Science Proves People Shouldn’t Smash Each Other In The Face With A Large Rock

Sam Harris keeps up the fight:

As I argue in my new book, even if there are a thousand different ways for these two people to thrive, there will be many ways for them not to thrive–and the differences between luxuriating on a peak of human happiness and languishing in a valley of internecine horror will translate into facts that can be scientifically understood. Why would the difference between right and wrong answers suddenly disappear once we add 6.7 billion more people to this experiment?

Granted, genuine ethical difficulties arise when we ask questions like, "How much should I care about other people's children? How much should I be willing to sacrifice, or demand that my own children sacrifice, in order to help other people in need?" We are not, by nature, impartial–and much of our moral reasoning must be applied to situations in which there is tension between our concern for ourselves, or for those closest to us, and our sense that it would be better to be more committed to helping others. And yet "better" must still refer, in this context, to positive changes in the experience of sentient creatures.

I haven't read the book and will, because Sam is both a friend and a brilliant man and I have learned and benefited from both his last books. But in discussing this book's arguments with him a while back, I found myself making many of the same points Kwame Anthony Appiah makes here. Utilitarianism – the search for morality grounded in pure well-being – is not new in the world of ideas. But its premises remain thoroughly debatable and the notion that these eternal questions can at some point be empirically or scientifically resolved is, to my mind, a category error, an ignoratio elenchi.

The Brain And The Mystery Of Our Subjective Experience

Sam Harris is interviewed on science, faith, and morality.

Since our online dialogue a couple of years ago, Sam and I have become good friends, and we are planning to turn our conversation into a little print on demand book, with some contributions from other atheists and believers. If you'd like to get on an email list so that when we manage to put this all together, we can notify you and tell you how you can get a copy – for your own or, we hope, teaching use or a basis for discussion groups – send an email to I'm a bit swamped right now but we hope to get this done soon.

We are going to donate all proceeds to St Jude's Children Research Center.

This is about trying to restore a civil conversation between serious people of faith and sincere non-believers, to try and defuse and depolarize this debate some more.

Sam and Paul

A reader writes:

Sam Harris’ critique was anticipated, and dealt with, by Paul almost 2000 yrs ago:

"For we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews, and foolishness to Greeks, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power and wisdom of God."

This doesn’t mean Paul ignores Sam Harris, for whom the gospel is plainly "foolishness." Far from it. He went to the Areopagus in Athens and debated with the philosophers all day. And Acts very interestingly records the simple fact that upon hearing Paul, some thought he was foolish, others wanted to hear more, and some became believers and their lives were changed. Christians will do the same: debate with all, and know that some will find us to be fools, while others will find the miracle of faith.

Fundamentalism and Freedom

A reader writes:

I read almost all of your debate with Sam. As a Christian turned atheist I have to say that I resonated mostly with Sam’s arguments. It was a very interesting discussion, but I think that in the end you lent support to one of his main assertions.

His case is that moderates lend comfort to fundamentalists by not challenging "silly beliefs". In some ways I think this lending comfort argument is a bit silly, since I don’t believe for a second that religious moderates can talk fundamentalists out of whatever beliefs are undesirable, so in one sense it does not matter what you believe or how you defend it.

However, I do believe that your ultimate defense of your faith, which was to say I believe it because I have never doubted it, and since I did not gain it by rational debate, I cannot lose it by rational debate, completely eliminates any credible ability to criticize the beliefs of dangerous fundamentalists on rational grounds. That little formulation that you use to extend a protective bubble around your belief in God can, in principle be extended around any set of beliefs that go with belief in God.

Unlike Harris, I do not believe this makes you in any way responsible or complicit with dangerous fundamentalism, but I do think it is a fair point for Sam to make that the urge to defend a belief in that way really is a part of the problem.

