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New atheist neuroscientist Sam Harris trashes genome mapper Francis Collins again already

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Having given the first word to Richard Dawkins this morning (Why is Richard Dawkins a “passionate anti-Darwinian when it comes to politics”) and the second to Catholic David Warren on the smallness of the large (In the numbers we’ve been able to compile, our position is rather spookily at the intersection of all roads. Is this an argument for fine-tuning?), we now turn over the mike to another new atheist honcho, Sam Harris.

He recently attacked NIH genome mapper Francis Collins for being a Christian, and seems to be taking dead aim at his job:

“I think we should be even more critical, in some sense, of people like Francis Collins, the so-called nuanced religious person.”

Harris also argued that while Collins is “obviously a very smart guy who has made real contributions to science,” his religious convictions are a point of intellectual concern.

“[Collins], I think, is sensitive to how unseemly it is for the head of the NIH to talk about these things. So when you ask him for details, he says, ‘Well, this is all very complicated and you should consult the work of John Polkinghorne and N.T. Wright,'” Harris asserted.

“And when you consult their work, you get just pure madness. It is just a word salad, which is foisted on scientifically illiterate people by scientifically literate people for reasons that are patently emotional.”

This is not the first time that Harris has been critical of Collins. Back in 2009, Collins had a column published in The New York Times expressing concern over President Barack Obama’s appointment of Collins as head of the NIH.

🙂 Then, in response, Collins turned around and eviscerated Harris for being an atheist and implied he shouldn’t have whatever job he is currently doing. No, no, wait, lemme check my notes here. That didn’t happen… funny thing… you know, it almost seems as if the rise of new atheism would be a sort of sunset for civil liberties… 

And to think new atheists wonder why they are least liked! Is it just barely possible that it’s not about being an atheist after all but about, um, behaviour issues… (here, here, and here, just for example)?

Actually, last we heard from Harris, he was looking for examples of political correctness run amok.

Good idea, Sam. Keep looking. Just watch you don’t get drowned in the flood tide though. (Surprised, we are here, that you even have any time left to trash Collins.)

Note: We aren’t necessarily big fans of Francis Collins, but that is hardly the point.

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27 Replies to “New atheist neuroscientist Sam Harris trashes genome mapper Francis Collins again already

  1. 1
    Dionisio says:

    This is not the first time that Harris has been critical of Collins. Back in 2009, Collins had a column published in The New York Times expressing concern over President Barack Obama’s appointment of Collins as head of the NIH.

    Collins had a column published in…”?

  2. 2
    Dionisio says:

    And to think new atheists wonder why they are least liked! Is it just barely possible that it’s not about being an atheist after all but about, um, behaviour issues… (here, here, and here, just for example)?

    Bingo! that must be it!

    My wife and I have friends in Canada who are atheists and know we are Christians, but we get along very well, they have recently visited us, staying in our home, and have invited us to visit them in their city in the spring. But we respect each other, even when we discuss the fundamental things that divide us. They know they are loved. I must love everyone, because God loves me despite the fact that I’m very unlovable in my sinful nature. But most importantly, I know God loves them, because I know God loves me and they’re better than I am. The same applies to all readers of this post. You may choose to deny this, but that doesn’t change its veracity.
    We have irreconcilable worldview positions, but still it will help trying hard to be considerate and respectful.
    Perhaps sometimes I have written comments that seem disrespectful to others, hence I apologize for that and ask forgiveness for making such mistakes. If anyone gets offended by something I write, please let me know it right away. However, if the offending text is not originally mine, but a reference to a biblical passage, then go ahead and confront the author of the scriptures directly and bring all your complaints up to Him. If what offends you is my reference to God, then argue with God, not with me.

  3. 3
    Dionisio says:

    Also, regarding the text quoted in post #1, should it be part of the quoted text in the OP? Whose text is it?

  4. 4
    jstanley01 says:

    Dawkins is already on record, that the state should take children away from parents who want to teach them religion. So we already know these people are jackboots.

  5. 5
    Mung says:

    At least the theist has a reason for reason. What does the atheist have?

    I’ll tell you what they have. They have a theistic reason for reason. But that’s something they are not supposed to have.

    So the first thing the atheist has to do is lie to himself about the basis for his reasoning. and it’s all downhill from there I’m afraid.

  6. 6
    keith s says:

    Mung,

    I’m curious to see if you can actually defend your position in a discussion.

    As a theist, what is your “reason for reason”?

