December 26, 2006

I don't have time to do the meta-analyses

I hope everybody had a good Christmas. No, seriously, I do.

I haven't read either of Sam Harris's anti-religion books - a situation that is unlikely to change any time soon - so it is possible that I've got the wrong impression about their contents. I have heard Richard Dawkins endorse them, and I believed the two of them were on pretty much the same ultra-materialist page, i.e. the page that reads: faith in things unsupported by physical evidence is manifestly stupid and, being based on lies, usually pernicious. Dawkins emphasizes the stupidity, while Harris emphasizes the perniciousness. (Do I have that right?)

There is an indication in the James Wood review-essay I linked to here that the otherwise virus-free Harris allows a kind of tepid, rationalized New Age mysticism to "infect" the later chapters of his book. Still, in view of what I thought I knew about Mr. Harris, I was pretty surprised by this video of a segment of the Beyond Belief conference at the Salk Institute in San Diego last month.

Around 21 minutes into the clip, physicist Lawrence Krauss notes, as he has before, that there is a difference between saying "there is no evidence for design and purpose in the universe" and saying "there is no design and purpose in the universe"; he avers that to shift from the former to the latter is to step "beyond our role as scientists" and notes that things "inevitably become emotional" and unbalanced when that step is taken, adding "you [Harris] wouldn't preach as much against Buddhism as you would against Islam because you like Islam less than you like Buddhism." Harris concedes he has a point there. Then Krauss tries to get Harris to allow that the doctrine of reincarnation (which Harris has cited as a source of non-pernicious behavior among Buddhists), like the other beliefs he is famous for ridiculing, ought properly by his own standards to be reckoned "nonsense." Even if you like it, it's still nonsense, right?

Harris replies: "reincarnation, who knows? I mean there are these spooky stories... I don't have the time to do the meta-analyses or the statistical expertise, so I'm awaiting the evidence."

He might have to wait quite a while indeed for measurable material evidence of metempsychosis, I'd think (and I say that in my capacity as one of those not-quite-all-the-way-atheist morons the "brights" find so distasteful.) As I said, I haven't read Harris's books; and I daresay I'm not entirely au fait on reincarnation, so there may be some subtlety I'm missing. But to my tiny brain it sure seems as though the idea that souls can transmigrate presupposes the existence of a non-corporeal soul; and that the existence of a non- or extra-corporeal soul pretty much gives away the whole radical materialist show. If that, why not Zeus? Let us await the evidence...

Dawkins was on the panel and in the audience, but he made no objection. The Brights on Dawkins's website are evidently quite taken with Harris ("Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins are MY HERO!!!" says one, lamenting how lonely this world can be for those with "working brain.") If this soul stuff is (as you'd think) a Bright deal-breaker they make no mention of it at all in their discussion of the panel. Is "I'm awaiting the evidence" concerning "spooky stories" really a get-out-of-Dawkins-free card? Problem solved, then?


Semi-related: H. Allen Orr on The God Delusion in the the NYRoB.

Posted by Dr. Frank at December 26, 2006 07:05 PM | TrackBack

Bad link on your "brights" reference, Dr. Frank.

Posted by: Paul at December 26, 2006 09:48 PM

Ooops, you're right, Paul. Fixed.

Posted by: Dr. Frank at December 26, 2006 10:05 PM

Frank, can you design an experiment that has the potential for disproving materialism? What would that experiment look like?

Posted by: Bill Weitze at December 27, 2006 02:26 AM

No, Bill, of course not. Not sure what you're getting at. It may be my own failure of imagination, but I can't square Sam Harris's statements about reincarnation with "brightness." Don't you wonder how the transmigration of souls might "work," materially speaking? Soul-y protoplasm or something?

Posted by: Dr. Frank at December 27, 2006 03:19 AM

More like aerosolized cheeze-whiz, I would think.

