Saturday, September 11, 2004

Interview Analysis: Part I

I'm going to leave the DIM Hypothesis for now because I feel a great desire to comment on the August 16, 2004 Dennis Prager interview with author Sam Harris (transcript available here). It is not so much that I have great sympathy for Mr. Harris, nor do I harbor any hatred for Mr. Prager. Mr. Harris is author of the book The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and Future of Reason. The book's description, available on Mr. Harris's website, is instructive in this regard:

This important and timely book delivers a startling analysis of the clash of faith and reason in the modern world. The End of Faith provides a harrowing glimpse of mankind’s willingness to suspend reason in favor of religious beliefs, even when these beliefs inspire the worst of human atrocities. Harris argues that in the presence of weapons of mass destruction, we can no longer expect to survive our religious differences indefinitely. Most controversially, he maintains that “moderation” in religion poses considerable dangers of its own: as the accommodation we have made to religious faith in our society now blinds us to the role that faith plays in perpetuating human conflict. While warning against the encroachment of organized religion into world politics, Harris draws on insights from neuroscience, philosophy, and Eastern mysticism in an attempt to provide a truly modern foundation for our ethics and our search for spiritual experience.

One wonders in vain how Mr. Harris can warn us against the suspension "of reason in favor of religious beliefs," as well as that "'moderation' in religion poses considerable dangers of its own" and then a few sentences later admit that he himself "draws on insights from...Eastern mysticism." My viewpoint in all this is probably no secret but will become clear as I proceed with an analysis of the relevant parts of the interview.

After brief smalltalk Prager offers a challenge:

DP: How ironic. You could have come into the studio.

The book is “The End of Faith.” Let me begin with this challenge, because you make a strong indictment against using ancient texts, which I believe in, as a source of values. First, why do you believe, since you do believe, obviously, that in secularism and in reason lie the answers to the moral problems of humanity? Is that a fair summary of your views?

SH: Yes, up to a point. I’m actually not discounting the range of human experience we might want to call “spiritual” or “mystical.” In fact, I just think that we can explore that domain well within the bounds of rationality, which is to say there’s never a reason to make claims about the universe that can’t be substantiated, either by empirical evidence in a scientific sense, or by first person, introspective evidence. So, basically what I’m arguing for is intellectual honestly.

DP: OK. So am I. That’s one thing we both are arguing for, so that’s why I was so anxious to have you on – I suspect that does motivate you because, after all, any guy who takes your views and attacks Noam Chomsky at all is OK in my book.


What is one to say in response? Frankly, already at this point I knew that Mr. Harris would ultimately get nowhere with Prager. Why? Because he is already conceding the whole case in his first substantive response. Of course, we already know from the description of his book noted above the Mr. Harris is not a big believer in consistency, or to put it more bluntly he thinks contradictions are in fact okay as long we don't go to extremes (So much for a so-called advocate of reason!). So apparently we don't need to dismiss the spiritual or mystical. Everything's on the table. The entire history of philosophy in which the mystical was examined in great detail and rejected is simply swept aside. Like a true modern, when confronted by a confident religionist, Mr. Harris clearly believes we need to keep an open mind with respect to such things. Pathetic! We'll discover more on how Mr. Harris actually thinks we arrive at moral conclusions later in this interview.

If I were to try to answer Prager's question in brief, I would say the following.

DP: First, why do you believe, since you do believe, obviously, that in secularism and in reason lie the answers to the moral problems of humanity? Is that a fair summary of your views?

GR: Morality is, as Ayn Rand correctly stated, "a code of values to guide man's choices and actions." The Oxford English Dictionary defines "secular" as "Of or pertaining to the world." There is only one world -- the one in which man lives. Reason, is man's only means of knowledge, including knowledge of what he should do and why, i.e., his virtues and values. Therefore objective values are necessarily dependent on a secular context and derived by reason. Any attempt to derive such values on an "otherworldly" or religious basis are literally absurd. So yes, as it happens, that is in fact a fair summary of my views.

Needless to say, in order to be fully convincing to anybody, this would require much elaboration but in brief that is the answer to Prager's challenge. I will proceed with the analysis of the interview in the next post.

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