Saturday, December 20, 2014

I'm A Sam Harris Fan

At a cocktail party last night I ran into philosopher Massimo Pigliucci and we had a nice little conversation on philosophy and science. Talking philosophy is very different when you're talking with an actual philosopher who knows their shit. I brought up free will because it's one of my favorite subjects to talk about and I mentioned how I'm a big fan of Sam Harris. "Nobody's perfect," Massimo replied (he's a vocal critic of Harris). Like Harris, Massimo rejects libertarian free will as he says just about every respectable philosopher does, and says that he's "some kind of compatibilist." I told him of my struggles between compatibilism and hard determinism and mentioned how I think Harris, who's a well known hard determinist, makes a reasonable case defending the position. (Harris wrote a short book on it called Free Will.) This prompted Massimo gave me his thoughts on why he thought Harris' view on Free Will was wrong.

Even among atheists, I find myself occasionally defending Harris against his haters.

I first came across Sam Harris probably back in 2009 when I became obsessed with watching debates on YouTube between theists and atheists. I liked his ability to poke fun at religion and to use humor to expose the absurdity of religious belief. He's a controversial figure, even among atheists. He's got his fans, and he's got his haters. I'm a Sam Harris fan. I don't agree with him on everything, but I do tend to agree with him more often than not.

For example, I totally agree with him when it comes to Islam and the negative effect its beliefs have on people who are inspired by it to commit violence, oppression, and acts of terrorism. There is no doubt in my mind that violent verses in the Koran inspire terrorists like those in ISIS to behead infidels and take female sex captives. And political correction, especially among liberals, is preventing us from having an honest conversation about the relationship between Islam and violence, terrorism, sexism and homophobia.

With his new book Waking Up, I think Harris is doing a very good thing by explaining transcendent experiences for the 21st century. Too many religious people have subjective, transcendent experiences and ignorantly conclude absurd metaphysical beliefs from them. Harris argues that these kinds of experiences are natural, and the fact that people of all cultures are having them and concluding different, contradictory beliefs as a result, shows that they cannot be the caused by a single god. Some other atheists don't get this. PZ Myers, another critic of Harris, recently wrote of Harris' new book:

I’m hoping Harris retires to doing nothing but touting New Agey pseudo-spiritualism. There’s good money there, I’m sure.

I don't think Myers is capable of appreciating what Harris is doing. He's not pushing New Agey speudo-spiritualism, he's recognizing the fact that people have transcendent experiences and shouldn't conclude irrational metaphysical beliefs from them. In effect, Harris is helping to shut down arguments like the inner witness to the Holy Spirit nonsense that so many theists think justifies their faith. It's about time someone wrote a book like Waking Up.

Last night, Massimo told me that he's not crazy about Harris' tactics for spreading naturalism. Harris gets a lot of flank because he's not an accommodationist in his style. Personally, I think there's a need for many styles of atheist advocacy. There's certainly a need for your friendly, accommodationist type atheists, and there's also a need for your firebrand, anti-theist, Dawkins/Hitchens types. They each serve their purpose.

So, I'm a Harris fan. I like the guy and find him entertaining. I like his views on a lot of stuff related to atheism and religion. We disagree on a few things as I do with everybody. I'm a Pigliucci fan too, and a Dawkins fan, and a Richard Carrier fan, and a PZ Myers fan. They each play an important role in representing atheism and there's no reason why we can't have a plurality of views.

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