Thursday, September 16, 2004

Interview Analysis: Part V

Skipping some of the small-talk, the next important exchange in the Prager-Harris interview proceeds as follows:

DP: I think the university is a moral failure because it is radically secular. You think it’s a failure because they’re just weak-willed and politically correct. So that’s one difference between us. But let’s go to your basic argument; there are two of them. One, reason will lead us to a better world, and [two], that religion is a real problem.

Let me begin with the religion part, which is your favorite part in the bulk of your book. Why can’t you say, “Some religion is terrific, and some religion leads to evil?” Why the blanket dismissal? I am guided by religion, and I bet I have very similar values in many areas to you.

SH: Right. Right. Well, the first thing to say is that most of our religious texts have in them propositions that are entirely noble and wise and blameless and brilliant, and of course there is no issue to take with them. You can’t argue, really, in any deep way, against the Golden Rule. It’s a beautiful distillation of our ethical intuitions. But first of all, there are beautiful statements of equal usefulness in many other books.

Mr. Harris preliminary remark here is largely true, even if I would disagree with his example of the Golden Rule ("do to others as you would have them do to you", Luke, 6-31). But in fact, if one takes some of the pronouncements in Bible and places them within a rational context they can be interpreted rationally and certainly not all are wrong. But that hardly justifies using the Bible as a basis for a moral code.

DP: Like what? I use my Bible as the basis of my values. What book can I look in to learn Sam Harris’s values?

SH: Well, it’s certainly distributed over many books.

DP: Well, give me five. See, if you don’t have a text, that means Sam Harris is the author of his values. And I don’t trust that.

SH: No, no, I would certainly never claim that.


The above exchange represents the crux of the problem for religious people. This goes beyond books. What Prager is really hinting at here is that for him, all moral values ultimately derive from authorities. Thus Prager thinks he is in the best possible position, as he is relying on the Ultimate authority, namely God. The most revealing statement is Prager's "if you don't have a text, that means Sam Harris is the author of his values... [a]nd I don't trust that." An author, at least in fiction, is someone who makes up a world of his own and puts it on paper. The possibility that Prager fails to acknowledge is that values and virtues, as principles, could be discovered, rather than authored, just as scientific principles in other fields are discovered. That is part of what would make them objective, despite being discovered by a specific person. This is of course only the tip of the iceberg and much more would need to be discussed to prove this but Prager is wrong to dismiss the possibility. Ideally, Mr. Harris should have challenged Prager along those lines.

Let's continue with the interview analysis.

DP: OK, then, tell me. I tell you the author of my values is my religion, Judaism, or broadly speaking, Judeo-Christian values. Where can I look for your values?

SH: Well, honestly, it’s distributed. You can certainly find many of them in the Bible, in your own book. You can find many of them in Ecclesiastes, say. Or you can find them in the New Testament. I think the Sermon on the Mount is a brilliant and quite a wonderful document, and an ideal that many of us should try to live for, or live toward. But where I want to locate the source of our values is in our free inquiry of the world, in the present moment, and in dialogue with human beings in the present moment, in this generation, in the midst of our problems.

DP: Why does one preclude the other? I believe in the text, I believe it’s divine, and I believe that we have to look at the moment to figure out how to apply the text to the moment.

I understand what Mr. Harris is trying to say but given his premises, Prager clearly has the upper hand. If Mr. Harris insists on relying on traditional texts as source for moral values, he can't then claim that "free inquiry of the world" is the source. It really is one or the other. Free inquiry, if by that he means reason, if consistently applied will lead to the rejection of reliance on any texts. But if texts are the ultimate source, if the starting point is necessarily what's written in some text then what is wrong with Prager's approach? Mr. Harris needs to clearly distinguish the fact that he may have some values in common with religious people from relying on religious sources for the justification of his values. That said, his praise of the Sermon on the Mount puts him in the category of people who have secularized the religious ethics without any attempt at rational analysis.

I think for now I'm going to cut my analysis short, as I am getting somewhat bored with it. There are so many errors on both sides that it is too depressing to continue. Nevertheless, I'm sure I'll address much of the same issues in the future.



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