As a religious experience, I respect fundamentalism, as I hope is clear from my book. This may frustrate or enrage many secularists, but the point about spiritual humility is precisely not to dismiss others' sincere religious journeys. I am therefore deeply resistant to Sam's project to remove religious discourse from what he regards as rational debate, because he may be removing the truth from rational debate. I can no more dismiss the fundamentalist's faith than I can dismiss Sam's reason, with respect to the ultimate truth about the universe.

But it's not as if we don't already have a solution to the political and cultural problem Sam is rightly concerned with. The solution to the problem of fundamentalism as a political issue is classical liberalism. No one will succeed or should succeed in banishing faith from the face of the earth. What we can do is construct political orders that keep the totalist claims of fundamentalism at bay, bracketing them in the private sphere. We can and have built and maintained polities that strongly defend religious liberty while just as strongly keeping the government religiously-neutral, which is another word for secular. In my view, Sam's response to a real political threat is both politically utopian and cosmically too cramped. Spinoza and Hobbes and Locke and the founders saw a better way. The American constitution is the solution, which is why the battle to insulate it from the fundamentalist forces unleashed by Bush and company is so vital. And we need believers to defend secularism, if it is to survive.

Email of the Day

A reader writes:

I understand your point in reponse to Sam Harris: if humans are genetically predisposed to faith, and if faith provides so many benefits to the individual and to society, why try and eliminate faith, why not let everyone believe what they want? It’s a much more manageable project than trying to deny faith to the masses anyway.

But I just can't buy into that argument. I translate that as saying: let’s pass out the security blankets, pick the one you want, and we don’t care what’s really true.

Example: God created man out of dirt? The female gender of the human species was created from a bone? Please. You know the list of these types of Christian idiocies is long indeed. Christians must take responsibility for what their holy book specifically claims is the truth. You seem quite happy to pick and choose what you want to take literally (the stuff that specifically makes you feel good), and what you want to believe is just metaphor (all the ridiculous stuff that no right-thinking person could ever believe). How can the Christian religion be said to embody any kind of integrity when all of their followers indulge in these personal pick-and-choose shenanigans?

Also, this nebulous 'God is Love' argument is old and well-worn, and doesn't mesh with the specific claims made by Christianity. I don’t disagree with the statement, but I am saying that Christianity is claiming much more than just that, a lot more.

I think it is time to end this debate between you and Sam. It has ended up where it was always been headed: in the inability of the believer to rationally answer even very basic and glaringly obvious rational questions about their faith, and instead, to descriptively wallow in their personal love affair with their particular belief system despite all the irrationality, obscenity, and contradictory evidence offered by their magic holy book.

And a happy Easter to you too.

Debating The Big Wow


Well it's the weekend and this blog has been covering some arcane ground in the debate about science and faith. So here's an email exchange prompted by this blog between Stuart Hameroff from the University of Arizona and Sam Harris. It's long and if you're uninterested, skip to the next post. But I find it fascinating to observe two minds engaging each other on these fundamental issues. Hameroff emailed me first about Sam's comments about the Big Wow theory I posted about here. Here's Stuart's email:

I am writing because my work was mentioned in the 'Big Wow' post by James Greer in the context of your discussion with Sam Harris. The controversial theory of consciousness I developed with Sir Roger Penrose (called Orch OR for orchestrated objective reduction) can potentially bridge the gap between science and soul.

Sam writes:

Granted, there are still many gaps in neuroscience into which a soul might still be inserted, just as there are gaps in our understanding of the cosmos into which the faithful eagerly insert God, but such maneuvers are utterly without intellectual merit.

I strongly disagree that Orch OR is without intellectual merit and challenge Sam to show that it is.

First, by soul I mean that consciousness (and/or unconscious processes) may be accompanied by: 1) nonlocal interconnectedness among living beings, 2) interaction with a Platonic wisdom, or cosmic intelligence inherent in the universe, and 3) existence outside the body.

