Debate with Partially Examined Life (2011)

So Mark Linsenmayer responded to my semi-review of the episode. He makes some valid points on my assertion that they didn’t really have an argument with Harris:

If you suspend your critical faculties and “have faith,” then you open yourself up to believing all sorts of horrific stuff, such as, most importantly to the rest of society, commands to violence.

The general response is, yes, if faith is actually a matter of “I can’t think for myself! Think for me!” then this is a legitimate concern, and no doubt that is exactly the experience of faith in some people. However:

1. Per Kant and William James, faith about matters over which no experiential deconfirmation is even theoretically possible isn’t irrational in this way. Granted, most actual religions are not Kant-friendly in this way (so it’s kind of goofy that we spent so much time on this when that’s not the new atheists’ target for the most part).

2. As a practical matter, people just don’t get brainwashed to the point of violence. Other forces in human motivation tend to step in to curtail violence, and when violence does occur, you generally find that the perpetrator had more things wrong with him than just the religious motivation. Religion is neither necessary nor sufficient for violence… which is not to say that they’re unconnected in all circumstances or that more critical thinking wouldn’t be very helpful in preventing the spread of violence. To the extent that religion is against critical thinking, it’s a detriment to any society.

I think we all (on the podcast) agree that a lot of religion is superstitious nonsense: dubious historical claims, ad hoc explanations for natural phenomena, and in some cases commands that wrongfully override the moral sense of any decent person. Even the most religious person believes that lots of the claims of other religions fall into these categories. Using this case as an example, I think that religion can have a deleterious effect on the critical faculties of even someone smart, conscientious, and striving to be impartial in an investigation.

I think we (meaning Wes vs. me and Dylan at least) have some disagreement among us re. this whole “science itself is a form of faith” response. I don’t buy it at all; particular scientific claims just don’t resist contrary evidence in the way that religious dogmatics do. There is an interesting discussion to be had about Kantian “regulatory principles,” e.g. the principle of causality itself is not one that an experiment proves, but rather is presupposed by all experiments. However, as in the case of quantum mechanics, even this fundamental principle can be questioned as a result of experimentation. None of the new atheists seem inclined to grapple with this issue.

Mark makes a lot of valid points here. I’ll let them stand on their own.


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