Saturday, September 29, 2007

More irony from the Pharisees of reason

If I only had a nickel for every time one of the Atheist Triumvarate (Harris, Hitchens and Dawkins) said something ironic. The latest comes from Sam Harris:

"Reason is a compulsion, not a choice. Just as one cannot intentionally startle oneself, one cannot knowingly believe a proposition on bad evidence."

Well, Sam, if that were really true, then why do so many people believe in God? There are logically only three possibilities:

1. All those people who claim to believe in God don't really believe it (which immediately begs the question of what motivates people to blow themselves up in God's name if not belief).

2. There is in fact good evidence for believing in God.

3. Your claim is wrong.

It seems like a no-brainer to me. Just because reason is a compulsion for Sam Harris doesn't mean it's a compulsion for everyone. It's pretty clear to me that many -- possibly most -- people are quite capable of self-delusion about a wide variety of matters. Moreover, self-delusion can actually be beneficial as the placebo effect demonstrates. Not only that, but there are evolutionary arguments that self-delusion actually has survival value, which means that evolutionary theory itself refutes Harris's claim. (More on that in an upcoming post.)

I despair when I read Harris, Hitchens and Dawkins. The world needs reason now more than ever. It is a tragedy that logic's greatest advocates are blind to their own irrationality.

6 comments:

Don said...

I think you're (deliberately?) misinterpreting that quote.

There seem to be two cases. The first is, can people accidentally believe that they have strong evidence for something, when in fact a trained outside observer would say the evidence is weak? And secondly, can an individual "believe" in something that they themselves don't think they have good evidence for (or actually have evidence against)?

The quote is about the second topic, as is clear from the analogy that "one cannot intentionally startle oneself". You can't watch the sun come up every day, and somehow make yourself "believe" that it won't come up tomorrow, just because that makes you feel better. You don't have that kind of conscious control over your beliefs. It isn't like breathing or walking, where you can choose whether to do it or not at any given moment. Your beliefs are a product of your subconscious (based on apparent evidence), not of your conscious mind.

But all your comments are about the first topic, whether people are good or bad judges of evidence. And of course there are legions of examples of how human reasoning has numerous structural deficiencies. In some respects, the "scientific method" (e.g. double-blind experiments) are attempts to impose structure on evidence-gathering in order to defeat the known failures of human reasoning. If you aren't a trained scientist (and often even if you are), the lack of scientific controls means that you'll easily draw strong conclusions from experience which aren't sufficiently supported by the weak evidence you really have.

So when you say "just because reason is a compulsion for Sam Harris doesn't mean it's a compulsion for everyone", I think you miss the point. Harris is no more a logical robot than any other human, and reason is a "compulsion" for him just like it is for everybody. Namely, that he can't consciously choose to disbelieve something that his sub/conscious mind has concluded is supported by evidence ... just because it makes him feel better.

Dave Pearson said...

I think you've missed at least one important option from your list of options, although it is sort of a variation of #2:

The person who believes in some random posited deity does so because they think they've found good evidence for it (or, as often seems to happen, they've been told that there is good evidence and they're happy enough to accept that).

Ron said...

You can't watch the sun come up every day, and somehow make yourself "believe" that it won't come up tomorrow, just because that makes you feel better.

Maybe I can't and maybe you can't but that doesn't mean that everyone can't.

Ron said...

The person who believes in some random posited deity does so because they think they've found good evidence for it (or, as often seems to happen, they've been told that there is good evidence and they're happy enough to accept that).

Note that the exact same can be said for science. Most people have no firsthand experience with scientific evidence. To believe in science they have to accept the word of scientists on faith. Actually, scientists have to do the same to a significant extent. No one can personally reproduce even a small fraction of scientific results. Ultimately, a belief in science rests on faith the scientific process and its practicioners.

Don said...

Ultimately, a belief in science rests on faith the scientific process and its practicioners.

Not "faith", in the sense of religious faith.

You're right that no individual can personally reproduce any significant number of scientific experiments.

But you can spot check a few. You can evaluate their own descriptions of what they did. There are ways to gain confidence into the general progress of science.

In the case of religious authorities, the problem isn't that they're lying to you. They aren't claiming to have done some experiments and gotten some results, whereas if you did those same experiments you would get different results.

Religious authorities tell you exactly what they do and how they got where they are. And you can evaluate that process on your own, and compare it (in your own life) to the process that scientists use.

You don't need "faith" in science.

Dave Pearson said...

Don's pretty much covered the point, playing the faith card there is a tired old disingenuous bait-and-switch that's been debunked more times than I've seen the Sun rise, having had faith that it will. Moreover, it's pretty much beside the point I was making.

Simply put, your main post only really works if you artificially constrict the options, like you did.