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Sam Harris, The Israel-Palestine Conflict, And Stuff.

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About the Israel-Palestine conflict, whose side is right? On that score, I remain agnostic. However, Sam Harris, as seems to be his wont, gives us more reasons to doubt that he actually thinks things through:

“What would the Jews do to the Palestinians if they could do anything they wanted? Well, we know the answer to that question, because they can do more or less anything they want. The Israeli army could kill everyone in Gaza tomorrow. So what does that mean? Well, it means that, when they drop a bomb on a beach and kill four Palestinian children, as happened last week, this is almost certainly an accident. They’re not targeting children. They could target as many children as they want. Every time a Palestinian child dies, Israel edges ever closer to becoming an international pariah. So the Israelis take great pains not to kill children and other noncombatants”

[..]

“What do we know of the Palestinians? What would the Palestinians do to the Jews in Israel if the power imbalance were reversed? Well, they have told us what they would do. For some reason, Israel’s critics just don’t want to believe the worst about a group like Hamas, even when it declares the worst of itself. We’ve already had a Holocaust and several other genocides in the 20th century. People are capable of committing genocide. When they tell us they intend to commit genocide, we should listen. There is every reason to believe that the Palestinians would kill all the Jews in Israel if they could.”

— Sam Harris

End Quote. Well, Noam Chomsky will be blown away by such penetrating insight.

Of course Sam Harris here is suggesting that if the tables were turned and we had a flourishing, well-educated Palestinian state, who had the second strongest army in the world on the one hand, and an impoverished, disenfranchised and, one could — in fact, one should — say, subjugated bunch of Israelis on the other, we’d be seeing the Palestinians dining on the corpses of Israelis with wild abandon. Which is, needless to say, an overly-simplistic analysis of what is.

I think Sam’s completely disregarding what history shows us to be what usually happens in wars of this kind, where the one who has less bullets and tanks will tend to resort to, shall we say, terroristic means. I doubt that the Palestinians, if they were in Israel’s position, would choose to incur the wrath of the West or risk being “international pariahs” by wantonly killing Israeli children by the hundreds, if not thousands, like Sam suggests they would, because that would be, in the long-haul, detrimental to their ‘well-being’. I mean, Nato would be up their arses the moment they do. So they wouldn’t be much different from Israel if the tables were turned, me thinks. Although a persuasive argument can be made that their people would be less happy despite all the hypothetical progress  –you know, Islamic laws being somewhat draconian and all.

The constant ‘OMG religion is a baddie!‘ theme is a recurring problem with Sam, it very much seems. He keeps putting a religious spin to everything because of the incentive he has in painting religion as the evil his books proclaim it to be. (And/or also because he really — really ignorantly — believes it to be evil) The Israel-Palestine conflict is a territorial and not a religious dispute, despite that both sides often use religion to justify their positions. The fact remains that if it wasn’t religion, it would be something else. Hitler used, among other things, an adulterated version of Darwin’s theory to justify much of the holocaust; Stallin and the extremist wing of the Russian Communist Party told themselves their strong hand policy was the only way to revive Russia; the Tamil Tigers largely have nationalistic rather than religious motivations for strapping explosives to their chests, etc. I could go on about this. The readily confirmable fact of the matter is that people will use all manner of justification for killing each other. It’s not like that will all suddenly stop the moment the Palestinians have themselves baptized in Sam’s brand of atheism.

Man is, for the most part, NOT a rational animal. He is a rationalizing one. And he will remain one with or without religion. And, granted the incentives are high enough, he’ll be able to rationalize his way into any position within a few minutes. Within a few minutes! That’s the real world.

Sam either doesn’t realize this, which makes him naive, or he refuses to acknowledge it because it’s easier to, or there’s more reward for him in, making religion out to be this bogeyman that keeps us immersed in a fecal stew of irrationality.

 

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Thoughts On Sam Harris’s Response To Ryan Born.

