I’ve said before that my favorite blog — and the one that’s shifted my views in the most varied and consequential ways — is Scott Alexander’s Slate Star Codex. Scott has written a lot of good stuff, and it can be hard to know where to begin; so I’ve listed below what I think are the best pieces for new readers to start with. This includes older writing, e.g., from Less Wrong.
The list should make the most sense to people who start from the top and read through it in order, though skipping around is encouraged too — many of the posts are self-contained. The list isn’t chronological. Instead, I’ve tried to order things by a mix of “where do I think most people should start reading?” plus “sorting related posts together.” If stuff doesn’t make sense, you may want to Google terms or read background material in Rationality: From AI to Zombies.
This is a work in progress; you’re invited to suggest things you’d add, remove, or shuffle around.
I’m grateful to Alex Rosenberg and William Lane Craig for taking the time to respond to my post, “Fact-checking the Craig-Rosenberg debate“. I edited in a few of Rosenberg’s comments from correspondence, but Craig’s public reply, “Fact-checking the fact-checker“, is more in-depth, and deserves a response in its own right. I’ll single out two points for special attention: historical methodology, and the idea of immaterial causation.
[…] breezy dismissal of N. T. Wright’s scholarly work because Wright is “a Christian apologist and bishop” and of the work of New Testament historians in general because they are allegedly Christians […]
I didn’t dismiss Christian scholarship. What I wrote was:
Craig doesn’t note that most New Testament scholars are Christians. (Are we to take it as evidence for the truth of Christianity that a lot of Christians happen to be Christian?)
Now, of course being a Christian doesn’t make it impossible for you to evaluate Christianity in a fair and skeptical way. I believe very strongly that the Earth is round, but that doesn’t mean that I’d be hopelessly biased in a debate with flat-Earthers. Agnosticism does not imply objectivity, and objectivity does not imply agnosticism. If anything, we’d be worried if most New Testament scholars weren’t Christians, since that would suggest that the historical evidence tended to make people less religious than the general populace.
But it’s also worth noting that Christian orthodoxy is not generally considered by historians the only possible objective interpretation of the evidence of the Gospels. And appealing to scholarly consensus here is misleading inasmuch as it has the guise of an appeal to independent authorities, as opposed to authorities who already came into the field accepting Christianity.
The charge was not that being Christian invalidates one’s scholarly work on Christianity. It was that, in the context of a debate with non-theists, it’s misleading to appeal to the authority of historians qua historians without mentioning that most of them came into the field already accepting the conclusion for which you’re arguing. (From childhood, no less!)
Suppose you’re debating a Muslim theologian who asserts that we can be confident that Muhammad is a prophet because virtually all Qur’anic scholars accept historical claims that provide powerful inductive evidence for Muhammad’s lofty status. If in the process he does not mention that most Qur’anic scholars are (and always have been) committed Muslims, then his argument risks deceiving people into thinking he’s adducing wholly independent grounds for accepting Islam. That’s so whether or not you ‘breezily dismiss’ Qur’anic studies itself.
If Craig’s point had merely been ‘There are a lot of very smart Christians who have carefully studied Christianity and still believe in it,’ I would have had no objection. Likewise, I have no objection to citing the specific historical arguments of Christian scholars, which can then be evaluated in their own right, without any need to consider the personal beliefs of the arguer. But when you’re citing the people themselves as authorities, their religious precommitments do start to become relevant, in the cases of Christian and non-Christian religions alike.
Craig: He thereby displays his unfamiliarity with New Testament studies and with the skepticism with which these scholars — which include among their ranks non-theists like Bart Ehrman and Jewish scholars like Geza Vermes who concur with my three facts — approach their sources.
I never suggested that all New Testament scholars are Christian. But Craig is doing what I wanted him to do in the debate, which is citing non-Christian authorities to strengthen his case — so I thank him for that.
That said, I should note that Craig is mistaken about Ehrman. Ehrman did claim that Jesus’ empty tomb was a historical fact in a 2003 lecture, but in a 2006 debate — a debate with Craig, available on Craig’s site — Ehrman said that he had changed his mind. Quoth Ehrman:
Paul said he [Jesus] got buried; he may simply have been tossed into a communal grave. I should point out that in some of Bill’s writings, he’s quoted a lot of my writings, and he’s taken them out of context, as I’ll show in a few minutes, because what he’s saying I’ve changed my mind to, I don’t agree with. […]
We don’t know if Jesus was buried by Joseph of Arimathea. What we have are Gospel stories written decades later by people who had heard stories in circulation, and it’s not hard at all to imagine somebody coming up with the story. We don’t know if his tomb was empty three days later. We don’t know if he was physically seen by his followers afterwards.
And Craig recognized this during their debate, saying,
Insofar as Dr. Ehrman now chooses to deny the honorable burial, the empty tomb, the appearances, he is in the decided minority of New Testament scholarship with regard to those facts.
We should keep in mind that Ehrman doesn’t deny “the appearances“, provided that dreams or visions would qualify as “appearances“. But in any case, Ehrman tells me he’ll give more details (and explain why he changed his mind) in his upcoming book, How Jesus Became God.
There are a number of further ambiguities that led to my charge of “misleading”. To keep Craig’s claims in context, I’ll quote much of his argument from the debate, adding numbers where I have questions or comments below.
Craig: God is the best explanation of the historical facts about Jesus of Nazareth. Historians have reached something of a consensus that Jesus came on the scene with an unprecedented sense of divine authority, the authority to stand and speak in God’s place.He claimed that in himself the Kingdom of God had come. And as visible demonstrations of this fact, he carried out a ministry of miracle-working and exorcism. But the supreme confirmation of his claim was his resurrection from the dead.If Jesus did rise from the dead, then it would seem that we have a divine miracle on our hands, and thus evidence for the existence of God. Now, I realize most people think that the resurrection of Jesus is just something you accept — by faith, or not. But there are actually three facts recognized by the majority of historians today which I believe are best explained by the resurrection of Jesus. […] Naturalisticattempts to explain away these three great facts, like “the disciples stole the body” or “Jesus wasn’t really dead,” have been universallyrejectedby contemporary scholarship.
1. The best possible explanation, or just the best one anyone has yet come up with? And if the latter, is Craig further claiming that this is a good historical explanation, or merely that it’s not as bad as the alternatives?
2. It’s very unclear what’s being asserted here. Is Craig saying that no one prior to Jesus had ever claimed to speak in the name of a supreme deity?
3. Craig began by saying that “historians have reached something of a consensus“. But he doesn’t indicate where his summary of that consensus ends and his own views begin. If Craig doesn’t intend to suggest that there is a historical consensus that Jesus worked real miracles and was raised from the dead, then he should draw the line between the two more explicitly. And since there isn’t such a consensus — and if there were, it would make Craig’s subsequent argument superfluous! — drawing that line can only improve the clarity and persuasiveness of Craig’s real point.
4. This claim is too weak for Craig’s purposes. Craig needs the resurrection to not just be evidence for God, but exceedingly strong evidence for God. Framing the question as ‘Is this evidence or not?’ risks trivializing the discussion, since most things that make claims likelier only do so by trifling amounts. Perhaps that sounds nitpicky, but it’s especially important to make the strength of one’s claims clear when discussing probabilistic arguments.
5. In the past, Craig has conceded that among historians “it is controversial whether the resurrection of Jesus is the best explanation of those facts“. But he doesn’t mention this in the debate. Nor does he explain why, if historians understand the evidence Craig is citing so well, they are so reluctant to endorse Craig’s conclusion as the most reasonable historical hypothesis.
6. Be wary of false dilemmas. Craig’s hypothesis has to beat rival supernatural explanations, not just natural ones.
7. “Universally“? Is this hyperbole, or is it being claimed that no historian of early Christianity endorses any non-theological explanation of the facts Craig cites?
8. What does “rejection” mean here? Careful historians will assign rough probability estimates to hypotheses before picking some threshold that counts as ‘acceptance’ or ‘rejection’. So Craig might mean that historians assign a very low probability to each one of the “naturalistic” hypotheses to date — they don’t think any one is likely to be true. Or he might mean that historians who have looked at these hypothesis don’t assign a high probability to any of them.
In the latter case, they may not have even considered whether they’re probably false, if they’ve only examined the evidence enough to determine whether they’re especially likely to be true. A paper ‘rejecting’ some hypothesis might simply be concluding that the evidence is too inconclusive to endorse the hypothesis, relative to general historical standards or relative to the rival hypotheses. If this is the case, then Craig’s argument will fail, since certainly ‘historians have not singled out any one naturalistic hypothesis as unusually plausible’ does not imply ‘each one of the naturalistic hypotheses is likely to be false’.
But there’s a further problem: Even historians who grant ‘each one of these hypotheses is likely to be false’ need not grant ‘it is likely that all of these hypotheses are false’. To make that leap is a probabilistic fallacy.
Consider a detective who thinks, ‘I’m sure that the killer is either the butler, the maid, or the professor; but I have no idea which of them did it!’ The detective might be extremely confident that the culprit is among those three candidates, but not at all confident in the guilt of anyparticular one. Or suppose I flip a fair coin ten times. The probability of any particular sequence of heads and tails (e.g., TTHHTTTTHH) is less than one in a thousand. But to conclude that it is likely for no sequence to occur, from the fact that it is not likely for any particular sequence to occur, would be absurd. In the same way, it is perfectly open to the naturalist to grant that no specific natural explanation is likely, without granting that a set-theoretic union of all the natural explanations (tomb robbers, or the women got lost, or the whole story came to an overenthusiastic follower in a dream, …, …) is unlikely too.
9. Lastly: Craig presents this as an argument for the existence of God. If we take ‘God’ to signify the Christian God, then one way for him to make his case would be to presuppose that there is some sort of deity, on the basis of his other seven arguments. The form of the historical argument would then be: ‘Given the anomalies surrounding Jesus, plus the fact that we know that some sort of intelligence created our universe, it is reasonable to conclude that this intelligence probably directly intervened in the events described by early Christians.’
On the other hand, if Craig thinks this historical argument could be used to independently conclude that some intelligence crafted the cosmos, then he can’t appeal to the other arguments as premises, and the inferential leap he’s making — from a few ancient manuscripts to the structure and origin of the entire universe — will become quite a bit harder to motivate.
Craig: [O]ur blogger mistakenly thinks the theorem applies only to inflationary models, which is inaccurate, as the paper referenced above shows.
Craig is right. My thanks for pointing this out! And my apologies to any readers who took away from my post that Borde, Guth, and Vilenkin’s conclusion in “Inflationary spacetimes are not past-complete” applies only given inflation. It holds more generally of any model in which the universe expands on average.
