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Death March of the Fallacious Arguments

Posted at Salon, in response to this interview with Sam Harris:

If there’s one certainty, it’s that any interview with or article about Sam Harris is guaranteed to provoke an overactive response in the letters column. The second certainty is that such a feature will draw out all the worst arguments and misconceptions held by the majority of the population. Even many of those who consider themselves ‘intellectual’ waffle and cower at Harris’ bold observations.

Their bad arguments still retain emotional potency, simply because they have gone unchallenged for so long. But that doesn’t make them any more valid than they ever have been. The vehemence of the response should tell us something. Most respondents in this column have misquoted or misrepresented what Harris is saying. Because if they actually read his book, or even the entire interview, they would realize that he has already addressed and defeated their arguments before they even write them.

This is all to be expected. Humanity is reaching the first stages of introspection, self-examination, and understanding of objectivity. As Harris said, it may prove to be impossible for humans to be objective, or to ever comprehend the relationship between consciousness and matter. But that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t make the effort. We should never short-circuit that process by jumping to false and inadequately investigated conclusions.

There’s a lot of name-calling going on in this column, and most of it is coming from those who are deathly afraid to even discuss their cherished notions. It would seem logical that if a person’s faith was strong, they would support efforts to investigate the subject of their faith. If they were confident, there could be no reason not to investigate. This is about as simple a statement as could be made. Instead, the greater the insecurity, the shriller the response.

As a scientific naturalist, I don’t have to worry that water will someday be found to not be composed of two atoms of hydrogen bonded to an atom of oxygen. People can investigate this claim all day, all year, and all century. About the only thing that may be added to the claim may be that we gain a better understanding of the substructure of atoms, or how they may prove to exist in other dimensions, or a multiverse. But for all practical purposes, a naturalists’ worldview can accept and tolerate investigation. Because even if at some point water molecules were determined to have a different structure in a different dimension or some such thing, it would still not change what would then become a special case of a theory. This is how Newtonian mechanics were eventually realized to be a subset of general relativity.

The point here is that science is a fundamentally different enterprise. It is not a belief system. It does not answer to people’s preferences. This is what seems to bother a lot of the letter writers. It’s also the reason there are so many thousands of belief systems and offshoots of belief systems. Everyone is simply trying to remake the universe in their own image. Belief in god can be seen as equivalent to wanting to BE god. Think about these relgious arguments, broken down by category:

  • Authority–It’s so, because I say it is.
  • Authority–It’s so, because a book says it is.
  • Ignorance–It’s so, because we can’t prove it isn’t so.
  • Result–It’s so, because if it weren’t so, the world would be in chaos.
  • Popularity–It’s so, because people have shown throughout history that they need it and want it.

Every one of these ignores any independent verification of fact, and sets up the claimant as a petty tyrant and/or god in their own little universe of desire. It would be one thing if there were any general epistemic agreement. But there is not. There are thousands, if not millions of little ‘gods.’

Apologists often say things like: What would god have to do to make you believe in him? Ignoring the obvious sexism of this statement, the answer is this: “Anything that shows that physical laws of the universe can be capriciously violated by a personality who exists beyond the reach of such physical laws.”

The key word in the above definition is “capriciously.” Because all sorts of natural phenomena seem to violate certain laws. But the process of science then investigates the mechanism behind the seeming violation, and we thus find out a little more about our universe. This is the only process that can generate real knowledge. It can be painstakingly slow, and many people simply don’t have the patience for it.

It is a certainty that humans represented a step up on the evolutionary ladder from other animals. We are capable of self-reflection. But that doesn’t stop the process from scaring the hell out of most of us. It’s a little like I imagine it was at first when we stood up and walked on our hind legs. I’m sure it took many thousands of generations before we stopped dragging our arms as primates still do.

Sam Harris is a strong advocate for human evolution. And that evolution will continue no matter how much arm-dragging the religious do. Absent a (most likely religious-based, or environmental) catastrophe, we are simply certain to make it to the next level. Then everyone will wonder what all the superstition and fuss was about. I only wish we could avoid all the unnecessary carnage in the meantime.


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