The New Atheist Show

The New Atheists took their show on the road in Chicago and activist Jerry Coyne offers up his friendly observations.  So let’s have a look.

Coyne writes:

 Nevertheless, one guy asked the speakers how, given the absence of free will, they could advise him how to cure his addiction to alcohol. That was a good question, because Sam and Lawrence are hard determinists (Matt is a compatibilist but still a determinist.) Answering that question without getting balled up in an infinite regress is quite difficult. If, for instance, you tell someone that they can choose to put themselves in a milieu where there is no alcohol and also surround themselves with supportive people (yes, that’s how it could be done), you risk making people think that you can make such a choice freely, instantiating dualism. I suppose a good answer is that one’s brain is a computer that weighs various inputs before giving the output (a decision), and that the advice Sam gave—which could of course influence the actions of the addict—was also adaptive, in the sense that he was giving strategies that his brain calculated had a higher probability of being useful. Further, we all try to be helpful to cement relationships and get a good reputation—that’s part of the evolved and learned program of our brains. But of course Sam had no “free” choice about his advice, and this shows the difficulty of discussing free will with those who haven’t thought about it.

I find it rather amusing to watch how determinists go through all these intellectual contortions to rationalize their unlivable philosophy.  And in the end, it doesn’t seem like they actually answered the question.  When it comes to addictions like alcoholism, it surely helps “to put themselves in a milieu where there is no alcohol and also surround themselves with supportive people,” but to make such a choice and to stick with it, one has to resist the strongest of compelling biological urges.  As an addict, every part of your biology is screaming at you to seek out and consume the source of your addiction.  To resist the addictive urges, one has to reach inside themselves and continue to choose over and over again to resist your biology.  This place they go to is the same place that we all go to when making a free choice.  The ability to break free of an addiction doesn’t match up well with determinism.

Moving on…..

Another question was from someone who wanted to improve their lives through meditation. What, the guy asked, is the best way to do this? Should he go to India, as Sam did, and join a meditation ashram?

It would seem to me that a true science discussion would raise the question as to whether people “improve their lives” through meditation.  As I just blogged about, a recent scientific study just showed there is no evidence to think meditation has such effects.  So how did Harris answer?

Sam gave a brief history of his own involvement in meditation and his visits to India (this is all in his book Waking Up), and said that there was no “best way,” but a good start was to try to meditate for five minutes a day, observing one’s own thoughts and impressions and blocking everything else out. That was, he said, hard (I know!); nothing how difficult it was when he stayed in India and meditated regularly for fourteen hours a day.

Just as I predicted:

How will Sam Harris responded to this scientific finding?  Is he going to celebrate it and dial it down when it comes to promoting meditation?

Of course not.  I predict he’ll ignore what science has to say about his faith and keep on promoting meditation the way Bill Nye promoted his magic water.

Moving on….

One further question was posed to the group: How can one best get rid of religion? Sam was the first to field that one, saying that he didn’t conceive of his task as destroying religion so much as teaching people how to think clearly and critically about evidence, and with that would come, he hoped, the End of Faith.

It sounds to me like Harris is relying in faith when it comes getting rid of religion.  Through faith, he believes that if only people could think clearly and critically about evidence, they would abandon their religion.  But the evidence does not support this faith.  That is, there is no evidence to think atheists have some superior ability to think clearly and critically about evidence.

And what’s this?

He asserted unequivocally that religion was a bad thing, though of course we don’t have a balance sheet for that.  For me, as for Sam, it seems pretty obvious, but we can’t “prove” it.

So they admit they have no evidence to support their belief that “religion was a bad thing.”  Clearly, these New Atheists don’t know how to think clearly and critically about evidence. They want to believe “religion is a bad thing,” but that’s a belief rooted in little more than their emotions and they cling to it as something that “seems pretty obvious.”

It never ceases to amaze me how these people talk out both sides of their mouths…in the same breath.  They posture as if they can think clearly and critically about the evidence, but in the next sentence, they are satisfied with “it seems pretty obvious” to me.

Finally….

The final remark came from Lawrence, who said that every time he stays in a hotel, his own gesture to diminish faith was to take the Gideon Bible, wrap it in a piece of paper, and throw it in the trash.

Ah, yes.  New Atheism’s inner authoritarianism.  But is this really all the different from burning the Bible?

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13 Responses to The New Atheist Show

  1. David Robertson says:

    I agree with everything on your post but the meditation part. Sure, that particularly study may have said there are no scientifically observable benefits, but there are others which do. At the very least, I would say that scientifically perhaps, the benefits of meditation are still inconclusive. But given so many people across time and culture have provided anecdotal evidence about its benefits, this perhaps suggests something about its utility.

