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The View From The End Of The World

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The talk tonight is in a way, overdue, uh, we've been doing these seminars about long-term thinking for almost three years now and haven't had a single one about religion. Uh, we've had a couple of religions referred to, usually approvingly, because it is clearly a long-term frame of reference. Uh, most religions have rites that have to do with birth, with marriage and with death and, and they step right up to generational issues when lots of other institutions do not. But this is not what you'd call a sanctimonious version of religion we'll be looking at tonight. Uh, it's a critique in light of current events. It's a critique in light of, I suppose, current science, current rationality. And, uh, Sam Harris's book joins a couple of others that I would recommend to you, uh, "One True God" by Rodney Stark. The Subtitle there is, uh, "The Historical Consequences of Monotheism". Uh, the philosopher Daniel Dennet has a book coming out very shortly called "Breaking the Spell" and uh, we're beginning to see a pretty deep literature, addressing some of the profound issues of religion, uh, through history, and in our time. And that's what we have tonight with Sam Harris, Sam? OK. I'm going to talk about belief and specifically what I consider to be the problem of religious belief I actually think that how we deal with the subject of belief, how we criticize or fail to criticize the beliefs of other human beings at this moment has an extraordinary significance for the maintenance of civilization. I think it, it, it could well be the most significant variable that is in our power to influence. So I'm going to talk about belief and I'm going to say some, some pretty unpleasant things about religious belief. I, I want to warn you up front that I'm going to offend some people in this room And, that's really not the point. I, I'm not being deliberately provocative. I'm simply worried. And I'm going to worry out loud for the next hour. And, and try to make the case to you that we, we have no reason to expect to survive our religious differences indefinitely. Our world has been Balkinized into separate moral communities We have Christians against Muslims against jews. We, we have, we have most of the human populations living with the idea that the Creator of the Universe wrote one of their books. We have many such books on hand. They all make incompatible claims about the nature of the universe. They make non-negotiable claims. And, and it is, it is fundamentally taboo, we should recognize, to criticize religious faith. And this is a taboo I'm about to break over the next hour. First, what do our neighbors believe? About 22% of Americans claim to be certain -- literally certain -- that Jesus is going to come down out of the clouds like a superhero sometime in the next fifty years. 22% claim to be certain about this. Another 22% think he'll PROBABLY come back in the next fifty years. So, that's -- that's 44% of us who think that, that the human experiment is going to unravel in their lifetime and unravel gloriously. Of course, this belief of Jesus's immenent return is knit together with myriad of other beliefs. It's not an accident that 44% of Americans also believe that the Creator of the Universe literally promised the land of Israel to the Jews. This is in his capacity as an omniprescient real estate broker. [LAUGHTER] The idea -- it should be clear that this is a fantastically maladaptive idea -- this idea that no matter how bad things get, someone's going to come down and wield his magic powers and rectify all of the misdeeds that we perpetrate on this earth. And, in fact, He's not going to come down until things get fantastically bad for us. So that it, it's actually true to say that something like 44% of Americans, if they turned on their televsion sets and saw that a mushroom cloud had replaced Jerusalem, or San Francisco, they, they would see a silver lining in this cloud, because it would be -- it would presage that the best thing that is ever going to happen is about to happen. [HITS MIC] I'm a percussionist as well. Take, take another species of belief. We've all been pummeled with this idea of intelligent design. This debate that is raging in our culture, and is really eroding the prestige of science and, and eroding the prestige of our intellectual culture in the eyes of the rest of the world. There really is a problem, this idea of intelligent design. I can't imagine anyone in this room has not heard of it, but, briefly, it's this notion that the, the machinery of the cell is so complex that it could not possibly have emerged through naturalistic processes so there has to be a designer and this designer and while he is -- he's rather cagily not named so much now, this designer is the biblical God. OK, it's -- your, your, your kids could one day be taught intelligent design in biology class. And this should trouble all of us. But it is important to point out that intelligent design is a red herring, because, depending on what poll you trust, something like 44%, or as high as 53% as of a month