In the debate, Craig presents the Kalam cosmological argument as follows:
1. The universe began to exist.
2. If the universe began to exist, then the universe has a transcendent cause.
3. Therefore the universe has a transcendent cause.
By the very nature of the case, that cause must be a transcendent immaterial being.
Rosenberg focused his attack on premise 2, but I would note that premise 1 remains deeply controversial among physicists. In response to the question “Did the universe have a beginning?”, physicist Sean Carroll writes, “Mithani and Vilenkin are […] willing to be honest about our state of ignorance: thus, ‘probably’ yes. I personally think the answer is ‘probably no,’ but none of us actually knows.” Carroll elaborated in correspondence:
[T]he BGV theorem refers to classical spacetimes, and the universe is not classical. That’s all that really needs to be said. Alex Vilenkin takes this classical result as a strong indication that the true quantum description of the universe also must have a beginning, but at best it’s suggestive. It’s absolutely plausible (and much more likely, in the view of many of us) that the actual universe is eternal, and the BGV result tells us that the classical description must break down, not that the universe must have had a beginning.
Carroll also notes, “The definition of ‘singularity in the past’ is not really the same as ‘had a beginning’ — it means that some geodesics must eventually come to an end. (Others might not.)” Craig has strongly disputed this. However, Vilenkin agrees with Carroll, though with the qualifier “most” in place of “some”. In response to Vic Stenger’s question “Does your theorem prove that the universe must have had a beginning?” (in The Fallacy of Fine-Tuning), Vilenkin responded,
No. But it proves that the expansion of the universe must have had a beginning.
More specifically, Vilenkin wrote,
The theorem says that if the universe is everywhere expanding (on average), then the histories of most particles cannot be extended to the infinite past. In other words, if we follow the trajectory of some particle to the past, we inevitably come to a point where the assumption of the theorem breaks down — that is, where the universe is no longer expanding. This is true for all particles, except perhaps a set of measure zero. In other words, there may be some (infinitely rare) particles whose histories are infinitely long.
Still, my main interest is not in disputing Craig’s premises, but in clarifying what accepting his conclusion would really mean. Since Craig bases much of his argument on the work of Vilenkin and his colleagues, it’s important to keep in mind that Vilenkin himself thinks that we can physically explain our universe’s beginning. In “Creation of universes from nothing“, Vilenkin posits that an empty geometry, devoid of time, space, matter, and energy, could give rise to the universe as we know it.
Previously, Craig has objected that this emptiness would not count as “literally nothing“, hence that Vilenkin fails to explain “being’s coming from non-being“. But Vilenkin is free to grant that the physicalist has no such account. In the context of the Kalam discussion, the physicalist’s burden is to explain, not how something could come from nothing, but how a universe with a beginning could come from an unintelligent but beginningless source. Since Vilenkin’s vacuum is atemporal, it has no beginning. Hence the Kalam argument cannot be reapplied to it. Perhaps some other philosophical objection can show theism to be superior to this hypothesis. But it will still be the case that the Kalam argument fails, at least in the sense that it cannot motivate theism on its own.
Two other potential sources of serious misunderstanding are Craig’s appeal to “transcendent” and “immaterial” causes. There is an obvious sense in which all causes ‘transcend’ their effects — because no event is self-causing. But theorists might wish to deny premise 2 if the premise is taken to mean that something past-eternal couldn’t cause our universe by becoming our universe.
Physicists like Vilenkin are also likely to be wary of the imprecision of the term “immaterial“. This term is pivotal in Craig’s argument, particularly since for him the term “universe” is defined in terms of the material, as “the whole of material reality“. When I raised this concern, Craig responded that he was quite clear:
I am using the word in the ordinary language sense to mean “not material” or “non-physical.”
… Well, sure. My problem wasn’t with the ‘im-‘ prefix. It was with what we’re considering ‘material’ or ‘physical’ in the first place. What general criterion can we use to tell material things apart from immaterial ones? I’ll run through a variety of options:
(a) By “material” Craig means ‘made of matter‘, in the sense used in physics. So the universe is the totality of things with spatial extent and mass.
Objection: This would make most of physics — spacetime, light, and gravitation, for starters — immaterial. Craig clearly doesn’t mean this, because he wants to exclude physicsy things like these as possible causes for our world.
(b) By “material” Craig means ‘nonmental‘. So the Kalam argument simply says that all nonmental things have a beginning, and everything with a beginning must have a cause, so the first nonmental things must have a mental cause.
Objection 1: This would make Craig’s position on the mind-body debate trivial, since his rejection of physicalists’ claims that mental processes are ultimately physical would then be merely definitional. (If it weren’t definitional, that would mean he allows the possibility that something could be both material and immaterial, which is, to put it mildly, confusing!)
Objection 2: This would render incoherent the distinction between two categories of immaterial thing Craig recognizes: Minds, and abstract objects. If ‘immaterial’ just means ‘mental’, then we can’t even meaningfully talk about neither-mental-nor-physical things like numbers. So this can’t be what Craig has in mind.
Objection: This allows that other, disconnected spacetimes might be candidate causes for our universe. Craig might simply deny, on grounds of parsimony, that there are any such spacetimes. But it still seems strange to say that such things, if they existed, would be ‘immaterial’.
(d) By “material” Craig means ‘spatial and/or temporal‘. So other spacetimes, if such there be, are included in what Craig calls the “universe”.
Objection: Human minds are temporal, hence would count as ‘material’ in this sense. This isn’t inappropriate if the Kalam cosmological argument is meant to explain all of Creation (including the mental parts of Creation), but it does contradict Craig’s stated views on the nature of mind.
(e) By “material” Craig means ‘spatial‘. This captures well Craig’s intuition that abstract objects and minds (both human and divine) seem immaterial, as well as his claim that branes are “physical“.
Objection 1: Vilenkin’s arguments at most show that “material reality” has a beginning if “material reality” is defined in terms of (c). Vilenkin’s argument does generalize to expanding multiverses, but he is silent on the issue of whether all completely disconnected physical structures, if such there be, have beginnings. So if Craig has (d) or (e) in mind when he speaks of “material reality“, he will need new, independent arguments to show that this reality too must have a beginning.
Objection 2: What exactly does ‘non-spatial’ mean? If it means ‘lacking spatial extent’, then point particles might count as ‘immaterial’. If it means ‘lacking spatial location’, then human minds might count as ‘material’. (This will be especially problematic if we cash out divine omnipresence in terms of spatial extension or location.)
(f) By “material” Craig means ‘describable in the language of physics‘.
Objection 1: What gets to count as ‘the language of physics‘? If we define this too strictly, then we risk calling the posits of slightly nonstandard variants of physics ‘immaterial’. On the other hand, if we define it too laxly, we start to lose any principled way to deny materiality of, for example, the mental.
Objection 2: What about physical laws? Craig considers such laws abstract (hence immaterial), but it’s not clear in what sense they could be foreign to physical description.
Of these, I think criterion (e) is the best option, despite its problems. It gets a lot of work done and yet is very simple. But Craig explicitly rejects (e) in the “spatially extended” sense, so his view may be closer to (f). In that case, we can restate his Kalam argument:
1. Every existent describable by an adequately physicslike theory began to exist.
2. If all such things began to exist, then they must ultimately have a cause that is not physicslike.
3. Therefore there is something un-physicslike that is the ultimate cause of everything physicslike.
Expressed this way, in terms of (f), Vilenkin himself strongly rejects premise 1. Likewise if we revised this argument to unpack “material reality” through definition (b). In the (a) and (c) variants, Vilenkin would accept premise 1, but conclude that his empty geometry is an ‘immaterial cause’ in the requisite sense. And if we replaced the argument with one appealing to (d) or (e), Vilenkin would probably maintain agnosticism about premise 1, but would again insist that his empty geometry, being non-spatiotemporal, is an adequate ‘immaterial cause’ as defined. So all of these ways of formulating the Kalam argument either make one (or both) of the premises scientifically dubious, or make the conclusion acceptable to non-theists.
Still, for the sake of argument, suppose we granted something akin to the (f) version of the Kalam argument above, and concluded that something alien to contemporary physics (like a mind, number, or free-floating law) were causally responsible for the physical world. Would this suffice for establishing that a mind is the cause?
Craig thinks so. He reasons that we know that numbers and laws are “abstract objects“, and abstract objects have no causal effects. Since no one has been able to think of an immaterial object that is neither mental nor abstract, the only reasonable causal candidate is mental. When I suggested that there might be other immaterial causes to choose between, like the Forms of Plato, Craig responded:
Platonic forms and free-floating laws are abstract objects, so I just have no idea of what other world-transcending causes he’s talking about. If he can give us such a candidate, I’ll add it to the list of candidates to be considered, but I have yet to see such a candidate suggested, much less one that is more plausible than a transcendent mind.
This response surprised me. Craig has written a great deal about what’s nowadays called ‘platonism,’ or realism about abstract objects. But Craig’s assertion here reflects a lack of familiarity with the core doctrine of Plato himself, the doctrine that the sensible world is a product of the eternal Forms. Against Craig 2013, I cite Craig 2009:
By the way, what passes for Platonism today shouldn’t be identified with what Plato himself actually believed. For Plato, the Forms do not seem to be at all causally impotent but shape the world to be as it is. The debate over so-called abstract objects is actually a very recent development of contemporary philosophy which arose only in the late 19th century.
The source of Craig’s latter-day lapse is likely an ambiguity in the terms ‘platonism’ and ‘abstract’. By ‘abstract object’ philosophers (including I and Craig) usually mean ‘something non-spatiotemporal and causally inert’. But some philosophers use the term more loosely, to refer to anything non-spatiotemporal. Plato’s Forms are abstract in the latter sense, but not in the former sense; and it is only the former sense that is relevant to Craig’s rejection of abstract objects as causes. As Gideon Rosen writes: “Plato’s Forms were supposed to be causes par excellence, whereas abstract objects are generally supposed to be causally inert in every sense.”
A second source of confusion is that even though belief in abstract objects is often called ‘platonism’ or ‘platonic realism’, Plato himself was a nominalist, and not a platonist or realist. (Paul Spade notes, pp. 56-61, that Plato is probably a nominalist, not just about abstracta, but about universals as well. Plato’s Forms, as usually presented, are potent particulars.)
Most metaphysicians these days consider the actual Forms of Plato so implausible as to be of merely historic interest, in contrast to the vibrant debate surrounding abstract objects. Since these abstracta have a superficial resemblance to the Forms, and are taken more seriously, the name of Plato is appropriated as a colorful way of picking out abstracta. Whence Craig’s conflation of the two.
