Harris, Pinker Join the Party

Sorry for the lack of blogging. Such are the vicissitudes of academic life. Piles of free time one week, crazy busy the next.

The fallout over Jerry Coyne’s recent article in TNR continues. Sam Harris and Steven Pinker have now contributed responses. Both are excellent. Click here and scroll to the bottom. Harris goes for the sarcastic approach:

It is a pity that people like Jerry Coyne and Daniel Dennett can’t see how easily religion and science can be reconciled. Having once viewed the world as they do, I understand how their fundamentalist rationality has blinded them to deeper truths. I’ve wanted to say to both of these men–“Some things are above reason. Way above!” Happily, George Dyson has done this for me in a brilliant essay on this page. He demolishes the intellectual pretensions of militant atheists like Coyne and Dennett in the most elegant way imaginable: by merely divulging the title of a 17th century work by the great Robert Boyle. When I was a militant neo-rationalist, I had a sinking feeling that my colleagues and I had not fully reckoned with Boyle on the argument from Design and were, as a result, risking public humiliation. Now it has come to pass…

If I have one quibble with Dyson, it is that he has been far too modest in drawing out the implications of his argument. He is, of course, right to declare that “science and religion are here to stay.” But magic is here to stay too, George; Africa is full of it. Is there a conflict between scientific rationality and a belief in magic spells? Specifically, is there a conflict between believing that epilepsy is a result of abnormal neural activity and believing that it is a sign of demonic possession? Dogmatists like Coyne and Dennett clearly think so. They don’t realize, as Dyson must, that the more one understands neurology, the more one will understand–and honor–demonology. Have Coyne and Dennett read the work of sophisticated magicians like Aleister Crowley or Eliphas Levi? Don’t count on it. Ask yourself, how could matter conflict with spirit in any way? Answer: it cannot. Forgive me, but I find it embarrassing to have to explain these things to people who are supposed be well educated.

You can say what you want about Sam Harris, but the man knows how to write. Go read his entire (lengthy) essay. There are a few places where I think he overdoes it, but most of his points are spot on.

Steven Pinker also states it plain:

Jerry Coyne applies rigorous standards of logic and evidence to the claims of religion and to the attempts to reconcile it with science. Many scientists who share his atheism still believe that he is somehow being rude or uncouth for pressing the point. But he is right to do so. Knowledge is a continuous fabric, in which ideas are connected to other ideas. Reason-free zones, in which people can assert arbitrary beliefs safe from ordinary standards of evaluation, can only corrupt this fabric, just as a contradiction can corrupt a system of logic, allowing falsehoods to proliferate through it.

Quite right.

Comments

  1. #1 The Science Pundit
    February 5, 2009

    I can’t decide which is better: Sam Harris’ (yes, that’s how I use the apostrophe) response here, or PZ’s classic The Courtier’s Reply.

  2. #2 386sx
    February 5, 2009

    Harris nails it again. How do we determine which superstition is more “worthy” than the other superstitions? There is no way to know unless their “god” speaks up and actually says something for once. (Yawn.) Even if their “god” did speak up and “reveal” itself, why the hell take its word for it? All religions are all a bunch of lame special pleaders.

  3. #3 Robert O'Brien
    February 5, 2009

    I can’t decide which is better: Sam Harris’ (yes, that’s how I use the apostrophe) response here, or PZ’s classic The Courtier’s Reply.

    They are both equally worthless. Incidentally, Harris must have written his vapid response in between trips to the astral plane.

    Pinker is also worthless, btw.

  4. #4 smijer
    February 5, 2009

    My comments on this dust-up are here.

    I side against Coyne, et al, on the specific substantive question, though there are some important points made on the New Atheists’ side.

  5. #5 JimV
    February 5, 2009

    I thought Harris’ was easily the most interesting read (and coincidentally–or not–the one I most agreed with), but since it was a response to previous posters, I would like to see the debate continued with a chance for the other posters to reply.

    I wasn’t sure which side Lisa Randall was coming down on. I think she was saying, “The magical-thinkers ye will have with you always,” but couldn’t tell if she considered that good, bad, or neutral.

  6. #6 Strider
    February 5, 2009

    I got a big laugh out of some of the early comments on Harris’ piece. Some thought he was serious; there was also some amusing confusion over RD’s use of the term “I’m an atheist but-heads”. I’d have to say that, while I often agree with Lawrence Krauss, I think he’s way off on writing that “there is too much ink worrying about the question”.

  7. #7 Tyler DiPietro
    February 5, 2009

    There’s evidence and fact based beliefs and then there is magic and superstition. The question of whether these two things are “compatible” seems to take one or more of the following forms.

