[extropy-chat] Fwd: Sam Harris controversy

Benjamin Goertzel ben at goertzel.org
Mon Jan 8 04:39:24 UTC 2007

Wow -- Harris is right, that article certainly did misrepresent his
views in an absurd way...

Shame on Sam Harris for having a moderately intelligent and subtle
perspective that cannot be immediately sloganized in the language of
current popular culture ;-p

Doesn't he know that the popular media can only handle ideas
expressible in proto-language, not ideas requiring nested
phrase-structure syntax for their exposition?  Some people never

ben g

On 1/7/07, Damien Broderick <thespike at satx.rr.com> wrote:
> January 6, 2006
> Sam Harris writes to his mailing list:
> Dear Readers,
> Some of you may have noticed an article about me that is now running on
> Alternet.org. The writer, John Gorenfeld, has taken a ninety minute
> telephone interview, along with selective passages from my books, and made
> of them a poisonous of mash of misquotation and paraphrasis for the purpose
> of portraying me as an evil lunatic. While some level of innocent distortion
> can be expected in print interviews, this case appears genuinely malicious.
> You can find Gorenfeld's account of me here
> <<http://www.alternet.org/story/46196/>http://www.alternet.org/story/46196/>.
> Please feel free to post comments of
> your own to the site.
> If you want to alert the management at Alternet of your displeasure, the
> contact page can be found here
> <<http://alternet.org/about/contact.html>http://alternet.org/about/contact.html>.
> As you will see, Gorenfeld distorts my views on torture, spiritual
> experience, and the paranormal. For the record, I have summarized my views
> on these subjects on my website
> <<http://www.samharris.org/site/full_text/response-to-controversy2/>http://www.samharris.org/site/full_text/response-to-controversy2/>.
> All the best,
> Sam
> ------------
> By John Gorenfeld
> AlterNet
> January 6, 2007
> <http://www.alternet.org/story/46196/>http://www.alternet.org/story/46196/
> Sam Harris's books "The End Of Faith" and "Letter To A Christian Nation"
> have established him as second only to the British biologist and author
> Richard Dawkins in the ranks of famous 21st century atheists. The thrust of
> Harris's best-sellers is that with the world so crazed by religion, it's
> high time Americans stopped tolerating faith in the Rapture, the
> Resurrection and anything else not grounded in evidence. Only trouble is,
> our country's foremost promoter of "reason" is also supportive of ESP,
> reincarnation and other unscientific concepts. Not all of it is harmless
> yoga class hokum -- he's also a proponent of waterboarding and other forms
> of torture.
> "We know [torture] works. It has worked. It's just a lie to say that it has
> never worked," he says. "Accidentally torturing a few innocent people" is no
> big deal next to bombing them, he continues. Why sweat it?
> I wanted to interview Harris to find out why a man sold to the American
> public as the voice of scientific reason is promoting Hindu gods and mind
> reading in his writing. But we spend much of our time discussing his call
> for torture and his Buddhist perspectives on "compassionately killing the
> bad guy."
> In 2004, Sam Harris' award-winning first book said society should demote
> Christian, Muslim and Jewish belief to an embarrassment that "disgraces
> anyone who would claim it," in doing so catapulting him from obscure UCLA
> grad student -- the son of a Quaker father -- to national voice of atheism.
> "The End of Faith" may be the first book suitable for the Eastern Philosophy
> shelf at Barnes & Noble that somehow incorporates both torture and New Age
> piety, and offers pleas for clear scientific thinking alongside appeals to
> "mysticism." The old-fashioned brand of atheist, like the late Carl Sagan,
> argued eloquently against religion without supporting rituals and ghosts.
> Harris, however, argues that not just Western gods but philosophers are
> "dwarfs" next to the Buddhas. And a Harris passage on psychics recommends
> that curious readers spend time with the study "20 Cases Suggestive of
> Reincarnation."
