Thursday, July 28, 2005


The Maverick Philosopher hits one - in this case anti-religious bigot Sam Harris - out of the park. I've made arguments like this on NWW before but I consider it to be so important to an open and free society that I'm happy to include the conclusion of Bill Vacellia's post here. This is the gist of it:
[Sam] Harris appears to be inferring a normative conclusion from a nonnormative premise. Thus, he appears to be moving from 1. Evidence is what makes a belief a belief about the world to 2. We may hold only those beliefs for which we have evidence. Now even if (1) is unproblematic, how does one validly infer the normative (2) from it? But there is a second way to read the above passage, and that is to take Harris to be reasoning from (1) to the nonnormative 2*. We can (are able to) hold only those beliefs for which we have evidence. On this reading we avoid the Is/Ought fallacy, but trade it in for something just as bad: a false conclusion. Surely, (2*) is false. People are able to hold all sorts of beliefs for which they have no evidence. But there is worse to come: (1) is highly problematic. There is an ambiguity in it. Is Harris talking about aboutness, or about truth? Is he saying E1 Belief B is about the world only if there is evidence for B or E2 Belief B is true only if there is evidence for B? E1 is obviously false. Beliefs have the property philosophers call ‘intentionality’: they are necessarily object-directed. Beliefs, like many other mental states, intend an intentum: they possess aboutness. Thus one cannot believe without believing something. But it doesn’t follow that the proposition one believes is true. Thus the belief that God exists is about God’s existence whether or not God exists, and thus whether or not there is any evidence for God’s existence. Aboutness is not the same as truth. A belief can have the first without the second. Harris may be confusing them. Charitably construed, Harris is asserting E2. He is saying that a necessary condition for a belief’s being true is that there be evidence for it, whether sensory or logical. But why should we accept this? What is Harris’ evidence for it, whether sensory or logical? Clearly, one cannot have sensory evidence for E2. If you think otherwise, tell me which sense provides the evidence. I know by sight that there is a computer in front of me, but I do not know by sight (or by any other external or internal sense) that a belief is true only if there is evidence for it. Nor can one have logical evidence for E2. The proposition in question is not logically true (true in virtue of its logical form), nor is it analytically true (true in virtue of the meanings of its constituent terms). Of course, ‘logical evidence’ could mean inferential evidence: a proposition has this sort of evidence if it is a logical consequence of a another proposition. But then which proposition is E2 supposed to inherit its evidence from? And what about the evidence of that proposition? Where does it come from? One can see that E2 applies to itself. But we have just seen that there is no sensory or logical evidence for it. Given that these are the only two kinds of evidence, it follows that if E2 is true, then it is false. And if it is false, then of course it is false. Therefore, E2 is necessarily false. So far, then, I see no coherent argument for the thesis that one may (can?) believe only propositions for which there is logical or sensory evidence. How then will Harris get to his thesis that the core beliefs of religious people are "absolutely mad"? Isn’t his claim that only beliefs for which there is sensory or logical evidence are true equally "mad"? Even if religious beliefs are unsupported by evidence, the same is true of Harris' epistemological beliefs.
Going after people for the contents of their minds and hearts is an insanely troublesome idea. We deal with what we know - which is what people do. Motives can't be known and can't put on trial in a court of law, which is why the designation of an act as a 'hate crime' is sets a bad precedent. The blackest irony here is that Harris is himself the very object that he hates.

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