Friday, 7 August 2009

sam harris - man of reason?

Sam Harris is rapidly making a name for himself - author of two books, outspoken atheist, critical of religion in the US, and now the founder of The Reason Project, a "nonprofit foundation devoted to spreading scientific knowledge and secular values in society".

The project is definitely about the secular approach to reason, for which read "atheism", even militant atheism. Its advisory board includes a who's who of modern western militant atheism - Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens, Grayling, Weinberg, Coyne, Atkins, Pinker, Venter, and a few who may be presumed to be anti-religion - Salman Rushdie and Ayaan Hirsi Ali. With a cast like that, one expects intelligent, even intellectual content, and scathing attacks on religion and superstition.

But what sort of person is Sam, the main man?

Harris has a bachelor's degree in philosophy and is current researching for a PhD in neuroscience. Wikipedia reports that he follows some practices (mainly meditation and control of "self") of Buddhism and Hinduism, but of course he does not believe the spiritual or superstitious aspects of those religions. And he has some outspoken views. Here are a few I have gleaned from the web.

The starting point for any summary is his atheism and criticism of religion, especially as practiced in the US. He argues that all beliefs should be based on reason, but religious beliefs are based on dogma and are anti-reason. He says no sensible person can believe many doctrines of christianity, and if an individual made up such beliefs we would think them "mad". He believes there is a taboo against arguing against religious belief, which is given too much respect, and that modern western civilisation's survival is threatened by religion, especially militant Islam. (All this from Wikipedia.)

All this is pretty standard militant atheist rhetoric these days, but some other aspects of Harris's views are attracting more criticism.

  • In his book The End of Faith (page 52-53), he says: ”Some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them.” He has been much criticised for this, on the grounds that he is advocating killing people not for what they have done, but simply for what they believe. He claims he has been interpreted wrongly, but also argues that there is a strong link between belief and action, suggesting he really does mean what he says.
  • In a chapter on Islam in the same book he says that if Islamic nations develop long range nuclear weapons, "the only thing likely to ensure our survival may be a nuclear first strike of our own". He says (somewhat contradictorily) this would be "an unthinkable crime" but also "it may be the only course of action available to us" and calls such a pre-emptive strike "an unconscionable act of self-defense".
  • Again in The End of Faith (p 199), Harris defends the use of torture, which "in certain circumstances, would seem to be not only permissible but necessary." He has copped a lot of criticism for this.
  • Harris is part of a growing movement among militant atheists to argue that science and faith are so opposed that it is not possible for a good scientist to be a believer. Thus he has joined a chorus of criticism of President Barack Obama's appointment of Francis Collins to a senior science post, not because anyone disputes Collins' scientific credentials, but because he believes that he can't be a true scientist while holding religious beliefs that cannot be verified by science.
  • In the same article, Harris suggests that it may be scientifically true that black Africans are less intelligent than other races, a view which has been labelled as both racist and scientifically in error.
  • These views lead him to be opposed to freedom of conscience in religious belief: "I hope to show that the very ideal of religious tolerance—born of the notion that every human being should be free to believe whatever he wants about God—is one of the principal forces driving us toward the abyss.” This too has drawn strong criticism even from his fellow atheists (e.g. Margaret Wertheim and Michael Shermer), who say his intolerance is as damaging as the religious fanaticism he opposes (Wikipedia).

Harris's critics also query his logic and his scientific basis, and some apparently contradictory statements.

  • His criticisms of religious belief as illogical and unproven seem inconsistent with his view of ethics: "the reliance on intuition, therefore, should be no more discomfiting for the ethicist than for the physicist." (EoF p. 183)
  • His embracing of some aspects of eastern religions, even the suggestion that "there may even be some credible evidence for reincarnation" (EoF p. 242) has been criticised by many.
  • Other critics argue that Harris doesn't apply scientific understanding in his criticisms of the harm done by religion ("scientifically baseless, psychologically uninformed, politically na├»ve, and counterproductive") and the motivations of suicide bombers (Harris's views are contradicted by research).

So those are some of the ideas of Sam Harris. They're perhaps less humanistic than one might expect and he seems to exhibit as much intolerance as reason. If I was an atheist, I wouldn't want Harris speaking on my behalf, but many people like him.

Thursday, 6 August 2009

the genesis enigma - and the andrew parker enigma

This story is a shocker, no matter how you look at it.

It has all the ingredients to get people going. One of the UK's top young research scientists, an evolutionary biologist from Oxford University, whose main area of research is in the evolution of sight and the eye. A well-received book on that subject, In the Blink of an Eye. A mild atheist. His name is Andrew Parker.

Then he comes out and blows everyone away by writing a book called "the Genesis Enigma: the Hidden Science of Creation". In the US the title appears to be "The Genesis Enigma: Why the Bible is scientifically accurate".

Of course the atheists are incensed. This interview in The Metro is hardly sympathetic, and the internet discussion boards are full of statements like: "It's sad that some people have this time bomb in their heads that, when presented with enough complexity, explodes and makes them think all sorts of craziness" and "It sounds as though Professor Parker found himself a pair of Bible goggles. Everything looks different when you look at the world through your Bible goggles." Angry disbelievers drew comparisons with Antony Flew, a recent high profile defection from atheism.

