Monday, March 28, 2011

Sam Harris' "Moral Landscape," Part 3

The Ticker's new posting schedule begins with a guest post by Nick Peters which is part 3 of his review of Sam Harris' The Moral Landscape. On Wednesday I'll have a Book Snap on Bart Ehrman's Forged, which I got in the mail Friday.


Chapter three is about belief. In reality, there’s not much to comment on. A lot of it is neuroscience and not having knowledge in that field, I will not speak on it. In fact, it took awhile for me to find anything worth commenting on, but I did find a few points and those will be the focus of today’s entry.

On page 121, for example, Harris says “When we believe a proposition to be true, its as though we have taken it in hand as part of our extended self; we are saying in effect, “This is mine. I can use this. This fits my view of the world.”

This certainly could apply to people like the new atheists. We have seen several times where some atheists, such as one known as Voldemort, will latch onto anything so long as it goes against Christianity. Christ-myther writes a book? Sure! We’ll promote it! Copycat theories on the incarnation? No need to study it! We’ll advocate it! New book by the new atheists? Who cares about right and wrong! It agrees with us!

I would hope readers here would be more astute. I personally will state that if a side in a debate does a better job that they do a better job, even if I don’t agree with that side. I have made it a point to call out Christians who are even arguing for the side that I agree with just because their arguments were so bad.

When I say I believe something is true, I am simply saying that I believe that it is what best describes reality. For instance, I just looked up that in 1993, the Dallas Cowboys won the Super Bowl. I could care less about the Super Bowl. I don’t watch football at all. I only watch the Super Bowl for the commercials. When I look up that fact I am not saying “I can use this. This fits my view of the world.” I’m just seeing something that’s true. Granted, I could use that maybe in evangelizing to a Cowboys fan, but I seriously doubt it.

Harris goes on to say that we like the truth and dislike falsehood. This is not always so. There are some people who will die and go to Hell. I don’t like that truth. My wife and I are at this point in time struggling financially. I don’t like that truth. I would love to believe that all will be saved and that we have finances to survive easy, but I can’t. Truth is more important to me than happiness.

At a later point, Harris writes about the Middle Ages where a belief in witchcraft was omnipresent in Europe and says that a panoramic ignorance on physical causes of disease, crop failure, and life’s other difficulties caused this delusion to thrive. Thus, for Harris, it was all connected with witchcraft in the Middle Ages.
So let’s spend some time looking at Harris’s source for this information.

Well, it’s best to say I’d like to. Once again, he doesn’t give one.

On page 133, Harris says “Knowing what a person believes is equivalent to knowing whether or not he is telling the truth.” What? You can know what a person believes and know entirely that they are wrong even if that person sincerely believes that they are right. It would seem however that Harris cannot tell if Christians are telling the truth or not since he does not know what we believe. (At least, he has not demonstrated that.)

Finally, Harris tells of an experiment where some researchers got admitted to mental hospitals with each complaining that they were mentally hearing repeatedly the words “empty,” “hollow,” and “thud.” When they were placed in the hospitals, they immediately stopped complaining of their symptoms and asked to be released. Eventually, none were pronounced healthy and released with a diagnosis of schizophrenia that was “in remission.” Another hospital hearing about this said they would be able to spot them. They were promised some pseudo-patients, but none were sent. However, ten percent of the new patients that hospital had were said to be shams.

Why bring this up?

Because keep in mind, these scientists are the ones who are to determine our human values.

Keep in mind also that for the new atheists, these are the people who are supposed to know better than all of us.

Just something to think about.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

What is Truth? Practical Implications of Preterism

I have a lot of USDA work today, so I'm turning the Ticker over to a new guest author, Paul M. League, an earnest layperson who is investigating his faith more closely -- as a disciple should! He has taken an interest in preterism of late and has composed this essay on its practical implications. There is a link below to this essay's version on his personal site, which includes some references I could not readily reproduce here.


Mankind’s search for “the (absolute) truth” has been historically both satisfied and proven through one, and only one book; namely, the “Old & New” Testament Bible of the Judeo-Christian heritage.

The Bible is considered by many to be the best preserved body of work of antiquity of any, and this is, in part, due to the strong tradition of the most consistent and error free translations of it down through the ages by scribes, scholars and others. This fact being irrefutably confirmed with the finding of the Dead Sea Scrolls, where nearly whole books of the Bible proved that current translations had every material point correctly recorded. The most distinguishing aspect of this phenomena, however, is that it is the only book with a hundred percent accuracy in predicting both near and far future events, and in some cases, hundreds and thousands of years before their occurrence.