> Asked which cases are most suggestive of reincarnation, Harris admits to
> being won over by accounts of "xenoglossy," in which people abruptly begin
> speaking languages they don't know. Remember the girl in "The Exorcist"?
> "When a kid starts speaking Bengali, we have no idea scientifically what's
> going on," Harris tells me. It's hard to believe what I'm hearing from the
> man the New York Times hails as atheism's "standard-bearer."
> Harris writes: "There seems to be a body of data attesting to the reality of
> psychic phenomena, much of which have been ignored by mainstream science."
> On the phone he backpedals away from the claim.
> "I've received a little bit of grief for that," he says. "I certainly don't
> say that I'm confident that psychic phenomena exist. I'm open-minded. I
> would just like to see the data."
> To see the "data" yourself, "The End of Faith" points readers to a slew of
> paranormal studies.
> One is Dr. Ian Stevenson's "Unlearned Language: New Studies in Xenoglossy."
> The same author's reincarnation book presents for your consideration the
> past life of Ravi Shankar, the sitar player who introduced the Beatles to
> the Maharishi. He was born with a birthmark, it says, right where his past
> self was knifed to death, aged two.
> Making the case for the "20 Cases" researcher, Harris sounds almost like
> "Chronicles of Narnia" author C.S. Lewis, who said Jesus could only be a
> liar or the Son of God.
> "Either he is a victim of truly elaborate fraud, or something interesting is
> going on," Harris says. "Most scientists would say this doesn't happen. Most
> would say that if it does happen, it's a case of fraud. ... It's hard to see
> why anyone would be perpetrating a fraud -- everyone was made miserable by
> this [xenoglossy] phenomenon." Pressed, he admits that some of the details
> might after all be "fishy."
> Another book he lists is "The Conscious Universe: The Scientific Truth of
> Psychic Phenomena." "These are people who have spent a fair amount of time
> looking at the data," Harris explains. The author, professor Dean Radin of
> North California's Institute of Noetic Sciences, which is not accredited for
> scientific peer review, proclaims: "Psi [mind power] has been shown to exist
> in thousands of experiments."
> Harris has spent the past two years doing "full-time infidel" duty, in his
> words. His second book, "Letter to a Christian Nation," takes the infidel
> persona and runs with it, lashing back at Christians for their intolerance
> toward his first book.
> In a versatile turn, however, Harris moonlights as inquisitor as well as
> heretic. Without irony, he switches hats between chapters of "The End of
> Faith." Chapter 3 finds him complaining that the medieval Church tortured
> Jews over phony "blood libel" conspiracies. Then in chapter 6, "A Science of
> Good & Evil," he devotes several pages to upholding the "judicial torture"
> of Muslims, a practice for which "reasonable men and women" have come out.
> Torture then and now: The difference, he tells AlterNet, is that the
> Inquisition "manufactured" crimes and forced Jews to confess "fictional
> accomplices."
> But if the Iraq War hasn't been about "fictional accomplices," what has?
> "There's nothing about my writing about torture that should suggest I
> supported what was going on in Abu Ghraib," says Harris, who supported the
> invasion but says it has become a "travesty." "We abused people who we know
> had no intelligence value."
> While our soldiers are waging war on Islam in our detention centers,
> according to Harris, our civilians must evolve past churchgoing to "modern
> spiritual practice," he writes. "[M]ysticism is a rational enterprise," he
> writes in his book, arguing it lets spiritualists "uncover genuine facts
> about the world." And he tells AlterNet there are "social pressures" against
> research into ESP.
> Society is remarkably free, however, in airing justifications for putting
> Muslims to the thumbscrews. Harris's case for torture is this: since "we"
> are OK with horrific collateral damage, "we" should have no qualms against
> waterboarding, the lesser evil. "It's better than death." Better, in other
> words, than bombing innocents.
