Sam Harris article about the Language of God: I found an article very challenging and I cannot find a response. I hope you will help me

This article was written by famous atheist Sam Harris. It puts my beliefs about moral law and other things in difficulty: https://samharris.org/the-strange-case-of-francis-collins/

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Alexandru, welcome to the forum! Could you list a couple of questions it raises for you?

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My biggest complaint with Sam Harris is that he is happy to fill in what he doesn’t understand about religion with shallow characterizations. The man obviously has a couple of fuzzy places in his own mind such as his regard for meditation, but he prefers to leave to suggestion what Christians express more overtly. Safe for him.

My biggest complaint with Christianity is that so many seem to hold it in every bit as shallow a way as Sam Harris. There are any number of intelligent, thoughtful, open minded Christians but the great unwashed masses of believers are rarely any of those things. That bothers me.

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Yes … to echo some of what Mark observed above; Harris has his own litany of embarrassments in that article that reflect every bit as poorly on him as much or more than any of Collins’ professed beliefs were (falsely as it turns out) putatively supposed to be “intellectual suicide” for Collins.

That article was written in 2009, and I do hope (with some reason) that Harris has edged at least slightly toward more nuance since then, given all his long conversations with people like Brett Weinstein or Jordan Peterson. I suspect he probably still regularly trots out the abysmal practice of generally comparing the worst of religion with the best of science. It helps his case not one whit that so many (even vast majorities) of Christians can be found that exercise the shallowest forms of thought he so rightly abhors. He still falls back on reacting only to those things by mere association even while he has Collins himself in his sites … and then frustratingly seems to miss most (any?) opportunity to react to the best that thinking Christians like Collins have to offer.

In all fairness, I only skim read the article once, so I may have missed some important things. Harris does make a few good points along the way, as one would hope from such a lengthy article.

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In fairness, you were more fair than I. I feel I’ve heard enough from Mr. Harris without reading that particular article. If I run out of reading material on the stationary bike at the Y maybe I’ll try to catch up to you in fairness.

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I don’t know how to respond to this meaningfully without getting into the details of what Sam Harris wrote.

On the conflict between religion and science. Not only is the argument from many scientists being religious flawed but the claim that “there can be no conflict, in principle, between science and religion” is false. But I think a strawman argument has been employed here. And the best response is to give both the correct claim and the correct argument. The correct claim is that there certainly can be conflict between science and religion but there can also be no conflict between science and religion. All that is required is for religion to accept correction from the findings of scientific inquiry. The correct argument is that the objectivity of science is founded written procedures which give the same result no matter what you believe. Thus religious belief certainly can be quite irrelevant to the work of science and the fact is that we have scientist from all different religions participating in this work (not as a proof in of itself of either Harris’ strawman claim nor my corrected claim, but simply an illustration of the fact that religious belief is irrelevant to the work of science).

On consistency being in the “eye of the beholder” this should be nailed down to the fact that people are often carrying along for the ride a load of premises by which conflict is made or resolved having nothing to do with the methodology of science itself. Logical consistency only requires that there is no logical contradiction between religious belief and scientific findings and not that religious beliefs themselves be derived from the same methodology just because Sam Harris has adopted the irrational self-defeating personal premise/belief that all truth should be derived from that methodology, since that premise cannot itself be established by scientific methods.

As for Harris’ summary of Collins’ “understanding of the universe,” I would have my own disagreements but that is only natural.

  • Slide 2 I don’t think evolution is merely a mechanism for creating living things but rather a part of the essence of life itself. And I don’t think God was working towards any kind of pre-designed homo sapiens but rather encouraging development toward creatures with whom He could communicate.
  • Slide 3 I don’t think free will, immortal soul, or a knowledge of good and evil is what makes us human. The difference is an abstract capable language rivaling DNA as a foundation for birth of the human mind, a new form of life which is memetic rather than genetic.
  • Slide 4 The separation from God comes not from breaking a moral law codex but from self-destructive habits which broke our relationship with God because these habits even made God’s presence in our lives do more harm than good. Jesus provides a way of making a relationship with God more beneficial.
  • Slide 5 A moral law is only made absolute by reasons why some things are good and others are evil – something which can be leaned by the evolutionary process just as it can be learned by experience or from communication with God.