I am not claiming proof of the soul, but of a scientifically plausible explanation for it based on these three factors. The potential explanation involves quantum theory, a poorly understood but indisputably accurate field of science. Orch OR proposes that consciousness is a sequence of momentary frames, or conscious events occurring in the brain roughly 40 times per second (faster or slower depending on arousal etc), coupled to high frequency EEG brain waves called gamma synchrony.

Each conscious moment is a quantum event – a coalescence of unconscious quantum possibilities to definite values … a collapse of the wave function, or quantum state reduction. The particular values selected in each reduction define conscious experience and control behavior.

Roger Penrose suggested such events are reconfigurations at the most basic, irreducible level of Einstein's spacetime continuum, called the Planck scale (describable by quantum gravity, string theory etc). Infinitesimally smaller than atoms or quarks, the Planck scale is quantized and nonrandom – it has specific geometry, information and logic.

Plato had suggested an abstract world of pure truth, form, aesthetic and ethical values. Beginning with mathematical laws, Penrose placed Plato’s world in patterns of Planck scale geometry. So the fundamental Planck scale may encode the cosmic blueprint … Platonic information embedded (perhaps evolving) since the Big Bang (Big Wow?) in nonlocal patterns in quantum logic repeating at varying scales…like a hologram throughout the universe. Call it quantum logic of the universe (QLU).

In his 1989 book The Emperor's New Mind, Penrose suggested that such information/logic could influence our conscious perceptions and choices. Although Penrose avoided any reference to religion or spirituality, others were struck by potential analogies to divine guidance, the way of the Tao, may the force be with you, etc.

Penrose didn't have a good neurobiological structure for quantum computation in the brain, but I did. Since 1972 I had studied computing capabilities of microtubules – structural lattices inside neurons which organize their activities. I also knew that anesthetic gases selectively erase consciousness solely through very weak quantum forces. Roger and I teamed up and put forth our Orch OR model based on quantum computing in microtubules in 1994.

Neuroscience and mainstream philosophy attacked our theory even before it was published, and continue to do so. Nonetheless Orch OR remains viable, completely consistent with known neuroscience and can also account for aspects of the soul.

1) Interconnectedness among living beings can be accounted for by nonlocal quantum entanglement. 2) Interaction with cosmic intelligence may be influence by Penrose noncomputable Platonic wisdom embedded in Planck scale geometry. 3) Existence outside the body: According to Orch OR, consciousness occurs at the fundamental level of Planck scale geometry, normally in and around microtubules between our ears. But when brain coherence is lost, quantum information related to consciousness and the unconscious mind remain in the universe, distributed but still entangled.

So I believe that science can in principle accommodate the soul through the application of quantum mechanics to neuroscience.

In a strange twist, atheist scientists and philosophers (Sam Harris – whom I met at the Beyond Belief conference in La Jolla – is actually one of the more reasonable ones) have become “holier-than-thou”. However the neurocomputational model on which they base their case for how the brain produces consciousness is flawed, as I show in a forthcoming paper in the journal Cognitive Science.

I would like to hear Sam’s comments on this paper, and would be happy to debate him or anyone else on whether science can provide a plausible explanation for the soul. I say yes.

One final comment. Sam also said

"While I spend a fair amount of time thinking about the brain (as I am finishing my doctorate in neuroscience), I do not think that the utter reducibility of consciousness to matter has been established. It may be that the very concepts of mind and matter are fundamentally misleading us."

I agree. Although Descartes separated mind and matter, it is logical to assume they both derive from a common underlying entity, e.g. the doctrine of neutral monism, put forth by Spinoza whose common underlying entity was a God responsible for the scientific laws and harmony of the universe. Modern physics indicates both matter and mind derive from Planck scale geometry.

Sam replied to Stuart as follows, and Stuart responded. Here's the exchange in a fisk-like dialogue. Sam's response is in italics.

