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Sam Harris on defamation

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Remember PZ Myers and Sam Harris facing off at Twitter? (Question: Will these explosions in the Twitterverse and on blogs impact the intellectual status of Darwinian evolution?)

Here he is on a recent defamation campaign against him:

Aslan and Greenwald know that nowhere in my work do I suggest that we kill harmless people for thought crimes. And yet they (along with several of their colleagues) are doing their best to spread this lie about me. Nearly every other comment they’ve made about my work is similarly misleading.

Both Aslan and Greenwald are debasing our public discourse and making honest discussion of important ideas increasingly unpleasant—even personally dangerous. Why are they doing this? Please ask them and those who publish them.

Why are they doing this? Presumably because they think it works for whatever their goal is.

A better question is, why is Harris puzzled? The creation story of new atheism is Darwinism, for which moral values are merely a means of increasing reproductive fitness. (Smart people see that, and as for the rest of us, our brains did not evolve so as to enable us to see it.)

Now both Greenwald and Aslan should know better, of course. But, having read Harris’s book, The Moral Landscape: How science can determine human values, I think he is deeply confused.

One can demand moral accountability only if one believes that the universe is fundamentally moral, and Harris explicitly does not believe that.

Put another way, one can be good without God, but not without a moral universe. All moral discussion just becomes A shouting about what he wants B to do and B shouting about what she wants A to do. And finally, the stronger will prevail.

Yet Harris seems not to want to prevail that way. He seems intent on proving the hard way that it is not easy to be a decent person in the world of new atheism.

See also: New atheism: Jerry Coyne on John Gray on Richard Dawkins Is new atheism imploding?

Back to work tomorrow. Wishing all readers a happy Canadian Thanksgiving (yes, it is Thanksgiving Sunday in Canada). – O’Leary for News

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13 Replies to “Sam Harris on defamation

  1. 1
    Dionisio says:

    “Aslan and Greenwald know that…”

    How does he know that they know?
    What do they really know?
    How much do they know?

  2. 2
    Dionisio says:

    “they are doing their best to spread this lie”

    Do they consider it a lie? Maybe they consider it true?

    Is it wrong to spread a lie? Why?

    What is a lie?

    Are the concepts ‘true’ and ‘false’ subjective/relative or objective/absolute?

  3. 3
    lpadron says:

    We musn’t confuse the Sam Harris who writes frivolous pap to a market of immature and poorly thought out atheists because it’s a fast track to fame and profit with the Sam Harris who knows better.

  4. 4
    Dionisio says:

    Why are they doing this? Presumably because they think it works for whatever their goal is.

    Anything wrong with doing that? Why?
    In a relativistic world, where no absolute objective moral standard is recognized, do the concepts ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ make any sense? For a cannibal it could be perfectly right to eat a neighbor. What argument could we present against that? Maybe we don’t like it, or we even abhor it, but that’s a personal/subjective/relative preference, which one could impose on others by force.
    If there’s no absolute moral law, Dr. Mengele is as right as Mother Theresa.
    However, if there’s an absolute objective moral law, what about the law giver?

  5. 5
    velikovskys says:

    dioniso
    Maybe we don’t like it, or we even abhor it, but that’s a personal/subjective/relative preference,

    Just because something is subjective does not mean it cannot be based on objective criteria , for example your absolute moral law.Merely using the concept of God to ” money launder” your subjective belief does not make it absolute but does give it objective criteria.

    which one could impose on others by force.

    In other words, just like absolute morality?

    If there’s no absolute moral law, Dr. Mengele is as right as Mother Theresa.

    It would depend on what objective criteria one uses, but if the belief that one has access to absolute moral law is sufficent to be moral then how can one say the actions of ISIS are immoral?

    However, if there’s an absolute objective moral law, what about the law giver?

    What does the lawgiver base the morality on? Whims? Logic?

  6. 6
    Silver Asiatic says:

    It would depend on what objective criteria one uses, but if the belief that one has access to absolute moral law is sufficent to be moral then how can one say the actions of ISIS are immoral?

    Interesting question. From my understanding, moral absolutes (or I think ‘universals’ might be a better term) cannot be derived solely from religious revelations. If they’re truly absolute/universal, they can’t be found in revelations that a large part of humanity doesn’t have access to.

