Robert Wright vs. Sam Harris

Showdown at the CfI conference in LA--here. Or below, if it works.


Faust said...

Sweet. I'll listen to this while I clean my office. Does this mean the accomodationist/new atheist stuff is somewhere?

Jean Kazez said...

"There is no analogous groupishness to atheism." --Sam Harris


Faust said...

"never do I imagine that people should all speak about these things they way I do that clearly would get lots of people killed." -Sam Harris


Faust said...

One point that Harris made that I think is strong, and one of my chief sympathies with new atheism is the question "why do we feel it is acceptable to mock so many ideologies aggressively (facism, racism, etc) but not to bring this same forceful critique to relgiion." It seems to be that hashing out this question is one of the areas where new atheism has some strong legitimate claims.

s. wallerstein said...

Generally, Faust, religious ideologies, unlike racism or fascism, are fairly innocuous.

The problem with religion is not the ideology (which is generally harmless or even positive: love thy neighbor, etc.), but the praxis.

On the other hand, racism and fascism are nefarious both as ideologies and as praxis. The Bible contains a lot of wisdom,
poetry and decent ethical commands (if you're into divine commands and some people are), while Mein Kampf is just hateful dreck.

Faust said...

Right I get that, BUT, there are cases...say with the Catholic Church and recent scandals, where it seems that they get more cultural leverage out of simply being "a religion" than they would if they were a secular organization that had similar...ahhh..."internal problems."

There is something to this point. I'm not sure how far I think it goes, but there is something to it. Sometimes just "being a religion" gets you a pass in ways that other social groupings wouldn't. We might, for example, be more OK with pissing off Iran in particular, than muslims in general.

s. wallerstein said...

Ok, but the Catholic Church does not advocate child abuse by priests, while Nazis do advocate
killing Jews and gays. The ideology of the Catholic Church condemns child abuse.

Religions do get a free pass, because a lot of people see religious ideologies as positive.

After all, if you add up the 10 commandments and the Sermon on the Mount, you get a working ethical code for the unthinking masses. Take away the 10 commandments and the Sermon on the Mount and maybe the masses are going to return to worshipping the golden calf or to watching gladiator shows or to a Hobbesian state of nature.

Now we all agree that it would be better if the masses were to throw off the chains of dependence and reflect on ethical questions, becoming model Kantians or consequentialists or Aristotelians.

Is that going to happen? Who knows?

Until we are surer about what will happen with the masses if we throw the 10 commandments and the Sermon on the Mount and their Islamic equivalent (see Kristoff's religious quiz in today's NYT) in the trash can of history, prudence dictates giving religion, if not a free pass, at least the benefit of the doubt.

Faust said...

And that gets us into the whole, "how do secularists source the good" issue. Because religions are also source values that liberal democracies want nothing to do with. We want to say yes to "love they neighbor" but no to "God hates fags."

There is something in there (in his comparison of religion with North Korea), that I want to get on board, I just haven't figured out quite what it is yet.

s. wallerstein said...

I wouldn't compare any mainstream religion, including Catholicism, with North Korea, but I'd be willing to compare mainstream religious ideology with Marxism or even Marxism-Leninism. North Korea is a perversion of Marxism-Leninism just as there may be some marginal fanatic sects which pervert mainstream religions.

Marxism-Leninism and Christianity: in theory, a lot of positive ethical principles. Good intentions. Dogmatism.
A certain blindness to human nature, which perhaps tends to lead to the perversion of their original good intentions.

Still, I'd tend to trust a militant Marxist-Leninist or a Catholic priest rather than a person whose ethical principles come from TV reality shows, tabloids or their online equivalent and the subliminal and not so subliminal messages of the advertising industry.

In Bolivia almost 35 years ago, I traveled together for a week or so with a dogmatic Swedish Maoist.
I generally prefer to travel alone, but this guy's self-discipline, sense of purpose,
and of fairness led me to share a room with him. Most of the other
backpackers in Bolivia were either in search of coca/cocaine or their
inner Inca. Between the later group and the Maoist, I'll pick the Maoist any day.

By the way, speaking of travel experiences, one of the few intelligent conversions I've ever had with a seat partner on an airplane was with a Catholic priest, a Jesuit.

Jean Kazez said...

I think "North Korea" was Sam Harris's best point, but it did have an answer.

On the whole--go Wright. I thought he was terrific. Sam was the man for 2005, but I think I would elect Wright (and Mooney) secularists in chief for 2010.

s. wallerstein said...

Might it not be more appropriate to compare mainstream organized religion to Cuba than to North Korea?

North Korea is an especially sinister totalitarian state, where not only is all dissent suppressed and all heresy punished, but also the masses of people often go hungry, lack basic social services.

In Cuba, as in organized mainstream institutions, such as the Catholic Church, critical thinking is out of the question, dissent is punished, but in terms of standarized tests, the educational system is the best in Latin America (the Catholic Church runs some good schools and universities); everyone has basic medicalcare (Catholic charities do good work);
and everyone eats.

Even a religious organization as fanatical as Hamas is known for its capacity to deliver basic social services and medical care to the population, free of charge, something which apparently does not always occur in North Korea.