Sam Harris’ only criticism is to compare this to what Hindus might believe instead. All this succeeds in doing is expressing Harris’ puzzlement over the diversity of religious beliefs and doesn’t even come close to establishing any conflict with science. All that is required is an acceptance that religious belief is subjective and doesn’t have the epistemic advantages of the objectivity in scientific methodology. To be sure this difference should be acknowledged.

So… what to say of Sam Harris’ numerous insults? Human intelligence varies. Shall we take the limitations of Sam Harris’ intelligence as reasons for calling this essay he has written is stupid and his own act of intellectual suicide? We can do the same for Dawkins’ book “The God Delusion,” which frankly just goes to show that Dawkins’ expertise is in evolutionary biology and that we cannot expect any great intellectual accomplishment in such areas as theology and philosophy.

The example of Watson is indeed highly illustrative. But mostly it is of the poverty of a purely scientific way of thinking. Our decisions about what kind of people we are going to be is also very important – more important than scientific evidence. Are we going to measure the intelligence of people by race or by their actual capabilities? Frankly I think there may be even better evidence of a racial difference between Jewish people and Anglo Saxons, probably due to a long history (not so long ago) of valuing and encouraging intellectual accomplishment rather than military prowess. But our determination to treat people equally is far far far more important!

Next we have Harris’ attempt to cast aspersions upon the idea that Francis Collins was ever an atheist. In this we have a shining example of the irrationality of the new atheists who on the one hand define atheism so minimally as to make everyone atheist by default, even infants, and then whenever convenient make atheism require some refined understanding. To be sure the definition of atheism as lacking a belief in God is ludicrous for it paints the average atheists as the most ignorant humans on the planet – largely just to put all the burden of proof on the opposition by mere definition. They also do this as a dodge of any possibility of criticism with the excuse they have no beliefs to criticize – a textbook example of special pleading. But then this-have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too approach of then requiring a claim to atheism requiring some kind of advanced degree understanding of what it is to be an atheist is rather laughable.

Nevertheless, I agree with Harris in his condemnation of the two claims about atheism that this is founded on blind faith or that it is the least rational. These alone are sufficient to justify all of Harris’ hostility. Atheism is about a single belief concerning the existence of God – at least to believe there there is insufficient reason to believe that such a thing exists. By comparison most religions, Christianity included, consist of considerably more beliefs to have faith in. In neither case are these beliefs necessarily blind or irrational. But it is demonstrable that both are susceptible to both of these flaws.

Sam moves on to complaints about arguments made about Jesus’ claim to be God and here I must agree that these popular and oft repeated arguments are rather lacking.

Perhaps I will add to this later… but I think this covers the most important parts.

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@AlexandruVasile, Welcome.

My response is that there is good theology and good science. Good theology basically agrees with good science. Good science agrees with good theology. France Collins believes in good theology and good science. Hinduism is not good theology and does support good science.

Science and theology deal with different issues. Theology deals with the meaning of life, good and evil. I expect that Sam Harris and Francis Collins disagree on these theological and moral issues, but that does not mean that they cannot agree on what is good science.

Welcome, Mr Vasile!

We’re currently going through a Sunday School on C S Lewis’ “Mere Christianity” (the book that helped Collins convert) and I have to say I agree with Alister McGrath’s assessment that the moral law idea is not a proof for God; it’s merely an idea of what the world would look like if we had a moral law giver. Lewis was willing to take criticism, and even once had a Catholic student at Oxcam defeat one of his pro-Christian arguments.

I haven’t had a chance to read all Harris’ post here, but if that’s the main concern with the moral law argument, that’s where I would go–it’s not a proof. However, there are plenty of intelligent Christians who don’t need that proof, either.

Thanks for your contribution to the forum and a good question.

Here’s a response from Randal Rauser to some of Sam Harris’ talks on moral law you might find interesting.https://randalrauser.com/2010/11/why-sam-harris-should-not-go-into-retail/

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Welcome!

My take home message from the article was that you must be an atheist to be a scientist, which is not a valid position.

In my reading of The Language of God, Dr. Collins maintains a very healthy distinction between science and faith. While I disagree with his conclusions, his arguments are full of gracious dialogue and seek to greatly promote science and faith, which he accomplishes.