    In the case of ISIS, they defend their actions based on religious precepts which are unique to Islam. So, how could those be universal/absolutes since most people don’t know those precepts?

    Universal moral norms are accessible to everyone – regardless of specific religious revelation. Killing or torturing the innocent for pleasure would be an example – it always violates conscience in every human society. It’s a universally understood example of evil.

    What does the lawgiver base the morality on? Whims? Logic?

    If they’re laws, then they’re given as part of life. It’s like other laws – of physics, logic or biology. The laws are based on something but we can’t see or know it all (we’d have to have access to the origin of the laws).

    At the very least, the moral laws are based on order — since laws are a function of order. Since the laws are universal and consistent, then they’re based on stability. So this argues against a whim, since whims would change over time. In general, the moral laws protect and support the concept that a person has value.

    Little by little, we can discover more and more about what the moral laws are based on.

  7. 7
    drc466 says:

    Maybe we don’t like it, or we even abhor it, but that’s a personal/subjective/relative preference,

    Just because something is subjective does not mean it cannot be based on objective criteria , for example your absolute moral law.Merely using the concept of God to ” money launder” your subjective belief does not make it absolute but does give it objective criteria.

    Yes – that’s kind of the point. Harris is saying that morality is subjective, yet behaving as if it is objective, which is inconsistent at best, hypocritical and illogical at worst.

    which one could impose on others by force.

    In other words, just like absolute morality?

    Sure. However, if you believe absolute morality is objective, you can also use logic and reason. Think “missionary” to cannibals, explaining why eating someone is wrong. Without a belief in absolute morality, you have no recourse to logic/reason, and are left with just force.

    If there’s no absolute moral law, Dr. Mengele is as right as Mother Theresa.

    It would depend on what objective criteria one uses, but if the belief that one has access to absolute moral law is sufficent to be moral then how can one say the actions of ISIS are immoral?

    Well, you’re kinda misstating Dionisio here – no one has said “[having] access to absolute moral law is sufficient to be moral”. As for how one can say ISIS is immoral, however – easy. Conscience. Foundational religious documents. Logic/reason. All of which can be argued for as valid, if one believes in absolute, objective morality. Just because you personally may not accept some/all of the arguments doesn’t mean they aren’t logical and consistent. Which cannot be said for the arguments of a person who doesn’t believe in objective morality.

    However, if there’s an absolute objective moral law, what about the law giver?

    What does the lawgiver base the morality on? Whims? Logic?

    His Nature. This one cannot be answered by bumper-sticker or Twitter-length responses, I suggest some deeper readings from some of the great philosophers and teachers of the past.

  8. 8
    Dionisio says:

    5 velikovskys

    which one could impose on others by force.

    In other words, just like absolute morality?

    No, the existence of absolute moral law does not necessarily mean that it is imposed by force.

    Can you explain your point? Thanks.

  9. 9
  10. 10
    tjguy says:

    Velikovskys @5

    Just because something is subjective does not mean it cannot be based on objective criteria , for example your absolute moral law.Merely using the concept of God to ” money launder” your subjective belief does not make it absolute but does give it objective criteria.

    This would be true only if an Absolute Lawgiver does not exist. We believe such a Creator God does exist so it makes perfect sense in our paradigm. But the moral thing does not make sense in your paradigm/worldview.

    If God exists, it does make it absolute.

    You claim you can have objective moral criteria in your worldview. True. We all live by our own objective moral criteria. Or the limited objective moral criteria determined by our laws, Or at least we should? (Can you get “should” out of Darwinism and chemicals?)

    But really, what good is an “objective criteria” if the goalposts can be moved by each person at any time to justify any action he/she desires or if those criteria vary from person to person depending on their arbitrary moral beliefs?

  11. 11
    Dionisio says:

    5 velikovskys

    If there’s no absolute moral law, Dr. Mengele is as right as Mother Theresa.

    It would depend on what objective criteria one uses, but if the belief that one has access to absolute moral law is sufficent to be moral then how can one say the actions of ISIS are immoral?

    Good question. Thanks for asking it.

