Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Sam Harris and the teapot proof - old ideas in new packages

Because my local public library never has the latest, I have not read the newest Sam Harris’ book which XGH posts TNR’s review of, but I did read his previous one simply for the sake of seeing many of the anti-religion arguments that pop-up in the jblogsphere in the original. For those of you shamelessly borrowing his rhetoric, at least give credit where credit is due. It would take weeks to analyze his book piece by piece (I find the tone borders on the hysterical more than the analytical and its arguments suffer from bloated excess), but my overall impression is that once you move beyond the hyperbole and rhetoric, Harris actually offers nothing more than repacked ideas that have been around since the Enlightenment.

In 1877 William Kingdon Clifford, a professor in University College, London, wrote a book called “The Ethics of Belief” which was the Sam Harris tract of its time. His motto: “It is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.” Evidentialism, as it is now known, soon became the rage. It was scientific, it spoke of rational proof, and seemed so much more modern than good ol’ fashioned belief. Clifford offers an analogy to a ship owner alerted to the possibility that his boat is in need of major repairs and overhaul at great expense. Rather than take such considerations seriously, the ship owner mollifies his doubts by trusting fate and relying on the ship’s record of successful previous voyages. Is the ship owner not guilty of negligence should the ship sink mid voyage? Clifford writes, “He did sincerely believe in the soundness of the ship, but the sincerity of his convictions can in no wise [sic] help him, because he had no right to believe on such evidence as was before him. He had acquired his belief not by honestly earning it in patient investigation, but by stifling his doubts.” Is man no less negligent when he leads life according to religious faith without investigating the truthfulness of those beliefs? Pushing away doubt or labeling “impious those questions which cannot be easily asked without disturbing faith” is in Clifford’s words, “one long sin against mankind.”

Sam Harris approvingly cites Bertrand Russell’s teapot argument, which is also the basis for the TNR review’s title "The Celestial Teapot":
"Many orthodox people speak as though it were the business of sceptics to disprove received dogmas rather than of dogmatists to prove them. This is, of course, a mistake. If I were to suggest that between the Earth and Mars there is a china teapot revolving about the sun in an elliptical orbit, nobody would be able to disprove my assertion provided I were careful to add that the teapot is too small to be revealed even by our most powerful telescopes. But if I were to go on to say that, since my assertion cannot be disproved, it is intolerable presumption on the part of human reason to doubt it, I should rightly be thought to be talking nonsense."

If this sounds new and exciting, compare it with Annie Besant’s “Why I Do Not Believe in G-d”, written in 1887:
"If my interlocutor desires to convince me that Jupiter has inhabitants, and that his description of them is accurate, it is for him to bring forward evidence in support of his contention. The burden of proof evidently lies with him; it is not for me to prove that no such beings exist before my non-belief is justified, but for him to prove that they do exist before my belief can be fairly claimed. Similarly, it is for the affirmer of G-d’s existance to bring evidence in support of his affirmation; the burden of proof lies on him."

So much for the history lesson. Of course, in the past 125 years religious thinkers have had a chance to digest these ideas and offer cogent responses, but you will probably never discover them if all your diet consists of is Harris, Dennett, or Dawkins. I gleaned material for this post from "The Twilight of Atheism”, a well worth it read by Alister McGrath, a professor at Oxford, once an atheist himself but now a believing Professor of Theology (one cannot help but chuckle at the title of his forthcoming book – "The Dawkins Delusion").

The TNR reviewer, James Wood, who is an atheist, records his personal struggle with faith, and writes, "I vividly remember the day I sat down with a piece of paper and drew a line down the middle: on one side I would compile my reasons to believe and on the other the reasons not to. Perhaps this was rigged--anyone who does something like this has already lost his faith, well before the pretended ratiocination." The irony is inescapable - a review of a book rejecting religion because G-d cannot be proven must resort to personal anecdote to make the case for disbelief, admitting that rationalizing the choice occurs only after the fact.