I take a literal view of the scripture and find it is more consistent with scripture as a whole if Genesis 1 and 2 are taken sequentially. His books are New York Times best sellers, where my last royalty check was $1.45.

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Randy is of course talking about G.E.M. Anscombes criticism of Lewis´ first version of the argument from reason, which claims that on naturalistic materialism our cognitive faculties wouldn´t be reliable sources for reason/logical thinking. Lewis revised the argument later and Anscombe herself admitted that it had the power to overcome her objections afterwards. So if you want to read Lewis´ book “Miracles”, make sure its the version from 1960.

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Wonderful, @DoKo! I am so glad you stepped in. I am constantly amazed at the depth of your knowledge of philosophy, and this is a great thread for you to teach. I confess I didn’t know that portion–I only knew, obliquely from reading somewhere else, that he was gracious in acknowledging where he had been mistaken. I didn’t know (or didn’t recall, perhaps) that this had been revised. My only point was that our faith rests on more than a given argument. I look forward to your thoughts on the post. Thanks.

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You´re too kind, Randy!

Yes and it is a good sign if someone can acknowledge their own mistake and potentially overcome it. Lewis was a formidable philosopher with the problem that he lived in a time where the academia was in the mids of a several decades long logical positivism. So his arguments didn´t get the recognition in academia it deserved. Lewis also didn´t put the argument into a rigorous syllogism, this has been done in the last years. For example:

Plantingas “Evolutionary argument against naturalism”, final form in his book “Where the conflict really lies”
Victor Reppert wrote a small book “C.S. Lewis: Dangerous Idea”
Most recently Jim Slagle did the largest defense of it up to date in “Epistemological Skyhook” (Highly recommended!)

Absolutely, but here also is a common point of confusion. Neither I or Lewis intend to make this as an argument specifically for Christianity, it is unable to do that. Rather it is solely intended to give an argument for generic theism against naturalism.
The argument from reason is exclusively within metaphysical real, but our specific faith in Christianity certainly isn´t. I can expect from the metaphysical arguments that revelation would be probable, since our rationality, as I´d argue impossible to arise when no (Aristotelian) teleology at all is involved, gives us evidence that there is a deeper meaning. However this is only as far as such arguments get us. When revelation is involved, we are in the area of epistemology and such metaphysical arguments are silent.

I will take a look at it, though I have to admit that it is hard to read Harris and even harder to take him seriously once you have made yourself familiar with philosophy of religion. The kneejerk arguments he and his fans give aren´t worth anything. But I know how it feels to be confronted with such statements and they seem impressive when one is at the start of the learning journey.
@AlexandruVasile
In the meantime, if you are interested, I´d recommend Edward Fesers “The Last Superstition”

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Ugh, I´m already annoyed. I give quick responses to selective quotations I pick out, since there isn´t anything of value to be found here. Harris has never published something of value when it comes to religion and obviously has no idea of metaphysics. The biggest mistake is the theme which he applies: He conflates scientific methodology with atheistic materialism. This could not be further from the truth, especially since a naturalist is committed to the fundamental irrationality of the universe. Hence such common statements like that the success of science is a real miracle, or the miracolous effectiveness of mathematics. If you´re a theist and your name is not Kierkegaard, this shouldn´t really come as a surprise, since our expectations are based on our metaphysics. Here is a short explanation on that idea, the Principle of Sufficient Reason.

It is widely claimed that there can be no conflict, in principle, between science and religion because many scientists are themselves “religious,”

He´s not wrong about complaining about such statement, but (surprise!) he´s attacking a strawman. More accurately, the statement is that Science and Religion are not in principle in conflict. If I were someone who claims that the Bible is infallible period, everything has to be taken as literal describtions or that it has been written by God himself, we immeditaley find sources of conflict. But a belief in miracles or souls is not “unscientific” in the sense that it is impossible to hold onto both, but that a detection of such are scientifically impossible, since the scientific method by its very defintion is only concerned with the quantifiable aspects of the material world.
Further more, one has to avoid the conflation of science and materialism, at least when it goes beyond the methodological. Metaphysicallly speaking, when we take the implications of our common sense seriously, there is no way that materialism can be correct. Harris however is a perfect example of someone who pretty much only conflates.

