Sam Harris and "Evidence" 


Atheist Sam Harris, who has written in The End of Faith there is no conceivable ground of evidence for any faith, has finally admitted there could be:
 
"Like science, every religion makes claims about the way the world is. Faith consists in accepting these claims on insufficient evidence. If Jesus ever returns to earth trailing clouds of glory, Christianity will stand revealed as a science, and every scientist in his right mind will bow down before the savior of the world in awe." 

This comes from an op-ed in Free Inquiry, the mouthpiece for the Council on Secular Humanism. He's writing to a sympathetic audience, fairly crowing his attacks on faith, oblivious to some very basic confusions. I'll begin here, though, by noting that his prediction is at least partly right, as Philippians 2:9-11 says:
 
"Therefore God also has highly exalted [Jesus Christ] and given Him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, and of those on earth, and of those under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father." 
 
Jesus will return, and every scientist will bow down before him--not necessarily as Savior, for some will have long rejected his offer of salvation; but definitely as Lord or Master. Sam Harris will have his evidence then. 
 
In the meantime, we can count on him not being at all impressed with that prophecy. He is quite aghast that 40% of scientists believe reason and faith are compatible. 

"There is a conflict between science and religion, and it is zero-sum. Surely it is time that scientists and other intellectuals stopped disguising this fact. Indeed, the incompatibility of reason and faith has been a self-evident feature of human cognition and public discourse for centuries. Either one has good reasons for what one strongly believes, or one does not. People of all creeds naturally recognize the primacy of reasons and resort to reasoning and evidence wherever they can. When rational inquiry supports the creed, it is always championed; when it poses a threat, it is derided."

Harris's problem is not so much that he's an atheist, but that he admits only one kind of evidence, which is "scientific." All reason, all rationality, is scientific rationality:
 
"If there were good reasons to believe in such a God, belief in him would be perfectly reasonable—and would, perforce, be part of the magisterium of scientific rationality."

Now I do agree with him that the "nonoverlapping magisteria" view of knowledge, as conceived by Stephen Jay Gould, is a mistake (or at least it is commonly misunderstood; Gould's statement of it is not all bad). There is religious truth and there is scientific truth, and though they represent separate approaches to discovering truth, their results can certainly overlap. Harris, however, wants us to believe that only scientific truth is true and that in this zero-sum game, science will eat religion alive.

I don't recall him ever defining "scientific truth" in his book or elsewhere, though; and such definitions have proven very elusive to philosophers of science. Apparently the return of Christ would allow Christianity to be "revealed as a science." That raises interesting questions about what he means. For example, it throws the whole machinery of "scientific method" (often, though incorrectly, considered to be the essential definition of science) right out the window. No hypothesis testing, no experimental controls, no repetitions, no independent verification, none of that. So what does Harris mean by "revealed as science"?

Here's a good example of what he would not count as evidence. Speaking of the distinguished geneticist Francis Collins, who is one of those who hold to the compatibility of faith and science, he writes:

"Collins’s scientific reputation is immaculate. And yet his reconciliation of reason and faith would be stunning for its stupidity even if Noah’s Ark had been discovered on the slopes of Mount Ararat, intact and bursting with fossils."

He also brushes aside the evidence of fulfilled prophecy, as if that meant nothing. This is the language of one who has decided in advance that faith is always false, and all evidence for it is wrong. Period.

Harris is guilty of an extreme form of scientism, the belief that only scientific knowledge is knowledge. This belief has long been known to be self-defeating, for there is no scientific means of demonstrating it; it's a non-scientific statement that only scientific statements can be true. It reminds me of one of Harris's own phrases: "stunning for its stupidity." But I'll be generous and hope that maybe somewhere else he has explained himself better than this.

Maybe there's a clue to his idea of science here:

"But any genuine exploration of ethics or the contemplative life demands the same standards of reasonableness and self-criticism that animates all real science. What we need is a science that incorporates first-person experience (emotions, ethical intuitions, contemplative insights, etc.) into the charmed circle of rigorous theory and experiment."

I don't know, but it sounds like this circle is really the singularly uncharming reductionist program that says all human experience can be described and fully explained in purely mechanistic terms. What a lovely thought: the only explanation that counts is one that says we're all machines. Steve Turner settled that one for us in his poem "The Conclusion"*:

My love
  she said
  that when all’s
  considered
  we’re only
  machines.
I chained
  her to my
  bedroom wall
  for future use
  and she cried.

There is knowledge that is non-scientific knowledge. Human values and relationships are in that category. (Is there a scientific reason to explain why it would be important for us all to value only scientific reasons? Or in other words, why does Harris bother writing books and op-eds?)

Faith is not based on a lack of evidence. Some do not find it sufficient, which is their choice, but many highly intelligent and deep-thinking persons have found it more than adequate. It's certainly clear that purely "scientific" reasoning is not.
 
*From Up to Date: Poems 1968-1982 by Steve Turner (Belleville, MI: Lion Publishing Corporation; 1976, 1980, 1982) p. 24. 

Posted: Mon - December 5, 2005 at 11:15 AM           |


© 2004-2007 by Tom Gilson. Permission is granted to quote up to two paragraphs of any blog entry, provided that a link back to the original is included or (in print) the website address is provided. Please email me regarding longer quotes. All other rights reserved.

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