Mythers vs. Sam Harris

Instead of complaining that mainstream scholars don’t embrace Mytherism, the Mythers should be concerned that they have yet to convince all the New Atheists.

Over at Amazon.com, Harris’s spirituality book is promoted as follows:

Waking Up is for the twenty percent of Americans who follow no religion but who suspect that important truths can be found in the experiences of such figures as Jesus, the Buddha, Lao Tzu, Rumi, and the other saints and sages of history.

Huh?  If we were to adopt the Myther brand of Hyper-Skepticism, not only did Jesus not exist.  But neither did Buddha and Lao Tzu exist.  In fact, we may as well keep going, as the same Hyper-Skepticism would teach us that Socrates and Mohammad did not exist.

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12 Responses to Mythers vs. Sam Harris

  1. Dhay says:

    Here’s a post by Glenn Peoples entitled “Does Richard Carrier Exist?”, presenting a demonstration by Tim McGrew, using Bayesian statistical argument, that Richard Carrier almost certainly is a mythical figure:

    These considerations alone leave us with odds of 400 to 1 against, or a probability just a bit in excess of .9975 that Richard Carrier is not a real person.

    http://rightreason.org/2012/does-richard-carrier-exist/

    And then there’s the famous argument that Abraham Lincoln was a mythical figure, as presented by Carson Weitnauer in a post entitled, “Did Abraham Lincoln Exist? Join the aLincolnist Movement!”:

    Did Abraham Lincoln really exist? It is a hard question to answer, but an important one. Millions if not billions of people believe in His existence, but that doesn’t mean they are right. As Richard Dawkins has wisely said, “The question is not “How many millions believe it?”… But “Is it TRUE? The question is not “Is your belief entitled to respect?” but “Is it TRUE?”

    Having carefully studied the works of Richard Dawkins, John Loftus, Sam Harris, Richard Carrier, Daniel Dennett, P.Z. Myers, and Christopher Hitchens, we are utilizing their brilliant insights into the study of religion to break ground in new academic disciplines. For far, far too long these formidable scholars have been ignored, disrespected, and unfairly boxed into the narrow study of musty old religions. But it is our conviction that their paradigm-busting scholarship should lead us to new discoveries in other fields!

    The time has come. Let’s admit it: Belief in Abraham Lincoln is the most malevolent of all mind viruses. So it is critical that all reason-loving skeptics finally acknowledge that Abraham Lincoln never existed.

    http://www.reasonsforgod.org/2013/03/did-abraham-lincoln-exist/

    There you are, then: two figures who we know(?) existed or know(?) currently exists, both of them hugely influential people in the development of mankind, yet under hostile analysis both of them are almost certainly mythical.

  2. George says:

    There probably wasn’t a single historical person named “Lao Tzu” responsible for writing the Tao Te Ching. After all it’s a generic name that literally means “old master”. It doesn’t take “Hyper-Skepticism” to arrive at that. Scholars see the book as a compilation of oral traditions with centuries in the making.

    The quote you give is not from Sam Harris; it is the publisher’s blurb. The purpose of the sentence is to briefly describe Harris’ book, not to make proclamations on the historicity of Jesus or Lao Tzu or anyone else, and certainly not to ascribe such views to Harris. Even supposing Harris was writing effusively about himself in the third person (elsewhere in the same blurb), pretending to be his publisher, it still wouldn’t follow that he would be arguing for the historicity of Jesus and Lao Tzu. The context is the book, which is not about such matters, and one needn’t add “(if he existed)” to every mention of Jesus in order to defend against tendentious readers. It is perfectly normal in this context to speak of “figures” whether they are legendary or not.

    Harris, like many agnostics and atheists, is probably indifferent to the historicity question (the difference between a non-divine real person associated with legendary stories and a legendary person associated with legendary stories doesn’t much matter to them). Since Harris appeared in “The God Who Wasn’t There”, he may well lean toward mythicism, who knows.

  3. Michael says:

    The quote you give is not from Sam Harris; it is the publisher’s blurb. The purpose of the sentence is to briefly describe Harris’ book, not to make proclamations on the historicity of Jesus or Lao Tzu or anyone else, and certainly not to ascribe such views to Harris.

    You’re right. After all, those book descriptions can be SO different from the book and the author has NO input about it, right? Anyway, here’s what Harris wrote in his book:

    It would take me many years to put this experience into context. Until that moment, I had viewed organized religion as merely a monument to the ignorance and superstition of our ancestors. But I now knew that Jesus, the Buddha, Lao Tzu, and the other saints and sages of history had not all been epileptics, schizophrenics, or frauds. I still considered the world’s religions to be mere intellectual ruins, maintained at enormous economic and social cost, but I now understood that important psychological truths could be found in the rubble.


