A Faith Debate: Andrew Sullivan vs. Sam Harris - Sullivan's demise

Well Sullivan finally posted his response to Harris' last atomic blast (referenced by me first here and with the debate found in it's entirety to this point here)

I'll unpack Sullivan's response bit by bit below, and offer my comments at the end. I have tried to redact parts that I felt weren't germane to the debate itself, and if it is felt that I have done so unfairly, I apologize;

"Your fundamental point is the following, it seems to me. I can say that the revelation I have embraced is true, but because it cannot be proven by the robust standards of scientific empiricism, I cannot prove it to be true to your satisfaction." (emphasis mine)

- I think that Sullivan correctly identifies the problem, but from his last sentence, indicates that he doesn't fully implicate the direness of his situation. Or perhaps he does. Harris is pointing out (correctly) that Sullivan's faith claims don't stand up to scientific scrutiny. Sullivan's response is a feeble attempt to relativize the nature of proof. I think he knows he is going under.

"My response rests on an understanding of truth that is not exhausted by empiricism or materialism. I do not believe, in short, that all truth rests on scientific premises and can be 'proven' by empirical or scientific methods. I believe science is one, important, valuable and respectable mode of thinking about the whole. But there are truth questions it has not answered and cannot answer. "

- This is Sullivan devolving into wishful thinking. He wants to believe there is knowledge outside of empiricism and the scientific method - yet he refuses to offer any example of this revealed knowledge that will stand up as 'knowledge' in any other sense, nor does he present us with anything resembling 'truth' that is independent of science. No, instead, Sullivan insists merely on the possibility of this truth - not because it actually exists, but because for his faith to remain operative it must exist as at least a philosophical possibility. To force Sullivan to put his faith precepts to the test of reason and knowledge would be to annihilate them. If Sullivan were right, and his Catholic belief in transubstantiation were somehow 'revealed truth' it would nevertheless still have to compete for legitimacy with any and every other religious truth espoused by any and every adherent to a religion anywhere. For sure some religions have deeper traditions than others, but in comparing the TRUTH of a religion, they all face the same obstacles of empirical fact vs desired outcome. Standing on revelation will place Catholics no higher above the water line than anyone else.

"It might even include an appreciation of other modes of rational discourse that are not empirical in origin or form. Take, for example, the question of historical truth. You rely in your books on a lot of historical facts to buttress your empirical case. But these facts are not true - and could never be proven true - by the scientific method that is your benchmark. There are no control groups in history. There are no experiments. But there is a form of truth. Discovering that historical truth is the vocation of a historian - and it is a different truth than science, and reached by a different methodology and logic.

- It is not a different truth than science at all. Where history can resort to the scientific method it always does, but when it cannot, it makes the best case it can with the materials available. The standards of proof are not different in historical studies, but the legitimacy we credit to those historical truths is dependent on the amount of empirical support they have. History will not save Sullivan here.

"Similarly, mathematics can achieve a proof that has no interaction with the physical world. It may even be the closest to divine truth that human beings can achieve. But it is still logically separate from empirically verified truth, from historical truth, and even from the realm of human consciousness that includes aesthetic truth, the truths we find in contemplation of art or of nature."

- Now he's scrambling. Math isn't an interaction with the physical world? Tell that to an engineer! Math is logically separate from empirical truth? In what regard? His most desperate move is to invoke 'aesthetic truth', a last desperate hope to find solace in the ineffable. Except that nowadays we know what makes a face beautiful, and don't have to rely on something as unreliable as aesthetics for the answer.

"My point here is to say that once you have conceded the possibility of a truth that is not reducible to empirical proof, you have allowed for the validity of religious faith as a form of legitimate truth-seeking in a different mode."

- Sullivan is now reduced to mouthing post-modernist platitudes about knowledge as a form of 'truth-seeking in a different mode'. As far as I am concerned, this is Sullivan refusing to get up from the canvas. Rather than address seriously Harris' damaging points, Sullivan hides behind po-mo relativity. Lets call this for what it is, a brutal knockout for Harris in the third round.

"I don't think you're far away from this. That's why you've gone on retreats, explored Buddhism, experimented with psyclocybin, as I have. You see: we are closer than you might think. But you differ with me on how this translates into life. You ask legitimately: how can I, convinced of this truth, resist imposing it on others? The answer is: humility and doubt. I may believe these things, but I am aware that others may not; and I respect their own existential decision to believe something else. I respect their decision because I respect my own, and realize it is indescribable to those who have not directly experienced it. That's why I am such a dogged defender of pluralism and secularism - because I believe secularism alone does justice to the profundity of the claims of religion. The attempt to force or even rig laws to encourage others to share my faith defeats the point of my faith - which is that it is both freely chosen and definitionally dealing with matters that cannot be subject to common consensus."

- And here is where Sullivan and I are in complete agreement. The best defense of atheism AND religion is to not use the machinery of government or state to impose it on others. I have no interest in living in a society that is forcibly atheist anymore than I desire to live in a country that compels me to believe in invisible beings. In this regard my political preference and Sullivan's are the same. Leave the state out of these matters, and allow the individual to pursue their own interest. The fact that as humans we choose to pursue beliefs that are factually false, or otherwise at their core incoherent, is a reflection of our human nature. Despite the facts, we humans want to believe certain false things are true, and we are capable of all manner of intellectual contortions and rationalizations to do so. It's human nature for us to make these kinds of passionate mistakes, and the only way for us to manage them is to allow each of us the right to pursue these mistakes with all our passion outside the public sphere and free from governmental interference.

In this Sullivan is correct, however irrational and illogical I think his beliefs are, I still prefer to live in a society that protects his right to possess them than one that does not.

"And that brings me to the asymmetry of our positions. We both accept that there may well be a higher truth beyond empirical inquiry or proof. I respect your opinions in this matter, and feel informed by them. You regard my opinions as inadmissible in public debate, ludicrous, a form of lying, and irrational. Yes, you are being intolerant. More, actually. The entire point of your book is intolerance. Where I respect your position, you refuse to respect mine."

- Here's the thing, to have an opinion is one thing, to claim the truth of it is quite another. I respect Sullivan's right to believe in whatever fantasy world of virgin births, celibate priests, magic books and telephones to god that he wishes, but he cannot claim that these beliefs are 'true' and expect us to respect that position. His beliefs simply do not merit being called true, and that is why we call them 'beliefs' and not 'knowledge'.

This does not, nor should not exclude his (or anyone elses) political opinions from the public sphere, nor do I think that Sam Harris is arguing that it should, but to live in the reality based community is to agree at the basic of confining ones opinions to what is real.

For example, it is possible to be pro-choice and be Christian, or be pro-life and be secular - policy is not always descriptive or linked to the philosophy that it was arrived at or justified by - and as such, no political opinion, not even an opinion based on a specific religious concern known to be false, can be prima facie discarded, but it will be by empirical means and measures that they are evaluated and judged.

Another way of putting it is this; I don't mind if a policy has religious aims, goals, or effects, but I do mind if it bestows any particular sect a religious privilege, advantage or recognition.

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