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Wednesday, September 02, 2015

In praise of Sam Harris

In case you're interested, I was a guest on the first podcast of Challenging Opinions Episode One - Education, Religion and Liberty. Give it a listen if you're so inclined. A brief selection from the transcript:
Vox argues that Sam Harris is the worst Atheist debater around, but he is willing to give him a little praise:

William: You can very easily accuse people on the liberal wing, on the left, of being too tolerant of fundamentalist Islam, and Sam Harris stands up to the intellectual inconsistencies of some people on the left such as noted philosopher Ben Affleck;  that tendency does exist and he does challenge it, isn’t that true?

Vox: That’s absolutely true, and I would go even further and praise Sam Harris for biting the bullet, for addressing one of the most important flaws of the atheist secular humanist perspective, which is their discomfort with the obvious difference between "what is" and "what could be".”
That's what I find fascinating about Sam Harris. On the one hand, he is intellectually careless and the most intrinsically incompetent debater I have ever observed. His idea of defending his ideas is to make an assertion with obvious flaws, then attempt to deal with the straightforward criticism of those flaws by claiming that what he very clearly wrote or said isn't what he really meant. He does this in every single debate!

On the other hand, he doesn't hesitate to take the giant conceptual bull by the horns and wrestle with it. In The Moral Landscape, Harris recognized that the Humean distinction between "is" and "ought" is a tremendous problem for secular humanism. The fact that he utterly failed in his attempt to use science to equate the two doesn't mean that we should not praise him for embracing the philosophical challenge and giving it his best shot.

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39 Comments:

Blogger Jack Ward September 02, 2015 8:06 AM  

Never heard round the land that Vox Day was not fair. Oh, wait, the pc and sjw crowd claim that constantly. Does anyone with at least the necessary two neurons even listen to them anymore? [unless they are attacking you; then, see the book SJW's Always lie]

Please, get that print edition out. I have some relatives that don't use ebooks.

Anonymous PhillipGeorge©2015 September 02, 2015 8:21 AM  

this is important. To most SJW liberals there's no distinction between baby, bathwater and planned parenthood body parts markets. To today's witch hunters it's 'burn one, burn all'.
Again, and I'm saying this for someone else's benefit, the only thing wrong with Islam is that it is untrue. Fundamentalist, literal, liberal, sunni, sufi, wahabi, shia, militant, or nominal cultural.
The only thing wrong with them is that they are wrong.

Don't accept Jesus because He was nice, pleasing, patient or kind. Accept Him because He said Truth. Not some of it some time. All of it for an eternal ever.
September 2015

Blogger James Sullivan September 02, 2015 8:31 AM  

So, one might call him dis-intellectually honest.

Blogger dc.sunsets September 02, 2015 8:35 AM  

There is absolutely a value to understanding "what could be," as well as "what is."

A wise man must simply not mistake the former for the latter. That's where the Absurd Left, the Absurd Right and the Absurd Libertarian crowd each other. All of them see "what should be" (in their own minds) and somehow think reality should be herded in that direction.

I was and remain philosophically a libertarian-anarchist who believes it theoretically possible to have a society sans a monopoly organization of men for ultimate decision-making (a state.) That's "what should be."

I also recognize that not 1 in 1000 people would choose such a society, and that even if one were instituted, within three generations a king would be appointed. The Old Testament nails that axiom.

If we are stuck with humans as they are (150 years of Progressivist/Marxist attempts to make "New Man" notwithstanding) then we are stuck with a state. Paradoxically, the only way to tame the state is to provide it a strong competitor for the hearts of men.

So far as history is concerned, the Christianity of the West provided the best solution to this requirement.

If we want to see the state as untamed, look to the East, where despite 5000 years of Chinese civilization and a mean IQ above that of Westerners, the dominant condition of people is poverty.

Anonymous Rob September 02, 2015 8:54 AM  

It's telling that modern philosophers struggle so much with the is/ought "problem", as it is the premises of modern philosophy (namely, that we can't know things as they really are and the elimination of teleology) that make it a problem in the first place. Certainly Aristotle and St. Thomas had no problem deriving ought from is.

Another good example of this is the mind/body "problem." Did Plato struggle with this? Did St. Augustine? Why not?

Blogger Doom September 02, 2015 9:00 AM  

"The fact that he utterly failed in his attempt to use science to equate the two doesn't mean that we should not praise him for embracing the philosophical challenge and giving it his best shot."

