Philosophy

Judging a book by its cover: a review of Sam Harris’ Waking Up

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Waking Up is a difficult book. You may be tempted to assume, by its conspicuously short page length and tranquil, sky-blue cover, that it will be light reading, but light reading it is not. Sam Harris, author, horseman, skeptic-extraordinaire, has set out to discuss the inherently difficult topic of the nature of consciousness, particularly in its relation to contemplative practice and – for sad lack of a better word – spirituality. For the novice (and that’s me), digesting the non-duality of consciousness and the elimination of self made for a tough, but enjoyable journey. I’ll spend the next few minutes discussing why I felt it worthwhile.

First, a little more on what I mean by difficult. It’s not that there are loads of technical descriptions or assumed knowledge by the author – it’s that the nature of what’s being discussed, subjective experience, is just hard to connect with. Consider this short excerpt: “Subjectively speaking, there is only consciousness and its contents; there is no inner self who is conscious.” It doesn’t matter how deftly or how many ways someone describes something like that to you, to grasp it at all you need to at least glimpse it yourself. Oftentimes throughout the book I felt like Harris was taking great pains to describe a stranger to me in physical detail, and then asking me to go out and find said stranger in a crowded gymnasium. Flatly, it’s hard, both for the teacher and the student. Harris is aware of the difficulty, hence the constant encouragements throughout the book to put into practice what he’s describing – to actually take time out of your day to meditate and practice mindfulness. The second complication is that one needs to have thought somewhat deeply about the nature of consciousness before, otherwise much of the book – particularly chapter 2 – will be difficult to comprehend (for a crash course on the “hard problem” of consciousness, I recommend Steven Pinker’s article in TIME). These two in combination had me on the frustrating edge of comprehension for much of the middle of the book, only to lose it all a moment later. Fittingly, this seems to mirror the experience of beginning contemplatives, who struggle mightily, for hours or even years, to take the first steps toward enlightenment.

But struggles often lead to reward, and while I was initially skeptical of the book, I had that bittersweet feeling of melancholy as I finished its final pages, not wanting it to end. If nothing else, Waking Up has piqued my interest in contemplative thought and meditative practice – concepts I’ve dabbled with but never to any serious degree. Even if one reads the book and never again sits cross-legged on a cushion to meditate, there are useful self-help tips that can be applied almost immediately. For example, the basic act of mindfulness, or being aware of the present moment, can be used to assuage negative emotions and thoughts. The next time you are feeling angry, take a second to just notice that you are feeling angry. Just pay attention to the feeling. The same can go for anxiety, loneliness, etc. You’ll find that the act of awareness will almost immediately relinquish the negative effects of the emotion – it’s quite difficult to stay angry when you are concentrating on how angry you are. (I was happy to see this technique discussed, as I’ve been doing a version of it since I was a kid, without knowing it was connected to anything called mindfulness). Along with tips like these, there are also short descriptions and exercise on how to meditate (you can find Harris’ guided meditations here), backed up by evidence supporting the health benefits, which are primarily cognitive. At its core, that’s what Waking Up is – a self-help book. Harris, who seems to have led an interesting life traveling far and wide in search of transcendent experiences, is here relaying what he’s learned – all within a rational framework – simply because these practices interest him and have helped him personally by reducing, not entirely but in small bits, suffering.

Perhaps most importantly, Harris has staked a very public claim on turf formerly thought to be the exclusive domain of the religious (or at least the wacky). By writing Waking Up, one of the most famous skeptics of our generation has swiftly divorced the meditative and contemplative practices from their traditional, often irrational foundations in Eastern religion and co-opted them into a rational framework aimed at inducing psychological well-being. It’s perhaps not surprising that, old as they are, some religious traditions have managed to make insights into human happiness and suffering, and once we slice away the supernatural baggage, there’s something left that even the fiercest skeptic can find useful. The old idiom, “even a broken clock is right twice a day” passed through my mind more than once as Harris summarized religious traditions dealing with enlightenment and transcendence. In addition to self-help, the overriding theme of the book is that one doesn’t need religion to lead a spiritual life. This, I think, is particularly important today as more and more people question the foundations of their religions but do not leave due to the perception that humanism, skepticism, atheism, etc are devoid of transcendence or spirituality. Harris’ book then, is timely, and I hope an inviting argument for those who feel they have been missing something in their lives since leaving religion, or for those who haven’t yet left.