But hard-core creationist christians can't rejoice too much, because Parker is still a strong evolutionist, and said in the interview: "Creationism is totally unfounded. It is as dangerous as fundamentalism in other religions." And more moderate christians who believe in theistic evolution look a little askance because he seems to have no understanding of their carefully worked out rules for interpreting Genesis.

so what's the book all about?

I haven't read it, but it appears that Parker has started from orthodox evolutionary science (not something creationists do) and then found some interesting parallels in the Genesis account of creation, which he has interpreted rather liberally. But he concludes that:

"It appears that the author of the creation account had predicted precisely the true history of the earth and life. The Genesis Enigma will explain that no human could have constructed a creation story in this way, particularly in Biblical times."

So Parker, once "leaned toward being an atheist" but "that’s changed during the writing of this book" - "it’s the strongest evidence for the existence of God I’ve come across." But exactly what he believes isn't clear just yet - perhaps not even to him, as he seems to be still working out his conclusions.

Whatever you think of this conclusion, he is clearly a brave man who is driven by what he believes is the evidence. He won't be popular among his scientific colleagues.

The MailOnline has a sympathetic and constructively critical review of the book, which credits Parker's intelligence and credentials in evolutionary biology, but questions his finding such detailed evidence for evolution in Genesis.

I think we can learn a lot when established patterns are challenged. We can watch with interest, and perhaps a little trepidation, how this turns out.

Wednesday, 5 August 2009

either you got faith or you got unbelief

"Either you got faith or you got unbelief" Bob Dylan, "Precious Angel"

A book recently released ("Losing my Religion: Unbelief in Australia" by Tom Frame) studies unbelief in Australia.

The book utilises census statistics on religious affiliation. Frame distinguishes between disbelief (a conscious rejection of belief) and unbelief (not so much a denial of God as an inability to believe in God). Frame suggests it is the latter who predominate in Australia at present, and for most of our history. He says that few Australians have deliberately rejected belief, most simply can't see why they need to be bothered with religion at all.

He is critical of the more militant on both sides of the debate: "Recent interactions between certain religious believers and unbelievers ..... have been remarkable for neither respect nor amity. I attribute the main sources of discord to conservative Protestants and positive atheists. Neither group seems able to accept the other's existence."

Frame recently spoke at a session on religion at the Sydney Writer's Festival. Here is one blogger's summary of what he had to say:

"Religion is not just about being religious; it explores the questions we all face: life, death, ethics/morality. In Australia, nearly 80% of the population believes in a divine entity, 63% define themselves as Christian, with 5% identifying as non-Christian religion or spirituality. So the big questions that are being asked in the public sphere are what does it mean to behave (with a community and within society more broadly). Church attendance (from 30% -> 4-5%) is not an indicator that people are no longer interested in religion; all organizations with an outward form of affiliation are in steady decline"

I think most of that we already knew, but the discussion of the issues by a sane and balanced writer is welcome.

Sunday, 2 August 2009

near death experiences - could they be real?

We've all heard of them - people who are clinically dead for a while but are then revived, and who report experiencing things which their dormant brain should not be able to experience. There seem to be two main types of these near death experiences (NDEs):

1. People report travelling down a tunnel of light to a peaceful place, where they are met by a loved one who has died or a religious figure such as Jesus. After a short time in this blessed environment, they are reluctantly sent back to "real life", are revived from clinical death, and remember the experience.

For example, in 1964 famous comedian and actor Peter Sellers had a series of heart attacks. While his doctor tried to revive him, Sellers reports that he saw an "incredibly beautiful bright loving white light above me". "I know there was love, real love, on the other side of the light which was attracting me so much. It was kind and loving and I remember thinking That's God."

Sellers saw a hand reach through the light, and then a voice said: "It's not time. Go back and finish. It's not time." He felt himself return to his body and he woke up.

2. People can report details of what was happening while they were unconscious and clinically dead. Sometimes they observe the room from above, as if they were floating near the ceiling.

A famous example of this is Pam Reynolds, whose story is particularly amazing. Pam had a brain operation that entailed the doctors inducing cardiac arrest, her eyes taped shut and 95 decibel speakers placed in her ear canals, and the blood drained from her head. Despite all this, Pam was subsequently able to recall many minor details of what occurred while she was in this state, including conversations by the staff and the music being played in the theatre. These details were all confirmed by medical staff.

are these experiences real?

There are of course both believers and sceptics. The sceptics say that these experiences cannot possibly be real; either the stories are unreliable, or the people weren't really dead, or the experiences are the result of lack of oxygen and increased carbon dioxide in the brain.

On the other hand, researchers such as Drs Edward and Emily Kelly of the University of Virginia and Sam Parnia of the Weill Cornell Medical Centre have investigated many reports and say that the sceptics' explanations are quite inadequate.

so ..... ?

It seems to me that we might more easily dismiss the stories of visits to "heaven" to meet God or dead loved ones. These stories are generally unverifiable, they often reveal very different and contradictory aspects of the after-life and God, and the sceptical explanations may be more plausible. Even so, it is impossible to totally dismiss them.

However the stories where patients are known to be clinically dead (as far as modern medical science can determine) and their accounts of events in the operating theatre can be verified, are not easily dismissed, and the sceptical "explanations" so far seem weak.

So, perhaps these accounts "prove" there is life after death, but more likely they show that we still don't understand the relationship between consciousness and the brain. Perhaps there is indeed more to consciousness than what physical science so far understands.