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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8 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.

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