Suffice it to say that Clifford and Harris’ view does not correspond to the way most of us lead our lives (nor does it even correspond to the methodology of pure science, as McGrath discusses). Did you have proof that your job would be successful before signing an employment contract, or proof that your wife was the best mate you could find before plunging into marriage? Probably not, but you went ahead and made these major life decisions based on your intuitive sense of what seemed reasonable. If using an intuitive sense of reasonableness to make decisions constitutes “one long sin against mankind”, as Clifford wrote, I’m afraid most of humanity will be found guilty.

23 comments:

  1. Anonymous10:55 AM

    For those of you shamelessly borrowing his rhetoric, at least give credit where credit is due.

    I assume you don't mean me!

    > Suffice it to say that Clifford and Harris’ view does not correspond to the way most of us lead our lives (nor does it even correspond to the methodology of pure science, as McGrath discusses). Did you have proof that your job would be successful before signing an employment contract, or proof that your wife was the best mate you could find before plunging into marriage? Probably not, but you went ahead and made these major life decisions based on your intuitive sense of what seemed reasonable. If using an intuitive sense of reasonableness to make decisions constitutes “one long sin against mankind”, as Clifford wrote, I’m afraid most of humanity will be found guilty.

    You are pulling your usual trick. Your examples of job and wife are not a fair comparison. Of course no one can predict the future, therefore it's legitimate to have some degree of hopeful faith, based on what is reasonably known at the time. Your wife, when you got engaged, presumably seemed like a good person, and all things considered, it was (presumably) a good choice to marry her. Same with a job. However with God, what do we know? Absolutely nothing at all. The 'evidence'(if you can call it that) hangs in the balance. But it's certainly legitimate to have 'faith '(a.k.a. hope) that He (or something like Him) does exist, and that life isn't meaningful. And even Dawkins admits that having some grand idea about the nature of reality has merit. Mostly he and Harris are railing against the claims of fundamentalist religion, which mostly are unreasonable, unproven by any evidence, and in fact mostly contradicted by available evidence.

    If anything, your analogy about your wife and job, should give you cause to have faith that your particular fundamentalist religion is NOT true, based on what we reasonably know at present. That would be a good analogy. Why not have faith that being gay is okay?

    Anyway, I agree that Dawkins (and Harris somewhat) are over the top. Their issue is with dogmatic fundamentalist religion, not with some vague, ill defined concept of 'God'. They would be better served by attacking the real enemy.

    XGH

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  2. Anonymous11:28 AM

    "but my overall impression is that once you move beyond the hyperbole and rhetoric, Harris actually offers nothing more than repacked ideas that have been around since the Enlightenment...If this sounds new and exciting, compare it with Annie Besant’s “Why I Do Not Believe in G-d”, written in 1887"

    Thank you for pointing this out. Where this really reaches ridiculous proportions is on daat emet - that guy seems to have discovered the enlightenment yesterday. (As an example, he rails about the concept of drashas chazal as distorting and misunderstanding the text, and is not capable of even seeing charm in their relationship to the text.).

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  3. >>>Their issue is with dogmatic fundamentalist religion, not with some vague, ill defined concept of 'God'.

    Incorrect. To quote Sam Harris, as I have done before, "The plain truth is this: There is no good reason to believe in a personal God;..."(http://www.jewcy.com/dialogue/monday_why_are_atheists_so_angry_sam_harris) Sorry, he rejects far more than fundementalism; he rejects belief (that is, after all, what the word atheism means).

    >>>Of course no one can predict the future, therefore it's legitimate to have some degree of hopeful faith, based on what is reasonably known at the time.

    Incorrect, at least as far as the epistimological claims of evidentialism. Hope, personal feeling, intuition don't tell us facts, and so, as Clifford wrote with respect to the ship owner who places a false trust in fate without proper investigation, we have no claim to really know anything. What you are in effect acknowledging is that is certain spheres of life evidence is impossible to come by and we are forced to make decision based on other criteria. You see that is true for marriage or a job, but have a mental roadblock seeing that the same is obviously true of religion. To parse the meaning of 'belief' in the context of marriage or a job as a vague hope does not correspond to reality; the groom standing under the canopy believes in the sense of a perception of ontological reality that his bride is meant to be his mate.