> Then again, Sam Harris is not devoting his time in the media to call for an
> end to bombing civilians. Attacking the sacred cow of airstrikes might have
> been a real heresy, true to his Quaker roots but ensuring himself exile from
> cable news. Instead the logic he lays out -- that Islam itself is our enemy
> -- invites the reader to feel comfort at the deaths of its believers. He
> writes: "Some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to
> kill people for believing them."
> Playing his part in last year's War Over Christmas, Harris plays it safe
> with "Letter to a Christian Nation." The book lumbers under a title so
> heavy, you'd think Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote it from prison. While
> keeping the Christian Nation on notice that Harris remains disdainful of
> "wasting time" on Jesus, he now calls for something of an alliance with the
> Right against Muslim Arabs and the "head-in-the-sand liberals" he denounced
> in a recent editorial. "Nonbelievers like myself stand beside you,
> dumbstruck by the Muslim hordes who chant death to whole nations of the
> living," he writes.
> Thus praising the hard Right for its "moral clarity" in the War on Terror,
> Harris reserves much of his wrath for nonfundamentalist Christians, whom he
> considers enablers of a virgin-birth sham.
> Fine, but the alternative to Jesus that Harris recommends in "The End of
> Faith" is a menu of messiahs. There is Shankara, an avatar of the god Shiva
> whose water pot could stop floods. There is the first Buddha and his
> 8th-century successor Padmasambhava. After materializing on a lotus leaf at
> age 8, Padmasambhava cast a spell that changed his friend into a tiger.
> "That is objectively stupider than the doctrine of the virgin birth," Harris
> says in the interview, however.
> Like any religious moderate, he has picked and chosen what he likes from a
> religion. On the one hand, there's an obligatory swipe in "The End of Faith"
> against Pakistan and India for threatening to nuke each other over
> "fanciful" religious disputes. The equal-offender pose doesn't slow Harris
> from claiming the supremacy of Shankara and other oracles over Europe's
> entire secular brain trust. For thousands of years, "personal transformation
> [...] seems to have been thought too much to ask" of Western philosophers,
> he complains petulantly, as if finding the entire Enlightenment short on
> self-help tips.
> He likes that Buddhism will make you relax. And "dial in various mental
> states," he says. In the classic case, he says, "you see various lights or
> see bliss." And like a Scientologist cleric promising you the state of
> Clear, evicting alien ghosts ruining your life, Harris expresses a faith
> that his own style of pleasurable mental exploration ushers in good deeds.
> Meditation, he says, will drive out whatever it is "that leads you to lie to
> people or be intrinsically selfish."
> So it purges your sins? "You become free to notice how everyone else is
> suffering," he says. Well, some more than others.
> We all need our illusions. But doesn't his, a mishmash of Buddhism and
> "Time-Life Mysteries of The Unknown," weaken his case against Christians?
> His answer is that Buddhism is a superior product for including the doctrine
> of "non-dualism," or unity. "The teachings about self-transcending love in
> Buddhism go on for miles," he says. "There's just a few lines in the Bible."
> And hundreds in Dostoyevsky and the Confessions of St. Augustine, but never
> mind: Harris's argument that "belief is action" rests on treating works like
> the Old Testament not as complex cultural fables but something akin to your
> TiVo instruction manual.
> Though it lapses in skepticism, Harris's work has won a surprising following
> among nonmystics. Times science writer Natalie Angier felt "vindicated,
> almost personally understood" reading it, she wrote in a review.
> Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins has practically adopted Harris as the
> American Robin to his Batman in confronting unreason wherever it may lurk in
> the hearts of men. "The End of Faith" should "replace the Gideon Bible in
> every hotel room in the land," blurbs Dawkins.
> When that happens, Muslims will check into the Best Western and find a text
> cheering their torture.
