Saturday, September 02, 2006

"Risible Sprint" - Sam Harris has a way with words


The Language of Ignorance
by Sam Harris

In this essay, the bestselling secularist author of “The End of Faith” delivers a scathing review of “The Language of God,” a new book by Human Genome Project head Francis Collins that attempts to demonstrate a harmony between science and evangelical Christianity.

And it is scathing.
While the mere sighting of a waterfall appears to have been sufficient to answer all important questions of theology for Collins, he imagines himself to be in possession of further evidence attesting to the divinity of Jesus, the omnipotence of God and the divine origin of the Bible. The most compelling of these data, in his view, is the fact that human beings have a sense of right and wrong. Collins follows Lewis here, as faithfully as if he were on a leash, and declares that the “moral law” is so inscrutable a thing as to admit of only a supernatural explanation. According to Collins, the moral law applies exclusively to human beings:
Though other animals may at times appear to show glimmerings of a moral sense, they are certainly not widespread, and in many instances other species’ behavior seems to be in dramatic contrast to any sense of universal rightness.
One wonders if the author has ever read a newspaper. The behavior of humans offers no such “dramatic contrast.” How badly must human beings behave to put this “sense of universal rightness” in doubt? And just how widespread must “glimmerings” of morality be among other animals before Collins—who, after all, knows a thing or two about genes—begins to wonder whether our moral sense has evolutionary precursors in the natural world? What if mice showed greater distress at the suffering of familiar mice than unfamiliar ones? (They do.) What if monkeys will starve themselves to prevent their cage-mates from receiving painful shocks? (They will.) What if chimps have a demonstrable sense of fairness when receiving food rewards? (They have.) Wouldn’t these be precisely the sorts of findings one would expect if our morality were the product of evolution?

Collins’ case for the supernatural origin of morality rests on the further assertion that there can be no evolutionary explanation for genuine altruism. Because self-sacrifice cannot increase the likelihood that an individual creature will survive and reproduce, truly self-sacrificing behavior stands as a primordial rejoinder to any biological account of morality. In Collins’ view, therefore, the mere existence of altruism offers compelling evidence of a personal God. (Here, Collins performs a risible sprint past ideas in biology like “kin selection” that plausibly explain altruism and self-sacrifice in evolutionary terms.) A moment’s thought reveals, however, that if we were to accept this neutered biology, almost everything about us would be bathed in the warm glow of religious mystery. Forget morality—how did nature select for the ability to write sonnets, solder circuit boards or swing a golf club? Clearly, such abilities could never be the product of evolution. Might they have been placed in us by God? Smoking cigarettes isn’t a healthy habit and is unlikely to offer an adaptive advantage—and there were no cigarettes in the Paleolithic—but this habit is very widespread and compelling. Is God, by any chance, a tobacco farmer? Collins can’t seem to see that human morality and selfless love may be derivative of more basic biological and psychological traits, which were themselves products of evolution. It is hard to interpret this oversight in light of his scientific training. If one didn’t know better, one might be tempted to conclude that religious dogmatism presents an obstacle to scientific reasoning.
One of the more memorable experiences of my life occurred one day about 30 years ago while I was taking a drive in the San Gabriel mountains near Los Angeles, California. Having spotted something occupying the curb half of the driving lane ahead, I slowed down to move into the opposite lane of this narrow, twisting mountain road. As I drove slowly by, I looked at what turned out to be a group of a dozen or so squirrels huddled around a recently car-killed associate. They did not bound off the road into the bushes as my car approached. They just sat there, erect on their haunches, in a circle around their dead comrade. As I drove past, I received an overwhelming sense of their sorrow. They were mourning. A couple of them turned their heads to look at me as if saying, "Do you mind? We're praying here!"

It was a very touching scene and a highly spiritual experience, but I figure it probably had about as much to do with anything as would a vision of a frozen waterfall.


Collins’ sins against reasonableness do not end here. Somewhere during the course of his scientific career, he acquired the revolting habit of quoting eminent scientists out of context to give an entirely false impression of their religious beliefs. Misappropriation of Einstein and Hawking, while common enough in popular religious discourse, rises to level of intellectual misconduct when perpetrated by a scientist like Collins. Where either of these physicists uses the term “God”—as in Einstein’s famous “God does not play dice…”—he uses it metaphorically. Any honest engagement with their work reveals that both Einstein and Hawking reject the notion of Collins’ God as fully as any atheist. Collins suggests otherwise at every opportunity.