The most historical account and example of Biblical inerrancy and fulfilled prophetic pronouncements occurred with the incarnation of the prophesied Biblical Messiah, Jesus Christ, when, in the first century AD, he was born of a virgin mother, began preaching around the age of 13, and went onto to perform many miracles culminating in His later crucifixion, around the age of 33, with historical evidence confirming His Resurrection back to life three-days later. His tomb was heavily guarded, yet was found empty after His fatal torment on the cross and 3-days having been entombed. After about 40 days, where over 500 persons of His time personally witnessed His death to life triumph, He was seen to ascend to heaven, as attested to in the Bible, where He now reigns, in His Millennial Kingdom, as King of Kings and Lord of Lords, seated at the right hand of God the Father Almighty, the God of all creation (“Millennial Reign” simply meaning a time period of long and undetermined length, and an event that began around the time just following His ascension in the 1st century AD). In theological circles, that time period is referred to as the “end of the age”, the age of law being thereafter replaced with the “age of grace” where salvation from evil and separation from our Creator God is secured through justification by faith and belief in the life and work of the incarnated Christ Jesus as Lord and Savior.

A careful study of the Bible reveals that all prophecies of God have come true exactly as they were made and documented in the Bible; however, often time prophecies were not understood well by contemporaries of the time, or subsequent generations, and so too is the case with the incarnation, death, resurrection and subsequent ascension of Jesus Christ. Because His generation did no better in understanding many of His prophetic pronouncements, such as contained in His famed Olivet Discourse, there remains confusion about all of what exactly He predicted and the time frame within which its components were to be fulfilled.

To the rescue came various theological interpreters trying to make sense out of it all from Gnosticism, Preterism and Dispensationalism, to present day soothsayers like Tim LaHaye, who have invented such non-Scriptural imaginings as a secret second coming, pre-millennial rapture of believers and the errant end-times concept of two distinct dispensations, one having to do with the Israelites and a separate other with the Gentiles. Unfortunately, for most of these, only a form of Preterism, called orthodox or partial preterism, has proven able to accurately interpret the Bible in light of the Bible. It is of the utmost importance for mankind to understand the practical implications of this form of Preterist view.

First, this Preterist viewpoint makes it clear that not all of prophetic pronouncements contained within Christ’s Olivet Discourse and Revelation have been fulfilled yet, although, most aspects were fulfilled in the 1st Century AD following Christ’s victorious (He conquered over death as witnessed by His historical and well documented Resurrection) ascension to His Heavenly Throne. What remains then are only two things; namely, the prophesied 2nd Coming (“bodily” return) of Jesus Christ (this time as Judge of all mankind and creation) and the bodily resurrection of believers – the one true “body of Christ”, who are those who believe in Him and consists of persons from all nations and peoples of the world - to eternal life with God.

What does all this mean for us today?

Primarily it means that we don’t have to be in the dark, confused or any longer led astray about where we are in the time line of Prophecy and in the Creator’s plans for mankind in general. And, it makes clear what we are to be doing with our lives in the meantime.

Specifically, we can avoid and keep ourselves protected from the false musings of modern day end-times prognosticators like: Tim LaHaye (“Left Behind”), John Hagee, Joel C. Rosenberg , as well as against Word of Faith & Prosperity misguided preachers like: Kenneth Copeland, Joel Osteen, Joyce Meyer , a cast of characters whose heretical teachings have been well exposed and documented by Hank Hanegraaff in his award winning “Christianity in Crisis – 21st Century” (Thomas Nelson Publishing 2008. See Add to this the following:

1) You don't have to be constantly watching the news for signs of prophetic fulfillment, or be suspicious of things like debit cards or microchips (at least, not on spiritual grounds) being implanted on or in you by a so-called modern day arch-Antichrist. All you need do is to prepare yourself for Christ’s any moment return by living Godly lives in the here and now and doing Godly works of love and caring towards your fellow man, all the while centered on faith in Christ Jesus as Savior and Lord.

Orthodox Preterism, therefore, helps protect persons from errant teachings that are doing more harm in fanning the flames of an Armageddon-like scenario that, as Preterism makes very clear, was the subject of Christ’s prophetic Words but applicable to the 1st century generation to who He spoke His prophecy, and not to a 21st century generation. The Book of Revelation employs highly embellished symbolic language that represents a writing style genre that uses Old Testament imagery to communicate truths that while beneficial to mankind of all generations, was meant to convey and usher in the final phase of God’s redemptive plan for all humanity beginning in the first century AD. It also shed additional light on how the rest of the Bibles prophecies would be further fulfilled through God’s, yet future, prophesized 2nd Coming. So, whatever holocaust-like horrors man conducts since the period around 70 AD, they are not to be confused as the “Great Tribulation” of the 70 AD event predicted in the Bible that demonstrated God’s wrath on the sinners and hypocrites of His first century advent.

Orthodox Preterism, therefore, short-circuits any attempts by cults or heretical teachers, like those noted herein, to be successful in attempting to use Biblical prophecy to persuade people to their non-Biblical viewpoints. For example, the Jehovah’s Witnesses can't link themselves to the 144K saved remnant referred to in the Book of Revelation, the final Book of the Bible, if those people were the people Jesus referred to and who survived in the first century AD, but who are certainly not 21st century believers. And, Latter Day Saints (better known as Mormons), despite their acknowledged substantive history of good works, can’t validate any original prophecies from Joseph Smith’s the “Book of Mormon”, because that book is man-made and therefore not the inerrant, inspired Word of God, and because Mormons do not accept the deity of Christ, thereby contradicting the Bible itself.