    Book description:
    the experiences of such figures as Jesus, the Buddha, Lao Tzu, Rumi, and the other saints and sages of history.
    Book itself: . But I now knew that Jesus, the Buddha, Lao Tzu, and the other saints and sages of history

    Er, your attempt to defend one of your leaders just left you with egg on your face.

    Even supposing Harris was writing effusively about himself in the third person (elsewhere in the same blurb), pretending to be his publisher, it still wouldn’t follow that he would be arguing for the historicity of Jesus and Lao Tzu. The context is the book, which is not about such matters, and one needn’t add “(if he existed)” to every mention of Jesus in order to defend against tendentious readers. It is perfectly normal in this context to speak of “figures” whether they are legendary or not.

    This is a typical Gnu tactic – tap dance around the evidence. No one insisted Harris should add “if he existed” to every mention of Jesus. You made up that point so you can knock it down so you can make yourself feel smart. And it wasn’t “figures” that we’re focused on. It was “saints and sages of history.” Pay attention.

    Since Harris appeared in “The God Who Wasn’t There”, he may well lean toward mythicism, who knows.

    It would not surprise me if Harris was drawn to this crackpot notion, but wanted to hide this to sell more books to make more money.

  4. George says:

    I’ve been critical of Harris on this blog. For you to say that he is one of my “leaders” appears to be poisoning the well.

    I said that even if Harris wrote the blurb himself, the implication of his position on mythicism still wouldn’t hold. For exactly the same reason, the implication doesn’t hold from a quote he wrote that is similar to the blurb. Nothing hinges on the word “figure”. It is perfectly obvious that, in the context of a book on spirituality, mentioning Jesus and Lao Tzu as being among saints and sages does not imply that one is stating one’s researched position on their being actual individuals in history.

    Are you seriously claiming that Harris is asserting that Lao Tzu, a person with the generic name of “old master”, is a single real person in history responsible for writing the Tao Te Ching? It just doesn’t follow.

  5. Michael says:

    I’ve been critical of Harris on this blog.

    That one time you said, in passing, ” Sam Harris’ contemptuous dismissal of whole fields of philosophy” doesn’t exactly qualify as being “critical of Harris on this blog.”

    For you to say that he is one of my “leaders” appears to be poisoning the well.

    Wasn’t trying to. It’s just when someone sounds like a New Atheist every time they pop up to defend a New Atheist leader, they come across as followers of New Atheist leaders.

    I said that even if Harris wrote the blurb himself, the implication of his position on mythicism still wouldn’t hold.

    Er, you scolded me for relying on the publisher’s description and for attributing those words to Harris. Now you try to spin it as if you were never wrong about anything and your criticism is still completely valid.

    For exactly the same reason, the implication doesn’t hold from a quote he wrote that is similar to the blurb. Nothing hinges on the word “figure”.

    Never said it did. I pointed this out in my previous reply to you.

    It is perfectly obvious that, in the context of a book on spirituality, mentioning Jesus and Lao Tzu as being among saints and sages does not imply that one is stating one’s researched position on their being actual individuals in history.

    Now you are trying to change what was actually written. One final time, here are the words of Sam Harris:

    But I now knew that Jesus, the Buddha, Lao Tzu, and the other saints and sages of history

    I can’t believe that you really didn’t see “of history” and that, coupled with the way you are trying to spin things while pretending not to be a New Atheists, leads me to think you are a troll. Time for the Coyne treatment.

  6. George says:

    What is the “Coyne treatment”? Does that mean you plan to block me, or have already?

    Nothing hinges on the words “of history” either. I don’t really understand your point, nor the apparent hostility associated with it. It would greatly clarify things if you would not avoid the question: Are you seriously claiming that Harris is asserting that Lao Tzu, a person with the generic name of “old master”, is a single real person in history responsible for writing the Tao Te Ching? Perhaps you realize that that completely undermines your position, and that enacting a block is a form of lashing out. I hope not.

  7. Michael says:

    What is the “Coyne treatment”? Does that mean you plan to block me, or have already?

    Looks that way.

    Nothing hinges on the words “of history” either.

    LOL. Of course not. When Harris refers to Jesus, the Buddha, and Lao Tzu as being among the saints and sages of history, he didn’t really mean history. 😉

    I don’t really understand your point, nor the apparent hostility associated with it.

    The point was clearly spelled out in the OP: “Instead of complaining that mainstream scholars don’t embrace Mytherism, the Mythers should be concerned that they have yet to convince all the New Atheists.”

