Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Harris v. Warren

Learned of the following "debate" featured in Newsweek via Skeptico. Sam Harris took on Rick Warren? Perhaps a tad unfair. Warren is too easy a mark (as you will find out below).

* Warren:
I see the fingerprints of God everywhere. I see them in culture. I see them in law. I see them in literature. I see them in nature. I see them in my own life. Trying to understand where God came from is like an ant trying to understand the Internet. Even the most brilliant scientist would agree that we only know a fraction of a percent of the knowledge of the universe.
He claims to see the fingerprints of a deity. Question is, How does he know he's seeing the "fingerprints"? Warren has implicit assumptions of why he considers these fingerprints. But the mere fact he has those presumptions doesn't mean they're true, or that they warrant a conclusion that the deity Warren has in mind in fact exists.

Shouldn't the fact that we know so little about the universe make Warren stop making claims whose truth/facticity he has no evidence for? Isn't it intellectually arrogant for him to declare God is this and that when he doesn't know any of them to be true?

* Harris makes a most important point. If you look at the "good book" what you see is hardly all good. In fact a non trivial portion of it is ethically abhorrent. Thus, Harris points out:
[T]here are sections of the Bible which are the sheerest barbarism, yet profess to prescribe a divinely mandated morality—where do I start? Books like Leviticus and Deuteronomy and Exodus and First and Second Kings and Second Samuel—half of the kings and prophets of Israel would be taken to The Hague and prosecuted for crimes against humanity if these events took place in our own time.
One of my favorite examples is the murderous rampage of the Xian deity in Egypt. Why for goodness sake would a just and all-loving deity murder even a single Egyptian child? Where is the justice and the love there? Being all-powerful, why didn't he just change the Pharaoh's heart? Why did he, instead, harden the king's heart? Do I hear "Mystery" being offered as the excuse yet again?

* Warren makes no bones about where he stands on evolution. He doesn't believe it. Period. Never mind that the evidence from molecular biology, paleontology, biochemistry, geology, ... all support the theory of evolution, and that there has been no disconfirming evidence to undermine it. Warren doesn't give a hoot about evidence. He doesn't listen to evidence-based arguments. He only believes what he wants to believe in. Between reality and delusion, he's already made up his mind.

More from Warren:
I believe that God, at a moment, created man. I do believe Genesis is literal, but I do also know metaphorical terms are used. Did God come down and blow in man's nose? If you believe in God, you don't have a problem accepting miracles. So if God wants to do it that way, it's fine with me.
Well, yes. If you believe that there exists an entity that can do real magic (not just tricks) and is above the laws of nature then it follows you can certainly believe that just about anything is possible. The problem is that reality isn't determined by what we believe in. There's belief and then there's what real. Unless you test your belief against reality, you can't know if what you believe in is true or not.

Warren believes in the claims of a book. As long as it's written in this particular book, he will believe it. And it trumps any other claim or argument or even evidence. But why this specific book? Why not the Quran or the Vedas or the Tao Te Ching or some other very ancient and traditionally accepted holy/sacred text? Or for that matter why not some relatively more contemporary book that isn't that particularly well known? What is Warren's basis for believing this particular anthology and reading it literally? Can he please tell us his criteria for choosing this over others.

* Warren claims to have a direct line to his deity: "I talk to God every day. He talks to me." Asked by Harris what he means, Warren clarifies:

One of the great evidences of God is answered prayer. I have a friend, a Canadian friend, who has an immigration issue. He's an intern at this church, and so I said, "God, I need you to help me with this," as I went out for my evening walk. As I was walking I met a woman. She said, "I'm an immigration attorney; I'd be happy to take this case." Now, if that happened once in my life I'd say, "That is a coincidence." If it happened tens of thousands of times, that is not a coincidence.

As Skeptico rightly notes, this is confirmation bias. Warren offers us anecdotal evidence that confirms his claim. But he doesn't provide us the outcomes for all the events/prayers in his life. Is Warren implying that such "coincidence" has happened thousands of times? If so why the "if." I don't see a declaration that it's happened that many times. Nor do I see any declaration of how many times prayer has bombed out in his life.

