The Atheist/Science event last night

February 11, 2018 • 9:30 am

Here are their names in lights!

I watched the people walk in, and if you didn’t know this was an event rife with discussion of science, meditation, and atheism, you wouldn’t have guessed from the audience: a diverse group of all ages, ethnicities, and sartorial quality. I especially looked at the sex ratio given that Sam has been excoriated for saying that movement atheism was male-dominated because of its “testosterone vibe”. Well, maybe the prominent figures are mostly males, but the audience for this event was pretty much half male and half female. And about half the questions at the end came from women.

We had dinner before the event, as Sam kindly invited me. After dinner, the speakers took a limo from the restaurant to the theater, even though it was only a block away! Such are the perks of fame (see also names in lights above). Matt did some close-up magic at the table, using cards and rubber bands.

The Chicago Theater is a beautiful old venue, with fancy baroque decoration inside and comfortable (albeit small) seats. You can read about it, and see more pictures, here. It seats 3600 people, and I think they sold about 2800 seats.  Inside, on the way to the Green Room, you see the walls decorated with memorabilia from past performances (the theater has been going since 1921 and is a National Historic Landmark).

More perks of fame!

Backstage before the event. For such a well appointed and famous theater, it had a pretty dire Green Room:

On to my report. The event began at 8 pm and lasted about two hours, with about 1 hour and 10 minutes for conversation between Matt, Sam, and Lawrence, and another 50 minutes for questions.  It was engaging, and the audience was edified and amused, but to my mind there was a bit too much discussion about meditation, consciousness, and the illusion of “self”.  I’d heard all that before in similar events, so it’s not the fault of the speakers.

As is often the case in these presentations, the question-and-answer session was the best part, and the humor of the speakers shone through (they all have different styles of humor).

I asked Sam at dinner if he was going to talk about free will, but he said that they’d covered that topic in a previous event, which was archived on his podcast. Nevertheless, one guy asked the speakers how, given the absence of free will, they could advise him how to cure his addiction to alcohol. That was a good question, because Sam and Lawrence are hard determinists (Matt is a compatibilist but still a determinist.) Answering that question without getting balled up in an infinite regress is quite difficult. If, for instance, you tell someone that they can choose to put themselves in a milieu where there is no alcohol and also surround themselves with supportive people (yes, that’s how it could be done), you risk making people think that you can make such a choice freely, instantiating dualism. I suppose a good answer is that one’s brain is a computer that weighs various inputs before giving the output (a decision), and that the advice Sam gave—which could of course influence the actions of the addict—was also adaptive, in the sense that he was giving strategies that his brain calculated had a higher probability of being useful. Further, we all try to be helpful to cement relationships and get a good reputation—that’s part of the evolved and learned program of our brains. But of course Sam had no “free” choice about his advice, and this shows the difficulty of discussing free will with those who haven’t thought about it.

Another question was from someone who wanted to improve their lives through meditation. What, the guy asked, is the best way to do this? Should he go to India, as Sam did, and join a meditation ashram?

Sam gave a brief history of his own involvement in meditation and his visits to India (this is all in his book Waking Up), and said that there was no “best way,” but a good start was to try to meditate for five minutes a day, observing one’s own thoughts and impressions and blocking everything else out. That was, he said, hard (I know!); nothing how difficult it was when he stayed in India and meditated regularly for fourteen hours a day.  Krauss was dubious about all the talk of meditation and consciousness, and it was clear that he and Sam differ on the importance of such discussion.

Lawrence’s discussion of how science gets done, describing the discovery of gravitational waves, was animated and most absorbing. I’d heard it before—in Vancouver—but it was nice to experience the infectious enthusiasm when he discusses science. At one point he was asked how we can get kids more interested in science. Krauss said that we need to stop thinking of education as “stuffing people’s brains with facts and making them regurgitate them”, and teach critical thinking: the tools we must use to find out what is true about the world. I agree—with some caveats. Critical-thinking courses are hard, especially for young children (I taught one at the University of Maryland), and, after all, we need some facts, especially if you want to learn science. You simply cannot do science without acquiring a background of what is known. Further, the critical-thinking method as applied to science would differ from that applied to something like literature or philosophy, where the problem is clear thinking and not so much the use of empirical evidence. (Still, one can be critical about evidence when analyzing, say, what a work of literature was intended to convey.)