    1. Whether one can harbor some of the former and the latter at the same time.

    2. Whether an individual can function in a professional capacity within the former while adhering, to some extent, to the latter.

    3. Whether it is intellectually honest to accept the method of the former while harboring the latter, again to a certain extent.

    I’d have to say that the most targeted discussion concerns the third one above, and I come down on the side of Coyne, et al. However, it should be pointed out that none of the answers to these questions changes the fact that the two sets described above are disjoint. In my mind, more discussion should center around reasons why the first is inherently superior.

  8. #8 AL
    February 5, 2009

    Reason-free zones, in which people can assert arbitrary beliefs safe from ordinary standards of evaluation, can only corrupt this fabric, just as a contradiction can corrupt a system of logic, allowing falsehoods to proliferate through it.

    Reason-free zones don’t have to corrupt the fabric if they are completely isolated from it, as in having no logical implications or connection to the rest of your knowledge base. The highly technical, esoteric term for this is “meaningless.”

  9. #9 valhar2000
    February 6, 2009

    Robert O’Brien wrote:

    They are both equally worthless.

    R. Lee Ermey ? Is that you?

  10. #10 anon
    February 6, 2009

    Michael Shermer mentions your Monty Hall book in the February _Scientific American_. See the letters section, page 12.

  11. #11 Caliban
    February 6, 2009

    Al wrote: “Reason-free zones don’t have to corrupt the fabric if they are completely isolated from it, as in having no logical implications or connection to the rest of your knowledge base. The highly technical, esoteric term for this is “meaningless.””

    Except that you deleted this line from the beginning of Pinker’s statement you were quoting from: “Knowledge is a continuous fabric, in which ideas are connected to other ideas.” He’s talking about Knowledge: things we claim to know about the universe (facts).

    -Not personal, subjective expressions and preferences (Thai food is the best!) that are not directly attached to the fabric of knowledge, unlike religious claims about the origin & nature of the universe which are.

  12. #12 gillt
    February 6, 2009

    (lit. geek alert)
    Colson Whitehead could learn a thing or two about how to write parody from Harris.

  13. #13 AL
    February 6, 2009

    Caliban,

    Well yes, in that sentence he’s talking about knowledge. In the next — the one I quoted — he’s talking about arbitrarily asserted beliefs, which don’t have to be connected to the rest of your knowledge base. To the extent they are, they would corrupt it. To the extent they aren’t, they would be meaningless.

  14. #14 Explicit Atheist
    February 6, 2009

    Posted by: AL | February 6, 2009 7:08 PM

    “Well yes, in that sentence he’s talking about knowledge. In the next — the one I quoted — he’s talking about arbitrarily asserted beliefs, which don’t have to be connected to the rest of your knowledge base. To the extent they are, they would corrupt it. To the extent they aren’t, they would be meaningless.”

    The problem I see here is something like this: Those people who commit themselves to arbitrarily asserted beliefs not connected to the rest of our knowledge base inevitably claim that their ideas are meaningful. By virtue of their clinging to those beliefs while refusing to recognize the meaningless nature of their content they are failing to properly distinguishing between unjustified beliefs and justified beliefs.

  15. #15 Raymond Minton
    February 7, 2009

    I have to say, I’m in agreement with Coyne, Dennett, and Pinker on this (as much as I admire Sam Harris.) In the doctrinaire sense, you can’t reconcile science and rational thought with the (to say the least) implausible claims religion makes. There’s no reason even to proclaim the existence of a generic, non-denominational God, because life is explicable in non-supernatural, perfectly chemical terms. To paraphrase Napoleon’s mathematician, we have no need of that hypothesis.

  16. #16 Explicit Atheist
    February 7, 2009

    I think its fair to say that for almost 100% of theists one of the key arguments they have for their theism is that god belief provides explanatory utility – it explains what otherwise is unexplained, and therefore theism is rational. Furthermore, since that explanation provided by the god hypothesis is usually claimed to be total explanation for “everything”, such theism must ipso facto be connected to all of our knowledge base. But that explanatory value added assertion is just vacuous, the god concept is like spinning wheels, it is a mere declaration lacking any explanatory substance that advances us not an ioata toward explaining anything, precisely because it in fact has no connection to the rest of our knowledge base, and I think this is the key insight that theists just keep missing.

  17. #17 John Landon
    February 9, 2009

    Is Sam Harris on the level? He seems to be twice sarcastic, and the joke is on the science public.

    http://darwiniana.com/2009/02/09/is-sam-harris-on-the-level/

  18. #18 film izle
    May 20, 2009

    I’d have to say that, while I often agree with Lawrence Krauss, I think he’s way off on writing that “there is too much ink worrying about the question”.

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