Blast From the Past

They’re back!


Trying to recapture that old magic.  I guess there is hope someone will also bring back Will & Grace.

For some reason, I also found this  amusing.


Then I realized what it is.  Poor Sam.  Wrote the first Gnu book and is forever destined to be the side-kick.

This entry was posted in New Atheism, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Uncategorized and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to Blast From the Past

  1. Kevin says:

    I cannot imagine anything less intellectually stimulating than Richard Dawkins in conversation with Sam Harris.

  2. Ilíon says:

    ^ No worries! ‘Intellect’ … like ‘consciousness’ and ‘selfhood’ … is an illusion.

  3. Kevin says:

    I would say that I fully agree, except I don’t actually exist to agree.

  4. SteveK says:

    It’s difficult to determine if “Sold Out” refers to ticket sales, greed, activism….or something else.

  5. Ilíon says:

    Well, it seems to me that if a person is not “bought for a price”, then he is likely to be “sold out”.

  6. TFBW says:

    I notice that two of the events are fundraiser dinners. Did they have a particular children’s home in mind to decline the donation?

  7. pennywit says:

    I always preferred HItchens over Harris and Dawkins. HItchens was very anti-theist, but he had panache.

  8. Ratheist says:

    You prefer a sexist alcoholic? That says a lot about you

  9. TFBW says:

    What’s pennywit done to earn that kind of harsh from you, Ratheist?

  10. Ilíon says:

    Someone engaging in “Bulverism” (or motive-mongering) doesn’t *need* reasons.

  11. Dhay says:

    A different blast from the past involving Sam Harris is his recent The New Phrenology? blog post, in which Harris blasts journalist Kate Murphy for mentioning his 2009 The Neural Correlates of Religious and Nonreligious Belief experiment and paper in an article on dodgy neuroscience experiments. Harris says:

    An article by Kate Murphy in the New York Times discusses a recent controversy in the field of fMRI over statistics. Although Murphy correctly observes that flawed methods of data analysis are a problem in neuroimaging, she falsely implies that our 2009 study of the neural correlates of belief employed the methods in question. Here is the letter that Mark S. Cohen, the senior author on that paper, sent to the Times.—SH

    Actually, I don’t think a careful reading of the passage in question supports Harris’ claim that “she falsely implies that our 2009 study of the neural correlates of belief employed the methods in question”: she’s using Harris’ paper as an example of a fMRI neuroimaging study which grabbed the headlines:

    Other statistical problems in analyzing fM.R.I. data have been pointed out. But these kinds of finger-wagging methodological critiques aren’t easily published, much less funded. And on the rare occasions they do make it into journals, they don’t grab headlines as much as studies that show you what your brain looks like when you believe in God.
    [Where “believe in God” links to Harris’ paper, The Neural Correlates of Religious and Nonreligious Belief]

    Mind you, I can sympathise with Harris and Cohen, in that mentioning (or linking to) Harris’ paper in that article, an article focusing on how experiments using duff methods of fMRI data processing can yield false or misleading results, creates an association in the minds of readers that Harris’ paper is one of those experiments. And may then result in readers performing the reverse inference:
    Some experiments using duff fMRI data processing techniques have yielded false or misleading results Some of these duff papers are headline-grabbing Harris’ paper was mentioned as an example of a headline-grabbing paper Harris’ paper was singled out because it used duff fMRI data processing techniques which yielded false or misleading results.

    I’m not going to claim that Harris’ experiment did use duff fMRI data processing: Cohen’s letter, from a very experienced researcher evidently well aware of and careful to avoid data-processing problems, tells us acceptably certainly that it didn’t.

    But since Harris and Cohen have pointed out the problems of association – think, ‘correlation is not causation’ – and of reverse inference, I would like to do the same. Why? Because Harris derived some of his 2009 paper’s conclusions from association and reverse inference – he says so himself, in the paper’s Discussion section. It’s this use of reverse inference, rather than how the raw fMRI data was processed, that makes Harris’ paper part of “The New Phrenology”.

    First, a look at what’s involved: an area of the brain may “light up” in response to a variety of stimuli; Area A may “light up” in response to eg pleasure and a number of other stimuli, in the case of Area B it’s eg disgust and a number of other stimuli, so there’s an association or correlation (no evidence of single causation, mind – quite the contrary) with pleasure and disgust respectively, but no proof that these two should be singled out from the alternatives; it’s like knowing that many of the kids in this neighbourhood have criminal records for shoplifting from this shop – but the one who must have done it in this case is that particular kid, because he has a criminal record for shoplifting from this shop; that’s obviously impermissible, but Harris does something similar anyway, right after telling us in rather more scientific language than I have used that no, you can’t do that.