But whydo modern philosophers dismiss the Form of Duality in favor of the abstractum 2? Simply on the grounds that our universe is causally closed. Plato’s actual views are dismissed with a chuckle, while abstract-object ‘platonism’ is vigorously attacked and defended, because Plato’s Forms purport to ‘spookily’ intrude upon our everyday lives and in the very existence of our cosmos, while abstract objects kindly recuse themselves from the realm of empirical science.
But this is precisely the assumption someone arguing for a universe-begetting intelligence cannot grant. Either Craig is illicitly assuming the causal closure of the physical when it harms rival doctrines and then rejecting it when the focus shifts to his preferred posit, or he simply hasn’t taken the time to seriously assess any hypotheses invoking unintelligent immaterial causes.
My point in all this isn’t to defend Plato’s doctrines, or for that matter Vilenkin’s. It’s merely to suggest that Craig is far too hasty in moving from his conclusion of the Kalam argument to an invocation of transcendent minds, divine or not.
Craig: This blog is not really fact-checking (which would have involved alerting readers to factual mistakes like my ascribing a quotation to Penelope Maddy instead of Mary Leng or my giving the date of Caesar Augustus’ death as AD 17 rather than AD 14) so much as it is entering into the debate itself in assessment of the arguments.
That’s true to an extent. I generally limited myself to evaluating the soundness of Craig and Rosenberg’s arguments, and not to putting forward novel arguments of my own for the broader topics under dispute. For instance, I didn’t weigh in with my own view on the historicity of Jesus, on the right interpretation of quantum mechanics, or for that matter on the existence of a deity. (The main exception: I provided an argument of my own in §10, mainly to give an example of what deductive arguments from evil should look like.)
So whatever I was doing, it wasn’t prototypical ‘fact-checking’, but it was still decidedly from the sidelines. And I think you can tell from the tone that I was mainly using the ‘fact-check’ idiom as a fun way to spice up a relatively long post. (After all, one of my checks was just an excuse to make a Scientology pun.)
For all that, I’d be very interested to see a deeper discussion about where to draw the lines between (neutral? objective?) ‘fact-checking’ and personally entering the fray. Is a fact-checker allowed to evaluate the validity of arguments, or only the truth of premises? Can she only evaluate trivial claims, or can she also question premises that are central to a debater’s whole case? How uncontroversial or obvious does a truth have to be in order to count as a ‘fact’? I don’t have easy answers to these questions myself.
However this discussion started, it’s now moving into increasingly interesting and important philosophical waters. I’d love to hear Craig’s and others’ responses to the new historical, methodological, cosmological, and metaphysical issues raised so far.
On February 1, Christian apologist William Lane Craig and philosopher of science Alex Rosenberg debated the relationship between theology and ethics, cosmology, metaphysics, and a range of other topics at Purdue University. And, good golly, they covered a lot. In the interest of deepening this already-broad conversation, I’ll assess the merits of a smattering of their assertions, both scientific and philosophical.
But I’m not going to weigh in on who won. Because I do agree with a fundamental point raised by Rosenberg, not about the debate’s topic but about formal debate itself:
“Philosophy and theology don’t proceed by courtroom-style debate. We’re engaged in a cooperative search for the truth, both theists and atheists, not an adversarial contest for victory. […]
“But that’s the problem with this kind of a debate, and this kind of a format. It doesn’t work. It doesn’t work because what I’d like to be able to do is ask William Lane Craig a question, and listen to his answer, and formulate a reply, and listen to his answer. And then give a view, and listen to his question. Which is the way in which philosophical dialogue proceeds, and which enables us at least to find out where the crucial issues are between us, and how we could mutually agree to adjudicate these matters.“
Rosenberg’s request is simple. He wants to talk to Craig. He wants a real-time back-and-forth, a friendly and open exchange of ideas rather than a stiff gladiatorial combat. If there is a battle of any significance here, it is between all of us and the forces of ignorance and error. Inasmuch as the debate was enlightening, both debaters won; inasmuch as it is was muddled or superficial, both debaters lost. As did we all.
But that battle continues. Just because the debate is presented as highbrow sumo wrestling doesn’t mean we can’t exploit it to open up a richer dialogue. I encourage you to join the discussion, and let me know which of my points you agree or disagree with!
Craig: “Now there’s only one way I can think of to get a contingent universe from a necessarily existing cause, and that is if the cause is a personal agent who can freely choose to create a contingent reality. It therefore follows that the best explanation of the existence of the contingent universe is a transcendent, personal being. Which is what everybody means by ‘God.’“
Perhaps that’s part of what a lot of people mean by ‘God’. But it’s not everything that is meant by ‘God’. If you learned that this transcendent, personal cause of the universe were ignorant or mad, or that it annihilated itself in the course of making the universe, or that it were a cruel tyrant, it’s unlikely that you would even think of calling this Lovecraftian absurdity ‘God’. Certainly you wouldn’t think that it was your god.
In general, attempts to prove that something has some of the interesting properties you ascribe to your god, although not irrelevant, need to be heavily qualified when there is a great swarm of hypothetical beings that you would never worship but that meet the same requirements. There are thousands of conditions a deity has to meet, above and beyond transcendence and personhood, before it can even begin to approximate the God of the Bible.
Note also that Craig is giving an argument to the best explanation. But the best explanation may not be a very good explanation, if all the options we’ve thought of are unlikely to different degrees. If I ask ten randomly selected people to give their best guess as to the value of -4⁴, I shouldn’t be all that confident that the least unpopular answer is the right answer. The real question is: Would we expect anyone to have thought of the right answer by now? If not, then we may have reason to doubt that the ‘best’ explanation is worth very much. We also have to be wary here of appeals to ignorance; “there’s only one way I can think of…” only matters if everyone else shares your ignorance and if we would strongly expect anyone to have thought of the right answer by now.
Craig: “Because we don’t yet have a quantum theory of gravity, we can’t yet provide a physical description of the first split second of the universe. But the Borde-Guth-Vilenkin theorem is independent of any physical description of that moment. Their theorem implies that the quantum vacuum state which may have characterized the early universe cannot be eternal in the past, but must have had an absolute beginning. Even if our universe is just a tiny part of a so-called multiverse composed of many universes, their theorem requires that the multiverse itself must have had an absolute beginning. […]
“But then the inevitable question arises, why did the universe come into being? What brought the universe into existence? There must have been a transcendent cause which brought the universe into being.“
This is almost right, but requires the added stipulation that the multiverse in question be inflationary. I asked Alexander Vilenkin what he thought of Craig’s characterization, and he wrote:
“This is accurate. But note that the theorem assumes that the universe was on average expanding in the past. The conclusion can be avoided if the universe was contracting prior to the expansion. But contracting universes have problems of their own. They are highly unstable, so the contraction is not likely to be followed by an expansion (which we now observe).”
Another possible source of confusion is that Craig’s conclusion — that our universe must have a “transcendent cause” — is not generally endorsed by physicists who do grant that it had a beginning. Vilenkin comments, “I don’t think the cause should necessarily be transcendent.”
What Borde, Guth, and Vilenkin proved is that new, non-inflationary physics is required to “describe the past boundary of the inflating region of spacetime”. Maybe that new physics will have a ‘God’ term; maybe it won’t. But this theorem does not obviously rule out immanent explanations.
Craig: “By the very nature of the case, that cause [of the universe] must be a transcendent, immaterial being. Now, there are only two possible things that could fit that description. Either an abstract object, like a number, or an unembodied mind or consciousness.“
Note that Craig gives no argument here that only causally inert abstracta and minds could transcend our universe. Yet he asserts that we not only haven’t come up with such an entity yet, but that such a thing is impossible. This in spite of the many philosophers, from Plato to the present day, who have posited unconscious immaterial causes. Lacking any proof of the impossibility of such things, we must conclude that the argument fails; whereas Craig’s earlier argument-to-the-best-explanation was much more persuasive, though its conclusion was also much weaker.
We have to be especially wary of the fallacy of equivocation here. Craig uses ‘immaterial’ to mean ‘outside the universe’ (like God), but he also uses it to mean ‘not spatially extended’ (like ordinary human mental states). But my mind is in the universe; more specifically, it’s in the United States. My present hunger, for example, isn’t nowhere. (Nor everywhere!) It’s at the particular place where I am. But this means that we don’t know of any minds that are nonphysical in Craig’s sense, and it isn’t obvious that there could be such minds. Likewise, minds as we know them are all temporal; it’s not clear that we have any coherent idea of a thought or sensation existing outside time itself. Insofar as we do have some vague sense of such a mind, surely we might also have a vague sense of branes, Platonic Forms, free-floating Laws, or other world-transcending causes.
Craig: “By far, most of the observable universes in a world ensemble would be worlds in which a single brain fluctuates into existence out of the vacuum and observes its otherwise empty world. Thus, if our world were just a random member of a world ensemble, we ought to be having observations like that. Since we don’t, that strongly disconfirms the world ensemble hypothesis.“
Assessment: Mostly Right
Max Tegmark has proposed that we can explain why our universe seems ‘fine-tuned’ for complex mathematical and biological structure by positing that we’re just a small part of a much larger multiverse of randomly varying mathematical objects. Since we would only expect living things to emerge and notice how nice and friendly their surroundings are in the parts of this giant ‘ensemble’ that make life possible (well, yeah), our universe’s observed hospitability then becomes a lot less surprising.
It’s an interesting idea, but, as Craig suggests, it seems to have some absurd consequences: we should expect all our memories to be an illusion formed out of a chaotic flux. This is because, on Tegmark’s view, most universes are chaotic mishmashes. If I think I’m a brain in a randomly selected universe in Tegmark’s ensemble, then I should expect to be one of the billions of brains randomly and momentarily arising from chaos (complete with fake memories!), rather than one of the rare brains produced by a huge, physically simple chunk of spacetime that lawfully produced me and ancestors like me over millions of years. This is the problem of the Boltzmann Brain.
The easiest response is that we occupy a multitude of relatively simple worlds with just a few randomly varying physical constants (e.g., the fine-structure constant), enough to account for apparent fine-tuning; but that multitude is not so diverse that it has a preponderance of ‘chaotic’ universes generating Boltzmann Brains. This may seem like a somewhat ad-hoc answer, and further serious debate about anthropic reasoning is certainly warranted. Anthropic multiverses like Tegmark’s will have to contend not only with life-selecting mechanisms like Craig’s, but with heavy-element-selecting mechanisms like Lee Smolin’s cosmic evolution.
