Sam Harris has put up a second video, this one an hour long, answering the questions of readers. I think it’s much better than the first edition of “Ask Sam”; he’s quite articulate, and this is definitely worth watching. (Plus he’s not dressed in black!). I’m always impressed by his ability to speak extemporaneously, even if he did think out the answers before the video.
And please, can we stay off the topic of torture and just stick to the topics that Sam discusses?
Here are the topics, which I’ve taken directly from the post own Sam’s own website. My take on the questions comes after the given time. (The time links are accurate for going manually to that point in the discussion, but you shouldn’t click on them. Best listen to the whole thing).
1. Eternity and the meaning of life 0:42. Doesn’t atheism rob life of its meaning? Harris thinks that the religious idea of an afterlife “robs life of its meaning,” for it devalues the very precious moments of our life and makes us ignore the finality of death. I agree completely.
2. Do we have free will? 4:43. Answer: no. “The problem is free will is just a non-starter, philosophically and scientifically. Unlike many other illusions, there is no way you can describe the universe so as to make sense of this notion of free will. Now there are many people who have artfully changed the subject and tried to get a version of free will that makes some scientific sense. [JAC: so true!] But this is not what people actually mean by free will. What people mean is that they—their conscious selves—are free to chose their actions You choose what you want; you choose what you will to do. . . they still feel that at every moment, there is freedom to choose. Now what can this mean? From the position of conscious awareness of your inner life, this can’t be true. Everything you’re consciously aware of, at every moment, is the result of causes of which you’re not aware, over which you exert no conscious control.”
Sam goes on to explain, in light of this notion, why we should not be nihilists; why we need to do something instead of existing passively. I am 100% on board with his answer, and am glad that he sees through those philosophers who, through redefinition, try to save “free will” by simply ignoring what nearly everybody thinks is free will. It’s time to admit—and that means telling the public—that contracausal free will doesn’t exist, and to coin a new term for those philosophical forms of “free will” that aren’t contracausal.
3. How can we convince religious people to abandon their beliefs? 14:52. His idea is that religion drains away from efforts that can really improve our world. His solution is to undermine the truth claims of religions that undermine the actions of their adherents.
4. How can atheists live among the faithful? 19:09. Don’t marry someone who will abuse your children by teaching them about hell and other injurious doctrines, and speak openly, when you can, about what we know about the universe.
5. How should we talk to children about death? 21:52. His take on the “humility” of science, which precedes his answer, is quite good. He admits that he doesn’t know what happens after death, although he thinks that we’re “zeroed out” after death just as we were before birth. However, he asserts that we should not given children false promises that they will “hang out for eternity” after death, for this denies them both the ability to grieve, and also to admit uncertainty before mystery. He argues that to be afraid of nonexistence after death is as foolish as to be afraid of nonexistence before birth, but I don’t agree with him. To use Hitchen’s simile, before birth we weren’t at the party, but during life we are, and who wants to leave the party?
6. Does human life have intrinsic value? 26:01. We have more “value” (in terms of the disutility of harming creatures) than, say, insects, because of the greater range of our experiences. That, of course, leads into the question of whether, then, the lives of some humans have more value than the lives of others. His answer is no, because equal treatment of all leads to the greatest benefits for our society. He does admit, though, that some people are more “important” than others; but the virtues of fairness and justice demand that we ignore this inequality.
7. Why should we be confident in the authority of science? 30:36. This, of course, is a question that “sophisticated” theologians say is answered by the words “God made the universe scientifically intelligible.” He notes that “there are huge areas of the scientific world that are not up for grabs,” i.e. there are some things we know (i.e., the role of DNA in inheritance) that are not going to be changed. We have thus made progress in science—and in ways that aren’t the same as “progress” in religion, art, and literature. I suspect this last statement, particularly with respect to art and literature, will be controversial, spawning accusations of “scientism”, though by and large I agree with Sam. In what sense are Picasso’s paintings “better” than those of Rembrandt?
8. How can one criticize Islam after the terrorism in Norway? 35:43. The Norway massacre has made it more difficult to criticize Islam, but we have to “blow past that.” We can’t talk about religion as a monolith, and must still fight against the uniquely bad tenets embodied in the Islamic notions of martyrdom and jihad—tenets that he sees as part of mainstream Islam. Yes, right-wing racists also concentrate on these issues, but the potential harm they could cause is still a concern. The Muslim world must find a way to marginalize those who call for jihad and martyrdom, but it will be hard, like trying to get Christians to stop thinking of Jesus as the son of God.
9. Should atheists join with Christians against Islam? 41:50. The problem is that much Christian opposition to Islam is self-serving, based on the desire to promulgate Christianity. Sam sees no particular reason to link up with such folks, but nor should we pretend that every religion poses the same threat as Islam. Opposing Islam need not be based on xenophobia or racism, even though that’s the motivation for some opponents of Islam.
10. What does it mean to speak about the human mind objectively? 45:17. Although we must rely on self report as a starting point for such studies (Sam talks about his tintinnitus), but that doesn’t prevent us from studying such subjective phenomena using the tools of neuroscience.
11. How can spiritual claims be scientifically justified 50:14. If Sam claims, as he has, that meditation is transformative, why can’t we agree that Christian experience is transformative? The response is obvious: only one of these experiences leads to claims about the existence of “invisible others” and the attention those others pay to the world. An experience is valid; its implications for the universe may not be.
12. Why can’t religion remain a private matter? 54:52. Why do we worry about the privacy of faith in people’s minds, especially when such faith gives them comfort? The reason is that it’s hard for those beliefs to remain private: they are foisted on children and acted out in the life of the believer in ways that can harm or mislead others. He uses the example of a bus driver who is too exhausted to drive, but deals with it by saying a prayer that nothing bad will happen.
13. What do you like to speak about at public events? 58:09. See for yourself!