Is it really so difficult to perceive a conflict between Collins’ science and his religion? Just imagine how scientific it would seem if Collins, as a devout Hindu, informed his audience that Lord Brahma had created the universe and now sleeps; Lord Vishnu sustains it and tinkers with our DNA (in a way that respects the law of karma and rebirth); and Lord Shiva will eventually destroy it in a great conflagration. Is there any chance that he would be running the NIH if he were an outspoken polytheist?

Do you want to know why academic philosophy isn´t worth a thing? That´s why. If someone with a
degree in philosophy from Stanford isn´t able to recognize the difference between science and the underlying metaphysics, then we really should ask ourselves for what exactly the money is wasted. Collins when talking about God doesn´t make a scientific, but a philosophical statement. The point about polytheists is also superflous. India makes excellent progress in their scientific departments, especially when it comes to physics and biochemistry and according to the most recent study ~95% of the scientists are theists. So if the head of the NIH could be a polytheist is rather a question of probability due to culture.

How something breaks often says a lot about what it was. Collins’s claim to have been an atheist seems especially suspect, given that he does not understand what the position of atheism actually entails. For instance:

If God is outside of nature, then science can neither prove nor disprove his existence. Atheism itself must therefore be considered a form of blind faith, in that it adopts a belief system that cannot be defended on the basis of pure reason. (Collins, 2006, p.165)

Elsewhere he says that of “all the possible worldviews, atheism is the least rational” (Ibid, p. 231). I suspect that this will not be the last time a member of our species will be obliged to make the following point (but one can always hope): disbelief in the God of Abraham does not require that one search the entire cosmos and find Him absent; it only requires that one consider the evidence put forward by believers to be insufficient. Presumably Francis Collins does not believe in Zeus. I trust he considers this skeptical attitude to be fully justified. Might this be because there are no good reasons to believe in Zeus? And what would he say to a person who claimed that disbelief in Zeus is a form of “blind faith” or that of all possible worldviews it is the “least rational”?

Ugh…this is horrible. But for everyone: A mere lack of belief in God is called agnosticism. Atheism is a positive affirmation that God doesn´t exist. Even weak atheism needs positive positions, as can be easily demonstrated:

Theist: A necessary being exists.
Atheist: Possibly a necessary being doesn´t exist.

Here is a small, but dense summary of some propositions which have to be affirmed in order to make an atheistic worldview correct:

I need a break. I do more later. But the bad polemics and the painful ignorace makes it really hard to take anything thoughtful out of that piece.

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The religiophobia of Harris makes ones head spin, so I admire your ability to stay focussed as I could not even think about where to start. It does however appear that it got you in the end as you claim that there are propositions that make the atheist worldview “correct”. Atheism is a worldview like not stamp collecting is a hobby considering that a worldview has to be founded on a fundamental “oh that what shall not be named”. The hole point of atheism is the denial of a reason for the existence of reason, it is the “not God” of the gaps. Reason is a product of the God of Chance who is a “not God” by the reason of Chance. He/she/it is omnipotent as He/she/it can create anything, all loving as He/she/it favours everything and omniscient as He/she/it contains all possible outcomes in itself and is therefore perfectly reasonable :slight_smile:

The best thing of He/she/it is, that He/she/it gives one the perfect reason to define anything as one wants, from morals to gender as one can make it a law that everyone else has to adhere to as by chance otherwise anyone could get those things wrong :slight_smile:

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Sam Harris is a good writer with a razor wit, so he can make his case seem formidable. The essay you cite is too long for me to address all his points, so I’ll make general observations.

Reading Harris put me in mind of Gerhard Domagk, a brilliant German doctor in the early twentieth century who ran into stiff resistance from the medical research community. Domagk wanted to identify compounds harmless to the body but that would attack pathogens causing infection. In the minds of researchers, his quest was a fool’s errand. To them, the sorry record of patent medicines–compounded and sold by the unscrupulous and consumed by the gullible–proved that no such substances existed except as fantasies. The only hope against infection, they thought, lay in vaccines. Domagk remained open-minded, continued his research on a small budget from Bayer AG, and eventually won the 1939 Nobel Prize for the discovery of sulfonamide, the first antibiotic. That achievement inspired Fleming to discover penicillin, and ushered in the age of antibiotics.