Of course, some people have never felt a yearning for the spiritual life. And for those folks? Well, Waking Up is still worth the price of admission, if for nothing else than Harris’ 13 page take down of NDE-peddler, Eben Alexander (Dr. Heaven). While it doesn’t fit quite smoothly into the rest of the text (at times the book is clearly a mash-up of previously written material), Harris offers, next to Esquire’s piece, perhaps the most comprehensive criticism of Alexander’s ludicrous claims to have proven that we survive our deaths. If the premise of Waking Up seems too gushy for you, and you miss the good old excoriations of patent nonsense, then fear not: Sam Harris is still your guy.

And with that, I (whatever “I” even means anymore!) end, and encourage you to read other reviews, or check out the first chapter, available for free online. Now, off to meditate. Namaste.

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The Atheism Tapes: Colin McGinn (Episode 1 of 6)

I first watched Jonathan Miller’s BBC series, The Atheism Tapes, a couple years ago when it was available on Netflix. At that point I wasn’t terribly well studied in philosophy or religion, and as I feel marginally more so now, I thought it would be a good idea to revisit the collection. To that tune, I’ll plan to post all six episodes, along with a few of my thoughts, over the next couple of weeks. To kick us off, here’s the conversation between Jonathan Miller and English philosopher Colin McGinn:

On losing faith: It’s always fascinating to learn how individuals came to believe or disbelieve particular religious claims. In McGinn’s case, a required divinity course in high school sparked an intense interest in ethics and existential philosophy, which led to a brief but semi-serious relationship with the Bible. As a consequence, McGinn now says he knows much more about the Holy Book than many religious devotees – and I have to say, I’m not surprised. While I’m by no means an expert, Christians seem to make a sport out of not reading the Bible, and the ones that do seem to make another sport out of not knowing the historical context for the Bible (I’m reminded of this 2010 Pew survey, where atheists/agnostics outperformed believers on questions of “religious knowledge”). Anyway, when McGinn gets to college – a familiar tale – he promptly drops his faith. He recalls forcing himself to attend some type of religious service during this time, but immediately categorized it all as “rubbish” without much hesitation. The transition was made perhaps a bit easier by McGinn’s reading of Bertrand Russell at the same time, which served as an introduction to an ethical and moral framework unfettered by supernatural origins.

On reasons for disbelief: McGinn is asked to “surgically” articulate the reasons for disbelieving in God. He categorizes the reasons into two categories: 1) the “no-evidence” argument(s) and the 2) arguments against or contrary arguments. In the first category, McGinn’s position is simply that there is no good, independent evidence that justifies belief in any of the Christian (substitute any modern religion here) doctrine – or at least no more evidence than there is for Zeus or Isis or any other of the 1,000 ancient Gods. There is no positive evidence for theism, and as yet no theory that would need to invoke God to explain something else (the argument from design was the last solid argument of this type). In the contrary arguments category, McGinn highlights the argument from evil as one of the strongest. Very simply, if God has the following three traits – omnipotence, omniscience, and omni-benevolence – why is there rampant suffering in the world? The contradiction as implied by the traits is that God knows there is suffering, is powerful enough to stop it, doesn’t want people to suffer, and yet we have loads of suffering. The standard apologist argument is to invoke free will here (ala, God gave us free will and as a consequence we can sometime promote suffering through independent choices), but this obviously doesn’t account for naturalistic causes of suffering like earthquakes, tsunamis, diseases, etc. The only other counter is that God created it this way – and I’m putting it crudely here – to bring out the best in people. That is, suffering is here because it helps give other people perspective on life. But as McGinn rightly points out, if that’s the case, God is well…a jerk…since that answer would so obviously devalue certain lives over others.