The interviewer asks Warren,
There must have been times in your ministry when you've prayed for someone to be delivered from disease who is not—say, a little girl with cancer.... So, parse that. God gave you an immigration attorney, but God killed a little girl.
Disconfirming evidence is hard to take the first time around. But Xianity has been through it for centuries and has already addressed the cognitive dissonance by a variety of means. In Warren's case he takes the low road and snatches an off the rack ad hoc explanation--one that's truly vacuous and inane yet is somehow mindlessly parroted by not a few Xians:
God sometimes says yes, God sometimes says no and God sometimes says wait.
How does Warren know that's in fact the case? He doesn't (and if he does it would be surprising if he didn't resort to circular reasoning). The above "explanation" is just a claim, one that rationalizes negative outcomes of prayers. If after making an entreaty a person gets what he wants, then we conclude that God said yes. If he doesn't then God must've said no. And if he gets it a year after then God had him wait. Can you predict the outcome of a prayer given this "hypothesis"? No, you can't.

To see how completely inane Warren's rationalization is let's see if it cannot be used to support a belief in any other deity/entity:
Person A: Ok, you say that you bumped into the right person at the time you badly needed the kind of services this individual was hawking and to top it off s/he offered it pro bono. But just a month ago your daughter died even after you, your family, and your congregation prayed day and night for over a month. So, how do you explain that?

Person B: Well, you see the Committee of Advanced and INvisible Extraterrestrials (CAINE) sometimes gives us what we ask for and sometimes it doesn't and sometimes it gives it some time in the future.
Well, that explains why we sometimes get what we need, why some entreaties don't get answered, and why we occasionally receive something later rather than sooner. Given that every possible outcome of our supplications to CAINE has been explained, we can now confidently believe that CAINE is real. Now replace CAINE with any other entity you care to imagine and proceed to perform the same muddled reasoning.

What this shows is that we can offer a hypothesis that explains a phenomenon, but the mere fact that we've explained something doesn't mean that the explanation is the correct one. In science being able to produce hypotheses and explanations is half the story. We need to test the hypotheses. And they must be falsifiable, i.e., there must be some result which if it occurs will show that the hypothesis is wrong. Warren's claim about God answering prayer is neither testable nor falsifiable.

But prayer per se is testable. Praying is a human activity, thus it is an empirical phenomenon. And the claimed outcome of entreaties is empirical as well. Thus we can set up experiments to test prayer. We can for instance do a test whereby a control group does not pray and where the experimental group prays for X . If there are significantly more occurrences of X with the experimental group than with the control, then we can say that prayer has efficacy. Of course such experiments have been performed and the results have sent theologians and religionists into their defensive let-the-ad-hocs-gush-out mode. Given that I wonder whether they will also come to rescue of other supernaturalists when controlled experiments show us that prayers to Zeus, Allah, Vishnu, Ahura Mazda, Odin,... also have the same dismal results. If Xians believe that they are warranted in resorting to ad hoc explanations (which are neither testable nor falsifiable) then will they also allow nonXian supernaturalists to likewise make their claims undisprovable?

Moreover, when an explanation can explain everything, then it doesn't provide us anything useful. Thus, "Aphrodite did it" can be used to explain anything. Why did the centurion cross the street? Because Aphrodite caused him to. Why didn't he cross the next street? Because Aphrodite caused him not to. Why did the Roman civilization fall? Because Aphrodite made it so. Why are atheists books coming out in droves and hitting the top of the charts? Because Aphrodite made it so. Why does Warren keep committing logical fallacies? Go blame Aphrodite for that as well.

* Warren brings on what I find an irrelevant issue. So what if atheists are angry or sober? The question remains: Is the claimed deity real? Are the arguments for this entity robust enough? Are the arguments against it too weak? Warren can dredge the vices of atheists and launch a smear campaign, and none of that will be evidence for the existence of his claimed entity.

Do emotions have any bearing? Apparently it does in woowoo circles. "Spiritual highs" are sought after. The example that crosses my mind is director of the Human Genome Project, Francis Collins. While hiking in the mountains he came across a frozen waterfall. The experience must've awed him. I probably would've been too. But for Collins that was enough for him to accept Jesus into his life and become a true-blue Xian. Well, the non sequitur is simply awe - ful. I see a terrific and moving (uh, frozen?) scene. Ergo, supernatural claims by _____ (fill it with your culture's dominant religion or your minority group's religion or whatever) are true. In electrical work and electronics short circuits not infrequently have disastrous results. Likewise in thinking, it seems.

* Harris raises a couple of very important points:
We know that human beings have a terrible sense of probability. There are many things we believe that confirm our prejudices about the world, and we believe this only by noticing the confirmations, and not keeping track of the disconfirmations. You could prove to the satisfaction of every scientist that intercessory prayer works if you set up a simple experiment. Get a billion Christians to pray for a single amputee. Get them to pray that God regrow that missing limb. This happens to salamanders every day, presumably without prayer; this is within the capacity of God. I find it interesting that people of faith only tend to pray for conditions that are self-limiting.