I wonder if there's some way for people who are deliberately mis-quoted, or their heirs, to sue people for twisting their words into something opposed to what was plainly meant?

If one wonders how beguiled, self-deceived and carefree in the service of fallacy a scientist can be in the United States in the 21st century, “The Language of God” provides the answer.
Maybe it's just bullshit in mistaken service of bridging a culture gap? If so, I prefer Wilson's approach:

While the scientist believes in evolution, the evangelical Christian interprets the Bible as the literal word of God.

"I may be wrong, you may be wrong. We may both be partly right," Wilson writes.
Naa... That's the devil talking.


jj mollo said...

I don't think that a waterfall or a gaggle of mourning squirrels are indicative of theistic intervention in our affairs. They certainly don't validate the scraps of papyrus (or vellum or whatever) collected in the second or third century by Christian friends of the emperor. The teachings of Jesus, however, are remarkably insightful, at least as explained by learned proponents.

EO Wilson is someone I admire greatly. You can see that he is doing a Chuck Yeager on this problem, but it is not unlikely that his professions of religious feeling are sincere. The universe is passing strange, and the biological world he studies is wonderful beyond words. He is so right that we have to build bridges and Christians are the most effective and interconnected do-gooders on the planet. If you want good to be done, it's a good place to start.

My own efforts at atheism have failed. I am too impressed at the virtues of Christian communities and I am, perhaps emotionally, unable to banish all thoughts of deity. One of the puzzles that keeps me in doubt of doubt is the Mandelbrot set. There are surprising things here.

Steve said...

Wilson is said to be a secular humanist, so I don't know if he has any more religious inclination than I do, but I'm reasonably certain that he rejects the traditional or literalist view. That he tries to find common ground with religious people is obviously a good thing.

I've never tried to be an atheist, I just seem to be >this< close to being one. There might be something out there, but I'm pretty sure Wilson and Einstein and Hawking are closer to reality than fundies of any stripe.

Along with the good that Christians do, do you agree that there's a lot of harm to go along with it? I tend to think the core notion of anthropocentrism is very harmful, especially around this point in human history, and that some of the good works of well-meaning people are ultimately harmful.

What do I know, though? I always stand to be corrected.

Fractals are cool. I still remember reading (reading, not fully understanding) the article Scientific American did on Mandelbrot and his then-newly-discovered set. One of the ideas I had for a senior project was some sort of fractal-based electronic art (I quickly settled, though, for something simple that I stood a chance of completing - a heliostat). What aspect of fractals leads you to doubt doubt? Is it the "always something new" aspect?

jj mollo said...

Fractals are fascinating, but the Mandelbrot set in particular is spooky to me. That such a simple process could generate such a visually appealing universe is surprising, somewhat disturbing, to me. I've seen a film with continuous zoom-in on a particular point of the Graph, leading to ever-changing but familiar fractal landscapes.

I know that we are evolved to find pattern where none exists, but this seems like the product of a conscious mind, almost an effort to communicate. Why should such a thing appear spontaneously as the result of pure mathematical analysis? I guess the film-maker is doing a lot of selection, shifting centers of successive frames toward more interesting action. There is theoretically an infinite amount of surface to choose from. The color-coding has an opening for artistic choice as well. Nevertheless, no amount of rational analysis seems to remove the whiff of other-worldliness for me.

One of my favor movies is Contact, from the book of the same name by Carl Sagan. Carl Sagan was not a novelist by trade, but when he finally wrote one, he went directly for the crux of the matter. For one thing, he suggests the possibility that numbers could be messages from God, or someone emirically indistinguishable from God.

jj mollo said...

The Christian community that I know is a cure for loneliness and a powerful tool for effecting community action. It has severe handicaps, I admit. For one thing, there is the willful ignorance that others besides you and I have described. There is deliberately excessive confidence in the one way mentality. There is too much distance between the preacher and the flock, and too much respect accorded to the preacher. (Quakers are an exception to this.)

The ability of the preacher exists to mesmerize, polemicize and fractionalize the congregation. The temptation to demagoguery has been yielded to so often that the Church has been split into rediculously numerous counter-dogmatic lineages whose protective meme-barriers filter rationality and compromise out of all interaction. Ecumenicism is a pipe dream.

Nevertheless, the core beliefs, once separated from violent meme-inspired purity wars, are very positive. The communities themselves, especially those of non-denominational churches, are positive and productive. The people are the soul of the Church. The preachers are a problem. The dogma is a problem. Fanaticism is a disaster, but it's not that big any more.

And that's my opinion, or some of it at least.