Moral Landscape

 

 

So, Sam invited people, offered a significant amount of cash even, to refute his thesis that science can determine moral values — a thesis which, as I’ve said before, had already been refuted since 1739. But when it’s again been seemingly refuted (by a one Ryan Born), Sam responds by cupping both ears with his hands while shouting “LALALALALA!”

I won’t bother going through each of Sam’s points as I feel it would suffice to point out where I think he makes his most fundamental error.

Responding to Ryan, Sam writes:

“Ryan wrote that my “proposed science of morality cannot offer scientific answers to questions of morality and value, because it cannot derive moral judgments solely from scientific descriptions of the world.” But no branch of science can derive its judgments solely from scientific descriptions of the world. We have intuitions of truth and falsity, logical consistency, and causality that are foundational to our thinking about anything. Certain of these intuitions can be used to trump others: We may think, for instance, that our expectations of cause and effect could be routinely violated by reality at large, and that apes like ourselves may simply be unequipped to understand what is really going on in the universe. That is a perfectly cogent idea, even though it seems to make a mockery of most of our other ideas. But the fact is that all forms of scientific inquiry pull themselves up by some intuitive bootstraps.[..] Some intuitions are truly basic to our thinking. I claim that the conviction that the worst possible misery for everyone is bad and should be avoided is among them.”

Here Sam argues that the intuition that “the worst possible misery for everyone.. should be avoided at all costs” should be assumed — indeed, he seems to say that we are justified in assuming it — in the same manner that we assume the laws of logic, the principle of causality, and other such foundational beliefs with which other outlying beliefs are bootstrapped.

The problem here is: on what basis is he even able to say this?

Why should anyone think that ‘maximizing well-being’, say, is an assumption as valid as the assumption that P cannot be equal to not-P? Or, why is the proposition that ‘we ought to avoid misery for the maximum amount of people’ no different from the proposition that ‘If p then q; p; therefore q’? Or, going with the principle of causality, why should we believe we ought to maximize well-being just as we should believe that throwing a brick through a glass window would result in the window shattering?

Can someone really tell Dahmer that something like modal logic dictates that he ought not eat and sodomize corpses, all while successfully avoiding sounding like some vacuous imbecile?

I seriously doubt that whatever Sam’s answer to the above will — can ever plausibly — amount to more than something like ‘because it just looks reasonable!‘ or ‘it feels right!‘ (Maybe that’s not what he argues, but he has not really clarified this — plus there doesn’t really seem to be any alternative to alluding to what one feels is right on this matter.)

But we don’t assume, say, the laws of logic because it’s reasonable or it feels right to do so. Rather we assume it because it is something without which reason itself cannot even begin to exist. The same with the principle of causality. We can either assume these to be true, or we can assume anything and everything to be true. The latter would make reasoning itself impossible, hence we must assume them (laws of logic, causality) to even begin to reason. But why should we immediately assume that we ‘ought to maximize well-being’ wholly on account of our feeling that it sounds reasonable?

In other words: yes, we really must assume the laws of logic and the principle of causality to even begin to reason. While, no, it’s only Sam’s opinion that, given (or despite of) naturalism, we must assume that  ‘we ought to maximize well-being’.  Lumping together both those assumptions as though they were equally valid is, yet again, another display of inimitable incoherence on Sam’s part.

The fact of the matter is that Sam, as a naturalist, believes morality to be simply a biological spin-off of evolutionary pressures. So how therefore can he possibly believe that there exists determinate facts of the matter regarding what people ought to do? If the things we feel we ought to do are merely what a blind evolutionary history had built into us to make our species flourish on the aggregate, then they cannot be anything but illusory. We may think ‘maximizing well-being’ is reasonable, but that’s only because we’ve fallen for the illusion fashioned for us by evolution. Killing for fun, say, cannot really be wrong on this view — we merely think it to be because if we didn’t then we wouldn’t have survived this long as a species. In the same manner, if descendants of the Tiktaalik roseae, a genus of early land-walking fish, did not evolve lungs to use oxygen to survive, then in the ocean as a fish species we would have remained.

