I came across this debate that I hadn’t discovered before, perhaps because it’s from a Spanish or Mexican conference.
I think Harris‘ introductory speech was one of his best. For all its qualities of beating a dead horse, it’s a nicely worded, serious, and terse summary and starting point, putting in focus the inequality of argumentative foundations. While he chooses a target that is on the easy side, it’s strange that when he’s given bookfuls instead of minutes he is much less convincing.
D’Souza‘s argument is particularly vacuous. Any philosopher would simply dismiss it in seconds. Any concept pertinent to the big questions could be imagined, suspected or proposed, and suspending judgment would still be on the side of not adopting it. Concepts comparable to “there is life after death” are “before birth, we were digital objects in a virtualized computer”, or “every conscious creature’s soul is a microscopic consciousness inside every quark in the Universe”. The skepticism avenue to truth lies not in “Why not believe in these?”, but “Why believe in these?”.
Truth can never be an ever so carefully selected plateful of ideas from a smorgasbord of concepts, however appealing the ideas, if the smorgasbord contains every concept imaginable. To even be a smorgasbord, the undercooked and down-right vile concepts must first be sent back to the kitchen.
I had hopes, because at the very start he spoke as if he had actually gleaned evidence of life after death, but apparently failed to fit accounts of same in the time he had. I have a hard time imagining how this could happen, if the evidence were convincing. Nevertheless, it has apparently been substantial enough to fill a whole book?
Hitchens touches on the asymmetry, but in his first visit seems to fall short of his goals and appeals to anti-authoritarianism, though he gives a correct account of the gradual acceptance of chosen parts of Science by religious authority. Unfortunately that account becomes very coarse in the time limit set. The well of evidence for why this is a Universe as far from optimal for a prospering (or even briefly surviving) humanity as can be imagined is a well that never runs dry. We live in the flicker. If the realization of this manages to sink despite irrationality, we may extend the time before we are snuffed out by an indifferent Universe. If and until prophecies of saviors come true, we are the ones who must care, and we are the only ones who can.
Wright claims his brain wasn’t made to understand the underlying mechanisms of the Universe, and I can do nothing but agree. He goes on to tell us what he thinks, believes, and imagines about the important questions. In summary, he doesn’t know, and ask us to go on and say we should just confess we don’t know either. The field seems open for those who want to be his equal in um, so um, intellectual debate.
Taleb‘s sole strong point is at the very start. The etymologist he is, he correctly sees the misuse of belief aiming at what knowledge to trust. It is unknown if he is a believer, but it should strongly point out the asymmetry between trusting in religion and trusting in Science, or knowledge by trustworthy method.
Dennett, like Harris, again says that which is suspected by all. A believer might not think the interviews are of worth, and certainly doubt is a part of the history of belief and some have been made saints for their skepticism in their time – in the cases where the outcome was in favor of religion. He touches on the preacher-as-politician, which I believe coincide as one of the two oldest professions. It’s positive that he points out that the better morality is in the future, as we have seen other parts of our lives improve with time. It conveys trust in people and the future over trust in invisible authority.
Boteach, on his second try misquotes, and also misinterprets a wide array of concepts so gravely that the well-read Hitchens remands him out of turn, which is unforgivable. He mistakenly thinks non-belief requires use of Science as a basis for morals (perhaps addressing its main and to date quite lonely proponent: Harris), as opposed to the usual development of secular law we’ve seen in the last 1300 years to counter the various and curious moral laws of scripture that we, humanity, have found are dysfunctional and detrimental to society, in the face of the most severe authority to enforce it over the centuries. If anyone was thinking he saved the best for last, he must be let down, and to any intellectual he must appear maniacally uninterested in truth.
Sam Harris, in his second visit (as he confesses) chooses the easy target of the New Testament and avoids origins, and again impresses me with his succinct account. In the light of only this summary, believing in the New Testament would be preposterous. The devil, though (as we know) is in the details. The two points to highlight are the contrast to similar current miracles (videos of such by Satya Sai Baba, and likewise of David Blaine are also on Youtube), and the limited requirements for rejecting the gospel.
D’Souza, on his second attempt, tries to makes religion vs. Science same-same, ignoring the asymmetry of knowledge. Demokritos and Thales attempted to describe the world through argument and knowledge over authority and dogma. The desire for religion to adopt cherry-picked knowledge from the only source that provides any is encouraging, but if you’re not willing to instantly adopt knowledge in the face of the knowledge you claim, it’s worthless. Surely somewhere beneath his drives for antagonism and wants for religion to be some sort of equal source of knowledge he must at some level recognize this. He goes on to misperceive (again) what suspension of judgment means.
Hitchens‘ second visit repeats good arguments known by fans of his from his other debates, and as before, it puts the “How do you know this?” question of the religious side in a satirical light by contrasting it with how Scienctists come to know which proposition are true, or can be tested for truthfulness.
Taleb‘s revisit starts off well for the first few sentences and seems to hint at some argument-from-statistics that understandably he doesn’t have time for, but I have to give up gleaning his intent of the last half due to his grasp of English. Certainly, nobody would argue today that being ill and going to the church instead of the doctor is a good idea, regardless of the correct conclusion that going to a place where all sick people are gathered doesn’t improve your health. We have Scientists to thank for the discovery of the bacterium and the virus, and this builds on 17th century Scientists building microscopes while the church cared about “important things”. Without this empirical knowledge and Science, certainly Taleb would agree we would be worse off. The last time I got sick was at work. Surely he should suggest we dismantle labor society or admit to ignorance or hypocrisy. The weakness of this argument suggests it was not in his preparation for the debate.
