Eliezer Yudkowsky has written a delightful series of posts (originally on the economics blog Overcoming Bias) about why partisan debates are so frequently hostile and unproductive. Particularly incisive is A Fable of Science and Politics.
One of the broader points Eliezer makes is that, while political issues are important, political discussion isn’t the best place to train one’s ability to look at issues objectively and update on new evidence. The way I’d put it is that politics is hard mode; it takes an extraordinary amount of discipline and skill to communicate effectively in partisan clashe.
This jibes with my own experience; I’m much worse at arguing politics than at arguing other things. And psychological studies indicate that politics is hard mode even (or especially!) for political veterans; see Taber & Lodge (2006).
Politics is an extension of war by other means. Arguments are soldiers. Once you know which side you’re on, you must support all arguments of that side, and attack all arguments that appear to favor the enemy side; otherwise it’s like stabbing your soldiers in the back — providing aid and comfort to the enemy. […]
I’m not saying that I think Overcoming Bias should be apolitical, or even that we should adopt Wikipedia’s ideal of the Neutral Point of View. But try to resist getting in those good, solid digs if you can possibly avoid it. If your topic legitimately relates to attempts to ban evolution in school curricula, then go ahead and talk about it — but don’t blame it explicitly on the whole Republican Party; some of your readers may be Republicans, and they may feel that the problem is a few rogues, not the entire party. As with Wikipedia’s NPOV, it doesn’t matter whether (you think) the Republican Party really is at fault. It’s just better for the spiritual growth of the community to discuss the issue without invoking color politics.
Some people involved in political advocacy and activism have objected to the “mind-killer” framing. Miri Mogilevsky of Brute Reason explained on Facebook:
My usual first objection is that it seems odd to single politics out as a “mind-killer” when there’s plenty of evidence that tribalism happens everywhere. Recently, there has been a whole kerfuffle within the field of psychology about replication of studies. Of course, some key studies have failed to replicate, leading to accusations of “bullying” and “witch-hunts” and what have you. Some of the people involved have since walked their language back, but it was still a rather concerning demonstration of mind-killing in action. People took “sides,” people became upset at people based on their “sides” rather than their actual opinions or behavior, and so on.
Unless this article refers specifically to electoral politics and Democrats and Republicans and things (not clear from the wording), “politics” is such a frightfully broad category of human experience that writing it off entirely as a mind-killer that cannot be discussed or else all rationality flies out the window effectively prohibits a large number of important issues from being discussed, by the very people who can, in theory, be counted upon to discuss them better than most. Is it “politics” for me to talk about my experience as a woman in gatherings that are predominantly composed of men? Many would say it is. But I’m sure that these groups of men stand to gain from hearing about my experiences, since some of them are concerned that so few women attend their events.
In this article, Eliezer notes, “Politics is an important domain to which we should individually apply our rationality — but it’s a terrible domain in which to learn rationality, or discuss rationality, unless all the discussants are already rational.” But that means that we all have to individually, privately apply rationality to politics without consulting anyone who can help us do this well. After all, there is no such thing as a discussant who is “rational”; there is a reason the website is called “Less Wrong” rather than “Not At All Wrong” or “Always 100% Right.” Assuming that we are all trying to be more rational, there is nobody better to discuss politics with than each other.
The rest of my objection to this meme has little to do with this article, which I think raises lots of great points, and more to do with the response that I’ve seen to it — an eye-rolling, condescending dismissal of politics itself and of anyone who cares about it. Of course, I’m totally fine if a given person isn’t interested in politics and doesn’t want to discuss it, but then they should say, “I’m not interested in this and would rather not discuss it,” or “I don’t think I can be rational in this discussion so I’d rather avoid it,” rather than sneeringly reminding me “You know, politics is the mind-killer,” as though I am an errant child. I’m well-aware of the dangers of politics to good thinking. I am also aware of the benefits of good thinking to politics. So I’ve decided to accept the risk and to try to apply good thinking there. […]
I’m sure there are also people who disagree with the article itself, but I don’t think I know those people personally. And to add a political dimension (heh), it’s relevant that most non-LW people (like me) initially encounter “politics is the mind-killer” being thrown out in comment threads, not through reading the original article. My opinion of the concept improved a lot once I read the article.
In the same thread, Andrew Mahone added, “Using it in that sneering way, Miri, seems just like a faux-rationalist version of ‘Oh, I don’t bother with politics.’ It’s just another way of looking down on any concerns larger than oneself as somehow dirty, only now, you know, rationalist dirty.” To which Miri replied: “Yeah, and what’s weird is that that really doesn’t seem to be Eliezer’s intent, judging by the eponymous article.”
Eliezer clarified that by “politics” he doesn’t generally mean ‘problems that can be directly addressed in local groups but happen to be politically charged’:
Hanson’s “Tug the Rope Sideways” principle, combined with the fact that large communities are hard to personally influence, explains a lot in practice about what I find suspicious about someone who claims that conventional national politics are the top priority to discuss. Obviously local community matters are exempt from that critique! I think if I’d substituted ‘national politics as seen on TV’ in a lot of the cases where I said ‘politics’ it would have more precisely conveyed what I was trying to say.
Even if polarized local politics is more instrumentally tractable, though, the worry remains that it’s a poor epistemic training ground. A subtler problem with banning “political” discussions on a blog or at a meet-up is that it’s hard to do fairly, because our snap judgments about what counts as “political” may themselves be affected by partisan divides. In many cases the status quo is thought of as apolitical, even though objections to the status quo are ‘political.’ (Shades of Pretending to be Wise.)
Because politics gets personal fast, it’s hard to talk about it successfully. But if you’re trying to build a community, build friendships, or build a movement, you can’t outlaw everything ‘personal.’ And selectively outlawing personal stuff gets even messier. Last year, daenerys shared anonymized stories from women, including several that discussed past experiences where the writer had been attacked or made to feel unsafe. If those discussions are made off-limits because they’re ‘political,’ people may take away the message that they aren’t allowed to talk about, e.g., some harmful or alienating norm they see at meet-ups. I haven’t seen enough discussions of this failure mode to feel super confident people know how to avoid it.
Since this is one of the LessWrong memes that’s most likely to pop up in discussions between different online communities (along with the even more ripe-for-misinterpretation “policy debates should not appear one-sided“…), as a first (very small) step, I suggest obsoleting the ‘mind-killer’ framing. It’s cute, but ‘politics is hard mode’ works better as a meme to interject into random conversations. ∵:
1. ‘Politics is hard mode’ emphasizes that ‘mind-killing’ (= epistemic difficulty) is quantitative, not qualitative. Some things might instead fall under Very Hard Mode, or under Middlingly Hard Mode…
2. ‘Hard’ invites the question ‘hard for whom?’, more so than ‘mind-killer’ does. We’re all familiar with the fact that some people and some contexts change what’s ‘hard’, so it’s a little less likely we’ll universally generalize about what’s ‘hard.’
3. ‘Mindkill’ connotes contamination, sickness, failure, weakness. ‘Hard Mode’ doesn’t imply that a thing is low-status or unworthy, so it’s less likely to create the impression (or reality) that LessWrongers or Effective Altruists dismiss out-of-hand the idea of hypothetical-political-intervention-that-isn’t-a-terrible-idea. Maybe some people do want to argue for the thesis that politics is always useless or icky, but if so it should be done in those terms, explicitly — not snuck in as a connotation.
4. ‘Hard Mode’ can’t readily be perceived as a personal attack. If you accuse someone of being ‘mindkilled’, with no context provided, that clearly smacks of insult — you appear to be calling them stupid, irrational, deluded, or similar. If you tell someone they’re playing on ‘Hard Mode,’ that’s very nearly a compliment, which makes your advice that they change behaviors a lot likelier to go over well.
5. ‘Hard Mode’ doesn’t carry any risk of evoking (e.g., gendered) stereotypes about political activists being dumb or irrational or overemotional.
6. ‘Hard Mode’ encourages a growth mindset. Maybe some topics are too hard to ever be discussed. Even so, ranking topics by difficulty still encourages an approach where you try to do better, rather than merely withdrawing. It may be wise to eschew politics, but we should not fear it. (Fear is the mind-killer.)
If you and your co-conversationalists haven’t yet built up a lot of trust and rapport, or if tempers are already flaring, conveying the message ‘I’m too rational to discuss politics’ or ‘You’re too irrational to discuss politics’ can make things worse. ‘Politics is the mind-killer’ is the mind-killer. At least, it’s a relatively mind-killing way of warning people about epistemic hazards.
‘Hard Mode’ lets you communicate in the style of the Humble Aspirant rather than the Aloof Superior. Try something in the spirit of: ‘I’m worried I’m too low-level to participate in this discussion; could you have it somewhere else?’ Or: ‘Could we talk about something closer to Easy Mode, so we can level up together?’ If you’re worried that what you talk about will impact group epistemology, I think you should be even more worried about how you talk about it.
Most good people are kind in an ordinary way, when the intensity of human suffering in the world today calls for heroic kindness. I’ve seen ordinary kindness criticized as “pretending to try”. We go through the motions of humanism, but without significantly inconveniencing ourselves, without straying from our established habits, without violating societal expectations. It’s not that we’re being deliberately deceitful; it’s just that our stated values are in conflict with the lack of urgency revealed in our behaviors. If we want to see real results, we need to put more effort than that into helping others.
The Effective Altruism movement claims to have made some large strides in the direction of “actually trying”, approaching our humanitarian problems with fresh eyes and exerting a serious effort to solve them. But Ben Kuhn has criticized EA for spending more time “pretending to actually try” than “actually trying”. Have we become more heroic in our compassion, or have we just become better at faking moral urgency?
I agree with his criticism, though I’m not sure how large and entrenched the problem is. I bring it up in order to address a reply by Katja Grace. Katja wrote ‘In praise of pretending to really try‘, granting Ben’s criticism but arguing that the phenomenon he’s pointing to is a good thing.
“Effective Altruism should not shy away from pretending to try. It should strive to pretend to really try more convincingly, rather than striving to really try.
“Why is this? Because Effective Altruism is a community, and the thing communities do well is modulating individual behavior through interactions with others in the community. Most actions a person takes as a result of being part of a community are pretty much going to be ‘pretending to try’ by construction. And such actions are worth having.”
If I’m understanding Katja’s argument right, it’s: ‘People who pretend to try are motivated by a desire for esteem. And what binds a community together is in large part this desire for esteem. So we can’t get rid of pretending to try, or we’ll get rid of what makes Effective Altruism a functional community in the first place.’
The main problem here is in the leap from ‘if you pretend to try, then you’re motivated by a desire for esteem’ to ‘if you’re motivated by a desire for esteem, then you’re pretending to try’. Lo:
“A community of people not motivated by others seeing and appreciating their behavior, not concerned for whether they look like a real community member, and not modeling their behavior on the visible aspects of others’ behavior in the community would generally not be much of a community, and I think would do less well at pursuing their shared goals. […]
“If people heed your call to ‘really try’ and do the ‘really trying’ things you suggest, this will have been motivated by your criticisms, so seems more like a better quality of pretending to really try, than really trying itself. Unless your social pressure somehow pressured them to stop being motivated by social pressure.”