    It would greatly clarify things if you would not avoid the question: Are you seriously claiming that Harris is asserting that Lao Tzu, a person with the generic name of “old master”, is a single real person in history responsible for writing the Tao Te Ching?

    Er, that’s what Sam wrote: “But I now knew that Jesus, the Buddha, Lao Tzu, and the other saints and sages of history had not all been epileptics, schizophrenics, or frauds.”

    Look, maybe you feel a psychic connection with your leader, but I don’t have the ability to read his mind. I have to do it the old fashioned way – read his words. And believe me, it would be great if Harris was a Myther. But if I were to claim one of the Horsemen was a Myther, some Harris fan would probably cite that passage to show that I am wrong.

    Perhaps you realize that that completely undermines your position,

    My position is rock solid – supported by the actual words of Harris. Perhaps you are a myther who wants to believe your leader thinks like you do?

    and that enacting a block is a form of lashing out. I hope not.

    It’s not. I just smell a troll who tried to insist Harris never made such claims and, when shown to be wrong, now insists Harris didn’t mean what he wrote. There’s nothing more to say unless someone can get Harris to admit he is a Myther.

  8. George says:

    It’s super weird that you still don’t understand why your claim is completely undermined. Asserting that Lao Tzu was literally historical person simply doesn’t make sense; the probability that Harris is claiming that is approximately zero. Harris doesn’t put forth arguments that depend upon the proposition, and it’s not even related to his book. What do you actually think Harris believes? That someone named their kid “old master”? At least you implicitly conceded that going off a publisher’s blurb was an embarrassing mistake.

    It’s also super weird that you are letting your emotions get to you about all this. I think on some level you realize that your argument falls to pieces, but it hasn’t quite sunk in. You feel a huge cognitive dissonance and reach for the ban button as a way to resolve it. I hope that you will, in time, find better ways of dealing with your feelings.

  9. Dhay says:

    > It would take me many years to put this experience into context. Until that moment, I had viewed organized religion as merely a monument to the ignorance and superstition of our ancestors. But I now knew that Jesus, the Buddha, Lao Tzu, and the other saints and sages of history had not all been epileptics, schizophrenics, or frauds.

    Harris’ “Drugs and the Meaning of Life” blog article includes > If the patriarchs and matriarchs of the world’s religions experienced such states of mind [as he himself has], many of their claims about the nature of reality would make subjective sense. A beatific vision does not tell you anything about the birth of the cosmos, but it does reveal how utterly transfigured a mind can be by a full collision with the present moment.

    Harris’ plainly views other religions through a distorting lens: for him, it seems that any (or all? or the only?) value in a religion lies in, or derives from, whatever beatific visions it produces.

    Religious claims are made “subjective sense” of — subjective! and he berates Christians for irrationality! — by beatific visions? Indeed, he’s admitting that claims derived from beatific visions don’t make objective sense. What was he saying about ignorance and superstition?

    To a guy with a hammer, everything is a nail. To Harris, heavily steeped in and heavily influenced by traditional Buddhist thought and by many years of its practices, every religion’s founder – except Muhammad, of course, he pointedly avoids mentioning either Muhammad or mainstream Islam and substitutes a happy-clappy Sufi saint, Sufi singer or Sufi practice in any pseudo-conciliatory passages like this one – every religion’s founder and its saints or their equivalent was sort of another Buddha, a meditator, someone who felt overwhelming love for all sentient beings and an overwhelming gratitude for being there in the moment, someone who no longer felt separate from the universe.

    *

    Sam Harris certainly writes of Jesus as being a historical figure; Jesus ‘conceives of himself’ and ‘seeks’, so it appears that for Harris, Jesus was a real person, one capable of self-consciousness and intentionality:

    Jesus was a Jew, of course, and his mother a Jewess. His apostles, to the last man, were also Jews. There is no evidence whatsoever … that Jesus ever conceived of himself as anything other than a Jew among Jews, seeking …
    (P.94 of The End of Faith.)

  10. Michael says:

    It’s super weird that you still don’t understand why your claim is completely undermined.

    It’s super weird that you think it has. You think my point is undermined because you have shown Sam Harris to be a Myther because he refers to Lao Tzu as a sage of history. Huh?

    Asserting that Lao Tzu was literally historical person simply doesn’t make sense; the probability that Harris is claiming that is approximately zero.

    There are various opinions on the historicity of Lao Tzu, which is understandable given there is only a single source about him that was written about 500 years after he was supposed to have existed. What matters here is not some imaginary probability analysis about Sam Harris’s state of mind. For your notions of probability are rooted entirely in your subjectivity. What matters is the empirical evidence – what Sam Harris actually wrote. And from what he wrote, it’s clear he thinks Lao Tzu was a sage from history.