Dear Stuart

I'm not sure what I wrote that got construed as an attack upon Orch OR. There is nothing about my criticism of religious faith that entails materialism. Whenever I get the chance, I am very quick to say that I do not know what the relationship  between consciousness and matter is. While I have never understood how your microtubule account solves "the hard problem" or closes the "explanatory gap," this is a very different criticism than I have leveled at religion. And I have never said (or thought) that what you and Penrose are doing is "without intellectual merit."

Thanks … as I said in my post to Andrew, you are among the more reasonable of the people I met at the La Jolla conference. I could only stay there one day but Paul Davies said that after I left you endorsed what might be construed as a secular Buddhist position. Is that true? Comparisons between Buddhism and quantum physics go way back.

I do not rule out the possibility of our finding some sound, scientific reasons to believe in things that appear very spooky to most scientists at present–from telepathy to mathematical idealism. And the fact that I do not rule such things out has made many atheists uncomfortable.

Good for you.

I do not foresee, however, our finding good reasons to believe that the Bible was dictated by an omniscient being who disapproves of sodomy but occasionally fancies human sacrifice. These claims really do strike me as being "without intellectual merit." Of course, on this and all fronts, I remain open to compelling evidence.

I agree with you. My take is that there exists a fundamental Platonic wisdom embedded in the Planck scale (along with qualia, spin, charge etc) which has inspired mankind to write the great books and act 'in the name of God'….but man being man, many such efforts are misdirected, coopted and perverted.

I defined the soul in such a way to be agnostic…(which is what you are sounding like rather than atheist) But I was responding to your comment

Granted, there are still many gaps in neuroscience into which a  soul might still be inserted, … but such maneuvers are  utterly without intellectual merit.

By implication at least, Orch OR is one such maneuver "utterly without merit". Are there any others based on sound science?

But lets talk about faith vs reason. In my article in press in Cognitive Science (on my website – have a look please, since you are a neuroscientist – I argue that the faith of neuroscientists (based on brain=mind=computer) that conventional neurocomputation accounts for consciousness is illogical and refuted by evidence. Reason is NOT on the side of the neuroscientists.

I'll continue my own debate with Sam next week. The last two posts in our blogalogue are here and here. But this has been for me at least a fascinating diversion. I also found out that Stuart Hameroff is Bob Kaplan's cousin – yes the Bob Kaplan who writes for the Atlantic and whose book was the focus of our book club a few years ago. Small world.

Science and Faith

Sam Harris and I aren't the only ones debating and blogging about this eternal subject. A new blog has a new post on the subject. Money quote:

There's a rumor afoot that serious scientists must abandon what, in the common parlance, is referred to as “faith”, that “rational” habits of mind and “magical thinking” cannot coexist in the same skull without leading to a violent collision.

We are not talking about worries that one cannot sensibly reconcile one’s activities in a science which relies on isotopic dating of fossils with one’s belief, based on a literal reading of one’s sacred texts, that the world and everything on it is orders of magnitude younger than isotopic dating would lead us to conclude. We are talking about the view that any intellectually honest scientist who is not an atheist is living a lie.

I have no interest in convincing anyone to abandon his or her atheism. However, I would like to make the case that there is not a forced choice between being an intellectually honest scientist and being a person of faith.

Is Buddhism The Answer?


A reader writes:

In your dialogue with Sam, I'm surprised you have not referenced Buddhism, especially Zen Buddhism, which does a pretty good job traversing the divide between reason and faith. Buddhism, of course, is non-theistic – the question of who created the universe is set aside in favor of a focus on addressing the vicissitudes of the human condition. In various forms of Buddhism, semi-divine or transcendental beings come into the picture, Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. But the focus is always on the alleviation of individual suffering and, ultimately, awakening or enlightenment, which is often defined as seeing into the 'true' nature of things, beyond the conditioned, contingent reality you eloquently wrestled with a few weeks back. The premise of Buddhism is that enlightenment is available to all. Indeed, it is right under our noses at all times. Zen Buddhist thought, which focuses particularly on this question, does not ascribe divine or suprahuman labels to this reality – it is simply the way things really are, absent our subjective judgments and conditions. In Buddhist Pali texts, this is called tathata, or 'suchness.'