The idea of ‘really trying’ isn’t ‘don’t be influenced by social pressure’. It’s closer to ‘whatever, be influenced by social pressure however you want — whatever it takes! — as long as you end up actually working on the tasks that matter’. Signaling (especially honest signaling) and conformity (especially productive conformism) are not the enemy. The enemy is waste, destruction, human misery.
The ‘Altruism’ in ‘Effective Altruism’ is first and foremost a behavior, not a motivation. You can be a perfectly selfish Effective Altruist, as long as you’ve decided that your own interests are tied to others’ welfare. So in questioning whether self-described Effective Altruists are living up to their ideals, we’re primarily questioning whether they’re acting the part. Whether their motives are pure doesn’t really matter, except as a device for explaining why they are or aren’t actively making the world a better place.
“I don’t mean to say that ‘really trying’ is bad, or not a good goal for an individual person. But it is a hard goal for a community to usefully and truthfully have for many of its members, when so much of its power relies on people watching their neighbors and working to fit in.”
To my ear, this sounds like: ‘Being a good fireman is much, much harder than looking like a good fireman. And firemen are important, and their group cohesion and influence depends to a significant extent on their being seen as good firemen. So we shouldn’t chastise firemen who sacrifice being any good at their job for the sake of looking as though they’re good at their job. We should esteem them alongside good firemen, albeit with less enthusiasm.’
I don’t get it. If there are urgent Effective Altruism projects, then surely we should be primarily worried about how much real-world progress is being made on those projects. Building a strong, thriving EA community isn’t particularly valuable if the only major outcome is that we perpetuate EA, thereby allowing us to further perpetuate EA…
I suppose this strategy makes sense if it’s easier to just focus on building the EA movement and waiting for a new agenty altruist to wander in by chance, than it is to increase the agentiness of people currently in EA. But that seems unlikely to me. It’s harder to find ‘natural’ agents than it is to create or enhance them. And if we allow EA to rot from within and become an overt status competition with few aspirations to anything higher, then I’d expect us to end up driving away the real agents and true altruists. The most sustainable way to attract effective humanists is to be genuinely effective and genuinely humanistic, in a visible way.
At some point, the buck has to stop. At some point, someone has to actually do the work of EA. Why not now?
A last point: I think an essential element of ‘pretending to (actually) try’ is being neglected here. If I’m understanding how people think, pretending to try is at least as much about self-deception as it is about signaling to others. It’s a way of persuading yourself that you’re a good person, of building a internal narrative you can be happy with. The alternative is that the pretenders are knowingly deceiving others, which sounds a bit too Machiavellian to me to fit my model of realistic psychology.
But if pretending to try requires self-deception, then what are Katja and Ben doing? They’re both making self-deception a lot harder. They’re both writing posts that will make their EA readers more self-aware and self-critical. On my model, that means that they’re both making it tougher to pretend to try. (As am I.)
But if that’s so, then Ben’s strategy is wiser. Reading Ben’s critique, a pretender is encouraged to switch to actually trying. Reading Katja’s, pretenders are still beset with dissonance, but now without any inspiring call to self-improvement. The clearest way out will then be to give up on pretending to try, and give up on trying.
I’m all for faking it till you make it. But I think that faking it transitions into making it, and avoids becoming a lost purpose, in part because we continue to pressure people to live lives more consonant with their ideals. We should keep criticizing hypocrisy and sloth. But the criticism should look like ‘we can do so much better!’, not ‘let us hunt down all the Fakers and drive them from our midst!’.
It’s exciting to realize that so much of what we presently do is thoughtless posturing. Not because any of us should be content with ‘pretending to actually try’, but because it means that a small shift in how we do things might have a big impact on how effective we are.
Imagine waking up tomorrow, getting out of bed, and proceeding to do exactly the sorts of things you think are needed to bring about a better world.What would that be like?
I recently participated in a meeting of ex-Muslims in Washington, D.C., attended by Richard Dawkins, Ron Lindsay, and a number of other leaders of the secular movement. One of the most eloquent and passionate speakers there — rivaling Dawkins — was Marwa Berro, a writer, activist, and philosopher who blogs at Between A Veil And A Dark Place. At the prompting of event organizer Alishba Zarmeen, I asked Marwa about her views on Islam, cultural pluralism, and the future of secularism.
Bensinger: Marwa, you’ve written some really eye-opening critiques of Islamic culture. But you’ve also been quite critical of other critics of Islam. Do you see yourself as a Muslim? In dialogues about Islam, do you find yourself identifying more with Muslim voices, or with non-Muslim ones?
Berro: This question is to me not one of what I write about, the content and subject-matter of my work, but of what spurs that sort of work, a question of personal identity. I identify strongly as both ex-Muslim and Muslimish (the specific brand of Muslimish being atheist Muslim). One is a negative identity (ie, a descriptor of what I am not) and the other is a positive identity (a descriptor of something I am). I think there are some potentially confusing things going on with that, so let me explain.
First, the identity of ex-Muslim: I refer to Islam, something I’ve rejected, to personally describe myself. While it might be confusing, I find this incredibly meaningful.
Because in shedding Islamic doctrine I have not freed myself of its influence on me. I can remove the hijab as clothing but I can’t so easily remove its decade-and-a-half influence on my body and mind. Its residual effects live within me in the form of memories, concepts, questions and challenges related to body image, bodily autonomy, self-worth, gender identity, sexuality and objectification. They live with me as active, probing, burning matters. They are internal struggles I bear myself through and external battles I commit my voice and pen and heart to.
They are the smallest and most everyday of things: My neck exploding in freckles this summer for the first time in my life: how strange it is to see your 24-year-old body do a thing it has never done, how alarming that so simple a capacity in your very skin could be released with a catalyst as common as the sun, how appalling that it has never had the chance to do so, and how the questions and emotions bubble up from this. Every experience of mine that is new, joyous, painful, meaningful in some way or another resonates in a deep and compelling way with the life I’ve lived, the doctrine and culture that socialized me.
I am not just non-religious. I have shed the skin of a certain religion, and it was a clutching, shaping, smothering, burning, heavy skin, and my being non-religious is defined by pushing myself out of it, and it always will be.
I also identify as an atheist Muslim because I strongly claim my cultural belonging, and much of my culture is intertwined with, inextricable from, Islamic practices and beliefs. I am an atheist, a humanist, a secularist, yes, but much of what informs my thought and my work, and especially much of what moves me and gives me joy, comes from the heart of the Arab Mediterranean. It is a lens, if you will, for the way in which I experience the world.
Bensinger: So you see yourself as culturally Muslim or Muslimish, but not as religiously Muslim. I have vastly less experience with Islam’s culture than with its doctrines; how has that background shaped your perspective?
Berro: I’m an artist. In my day-to-day life, I write and teach fiction, and I am working on a book of interconnected short stories about my hometown Beirut, and the characters that live in my head and whose lives I spend time and words on have rich, complex, dynamic religious identities. I watch news reports in Arabic on YouTube and yearn for the tongue. My head snaps around almost unbidden and my heart skips a beat if ever I hear somebody speak Arabic on the street here in the American Midwest. I’ve retained some traditionally Islamic practices, particularly hygienic ones, that I find to be valuable. I still celebrate Eid when Eid comes around too, in much the same way atheists from Christian families still celebrate Christmas—it has marked for me, twice every year, a time of food and family and love and friendship and commitment. I cook Levantine food, halal food, alongside my primary partner’s mother’s amazing pork chops. My sensory comforts are all from home: the sound and smell of the sea, warm weather. I still wear the same multicolored scarves with intricate designs that I used as hijabs for many years. I have a way of speech, a warmness and candor about me that is specifically Arab, because we are spontaneous, welcoming, open people. Strangely, even though I am a particularly amusical person, the poetry of the Husseini dirges during Ashouraa, their hypnotic chest-tapping grief, moves me to this day. I consider the story of Hussein to be an epic tale that, rendered in poetry in the Iraqi dialect, gives me a stronger feeling than reading epic tales like Beowulf or the Iliad ever did and ever could. I consider the stories of the prophets, and the tales of death and redemption and aid from angels tied to Hezbollah resistance culture in the South of Lebanon too, to be the equivalent of folktales that can inspire and inform new art, new fiction.
I love all of these things about my culture. I know my culture. I claim my culture, and speak of it from a position of belonging, not from the position of being a defector. It is true that I am not a Muslim—I am, however, Muslimish. Leaving Islam does not entail a separation from the cultural, societal, and political issues that have always shaped my very existence, whose intricacies I have delved in intellectually in order to find out who and what I am.
And when I go to sleep at night, it is always with the hope that I will dream of Beirut.
Bensinger: Given your background, Marwa, I can understand why your writing focuses on issues in Muslim communities. Still, looking at the hostility Western media often directs at Islam, don’t you think it’s unfair to single out this one religion for special criticism? Why not treat Islam the same as any other religion?
Berro: I do not believe Islam is singled out for criticism. If anything, there is less of a willingness to approach Islam with the same force and confidence that other religions are criticized with. The existence of a specific term demonizing the critique of Islam but no other term demonizing the critique of any other ideology or religion is very telling.
Berro: Yes. If the question is why I criticize Islam to the exclusion of other religions in my blogging, then the answer is simple.
I know more about it and can speak to it, and it is personally important to me. I can only speak about that which I am informed of. Likewise, I can speak best and most compellingly about that which touches me most.
The second part of the answer is that there is something unique about Islam. Islam does differ from other religions in crucial ways that do influence how it is to be dealt with. I have a blog post about that here.
Bensinger: In your view, what can moderate Muslims do to better combat extremism?
Berro: Value diversity. You interpret Islam in one way, and others interpret it in another, and others will interpret it in yet another, seventy times seven times. Thus concentrate less on defending the ‘true’ Islam because very, very few people are going to be talking about the same thing you are when you say ‘Islam’, and more on defending the right to believe and practice freely without imposing your view on others or infringing on their similar rights.
Emphasize that freedom of religion is a right, no matter how it is practiced or interpreted. That freedom is one that you yourself, as a Muslim, should value above all else.
I understand that you believe your faith to be a common good, a truth, a meaningful and enlightening thing, and that you hate seeing it denigrated either through misuse or misunderstanding. Perhaps consider that the best way to prevent this is to help create a world where nobody will have reason to denigrate your faith, because nobody will, in the name of your faith, commit the human rights violations that you consider to be misuse or misunderstanding of your faith. Recognize that those who kill or maim or hurt to defend the name of your faith do so because they don’t believe it is a human right for others to choose not to follow it or to flout its rules or beliefs.
Emphasize that human right.
Value diversity. Value choice.
Bensinger: What can we do to empower ex-Muslim and liberal Muslim critics of traditional Islam?
Berro: Listen to us. Enable our voices by hosting them on mainstream media platforms. Help make the ex-Muslim voice and the liberal Muslim voice normalized, because it is unfortunately the case that these voices are considered inauthentic and thus discounted because we are not viewed as Muslims or ‘true’ Muslims. This happens in the West sometimes because of a fear, I think, of cultural appropriation, of being racist.
But here’s the thing. There is so much talk of what we are not. We are not meant for your consumption, we are not your orientalist dream. Clamorous are the voices that say this. But tenuous is the discourse that is willing to discuss what is ours, what we can have, what can be fought for on our behalf if we do not have the means to fight for it ourselves, if it is not already granted to us by our cultural norms.