Humans have long had an intuition of a part of reality beyond the physical, speculated about it, and tried to represent it under childishly fanciful images. In its crudest form it devolves into superstition, but more fruitfully it is a sense of the sacred and the eternal. Paul referred to it as a reaching out toward God (Acts 17:27).

To Harris, nature is a brute fact, meaning that no transcendent explanation for it is necessary or possible. But a “brute fact” is indistinguishable from one owing to pure chance. It is unclear, however, how as a chance collection of objects and events the cosmos could have the intelligibility assumed by the sciences. Our own experience is that order flows from thought–the order imposed by human minds on our surroundings. Obviously, if the order in nature flows from thought, that is, from mind, then it’s a higher kind of mind than our own.

Neither would nature as Harris conceives it have a direction other than the illusion of a direction owing to pure chance. The scientific story of the cosmos seems clearly to have a direction: from energetic field of some kind to superhot plasma, then differentiation into matter, then coallescense into galaxies, stars, and planets, then primitive life with mininal consciousness ascending to greater complexity and higher levels of consciousness. To see in this sequence nothing more than directionless meandering is to hide from obvious truth.

In treating morality, Harris falls into the common fallacy of conflating biological explanation with moral justification. A parent’s care for their child has a biological component, no doubt. So does a parent’s abuse of their child. The biological basis constitutues no more a justification in the first case than in the second. Morality as opposed to impulse must stand somehow above biology and judge between impulses and instincts.

I don’t believe that God provides us with a simple grounding for morality. We’re in deep waters trying to grasp that connection fully. But ask yourself, does a world with moral values that transcend biology make more sense as a brute fact or as the product of transcendent Mind?

Harris implies that since our thoughts depend on the physical structure of our brains, minds are inconceivable apart from brains. This is fallacious. To take an example from the physical, an electromagnet has several parts, including a wire coil and power source. A permanent magnet generates the same kind of field with a single mass of more or less uniform material. Mind can be fundamental to matter and yet be realized within matter.

Speaking of mind, Harris barely waves as he skates past the mystery of consciousness. (David Chalmers, one of the world’s leading authorities on consciousness, has a good TED talk about it on YouTube.) Consciousness has no purchase in biology. To use a tech example, Cleverbot need not actually be conscious to behave as if conscious, neither does a bacterium, a slug, an ant, a rabbit, or a human. And behavior is all nature cares about. So why consciousness? Why an inner life of experience? Is that profound phenomenon really more at home in a purposeless brute fact consmos than in one sustained by God?

Finally, the cross of Christ stands for self-sacrificing love, which is as hard to imagine in the world of Sam Harris as are humility and awe. I feel sorry for him. He has many gifts and and is a keen observer. He is just too quick to toss out the spiritual baby with the bathwater. The things of the spirit are indeed nonsense to the carnal person (1 Cor 2:14).

The amazing thing is that in the midst of that which has arisen without rational intent there is nonetheless so much regularity, truth and beauty. None of these things require top down control. Or if it does, I need to be convinced because my raw intuition leads me to expect otherwise. Naturally I recognize that my raw intuition isn’t likely to be persuasive to anyone else. But I’m willing to agree to disagree, are you?

Yeah… I don’t even agree with that particular comment of DoKo even though I agree with most of what he said about Harris’ article. The only thing a naturalist is committed to is looking to laws of nature as a cause of things rather than something divine or supernatural. The naturalist generally sees the scientific worldview as the limits of reality, but most would not call that fundamentally irrational. For many a fixed natural law seems considerably more rational than everything depending on the whims of a supernatural entity.

A lack of “rational intent” or a lack of control by a rational intelligence is not the same thing as a lack of rationality. It is demonstrable that the universe is governed by highly rational laws and principles.

It is certainly demonstrable that all you need is a rational system of rules to generate not only a high order of complexity but self-organization and we have every reason to think this includes the phenomenon of life as well. I suppose you could call that “top down control” of some sort but the point is that an intelligent agency isn’t required.

Just because I personally believe in the divine and supernatural (or spiritual) and one which is causally and actively involved in events, doesn’t mean I have to think that rationality requires this. I see no good objective evidence or reason that it does.

