Saturday, October 30, 2010

Video for Halloween

I just finished this video about my son. It was fun playing with apple's imovie. 

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Harris's mythology betrays him

I have been reading Stanley Hauerwas's The Peaceable Kingdom. It washes my soul after the subjection of gunk thinking it received from reading Sam Harris's The Moral Landscape. What I like about Dr. Hauerwas's book is how he, rightly in my opinion, locals ethics in both who we are and the story we tell about ourselves. It made take notice of the narrative that fuels Harris's writing as well as my own.

I view my life inside a greater story of God's story with mankind. Jesus, as the incarnate God, establishes his relationship with us out love. His relationship opens a door for us to transcend our base self center illusionary self, into what God created us to be. God does so by Jesus' life, death and resurrection. Salvation comes Jesus.

Sam Harris views history as the fight of humans to free themselves from superstition and religion through science and reason. His myth comes from an old enlightenment reading of history and popular during the Victorian age. The story was popularized in my youth by Carl Sagan and his Cosmos series on PBS. The irony is that this mythological story has more to do with belief than with historic fact. The story upholds evidence and reason, but then it has to ignore it. Example is Sam Harris strange use of the history of Slavery. He chastises Christianity for getting slavery wrong and then points to some passages in the bible. Slavery, he claims, is the easiest moral judgment and Christianity got it wrong. All pretty damning, if it weren't for history. Both the movement to end the slave trade in Brittan and slavery in this country were movements led by Christians who cited their faith as the reason for their opposition to slavery. These movements were founded by Charismatic movements like Quakers, Methodist and others. Most of the enlightened figures around that time were absent from this movements. For Sam Harris to say Christianity got it wrong can only come from his narrative and not from the evidence. The seeds of his mythology misled him.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Reaction to My Book Review of Sam Harris's The Moral Landscape

I received this email from Mark Triplett about my book review of Sam Harris's The Moral Landscape. I though he made some very important points.

I linked over to read your review of Sam Harris' book and wanted to tell you I thought you did an excellent job. I saw Sam Harris in an interview recently and wasn't impressed. I was going to read his book to prove to my friend that I am an "open-minded" Christian but I think you-plus other reviews I have read- have spared me that exercise. My hope was that the book would offer a scientific link between, what you reference as, the is and the ought (I am not very familiar with Hume so that will be my next venture). I've read enough critiques of religion, in general, that I don't need more examples of how humans have abused religion. I also feel that scientific materialism is a religion in-and-of itself, whose biggest problem is explaining absolute morality, and I was hoping this book attempted to do that. It seems we're stuck with moral relativism for the time being (if we want to rid ourselves of God, I should say).

 Atheist like to think that they are the truly intellectually honest and are leaving there options open until more perfect knowledge becomes available and maybe they find "proof" of God (I would argue that this is agnosticism, but maybe the distinction is irrelevant). Back to the interview, Sam Harris said he couldn't believe in the God of the Bible because of his disagreement with slavery in the Bible and not being able to reconcile slavery with an all-knowing, all-loving God. Non-starters like this show a lack of depth of the understanding of slavery in early history and the Bible and a willful ignorance in not exploring it more. As a person who has taken on the task of being able to "give reason for the hope that is within (me)" it is hard to hear of someone giving up on God so easily.

It seems to me that atheism has famous supporters like Harris, Hitchens, and Dawkins that have turned more into anti-theists who critique religion more than use there own worldview to solve philosophical problems. It appears that Harris has failed to do so again. Science/evolution/materialism has, to many, rid us of the need for religion as an explanation of what we are or how we came to be, but is still looking answers to the why's and the where's. I'll stick with God, thanks, because he does provide answers as to why we are here and where we go from here (in life and beyond). Mene mene tekel upharsin. For me, science has been weighed and found wanting.

Again, congrats on the nice piece of writing that I would not have been able to conjure up and thanks for the good read.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Sam Harris’s Brave New World A book review:The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values

I start my day with a cup of coffee with a teaspoon of cinnamon. Recent evidence points to cinnamon helping to reduce the chance of diabetes. Also, I am not alone in having current research change my daily living, whether it is talking cinnamon or how I disciple my young son, scientific findings effects sexuality, diet, parenting, relationships, and almost all areas of human living that once was thought of as the exclusive realm of religion. Sometimes we follow the advice of scientists to our chagrin.