Craig: “There are actually three facts recognized by the majority of historians today which I believe are best explained by the resurrection of Jesus. Fact #1: On the Sunday after his crucifixion, Jesus’ tomb was found empty by a group of his women followers. 2: On separate occasions, different individuals and groups of people saw appearances of Jesus, alive, after his death. And, 3: The original disciples suddenly came to believe in the resurrection of Jesus, despite having every predisposition to the contrary.“
The only evidence Craig cites is N.T. Wright’s claim that these three propositions are “virtually certain”. What Craig doesn’t mention is that Wright is not only a historian, but a Christian apologist and bishop. For that matter, Craig doesn’t note that most New Testament scholars are Christians. (Are we to take it as evidence for the truth of Christianity that a lot of Christians happen to be Christian?)
Now, of course being a Christian doesn’t make it impossible for you to evaluate Christianity in a fair and skeptical way. I believe very strongly that the Earth is round, but that doesn’t mean that I’d be hopelessly biased in a debate with flat-Earthers. Agnosticism does not imply objectivity, and objectivity does not imply agnosticism. If anything, we’d be worried if most New Testament scholars weren’t Christians, since that would suggest that the historical evidence tended to make people less religious than the general populace.
But it’s also worth noting that Christian orthodoxy is not generally considered by historians the only possible objective interpretation of the evidence of the Gospels. And appealing to scholarly consensus here is misleading inasmuch as it has the guise of an appeal to independent authorities, as opposed to authorities who already came into the field accepting Christianity.
As for the claims themselves, before we can even begin to evaluate ancient miracle accounts, we need some training in historical methodology and knowledge of the relevant cultural context. This talk is very informal, and is addressed to a nontheistic audience, but provides a nice introduction to those two topics:
Rosenberg: “Many of the arguments that Dr. Craig gave tonight [… rest] on, of course, the Principle of Sufficient Reason, the principle that everything that exists must have a cause.“
Rosenberg: “We know that alpha particles come into existence for no reason at all every moment in this room. Why should we assume that the universe is any different? Why should we assume that purely quantum-mechanical fluctuations — symmetry breaking, which we understand is the explanation for why there’s matter in the universe and not antimatter — why this process which produces the characteristic features of our universe and does so without there being a cause for its happening one way or the other, why the symmetry gets broken one way or the other, couldn’t be the nature of reality as far back as we can possibly dig in cosmology?“
Craig does not appeal to a principle as strong as ‘everything has a sufficient reason/cause/explanation independent of itself’. Were he to do so, his arguments for God would backfire, since God would then need to be caused or explained in its own right. Instead, Craig claims (a) that physical events and things always require an explanation (and the universe, of course, is physical), and (b) that contingent things always require an explanation. Rosenberg questions (a), and we could also question (b), or ask how we know that anything is really contingent. But it’s important not to conflate these three claims.
It seems that just as Craig is arguing from ’every physical event has a cause’ to ‘the universe must have a cause’, Rosenberg is arguing from ‘many physical events lack a cause’ to ‘the universe lacks a cause’. Neither of these inferences seems very strong to me. (EDIT: Rosenberg tells me that he rather “is arguing from ‘many physical events lack a cause’ to ‘[it’s]possible that the universe lacks a cause.[‘]”)
Vilenkin suggests, in correspondence:
“This is not very clear, but it seems that what he [Rosenberg] is referring to is the creation of closed universes from ‘nothing’. The possibility of such a process is indeed suggested by quantum cosmology, but the word ‘nothing’ should be interpreted with care. Here, it is taken to mean a state with no matter and no classical space and time. But the origin of the universe is described by the laws of physics, so the laws are assumed to be ‘there’ as an input. Mr. Craig may argue that the laws must be provided by God. I am not sure this explains anything; we could just as well say that the laws have always been ‘there’. However, in fairness I should admit that so far physics offered no explanation for the laws. Why these laws and not some other? Why any laws at all?”
Physics graduate student Jeffrey Eldred provides a defense of Rosenberg’s general approach, though he notes that Rosenberg is mistaken in thinking that physicists look to spontaneous symmetry breaking to explain the matter-antimatter disparity:
“Rosenberg[‘s claim] ‘…quantum-mechanical fluctuations, symmetry breaking, which we understand is the explanation for why there’s matter in the universe and not anti-matter…’ is not generally accepted by physicists and cosmologists. Physicists already have experimental confirmation of matter-antimatter asymmetry in the properties of quarks, and there are experimentsunderway expecting to find the remainder of the asymmetry. […] I don’t know what Rosenberg was thinking about. Perhaps he was jumping the gun and […] looking to the theories that would explain matter-antimatter asymmetry in the event we didn’t find it in the neutrino sector, or maybe he was uncritically endorsing remarks reportedly made by Einstein. […]
“Spontaneous symmetry-breaking is the idea that an unstable symmetric system will be forced to break the symmetry in an arbitrary direction. Classically if you balance a perfectly [cylindrically] symmetric, perfectly sharp pencil perfectly on its point [then] it will never fall over. Quantum-mechanically, random fluctuations in the particles that make it up would force it to become slightly asymmetric and then cause it to settle into a stable asymmetric state (lying on the table pointing in a random direction). Whatever your interpretation is, the way the symmetry will break cannot be known from our perspective and the consequences of those fluctuations can be lasting. […]
“Inflationary theories are supported in part by Cosmic Microwave Background evidence that shows the distribution of matter in the universe fits the model of quantum fluctuations between close particles and then subsequent inflation. Inflation theories can explain in a similar way any parameter of the universe which depends on the distribution of matter, the mechanism of inflation, or could vary slowly over scales larger than our universe. The original [arrangement] of matter could be empty but then spontaneous symmetry breaking of the unstable vacuum state could cause it to become populated with matter.
“I’m not sure […] how Rosenberg is linking this to other parameters of the universe such as the gravitational constant or if he is even trying to explain them. Is he assuming that there is a different but analogous process for those parameters or is he saying that they are created by the same mechanism? Here’s how they could be created by the same mechanism. Let’s say for instance the gravitational constant varied over space in the very early universe (ie the multiverse) and subsequently inflation took place in a very small region of that space which would eventually get inflated into our universe. That would mean our universe would have an effectively constant gravitational constant because the gravitational constant wouldn’t vary much in such a small original space, and our gravitational constant could be picked effectively at random from the true possible variation in the gravitational constant if there was nothing special about the space that would become our universe. We don’t know that to be true about the gravitational constant but if inflation is right than we might never […] know if it is true about the gravitational constant or any other parameter. We might try to analyze if our universe is a typical random (or typical anthropically selected) universe from the possibilities, but we might not even be able to know what a typical universe is since we can’t observe any outside our own universe.”
Rosenberg: “To begin with, this is terrible carbon chauvinism. If these constants had been slightly different, maybe there would be intelligent life in the universe that’s germanium-based or silicon-based.“
In fact, silicon- or germanium-based life may very well exist in our universe. But, as Craig correctly notes, the sorts of radical tinkerings that fine-tuning arguments appeal to wouldgenerallymake all stable atoms impossible, not just carbon. So, although the suggestion that life might be possible in universes with very different physical constants would be a powerful anthropic rejoinder, a lot of work will need to be done to make it credible. Until then, the best anthropic arguments will appeal to some sort of multiverse.
Rosenberg: “Think about this: 53 of the first 62 DNA exonerations of people who turned out to be innocent of charges of capital crimes in the United States were convicted on eye-witness testimony. We know from cognitive, social science how unreliable eye-witness testimony is today. Why should we suppose that eye-witness testimony from 33 AD is any more reliable? This, as an argument for God’s existence, seems to me to be bizarre.“
Assessment: Mostly Right
This is a very important point. Wells, Memon, and Penrod note: “Analyses of DNA exoneration cases since 1992 reveal that mistaken eyewitness identiﬁcation was involved in the vast majority of these convictions, accounting for more convictions of innocent people than all other factors combined.”
What’s potentially misleading here is the suggestion that we have eye-witness testimony of any event from Jesus’ life. As Rosenberg later notes, the Gospels are generally dated to 40-60 years after Jesus’ death, and none of them even claims to be an eye-witness account.
Rosenberg: “Logically speaking, if God is omniscient, and God is omnipotent, and God is truly benevolent, has a totally good will and would never will anything but for the best, then the existence of suffering on our planet — human suffering and natural suffering, of other animals, for example — is something that needs desperately to be explained. And we’ve had over the course of 400 or 500 years of wrestling with this problem the Free Will defense, and the mystery-mongering […] defense, and nobody has managed to provide a satisfactory explanation. And I insist that the problem is logical. And Dr. Craig needs to tell us exactly how an omnipotent god, and an entirely benevolent god, had to have the Holocaust, in order to produce the good outcome, whatever it might be, that he intends for our ultimate providence. […] In all honesty, if Dr. Craig could provide me with any way of a logical, coherent account that could reconcile the evident fact of the horrors of human and infrahuman life on this planet over the last 3.5 billion years, with the existence of a benevolent, omnipotent agent, then I will turn Christian.“
Rosenberg’s argument here is perplexing. His actual points are perfectly fine — as inductive, probabilistic arguments. Many of Craig’s own arguments are probabilistic. But Rosenberg repeatedly uses the word ‘logical’, which Craig takes to refer to ‘the logical problem of evil’, the attempt to deductively prove the impossibility of God’s coexisting with evil. Either Rosenberg is misrepresenting the force of his own arguments, or there’s a serious communication gap between him and Craig.
If Rosenberg is happy to settle for induction, then that would explain why he repeatedly demands a theistic explanation for atrocities like the Bubonic Plague and the Holocaust. It doesn’t make any sense to demand explanations for logical contradictions like square circles; we can simply note that they’re impossible and move on. But it does make sense to demand explanations if you just think that God is overwhelmingly unlikely, rather than impossible.
This miscommunication is doubly unfortunate because it leads Rosenberg and Craig to talk past each other in terms of the burden of proof: Rosenberg repeatedly demands that Craig explain how a good God could have allowed evil, while Craig repeatedly demands that Rosenberg prove the impossibility of there being some good reason we haven’t yet figured out. When what’s being disputed is unclear, the burden of proof will be correspondingly unclear.
