Saturday, April 15, 2006

The End of Faith by Sam Harris

The End of Faith, by Sam Harris, takes the position that reasonable people (realists) ought to stop allowing religious people a free pass to raise faith-based viewpoints in discussions of fact-based issues. He argues against moderation and tolerance in polite conversation because the moderately religious are forced by the logic of their position to accept the arguments of those who take their religion more literally. If we grant standing to minor logical indiscretions like the virgin birth, the recent creation of the universe, or the miracle of the loaves and the fishes, those who accept those unlikely things (on the basis that the bible says its' so) will refuse to disagree with others who argue that they've learned less benign things from their infallible bibles such as that homosexuality is a sin.

I think he's right that the moderate religious position is logically incoherent. We depend, for peace in the western world, on the participation of people who claim that the bible is literally the word of god, but are extremely selective in what they attend to in that book. When others make claims with a similar basis, the religious have no counter-argument, and the moderate position is that we should accept a diversity of opinion as healthy. Unfortunately, this argues for tolerance of extremists, and acceptance of their claim that some set of people should be slaughtered or removed from civil society as rationally based.

We cannot, Harris says, reject the extreme forms without rejecting the moderate forms as well. Unfortunately, he doesn't provide any guidance for how to carry out this proposal in a society in which the religious outnumber the rational. In fact, in his talk at the Long Now Foundation's lecture series, he agreed with a questioner who pointed out that it's a hard conversational stance to take, and had no suggestions.

Harris spends a chapter explaining that Islam is more a problem in the modern world than other religions because the faith has significant fundamental beliefs (accepted even by the moderates) that justify the resort to violence. Even more than moderate Christians, moderate Muslims are forced to accept the claims to righteousness of their extremists. The moderates believe in the importance of Jihad, accept the claim that apostates deserve death, and agree that death pursuing Jihad is honorable. With positions like those, why would it make sense to call them moderates, or to allow them to join rational conservations? I've never having had a conversation about these subjects with a self-professed moderate Muslim, so I have no experience to add, but these arguments seem plausible.

The first four chapters do a reasonable job of justifying this point of view, though much as Harris wants it to be a call to action, it's not clear what rational folk (the Brights) can do about it given our lack of numbers.

In the last two chapters, Harris stretches into less justifiable territory. Chapter 5 attempts to provide foundations for "A Science of Good and Evil", but misses the mark. His attempts start from an assumption that the proper foundation for ethics are the recognition that creatures that feel pain deserve our respect and forbearance. But he apparently hasn't found the extensive literature that starts from this assumption. I've been unconvinced that this is the right place to start, and Harris doesn't add anything new to the argument. He also seems to be unaware of W. W. Bartley's contributions to epistemology. Instead, he tries to argue from a sense of "moral intuition", and then from a claim that evolution has endowed us with a feeling of happiness that can serve as a guide to morality. He jumps from these arguments to an attempt to justify torture in extreme circumstances. These arguments aren't at all convincing.

In the final chapter, Harris attempts to establish that he has some common ground with people who consider themselves spiritual. He believes that there is some deeper knowledge of consciousness that traditional mystics have found the right tools to reveal, if only they would drop the religious nonsense, and study consciousness carefully. I was unconvinced again. He seems to think (without saying so explicitly) that consciousness may endure after death, that it is produced and maintained by something beyond the physical body of the person that perceives it. He cites Daniel Dennett's Consciousness Explained, but must not have understood the explanation. I'd be interested to read an argument that the Sufis or the Zen Masters have access to knowledge about consciousness that the rest of us could benefit from, but this wasn't it.

1 comment:

Ελλάδα said...

This destroys the fabric of genuine social exchange. Tradition has demanded that we should acknowledge the speaker¿s fantasy, delusion, rigidity, and refusals to examine evidence as marvelous and desirable attributes. By refusing to challenge such a person, we become complicit. No longer! Thanks, Sam! A great book!