Whacking Jehovah
Posted: 20 November 2006 01:11 AM   [ Ignore ]  
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Yes, I read it.
Like many secularist, I enjoy a good refresher course in the ageless pastime of undermining religion with reason. You never know when someone will want to play but who has the time to follow the latest updates on what Hubble has to say about babies in limbo. Mr Harris bears this cross for us again with a modest and concerted effort to no longer be accused of picking on Islam. Speaking as if to the Christian Nation is an interesting framework, but I don’t think they will count for much in sales. In both of his books, I find two things I like.
His moral argument about the religious taking public responsibility for the social consequences their actions in the practice of their faith elevates his stuff from the usual atheist combat manual. The books have sharp teeth and use them very judiciously, which elevates them above the usual bombast. I appreciate a good rendering of an anger I share when it is precisely aimed at the target.
I was surprised to find at the end that, after many incisive and increasingly biting attacks, the imagined Christian reader is never faced with the gaping issue of finding something better than an ancient religious land grant on which to base so much of our foreign policy. Followed up with a drilling about just why conquering Palestine was the best post-WWII solution for Jews. And closing with a demand for an explanation that everyone, even our adversaries, can understand. But I can understand that Mr. Harris might not want that much publicity.

The last quarter of the book inspired these responses from me:

If all the secularists had to do is undermine the reasoning of religion, we’d be done by now. Gay marriage and pot would be legal. The military would spend billions installing home theaters in third world countries. Reason has not prevailed. Nations still engage in regrettable actions that are ultimately based on religious truths. Reason does not empower these actions, it can only be used to make excuses for it.

As much as I like his moral argument, I have a problem with it being declared from some righteous soapbox of Science (page 74) just because we can’t find the Babies in Limbo Nebula. Science does not present a basis for morality. We still haven’t discovered the moral yardstick or acknowledged the existence of a single test case.
For all the wonderful things science has to offer, that world does not include anyone actually capable of finding it wonderful. Any views on God, the self or the afterlife can only be delusional when applied to the world of science as we know it. Science is too wary of delusions of certainty and rightly so. Many today have noticed how any organization of human minds from religious orders to government bureaucracies that depend on a static order based on a frozen moment of perceived truth have become monsters. Science sticks to a humble objectivity that is difficult to be monstrous about. But not impossible. By also rejecting any possible delusion of subjectivity, science bows out of the debate over morality since any moral authority that could be perceived as eternal and true could only come from someone’s personal experience, which is not objectively observable. The only objective evidence that any divine morality is eternal and perfect comes from human artifacts and not from observing reality, where ethics appear to be dynamic. Nature practices situational ethics. Without our civilized minds, so do we. One must already have a civilized mind in order to look at the world scientifically. Science says so. Asserting a morality is an act of faith. Morality made civilization possible. Religion says, “You’re welcome”.

Only religion offers a description of the world that includes a you that is capable of having a personal spiritual experience. Religion takes claim of the self that remembers having it. Religion answers a feeling, not an inquiry. That feeling need only be the emotional bond between people of a community or a relationship. Religions know how to use the organic rhythms of the community to reinforce their relevance as the place where they experience their lives. Once religion gets to frame all the questions, we can only engage in the endless pastime of answering them.

People that don’t think they’re living in a world of science do not benefit from logical arguments that undermine their religion because there’s nowhere else for them to go. Regardless of what science-like thinking might be going on in anyone’s mind, if there isn’t a community of people who all think they are living in a world of science right outside their door everyday, then there is nowhere to go. No one, including Christians, would tolerate any attack on the ground they are still standing on.

