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Thursday, May 31, 2012

Sam Harris and the epic self-evisceration

My original intent upon finishing Sam Harris's latest book was to write a detailed critique of it. However, in reading it, I realized that it actually contained something much more interesting than the expected collection of conventional Harrisian errors, as it amounted to a rebuttal of the man's previous work! So, although I intend to critique Free Will in the near future, I thought it would be more important to look at how Harris's latest arguments affect his earlier ones. In The Irrational Atheist, I noted that Christopher Hitchens had committed a marvelous exercise in self-evisceration when he declared that “what can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence”, then proceeded to pronounce no fewer than 52 different declarations, each of which was presented completely without evidence. However, it would appear that Sam Harris is more than worthy of filling the late Mr. Hitchens giant clown shoes, as he has effortlessly surpassed that feat of self-defeating logic with his latest adventure in science-flavored polemic. However, to fully appreciate the full scope of Harris's unique achievement, it is necessary to return to his most popular work, The End of Faith, and revisit that book's central thesis.

The basic concept at the heart of The End of Faith is that belief is the root of all human action. From this core postulate, Harris then concludes that because belief causes action - he actually goes so far as to state that "beliefs are action" - that some actions are so potentially dangerous that they justify pre-emptively killing people who possess the beliefs that cause them. He then attempts to show that those causal beliefs are generally religious in nature; the end of faith to which he refers in the title is the violent elimination of faith by, (or on behalf of), a one-world government justified by the religious faithful's opposition to global government as well as faith's potential danger to the human race as per the extinction equation, in which Religious Faith + Science and Technology = Human Extinction.

This encapsulation of Harris's argument will likely sound outrageous until one considers the evidence taken directly from The End of Faith:
"A BELIEF is a lever that, once pulled, moves almost everything else in a person's life. Are you a scientist? A liberal? A racist? These are merely species of belief in action. Your beliefs define your vision of the world; they dictate your behavior; they determine your emotional responses to other human beings."

"As a man believes, so he will act."

"It is time we recognized that belief is not a private matter; it has never been merely private. In fact, beliefs are scarcely more private than actions are, for every belief is a fount of action in potentia. The belief that it will rain puts an umbrella in the hand of every man or woman who owns one."

"Given the link between belief and action, it is clear that we can no more tolerate a diversity of religious beliefs than a diversity of beliefs about epidemiology and basic hygiene.... Even apparently innocuous beliefs, when unjustified, can lead to intolerable consequences."

"There seems, however, to be a problem with some of our most cherished beliefs about the world: they are leading us, inexorably, to kill one another. A glance at history, or at the pages of any newspaper, reveals that ideas which divide one group of human beings from another, only to unite them in slaughter, generally have their roots in religion. It seems that if our species ever eradicates itself through war, it will not be because it was written in the stars but because it was written in our books; it is what we do with words like "God" and "paradise" and "sin" in the present that will determine our future."

"The link between belief and behavior raises the stakes considerably. Some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them. This may seem an extraordinary claim, but it merely enunciates an ordinary fact about the world in which we live. Certain beliefs place their adherents beyond the reach of every peaceful means of persuasion, while inspiring them to commit acts of extraordinary violence against others."

“We can say it even more simply: we need a world government.... The diversity of our religious beliefs constitutes a primary obstacle here.... World government does seem a long way off—so long that we may not survive the trip."
Now, Harris's argument is as fallacious as it is dangerous, for as I showed in TIA, even if one accepts the logic of the extinction equation, a perusal of history shows that the danger purportedly posed by religion is a second-order one at most, and furthermore, is not supported by the historical evidence, whereas the first-order danger stems directly from science. In 116 centuries filled with hundreds, if not thousands, of diverse religions, all competing for mind share, resources and dominance, the species has not merely survived, but has thrived, while a mere four centuries of modern science has created multiple clear and present dangers to the continued existence of the human race. Even if one accepts the general thrust of Harris's argument in The End of Faith and believes that the danger to the species demands immediate action, it is obvious that Harris's target is the wrong one and he should have been advocating the end of science rather than faith.

However, instead of either retracting or revising his argument, Harris has taken the surprising approach of undermining it by destroying its very foundation in his most recent book, Free Will. I suspect, however, that he has done this unintentionally and in complete ignorance of having done so, as he happens to be one of the laziest and most careless intellectuals to ever be embraced by the public. For in Free Will, he completely disassociates action from belief, in fact, he disassociates it from conscious thought altogether. Consider the following quotes from Free Will:

"The popular conception of free will seems to rest on two assumptions: (1) that each of us could have behaved differently than we did in the past, and (2) that we are the conscious source of most of our thoughts and actions in the present. As we are about to see, however, both of these assumptions are false."

"The intention to do one thing and not another does not originate in consciousness—rather, it appears in consciousness, as does any thought or impulse that might oppose it."

"The intention to do one thing and not another does not originate in consciousness—rather, it appears in consciousness, as does any thought or impulse that might oppose it.... These findings are difficult to reconcile with the sense that we are the conscious authors of our actions. One fact now seems indisputable: Some moments before you are aware of what you will do next—a time in which you subjectively appear to have complete freedom to behave however you please—your brain has already determined what you will do. You then become conscious of this “decision” and believe that you are in the process of making it."

"The brain is a physical system, entirely beholden to the laws of nature—and there is every reason to believe that changes in its functional state and material structure entirely dictate our thoughts and actions."

"Our sense of free will results from a failure to appreciate this: We do not know what we intend to do until the intention itself arises. To understand this is to realize that we are not the authors of our thoughts and actions in the way that people generally suppose."

"Unconscious neural events determine our thoughts and actions—and are themselves determined by prior causes of which we are subjectively unaware."

"People feel (or presume) an authorship of their thoughts and actions that is illusory."
As he declares that the illusory nature of free will erodes the concepts of moral responsibility, punishment, and the religious concept of sin, Harris appears to be completely unaware of how he has also destroyed his previous case against faith and religion. Being either the product or the resident of the conscious mind, belief can no longer be equated with action or serve as its causal factor, indeed, we are informed that the very possibility that belief can even be linked with action is nothing more than an illusion. He not only abandons, but actively attacks the basic concept upon which all the arguments in his previous book rest, the idea that belief is the root of all human action. Now he insists that a man will not act according to his beliefs for the obvious reason that he cannot; at most, his beliefs can only be seen as consequences that run more or less in parallel with his actions and therefore cannot serve as indicators of his future actions. This severing of the link between belief and action completely eliminates the viability of Harris's claim that religious beliefs are intrinsically dangerous as well as any justification for the sort of lethal pre-emptive action he previously declared to be ethical.

Therefore, in light of the new material, one of his previous declarations quoted above must be rephrased thusly: "Given the absence of the link between belief and action, it is clear that we can tolerate a diversity of religious beliefs as well as diversity of beliefs about epidemiology and basic hygiene.... Even apparently deadly beliefs, whether they are justified or not, cannot lead to harmful consequences."

One imagines that one of his more intelligent fans will eventually notice the way in which Mr. Harris's latest arguments have rendered his older ones incorrect and bring it to Mr. Harris's attention, so I'm sure we can all anticipate a retraction of the various anti-religious claims presented in The End of Faith in the reasonably near future.

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125 Comments:

Anonymous Stilicho May 31, 2012 8:42 AM  

If Harris or his fans respond at all, I expect it will be along the lines of "beliefs also originate in the subconscious and merely appear in the conscious leading us to the illusion that we were conscious authors of our beliefs."

Anonymous Anonymous May 31, 2012 8:58 AM  

If our existence (as a species or individual) is simply a matter of impersonal cosmic forces and we have no free will then what difference does it make if our species continues to exist or not. On what basis can Sam Harris justify his belief that the continued existence of homo sapiens is 'good.' Indeed, since there are individuals that have the opposite belief, that human extinction is to be desired, why should I prefer his flavor of ice cream over theirs'.

Blogger El Borak May 31, 2012 9:08 AM  

Sure he changed his mind, but he really had no choice in the matter.

Anonymous Salt May 31, 2012 9:11 AM  

I'd say his fans will quickly spout "whatever, man, now pass me the bong would you?"