Krauss broached the idea—one that I’ve often emphasized but is not popular with the public—that most of us do science not to help humanity, but to satisfy our own curiosity. And government should fund that curiosity for two reasons. First, there is often a long-term and unpredictable practical payoff of such research (but that’s still a practical benefit). More important, the findings of science resemble in some ways the outcome of the humanities: they change us as people. I’ve often thought of evolutionary biology, which has few practical applications, as resembling the fine arts of biology, with the difference being that evolutionary biology can also tell us what is true about nature. But both pure science and the humanities can fill us with awe and wonder, and change our outlook on the world.

One further question was posed to the group: How can one best get rid of religion? Sam was the first to field that one, saying that he didn’t conceive of his task as destroying religion so much as teaching people how to think clearly and critically about evidence, and with that would come, he hoped, the End of Faith. He asserted unequivocally that religion was a bad thing, though of course we don’t have a balance sheet for that.  For me, as for Sam, it seems pretty obvious, but we can’t “prove” it. As for his own two daughters, Sam said he’d never lied to them about religion, and tells them that different people believe different things and celebrate their faith in different ways. But he added that both of his daughters think it’s weird that anybody would believe in gods. Sam added, “But of course, having been properly socialized, they’re not assholes.”

That same person asked Sam how one could replace the benefits of religion with secular activities. Sam replied that yes, we’ve failed in our task of helping people get the perks of religion without the superstition. I disagree: it’s not our job to do that, and, as we can see in secularized countries like those of Europe, the lacuna that forms when faith disappears is, like a deep well, filled naturally with other things. There was some discussion of how one can find meaning and purpose without faith, and the answer from the stage was that “you have to find your meaning and purpose from within, for there’s no external source of that.” Well, so much is obvious. I would have added that “meaning and purpose” are simply post facto reifications of “what someone likes to do”, and those concepts aren’t particularly useful.

The final remark came from Lawrence, who said that every time he stays in a hotel, his own gesture to diminish faith was to take the Gideon Bible, wrap it in a piece of paper, and throw it in the trash. Sam remarked dryly, “And that’s why atheists have such a good public image.”

And so the audience, heads filled with Deep Thoughts, spilled out onto the snowy Chicago streets. It was a very big audience, and it’s heartening that so many would come to “a celebration of science and reason.”

Photo by Alan Diehl.

96 thoughts on “The Atheist/Science event last night

  1. I would try to find a place to recycle the Bible. When I stay at a hotel I usually inscribe on the cover with a sharp point something like, “Choose science instead” or “Science, not religion”.

  2. I find Sam Harris to be very clear thinking. I listened to his podcast recently that was recorded at an event like this and I found it frustrating that Lawrence Krauss kept insisting that we had a self and it wasn’t an illusion. Sam’s explanations were so straight forward.

    1. Thankfully Krauss is not falling for Harris’s woo. I don’t think he is capable of making those contradictions. Harris is essentially a dualist who believes in ‘Consciousness’ in a way that contradicts what he claims to believe otherwise.

      1. Harris is nowhere near being a dualist. You seem determined to misrepresent him throughout this thread. I think you need to go back and re-read Sam Harris’s books and this time with the aim of understanding his arguments, not with the intention of trying to catch him saying something that you can use to make the erroneous claim that he believes in some sort of pantheism or that he is a dualist without knowing it.

        1. Is there something wrong with being skeptical of Harris? I am VERY familiar with Harris. I understand well that Harris makes contradictory statements. He claims to be an atheist but he’s really a Buddhist. I know he claim not to really be a Buddhist, yet he is demonstrably so none the less. Who else would spend hours or days trying to think of nothing? Again, my point is that he is a contradiction.

          1. Not there is nothing wrong with skepticism as long as it uses evidence and not mere assertions.

            Your points are assertions with no evidence to back them up. “Harris is a Buddist” is a good example – if you’re going to make statements like that, you are going to need to prove them.

  3. Who, what or why are “Pangburn Philosophy”? Some holding company to manage events like this, or a more persistent entity with a more diverse background?

    comfortable (albeit small) seats

    From a relatively svelte CeilingCat, that’s got to strike fear into the average waistline.

  4. I think throwing bibles away is a terrible move. It’s terrible PR for the “atheist movement.” You don’t convince people to abandon religion by throwing bibles away or ridicule sincere believers and telling them how unscientific and stupid their beliefs are.

    You have to try and understand them, tell them you get what’s so appealing about the idea that someone is taking care of them, but then explain how much better the world could be if we all moved away from religion. Sam has done a terrible job of this (by his own admission).

    That said, sounds like a fun evening. I have tickets for Denver next week.

