Category Archives: Bad Arguments

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.

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Another Mistake about Free WIll

Previously I commented on a neo-creationist mistake about free will; ‘dacook’ on Uncommon Descent was under the impression that the possible discovery of free will in flies was somehow proof that scientific materialism was false.

Here we have the same mistake, but from the other direction: Philip Ball claims that, even if we do discover the source of spontaneity (and presumably autonomy, although he doesn’t discuss it explicitly) we haven’t found free will per se, because ‘free will’ is simply a term without an existing referent:

The fact is that ‘free will’ is (like ‘life’ and ‘love’) one of those culturally useful notions that become meaningless when we try to make them ‘scientific’. That’s why it is unhelpful to imply that the brains of flies or humans might contain a ‘free will’ module simply because they have a capacity to scramble the link between cause and effect.

The argument in Uncommon Descent is, roughly, something like this:

1. Free will is required for responsibility.

(“Though many Darwinists shy away from the implications of their beliefs as they apply to ascribing responsibility for human behavior…”)

2. Free will is essentially non-material.

Therefore,

3. If free will is discovered, then it disproves materialism.

This is an obviously flawed argument. Premise (1) is perhaps true, but it doesn’t prove premise (2); (2) is often assumed to be true by religious apologists, but it requires some form of independent support. The conclusion (3) doesn’t follow from the premises unless one is seriously begging the question.

(EDIT: The question-begging assumption seems to be that since responsibility is immaterial, free will needs to be immaterial also.  But material features and properties can be necessary components of immaterial states; after all, the ability to act is itself both material/physical and necessary for responsibility.)

As far as I can tell, Ball argues similarly:

4. Free will is required for responsibility.

5. Responsibility is culturally constructed.

(‘As neuroscientists Michael Gazzaniga of Dartmouth College in New Hampshire and Megan Steven of the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boson have pointed out, we act in a social context. “Responsibility is a social construct and exists in the rules of society,” they say. “It does not exist in the neuronal structures of the brain.”’)

Therefore,

6. Free will is culturally constructed and therefore not real in the same sense as neuro-physiological structures in the brain.

This is a better argument, but still wrong. The conclusion (6) doesn’t follow from the two premises.

But free will, as discussed by philosophers, moralists and neuroscientists, need not be strictly defined, except in terms of its effects:

7. ‘Free Will’ is just whatever allows free action.

So what is free will? We don’t know. It just is whatever allows humans — and maybe flies — to act freely. Of course, we need a good definition of “free” — but it presumably includes spontaneity and autonomy. So if we do discover neuronal structures required for our spontaneity and autonomy, we’ve found free will. Even if responsibility itself is socially and culturally constructed.

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Easy Mistake about Free Will

The problem of Free Will isn’t really my bag, even though the Florida State University philosophy program is highly ranked in the area. But I do know one thing: the existence of free will doesn’t entail the falsity of materialism. So when we find evidence that even lowly insects show signs of free will, this can’t be taken as a sign that Darwinism is false.

The mistake we find in this post on Uncommon Descent starts here:

Though many Darwinists shy away from the implications of their beliefs as they apply to ascribing responsibility for human behavior, their position demands that all behavior is determined by the genetic heritage of selfish genes.

This is simply wrong. Darwinism only entails that all of our genetic inheritance (our genotype) is due to natural processes, the most important of which is natural selection. Our physical structure, with hands, feet, brains and so on (our phenotype) is at least partially influenced by our genotype. To say that “all [our] behavior” is determined by our genes requires more than a Darwinian account of the origins of our genes. For this further claim to be true, it needs to be that our mental structures are wholly determined by our genes and that our behaviors are wholly determined by our mental structures, much like the route of a train is wholly determined by the placement and orientation of the track on which it runs.

But this isn’t part and parcel of Darwinism. There is no “demand” that we move from Darwin to behavioral determinism. There are some Darwinians who accept the move, but there are also Darwinians who reject that move; I know, because I am one. But neither camp thinks that Darwinian natural selection entails behavioral determinism. To think that there is behavioral determinism is to think further things about the structures of our brain, the influence of neurons on behavior, and so on.

So to say:

But if free will exists in flies, can it be denied in humans?

… is, I think, true. But it doesn’t imply the following:

If free will in fact exists, it must exist outside the deterministic universe of materialism.

If free will in fact exists, this simply shows that it most likely has a Darwinian origin, due to selection pressures. If free will exists — and I think that it does — and if Darwinism is true, then free will is compatible with Darwinism. To say otherwise is to simply beg the question — to assume that free will is only free if it was a gift from God.

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