Saturday, March 1, 2008

The Sam Harris Debates

Recently I have watched some of the debates between Sam Harris and various well-known theists. I have been disappointed in his seeming inability to directly address the main claim of the theists, which I would describe this way: we all have a soul, which is the seat of consciousness, and which also serves as a portal to the supernatural, and thenceforth to god. I have an idea about why he does not address this claim. To properly refute it, you must really take a position on the other side of the mind-body problem, and Mr. Harris is personally unable to do that. To say that we have a soul of this kind is to say that mind and body are dual -- i.e. two separate entities that are connected in some mysterious way. A mind-body duality not only gets you contact with god, but also, potentially, life after death, where only the soul persists. Mr. Harris is known to be ambivalent about life after death, and, of course his meditative experience is suggestive of some possible contact with something transcending the body as we normally understand it. I do not know if he has a precise philosophical position on the mind-body problem itself.

So the debates go something like this: Sam says that some bit from scripture is problematical and the respondent says that cherry picking scripture is fine because the proper interpretation always comes from social context. In my mind the proper response to this claim is as follows. If you read scripture as literature then you are of course free to cherry pick whatever you like. But if you use it as a basis for morality then you must have some separate moral basis for the cherry picking. It seems to me that the only possible separate basis is that god gives modern people additional morality via their souls. If you can't make an argument against the soul then you are stuck accepting the possibility that theists really are talking to god, and that if your own soul fails to make the connection then perhaps there is something defective about it. You can argue that different people seem to hear different moral instructions, but this is simply countered by saying that god tailors his morality to fit the social context of the people he is talking to. No one gets a perfect morality but instead they get one that they can use and that incrementally improves on whatever was already in place.

The simple counter argument to all this is just to say that mind, including consciousness, are simply emergent properties of our immensely complex physical brains. There is no duality necessary to understand any of it, although we obviously understand very little today about how it actually works. In this context we have to understand the very real, and extremely convincing, sense that people have of a personal contact with god. We can hardly have a detailed explanation for this without first having a detailed explanation for, e.g., consciousness, but there is plenty of evidence to the effect that "trance" states can be induced in most people using a variety of techniques, and that people generally have surreal experiences in these trance states. There is no evidence that I am aware of, however, that any knowledge is gained during these trance states which could not be known independently of them. The fact that these states often seem very convincingly real is just an observation about the (still unknown) workings of the brain. This is easy for me to say, because I have never experienced such a state. People who do research on it, and who experience it personally, often find it so compelling that they prefer to believe that they are contacting another part of objective reality than that the experience is confined to their own brains. Remarkable.