  7. 7
    Mung says:

    keiths, given that you are an atheist, why should I bother answering you or actually defend my position in a discussion with you?

  8. 8
    keith s says:

    Poor Mung.

    Ask him why he believes what he believes, and he panics.

  9. 9
    rvb8 says:

    Oh god the morality canard. The last thing I stole I remember very clearly, it was a Penthouse magazine and I was 13; stolen for the obvious reasons, heh!

    Despite realising what I did was wrong, and despite the efforts of the Brothers and Sisters at Holy Cross High School, and a firm Catholic upbringing, still I stole.

    It wasn’t until University and reading Spinoza, Hume, Hobbes, Locke and especially J S Mill, that I came to clearly understand that morality is a human construct. It is only as strong as we allow it to be and god or gods are not helpful at all.

  10. 10
    Mung says:

    Reasonsing with an atheist is pointless. It’s like arguing morality with an atheist.

    But all day long they will argue that you ought to give reasons for what you say.

  11. 11
    keith s says:

    A typical Mung performance: asking others a question that he’s afraid to answer himself.

  12. 12
    Mung says:

    A typical keiths performance. Denies any absolute morality but whines when others fail to act as he thinks they ought to act.

  13. 13
    rvb8 says:

    In his book ‘War What Is It Good For: The Role Of Conflict In Civilisation, From Primates To Robots’, the noted Historian,Classicist, and Fellow of Archeology, Ian Morris argues with little counter argument, that today in western democracies, and advanced Asian countries, we have never been safer. We live longer and are protected by more man made laws than in the past.

    An arbitrary death was the norm in 9th century Europe, or 6th century China. As we as a species evolved away from the morality of viscious sectarian gods towards the morality of humanism, we simply lived longer, in more peaceful surroundings. To get to this standard terrible mass murders, conflicts, and world wars were fought; his simple argument, war had a civilising effect. And no gods required, although most of the death did invoke deities.

  14. 14
    KRock says:

    @rvb8

    “In his book ‘War What Is It Good For: The Role Of Conflict In Civilisation, From Primates To Robots’, the noted Historian,Classicist, and Fellow of Archeology, Ian Morris argues with little counter argument, that today in western democracies, and advanced Asian countries, we have never been safer. We live longer and are protected by more man made laws than in the past.

    An arbitrary death was the norm in 9th century Europe, or 6th century China. As we as a species evolved away from the morality of viscious sectarian gods towards the morality of humanism, we simply lived longer, in more peaceful surroundings. To get to this standard terrible mass murders, conflicts, and world wars were fought; his simple argument, war had a civilising effect. And no gods required, although most of the death did invoke deities.”

    Protected by manmade laws, or the risk of total annihilation from all our weapons of mass destruction? What is an arbitrary death? If by arbitrary, you mean a death without reason, I have some absolutely shocking news for you, it is still the norm today, both in war, and outside of it. I’m sorry, exactly how are you grounding this objective human moral standard of yours? And says who?

    Yet, here we are, just exiting the bloodiest century ever witnessed in human history, much of it coming from the hands of irreligious dictators and centuries after the establishment of any western democracy. We are safe and sound here in North America and many European countries not because of man made laws, but because we can be assured of our mutual destruction.

  15. 15
    Zachriel says:

    KRock: Yet, here we are, just exiting the bloodiest century ever witnessed in human history

    There is tentative evidence that rates of warfare death per capita have been declining. While rates vary considerably, analysis of grave sites and other sources indicates that rates of violent death were over 15% in prehistoric times, the Mongol period saw war deaths at about 10%, while during the twentieth century, the rate was around 3%. (Bowles 2009, Keeley 1996, McCall and Shields 2008, Walker 2001, Gat 2006, Thorpe 2003)

    The reason why we consider it so high is because many people had hoped that society had evolved beyond such levels of violence.


    Man is a savage beast. — Sigmund Freud

  16. 16
    KRock says:

    @ Zachriel

    I highly doubt that this tentative evidence is a very accurate representation of the prehistoric period. For one, we’re not finding mass graves from the prehistoric period that conclusively point to this. As a matter of fact, we’re not finding mass graves at all, or it least not that I am aware of. A few graves containing some victims yes, but not mass graves. I think it would be problematic to conclude that the various victims who have been uncovered, showing a form of violent death from this period, would indicate that death per capita was at an all time high in the prehistoric time period. That being said, I am not a qualified archaeologist just yet. What we do have evidence for, is some very systematic and sinister attempts at exterminating various ethnic groups throughout the 20th century and coming at the hands of irreligious dictators. These systematic and sinister exterminations were also on a scale that far exceeds anything we know of in human history.