This should be news to Dr. Sam Harris, the popular naysayer of religion. Science, according to his latest diatribe against religion, The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values, has had little impact on the way we live our lives because science refuses to make moral judgments, principles and values. It, under the spell of David Hume, has forgone its responsibility in guiding human ethics, leaving it to religion. Dr. Harris tries to make the case that science should be in the business of telling us how we should live our lives with a metaphor of a landscape. Peaks are those places where human well being is found and the valleys are places of religion (though he does not implicitly say religion, only most of his examples of ethical valleys tend to come from religion and we are directed to such inferences).

One does have to admire Dr. Harris’s courage to go against three hundred years of philosophical history, though the distinction between the foolhardy and courageous is, sometimes, hard to make. He, it should be noted, does not so much go against the last three hundred years as he, more often than not, chooses ignores it. He briefly acknowledges it by which he thinks it allows him to wave his hand in a “your fired” manor. Those expecting an analysis of metaethics or a clear methodology for the founding of a moral science will be sorely disappointed. He relies on emotion responses from his readers over clear cut cases of moral outrages like North Korean leadership oppressing his people or Muslim suicide bombers.
His argument in The Moral Landscape is a simplistic updated form of utilitarianism. Instead of greatest good, Dr. Harris substitutes the term, “well being.” By this he is hoping to avoid the problems of classical utilitarianism. Though, truly, the target is less in finding a basis for morality, than indulging in what made him famous, ad hoc and non sequitur attacks on Christianity and Islam. He begins and ends with a very dramatic claim that seems to rely on stereotypes and not evidence. Quote:

For nearly a century, the moral relativism of science has given faith-based religion—that great engine of ignorance and bigotry—a nearly uncontested claim to being the only universal framework for moral wisdom.

For him, religion makes the claims for moral certainty and secular science up until Dr. Harris, has settled for a defaulted moral relativism. He makes spirited attacks both on moral relativism and religious dogmatic morality, like when he tells us of walking away, cue bowed head sadly shaking at such ignorance, from a conversation in which another secular woman scholar chided him for calling acid throwing Taliban evil. Her point was that there are cultural conditions to moral judgments, but after being pushed to the extreme by Dr. Harris, she advocated a repugnant moral relativism. He is as correct for judging her morality harshly in similar fashion we would find the advocacy of nuclear genocide based on a bad understanding of theology or thinking I am abuse my toddler son by telling him Jesus loves him. The fact that these are extremes and that few intelligent people are at either poll does not deter Dr. Harris in his battle. Nor does the evidence for his claim has as much validity as the flying spaghetti monster deter Dr. Harris.
His claim comes from his own bias and his Manichean splitting of the world into the Children of the Light, rational science believers, and the Children of the Dark, irrational religion types. The problem for Dr. Harris is the existence of ethics departments both within and without religious and science institutions. If Dr. Harris were valid in his assessments, neither Notre Dame nor MIT would need ethics departments, Notre Dame because all ethics has been codified and all one had to do is consult the code, and MIT because science has nothing to do ethics, therefore no need for a department asking moral questions. The concept of wrestling with moral issues seems far from Dr. Harris’s Manichean reasoning. The isness of ethics departments gets in the way of the oughtness of his arguments.

One, reading his book, would expect a full critique of Hume’s is/ought distinction, either in a whole a chapter or section at least. Yet, the taking Hume out to the philosophical woodshed is lacking in The Moral Landscape. Hume is introduced and then dismissed with a bold declaration of disagreement as if Hume whole argument were a flavor of ice cream. If, the reader is guided to speculate, Dr. Harris disagrees with Hume that should be enough. His engagement of Hume’s argument occurs just three times, the above introduction, and then later he points out Hume was arguing against Religious types and, by implication, science should exempt. Finally, in an endnote, he quotes fellow celebrity atheist, Daniel Dennett’s attempt to answer Hume. Dennett tries his ice walk in socks against Hume, saying values have to be found on something. The ought has to be formed by the is, for that is all we have. Yet, if science only describes what is and what is only says what is and not what ought to be, and values come from what we believe ought to be, then is and ought still are divided. Dr. Harris provides no bridge between the two other than to treat Hume’s logic as an opinion to differ. Dr. Harris, in other words, abandons logic if it gets in the way of his beliefs.