    Here’s that passage from Harris’ Discussion:

    The data reported above present statistical tests of the reliability of signal changes occurring throughout the brain as a function of the stimuli and their associated behavioral responses. However, these data are of greater value when interpreted against related results in the neuroscientific literature. Such a discussion necessarily entails ‘‘reverse inference’’ of a sort often considered problematic in the field of neuroimaging [51]. One cannot reliably infer the presence of a mental state on the basis of brain data alone, unless the brain regions in question are known to be truly selective for a single state of mind. As the brain is an evolved organ, with higher order states emerging from lower order mechanisms, very few of its regions are so selective as to fully justify inferences of this kind.

    So Harris has here stated there are big problems with reverse inference; then in the next sentence …

    Nevertheless, our results appear to make at least provisional sense of the emotional tone of belief.

    … the problems are casually brushed aside. This last is a statement of bravado or hope, not one supported by any presented reasons or evidence.

    (I am reminded of the cartoon strip cartoonist who, on finding his sacked predecessor had left the hero inescapably trapped and facing inevitable death, solved the problem with, “With one bound he was free!” Only in cartoons.)

    I rather think ‘provisional’ is Harris code for ‘speculative’, or ‘dodgy’.

    For anyone who’s interested in seeing the same points made more competently and forcefully than I can, WM Briggs goes into this much further in the last of seven, yes seven blog posts, all of them deprecating Harris’s paper and experimental methods:

    A long response, so let’s summarise; for once I can agree with Sam Harris: conclusions drawn by inference from associations may be very dodgy indeed.

  12. Dhay says:

    Jerry Coyne is someone who seems to have drifted out of Michael’s notice in recent months, but he’s still about, and still blogging. His 11 October 2016 blog post entitled A weird CfI workshop suggests that science is too laden with emotion and needs to adopt the more rigorous standards of “religious truth”. WTF? is interesting not for what it tells us about the CfI workshop but for what it tells us about Coyne.

    The CfI or ‘Centre for Inquiry’ is the same atheist organisation which has recently been taken over by, er, merged with the smaller Richard Dawkins Foundation, so its atheist credentials are impeccable. What, then is Coyne objecting to? — Apparently that the “workshop suggests that science is too laden with emotion” and “needs to adopt the more rigorous standards of “religious truth””.

    Let’s see what the CfI thinks the workshop is about: let’s look at its title:

    “Beyond Reductionism: Confronting Both Religious Fundamentalism and Scientism to Be Better Freethinkers”

    Note that “Both”. Also note “Reductionism” and “Scientism”, which are to be gone “Beyond” and “Confront[ed]”; the title implicitly criticises the severely reductionist and very scientistic Coyne; and the trigger-words set him off; and blind Coyne’s reading comprehension.

    You’ll not reasonably get from the workshop’s title to Coyne’s blog’s title, I judge; so does ‘the complete description of the two-day workshop’ support Coyne blog title wording? You’ll find Coyne quotes the complete description in its entirety, so read it, especially the portions Coyne adds his emboldening to, and see for yourself. My answer is no, there is a disconnect between Coyne’s blog’s title and both the workshop’s title and workshop’s description.

    With such poor reading comprehension so very evident — Coyne’s competent at philosophy?


    I’s only a few days since Verbose Stoic criticised PZ Myers for sounding off without reading the articles linked. Coyne sounds off without reading what he quotes. No doubt the red haze obscured the words and and meanings.


    Clicking on one of the alternating banners takes one to the ‘CSICon Las Vegas’ website, another conference supported and partly funded by the CfI. There, if you click on Friday’s “Believe It or Not: Can We Always Make a Choice? — James Alcock” link for the description, it’s:

    We all like to view ourselves as rational beings whose beliefs are rooted in reality. We like to think that we decide what to believe, whether relying upon logical analysis or intuitive sense. However, many of our most important beliefs are held on the basis of authority, social consensus and emotional comfort rather than rational analysis of evidence, and new beliefs often form automatically, bypassing any careful consideration.