Anonymous Mark Call May 31, 2012 9:15 AM  

As he declares that the illusory nature of free will erodes the concepts of moral responsibility, punishment, and the religious concept of sin, Harris appears to be completely unaware how he has also destroyed his previous case against religion.

Actually, VD, it looks like the shortest summary of the Combined Works of Harris has already been written. It's in James 1:8 --

the "double-minded man is unstable in all his ways."



(Note: the two verses just prior to that do a whole LOT to explain the man's attitude toward the Creator of the Universe as well...)

Blogger Vox May 31, 2012 9:17 AM  

If Harris or his fans respond at all, I expect it will be along the lines of "beliefs also originate in the subconscious and merely appear in the conscious leading us to the illusion that we were conscious authors of our beliefs."

But that doesn't do them any good or salvage his previous argument. I even anticipated that when I pointed out "at most, his beliefs can only be seen as consequences that run more or less in parallel with his actions and therefore cannot serve as indicators of his future actions."

Anonymous 691 May 31, 2012 9:23 AM  

Of course beliefs could indicate future actions if, instead of a causal relationship between them, they are both caused by some third mechanism of one's biology. They need be merely correlated and that correlation can be non causal.

Further, in what way are beliefs the product of a conscious mind? It seems to me they only live there.

Blogger Vox May 31, 2012 9:35 AM  

Of course beliefs could indicate future actions if, instead of a causal relationship between them, they are both caused by some third mechanism of one's biology. They need be merely correlated and that correlation can be non causal.

But that's a problem for Harris. There isn't strong enough correlation between them.

Further, in what way are beliefs the product of a conscious mind? It seems to me they only live there.

Because we consciously decide upon what our beliefs are, especially our religious beliefs. That's why they're not called "instincts", which are considered to be unconscious. However, even if beliefs are only the inhabitants of the conscious mind rather than its products, that's enough to let them off the hook in terms of a causal relationship with actions. They're at most coterminous with them.

Blogger Giraffe May 31, 2012 9:39 AM  

You just didn't understand what he wrote, Vox.

Anonymous Stilicho May 31, 2012 9:48 AM  

But that doesn't do them any good or salvage his previous argument. I even anticipated that when I pointed out "at most, his beliefs can only be seen as consequences that run more or less in parallel with his actions and therefore cannot serve as indicators of his future actions."

My friend, I did not say it was a good argument, merely expected. You are correct that it does not save his prior position that belief is the cause of action, but do you really expect harris to understand that? Perhaps I-feel-therefore-I-Sam will look for a separate cause for coterminous beliefs and actions. Perhaps you should direct him to the teachings of a certain Swiss minister. At the very least, you should throw a little quantum uncertainty theory his way so he can try to explain the illusion of free will a result of seemingly random subatomic interactions.

Anonymous scoobius dubious May 31, 2012 9:51 AM  

I've never heard of this Harris guy before, and since these topics generally don't excite my interest I doubt I'll examine any of his arguments carefully. But the impression I get is that he isn't using his work on this subject to seriously advance any particular front in philosophy, so it's not clear to me what sort of value his work is supposed to have. He sounds like Hitchens in the sense that, why don't this type of writers/provocateurs just get together and put up a big billboard that just says "RELIGIOUS PEOPLE ARE A BUNCH OF POOPY-HEADS". From what I can tell he doesn't seem to much more seriousness of purpose than that.

Why do you spend time reading and refuting this stuff? It seems rather beneath you after all. Maybe it's just the intellectual equivalent of a scratching post?

Anonymous Josh May 31, 2012 9:58 AM  

vox, you need to read harris more charitably...

Blogger Vox May 31, 2012 10:03 AM  

Why do you spend time reading and refuting this stuff? It seems rather beneath you after all. Maybe it's just the intellectual equivalent of a scratching post?

Beneath me? I have been repeatedly informed that I am not worthy of the attention of the great atheists and to even pay attention to my critiques is beneath them. Anyhow, I needed a break from Popper so I read it in between sets while I was lifting weights. I think it's worth refuting because you have only to look at the Amazon reviews and sales rank to know that many people who don't have the capacity for critical analysis read it and take it seriously.

I've certainly heard from many people that they have found TIA to be very useful in refuting arguments presented to them by their atheist friends, family, and acquaintances.

Blogger Vox May 31, 2012 10:05 AM  

At the very least, you should throw a little quantum uncertainty theory his way so he can try to explain the illusion of free will a result of seemingly random subatomic interactions.

Actually, he dismisses that argument, which is rather interesting because if I recall correctly, it amounts to a dismissal of the natural selection mechanism for evolution as well. He is almost the polar opposite of a holistic thinker.

Anonymous Stephen J. May 31, 2012 10:05 AM  

"However, even if beliefs are only the inhabitants of the conscious mind rather than its products, that's enough to let them off the hook in terms of a causal relationship with actions. They're at most coterminous with them."

Actually, that point seems rather to reinforce Harris' original point on one level: if there is no meaningful distinction between "belief" and "action", then yes, you can essentially treat them as a single event-chain, all of which are equally inevitable and thus make their result inevitable.

However, this suffers from the same problem that eliminative materialism (and its twin, causal determinism) does in the end: If it is true, nobody has any choice about whether they believe it to be false or true, just as nobody has any choice about whether they should bother trying to persuade others of its truth or falsity or not, or about whether that persuasion will be "effective" or not. In other words, for it to be true, it has to appear seamlessly and perfectly as if it were false. The proof that we're in the Matrix is that the Matrix can't be distinguished from reality: the proof of the invisible cat is that you don't see it.

Blogger Giraffe May 31, 2012 10:05 AM  

dubious, the book The Irrational Atheist over on the right sidebar has a the answers you seek.

Blogger El Borak May 31, 2012 10:05 AM  

However, even if beliefs are only the inhabitants of the conscious mind rather than its products, that's enough to let them off the hook in terms of a causal relationship with actions.

So is sin. Let's say that a religious man believes that adultery is wrong. It's perfectly possible that he will cheat on his wife, not because he believes the action to be ok in his own case, but because he's lonely and this sweet young thing at the end of the hotel bar is hot. He is not excusing his own behavior, already feels guilty before he does it, and knows that it might even wreck his marriage. In this case, action is not only not caused by belief, but is in direct opposition to it.

"But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members. 24 O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death?
-- Romans 7:23-24 (KJV)

Anonymous Konoma May 31, 2012 10:16 AM  

Modern neuroscientists seem to be saying, "Look people, just as an active billiard table with bouncing billiard balls is clearly the stage of a wholly deterministic event, we can now look at and within the entirety of the human body and conclude that our lives are much like the billiard event - an event that unfolds in every way according to the laws of physics." Are they exaggerating their knowledge of the human body? I don't read peer-reviewed scientific papers, so I don't know. But it does seem to be the case that modern science could prove free will to be false, just as a scientist (or anyone really) could easily and merely look and determine that a billiard table with bouncing billiard balls is the stage of a wholly deterministic event.

Anonymous Euthyphro May 31, 2012 10:17 AM  

Of course beliefs could indicate future actions if, instead of a causal relationship between them, they are both caused by some third mechanism of one's biology. They need be merely correlated and that correlation can be non causal.

And they will call it Dark Consciousness and through it in the pile with Dark Matter, Energy et al with no better reason for assume its existence than the earlier scientific consensus of Aether.

Anonymous jack May 31, 2012 10:17 AM  

I get from all this that the likes of Harris could easily become the poster child and justification of things like in the bad old days of German death camps.

Who decides whose beliefs and thoughts condemn them to the ovens? In the devout belief of a decent religion those deep seated beliefs act as the check valve to steer clear of mass murder.

So, considering Harris and his arguments, should we not condemn HIM as danger to the Human race?

Anonymous Praetorian May 31, 2012 10:19 AM  

Harris' arguments are one big begging of the f**king question.

If he actually took his own arguments seriously, he'd be a nihilist, stop using meaningless words like "problematic" and, in fact, he'd stop talking at all. WTF is the point of talking if we all have no choice in the matter?

Although I suppose that, deterministically, he has no choice but to be the intellectual equivalent of a teenager who just discovered the cartesian argument and can't shut up about it.

Anonymous Praetorian May 31, 2012 10:23 AM  

I should say "be an honest nihilist".