That said, there might be some interesting deductive arguments against the coexistence of evil with certain concepts of a benevolent God. For instance, here’s one I came up with:
1. God is perfect. Among other things, this means that God is perfectly benevolent and perfectly knowledgeable. 2. God is the sole creator of our universe. 3. If God is perfect, then in a situation in which only God existed, there would be no shortcomings. 4. If a situation has no shortcomings, then it cannot be improved upon. 5. So God’s creation of our universe could not have been an improvement. (from 1, 2, 3, 4) 6. A perfectly benevolent being will not knowingly bring about a situation that risks producing evil, if doing so could not improve upon the prior situation. 7. Creating our universe risked producing evil. 8. So God is not perfectly benevolent. (from 1, 5, 6, 7) 9. Contradiction. (from 1, 8)
This argument is valid, but some of its premises may be counter-intuitive. In particular, some people may want to insist that God’s creation of free agents was an improvement upon the status quo; but it’s hard to articulate how that could be so without watering down 1. Alternatively, some may want to insist that benevolence is not about improving scenarios (denying 6). But this just doesn’t seem right. Benevolence may not only consist in improving reality, but that’s surely at least one important factor; all else being equal, it’s better for the world to be better, to have a higher good-to-evil ratio! And, again, given God’s perfection, it’s hard to articulate what advantage could outweigh the colossal suffering (or risk-of-suffering) God engendered.
But I digress. I just wanted to illustrate what a deductive argument from evil might look like. Rosenberg himself doesn’t clearly formulate one.
Craig: “But if God does not exist, then I think metaphysical naturalism is true. Metaphysical naturalism doesn’t follow from epistemological naturalism, but it does follow from atheism. The most plausible form of atheism is, I think, metaphysical naturalism. But there are all those absurd consequences that result from that that I describe.“
By ‘theism’ Craig seems to mean the belief in a necessary, uncaused, simple, immaterial person who existed outside of spacetime, freely created the universe, and is identical to goodness. But he also seems to treat ‘atheism’ here as just the negation of theism; it’s any view on which theism is false. But then there are numerous monotheisms and polytheisms that qualify as ‘atheistic’ in the relevant sense, since they deny at least one of the properties Craig ascribes to God (e.g., simplicity, or necessity, or benevolence).
There’s also some ambiguity in Craig’s claim that “metaphysical naturalism[…] does follow from atheism“. Polytheistic doctrines surely do not count as naturalisms. For that matter, we intuit that werewolves, sorcery, and astrological influences are ‘supernatural;’ they violate metaphysical naturalism. But we don’t have to believe in Craig’s deity to consistently believe in magic. Either Craig is committing a false dilemma fallacy with respect to theism and atheism, or he’s committing a false dilemma fallacy with respect to naturalism and non-naturalism.
So let’s reconstruct a more charitable version of the argument. I don’t think Craig means to say that metaphysical non-naturalism logically entails his version of theism. Rather, he takes it as self-evident that naturalism is false — because he (a) equates naturalism with physicalism, and (b) assumes that human thought, perception, and language cannot possibly be physical. The former, (a), is very nonstandard, and constitutes a third false dilemma. But let’s grant it for the moment. Craig’s argument then is, I think, that the truth of (b) does not entail theism, but rather that theism is the only serious contender for a satisfactory explanation of (b). Craig’s issue with atheism, then, is that it denies the best explanation for the data; and he thinks this is only intellectually sustainable if one also denies the (unphysical) data themselves.
As such, these are the points Craig needs to focus on in order to make his case:
(1) Show that seemingly non-physical things, like thoughts and words, cannot be explained by or analyzed into physical processes (e.g., brain computations). This gets rid of reductive physicalism. (2) Establish that eliminative treatments of thoughts and words are not only counter-intuitive or silly-sounding, but actually false. This gets rid of eliminative physicalism, including Rosenberg’s view. (3) Establish that all possible (or plausible) metaphysical naturalisms must be physicalistic. Given 1 and 2, this gets rid of naturalism. (4) Establish that all possible (or plausible) metaphysically non-naturalist views must appeal to Craig’s version of the God hypothesis.
And in the course of the above, Craig must not merely establish that his version of theism is the best (i.e., least terrible) explanation, but that it’s probably right.
That may sound like a lot, but it’s only fair that Craig start to seriously fill in the details in his view, given how many arguments he typically demands that his debate opponents make!
Rosenberg: “And all of [the New Testament scholars] tell us that it was written by people who were illiterate. […] And of course the Aramaic in which they [the Gospels] were written was completely lost, and all the extant New Testaments are in Greek.“
The Bible was written by illiterate people? A miracle!
OK, I think this is a scrambled version of what’s supposed to be the claim that because the Gospel writers were literate, they couldn’t have been the (mostly illiterate) apostles. But this argument is a bit superfluous, since the Gospels themselves make no claim to be written by apostles.
The second claim is also wrong. As Craig points out, the New Testament was originally written in Greek. This does suggest a cultural divide between the New Testament writers and the early Aramaic/Hebrew-speaking followers of Jesus, but such a divide doesn’t require that the texts be mistranslated.
Rosenberg: “Now, if every event has to has a cause, if everything that comes into existence has to have a cause of its coming into existence, then there’s got to be some difference between the two atoms in virtue of which one of them emitted an alpha particle and the other didn’t. But quantum mechanics tells us, and all the experimental evidence which confirms it to twelve decimal places tells us, there is no difference. End of story. There is an event without a cause. […]
“This is not an issue about the interpretation of quantum mechanics. I happen to think that among the interpretations of quantum mechanics, some of the deterministic ones are more plausible than others. This is a matter of experimental physics. This is a matter of a fact about the nature of reality. And it also seems to me clear that insofar as we have here good evidence that things can happen with no cause at all, it follows that therefore the universe can come into existence with no cause at all. And, indeed, that’s what the best guesses of contemporary physical theorists is.“
Rosenberg is simply wrong here. The standard, early-20th-century interpretations of the data and formalisms of quantum mechanics were indeed indeterministic. But these ‘Objective Collapse’ interpretations have become increasingly unpopular, because they posit a fundamental discontinuity in the laws of nature, a sharp point where the laws of microphysics abruptly give way to the laws of macrophysics. This is not only inelegant, but empirically implausible, since we have yet to identify any well-defined criterion for circumstances in which collapse does or doesn’t occur. (For instance, some Collapse theorists suggest that wave functions collapse whenever a ‘measurement’ occurs. But what, in physics, counts as a ‘measurement’? There is no rigorous definition.)
As a result, alternative interpretations of quantum mechanics have become increasingly popular. And a primary distinction between the older and newer interpretations is that the newer ones are deterministic. Everett-style (‘Many Worlds’) interpretations explain the apparent indeterminism anthropically, by suggesting that the observer somehow becomes cut off from an equally real but hidden portion of the wave function. And de-Broglie-style (‘Hidden Variables’) interpretations explain the apparent indeterminism by positing an unobservable difference between the initial state of the two systems, the precise position of the particle.
Both of these types of interpretations have their problems, and it will take a great deal of argument to compare their flaws and merits to those of the Collapse school. But the basic reason Rosenberg is mistaken isn’t that he favors Collapse over its rivals; it’s that he falsely asserts that Collapse is afact, an observation, a truth of experience. It isn’t. It’s an unverified and unfalsified way of construing the data. The claim that smoke detectors wouldn’t work if a deterministic model like Bohmian Mechanics were correct falls somewhere between the speculative and the absurd.
Eldred suggested to me that we fortify Rosenberg’s position with an argument that depends less on choice of interpretation, say, “If no experiment can determine whether events need causes [then] no experiment can determine whether the universe needs a cause.” I’m not sure this argument works either, but at least its premise is less speculative, given that the major interpretations of quantum mechanics are empirically equivalent. (EDIT: After talking with Rosenberg, I believe he prefers this version of the argument.)
Craig and Rosenberg both raise a lot of difficult issues, and some of them I haven’t even touched on — like the projects of naturalizing mathematics, morality, and meaning. But this should be plenty to sift through for the moment. If you have any questions, comments, or concerns, let me know! I welcome any opportunities to have my current beliefs upset and overturned.
This is the continuation of Robby Bensinger and Murtaza Hussain’s discussion of Sam Harris and Islam. Click here for part one.
3. Science and Politics
In response to another of Robby’s points, the United States is not propping up a “benign dictatorship” in North Korea but is certainly doing so in Jordan, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia (none of these in my opinion really pass the “benign” test, but I digress) and many other Muslim countries. The bigoted and ignorant trope that Muslims are inherently incapable of responsible self-governance has been trotted out again and again and now finds Harris as another defender. Again, he knows what he is doing as he is stridently political (as Glenn so incisively pointed out, he pushes “atheism sprinkled on a neoconservative worldview“) and to see him claim ignorance of the geopolitical reality he speaks to is an absurd game on his part.
I don’t begrudge Robby for making what he felt was a good faith argument and defending someone he obviously admires. In fact he admires him so much that it has led him to effectively exonerate Harris in every circumstance from the real-world consequences of his own words. If Harris were not stridently political I would give him the benefit of the doubt – maybe his words are simply being misappropriated and he is speaking in terms of pure theory. However this is not the case, and as I’ve shown in my piece just because you are a “scientist” doesn’t mean you are immune from the pull of ideology. Harris is not only political, he subscribes to a particularly virulent neoconservative worldview which – as I pointed out – dovetails extraordinarily well with his supposedly impartial philosophical arguments.
Again, my point wasn’t that Sam’s view on the values of democracy v. dictatorship (borrowed from Fareed Zakaria) was correct. It’s that your presentation of his views was demonstrably inaccurate. The passage you cited to make your point discusses North Korea as one example, yet you presented that passage as your central case study in anti-Muslim racism. (Racism which, presumably, you will also want to ascribe to Zakaria?) There’s no contesting that.
This is a particularly extreme instance of misconduct on your part. You simply don’t present Sam’s views in an honest and clear way. It’s fine if you disagree with the guy, but that’s no reason to caricature him. When you use sociological context to try to motivate a broad theoretical interpretation of a text that is not apparent in the text itself, ethics demands that you do so explicitly and make clear where the text’s overt claims end and your extrapolation or interpretation begins. You’ve instead wholly concealed and distorted the original content, for anyone who doesn’t painstakingly explore every one of your links. (And, in a few cases, even for those who do follow your links.) That’s a singularly corrosive habit to fall into.
If you like Harris for his neuroscience work or his work arguing against the existence of God; good for you. Even though I disagree on the latter point I think it is a subject worthy of continuous debate and – to burn this strawman for the millionth time – it is never bigoted to criticize ideas, including Islam. Although Harris is unfortunately a deeply dishonest intellectual who has made a career of “quote-mining” the Quran (something he, without apparent irony, accused me of doing to him), this is not what is perfidious about him. The fact is that he is a demagogue and hatemonger, who takes his most courageous moral stands against the weakest and most oppressed people he can find. He uses his intellectual authority as a scientist to act as an advocate for exceptions for the most despicable policies ever devised by humanity – seemingly arguing that whatever humans have previously decided is an absolute wrong in fact does not need to be. And again, he argues in the present tense, in the context of *these* ongoing wars fought against Muslims.
Simply put, it is not me who has decontextualized Harris’ words but rather those who have ignobly chosen to defend him.
