Harris vs. Myers

Both Harris and Myers claim to be champions of Reason and Evidence.  I think they are able to convince themselves of this when they share a common enemy.  But take away the common enemy and Reason/Evidence strangely point in very different directions. 😉

Advertisements
This entry was posted in atheist wars, Sam Harris, Uncategorized and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Harris vs. Myers

  1. Kevin says:

    One of the defining characteristics of all the New Atheist leaders is the inability to separate their own opinion from ironclad fact, which is hilarious when they disagree. Hyper-arrogance.

  2. Dhay says:

    Kevin > One of the defining characteristics of all the New Atheist leaders is the inability to separate their own opinion from ironclad fact …

    In his Waking Up book, and also in the NYT interview by Garry Gutting, quoted here, Sam Harris uses a simple diagram — the by now venerable optical illusion where four three-quarter circles are seen positioned such that nearly all of us will immediately see a white square between them — and uses this diagram as evidence that there is no self.

    G.G.: You deny the existence of the self, understood as “an inner subject thinking our thoughts and experiencing our experiences.” You say, further, that the experience of meditation (as practiced, for example, in Buddhism) shows that there is no self. But you also admit that we all “feel like an internal self at almost every waking moment.” Why should a relatively rare — and deliberately cultivated — experience of no-self trump this almost constant feeling of a self?

    S.H.: Because what does not survive scrutiny cannot be real. Perhaps you can see the same effect in this perceptual illusion:

    [For diagram, see http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/09/07/sam-harriss-vanishing-self/%5D

    It certainly looks like there is a white square in the center of this figure, but when we study the image, it becomes clear that there are only four partial circles. The square has been imposed by our visual system, whose edge detectors have been fooled. Can we know that the black shapes are more real than the white one? Yes, because the square doesn’t survive our efforts to locate it — its edges literally disappear. A little investigation and we see that its form has been merely implied.

    What could we say to a skeptic who insisted that the white square is just as real as the three-quarter circles and that its disappearance is nothing more than, as you say, “a relatively rare — and deliberately cultivated — experience”? All we could do is urge him to look more closely.

    The same is true about the conventional sense of self — the feeling of being a subject inside your head, a locus of consciousness behind your eyes, a thinker in addition to the flow of thoughts. This form of subjectivity does not survive scrutiny. If you really look for what you are calling “I,” this feeling will disappear. In fact, it is easier to experience consciousness without the feeling of self than it is to banish the white square in the above image.

    This fails on a number of levels. The first is that Harris’ arguments and illustrations that there cannot be a self “thinking our thoughts and experiencing our experiences” function with but a few word-substitutions as parallel arguments and illustrations denying that there can be a brain “thinking our thoughts and experiencing our experiences”.

    Even (or especially) on the most philosophical materialist anti-dualist extreme reductionist viewpoint there definitely is something “thinking our thoughts and experiencing our experiences” — it’s called our brains. Since there manifestly are thoughts and experiences — Harris says elsewhere that conscious experience is the one thing that cannot be denied, though everything else can be denied — and since the only credible candidate to produce these in that view is the meat-computer called the brain, plainly the brain can be said to perform the role of “thinking our thoughts and experiencing our experiences”: that thinking and experiencing brain is something, not nothing, and it certainly is not an illusion.

    *

    If I read the interview right, Gutting is claiming that the “relatively rare — and deliberately cultivated — experience of no-self” is a rare experience artificially achieved by Buddhist (or other) meditation, whereas Harris is claiming that the experience of a self is right now and always an illusion, not just when in meditation – just look at my diagram, the illusory self is like that illusory square.

    Ok, let’s do that; let’s see whether the white square is likely to be an illusion or whether it is likely to be a reality:

    As I said, it’s a by now venerable optical illusion; when the image was first drawn, prior to computers, it was probably drawn in black india-ink on a plain white card, using compass, ruler and and set square and by inking in the four solid three-quarter circle segments; in those days it would have been reasonable to say with Harris that no image of a white square had actually been drawn, but that “The square has been imposed by our visual system, whose edge detectors have been fooled.”