As we said earlier, confirmation bias is a mortal sin. Objectivity demands that we look at all the evidence, not just those that tickle our fancy and support our claim.

If a severed human limb could grow back "miraculously" Xians would have a slightly stronger case. Slightly, because a miracle can never be proved. And that's because you need positive evidence to do so. The (current) lack of a naturalistic explanation for human limb regeneration is not automatic evidence for a supposed supernatural event (a miracle), and that's of course because for now the things that we know for certain exist are all naturalistic phenomena. Admittedly supernaturalists are in a bind here. There is no evidence for the supernatural, and the lack of natural explanations can't be used to prove that an inexplicable event is supernatural. It's a no-win situation for supers until humans can gain omniscience of the natural world. Only then can an inexplicable event ever be heralded as supernatural--if we know everything natural, and know all the explanations for any and all events in the universe, then once something inexplicable comes up then it follows that that phenomenon must be outside the natural world that we are omniscient of.

* Harris pounds Warren with yet another empirical coup de grace.
[T]here are many testimonials about miracles, every bit as amazing as the miracles of Jesus, in other literature of the world's religions. Even contemporary miracles. There are millions of people who believe that Sathya Sai Baba, the south Indian guru, was born of a virgin, has raised the dead and materializes objects. I mean, you can watch some of his miracles on YouTube. Prepare to be underwhelmed. He's a stage magician. As a Christian, you can say Sathya Sai Baba's miracle stories are not interesting, let's not pay attention to them, but if you set them within the prescientific religious milieu of the first-century Roman Empire, suddenly miracle stories become especially compelling.
Warren believes in his sacred text absolutely. Here Harris tells us there is evidence that so called miracles may not be what they are claimed to be. Thus, the fact that we have evidence that some "miracle workers" are mere scammers means that Warren must first rule out the possibility that the miracle stories in the bible weren't just scams. And there are even more ordinary possibilities that must be ruled out: storyteller's license and the ancient biographical device of encomium. Biblical scholar Robert Funk explains the encomium:
The hellenistic biography or encomium, following the model of Aristoxenus, a student of Aristotle, consisted of five elements: a miraculous or unusual birth; revealing childhood episode (or episodes); a summary of wise teachings; wondrous deeds; a martyrdom or noble death. This form of biography was more suitable for philosophers and religious heroes like Socrates and Jesus. The New Testament gospels encompass precisely these five elements and are thus examples of hellenistic biography. (Honest to Jesus: Jesus for a New Millennium, Harper San Francisco, 1996, p. 282)

* Warren manages to produce a short circuit and leaps from morality to deity, claiming that without God there can be no morality. What exactly does he mean? That God created morality or injected moral reasoning into our system? Is that a testable/falsifiable claim? Can he produce evidence for it? Or does Warren mean that if there is no God then we don't have any reason to be moral? Would Warren then start raping and pillaging should he stop believing in the existence of a deity or should there be conclusive proof that there is no deity? Here's a thought experiment:

1. Would you judge a student to be praiseworthy if she doesn't cheat on her exams?

2. Would you judge the same student to be less, more, or just as praiseworthy if he doesn't cheat when there is a teacher around but does cheat when no teacher is around? Why?

3. Between a student who doesn't cheat only when there is a teacher around and a student who does not cheat regardless of the presence of a teacher, which one would you consider to be more praiseworthy? Why?

This then is the problem of some supernaturalists. If they consider the student who does not cheat regardless of the presence of a teacher as being more praiseworthy, i.e., better student, then they must also consider the person who is ethical regardless of the existence of a god to be more praiseworthy than someone who does good and refrains from doing bad things because s/he believes that an all-seeing and all-knowing being is around.

Vis-a-vis a person who believes in a cop in the sky, we cannot be certain of the reason why s/he does good and avoids evil. But vis-a -vis an individual who does not have a belief in supernatural entities we can be certain that s/he does not do good and avoids evil because of fear of the supernatural and/or of desire for supernatural rewards.

* Warren claims that
If life is just random chance, then nothing really does matter and there is no morality—it's survival of the fittest.
You have to hand it to him for squeezing three untenable claims in one sentence. Evolution is not just random chance, there are selective pressures. Nothing may matter ultimately (the universe and everything in it "dies") but that doesn't mean nothing matters now or in one's lifetime or in the lifetime of our children or ... Ethics/morality is not predicated on ultimate meaning or "mattering." Even among other animals (yes Virginia, homo sapiens are animals too) we see altruistic behavior, maternal love and care (and of course aggression and violence as well). Morality, part of it at least is genetic, evolutionary.