    1. Agreed; it’s a form of censorship. If it’s legal to have Bibles in hotels, then you shouldn’t do that. You shouldn’t do it anyway, as it is preventing people from being exposed to ideas, even ones you oppose. And of course PUBLICIZING that you do that is even worse!

      It’s okay, I think, to write something critical inside, as, after all, they’re free, and you’re always invited to take the Gideon Bible with you when you leave the hotel.

      1. I added a few sentences to hotel bibles years ago when I traveled a lot for work. Something to the effect of the value of evidence. Perhaps there is a place for a public awareness campaign from an organization such as the Freedom From Religion Foundation? They could produce informational stickers that could be added inside the front cover of hotel bibles. A good use of free speech, in my view.

        1. Keith, this is a superb idea!! Maybe a sticker showing contradictions and references to parts that support bigotry and slavery etc, etc. You should send FFRF this suggestion!

            1. Here are some.

              I don’t think “Beware of Dogma” and “Warning, literal belief in this book may endanger your health and life,” would be very effective. “Imagine no Religion” might be better, and I like the Gideon Exposed sticker (does it work, though?).

              Glen Davidson

        2. FFRF already does that, or at least once did, as I have some of those stickers. Although I may travel with survival gear, I frequently forget to take those stickers. Check with FFRF.

        3. I wonder if there is a little pro-science booklet, like the opposite of the old Jack Chick booklets, that one could slip inside the hotel bible.

      2. One could always tell them to look up some genocidal passages, say, Numbers 31: 17-18 and 1 Sam. 15: 1-3.

        It would probably be more for your own pleasure than anything else, though. I doubt Gideon Bibles have much effect either way, especially with all of the electronic media consumed today

        Glen Davidson

      3. If it’s legal to have Bibles in hotels …

        Let’s hope it never becomes illegal to have bibles in hotels — excepting hotels on state-owned property, like national parks.

      4. …and you’re always invited to take the Gideon Bible with you when you leave the hotel.

        Isn’t that what Krauss is doing? There is no censorship because, presumably, the Gideons replace the bibles taken.

      5. Perhaps one could just place a copy of Thomas Paine’s “The Age of Reason” IN the hotel!!

        The same argument applies to actor Ian McKellan who would always take hotel Gideon Bibles and cut out the passages about homosexuality with a pair of scissors and return the Bible to the desk drawer.

        However, I find IM’s move more imaginative and comical even if it ultimately deserves similar opprobrium.

        This spring I staid in a hotel in Northern California which had BOTH the Bible and some Buddhist Scripture in it. (No Tom Paine though.)

    2. Convincing people that the world would be a better place without religion is the hard part. Most people put their personal concerns above concerns about the world. What needs to be done is to convince them that their personal lives would be better without religion, perhaps a mission impossible regarding most people. To reach a world without religion may never come to pass as long as people fear death and religion holds the promise of eternal life. Throughout history there have been times when religion had a more diminished grip on society than others, but the grip was always present. Although some parts of the world are essentially non-religious, we cannot assume that this trend will continue or expand to other parts of the world.

      We must keep in mind that secularism and atheism, although related, are not the same thing. Atheism is the rejection of belief in gods. Secularism connotes the separation of church and state, whereby religious values are not imposed on society at large. It is quite possible for a person to be both a secularist and religious. This is fine with me. I don’t care about the religious beliefs of a person as long as there is no attempt to impose those beliefs on me. Although I don’t think it is likely that we will ever see a predominantly atheist world, a secular world can be attained. I think atheists should be content with the latter.

      1. ” Although some parts of the world are essentially non-religious, we cannot assume that this trend will continue or expand to other parts of the world.”

        I disagree: Just look to the development of christanity in East Germany:

        In 1949, the year of the foundation of GDR, 95 % of the population were religious.

        At 1989, the year of the fall of the wall (Mauerfall) only 30 percent were members of the church.
        This tendency consisted even after the reunion until now: Today there are only 20 % (!) of the whole population religious. This fact makes the eastern part of Germany to the most atheistic part of Europe, some say of the whole world. (West Germany: there are only 25 % atheists, but the number arises too).

        That development proves that to establish faith in a society needs religious growing up from the early childhood.
        And what is with morality in former East of Germany, is there a lack in behaviour and a higher rate in criminal acts then in the western part?
        Not at all.

        1. One could ask why we see this phenomenon in the former East Germany while in Russia, after the fall of the Soviet Union, religion has significantly rebounded. See this Wikipedia article.