The discourse surrounding cultural appropriation powerfully rests upon the simple concept, acknowledged by many and addressed to the white West, that when you view what is ours through the lens of your own privileged understanding, you bar us from agency and choice and self-determination.
But when does the fear of cultural appropriation blend into the dangers of cultural relativism?
When it starts to enable our belonging to a cultural tradition above our individual identities. Except that we are human subjects, and our cultures belong to us more than we belong to them.
It becomes dangerous when talk of what we are not enables the delegitimization of our voices when we try to speak of what we are, what we can have. When suddenly we become defectors, apostates, and our discourse is discounted as imperialist Western brainwashing.
The irony is that we are not given that power, of the agential voice. We are not considered to be appropriating Western values when we endorse and adopt them, because to suggest that a brown woman can take Western ideas and turn them into her own brand of feminism and agency is unthinkable. Instead our discourse is thought of being a flimsy vapid imitation of the West. It comes as a surprise to some Westerners if and when we end up educated enough to teach white children their own languages, if our English is impeccable, our diction refined, our knowledge of Western identity and gender politics well-formulated.
And once accepted, this somehow discredits us as brown women, as people from Muslim cultures. We are discounted as inauthentic commentators on what was always-and-every issue governing our socialization, our actualization, our politicization because we break out of the bounds of our cultural dictates in doing so.
And when we are discounted by our cultural leaders and spaces, a fear of cultural appropriation bars us from having a platform from which to speak elsewhere.
This stems from a fear of judging. Is it then possible that in order to not judge, people tend not to listen?
So listen to us. Listen to us, understand us, ask us questions, let us teach you about our religious backgrounds so that you too can become informed commentators and help us dispel the erroneous and focus on effective solutions.
Help make it a normal thing, a universally acknowledged and accepted thing for an ex-Muslim to speak about Islam and be considered a valuable and informed commentator.
We need your help in being heard.
Bensinger: Why is help needed? Why do I hear so few people talking like this?
Berro: We are black sheep. We are rejected by many of the people and organizations that socialized us. Those of us who are public are accused of being imperialist tools of the West, of getting paychecks from Zionist organizations, of being part of a larger agenda of globalization and other such ludicrous nonsense.
Also, and this is sickening, horrifying, the women among us are often subjected to the crudest forms of misogynistic threats of rape and violence for daring to advocate for human rights. Our causes are routinely reduced to a desire to legalize sin and fornication and lewdness (all imagined evils) and any humanistic values we endorse are brushed aside as a mere front.
Many of us are also in hiding, and bear significant social and material costs for being what we are. Apostasy bears a great social burden in Muslim societies. At the very least, we are shunned, outcast, disowned if we were to go public. Others of us simply cannot. We live in places with such inescapable codes of living that we are not free to choose a nonreligious life and must continue to practice rituals of faith as though we believed, and are thus forced to suppress ourselves, and live a lie.
Others who are less lucky suffer violence in brutal ways as the recompense for sin. In many areas of the Muslim world, death is called for as the just punishment for apostasy. In other places, death or brutalization as punishment for apostasy is not technically legal but is overlooked when it does happen. The acceptance of it is surprisingly (or not) mainstream, as this Pew Poll shows.
I will quickly here note that both I and some close friends have suffered unjustifiable violence at the hands of our own families in response to perceived ‘sin’ we committed.
And for those of us who are capable of speaking—our voices aren’t loud enough on their own to cast light onto the invisible, in-the-closet apostate from Islam that has no recourse and is trapped in a way of life they cannot adhere to with good conscience and find too dangerous or costly to leave.
Bensinger: What about voices from outside the Muslim world? What can people from more secularized cultures do to effectively criticize religion?
Berro: I view the issue of secularism to be one of practical political philosophy, and when it comes to practical political philosophy, I am a moral consequentialist who emphasizes procedure. Based on that, these are my suggestions:
Ask yourself why you are criticizing religion. What is your purpose, goal? What valuable thing are you trying to achieve in criticizing a religion? And then line up the manner in which you critique religion with those goals. Look at what you’re doing already and ask yourself if it serves those goals and how. For instance, questions to be posed could be: How would using racializing, generalizing, stereotyping, alienating, or aggressive language achieve any of those goals? Conversely, how would being too afraid of being accused of xenophobia or bigotry to make an honest, compelling, no-nonsense critique serve those goals?
Stop making the mistake of separating the practices and beliefs of followers of a religion from the religion itself. That’s a cop-out that detracts from honest criticism of the ways in which religious doctrine informs, influences, and contributes to violence and human rights violations committed by religious people.
Be less concerned with the image of a religion, and what the ‘real’ or ‘true’ version of a religion is, and more about dealing with the real-world consequences of the actions of its followers. People are more valuable than ideas. People’s lives and wellbeing and freedom and safety are more valuable than defending or condemning an abstract concept. Here’s a hint: Nobody agrees on what the ‘true’ version of a religion is. It does not exist.
Don’t treat religions as monoliths. They are not monoliths. They are the incredibly varying beliefs and practices of their followers, and in order to effectively discuss them, you must discuss them according to their semantic content and their material effects. You must not equate them with each other or reduce them to either their most positive aspects or their most negative aspects. You must not lump them all together and treat them the same. Islam is different from other religions in many ways, and those differences need to be addressed when we think about how to discuss Islam. You will not fix a problem by ignoring its particular identifying characteristics.
Here are some concrete suggestions I’ve given for discussing Islam in particular.
Bensinger: Why does the issue of secularism matter? What does it mean for a society to be secular, or for an individual to be a secularist?
Berro: As commonly understood, a secular society is one in which religious institutions and the state are separate, neither interfering with the functioning of the other. It relates directly to freedom, the freedom to conduct yourself and believe what you will, insofar as that does not infringe upon the freedom of others.
It matters because societies are pluralistic. Because there is a large variety of personally fulfilling ways of living decent human lives, and no single one of these can be mandated at the level of the state. It matters because the followers of certain belief systems do want to be allowed to bring their own codes of living into public spaces where other people live.
Many religions tend to want to dictate an objective, universal code of living and belief system for humanity in general, and if they are allowed to pass legislature at the state level that enforce their particular system of belief upon others, then they will be infringing upon the the fundamental human right of self-determination.
It can range from less dangerous to more dangerous things: A comparatively benign example is holding prayer in public or state schools even if the children do not belong to that religion or do not desire to be brought into it and do not wish to pray to a god they don’t believe in or in a manner that they don’t subscribe to. More extreme is sentencing a woman who has had sex to 100 lashes because in a particular religion it is considered immoral to have sex outside of marriage.
A particular problem I’ve noticed when considering personal autonomy and freedom of religion is the tendency to discount religious influence on legislature because it is not explicitly presented as such. For instance, my home country Lebanon, which endorses no state religion and considers itself secular, has a slew of laws that are not justified in explicitly religious terms but that only exist because of religious influences on the culture. For instance, a law condemning ‘unnatural’ sex acts and thus used to arrest LGBTQ individuals. Or the repeated vetoing of a law criminalizing domestic violence based on the justification that it threatens the closeness of familial bonds.
Thus the various influences and justifications for legislature must be examined, along with whether they are based in a particular worldview that infringes upon the rights of others and is inconsistent with the existence of others. That should be the standard for whether or not legislature is secular: is it consistent with the existence of various worldviews given that no human rights are being violated?
Bensinger: The Washington, D.C. event was the first large-scale Muslimish meet-up of its kind. What did you think of it?
Berro: It was a life-changing experience for me.
Firstly, because of community:
One thing that apostates can often be heard voicing is ‘I thought I was alone.’
The concept of apostasy is so demonized and unthinkable that it sometimes is difficult for those bearing its social costs to consider that there might be others like them, a community, that they can reach out to, talk to, support and feel supported by.
I’ve been collaborating and sharing experience and insight and dreams and hopes with an online network of apostates in North America for the past few months, but the meetup in DC at the end of this past September was a thing of joy and splendor for me. I felt a sense of community, belonging, solidarity, of encompassing and welcoming that I have not felt in a long time. These were people with similar struggles, similar experiences of adversity, similar intellectual journeys and interests. I could speak my language again. I could refer to specific cultural things, have inside jokes, that other people understood and we could discuss them in open, versatile ways, without fear of being quieted or punished or being accused of an imagined crime called ‘blasphemy’.
Because our pains were similar, we could understand and comfort each other in unique ways. Because our joys, too, were things we had in common, as well as the experiences of leaving Islamic rituals behind and experiencing new things like intimate relationships, the sun on our hair, swimming in public, eating bacon for the first time as adults. That it was forbidden to us for so long made it sacred to us in a way that we probably would be at loss to explain to others.
I was also struck, and really am almost ashamed of how surprising this was for me, by how respectful and nonjudgmental everyone around me was. I have never been utterly surrounded by people from strong Muslim cultures without feeling controlled or judged or manipulated in some way, especially by men. But I was there with my primary partner and we were at a raging afterparty with booze and cuddles and romance all around and I did not feel a shred of shaming or misogyny directed at my immodest dress and conduct. It was heartwarming and nearly brought me to tears.
Secondly, because of the amazing amount of goodwill and human kindness we were given.
We met with prominent leaders of secular organizations nationally and worldwide. Present were Richard Dawkins, Edwina Rogers (Secular Coalition for America and the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science), Ronald A Lindsay (Center for Inquiry), Richard Haynes (Atheist Nexus), and Jennifer Beahan (also CFI, in collaboration with Muslimish, which is now an official chapter of CFI).
Leaders from these organizations came to meet us in DC specifically to discuss the ways in which they could help us. How they could support us, what they could offer us. How the larger secular community as a whole could support the Muslim apostate cause.
It was made very clear that we belonged, that they considered our plight crucial, and that we were to be welcomed as an integral part of the secular community.
Also, and I say this because of the stigma attached to apostasy and its inherent voicelessness, it is incredible how we were listened to.
We were not spoken at. We were not given terms or conditions. We were offered several avenues of help, and given suggestions for ways in which we could be supported, and then we were asked.
We were asked what we thought could be done for us. We were asked what aspects of the apostate condition we thought were most crucial, and what ideas we had for addressing us.
Although we were well over 100 strong in the room, we were all given opportunity to ask questions of the secular leaders before us, and give them comments and feedback.
Bensinger: What were the most important issues and ideas you encountered there?
Berro: Some specific issues we talked about were:
The unique situation of women from Muslim cultures, because they are the largest sufferers under Islamism, and enabling the voices of ex-Muslim women, and broadcasting their experiences. Since then, a project called the Ex-Muslim Women’s Network has gone through several planning stages.
The situation of apostates in Muslim-majority countries, and strategies for creating places of freethought and skeptical inquiry where they feel welcome that are safe, undetectable, and sustainable.
The situation of seekers of asylum and refugees who happen to be atheists or apostates, who often lack sponsors or legal support from secular organizations, and thus have to be sponsored by religious organizations such as the YMCA.
The situation of reconciling positive cultural elements with a lack of faith, methods for creating families and communities that retain culture while shedding the religious doctrine and terminology.
The situation of apostates in the West, who often are utterly socially constrained, bringing them awareness that they are not alone, and helping them leave suppressive home situations.