Believers today will not endure a “Great Tribulation” because that tribulation occurred in Jesus' generation, the ramifications of which included the deaths of well over 1.3 million Israelites and the imprisonment of another 100,000 – a tribulation greater than any before to those who had rejected their Messiah, the very incarnate God Himself.

2) You don't have to worry about Satan, his group of fallen angels or evil spirits influencing anything in your lives. Instead, you do have to be concerned about your own sinful nature, and that of others, and its power to lead you into total rebellion and ungodly actions, the outcome being death and eternal separation from God.

Lucifer (also known as Satan or the Devil) has been bound since around the time of the victorious ascension of Christ, such that the evil we see and experience in this world is not from bad or evil spirits or the devil, but generated from and by man’s own fallen sinful nature. What is evil, and what is the cause or source of it? Since God created the world “good”, evil is nothing more than good being corrupted and man, since Satan’s being bound, not God, is the source of that corrupted good. God has set a moral standard, embedded in every person’s conscience, and it is only by that absolute moral standard that anything can be determined to be good or evil. Without God and his goodness, mankind would have nothing but a relative basis on which to judge or determine right and wrong, or morality in general (i.e. the modern day philosophy of relativism), and such a Godless conscience leads to ruin, corruption and ultimately to mass confusion and societal moral disintegration.

3) Jesus will return, but it is yet future, a yet to be completed part of His full prophecy.

Preterists make clear that Christ’s prophecy was directed to “this generation”, the generation of His time on earth during the 1st century AD, and the things that were “near” and “soon” to take place immediately after, or following, His incarnation and subsequent ascension. Everything He predicted would occur in that generation occurred, leaving only future elements of His prophecy to be fulfilled.

So, what all this means is that we are, with every passing moment, actually ever closer to the Lord’s 2nd return, His yet future prophetic 2nd Coming, which is to include the resurrection of all, living and dead, to eternal life with God or to eternal separation from God (a.k.a. “Hell”) in a new earth and new heaven.

This also means that believers (those who believe in Christ Jesus’, His incarnation to save them and who, with that belief and faith, have repented or turned from their life of sin and placed their trust in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior) will one day soon see their trials, tribulations and the evil in this present world, in an instant and like the blink of an eye, washed away for evermore.

More to the point, understanding the Bible for all its worth, as Orthodox/Partial Preterism helps us do, only affirms the veracity of the inerrancy of the Bible as proven through the historically verifiable fulfillment of each and every one of its prophecies in time.

“What is truth”, screeched Pontius Pilate to our Lord Jesus Christ before His sentence of crucifixion (a clear part of prophetic Scripture itself), with the Lord answering back and since, throughout the ages, I am that I am and My Every Word is Absolute Truth!

We now not only have ample proof to believe, but we are promised, as believers, the indwelling of His Holy Spirit to guide and comfort us.

We are called to test these truths of Scripture, and test we must, as this is, literally, a life and death calling. Each one of us has a choice that will lead us to a life of eternal communion or separation from our Father God. The choice is rather simple when one considers the Truths and fulfilled prophecies of the one and only Lord God Almighty and His Word Incarnate - Jesus Christ our loving Messiah & Righteous Judge – and His Word, the one and only Holy Bible.


Thursday, March 17, 2011

Sam Harris' "The Moral Landscape," Chapter 2

Today I will definitely be short on time (unlike Tuesday, that won't change) so here again is Nick Peters with a look at the next chapter in Harris' tome.


Chapter 2 of Harris’s book is called “Good and Evil.”
And yet, the whole chapter never once defines good and evil.

Harris wants to dispel at the start the myth that evolution entails selfishness as a biological imperative. He tells us “Selection pressure at the level of ‘selfish’ genes would surely incline creatures like ourselves to make sacrifices for our relatives, for the simple reason that one’s relatives can be counted on to share one’s genes."

Well, that takes care of the misconception for me.

Why bring this out? Because atheists are constantly telling us about how they’re good people for the sake of being good people. It sound like Harris disagrees. We’re good because it’s beneficial to our genes.

As Harris goes through this chapter, he tells us on page 59 that “Morality---in terms of consciously held precepts, social contracts, notions of justice, etc. --- is a relatively recent development.”

I almost thought I’d drop the book at that one.

I’d love to see his evidence of a human civilization that did not have a concept of justice. Now has there been refinement? Of course. Still, the concepts were there in the past. Perhaps he should read some works talking about justice such as the Republic by Plato or the Nicomachean Ethics. It’s statements like these that make me wonder just what philosophy exactly was Harris studying to get his degree?

When speaking about good and evil and using terms like worse and better, Harris says that our intuitions tell us what is meant by these terms. Whose intuitions however? While I do believe we all know the basics of right and wrong and you could call that intuition, on the finer points, intuition is a terrible guide. Why do I suspect however that Harris’s sources of intuition will be people in 21st century America, especially atheistic scientists?

Still, whenever Harris brings up intuitions, as he often does, I want to know why we should trust our intuitions. If we are the result of an accident, why should I think the brain that is the result of an accident can get anything right about something like the concept of right and wrong outside of the brain? Why should I think my brain is correct in telling me what is right and wrong?