    Great post nonetheless, I love reading your critiques of New Atheism

  2. John Branyan says:

    In a deterministic universe, alcoholism isn’t a bad thing.
    “How do I cure my addiction to alcohol?” The consistent determinist should say, “You can’t. And that’s okay.”

  3. TFBW says:

    Nevertheless, one guy asked the speakers how, given the absence of free will, they could advise him how to cure his addiction to alcohol.

    Sam not only has to give an answer which denies free will, but also denies that there is a “him” to which the answer applies. He has to blow smoke to hide the fact that his philosophically consistent answer must essentially be, “the self which is addicted to alcohol is an illusion, and the idea that the illusory self has any sort of choice in this matter is also an illusion. Try meditating or taking drugs until that makes sense.”

    The final remark came from Lawrence, who said that every time he stays in a hotel, his own gesture to diminish faith was to take the Gideon Bible, wrap it in a piece of paper, and throw it in the trash.

    Does Krauss know that Gideon Bibles are free to take, and will be replaced by the time the next guest arrives as part of the standard room reset? If so, he’s being exceedingly petty. If not, he’s blind to some fairly obvious facts which nullify whatever impact he thinks he’s having.

  4. Kevin says:

    Coyne said: “But of course Sam had no “free” choice about his advice, and this shows the difficulty of discussing free will with those who haven’t thought about it.”

    It does indeed show a difficulty related to determinism, but the difficulty is the irrationality and inconsistency of denying free will. Whether someone has or has not thought about it doesn’t change the absurdity of the premise.

    I’d be curious for someone like Coyne to explain what evidence would refute the determinist position. After all, New Atheists claim they base their beliefs on evidence and that one of the key differences between “science” and “religion” is openness to empirical study and correction based on evidence. So if denial of free will is based on science, then surely there is some sort of theoretical evidence that could refute determinism. I wonder what it might be?

  5. Kevin says:

    I posted the following on the linked blog entry:

    “When discussing scientific theories like evolution, it has been stated that, being scientific, evolution is disprovable given the proper evidence – for example, digging out a fossil of a Triassic carnivore with a human in its gut would throw a wrench in the works for sure. That we don’t have such evidence doesn’t mean that evolution can’t be falsified in the face of new evidence, hence why evolution is scientific in nature.

    Out of curiosity, what is an analogous scenario in which determinism could be falsified? What evidence would throw a wrench in the belief that there is no free will?”

    Of course, the post is awaiting moderation, so I doubt it ever sees the light.

  6. Michael says:

    At the very least, I would say that scientifically perhaps, the benefits of meditation are still inconclusive. But given so many people across time and culture have provided anecdotal evidence about its benefits, this perhaps suggests something about its utility.

    I wouldn’t disagree with this. I’ll be posting more about this, so I should clarify that I’m not trying to bash meditation. The problem is that the utility of meditation is more of a religious, subjective, or intuitive truth than a scientific truth. In other words, much like the utility of prayer. What makes this a huge issue is that Sam Harris is supposed to be “all about science.” As someone who sells himself as an advocate of science and, even a neuroscientist, who also advocates meditation as some type of wonderful thing we all should do, it is totally inexcusable for him to ignore the scientific research that seriously undercuts his claims about meditation.

  7. David Robertson says:

    Oh yes I’d totally agree with that one. I realised what your main point was shortly after posting that comment, haha, so perhaps my comment was a little undue!

  8. stcordova says:

    By Harris’ own low benchmarks, Christianity and prayer are scientifically better established than his meditation stuff. But I believe in anecdotal accounts by credible witness like Astronaut Charles Duke who walked on the moon in the Apollo 16 mission. He prayed for a blind girl in the name of Jesus after he became a Christian. She regained her sight almost immediately. He spoke at Campus Crusade when I was at school and the testimony is in his book, Moonwalker. Harris is a joke. I know more science than Harris, and that isn’t saying much.

  9. Dhay says:

    Just for once I listened to the start of a Sam Harris podcast, the one dated 29 January 2018, and was interested to hear him start it by saying:

    There’s been an interesting thing happening, I don’t quite know what it means, but I’ve been noticing, in the last few weeks, that when I’ve said things that are overtly disparaging of religion I’ve been getting push-back from my audience in ways that I never have before. What I think has happened here is that I have spent enough time off the topic of atheism and religion, or the conflict between science and religion, that I’ve attracted new podcast listeners, mostly, who are not so familiar with my work on that topic.

    https://samharris.org/podcasts/115-sam-harris-lawrence-krauss-matt-dillahunty-1/

    He gives two examples: the first was when he called Catholic dogma “bullshit” in a recent ‘armchairs on stage’ discussion before a live audience, the second was when he published Meme #16 (also anti-Catholic) on social media and got “a surprising degree of push-back”; in each case he got push-back that this was offensive to some people, unbecoming in Harris, or unproductive.

