Tuesday, 23 November 2010

david wolpe vs sam harris - "does god exist?" debate highlights + commentary

i'm not done with all of the videos, but here is what i've got so far:


AJU God Debate: Sam Harris vs. Rabbi David Wolpe, pt. 2

02:36 we come from generations of people who did not know a damn thing about the causes of events in the world that really concern them: the spread of disease, the failure of crops, the weather. religious discourse has changed, we're not sacrificing people, happily, now, but it has change by virtue of progress from the *outside*.

07:48 the belief that jesus was born of a virgin, may be a cherished claim for most christians, it is also a claim about biology. this is why you can't keep religion and science apart, their truth claims cannot be disentangled.

wolpe: natural laws, which themselves, by the way, are an article of faith
harris: you'll notice how nobody says this in an airplane at 30,000 feet.

09:27 59% of the (US) population, according to gallup, [believe] that jesus will return to earth to judge us, this entails claims about the human survival of death, apparently the human flight without the aid of technology. this is what people are visualizing...


AJU God Debate: Sam Harris vs. Rabbi David Wolpe, pt. 3

harris: this is whats anti-scientific, when your convictions dont scale with your evidence. i'm actually openminded about the survival of death.
wolpe: right, you say about reincarnation that there could even be evidence for it in your book.
harris: yes, i could easily tell you what would constitute evidence, i'm not saying this evidence exists. i could tell you what would constitute evidence for the truth of mormonism, its just not forthcoming.

01:05 there are all kinds of scientific things you can say about religion, which religious people tend not to want to hear. you can say, for instance, that mormonism is objectively less likely to be true than christianity. why can you say this? because mormonism is just christianity, plus some rather stupid ideas.

wolpe: if you want to find intolerance, you look for atheistic regimes. would you rather live in north korea or south korea. south korea is christian.
harris: dont answer that question =) this is a trick and this is one of the reasons why i'm not a fan of the term atheism. atheism is a term totally without content. its like being a non-astrologer. we dont have a word for someone whos not an astrologer and if astrologers suddenly became ascendant in our society, we wouldnt need to invent non-astrology as a discipline, we could talk about reason and science and evidence and common sense and bullshit and put astrologers in their place. so it could be with religion.


AJU God Debate: Sam Harris vs. Rabbi David Wolpe, pt. 4

00:46 this notion that stalin and hitler and pol pot were doing what they did because of atheism, because of a non-belief in god... ask yourself, is too much skeptical inquiry really what's wrong with north korea? the north koreans are a cargo cult armed with nuclear weapons right now. they think that the food aid that we give them is a devotional offering to the genius of their dear leader. they are systematically impoverished, both physically and in terms of information. any knowledge is too much knowledge in north korea. this is not a paradise of reasonableness. now all i'm advocating is that we use the same standards that of rationality that we use in every other area of our lives when people start making claims about the divine origin of books and the virgin birth of some people and the glorious end to history where the good people will be raptured into the sky. these are the kinds of things we should apply pressure to and it is taboo to apply pressure to these claims and religious moderation, unfortunately ramifies that taboo.

04:26 there are few claims there that we have to shelf. you just claimed that i got my morality from a religious tradition. ask yourself, when you pick up the bible or the jewish bible or any holy book, and find ethical wisdom in there, what is that process like? you pick up leviticus or deuteronomy and you find that if a woman is not a virgin on her wedding night, youre supposed to stone her to death on her fathers doorstep. ok, presumably you choose to reject that pearl of ancient wisdom. and then you find another line, i think this is also in leviticus, love your neighbor as yourself, or the golden rule, as preached in the new testament, and this resonates with you as a good operating premise, to generate further moral intuitions. if nothing else, its a good ideal to live toward. the guarantor of your morality in that case is not the book, its in your brain. and this kind of truth testing is something that we bring to religion.

05:45 now religion does a lot of work on people and you can get good people to believe some terrible things, in the name of god, and this is what worries me about religion. we waste time talking about stalin and hitler and pol pot. these were political religions, dogmatisms through and through and when anyone started to make to much sense, in opposition to these dogmatisms they were carted off and killed. these were not contexts in which rational discourse prevailed and the best idea won. so to call them science is to misuse the term. in the case of hitler, hitler never really repudiated jesus and he used jesus in his speech and he was fascilitated by a thousand years of religious fulminating against the jews in the name of christianity. religion is implicated, certainly, in the holocaust. so its not a conversation worth having.