          Wikipedia has this interesting paragraph:

          “One experiences similar problems when trying to determine the number of atheists in Russia. As discussed above, the majority of Russians are non-observant, and more than 50% never attend church services of any kind. On the other hand, numbers of those self-identifying as “non-religious” are much lower, and, further, vary wildly from poll to poll (from 14% to 36%).”

          So, in Russia, it appears that most people are religious, in the sense of self-identifying with a religion, yet are secular. Perhaps East Germany is a special case; I don’t know. Again, I don’t particularly care how religious people are. My concern is whether or not they are secular.

          1. Yes , the percentage of atheists is lower, but still much higher compared to most western countries.

            One reason for the different number is that the most christians in East Germany were protestants which are clearly less bond to church then catholic members (in Europe) and the Russian Orthodox church has more in common with Catholic Church then with protestantic church.

            Another reason is, that East Germany was in 1949 a high industrialized country in comparision with Russia that was in this time still a largely underdeveloped agricultural country with a much lower literacy rate.
            One expression of this is also the proportion of 25 per cent of the population adhering to a natural belief (shaman).

            1. Two differences that I can see:

              1) East Germany joined an affluent country – Russia by contrast is comparatively poorer wrt the SU.

              2) In Russia, it seems that the religious movements are also connected to Russian nationalism. In the former East Germany there is substantially less of this, and there the churches aren’t “unique to the country” the way people can play with in the Russian Orthodox case, etc.

              1. ” East Germany joined an affluent country –”
                but this fact did not influence in any way the decline of faith in East Germany.
                Don’t forget the rates for atheism are much much higher in East Germany then in West Germany until today.
                The roots for this continous decrease of belief were set in the decades since the foundation of GDR. This tendency of decline never stopped, not even when the wall fall down and the population got freedom to believe in anything the wanted. You can say the people in East Germany at first were forced to leave the church, but later generations just got used to it and continued to live without any belief. There was installed a culture of atheism by the socialists, and this atheistic culture survived the break down of the system and continued in the reunited Germany.

  5. “[H]is own gesture to diminish faith was to take the Gideon Bible, . . . and throw it in the trash.” How about carrying a list of references to contradictory lines and writing a bracket “but see ___” cross-referencing annotation (in fine line permanent marker)?

    Teaching critical thinking: At UH 1969-70, I took a Science 105 course which taught critical thinking (black box exercise, etc.) with book report type writing assignments to show reading comprehension and writing ability (assigned reading was short biographies of scientists and their discoveries). Any good literature class teaches the same.

  6. I take atheist books in the library, wrap them up, and throw them in the restroom trash.

    Maybe not an exact analogy, but close enough, I think, to indicate how making writings unavailable to people (less available, anyway) is rather objectionable. To be sure, Bible’s in hotels are somewhat intrusive, but to be fair, some do like it, and destroying books because you don’t like them is a bad signal regardless, in my view.

    Glen Davidson

    1. I have multiple copies of the bible including a Skeptics Annotated and the Bible Gateway on my phone. I find them useful. I don’t bother to check for a Gideons if in a hotel room as I don’t frickin’ care.

    1. Not sure free won’t fares any better as such vetoes themselves have neural antecedents beyond conscious awareness.

      But any decision with a range of known alternative choices that has been ruminated for much longer than the artificial timeframe of the Libet clockwatching experiment is going to have more personal responsibility attached. Such decisions involved longer term reflection. The more someone knows and the capacity they have to reflect increases what Dennett sees as degrees of freedom. Such things are still antecedently grounded in neural activity, but differ from spur of the moment reflexive responses.

      That being said thankfully skilled drivers react reflexively based on unconscious procedural memory. Rumination and long bouts of deliberation or paralysis by analysis could be fatal.

  7. Why are critical thinking classes for young children so hard? I assume you wouldn’t actually call them that to the kids, right? Is it just due to the fact that teaching young kids anything is so hard?

    The first day in such a class I’d play some TV commercials and, after each one, ask the kids some pointed questions about what they saw. Once they understood how to think about such things, they would never see a commercial the same way again. Would that be a mild form of child abuse? Would it destroy the market economy by raising a generation of smart consumers? Worth a try.

      1. I guess I was thinking that getting young children to criticize commercials might be good enough. If they get used to criticizing some things in the world, they will figure out that it is all fair game, eventually getting around to me.

        When I was a child (long ago), my default mode of thinking was to accept most everything around me as stuff I had to put up with and adapt to. My task was to make sense of it all and worry about my own status in the world.