Warren continues:
For years, atheists have said there is no God, but they want to live like God exists. They want to live like their lives have meaning
Does Warren say there is no Zeus or does he say he say he doesn't believe in Zeus? What about Kali, fairies, Charon and the River Styx, ...? Atheism is a lack of belief in deities, any and all supernatural entities, including all the gods and goddesses and supernatural creatures that Warren likewise has no belief in or claims not to exist.

Here's a question for Warren: Would morality and meaning still exist or be possible if there's a god or gods but no afterlife? I will hazard a guess that for Warren, afterlife and God are pretty much inextricable from one another. Remove the afterlife from the equation and even if there is a god he will despair.

Meaning in the here and now is very much possible. I for one find it meaningful to point out the nuttiness in supernaturalism and irrationality of faith.

* Warren addresses Harris.
We both stand in a relationship of faith. You have faith that there is no God. In 1974, I spent the better part of a year living in Japan, and I studied all the world religions. All of the religions basically point toward truth. Buddha made this famous statement at the end of his life: "I'm still searching for the truth." Muhammad said, "I am a prophet of the truth." The Veda says, "Truth is elusive, it's like a butterfly, you've got to search for it." Then Jesus Christ comes along and says, "I am the truth." All of a sudden, that forces a decision.

As they say if atheism requires faith, then lack of belief in fairies, in the Loch Ness monster, in Roswell aliens, in Bigfoot, and all other things we don't believe in also requires faith. It's ludicrous.

It's strange that having studied all the religions and the various truth claims, Warren went for the most arrogant and the most incredible: He went for the hybristic character who arrogated truth unto himself, and who also claimed that he's a deity. Rather than reservation and skepticism he did the irrational thing and believed it. Incredible. If some person approached Warren and claimed to be God, I doubt he'd believe the person. If that person said, "You have so little faith my child," Warren would still not believe.

Strange too, that as an atheist I'm drawn in the opposite direction, to the Vedic and Buddhist claims about truth. Could these Eastern religions' humility and open ended searching in fact arouse anxiety in fundamentalists?

Warren tells Harris that the difference between the other prophets and gurus and Jesus is,
Jesus says, "I am the only way to God. I am the way to the Father." He is either lying or he's not.
False dichotomy. There are any number of possibilities. One is that the biblical author(s) invented that line (storyteller's license, propaganda, etc). And of course as C.S. Lewis said in his false trichotomy--lord, liar, or lunatic--this Jesus (if he is a historical character) may have the same mental stability as the above hypothetical person who approaches Warren claiming to be the creator of the universe.

* Battle of who's the more intellectually dishonest:
Harris: It is intellectually dishonest, frankly, to say that you are sure that Jesus was born of a virgin.

Warren: I say I accept that by faith. And I think it's intellectually dishonest for you to say you have proof that it didn't happen.
I doubt Harris is saying he has disproof of virgin birth. If he had he would've bulldozed Warren with it. The burden of proof is on the person making the claim. Neither Warren nor anyone has evidence that a virgin birth--any virgin birth by any human--has transpired. Well, that's exactly the reason to disbelieve claims of virgin births. Another reason: this miraculous birth motif is among the features of hellenistic biography. Yet another reason: stories of virgin birth and deity-induced conceptions appear all over the world. The Aztec hero Quetzlcoatl is said to be born of the virgin Chimalman, to whom the god Onteotl had appeared in a dream. The Babylonian king Sargon (c. 2300 B.C.E.) is reputed to have been born of an ordinary woman and a mountain god. Zoroaster, the Persian prophet who lived in the 6th century B.C.E. is said to have been God-begotten and virgin born. Cuchulain, an Irish hero, is known as the son of the god Lugh and the human female Deichtne. Okuninushi of Japanese mythology is one of the numerous sons of the storm god Susanowo and by the mortal woman Kishinada. In Greek mythology we find the supreme god Zeus impregnating such women as Danaƫ resulting in the birth of Perseus; while the union of the god Apollo and Aria created Miletus.

If Warren believes in the biblical virgin birth story then what does he make of the other god-induced-conception and virgin-birth stories, particularly those that are older and contemporary to the New Testament version? To believe one but discount all others as mere mythology Warren will have to provide evidence that his isn't yet another mythic account. Faith--mere belief--just isn't going to cut it. Simply accepting a specific virgin birth story as true is not just intellectual indolence. It's stupidity.

* When Harris points out that certain claims (perhaps the virgin birth and supposed miracles by Jesus) are low probability events, Warren reacts,
A low probability? When there are 96 percent believers in the world?
Mr Warren, that's low probability, not low priority. This argumentum ad numerum is pretty silly. We don't find out what's true through a majority vote. The earth is not a sphere even if somehow 100% of all humans today were to believe that. (The earth is an oblate spheroid, having a larger diameter at the equator.)