Bensinger: I found the meeting moving and inspiring as well. For that matter, this discussion has given me a lot of new hope, new understanding, and a renewed sense of urgency. Thank you for sharing so much of yourself, Marwa. Is there a last word you’d like to share with people reading this? Any new projects, or ways for us to follow your work?
Berro: I’d like to conclude with a shout-out to EXMNA. Since our DC meetup, the Ex-Muslims of North America has launched the Ex-Muslim Blogs, the world’s first single website that acts as a unified platform for ex-Muslim thought in all its rich variety and insight. I think this an incredibly revolutionary and important endeavor, and am proud to have Between A Veil and A Dark Place hosted there; it is the beginning of the normalization of the ex-Muslim voice. And finally, I’d like to mention that I’m collecting stories and experiences from ex-Muslim women or women who have been influenced in one way or another by Muslim societies for a new guest-blog series at my website, the Stories from Ex-Muslim Women. Feel free to query me at email@example.com.
Is the artificial intelligence too stupid to understand what I meant? Then it is no superintelligence at all!
Is it too weak to reliably fulfill my desires? Then, surely, it is no superintelligence!
Does it hate me? Then it was deliberately crafted to hate me, for chaos predicts indifference. ———But, ah! no wicked god did intervene!
Thus disproved, my hypothetical implodes in a puff of logic. The world is saved. You’re welcome.
On this line of reasoning, safety-proofed artificial superintelligence (Friendly AI) is not difficult. It’s inevitable, provided only that we tell the AI, ‘Be Friendly.’ If the AI doesn’t understand ‘Be Friendly.’, then it’s too dumb to harm us. And if it does understand ‘Be Friendly.’, then designing it to follow such instructions is childishly easy.
Is the missing option obvious?
What if the AI isn’t sadistic, or weak, or stupid, but just doesn’t care what you Really Meant by ‘I wish for my values to be fulfilled’?
“If the poor machine could not understand the difference between ‘maximize human pleasure’ and ‘put all humans on an intravenous dopamine drip’ then it would also not understand most of the other subtle aspects of the universe, including but not limited to facts/questions like: ‘If I put a million amps of current through my logic circuits, I will fry myself to a crisp’, or ‘Which end of this Kill-O-Zap Definit-Destruct Megablaster is the end that I’m supposed to point at the other guy?’. Dumb AIs, in other words, are not an existential threat. […]
“If the AI is (and always has been, during its development) so confused about the world that it interprets the ‘maximize human pleasure’ motivation in such a twisted, logically inconsistent way, it would never have become powerful in the first place.”
If an AI is sufficiently intelligent, then, yes, it should be able to model us well enough to make precise predictions about our behavior. And, yes, something functionally akin to our own intentional strategy could conceivably turn out to be an efficient way to predict linguistic behavior. The suggestion, then, is that we solve Friendliness by method A —
A. Solve the Problem of Meaning-in-General in advance, and program it to follow our instructions’real meaning. Then just instruct it ‘Satisfy my preferences’, and wait for it to become smart enough to figure out my preferences.
— as opposed to B or C —
B. Solve the Problem of Preference-in-General in advance, and directly program it to figure out what our human preferences are and then satisfy them.
C. Solve the Problem of Human Preference, and explicitly program our particular preferences into the AI ourselves, rather than letting the AI discover them for us.
But there are a host of problems with treating the mere revelation that A is an option as a solution to the Friendliness problem.
1. You have to actually code the seed AI to understand what we mean. You can’t just tell it ‘Start understanding the True Meaning of my sentences!’ to get the ball rolling, because it may not yet be sophisticated enough to grok the True Meaning of ‘Start understanding the True Meaning of my sentences!’.
2. The Problem of Meaning-in-General may really be ten thousand heterogeneous problems, especially if ‘semantic value’ isn’t a natural kind. There may not be a single simple algorithm that inputs any old brain-state and outputs what, if anything, it ‘means’; it may instead be that different types of content are encoded very differently.
3. The Problem of Meaning-in-General may subsume the Problem of Preference-in-General. Rather than being able to apply a simple catch-all Translation Machine to any old human concept to output a reliable algorithm for applying that concept in any intelligible situation, we may need to already understand how our beliefs and values work in some detail before we can start generalizing. On the face of it, programming an AI to fully understand ‘Be Friendly!’ seems at least as difficult as just programming Friendliness into it, but with an added layer of indirection.
4. Even if the Problem of Meaning-in-General has a unitary solution and doesn’t subsume Preference-in-General, it may still be harder if semantics is a subtler or more complex phenomenon than ethics. It’s not inconceivable that language could turn out to be more of a kludge than value; or more variable across individuals due to its evolutionary recency; or more complexly bound up with culture.
5. Even if Meaning-in-General is easier than Preference-in-General, it may still be extraordinarily difficult. The meanings of human sentences can’t be fully captured in any simple string of necessary and sufficient conditions. ‘Concepts‘ are just especially context-insensitive bodies of knowledge; we should not expect them to be uniquely reflectively consistent, transtemporally stable, discrete, easily-identified, or introspectively obvious.
6. It’s clear that building stable preferences out of B or C would create a Friendly AI. It’s not clear that the same is true for A. Even if the seed AI understands our commands, the ‘do’ part of ‘do what you’re told’ leaves a lot of dangerous wiggle room. See section 2 of Yudkowsky’s reply to Holden. If the AGI doesn’t already understand and care about human value, then it may misunderstand (or misvalue) the component of responsible request- or question-answering that depends on speakers’ implicit goals and intentions.
7. You can’t appeal to a superintelligence to tell you what code to first build it with.
The point isn’t that the Problem of Preference-in-General is unambiguously the ideal angle of attack. It’s that the linguistic competence of an AGI isn’t unambiguously the right target, and also isn’t easy or solved.
Point 7 seems to be a special source of confusion here, so I’ll focus just on it for my next post.
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.
But if all we take away from this debacle is ‘well, Those People are crazy and dumb and shouldn’t be listened to’, we’ll have missed an opportunity to hone our own craft. Habitually thinking in such terms is how they fell into error. They thought, ‘Those guys are the Enemy. So they can’t be reasoned with. They don’t deserve to have their views presented with charity and precision! They are simply to be defeated.’
Both sides are at the mercy of enemythink, even if only one side happens to be right on the points of fact. Even my way of framing this conversation in pugilistic terms, as a ‘conflict’ with ‘sides’, reveals a deep vulnerability to partisan animosity. To make progress, we have to actually internalize these lessons, and not just use them as more excuses to score points against the Other Side.
There are four fundamental lessons I’ve taken away from the Hussain/Greenwald libel scandal. And they really all boil down to: Getting everything wrong is easy, and treating discussions like battles or status competitions makes it worse. Put like that, our task could hardly be more simple — or more demanding.
1. There but for the grace of Rigor go I.
Rationality is hard. It isn’t a matter of getting a couple of simple metaphysical and political questions right and then coasting on your brilliance. It takes constant vigilance, effort, self-awareness. We shouldn’t be surprised to see mostly reasonable people slipping up in big ways. Rather, we should be surprised to observe that ajabbering bipedal ape is capable of being at all reasonable in the first place!
Since we’re all really, really bad at this, we need to work together and form social circles that reinforce good epistemic hygiene. We need to exchange and test ideas for combating our biases. I couldn’t put it better than Julia Galef, who lists seven superb tips for becoming a more careful reasoner and discussant.
We can’t spend all our time just clobbering everyone slightly more unreasonable than we are. We must also look inward, seeking out the deep roots of madness that make humans susceptible to dogmatism in the first place.
2. Reality is nonpartisan.
By this I don’t mean that two sides in a dispute must be equally right. Rather, I mean that falling into reflexive partisanship is dangerous, because the world doesn’t care that you’re a Skeptic, or a Libertarian, or a Consequentialist, or a Christian. You and your ideological allies might have gotten lots of questions right in the past, yet still completely flunk your next empirical test. Reality rewards you for getting particular facts right, not for declaring your allegiance to the right abstract philosophy. And it can punish without mercy those whose operative beliefs exhibit even the smallest error, however noble their intentions.
Beware of associating the truth with a ‘side’. Beware of focusing your discussion on groups of people — ‘neoconservatives’, ‘atheists’… — rather than specific ideas and arguments. In particular, treating someone you’re talking to merely as an avatar of a monolithic Ideology will inevitably lead you to oversimplify both the individual and the ideology. That is perhaps Hussain’s most transparent error. He was convinced that he knew what genus Harris belonged to, hence felt little need to expend effort on research or on parsing new arguments. Too much theory, not enough data. Too much hedgehog, not enough fox.
We should not call ourselves “atheists.” We should not call ourselves “secularists.” We should not call ourselves “humanists,” or “secular humanists,” or “naturalists,” or “skeptics,” or “anti-theists,” or “rationalists,” or “freethinkers,” or “brights.” We should not call ourselves anything. We should go under the radar—for the rest of our lives. And while there, we should be decent, responsible people who destroy bad ideas wherever we find them.
[… R]ather than declare ourselves “atheists” in opposition to all religion, I think we should do nothing more than advocate reason and intellectual honesty—and where this advocacy causes us to collide with religion, as it inevitably will, we should observe that the points of impact are always with specific religious beliefs—not with religion in general. There is no religion in general.
I’m not sure this is the best strategy for banding together to save the world. Labels can be useful tools for pooling our efforts. But it’s absolutely a good strategy when it comes to improving our intellectual clarity on an individual level, any time we see ourselves starting to use tribal allegiances as a replacement for analytic vigilance.
Partisan divides lead to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to you committing inferential fallacies. Therefore, don’t just get mad, and don’t just get even; get it right. You have far more to fear from your own errors than from your adversary’s.
3. When you have a criticism, talk it over first.
It sounds banal, but you’d be surprised how much mileage this one gets you. Starting a direct conversation, ideally someplace private, makes it easy for people to change their minds without immediately worrying about their public image. It lets them explain their position, if you’ve misunderstood something. And it establishes a more human connection, encouraging learning and collaboration rather than a clash of egos.
Neither Hussain nor Greenwald extended that basic courtesy to Harris; they went for the throat first. Harris didextend that courtesy to Greenwald; but Greenwald wasn’t interested in talking things out in any detail, preferring to go public immediately.
Like Harris, I tried actually talking to Greenwald and Hussain. The result was revealing, and relatively civil. I still came away disappointed, but it was at least several steps up from the quality of Hussain’s dialogue with Harris. Had we begunwith such a conversation, rather than waiting until the disputants were already entrenched in their positions, I suspect that much more progress would have been possible.
If you intensely oppose a view, that makes it all the more important to bracket egos and get clear on the facts right at the outset. All of this is consistent with subsequently bringing the discussion to the public, if the other party doesn’t respond, if you’re left dissatisfied, or if you are satisfied and want to show off how awesome your conversation was.
4. To err is human. To admit it, tremendously healthy.
Everyone screws up sometimes. The trick to really being a competent conversationalist is to notice when you screw up — to attend to it, really ponder it and let it sink in—
— and then to swiftly and mercilessly squish the mistake. Act as though you yourself were pointing out an enemy’s error. Critique it fully, openly, and aggressively.