On the ontological argument: When asked to give arguments for belief, McGinn cites the ontological argument as a “beautiful” one, but by that he of course doesn’t mean it’s at all convincing. You can find much better expositions of Anselm’s famous proof elsewhere, but just to summarize, it’s that 1) God is the most perfect/powerful being conceivable 2) Suppose this most perfect being lacked existence 3) Existence is surely a property of being perfect/powerful 4) Therefore God must exist. McGinn a little strangely claims that no one has ever been able to pinpoint what was wrong with the argument, though I thought Bertrand Russell himself did so nicely (perhaps I’m wrong). Anyway, the most obvious fallacy to me has always been that the argument begs the question, but since McGinn didn’t bring that up, I’m now wondering if that’s wrong in some technical philosophical sense. McGinn’s main problem with the argument is that things like “perfection” and “powerful” are not well-defined. What does it even mean to say the “most perfect being conceivable”? Does that make any more sense than “the most perfect football game conceivable”? You can say “the most perfect football game I’ve ever seen” but when you jump to “the most perfect football game conceivable” suddenly no one knows what you mean, including yourself. A few sentences can work that way – “the most perfect conceivable triangle” being one, since it’s well-defined.

On morality coming from God: McGinn is asked to explain Plato/Socrates’ old argument demonstrating that morality does not come from God. Very simply…if God says rape is good, is rape good? Most of you, hopefully, would answer no, suggesting that God’s affirmation of some particular action wouldn’t actually make that action moral. Therefore, a particular action is good or bad independent of God. If this weren’t the case, what would we really be talking about when we referred to something as “moral” – it would just be the subjective opinion of God. So while it’s okay to say God is encouraging us to partake in moral behavior, it’s wrong (or at least odd) to say behavior is moral because God says so.

On why people persist in believing despite the reasons not to: In contrast to many who attribute religious belief to human beings’ innate fear of death, McGinn’s personal theory is that religious belief stems from a kind of cosmic loneliness that’s a consequence of a sealed-off consciousness. I’ve not heard this argument before (or it didn’t register the first time I watched these) and I’m very much attracted to it. McGinn’s of course right that it’s very hard to accept that we are alone and nobody cares. To make things worse, we humans have a certain type of consciousness (maybe it’s the only type) that is sealed off from everyone else. No one can get in our heads with us, at least not really, and this creates an existential loneliness. God, McGinn argues, is a wonderful antidote to that. He knows us in our minds, which no one else can do, and that satisfies a deep craving.

On using the word “atheist”: Like Jonathan Miller, McGinn is reluctant to call himself an atheist, since it connotes a type of “professional atheist” demeanor and is associated with negative stereotypes. He thinks it’s pretty pointless to be inveighing against a non-existent entity all the time, which the word “atheist” suggests. Instead, McGinn classifies himself as an anti-theist, which is a person actively opposed to religion, in that he thinks it’s harmful to society, individuals, etc. He names another category which he think is the way the world will eventually go – “post-theism” – or the “healthy state of mind” where you’ve put all that behind you. The ideal society, to McGinn, would be one where the question of religion didn’t really come up, or when it did, it would be in a “those silly people used to believe X” context.

I used to consider myself a post-theist, actually, but living in Texas, it’s more or less impossible to reach that healthy state of mind.

Play by Play: William Lane Craig vs. Sean Carroll

Last week I posted my initial thoughts after watching the Craig v. Carroll Greer-Heard Forum debate, and admitted that I wasn’t adequately summarizing my favorite part, Carroll’s closing remarks. You can skip to them by watching the video yourself, but interestingly, this poker forum (yes poker) has a really good play by play summary thanks to user Zumby – Carroll himself actually posted it via Twitter earlier today.

I’ve pasted Zumby’s description of Carroll’s closing below (emphasis is mine):

“Carroll’s Closing Remarks

Confesses a bit of frustration as Craig just recapped arguments Carroll believes he already dealt with so says he will take the opportunity to speak directly to the Christian audience.

But first he notes that Craig repeatedly claimed to be “astonished” by the claim that universes don’t need outside causes and quotes David Lewis that “I do not know how to refute an incredulous stare” and says that he gave an explanation of why this is the case. Carroll claims that “popping into existence” is not the right phrase to use when talking about the beginning of the universe. The right phrase is “There was a first moment in time”, which is a much less astonishing claim. The question is then “Are there models like this?”. Carroll always laughs away the claim about his diagram, asserting that Craig has not understood what the arrows are representing. On Boltzmann brains, Carroll reiterates that Boltzmann brains are a model-dependent problem, and in this model they are not a problem.