On the philosophical level, this tension between the relative and the absolute literally leads to paradoxes. How can something be conditioned and unconditioned at the same time? (Hence the Zen koan.) This is where the spiritual dimension enters into it. Only with some wisdom and insight into these questions – Why do we suffer? What is my life about? What am I? – can we resolve the paradox, usually through an intuitive leap of some kind, an insight. This is one reason your otherwise fascinating debate with Sam Harris is going in endless circles. Intellectual inquiries can nourish faith and wisdom. But they will, eventually, lead you to a paradox, a set of circles, that cannot be negotiated through reason alone. They cannot be the sole basis for an inquiry into the meaning and nature of existence.

Yes, and this will probably become more explicit as we continue talking. Reasoning about faith is a paradox. Some readers have asked when I'm simply going to surrender to Sam. Well: in many ways I have surrendered. I'm fascinated by what reason can illuminate about faith – and have found Sam's arguments enriching to my own faith. But I can no more be reasoned out of faith than I was reasoned into it. I really have no choice in the matter. But I hope to understand it better and to see it in the truest light possible.

(Photo: Burmese light insense at night at the most important Buddhist temple in all of Burma, Shwedagon Pagoda during the full moon festival March 2, 2007 in Rangoon, Burma. By Paula Bronstein/Getty. Two decades ago, I got to see that amazing padoga myself.)

What He Said Or What He Left Behind?


A reader writes:

I am most intrigued currently with your ongoing correspondence with Sam Harris.  I must say, however, that I really don't know what the fuss is about. Are you debating the philosophy that underlies religion(s), or the dogma and mythology that encompasses the actual practice and institutions? Which is more important? Which does the ostensible harm to science, society and education? Do the underlying philosophies or the institutions set in place over millenia cause the problems Mr. Harris and you debate? 

As you are a practicing Christian, I will use Christianity as my base. I would suggest that it is not the philosophy of Christ's teachings that is the source of the friction, it is the institutional practices of the religion He never wished to found. One can indeed be a Christian and at the same time not be a Christian in the formal, institutionalized sense (and certainly not a "Christianist", a term I have great fondness for).  One can follow the teachings of Christ in the everyday routine and still believe that there was no Resurrection. His teachings are universal. It is far more important to me that I attempt in my own fallible way to follow His (and I capitalize out of respect for others, a most Christian attitude)  teachings than it is to believe in His divinity.   

I truly believe, and of course I may be completely wrong, wouldn't be the first time and won't be the last, that daily interaction with others, whether they be individuals or nations, in accordance with Christ's teachings, has a more positive and reaching effect. The debate should not be science vs. religion; it should be science vs. philosophy, and in that there should be no discord.  Religion as philosophy, science and rational thought can always live comfortably together. One must simply decide whether the teachings or the institutions are more important.

“The Jew Thing”

Sam Harris and I have been debating God online (I'm at work on my latest epistle but had to finish my D'Souza review first), so why not debate the Jews? In particular the work of Kevin MacDonald, an evolutionary psychologist, is as incendiary as it is intriguing. The Derb strides in where even he has previously feared to tread. Money quote:

Yes, indeed I was, and am, 'afraid of offending Jews.' Of course I am! For a person like myself, a Gentile who is a very minor name in American opinion journalism, desirous of ascending to some slightly less minor status, ticking off Jews is a very, very bad career strategy. I approached the MacDonald review with great trepidation. I gave my honest opinion, of course — the entire point of my line of work is to speak your mind and get paid for it — but I'll admit I was nervous. Reading the review again, I think it shows.

I have somewhere formulated Derbyshire’s Law, which asserts that: “ANYTHING WHATSOEVER said by a Gentile about Jews will be perceived as antisemitic by someone, somewhere.” I have experienced the truth of this many times.

Read the whole thing. It's fascinating. It begins here.