Making concessions when you’ve screwed up, or when you and your opponent share common ground, makes your other positions stronger and more credible. Because you’ve proven that you can change your mind and notice conflicts between your theory and your data, you’ve also demonstrated that your other views are likely to track the evidence.
Don’t think, ‘Well, I’m right in spirit.’ Don’t think, ‘My mistake isn’t important. This is a distraction. I should keep a laser focus on where I’m right.’ If you ignore too many small errors, they’ll add up to a big error. If you don’t fully recognize when you’ve misjudged the evidence, but just shrug it off and return to the battlefront, then, slowly but surely, you and the facts will drift further and further apart. And you’ll never notice — for what evidence could convince you that you aren’t listening to the evidence?
Constant vigilance! That’s the lesson I take from this. Be uncompromisingly methodical. Be consistently reasonable. Never allow your past intellectual triumphs or your allegiance to the Good Guys to make you sloppy. Always seek the truth — even when the truth is a painful thing.
Realities to which you have anesthetized yourself can damage your person and your mind all the same. You just won’t notice in time to change them.
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.
Thiswas a piece which could only be written by someone utterly ignorant of the political and social contexts in which Harris makes his arguments. Harris – for all his apparent moral and character failures – happens to be stridently political and is not ignorant of the context within which he is speaking. His endorsement of this piece seems to reflect a disingenuous claim on his part that it constitutes a solid defense of him – nothing could be further from the truth.
When I first read the claim here that Harris’ defense of torture extends only to hypothetical non-real world individuals, I almost fell off my chair laughing. Harris wrote “In Defense of Torture” in 2005, directly in the middle of the Iraq War and the public debates over torture spawned by the abuse of detainees at Abu Ghraib, Bagram Air Force Base, Guantanamo Bay, and innumerable CIA “black sites” all over the world. The claim that he is offering a neutral commentary on the subject in general – and not giving his green-light as a scientific and philosophic authority to the policies being fiercely debated at that very moment – is utterly risible. It has not been nameless, shapeless, colourless, individuals who have been the subjects of institutionalized torture over the past decade and as a political animal Harris knows this full well.
Much the same can be said of his delightful commentary on the utility of nuclear holocaust. He’s not making this argument in a vacuum, there is a fierce public debate about a particular Islamic country (Iran, if you’re somehow unaware) potentially attaining nuclear weapons. There is literally no other country being debated at present to whom his “hypothetical” scenario may pertain than the Islamic Republic of Iran. Despite his apparently deep ignorance of this issue, given what actual experts (including the leading figures in the *Israeli* defense establishment) have to say about the utility of deterrence, he still feels compelled to chime in with his casually genocidal opinion.
Furthermore, saying we are at “War with Islam” in the context of the past decade of bombings, invasions, occupations and wanton mass-murder (which he incredibly believes are actually massive favors to the subject peoples), is, contrary to Robby’s endearingly quaint contention, indeed a call for open-ended war. The United States is conducting a battle without defined limits under the guise of an amorphous “War on Terror” – a war which has no defined victory conditions and in variously brutal forms continues to be carried on with no end sight. In his great wisdom, [Harris] simply wants us to change the name of the open-ended war which already exists and, by expanding it from “Terror” to “Islam”, make every one of the 1.5 billion people who identify with the latter a potential enemy. Much as Harris would like, Muslims – even secular-minded ones – are never going to stop identifying with the 1400 year old constructed civilization which, despite its present hardships, has for centuries been the world standard in art, science, governance, as well as racial and religious tolerance. While in Muslims’ present downtrodden state some have tried to wipe their contributions out of history and paint them as timelessly-backwards savages (a frequently-employed colonialist depiction of their subjects), Muslims have a collective memory of their past and will not be parted from it, nor from their identification with Islamic civilization.
Neither I nor Sam have ever claimed that his philosophical arguments can have no implications for public policy. (If you think we have made such a claim, I invite you to cite it.) The very dichotomy ‘philosophical vs. practical’ is misleading; Sam would be the very first to acknowledge that ideology, both thoughtless and reflective, has real-world consequences. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy articles have real-world consequences too. I think there are some important arguments against Sam’s position on torture that he hasn’t adequately addressed yet, and I’m happy to discuss that ethical question both in the abstract and in real-world cases.
My point was only that your original claim was highly misleading. Your quotation suggested that Sam endorses torturing actual real-world people for being Muslims, and you used this ‘for being Muslims’ implication to argue that he’s an anti-Muslim racist. This is seriously disingenuous, given that none of his arguments are specific to Muslims, and given that he has publicly insisted that torture should be illegal.
You misrepresented the data, and in a way directly relevant to your thesis that Sam is a (genocidal, fascistic) racist. That is unconscionable. I will continue to point this out until you acknowledge the error, apologize for it, and take steps to prevent the further spread of misunderstanding and confusion in this already-murky debate.
You persist in repeating the claim that Sam has endorsed pre-emptive nuclear attacks as some sort of moral imperative. I’ve read the passages in question, and I’m not seeing it. He describes a situation in which he would expect nuclear war to occur. Where, in any of his writings, has he gone beyond that and endorsed this nightmare end-game? In point of fact, he has publicly denied ever having done so. This places an especially strong burden on you to back up your accusation with incandescent clarity.
Obviously Sam’s nightmare scenario is relevant to real-world nuclear stand-offs. That’s why he’s talking about them! His fear of such eventualities is a large part of why he went to the trouble of writing The End of Faith. The point isn’t that he’s pretending his thought experiments have no bearing on reality. That would defeat the purpose of bothering with thought experiments even academically. The point, rather, is that he isn’t in any fashion endorsing nuclear genocide. Much less nuclear genocide as a supremacist mechanism for mass racial cleansing, as you suggest! That thing you keep saying happened — it never happened. No aspect of this charge of yours falls short of journalistic fraud.
I’ll agree with you that “War on Islam” may be a poor word choice on Sam’s part. It’s obvious in context that Sam intended this phrase to mean that the doctrines and traditions of Islam are in opposition to liberal humanistic values, that they are a major locus of calamity — compare “War on Drugs” or “War on Poverty”. It’s equally obvious that he didn’t mean this “War” to occur primarily through actual warfare and violence; in the main he is interested in a war of ideas, and the central thesis of The End of Faith is not that Muslims should be rounded up into death camps (as a reader of your over-the-top diatribe might come to believe), but that Muslims should be intensely criticized on all sides until the religion moderates itself.
A future in which Islam and the West do not stand on the brink of mutual annihilation is a future in which most Muslims have learned to ignore most of their canon, just as most Christians have learned to do.
No serious reader can miss this point. But “War on Islam” may lend itself too easily to confusion with a “War on Muslims”, much as “Islamophobia” is too easily confused with “Muslimophobia”. There are certainly rhetorical choices Sam’s made that I disagree with.
Regarding his position on torture and nuclear weapons use Sam would like us to suspend our normal, universal condemnation of these things and start considering their practical utility in certain circumstances. Given that he’d like to do this in the context of The War Against Islam he believes we should be fighting, there is only one group of people upon whom these things would then be visited. If we were killing smokers and drug users en masse and as a matter of policy, I could understand the analogy you draw. Given that we actually are killing Muslims in large numbers I find [this] to sound distastefully like a call for broadening the present scale of conflict.
That may be near to the truth regarding torture, but it is clearly just not the case regarding nuclear weapons. To my knowledge, there is not a single line in Sam’s writings that advocates the use of nuclear weapons. I’m honestly very surprised that you’re continuing to repeat this simply false claim, particularly since you could publicly retract the mistake without retracting your other claims.
The source of the lie that Sam endorses nuclear first strikes is a passage in The End of Faith where he describes a scenario in which he thinks that the United States would, for prudential reasons, conduct a nuclear first strike. Nowhere does he say that the U.S. should, for moral reasons, do such a thing. Rather, he calls it “an unthinkable crime” and “an unconscionable act” in that very passage. (Nor does he think a nuclear Iran or Pakistan qualifies as an example of the scenario he describes.)
The whole point of the nuclear scenario is that it’s an almost unimaginably nightmarish occurrence — he calls it “perfectly insane” and a “horrible absurdity“, again in the original passage — that we should do everything in our power to prevent. Yet, merely because Sam is the one making the argument (and because Chris Hedges has set a startlingly dishonest precedent for misreporting about it), you seem to feel some bizarre license to skew the evidence so that it fits the pattern of your other claims.
This, more than most of your other claims, clearly deserves a public retraction and correction. Please make it clear to your readers that the facts still matter. Make it clear that we can disagree profoundly, and criticize one another harshly, without indulging in distortions or misrepresentations at all. This is not a grey area.
I don’t think that Hedges is incorrect in his criticism of him. What Sam does in all these scenarios, whether it is with regards to the endorsement of torture, profiling or whatsoever, is to do a lot of faux-liberal hang-wringing before essentially saying it is terrible but may be necessary. There is no other way you could endorse the use of nuclear weapons in a contemporary scenario without making a big show of expressing grief and sadness over the prospect of it – and frankly it makes the end result (which has a practical basis in actual debates he is aware of) any different.
But Sam didn’t endorse the use of nuclear weapons. That claim is entirely false. You can repeat it any number of times and never see the iteration syphon from it its falsehood. No matter how convinced you still are that somewhere in his secret heart of hearts Sam Harris thinks we should nuke the Middle East, you at least owe it to your readers not to misrepresent Sam as ever having actually stated such a thing. Your interpretations and speculation need to be marked as such. Ditto for Hedges’.
You declared, as though it were fact: “[I]n the case of Muslims Harris has publicly stated his support for […] pre-emptive nuclear weapons strikes“. That statement is demonstrably false. It’s your duty to withdraw it, and it can only serve to make your criticisms of substance more credible if you replace this fabrication with an honest critique that nowhere misrepresents the evidence. (Such a critique can be made, so I see no reason to resort to anything less.)
When it was pointed out that Sam never “publicly stated his support” for anything of the sort, rather than revising your statement, you decided that he must have silently had that support in the back of his head while writing the passage.
When it is pointed out that he’s written about how horrific a nuclear holocaust would be and how important it is that we prevent it, you again retract nothing, but now add another ad hoc stipulation to your theory: He must be pretending to be horrified by the prospects of a nuclear apocalypse because he wants to trick his liberal friends into endorsing his secretly-held-but-never-actually-stated view.
… But Sam’s passage expressing moral disgust and horror at the possibility of nuclear genocide is the very passage — the only passage! — that made you think that Sam endorsed nuclear first strikes in the first place. Your hypothesis seems to have acquired an inertia of its own, enough to persist even when none of the original evidence remains. The problem isn’t only that the “publicly stated his support” part of your claim is false as a matter of public record. It’s that even if you replaced “publicly stated his support” with ‘once left implicit undertones of support’, you wouldn’t have any evidence for your interpretation that didn’t presuppose the truth of the interpretation.
In a very real sense this is what extremists of all persuasions do: 1) Posit an extremely dire scenario, 2) Argue that, though it may be painful and awful and transgress all limits it may be necessary to do terrible things in such a scenario, 3) Suggest that such a scenario is imminent. If point 3) did not exist in the form of raging debate around him (a debate of which he is both cognizant and a particularly odious partisan within) I’d say he doesn’t know what he is doing and is merely a hapless, honest academic who is being woefully understood. He isn’t that, and he is cynically manipulating his audience – including people like you – who are militantly committed to the idea that he speaks in good faith.