Addressing the audience, Carroll points out that very few people become theists because they think theism provides the best model of cosmology. There are better reasons to become a theist: community, sense of the transcendent, fellowship with fellow man etc. 500 years ago, Carroll would have been a theist. These days, there is not empirical support for theism. So what should a modern theist do in light of the finding of science? One thing would be to deny science, as the creationists do. A second way is to deny the implications of science and to say none of the finding of science has altered the fundamental view of reality put together 2000 years ago. Carroll see’s two problems with this approach. First, it’s wrong, as he has tried to show in this debate, but strategically it’s a bad move as it marginalises [sic] theists as a part of the wider intellectual community. This is an important time for discussing the future of our species, and clinging to outdated beliefs may isolate theists from being part of the discussions. But there is a third option. We admit we were wrong 2000 years ago. But, this person could reasonably say, religion is much more than just theism. There is a place for insight about the human condition, to feel camderadrie with your fellow man. Perhaps naturalism can learn from religion and the lives of the saints. Naturalism may have replaced theism, but has not replaced religion. The lives we lead now are not dress rehearsals. What matters is what we can do to make the world better. There are hard questions of meaning and morals. Naturalism has picked the low hanging fruit. We will get there faster if we all climb together.” – User Zumby on TwoPlusTwo.com

 

Debate is up! William Lane Craig vs. Sean Carroll at New Orleans Greer-Heard Forum

Good folks, the much talked about debate between William Lane Craig and Sean Carroll is now available for viewing on YouTube (embedded below). The proceedings from the second day, which you will recall included presentations and responses by two members from each side (Alex Rosenberg and Tim  Maudlin with Carroll and Robin Collins and James Sinclair with Craig) don’t seem to be available yet but should be shortly. After you watch, I recommend you check out the comment section of Sean Carroll’s post for some opinions on how he fared.

Enjoy (and post your thoughts below)!

The Main Event:

This is not a dress rehearsal: Sean Carroll vs. William Lane Craig – Greer Heard Forum 2014

UPDATE: The debate is now available to watch here!

Well, the much anticipated debate between Caltech cosmologist Sean Carroll and theologian William Lane Craig happened this weekend in New Orleans and was – at least to me – as enjoyable as expected. The event was hosted by the Greer-Heard Forum and consisted of a formal debate between the headliners on Friday night and subsequent readings, discussions, and responses to papers by two members each from Team Naturalism (Tim Maudlin of NYU and Alex Rosenberg of Duke) and Team Theism (Robin Collins and James Sinclair). The entire ordeal was streamed live – yes I spent my Friday night and Saturday afternoon watching – and ended with a short panel discussion and Q&A.

All in all, it was an entertaining forum and I was very grateful the event was streamed. In case you weren’t one of the 10,000 people or so watching live and still want to see the proceedings, stay tuned as the videos should all be made available on YouTube in a couple of days (likely on the Tactical Faith page). I will make sure to update this post with the links as soon as they’re ready.

Now, why was I so excited about this debate you ask? Haven’t I grown tired of listening to William Lane Craig distort science in order to prop up his arguments for theism? Don’t I think these debates are really a waste of time and that no one actually leaves with their mind changed? Well, WLC is grating on the ears (and head….because of the induced face-palming), and I think I would have avoided this debate had his opponent been anyone other than Sean Carroll. You see, Sean has a few things that many naturalists (and he prefers that term to atheist as it’s more comprehensive of his worldview – and I think I agree) sadly don’t: not only does Sean have all the good arguments, he can communicate them well and is likable. That last quality seems a little shallow – yes ideas should stand on their merit not the personality of the one espousing them – but debates like this are part performance art, and it’s difficult to get people to consider your point of view if you come across as, well, unlikable. Finally, Sean is without a doubt an expert on cosmology, and could pretty easily (it was a little embarrassing actually) shut down WLC’s naive arguments hinged on misunderstandings of the literature. Finally – I said finally already so finally, finally – Sean is fairly well versed in philosophy and not as dismissive of the practice as some other cosmological experts that have debated WLC.

