long-term approach. And it also holds in disputes over the philosophical foundations and limits of scientific knowledge, where the cost of committing ourselves to unusual conceptions of ‘science’ or ‘knowledge’ or ‘metaphysics’ must be weighed against any argumentative and pedagogical benefits.

This workshop continues to stimulate my thought, and continues to fuel my drive to improve science education. The central insight the speakers shared was that the practices we group together as ‘science’ cannot be defended or promoted in a vacuum. We must bring to light the psychological and philosophical underpinnings of science, or we will risk losing sight of the real object of our hope and concern.

Three challenges for Atheism+

This is an excerpt of a Secular Alliance at Indiana University blog post.

From the beginning, when atheos meant ‘impious’ or ‘profane’, atheism has been about more than just whether you happen to believe in gods. Both the godly and the not-so-godly seem drawn to viewing atheism as something of much deeper import. Hence few are surprised when the ‘New Atheists’ feel no need to limit themselves to sitting in a circle and discussing how very much they all lack belief in Izanagi and Huitzilopochtli. Reconceiving atheism as a symptom or symbol of scientific skepticism, these New Atheists find just as much to rebuke in godless dogmas like Stalinism, and in all forms of caustic unreason, as they do in the worship of incorporeal intelligences.

Once atheism starts to connote anti-dogmatism, rifts will inevitably emerge as non-theists disagree internally about which ideas are unreasonable, are ‘dogmas’. Sometimes these rifts lead to healthy debate, personal growth, and a renewed commitment to clear thinking. Whether ‘Atheism+’ will go down that path depends crucially on how its early proponents frame the discussion.

Atheism+ is a very new proposal by Jen McCreight and the Freethought Blogs community. Just as New Atheism was implicitly atheism plus skepticism, ‘Atheism+’ is atheism plus skepticism plus humanism. There are a number of different reasons for this coinage.

1. The new new atheists want to persuade other open-minded atheists to apply their skepticism to social biases and prejudices, not just to supernatural claims.

2. They want a banner under which to coordinate discussion and activism concerning important social ills. Many atheists (including ones who dislike the label ‘humanist‘) already have an interest in these topics, and want to create a safe space that explicitly allows and encourages skeptical discourse outside the domain of myth and magic. Atheism+ can be seen as a convenient label for better orchestrating and linking practices that many ‘atheist’ organizations already routinely engage in.

3. Pursuant to building a safe space, they want to exclude people looking to harass other atheists. They don’t want to cut off reasoned disagreement; but they do want to leapfrog inane controversies over decisions as simple as instituting anti-harassment policies at conferences.

Notice that these are three profoundly different goals. They may all be complementary in the long haul, but if we forget their distinctness, we risk conflating them and thinking that 3 is about excluding all dissenting voices, not just bullies. Unpacking these goals also makes it clear that there is a tension between 1 and 2. Holding separate meetings so you can focus more closely on a specific shared interest is fine, but if you go too far in this direction you’ll end up abandoning your first goal, which was to gradually move the entire skeptical movement in the direction of activist humanism, bridging the gap and sealing the rift between these two strains of irreligious thought. […]

Here are my three proposals.

1. Define Yourselves.

It isn’t always crazy to let a term’s usage evolve naturally out of people’s amorphous intuitions. But in an already acrimonious environment, it’s asking for trouble. People listen most to those they agree with; when we strongly and consistently disagree, we tend to ignore or misinterpret each other. Thus each faction begins to converge upon a different definition, each new ambiguity compounding both the number of disputes and the difficulty and uselessness of resolving any one of them!

This is a case where artificially selecting your terminology will serve you far better than letting different, incompatible conceptions bubble up all over the place. Some degree of miscommunication, of course, is unavoidable. But it will be far easier to combat if there exists a fixed meaning to appeal to somewhere.—and if you plan to actually build an organization called ‘Atheism+’, you certainly have a right to decide what you mean when you use that term!

Notice that a definition is not a creed. Indeed, clarifying what Atheism+ is is one of the best ways to clarify what it isn’t—that it isn’t a set of doctrines, for example. […]

2. Be An Umbrella.

Your goals of attracting supporters and converting critics are both better served when you build bridges than when you burn them. And you’ll need a whole lot of help from existing humanist, secularist, and other activist organizations if you want to be seen as the Next Big Thing and not just as another escalation in the petty infighting that’s already been driving people away from the movement.

[… I]t might be wise to have two different terms for the organization and the larger movement, both for rhetorical and organizational purposes. I’d recommend treating ‘Atheism+’ as a single organization and using a totally different term—say, third-wave atheism—for the broader grassroots movement combining New Atheist methods with humanist values. This would encourage unbelievers who object to ‘Atheism+’ as a label, but share its concerns, to work with Atheism+ and propagate its memes. The third wave could grow into a loose coalition or federation of independent groups that regularly collaborate on charity drives, social activism, and other activities beyond the bounds of secularism. A distinction of this sort would insulate Atheism+ from concerns that it considers itself the only game in town, while also insulating third-wave atheism from any A+-specific baggage or ill will. Seems like a win-win.

3. Learn To Persuade.

Atheism+ has a rhetoric problem. A serious one. Your opponents, of course, share this fault. But I care more about helping Atheism+ achieve its goals, so I care more right now about critiquing and enhancing you plussers’ tactics and discursive habits.

This deserves its own post, but for now I’ll focus on just one key point: Name-calling kills thinking.

It doesn’t matter whether the name happens to be apt. It doesn’t matter how frustrated you are, or how entertaining your closest associates find the barb. Making a personal attack servesnone of your aims. It doesn’t persuade, it alienates spectators, it offers us no real psychological insights, and it lowers the quality of discourse in general. You could spend all day writing a subtle and sublime exposition of the true meaning of charity, but if you end with a footnote denouncing the people who disagree with you as “douchebags” or “assholes”, nearly all of your effort will fall on deaf ears. It is terrifyingly inefficient to rouse the fight-or-flight response of an already wary audience. It doesn’t even matter whether the people you intended to dismiss are the same people you anger; your mere choice of tone and word will reliably short-circuit our lizard brains, making us likelier to see enemies and battles instead of teaching opportunities.

Anger yields anger. Lizard thinking breeds lizard thinking. Treating people as enemies, rather than as students or collaborators, creates new enemies. More and more, these patterns choke off real understanding and debate. More and more, you find yourselves scaring away fence-sitters where you should be calmly enlightening them. You must put a complete end to your part of the cycle.

If you do not do this, I shudder at the loss. There are too many opportunities here, too many conversations long overdue, to let the more ancient and intemperate parts of all our brains ruin it for us.