Because something is said in a more-sorrow-than-anger tone and is admitted to be evil (a concept which he doesn’t believe in so I’m not sure how he can claim to view it as mitigating) before being portrayed as potentially practicable doesn’t make it better, it makes it far, far worse by convincing people that it may in fact be palatable.
Huh? Sam believes in evil.
You don’t seem to be processing what I’m saying. Or what Sam is. The argument you’re sketching is ‘In certain dire circumstances, we should use nukes. Those circumstances are likely to occur. So we should be open to using nukes soon.’ This is very nearly the opposite of the point Sam made, which was: ‘In certain dire circumstances, it is likely that we would use nukes. Those circumstances are likely to occur, and if a nuclear first strike resulted it would be “an unthinkable crime“, an “unconscionable act“, a “horrible absurdity“. So we should do our best to prevent the use of nukes, by preventing the dire circumstances that could trigger them.’
‘Militant good faith’? … That’s a new one. I’m perfectly open to being shown that Sam is secretly a sadistic racist nationalist. I just want to see evidence. I don’t want to have to just take your word for it as an expert on Sam’s psyche. Your arguments so far are long on speculative exegesis and short on textual evidence.
Surely not every single Muslim would then be tortured or nuclearly-annihilated, but when viewed in context of his many other public statements on the matter it seems reflective of his conception as Muslims as fundamentally lesser humans to whom – when the need arises (like, right now, during this war, happening today) the normal standards of decency and human rights need not apply. Thus, we don’t need to feel very bad about Abu Ghraib and GTMO because perhaps there is a moral calculus (which Sam proposes) where such actions are not so bad after all. While we may have had to afford due process and to respect the “collateral damage” in past conflicts, in this one the same concern may perhaps be waived, as we’re doing what we need to do against a fanatically inhuman enemy.
What you have here is an empirical hypothesis about Sam’s motivations. You think that he endorses violence because he thinks of Muslims as subhuman, and violence toward dehumanized minorities is much easier to countenance.
The problem for this thesis is that a lot of the evidence you mustered in its support is demonstrably false or markedly misrepresented. To make sure that you aren’t continuing to endorse it out of habit even after the original grounds for it have been stripped away, we need to re-evaluate it and consider alternative hypotheses much more seriously. For example, you need good reasons to reject the following two hypotheses:
1. Generic callousness: Sam doesn’t consider Muslims subhuman. He’s just generally an aggressive and non-empathic person, one who has an easier time imagining and justifying violence than most people do. Islamist militants catch his attention because they’re an unusually obvious threat, but he’d be just as callous toward any other group that seemed dangerous to him.
2. A false model of religious psychology: Sam doesn’t consider Muslims subhuman. He just has one or two false beliefs: That Islam is unusually violent, and/or that people who follow religions tend to be strongly influenced by their faith’s doctrinal contents. If the former belief is extreme enough, then his endorsement of extreme responses is easy to understand even if he finds it nauseating to even have to consider such violence means. (Note that Sam has said he finds his own views on torture “deeply unsettling“!) That he would harbor the latter belief isn’t surprising, since he wrote a whole book arguing that metaphysical dogmatism drives the behavior of religious people.
Since the Qur’an is proportionally more violent than e.g. Christian and Hindu holy texts, it’s not surprising that someone reading it could arrive at an overly simplistic conclusion about its adherents’ views. But if sloppy ethnographic scholarship or a false model of the power of religious doctrine fully explains Sam’s overriding concern with Islam, why should we feel compelled to posit bigotry on his part as well?
Both of those hypotheses would allow you to continue criticizing Sam, and they seem generally consistent with your political views. They also helpfully explain why people who are neither sociopaths nor bigots, like Stanford Encyclopedia writers, can endorse Sam’s ethical views, and why people who are neither sociopaths nor bigots, like P.Z. Myers, can endorse Sam’s anti-Islam views. So why haven’t you seriously considered these or other hypotheses? Given that your confidence in your conclusion seems not to have been shaken by the loss of most of your cited evidence, I think you should seriously consider the possibility that you’re succumbing to confirmation bias here.
It sounds like you’re saying that your bigotry hypothesis predicts that Sam will try to justify or dismiss Abu Ghraib or GTMO. If so, this is another important disconfirmation of your view. Writes Sam, as early as 2007:
It is important to point out that my argument for the restricted use of torture does not make a travesty like Abu Ghraib look any less sadistic or stupid. I consider our mistreatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib to be patently unethical. I also think it was one of the most damaging blunders in the last century of U.S. foreign policy. Nor have I ever seen the wisdom or necessity of denying proper legal counsel (and access to evidence) to prisoners held at Guantánamo Bay.
You also pluck out of thin air the allegation that Sam downplays the harm of collateral damage. This broadcasts to me unavoidably that you truly haven’t done your research. Sam has written against the routine justification of collateral damage as viscerally as any other commentator today. Indeed, one of his main reasons for even raising the issue of torture was to highlight how comparably grotesque collateral damage is.
Two minutes of Googling would have revealed to you Sam’s views of collateral damage, GTMO, Abu-Ghraib-style abuse, and nuclear war. It honestly sounds in a lot of your arguments like you just haven’t taken the time to read this stuff. You have an image in your mind of the Archetypal Racist Neo-Con, and you’re increasingly succumbing to the habit of freely blurring the lines between this image’s hypothetical misdeeds and Sam’s actual words.
My previous post on the Sam Harris / Glenn Greenwald clusterfuffle was mostly procedural. I restricted myself to assessing the authenticity of Murtaza Hussain’s citations, barely touching on the deeper issues of substance he and Greenwald raised. But now that we’re on the topic, this is a great opportunity to pierce through the rhetoric and try to get clearer about what’s actually being disputed.
My biggest concern with the criticisms of Harris is that they freely shift between a number of different accusations, often as though they were equivalent. At the moment, the most salient seem to be:
A. He’s a racist, and has a racially motivated hatred of Muslims.
B. He has an intensely irrational fear and hatred of Muslims.
C. He has an intensely irrational fear and hatred of Islam.
D. His concerns about Islam are exaggerated.
E. He doesn’t appreciate just how harmful and dangerous the United States is.
F. He advocates militarism and condones violence in general.
I’d like to start disentangling these claims, in the hopes of encouraging actual discussions — and not just shouting matches — about them. Although I’ll use Harris and his recent detractors as a revealing test case, the conclusions here will have immediate relevance to any discussion in which people strongly disagree about the nature and geopolitical significance of Islamic extremism.
In “Scientific racism, militarism, and the new atheists“, Hussain focuses on [A], trying to pattern-match Harris’ statements to trends exemplified in 18th- and 19th-century pseudoscience. It seems chiefly motivated by the fact that Harris, like a number of historical racists, opposed the aims of a disadvantaged group and, well, is a scientist.
[T]he point of the post [I wrote] is not “Sam Harris is racist”. Indeed, as he accurately noted, he has a black Muslim friend. The point is that he conciously [sic] lends his scientific expertise to the legitimation of racist policies. He is also an avowed partisan and not a neutral, disinterested observer to these issues. .He [sic] is not speaking in terms of pure abstraction, and he is not as a scientist immune from the pull of ideology (as the racist pseudoscientists I compared him with illustrate). […]
Politics is my field, science is his field, and I would not make dangerously ignorant comments about neuroscience. He on the other hand feels little compulsion [sic] about doing the same politically and using his authority as a scientist and philosopher to justify the actions of those who would commit (and *have committed*) the most utterly heinous acts in recent memory.
I couldn’t care less about his atheist advocacy, I couldn’t care less if he blasphemed a million Quran’s [sic], what I care about is policies of torture and murder not being once again granted a veneer of scientific protection
I’d make three points in response. First, to my knowledge Harris has never made anything resembling the claim ‘I am a scientist, ergo my views on world politics must be correct’.
Second, although I grant that someone’s scientific background doesn’t automatically make her a reliable political commentator, experience with the sciences also doesn’t invalidate one’s future work in political or ethical theorizing. It’s possible to responsibly specialize in more than one thing in life. Moreover, interdisciplinary dialogue is a good thing, and there really are findings from the mind sciences that have important implications for our political tactics and goals. Blindly rejecting someone’s views because she has a Ph.D. in neuroscience is as bad as blindly accepting someone’s views just because she has a Ph.D. in neuroscience!
My third response is that Hussain’s attempt to backtrack from accusing Harris of racism is transparently inconsistent with his earlier statements. If he’s changed his mind, he should just say so, rather than pretend that his article is devoid of bald assertions like:
[T]he most prominent new atheists slide with ease into the most virulent racism imaginable. […]
Harris engages in a nuanced version of the same racism which his predecessors in scientific racism practiced in their discussion of the blanket characteristics of “Negroes”. […]
[Harris is in a] class with the worst proponents of scientific racismof the 20th century – including those who helped provide scientific justification for the horrors of European fascism.
That certainly doesn’t sound like an effort to maintain neutrality on Harris’ personal view of race, to merely criticize his support for “racist policies“. If such was Hussain’s intended message, then he failed rather spectacularly in communicating it.
In point of fact, I agree with Hussain and Greenwald that racism directed at Muslims is a very real problem, and that it really does lurk in the hearts of a distressingly large number of critics of Islam. (Harris agrees, too.) As Hussain rightly notes, the fact that Islam is not a race is irrelevant. It happens to be the case that most Muslims aren’t of European descent; and for most white supremacists, that’s enough.
The point here isn’t that it’s impossible to oppose Islam for bad reasons, including hideously racist ones. It’s that there may be good reasons, or bad but non-racist ones, to oppose Islam as well. In the case of Harris, we have no reason to think that any race- or skin-color-specific bias is responsible for his stance on Islam. All the undistorted evidence Hussain cites is only relevant to charges [B]-[F] in my above list. This is perhaps why Greenwald, who followed up with a much more measured article, sets the race issue aside before proceeding to make his case against Harris.
Following Greenwald, let’s momentarily bracket race. Is there any cause to be concerned more generally that the tone or content of criticism of Islam may be based in some latent fear of the foreign, the unknown?
Not in all cases, no. Plenty of critics of Islam have all too intimate and first-hand an understanding of the more oppressive and destructive elements of Islamic tradition.
But in some cases? In many cases? Perhaps even, to some extent, in Harris’ case, or in mine?
I’m just trying to be honest and open here, and do a little soul-searching. I’m trying to understand where writers like Greenwald and Hussain are coming from. I’m trying to extract my own lessons from their concerns, even if I disagree strongly with their chosen methods and conclusions.
I can’t 100% dismiss out of hand the idea that part of the explanation for the degree and nature of our aversion to Islam really is its unfamiliarity. That’s just human psychology: When apparent dangers are weird and foreign and agenty, we’re more attentive to them, and we respond to them more quickly, strongly, and decisively. I am woefully ignorant of what day-to-day life is like nearly everywhere in the world, and no matter how much I try to understand what it’s like to be a Muslim in different societal or geographic settings, I’ll never bridge the gap completely. And that ignorance will inevitably color my judgments and priorities to some extent. I hate it, but it’s true.