    Harris doesn’t put forth arguments that depend upon the proposition, and it’s not even related to his book.

    That’s irrelevant. The claim he makes in his book is quite sufficient to establish Harris’s views on historicity. And as Dhay has shown in his comment, Harris repeats a historical claim about Jesus in his End of Faith. While you may want Harris to be a Myther, you’ll need to provide evidence apart from your personal probability analyses. As I informed you, I would be happy to announce that Harris is a Myther.

    What do you actually think Harris believes? That someone named their kid “old master”?

    Look, George. You don’t have psychic powers. You don’t have some connection to him. Neither you, nor I, can read Harris’s mind. You need to deal with what he has actually claimed in words.

    At least you implicitly conceded that going off a publisher’s blurb was an embarrassing mistake.

    Here’s why I let your last comment through. I think it demonstrates to others you are a troll. Does anyone truly believe going off a publisher’s blurb was an embarrassing mistake when, within minutes of your scolding, I was able to show the blurb was essentially the same as the words of the author? Really?

    Look, you didn’t want those publishers words to reflect the views of Harris (as the probability of you being a Sam Harris fan and a Myther is quite high). But you were wrong. And I was able to show that within minutes. Almost as if you had stepped into a troll trap…..

    It’s also super weird that you are letting your emotions get to you about all this. I think on some level you realize that your argument falls to pieces, but it hasn’t quite sunk in. You feel a huge cognitive dissonance and reach for the ban button as a way to resolve it. I hope that you will, in time, find better ways of dealing with your feelings.

    Psychological attacks don’t work when they are so obviously psychological attacks. You’ve been Coyned because you strike me as a troll and I have supplied the evidence in my comments to you.

  11. Dhay says:

    George > There probably wasn’t a single historical person named “Lao Tzu” responsible for writing the Tao Te Ching. After all it’s a generic name that literally means “old master”. It doesn’t take “Hyper-Skepticism” to arrive at that.

    No, all it takes is Wikipedia.

    I wasn’t aware of multiple authorship, looks like Michael wasn’t aware of it either, and judging from what he actually wrote Sam Harris was either also unaware of it or was claiming single authorship by a named person as a convenient rhetorical device.

    OK, let’s accept that “Lao Tzu” was, five (or fifty, it makes no matter to the principle) people. {Author1, Author2, …, AuthorN}

    Harris > Jesus, the Buddha, Lao Tzu, Rumi, and the other saints and sages of history.
    Michael > If we were to adopt the Myther brand of Hyper-Skepticism, not only did Jesus not exist. But neither did Buddha and Lao Tzu exist.

    It seems to me that when those five (or fifty) names are substituted for “Lao Tzu”, it makes no difference whatever to what Harris said — these five (or fifty) are clearly as much saints or sages as a single saintly or sagacious “Lao Tzu” would be — and no difference to the point of Michael’s critical comment, which remains valid under this substitution of names for name.

    I can see this: why cannot you see this.

  12. Dhay says:

    > “Waking Up is for the twenty percent of Americans who follow no religion but who suspect that important truths can be found in …”
    [Waking Up’s Amazon blurb.]

    Let’s complete that with an eye on how in Waking Up Sam Harris says he rues he didn’t discover Tibetan Buddhist Dzogchen years before, but had wasted many years (on the more basic meditational practices he himself from time to time teaches), and also with an eye on how strongly Harris recommends his readers find a Dzogchen master for themselves, if possible.

    Over on Harris’ website’s Forum, poster Kontra was inspired by the book and by the recommendation to look further into Dzogchen, and did so:

    Sams “Waking up” made me learning more about Dzogchen, which seems to be somewhat non-sectarian and rational to me. But my biggest point here is that it seems to be very, very hard to get practical information without being “in the club”. I don’t mind the rituals, the ceremony or the chanting. Fine, doesn’t break my leg, could be a aesthetically beautiful experience. …
    i would like to talk with a Dzogchen teacher/professional about this, but do you really have to have this incredibly intimate, ceremonial top-down relationship for years before getting to “the goods”? Again, i don’t doubt the sincerity that a good teacher deserves respect, but not like some kind of “godly figure”.

    https://www.samharris.org/forum/viewthread/67852/

    Years of subordinate (“top-down”, “godly figure”) devotion to the guru, rituals, ceremony, chanting.

    Waking Up is for the twenty percent of Americans who follow no religion but who suspect that important truths can be found in devotion to the guru, rituals, ceremony and chanting.

    Or in short, the “important truths” can be found in what Jerry Coyne — likewise most rational thinkers and skeptics, surely — wouldn’t hesitate to describe as “woo”.

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