Monday, September 5, 2011

Wish I'd read this before submitting my one nitpick review of "Innumeracy".

The Blog : Whither Eagleman? : Sam Harris

Alone it stay <3>
Image via, clickthrough for original on flickr.

In fact, atheism (old and new) is entirely comfortable with the sentiment, famously expressed by the geneticist J.B.S. Haldane, that “the universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.” Indeed, I now notice that Dawkins gave an entire TEDGlobal talk on this very theme. The strangeness of reality, or of specific theses about it, is not a problem—but patently bad ideas held for bad reasons (and often with murderous intensity) are. You will notice that the new atheists have not attacked the physicist David Deutsch for believing in the “many worlds” interpretation of quantum mechanics. Nor have we criticized the Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom for alleging that the entire universe could be running as a simulation on a supercomputer of the future. Nor has Ray Kurzweil and other proponents of an eschatological “singularity” fallen afoul of our rigid orthodoxies. These people have produced serious arguments in support of their peculiar beliefs that are not so easily dismissed. 
But there are no serious arguments to be summoned in defense of Judaism, Christianity, or Islam (despite the hopes of their apologists). How can I be sure? Well, for one, these faiths are embraced for the same reasons, and yet are mutually canceling. Worse still, each rests on the premise that its holy book contains the transcribed thoughts of an omniscient Deity. A glance at the books reveals this claim to be manifestly insane, as each is barren of scientific insights and bursting with logical, factual, and moral errors. You know this to be true—you say as much in your talk—and yet this knowledge constitutes nothing more, nor less, than atheism. 
There is nothing about atheism that is hostile to mystery, intellectual humility, or wonder. Religious faith is hostile to these things, being based on an abject fear of mystery, perfect (if unwitting) arrogance, and a frank perversion of wonder. In place of genuine ignorance, humility, and wonder—and even in place of real knowledge—religious people erect false idols and false certainties. As scientists, we must simply lament this perverse and pointless sublimation. You do lament it, in fact, but then you move on to say that “we know too little to commit to a position of strict atheism where we act as though we have it all figured out… but we know too much to commit to any particular religious story. So that puts me somewhere in the middle…” 
There is no middle, David, and your definition of “strict atheism” is a straw man. The middle you presume to occupy is, simply, atheism.
That's a lengthier pull quote than I'd normally grab, but I wanted to get all the thought (expressed much more elegantly here) I was trying to articulate in my recent mini-review of Innumeracy.
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