Religion is the tool we used to create civilization. Science is the tool we could use to keep it. I don’t like the way Mr. Harris uses it like a chain saw to metaphorically chop down the whole spiritual tree just because Jehovah is hiding in it. Many of us are sophisticated enough to handle the delusive nature of personal experience and bravely carry on anyway as if we were, at least for ourselves, a reliable witness. We understand that we are on our own as far as what any kind of mentality we could possess makes of the experience after it’s been had. That is all science really has, too. For all its objectivity, science starts as a personal experience of discovery just like any other point of view. The repeatable experiment makes the same personal experience available to everyone. If the resulting explanations suggest a consensus, any such collective conclusion might reasonably be considered objective. How does one contrive to repeat their life experiences in the laboratory? Some consensus could still be reached but by a more complex process that may never satisfy everybody as reasonably objective. The scientific view goes too far when, anywhere outside of the laboratory, a scientist must depend on a consensus of other people’s post-experience explanations before considering themselves a reasonable witness of their own behavior, at least enough to lead a life. Likewise, a Christian should feel no such constraint outside of the church community.

The hard part is ending a book like this with a projected future of more combat, more arguing and more trying to reason it out. Harder still when you see how many people come looking to this stuff for something more promising.
For the sake of a later and less traumatized progeny, we must only take on the reasoning behind the surviving religions and not the entire pursuit of spirituality which, granted, is not a scientific process. There is still a great similarity between the two. Both start with a moment of personal and subjective experience- observation becomes epiphany. Science offers a worthy lesson to spirituality. However real the experience of discovery was, our explanation of it can never be complete and flawless, and even it if it was, we couldn’t know that it was. Hence, explanations are not eternal and should only last as long as they are actually useful. In a post-religious world, these two pursuits of discovery could comfortably coexist in anyone’s life. Spirituality being the fun version, and science being the stricter peer-reviewed version.

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Posted: 20 November 2006 01:59 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]  
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Thanks for the review, Nhoj. I found it both eerily lucid and whimsically postmodernist at various points. You kind of leave us hanging at the end; I hope you’ll expand on some of the points you made.

I like your closing image of spirituality as a kind of “funhouse” for the mind. It certainly has the “Ghost Train” and “Hall of Mirrors” franchises locked up.

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Posted: 21 November 2006 10:06 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]  
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I enjoyed reading your comments, but they left me more than a little confused.  On the one hand, I applaud your clear-sightedness to see that there’s no way for science to provide (as you said) the moral yardstick.  But on the other hand, you have here made a pretty interesting declaration that once we have the moral yardstick which is invisible and intangible and weighs nothing at all, we can then apply the microscope, the forceps, and the scale to preserve what the completely-non-rational has established.

Let me pose a question for you: doesn’t it seem more likely that science is actually the servant or the lesser form of reasoning which ought to be in the service of the great form of reasoning?

There’s much ado about how religion has, apparently, decimated the world from scientific advance, but I’d be willing to take up that matter elsewhere as its own topic.  But here an atheist has made the broad admission that science cannot serve man at all without a moral foundation, and that it cannot provide its own moral foundation.  If that is true, science cannot be all it’s cracked up to be for the atheist.

I think.  Let’s see what you think.

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Posted: 21 November 2006 10:11 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]  
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[quote author=“centuri0n”]I applaud your clear-sightedness to see that there’s no way for science to provide (as you said) the moral yardstick.

On the other hand, so to speak, I condemn the assumption that religion can pull (as might be said) the moral yardstick out of its ass. Or if it can, what that yardstick will be covered with once it is in view.

[quote author=“centuri0n”]how religion has, apparently, decimated the world from scientific advance.

That’s a new one for me, centurion. This is so good that I am decimated from further response. Except…

Get an education, centurion. Religious schools aren’t doing the job for you.

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Posted: 21 November 2006 12:44 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]  
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[quote author=“centuri0n”]But here an atheist has made the broad admission that science cannot serve man at all without a moral foundation, and that it cannot provide its own moral foundation. If that is true, science cannot be all it’s cracked up to be for the atheist.

Why to apologists keep confusing science with reason? Who here is saying that science can determine anything and everything? What Sam and others here keep arguing is that we need to look at the world rationally, and science is but one tool to do this. Logic, reason, intuition, and even art, can all be used to evaluate the world around us. Just because I don’t believe in a supernatural creator doesn’t mean I go around admiring nature based on it’s chemical composition and natural laws.