You, perhaps. Me? Not a chance. I don't give myself any such breaks, I don't give them to others. Intent, practice, and final product, or nothing. Yes, it is steep. Yes, I fail, often... perhaps even usually. But it is what I expect. From myself, from others. Coloring books and comics, while perhaps fun or entertaining, are for children. So is trying and failing. Absolutely no credit.

Anonymous Krul September 02, 2015 9:27 AM  

I don't get the "is/ought problem" thing.

It's not like Hume claimed to have proven that you can't get an "ought" from an "is"; he just said that it "seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it."

He didn't prove it, nor did he attempt to prove it. He just recommended it in order to "subvert all the vulgar systems of morality". So why do modern philosophers accept the supposed impossibility of getting to "ought" from "is" as if it had been proven beyond a shadow of doubt? Did someone else prove it?

Anonymous Tom September 02, 2015 9:31 AM  

I guess it is a sign of our times that intellectual honesty, something that should be so common as to be assumed, is praised when it is actually observed.

Dealing with high school students makes this a frightening reality. They all seem to possess near SJW level abilities to maintain mutually exclusive beliefs across a broad spectrum of topics.

One example, for most students, whether or not they personally like a teacher determines whether or not it is acceptable to cheat in their class.

Anonymous Pilot September 02, 2015 9:33 AM  

@2

What is truth?

Anonymous Tom September 02, 2015 9:36 AM  

@7

You don't set out to prove the negative. You first set out to try to prove the positive statement. Hume is commenting that he can't even imagine how to go about proving the positive that "is" leads to "ought." I've never seen anybody prove that positive either, though I'm not exactly widely read in philosophy.

Anonymous anonymous coward September 02, 2015 9:38 AM  

If we want to see the state as untamed, look to the East, where despite 5000 years of Chinese civilization and a mean IQ above that of Westerners, the dominant condition of people is poverty.

The dominant condition everywhere is poverty. Simply by virtue of something called 'the normal distribution' and 'the central limit theorem'.

Blogger Student in Blue September 02, 2015 9:40 AM  

Other people who have is/ought problems: Gammas.

Anonymous Rob September 02, 2015 9:45 AM  

@10

Tom, the vast majority of the classical ethical tradition (i.e. the philosophical tradition which dominated the west prior to Descartes) saw no problem in deriving oughts from what is, as I noted in my post above. Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas are perhaps the greatest moral theorists of that tradition. Thus, the Nicomachean Ethics or some of the excellent introductions to the ethics of St. Thomas, such as those of Josef Pieper would be a good place to start.

Hume's "argument" (which isn't an argument at all, given that - as a professor once remarked to me - "an incredulous look is not an argument") is really just an admission that he either has not read the authors of the classical tradition or is unwilling to deal with them. This is alarmingly common in Early Modern philosophy. Witness, for example, Kant who set out to critique all metaphysics without, as far as I can tell, actually reading any serious works on metaphysics.

Blogger dc.sunsets September 02, 2015 9:57 AM  

One example, for most students, whether or not they personally like a teacher determines whether or not it is acceptable to cheat in their class.

Is this not an indication of living with an external focus? I find it much better to have an inward focus, identifying core moral axioms and hewing to them because I wish to make me a better me, while ignoring as much as possible the antics of the savages and monkeys surrounding me as they are irrelevant to my self-improvement.

Outwardly focused people (a vast majority) strike me as generally unhappy, too. I'm reminded that finding the ticket to Happiness Path (or Salvation) is not a collective pursuit. This was among the core values I communicated by example to my sons.

Anonymous Satan's Hamster September 02, 2015 10:04 AM  

@4: "If we are stuck with humans as they are (150 years of Progressivist/Marxist attempts to make "New Man" notwithstanding) then we are stuck with a state."

Perhaps. But the centralized, bureaucratic modern state is a product of the centralized, bureaucratic industrial economy. Most people are too busy working to do anything about the evils of the state, too reliant on their jobs to risk getting its attention as an opponent, and their employer collects a large fraction of their income and sends it to the state to fund its predations. This is why most protests are by SJWs and other unemployables, not by the productive people who actually fund the state.

A state like that is hard to sustain in a world where everyone can make what they need on a 3D printer in their basement.

