February 10, 2014

The Language of Certainty in New Atheism

"Why Sam Harris is Unlikely to Change his Mind"

Alex Caring-Lobel

While researching for his book The Righteous Mind, social psychologist and professor of business ethics Jonathan Haidt was struck by the prevalence of statements of certainty in New Atheism books. Following his hunch, Haidt ran the three most important New Atheist works—Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion, Sam Harris's The End of Faith, and Daniel Dennett's Breaking the Spell—through a computer program that counts words indicating certainty, like "always," "never," "every," and "undeniable." He checked the results against those from the books of three "wingnuts"—Anne Coulter, Sean Hannity, and Glenn Beck—as well as those from three books on religion written by scientists who are not considered New Atheists. The results are below.

"Isn't the most reasonable approach," asks Haidt, "one that takes seriously the known flaws of human reasoning?"

For more on being "reasonable about reason," read Tricycle's interview with Curtis White in the new issue.

–Alex Caring-Lobel, Associate Editor 

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TedChristopher's picture

As an alternative to such rhetorical analysis why not go for broke? Can you contradict their materialist vision? Perhaps they come off a bit as arrogant jerks but their message is accurate. (An apparently subtle point is that if you stick with materialist vision and you might as well face the this-life-only-music - the likelihood of your experiencing a Buddha-like awakening is about the same as your being elected President on a write-in ballot basis.)

Here is one of the fundamental sequences from Sam Harris' "Free Will" (page 41):
And now your brain is making choices on the basis of preferences and beliefs that have been hammered into it over a lifetime - by your genes, your physical development since the moment you were conceived, and the interactions you had with other people, events, and ideas.

Now compare this to the following description of a musical prodigy found in Darold Treffert's remarkable Islands of Genius (pages 55-56):
By age five Jay had composed five symphonies. His fifth symphony, which was 190 pages and 1328 bars in length, was professionally recorded by the London Symphony Orchestra for Sony Records. On a 60 Minutes program in 2006 Jay’s parents stated that Jay spontaneously began to draw little cellos on paper at age two. Neither parent was particularly musically inclined, and there were never any musical instruments, including a cello, in the home. At age three Jay asked if he could have a cello of his own. The parents took him to him to a music store and to their astonishment Jay picked up a miniature cello and began to play it. He had never seen a real cello before that day. After that he began to draw miniature cellos and placed them on music lines. That was the beginning of his composing.
Jay says that the music just streams into his head at lightning speed, sometimes several symphonies running simultaneously. “My unconscious directs my conscious mind at a mile a minute,” he told the correspondent on that program.

Treffert's book contained many other examples supporting his conclusion that prodigal (including prodigious savant) behavior typically involves "know[ing] things [that were] never learned". It also considered the phenomena of acquired savant syndrome in which savant behaviors appear in the wake of a central nervous system setback. Whatever there origins, such behaviors rebut Harris' materialist point and more generally the bio-robotic vision. With regards to acquired savant syndrome, machines do not acquire skills as a result of physical damage!

Yes, there might be something to the traditional Buddhist views even if they contradict those of the Religion of Science.

Richard Fidler's picture

Harris's description of human development is just as consistent with your story of Jay's remarkable musical ability as your hypothesis that some sort of spiritual influence carries over from pre-birth. People process things in vastly different ways: imagine if you were so tuned in to environmental sounds that the wind in the trees would form a Philip Glass symphony or the sounds of traffic would be an exquisite modernist musical construction. That can happen in some people--and you don't need to go out on a limb speculating about spiritual influences.

Of course, none of this has anything to do with the dharma. It's just one of those things--like the existence or non-existence of gods--that Buddha warned us about. A waste of time. Suffering is the issue we must address.

TedChristopher's picture

Richard,

Harris's description makes no sense in this case and more generally is failing as the search for the underlying DNA (or genes) for individual tendencies has turned out to be fruitless. I will say one thing in science's favor, though, at no point in getting a paper on this reviewed did any of the scientists (or the subsequent ones looking at the published form) offer any flippant explanations. Behaviors like Jay's are not scientifically possible and emphatically so with the failure to identify DNA origins.