That is not true – the incorrect word being “our.” That may be the limits of YOUR experience but it is not everyone’s experience. Others of seen demonstrations that order can flow from a system of rules alone, and that includes conditions in the universe where human minds had no part in arranging. Thus there is no objective evidence that a mind or intelligent designer is required. To be sure you and I as Christians can choose to believe that an intelligence was involved in setting up the conditions for self-organization and life. But that doesn’t mean that those who choose differently are lacking in rationality.

On the contrary, it is demonstrable that directionless meandering can produce greater complexity and order when there are selective mechanisms such as survival.

I don’t think so. When you believe that things are only right or wrong for a reason rather than just because some dictator says so, then those reasons can be discovered by a mechanical learning process.

And I answer that a morality founded on good reasons is far more useful to mature intelligent responsible people in a changing world than a bunch of arbitrary rules dictated millennia ago when the world was nothing like it is now.

But of course, just because I disagree with you on these few points doesn’t mean I disagree with you on other things or that I agree with Harris on most things.

To be clear my comment about the fundamental irrationality was in regards to the PSR (Principle of Sufficient Reason;e.g. the claim that every true proposition has a sufficient reason for its truth). If we take just for simplicity that the laws of nature as we know it are the governing laws all the way through, then, according to the PSR-committed theist, there is a reason why they do. A naturalist would have to regard them as a brute fact, the laws are the way they are, although they had no necessity to be the way they are. Bertrand Russell´s quote applies: “The Universe just IS.”
Now of course, I´d claim that there are huge problems in denying the PSR, especially for science itself, but I don´t want to go down that rabbit hole. And I would collide with Mitchell, since I believe that God´s nature can´t change. The only thing I really disagree about is to claim that the laws by itself can be “rational” in any meaningful sense. I can´t see rationality as anything but a feature of minds and if the universe appaers to be rational, without being that way fundamentally, then it is just that: a false appearance of rationality.
Mark, of course I agree to disagree. Reading your comments is one of the best things on this forum and your discussion with Michael was highly interesting for me as a silent reader. However what I had in mind, due to the nature of essential causal series, is rather some form of down-top-control. But this is just a minor point.

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Mark, by the way if I write “naturalist” I don´t include you, since I work with a very specific definition, in order to keep clarity. I conflate those both terms though, because most atheists are naturalists. The definition of naturalism I use I adapted from David M. Armstrong:
“Naturalism is the thesis that the whole of reality is exhausted by the spacetime-system and its contents.”
I don´t read you as subscribing to this thesis. Atheism is the denial of the existence of God. And to distinguish even further I´d take Philosophical A-Theism, in the spirit of Richard Gale, which could concede an underlying intelligence but denies the existence of a being worthy of worship. In the light of the discussion you had with @Michael_Callen I´m cautious to put a too strong label on you and would for safety reasons put you in the last category. That way much of what I write doesn´t apply as a critic of your position.

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Well that is mighty Christian of you, Dominik. :wink:

You probably realize I’m not a big fan of formal arguments applied to metaphysics and think apologetics is futile. Since I suspect that much about me is transparent, you are very generous toward me.

I agree with you that rationality is about minds not things. Specifically I think rationality is about the sense our minds make of the world. If the world isn’t perfectly rational it is highly likely that it is the limitations of our brains which is to blame. As with other organisms our brains no doubt evolved to find supper, a mate and shelter as needed. Trying to use them to make sense of the cosmos or our souls is probably a stretch but once in a while we notice something that seems promising. I suppose our minds look for an edge in whatever we turn our attention to so we almost can’t help it.

That is a tricky concept. For me to sign off on it, you’d have to stipulate that the whole of reality is exhausted by the spacetime-system and all that it gives rise to. After all we ourselves are some of what stretches the limitations of passive cause and effect, yet I do believe we have arisen naturally. I also believe that what gives rise to God belief is also something which has arisen naturally. I think of it as intermediary between the unfolding of the natural and our own emergence as subjects. Frankly I see the desire to put God first as the creator of all of nature as akin to our having placed the earth at the center of the cosmos. When we are ready to be humbler about our own significance perhaps we can allow God to do the same.

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