If are we to believe that we ‘ought to maximize well-being’ on account of the fact that that’s what we’ve evolved to believe (for how else can we acquire foundational beliefs of this kind on naturalism), then we are likewise compelled to believe that as far as our early fish ancestors were concerned, they ought to have done whatever it is that precipitated their eventual anatomical evolution towards being land vertebrae, which is, needless to say, absurd.

 

I Am “Talking Out Of My Ass”, Apparently.

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A passerby courteously suggests that I may have, in this post, spoken out of the lower part of my alimentary canal (read: ass):

“Miguel, with all due respect, you’re talking out of your ass.”

Contra to my claim in the post, passerby says Aquinas does in fact use the idea “everything has a cause” as a starting premise for his cosmological argument, and is therefore open to the ‘what caused God?’ rebuttal.

Of course, Aquinas does no such thing.

Passerby quotes Aquinas himself to show that I have indeed been articulating out of my own posterior, but I won’t bore you with that, since none of what he quotes from Aquinas means what he says they mean.

And, of course, because I very much doubt passerby, or anyone else for that matter, will go through the trouble of scanning the Summa Theologica to see what Aquinas himself argues, these short quotes from the pages of Stanford’s philosophical encyclopedia that detail the history of the cosmological argument should suffice to show who between us is in fact verbalizing from his anus:

“Thomas Aquinas held that among the things whose existence needs explanation are contingent beings that depend for their existence upon other beings..

[..]

Aquinas argued that we need a causal explanation for things in motion, things that are caused, and contingent beings.

[..]

Once Aquinas concludes that necessary beings exist, he then goes on to ask whether these beings have their existence from themselves or from another. If from another, then we have an unsatisfactory infinite regress of explanations. Hence, there must be something whose necessity is uncaused.”

That all can be found here: http://stanford.io/1h5F2Gk

There it is from Stanford’s online Philosophical Encyclopedia itself.

Unfortunately for passerby, Aquinas, and no theologian in the history of Christendom for that matter, argues that “everything has a cause”. Rather, what they argue is that whatever begins to exist has a cause for it’s existence, or what ever is contingent has a cause.

So, yes, Sam Harris was strawmanning the cosmological argument. Deal with it already.

That’s all really quite simple to understand. You’d think it would all be something easily fathomable by the people who “fucking love science”.

Is Zoolander.. I mean Sam Harris Strawmanning The CA? — Yes He is.

Sam Zoolander Harris

 

Greg, a passerby, expresses bewilderment and requests an explanation:

If you believe that Sam Harris’s portrayal of the cosmological argument [for God’s existence] is a straw man, then I would be curious to hear your own interpretation of the argument.

As you wish, Greg.

But first let’s quote Sam for everyone else to see what his version (if it can even be called as such) of the argument actually is:

“The argument runs more or less like this: everything has a cause; space and time exist; space and time must, therefore, have been caused by something that stands outside of space and time; and the only thing that trascends space and time, and yet retains the power to create, is God… As many critics of religion have pointed out , the notion of a creator poses an inmediate problem of an infinite regress. If God created the universe, what caused God? To say that God, by definition, is uncreated simply begs the question”

For starters, the readily confirmable fact of the matter is that no respected theologian in the history of Christendom has ever concocted such an idiotic argument such as that. Not Craig, not Leibniz, not Aquinas, not Maimonides, not Avicenna, not Swinburne, not Plantinga, not anyone. Nobody in the history of the cosmological argument has ever begun the cosmological argument with the statement “everything has a cause.”

And the answer to that is actually quite simple. It is because none of them are, how shall we put it, dumb enough to ever argue anything so stupid. You’ll never be able to point to me one famous theologian who started off his cosmological argument in such a puerile manner.

What defenders of the cosmological argument actually defend is that what comes into existence has a cause, or that whatever is contingent has a cause, and not, as Sam likes to think, that everything has a cause. The difference between what actual defenders of the cosmological argument say and what Sam says they say is almost exactly like the difference between these 2 statements: 1, everything in the fridge is edible, and 2, everything is edible. If the differences between the 2 aren’t obvious still, then perhaps we could meet, as I’ve got this wonderful bridge to sell you which you can even pay in installments.