Anonymous No_Limit_Bubba May 31, 2012 10:27 AM  

Ahhhhhhh ..... one world government....led by do-gooder types who take themselves waaayyy too seriously………………with absolute power.....


What could possibly go wrong?

OpenID jeffwriting May 31, 2012 10:32 AM  

Love the breakdown, especially the summary of "The End of Faith". I will add however faulty Harris' beliefs are, his conclusion is close to how the bible describes the upcoming great tribulation and the destruction of false religion. His ideas are either a fractal of some in power or they are influencing them.

Blogger Vox May 31, 2012 10:33 AM  

Actually, that point seems rather to reinforce Harris' original point on one level: if there is no meaningful distinction between "belief" and "action", then yes, you can essentially treat them as a single event-chain, all of which are equally inevitable and thus make their result inevitable.

No, that's incorrect. The fact that they happen to come from the same source does not mean that there is no meaningful distinction between them; there is most definitely a meaningful distinction since we can observe actions and we cannot observe beliefs. Therefore they cannot be treated as a single event-chain. You might as reasonably, and as erroneously, attempt to claim that feelings are action and beliefs are emotions.

Anonymous Stilicho May 31, 2012 10:35 AM  

Actually, he dismisses that argument, which is rather interesting because if I recall correctly, it amounts to a dismissal of the natural selection mechanism for evolution as well. He is almost the polar opposite of a holistic thinker.

That leaves the Swiss minister. Will Harris have a road-to-Geneva moment? While he would never explicitly espouse a belief in God, perhaps some sort of poorly disguised substitute would be palatable to him.

Not that he has shown any ability or even desire to reconcile his arguments, but the entertainment value would make it worth watching.

Anonymous FrankNorman May 31, 2012 10:35 AM  

My take on it is that Atheists like Harris are essentially indulging in projection, as well as rationalization.
What he's saying boils down to: "Hey religious people, your beliefs are dangerous, because they make me want to kill you!"

Obviously the real danger of killing, is from people like Sam Harris.

"Certain beliefs place their adherents beyond the reach of every peaceful means of persuasion, while inspiring them to commit acts of extraordinary violence against others."

Like the belief that there should be a global government, and that it should eradicate "religion"?

Anonymous FrankNorman May 31, 2012 10:46 AM  

Konoma May 31, 2012 10:16 AM

Modern neuroscientists seem to be saying, "Look people, just as an active billiard table with bouncing billiard balls is clearly the stage of a wholly deterministic event, we can now look at and within the entirety of the human body and conclude that our lives are much like the billiard event - an event that unfolds in every way according to the laws of physics." Are they exaggerating their knowledge of the human body? I don't read peer-reviewed scientific papers, so I don't know. But it does seem to be the case that modern science could prove free will to be false, just as a scientist (or anyone really) could easily and merely look and determine that a billiard table with bouncing billiard balls is the stage of a wholly deterministic event.


No.
No, they cannot honestly claim to have "proven" any such thing.

Suppose instead of the few billiard balls on the table, there were a few million of them all bouncing around in 3D. Could you really watch all of them all the time, to be certain that no invisible spiritual forces were changing their motion?

There are more inter-connections between the neurons in a human brain than there are stars in the galaxy. Have these "neuroscientists" really modelled that in such detail? They have not. And every person's brain is different, and being rewired all the time.

Any claim to have proven it all to be deterministic is rubbish - they simply cannot make the necessary level of observations.
All they are doing is stating their presuppositions.

Anonymous Cary May 31, 2012 11:05 AM  

Isn’t Harris undermining his argument from his book The Moral Landscape, too? I didn’t read it, but wasn’t the point of that book to develop the case for an objective morality about what we ought to do from science and apart from religion or God?

Implied relativism isn’t an uncommon position for atheists who deny free will, but it is another complete contradiction to one of his books.

Anonymous 43rd Virginia Calalry May 31, 2012 11:22 AM  

I suspect that the forthcoming contortions required to reconcile these two positions will make Sam Harris the worlds foremost authority on yoga. :)

Anonymous Karsten May 31, 2012 11:24 AM  

Harris is beyond insane. Imagine what the implications of his words are:

"Certain beliefs place their adherents beyond the reach of every peaceful means of persuasion, while inspiring them to commit acts of extraordinary violence against others."

Thus, the beliefs that he finds dangerous are those that inspire people to commit violence against others.

And what is Harris's ow belief?

"Some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them."

Therefore, Harris states that it is ethical to kill people for beliefs that inspire them to commit violence against others.

And Harris himself holds the belief that committing violence against others is ethical, based on what they believe.

Thus paraphrased:

Harris: It is ethical to kill people whose beliefs make them want to kill people.

Harris: My belief is that it is ethical to kill people.

If he applies his own tenets to himself, based on his own beliefs, then his fate is a dire one.

Blogger IM2L844 May 31, 2012 11:24 AM  

Harris and people like him are always trying to create scenarios in which they can have their cake and eat it too. Much like trying to lift yourself up by your bootstraps, it never works. Okay, I'm all out of idioms.

Blogger Vox May 31, 2012 11:26 AM  

Isn’t Harris undermining his argument from his book The Moral Landscape, too?

There wasn't enough of a coherent argument there to undermine. It was essentially an explanation of his scientific hypothesis concerning a theoretical difference between religious belief and non-religious belief. But the neurology experiments he was utilizing there are what led to Free Will.

Anonymous Stephen J. May 31, 2012 11:32 AM  

"The fact that they happen to come from the same source does not mean that there is no meaningful distinction between them; there is most definitely a meaningful distinction since we can observe actions and we cannot observe beliefs. Therefore they cannot be treated as a single event-chain."

Well, to clarify my point somewhat, here's a hypothesis:

Let us grant the hypothetical existence of a metal that, once bent into a circular link, is of literally infinitely unbreakable strength. Now, suppose that we can see a ventilator hatch anchored by a chain of this metal, but with the hatch open, we can see only one link of the chain between the grille and the frame.

Harris's point is that since the metal is infinitely strong, no amount of pulling on that chain will reveal whether there are other links in the chain behind the one we can see. Therefore speaking as if those extra links exist, and can make a difference to the outcome of the grille's movement, is meaningless. For all imaginable practical purposes, it doesn't matter whether you treat the chain as having one link or many; all that matters is how far the grille can move, where the opening or closing force at the other end of the chain comes from, and when it happens.

Now I myself don't believe this. I'm simply pointing out how asserting lack of free will also supports the assertion that Belief = Action, because it defines Action as equalling Belief -- whatever you do is what you really wanted to do/believed you had to/could do, self-evidently and tautologically proven by the fact that it's what you did. So Harris' argument at that point is consistent, but tautologically so and thus irrelevant.

Anonymous hardscrabble farmer May 31, 2012 11:37 AM  

"Some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them."

Note the lack of irony.

Blogger Doom May 31, 2012 11:41 AM  

Eh? When falling on your own sword isn't enough, jump into the reactor core whole.

What was the question again?

Oh, I had no choice but to write that. Sorry.

Anonymous Josh May 31, 2012 11:45 AM  

"The brain is a physical system, entirely beholden to the laws of nature—and there is every reason to believe that changes in its functional state and material structure entirely dictate our thoughts and actions."

wrf3 is sam harris...who knew?

Anonymous darrenl May 31, 2012 11:52 AM  

I'm calling it right now: Sam Harris will be the second man in history to hug a beaten horse. Just sayin...

Anonymous civilServant May 31, 2012 11:54 AM  

is obvious that Harris's target is the wrong one and he should have been advocating the end of science rather than faith.

Is that possible?

Given that science exists your argument that the dangers posed by (incorrect?) belief are second order while the dangers posed by science are first order is irrelevant. Five hundred million sword-armed peasants trying to kill each other over their beliefs is one thing. Three billion educated true believers armed with nuclear weapons is another matter altogether. And reversion to the previous unscientific state seems unlikely while triumph of one belief or another seems much more achieveable.

Instead of eliminating science perhaps limiting it to an elect chosen elite few is appropriate. Which seems to be the direction in which we are headed. Yes?

Anonymous Josh May 31, 2012 12:02 PM  

Five hundred million sword-armed peasants trying to kill each other over their beliefs is one thing. Three billion educated true believers armed with nuclear weapons is another matter altogether.

ok, now prove that all those peasants were trying to kill each other over religion...