Posted by: Paul at December 27, 2006 03:36 PM

"I believed [Harris and Dawkins] were on pretty much the same ultra-materialist page .... Dawkins emphasizes the stupidity, while Harris emphasizes the perniciousness. (Do I have that right?)"

Frank, I saw Dawkins a couple times during the "God Delusion" tour. He *is* a hero of mine -- but I love him for his clear writing on evolutionary theory.

My "take" is that Dawkins emphasizes the improbability of (some/most) religious beliefs (not the stupidity). Why assign supernatural explanations to phenomena for which there are strong scientific explanations? Dawkins is also deeply offended by the teaching that "faith" (unquestioning acceptance of what cannot be seen or tested) is a virtue.

Posted by: Francesca at December 27, 2006 03:53 PM

There's been a materialist theory posited with respect to transmigration of souls relating to production of DMT from the pineal gland at the time of death.

The consequence of this flood of DMT upon our dying brain-based mind is a pulling back of the veils normally hiding what Tibetan Buddhists call the bardo, or intermediary states between this life and the next. DMT opens our senses to these betwixt states with their myriad visions, thoughts, sounds and feelings. As the body becomes totally inert, consciousness has completely left the body and now exists as a field among many fields of manifest things.

I'm not sure if the brights would accept that kind of theory as the basis for any materialist experimentation, but it does suggest some possible routes.

Discussed within a more expansive (and more speculative) essay here:; I haven't read any of the more primary sources referenced (nor do I personally have any firmer opinion on the subject than "My, that's interesting.")

And Happy Christmas to you, too.

Posted by: Wesley at December 27, 2006 07:09 PM

My point was that evidence that seems to confirm reincarnation doesn't necessarily disprove materialism. Give me a specific case and I might be able to give you a materialistic explanation, but then again I might not.

Also, Harris is clearly a materialist, even though he said "I don't know" rather than "I don't believe". His response of "I don't know" is a perfectly valid (and common) response to claims of the paranormal. Harris hasn't been kicked out of the atheists' "club" because the atheists know what he was getting at.

Posted by: Bill Weitze at December 28, 2006 03:12 AM

I got ya, Bill. To me it seems like arbitrary dealing. You believe in God and can't prove it? You're a moron. You believe in reincarnation and can't prove it? Well, who knows? Maybe there's something in it anyway. We'll just have to wait and see... Harris does not appear to have the same indulgence about spooky God stories that he evidently has for spooky reincarnation stories.

Posted by: Dr. Frank at December 28, 2006 03:37 AM

I'm not sure why anyone would riducule the religious. Religious or atheist/scientist, you have to approach the question of the nature of the universe with a lot of humility.

Posted by: Bill Weitze at December 29, 2006 06:34 AM

Yeah, Bill, that's the way I feel about it too.

Posted by: Dr. Frank at December 29, 2006 05:08 PM

I've always found it a tad suspicious that most models of reincarnation conform to a linear understanding of time -- why not have past-lives occur concurrently with present ones? (It'd be neat to be able to get lotto numbers and stock tips from already-lived-my-life me.)

I'm not really up on anything past Newtonian physics, but aren't there experiments that reveal the actual nature of time to be contrary to how it is commonly perceived, the same way modern astronomy has shown that most of astrology has operated under mistaken assumptions? (like say "you know those last 1000 years when you thought Neptune and Jupiter were in some alignment configuration -- that was a smudge on the telescope or something.")

Posted by: KarmaNo1Fan at January 2, 2007 02:12 AM

Harris? Dunno. Maybe.

Dawkins? The shit. Read "The Ancestor's Tale," and you'll see.

I am definitely an "ultra-materialist," as you put it.

I agree that supernatural explanations are not needed to explain how stuff works. They are also not needed to see that we live on a miraculous planet and that "plain old" physical things can be brain-blammingly amazing and beautiful and totally not understandable.

In other words, I don't need faith to be humbled and amazed.

Posted by: Ben at January 14, 2007 08:07 AM