Is Sam Harris political? Of course he’s political. No one has ever claimed otherwise. No one has said that he’s ‘just a neuroscientist’, or used this to argue that his political views are a matter of empirical fact and not open to dispute. (He didn’t didn’t even have his neuroscience Ph.D. back when he wrote The End of Faith.) The position you’re attacking is simply not to be found in the words or thoughts of your interlocuters.
I haven’t even defended most of Sam’s positions of substance, much less defended them because ‘he’s a scientist and scientists are always right’. My focus has instead been (in my first post) on your explicit misrepresentations of his positions, and (in my second post) on your and Glenn’s conflation of militant and anti-Islamic positions with anti-Muslim bigotry. I don’t consider either of your positions so weak that you should need to resort to straw-men of this sort, and I think I (and many of your and Sam’s readers) would gain a great deal from this discussion if it were not polluted with hyperbole and distortion. And I wouldn’t be taking so much time to try to improve the tone and content of the discussion if I didn’t think all of the participants reasonable and well-intentioned enough to step up their game.
[A]s I said, if there wasn’t a war going on where actual innocent people are being tortured, killed and may indeed be wiped out in a nuclear explosion as some on the fringe right has suggested in Iran this might just be benign academic philosophizing, – but unfortunately those things are going on and being fiercely debated right now. Viewed in this light his views are little more than a political treatise.
Sam is a political writer, and his arguments do have important societal ramifications. Once more, no one has ever denied that. The whole point of Sam’s nuclear apocalypse scenario, for instance, is that the scenario is realistic, and hence that we should doeverything in our power to prevent it. If the question were merely academic, why would anyone have written about it? You repeatedly confuse the ‘it’s realistic’ part of the claim with an imagined Archetypal Racist Neo-Con’s ‘it’s desirable’. As long as you keep falling into that habit, you won’t understand the argument you’re trying to attack.
Philosophy and science are relevant to our politics. But sometimes that relevance is positive. Science has been used to rationalize and promote racism. But it has also been used to powerfully undermine it. ‘Philosophy’ is not a bad word. ‘Science’ is not a bad word. Nor, I should note, is ‘political treatise’ a bad word! What’s wrong with your claims is that they’re false, not that they’re true-but-merely-academic.
Ultimately, unless he offers a disclaimer on all his views that he is not an objective academic philosopher but a neoconservative political analyst that, it’s not benign. As far as I’m aware he’s never published a political tract or put his cards on the table with regards to the ideological milieu from which he springs (something which is obvious only to a politically-adept reader), those who are liable to take his views in good faith on a variety of other issues are liable to do so here as well.
Harris magnanimously offers that under racial profiling he would fit the description of the type of person being profiled. How anyone could possibly find this absurdly disingenuous claim to be credible is beyond me. I will pause here for one moment because I think some degree of common sense should apply in profiling and would like to separate the concept from the man. In response to this article Harris printed an email he received from a Muslim lawyer, the content of which I believe made good sense. Muslims should do their part to be patient with certain fears and concerns (even if exaggerated) and not take offense if they are respectfully scrutinized for a greater period than average. However what I found disturbing about Harris’ own flagrantly irresponsible commentary on the issue was that he feels we should profile anyone who “looks Muslim”. Given that Muslims come from every ethnic background on Earth – though, as I noted, they are overwhelmingly black and brown – how exactly would we discern who “looks Muslim”? Long flowing robes? Large beards? Grandiose turbans? There is simply no natural way to do so. It is a flippant yet highly dangerous statement made by Harris; the only effective solution to which would be having Muslims carry special ID cards or wearing crescent-moon armbands for easy identification.
I don’t see what your argument is here. Are you saying that racially profiling Muslims logically couldn’t involve profiling light-skinned people? But a large portion of the Muslim world is light-skinned, and otherwise ‘looks European’ in a variety of ways. Your argument is inconsistent with your own acknowledgment that Muslims are more diverse than racist caricatures would suggest.
[T]here is a standard view of who “looks Muslim” and it seems disingenuous to deny that. Light-skinned European Muslims (ostensibly naturalized Arabs and Eastern Europeans) may not fit that look but they are generally still identifiable by Muslim names etc. Given that Sikhs and Hindus (and notably, not white people who might look like European Muslims) are in many cases targeted just as harshly as actual Muslims, it would take a real suspension of disbelief to think that when he says we should go after those who “look Muslim” the image which comes into ones mind would be a blue-eyed white man such as him. If that were the case we’d just have to profile every human being on earth, which I suspect is not what he’s saying here.
Have you actually read the “In Defense of Profiling” article you’re criticizing, or are you just going by the quotation in isolation? Sam explicitly includes himself in the group of people he thinks should be profiled three times in the space of the article. And it’s a really short article! If anyone actually reading the article started off with the naïve assumption that Sam wanted to profile all and only the people who fit an Archetypal Racist Neo-Con’s uneducated stereotype of a ‘Typical Muslim’, they would have to quickly revise that view by the time they finished reading.
What Sam endorsed was negative profiling — e.g., not cavity-searching 80-year-old Iowan women of Taiwanese descent with the same frequency as people who look like Sam Harris. Your argument is that in doing so, Sam was secretly being racist, on the grounds that if he were a racist, then he’d have had a racist stereotype in mind when he said “anyone who looks like he or she could conceivably be Muslim“. But one of your main reasons for thinking that he’s racist is the fact that he endorses negative profiling in the first place. This is clearly circular. If something only counts as strong evidence for your view once you’re convinced that your view is already right, it’s probably not very good evidence.
5. Understanding Islam
Samdoesn’t seem to know what Islam is and has created a terrifying visage in his own mind that thus necessitates great violence and the suspension of normal moral considerations. As he’s said himself on the subject “some ideas are dangerous enough that you may need to kill people for believing them” – hence a War on Islam. Again, if you viewed this entirely divorced from context I’d say its not such an objectionable viewpoint and perhaps could be entertained in good faith. However when viewed in the entire context of his public statements about the subjects and his sweeping generalizations about “Muslims” – this is reprehensible. Imagine someone else so flippantly using “the Jews” or “the Blacks” as a basis point for criticism; they’d rightly be excoriated. Crudge bigot that he is, he is unable to restrain himself from the same behaviour regarding Muslims.
There is a large exegesis on Islam just as is there is on Christianity and so forth. You can’t just pick up the Quran (especially an English translation), skim through it on the weekend and then start talking down to people who’ve spent lifetimes of study on it. Perhaps one may argue religion and exegesis is pointless and merely clouds the picture; and if that’s what you feel then fair game. However aside from absolute extremist illiterates and isolated individuals including those aligned with the Taliban (Harris’ favourite Muslims) there is absolutely no mainstream group of practicing Muslims anyway who practices Islam as he understands it. One doesn’t flip through a neuroscience textbook on the weekend and start expounding to neuroscientists that they’re a bunch of ape-ish morons, because who would be so arrogant? I think this is good evidence of Harris’ truly bold stupidity, fostered by his privileged upbringing and the years he’s spent insulated from the harder edges of the meritocracy. He’s basically a spoiled little kid with an opinion and tons of fears and prejudices.
You’re still falling too readily into the habit of quote-mining. I mind it less when Glenn provides strings of quotations, because they’re mostly (though far from always) fairly representative of Sam’s views, and he often takes the time to note nuances and complications in his presentation. In your case, on the other hand, the quotations you cite are mostly misleading, i.e., they provide a mostly false picture of Sam to anyone who isn’t familiar with the quotations’ context or with Sam’s general publicly stated positions. That’s… genuinely alarming. I’m spectacularly unimpressed by ‘gotcha!’ politics of this kind. Your brand of rhetoric really does have a chilling effect on honest, open political discourse.
In this case, you’re neglecting the fact that Sam only thinks some beliefs are that dangerous inasmuch as they directly cause violent behaviors. If an armed burglar believes I’m reaching for a gun instead of for a wallet, then his belief is very dangerous, and may cause my death. If a cultist believes that she must kill herself in order to please God, then her belief puts her own life in danger, as well as the lives of anyone she can convince. It is only those sorts of beliefs Sam has in mind here, and his point is a general one about the importance of dogma in human behavior. If you think beliefs on their own can’t motivate violence, then spend your time defending that position, not attacking a straw man.
There are people who spend their lives devoted to studying all the various source materials for Islamic exegesis; he has literally picked up the Quran, flipped through it, decided these people are violent idiots and now feels his advocacy for suspending their inalienable rights if and when they get out of line is warranted. I believe in Islam, he wants a war against it, so is that then an idea dangerous enough to kill me for? Based on his arrogant belief that he knows what it is it certainly seems to be. Coupled all of this with his noxiously partisan and hateful views on issues such as Israel and Palestine (where he wholeheartedly denies both the actual facts as well as the basic humanity of the latter) and a bad picture begins to emerge. He seems to think its obvious that he speaks and acts in good faith, I don’t think such a thing is obvious at all.
Good grief. No, Sam does not think your beliefs are that dangerous. What matters is whether anyone’s could ever be.
He thinks the beliefs of the 9/11 hijackers were that dangerous. He also thinks those people’s views are easier to justify using the Qur’an and hadith than are yours. So he associates ‘Islam’ or ‘real Islam’ with extreme militant Islamism. (This, I think, is a reasonable point on which you and he can disagree. I invite you to shoot Sam an e-mail and try sussing out just how much he knows about the Qur’an. Don’t just assume he’s ignorant because he disagrees with your Qur’anic exegesis; test your hypothesis!)
I wanted to bring this particular quote up during the interview and the host basically brushed it off but I think it is representative of undeniable bigotry and demagoguery on his part:
“In our dealings with the Muslim world, we must acknowledge that Muslims have not found anything of substance to say against the actions of the September 11 hijackers, apart from the ubiquitous canard that they were really Jews.” ( The End of Faith, p. 134)
Given this, this, this and this, these sound like the words of a man more interested in demonizing a vulnerable minority group than addressing actual issues in good faith. Making up such slanderous canards himself to demonize Muslims, while also hint-hinting that we may be able to discard our normal aversion to certain unconscionable tactics in our conflict with them, combines to be something quite reprehensible.
I understand you admire Harris for a variety of reasons, and I also understand that for many people who are devoutly irreligious his views seem to offer some alternative means of salvation sans “God”. In this light I can see why he continues to have such staunch defenders despite everything and why in many cases such an emotional response has been provoked. However if you really find these kinds of statements about Muslim people to be palatable, responsible and in good faith, we do not have as much in common in our socio-political views as you may have come to believe.