* Warren then turns Pollyanna:
I look at the world and I say, "God likes variety." I say, "God likes beauty." I say, "God likes order," and the more we understand ecology, the more we understand how sensitive that order is.
Harris rudely yanks him back down to earth:
Then God also likes smallpox and tuberculosis.
Reminds me of those alternative meds fans who glibly claim that if it's natural it must be good. In that case they must really try ricin, snake venom, jellyfish stings, hemlock, and yes smallpox viruses and TB bacteria.

* Warren brings up slavery. When Harris tells him that in the bible Paul "supports slavery," Warren makes the following correction:
He allows it. He doesn't support it
Well thank you, Pastor. So you allow slavery, right? You don't? But it's biblical! And you believe the bible to be inerrant.

As Harris points out the bible doesn't condemn slavery at all. It doesn't say it's unethical, inhumane, ungodly, evil. It is in fact unbiblical for Xians to condemn slavery.

Father, forgive them for cherry picking.

* Above I conjectured that it may be that Warren conflates God and afterlife. Looks like he does:
If death is the end, shoot, I'm not going to waste another minute being altruistic.
It seems that even if his deity exists but then there is no afterlife Warren will become a rampaging, rabid, evil maniac.

* Asked how Warren can account for Harris' altruism, Warren replies,
You have common grace. Even in people who don't believe in God, there is a spark God has put in you that says, "There's got to be more to life than just make money and die."
Another ad hoc explanation. Warren, like New Agers and other woowoos are big on explanations but empty on evidence for those explanations. Give us evidence that in fact there is this "common grace," Warren! But since your claim is that there is a deity who planted it, then the more fundamental evidence we need is for the existence of this G - O - D entity. (I believe Pastor Sherlock has "fingerprint" evidence to show us)

* Warren:
Because we were made in God's image, we were made to last forever. That means I'm going to spend more time on that side of eternity than on this side. If I did not believe that there is a Judgment, if I believed Hitler would actually get away with everything he did, that would be a reason for great despair. The fact is, I do believe there will be a Judgment Day. God is not just a God of love. He is a God of justice. So death is a factor. On the other hand, even if there were no such thing as heaven, I would put my trust in Christ because I have found it a meaningful, satisfactory, significant way to live.
Ultimate punishment and reward seem to figure prominently in Warren's worldview. The problem is that he is like the kid who's a model student only when there a teacher's watching. I have qualms about the integrity of such persons.

If there is no heaven Warren would still live a meaningful life. Presuming "no heaven" here means no afterlife, it looks like meaning is still possible for Warren, but not morality (unless Warren fears that God, being omnipotent and mysterious, can suddenly--within eternity (oh the temporal knots!)--change his mind and resurrect Warren and beat the crap out of him).

* When the interviewer calls for a no-holds-barred, as-blunt-as-it-gets response, Warren tells us that,
The truth is, religion is mutually exclusive. The person who says, "Oh, I just believe them all," is an idiot because the religions flat-out contradict each other. You cannot believe in reincarnation and heaven at the same time.
I like Warren better when he throws out political correctness. We finally get some facts and not just claims.

So much for Warren's "all religions point to the truth."

* Harris spends some time explaining how there can be spirituality without spirit (soul). Frankly, this has been Harris' Achilles' heel. He tends to get namby pamby when the subject drifts into spirituality and meditation.

* Warren leaves us with these parting words:
I believe in both faith and reason. The more we learn about God, the more we understand how magnificent this universe is. There is no contradiction to it. When I look at history, I would disagree with Sam: Christianity has done far more good than bad. Altruism comes out of knowing there is more than this life, that there is a sovereign God, that I am not God. We're both betting. He's betting his life that he's right. I'm betting my life that Jesus was not a liar. When we die, if he's right, I've lost nothing. If I'm right, he's lost everything. I'm not willing to make that gamble.

Warren is surely into faith, but I say "delusion" is more accurate. But he's also into reason? Perhaps a proprietary brand. Not the generic reason I know of.

Altruism for Warren comes out of believing (not knowing!) there is more than just biological life, that a deity exists. But altruism for atheists of course doesn't/can't come from these things which they don't believe in. Should Warren again bring up "common grace" can he please move from mere belief/claim to some evidence so we can make some progress?

Unfortunately for Warren his wager has fails to take into account the theologies of other religions. He will lose something should he have believed in the wrong god and should the real deity had proscribed worshiping false gods.

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