    He comments:

    It’s amusing to see that I apparently have many listeners who don’t realise just how deep my atheism runs; and I would say that reading my first two books would certainly be the cure for that.

    I’m sure I read a comment by someone recently that Harris has been concentrating on anything but religion recently, and his own comments bear that out; a significant portion of his fanbase didn’t realise Harris was a vehemently anti-religious New Atheist.

    I note that the second of his “first two books” was published in 2006, twelve years ago; probably few listeners and social media watchers under the age of thirty will have read either; so no, it makes sense that a generation that prizes podcasts and social media nothings over substantial written texts (to the extent that they have apparently not read even Harris’ past blog posts) would be unaware Harris is a full-blown New Atheist.

    Harris is on his second generation, a different generation than his first fans, and it has caught him by surprise.

  10. Dhay says:

    > I find it rather amusing to watch how determinists go through all these intellectual contortions to rationalize their unlivable philosophy.

    This year’s is the last Edge Question. (After twenty years, I’ve run out of questions. So, for the finale to a noteworthy Edge project, can you ask “The Last Question”?) Jerry Coyne contributed a Last Question you might well expect of him.

    And in his recent blog post entitled “Edge’s Last Question” WM Briggs commented on Jerry Coyne’s unlivable determinist philosophy:

    Our boy Jerry Coyne is back, arguing he doesn’t exist.

    “If science does in fact confirm that we lack free will, what are the implications for our notions of blame, punishment, reward, and moral responsibility?”

    None, Jerry. For if we do not have free will, there’s nothing anybody can do about anything.

    http://wmbriggs.com/post/23916/

    That’s beautifully succinct and to the point.

  11. Dhay says:

    Like Jerry Coyne, the Dark Buzz Physics/Maths blogger, ‘Roger’, has posted about both of the recent Sam Harris/Lawrence Krauss/Matt Dillahunty discussions (NYC and Chicago), and makes his own comments on what’s reproduced in the OP above. But it was Roger’s other comments which interested me:

    It is amusing to hear these guys ramble on about their beliefs about consciousness, free will, etc., while all the time claiming to be such super-rational scientists that the word “believe” does not even apply to them.

    http://blog.darkbuzz.com/2018/02/physicist-lawrence-krauss-on-podcast.html

    Quite. Count me a cynic, too.

    Roger’s comment seems very close to Michael’s comment above in the OP: > It never ceases to amaze me how these people talk out both sides of their mouths…in the same breath. They posture as if they can think clearly and critically about the evidence, but in the next sentence, they are satisfied with “it seems pretty obvious” to me.

    *

    Another comment from Roger:

    I heard a story (from Ben Shapiro) that Sam Harris was in another public discussion on free will, and a questioner from the audience said, “You convince me that we have no free will, but I have a 5-year-old son. What should I tell him?” Harris was flustered, and then said to lie to the kid.

    I’m not sure that Harris would have been flustered; perhaps he was reflecting that now he has listeners instead of readers nobody bothers to read his old blog posts to find out what Harris’ strongly held views on the subject are, views stated clearly years ago.

    Harris is totally against lying, he says, but he does make exceptions. Harris is on record as saying in 2012, very emphatically, that he wouldn’t so much as think of telling a young child they have no free will:

    I don’t believe I’m the first person to observe that certain truths are best left unspoken, especially in the presence of young children. And I would no more think of telling my daughter at this age that free will is an illusion than I would teach her to drive a car or load a pistol.

    https://samharris.org/life-without-free-will/

    Harris doesn’t immediately tell us why he wouldn’t tell his daughter, or why the questioner shouldn’t tell his 5-year old; I observe a reader is likely to immediately fill that gap by supposing Harris expects that a child who’s still at Nursery or Infants’ School and who has been taught – indoctrinated? – that nobody has free will would a) be better off with the ordinary contrary view, would b) fit in better with the contrary view and c) wouldn’t seem to themselves, to staff and to their little children peers to be weirdo nutcases.

