Thursday, December 14, 2006

Sam Harris' "Leap of Faith"

“Whatever its stigma, “intuition” is a term that we simply cannot do without, because it denotes the most basic constituent of our faculty of understanding. While this is true in matters of ethics, it is no less true in science. When we can break out knowledge of a thing down no further, the irreducible leap that remains is intuitively taken. Thus the traditional opposition between reason and intuition is a false one: reason itself is intuitive to the core, as any judgment that a proposition is “reasonable” or “logical” relies on intuition to find its feet…"

"The point I trust is obvious: we cannot step out of the darkness without taking a first step. And reason, without knowing how, understands this axiom if it would understand anything at all. The reliance on intuition, therefore, should be no more discomforting for the ethicist than it has been for the physicist. We are all tugging at the same bootstraps.”
--Sam Harris, “The End of Faith”, p. 183

So let me get this straight: Sam Harris, an outspoken atheist, is telling us that science can be reduced to first principles which themselves are not provable, but which we know to be true based on intuition alone. Without the bootstraps of intuition, all thinking would be impossible. This is in contrast to religion, which is reducible to core principles of belief that can never be proven, but which require an intuitive “leap of faith” to accept.
See the difference?
Neither do I.

6 comments:

  1. I think you are twisting his words a bit. Everyone on the planet has an intuition that we should use reason / intuition. After that, we use evidence. I suppose iff you wanted to argue that we all have an intuition that there's something "else" out there that created the universe, then ok I guess. But the intuition to use reason is way more basic than the 'intuition' that theres something out there. Most likely the latter is socially and culturally implanted in you. Even if not, still doesn't help you with religion. In general I find Harris to be more anti-religion than anti-God, I don't recall if he even has anything much to say about God, in contrast to Dawkins.

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  2. "This is in contrast to religion, which is reducible to core principles of belief that can never be proven, but which require an intuitive “leap of faith” to accept."

    Also, I think everyone agrees you have to accept certain basic principles e.g. that reality is real, and solipsism is not true. These can't be proven in a classical sense. However using that as an excuse to then go and believe any old nonsense doesn't seem very rational.

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  3. >>>However using that as an excuse to then go and believe any old nonsense doesn't seem very rational.

    The point is simply this (and BTW, I purposly quoted Harris directly, so I'm not twisting any words): one person's "any old nonsense" is another person's intuitive sense of reality. Puk chazei mai ama dabar: does the majority of the world's population have a belief in a higher Authority? Remarkably yes, despite vast differences in cultural and societal norms (which knocks down another point you raised). Harris definitely does address himself to the belief in G-d (he views all belief as irrational); see esp. the last chapters of "End of Faith". Let me quote him directly -
    "The plain truth is this: There is no good reason to believe in a personal God; there is no good reason to believe that the Bible, the Koran, or any other book was dictated by an omniscient being; we do not, in any important sense, get our morality from religion; the Bible and the Koran are not, even remotely, the best sources of guidance we have for living in the 21st century; and the belief in God and in the divine provenance of scripture is getting a lot of people killed unnecessarily."
    http://www.jewcy.com/dialogue/monday_why_are_atheists_so_angry_sam_harris

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  4. Anonymous9:07 PM

    > one person's "any old nonsense" is another person's intuitive sense of reality.

    You mean like the Koran and the Book of Mormon? Whichever way you spin it, you're back to the same old problem. Hundreds of entirely contradictory 'intuitive realities', based on no evidence, contradicted by available evidence, and quite obviously created by Humans. The onyl reason it's at all 'intuitive' to anyone is beuase they were fed it from birth. The only common denominator is any of these 'intuitive realities' is as I commented above, most people have always felt that theres *something* out there. Fine, but that doesn't get you very far.

    XGH

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  5. So you conceded Harris overstated his point? Intuition does get you further than atheism - out of the clutches of Dennet, Sam Harris, and Dawkins, and various others in the jblogsphere. The issue you raise is secondary. The context of the quote is bootstrap intuition to get you started, not working out the details. Saying "I accept G-d exists but why is Judaism correct?" leads to a different conversation that "I am not sure if there is a G-d".

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  6. Anonymous12:35 PM

    OK, agreed. 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, rather than being nihilists. However that kind of vague idea will never satisfy a fundamentalist.XGH

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