Guest post: Reza Aslan goes after Bill Maher

Jerry Coyne was kind enough to share a short rant I wrote about Reza Aslan’s recent appearance on CNN. Here is the post is full. If you’re not already following Why Evolution Is True, you should be:

Why Evolution Is True

Just a short while ago I put up a post and video about Bill Maher going after Islam on his show. Maher’s words were prompted by the Pennsylvania kid who was arrested for “desecrating” a statue of Jesus; Maher’s point was that in a Muslim country (if they even allowed statues of Muhammad, which they don’t), the kid would have been killed. The video on that post has now been removed from YouTube, but another one has sprung up here.

On Monday, Reza Aslan, the Great Muslim Apologist, went on CNN to attack Maher and defend Islam, and a reader sent me the link along with a critique of Aslan’s critique.  Usually readers just send me links and a few words, but when a reader gives me a longer take, I always worry about unconscious theft of ideas if I post the link with my own commentary. If my take is similar…

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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.

No, Obama, ISIL Does Not Have a “Nihilistic” Ideology

I think the entire world is shocked and appalled by ISIL’s beheading of American journalist James Foley. This afternoon, President Barack Obama spoke about the killing, and did a good job of expressing our collective anger and sadness. So all in all I was pleased with the statement, but one thing has been bugging me all afternoon…

Why wasn’t there any criticism of religious fundamentalism? Obama completely whitewashed the role religion is playing in ISIL’s actions. Instead of acknowledging that these are religious extremists killing in the name of Islam, Obama obscured the issue, saying that “ISIL speaks for no religion” and blaming their “nihilistic ideologies”. The first quote is understandable – he was simply trying to say that ISIL does not represent the majority of practicing Muslims around the world (and that is certainly true). However, in other ways it isn’t an accurate statement. ISIL is clearly speaking for Islam, at least in their own way. And the second statement, that ISIL is fueled by a “nihilistic ideology”, is simply wrong. ISIL is not a group of nihilists. They are group of extremists guided by an explicitly religious ideology. 

To ignore the role religions is playing – in fact, to tacitly deny religion is playing a role – does humanity no favors. We have to examine problems objectively, and if religion is at the bottom of a group of people’s justification for committing horrendous acts, we have to acknowledge that and respond accordingly. 

Richard Feynman is not allowed to have sex.

A few days ago, a blog article was published by Matthew Francis called, “The Problem with Richard Feynman“. It got picked up by a few outlets, including 3 Quarks Daily. In the post, Francis argues that legendary physicist Richard Feynman should not be thought of as a hero – despite his significant contributions to science – because of some disreputable behavior and attitudes sprinkled over his 70 so odd years on earth.

I obviously agree that Feynman was flawed (so are you, dear reader, and so am I), but he certainly wasn’t flawed enough to deserve demotion from hero status, at least in my opinion (and also in the opinion of most commenters on the post). On the contrary, having studied Feynman pretty closely, I’ve always thought that one of the most remarkable things about him was that his heart seemed as big as his brain. One only needs to read the letter he wrote to his first wife, some 16 months after she passed away from tuberculosis, to get a sense of this. You might also watch this full-length documentary featuring interviews with several friends. The more I learned and continue to learn about Feynman, the more I feel a genuine respect, almost love, for the guy.

And so I had to respond to Francis’ bizarre post, which goes so far as to accuse Feynman of being a “sexual predator”:

…what if a hero was a sexual predator, someone who admitted to some really creepy behavior? What if this person also happens to be a Nobel laureate, a founder of a whole field of research, and an admirable thinker on a number of complicated topics? How do we deal with the two realities together?

In short, how do we cope with the problem of Richard Feynman?

Sexual predator? One has to assume – since Francis provides little evidence to support such a claim – that this accusation is in reference to Feynman’s admitted womanizing, chronicled in his autobiographies and elsewhere. The specific “facts” Francis lays out are as follows:

“Feynman pretended to be an undergraduate to get young women to sleep with him. He targeted the wives of male grad students. He went to bars and practiced a technique that isn’t so different from the reprehensible “game” of the pick-up artists (PUAs).”

That’s it. That’s all Francis points to. Those things make someone a sexual predator? Were the undergraduates underage? Were the wives of male grad students assaulted? Were the women in bars Jedi-mind tricked? Might it not be possible that women sometimes want sex, that Feynman was charming and seductive, and that these two forces occasionally found one another? Is Feynman not allowed to have or pursue sex (if that’s the criteria for being a sexual predator, who on earth isn’t?)? I’m not condoning affairs or leaving behind pregnant girlfriends (another accusation of Feynman strangely not covered in Francis’ article), but can any thinking person, with the limited knowledge we have about Feynman’s life, honestly equate these items to sexual predation? The answer is no, they can’t. Which means Francis either isn’t thinking or isn’t honest in this particular post.

With that out of the way, what about the fact that Feynman was sometimes “mean” to others? Shouldn’t such moral depravity disqualify him from being lauded as a hero? That seems to be the gist:

And let’s face it: Feynman frequently unkind toward men too. In his memoirs, he tends to spin things to make himself into the smartest one in the room, and to make even his friends look like losers by comparison. Excessive self-deprecation is one thing, but it seems a trifle unfair to take potshots at friends in a medium where they can’t defend themselves.

