By Deepak Chopra, M.D., FACP and Jordan Flesher, BA Psychology
The bond between militant atheism and militant skepticism has been unusually strong, to the point where attacks on religion are delivered as if no rational, science-mined person could object. In two posts the argument was laid out about how shaky militant skepticism really is in the light of current physics and cosmology. So that the discussion won’t seem too arcane and removed from everyday life, this post will examine the fallacies that undermine the skeptical position of two popular skeptics, Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins.
Since both have scientific credentials, readers of their books should have confidence that Harris and Dawkins are getting their science right. But it takes only a slightly deeper examination to raise doubts. In his book for young adults, The Magic of Reality, Dawkins provides a subtitle: How we know what is really true. It turns out, on reading what he has to say about truth and reality, that Dawkins believes firmly in the truth presented by the five senses, along with the scientific instruments, like telescopes and microscopes, that extend our senses. But reliance on the five senses is the exact opposite of what modern science has been doing for centuries, as far back as Copernicus’s discovery that our eyes lie to us when they see the sun rise in the East and set in the West.
The evident reason for Dawkins to make such an elementary mistake lies in his agenda (another thing science isn’t supposed to have), which is to discredit all subjective states as unreliable, leading to superstition, credulity, myths, charlatanism (which he intimates is the basis of Jesus’s miracles, although a loophole is left open in case Jesus was merely self-deluded), and the ultimate form of deception, belief in God. To date, Dawkins has offered no ontology (theory of reality) that corrects his mistake. Despite a fifteen-minute TED talk on quantum physics, he seems totally ignorant of current theories of perception, consciousness, the mind-body problem, or the observer effect, all of which grew out of the quantum revolution a century ago. In a word, he has made himself irrelevant by his crude linkage of his personal atheism and a fumbling defense of “real” science that was outmoded long ago.
Sam Harris presents a more sophisticated example because, to begin with, he claims a background in philosophy and a long-standing interest in Buddhism. Both areas are deeply concerned with what is real, how we know things, what constitutes the truth, and so on. In his atheist mode Harris is nastier and more strident even than Dawkins (for example, he sees all of Islam as a threat and a present danger, since even “good” Muslims are infected with the inherent violence of their religion). But in various footnotes and passing asides, Harris concedes that subjectivity isn’t always the enemy of science. There are medical states, for instance, where the patients self-report of pain, depression, anxiety, etc. are the basis of reality. If a patient says “I’m in pain” or “I’m depressed,” no brain scan is sufficient to say authoritatively, “No, you’re not.”
Harris came a cropper, however, in his last book, The Moral Landscape, when he made basic mistakes that a beginner in philosophy would be warned again. His errors earned the book scathing and dismissive reviews. Stung, he added a long appendix to the second edition defending himself, and when that made no dent, he offered a standing prize to anyone who could convince him that he was in fact wrong.
The thesis of The Moral Landscape is that “conscious minds… are… fully constrained by the laws of Nature (whatever those laws eventually turn out to be).” As it stands, the statement is recklessly absolutist, since it assumes that the operations of the cosmos, extending to an infinite horizon, are understandable by the human mind. Leaving that aside, Harris felt on safe ground because current scientific assumptions identify mind as brain, and there is no doubt that the brain is, indeed, constrained by the laws of nature. But reviewers balked when Harris attempted to firmly prove that morality has its basis in scientific principles operating over the course of evolution. He had made a shaky truce with subjectivity in the past. Now he wanted to bury subjectivity in an area, morality, where scientism is weak at best. Natural laws don’t explain why humans are altruistic or love one another, much less do they explain our divided nature, where good and evil contend in an intractable, wholly inexplicable way.
Harris’s boldness exposes his allegiance to bad thinking about what is real and how we know the truth. Specifically, this is the misunderstanding that follows from fusing ontology (what may be ‘real’) with epistemology (what may be ‘true’) without first making sure that one’s apparent epistemological ‘truths’ are, in actuality, even real. To arrive at a ‘truth-claim’ in regards to consciousness and morality via the scientific method, without first understanding the fundamental subjective nature of either consciousness or morality, Harris cannot be certain that his claims are based in reality. For all truth-claims, are made by the human neurological system, and the human brain is not a reliable or valid guide to the actual ‘reality of things’.
In a word, while Dawkins makes a crude claim that the five senses are reliable indicators of what is real, Harris makes a sophisticated claim in the same area, by assuming that the human brain, a physical object that evolved over millennia, is reliable as the model for everything that happens inside our minds. But if the five senses can’t be trusted, neither can the brain, which processes the input of our sense organs and fashions them into a three-dimensional model of the world. The model isn’t the same as reality. At best it is only provisional; at worst it may be very far from the truth, as witness hundreds of models from the past that have been thoroughly exploded (e.g., the Earth is the center of creation, blood washes back and forth in the body like the tide, etc.)
Harris may argue that the scientific method can “stand on its own” apart from the nervous system of the experimenter via the use of technological systems that run on the logic and language of mathematics, etc. However, the data which computers churn out still has to come in contact with the nervous system of the scientist in order for a theory of morality and human consciousness to be constructed. (The deep question of whether mathematics is universal or somehow mediated by the human nervous system has yet to be answered with any certainty.)
If Harris hadn’t stretched his assumptions to the breaking point, he wouldn’t have revealed that he was making the same mistakes when arguing against God. For God, of all things, exists on the cusp between what we know, what we think we know, and what is indisputably real. An arthritis patient’s pain is indisputably real, even though subjective – in fact, it is real because it is subjective. There is no scientific proof that a report by a mystic that she feels the presence of God isn’t real, and the subjectivity of the experience is the measure of its realness, not the measure of its illusory quality.
In a word, Harris and Dawkins, by turning their backs and scorning subjectivity, have fallen into traps of their own devising. Militant skepticism builds upon their mistakes, amplifies them, and employs scurrilous personal attacks to cover over their own intellectual flaws. In the end, the militant movement will collapse, not because the people who like God outnumber the people who dislike fear, and are suspicious of God. Skepticism’s agenda is doomed because its thinking is basically unsound.