AJU God Debate: Sam Harris vs. Rabbi David Wolpe, pt. 5

00:15 in what sort of regime are you likely to be able to get a society, ala america, where that is minimized?

wolpe: every tradition is not made just of propositions, its something thats lived, is bred in you and if it works well, produces magnificent human beings.
harris: and the problem is there are many gods and books on offer
wolpe: yes, thats true
harris: and they make incompatible claims about how we should live in this world.
wolpe: thats true

02:25 i dont know how we are going to get to a future where muslims believing in martyrdom and christians believing in the rapture will be a good recipe for good neighbors

02:54 we need to cease to reward people for pretending to know things they do not, and the only area of discourse where we do this is on the subject of god

harris: when even the doubts of experts are used to confirm a doctrine, how could it possibly be disproved? you see this all the time in religion, and this is precisely what you dont see in science.
wolpe: thats right, but thats not a bad thing. first of all, ask yourself this, even despite her doubts, if mother theresa werent a devout christian, do you think she would have spent her life among the lepers of calcutta?
harris: many secular people do just that sort of thing.


AJU God Debate: Sam Harris vs. Rabbi David Wolpe, pt. 6

harris: you were absent for all of human history before your birth. the idea that you simply cant imagine not existing after death, is really just a lack of trying. and granted this is terrifying, not so much in our own case, but terrifying in the case of those we love. and we are terrified to lose the people we love in this world. religion is the strategy we have adapted to keep that terror at bay.
moderator: if not religion, then what do you have?
harris: its not that you necessarily have a replacement for everything religion does on every question. you dont replace the belief in santa claus with something that does exactly what the belief in santa claus did, equally consoling, equally motivating on christmas morning, it doesnt happen.

04:53 harris: there are 3 ways to defend religion: one is to argue that religion is true. that one specific religion is true, that god exists or that the bible was really dictated by him. another is to argue that religion is useful, that religion is the basis for morality. please notice that this is a very different track to run on. and it says nothing about whether or not god exists. even if i conceded that religion is profoundly useful, so useful as to be indispensable, people without religion will just rape and kill each other and we dont want that so by all means, fill the churches and mosques and synagogues. that would not, for a moment, grant credence to the idea that one of our books was dictated by an omnisient being or that such a being exists. religion could function like a placebo. i could invent a religion for you right now that would be guaranteed to be useful and more useful than any religion in existence and you would know it would be untrue. right at this moment i could invent a religion where the precept is be kind to others, dont lie, cheat, steal or kill, and this is where it gets novel, make sure your children make every effort to understand science and mathematics to the best of their abilities, and if you dont do that youll be tortured for an eternity after death by a 17 headed demon named dexter. if we could spread this faith to billions right now we would live in a better world. if we could replace islam with this faith we would live in a better world, for starters. but that wouldnt lend the slightest credence to the idea that such a demon exists.
wolpe: can i tell you why i disagree?
harris: so youre going to argue that it would lend credence to the idea that such a demon exists?
wolpe: well youre about to hear what im going to argue.


AJU God Debate: Sam Harris vs. Rabbi David Wolpe, pt. 7

00:00 people actually believe that theyre rewarded after death in certain circumstances, theres a difference between an eternity of happiness and an eternity of suffering and it really matters what name you call god and what you believe and the precise kinds of practices you engage in and in the case of islam, it matters if you die in the right circumstances and nothings more auspicious than dying a martyr

harris: this is constrained by our common sense in every other domain of discourse. just take for example, the people who think elvis is still alive. whats wrong with this claim? why is this claim not vitiating our academic departments and corporations? i will tell you why, we have not passed laws against believing elvis is still alive. the problem is that when anybody ever seriously represents his belief that elvis is still alive, in a conversation, on a first date, at a lecture, at a job interview, he immediately pays a price. he pays a price in ill-concealed laughter. this is a good thing. he could rattle on about how this is not a scientific claim, this is a matter of faith, when i look at you i see you might be elvis.