ago, of Americans are creationists. They don't, they don't fancy intelligent design as an explanation for evolution. They don't think evolution occured at all. They think the universe is 6,000 years old. And that our only genetic precursors in the natural world were Adam and Eve. Just consider for a minute the fact that something like half of our neighbors believe that we were created from dirt, and divine breath, in a garden with a talking snake. And a hankering for apples. Take another belief that is really -- this is a quaint idea and it should be of marginal signifance. This idea that, that this Catholic dogma that condom use, contraception, is somehow unethical. I can assure you that, that the computational powers of the human brain are insufficient to argue successfully for this, this idea on ethical grounds.[LAUGHTER] This is a ludricous idea. But map this onto sub-Saharan Africa where something like three million people every year die from AIDS. You would literally have Christian ministers preaching the sinfulness of condom use to people whose only information about condom use is the representation of the ministry. This is, this is genocidal stupidity. And, and yet, because of the taboos around criticizing religious faith, we cannot, we cannot treat the Vatican, which still upholds this view, still mandates that this be taught, we cannot treat them like the, the, the criminally negligent organization that they are. At least on this subject. We do not respect other people's beliefs. It's important to point this out. On every other subject we evaluate their reasons. You know if I stood up and said the holocaust never happened you would be under no burden whatsoever to respect my beliefs about European history. You know, we don't, we don't respect holocaust deniers. Holocaust deniers make it on, on our Boards of Directors. They don't become presidents of universities. People who think that Elvis is still alive and well and living in Middle America don't become presidents of universities. They don't become senators. We don't pass laws against Elvis worship or holocaust denial. But we successfully marginalize these views. These views in every other area of our lives to be highly certain of something with a very low order of evidence -- lower in contradiction to a mountain of evidence -- is, is a sign that something is wrong with your mind. It is a sign that you cannot be trusted. And yet on matters of faith, we completely change the rules. So what I'm arguing for you, really, is that we, we should practice a kind of conversational intolerance. I'm sorry. Is this interference driving anyone mad? [FEEDBACK] Do I have to switch something off here? [PAUSE TO ADJUST AUDIO} Ah. OK. Thank you. [PAUSE TO ADJUST AUDIO] Beliefs -- let's just pause for a moment and, and think about what a belief is. We, we are -- when we believe something to be true, we are making our best effort to represent reality in our thoughts. This is the difference between a belief and a hope, for instance. When, when you hope that something is true, you are, you are representing a possible state of the world. But when you believe something is true, you are, you are really trying to capture reality as it is in your thoughts. Now you, either you have good reasons for what you believe, or you don't. In every other area of our lives, we demand good reasons. And, and we become highly suspicious of people who, who cannot marshall good reasons for their core beliefs. So, there really is a conflict between religion and science. So, this, this conflict has been papered over by scientists and, and religious people at almost every opportunity. There really is a conflict here. Because it comes down to having good reasons or bad reasons. Every religion is making claims about the way the world is. Everyone is in the business of describing the way reality is. I mean, either Jesus is coming back or He's not. If, if he comes back, out of the clouds, Christianity will stand revealed as a science. That will be the science of Christianity. And every Christian who wants to will be able to say, "Told you so." "Here He is. Look at His magic powers." And, and, any scientist in his right mind would be convinced by a sufficient display of magical powers. These are claims that -- These claims purport to be factual. And yet, no less an organization that the National Academy of Science -- literally our most prestigious scientific body -- has said that there's no conflict between religion and science because they (quote) "represent different ways of knowing" or (quote) "ask different questions about the world." This, this is entirely bogus. Just try to graph this, this "no conflict" idea onto a real world decision -- take stem cell research, for instance. Now stem cell research is, without a doubt, one of the most promising lines of research in Biology to generate medical therapies. There are scores of conditions that could well be remediated one of these days by stem cell research. And we are, we are pulling the brakes on this research and these are for religious reasons. The, the fear is -- the religious fear -- is that we have to kill embryos -- human embryos -- in order to conduct this