Friday, 30 January 2009

End of Faith

Having recently finished reading Sam Harris's The End of Faith, I thought that I would make a few remarks on some of what I found interesting. Now this is not going to be a review or in any way a comprehensive look at the book or its subject - well accept to say a lot of it especially the earlier chapters make a whole lot of sense. I do agree that the idea of faith itself (and hence most religious beliefs) do by there very nature promote the sorts of actions of terror we have seen unfortunately all too often.

Religion does not however have a monopoly on terrorism, it seems to arise any where that one group oppresses another, or struggles to have its voice heard (hence all the fuss about President Obama's links to terrorist, stemming from the violent side of the anti-Vietnam war movement.) Though that is not to say that Harris's thesis is incorrect, as any where religion is involved you do find the in-group/out-group behaviors emerging usually along with an easy rationale for hatred of, and justification of violence towards members of out-groups (To be fair to Harris he probably does mention this and I just don't remember it). And I certainly can't think of any in-group/out-group situation religion has made better.

One of the more stand out quotes from the book must actually go to Christopher Hitchens, and it is a quote of his that I hadn't heard before (and will have to put on my notable quotes over on the side bar) but sums up a lot of my positions, not only on religion but about skepticism in general:

What Can Be Asserted Without Evidence Can Be Dismissed Without Evidence.

Much of the second half of the book is about morals and ethics. One of the main factors of this section was a counter to what I have seen as a large claim by theists against atheist, that with out a god to direct us, carrot (heaven) and stick (hell), we are left to create our own morals and therefore everything is relative. Unlike the genetic advantage of altruism approach favoured by Richard Dawkins, Harris has decided instead to just blow relativism out of the water.

Essentially he makes the argument that relativism, or the idea that all worldviews are equally valid, means then that a worldview that some positions are true and others false must be valid, of course the consequence of that is that all worldviews cannot be valid.

Ok I am paraphrasing a bit but the idea behind it is that relativism is self contradictory, and as I stated above if all possible worldviews are equally valid then the worldview that there is an object reality which can confirm or falsify any position must also be valid, since it is by definition a subset of all the possible worldviews. However an objective reality which can falsify a worldview means that all worldviews cannot be equally valid and therefore relativism contradicts itself and cannot be correct. This all means that indeed there must be some method we can use to confirm or falsify our worldviews, which essentially means that there is an objective reality and when it comes to morals/ethics there must exist definite rights and wrongs.

The book finishes with a discussion about the need for spirituality, and I have heard many comments about how Harris sees this in a sense that is too religious and that it is a bit of a "sacred cow" for him. Harris does approach spirituality from an "eastern mystic" viewpoint and I think that is what leads to the issues that some people have. My view on this is one that spirituality, and a sense of awe that seems to go with it, is something that as humans we seem to be programmed for, and there is no reason one cannot find that internally as Harris suggests although I have my doubts that anything that comes from introspection and meditation must automatically relate to the world around us.

I find that nature and the universe itself is a great source of the sense of wonder and awe that many people turn to religion to find and perhaps if some of Hubble's (the Hubble space telescope) images were put into the mainstream media others may get a chance to see just how amazing the universe really is.