For readers who want an all too rare critical insider look at Scientism (as commonly echoed in comments, even at Tricycle) you might enjoy reading John Horgan's write-ups. Here is one taking on the Scientism of Steven Pinker,
/blogs.scientificamerican.com/cross-check/2013/08/14/should-the-humanities-embrace-scientism-my-postmodern-response-to-pinkers-patronizing-plea

But Richard you are not not referring to Buddhism. Perhaps with a little frustration-born overstatement, this is Buddhism,
www.tricycle.com/blog/10-misconceptions-about-buddhism
If you want to form a modern materialist-only - and perhaps nihilistic - Buddhism you will probably find company. But at least get objective or quantitative and communicate that your underlying search for the end of suffering is highly unlikely to be successful.

Richard Fidler's picture

Harris's description mentions genetics but does not ignore nurture. I think you've constructed a straw man whenever you insist that science says DNA is responsible for all human traits. It doesn't say that. Building upon a genetic basis, the environment--including all that we learn--explains why living things are what they are. There is no need to invoke spiritual influences.

I cannot understand why you bring the term "materialism" into this discussion--that term coming from Western philosophy. Science is basically monist: there is but one system of particles and their interactions that account for universal phenomena. I do not think that interpretation is in conflict with the dharma. In fact, a dualistic interpretation--that there are separate spiritual and physical domains--seems to contradict teachings as I understand them.

Best,

Richard

TedChristopher's picture

Richard,

I appreciate your point of view but I think the points I am making - A) there is a big problem with Science's heritability understanding and B) Buddhism has always been a religion - are pretty basic and you can check them if interested.

And there are of course plenty of stripped-down versions of Buddhism nowadays which you can also investigate.

Later,
Ted

Richard Fidler's picture

There are differences of opinion concerning "Buddhism's" status as a religion. Of course, when the dharma developed--in the first several hundred years--that word, "religion", did not even exist in that part of the world: it comes from Latin. The whole concept of religion is Western--and it was never constructed to accommodate the teachings of the Buddha. The absence of authoritative scriptures, the emphasis upon practice rather than belief, placing suffering at the forefront of human concerns, and denying the importance of a supreme deity all suggest the word "religion" is inappropriately applied to the dharma and its sangha of practitioners. Its denial of a personal self--the soul--separates it from nearly all religions--though, interestingly, not from the scientific perspective. Could it be that science has more in common with the dharma than all of the other religions? I think so.

TedChristopher's picture

I don't agree (and I am familiar with both science and Buddhism).

Dominic Gomez's picture

Western belief systems are "THE-ism" (god-centered). "BUDDH-ism" revolves around each human being's potential life-condition of enlightenment.

TedChristopher's picture

Dominic Gomez,

You might want to check out the above link to what professors who study Buddhism say Buddhism is. Implicit in their comments is the sober reality that the "potential" you refer to is very small in any given lifetime. This was the case in far less distracting times for dedicated monastics, so it is very likely the case for lay people in our time too.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Looked at it, Ted. There's a chasm between "professors studying" Buddhism and actually practicing it. (Think landlubbers "studying" swimming and those actually moving through the water.)

Richard Fidler's picture

I question the methodology of this "study". Does the use of "always", "certain", "never", "every", and "undeniable" point to the author's unwillingness to change his mind in the face of contrary evidence? You've got to prove it--and Haidt did not make an effort to do that. Isn't it illuminating that Haidt scored best in his "uncertainty quotient". Is he therefore more rational than the rest?

Is it possible style dictates language use? To me, waffling and qualifying everything are marks of minds unwilling to express themselves forcefully. In the world of academia such nuanced language is accepted discourse, but in making a case to the general public it is unnecessarily cautious--and, frankly, boring. Odd that this "scientific" study (one is sorely tempted to use the word "scientism") is exactly the sort of thing that is criticized elsewhere in the magazine. I am SO confused.

marginal person's picture

Good points, Richard.
Without giving the context, listing "certainty words" is totally meaningless.
If you have a chance read the article. The commentators literally tear Haidt's argument to shreds.
I also am confused by the anti intellectual, anti science tone
of some articles . An article like Haidt's is so shallow and simplistic, it's beyond stupid.