Defenders of the cosmological argument are not interested in showing that the cause of everything just somehow happens to be uncaused, leaving them open to being accused of special pleading. Rather, what they are (or were) interested in showing was that if there was to be an ultimate explanation of how everything came to be, then that explanation must be in principle uncaused. They argue, and don’t arbitrarily posit, for why this ultimate explanation must in principle be uncaused.

It is clear that Sam Harris, for his book, chose to consult infidel websites rather than the vast philosophical literature pertaining to the cosmological argument that exists.

Sam Harris Awarding Money To Anyone Who Refutes His Thesis That’s Already Been Refuted Since 1739.

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Money, and, perhaps, fame, to the one who refutes, to Sam’s satisfaction, his contention that Science can determine moral values.

Really; Sam’s giving 2 thousand dollars to the winning essay — and, interestingly, 20 thousand dollars (inclusive of the matching pledge of one of his generous readers) to the essay that succeeds in changing his mind. Needless to say, changing his mind, or at least getting him to admit his mind had been changed, would be considerably more difficult then actually refuting his thesis — something which had been, as it were, refuted since 1739.

A few months ago, I entertained the thought of submitting one. The effort to do so, however, eventually seemed of scant worth, considering what would presumably be a large number of submissions unequivocally harping on the very argument I intended to make — indeed, the same argument, I think, everyone’s been making — against Sam’s thouroughly absurd thesis.

Sam is wrong; science does not — cannot ever — have the ability to determine moral values for precisely the reasons laid out by David Hume more than 200 years ago in A Treatise Of Human Nature.:

“In every system of morality, which I have hitherto met with, I have always remarked, that the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary ways of reasoning, and establishes the being of a God, or makes observations concerning human affairs; when all of a sudden I am surprised to find, that instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought, or an ought not. This change is imperceptible; but is however, of the last consequence. For as this ought, or ought not, expresses some new relation or affirmation, ’tis necessary that it should be observed and explained; and at the same time that a reason should be given; for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it. But as authors do not commonly use this precaution, I shall presume to recommend it to the readers; and am persuaded, that this small attention would subvert all the vulgar systems of morality, and let us see, that the distinction of vice and virtue is not founded merely on the relations of objects, nor is perceived by reason.”

Or, in short, Mr. Hume, in a rather overly verbose manner (as chaps of his time were wont to conduct themselves) is simply saying that one cannot derive an ought from an is; you cannot infer what ought to be from what is; or, if you like: since science merely describes what is, then it can hardly be able to tell us what ought to be.

Of course, that, above, should have been the whole story. Sadly, it isn’t for Harris.

Surprisingly competently, Sam realizes that moral goodness is a concept so amorphous as to be indeterminable (after all, people can’t always agree on what is good) so he substitutes (human) ‘well-being’ for ‘good’ because — or so we are told by him — ‘well-being’ as a metric succeeds in doing two things that can seemingly bridge Hume’s famous (or perhaps infamous) is-ought chasm: 1, it is something for which there can in principle be an objective unit of measurement, and 2, it proffers to actions a goal or purpose.

The obvious problem here is that well-being is, contrary to Sam’s claims, rather like moral goodness in that it is also objectively indeterminable. I mean, what is it? Sam simply puts the problem another step back, actually. How can we all even agree on what ‘well-being’ is?
Dahmer’s well-being, for instance, was predicated on the sodomization of young boys’ corpses. What would Sam’s answer be to this, one wonders. Dahmer was wrong because sodomizing corpses can hardly be said to add to someone’s well-being? But yes it can — people like Dahmer exist. Sure, we can cheerily rejoice in the fact that more people are of the opinion that sodomizing corpses reduces rather than increases ones well-being. But, on naturalism, that’s just an opinion, really — one that is, luckily, ascendant in society, but one that is an opinion no less.

