The End of Faith

The End of Faith CoverOn The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason by Sam Harris. I wrote this in response to a discussion with my friend Keith Cascio, and some comments he had made after watching Harris’ TED talk, when I was midway through the book.

What strikes me is the absolute desperation, the deep frustration that Harris injects into his text, in trying to get his points across. He’s peered long and deep into the tortured and bloody paths of history, at the chain of effects that faith-based thinking has had on U.S. policy, and seen the sheer magnitude of the utter waste of human potential, destroyed lives, misery and retarded progress across entire cultures which pervades the world (and our own culture) as consequences of ideas coming to us from our great religions– the “how could people possible be so absolutely dumb” exasperation, outrage and empathy with the victims of this machine is apparent.

I just finished the chapter on drug policy: We spend $4 billion a year prosecuting marijuana cases (at one end of a slippery slope); 50% of all U.S. court time is tied up in drug cases. …Which might seem somewhat tangential, except when we look at the parallels– it is a sort of pervasive religious type of thinking that continues to criminalize marijuana, both from refusal to rationally look at scientific facts, and, coming from Christianity, a puritanical national obsession with “sin” and the idea that other people might be enjoying themselves somewhere inappropriately (fornicating, smoking dope, seeking “alternative” spiritual experiences, et cetera). This is (mostly) nothing new to us liberal west-coasters, though, but it’s “fun” in a perverse way to see such idiocy taken on, while simultaneously sobering: this is the state of our world, and we’re in a somewhat more enlightened part of it.

Now, your concerns [about sloppy metaphors]. I conjecture that Harris has been so long steeped in his (justified) outrage towards the illogic of the world, so frustrated by the dimness and stupidity of those around him who “do not see” and either intentionally or not cause great human suffering, that he has become a little bit “tainted” by it. He has come to use hyperbole for emotional impact, because he has made a (probably subconscious) calculation that no progress will be made if he does not beat the sheep around him over the head a little bit with talk of wolves. His deepest fears (e.g., a nuclear-armed Islamic state, which he argues will show little restraint) lend a sense of urgency to his arguments: “they must be made to be able to see; I will reach for and use sensationalized (and even iffy) metaphors in the service of my argument because it is the only way it is going to get across and have some sort of agency in the world.”

[The following is regarding a statement Harris made in his TED talk: “The distinction between a healthy person and a dead one is about as clear and consequential as any we make in science.” Keith took objection to this, arguing that the comment represented sloppy thinking because the precise point of death is in actuality not at all clear-cut.]

We draw lines everywhere: between life and death, between being a child and being an adult, between sanity and insanity. Sometimes we know the lines are artificial, but they’re based on easy measurements, and so we accept them. E.g., you become an adult legally at 18. Same with life and death. There is the reality (some state of the body) and the definition (alive or dead, according to some guidelines, which we are apparently trying to make as precise as possible, erring to the side of caution). It’s nothing new that defining death is messy. E.g., I don’t remember if I shared an article I read recently about new techniques for reviving patients in cases of drowning along with hypothermia (where cold had preserved tissue and prevented oxygen-starvation damage), something that had not previously been thought possible. New medical technologies will keep pushing back the threshold of death’s door until someday, only the brain’s health will matter.

(Also, the definition seems to imply that if you are “potentially revivable” [with complex current technology] then you are not “dead”. What if said technology couldn’t revive you? Then do we move the time of “death” backwards to some newly determined point? Is a cryogenically preserved body alive in the face of potential future technology, or dead because it can’t be revived now? Messy.)

To Harris’s imprecise statement to which you take objection, I am willing to write it off as hyperbole. At the same time, though, note that he’s not comparing a living person to a dead one, rather a healthy person. I’m having a hard time thinking of an example where the line is blurred, since presumably we would need to create a definition of “health”, and it would include criteria which unambiguously classify persons into “healthy”, and once there, they could logically not be classified as “dead”.

What if the statement were: “the distinction between day and night is about as clear and consequential as any we make in science”? Or “solid” and “liquid”? Are there cases where we’re not sure if something is one or the other? Sure. We tighten the definitions as much as we can so we can operate using logic, but in reality there are ambiguous cases along the edges, everywhere. Any scientific field is full of them (e.g., classifying animals into species, physical effects into mathematical laws which mostly describe them, etc). So I don’t see the problem with the statement, other than reliance on the fuzzy term “healthy” (which is just hard to define, but conveys a strong image, thus: rhetoric).

After completing the book, I wrote this follow-up:

There is a chapter on torture about which I’m not sure how I feel. Something feels incomplete about its conclusion, but I need to think about it more, because Harris himself warned that the chapter’s conclusions will not feel right, rather that logic demands a scientific yardstick for assessing and decreasing human suffering and in this, explicit torture in rare cases might be justified (e.g., to prevent war and dropping bombs which will with certainty kill and maim large numbers of noncombatants). I sense the empathy which led to his conclusions, and I appreciate the sharp outlines of the position he’s willing to stake, but I do not have faith that there is not a corner of the argument that he has not missed. [And note that this is not the kind of faith that Harris attacks in the book.]

The final chapter is about Eastern religious traditions (their relative value), and shows an open-minded rigorousness of thought which I appreciate.

It’s hard to quantify what people know, but I think it’s safe to say that some fraction of the public are profoundly ignorant across multiple dimensions. I think we have a particular failing with respect to the public’s knowing what science is and what it isn’t, what it’s for, etc. Like the Christian preoccupation with sin, there’s also a general deep religious fear of science, and therefore a certain way that it is cast (e.g., there’s that old anxiety that science is somehow antagonistic to beauty), so as in effect to discourage genuine inquiry and understanding in many areas– a problem in practice, probably more than in principle, of faith in its most general.

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