Tag Archives: Sam Harris

Critics of the New Atheists and the curious case of Vridar’s Neil Godfrey

voldemort The Islamic reformer Maajid Nawaz calls it the “Voldemort effect”: we must follow Obama’s lead and refer to “extremism” and never mention that we actually mean “Islamist extremism”. For most people, the idea that Islamist theology contributes to the extremist nature of Al-Qaeda and ISIS is obvious. But, to others, this idea is anathema. Since criticism of ideas can be misinterpreted (deliberately?) as condemnation of people, any critique of Islamist ideology can be disallowed and dismissed as “racist”. For wanting to reform his own religion, Maajid Nawaz has, bizarrely, been labelled an “Islamophobe”.

New Atheists such as Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Sam Harris get called worse. Many people delight in denigrating New Atheists whenever they can, accusing them of everything from a lack of scholarship to being unthinking “fundamentalists”.

At this point, let’s state the blatantly obvious. The causes of ISIS-style extremism are never simple, with multiple factors always being involved. As Nawaz and Harris agree in this recent discussion, the factors leading someone to become radicalised are multiple, and some of them are: (1) Western foreign policy and interventions in Muslim-majority countries; (2) their own personality; (3) their friends, social groups and exposure to radical preachers; and (4) their theology and their interpretation of their theology. The combination of all such factors, and more, is important. It would be quite wrong to say that any one of these factors, by itself, would always lead to violent extremism. Human beings are never that simple.

If one is a critic of US foreign policy, as many liberals are, one might tend to discuss and emphasize the role that US foreign policy plays. If one is a critic of religion, as New Atheists are, one might tend to discuss and emphasize the role that religion and theology play. That is all fair.

The problem comes from those who want either to exonerate religion entirely, or just to sneer at New Atheists for the sake of it. Such a person might then claim that Western foreign policy is the only relevant factor leading to Al-Qaeda and ISIS, and that the presence of religion is irrelevant. Continue reading

The Sam Harris Moral Landscape Challenge: Part 2

Sam Harris’s Moral Landscape Challenge had a 1000-word limit, and thus to accompany my entry I’ve written this additional (and rather longer) piece, essentially a response to Harris’s Response to Critics article. This piece is best read after my first part and is intended to clarify where I agree and disagree with Harris. Indeed I do agree with Harris on much, probably more so than many of his critics. However, I consider that Harris goes wrong in hankering over the label “objective” to stamp on his account of morals, and that this gets him into a mire while gaining little. Continue reading

My entry for Sam Harris’s Moral Landscape Challenge

Sam Harris has issued an essay challenge, calling for 1000-word pieces that try to refute the main thesis of his book The Moral Landscape, essentially the idea that morals are objective facts about human well-being. Here is my entry (with some bits similar to my previous posts on the topic).

“Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution”, wrote Dobzhansky, and we can’t understand morality except as part of our biology, programmed into us by evolution to do a job. That job is to facilitate cooperation. Morality is a social glue that enables us to collaborate with our fellow humans and so benefit from a highly cooperative way of life.

Evolution had long programmed feelings and emotions into us (hunger, fear, disgust, love, satisfaction, pain, etc) so it adapted that mechanism to police our interactions. Thus we have notions of loyalty and comradeship, and treachery and ostracisation, of fairness and exploitation, of pride and shame, punishment and forgiveness.

Morals are opinions about how people should should treat each other; morality is our feelings and emotions about inter-human behaviour.

These feelings do not reflect any deeper and more objective reality about how we “should” behave or treat each other. Why would they? Evolution has no such concern; all that matters for evolution is whether someones moral feelings assist cooperation and enable them to leave more descendants. Even if there were such a thing as “objective” morals evolution would not care one hoot about them and thus they would bear no relation to how we feel, to our evolutionarily-programmed sense of morality. Continue reading

Massimo Pigliucci’s critique of New Atheism and scientism

The philosopher Massimo Pigliucci is a vocal critic of “New Atheism” and of scientism. He has recently written a paper in Midwest Studies in Philosophy analysing “New Atheism and the Scientistic Turn in the Atheism Movement”. Parts are interesting and insightful, though unfortunately at times it strays into sneering, rather than disagreeing with and arguing against people. As a proponent of both “new” atheism and scientism I’m writing this response.

Pigliucci states that the defining characteristics of “New Atheism” (a term coined by the media, by the way, not by the “New Atheists” themselves) are, first, popularity (hurrah!), and, second, that: “the New Atheism approach to criticizing religion relies much more force-fully on science than on philosophy”. This is perceptive, and indeed some New Atheists have been scornful of philosophy.

Pigliucci remarks on the “scientistic turn” of the atheist movement, and offers:

Scientism here is defined as a totalizing attitude that regards science as the ultimate standard and arbiter of all interesting questions; or alternatively that seeks to expand the very definition and scope of science to encompass all aspects of human knowledge and understanding.

The second of these definitions is close to the mark, though I’d phrase it rather that all “human knowledge and understanding” is ultimately empirical, that there are no known demarkation lines where rules of evidence and reason stop applying, and that we can call this evidence- and reason-based exploration of empirical reality “science”. Thus to the extent that philosophy or any other discipline produces well-founded answers it is part of the same seamless ensemble of knowledge called “science”. Continue reading

Richard Carrier’s argument for objective morals — redux

The Sam Harris morality challenge is leading to a flurry of blog posts. I recently disagreed with a post by Richard Carrier arguing that morals are objective. In a brief discussion in comments on his blog Carrier suggested that I read his chapter Moral Facts Naturally Exist, from the compilation The End of Christianity, where he presents his argument more fully. Having now read that work, and also noting Carrier’s second post on the topic, I return to the theme and expand on my disagreement with Carrier.