It is enlightening to read a neo-prophet of pseudo-enlightenment dismiss Hume’s powerful logical argument with such flippant disregard for reason. But, Dr. Harris is less concern with ethics and more concern offering a catalog of various crimes done in the name of religion. He has so many examples from Afghanistan Taliban throw acid on women’s faces to a small group, claiming to be Christians, who killed a young boy and carried him around in a suitcase. There are tales of horrors for the prurient tastes, though none involving science. There is no retelling of the Dr. Josf Mengele experiments on twins in Auschwitz. Nor is there any talk of Tuskegee experiments that allowed poor share croppers die of syphilis to analysis the course of the disease. These experiments were done in the name of science and were inline with the scientific method for finding data. Most of us recoil morally from these examples as we do from the ones Dr. Harris cites. Of course, such evil done in the name of science does not invalidate science. Science research tends to be morally neutral. Science is about data and finding patterns despite what we believe about nature. If science calls into question out dogmatically held views, them we should at least examine them.

While he does not take on Hume, he spends several pages on his tired tirade against Dr. Francis Collins, the current head of National Institute of Health. Dr. Collins, by his very existence as a believing scientist, offers a direct evidential challenge to Dr. Harris worldview. Dr. Collins’s crime of publishing his beliefs as beliefs and not as science in his The Language if God makes Collins, for Dr. Harris, the very form of a bogyman. Dr. Harris claims that Dr. Collins commented intellectual suicide by bridging science and faith. News to anyone following NIH, as Dr. Collins has had a very successful first year, but again evidence does not stop Dr. Harris ranting on the dangers of faith. He then links Dr. Collins to Dr. John Polkinghorne theological writings. Dr. Harris points out that to his ear Polkinghorne’s writing sounds like the Alan Sokal hoax so it must then meaningless. By this same logic, the Pitdown Man hoax should invalidate Evolution. The whole of the book continues under the religion hurts human well being, while science increases human well being. He never entertains that religion helping human well being could be a finding of science.

The other person only dealt with in Dr. Harris’s endnotes is neuroscientist Dr. Andrew Newberg. Finding his research there should be a surprise. It shows an awareness of Dr. Newberg work, but an unwillingness to engage its most damning element to Dr. Harris’s thesis. What if practicing religion increases human wellness? Dr. Newberg work may provide a link between better health and spiritual experiences. The fact that Dr. Harris must be aware of this premise and yet chooses not to confront it say more about his methodology than his own arguments. He only considers evidence that supports his thesis and ignores evidence that challenges his position. Bad science makes for good copy for the choir of atheists willing to open their wallets to purchase this latest denouncement of religion

Dr Harris toward the end of his book provides a slim view of what he has in mind with a discussion on the psychology of human happiness. He makes some startling claims from current research. Humans are less happy as parents, even though they think they would be happier as parents. Also, being parents gets in the way of the work of contributions to society. Quote:

However, most of the research done on happiness suggests that people actually become less happy when they have children and do not begin to approach their prior level of happiness until their children leave home. Let us say that you are aware of this research but imagine that you will be an exception. Of course, another body of research shows that most people think that they are exceptions to rules of this sort: there is almost nothing more common than the belief that one is above average in intelligence, wisdom, honesty, etc. But you are aware of this research as well, and it does not faze you. Perhaps, in your case, all relevant exceptions are true, and you will be precisely as happy a parent as you hope to be. However, a famous study of human achievement suggests that one of the most reliable ways to diminish a person’s contributions to society is for that person to start a family.

The solution may be to outsource parenting. We can begin to imagine the future as Dr Harris. Maybe make factories of human beings were we could steer the babies of great promise, let us call them Alphas, into being the overlords of science. One could easily see a category of five levels: Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta, and Epsilon. If one can synthesize a new drug, for now call it Soma, that could produce euphoria in the level of brain without any side effects, then it would increase human flourishing. We would, of course, keep areas were primitive humans would live for entertainment and research like say in present day New Mexico. Science would dictate to us what makes us happy, there would be no need for human autonomy outside the ruling science class of Alphas. The population could be contained to two billion or so. There would be no need for Shakespeare, Dostoevsky and certainly not the Bible. Dr. Harris’s beloved science (please do not confuse it for real world science, this is a religious faith) would be all that we would need. There would be no more wars, no more religions, no more suffering, no more freedom, no more human beings. What a Brave New World Dr Harris has in mind for us.