Blogger El Borak May 31, 2012 12:04 PM  

reversion to the previous unscientific state seems unlikely while triumph of one belief or another seems much more achievable.

On the contrary. As we have now the experience of millennia of competing beliefs - with new ones arising all the time - it ought to be obvious by now that the triumph of one is functionally impossible. Despite the gas chambers and gulags, belief lives on.

Reversion, however, is not only likely but, if Harris is correct, inevitable. I'm rather of the opinion that such a reversion will be caused by a science screwup so epic and in retrospect so obviously stupid that those who survive will take the wholly rational step of making the mere wearing of a lab coat a capital offense.

Anonymous civilServant May 31, 2012 12:04 PM  

"Some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them."

Note the lack of irony.


There is none. Killing people because their beliefs are dangerous is not the same as killing people because they do not share your beliefs.

Anonymous civilServant May 31, 2012 12:11 PM  

On the contrary. As we have now the experience of millennia of competing beliefs - with new ones arising all the time - it ought to be obvious by now that the triumph of one is functionally impossible.

Up to now yes. Total conquest by muscle power is difficult. But with the advent of science circumstances have changed. Imagine an Ottoman Empire armed with modern weapons against a mediaeval Europe. Europe would be Moslem or a wasteland.

Anonymous Mrs. Pilgrim May 31, 2012 12:11 PM  

There is none. Killing people because their beliefs are dangerous is not the same as killing people because they do not share your beliefs.

It is, if you're claiming that the difference is what makes them dangerous, and especially if you get to define what "dangerous" means.

Which, coincidentally, is exactly what Harris is proposing.

Blogger Nate May 31, 2012 12:13 PM  

"There is none. Killing people because their beliefs are dangerous is not the same as killing people because they do not share your beliefs."

/facepalm

Blogger Giraffe May 31, 2012 12:14 PM  

There is none. Killing people because their beliefs are dangerous is not the same as killing people because they do not share your beliefs.

Ask the dead people. You probably think killing someone to take his wallet is less of a crime than killing someone because he's gay.

Anonymous civilServant May 31, 2012 12:16 PM  

Reversion, however, is not only likely but, if Harris is correct, inevitable. I'm rather of the opinion that such a reversion will be caused by a science screwup so epic and in retrospect so obviously stupid that those who survive will take the wholly rational step of making the mere wearing of a lab coat a capital offense.

I read today in Wikipedia that during the seige of Grenada the Spaniards lost 3000 men in combat and 17000 men to typhus a disease now easily preventable and treatable. Science is too valuable to throw away. Its value will cause people to view its failures as problems to be corrected rather than as reasons to discard it altogether.

Anonymous Noah B. May 31, 2012 12:19 PM  

All hyperbole aside, and I'm sure this issue has been raised several times, but I wonder if Mr. Harris has realized how closely his beliefs mirror those of national socialism, the supposed antithesis of the American left.

Anonymous Josh May 31, 2012 12:22 PM  

come now, let's stop arguing over who killed who!

Blogger El Borak May 31, 2012 12:24 PM  

[Science's] value will cause people to view its failures as problems to be corrected rather than as reasons to discard it altogether.

Especially immediately after a custom Armageddom virus wipes out 85% of humanity. Surely the survivors will conclude that such a result calls for a more efficient peer review process, no?

Blogger El Borak May 31, 2012 12:25 PM  

In other words, it's not Science's failures that can wipe out mankind, but its successes.

Anonymous civilServant May 31, 2012 12:26 PM  

There is none. Killing people because their beliefs are dangerous is not the same as killing people because they do not share your beliefs.

It is, if you're claiming that the difference is what makes them dangerous ... Which, coincidentally, is exactly what Harris is proposing.


Harris says that any belief which merely differs [from his?] is dangerous? This seems untrue. His point seems to be that some beliefs are inherently dangerous. Assuming of course that they are acted upon. Surely "I deny Allah exists" is not trivially different from "Allah decrees that you convert or I kill you?"

and especially if you get to define what "dangerous" means.

Trivially true.

Anonymous civilServant May 31, 2012 12:28 PM  

There is none. Killing people because their beliefs are dangerous is not the same as killing people because they do not share your beliefs.

Ask the dead people.


Which approach produces fewer dead people?

Blogger Giraffe May 31, 2012 12:32 PM  

Which approach produces fewer dead people?

The approach that produces the most dead people is the secular Utopian crap that Harris is enamored with. Read TIA.

Anonymous civilServant May 31, 2012 12:33 PM  

[Science's] value will cause people to view its failures as problems to be corrected rather than as reasons to discard it altogether.

Especially immediately after a custom Armageddom virus wipes out 85% of humanity. Surely the survivors will conclude that such a result calls for a more efficient peer review process, no?


It is unlikely they will give up entirely on vaccinations and math.

Anonymous civilServant May 31, 2012 12:37 PM  

Which approach produces fewer dead people?

The approach that produces the most dead people is the secular Utopian crap that Harris is enamored with.


Then I will return to my first point. Given the presence of science the distinction between beliefs as a second order threat and science itself as a first order threat is irrelevant. Which is more achievable? The reduction of science or the reduction of belief?

Anonymous WaterBoy May 31, 2012 12:38 PM  

El Borak: "In this case, action is not only not caused by belief, but is in direct opposition to it."

Not really; it is only in direct opposition to one of his beliefs, but is in direct support of another, perhaps stronger, belief (i.e., "having a quick fling with this hot young thing will bring me pleasure/relief").

It is possible to hold conflicting beliefs at the same time -- witness the child who wants a cookie, but is told no. Which belief ("I would like to have a cookie", "I would like to obey mommy") is acted upon is largely due to which belief is stronger at a given moment, as well as other possibly relevant beliefs ("I can take a cookie without mommy noticing").

Blogger Nate May 31, 2012 12:42 PM  

"It is unlikely they will give up entirely on vaccinations and math."

Math /= science Nancy...

and bringing up vaccinations isn't going to help you either.

Blogger wrf3 May 31, 2012 12:42 PM  

Josh wrote: wrf3 is sam harris...who knew?

Oh, come now. It's just a play.

Blogger Nate May 31, 2012 12:44 PM  

and who gets to decide what belief qualifies as "dangerous"?

I would agrue that the belief that killing people over "dangerous" beliefs is ok... is the most dangerous belief of all. No doubt Stalin and Mao agree.

Thus.. the numbers are on my side.

Blogger Nate May 31, 2012 12:46 PM  

***brrrrrrrriiiiiiiing***

Josh...

Its for you. Its Sam Harris. He says he's deeply offended that you compared him to Wrf3.

Blogger El Borak May 31, 2012 12:47 PM  

"I would like to have a cookie"

I think you are confusing belief with desire. "I would like to have a cookie" is a want, a feeling, an urge, a desire. "Mom will be mad if I steal a cookie" is a belief.

it is only in direct opposition to one of his beliefs, but is in direct support of another, perhaps stronger, belief

But it is in direct opposition to the kind of belief that Sam is talking about, i.e. that I believe God wants me to act a certain way. In other words, whether I believe God wants me to bang this hottie or go home instead does not determine the extent to which I bang her. There is another "belief" - actually, a willful choosing between conflicting desires - that is going to be the final determinant.

Anonymous Mrs. Pilgrim May 31, 2012 12:51 PM  

Harris says that any belief which merely differs [from his?] is dangerous? This seems untrue. His point seems to be that some beliefs are inherently dangerous.

CivilServant, I point you to Harris' own words:

"Even apparently innocuous beliefs, when unjustified, can lead to intolerable consequences."

In light of the fact that he believes that all religions are ultimately unjustified, we may safely assume that he holds all beliefs that differ from his to be dangerous.

But if you wave your hands harder, you might even achieve unaided flight.

Blogger Giraffe May 31, 2012 12:53 PM  

given the presence of science the distinction between beliefs as a second order threat and science itself as a first order threat is irrelevant. Which is more achievable? The reduction of science or the reduction of belief?

Science, easily.

No doubt you think it is belief. And specifically religious belief. Again, read TIA. This has been addressed.