Richard Fidler's picture

I am committed to the dharma as I understand it. As I understand it, we are not to accept conceptual models of the way things "should be" because doing so leads to suffering. Mostly, these conceptual models have to do with the treasured notion of "self", the idea that we are the central actors in a drama taking place as our lives move along. Through meditation and reflection we come to realize that the "self" is nothing more than a construct: Through our practice that construct disappears over time. This interpretation of the dharma stretches across most schools of thought--there is no conflict between "secular" and "non-secular" dharma teachings.

Science, of course, creates models too, but unlike the others, those models are backed up by evidence. Furthermore, they are not the sort of models that bring on suffering: how does the model of evolutionary change cause suffering? The anti-science screeds I read here trouble me as they do you--because they have nothing to do with the dharma. They are at least divisive and at most offensive to many of us. Tricycle needs to chill out.

marginal person's picture

I think critiques of scientific rationalism are really protesting the loss of a comforting theist narrative. Most people need stories. Religion is designed to meet both narrative.and psychological needs, not rational requirements, this immunizes it against rational refutation.

Richard Fidler's picture

Sometimes the narratives are not theist. The view that persons are reborn according to the deeds they did (or did not do) is a narrative that influences many who follow the dharma. The story of the prince who learned about suffering and found release from it is another. The kernel of the dharma--and I believe it goes from earliest times--is that humans must stop telling stories about themselves if they are to understand the cause of suffering. That kernel is treasured more by some schools than others.

marginal person's picture

Good point about narratives. My personal take on Gautama's words is that the universe is indifferent to humans There is no master plan or narrative to life.
. Any meaning we wish to discover in life has to be a personal one. This is arrived at through the "examined" life. It's immature to look "out there" for answers , simply because there is no "there" there.

Richard Fidler's picture

Thanks for the dialogue.

Dominic Gomez's picture

A weapon based on the model of nuclear fission caused suffering on Aug. 6, 1945.

Richard Fidler's picture

Once again, "science" did not drop that weapon. Deluded persons did. The blame--if any--belongs to them.

Dominic Gomez's picture

I have no quarrel with science per se, Richard. It is simply a tool you may use, either to alleviate suffering or to cause it.

marginal person's picture

The same could be said about buddhism (witness the numerous scandals recently receiving media attention) In fact, please name one thing human beings are involved with that can't be used to cause suffering?

Dominic Gomez's picture

It all boils down to each person's innate wisdom. Are the choices you make beneficial or detrimental to others?

drleroi's picture

One of our major texts is "the torch of certainty" or is that a bad transation.

marginal person's picture

The treatment of women in Muslim countries throughout the world is unconscionable, .
As far as the Catholic Church arresting Galileo, isn't that an example of religious intolerance?

Dominic Gomez's picture

The Islamic world provided a safe haven for Greco-Roman knowledge after the fall of the Roman Empire plunged Western Europe into cultural darkness. The Church's harassment of Galileo arose from a perceived threat to its hegemony.

marginal person's picture

Human knowledge has "always" advanced in spite of religion, "never " because of it.
This assertion is "undeniable".
Of this I am "certain".

Dominic Gomez's picture

Depends on values held by practitioners of a religion: Muslims preserved Roman-Greco knowledge during the early Medieval period. The Church's Holy Office placed Galileo under house arrest.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Depends on values held by practitioners of a religion: Muslims preserved Roman-Greco knowledge during the early Medieval period. The Church's Holy Office placed Galileo under house arrest.

Tharpa Pema's picture

I may be completely off-base, but my initial reaction when people sound so "certain" of phenomenal truth, is that they are somewhat in emotional denial of uncertainty. In other words, they reduce fear of uncertainty by clinging to their own mentally constructed beliefs, rather than having come to terms with the reality of uncertainty in their lives and their fear of it.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Good point, Tharpa. Early humans uncertain of the dark or predators were likely terrified of such phenomenal truths (let alone the truths of their own aging, illness and death).

Dominic Gomez's picture

Certainty isn't just words, it's a way of thinking. Shakyamuni was certain of the truth of life. Columbus was certain of a western route to India. Galileo was certain Earth was not the center of our solar system.