Sunday, April 16, 2006

Sam Harris's Atheist Manifesto and a Few Plantingian Responses Et. Al.

Atheist Sam Harris has written an “Atheist Manifesto.” I have here posted his beginning arguments, with my responses in brackets.

Harris: Somewhere in the world a man has abducted a little girl. Soon he will rape, torture and kill her. If an atrocity of this kind is not occurring at precisely this moment, it will happen in a few hours, or days at most. Such is the confidence we can draw from the statistical laws that govern the lives of 6 billion human beings. The same statistics also suggest that this girl s parents believe at this very moment that an all-powerful and all-loving God is watching over them and their family. Are they right to believe this? Is it good that they believe this?

[This is a horrible scenario, and one that happens. How do we respond to it? Like many "rational" theists have already responded. For example, here Plantinga’s Free Will Defense comes into play. Plantinga shows that J.L. Mackie's "logical" argument from evil does not really logically disprove God. Likewise Harris cannot disprove God logically (viz., by deductive logic). Evidential arguments then come into play (inductive, probableistic logic). See Daniel Howard-Snyder's excellent collection of arguments pro and con concerning evil and God. See especially Plantinga's article "Epistemic Probability and Evil." Harris's argument is an old one, and has been vigorously debated back and forth, as in Howard-Snyder's book.]

Harris: No. The entirety of atheism is contained in this response. Atheism is not a philosophy; it is not even a view of the world; it is simply a refusal to deny the obvious.

[Atheism is not a philosophy? I don’t understand. Atheism is the belief that there is no God. Or: atheism affirms the truth of the statement: God does not exist. Harris must defend this conclusion by giving reasons. Contrary to Harris atheism is "a view of the world" because it claims that we live in a godless world, a wholly naturalistic world. Harris seems to think that atheism is just some kind of common sense. Most persons do not see it that way. Note: if atheism is really just "common sense," then how could Harris ever defend that it is? Difficulties abound...]

[“Atheism is a refusal to deny the obvious.” And what does Harris mean by “obvious?” This needs to be defined. Precisely because “obvious,” I think, gets its meaning from pretheoretical, pre-rational, pre-existing paradigms. Plantinga’s work on "properly basic beliefs" argues that the “obvious,” for most people in all times and all places, is that there is some kind of God. To imply that theists “refuse to deny the obvious” is false. Ahhh, if it were only that simple. On Plantinga it is atheists who deny the obvious or, perhaps, cannot see what is obvious to most people.]

Harris: Unfortunately, we live in a world in which the obvious is overlooked as a matter of principle. The obvious must be observed and re-observed and argued for. This is a thankless job. It carries with it an aura of petulance and insensitivity. It is, moreover, a job that the atheist does not want.

[If this is “a job that the atheist does not want,” then why should the atheist take it? I believe that, on atheism, life is ultimately purposeless. On atheism life has no telos. What, then, would be the purpose for an atheist to try to convince theists that the philosophy of atheism is true? Harris’s atheism is evangelistic atheism. I find this to be irrational.]

Harris: It is worth noting that no one ever needs to identify himself as a non-astrologer or a non-alchemist. Consequently, we do not have words for people who deny the validity of these pseudo-disciplines. Likewise, atheism is a term that should not even exist. Atheism is nothing more than the noises reasonable people make when in the presence of religious dogma. The atheist is merely a person who believes that the 260 million Americans (87% of the population) who claim to
never doubt the existence of God should be obliged to present evidence for his existence and, indeed, for his benevolence, given the relentless destruction of innocent human beings we witness in the world each day.

[But theists do give evidence for the existence of God. Harris knows this. Also, Harris is simply wrong that American theists “never doubt the existence of God.” The Pew Foundation report Harris quotes does not say that 100% of all theists never doubt the existence of God. The report does claim that 69% "never doubt" God’s existence. My own experience suggests that the number would be less than this if “doubt” is defined as momentary rather than persistent. I see “doubt” as part of the human condition. I have met atheists who doubt their atheism, but still remain atheists. Absolute psychological certitude is unnecessary when it comes to belief in anything.]