So who won? Well, WLC technically always loses on substance in these types of things, but does admittedly usually win on style and rhetoric. He’s an extremely practiced debater and I’ve heard tell that he even has a team of researchers who help him prepare. But in reflection – and I’m striving to be as unbiased as possible – I do think Sean Carroll came away on top. This was one of the few formal debates where I’ve seen WLC flustered and actually less organized and clear than his opponent (he’s been known to fall apart in informal discussions but hardly ever in the podium vs. podium battles). Sean repeatedly addressed specific points by WLC, clearly refuted them, and then moved on to offer his own structured arguments against theism. The most frustrating aspect was watching WLC simply ignore Sean’s corrections and refutations, and pretend as if his argument was just as good as before – thankfully Sean pointed this out and I think it was pretty clear to the audience as well.

My favorite part of the debate came during Sean’s closing remarks, when he purposely forwent the opportunity to continue refuting Craig’s ideas and instead spent time addressing the bigger questions of the naturalism vs. theism debate. Nobody becomes a believer because they think God provides the best explanation for our modern understanding of cosmology (that was, by the way, the topic of the forum) – they do so for other reasons, be they fellowship, community, a feeling of transcendence or hope, etc. So why naturalism seems far and away a more reasonable alternative to theism, particularly if you take the implications of modern science seriously, it still doesn’t help provide us with answers to those deep questions of meaning. Answering those deep questions, Sean says, is a challenge for all humanity, and to answer them we’ll need to in some sense start the conversation over. (I’m really not doing this section justice from memory so I’ll make sure to post the link when it’s ready).

In conclusion – Sean did a terrific job and I hope he continues engaging in these types of debates. You can see his own post-debate thoughts here. Also, you’ll notice I didn’t do a point-by-point review of the debate – the cosmological arguments were way too technical for me to make a competent attempt at something like that but you should have luck googling one.

Watch: William Lane Craig vs. Lawrence Krauss Brisbane debate. Now up!

It’s here!

See previous post for background. Slight caveat – if you’re not familiar with WLC, you might think the other guy, Lawrence Krauss, is coming across a little rudely. He is, but that’s only because he considers WLC dishonest (see post here ) and agreed to the discussions (this is the first of three) mostly to make that point.

Enjoy:

Life, the Universe and Nothing: Has science buried God? from City Bible Forum on Vimeo.

Is death really so bad? Yale’s Shelly Kagan explores one of our deepest fears…

While skimming the comment sections of a post by Jerry Coyne, I was turned onto this debate between philosopher Shelly Kagan and Christian theologian William Lane Craig. A little more study revealed this may be one of the few debates WLC has ever “lost” with an atheist, and I have to agree that he seemed taken off his game a bit by the informal setting and by Kagan (see a brief review here). I’m not sure I was convinced by Kagan’s argument that an atheist can have any kind of “objective” morality in the sense Craig is advocating for, though I am also not convinced that humans need objective morality, and finally I’m unconvinced that objective morality under theism is any more tenable (Why, for instance, is something good solely because God says it is? What if He were to say rape was good, would that make it objectively moral?).

In any event, I was sufficiently intrigued by Kagan to look up some more material, and found the video below that centers on death, given right across the street at Southern Methodist University. His main points can be summarized in this article, but for an even briefer taste, here are some of the questions he explores:

  • Why is death bad? (not the process or prospect, but death itself)
  • Is death intrinsically bad (like pain), or instrumentally bad (like losing your job and that leading to poverty), or is it comparatively bad (watching TV when you could be at a great party)?
  • If death is bad for you, when is it bad for you? It can’t be bad when you’re alive. Can something be bad for you if you don’t exist?
  • If you reject the existence requirement, can’t it be bad not to exist? If so, what about all the potential people who will never be born? Are we committing a great moral crime by not spending all our time trying to bring as many people from nonexistence into existence as possible?
  • And so on…

I have almost no background in philosophy, so I’m trying to ease myself in and Kagan’s a perfectly accessible and entertaining teacher to do that with. Additionally, his popular course at Yale, “Death”, is available for free on Yale’s Open Course site. I’m planning to check it out in the near future…provided I don’t die…which would or wouldn’t be bad for me?