        Once I understood that people and things around me were not necessarily optimal, it was somewhat eye opening. The earlier we can get kids to make that realization, the better.

  8. As for teaching science, it is important to understand that many schools, at the elementary level, are in a constant struggle to teach the basics of reading and maths, to meet standards and test scores, and so the first thing to go is science (and civics/social studies). It is not considered important enough to worry about if the week’s lesson has to be dropped due to time considerations. It also doesn’t help that most teachers at the lower grade levels are poorly educated and even more poorly equipped to teach even basic science. Even when something big and exciting, such as the eclipse last year, coincides with the school day and brings with it the perfect opportunity to teach some basic science, most teachers can’t do it correctly and rely on simple coloring pages or a YouTube video. It also doesn’t help when the vast majority of teachers are religious. It’s a multifaceted problem. Apathy, ignorance, teaching to the test, struggles with basic reading and maths, religion…not to mention how often teachers actively block a student’s curiosity out of spite or simple desire to control a student (yes, this happens). The best science lessons I’ve ever seen have been in Montessori schools, where curiosity and real world interactions and applications are valued rather than seen as a threat to the lesson plan. Basically, in my opinion, we’re screwed. 😕

  9. At the risk of beating a dead horse…

    Note how the advice to the alcoholic didn’t depend much on considerations of free will and determinism. The venue demanded that he be told that regardless of his treatment choice, his freedom to make it will be illusory. It’s a matter of substrate independence!

  10. … Lawrence, who said that every time he stays in a hotel, his own gesture to diminish faith was to take the Gideon Bible, wrap it in a piece of paper, and throw it in the trash.

    I dunno; I’ve been stranded in hotel rooms separated from my reading material and, as a compulsive reader, been resultantly relieved to find one of the Gideons’ bequests at hand in the nightstand. A chapter or two from Revelation before nodding out for the night can stimulate vivid dreams.

    Plus, I always jot down a Voltaire quote inside on the frontispiece. That way, the next guy to chance upon it can later quote it and claim “hey, I read it in the bible.”

    1. Been to America a couple of times ,when in the motel i find the bible and turn up the pages that have been turned down .

      And yes i turn to Revelations ,i like the bit that begins here is wisdom and the mark of the beast ,666 .

        1. Damm ,another thing i thought i knewed .

          Well is it true that the our British emergency number 999 was chosen because it is the mirror image of 666.

          PS ,like most English people i live in terror that Stephen Fry ,might be wrong about something.

          1. I read that 999 was chosen as the easiest number to find and dial in the dark on a rotary dial phone. 000 would be easier but was technically impossible to implement.

      1. I bet Ken writes “Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities”, although I doubt the Gideons have provoked anyone to commit an atrocity any worse than trying to hand out bibles on a public school ground.

    2. I tend to use them as a soporific if I’m finding it hard to sleep in the unfamiliar environment of a hotel room. Revelations is a bit racy for that purpose. Better to concentrate on the genealogical bits…how may ‘begats’ can you read before nodding off!?

  11. On the subject of Bibles in – I guess – US hotels

    I offer an idea

    Bring a bag full of other books, pocket sized, of :

    Ron Hubbard
    Book Of Mormon
    Folk tales
    Greek/Roman god tales
    You get the idea.

    Defacing property, destroying property, theft – don’t.

      1. … didn’t like how it told everyone what to do.

        And I’m very obviously distracted, with this self-referential thread that reads like a Burma Shave ad

    1. I suspect any other books left in a motel room would be removed as unauthorized. Perhaps management would try to get in touch with the occupant who left them there, assuming they were unintentionally left behind, but I’m pretty sure they wouldn’t allow the books to stay in the rooms.

      1. Hmmmm

        You know, in this day and age, it very well could be, that vandalism/defacing property, theft, are the lesser of evils, compared to leaving objects unattended in any public location – or whatever hotels are considered to be!

  12. Nevertheless, one guy asked the speakers how, given the absence of free will, they could advise him how to cure his addiction to alcohol.

    Well first, you do have free will in the sense that you are free to choose this rather than that, a movie instead of a bottle, whatever. It’s true that ultimately you’re “determined” (if with some QM chance that you don’t control) to pick one over the other, but you’re certainly not fated to take the bottle.

    Still, isn’t the lack of libertarian free will an important factor in this case? You have to realize that what you do is not merely a matter of choice, you often do need intervention. The addict far too much is determined by reward pathways to make bad choices, and such a person is going to need friends and maybe organized intervention in order to change the deterministic brain pathways.