Of course, Sam will argue that humans have evolved in such and such a way that makes us repelled by the sight of corpses, and therefore moreso with the prospect of having sex with them, making our collective anti corpse-sodomizing sentiments not merely an opinion but one for which a socio-biological component exists. Of course he’ll think this socio-biological underpinning furnishes us with a standard against which the morality of actions can be measured. But he’ll be wrong; for one can simply say that Dahmer was being unfashionable, or that Dahmer simply chose not to go with the flow, so to speak.

Swrong with that?

What, on naturalism, makes Sam able to say: “No, sodomizing corpses, bad!”, “Yes, well-being, good!”

Nothing, it seems.

Of course, this all poses zero problems for the theist who holds God to be good’s ontological base. After all, if the Christian God exists, then the universe was imbued with ‘oughts’ upon its very creation. Therefore theism furnishes us with a solid foundation for moral values and duties, while atheism, not so much.

 

Stop Distorting Sam’s Views, Gosh Darn It!

Sam Harris Is Ben Stiller
Here’s the best piece about the Hitch’s, how shall we call it, ‘scholarly work’ that I’ve read thus far.

Unsurprisingly, Sam Harris, the Hitch’s fellow horseman, takes umbrage:

“I do not object to hard-hitting debate, but I do object to bad journalism and the malicious distortion of our views.[..] Personally, I will have nothing to do with Salon in the future–and I recommend that atheists and secularists who care about rational discourse boycott the website.”

Sam means he’d like for every atheist to boycott Salon because they espouse views that are opposed to his and because its writers are polemically capable of giving him ButtHurt and BadFeel. How’s that for “rational”.

While there’s been a lot of distortion of Sam’s views in recent memory, Sam seems to keep resorting to the claim that his views are being distorted whenever the bovine stink of said views are expressly pointed out.

Needless to say, the indignation over his views being distorted is also quite rich given he’s well known for distorting the views of others:

Let’s recall that, Of Scott Atran, Sam scathingly said:

“I have long struggled to understand how smart, well-educated liberals can fail to perceive the unique dangers of Islam. In The End of Faith, I argued that such people don’t know what it’s like to really believe in God or Paradise—and hence imagine that no one else actually does. The symptoms of this blindness can be quite shocking. For instance, I once ran into the anthropologist Scott Atran after he had delivered one of his preening and delusional lectures on the origins of jihadist terrorism. According to Atran, people who decapitate journalists, filmmakers, and aid workers to cries of “Alahu akbar!” or blow themselves up in crowds of innocents are led to misbehave this way not because of their deeply held beliefs about jihad and martyrdom but because of their experience of male bonding in soccer clubs and barbershops.”

Of course Sam wants us to think it absurd that Scott actually believes ‘soccer clubs’, ‘barber shops’ and the like are actual places of terrorist indoctrination. That would in fact be absurd. Only it isn’t what Scott actually meant. Not that anyone other than Sam needed the clarification, but Scott went on and gave it anyway, consquently showing us how Sam’s brand of silly rhetoric, as an approach to rational discourse, is only best suited to the playground:

“Sam Harris posted a recent blog about my views on Jihadis that is unbecoming of serious intellectual debate, if not ugly. He claims that I told him following a “preening and delusional lecture” that “no one [connected with suicide bombing] believes in paradise.” What I actually said to him (as I have to many others) was exactly what every leader of a jihadi group I interviewed told me, namely, that anyone seeking to become a martyr in order to obtain virgins in paradise would be rejected outright. I also said (and have written several articles and a book laying out the evidence) that although ideology is important, the best predictor (in the sense of a regression analysis) of willingness to commit an act of jihadi violence is if one belongs to an action-oriented social network, such as a neighborhood help group or even a sports team”

Of course, examples of Sam Harris “distorting” other people’s views abound. In fact most, if not all (especially The End Of Faith and Letters To A Christian Nation) his books are distortions of other people’s views. The rebuttal he lays out, if it could even be called as such, against the First Cause argument for God’s existence, even, is a distortion of the views of everyone through out history (Aquinas, Leibniz, William Craig, etc.) who’s used the argument.