It seems to me that North Korea is an extreme case of a repressive, uncaring, totalitarian state and that comparing all other instances of intellectual repression to North Korea is a rhetorical trick.

Jean Kazez said...

He didn't compare religion to North Korea. He asked why we must be so careful when talking about Islam, if it's OK to openly criticize North Korea.

s. wallerstein said...

1. Criticizing North Korea is ok, as is criticizing Al Qaida or the Talebans. They are all dangerous, and in the case of North Korea, have atomic weapons.
They are "our" enemies. What's
more, they are enemies, with whom
it is impossible to negotiate. They are not reasonable in any sense.

2. Islam as a whole is not "our" enemy. We have a complex relationship with Islam, and Islam
is very sensitive to criticism, but if we treat Islam with prudence and diplomacy, we may be able to make friends or at least to live and let live with Islam. Islam constitutes 30% of humanity (inexact figure), and we are going to have to learn to deal with it peacefully.

3. North Korea is not a viable state and is going to auto-destruct or collapse sooner or later. Cuba, the only other remaining communist state, is already opening up to market reforms and some political liberalization and North Korea will have to follow or disappear.
That is, when I criticize North Korea, I'm giving a little push to the process of auto-destruction.
However, Islam, far from destroying itself, is the fastest growing religion. It's better to seek agreements with Islam, and you can't seek agreements with Islam if you mock it or criticize it.

Faust said...

Well let’s dial this back a bit, because there are two separate issues with North Korea.

1. North Korea is a place where people are made to suffer by virtue of the way the society is structured.

2. North Korea is a place where people have the strange beliefs of a cargo cult, believe that Dear Leader has magic powers etc.

Sam's point is more focused on 2. That people have no problem mocking the delusional beliefs perpetrated/accepted regarding Kim Jong Il's powers. But they do have a problem mocking the delusional beliefs of the Pope, beliefs which we should regard as equally delusional. Really this is just a fancier version of the old "fairies in the garden" argument we get to hear again and again but here it is hooked up to something considerably more sinister than bonus fauna in the back yard.

Based on the preceding discussion in this thread I suppose one answer to why there is this division is because we see (some) positive outputs from traditional religions, and no positive outputs from Kim Jong Il's special brand of magical thinking. Which means that it comes squarely back to pragmatism. All are largely agreed that the Pope does IN FACT have a large mass of delusional beliefs, but that these beliefs do more good than harm and therefore on a utilitarian analysis should be accepted. OR that in some cases critiquing religion (say...Islam) will result in violent reaction and therefore again on a utilitarian analysis...more harm than good.

So is it the case that there is little disagreement here outside of how to proceed pragmatically?

And is it not ironic that if this is that case that the argument is really about how to best obtain widespread wellbeing? So YES we should feel free to attack Kim Jong Il on all fronts because there is no side to playing nice, but NO we should not attack “Religion” on all fronts because it’s not clear where we may wind up shooting ourselves in the foot?

s. wallerstein said...

Right. However, I don't see the irony.

Relations between states are always governed by pragmatic concerns, unless the degree of evil becomes intolerable. That is, it is hard to find a just war besides World War 2, given that the Nazis represent an extraordinarily degree of evil.

Why? First of all, war is an evil, which should be avoided in almost all situations.

Second of all, democratic countries have a poor track record at winning wars and at picking quarrels in far off lands. Maybe they play too nice. It took Stalin to beat Hitler. The U.S. military, for all its fake macho posturing, hasn't won a war since besides Grenada, Panama and "liberating" Kuwait. Winning a war means playing really dirty, and Obama isn't up to that, which, I consider, is one of his virtues.

Third, we are discussing ethics on our computers on this Monday afternoon (a holiday in Chile and anyway, I'm recuperating from surgery) because,
among other reasons, Saudi Arabia, a fundamentalistic Islam state, guarantees our supply of petroleum and hence, our standard of living which allows us to spend our days arguing about ethics against of digging ditches or harvesting rice by hand. That's one more pragmatic reason not to shoot ourselves in the foot, as you say.

s. wallerstein said...

That should read "instead of digging ditches". Thanks.

Unknown said...

It seems like Robert Wright's central thesis -- that religion is per se neutral-- is pretty vacuous. In fact he doesn't really try to defend it here, but instead switches to arguing that it's pragmatically unwise to attack religion. Very strange-- did he actually expand on this idea at book length? It doesn't appear very well thought through.

Maryann Spikes said...

The is-ought fallacy (Hume) is a real fallacy, and is why knowledge is justified, true belief (Plato). In order to be knowledge, a belief must both be justified by the evidence, and true by correspondence. If we consider justified a belief that only corresponds, we commit the is-ought fallacy. If we consider a belief true merely due to evidence in favor of it, we commit the ought-is fallacy.

Related to moral truth--if a justified (answering the question of Ethics--"How and why should we be or behave with the Other and self?") moral standard doesn't describe anything in reality, to consider it "true" commits the ought-is fallacy. If we take something from reality and call it moral truth, neglecting to consider whether it is justified (answering the question of Ethics), we commit the is-ought fallacy. In order for there to be moral truth, it must both correspond to (a) real being, and it must be justified (answering the question of Ethics). Its correspondence is not its justification (is=/=ought), and its justification is not its correspondence (ought=/=is).