    Nowadays, however, with modern drawing packages (such as PowerPoint’s) available, it is almost inconceivable that a draughtsperson would go to such trouble, and we can be sure that onto a white background they dropped four black complete circles, then dropped a borderless white square on top, vertices to centres – it’s such a quick and simple method, so easy and obvious to do compared with the pen-and-ink original method, that we can be as good as certain that the diagrams in Harris’ book, article and tweet were all of them actually produced this way, it’s as good as certain they were each actually produced using an added-on-top white square, and that there really is a white square in the centre of each image – only an idiot would do it the old way.

    So contrary to Harris’ claim, the square does survive our attempts to locate it – I fully expect to be able to click centre on the (eg) PowerPoint original slide to select and reveal the incontrovertibly proven presence of the white square; and then to relocate it, or to leave it located in the centre. That is, using modern computer drawing methods the white square is really there in the centre of the image (because the draughtsperson put one there), so the white square is not illusory.

    *

    Harris says, “It certainly looks like there is a white square in the center of this figure, but when we study the image, it becomes clear that there are only four partial circles.” and “A little investigation and we see that [the square’s] form has been merely implied.”

    Yes, it certainly looks like there is a white square in the centre of this figure (whether there really is one, as above, or not), because unthinking vision, unthinking conscious experience (yathabhutam) of the figure works that way; and yes, if you “study”, “investigate”, and reason about the figure, you readily decide that actually there might not be a white square there at all (but, in accordance with my arguments above, you will probably conclude that a white square there is the more likely probability.)

    *

    Harris’ argument for really no white square is topsy-turvey with his argument for no self: in the former, your simple unreflective pre-rational experience is disparaged as giving the wrong answer and reasoning is hailed as giving the right answer, whereas in Harris’ Buddhist-based meditation it is the simple (yathabhutam) unreflective pre-rational experience which (literally) sees no self which is lauded, what is disparaged is that discursive thinking (reasoning) which says there really is a self. Go figure.

    It’s classic “quantum Harris”, displaying his Schoedinger’s cat’s ability to be two mutually exclusive things at once, arguing both one way against a second and the second way against the first.

    *

    On Twitter, recently (28 Jan 2016), Harris has repeated his diagram and his claim yet again:

    It’s easier to experience consciousness w/o the feeling of self than it is to banish the white square in this image.

    https://twitter.com/SamHarrisSays/status/692761633001709569

    Yeah, yeah. In other words, it’s easier to not (literally) see the self you reason you are than to reason away the square you do see.

    Perhaps predictably, those tweeting back seem mostly to be humorously contradicting and ridiculing Harris: “I just think of 4 Pac-Mans facing each other” is typical.

  3. Kevin says:

    I can easily banish the white square. I can’t even begin to understand the gibberish that Harris is spouting about “consciousness without the feeling of self”, let alone achieve it. Then again, I’ve never used drugs, so Harris does indeed have experiences to which I cannot relate.

  4. TFBW says:

    Q: What is the difference between a printed image containing four three-quarter circles aligned to frame a virtual white square, and a printed image containing four full circles overlaid with a real white square?

    A: Nothing at all.

    Coincidentally, that answer is also the answer to, “what is the point of Sam Harris’ demonstration involving such a picture?”

  5. Dhay says:

    > Both Harris and Myers claim to be champions of Reason and Evidence. I think they are able to convince themselves of this when they share a common enemy. But take away the common enemy and Reason/Evidence strangely point in very different directions. 😉

    It’s not just Sam Harris and PZ Myers — as if you believed it was only those two — but also Sam Harris and Jerry Coyne. For Harris has written a book entitled: The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values, in which he promotes a Utilitarian type argument based upon maximising well-being (of all sentient beings.)