Dennett‘s reply to Boteach’s moral questions follow the same lines, I discover, as my reply here (above). He is pressed for time manages to hint that where any scientist can completely overthrow the theory of another, independently of it being a response to a theory or simply the conclusion from data, the response of religion to scientific discovery is one of cherry-picking; adjustment; tweaking. Though the hint had to be coarse, I think it true, although I think in most cases it’s more a case of generations being educated rather than some sort of plot to bring, as he says, “flocks to congregations”. Surely churches must have learned to rely on more successful methods to do so. He touches on that Science offering only clues for the Big Questions, religion offers no knowledge at all.
Wright with his inconclusive indecision impresses me again as a sort of depressed stand-up comedian. I don’t know why I get that impression, but I think he would draw crowds from his general confusion. (Edit: I just figured it out. He reminds me of Rich Hall in looks and manner.)
I can’t really see how he can avoid seeing love as worthless for evolution and sexual attraction as the only topic evolution speaks of and is relevant to it. I think the most successful topic for religion is love. It’s mysterious, lovely, tangible, desirable, separate from biology, and has everything going for it to become the last remaining platform to which religion flees to claim itself the only proponent of. I have a hard time seeing Science ever successfully explaining the (as Harris defines it, self-transcending) love we know and cherish.
If you see a pattern in my analysis of proponents so far and suspect bias, I will claim it’s based on the arguments proposed. I would say the major point against new Atheists, so called, is that their chief line is argument-by-suspicion.
I would urge you to not subscribe to eagerly to inferences but look instead at what backs up their argument. The major point against the Theist “side of the aisle” is one that must surely become apparent: their side offers no knowledge about the big questions D’Souza brings up. He seems to see it as a battle. If he had some strategy going in, that was surely a terrible tactical move.
After this, visitor speakers are allowed two-minute speeches, and I missed most of them because I don’t know Spanish. They weren’t introduced, but the highlights were the Evidence of Absence speech (though it would have been more relevant if it were expanded, brought out of the “belief in propositions” arena) and the optimistic speech about adopting Science in religion, no matter what. It was my kind of approach to the subject. I say optimistic because the eternal problem is the nagging incompatibilities between historical religious claims and observation, hence in future the cherry-picking and no-problem-with-conflicting-beliefs attitude will linger.
Boteach squeezes in an opportunity at taking offence here, he the aggressor somehow expecting to not get anything in return, mentions the rest of the usual suspects on the proposedly Atheist dictor list, and comes off rather like an angry rapper demanding respect.
Two hours in, Harris returns to address belief. The highlight for me is that as much religion brings people together under one roof, when that faction gets competition they won’t let those of another in the house.
On D’Souza‘s third visit, he takes as example a claim from Genesis that is not in it. His slavery example only shows that Christians, when given enough time to grow big enough moral balls to go against the Bible, do what the secular champions of freedom and equality have stubbornly proposed for decades (I find out that Hitchens details this in his third visit). He was going nowhere with Life After Death, but time was short.
Dennett attempts to compare religious institutions to industries and markets, and that cannot be the avenue to go down – religion is too different from such, and I think he knows it.
Certainly Taleb is correct in saying that setting norms is valuable to society, is what religion has done, and sometimes to build great societies, and that Science has not. Where the norms have been acceptable by the people, they have become placeholders for the secular law and authority we follow today. Where people have disagreed or failed to meet the norms, religion has caused utter misery and wars.
But although religion sees it as its job to set the norms, it’s of course not the job for Science. This is why Science, as any rational man already agrees, should not and could never be a replacement for religion. Hence, it doesn’t try to be.
What remains is to argue positively for rational and democratic norms, which is what democratic republics have now also ended up with – for the most part.
His ending is interesting because the only institution that cares about the planet in any real way, in the way that they identify threats and produce data and technology to remove them, is Science. Not governments. Not philosophy. Not industry. And if God will somehow intervene to stop global warming deaths in 80 years and overpopulation starvation in 200, he seems to be waiting until we really, really need him.
Hitchens is out of responses and repeats his arguments why he thinks religion false.
Wright‘s third message is like his other two, a laundry list of what he feels and thinks, with a summary plea of “can’t we just all get along”. No. That only works if you’re disinterested in truth. Perception of reality and the big questions are much too important. Some devote their whole life to truth, and believers are not among them. Their very weak participation in the arena of pursuit of knowledge and truth has to be increased, and it’s something I wish for.
He expresses what must be a common feeling among the many who cannot participate in rigorous intellectual discussion.
Rational, well-founded, well-researched argument will always sound elitist to ears of those who lack the rigor and perhaps decide they have time to take only casual interest in the big questions.
There really is no way around that. What is needed is to develop the skill of not taking offence until you develop that rigor. If it’s going to the level of, “Oh yeah, you think you’re so smart”, I’m out.
The process of drawing conclusions from knowledge is an utterly undemocratic one. It’s a process of development of a person’s knowledge and judgment, and time in which to gather enough of the right data to judge at all. If we ignore this, the arena of knowledge becomes a political one where popularity and spin determine what knowledge-reduced-to-opinion becomes the placeholder for truth. You must be prepared for the eventuality that finding the truth requires more patience and more decades of life than you might have in you.
Debates like these are the deepest form of entertainment to me. :) It involves the whole of me like nothing else does. Although this debate is a few years old and the basic arguments are hundreds upon hundreds of years old, and its format is more than limiting, I’m glad I found it. Because it made me think.