Sam has mastered distorting people’s views while claiming they’re distorting his. But that is to be expected — in fact it’d be silly to expect more — from a man who makes stunningly stupid statements such as these:

“I can be even more inflammatory than that. If I could wave a magic wand and get rid of either rape or religion, I would not hesitate to get rid of religion. I think more people are dying as a result of our religious myths than as a result of any other ideology.”

Well, now, that just permeates all levels of stupid. Man’s intrinsic self-worth was a purely (mono)theistic “myth”, Sammy boy. You’d rather have zero religion than zero rape? Seriously?!

What’s more hopeless than a world that turns away from religion is a world that turns away from religion on the basis of Sam Harris’s arguments.

Sam Harris hurts my brain, plenty plenty much.

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Sam Harris was recently asked on twitter: “If the self is an illusion, [then] who or what is witnessing that illusion?”

To which Sam pithily answered: “Consciousness[!]”

Of course, this makes absolutely no sense at all. It’s not like he was constrained to give a short answer (although, if it were, it’d still make zero sense) since he was writing this not on twitter but over at his blog. Plus, the kilometric paragraphs he’s given as answers to other questions leaves only one possible reason for his incomprehensible ‘consciousness’ answer, and it is that he scarcely knows what the hell he’s talking about!

See, the ‘self’ is (or, if it isn’t, it’s at least a fundamental part of) consciousness. So to say ‘consciousness is witnessing the illusion of the self’ is to say ‘the self is witnessing the illusion of the self’, which is a rather incoherent thing to say as it presupposes the very thing it claims isn’t real!

The ‘self’, apparently, isn’t real (it’s an illusion) that is preceived by — tah-dah! — the self.

But, by denying there’s any difference between mind and brain, that is, in effect, the absurdity the naturalist-materialist is left with, and one that he must accept, for if mind is only brain, then mind is only material, and if nothing material can be self-aware, then self-awareness — consciousness — cannot be real.

Therefore consciousness, aka, ‘self-awareness‘, is an illusion.

Again, if this is all sounding overly meta to all of you, that’s because, damnit, it is!
“It’s all an illusion, this self-awareness thing” is what the naturalist likes — actually, needs — to say.

The question, then, is: to whom, pray tell, is it an illusion?

The answer (for Sam) is that it’s an illusion to the ‘self’.

Well, O.K., Sam. Thanks. But, actually, no thanks — for making me aware that my self-awareness is an illusion. Or, if you like, for making me conscious of my consciousness being an illusion. You aren’t being self-referentially incoherent at all!

 

Sam Harris tries, and fails, to critique Eben Alexander’s ‘Heaven Is Real’ piece.

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This is what happens when you rail on about that which you know exactly zilch.

Sam Harris, with the usual tone of condescension we’ve come to expect, mocks Dr. Eben Alexander’s Newsweek piece Heaven Is Real: A Doctor’s Experience With the Afterlife, and then ends up looking like an ass — a big one.

Sam writes:

“But Alexander’s account is so bad—his reasoning so lazy and tendentious—that it would be beneath notice if not for the fact that it currently disgraces the cover of a major newsmagazine. “

It’s not that Sam, in the above, makes a stupid point (although that’s exacty what it is) but rather that he prematurely — and dim-wittedly — made incendiary pronouncements against Dr. Alexander without even having read the book. That’s just downright lazy, incompetent and telling of how much of a knee-jerk his reaction was, making him (Sam) seem not in the least bit way over his thick little head.

Dr. Alexander, in his book, and as confirmed by Sam’s fellow skeptic who’s read the book — and who has, I would presume, every incentive to agree with Sam (being a skeptic and all) — goes in precise detail how he gets to his conclusions on the nature of consciousness.