When Sam speaks of a ‘war on Islam’, he in practice means a war on radical Islamism. That’s why he writes, “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.” and, as he wrote in 2006 regarding “moderate Muslims“, the fundamental question we face is “[H]ow can we best empower them?” Ironically, Sam sees legitimately moderate Muslims as our most important allies in the ‘war on Islam’.
It’s important to note that fact, because it’s possible to disagree with him on the one count without disagreeing on the other. For instance, you might agree with him that we should aggressively combat certain (pseudo-?)Islamic teachings by Muslims, like the murder of apostates and the virtue of suicide bombing, while still disagreeing with him about whether those people’s views are in accord with Islam Proper. The question ‘Is violent jihadism a perversion of Islam, its one true fulfillment, or something in between?’ is surely something you and Sam strongly disagree about, but I suspect that this disagreement is masking the more important practical issues you independently disagree about.
Sam’s view is that we need more bad Muslims, more people who nominally follow Islam but regularly reject many of its core doctrines. You might disagree strongly with his view that moderate and liberal Muslims aren’t being as true to the traditional doctrines of Islam, while nevertheless agreeing with him that moderate Islam is something we desperately need to promote.
I join you in criticizing Sam for the last quotation you cited. Indeed, I find it refreshing to finally see you not quoting him in a misleading, wholly context-insensitive way! The quotation looks like a clear case of hyperbole to me.
But my response was to talk to Sam about it, citing a list of Muslim responses to 9/11. If you refuse to have such conversations, you’ll stand a chance neither of convincing others nor of understanding what you’re criticizing. Sam replied:
As you must know, there was (and probably still is) a very popular conspiracy theory circulating in the Muslim world that 4000 Jews didn’t show up to work on the morning of September 11th, 2001. I certainly didn’t make this up. And I wouldn’t be surprised if a few hundred million Muslims believe it at this moment.
If there were prominent Muslims who were speaking honestly and substantively about the problem of jihadist violence in the aftermath of 9/11, I missed it. The truth is, I’m still missing it. Declarations of the sort you linked to in your email mean very little — there are even some terrorist organizations co-signing on that page. Should we really care that Jamaat-e-Islami and Hamas declare themselves against terrorism?
An example of what I meant by “substance” can be found here, in the hypothetical words I put into the mouth of Imam Abdul Rauf after the Ground Zero Mosque episode.
The question is, why isn’t every non-jihadist Muslim saying this?
So it seems that his intent was to criticize Muslims for failing to fully repudiate and come to grips with the causes of the hijackers’ conduct. He didn’t mean to suggest that Muslims have had nothing bad to say about the 9/11 bombing at all! Sam is largely responsible for the confusion here, but, importantly, the damage and waste caused by that confusion is greatly diminished when our first instinct is to try to sort out the facts, rather than to just score rhetorical points. It is possible to harshly criticize or dissent from others without stretching the truth. There’s a lesson to be learned here, if you’re ready to learn it.
I hope that you and Glenn will retract the other, inaccurate characterizations you’ve made of Sam’s views. It would demonstrate a whole lot of good faith, and clear up misunderstandings you’ve caused for a lot of your readers. Even better, it would make it much easier to move the discussion on to more substantive areas of disagreement. Or, if you remain more interested in ad hominem questions of Sam Harris’ character and religio-political expertise, we could at least begin to have such a discussion in a way that remains in contact with reality.
[T]his argument only works if you accept a very shoddy premise which isn’t borne out much by facts. I’m not going to restate the arguments made by Big White Ogre but they are absolutely legitimate. One thing I will point out when you suggest that perhaps he has done more study on Islam than it seems is that his views on what is “Islamic” correspond almost exactly to what the Taliban believes. They have the excuse of being illiterate, Harris is a rich privilege individual with access to the world on a level completely unparalleled. That he has apparently come to the same conclusions as them reeks of either cynicism or remarkable ignorance.
Harris’ response above is beyond parody, and I truly enjoyed his back and forth gushing on Twitter (actually parodied here) with Tarek Fatah. Jamaat-e-Islami is a hardcore “Islamist” organization but they run in elections and are not designated by anyone on earth as a terrorist group. What’s notable is that even people on the far right in the Muslim world condemned the 9/11 attacks, to say nothing of ordinary people.
In Iran tens of thousands of people held a spontaneous candlelight vigil for the 9/11 victims, while Tahir-ul-Qadri w/Minhaj-ul-Quran (signed by and representing thousands of Islamic scholars around the world) issued an unequivocal and wide-reaching fatwa denouncing the act and suicide terrorism in general. Harris doesn’t know or care about the details of any of these things because he’s more interested in putting forth a narrative which helps buttress his own neoconservative politics and allows him to publicly explore his own neuroses about the scary brown people who live abroad.
Best part about this is that the only person Harris thinks speaks sensibly about the subject is someone widely considered in Canada to be a buffoonish opportunist (old Uncle Tarek), who is himself aligned with the extremist Jewish Defence League. This is indeed Harris’ natural group and these are his ideological fellow-travellers; I hope to see him publicly embrace them more closely as time goes on and drop the shallow pretence of his liberalism
But Christians don’t practice that and Muslims do, says Harris. Yeah, but they did practice it in the past. Today they exegete it away just as many Muslim scholars exegete that Hadith away. Maybe the difference in behavior has more to do with the fact that suffering (they have been attacked and subject to dictators for many years) leads people into a more radical form of religion. Maybe the problem isn’t Islam itself. So if the inferiority of Islam isn’t obvious, people are going to question Harris’ motives. Perhaps he is a bigot.
Sam would actually agree that a few hundred years ago, Christianity and Islam were comparably bad. In fact, one of the basic conceits of The End of Faith is that 21st-century Islam has a great deal in common with the Christianity of the past, and that we need to work to moderate and secularize Islam much as we did Christianity. I think that’s a point of consensus between all of us.
From what I’ve seen, Sam is also perfectly open to discussing the extent to which secular violence and oppression directed at Muslims (both internally and externally) have played a major role in its radicalization. As he put it, “[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.” We can discuss data points like Tibetan Buddhism and try to come to more of an agreement about how much of a causal role metaphysical doctrines play in human psychology and in world affairs. Reasonable disagreement can be had here.
Where he and I get off the boat is at the fallacious inference from ‘the suffering and oppression of Muslims plays a larger role in Islamic radicalism than does Islam itself’ to ‘Islam isn’t a problem’. Islam and secular oppression are both contributing to the problem. And where this fallacy becomes outright dangerous is in the second leap to ‘since it’s plausible that Islam isn’t a problem, it’s equally plausible that Harris is a bigot’. No. As I noted in my piece on Islamophobia:
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.‘ […]
There remains the large dialectical onus of showing that Harris’ most severe criticisms of Islam are all false; the even larger burden of showing as well that they are outright irrational; and the even larger burden of showing that they are, each and every one, so wildly irrational as to rival sexism, homophobia, or clinical phobias.
That’s quite a project. Importantly, if any of these burdens can’t unambiguously be met, then resorting to immediate name-calling, to accusations of bigotry or malice, will remain an irresponsible tactic, one deeply destructive of reasoned debate.
You don’t get to call everyone who disagrees with you a bigot merely because you’ve demonstrated that not every reasonable person thinks that the purported bigot’s beliefs are obviously true.
I should also note that BigWhiteOgre clearly isn’t getting the problem with the ‘fascism’ quotation. Anyone new to the topic who reads that quotation out of context will reliably come to genuinely mistaken views about Sam, such as that he’s an explicit, out-of-the-closet fascist and white supremacist. Insofar as it’s your job as a journalist and commentator to try to inform and educate your readers, you should be very concerned about a quotation that promotes false beliefs more than true ones. Particularly when you’ve recontextualized it in a way that maximally encourages readers to arrive at that false conclusion, with sensationalist claims like “[T]he most prominent new atheists slide with ease into the most virulent racism imaginable.” or “[Harris is in a] class with the worst proponents ofscientific racismof the 20th century“.
If you, Glenn, or BigWhiteOgre expect me or your readers to miss the very clear implications of your quote-mining — after all the time you’ve spent insisting that Sam is efficiently communicating such a symphony of content entirely between the lines! — then you must not think very highly of my or your readers’ intelligence.
You afford Sam’s views a superhuman amount of nuance which paradoxically enough he makes a specific point of not extending to the subjects which he covers. We have learned through bitter historical experience not to throw around generalizations about “the Jews” or “the Blacks”, but he takes full license with “the Muslims”. This type of rhetoric is dangerous and actually causes harm to many innocent people. Because I know he is not historically ignorant I have to assume that he knows what he is doing when he does such things, and frankly it is repulsive. We are trying as a community to keep our head above water while cynics such as Sam consciously try and push us back under.
Although I used Sam as the prime example the article was intended to be a not about “him”. It was written with the intention of stigmatizing casually violent and derogatory language towards Muslim people. We are rightfully very careful in the media of talking about Jewish people, Black people or any other ethnic minority; and this is due to the great efforts of the people in those communities to make it socially unacceptable for such language to be publicly aired. I do not think if you threw around statements like “The Jewish World’s Most Scarce Resource is Honesty” you would be able to show your face in polite society afterwards, no matter how you try and finesse the rest of what you say. I don’t see why a double-standard should exist towards us. If I had written “Scientific Racists, Militarism and Sam Harris” it would have been a different article; my goal is to stigmatize hate-mongering and discrimination (of which Sam is absolutely today a purveyor) and I’d say to some degree its been accomplished.
The scientific racists of past really do have a lot in common in the sense that they were propagandists of a certain type (for slavery) while their modern iterations are propagandists of another type (for war). Sam is definitely a bigot who is intentionally trying to fan the flames of hatred against Muslims, but he is also an intelligent man who knows that this has to be done in a sophisticated way to convince people who would otherwise reject it. In practice there is little difference between his end prescriptions or his race-baiting about demographic trends and those of skinheads, but unlike them he knows how to present himself and present his arguments in a way which will be accepted in polite society.
One usually offers their opponent a golden bridge to redemption at the end of a piece though I did not do overtly that here. My hope was that he’d offer a statement of contrition or at least a forceful repudiation of bigotry towards Muslims and he did not do so. Tellingly when Glenn confronted him in that email exchange on the “fascist” quote, he stated that he doesn’t support fascists because upon further looking into such groups he found that they often target others too. This was a nice window into his psychology, he didn’t cite any objections to the facts of what fascists may say or do to Muslims, just that there might be some other collateral damage. I really don’t think he’d mind.
Sam is generally careful to focus his attacks on Islam, not on “the Muslims” as a monolith. That said, where there are obvious cases of critics crossing that line, I’ll gladly join you in criticizing them. That’s part of why I consider us allies in core values and goals. It’s only in methods that we sharply disagree.