research. We have to kill them at a three-to-five day stage. Perhaps that sounds terrible. What, what is a three-to-five day old human embryo? Well, it's a collection of 150 cells that have not organized into a nervous system, there's no brain -- its a sphere of cells. Maybe 150 cells sounds like a lot of cells. Well, there are 100,000 cells in the brain of a fly. Flies have brains. Flies have neurons, very much like our own. If we know anything at all about the relationship between physical complexity and the possibility of having an experience, the possibility of having interests, we know that more suffering is visited upon this earth every time we swat a fly than when we kill a three-day-old human embryo. And yet, the, the ethical argument never has to get made because the deference we have for religious faith someone need only stand in the Oval Office, or on the floor of the senate, and say, "You know, my faith teaches me that life starts at the moment of conception. There are souls in those human embryos and you cannot -- one sould can't trump another. You can't sacrifice one soul to benefit another." End of argument. (Quote) On one hand we have these collections of 150 cells and on the other we have little girls suffering from diabetes and full body burns. We have men and women with Parkinson's Disease. We have, literally, tens of millions of people suffering terrible torment, which could, one day, be remediated by this research. It, it -- I submit to you -- if you, if you think that the interests of a virtually microscopic collection of cells -- I mean, if you had ten of these in the palm of your hand right now, you would never notice. If you think that the interests of these organisms may yet trump the interest of the little girl with full body burns, you have had your ethical intuitions blinded by religious metaphysics. No, no ethical argument would get you there. No argument that talked about human suffering and its -- and its alleviation would get you there. It's not enough to say these, these collections of cells are potential human beings. They, given genetic engineering, every cell in our body with a nucleus is a potential human being. Every time the president scratches his nose, he's engaged in a holocaust of potential human beings. [LAUGHTER] This is literally so. Given the right condition -- Let's just linger a moment. I don't want to talk too much about stem cell research, but it really demonstrates the point that we never have to have the conversation because faith trumps rational argument on these subjects. Just take, take for a moment the claim that there are souls in this petri dish -- that every human blastocyst is ensouled -- OK -- well, unfortunately, embryos at that stage can split into twins. So what happens? We have one soul becoming two souls? Embryos at an even later stage can fuse back into chimer -- what's known as a chimera -- a single individual born of two embryos. So, so do we have two souls becoming one soul? This, this arithmetic of souls doesn't make much sense. So, what I'm arguing for you tonight, and what I argue at some length in my book, is either we have good reasons for what we believe or we don't and, and faith is the license that religious people give one another to keep believing when reasons fail. To keep believing in the absence of evidence and this is unacceptable in every other area of our lives. And it is actually unacceptable even if you take the wrong religious object. I mean, just imagine how a senator would be perceived if in, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina he said, "You know, we really haven't been praying to Poseiden enough. That is, after all, his jurisdiction. That is the sea, we're talking about." Just imagine what a lunatic misuse of the human mind that would appear to be. It's, it's not like someone discovered in the third century that the biblical God really, really exists and Poseiden -- he's just a myth. They, they have exactly the same status except one has -- to speak of the biblical God, something like two billion subscribers. Now, in the face of this rather obvious conflict between religious fundamentalism, certainly, and scientific rationality, many of us, many well-meaning, well-educated people, especially in the West, have created a kind of accomodation to modernity and we call it religious moderation. Now, in my book I say some very, uh, critical things about religious moderation -- it's actually been some of the more controversial aspects of my arguments and I, I want to say those things now so you get a taste of, of, uh, my heresy in full. The first thing to concede up front is that religious moderation is better than religious fundamentalism. Nobody flies a plane into a building because he's a religious moderate. That -- religious moderates are not organizing their lives around an apocalyptic prophesy. And this is a very good thing. But religious moderation has some real liabilities. And the first is that it gives an extraordinary amount of cover to religious fundamentalism. Because it -- because moderates also have made it taboo to criticize religious faith itself. To criticize the basic project of thinking that you are a Jew, or