Blogger wrf3 May 31, 2012 12:54 PM  

FrankNorman wrote: All they are doing is stating their presuppositions.

And so are you. The difference is that you are positing a "ghost in the machine".

Suppose instead of the few billiard balls on the table, there were a few million of them all bouncing around in 3D. Could you really watch all of them all the time, to be certain that no invisible spiritual forces were changing their motion?

Are you saying that there is no ghost for, say, one, or two, or three objects but that for millions something sneaks in?

Something... something... needlessly multiplying entities ...

Blogger Vox May 31, 2012 12:55 PM  

Then I will return to my first point. Given the presence of science the distinction between beliefs as a second order threat and science itself as a first order threat is irrelevant. Which is more achievable? The reduction of science or the reduction of belief?

That's easy. The reduction of science. Science has been intentionally stopped dead in its tracks at least twice that I can recall, in China and Japan. Religion has never been stopped despite the most determined efforts of ruthless totalitarian governments. Science is heavily dependent upon support from government, which is why it cannot survive an anti-science government.

People are willing to die for religion. No one is willing to die for science. That tells you all you need to know.

Anonymous Shild May 31, 2012 12:59 PM  

Which is more achievable? The reduction of science or the reduction of belief?



I'm not sure that you quite understand the concept of a "belief". A "belief" is a proposition that a person accepts as true. As long as people have minds, they will accept certain propositions as true, meaning they will have beliefs. The "reduction of belief" then is impossible, except by killing people or somehow transforming them into psuedo-people who don't distinguish between truth and falsehood.

Now perhaps you meant the "reduction of dangerous beliefs", but that only leads to other problems.

Harris says that any belief which merely differs [from his?] is dangerous? This seems untrue. His point seems to be that some beliefs are inherently dangerous.



The question of which beliefs are "inherently dangerous" can be answered only by reference to one's beliefs. What is "dangerous" will depend upon one's values, as will any objective measure to compare the danger levels of different beliefs.

Blogger ajw308 May 31, 2012 1:04 PM  

On the contrary. As we have now the experience of millennia of competing beliefs - with new ones arising all the time - it ought to be obvious by now that the triumph of one is functionally impossible.
I find it ironic that the champions of evolution don't let beliefs compete to see which one is superior.

Anonymous Konoma May 31, 2012 1:08 PM  

FrankNorman: Suppose instead of the few billiard balls on the table, there were a few million of them all bouncing around in 3D. Could you really watch all of them all the time, to be certain that no invisible spiritual forces were changing their motion?

Okay, I used the wrong phrase. Rather than "modern science," I should have simply said something like "science as such." True, modern empirical science is hopeless in giving us a full-blown picture of our neural network, but, in principle, some more powerful empirical science in the (far) future could.

(I hope it doesn't, though, since I can't imagine my life, human history, etc., without my belief in libertarian free will)

Anonymous civilServant May 31, 2012 1:16 PM  

CivilServant, I point you to Harris' own words:

"Even apparently innocuous beliefs, when unjustified, can lead to intolerable consequences."

In light of the fact that he believes that all religions are ultimately unjustified, we may safely assume that he holds all beliefs that differ from his to be dangerous.


Your point is taken, though it is a long way from "can" to your assumption. So. Are any beliefs inherently dangerous? I ask again. Is there any actionable distinction to be made between "There is no Allah" and "Convert or die?" Assuming of course that the beliefs themselves are actionable.

Anonymous the bandit May 31, 2012 1:22 PM  

I ask again. Is there any actionable distinction to be made between "There is no Allah" and "Convert or die?"

The question, to be relevant to the topic, should be: "Is there any actionable distinction to be made between "There is no Allah, and if you believe in him it is ethical to kill you" and "Convert or die?"

Anonymous the bandit May 31, 2012 1:26 PM  

I'm rather of the opinion that such a reversion will be caused by a science screwup so epic and in retrospect so obviously stupid that those who survive will take the wholly rational step of making the mere wearing of a lab coat a capital offense.
and
Instead of eliminating science perhaps limiting it to an elect chosen elite few is appropriate. Which seems to be the direction in which we are headed. Yes?
I think Neal Stephenson wrote a book based on this premise (which ended up having very little effect on the plot other than putting all the eggheads in one basket).

Blogger wrf3 May 31, 2012 1:26 PM  

Konoma wrote: in principle, some more powerful empirical science in the (far) future could.

Actually, it's not that far off, and it will be computer science, not neurology, that gets us there. McCarthy wrote about the key piece back in the late 50's, but he missed the implication of what he wrote.

Since this ties in with "wrf3 is Sam Harris" quip, I'll note that it's marginally true. If the brain is like a computer, then Harris is trying to figure out how it works by x-raying the circuitry. That may show the wiring, but it says very little about the software. So he's going about it the wrong way.

(I hope it doesn't, though, since I can't imagine my life, human history, etc., without my belief in libertarian free will)

Again, McCarthy is ahead of you. See, for example, Simple Deterministic Free Will.

In any case, doesn't that play into the idea that free will is one of the mind's most cherished illusions? An illusion brought about by a certain incident in a certain garden that featured talking snakes and fruit?

Anonymous Shild May 31, 2012 1:28 PM  

His point seems to be that some beliefs are inherently dangerous. Assuming of course that they are acted upon. Surely "I deny Allah exists" is not trivially different from "Allah decrees that you convert or I kill you?"



For example, I submit that this belief:
Some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them.
is inherently dangerous because it gives justification for the act of killing a person who has committed no crime, and it blatantly attacks each individual's freedom of thought.

Note that my categorization of Harris' belief as "inherently dangerous" depends entirely upon my beliefs. Specifically, the belief that the innocent ought to be protected and that each individual should be free to think for himself. A person who does not share these beliefs may not consider Harris' belief "dangerous".

Anonymous civilServant May 31, 2012 1:29 PM  

given the presence of science the distinction between beliefs as a second order threat and science itself as a first order threat is irrelevant. Which is more achievable? The reduction of science or the reduction of belief?

Science, easily.

No doubt you think it is belief.


Actually since the topic is safety I await for someone to realize that safety is achieved by eliminating anyone who disagrees with you. But it seems no-one will. Well.

As for eliminating beliefs it seems the chief complaint about modern western man is that he has abandoned his former beliefs in favor of modern materialism (and its associated science). Reading history one wonders if anything has been abandoned at all. The phrase "Ours is a particulaly Godless age" recurs frequently. Perhaps the real solution is an increase in belief? But the complaint is that belief has decreased so there seems no reason to discount the reduction of belief as a response to the problem of the union of belief and scientific tools of destruction.

Blogger wrf3 May 31, 2012 1:37 PM  

CivilServant wrote: Actually since the topic is safety I await for someone to realize that safety is achieved by eliminating anyone who disagrees with you.

Wasn't that discussed here not too long ago in the post about predator vs. prey behavior?

Anonymous civilServant May 31, 2012 1:38 PM  

For example, I submit that this belief:
Some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them.
is inherently dangerous because it gives justification for the act of killing a person who has committed no crime, and it blatantly attacks each individual's freedom of thought.


Is "convert or die" merely a thought? Are we to stand by while it is thought? Taught? Gains adherents? Forms a society? Forms a nation? Gathers resources? Builds tools for enforcement? Takes the field?

Are we the Duke of Sung?

Anonymous civilServant May 31, 2012 1:41 PM  

The question, to be relevant to the topic, should be: "Is there any actionable distinction to be made between "There is no Allah, and if you believe in him it is ethical to kill you" and "Convert or die?"

Incorrect. "There is no Allah" stands alone. "Convert or die" stands alone. "If you believe in him it is ethical to kill you" is a response to "covert or die." At least in this discussion.

Anonymous civilServant May 31, 2012 1:44 PM  

Actually since the topic is safety I await for someone to realize that safety is achieved by eliminating anyone who disagrees with you.

Wasn't that discussed here not too long ago in the post about predator vs. prey behavior?


Oh. I am here only intermittently.

Blogger Giraffe May 31, 2012 1:44 PM  

Actually since the topic is safety I await for someone to realize that safety is achieved by eliminating anyone who disagrees with you.

in order to achieve safety you have to be successful in eliminating those who disagree with you. Once you start, they realize that you are dangerous to them. And you know what we do with dangerous people.