    It’s nice to see a lecturer at a conference on ‘science and skepticism’ putting forward the view that even those who proudly proclaim themselves followers and exponents of Science and Rationality (initial-capitalised, of course) are very often obliviously followers and exponents of Science and Irrationality.

    Note this story about and from Jerry Coyne:

    One of the more colorful scientific de-conversion stories comes from Jerry Coyne, a professor of genetics and evolutionary biology at the University of Chicago. It happened in 1967 when Coyne, then 17, was listening for the first time to the Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” album while lying on his parents’ couch in Alexandria, Va. [JAC: it was ARLINGTON, Virginia].

    Suddenly Coyne began to shake and sweat. For reasons he still doesn’t understand, it dawned on him at that moment that there was no God, and he wasn’t going anywhere when he died. His casual Judaism seemed to wash away as the album played on. The crisis lasted about 30 minutes, he says, and when it was over, he had left religion behind for good. He went on to study how new species evolve, and found the Darwinian view of nature perfectly in tune with his abandonment of faith.

    Coyne has quoted this many times, and is oblivious to the irrationality. Lecturer’s case made, I think.

  13. Dhay says:

    In his 26 December 2016 blog post entitled “More “Something-of-the-gaps” arguments: Ross Douthat uses spiritual experiences to argue for God”, Jerry Coyne wrote:

    The refutation of these [spiritual] experiences as evidence for the divine is that you can see all kinds of “spiritual” experiences induced by meditation, drugs, wonder at beauty, listening to lovely music, and so on, and these are simply what happens to some people’s brains when they’re transformed by chemicals or external stimuli. If you give someone LSD and they have a spiritual experience—and believe me, I had plenty of those in my twenties—nobody claims that’s evidence for God.

    Let’s change that last sentence slightly, with the previous response in mind:

    If you give someone LSD and a Beatles album and they have a spiritual experience that ‘there is no God, and they’re not going anywhere when they die’—and believe me, I had one of those at seventeen—nobody claims that’s evidence for atheism.

    But for some reason Coyne cannot get his head around the idea that if LSD-induced spiritual experiences (or any abnormal mental event, whether LSD-induced or not — though my bet is on the former) cannot adduced as evidence for God and theism, they equally cannot be adduced as evidence foratheism.

    I guess the experience impressed itself so deeply upon the young Coyne that it became what Alvin Plantinga calls a properly basic belief, something experienced as so incontrovertible and certain that it became something that Coyne’s other ideas got arranged around.

  14. Dhay says:

    In my response three above regarding Sam Harris’s use of ‘reverse inference’ — it’s the second half of, from “But since Harris and Cohen have pointed out the problems of association…” onwards — I pointed out that Harris’ use of ‘reverse inference’ from areas of the brain which ‘light up’ in response to each and every one of a variety of different causations is very dodgy; Harris claims that when a brain region is lit up in his own experiment it’s not due to a variety of different causations which light it up in other peoples’ experiments, it’s due to the cherry-picked causation that’s convenient for what Harris happens to want to ‘prove’.

    (And with no explanation given why his one and only one favoured causation might be or is the one actually causing, rather than any one (or a combination of multiple) of the other possible causations. Harris acknowledges the problems, then hand-waves them away.)

    It turns out that arguing by reverse inference from a whole region of the brain lighting up to a particular cause of that lighting up is even more dodgy than I had realised; although a region comprises many voxels — the fMRI equivalent of a pixel, in which the fine detail of the brain’s activity is averaged into a voxel-wide average — there is massive complexity within each voxel: biologist Matthew Cobb quotes previous research and comments:

    This, from Logothetis (2008) shows unbridgeable gulf between ‘the brain lighting up’ in an fMRI scan and any real knowledge of what is happening at the cellular level (NB many of those trillions of synapses will involve more than one neurotransmitter…).

    A typical unfiltered fMRI voxel of 55 microlitres in size thus contains 5.5 million neurons, between 22 billion and 55 billion synapses, 22 kilometres of dendrites and 220 kilometres of axons.

    It’s doubtful that one can pinpoint what the function is of a single lit-up voxel is, or even whether it has just one function, and if several, how many and what — let alone a lit-up whole region.

    I am reminded of a Sociology professor’s comment lamenting that sociology could not be adequately quantised and causation discovered: “The problem with sociology is that every damn thing is causally connected to every other damn thing.”

    Sounds like the brain.

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