So Dr. Alexander’s “reasoning” would only seem “lazy and tendentious” to those who are too “lazy and tendentious” to actually read them before critiquing it.

Sam also downplays — no, actually, he blatantly attempts to discredit — Dr. Alexander’s qualifications by saying:

“Neurosurgeons, however, are rarely well-trained in brain function. Dr. Alexander cuts brains; he does not appear to study them.”

[in other words “Oh noes! An after-life can’t be true! Noes!”]

Which was absolutely juvenile of Sam. Does he seriously believe Dr. Alexander, a practicing neurosurgeon and professor at Harvard Medical school (for 20 plus years), merely “cuts brains” while precluding any study of them? Dr. Alexander’s CV is easily accessible online, and the fact that it’s close to 5-pages-long immediately tells us who, between him and Sam, is blowing the smoke.

(Besides, is Sam really attempting to give us the impression that his index card-sized CV trumps the arm-length one of Eben? Hahahahaha! )

This is the problem with Sam and his ilk — they are just as fundamentalist as the religious fundamentalists they devote their attention to railing against. If it goes against the naturalist orthodoxy, it must be false, and those who argue otherwise are being irrational.

Bullshit, I say.

We have every reason to believe, unlike what people like Sam would have us believe, that mind cannot be reduced to brain — the hard problems of consciousness like intentionality and qualia make it such that it cannot in principle be done. So it really isn’t a huge leap (a leap it is, but not a huge one) to go from there to believing mind can survive the brain’s death.

To say nothing of how nauseatingly ignorant people like Sam are of the data we have on NDE experiences. He obviously hasn’t looked at the data and probably even thinks doing so would be beneath him. The fact that each is eerily similar should’ve already told us something.

What’s unique about Eben’s experience, however, is that, unlike the others, and despite Sam Harris’s playground tactic of implying otherwise, he’s actually aware of the workings of the brain, and, again, despite Sam Harris’s tonal affectations of incredulity, is therefore also qualified to give us his opinions — whether or not they are right — on why the materialist account of consciousness is untenable.

Alex Tsakiris from Skeptiko.com emailed Sam about a possible debate with Eben, to which Sam replied:

“There’s nothing to debate either. He can’t reasonably claim that the relevant parts of his brain (not just the cortex) were “completely shut down.” It’s just not a factual statement.”

And to which Eben responded (and thusly proceeded to kick Sam’s behind — actually, ass):

Of course, it was premature for him to speak out based on the Newsweek article — he needs to at least read the book if he wants to avoid making embarrassing statements that he later regrets. Isolated preservation of cortical regions might have explained some elements of my experience, but certainly not the overall odyssey of rich experiential tapestry. The severity of my meningitis and its refractoriness to therapy for a week should have eliminated all but the most rudimentary of conscious experiences: peripheral white blood cell [WBC] count over 27,000 per mm3, 31 percent bands with toxic granulations, CSF WBC count over 4,300 per mm3, CSF glucose down to 1.0 mg/dl (normally 60-80, may drop down to ~ 20 in severe meningitis), CSF protein 1,340 mg/dl, diffuse meningeal involvement and widespread blurring of the gray-white junction, diffuse edema, with associated brain abnormalities revealed on my enhanced CT scan, and neurological exams showing severe alterations in cortical function (from posturing to no response to noxious stimuli, florid papilledema, and dysfunction of extraocular motility [no doll’s eyes, pupils fixed], indicative of brainstem damage). Going from symptom onset to coma within 3 hours is a very dire prognostic sign, conferring 90% mortality at the very beginning, which only worsened over the week. No physician who knows anything about meningitis will just “blow off” the fact that I was deathly ill in every sense of the word, and that my neocortex was absolutely hammered. Anyone who simply concludes that “since I did so well I could not have been that sick” is begging the question, and knows nothing whatsoever about severe bacterial meningitis.

I invite the skeptical doctors to show me a case remotely similar to mine. My physicians, and their consultants at UVA, Bowman Gray-Wake Forest, Duke, Harvard, Stanford and beyond were astonished that I recovered.