And the topic is the idiocy of Sam Harris.

Anonymous Oregon Mouse May 31, 2012 1:48 PM  

"The link between belief and behavior raises the stakes considerably. Some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them. This may seem an extraordinary claim, but it merely enunciates an ordinary fact about the world in which we live. Certain beliefs place their adherents beyond the reach of every peaceful means of persuasion, while inspiring them to commit acts of extraordinary violence against others."

So society should engage in political/religious oppression and mass murder in order to possibly prevent political/religious oppression and mass murder? Nice. Did this man craft our "preventive" war doctrine?

Anonymous Mrs. Pilgrim May 31, 2012 1:52 PM  

Your point is taken, though it is a long way from "can" to your assumption.

Consider the source. This man is talking about reducing all people under the rule of a single, violent atheist hegemony that would mercilessly crush out all dissenting beliefs, after all.

Anonymous Shild May 31, 2012 1:54 PM  

Is "convert or die" merely a thought?

No, it's a threat, and it is being levelled by Sam Harris. Muslims, on the other hand, have the Dhimmi.

Are we to stand by while it is thought? Taught? Gains adherents? Forms a society? Forms a nation? Gathers resources? Builds tools for enforcement? Takes the field?

Are we the Duke of Sung?


There is, once again, a difference between a thought and a threat, but there is a more fundamental problem here.

The only way to effectively combat a belief is through persuasion. Coercion is wasteful and can only gain compliance in limited circumstances, and is guaranteed to inspire (justified) retaliation. The attempt to kill everyone who holds a certain belief is not safe in practice.

Anonymous FUBAR Nation (Ben) May 31, 2012 1:56 PM  

Sam Harris has just outed himself as a totalitarian who has no problem with mass murder. This is what happens when you make up your own specious moral code and spit on traditional moral codes.

These constantly changing moral codes led to the monstrosities of Stalin and Mao.

Blogger Vox May 31, 2012 1:57 PM  

This man is talking about reducing all people under the rule of a single, violent atheist hegemony that would mercilessly crush out all dissenting beliefs, after all.

No, no! He's only talking about conversational intolerance! We know because he says so. I'm still waiting on what he means by "ethical to kill"; presumably he intended it in the sense of murdering someone in a rhetorical manner.

Anonymous Shild May 31, 2012 1:58 PM  

And there is an even more fundamental problem.

The proper question to be asked of any belief is not "is it dangerous?" but "is it true?" It is entirely concievable and precedented that leaders consider objectively true beliefs to be "dangerous". By Harris' metric, these leaders are justified in their action even if the belief they suppress is true.

Anonymous civilServant May 31, 2012 1:59 PM  

Once you start, they realize that you are dangerous to them.

If one is clumsy.

Anonymous civilServant May 31, 2012 2:07 PM  

Your point is taken, though it is a long way from "can" to your assumption.

Consider the source.


Yes. I know. I was trying to limit the conversation to the point rather than include his or anyone else's motivations. People advance their overt and covert goals by promoting supporting principles to attract allies. The principles may be valid regardless of the motivation.

Anonymous civilServant May 31, 2012 2:20 PM  

Is "convert or die" merely a thought?

No, it's a threat, and it is being levelled by Sam Harris.


Unilaterally? Is he the instigator? Or merely a respondant?

Are we to stand by while it is thought? Taught? Gains adherents? Forms a society? Forms a nation? Gathers resources? Builds tools for enforcement? Takes the field?

Are we the Duke of Sung?

There is, once again, a difference between a thought and a threat


Linguistically yes. In practice they are a continuity which I attempted to illustrate above. In the progression I listed please state where the actionable threat occurs. And if you say "Takes the field" please explain why we should wait that long.

The only way to effectively combat a belief is through persuasion.

Killing is effective. Yes?

The attempt to kill everyone who holds a certain belief is not safe in practice.

If one is clumsy then you are correct.

Anonymous civilServant May 31, 2012 2:24 PM  

The proper question to be asked of any belief is not "is it dangerous?" but "is it true?"

True. But irrelevant. There always are permanent and sharp disagreements and this conversation starts at that point.

Blogger Vox May 31, 2012 2:25 PM  

You're completely missing the point here, civilservant. You're trying to defend a position which Sam Harris himself has rendered nonsensical by his disassociation of action from belief.

There simply is no longer any reason to kill anyone regardless of their belief, because it has no causal connection to action.

Blogger wrf3 May 31, 2012 2:29 PM  

Vox wrote: There simply is no longer any reason to kill anyone regardless of their belief, because it has no causal connection to action.

Hey, at least we can now get rid of hate-crime laws! Right?

Anonymous WaterBoy May 31, 2012 2:38 PM  

El Borak: "I think you are confusing belief with desire."

Yes, though I contend that such feelings and desires fit at least one definition of belief, insofar as they are also thoughts/ideas held to be true within the conscious mind (as opposed to say, an unconscious feeling like a hunger pang). If I have a desire for something, I am certainly conscious of it and convinced that it is true.

If the term is not agreeable, no problem; we can discard the example as incorrect.

El Borak: "But it is in direct opposition to the kind of belief that Sam is talking about, i.e. that I believe God wants me to act a certain way."

True. But in the larger sense of beliefs driving actions, an affair with the girl at the bar (action) is still be driven by beliefs (that something good will come of it, that the reward will outweigh the risk, that it can be kept secret from his wife, etc).

That it is not always religious beliefs driving people's actions -- even religious people, as your example demonstrates -- is the part that seems to escape Sam Harris.

Anonymous Shild May 31, 2012 2:44 PM  

Unilaterally?

Yes. He condones the killing of people who have in fact committed no violence.

There is, once again, a difference between a thought and a threat

Linguistically yes. In practice they are a continuity which I attempted to illustrate above.


A thought is a mental activity or idea, a belief is a proposition held to be true, and a threat is the expressed intention to cause harm to someone else. They are not a continuity; they are qualitatively different.

"Convert or die" is a threat, not a belief.

In the progression I listed please state where the actionable threat occurs.

I never said that any threats are "actionable". Also, strictly speaking, force is not the only way to neutralize a threat.


Killing is effective. Yes?

The attempt to kill everyone who holds a certain belief is not safe in practice.

If one is clumsy then you are correct.


Perhaps in theory. In reality however people fight back, and they seek vengeance, which rather reduces the "safety" of such a policy.

Incidentally, this discussion is not about "safety" but about ethical behavior.

Once again I must point to a more fundamental problem. Harris' standard to label a belief as "dangerous" is that it inspires the commission of "extraordinary violence against others", but he actually advocates the killing of those who have committed no violence. As soon as one puts this policy into practice, one objectively proves one's own beliefs to be more dangerous, by Harris' own metric, than the beliefs of one's victims. The only consistent action at this point would be suicide.

Anonymous DT May 31, 2012 3:24 PM  

So we can detect brain activity before the subject is fully self aware and reflective of the results of said activity. And that is supposed to disprove free will?

Seriously?

This is like saying a CPU spike before your photo actually appears on screen proves Photoshop did not process the photo. As opposed to recognizing it as an indication of the very thing in question working towards the final result.

Once again I must point to a more fundamental problem. Harris' standard to label a belief as "dangerous" is that it inspires the commission of "extraordinary violence against others", but he actually advocates the killing of those who have committed no violence. As soon as one puts this policy into practice, one objectively proves one's own beliefs to be more dangerous, by Harris' own metric, than the beliefs of one's victims. The only consistent action at this point would be suicide.

Agreed. Maybe someone should suggest it to him.

Anonymous jartstar May 31, 2012 3:31 PM  

I'm sure Harris wont give up his desire to kill others but may now do it for actions instead.

Blogger El Borak May 31, 2012 3:49 PM  

Water Boy: an affair with the girl at the bar (action) is still be driven by beliefs (that something good will come of it, that the reward will outweigh the risk, that it can be kept secret from his wife, etc).

Are those beliefs, or are they post-desire rationalizations designed to allow us to choose one desire over another? If I have no desire for some loathsome hag, the fact that something good might come of it or that I won't be caught will likely never be proposed or examined, much less result in a dent in the headboard. I want before I believe in such cases. If I don't want, no belief will bring action.

