Thursday, April 21, 2011

21st Century Conversation

I realize most of you neither have the time nor the inclination to sit through a 2 hour debate between a fundamentalist and a self-proclaimed modern philosopher. So, I offer one of my many services. Relative to many such debates, this one was quite civil. The bottom line did not change much, but Sam Harris offers some new language in his book, The Moral Landscape, and he uses it well here. If you are not familiar with William Lane Craig, he is a big name in apologetic circles and many people draw on him as a source. He is well reasoned in this debate, but you don’t have to look too hard to find him defending Old Testament prophets slaying their enemies, because it was the will of God. This debate is about the basis of morality, so luckily, we don’t get into that.

Craig’s basic reasoning is that humans have not agreed on one standard for morality, and we are not capable of it. We need a god to provide it for us and making claims to have found a basis are not logical. If you try this out for yourself, you might find the idea appealing. A simple sounding idea like, you shouldn’t kill, is fine until someone is coming at you with a knife. If no one is currently attacking you, and you have some extra resources lying around, you should give something to charity, until you start getting low on resources or the guy with the knife shows up again, then what do you do? And what about more abstract thinking, like someone defenseless is being attacked somewhere far away. Or in some hypothetical world you have the power to decide between taking one person’s life or five peoples lives. Its enough to get you to say that it is in God’s hands.

Sam Harris says it is not. He says we may not have answers to everything, but we can figure it out. We should start with the idea of “human flourishing”. Defining that exactly is not important to his theory of morality. He talks about a scale. We are no longer in constant fear of being eaten every day and although there are still places where torture is commonplace and justice is arbitrary, we have created many safe societies, places where humanity has flourished. We don’t need a complex system, or ancient scripture to determine that being beaten with a rod is unpleasant. And yet many of those ancient scriptures recommend it if someone disobeys their parents, wears the wrong clothes, or does not believe some unsubstantiated bit of history. We can look at this scale from the worst possible suffering to the best we know and decide the direction to move along it.

Craig avoids the scriptural arguments because it is not the topic of the debate. That’s a fair statement, although it made me wonder how he would stand up to Harris if it were the topic. He focuses on what he calls the problem of “is” and “ought”. You can’t derive a prescription from a description. Because it feels right to give to charity doesn’t mean we should. We do that because we have been taught to, because an authority said we ought to. If Nazi Germany had won World War II, our sense of morality would be much lower and Harris would be arguing for that lower standard.

This is where Sam Harris says, “This is where you hit philosophical bedrock with the shovel of a stupid question.” Craig sees the world as requiring some sort of foundation, an ultimate authority worthy of our love. He claims science does the same thing with its basis in identifiable nature and its axioms. Harris tries to explain the difference but does not seem to get through to Craig. Fortunately most of the Notre Dame students in the audience seem to get it, so there is hope.

Science does rest on some ideas that technically can’t be proven, like that pain is painful, or when you’re dead you’re dead. There are a few people who claim that they enjoy pain, but we know there is something wrong with them, and we don’t include them in our moral framework. In the United States, we have accomplished an awful lot simply by eliminating the possibility that someone could be given the death penalty by throwing stones at them because they cheated on their husband based on a very old book. However, people in the highest positions in government still say we need to respect the right of other cultures to make such choices in a such a manner.

Harris addresses this is greater detail in a “Response to Critics” page at his website. Briefly, he says, science is based on values that must be presupposed, like the desire to understand the universe, a respect for evidence, etc. There is no reason to apologize for that, anymore than a doctor should apologize to a chronic smoker who does not share his presuppositions about health. In more subtle terms, the long distance runner trains very differently than the sprinter, but we don’t argue about what they ought to do, we just agree that both are healthy. We can abandon the idea of science all together, or we can mire ourselves in the gray areas, or we can agree to move toward something that we realize may never be attained but is better than where we are now. Those who want to argue that we can’t know what “better” is better, don’t need to come along.

Where Sam Harris really shines is when he talks about the value of religion. His approach takes the wind out of the sails of those who claim to hold the moral high ground. He has spent time in Buddhist retreats, meditating for most of his waking hours. He knows his scripture and has no problem cherry picking the good parts. He calls it, “having a 21st century conversation”, drawing on all of the accumulated human knowledge that we have to solve these most perplexing problems. Most modern Christians do this intuitively, by dismissing Old Testament stories of God’s wrath by saying that Christ reconciled man to God. Some even know the New Testament passages that override the laws of Moses, but most are just using their common sense, their 21st century brains.

There are many shorter interviews and articles by and about Sam Harris. If you google a few terms from this quote of his, you should find some of them:

“All we have is human conversation to do this with. Either you can be held hostage by the human conversation that occurred 2,000 years ago and has been enshrined in these books, or you can be open to the human conversation of the 21st century. And if there's something good in those books, then it is admissible in the 21st century conversation on morality.”

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