Of course, on page 62 and onward, Harris takes a swipe at religion noting that those who believe in God also go by consequences, such as receiving the benefit of having pleased God. The problem is that yes, we Christians do seek to bring glory to God. However, our morality is not determined just by what we think brings glory to God. Note that Paul said we are not to do evil that good may result. (Romans 3:8) The action is also important as well as the intent behind the action. Good morality does not ignore consequences, but it also realizes that there is more than consequences. Harris is right in saying religious people care about consequences. He is wrong in saying that because we care about them, then that is all we care about.

On page 66, Harris makes the point that we do not need uniformity for answers to questions of right and wrong. I agree. He states that ignorance of a scientific worldview does not mean a scientific consensus should be called into question. I have no problem with this. I don’t think there needs to be consensus for there to be truth. So why bring this up? Just put this in the back of your mind for now.

My fear comes out about this book again on page 72 where Harris talks about the ideal world we would create if we rely on only consequences. He states that we might want to painlessly kill many of the least happy people alive to bring about well-being for the whole. Now I do not think Harris wants to do this. In fact, I am certain. However, if all we have are consequences and if morality is just brain states and the scientists determine that this will bring about our happiness, well why not?

Now we come back to page 66 for on page 78, Harris says why he dismisses revealed religion as a source of moral guidance. The first reason he lists is that there are many revealed religions available to us and they disagree.

But on page 66, we could say there are many scientific theories out there and they disagree. Why is it that consensus suddenly matters here Harris, but when it comes to your science, it doesn’t?

The second reason is practices like slavery are not condemned. Of course, Harris shows no understanding of slavery in the ANE. See the link below by Miller on slavery in the Bible.

The third is that what we use to validate religious precepts, such as judging the golden rule to be wise and the murder of apostates to be foolish, does not come from Scripture, but is rather what we bring to the Scripture.

This is the kind of statement that makes me want to scream.

No, Sam. It is not the claim that something is moral because the Bible says it is. Rather, the Bible records it as moral because it is. It is not being said that we did not know morality without the Bible and that we cannot have morality unless we have the Bible. Of course, you’d never know this since Harris gives no sources.

The final reason is just that he doesn’t see any evidence.

Yep. In one paragraph again, Harris thinks he’s done it. All high school level apologists sit back and laugh now. That’s all you really need to deal with Harris after all.

Interestingly, page 78 is in the middle of 66 and 86 and on 86, Harris cites two other scientists who think that the existence of moral controversy nullifies the existence of moral truth.

Remember everyone: Controversy only counts against truth when it’s in the case of religion.

In referring to one of these two, Jonathan Haidt, Harris cites Haidt as saying “If morality is about how we treat each other, then why did so many ancient texts devote so much space to rules about menstruation, who can eat what, and who can have sex with whom?”

Oh, I don’t know. Maybe it could be because these were all standards of purity that were held in ancient societies. Maybe Haidt wouldn’t make a big deal, if he doesn’t understand purity, if I threw a handful of dirt on his carpet. Of course, who you can have sex with obviously has nothing to do with interaction. Surely none of us would mind if other people had sex with our spouses or if our children started sleeping together.

On page 89, we read the following from Harris:

Of course, it is now well known that our feeling of reasoning objectively is often illusory. This does not mean, however, that we cannot learn to reason more effectively pay greater attention to evidence, and grow more mindful of the ever-present possibility of error. Haidt is right to notice that the brain’s emotional circuitry often governs our moral intuitions, and the way in which feeling drives judgment is surely worthy of study. But it does not follow that there are no right and wrong answers to questions of morality. Just as people are often less rational when claiming to be rational, they can be less moral when claiming to be moral.

So Harris has just told us that the feeling of reasoning objectively is illusory and those claiming to be rational are often less rational.

Why should I trust his opinion then? Keep in mind he’s the one who heads “Project Reason.” He’s one of the ones trumpeting rationality. Now he tells us that those claiming to be rational are often less rational and that on top of that, their belief of reasoning objectively is often illusory.

Did he even read this book before it went to print?

From here, Harris goes on to talk about free-will with the end conclusion that free-will is an illusion. He even states that he is not free to change his mind. His mind instead changes him. (104)

And you’d think in all of this Harris wants us to change and respond to him. It’s just amazing.

There is not much else in this chapter. The work keeps getting shorter and shorter as Harris brings up the same lines he’s brought up several times before.


Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Sam Harris' "The Moral Landscape," Chapter 1

I'm short on time today, so here's Nick again with a look at Chapter 1 of Sam Harris' The Moral Landscape.


Interestingly, Sam Harris begins this chapter with a point I agree with. He talks about people who espouse moral relativism and then condemn immorality.

Anyone who has ever done debates with someone who espouses moral relativism knows that this is the case. Too often, what they do is just plant their own personal morality without any foundation. The sad reality is that I believe Harris does the same thing.

Harris does not espouse moral relativism. However, he does say on page 28 that “I am arguing that science can, in principle, help us understand what we should do and should want---and, therefore, what other people should do and should want in order to live the best lives possible.