> Legendary for his role in the Scopes Monkey Trial, American attorney
> Clarence Darrow wrote of his admiration for his forbearer Voltaire, the
> original 18th-century renegade against the church. He thanked Voltaire for
> dealing superstition a "mortal wound" -- and for an end to torture. "Among
> the illustrious heroes who have banished this sort of cruelty from the
> Western world, no other name will stand so high and shine so bright."
> And then among those who want to bring it back, there stands Sam Harris.
> "They're not talking," Harris is telling me, imagining a torture scenario
> where the captives clam up, "quite amused at our unwillingness to make them
> uncomfortable."
> No, it's not the sticky (and real) case of Jose Padilla, the detainee who
> may have been reduced by his treatment to mind mush, possibly ruining his
> trial. Instead he's sketching out a kind of Steven Seagal action movie
> scenario in which we lasso Osama or his gang, maybe on the eve of a terror
> plot. What to do?
> "We should say we don't do it," Harris says of torture. "We should say it's
> reprehensible." And then do it anyway, he says.
> So there it is. In Harris's vision of future America, we will pursue
> "personal transformation" and gaze into our personal "I-we" riddles, while
> the distant gurgles of Arabs, terrified by the threat of drowning, will
> drift into our Eastern-influenced sacred space, the government's press
> releases no more than soothing Zen koans.
> ------------
> By Sam Harris
> <http://www.samharris.org/site/full_text/response-to-controversy2/>http://www.samharris.org/site/full_text/response-to-controversy2/
> A few of the subjects that I raised in The End of Faith continue to inspire
> an unusual amount of malicious commentary, selective quotation, and
> controversy. I've elaborated on these topics here:
> My position on torture:
> In The End of Faith, I argue that competing religious doctrines have divided
> our world into separate moral communities, and that these divisions have
> become a continuous source of human violence. My purpose in writing the book
> was to offer a way of thinking about our world that would render certain
> forms of conflict, quite literally, unthinkable.
> In one section of the book (pp. 192-199), I briefly discuss the ethics of
> torture and collateral damage in times of war, arguing that collateral
> damage is worse than torture across the board. Rather than appreciate just
> how bad I think collateral damage is in ethical terms, some readers have
> mistakenly concluded that I take a cavalier attitude toward the practice of
> torture. I do not. Nevertheless, there are certain extreme circumstances in
> which I believe that torture may not only be ethically justifiable, but
> ethically necessary. I am not alone in this. Liberal Senator Charles Schumer
> has publicly stated that most U.S. senators would support torture to find
> out the location of a ticking time bomb. While rare, such "ticking-bomb"
> scenarios actually do occur. As we move into an age of nuclear and
> biological terrorism, it is in everyone's interest for men and women of
> goodwill to determine what should be done when a prisoner clearly has
> operational knowledge of an imminent atrocity, but won't otherwise talk
> about it.
> My argument for the limited use of torture is essentially this: if you think
> it is ever justifiable to drop bombs in an attempt to kill a man like Osama
> bin Laden (and thereby risk killing and maiming innocent men, women, and
> children), you should think it may sometimes be justifiable to torture a man
> like Osama bin Laden (and risk torturing someone who just happens to look
> like Osama bin Laden). It seems to me that however one compares the
> practices of torturing high-level terrorists and dropping bombs, dropping
> bombs always comes out looking worse in ethical terms. And yet, many of us
> tacitly accept the practice of modern warfare, while considering it taboo to
> even speak about the possibility of practicing torture. It is important to
> point out that my argument for the restricted use of torture does not make
> travesties like Abu Ghraib look any less sadistic or stupid. Indeed, I
> considered our mistreatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib to have been patently
> unethical. I also think it was one of the most damaging blunders to occur in
> the last century of U.S. foreign policy.
> It is not clear that having a torture provision in our laws will create as
> slippery a slope as many people imagine. We have a capital punishment
> provision, for instance, but this has not led to our killing prisoners at
> random because we can't control ourselves. While I am opposed to capital
> punishment, I can readily admit that we are not suffering a total moral
> chaos in our society because we execute about five people every month. It is
> not immediately obvious that a rule about torture could not be applied with
> equal restraint.