04:47 wolpe: except that this is like the bertrand russell teapot analogy that dawkins is so fond of, that there might be a celestial teapot circling the globe. if you make a claim about the existence of a physical entity, like elvis or a teapot, yes that is evaluated the way you evaluate any other physical entity. thats why i keep saying and i will say it again, then it is not a scientific claim to say that i believe you have a soul or that god exists. if it were a scientific claim you could evaluate it the same way you could get a telescope and look for a teapot, but you cant.

harris doesnt repond, so heres my response: science simply evaluates that claim like this: any claim without evidence can be dismissed without evidence. if theres no evidence for the existence of something then theres no reason to believe it. lets just change the teapot analogy to an invisible teapot. you cant prove or disprove that theres an invisible teapot circling the globe. if you argue that your experiences with people give you cause to believe that there is a god, then i aruge that i experience that it rains sometimes, therefore there must be an invisible teapot pouring water down onto the earth.

06:50 i think its a product of an argument you used earlier on, which is a fellacious one, this idea that the percentages of people who do these great things...that most people doing these good things are doing it for religious reasons. well most people most of the time have been religious, throughout human history, theres been noone else to do the job. this is true. most people who have plucked chickens have plucked them while believing in god, but that does not mean you need to believe in god to be able to pluck a chicken.

wolpe: there is a values vaccuum in societies when you suck religion out of it or force it out, that is to my way of thinking, terrifying.
harris: there is a values vaccuum in religion. there is a values vaccuum in an organization like the catholic church that preaches the sinfulness of condom use is sub-saharan africa. theres a values vaccuum in that same institution that shelters its pedofile priests, literally an army of child rapists based on its own intent upon maintaing its integrity as a religious institution.


AJU God Debate: Sam Harris vs. Rabbi David Wolpe, pt. 8

06:54 "calling stalin an atheist is a false argument. he was not moved on the basis of his critical inquiry, on the basis of his lack of faith, to kill tens of millions of people."

stalin was a murderous psycopath. you could even argue that had stalin been a theist, the outcome might have been even worse.

08:00 its what we do with any other god, but the god of abraham. imagine a political candidate who was forthcoming about his belief in poseidon. it would be a problem. he could not possibly get elected. its not like someone has proved that poseidon doesnt exist. that is russell's teapot, you cannot prove that poseidon doesnt exist, the question is is there any good reason to believe he exists? the answer is no. its the same answer for the god of abraham.


AJU God Debate: Sam Harris vs. Rabbi David Wolpe, pt. 10

01:00 [leviticus] is not a brilliant document. it is an appalling guide to morality. just think how good a book would be if it were authored by the creator of the universe. theres not a single sentence in the bible that could not have been written by somebody living in the iron age. this is a problem for claiming this is the best book we have. if youre living by leviticus or deuteronomy you should be a good jew for all time. now why are you not a good jew for stoning your neighbor for working on the sabbath today? youre not because we have different standards of morality and reasonableness and those came from outside of religion.

02:57 you actually think the book would not be improved if we just changed that line about stoning your children to death if they talk back to you? the moral vision of the bible would not be upgraded just a notch?

03:36 wouldnt you be on firmer ground if it was just unambiguously the most brilliant treatise on morality and still stood the test of time today? if it just repudiated slavery? you and i could improve the bible in 5 minutes.

04:00 wolpe: "the idea is can you create a book which an interpretive community for thousands of years would find nourishment and meaning in. i know that you think thats easy, but i suspect that its more difficult than you think."

yes, too difficult even for the almighty god.



AJU God Debate: Sam Harris vs. Rabbi David Wolpe, pt. 11

02:38 it should be obvious to all of you and it certainly should be obvious to francis collins that if a fronzen waterfall can testify to the divinity of jesus, anything can mean anything... he actually elaborated on this point in an interview for time magazine, he said the waterfall was frozen in three streams and this put him in the mind of the trinity. this is psychotic thinking in any other context.

07:46 the place to put our faith is in human conversation. this is all we have to work with and the choice is to have a truly modern, 21st century conversation, availing ourselves of all of the tools and all of the wealthy of human effort that is our legacy, or we can fixate our conversation in a prior century. it can be the 7th century if you're a muslim, the 5th century BC if you're a jew, and we can privilege a conversation that was had then among people who could barely see the wisdom of swapping out their child for a goat in a sacrifice and dignify their claims to understanding reality with some kind of special oppressions (?) and i think we should be very leary of doing that, given what we see about us, in the name of religion.

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