    Friedrich Nietzsche was right; the death of God in the 19th century would lead to the bloodiest century ever witnessed by humanity. He was spot on, and those who deny this, are willfully choosing to ignore the evidence that supports this.

    Unfortunately, humanity hasn’t risen above violence; “for the heart of man, is desperately wicked.” – Jesus Christ.

  17. 17
    Zachriel says:

    KRock: I think it would be problematic to conclude that the various victims who have been uncovered, showing a form of violent death from this period, would indicate that death per capita was at an all time high in the prehistoric time period.

    Why do you think the numbers would be skewed? Do you think only war victims were buried?

    KRock: What we do have evidence for, is some very systematic and sinister attempts at exterminating various ethnic groups throughout the 20th century and coming at the hands of irreligious dictators.

    The Mongols killed as many in numbers when the population was much lower. Ancient texts are full of accounts of genocide.

    KRock: He was spot on, and those who deny this, are willfully choosing to ignore the evidence that supports this.

    We provided some evidence that that per capita rate is lower today than in previous times. You haven’t provided evidence to contradict that claim. However, that doesn’t mean the downward trend has to continue.

  18. 18
    KRock says:

    @Zachriel

    “Why do you think the numbers would be skewed? Do you think only war victims were buried?”

    First off, the numbers can’t be skewed, because there really isn’t any concerning the prehistoric era. That is unless you believe that the Neolithic (prehistoric period) pertains to the Mongolian empire of the 11th and 12th century. I believe you are confusing your historic time periods. The Prehistoric era, or the Neolithic period for that matter, was long before the concept of writing was even invented, its pre history. Although, I would argue that some form of writing existed well before our current and commonly held belief, but that is another topic. No, no I don’t think that only war victims were buried. Do you think that a violent death only comes by way of war or murder? I’ve been to enough car accidents and suicides to know a violent death is not restricted to murder or war alone. But if you are limiting violent deaths to war and murder alone in our disscussion, that’s fine. To me, a violent death is a violent death, whether by accident or compulsion. I’m still waiting for someone to tell me what constitutes an arbitrary death, which if based on the noition that it is without reason or system, you can throw war out of your equation.

    Further more, we have man made laws in place that protect us from crime, unlike the Mongolian time period you are referring to. So is it fare to say we are living in less violent times today? One can only wonder that if these ancient cultures were afforded the same man made governing laws we are so blessed with today, what history would have to say today about our past.

    “The Mongols killed as many in numbers when the population was much lower. Ancient texts are full of accounts of genocide.”

    Right, and the Mongolian Empire took place long after the prehistoric time period you stated. You obviously have a very different take on what constitutes the prehistoric time period than I do. So, what is your point? Many would argue that the US in their recent wars, have committed genocide, or Israel for that matter (note, I do not hold this particular view, I mention it because you will find that many do). Yes, there was genocide in ancient times, just as there was less than a hundred years ago. So logically speaking, morality hasn’t really made much headway, has it? That is of course, this is your point; that we have morally evolved into less violent human beings overtime, creating morally superior human beings. Because, as I am sure you are aware, being a morally upright person is not limited to the lack of violence you display as a human being, it would also include a lack of theft, adultery, and so on.

    Even if I grant you an increase of violent behavior in our past, that would not suggest we have morally evolved at all, because as I have said, moral soundness is not restricted to human violence. As I stated in my previous post, our sudden concern for our safety in the West could merely be do the fact that our survival depends on it. The copious amounts of weapons of mass destruction we civilized countries possess, have simply forced us into a more comfortable morally upright position. In other words, we don’t have a choice, because a gun won’t matter. That being said, I believe there is still plenty of violence to go around in our contemporary society, and likley far more than in the past. One just needs to watch their local news. Gangs, murder for hire, rape, etc, etc… all violent and quite prevalent in the Western societies.

    “We provided some evidence that that per capita rate is lower today than in previous times. You haven’t provided evidence to contradict that claim. However, that doesn’t mean the downward trend has to continue.”

    Who is we? All you have said is that some people have theorized that we may have been more violent in the past than today, and that the rates in this particualr analysis differ considerably. What is there to refute? I only need to say that it is quite problematic to come to the conclusion that we are somehow, less violent today than in our past, thus, morally evolved, based on some grave sites that indicate violent deaths among its vivtims and some other sourses that you don’t mention. I don’t need to refute these claims, I only need to offer a rebuttal. That is to say, you really haven’t provided any clear cut evidence that suggests one way or another.