It seems to me that the repeated evidence of male sexual self-immolation (e.g. John Edwards) in creating such beliefs as "the reward will outweigh the risk," demonstrates that "beliefs" in such cases do not drive actions so much as they attempt to plow the road for them.

Anonymous Shild May 31, 2012 3:56 PM  

BTW, does the title of this blog post remind anyone else of Harry Potter?

Anonymous WaterBoy May 31, 2012 4:16 PM  

El Borak: "Are those beliefs, or are they post-desire rationalizations designed to allow us to choose one desire over another?"

I think we're getting hung up on what comprises a belief. I'm using these definitions, for starters:

World English Dictionary
belief (bɪˈliːf)

— n
1. a principle, proposition, idea, etc, accepted as true
2. opinion; conviction
3. religious faith
4. trust or confidence, as in a person or a person's abilities, probity, etc

(Source)

(There are others listed there, of course, but these are the closest to what I have been thinking.)

So your idea accepted as true (or opinion) that she is a loathsome hag drives your action to go back to your room alone. If your opinion instead held that she was desirable, that would drive your action to weigh the consequences, and subsequent action to go to your room alone or to her room.

To me, this is the major function of Free Will -- to examine situations in regards to possibly conflicting beliefs/wants/desires, and choose to act accordingly.

Anonymous Cornucopia May 31, 2012 4:56 PM  


People are willing to die for religion. No one is willing to die for science. That tells you all you need to know.


That religion really is more dangerous than science? Sorry, but that one was just too juicy.

Anonymous Cornucopia May 31, 2012 5:14 PM  


You're trying to defend a position which Sam Harris himself has rendered nonsensical by his disassociation of action from belief.


As others have noted above, I don't quite see how you derive this, at least from what you quoted from the book.

Harris says, "Unconscious neural events determine our thoughts and actions—and are themselves determined by prior causes of which we are subjectively unaware."

There can be a direct causal and perhaps deterministic link from belief to action, his thesis in End of Faith while there still being no free will as he's described it. The mechanistic nature between belief and action only serves to heighten the potential danger of belief. While I don't "buy" all or even most of this, we can imagine a purely mechanistic universe, that preordained the appearance of Sam Harris, preordained the writing of EOF and the delivery of his message warning us against religion, etc. When he was born, every thought, belief, or word he would ever speak was written in the stars somewhere, and so on. It's by no means certain that the universe is deterministic in that way, Quantum Mechanics suggests it isn't, but it does illustrate a situation where there would be no free will, while the link between belief and action would be totally causal.

Blogger El Borak May 31, 2012 5:25 PM  

Waterboy: If your opinion instead held that she was desirable...

I think this is where we are disconnecting. I don't have an opinion that she is desirable any more than a 2-year-old has an opinion about wanting a cookie*. I desire her (or not) and he wants a cookie (or not). He feels hunger, he remembers what cookies taste like, but the desire for a cookie is not a conclusion based on those facts or any others, for they remain true even in cases where he does not want a cookie. He may be hungry only for a pickle.

I agree with you about the function of free will in such circumstances, but to my way of thinking "I would like to have a cookie" is merely a verbose way of expressing the desire "I want a cookie." Calling it "accepted as true" fails, for it is seldom examined at all.

* If I had an opinion that she was desirable, it would merely be an expression of the fact that I desire her. But that gets us nowhere.

Anonymous paradox May 31, 2012 5:31 PM  

Is Same Harris (& wrf3 )the Merovingian?

Blogger tz May 31, 2012 5:48 PM  

One quibble. It doesn't quite follow as memes may spread like other diseases, apart from will, yet require destruction of the infected. Given the history, we can put Mr. Harris in an autoclave until the infection is eliminated.

Anonymous WaterBoy May 31, 2012 6:00 PM  

El Borak: "I think this is where we are disconnecting."

It's become apparent to me through this discussion that there are situations in which (and people for whom) wants and desires can be either the result of emotional reactions or contemplative thought.

So I think I would have to agree with you now that both examples we have been using would fall more under the emotional side than the thoughtful. But I also see other situations where peope think about what they want rationally. I guess it really depends on the person, then.

Blogger Vox May 31, 2012 6:19 PM  

As others have noted above, I don't quite see how you derive this, at least from what you quoted from the book. Harris says, "Unconscious neural events determine our thoughts and actions—and are themselves determined by prior causes of which we are subjectively unaware." There can be a direct causal and perhaps deterministic link from belief to action, his thesis in End of Faith while there still being no free will as he's described it.

No, you are completely failing to understand the later Harris. Action cannot flow from belief because they are both conscious aspects that come from the same unconscious source. As I have now pointed out twice already, at most belief and action can be seen to run in parallel, but even correlation cannot suggest causation in this case because belief is not unconscious. If Harris is correct about free will being an illusion - and I will show that his case is fatally flawed - then he must be incorrect about the danger posed by belief.

The fact that his case is flawed does not, of course, indicate that his previous case was correct.

Anonymous FrankNorman May 31, 2012 6:39 PM  

I wonder if Wrf3 is being obtuse on purpose. Its plain he rejects the authority of Scripture anytime it doesn't fit with his made-up worldview.

1 Cor 2:11 comes to mind.

And the brain is not like a computer, and making computer models does not prove real life to be life your model.

Anonymous Noah B. May 31, 2012 6:54 PM  

I suspect that, rather than refining his beliefs as you have suggested, Mr. Harris will now revise his position to suggest that, while belief may be non-causal with regard to behavior, it is still a reliable predictor of future behavior, thus preserving his rationale for killing those who disagree with him.

Anonymous civilServant May 31, 2012 7:37 PM  

Its plain he rejects the authority of Scripture anytime it doesn't fit with his made-up worldview.

If the Bible is a unitary document then every part of it conforms with every other part. Understanding any one part necessarily confers understanding of every other part. If confusion is encountered then interpretation until conformity is achieved is indicated.

Anonymous civilServant May 31, 2012 7:43 PM  

As I have now pointed out twice already, at most belief and action can be seen to run in parallel, but even correlation cannot suggest causation in this case because belief is not unconscious.

Is correlation alone sufficient to support his case? It seems actually stronger than mere causation which may be interrupted or incomplete. Correlation would suggest the presence of an immediate problem of concern rather than the mere potential for a problem.

As an aside one recalls Jesus saying that a man who lusts for a woman has already committed adultery with her in his heart.

Anonymous VD May 31, 2012 8:27 PM  

Is correlation alone sufficient to support his case? It seems actually stronger than mere causation which may be interrupted or incomplete. Correlation would suggest the presence of an immediate problem of concern rather than the mere potential for a problem.

No, because the correlation could as readily apply to emotions or even physical attributes such as dark skin. Furthermore, it should be perfectly obvious from the statistics that there is a extremely weak correlation between religious belief and violent action.

Anonymous civilServant May 31, 2012 10:45 PM  

Furthermore, it should be perfectly obvious from the statistics that there is a extremely weak correlation between religious belief and violent action.

It is weak. But it does exist yes? For example to my knowledge no Shinto priest has ever yet said "Convert or die." And one cannot help but notice that it is the most dedicated fanatics who seek positions of power to direct the actions of others. So while the per-person correlation may be weak the correlation at an organizational level may be much stronger than the per-person may suggest.

Anonymous The other skeptic May 31, 2012 11:03 PM  

Diversity is undeniably our strength

Anonymous Noah B. May 31, 2012 11:33 PM  

"It is weak. But it does exist yes?"

Irrelevant. There is also a correlation between violent action and consumption of water.

Anonymous Cornucopia June 01, 2012 2:52 AM  

Furthermore, it should be perfectly obvious from the statistics that there is a extremely weak correlation between religious belief and violent action.


I think if you really nailed him down, he'd maintain that there is a causal relationship between belief and action, perhaps not direct but beyond mere correlation, but I haven't read the book. Nowhere in his lecture did he seem to indicate that he thought action sprang impulsively from subconscious. The reason I'm writing these words has something to do with my beliefs, and I'm probably not going to suddenly lapse into poetry, or a misogynist rant.

Perhaps there isn't a very strong correlation between religious belief and violence, however I think the situations Harris envisions are things like terrorist strikes, the belief if you die a martyr you will have 72 virgins, that America is the Great Satan, etc. A great deal removed from ordinary religious belief.