    You do make choices, but you do have to realize that your will is determined and can’t be changed by a mere act of “free will.” You need to find ways that can change how you make choices.

    Glen Davison

  13. I also don’t like the idea of destroying books, even religious ones. I do like the idea of adding quotes (from Voltaire, or others). Another possibility would be to include a separate list of accessible secular or atheist works. Good, engaging writers.

  14. Is anyone else having problems posting on WP sites? This one and another (Pigeon Chess) are doing weird things.

  15. Thanks very much for the description, Jerry.
    I’m curious about the identities of the people in your dinner picture (as there is no description).

    Is that Sam’s wife? And…the other young fellow? Or do they not want to be identified? (I’m just wondering who ends up being lucky enough to join those dinners).

    1. In a comment above Jerry mentions that the unidentified man is the Pangborn of “Pangborn Philosophy” (see marquee).

      I suppose we could Google him… 😉

  16. Re free will, I just ran across this quote from Edward St. Aubyn’r recent novel _At Last_: “Perhaps only a kind of bastard freedom was available: in the acceptance of the inevitable unfolding of cause and effect there was at least a freedom from delusion.”

    Also, on a side note, If I’m not mistaken, The Chicago Theater is where Moe Howard discovered Larry Fine and thus were the Three Stooges born.

  17. I would like to take issue with the assertion that evolutionary biology has few practical applications. For example, I believe that quite a few relatively recent Nobel prizes in medicine were based on research that one way or the other is based on the premise that all life has evolved, and therefore, for example, you do experiments on genes in simpler organisms to learn about human disease. (I once looked into this in a bit of detail, but don’t have time today to go back and retrace my steps.)

    I’m not sure if any practical applications have come out of the mechanisms of speciation, for example, but such work is nevertheless part of the foundation of biology that encourages researchers to use evolutionary connections to advance medical science.

    1. Wait what? Antibiotic resistance shows that mindless bacteria can di battle with human brains and though selection plays a role, lateral gene transfer (akin to gene flow via migration) allows different groups of bacteria to compare notes and share “knowledge”.

  18. Jerry wrote: “If, for instance, you tell someone that they can choose to put themselves in a milieu where there is no alcohol and also surround themselves with supportive people (yes, that’s how it could be done), you risk making people think that you can make such a choice freely, instantiating dualism. “

    And that is exactly the knot hard determinists tie themselve into – unnecessarily – as compatibilists keep pointing out.

    So long as you portray freedom or choices as an “illusion” and tie it to spooky dualism, you have argued yourself into an untenable position. You just aren’t going to make sense of prescribing actions. You have no recourse to prescribing actions except by use of the terms we already have (“choosing between alternatives”) or…by trying to find substitute terms that ultimately have to mean the same thing anyway (“possible alternative actions”).

    The fact that you find you have no recourse to giving people reasons to behave “differently” without the language of “choosing between possible actions” and the fact this language is routinely used as a successful way we navigate reality…should suggest one is wrong to think it’s only illusion.

    The better explanation is that choosing doesn’t have to, nor does it normally, rely on falsehoods. There are, of necessity, counterfactuals and abstractions that capture TRUTHS built into our way of deliberating and speaking of our deliberations. Otherwise…it wouldn’t work.

    This is why I can’t buy the idea that accepting the hard determinist/incompatibilist case has salutary results for dealing with human behavior (e.g. criminality, drug addiction, one’s own failures, etc). It essentially shoots itself in the foot on pains of a type of incoherence easily spotted by the average person. In other words, it will often be rejected by the average person not because (or simply because) of some clinging to dualism, but because they immediately spot an inconsistency. We are good at spotting this in other people’s claims, even if not our own.

    Far better, it seems to me, to have a naturalistic understanding of why we use words like “choose” and “freedom” so that we can use those words coherently to recommend alternative actions to someone, instead of thinking we are stuck with dualism or nothing.

    I suppose a good answer is that one’s brain is a computer that weighs various inputs before giving the output (a decision), and that the advice Sam gave—which could of course influence the actions of the addict—was also adaptive, in the sense that he was giving strategies that his brain calculated had a higher probability of being useful.

    As I’ve suggested before, that answer elides over the crux of the matter. We are asking “what REASONS can you give someone to change his behavior” not “what MIGHT or COULD change someone’s behavior.”

    There is all the difference in the world between those two questions.

    Young earth creationists arguments influence some people to believe those claims. That doesn’t mean people have been given good reasons to believe the claims.