> I may be true, however, that any legal use of torture would have
> unacceptable consequences. In light of this concern, the best strategy I
> have heard comes from Mark Bowden in his Atlantic Monthly article, "The Dark
> Art of Interrogation." Bowden recommends that we keep torture illegal, and
> maintain a policy of not torturing anybody for any reason. But our
> interrogators should know that there are certain circumstances in which it
> will be ethical to break the law. Indeed, there are circumstances in which
> you would have to be a monster not to break the law. If an interrogator
> finds himself in such a circumstance, and he breaks the law, there will not
> be much of a will to prosecute him (and interrogators will know this). If he
> breaks the law Abu Ghraib-style, he will go to jail for a very long time
> (and interrogators will know this too). At the moment, this seems like the
> most reasonable policy to me, given the realities of our world.
> While my discussion of torture spans only a few pages in a book devoted to
> reducing the causes of religious violence, many readers have found this
> discussion deeply unsettling. I have invited them, both publicly and
> privately, to produce an ethical argument that takes into account the
> realities of our world -- our daily acceptance of collateral damage, the
> real possibility of nuclear terrorism, etc. -- and yet rules out the
> practice of torture in all conceivable circumstances. No one, to my
> knowledge, has done this. And yet, my critics continue to speak and write as
> though a knock-down argument against torture in all circumstances is readily
> available. I consider it to be one of the more dangerous ironies of liberal
> discourse that merely discussing the possibility of torturing a man like
> Osama bin Laden provokes more outrage than the maiming and murder of
> innocent civilians ever does. Until someone actually points out what is
> wrong with the "collateral damage argument" presented in The End of Faith. I
> will continue to believe that my critics are just not thinking clearly about
> the reality of human suffering.
> ............
> My views on the paranormal - ESP, reincarnation, etc.:
> My position on the paranormal is this: While there have been many frauds in
> the history of parapsychology, I believe that this field of study has been
> unfairly stigmatized. If some experimental psychologists want to spend their
> days studying telepathy, or the effects of prayer, I will be interested to
> know what they find out. And if it is true that toddlers occasionally start
> speaking in ancient languages (as Ian Stevenson alleges), I would like to
> know about it. However, I have not spent any time attempting to authenticate
> the data put forward in books like Dean Radin's The Conscious Universe or
> Ian Stevenson's 20 Cases Suggestive of Reincarnation. The fact that I have
> not spent any time on this should suggest how worthy of my time I think such
> a project would be. Still, I found these books interesting, and I cannot
> categorically dismiss their contents in the way that I can dismiss the
> claims of religious dogmatists.
> ............
> My views on Eastern mysticism, Buddhism, etc.:
> My views on "mystical" or "spiritual" experience are extensively described
> in The End of Faith and do not entail the acceptance of anything on faith.
> There is simply no question that people have transformative experiences as a
> result of engaging contemplative disciplines like meditation, and there is
> no question that these experiences shed some light on the nature of the
> human mind (any experience does, for that matter). What is highly
> questionable are the metaphysical claims that people tend to make on the
> basis of such experiences. I do not make any such claims. Nor do I support
> the metaphysical claims of others.
> There are several neuroscience labs now studying the effects of meditation
> on the brain. While I am not personally engaged in this research, I know
> many of the scientists who are. This is now a fertile field of sober
> inquiry, purposed toward understanding the possibilities of human well-being
> better than we do at present.
> While I consider Buddhism almost unique among the world's religions as a
> repository of contemplative wisdom, I do not consider myself a Buddhist. My
> criticism of Buddhism as a faith has been published in essay form, to the
> consternation of many Buddhists. It is available here:
> Killing the Buddha:
> <http://tinyurl.com/oy972>http://tinyurl.com/oy972
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