    Honestly though, I am not even sure what your point is. If morals are subjective, as a naturalistic worldview suggests, what remains of your claims? All you’ve managed to do is run for moral high ground, while pointing your finger towards the past and making what appears to be, an objective moral judgement on it. Can you see the contradiction in your own worldview here?

  19. 19
    Zachriel says:

    KRock: First off, the numbers can’t be skewed, because there really isn’t any concerning the prehistoric era.

    There are many prehistoric burial sites.

    KRock: Further more, we have man made laws in place that protect us from crime

    That’s rather the point. There seems to be fewer violent deaths today per capita. That doesn’t mean there isn’t a lot of violence.

    KRock: Right, and the Mongolian Empire took place long after the prehistoric time period you stated. You obviously have a very different take on what constitutes the prehistoric time period than I do.

    The Mongols were during the historic period.

    KRock: So, what is your point?

    That rates of violent death seem to have have dropped over time; about 15% in prehistoric times, the Mongol period saw war deaths at about 10%, while during the twentieth century, the rate was around 3%. These are tentative numbers, but do help provide perspective.

    KRock: So logically speaking, morality hasn’t really made much headway, has it? That is of course, this is your point; that we have morally evolved into less violent human beings overtime, creating morally superior human beings.

    No. As Freud pointed out, civilization is a veneer.

    KRock: All you have said is that some people have theorized that we may have been more violent in the past than today, and that the rates in this particualr analysis differ considerably.

    It wasn’t theorizing, but data.

  20. 20
    KRock says:

    @Zachriel

    “There are many prehistoric burial sites.”

    The Prehistoric era? Really? You do realize that the prehistoric period pertains to an era well before Ancient Mesopotamia, that is before the Bronze Age. I am not aware of copious amounts of gravesites from this particular period. That is, enough of them to properly deduce that violent deaths were the norm in that time period.

    “That’s rather the point. There seems to be fewer violent deaths today per capita. That doesn’t mean there isn’t a lot of violence.”

    Right, and my point is that in many respects, these same “man made laws” were not a privilege afforded to our ancient cultures. Do you honestly believe that if we were to remove these man made laws in our Westernized societies today, that we’d somehow shy away from using violent behavior? Could you imagine losing our security that upholds these laws? They called it the “Wild West” for a reason. My entire point is that morality hasn’t evolved like it seems to be being suggested; rather it’s what I would call, protected. Furthermore, from a collective standpoint, if there is such a thing, we risk a lot to lose if we were to start wars with other technologically advanced societies of our contemporary timeframe, such as China or Russia. Its called “mutually assured destruction.” I’m not saying an objective moral framework would not exist outside of our man made laws, but rather man’s heart tends to lean toward what is wicked and not what is righteous.

    As far as your data is concerned, you said it yourself, its tentative, meaning, its inconclusive or uncertain. So I wouldn’t put to much stock into it.

    “The Mongols were during the historic period.”

    You used the term “prehistoric era,” not the postclassical era, which is what the Mongolian Empire would have fallen under.

    “That rates of violent death seem to have dropped over time; about 15% in prehistoric times, the Mongol period saw war deaths at about 10%, while during the twentieth century, the rate was around 3%. These are tentative numbers, but do help provide perspective.”

    Okay, for the fourth time, there is no way you can possibly deduce this high a percentage for the prehistoric era; there just hasn’t been enough unearthed burial sites with well preserved human remains to draw such a conclusion. You also keep referring to the Mongolian Empire, an empire that had a reputation for its brutality and desire of conquest through war. I could argue the same for Nazi Germany, and that was a little over half a century ago.

    “No. As Freud pointed out, civilization is a veneer.”

    I rest my case!

    “It wasn’t theorizing, but data.”

    Right, I meant theorizing on some very tentative data.

  21. 21
    Zachriel says:

    KRock: The Prehistoric era?

    You have Nubia site 117 from 12000 BCE, 30 sites in British Columbia from 3500 BCE to 1500 BCE, the Vedbaek site in Denmark from about 4100 BCE, to name a few.

    KRock: Do you honestly believe that if we were to remove these man made laws in our Westernized societies today, that we’d somehow shy away from using violent behavior?

    Not at all.

    KRock: You used the term “prehistoric era,” not the postclassical era, which is what the Mongolian Empire would have fallen under.