    In his blog post dated February 20, 2016 and entitled, “Apple vs. U.S. government: a big dilemma”, Coyne looks at Apple’s ethic dilemma in the face of a court order to release the data stored on one of its locked phones: he attacks the idea of objective morality, but for once it’s not Christians who are his target, it’s Harris and his ideas:

    This is a real dilemma. What is to be done? Apple has until February 26 to respond. And this is a question of ethics, somewhat analogous to the dilemma of whether to torture someone who has information that could lead to saving thousands of lives by revealing the location of a time bomb. I am of course sensible of the difference between torturing someone and creating software, and between people dying from a ticking bomb versus having their data compromised; but both dilemmas instantiate a weighing of relative harms.

    This, I think, shows the problem of arguing for an “objective” morality. On one hand we have the possible (but not certain) revealing of data about terrorist networks, with the “well being” constituting the possible saving of lives. On the other we have the creation of a precedent that could allow the government to act intrusively, on the merest excuse, to get people’s private data. The “well being” here is the safety of people against losing their private information, and of creating a precedent that could be misused. Now how on earth can you possibly weigh these different forms of “well being”, even if we could know perfectly all of the consequences of both actions? (And, of course, we can’t.)

    https://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2016/02/20/apple-vs-u-s-government-a-big-dilemma/

    Coyne is here referring to Harris’ ideas: “…this is a question of ethics, somewhat analogous to the dilemma of whether to torture someone who has information that could lead to saving thousands of lives by revealing the location of a time bomb” could be a direct quote from Harris’ blog, or a number of Harris’ articles; to “weigh these different forms of “well being” (to choose maximised well-being)” also obviously refers directly to the practices Harris advocates in his book on morality.

    It’s interestingly that, although Coyne is arguing to undercut an “objective” (his quotes) morality, it is not the Christian, Muslim or some generic religious morality which he singles out to focus on and to undercut, the vociferously anti-religious Coyne chooses a New Atheist target: it is specifically Harris’ version of “objective” (indeed, allegedly “scientifically objective” (my quotes)) morality which Coyne undercuts.

    Yep, reason/evidence strangely point in very different directions.

  6. Dhay says:

    Another New Atheist who is severely critical of Sam Harris’ ideas on morality is Russell Blackford. We can be sure Blackford is a New Atheist because in his recent review of FvF he includes this disclosure: “Russell Blackford is personally and professionally acquainted with Jerry Coyne, and is among the “friends and colleagues” thanked for “help and encouragement” in the Acknowledgments section of Faith versus Fact.” Certainly Blackford shares with Coyne a strong antipathy towards what they both call “accommodationists”. I strongly suspect that Coyne got many of his ideas from Blackford rather than the other way round.

    (Criticisms of Coyne’s ideas on accommodationism, of which there have been many, apply with equal force to Blackford’s echo in that review of FvF.
    https://theconversation.com/against-accommodationism-how-science-undermines-religion-52660)

    Coyne is not a philosopher (nor a theologian): his two-and-a-bit years of guided study under Eric MacDonald (who has now emphatically rejected Coyne’s ideas and disparaged Coyne’s abilities) were fitted in alongside full-time work as a research biologist and alongside astonishingly voluminous blogging, and probably also alongside starting to draft his book; Blackford, for all that he is primarily a science fiction writer (and a qualified but apparently non-practising barrister), and seemingly primarily using his philosophy training to inform his SF books on topics including genetic enhancement and computer enhancement of human abilities, and highlighting the moral implications — for all that, Blackford comes over as knowledgeable and capable in his 2010 review, published in the “Journal of Evolution and Technology” (of which he is Editor-in-Chief) of Harris’ The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values.

    http://jetpress.org/v21/blackford3.htm

    Shakespeare’s Mark Anthony famously says, “I come not to praise Caesar, but to bury him”; Blackford came to praise Harris — “I enjoyed this book, and I recommend it highly” — then continued in the rest of his long and detailed critique to bury Harris, to bury deep and very, very thoroughly.

    Blackford gives a tad more praise at the end, with, “Despite my criticisms, Harris is correct on the most important point. We can criticize other cultures as well as our own.” As if any thinking person — or even any unthinking bigot — didn’t already know that. Faint praise indeed.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s