To start, I’ll declare that I do agree with Dr. Carrier on several major issues. For example, I agree with Carrier’s statement:

What will maximize the satisfaction of any human being in any particular set of circumstances, as those circumstances would be understood by that human being if they were reasoning non-fallaciously from only true beliefs about themselves and the world, is an empirical fact that science can discover.

Secondly, I agree that any “ought” statement needs to be of the form: “if ones goal is X then one ought to pursue action Y”, where science can tell us that action Y tends to lead to goal X. Carrier gives the example: “If you want your car to run well, then you ought to change its oil with sufficient regularity”.

Dr. Carrier then asserts: “Therefore the claim “you can’t get an ought from an is” is demonstrably false”. To be clear here, the “is” is the existence of the desire, the “I want my car to run well”, not merely the “I have a car”. Thus one is getting the “ought” from the existence of a goal, the desire.

Subjective versus objective morality

My first objection is over whether Carrier’s system amounts to objective morals (as he claims) or whether it gives subjective morals. Continue reading

On Richard Carrier’s argument for objective morals

Sam Harris, in his book The moral landscape, argued that morals are objective, and he has recently issued a challenge inviting people to refute him. Richard Carrier supports Harris’s claim, though prefers his own formulation of it.

I regard morals as subjective rather than objective so want to address Carrier’s argument. I summarise that argument here, though note that I am re-ordering it and partially paraphrasing. Carrier gives a series of propositions:

1. Humans attempt to achieve satisfaction with their life.
2. What will maximize such satisfaction is an empirical fact that science can discover.
3. Such things are often common across humans.

I agree on all 3 points so far. “Satisfaction” here should be interpreted broadly, as a well-being that gives emotional satisfaction and contentment. It’s also true that humans worldwide are very similar, and that what will lead to contentment overlaps strongly between humans. Note, though, that people also differ in their personality, and can have different preferences.

Carrier’s argument then continues with: Continue reading

What are “laws of physics”?

In Sam Harris’s interview with Lawrence Krauss, regarding Krauss’s new book “A Universe from Nothing” (I haven’t read the book yet, it’s on order), Sam asks:

“You have described three gradations of nothing — empty space, the absence of space, and the absence of physical laws. […] Might it not be easier to think about the laws of physics as having always existed?”

Thinking about physical laws like this, as “entities” that can have existence in their own right, is widespread, but in my opinion fundamentally misguided. It seems to regard “laws of physics” as an underpinning “structure” that directs and controls physical matter. If this were true then it would make sense to ask whether “physical laws” have always existed. But if physical laws “exist” in this sense then what are they made of? How do they interact with matter? How do they effect their actions?

That train of reasoning is ill-founded. Physical laws are not entities with existence in their own right, they are simply descriptions of how matter behaves. The “laws” governing a fundamental particle are simply a summary of the nature of that particle and its behaviour when interacting with other particles. Oxford Dictionaries defines the scientific use of “law” as meaning:

Law: (3) a statement of fact, deduced from observation, to the effect that a particular natural or scientific phenomenon always occurs if certain conditions are present.

You can no more have “laws of physics” existing independently of matter than you can have a “description of X” independently of “X”. Thus if matter exists then you can have a description of it (= “laws”). But if there were no matter there could not be a description (and thus one could not have pre-existing “laws”).

To illustrate this let’s take a fundamental physical law, namely conservation of momentum, the fact that summed over all particles the total momentum never changes. Since a force can produce a change in momentum (Newton’s Second Law), this requires that every force be matched by an equal and opposite force (Newton’s Third Law), such that overall forces cancel and momentum stays constant. Continue reading

Science can answer morality questions

The claim is so often made that it has become a cliche: “Science cannot tell you what you ought to do”. The mantra that morality is a domain to which science has no access is oft-repeated by the religious, anxious to demark some sphere where religion can reign, free of irritating demands for evidence.

Such attempts to limit science’s scope are often accepted by scientists, notably Steve Gould’s tribe of NOMAds, who divide the world’s knowledge into “non-overlapping magisteria”, among which science is only “one way of knowing”. Any suggestion that science applies everywhere is derided as “scientism”. Indeed, some, such as C.S Lewis and Francis Collins, will go further, and argue that the inability of science to explain morality is an argument for God.

Yet, to many scientists, the world doesn’t seem to be divided into different spheres, with clearly demarked no-go zones where science’s methods suddenly cease to work and science comes to a shuddering halt. For example there is no clear divide between biology and chemistry, only a seamless transition that we call biochemistry.

And, if the world is seamless, then, for any question knowable to humans, science is the tool for knowing the answer (or, stating the same less provocatively, any tool that produces such an answer is a tool under the broad umbrella of science, using the same methods that work elsewhere in the seamless realm of knowledge).

So, can science answer questions about morality? Yes it can. After all, moral judgements by humans are a feature of the natural world and so are just as accessible to science as other aspects of the natural world.

The suggestion to the contrary arises principally from a fundamental confusion about what morality is, such that moral questions are often ill-posed. To explain why science can indeed answer moral questions I thus need to start with explaining morality. Continue reading