Anonymous Farnswords September 02, 2015 10:45 AM  

I studied The Moral Landscape in writing up an essay arguing for God's existence based on morality, and I completely agree with Vox's assessment. He is pathologically intellectually dishonest, but he is not afraid to confront and define the real problems of atheism and the secular world.

Besides repulsive, I found his main argument in that book to be creative and thought-provoking. His utter failure is his disbelief in free will, which immediately negates morality. But he is correct in taking moral truths to be self-evident, observable facts on which to build logical conclusions about right and wrong.

This is not nothing: it is very important to bring him up as the quintessential example of the cognitive dissonance that atheists experience with respect to morality. Because he found one correct piece of the puzzle, it is easier for people to see that the rest of his puzzle does not match reality.

If anyone is interested in my essay, my name should link to it; it is just titled Morality.

Blogger Mindstorm September 02, 2015 10:56 AM  

Harris seems to endorse the idea of universal sanctity of life. Well, I am not convinced.

Blogger njartist September 02, 2015 11:01 AM  

@ 7. Krul
I don't get the "is/ought problem" thing.
Christianity: We are justified and made righteous and without sin in Christ; yet we are liars if we say we are without sin.

Anonymous natural butt implants September 02, 2015 11:08 AM  

> I'm sorry, but we have to come to the Kardeschians now
> I think every discussion at some point comes to Kardeshian

Great WTF moment at the end of the segment

Anonymous DNW September 02, 2015 11:09 AM  


"On the other hand, he doesn't hesitate to take the giant conceptual bull by the horns and wrestle with it. In The Moral Landscape, Harris recognized that the Humean distinction between "is" and "ought" is a tremendous problem for secular humanism. The fact that he utterly failed in his attempt to use science to equate the two doesn't mean that we should not praise him for embracing the philosophical challenge and giving it his best shot."


Yes. Give him credit for taking a serious problem seriously. Even if he hasn't found the way to derive a value from a fact in a non-teleological [ex hypothesi] world, without painfully obvious question begging.

At least he, and a few others of his kind, understand the moral and social implications of their own epistemological and metaphysical doctrines.

Some of them of course become outright moral nihilists. Their solution is to embrace the status of cosmic epiphenomena, and "to go along for the ride"; hoping to fill their quota of orgasmic satisfactions and genetically disposed felicities, through an all encompassing regime of social management and direction. Rather than argue you out of killing them, they plan to manage you out of the ability to do it

Then they can die happy and merge back into the eternal blackness of an unknowing universe; content that they have lived to their radically contingent and historically accidental "potential" (not to imply any intrinsic intentionality or directedness of course) whatever, and as ultimately meaningless as that might have been.

See? "just because" is a good answer after all!

Blogger dc.sunsets September 02, 2015 11:24 AM  

@#15
But the centralized, bureaucratic modern state is a product of the centralized, bureaucratic industrial economy.

Good point. At least in my case, the future promises to surprise. Change is life, and stasis is death. Any system made of living things will thus be dynamic, complex and thus prone to poke fun at any and all forecasts.

Blogger Aquila Aquilonis Fulminata September 02, 2015 11:31 AM  

This interviewer was an idiot.

Anonymous BGS September 02, 2015 11:41 AM  

despite 5000 years of Chinese civilization and a mean IQ above that of Westerners
One could argue that the smartest people are fleeing china, or that Bolsheviks, communists like to kill off smart people as a form of "Handicapper General", but the current masses in china are not above the masses of the ethnic west.

Anonymous Farnswords September 02, 2015 11:44 AM  

DNW

"At least he, and a few others of his kind, understand the moral and social implications of their own epistemological and metaphysical doctrines."

He correctly identifies the problem, but his solution is deluded, so I wouldn't say he understands the implications. He just doesn't grasp that removing free will removes morality, or that removing religion removes any possible purpose of existing or of being good for any reason beyond the practical. Although, he was honest about his idiotic views on punishing crime because of his position on free will. If there is no free will, criminals are just victims of poor brain composition.

"Some of them of course become outright moral nihilists. Their solution is to embrace the status of cosmic epiphenomena, and 'to go along for the ride'; hoping to fill their quota of orgasmic satisfactions and genetically disposed felicities, through an all encompassing regime of social management and direction. Rather than argue you out of killing them, they plan to manage you out of the ability to do it

"Then they can die happy and merge back into the eternal blackness of an unknowing universe; content that they have lived to their radically contingent and historically accidental "potential" (not to imply any intrinsic intentionality or directedness of course) whatever, and as ultimately meaningless as that might have been."