Monday, October 18, 2010

The Anti-Ode to Monday Blues

Here is a poem of boredom. Why do we have so many poems of other experience and not boredom? After all, boredom is where most of life takes places. It was fun writing and why I solved my boredom problem.

The Anti-Ode to Monday Blues Poem

Ah, we have poems of love,
Poems of hate, poems written
For glory and poems praying
to God. We have poems that takes
Us for a walk and clean up
Our messes, the plastic crinkling
On the pavement, all the while
We sniff around the daisies,
Or other places. We have
Poems to delight us, to punish
Us, poems that play
Fetch, Kvetching poems that
Dogs us in the middle nights
or dog days of Summer.
We lap up poems
of religion, poems spirituality,
of poems of greed. Atheists
want poems too, but ones
like stuff animals that really are
not living. They settle for pit bull
poems of science.These poems
don't pray, either. They whine
like their paws, black with gray streaks,
were stuck with splinters.

But where, where, where
Are the poems of boredom?
The Monday poems of getting
Back to the office? Poems
Of our lives of waking up
To early and missing our families?
Where are the poems
Of the mythical creatures
That excite no one.I am bored
and call out to the lost one, call out
to those hit by the passing car
and forgotten. 

Unwanted puppies of an unwanted liter,
Boredom poems neither calls us
To cry out to God, or
Demand action. Graceless,
They dry our spirit. Poems
Of boredom are not prayers.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Sam Harris stacks the Moral Deck

Sam Harris has written a new book, The Moral Landscape. Having read it in the last few day, I come away with respect for Harris, not in his logic, but in his rhetoric. Take his examples of a Bad Life and a Good Life. Quote for his life:

The Bad Life
You are a young widow who has lived her entire life in the midst of civil war. Today, your seven-year-old daughter was raped and dismembered before your eyes. Worse still, the perpetrator was your fourteen-year-old son, who was goaded to this evil at the point of a machete by a press gang of drug-addled soldiers. You are now running barefoot through the jungle with killers in pursuit. While this is the worst day of your life, it is not entirely out of character with the other days
of your life: since the moment you were born, your world has been a theater of cruelty and violence. You have never learned to read, taken a hot shower, or traveled beyond the green hell of the jungle. Even the luckiest people you have known have experienced little more than an occasional respite from chronic hunger, fear, apathy, and confusion. Unfortunately, you’ve been very unlucky, even by these bleak standards. Your life has been one long emergency, and now it is nearly over.

The Good Life
You are married to the most loving, intelligent, and charismatic person you have ever met. Both of you have careers that are intellectually stimulating and financially rewarding. For decades, your wealth and social connections have allowed you to devote yourself to activities that bring you immense personal satisfaction. One of your greatest sources of happiness has been to find creative ways to help people who have not had your good fortune in life. In fact, you have just won a billion-dollar grant to benefit children in the developing world. If asked, you would say that you could not imagine how your time on earth could be better spent. Due to a combination of good genes and optimal circumstances, you and your closest friends and family will live very long, healthy lives, untouched by crime, sudden bereavements, and ther misfortunes.

Talk about stacking the deck. There are several questions. What if the Good Life of the second helps keep the Bad Life of the first in place. The green jungle hell is kept a hell because of the natural resources of the jungle, say oil, are easier to exploit in chaos of the civil war. The oil companies who keep fanning the flame of the civil war are the same that fuel the comfort and wealth of the Good Life? The same oil wealth  that allows the Good Life in the second cause the misery of the Bad Life. The billion dollar grant, some of which comes from the same oil company, of the second helps with temporary services for the first, but it does nothing more to keep in the woman of the Bad Life in servitude. In fact, most of the money has been appropreated by the same people who kidnap the 14 year old and turned him into rapist and murder in the first place. The woman of the first example does have another connected to the woman of second example. The Bad Life woman has a distant relative who is paid under the table to look after the children of one of  Good Life woman's friends. And though the relative has to work long hours with no benefits and is always at the beck and call of her boss, a spoiled trust funder who really does care for children, the relative counts herself lucky not living in the green hell, caused in large part by the Good Life in which she lives at the fringes of. 

Would the woman in the second example even be aware of her relationship to the first? Can there be a Good Life on the back of oppression? Would the second really be a moral peak, as Sam Harris really wants it to be?

Unfortunately, my little addendum to Sam Harris's example is closer to the truth than his little stacked account.