    Absolute objective, in my humble understanding of the terms, means that it is exclusive and independent of my or your personal/subjective interpretations.
    The only valid interpretation of a book is the author’s interpretation, not the reader’s.
    The same applies to a artistic painting, or a classic musical composition.
    When I listen to a well performed composition from Handel, Mozart, Chopin, my interpretation of the message does not match the original inspiration of the composer. Some people might get closer than others, but won’t match it, unless it is revealed in maximum level of details by the author himself.
    However, how do we know that the author himself, and not an impostor, is revealing the mystery? That’s a very important, but also difficult issue.
    If there’s an absolute objective (hence, exclusive) moral law, then it must be above my, your or anyone else’s interpretation or preference. No one in this universe has authority to determine what is the absolute objective moral law, because it is above us all.
    Only someone who can prove His authority in a way that no one else can.
    However, how He chooses to prove His authority is exclusively up to Him.
    The group of people represented by the acronym you mentioned don’t have monopoly on the truth. No one else does. They follow a 6th century idea that borrowed some thoughts from documents that preceded theirs by a few centuries, and then added a lot of their own ideas. That history is well documented for anyone who is interested in it. Their theological message is weak, so they impose their views with a sword on the necks of their victims.
    I believe God is the one who started this last age of grace with divine incarnation, subsequent crucifixion and miraculous resurrection 20 centuries ago. He self-proclaimed to be the only way to true eternal life. No one else has done it, no one else will do it. But He has not imposed that view on us. He has offered His way to those who really want it. Everybody else can remain on their ways. It’s as simple as that.
    We all will have a last day, regardless of status, ethnicity, language, education, etc. Then we’ll face our Creator and answer His main question: what did we do with His graceful offer? Took it or left it? Embraced it, or rejected it?
    Think about it. Don’t wait till tomorrow. Then it could be too late.
    I know God loves you, because He has proven to me that He loves me exceedingly, and I’m sure you are much better than I am.
    Go for it! Now! And then rejoice! And sing hallelujah!
    And praise Him only.
    🙂

  12. 12
    velikovskys says:

    Sa,
    f they’re truly absolute/universal, they can’t be found in revelations that a large part of humanity doesn’t have access to.

    So the source of morality is man, the origin of that source is the question. A bit of an unsteady foundation for a universal morality

    n the case of ISIS, they defend their actions based on religious precepts which are unique to Islam.

    Plenty of people have lost their lives as the result of non Islamic swords

    So, how could those be universal/absolutes since most people don’t know those precepts?

    That they are universal because of the source not because most people feel the same way probably. They have been chosen to reveal those precepts.

    Universal moral norms are accessible to everyone – regardless of specific religious revelation

    Assuming of course that there are such things

    Killing or torturing the innocent for pleasure would be an example

    The most interesting thing about that example for me is the necessity to add the qualification” for pleasure ” , that somehow it may be moral to torture children for some other reason.

    it always violates conscience in every human society. It’s a universally understood example of evil.

    Not if one believes one person can be property of another, that it is a self evident truth that someone can do whatever they want to with their property for example.

    At the very least, the moral laws are based on order — since laws are a function of order.

    True if morals didn’t exist that would be a good reason to invent them

    In general, the moral laws protect and support the concept that a person has value.

    So a morality based on the objective rule that all people have value, but that does not seem to be a self evident truth for much of history.

    Little by little, we can discover more and more about what the moral laws are based on.

    I agree and since there are non religious reasons to believe that humans have value,(my family has value whether God exists or not) it seems to refute the idea that atheist cannot have a objectively based moral code.

  13. 13
    OldArmy94 says:

    my family has value whether God exists or not

    No, they do not. All they are, if “the cosmos is all there ever was and ever will be”, is mere arrangements of atoms that have absolutely no meaning or purpose. In fact, if I believed as you do (or seem to believe), then I could care less if they were all murdered tomorrow. Their tortured, horrific deaths would mean nothing to me at all. They are just being rearranged into more atoms. The fact you care cannot be explained by anything other than a recognition that you understand there is an Order to things, an indwelling code of Right and Wrong.

    That’s why you should reject the nonsensical belief in materialism and accept Truth, my friend.

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