    People can make flat earth videos that influence the brains of some people to believe in a flat earth. But that doesn’t mean they have been given good reasons to believe in a flat earth.

    So merely pointing to the “input of my argument may produce an output in your brain” doesn’t answer the question. The question is, GIVEN the propositions promulgated by the hard determinist – e.g. freedom/choice is an illusion and “you could not do otherwise,” – from THAT CONTEXT can you give coherent reasons to someone for why they….could!?…should!?…change their behavior? In other words, a reason TO DO something otherwise, rather than a post hoc “is” statement about “why you DID it.”

    In giving reasons to people, we can’t motivate any new behavior, either psychologically or logically, without it appealing to some value/desire/goal.

    Contained in your sentence above is an implicit value/goal: that one wants to do that which has a higher probability of being useful. So we can say “IF you have the desire for a useful X in your life, then THIS action will have high probability in achieving that useful X” (e.g. if you want to achieve stability in your life, avoiding being in situations that trigger your alcoholism is more likely to achieve that goal).

    So right there we are dealing with counterfactuals “If” implying “could be otherwise.”

    Or you can put it in an “is” statement: “doing X will be such as to most likely fulfill the desire in question.”

    But we still have to get to an actual motivating, coherent REASON to do X.
    And that must appeal to the notion of “possibility” or “can.”

    If the army is worried about the number of soldiers who may be killed or wounded in a raid, one could say point out “making your soldiers invisible will be likely to meet your goal of vastly reduced casualties.”

    But how could this make any sense at all unless such a thing is *possible* – unless a general “can” make his army invisible? Without that actual possibility, a mere statement of fact – “if true” – can not constitute a reason to do something.

    The same goes for when we are giving reasons to others, or to ourselves, when deliberating on a choice. Giving the information to an alcoholic about what action *would* tend to fulfill a goal to overcome addiction is inert
    unless we, and the alcoholic, understand that he CAN take such an action. So insofar as we want to motivate a change in behavior, it entails he COULD do otherwise than he is doing now.

    So you just can’t escape the necessity of “could do otherwise” and “choosing between possible actions” when giving actual reasons for people to choose different behaviors.

    When you pull the rug out of this by denying the reality of “having choice between alternative possibilities” you undermine the foundation of our giving reasons to do different things.

    Again, this inconsistency is easily spotted by people (and remains there when investigated more deeply), which is why incompatibilism/hard determinism seems more a viability than a coherent way forward.

    Though I’m always willing to change my mind should I encounter a coherent incompatibilist position.

    1. Good Post Vaal.
      I think Harris’s problem is that he never really let go of dualism. Because he believes in (big C)’Consciousness’, he really can’t conceive of a position where true choices regarding future behavior can be made unconsciously, in a manner compatible with determinism.
      He’s always been a strange contradiction of someone who simultaneously denies and embraces dualism. He’s a neuroscientist who also believes in “the hard problem of consciousness” and spends hours in intense efforts trying not to think in order to “wake up”. From a skeptical view, all this meditation and trips to India, drug experiences etc. are just more woo and religion.

  19. You didn’t say anything about Matt’s contribution. He doesn’t have a Ph.D. — he’s just a former believer who became an activist. On The Atheist Experience, believers will call specifically to debate him, thinking they have a “gotcha” question. Did any of that sort show up in the question and answer segment?

    1. Matt didn’t talk nearly as much as the others but he did contribute to the discussion about how to teach critical thinking and about his own religious deconversion. He also kept the discussion going when it flagged and gave strict instructions to the questioners.

      1. He has said some pointed things about alcoholism & A.A. so I expected him to weigh in on that one. I haven’t heard much about free will from him, so if that was the only angle, I can imagine he’d keep quiet.

        1. At the previous Sam, Lawrence, Matt event, they spent a lot of time on free will. Matt is a compatiblist and thought he had a good argument against Sam. It was not a good argument. But if you want to hear them talk about free will, listen to the question and answer part of their previous discussion. Sam released the audio as a podcast.

  20. Well, I got interested in math, science, and religion all the same way…books with gorgeous illustrations!!!

    At an early age, I was given Irving Singer’s “The Golden Book of Mathematics” which has fabulous drawings of Fibonacci spirals, planets in elliptical orbits, you name it.

    The pop science books of Isaac Asimov are marvelously illustrated. But some editions of Martin Gardner’s books on relativity are also beautifully so, as are some editions of George Gamow’s books on relativity and quantum physics. (In recent years, Dawkins’ “Magic of Reality” and some editions of Stephen Hawking’s “Brief History of Time” have also had terrific pictures.)