Although on introspection I detect no traces of ethnic animus or cultural bias in my own head — if I did, I’d have already rooted it out, to the best of my ability — I can’t totally rule out the possibility that some latent aversion to the general Otherness of Islam is having some effect on the salience I psychologically assign to apparent threats from militant Islamism. Being biased doesn’t feel a particular way. Particularly given that we’re hypothesizing small, cumulative errors in judgment (‘micro-xenophobia’), not some overarching, horns-and-trumpets Totalitarian World-View. Everyone on the planet succumbs to small biases of that sort, to unconscious overreliance on uneducated intuitions and overgeneralized schemas.
And to say that these sorts of errors are common, and are very difficult to combat, is in no way to excuse them. I’m not admitting the possibility so that I can then be complacent about it. If I am in fact systematically biased, then I could cause some real damage without even realizing it. It’s my responsibility as a human being to very carefully and rigorously test whether (or to what extent) I am making errors of this sort.
… But the coin has two sides.
It’s just as possible that the biased ones are the people whose criticisms have been quieted by their experience with the positive elements of Islamic tradition. It’s just as possible that generally valuable heuristics like ‘be culturally tolerant’ are resulting in a destructive pro-Islam bias (‘micro-relativism’?). It’s just as possible that small (or large) attentional and inferential errors are coloring the views of Islam’s defenders, making them ignore or underestimate the risks Harris is talking about. Benevolent racism is just as real as malevolent racism.
The take-away message isn’t that one side or the other is certainly wrong, just because bias or bad faith could account for some of the claims made by either side. It’s worthwhile to set aside some time to sit quietly, to try and really probe your reasons for what you believe, see whether they are as strong as you thought, place yourself in the other side’s shoes for a time. But a general skepticism or intellectual despair can’t rationally follow from that. Perhaps we’re all biased, albeit in different directions; but, given how high the stakes are, we still have to talk about these things, and do our best to become more reasonable.
Importantly, one thing we can’t automatically take away from a discovery that some person is being irrational or bigoted, is the conclusion that that person’s arguments or conclusions are mistaken. Someone’s reasoning can be flawless even if the ultimate psychological origins for his belief are ridiculous. And, for that matter, purity of heart is no guarantor of accuracy!
It’s not good enough to feel righteous. It’s not even good enough to be righteous, or have the best of intentions. We have to put in the extra hard work of becoming right. So, with that moment of reflection behind us, we must return with all the more urgency to determining the relationships between charges of ‘racism’, ‘Islamophobia’, ‘militarism’, and so on.
Perhaps the most repellent claim Harris made to me was that Islamophobia is fictitious and non-existent, “a term of propaganda designed to protect Islam from the forces of secularism by conflating all criticism of it with racism and xenophobia”. How anyone can observe post-9/11 political discourse in the west and believe this is truly mystifying. The meaning of “Islamophobia” is every bit as clear as “anti-semitism” or “racism” or “sexism” and all sorts of familiar, related concepts. It signifies (1) irrational condemnations of all members of a group or the group itself based on the bad acts of specific individuals in that group; (2) a disproportionate fixation on that group for sins committed at least to an equal extent by many other groups, especially one’s own; and/or (3) sweeping claims about the members of that group unjustified by their actual individual acts and beliefs. I believe all of those definitions fit Harris quite well[.]
The definition Greenwald constructs here seems rather ad-hoc, indeed tailor-made to his criticisms of Harris. It is not the ordinary definition of “Islamophobia”; its parallelism with sexism, anti-semiticism, homophobia, and clinical phobias is unusually tenuous; and it certainly isn’t the definition Harris had in mind when he criticized the term. Greenwald’s clause (3) is uselessly vague: if I made sweeping and unjustified positive claims about Muslims, that would surely not make me an Islamophobe! Adding his clauses (1) and (2) helps, but the focus on a subminority’s “sins” or “bad acts” is a complete red herring; if no Muslims had ever done anything truly wrong, Islamophobia would still be possible.
Let’s attempt a more to-the-point and generally applicable definition. If I’d never seen the word before, I’d probably expect “Islamophobia” to mean an unreasonable, pathological fear or hatred of Islam. And it’s often used that way. But it’s also used to mean an unreasonable, pathological fear or hatred of Muslims — as Greenwald’s puts it, “irrational anti-Muslim animus”. (For a historical perspective, see López 2010.)
Already, this duality raises a serious problem: Writers like Harris happily identify as anti-Islam, but strongly deny being anti-Muslim. If “Islamophobia” is used to conceal leaps between criticisms of Islam (as an ideology or cultural institution) and personal attacks on Muslims, then it will make inferences between [B] and [C] in my list above seem deceptively easy.
The best summary I’ve seen of potential problems with the term “Islamophobia” comes from Robin Richardson, a seasoned promoter of multiculturalism and education equality. He writes:
The disadvantages of the term Islamophobia are significant. Some of them are primarily about the echoes implicit in the concept of phobia. Others are about the implications of the term Islam. For convenience, they can be itemised as follows.
1. Medically, phobia implies a severe mental illness of a kind that affects only a tiny minority of people. Whatever else anxiety about Muslims may be, it is not merely a mental illness and does not merely involve a small number of people.
2. To accuse someone of being insane or irrational is to be abusive and, not surprisingly, to make them defensive and defiant. Reflective dialogue with them is then all but impossible.
3. To label someone with whom you disagree as irrational or insane is to absolve yourself of the responsibility of trying to understand, both intellectually and with empathy, why they think and act as they do, and of seeking through engagement and argument to modify their perceptions and understandings. […]
7. The term is inappropriate for describing opinions that are basically anti-religion as distinct from anti-Islam. ‘I am an Islamophobe,’ wrote the journalist Polly Toynbee in reaction to the Runnymede 1997 report, adding ‘… I am also a Christophobe. If Christianity were not such a spent force in this country, if it were powerful and dominant as it once was, it would still be every bit as damaging as Islam is in those theocratic states in its thrall… If I lived in Israel, I’d feel the same way about Judaism’.
8. The key phenomenon to be addressed is arguably anti-Muslim hostility, namely hostility towards an ethno-religious identity within western countries (including Russia), rather than hostility towards the tenets or practices of a worldwide religion. The 1997 Runnymede definition of Islamophobia was ‘a shorthand way of referring to dread or hatred of Islam – and, therefore, to fear or dislike of all or most Muslims’. In retrospect, it would have been as accurate, or arguably indeed more accurate, to say ‘a shorthand way of referring to fear or dislike of all or most Muslims – and, therefore, dread or hatred of Islam’.
Crucially, Harris isn’t claiming that there’s no such thing as anti-Muslim bigotry. He isn’t even claiming that no one criticizes Islam for bigoted reasons. Instead, his reasons for rejecting “Islamophobia” are:
Apologists for Islam have even sought to defend their faith from criticism by inventing a psychological disorder known as “Islamophobia.” My friend Ayaan Hirsi Ali is said to be suffering from it. Though she wascircumcisedas a girl by religious barbarians (as 98 percent of Somali girls still are)[,] has been in constant flight from theocrats ever since, and must retain a bodyguard everywhere she goes, even her criticism of Islam is viewed as a form of “bigotry” and “racism” by many “moderate” Muslims. And yet, moderate Muslims should be the first to observe how obscene Muslim bullying is—and they should be the first to defend the right of public intellectuals, cartoonists, and novelists to criticize the faith.
There is no such thing as Islamophobia. Bigotry and racism exist, of course—and they are evils that all well-intentioned people must oppose. And prejudice against Muslims or Arabs, purely because of the accident of their birth, is despicable. But like all religions, Islam is a system of ideas and practices. And it is not a form of bigotry or racism to observe that the specific tenets of the faith pose a special threat to civil society.
These are identical to Richardson’s concerns 1 and 8. Harris objects to rhetorical attempts to blur the lines between attacks on Islam and attacks on Muslims, particularly without clear arguments establishing this link.
More, he objects to dismissing all extreme criticism of Islam using the idiom of clinical phobias, because he doesn’t think extreme criticism of Islam is always unreasonable, much less radically unreasonable. If harsh critiques of Islam are not deranged across the board, then demonstrating [D] ‘His concerns about Islam are exaggerated.‘ will not suffice for demonstrating [C] ‘He has an intensely irrational fear and hatred of Islam.‘, independent of the fact that neither establishes [B] ‘He has an intensely irrational fear and hatred of Muslims.‘
Greenwald says that he deems Harris “Islamophobic”, not because Harris criticizes Islam, but because Harris criticizes Islam more than he criticizes other religions. But he gives no argument for why an anti-religious writer should deem all religions equally bad. It would be amazing if religions, in all their diversity, happened to pose equivalent risks. And neither racism nor xenophobia can explain the fact that Harris opposes Islam so much more strongly than he opposes far less familiar religions, like Shinto or Jainism. As Harris puts it,
At this point in human history, Islam simply is different from other faiths. The challenge we all face, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, is to find the most benign and practical ways of mitigating these differences and of changing this religion for the better.
Ockham’s Razor suggests that we at least entertain the idea that Harris is just telling the truth. He’s unusually critical of Islam because his exegetical, psychological, and geopolitical assessment of the doctrines, practices, and values associated with contemporary Islam is that they’re unusually harmful to human well-being. He could think all that, and be wrong, without ever once succumbing to a secret prejudice against Muslims.
There remains the large dialectical onus of showing that Harris’ most severe criticisms of Islam are all false, and the far larger onus of showing that they are, each and every one, so wildly irrational as to rival sexism, homophobia, or clinical phobias. If these burdens can’t all be met, then resorting to immediate name-calling, to accusations of bigotry or malice, will remain profoundly irresponsible.
The fact that there are cases where criticisms of Islam are manifestly ridiculous, without the slightest basis in scripture, tradition, or contemporary practice, does not change the fact that “Islamophobia” is rarely reserved for open-and-shut cases. The accusation is even employed as a replacement for substantive rebuttals, as though the very existence of the word constituted a reason to dismiss the critic of Islam!
If there’s one thing contemporary political discourse does notneed, it’s a greater abundance of slurs and buzzwords for efficiently condemning or pigeonholing one’s ideological opponents. As such, although I’m happy to grant that Islamophobia exists in most of the senses indicated above, I am not persuaded that the word “Islamophobia” is ever the optimal way to point irrational anti-Muslim or anti-Islam sentiment out.
I’ve focused on “Islamophobia”, but I doubt that’s the real issue for Greenwald or Hussain. Instead, I gather that their main objection is to Harris’ apparent defenses of U.S. foreign policy.
Would Greenwald and Hussain consider it a positive development if Harris demonstrated his lack of bias by equally strongly endorsing a variety of other U.S. military campaigns that have no relation to the Muslim world? Surely not. Greenwald’s complaint is not that Harris is inconsistently bellicose or pro-administration; it’s that he’s bellicose or pro-administration at all. Likewise, for Hussain to fixate on whether policies like war or torture are “racist” is to profoundly misunderstand the strength of his own case. Even if they weren’t racist, they could still be grotesque atrocities.
