Saturday, January 12, 2008

Two Posts on Sam Harris's The End of Faith

(Posted to my MySpace Weblog on October 3, 2007)

[I re-post these pieces from over a year ago because, well, I am lazy and because I want to give gadfly something to do while I continue to contemplate how to formulate an answer to his Euthyphro question. It frustrates me to no end, quite frankly, that I do not have a ready answer to that damn thing yet after having encountered it during my undergraduate years when I read Russell's "Why I am not a Christian" and after having read just a few short months ago Dawkins's rather savage version of that pesky conundrum in his The God Delusion. I should say, though, that when I read Russell as a callow undergraduate, the Euthyphro question did not bother me at all; I really wanted to be an atheist. Mainly because I wanted to fornicate in good conscience. I did not fornicate at all during my four years at Washington U., though. I just banged my head against the wall because life had no meaning. I was not getting laid, and there was no God, so life sucked.

And now I want to be a Catholic and believe in God and feel really guilty about even the tiniest impure inclination, and, therefore, Russell now bothers me. Can't ignore him. I am not one to put my head in the sand as a certain Father V. does with regard to the neo-cons and the overwhelming evidence THAT THE IRAQ WAR IS IMMORAL, UNJUST, ILLEGAL AND THAT WE WERE LIED INTO IT. I refuse to have any truck with intellectual dishonesty. That's a really grave sin, graver than masturbation, even.

Yeah, I know that I said I had an answer to the Euthyphro question. Well, the smug, triumphalistic Catholic in me exaggerated. I did not exactly lie because I do have one: The Euthyphro question is a false dilemma because it presumes that God is a composite of will and being whereas in classic Catholic Theology God's will cannot be understood apart from being because God is being itself and, thus, the source of all being. But, frankly, this answer does not satisfy me, and Gadfly, I suspect, would regard it as an evasion of the problem. So, I must think some more and also must apologize for making it sound like I had an answer ready to go after I just crossed the t's and dotted the i's. That was intellectual dishonesty on my part. Sorry.

Maybe, I'll not come up with a satisfying answer to Gadfly, and I'll have to revert to atheism. Well, at least, I'll be able to fornicate without fear of eternal damnation. After all, I will already be damned to meaningless nothingness. I might as well meaninglessly spread my meaningless sperm. But it will be more likely that I will return to banging my head. If there is no mind behind the universe, then what we call our minds are ultimately useless, and all our reason is in the end for nought. All there is is mindless force, und Nichts au├čerdem!.

Therefore, the only intellectually honest thing for me to do is to deny my intellect and bang my head against a wall until it reverts to the meaningless matter from whence it came. So, Gadfly, while I am pondering my answer to you, you can chew on these two snide posts I wrote about Sam Harris. I suspect you are a Sam Harris groupie and might be annoyed by what I have written about him and his "thoughts". If you are annoyed, well, then, GOOD!--PSR]

Post 1

So, I'm reading Sam Harris's The End of Faith, a typical Enlightenment critique of religion. Religious people are dingbats because they believe in stuff for which there is just no evidence or proof. The interesting twist of Sam Harris's book is his full frontal attack on the religious liberals who by his lights want to have it both ways: They want to be both religiously devout and good, reasonable, and tolerant sons and daughters of the Enlightenment. Well, you can't, thunders Harris. Religion is the dark abyss of irrationality, the Enlightenment is sweetness and light. The two clash and necessarily clash. You've got to choose one or the other, and if you choose religion, Harris will hold you complicit in Faith's attempt to nullify the hard won triumphs of Reason.

And if the religion you choose happens to be Islam, well, he might even kill you. See, all religion is insane, but Islam is the worst. Harris has read the Koran and has concluded that there is a direct line from it to suicide bombings. Islam trains people to destroy themselves for the sake of paradise, and should Islamic countries ever acquire long-range nuclear weaponry, they may choose destruction of the whole world as the quickest route to Koranic Paradise. This is a very real possibility. What's to be done if these whacko Muslims don't see the reasonableness of the Western Enlightenment? What if they stubbornly persist in their nihilistic beliefs that the value of this world is nothing compared to the glories of the next? Harris answers:

In such a situation, the only thing likely to ensure our survival may be a nuclear first strike of our own. Needless to say, this would be an unthinkable crime--as it would kill tens of millions of innocent civilians in a single day--but it may be the only course of action available to us, given what Islamists believe. (p. 129 of the Norton Paperback Edition)

Now, Harris does stress that "[a]ll of this is perfectly insane." And he makes clear that he conjures up just such a scenario only to illustrate that the beliefs of Islam are so serious that they could very well force us to into a genocidal war. Harris is by no means advocating the realization of the horrific hypothetical. Harris would, of course, much prefer for Muslims to moderate their beliefs, which means to admit that the Koran is as fictional as Batman Comic Books and to accept the Good Sense of the Godless Enlightenment. And as much Mr. Harris hates to say this, it's either that or all out nuclear genocide.