    A child unable to defend their view and considered a weird nutcase by staff and by other children is in for an unpleasant experience; but it’s much more horrible than that: Harris continues after a few more sentences to give his actual reason why he wouldn’t tell a small child they have no free will:

    We all find ourselves in the position of a child from time to time, when specific information, however valid or necessary it may be in other contexts, will only produce confusion, despondency, or terror in the context of our life.

    Golly gosh, if you teach a small child about no free will, your teaching will (“will only”, nothing but) result in the child experiencing “confusion, despondency, or terror”.

    A small child not only doesn’t need to be taught Harris’ ideas about no free will, they will function far better not knowing them; from Harris’ description of the certainly-arising (“will only”) effects, it looks like teaching a small child about no free will could and should be counted as child abuse.

    Yes, child abuse – it looks like indoctrinating Buddhist doctrine into children is child abuse. And that’s according to Harris.

    He doesn’t say, but I think we can safely add in, that teaching a small child Harris’ notions of no self will also “will only” result in the child experiencing “confusion, despondency, or terror”.

    And if a small child, older child or teenager can function perfectly well, certainly function perfectly normally, without ever having heard of or read about the ideas of no free will (and no self) held and espoused by Harris – indeed it’s abusive to teach them those ideas — the obvious follow-up question is why should it be different for adults. After all, as the last quotation says:

    We all find ourselves in the position of a child from time to time …

    Not that he examples these times that “we all”, including adults, find ourselves in.

    Roger evidently thinks Harris’ reason for lying to a child is that the child will not understand about no free will; Roger’s next sentence generalises to adults:

    There are probably some things that he thinks that his audience [of adults] is too stupid to understand. What else is he lying about [to adults]?

    Roger supplies one possible answer, Harris’ advocacy of LSD:

    Harris referred to how he spent years meditating and taking hallucinogenic drugs, after dropping out of college. Krauss was noticeably skeptical that he learned so much from taking drugs, but Harris made an analogy to Krauss studying mathematics. That is, just as Harris’s LSD hallucinations might seem like nonsense to others, Krauss looking at a page of mathematical symbols also looks like nonsense to most people.

    No, it is a stupid analogy. Advanced mathematics is demonstrably useful for all sorts of purposes. Nobody ever accomplished anything while on LSD. This sort of reasoning gives legitimacy to the nuttiest ideas, and it is surprising to get it from someone who made most of his reputation by badmouthing religion.

    I observe that nobody ever accomplished anything while meditating, either. Meditation is about just experiencing – the Soto Zen Buddhist description of meditation as “just sitting” captures it nicely – just experiencing, not about puzzling out and all the other things which go with science and the scientific method, nor is it about using evidence and reason. (If the mind’s monkeys are chattering or you’re busily active, you ain’t meditating.) As such, meditation is profoundly anti-rational and anti-scientific; the meditation/science Venn diagram wouldn’t show these touching.

    *

    Roger then quotes from Coyne’s blog post, as Michael did above:

    … one guy asked the speakers how, given the absence of free will, they could advise him how to cure his addiction to alcohol. That was a good question, because Sam and Lawrence are hard determinists (Matt is a compatibilist but still a determinist.)

    OK, it’s a good question, says Coyne; but:

    Answering that question without getting balled up in an infinite regress is quite difficult.

    “Answering … is quite difficult”? No, it’s impossible or quite impracticable, else Coyne would be the first to say, triumphantly, how to answer that and similar questions – which he has never done. Nor has Harris done so, or Coyne would at this point be quoting Harris’ relevant book. Balled up in an infinite regress it plainly is.

    Coyne then examples the ball up:

    If, for instance, you tell someone that they can choose to put themselves in a milieu where there is no alcohol and also surround themselves with supportive people (yes, that’s how it could be done), you risk making people think that you can make such a choice freely, instantiating dualism.

    Yep, the English language is totally not up to the job, it’s dualistic to the core, Coyne needs a new language. And after that he will need to people prepared to learn and speak this strange new non-dualistic language. Coynesperanto, anyone?

    If you can’t speak the language, you can’t think it either. Even in your own head you’re balled up in an infinite regress. The very idea of truly believing in no free will, thinking and acting accordingly, is … a ball up.

    *

    Coyne seems to say elsewhere that people who truly believe in no free will and no self (as he strongly urges they should because determinism is allegedly true and so that they will allegedly become nicer people) will not fall prey to purposelessness and apathy because every individual is so culturally impregrated through and through with the idea that they DO have free will, a self and choice that in practice they will continue as before to act as if they DO.