    You recently commented here
    >>>I think it's legitimate to start out with the notion that some type of *something* created us for a purpose, and that we should fill our lives with meaning,
    Yet on your own blog wrote with respect to G-d's existance
    >>>But the fact is, nobody knows and NEITHER DO YOU.
    So I have to ask you to clarify before going further - do you believe in the sense of accepting as an ontological truth that a Diety created the world and gave it meaning, even if we have no evidence for that fact, or is that claim something which in your mind is still subject to doubt. Yes or no, or as a great theologian one put it, Either/Or???

    (Will deal with competing truth claims, another Sam Harris red herring, another time.)

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  4. McGrath makes the point about belief sans evidence better than I do because he draws on the field of science itself. Einstein’s theory of relativity published in 1915 relied on certain observable claims which could be tested to confirm whether the theory was correct, among them the fact that the sun’s gravitational field would redshift light rays. The confirmation of this prediction was achieved in the 1960’s. Yet it is not inaccurate to say that scientists were confident long before the evidence was in that the theory of relativity was true in the sense of accurately reflecting ontology, not some vague psychic hope.

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  5. Anonymous12:03 PM

    > So I have to ask you to clarify before going further - do you believe in the sense of accepting as an ontological truth that a Diety created the world and gave it meaning, even if we have no evidence for that fact, or is that claim something which in your mind is still subject to doubt. Yes or no, or as a great theologian one put it, Either/Or???

    How can you accept something as fact, if there's no evidence? Thats just nuts. Did you accept as 'fact' that your wife was the correct wife? No. You had hope, faith etc. Same with God. Nobody knows whether God exists or not. However its legitimate to hope that the world has a creator, and was created for some ultimate good purpose. Does this make Gods existence a fact? No. You seem to be confusing faith with facts. Faith is more like hope. Facts are facts. Two entirely different things.

    XGH

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  6. From 1915 through 1960 was Einstein's theory accepted as 'fact' or 'faith' by the scientific community? Is evolution 'fact' or 'faith'? I just saw a coworker enter the room next door - is my belief that he is still there 'fact' or 'faith'? Pretty soon you reduce most everything to 'faith' - that is nothing more than semantic anal-retentiveness, not an accurate representation of the way people communicate or think about life.

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  7. >>>How can you accept something as fact, if there's no evidence? Thats just nuts.

    Reread the review in TNR: "I vividly remember the day I sat down with a piece of paper and drew a line down the middle: on one side I would compile my reasons to believe and on the other the reasons not to. Perhaps this was rigged--anyone who does something like this has already lost his faith, well before the pretended ratiocination."

    What came first - the rational investigation of religion that led to atheism, or an intuitive shift of belief?
    Is the reviewer 'nuts' - yes/no?

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  8. Anonymous12:51 PM

    I don't understand your question.
    XGH

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  9. Anonymous1:48 PM

    both!

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  10. Anonymous1:50 PM

    OK, I get it. Sure, you can have an intuitive sense that God exists, or not, as the case maybe. Just don't conufuse your 'intuitive sense' with the facts. It's not nuts to have the inuitive sense. But it is nuts to then insist that God absolutely MUST exist, just because you had the intuitive sense that He does.

    XGH

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  11. Mike S1:52 PM

    Chaim B.: with regard to Einstein, there were other tests before the red shift experiments of the 1960's. To begin with there were Einstein's own calculations of the perihelion shift of Mercury and Eddington's measurement of light bending near the Sun in 1919.

    If you want a scientific example that would be a closer analogy (although it is still going on and hindsight is not yet available), you can look to the widespread acceptance of string theory, despite the fact that its one unambiguous low energy result (that the world has 10 dimensions) seems patently to conflict with our everyday experience.

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  12. For the sake of clarity, let me summarize three objections with evidentialism:
    1) It does not correspond with most human experience: The semantic sleight of hand in labeling a decision to get married or take a job as based on ‘hope’ does not help. If any choice made without evidence is 'nuts', how can rational people rely on vague notions of hope alone to commit to something like marriage? Is the whole world 'nuts' (and no marriage jokes please)?
    2)The theory misrepresents science: I thank Mike S for a better example here. But let me quote what Sam Harris himself wrote (see post from a few days ago) - "Science can be reduced to first principles which themselves are not provable, but which we know to be true based on intuition alone." To paraphrase what XGH wrote above, it is nuts to then insist that scientific fact absolutely MUST exist, just because you had the intuitive sense that it does. Why is that jump Ok to make in science, but not in religion?
    3) The theory is self-negating. The reviewer himself writes that he came to atheism based on personal experience and intuition, and only later rationalized his choice. The choice for disbelief preceded rational consideration of the evidence.