Oh, if only we were all as reasonable as you, Mr. Harris! But because over one sixth of the world's population are not and stubbornly refuse to be, I guess nuclear genocide is the only way for the legacy of the Enlightenment to endure. Too bad.

I have about seventy more pages to read in Harris's book. I will have more to say after I have finished it.

Post 2

I finally finished Sam Harris's The End of Faith. Religion is bad because it is irrational. It is irrational because it demands beliefs for which there can be no empirical evidence of any kind. One wonders if Sam Harris has ever read David Hume. The Humean Argument shows that belief in causality is irrational (in Harris's sense) because there can never be an empirical expression of causation. There can be such an expression of conjunction, of course, but not of causation. So, are scientists who mistake mere conjunction for causation irrational by Harris's lights?

Harris would perhaps counter with the argument that the confusion of conjunction and causation (if it is indeed a confusion) has not led to such patent atrocities as inquisitions, witch hunts, bloody religious wars, and suicide bombings. Religion has led to such things and will continue to lead to such things as long as enlightened atheists are unwilling to say outright what has been obvious for centuries now, that religion in putting all value in a beyond for which there is no shred of proof necessarily devalues the world we all can see and, hence, much wreck havoc with it. Why not blow yourself up and take dozens of innocents with you if the glories of this world are just filthy feces when compared to those of the next? No, the civilized world cannot tolerate such nihilistic irrationalities, and atheists must say this with pressing urgency. Else the world is doomed to be destroyed in an orgy of irrational religious piety.

Okay, so, how do we convince billions of whackoes to be rational, forget about the at best dubious rewards of the beyond, and focus on creating global harmony for the here and now? By the promotion of Buddhist meditation. Yes, folks, we must spread the gospel of Buddhist meditation throughout the world. See, in the last pages of Harris's book, we discover that religion, as pernicious as it is, is not the basic problem. No, the subject-object duality is. The fact that we understand ourselves as individuated selves over and against this world of the here and now makes us hostile to it and to eachother. Duality means opposition, opposition means strife. To get rid of strife, we must get rid of the opposition, to get rid of opposition we must do away with duality. To do away with duality, we must get rid of the sense of the self. And if we don't want a religious whacko to do that for us by triggering thermonuclear war, then we better start promoting Buddhist meditation.

The goal of the Buddhist meditation is the extinction of the self and the contemplation of the nothingness behind the illusion that we call this world. Buddhism devalues the world of the here and now as much as, if not more than, any of the irrational religions do. But Buddhism does not offer a better world, only a blissful nothingness. It is easy to imagine someone going on a suicide mission for the sake of an orgy with seventy dark-eyed virgins. It's kinda stupid to go kamikaze for the sake of a contemplative dissolution into the non-empty emptiness.

But, then again, it's kinda stupid to do anything for the sake of nothingness. I mean, perhaps, I am too caught in the straitjacket of occidental binary thinking, but if you succeed in this Buddhist meditation and wipe out your sense of self and become one with the emptiness (which is somehow non-empty), then why the hell would you give a shit about some religious whacko wanting to take Armageddon into his own hands?

I don't really believe Sam Harris is serious with his suggestion that the Gospel of Buddhism will save the civilized world. Harris has fallen into Huntingtonite despair about the Islamic Hordes chomping at the bit to impose Sharia upon their enlightened betters. He thinks that only a pre-emptive genocidal first strike will prevent it but really doesn't have the cahones for such a bloody solution. So, the only option left short of getting blotto drunk or your brain completely fried is to curl up into the Lotus Position and tell yourself over and over that nothingness isn't so bad and suffering is just an illusion, and if you can convince yourself of this, then you'll be able to endure either the imposition of the Koranic Law or the nuclear/genocidal clash of civilizations. Nihilistic contemplation is the only reasonable solution to murderous nihilism, I suppose.

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