This is all strangely similar to his argument favoring airport security profiling. If you haven't reviewed that debate, you might find it an interesting parallel, especially since he seems to be losing it, and maybe for the same reason.

The problem with using belief/action correlation is similar to problem with security profiling. People will game profiles, and they will simply not be candid about their beliefs if you let on that you might kill them for having them. That is the one naive fault in both of Harris's arguments.

Anonymous Cornucopia June 01, 2012 3:06 AM  

On the point about causal beliefs, I'm sure Sam Harris would acknowledge, for instance, that the reason he wrote his original profiling essay had more than just chance correlation to his beliefs about the risks posed by Islamic terrorists. Otherwise, you risk absurdities like picturing him waking the next morning amazed that the essay he just wrote happened to coincide with his views on terrorism.

Anonymous VD June 01, 2012 3:19 AM  

But it does exist yes? For example to my knowledge no Shinto priest has ever yet said "Convert or die."

You simply don't know what you're talking about. Are you unaware that beginning in 1597, the Japanese murderously suppressed Christianity and banned it for 250 years? The Buddhist priests were more violent about it, but Shinto priests were almost certainly involved as well since it was Shogunate policy.

The correlation is far too weak to be significant as there are literally billions of religious people and almost none of them have ever killed anyone, much less over a failure to convert.

Otherwise, you risk absurdities like picturing him waking the next morning amazed that the essay he just wrote happened to coincide with his views on terrorism.

You quite clearly haven't read the book... or remembered that we're talking about SAM HARRIS here:

"Thoughts and intentions simply arise in the mind. What else could they do? The truth about us is stranger than many suppose: The illusion of free will is itself an illusion.

The problem is not merely that free will makes no sense objectively (i.e., when our thoughts and actions are viewed from a third-person point of view); it makes no sense subjectively either. It is quite possible to notice this through introspection. In fact, I will now perform an experiment in free will for all to see: I will write anything I want for the rest of this book. Whatever I write will, of course, be something I choose to write. No one is compelling me to do this. No one has assigned me a topic or demanded that I use certain words. I can be ungrammatical if I pleased. And if I want to put a rabbit in this sentence, I am free to do so.

But paying attention to my stream of consciousness reveals that this notion of freedom does not reach very deep. Where did this rabbit come from? Why didn’t I put an elephant in that sentence? I do not know. I am free to change “rabbit” to “elephant,” of course. But if I did this, how could I explain it? It is impossible for me to know the cause of either choice. Either is compatible with my being compelled by the laws of nature or buffeted by the winds of chance; but neither looks, or feels, like freedom. Rabbit or elephant? Am I free to decide that “elephant” is the better word when I just do not feel that it is the better word? Am I free to change my mind? Of course not. It can only change me."

Anonymous VD June 01, 2012 3:25 AM  

I think if you really nailed him down, he'd maintain that there is a causal relationship between belief and action, perhaps not direct but beyond mere correlation, but I haven't read the book.

How can you possibly have an opinion on it when you haven't read the book? I mean, I've pointed out how the book is clearly a significant change in his thinking, so drawing upon past books obviously isn't relevant here. He can't possibly maintain what you suggest, given his absolute and unmitigated statements about the illusion of free will and meaningful choice.

This is all strangely similar to his argument favoring airport security profiling. If you haven't reviewed that debate, you might find it an interesting parallel, especially since he seems to be losing it, and maybe for the same reason.

If you read TIA, you will find he never had it to lose. He's merely wrong for different reasons this time. As I noted above, he is shockingly lazy and careless. He is an engaging writer, however, which is why those who agreed with his anti-religious views and didn't actually think about his arguments tended to agree with him.

Anonymous Cornucopia June 01, 2012 3:43 AM  

True, I have not read the book. My interpretation from the quotes you've supplied is that Harris thinks thought and action are constrained in some way by conscious belief, but within that range we have no deliberate clue what is going to pop into our heads next. It's hard to see what else could be the case, since we don't will thoughts to appear (I don't anyway). This really seems to be putting the cart before the horse. It's true that sometimes we are appalled by the thoughts that occur to us, but then it seems that those reactions are spontaneous as well. I'm curious to know whether you have some type of will over your own mental processes and how that would actually work. On the other hand, it seems clear to me, and probably Harris, that conscious deliberation causally influences the thoughts and actions we have.


As I have now pointed out twice already, at most belief and action can be seen to run in parallel, but even correlation cannot suggest causation in this case because belief is not unconscious.


You seem to indicate that since belief is conscious, it can't influence subconscious, which then authors action, but this isn't necessarily true. There could be a feedback to subconscious from conscious mind. Then thought and action, which is spontaneous, is still causally influenced by conscious mind. The thing that seems to throw everyone is that there is a spontaneous step in there where thought and action just happen.

Anonymous VD June 01, 2012 4:09 AM  

You seem to indicate that since belief is conscious, it can't influence subconscious, which then authors action, but this isn't necessarily true. There could be a feedback to subconscious from conscious mind. Then thought and action, which is spontaneous, is still causally influenced by conscious mind. The thing that seems to throw everyone is that there is a spontaneous step in there where thought and action just happen.

Of course. Alternatively, action could author belief after being put through the subconscious spin cycle. Keep in mind that at this point, I'm just playing by the rules set forth by Sam's new book and the scientists. I actually think Daniel Dennett's criticism of Harris is generally correct and that the existence of free will is entirely safe. But that's the next post.

On the other hand, it seems clear to me, and probably Harris, that conscious deliberation causally influences the thoughts and actions we have.

That is not at all clear to Harris. He is perfectly clear that these are all illusions and our conscious deliberation is itself an illusion. Just read the book, it will take you about an hour as it's only 13k words.

Anonymous Cornucopia June 01, 2012 4:26 AM  

I just downloaded it. You're responsible for just making Sam Harris a few cents richer.

Anonymous Cornucopia June 01, 2012 6:33 AM  

Well, I just finished it, so now I'm qualified to comment on it. I thought it was pretty good, though I'm not sure it was worth the $4 I dropped on it. I still find compelling what I found compelling in his lecture. Free will, as in your willing a thought or action does not seem to be a coherent concept. It supposes something that can't exist in our phenomenal experience. If you are to will something, there must be something that wills, which can only come from another aspect of thought, and so we immediately drop into a regress. At some point, this process must bottom out, and it has to be in something other than thought. It's kind of a weird cognitive reflection of Aristotle's Prime Mover. You cannot just keep passing the buck on to another process of reflective thought. At the base of it all, there must lie a spontaneous instigator, a thought that simply appears to you unbidden (because to bid would be a further thought). Without that, I don't see how you can resolve this paradoxical regress.

Anonymous FrankNorman June 01, 2012 7:39 AM  

If the Bible is a unitary document then every part of it conforms with every other part. Understanding any one part necessarily confers understanding of every other part. If confusion is encountered then interpretation until conformity is achieved is indicated.


But the Bible isn't a "unitary document" - its a library of books that were written over a span of more than a thousand years! And the idea that every one of the authors knew everything any of the others knew is clearly contradicted by their own statements on that. Some things were not revealed to the Old Testament people.
Divine inspiration is not robotic dictation, nor is all liturature the same. Treating a passage of poetry or rhetoric with wooden literalness as if it were a legal contract is a bit brain-damaged.

Anyway, Wrf3 is re-interpreting Scripture in terms of his own worldview, not testing his worldview against the teaching of Scripture. People like him do not themselves follow what they preach at others.

Blogger Vox June 01, 2012 7:42 AM  

You're responsible for just making Sam Harris a few cents richer.

I don't mind. I'm more responsible than you'd probably imagine. I also helped him revise the religious questions he used in his failed experiment about which he wrote in The Moral Landscape. I harbor no personal animus for him, he's actually rather personable.

Blogger Vox June 01, 2012 7:43 AM  

I still find compelling what I found compelling in his lecture. Free will, as in your willing a thought or action does not seem to be a coherent concept. It supposes something that can't exist in our phenomenal experience.

Hold that thought. We'll get to it when I post on his ideas in the book itself, as opposed to simply juxtaposing them with his previous ideas.

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