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  13. Arthur Digby Sellers3:20 PM

    The comparison of marriage to religion is flawed.

    The decision to marry is based on an information (concrete past experiences). Religion is based on nothing but faith (no one alive can legitimately say they have 'experienced' god). The decision to marry is a look to the future; something good WILL happen. Religion is predicated upon the past; a Being created the world and requires me to abide by certain rules.

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  14. >>>The decision to marry is based on an information (concrete past experiences).

    Huh? When did the bride and groom experience marriage together before? Even couples who have lived together before consider marriage an important leap of committment that changes their relationship.
    What you mean (I assume) is that past experience can be used as a guide to asses whether the committment to get married is 'reasonable', which is not the same as demonstrating something MUST be true based on evidence (to borrow XGH's terminology). But Sam Harris, XGH, and evidentialists reject reasonableness as a test - "belief without evidence is nuts".

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  15. To the DC: Better fix the typo above. You mean "assess" As written, it could be a source of amusement.
    To Arthur Digby Sellers: Marriage is only based solely on promise for the future in instances of arranged matches in which the prospective spouses have no real determination of choice, and even that is largely based on the past -- the prospective person's reputation, the family's standing, etc. And for western style and even modern shidduch matches,the choice of whom to marry is based on what the young man and woman have seen in the other based on their past behavior.

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  16. On the other hand, having children is more of a leap of faith b/c we know nothing about the child's personality and ability. It is a davar shelo ba leolam, and only manifests itself completely years later. Why should one take such a gamble without any evidence that the child will prove an asset rather than a liability to the world at large?

    Now I believe that one of the commentators above recently had a child. (or rather his wife did) BTW is it a leap of faith for any man to accept a child as his own? How can anyone conclusively know the fact if not for the trust one has in one's wife? It is not a very rational belief, is it? This is not meant to cast aspersions on any wife's virtue but to point to the fact that we accept much on faith, particularly when we are involved in an I-thou and not just an I-it relationship

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  17. Anonymous8:50 PM

    > If any choice made without evidence is 'nuts', how can rational people rely on vague notions of hope alone to commit to something like marriage?

    Oh my gosh, you are doing it again!!! You keep on making the same (deliberate?) mistake.

    Hope is crucial to a healthy life. So, with marriage, its impossible to know 100% if its the right decision, presumably you're at 80% or you wouldn't even be considering it, but you make your choice OF HOW TO ACT and hope for the best. With God, its probably more like 50/50 (actually a lot less, since really its not an either or, theres an infinite number of possibilities of how the universe came to be), so you make your choice OF HOW TO ACT and hope for the best. Its not nuts to do this. Whats nuts is to think that your personal choice means God exists 100%. You can certainly hope so.
    XGH

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  18. Anonymous8:54 PM

    > But Sam Harris, XGH, and evidentialists reject reasonableness as a test - "belief without evidence is nuts".

    Hope without evidence is not nuts. 100% belief without evidence is nuts. If your potential wife was crazy, ugly and you couldn't stand her, and you still went into your marriage with 100% belief it was the right decision, then yes, that would be nuts.
    XGH

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  19. On second thoughts, I'm not sure. See my latest post.

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  20. Anonymous9:38 PM

    "Now I believe that one of the commentators above recently had a child. (or rather his wife did) BTW is it a leap of faith for any man to accept a child as his own? How can anyone conclusively know the fact if not for the trust one has in one's wife? It is not a very rational belief, is it? This is not meant to cast aspersions on any wife's virtue but to point to the fact that we accept much on faith, particularly when we are involved in an I-thou and not just an I-it relationship"

    GH accepts it because the gemara says rov beilos achar habaal and he thinks chazakas represent onotological realities and cant change.

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  21. We are going in circles at this point, but this is quite a claim to make about chazakos!

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  22. Anonymous11:21 AM

    i was joking

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