Harris: Only the atheist appreciates just how uncanny our situation is: Most of us believe in a God that is every bit as specious as the gods of Mount Olympus; no person, whatever his or her qualifications, can seek public office in the United States without pretending to be certain that such a God exists; and much of what passes for public policy in our country conforms to religious taboos and superstitions appropriate to a medieval theocracy. Our circumstance is abject, indefensible and terrifying. It would be hilarious if the stakes were not so high.
We live in a world where all things, good and bad, are finally destroyed by change. Parents lose their children and children their parents. Husbands and wives are separated in an instant, never to meet again. Friends part company in haste, without knowing that it will be for the last time. This life, when surveyed with a broad glance, presents little more than a vast spectacle of loss. Most people in this world, however, imagine that there is a cure for this. If we live rightly—not necessarily ethically, but within the framework of certain ancient beliefs and stereotyped behaviors—we will get everything we want after we die. When our bodies finally fail us, we just shed our corporeal ballast and travel to a land where we are reunited with everyone we loved while alive. Of course, overly rational people and other rabble will be kept out of this happy place, and those who suspended their disbelief while alive will be free to enjoy themselves for all eternity.

[Surely it is not true that “overly rational people… will be "kept out of” heaven. There are many very rational people who are theists and believe they will be included in heaven. Indeed, there are many rational people who believe theism is just as rational as atheism if not more so. Even atheist William Rowe affirms that theism is a rational position. Harris believes that atheists are the most rational people. To me, this is a very false, arrogant, and frightening position.]

Harris: We live in a world of unimaginable surprises--from the fusion energy that lights the sun to the genetic and evolutionary consequences of this lights dancing for eons upon the Earth--and yet Paradise conforms to our most superficial concerns with all the fidelity of a Caribbean cruise. This is wondrously strange. If one didn’t know better, one would think that man, in his fear of losing all that he loves, had created heaven, along with its gatekeeper God, in his own image.
Consider the destruction that Hurricane Katrina leveled on New Orleans. More than a thousand people died, tens of thousands lost all their earthly possessions, and a million were displaced. It is safe to say that almost every person living in New Orleans at the moment Katrina struck believed in an omnipotent, omniscient and compassionate God. But what was God doing while a hurricane laid waste to their city? Surely he heard the prayers of those elderly men and women who fled the rising waters for the safety of their attics, only to be slowly drowned there. These were people of faith. These were good men and women who had prayed throughout their lives. Only the atheist has the courage to admit the obvious: These poor people died talking to an imaginary friend.

[Harris raises questions that theists are not unaware of. Many “rational” theists have responded to issues like this. Personally, I find it laughable that Harris postures the atheist as the only person who “has the courage to admit the obvious.” I would say the non-existence of God is “obvious” to the atheist. But of course. So, admitting the “obvious” takes no courage. What else could a real atheist say if he has a Cartesian certainty about such things? He could say, "Well, it is not intuitively obvious that there is no God, but there are good reasons for denying the existence of God." Here the atheist William Rowe does a better job, and thus does not come across so arrogantly and evangelistically. For solid, "rational" theistic responses to the age-old questions Harris raises, see, e.g.: Greg Boyd; Alvin Plantinga; Marilyn McCord Adams; and Daniel Howard-Snyder. ]

Harris: Of course, there had been ample warning that a storm of biblical proportions would strike New Orleans, and the human response to the ensuing disaster was tragically inept. But it was inept only by the light of science. Advance warning of Katrina’s path was wrested from mute Nature by meteorological calculations and satellite imagery. God told no one of his plans. Had the residents of New Orleans been content to rely on the beneficence of the Lord, they wouldn’t have known that a killer hurricane was bearing down upon them until they felt the first gusts of wind on their faces. Nevertheless, a poll conducted by The Washington Post found that 80% of Katrina’s survivors claim that the event has only strengthened their faith in God.

[So – it really does remain “obvious” to such theists that there really is a God. Just as it appears really “obvious” to Harris that there is no God. But Harris believes that atheistic obviousness is a result of “rational” thinking. I might say at this point that, if this is true, then atheism is far from “obvious,” since it must be argued for. When one reads Harris it seems clear that his “god” is human “reason.” What is it to be “rational” or “reasonable?” To get at some answer to this we enter into very, very deep philosophical arguments. Such arguments are very, very far from being intuitively obvious.]

[Again, Harris’s “savior” is “reason.” But see, again, Plantinga, who reasons that, on evolutionary theory sans God, there is no reason why we should trust reason itself, since the evolution of “reason” would only be for survival purposes, and not to get at something called “truth.” Plantinga reasons: "If (naturalistic) evolution is true, then our cognitive faculties will have resulted from blind mechanisms like natural selection, working on sources of genetic variation such as random genetic mutation. And the ultimate purpose or function of our cognitive faculties, if indeed they have a purpose or function, will be survival - of individual, species, gene, or genotype. But then it is unlikely that they have the production of true beliefs as a function. So the probability or our faculties' being reliable, given naturalistic evolution, would be fairly low."
Perhaps Harris makes his atheistic arguments so evangelistically because he wishes to survive in a world that is mostly in disagreement with his personal beliefs?]