    Gee whiz. This is what we said:

    Z: There is tentative evidence that rates of warfare death per capita have been declining. While rates vary considerably, analysis of grave sites and other sources indicates that rates of violent death were over 15% in prehistoric times, the Mongol period saw war deaths at about 10%, while during the twentieth century, the rate was around 3%. (Bowles 2009, Keeley 1996, McCall and Shields 2008, Walker 2001, Gat 2006, Thorpe 2003)

    KRock: Okay, for the fourth time, there is no way you can possibly deduce this high a percentage for the prehistoric era; there just hasn’t been enough unearthed burial sites with well preserved human remains to draw such a conclusion.

    Hundreds of burial sites have been uncovered. You might argue they are not representative, as we suggested above. Perhaps violent deaths are more likely to be preserved.

    KRock: You also keep referring to the Mongolian Empire, an empire that had a reputation for its brutality and desire of conquest through war. I could argue the same for Nazi Germany, and that was a little over half a century ago.

    We included the Mongolians *and* the 20th century (which included the Nazis and the Communists). We’d be happy to consider other data.

  22. 22
    KRock says:

    @ Zachriel

    You presented one burial site for the prehistoric era. That being said, I realize there is more than one that has been discovered. Unfortunately they lack in the sufficient numbers required for that particular era, to even remotely come close in providing any accurate data.

    The data you presented is tentative; you said it yourself. It is inconclusive. So how can you say its evidence for a decline in the rates of deaths per-capita during warfare? It is utter speculation, which is exactly why I think it is problematic to draw any conclusions. But hey, maybe there has been a decline in rates of violent deaths during war; I’m just not sold on it. This topic may make for a good thesis for me down the road. I might even argue that Christianity had not made the in roads into certain cultures you had mentioned, such as the Mongols, that it had in other cultures from the same time period.

    At the end of the day, the fact we do have man made laws and weapons of mass destruction may very well shield us from witnessing high levels of violent deaths in our contemporary society. But that says nothing as to whether we’ve evolved morally, nothing. Rather a solid argument can be made that the positive increase in our Western moral values can be traced to the influence of Christianity and Judaism on cultures.

  23. 23
    Zachriel says:

    KRock: So how can you say its evidence for a decline in the rates of deaths per-capita during warfare?

    We provided three references to prehistory, including a number of sites. The historical period starts at different times in different parts of the world.

    KRock: It is utter speculation, which is exactly why I think it is problematic to draw any conclusions.

    It’s not “utter speculation,” as it is supported by tentative data.

  24. 24
    KRock says:

    @Zachriel

    “We provided three references to prehistory, including a number of sites. The historical period starts at different times in different parts of the world.”

    The evidence is tentative. In other words, the data hasn’t been worked out or even agreed apon; it lacks certainty, making it circumstantial in my opinion.

    “It’s not “utter speculation,” as it is supported by tentative data”

    See comment above…

  25. 25
    Zachriel says:

    KRock: In other words, the data hasn’t been worked out or even agreed apon; it lacks certainty, making it circumstantial in my opinion.

    Then it wouldn’t be “utter speculation”, albeit tentative. We’d be happy to look at contrary evidence, but you haven’t provided any.

  26. 26
    KRock says:

    @Zachriel

    “Speculate – to believe especially on uncertain or tentative grounds;”

    Seems pretty “clear cut” to me, but you know how it is, words in the English language tend to have many definitions.

    I also did a little reading up on one of the sources you cited, Keeley, who makes the claim that prehistory tribal warfare contributed to more deaths during combat than modern day warfare has. It would seem most of his data is based on deaths during combat, but close quarters combat will always yield higher death rates, especially when glory is found in death. furthermore, Keeley seems to neglect any mention of the advancement and role that both medical care and medicine now play in modern day warfare, which undoubtedly saves lives, many, many lives. This alone could play a major role in what is, inconclusive data supporting a higher mortality rate during prehistory wars than modern warfare.

    Suggesting that modern day societies are not more war prone or violent than previous cultures because we lack a higher number of deaths during battle, borders on the ludicrous.

  27. 27
    Zachriel says:

    KRock: “Speculate – to believe especially on uncertain or tentative grounds;”

    Your term was “utter speculation”.

    KRock: Keeley seems to neglect any mention of the advancement and role that both medical care and medicine now play in modern day warfare, which undoubtedly saves lives, many, many lives.

    At least now you are attempting a valid argument. Yes, the data is tentative. Humans have a long and violent history. They are still violent.

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