    Brilliant thinking: it’s important that people should really believe they have no free will, no self, no choice; but in practice it’s a mantra they briefly say before going back to ordinary life.

    Or you can think of it as a New Age type visualisation exercise (or a variant of the Tibetan Buddhist visualisation of the person you dislike as having been your loving mother in a previous life). I’m sure that visualising a serial rapist and killer as a victim of their genes and environment who could not possibly have chosen to do otherwise will make me think of them a little more kindly – although it would be folly not to visualise the violent actions they will also not be able to choose not to do in future – by visualisation or dispassionately I will still seek their incarceration or execution; on the other hand, if I were to visualise myself confronted by someone angry with an AR-15, I would be far more comfortable visualising myself with an actual similar weapon rather than visualising their hypothetical history. Visualisation exercises can work both ways.

    Well, we know that: a word-picture is a guided visualisation; Harris in particular guides visualisations picturing Muslims negatively; all of the New Atheists guide visualisations picturing Christians negatively.

    *

    Repeated from above:

    We all find ourselves in the position of a child from time to time …

    Not that he examples these times that “we all”, including adults, find ourselves in, times when knowing the truth will result in an adult experiencing “confusion, despondency, or terror”.

    In view of Coyne’s description of getting your head around an explanation of no free will being “getting balled up in an infinite regress”, I have no doubt no free will ticks the confusion box, and possibly the despondency and terror boxes also.

    No, it’s definitely all three of confusion, despondency and terror; those who meditate get a personal experience of no free will, of no self, of no choice – of being as flapped around as helplessly by the whatever thoughts, emotions, impulses and volitions arise spontaneously in their minds as a prayer flag is flapped around helplessly by the wind – those who meditate can and often do experience very severe ill effects:

    The 16 May 2015 New Scientist includes an article by two psychologists; they have researched meditation and mindfulness; they found that although twenty minutes practice a day is likely to provoke only mild changes in perception, a meditation retreat with six hours or more a day will cause 7% of meditators — both novices and experts — to experience “profoundly adverse effects”. Effects reported include twitching trembling, panic, disorientation, hallucinations, terror, depression, mania and psychotic breakdown.

    https://shadowtolight.wordpress.com/2015/05/21/sam-harris-and-jerry-coyne-on-science-faith-and-religion/#comment-8601
    [And see other responses of mine below it.]

    Yep, I see “confusion, despondency, or terror” and more in there as effects of meditation. If Harris were consistent he would no more teach adults meditation or mindfulness than he would teach his small child daughter to drive a car or load a pistol.

  12. unclesporkums says:

    And there we go, his emotion-based hypocrisy kicks in.

  13. Dhay says:

    > one guy asked the speakers how, given the absence of free will, they could advise him how to cure his addiction to alcohol. That was a good question, because Sam and Lawrence are hard determinists (Matt is a compatibilist but still a determinist.) Answering that question without getting balled up in an infinite regress is quite difficult.

    As I said in my last response, answering that question without getting balled up in an infinite regress is not just “quite difficult”, it appears to be impossible; Jerry Coyne certainly makes no attempt to answer the question from a specifically incompatibilist determinist perspective — his recommended cure turns out to be a common-sense answer any passer-by might give — nor have I seen other than vague waffle from him elsewhere.

    And his referring to the difficulty of explanation as “getting balled up in an infinite regress” tells me Coyne cannot get his ideas straight in his own mind to reach a QED conclusion; he finds a satisfactory explanation impossible to explicate, even to himself; he cannot think through a satisfactory explanation, nor can or does he write or say one.

    Wittgenstein famously wrote, “That whereof we cannot speak, thereof we must remain silent”; that’s not advice that Coyne has heeded.

    *

    I foresee a major danger with taking seriously Coyne’s idea that we are all puppets dangling on the strings of our genes and environment. Should the idea ever gain wide traction in society it could well become an excuse for all sorts of bad behaviour: I am a rapist, but so what, it’s just the inescapable effect of my genes, which evolved to spread themselves around as widely as possible by maximum sex with as many partners (willing or otherwise) as possible; I am a murderer, but so what, it’s just the inescapable effect of my genes, which evolved to spread themselves around as widely as possible by dominant behaviours. And so on…

    Have fun making up pop evo-devo-psych explanations for anything and everything whatsoever. Here’s a starter list which you can add to or adapt to justify that your favourite crime or misbehaviour was indeed genetically or environmentally determined and that you are but a helpless and blameless puppet:

    https://freethoughtblogs.com/pharyngula/2018/03/13/the-cruelest-cut-against-evolutionary-psychology/

    With a long nose.

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