I have stated before that this is in fact my fear because it will not be science that does it but scientists doing it. It will also not be based on studying the things themselves, as good philosophers do, but it would rather be based on studying the brains of people, and whose brains will we study to be the authority? One can hardly doubt that it will be those of the scientists themselves.

Shortly afterwards, Harris says that he is not claiming that moral truths exist independent of conscious beings as if they were Platonic forms. What Harris does not realize is that there are other ways of seeing these truths existing other than in the idea of forms in the sense Plato understood. For Plato, the forms could exist independently. For Aristotle, forms exist insofar as they are in a substance. The form of humans exist in humans. That does not preclude the idea of humans existing in a divine mind, such as the mind of God, but the form does not exist independently of God’s mind.

Moral truths are then based on what the essences of things are. Why is it that you can kill a bacteria but you cannot kill a human being? (Note. I do understand killing and murder are different, but I am speaking in a generic sense) It is because of what a bacteria is compared to what a human is. We are to treat things based on their nature. Why is it that a thrown rock breaks a window? Is it because there is a law outside of the rock and the window that the two must obey, or is it more likely that there is a response in the nature of a window when it meets the nature of the rock in motion? It happens so regularly and predictably that we call it a law, but the law is based on the things themselves.

I realize this is complex, but Harris’s position is too simplistic as he only brings up Platonic objections, which is something many atheist thinkers seem to do. Note also how we will see theories of morality are based only on voluntarism and not on other theories of morality in theology.

Harris is also right later on saying that consensus is not necessary in truth. He points out that people will see scientific controversy and think that that destroys all of science. Such a notion would be rather simplistic, but as we will see later on, that does not stop Harris from doing the same to religion. It is ironic Harris does this while condemning double standards. One only wishes he would follow his own advice, but that is to come later.

Considering however that moral truth could come from a transcendent source, Harris says the following revealing much on page 32:

So how much time should we spend worrying about such a transcendent source of value? I think the time I will spend typing this sentence is already too much.

Harris already thinks that such a source cannot affect the life of any conscious creature. How this is known? We don’t know. That Harris spends so little time thinking about a serious option that philosophers have wrestled with for thousand of years shows we don’t have a serious thinker. I wonder what he would think if I said something like this:

So how much time should we spend considering the possibility that there is a non-miraculous explanation of life arising on our planet? I think the time I will spend typing this sentence is already too much.

One can picture Harris being indignant, and rightfully so. “This is a serious matter! We need to know it if it’s true!” Precisely! If there is also a source of morality outside of us that is beyond us and would also be eternal and unchanging, does it not behoove us to know it? “Well no, because that would not be scientific.”

What about religion however? Harris says on page 33 that those who say we should follow God’s Law say that we should “for its own sake.” Harris asks questions like “What if a more powerful God could punish us for following YHWH?” (Well if you think you can make an argument for one go ahead) “Aren’t religious people also seeking to find happiness and avoid misery?” (Well yeah, and we believe that following the guide of our creator is a way to do that.) For Harris, in the end, they’re seeking well-being also and therefore, their account cannot be exceptions.

Yes. All of this in one paragraph. In one paragraph he presents the religious position.

No one doubts that people seek well-being. Harris states that all ethical systems somehow end in well-being. Well geez. Is this supposed to be a surprise? Everyone go and celebrate. Sam Harris has ended thousands of years of debate in ethics by pointing out that people seek well-being.

Um. No. What the problem is is not that people seek well-being, but that people do not know what well-being is. Harris realizes that it depends on what it means and points to what matters to the average person. Ah! So now the consensus does matter! After all, who will be average? Is it the average American or the average Mediterranean? The average teenager or the average senior citizen?

Or, lo and behold, will it be someone like Harris himself?

Harris goes on to say that we all have an intuitive morality. No problem there. However, he also says that most of it is clearly wrong. What is wrong? We don’t know. He doesn’t say. Of course, he does use this to attack religious cultures. (One can easily picture Harris frothing at the mouth as he writes cackling with glee at any chance to strike religion.)

How does he know that they are clearly wrong? Is this clear to everyone? If so, then is this known apart from science? Could it be we actually know moral truths apart from science? Surely not!

On the next page, Harris makes a point that I have been making. Science cannot tell us why scientifically we should value health. Indeed. It could tell us what health is, but it cannot tell us why we should value it. It cannot give a should at all.

On page 38, Harris tells us that it is worth noting that the God of Abraham never told us to treat our children with kindness. However, he did tell us to kill them for talking back to us.

First off, why would God need to tell the children that? In that culture, your children were your future and your livelihood. You wanted them to grow strong so they could continue the family and be around to support you in your old age. (Never mind Ephesians 6 also contains duties for parents to children) However, let’s look at his references.

Exodus 21:15 is first saying anyone who attacks their father and mother is to be put to death.

Yes. How innocent it would be in a society where the family was the main social unit responsible for the upbringing of the next generation if children were given a blank check to attack their parents. This wouldn’t be seen as a serious crime. How horrible it would be if we actually taught children to respect their parents!

(Note that this could also be rendered as “kills their parents.”)