We agree that the marginalization of racism and bigotry has been a colossal boon to humanitarianism and social justice. I think we should also be able to agree that the recent stigmatization as racist of critiques of ideologies has been a huge obstacle to moral and intellectual clarity in progressive (and not-so-progressive) circles. I was raised Jewish, but it horrifies me to see all criticisms of Judaism, Zionism, or Israel dismissed as ‘anti-semitism’. Those are social institutions and dogmas, not ethnic groups, and it is of profound importance that we not immunize everything associated with Jews from informed critique in the course of routing out the bona fide bigots.
My position on Islam is the same: Just as I harshly criticize Jewish scripture, doctrine, and political apocalypticism for making the world a more dangerous place, I harshly criticize Islamic scripture, doctrine, and political apocalypticism for making the world a more dangerous place.
That doesn’t mean that my criticism must ignore history, social context, demographic variation, or the distinction between a religion and an ethnic group. Judaism and Christianity are, on the whole, forces for evil, just as Islam is, though not all individual Jews, Christians, or Muslims are. If it is important for us to continue to spread tolerance and multiculturalism, it is correspondingly important for us to reverse the overreach of this moral heuristic into domains where we are ethically required to engage in harsh verbal attacks and debate, not in reverent silence.
We must not allow the truth to become taboo. We must not even allow non-obviously-false falsehoods to become taboo. (Fortunately, white supremacism qualifies as obviously false. Taboo away.)
Heck, let’s come out and say it: Honesty is one of the Jewish world’s scarcest resources! Have you seen rabbinic theodicies or militant pro-Israel apologetics? Good god. When it comes to intellectual authenticity, they’re a hall of mirrors, a lunatic’s scrawl. Speaking truth to power requires that we critique religious authorities, and not just secular ones.
If you think Sam Harris’ positions are radically different from the above, then consider quotations of his like “As a secularist and a nonbeliever—and as a Jew—I find the idea of a Jewish state obnoxious.” or “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.“.
A final straw: You say that Sam “stated that he doesn’t support fascists because upon further looking into such groups he found that they often target others too”.
That decidedly is not what he said.
His stated concern with fascists and like-minded “lunatics” isn’t that they “target others too“; it’s that even when they target Muslims, they do so for inane and grotesque reasons, like racism, Christian extremism, or reflexive anti-immigrant paranoia. After all the errors third parties have pointed out in your writings, you’re still falling like clockwork into this habit of misstating others’ words. This is really discouraging. Do you not see the disparity between the words and your paraphrase? It’s fine if you want to advocate an unusual interpretation, but you can’t even begin that project without first taking the time to recognize the prose’s clear sense.
If you want Sam to be willing to make serious revisions to his views when called out for them, then on grounds of consistency alone you should be willing to make the same concessions when an error is spotted in your work — particularly when those concessions are procedural matters, and don’t require that you actually change your basic outlook on the world. It should always be possible to make your point in a public debate without distorting others’ stated positions, no matter how depraved you’re convinced your conversation partners are. Anything less will be perfectly destructive of the very conversation you’re trying to begin.
Whether the secular movement flourishes will depend on how well it can carry on a dialogue with its religious friends and foes. It’s through conversation that we will change our public image, negotiate political gains, and form alliances on specific issues. It’s conversation that will determine whether our numbers expand.
But the stakes are drastically higher than that. In an increasingly interdependent world, our ability as human beings to resolve disputes verbally is the only abiding safeguard against violence, against polarization, against seeing informed democracy degenerate into shouting matches.
Why, then, are we so averse to talking to those with whom we disagree? Why do dialogues fail? Why are we so rarely persuaded? If we can understand why we’re so bad at resolving our differences, maybe we can do a little to change that fact.
Greta Christina noted at the Secular Student Alliance Annual Conference that “arguing about religion is not a waste of time.” Although debaters themselves may be bewilderingly obstinate in the heat of battle, onlookers remain surprisingly receptive to new ideas. This suggests that the best way to promote atheism is to argue before a large audience.
However, there will always be cases where we need to get a point across to someone directly. Most interactions between theists and nontheists will be in small groups, or one-on-one. And it is these direct chats that are ideal for reaching out to those individuals who are least informed about atheists, least inclined to waste time on the Internet perusing atheist blogs or YouTube debates. Aside from the occasional prime-time atheological sound bite, person-to-person discussion will be what tends to define our image and plant the earliest seeds of doubt. So the question retains its urgency. What makes discussion break down? Judging by the debates I’ve seen and participated in, there are two main culprits.
I. Our discussions aren’t collaborations.
We see debate as an opportunity to defend ourselves, attack another position, fight for dominance and power and respect. We see it as something either I win or you win, not as something both sides succeed or fail in together. Our discussions are antagonistic because we enjoy being right, we take pride in the strength of our reasoning — and we feel shame and dismay when we are proven wrong.
Why don’t we feel the happy excitement of a new discovery when someone corrects a mistake of ours? Because the discussion has been framed as a competition, not as a mutual pursuit of deeper understanding. It’s not enough to make overtures of camaraderie; even exchanges between the best of friends can become bitter squabbles if either side becomes too invested in who is right, overshadowing what is right. A healthy discussion should feel like trading recipes or researching a common interest; each side should keenly (or casually) desire to understand the other, to learn and not just to teach. We have plenty to learn from the religious; if nothing else, we have plenty to learn from them about other religious people, and how to better reach out to them and find common cause. This sort of cheerful shared curiosity must drive discussions. A religious exchange motivated only by the evangelical desire to banish ignorance, however well-meant, is doomed to failure.
Remember: It’s not fun to be wrong. Always put yourself in the other person’s shoes. Sam Harris suggests that our brains process falsehoods with an experience akin to disgust. It’s a delight to encounter beliefs you agree with. It’s a pleasure to hold beliefs which seem to make sense of your experiences. At the same time, it’s not easy living with contradictions and lacunae; cognitive dissonance is unpleasant. A discussion of deeply held beliefs is more like an affective rodeo than like trading indifferent data points.
What’s the take-away? Be nuanced. Be moderate. ‘Nuanced’ doesn’t mean ‘complicated’. Express your views clearly and concisely, but follow up a negative comment with a positive comment, to mitigate the inevitable emotional sting while leaving the intellectual content intact. And ‘moderate’ doesn’t mean ‘wishy-washy’ on points of substance. You will come across as moderate if you are willing to make concessions, ask sincere questions, compliment the other side, and admit your own shortcomings, even if these sugar-coated asides are irrelevant to your central argument, and even if the argument itself is a radical one. A very little friendliness and good humor goes a very long way. Indeed, just coming across as a nice person tends to do a lot more to attract skeptics and allies than even the most devastating logic. And, of course, it leads to way better conversations.
II. Our discussions aren’t specific.
When we speak of persuading people about atheism, we aren’t really speaking about some isolated bit of theology. Atheism here is code for a very broad and complex world-view, rich in methodological and theoretical commitments. This is our long-term strength, because it provides something with which to fill the epistemic void left by deconversion. But it’s our short-term weakness, because it makes our discussions too all-or-nothing. It forces us to demolish a towering world-view in one fell swoop, when we’d be better off chipping away slowly at the foundations.
We are at our strongest when we can debate particular, relatively weakly held claims. This allows us to show off the power, the richness, the appeal of scientific and philosophical reasoning — without drowning out that appeal in the backlash of immediate outrage. Why leap to debate God when you can sharpen Ockham’s razor first on ghosts, or homeopathy, or climate change denialism? In this way you can teach the intellectual methods motivating atheism, which are in any case far more important and life-saving than atheism itself. If the methods manage to take root, they will do more to eat away at dogma from within than any argument made by another ever could.
Sticking to specifics makes it easier to convince the other side of some particular claim; and even if the issue is a trivial one, there is much value simply in the act of learning to inquire skeptically and revise one’s views. Moreover, it is on these innumerable factoids, far more than on deep and unshakable moral convictions, that theists and atheists disagree.
The same, surprisingly, is true of American liberals and conservatives. If a discussion were had on interpreting some specific data or theory, the dialogue could advance and both groups could come away better educated. Because the debate is instead halted at incredibly broad topics — we don’t debate some claim about abortion, we debate abortion itself — no progress is made. Instead, both sides fall into the well-rehearsed rituals of their cherished established beliefs, camouflaging a mass of negotiable factual disagreements as a monolithic dispute of irreconcilable values. This is how sides in a dispute fossilize into factions. There are indeed real conflicts over values — but these are as dust compared to the mountains of cost-benefit analyses, empirical generalizations, and causal interpretations on which the two sides would first diverge. When the discussion stays in vague, well-trodden territory, we do nothing but go in circles.
How does this work in practice? Paul Veyne, in “Did the Greeks Believe in Their Myths?”, quotes the missionary Évariste Huc’s account of Tibet:
We had adopted a completely historical mode of instruction, taking care to exclude anything that suggested argument and the split of contention; proper names and very precise dates made much more of an impression on them than the most logical reasoning. When they knew the names Jesus, Jerusalem, and Pontius Pilate and the date 4000 years after Creation, they no longer doubted the mystery of the Redemption and the preaching of the Gospel. Furthermore, we never noticed that mysteries or miracles gave them the slightest difficulty. We are convinced that it is through teaching and not the method of argument that one can work efficaciously toward the conversion of the infidel.
Set aside the manipulative evangelism and notice the lesson in psychology. Even the best arguments tend to fail when they’re pitted against the deepest convictions of a competing religion, cemented by habit and guarded by stereotyped, mantra-like counterarguments. Non-argumentative, factual accounts, on the other hand, slip through the cracks quite easily. This is not simply because they are framed as indisputable facts, nor because they are too idiosyncratic and exotic to brook easy retort. It is because they are friendlier, less confrontational. They invite listening and learning, rather than intellectual combat.
Such a technique, of course, can easily be abused. It merely replaces one authority with another. We want to encourage productive and dynamic dialogues, not just a one-sided soliloquy. Yet if we want the communication without the rancor, we must make argument its own reward. It must be a happy act aimed at real discovery and mutual enrichment.
If our only goal were to make everyone believe the same thing we believe, we’d be better off relying on the rhetorical power of facts and figures and jargon. But orthodoxy, even scientific orthodoxy, isn’t our goal. Our goal is a world of open-minded critical thinkers, of people who have made a habit of questioning, and of seeking, and of imaginatively advancing the human discussion in science and in politics. However you envision secularism’s end-game, no path is possible in the absence of civil and productive dialogues between people with radically different world-views.
This is not to say that such dialogue is easy. It is to say that we have no choice. We have to talk.