That was a beautiful expression of nihilism. It almost brought a meaningless tear to my eye.

Anonymous patrick kelly September 02, 2015 12:00 PM  

How have Aquinas or Augustine "proven" any ought from an is? I find myself in agreement with some of what little I know about their opinions, but a claim of proof brings out my skepticism.

Anonymous patrick kelly September 02, 2015 12:07 PM  

@16 Farnswords

Nice page, I'm enjoying it so far.

Anonymous Rob September 02, 2015 12:48 PM  

@24

If the world is teleological, as both St. Thomas and St. Augustine believed and as seems evident from our basic observations about reality (including the fact that it appears utterly impossible to speak or think as if the world were not teleological) if we refuse to grant the modern conceit that we cannot truly know things, then the ability to derive moral obligation from what is, specifically from the nature of the Good and from human nature, follows fairly matter of factly. There's not really a need to "prove" it, as it's simply an obvious feature of reality.

I'd add that most moral talk implicitly assumes the ability to derive moral obligation from what is, even if it outwardly denies this, much as those who deny free will cannot stop themselves from assuming free will somewhere in their accounts. naturam expelles furca, tamen usque recurret

Anonymous DNW September 02, 2015 1:06 PM  

. patrick kelly September 02, 2015 12:00 PM

How have Aquinas or Augustine "proven" any ought from an is? I find myself in agreement with some of what little I know about their opinions, but a claim of proof brings out my skepticism."




You will probably enjoy these if you have not read them already.

faculty.fordham.edu/klima/Blackwell-proofs/MP_C38.pd


http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/transcendentals-medieval/#GenOutDocTra






Anonymous patrick kelly September 02, 2015 2:17 PM  

@26
and
@27

Thanks, I hope to further into these subjects, but my pile of unfinished books, some actually started, has grown to unmanageable proportions for both my brain cells.

My initial knee jerk reaction is that "teleological" is an axiomatic, somewhat circular assumption and not absolutely universal, even though I tend to agree with it.

re: (including the fact that it appears utterly impossible to speak or think as if the world were not teleological)

And yet real people, in the flesh, do it all the time. Not saying they're necessarily right, but impossible is a big word.

My personal opinion is that objective truth exists, but *mere* humans are not objectively capable of observing, identifying, or describing it perfectly. I know, a lot of convenient qualification on my part, best I got right now.

I am painfully aware that I am a bit short for this ride and late for the party, but I will be happy to pull up a chair and drink some good whiskey with you.

Anonymous Rob September 02, 2015 2:49 PM  

@28

And yet real people, in the flesh, do it all the time.

I'm wondering if there's some conclusion about here about what we mean by teleology, because real people talk in terms of teleology all the time, and I'm not aware of anyone who is able to speak as if it did not exist.

Teleology simply means that things have ends, purposes, and we can not help but talk about things as if they have purposes. That's obvious with man-made objects, cars exist to move people around, pens exist for writing, and they are good insofar as they do these things well. A good pen is one which writes well, while a bad pen writes poorly. And it's also obvious in nature, especially in the case of living organisms: why do hearts exist? To pump blood. What are eyes for? seeing.

Teleology was supposed to have "defeated" or debunked by the theory of evolution, but evolutionary talk is absolutely rife with teleological language. "Such and such occurs to improve the reproductive fitness of an organism" assumes teleology. Once again we see how much of modern thought is predicated on simply ignoring basic reality and the centuries of philosophical tradition upon which it stands (seriously, ask a modern philosopher how they escape the problem of Parmenides, how many do you think even would know what you were talking about?.

Anonymous Rob September 02, 2015 2:50 PM  

read "confusion" for "conclusion" above and mentally add a close parentheses in the last sentence

Blogger James Dixon September 02, 2015 4:31 PM  

> A state like that is hard to sustain in a world where everyone can make what they need on a 3D printer in their basement.

True, but we're still a fair ways from that being the case.

> My personal opinion is that objective truth exists, but *mere* humans are not objectively capable of observing, identifying, or describing it perfectly.

Of course. We can only do our best and hope to improve on what we already know. But that doesn't mean it's not knowable, only that we're not up to the task. We're like ants trying to move a mountain, one time sliver of rock at a time.

