Sam Harris and Buridan’s Ass

I’m going to “borrow” a post on the Florida Student Philosophy Blog because it illustrates my essential point about the relationship between reason and religious faith. (I will leave my relationship to the original posting intentionally vague, although the clever will be able to suss it out.)

Joe Long, an FSU Philosophy grad student, critiques Sam Harris’ argument (found in Letter to a Christian Nation) that the symmetry between religions means there is no reason to choose one over another, leaving atheism the only living option. In essence, since Muslims have the same reasons for faith as Christians — Islam has a holy book and a prophet, Christianity has a holy book and a prophet, etc. — there is no good reason to choose one over the other. Since all of our beliefs should be based on good reasons (a hopefully uncontroversial point) we have no unique good reasons to believe any particular faith. According to Harris, this is itself a good reason to not believe.

Here’s how Long analyzes Harris’ argument:

(1) One ought to hold a belief only if one has reason to hold that belief.

(2) The set of reasons for believing Christianity is identical […] to the set of reasons for believing Islam.

(3) The belief-content entailed by Christianity is inconsistent with content entailed by Islam.

(4) If (1), (2), and (3), then any bias toward Christianity or Islam is unwarranted, in which case one has insufficient reason to believe either Christianity or Islam.

(5) Therefore, one has insufficient reason to believe Christianity or Islam, and thus insufficient reason to believe Christianity.

Long shows that premise (2) is problematic. It might seem like Islam and Christianity have the exact same kinds of reasons for belief, but it truth there might be a tie-breaker reason hiding out there which tips the balance in favor of one or the other. It’s not always the case that the good reasons we have to believe are easily found or are obviously available to us.

While this is a fine tactic to take against Harris, it’s not really open to me, what with me being an atheist and all. But I think that Harris’ mistake is in (4) rather than (2), so that’s where I think we should give Harris the smackdown.

Take a look at (2). What kind of identity is Harris positing here? It might help to look at what he actually wrote (quoted from Letter to…):

Every devout Muslim has the same reasons for being a Muslim that you have for being a Christian.

Obviously these aren’t the ‘same’ reasons in the sense that one 1975 Corvette is the ‘same’ as another 1975 Corvette. No, they’re the ‘same’ reasons the way a 1975 Corvette is the ‘same’ as a 1992 Toyota Supra: they are both the ‘same’ in the sense that they are both go-fast sports cars. As this rather perceptive commenter points out:

If (2) is the correct rendering of Harris’ premise…it’s ambiguous between the set of reasons being equivalent from a neutral vantage point and the set of reasons being equivalent for each individual involved — that is, Harris is equivocating between different senses of ‘same’… Obviously they aren’t the ‘same’ as in identical, while they might be the ‘same’ as in equivalent.

So there are no reasons that a Christian and a Muslim have in common, but they both have equivalent reasons. So if a Christian (let’s call her C) has her reasons, and a Muslim (cleverly named M) has her reasons, where exactly do we get the contradiction Harris is aiming at?

C is rational in believing in Christianity because — via (1) and [her reasons for belief] — C has good reasons to so believe. But C must also believe that M is equally rational in her belief since M has exactly identical good reasons to believe in Islam. So if Christianity and Islam are equally rational there is no warranted reason to choose one over the other. Or: Harris assumes that there is a second-order irrationality in C thinking that M is both rational and wrong simultaneously.

Harris assumes that if the reasons are identical there is no non-arbitrary way for C and M to choose one religion over another; they are both in the position of Buridan’s Ass forever stuck between two equally appealing piles of hay. (So an uncharitable reading would see Harris as wanting both C and M to both starve due to indecision.)

But the reasons aren’t the same; they’re only equivalent. So we have the Christian Ass standing in a relation to a pile of hay, and we have a Muslim Cow standing in the equivalent relation to a pile of… um… whatever cows eat. There is no contradiction here, no way of saying that (2) is true since C and M have equivalent reasons for belief, yet (4) is true since they have no warrant for any bias towards their own particular feeding trough.

To conclude:

C can think that Islam is both rational (as in properly supported by reasons) yet wrong (as in the supporting reasons are false); therefore C can think that Christianity and Islam are both rational and also have a reason to choose one over the other.

So where Harris was shooting for an argument that proves any religious belief is unwarranted, the most he can prove is that one can’t hold other religions to be irrational when the situation described by (2) holds — at most, one can hold that they are wrong. Ultimately, I think that’s an OK result. ‘Wrong’ and ‘irrational’ aren’t coextensive.

The Christian Ass can fully appreciate that the Muslim Cow stands in the very same (i.e. equivalent) relation to her feeding trough as C does to her own, without thinking that M’s trough is equally appealing.

Where does the atheist stand in all this? We’re all going out for pizza. I certainly think that pizza is the most appealing option. But that doesn’t mean I should want to deprive C and M of whatever it is in their feeding troughs that makes them happy and leaves them satisfied; just because I don’t want it doesn’t mean I should take it away from them.


1 Comment

Filed under Atheism, Bad Arguments, Philosophy, Religion

One response to “Sam Harris and Buridan’s Ass

  1. papabryant

    This is a great post, with nigh near unassailable logic. Harris, in addition to his lack of knowledge of the Bible and Christian theology/philosophy (see for a Biblical literacy b*slap of Harris ), displays a marked lack of coherance in his arguments. Strawman arguments, bald assertions not backed by facts – my favorite is the “religion is the source of war and violence” argument, when the Encyclopedia of War notes that only 7% of the world’s violent conflicts even had a religious component at all, and that removing Islam from that equasion drops that percentage down to 3%, and even a cursery reading of the major war philosophers/political philosophers/tacticians shows than NONE of them thought religion important to the preparation or conduct of war (surely Sun Tzu, Machiavelli, or Clauswitz would have noted if it were).

    Nearly all of the critiques of Harris’ book have focused on the factual errors and gross mischaracterizations in Letter; what is so intriguing about your post, and Joe’s over on FSPB as well, is how easily you point out how “careless” Harris is in setting up his arguments in the first place. I find it hard to believe that Harris and his editors couldn’t see their case as being a call for pluralism rather than a cry for the end of religion. I personally think they were aware of the deficiencies you’ve pointed out and are counting on the reader not being very intelligent and catch their polemical sleights of hand.

    I don’t know if this is inherant with the militant atheist crowd – I don’t find Dawkins particularly impressive either for many of the same reasons – but to hear a fellow atheist do this to Harris means THIS Christian’s hope for more fruitful discussion is still possible.

    Tom Bryant
    Clemson University – Religious Studies

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