A trifle unfair to take potshots at people who can’t defend themselves: say, like accusing a dead scientist of being a sexual predator? This entire criticism – that Feynman was occasionally mean or derisive – is almost too silly of an accusation for grown ups to even bother with, but I have to wonder what memoirs Francis is reading and whether or not he’s missing a bit of the point. For example, when Feynman comes across as the “smartest one in the room” in his essays, it’s almost always as a foil to some pompous or stuffy authoritarian figure or self-proclaimed expert. We all know Feynman perpetuated the “myth of Feynman” and that many of his stories and essays were heavily exaggerated or apocryphal (another reason it isn’t entirely responsible to use them to impugn), but we also know that Feynman was intensely honest and quick to admit when he knew little about a subject or specialty: “I have approximate answers and possible beliefs and different degrees of uncertainty about different things, but I am not absolutely sure of anything and there are many things I don’t know anything about…I don’t have to know an answer. I don’t feel frightened not knowing things, by being lost in a mysterious universe without any purpose, which is the way it really is as far as I can tell.” To see just how far the above passage stretches reality, here are a few quotes literally picked out in under two minutes by flipping at random through Feynman’s “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman”, that contradict Francis:

At that particular time I was not quite up to things: I was always a little behind. Everybody seemed to be smart, and I didn’t feel like I was keeping up.

I was ready to put my hand up and say, ‘Would you please define the problem better,’ but then I thought, ‘No, I’m the ignoramus; I’d better listen.

I felt so stupid…He was always deflating me like that. He was a very smart fellow.

If Francis’ post had stuck with a premise like this: Feynman gets all kinds of attention for great things he did, but he was also human and did some bad things too and we have keep those things in mind – I wouldn’t have had a problem with it, and I don’t think many others would have either (other than that it’s maybe too obvious to merit a post). But to go so much further, to say that we shouldn’t consider Feynman a hero and – most egregiously – to accuse him of being a sexual predator, that’s where it all goes off the rails.

Francis’ final paragraph begins thus: “Feynman is no hero to us, brilliant as he was.” I’m not sure who the us is – the representatives of the website? – but Feynman is in fact a hero to me and to many others and will continue to be so. I’m not ignoring his flaws. I’m aware of them. Just as I’m aware of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s flaws. It’s just that I’m much more aware of these individual’s strengths, which are what we look to in heroes. Strengths are what inspire us. And inspiration is the reason we need heroes.

Richard Feynman’s rigorous defense of the scientific method, his intellectual integrity, his contagious enthusiasm for life and learning, his immense contributions to human knowledge – these qualities and more like them far overshadow the ill-advised romantic dalliances for a reason: they’re rare.

Update: My own semi-feud with Deepak’s fans

Somewhat appropriately, two of Deepak’s fans engaged me in a brief semi-feud after reading this recent post about a semi-feud between Chopra and physicist Brian Cox. Anyway, you can look it all up in the comments section if you want – do tell me if I was too harsh. You can also look the discussion up on Twitter, since both individuals felt compelled to write their own full length responses and then push those responses through their various social media networks all day. Would it be absurd to remind them that I’m a stranger musing on things for fun and hardly worth scribbling out responses to? But I guess we humans are lonely.

What really gets my goat about the whole thing? How tantalizingly close I was to being tagged by the guru himself on Twitter. Look here, so close!

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How could he miss it?! Flabbergasting when you consider how regularly he tags the entire internet on his tweets.

If you do decide to track the littler of the little feuds, keep in mind that the second commenter – that’d be the physics student from Canada – seems to have retired his internet presence. As of today I can’t find his blog response to me anymore, and his Twitter account has been deactivated. I hope he comes back – I offered to let him write a blog post on why he thinks a singularity is essential, as opposed to some physicists who argue that it’s probably not necessary. And I meant it too – I’d be happy to let him post. Though I did make the offer before seeing this over at Why Evolution is True:

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Now, if you’re a Deepak fan reading this and thinking about responding, you know what my advice is? Relax. Be content in the cosmic consciousness. Life’s too short to write a response that no one will read. And if you remember nothing else, remember this: knowledge results from the doorway to bliss.

(Just kidding on that last part – it’s from a Deepak Chopra random nonsense generator)

If you must say something, be warned that this will likely be my response:

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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.

Deepak Chopra/Deadbat Chopstick semi-feuds with Brian Cox on Twitter

If you follow “spiritual” guru Deepak Chopra on Twitter, you know how annoying he can be, especially when he feels challenged. He regularly gets into social media semi-feuds with actual scientists, and I say semi-feuds because most of his opponents don’t bother to reply. That leaves Deepak by his lonesome, furiously spitting out 8,000 (mostly nonsense) tweets with no response. It reminds me of grade school, when you could watch a bully self-destruct in real-time as his victim employed the effective tactic of simply ignoring his oppressor.

Jerry Coyne’s website brought the most recent Twitter semi-feud to my attention yesterday, this time between Deepak and rock-star English physicist Brian Cox. I’m a big fan of Brian Cox – he’s almost a perfect meld between Dawkins and Sagan in that he’s especially adept at expounding the wonders of science (ala Sagan) and equally intolerant of nonsense, woo, and superstitious thinking (ala Dawkins…also, Cox is British). Anyway, Cox ends the feud with a knock-out blow, what I believe the internet calls a “pwn”. Here’s the summarized feud (though you should check out some of the responses from followers of each):

1pm on the 19th, Deepak posts some of his regular science-sounding nonsense:

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The next morning, Brian Cox, an actual scientist, decides to correct Deepak with this tweet:

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Which unleashes a rapid pack of “Deepak crazies” who swarm Brian’s twitter feed (if you think Deepak is defensive, you should see his followers):

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And all the while Deepak is of course tweeting out 9,000,000 of his own responses:

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And tries to throw the hammer down with this one:

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Which sets him up for this wonderful pwn:

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