In my comments, Hussain commended biologist and antireligious activist P.Z. Myers for criticizing Islam without endorsing violence. (Greenwald has also cited Myers, with wary approval.) But Myers claims to “despise Islam as much as Harris does” (!). Writes he:
I would still say that Islam as a religion is nastier and more barbaric than, say, Anglicanism. The Anglicans do not have as a point of doctrine that it is commendable to order the execution of writers or webcomic artists, nor that a reasonable punishment for adultery is to stone the woman to death. That is not islamophobia: that is recognizing the primitive and cruel realities of a particularly vile religion, in the same way that we can condemn Catholicism for its evil policies towards women and its sheltering of pedophile priests. We can place various cults on a relatively objective scale of repugnance for their attitudes towards human rights, education, equality, honesty, etc., and on civil liberties, you know, that stuff we liberals are supposed to care about, Islam as a whole is damnably bad.
It is not islamophobia to recognize reality.
If we admit that Myers’ view of Islam is not manifestly absurd or bigoted, then we must conclude that the entire discussion of racism, xenophobia, and Islamophobia was a red herring. It is Harris’ pro-U.S., pro-Israel militarism that is the real issue.
It doesn’t take nationalism, imperialism, sadism, or white supremacism for two otherwise reasonable people to disagree as strongly as Greenwald and Harris do. Given how messy and complicated religious psychology and sociology are, different data sets, different heuristics for assessing the data, and different background theories are quite sufficient.
The simplest explanation for Harris’ more “unsettling” (as he puts it) views is that he…
(a) … thinks religious doctrines often have a strong influence on human behavior. E.g.:
Many peoples have been conquered by foreign powers or otherwise mistreated and show no propensity for the type of violence that is commonplace among Muslims. Where are the Tibetan Buddhist suicide bombers? The Tibetans have suffered an occupation every bit as oppressive as any ever imposed on a Muslim country. At least one million Tibetans have died as a result, and their culture has been systematically eradicated. Even their language has been taken from them. Recently, they have begun to practice self-immolation in protest. The difference between self-immolation and blowing oneself up in a crowd of children, or at the entrance to a hospital, is impossible to overstate, and reveals a great difference in moral attitude between Vajrayana Buddhism and Islam.[…] My point, of course, is that beliefs matter.
(c) … thinks that if Islam is a significant source of violence, then the best way to respond is sometimes militaristic.
Greenwald strongly rejects (b), claiming that singling out Islam for special criticism is outright bigoted. He may also doubt (a), inasmuch as he thinks that militant Islamism is fully explicable as a response to material aggression, oppression, and exploitation. Myers, on the other hand, grants (a) and (b) but strongly rejects (c). In all these cases, rational disagreement is possible, and civil discussion may lead to genuine progress in consensus-building.
Accusing Harris of harboring a special anti-Muslim bias would be a useful tactic for discrediting his policy analysis overall. But I think Greenwald and Harris are botharguing in good faith. Why, then, has Greenwald neglected such a simple explanation for Harris’ stance? Unlike Hussain, Greenwald isn’t a sloppy or inattentive reader of Harris.
My hypothesis is that Greenwald is succumbing to the reverse halo effect. It’s hard to model other agents, and particularly hard to imagine reasonable people coming to conclusions radically unlike our own. When we find these conclusions especially odious, it’s often easiest to imagine a simple, overarching perversion that infects every aspect of the other person’s psyche. Certainly it’s easier than admitting that a person can be radically mistaken on a variety of issues without being a fool or a monster — that, here as elsewhere, people are complicated.
Judaism is as intrinsically divisive, as ridiculous in its literalism, and as at odds with the civilizing insights of modernity as any other religion. Jewish settlers, by exercising their ‘freedom of belief’ on contested land, are now one of the principal obstacles to peace in the Middle East. They will be a direct cause of war between Islam and the West should one ever erupt over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Perhaps his views are quite off-base. But they are not cartoonish, and he has argued for them. His opponents would make much more progress if they spent as much time on rebuttals as they currently do on caricatures.
The innumerable sins of the United Statesmay be relevant to the pragmatics of (c), but recognizing these sins should not automatically commit us to dismissing (a) and (b). Likewise, writes Harris:
[N]othing about honestly discussing the doctrine of Islam requires that a person not notice all that might be wrong with U.S. foreign policy, capitalism, the vestiges of empire, or anything else that may be contributing to our ongoing conflicts in the Muslim world.
There are lots of ways to reject Harris’ doctrine (c). Myers makes a pragmatic argument (improving lives, not destroying them, mitigates dogmatism) and, I gather, a principled one (pacifism is the most defensible ethos). Greenwald might add that who we’re relying on to prosecute the war makes a vast difference — that enhancing the power and authority of the U.S. would have more costs and risks than Islam ever did, even if Islamic extremism were a serious threat.
Those aren’t utterly crazy positions, and neither is Harris’. I can say that, and endorse civil open discussion, even knowing that whichever side is the wrong one is very, very, very wrong — and that the future of human happiness, liberty, and peace depends in large part on our getting this right.
It is precisely because the question is so important that we must not allow public disagreement over the answer to degenerate into banal mud-slinging. It is precisely because our biases — be they micro-xenophobia, micro-relativism, or the halo effect — threaten to vitiate our reasoning that we must put our all into practicing self-criticism, open-mindedness, and level-headed discourse. And it is precisely because our intellectual opponents, if wrong, threaten to do so much harm, that we must work every day to come to better understand them, so that we can actually begin to change minds.
It is not an easy task, but the need is great. If we’re serious about the underlying problems, and not just about scoring points in verbal debates about them, then there is no other way.
From the beginning, when atheos meant ‘impious’ or ‘profane’, atheism has been about more than just whether you happen to believe in gods. Both the godly and the not-so-godly seem drawn to viewing atheism as something of much deeper import. Hence few are surprised when the ‘New Atheists’ feel no need to limit themselves to sitting in a circle and discussing how very much they all lack belief in Izanagi and Huitzilopochtli. Reconceiving atheism as a symptom or symbol of scientific skepticism, these New Atheists find just as much to rebuke in godless dogmas like Stalinism, and in all forms of caustic unreason, as they do in the worship of incorporeal intelligences.
Once atheism starts to connote anti-dogmatism, rifts will inevitably emerge as non-theists disagree internally about which ideas are unreasonable, are ‘dogmas’. Sometimes these rifts lead to healthy debate, personal growth, and a renewed commitment to clear thinking. Whether ‘Atheism+’ will go down that path depends crucially on how its early proponents frame the discussion.
Atheism+ is a very new proposal by Jen McCreight and the Freethought Blogs community. Just as New Atheism was implicitly atheism plus skepticism, ‘Atheism+’ is atheism plus skepticism plus humanism. There are a number of different reasons for this coinage.
1. The new new atheists want to persuade other open-minded atheists to apply their skepticism to social biases and prejudices, not just to supernatural claims.
2. They want a banner under which to coordinate discussion and activism concerning important social ills. Many atheists (including ones who dislike the label ‘humanist‘) already have an interest in these topics, and want to create a safe space that explicitly allows and encourages skeptical discourse outside the domain of myth and magic. Atheism+ can be seen as a convenient label for better orchestrating and linking practices that many ‘atheist’ organizations already routinely engage in.
3. Pursuant to building a safe space, they want to exclude people looking to harass other atheists. They don’t want to cut off reasoned disagreement; but they do want to leapfrog inane controversies over decisions as simple as instituting anti-harassment policies at conferences.
Notice that these are three profoundly different goals. They may all be complementary in the long haul, but if we forget their distinctness, we risk conflating them and thinking that 3 is about excluding all dissenting voices, not just bullies. Unpacking these goals also makes it clear that there is a tension between 1 and 2. Holding separate meetings so you can focus more closely on a specific shared interest is fine, but if you go too far in this direction you’ll end up abandoning your first goal, which was to gradually move the entire skeptical movement in the direction of activist humanism, bridging the gap and sealing the rift between these two strains of irreligious thought. […]
Here are my three proposals.
1. Define Yourselves.
It isn’t always crazy to let a term’s usage evolve naturally out of people’s amorphous intuitions. But in an already acrimonious environment, it’s asking for trouble. People listen most to those they agree with; when we strongly and consistently disagree, we tend to ignore or misinterpret each other. Thus each faction begins to converge upon a different definition, each new ambiguity compounding both the number of disputes and the difficulty and uselessness of resolving any one of them!
This is a case where artificially selecting your terminology will serve you far better than letting different, incompatible conceptions bubble up all over the place. Some degree of miscommunication, of course, is unavoidable. But it will be far easier to combat if there exists a fixed meaning to appeal to somewhere.—and if you plan to actually build an organization called ‘Atheism+’, you certainly have a right to decide what you mean when you use that term!
Notice that a definition is not a creed. Indeed, clarifying what Atheism+ is is one of the best ways to clarify what it isn’t—that it isn’t a set of doctrines, for example. […]
2. Be An Umbrella.
Your goals of attracting supporters and converting critics are both better served when you build bridges than when you burn them. And you’ll need a whole lot of help from existing humanist, secularist, and other activist organizations if you want to be seen as the Next Big Thing and not just as another escalation in the petty infighting that’s already been driving people away from the movement.
[… I]t might be wise to have two different terms for the organization and the larger movement, both for rhetorical and organizational purposes. I’d recommend treating ‘Atheism+’ as a single organization and using a totally different term—say, third-wave atheism—for the broader grassroots movement combining New Atheist methods with humanist values. This would encourage unbelievers who object to ‘Atheism+’ as a label, but share its concerns, to work with Atheism+ and propagate its memes. The third wave could grow into a loose coalition or federation of independent groups that regularly collaborate on charity drives, social activism, and other activities beyond the bounds of secularism. A distinction of this sort would insulate Atheism+ from concerns that it considers itself the only game in town, while also insulating third-wave atheism from any A+-specific baggage or ill will. Seems like a win-win.
3. Learn To Persuade.
Atheism+ has a rhetoric problem. A serious one. Your opponents, of course, share this fault. But I care more about helping Atheism+ achieve its goals, so I care more right now about critiquing and enhancing you plussers’ tactics and discursive habits.
This deserves its own post, but for now I’ll focus on just one key point: Name-calling kills thinking.
It doesn’t matter whether the name happens to be apt. It doesn’t matter how frustrated you are, or how entertaining your closest associates find the barb. Making a personal attack servesnone of your aims. It doesn’t persuade, it alienates spectators, it offers us no real psychological insights, and it lowers the quality of discourse in general. You could spend all day writing a subtle and sublime exposition of the true meaning of charity, but if you end with a footnote denouncing the people who disagree with you as “douchebags” or “assholes”, nearly all of your effort will fall on deaf ears. It is terrifyingly inefficient to rouse the fight-or-flight response of an already wary audience. It doesn’t even matter whether the people you intended to dismiss are the same people you anger; your mere choice of tone and word will reliably short-circuit our lizard brains, making us likelier to see enemies and battles instead of teaching opportunities.
Anger yields anger. Lizard thinking breeds lizard thinking. Treating people as enemies, rather than as students or collaborators, creates new enemies. More and more, these patterns choke off real understanding and debate. More and more, you find yourselves scaring away fence-sitters where you should be calmly enlightening them. You must put a complete end to your part of the cycle.
If you do not do this, I shudder at the loss. There are too many opportunities here, too many conversations long overdue, to let the more ancient and intemperate parts of all our brains ruin it for us.