    I have come to dislike evangelical Christianity due to the content of its preaching, but at a young age I was given a New Testament NOT with the insipid pictures in many Sunday school editions, but instead with the best works of Da Vinci, Bellini, and others.

    Here is an illustration from one edition of Martin Gardner’s book on relativity

  21. I hope I am not violating Da Roolz by telling Jerry what to post (OK, I am skirting the edge), but an omission of any video of Matt Dillahunty’s magic trick strikes me as a ever so slightly lamentable omission.

    I thus post this.

  22. I usually dog-ear the Gideon bible at Judges 19. (A rather nasty tale, though now that I think of it, I hope it doesn’t inspire anyone.)

  23. That same person asked Sam how one could replace the benefits of religion with secular activities. Sam replied that yes, we’ve failed in our task of helping people get the perks of religion without the superstition. I disagree: it’s not our job to do that, and, as we can see in secularized countries like those of Europe, the lacuna that forms when faith disappears is, like a deep well, filled naturally with other things.

    Having seen the “american atheist movement” for a few years now, I am much more pessimistic. In Europe, there are sports clubs, pottery classes and such things that help people socialize. One can participate in multiple such activities. In the USA, people seem to gather around churches, and they appear to play a much more central role.

    When someone no longer believe, they also lose that social support. The natural inclination of an American atheist is then to find a Church of Atheism. The spiritual organisation provides these gatherings, and the belief system provides a framework about how to think, find meaning and know good from bad.

    At once, American atheists have the bad reputation, because they might have a low agreeableness or less-social tendency, on average, because these traits help someone to break free from the churches, and are thus more common among those who made it out. By the way, US churches are in no way comparable to European churches, not even catholicism in Rome. US churches are more a “sect”, for they invade every aspect of life and try to become a totalitarian influence, from beliefs about the world, how to conduct ones’s love life, to what kind of music one can hear (e.g. Christian Rock).

    I think there are strong differences between American and European atheists for these reasons, and it is too easy to point at North Europe to show how it could be. I see with concern how US partisan politics more and more resembles religious affiliation, and am for these reasons not convinced that religious thinking disappears with religious beliefs. The Republicans have their God, Guns and the Nation to worship (and rich people who are virtuous). The Democrat side now has that nameless “intersectional” Woke Religion that is gaining influence and taking over the columns.

  24. A wonderful sounding event.

    As for teaching what is known – I couldn’t agree more. Background knowledge is often tacit and so is very difficult to build up. Yet it is also why scientists are often accused of being dogmatic (wrongly) since they do seem to dismiss things before investigating them. Of course, it is instead that the background knowledge rules things out.

    I am looking for ways to discuss this all in detail for non-experts (and I am certainly one myself).

  25. Lawrence should replace the Bible with the Skeptic’s Annotated Bible. Problem is they are not cheap. An idea I have is to just leave a copy of the latest Freethought paper of the Freedom from Religion Foundation in the drawer covering the Bible.

    Looking forward to Sam’s appearance here in Portland, OR later this month.

  26. I enjoy hearing Sam Harris in conversation or debate UNTIL he gets on the subject of meditation and spirituality for atheists. Then he becomes as prescriptive and opinionated as any religious evangelist. I think Sam is one of the many atheists that can’t quite let go of his prior religious life and beliefs, but tries to shoehorn and rationalise them into some atheistic personal mindset. I suppose his with the heavy investment of his time to Buddhism – the years of study – the pilgrimages, the intense meditative exercise – well, it must be hard not to stay partly within that original thrall. Fine, but trying to tell other atheists that their own spirituality (“Einsteinian spirituality’ he calls it) is somehow inferior is totally off base. It is not something that atheists should ever be lectured on – it’s just another false religion wrapped up in Sam’s personal passions.

  27. When discussing scientific theories like evolution, it has been stated that, being scientific, evolution is disprovable given the proper evidence – for example, digging out a fossil of a Triassic carnivore with a human in its gut would throw a wrench in the works for sure. That we don’t have such evidence doesn’t mean that evolution can’t be falsified in the face of new evidence, hence why evolution is scientific in nature.

    Out of curiosity, what is an analogous scenario in which determinism could be falsified? What evidence would throw a wrench in the belief that there is no free will?

    1. Change in what is known about the laws that “apply” at the human scale and either (a) violations of conservation laws that are somehow findable [hard – contracausal freewill] or (b) allowing for one to be responsible for one was not do to you but merely through you (this is a choice, in a way).

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