Anonymous DNW September 02, 2015 5:27 PM  

"I'm wondering if there's some conclusion about here about what we mean by teleology, because real people talk in terms of teleology all the time, and I'm not aware of anyone who is able to speak as if it did not exist.

Teleology simply means that things have ends, purposes, and we can not help but talk about things as if they have purposes. That's obvious with man-made objects, cars exist to move people around, pens exist for writing, and they are good insofar as they do these things well. A good pen is one which writes well, while a bad pen writes poorly. And it's also obvious in nature, especially in the case of living organisms: why do hearts exist? To pump blood. What are eyes for? seeing. "


Not only is the "eyes are for seeing" proposition denied, but even function statements are derided. It is true that we seemingly cannot do without referring to intentions, purposes, and functions, but eliminative materialists assure us that that is just a consequence of the way we express, or are expressions or manifestations of, some portion of reality.

Of course when it comes to the purpose of organs, you might instead say that the action of the heart has the effect of moving blood around the body. But that is not much different than saying it "functions to move" or even has "the function of moving"; though the last is much stronger.

How they preserve the notion of "health" is a complete mystery. It is possible that the most ardent of progressive nihilists would, if they thought it might not redound to their social disadvantage, admit that they do not believe in the concept of health and thus homeostasis, and more than they believe in heterosexual normativity.

But I think that getting them to admit that health does not exist, would be only slightly less difficult than getting them to admit that, consonant with their own moral nihilist principles, it would not really be objectively wrong to kill them personally, if you found them annoying. That may be what is implied by their own worldview ... but try getting them to admit it.

Ultimately, they, the opponents of all teleological explanations, conclude that the same is the case not only of artifacts such as pens, or wrenches, but also of psychological acts of intention; which they assert are themselves illusory in some sense.

You might enjoy these, if you have not seen them already.

http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/materialism-eliminative/

http://nationalhumanitiescenter.org/on-the-human/2009/11/the-disenchanted-naturalists-guide-to-reality/



http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/materialism-eliminative/

Anonymous DNW September 02, 2015 5:32 PM  

Sorry,

Read, " ... the concept of health and thus homeostasis, and more than they ..."

As, " ... the concept of health and thus homeostasis, any more than they ..."


The two keys are not even near to one another ...

Anonymous Discard September 02, 2015 6:59 PM  

4. dc.sunsets: The Chinese do not have a higher average IQ than Westerners. The Chinese than come here have a higher average IQ, about 105, but they are not typical of their people.

Anonymous PhillipGeorge©2015 September 02, 2015 7:43 PM  

@9
Pilot - An: don't expect a pleasant retirement in Switzerland.

An: The Sum of His Word. - it seems to be the super-set.

Anonymous Anonymous Something September 04, 2015 7:10 PM  

All this talk of is-ought, and not one mention of Rand? I don't have the background to know whether the average philosopher [sic] would find her argument convincing, but I certainly do.

Anonymous Koanic September 05, 2015 1:20 AM  

I really don't see what the problem is with sociobiological moral relativism. Nor can I find much in the way of morality that ISN'T sociobiologically relative.

For example, amongst matriarchal Barbary Macaques open fights between males are morally wrong, and infant care is the status signal/determinant for both sexes.

Among Hamadryas Baboons, patriarchy and male violent competition are the norm, women are violently mate-guarded, and low-status incel males will attempt to sneakily murder infants.

Among Bonobos, pretty much all conflict resolution is a matter of mutual masturbation or sex.

Among certain spiders, the proper courtship ritual involves the female devouring the male.

If a culture cannot agree on morality, the solution is segregation of the sociomorally diverse into compatible subgroups. Thus the proper refutation of moral relativism is not, "That's relative," but "That's racist."

Likewise, whether a culture should value the opinions and freedom of women is a sociobiological matter determined by muscular dimorphism and innate male deference / female dominance.

Any non-religious moral argument divorced from sociobiology ignores that morality IS sociobiology, and is thus incoherent. Thus leftism must either shut up or acknowledge what we have always said - that it is a temporary maladaptive holiness spiral software bug caused by too-rapid immersion in modern conditions.

Leftism reduces to "Muh feelz, your status." It is not even "OUR feelz"; it just pretends to be via the televitz and/or holiness-selected priesthood.

Anonymous Koanic September 05, 2015 1:21 AM  

In truth, it is VOX's position that is incoherent. For he must claim that monkeys, lacking divine revelation, also lack social morality, which they obviously do not.

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