The same applies to Leviticus 20:9 which would mean one who essentially wishes that their parents were dead. This would be seen as a form of treason in such a society leading to social upheaval.

Deuteronomy 21:18-21 is the classic one so often used. Links to my treatment and that of JPH’s can be found at the bottom.

Mark 7:9-13 and Matthew 15:4-7 have absolutely nothing to do with the idea that children can be killed for talking back. Rather, this was about children not taking care of their parents and using God as an excuse. Harris is obviously not counting on his readers reading these passages, or he is ignorant of what the passages mean, or both. Note once again that Harris can’t avoid a chance to snipe at religion.

Harris asks us to imagine if there were only two people that existed known as Adam and Eve. He asks us to imagine what it would mean if they attempted to kill and eat each other. Would it be wrong? (italics his) Harris says yes, but only if we mean they would be forsaking better means of satisfaction.

I wonder if I really need to go any further? Harris can’t see ipso facto that for someone to attempt to eat someone else would be just wrong in itself?

On page 46, Harris continues his usual rant on religion and this time says “Among conservatives in the West, the same skepticism about the power of reason leads, more often than not, directly to the feet of Jesus Christ, Savior of the Universe.”
Whereas misuse of the power of reason in the West leads, more often than not, to identifying yourself as a new atheist.

I am a strong believer in the power of reason and would love to debate Harris someday. I happen to know many other conservatives who would enjoy such a thing. Perhaps Harris should accept all of our challenges. After all, we are skeptical of the power of reason supposedly. It should be an easy challenge. Has Harris not read at all any of the great philosophers in Christian history from the apostolic era to now? Wait. No need to answer that question. I already know.
On page 51, Harris takes a swipe at honor cultures. He uses the example of his wife working out at a gym one day when a handsome stranger hits on her. She politely informs him that she is married and yet the man persists. Now I agree with Harris on this point. If someone did that to my wife, I would definitely be ready to make a response to this person.

Harris says on this page:

Had this happened in a traditional honor culture, the jealous husband might beat his wife, drag her to the gym, and force her to identify her suitor so he could put a bullet in his brain. In fact, in an honor society, the employees of the gym might sympathize with this project and help to organize a proper duel. Or perhaps the husband would be satisfied to act more obliquely, killing one of his rival’s relatives and initiating a classic blood feud. In either case, assuming he didn’t get himself killed in the process, he might then murder his wife for emphasis, leaving her children motherless. There are many communities on earth where men commonly behave this way, and hundreds of millions of boys are beginning to run this ancient warfare on their brains even now.

Any citation for this? Not a one. Harris gives no indication that he has read anything on the topic.

Note also Harris says that he views the emotion of jealousy with suspicion. See info from JPH on that below.

Finally, Harris says the following on page 53:

And the fact that millions of people use the term “morality” as a synonym for religious dogmatism, racism, sexism, or other failures of insight and compassion should not oblige us to merely accept their terminology until the end of time.

More often than not, people who think like this I call “new atheists” and I am thankful Harris realizes that I do not have to accept his terminology until the end of time.

While I have finished this chapter, more is coming, and I was not even able to comment on all I saw in this one. The founder of Project Reason needs to use some.

On Deuteronomy: Here and here.

Jealousy: See here, Ex. 20:5.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Depth Review: Sam Harris' "The Moral Landscape", Part 1

It turns out I'm short on time today, so I'm turning the Ticker over to ministry associate Nick Peters, who is offering us a depth review of Sam Harris' The Moral Landscape in a series. I'll be back with more on bar arguments against the Resurrection tomorrow.


Sam Harris has been touted as the rock star of the new atheists and his latest book has already begun rocking the blogosphere. What is claimed to be found in it is the way that science can determine human values. What is found inside however is not science, but a lot of philosophy, and not just philosophy but extremely bad philosophy, with of course the customary new atheist rant against religion.

First, a concern about the subtitle of “How Science Can Determine Human Values.” If Harris chose this subtitle, then I have revealed a lot more about him than I ever wanted to know. However, if someone believes that science can determine human values, be very afraid. After reading just a few pages of this book and thinking about this thought, I told my wife that the concept left me terrified for the thought of people taking it seriously, and she knew why immediately.

My wife and I are both diagnosed with Asperger’s disorder. Note how this affects us. It is not science discovering human values as if they existed apart from us. It is science determining them. It is deciding what they will be. Note also that this is human values. Values are subjective. I value X. That tells you about my view of X. That does not tell you about X itself. What is being said then is that science will tell us what we ought to see as good and what we ought not see as good. Do I have any reason to think that if that is consistently believed, then lives like mine and Allie’s who are “disabled” will be seen as not being fully capable of “well-being” and thus need to be eliminated from the gene pool?

Now I want to be clear. I am not saying that Harris himself wants to do this. I do not see this kind of personal evil in him. However, I am saying that if his ideology is lived out, it can have consequences that he himself would not want to have, but he would have to accept, unless of course he wants to look to something besides science to find what is and isn’t good.