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“Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.” - Voltaire

“Rational arguments do not work on religious people, otherwise there would be no religious people.”—Dr. House

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Posted: 22 November 2006 03:09 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]  
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Hello, thanks for posting. I don’t get alot of time to do this net thing, so, thanks for waiting.
[quote author=“centuri0n”]Let me pose a question for you: doesn’t it seem more likely that science is actually the servant or the lesser form of reasoning which ought to be in the service of the great form of reasoning?

I’m tempted to say yes, but that lesser/greater bit is way to open to interpretation. I like to call science ‘the deliberate pursuit of discovery. It is a do thing. Reason is an unobserved function of our brains that generates an explanation of our experience for us to remember and accumulate and organize with other explanations. The resulting vast organizations of memories may bear the file name “science”, but are entirely artifact and can vary greatly in detail from storehouse to storehouse even while using all the same sub file names.

I make this leap of faith: Reality is actually out there. I am actually experiencing it. At each moment of reality, I am completely involved and interdependent with all kinds of things that are actually in it with me. After each moment of reality, after all that amazing complicated bio-electro-chemical processes complete their incomprehensible job of presenting reality to my mind, I am on my own.
We all are, at least until we form a community with a good word pool that lets us share both the experience and the explanations. Then we can provide each other with enough reassurance to feel objective about what we’ve seen after we’ve seen it. For a human community to start, only one member need make the above leap of faith. That’s how we usually do it. It’s very hard for a community to survive the painful transformation we call secularization into one where everyone can make their own leap and everyone is informed of this option at the earliest opportunity. For those already transformed, science provides a peer reviewed world that strives to present the best possible explanation to each new generation. Religion has a problem with that part.
[quote author=“Salt Creek”]I condemn the assumption that religion can pull (as might be said) the moral yardstick out of its ass. Or if it can, what that yardstick will be covered with once it is in view.

I can go with this.
Yes of course we can! It starts with the admission “I will now pull a yardstick out of my ass”, though I like my “leap of faith” metaphor better. The point is, we have to reach deeply and pull really hard for the best yardstick we can find. And also important is that as you say, the whole yardstick and everything on it is in view. Everything is up for scrutiny and debate.
Whatever gazillions of us should be able to wipe it off, eh?
[quote author=“camanintx”]Just because I don’t believe in a supernatural creator doesn’t mean I go around admiring nature based on it’s chemical composition and natural laws.

I don’t see the difference…

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Posted: 22 November 2006 03:40 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]  
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[quote author=“Nhoj Morley”]Yes of course we can! It starts with the admission “I will now pull a yardstick out of my ass”, though I like my “leap of faith” metaphor better. The point is, we have to reach deeply and pull really hard for the best yardstick we can find. And also important is that as you say, the whole yardstick and everything on it is in view. Everything is up for scrutiny and debate.

Yeah, OK. That doesn’t make the yardstick any less slippery from the fact of what it is coated with. It all adds up to the old adage that a man’s reach exceeds his grasp.

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Posted: 22 November 2006 11:39 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]  
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[quote author=“Salt Creek”]Yeah, OK. That doesn’t make the yardstick any less slippery from the fact of what it is coated with.

Enough about men reaching for things! Please choose new analogy.

[quote author=“Salt Creek”]It all adds up to the old adage that a man’s reach exceeds his grasp.

Yes. And before that, the hominid’s reach exceeded its grasp. Before that, the amphibian’s reach exceeded its grasp. Thank the stars for ambitious bacteria who could pull out a yardstick with no ass at all.

to camanintx: Sorry about the dumb remark. Of course I can see the difference. Beware of impulsive typing.

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Posted: 22 November 2006 11:55 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 8 ]  
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The above was me. I don’t know why I can’t stay logged in.

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