In an effort to explain the “ultra-reality” of the experience, I examined this hypothesis: Was it possible that networks of inhibitory neurons might have been predominantly affected, allowing for unusually high levels of activity among the excitatory neuronal networks to generate the apparent “ultra-reality” of my experience? One would expect meningitis to preferentially disturb the superficial cortex, possibly leaving deeper layers partially functional. The computing unit of the neocortex is the six-layered “functional column,” each with a lateral diameter of 0.2–0.3 mm. There is significant interwiring laterally to immediately adjacent columns in response to modulatory control signals that originate largely from subcortical regions (the thalamus, basal ganglia, and brainstem). Each functional column has a component at the surface (layers 1–3), so that meningitis effectively disrupts the function of each column just by damaging the surface layers of the cortex. The anatomical distribution of inhibitory and excitatory cells, which have a fairly balanced distribution within the six layers, does not support this hypothesis. Diffuse meningitis over the brain’s surface effectively disables the entire neocortex due to this columnar architecture. Full-thickness destruction is unnecessary for total functional disruption. Given the prolonged course of my poor neurological function (seven days) and the severity of my infection, it is unlikely that even deeper layers of the cortex were still functioning in more than isolated pockets of small networks.

The thalamus, basal ganglia, and brainstem are deeper brain structures (“subcortical regions”) that some colleagues postulated might have contributed to the processing of such hyperreal experiences. In fact, all agreed that none of those structures could play any such role without having at least some regions of the neocortex still functional. All agreed in the end that such subcortical structures alone could not have handled the intense neural calculations required for such a richly interactive experiential tapestry.

There are 9 hypotheses discussed in an appendix of my book that I derived based on conversations with colleagues. None of them explained the hyper-reality in any brain-based fashion.

In other words, spank you very much, Sam — spank you very much!

Sam Harris Peddles ze Straw Men

Religion tells us that sin is what justifies eternal punishment in the next life…this is, to my mind, the mother of all cultural war issues. This is where science really pulls the keystone out of religion.

If you recall the general picture, we’ve all inherited original sin because Adam and Eve misused their free will. And then for eons, God gave us no guidance whatsoever. And then he wrote a few uneven books that were filled with rumors of ancient miracles.

And then he holds us responsible for the slightest doubt we have about his existence on the basis of these books — though he has stacked the deck against us by giving us a faculty of reason and strangely, an ability to write better books than the ones he has supposedly written.

— Sam Harris, author of The End Of Faith and Letters To A Christian Nation.

(Although Sam must’ve said this particular tripe years ago, I just encountered it now — from nowhere else but Facebook, of all places. Of course, I’ve been able to read all sorts of garbage from Sam for many years now, so not that it matters.)

Although much can be said about it, let’s overlook for now, to keep ourselves from breaking out in hearty guffaws, Sam’s implication that his books are better than the bible.

The above quotation is a clear example of how far removed Sam Harris is from that which he continually devotes his attention to attacking. He peddles these strawmen of religion, waxes incredulous about how ridiculous they are, then he, as if he hasn’t shown enough dim wittery on the matter just yet, self-aggrandizingly calls himself a “bright” after so doing. Priding himself in his ‘reason’, however, is the big irony here that will unfortunately be lost on him as he keeps epically failing to see how understanding religion (Christianity in particular) is a requisite to having credibility in whatever offensive you’re mounting against it.

Sam, in this instance — in every instance he goes on about religion, actually — gets the Sunday school version and says “Oh! Look how silly that is!”

Of course it’s silly, Sam — almost anything will be once you oversimplify it in the way you have.

You know what else is silly, though?

You — that anyone is still actually listening to you.

Especially after you’ve, uh, rather moronically, suggested this in your book about people of religion: “Some beliefs are so dangerous that it may be ethical to kill people for believing them”.

Now that is silly.

You are aware that, using your logic, it would be entirely in keeping with your own ethical standards to kill you for believing it would be ethical to kill others for their belief, right? Right.