I also wish to add that this book is even more horribly researched than The End of Faith. I saw in the back three evangelical Christians referenced. Only one was interacted with and that was hardly an interaction as we shall see when we come to the fourth chapter. There is no mention of Natural Law theory. We will find the objections against religion informing us on morality are incredibly weak and more of what has been seen before. Harris is a terrible researcher. As a conservative, I am reminded of the joke that for a liberal news station, their idea of both sides is having what a liberal says and then what a liberal says about what the conservative says. For Harris, it’s what science says and then what science says about what religion says.

Let’s go to the text for the introduction with this.

At the start, I notice a statement that shows to me the double-standard of the new atheists. In talking about questions of morality, Harris says “And it is important to realize that our inability to answer a question says nothing about whether the question itself has an answer.” (page 3)

Right you are, Harris! Now do you think you could teach the rest of your atheist friends this about the problem of evil where since I cannot supposedly give a specific reason why God allows X, there is no answer? It’s okay to have an enterprise that doesn’t have all the answers immediately, unless that enterprise is religion!

For Harris, the answers, however, are to be found in neuroscience. How do you determine what is good? Well you look at someone’s brain and see how they respond. Now I have no problem with doing experiments of that sort, provided of course they do no injury to the person. My problem is that Harris thinks a brain state can tell you about the external world. It can only tell you about what I think about the external world, and even then it can barely do that.

For instance, I am looking at an object. Suppose you cannot see what I am looking at. Can you study my brain and determine what color the object is? Can you tell me how big the object is by studying my brain? How about its weight? Can you tell me any properties whatsoever? (You might say it’s visible, but even then, I could not even be seeing something for all you know and just hallucinating.)

If all we have is brain states, we cannot even avoid the question of if we’re brains in vats. Maybe we are. People in the Matrix could tell you a lot about what they were looking at and you could have studied their brain states and found out a lot about their brains as well. What you could not find out was if what they were seeing was really there. In the Matrix, it wasn’t. It was all part of a program. Or, maybe we’re in Bishop Berkeley’s world. Maybe the material world is an illusion sustained by the mind of God for us. Why believe in matter?

Harris goes on to critique what religion says about morality. Harris says that for religious conservatives, something is right because God says so. We can use rational inquiry for everything else, but values must come from a voice in a whirlwind. (Page 5)

I don’t know what religious conservatives Harris is talking to and naturally, he doesn’t cite any. The conservatives I know of argue from natural law theory and other such means. Even if they hold to a divine command idea, they hold it in a far different way than Harris gives and would not object to rational inquiry.

Perhaps this might be how Harris was raised with religion, if indeed he was. If so, then he is again in the fundamentalist mindset. He’s just changed allegiance.

Harris also says that multiple moral answers could exist to the same question that could be valid. I agree. Say you want to give money to a charity. Which one? There are multiple answers to that, but some are just wrong. If you give your money to Planned Parenthood for instance, I would say that is wrong.

Harris tries to use food as an example, saying there are many types of food that are healthy. The problem is that food is not healthy in itself but healthy in the sense that it is what brings about health. Actions on the other hand are not what bring about morality per se but they are moral or immoral in themselves. If Harris wants to say that only the ends are good however, which is what I gather from his book, then one wonders what evils cannot be permitted to bring about the greatest well-being for all.

For an example, consider if we have an isolated island where it seems no one will rescue the people on the island. There are 49 men and one woman. This is a community in itself. The men want pleasure and so they make it a practice that regularly, they will each take their turn raping the woman. By doing so, 49 people get great pleasure and 1 gets great suffering, but the many benefit far more than the few.

I’m sure Harris would condemn this, but that is a problem for a view that says, "the greatest good for the greatest number of people." Some actions are just evil in themselves, like rape, and no matter how much pleasure is brought to men by that action, the action cannot be justified.

Harris tells us that science will one day make precise claims about which behaviors are good, which are neutral, and which are worth abandoning. This is a disturbing claim for you can be sure that it will not be science that does it but scientists using science. Richard Dawkins can say all he wants to that science flies people to the moon and religion flies planes into buildings. Never mind that science gave us those planes and religion gave us the impetus to do science. The reality is in both cases, there are people who are evil and people who are good and want to use religion and science both.

Harris goes on to list Moore’s objection to finding goodness in the natural world. Moore said it could not be done and was a naturalistic fallacy. You cannot just say a property is good without knowing what goodness is. Harris’s answer to this is to say carte blanche that well-being is good.

To which Moore would say, “Why?” On the island, is it the well-being of the men, the well-being of the woman, or the well-being of the community as a whole that matter? In reality, should we join the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement for the well-being of the planet? Should we follow new age believers and put the well-being of bacteria on the same level as the well-being of humans? What does Harris believe about the well-being of the child in the womb?

What would it mean to say that well-being is good? Does it mean that well-being is goodness? Then if I say “This pizza is good” or “This song is good”, am I saying that each is well-being? If instead it means what I would think it means, that well-being is that which is described as good, then again the question arises, what is the definition of goodness by which you recognize well-being fits?

Harris never answers. There is no record of Plato’s concept of the good. There is no interaction with Aristotle’s definition of the good in the Nicomachean Ethics. Harris just wants to suddenly say that this is what goodness is. Now I am not opposed to well-being nor am I opposed to calling it good, but Harris has not answered Moore’s objection.

In speaking about maximizing well-being, which again Harris doesn’t explain, he says that whatever can be known about it must at some point translate into facts about the brain and its interaction with the world at large. Thus, the study of reality will come down to studying the brain. We can again come to the brain in the vat problem. I do not believe Harris would just destroy morality if he followed this route and make morality subjective ultimately. I also believe that he will destroy science as our knowledge of the external world could be the same as morality. It’d all come down to brain states.

Interestingly enough, one gets the picture that unwittingly, Harris has fallen into a teleology. Suppose he was right about morality taking place in the brain. Why is it that a properly functioning brain is one that brings about the discovery of moral truth? Harris will say that brains that aren’t functioning right produce psychopaths and others. Why? Why should it be that the functioning of the brain can tell us about a concept that is not material, namely goodness.

Harris says he believes that saying goodness is that which maximizes well-being stops Moore’s objection. Harris says on page 12 that it makes no sense to ask if maximizing well-being is good. Actually, it makes perfect sense to ask that. If I don’t know what goodness is, how can I know if maximizing well-being fits the bill? In fact, considering Harris himself cannot define well-being, then I have more of a quandary. On the island, whose well-being will we go with?

Harris goes on to describe the good life and the bad life. For the bad life, he has a widow in a third world country. At the point of a machete, her son was forced to rape his younger sister and then dismember her. You are on the run with killers in pursuit and such violence has become part of your life.

For the good life, you are married to the most wonderful person you have ever met and you each possess love, intelligence, and charisma. Your careers are rewarding in every way and you have enough means to do the activities that satisfy you most. Furthermore, you’ve just received a huge grant to benefit children overseas.

Now I agree that most of us would choose the second life, but the question to ask first is if Harris is saying the first kind of life is not worth living. If so, are there going to be other lives that are seen as bad lives? Could it be that science might one day maximize the well-being of society by eliminating such bad lives?

Second, Harris is unfortunately making happiness dependent on external realities. Now they do play a part in our happiness, but cognitive therapists today will tell you that what causes happiness is not so much what happens to you, but what you tell yourself about what happens to you. I believe the early Christians being martyred had much happiness as do those who are martyred today, while there are no doubt celebrities with vast wealth who are entirely depressed.

Amusingly, as we go on, we see that Harris says on page 22 that the chief enemy of open conversation is dogmatism in all its forms. This is so amusing since Harris himself is quite dogmatic against religion. Being dogmatic is not bad, however. It is holding to a truth claim based on the end of the thinking process.

Now I believe there are ways of being dogmatic that are not good and there is mindless dogmatism, like that of Harris, but there is nothing wrong with being sure you are right and stating it. If Harris believes such, then he should cease writing books. (Come to think of it, that might not be a bad idea. It would definitely maximize the well-being of society.)

Harris’s dogmatism is seen just two pages later talking about scientists at a convention not wanting to attack religion. Harris describes them as “people who looked like scientists, had published as scientists, and would soon be returning to their labs, nevertheless gave voice to the alien hiss of religious obscurantism at the slightest prodding.” He then says later on on the same page, “Consequently, it should come as no surprise that I see very little room for compromise between faith and reason on questions of morality.”

Yes, everyone. This is the Harris who wants open conversation, but you sure better not bring religion into the conversation! In other words, let’s try to have an open conversation but make sure that conversation is with those who agree with us. Wonderful! I will have an open conversation then on the existence of God, but I will make sure that only other theists are allowed into the conversation. I will have an open conversation on the resurrection of Jesus, but only conservative Christians can join in! Chesterton said that there are two kinds of people, the conscious and the unconscious dogmatists and the unconscious ones are the most dogmatic. Everyone accepts some form of dogma.

Harris continues his mini-tirade against religion and says “If the basic claims of religion are true, the scientific worldview is so blinkered and susceptible to supernatural modification as to be rendered nearly ridiculous; if the basic claims of religion are false, most people are profoundly confused about the nature of reality, confounded by irrational hopes and fears, and tending to waste precious time and attention – often with tragic results.”

What are these basic claims of religion? Well I don’t know. Harris never says it. I have no idea which ones he could mean as I have no problem accepting science as a means to truth. I think it’s the best means we have in fact of discovering scientific truth. This kind of thinking is typical to Harris. Note also it would be hard to say what is meant by the basic claims. Does a pantheist have the same basic claims as a theist?

Is this long? Yes. This is also just the introduction! One can imagine what else is coming up in the future. The reality is that this must be addressed however as already, it is being quoted in the blogosphere. On the back of the book, Dawkins is listed as one who says he unthinkingly accepted the idea that science could say nothing about morals. Now Harris has changed all of that. In other words, Dawkins unthinkingly accepted one claim and then unthinkingly accepted another. Dawkins claims that no one wields a sharper bayonet against the idea that we need God to be good than Sam Harris.

To which I say then that I am pleased that the opposition has such dull bayonets.