a Muslim or a Christian -- of raising your children to think, believe that they are Jews or Muslims or Christians. Because, because religious moderates are still attached to that, that obescence to tradition They have -- they, they don't want anything too critical said about the people who really, really believe in the literal word of, of their holy books and this is not serving us at this point. It's even taboo among religious moderates to notice the differences among our religions. That, that all of our religions don't teach tolerance and compassion to the same degree. And where they do teach it, they don't teach it equally well. This is the -- fundamentalists understand this. Our own fundamentalists, demigogues -- when Muslims -- started flying planes into our buildings, they say Islam is an evil religion. They don't have a problem noticing the differences between religions. Moderates are the ones who have given us these euphorisms, this idea Islam, for instance, is this religion of peace that's been highjacked by extremists, that Osama Bin Ladin is the Reverand Jim Jones of the Muslim world -- or the David Karish of the Muslim world. Osama Bin Ladin is articulating a very plausible version of Islam. It has more subscribers than we would like to admit. The, the doctrines of martyrdom in Jihad are not fringe doctrines in, in Islam. This idea that death in defense of the faith is the best thing that could possibly happen to another human being -- this really is a deal breaker and this really is believed by millions of Muslims. To linger on this point for a moment because it really is of excruciating relevance to us at this point. Where are the Tibetan Buddhist suicide bombers? I mean, if, if, if occupation were enough, being conquered by an outside power and hauled off to jails and tortured were enough to so derange the society that it would form a death cult, like we see brewing in the Muslim world, we should see Tibetan Buddhists blowing themselves up on Chinese buses. We should see Tibetan Buddhists thronging in the streets, calling for the deaths of Chinese noncombatants. We do not see this and we, we, we're profoundly unlikely to see it. Tibetan Buddhists believe a lot of wacky things about the nature of the universe, They don't believe those wacky things you have to believe to form a death cult. It's not that it's impossible that Buddhism could inform, uh, this kind of behavior -- actually Zen Buddhism did to some significant degree, inform the world view of the Kamakasi Pilots in World War II. It's interesting to note, just as a Buddhist scholar, that one of the things that Zen can be criticized for is not really the focusing on compassion to the degree that other schools of Buddhism do. And there's this whole marshall spirit and tons of marshall metaphors in Zen Buddhism. That lent themselves quite readily to Japanese nationalism. But there are differences among our religions. We are never, by any stretch of the imagination going to encounter Jain Suicide Bombers. Jainism is a religion of nonviolence. The more deranged you become as a Jain, by your religious dogma, you'll become less and less violent. And the really, really fundamentalist Jains wear cheesecloth over their mouths so they won't inhale bugs. The core of Jainism really is nonviolence, but by no stretch of the imagination can you say that the core of Islam is nonviolence. Religious moderates are uniquely ill-placed to conceive this. Jihadists on the video tape, say things like "We love death "We love death more than the Infidels love life" and then he blows himself up, it's the religious moderate who is left thinking, "That couldn't be religion. That's not -- that's propoganda. That's -- that guy must have lacked economic opportunities, or, uh, I mean my own -- the, the United States -- our misadventures in the Middle East -- must explain that -- that's not faith." Religious moderates don't know what it's like to be certain of Paradise. Religious moderates don't know what it's like to really believe in the God of, of the Karan or of the Bible, uh the Old Testament. Or the new. All you have to do to satisfy yourself on this subject is consider the biographies of the 19 hijackers -- who were these guys who woke up on September 11th and decided to fly planes into buildings? These -- they were college educated. Many of them had PhDs. They were middle class. They were -- these were not people who had histories, personal histories of political oppression. They were not spending inordinate amounts of time agitating for regime change in the Middle East. What they, what they were spending inordinate amountof time doing was hanging out in their local mosque in Hamburg, talking about the pleasures that await martyrs in Paradise. And the evils of infidel culture. These were true believers and you can get their world view out of the Karan very readily. We are at war with Islamic fundamentalism, but not terror -- terrorism is a tactic. And, you know, it's a separate conversation to talk about what percent of the Muslim world fits this description and where -- our policy now is not doing anything but alienate more Muslims and create more Jihadists. But we have an extraordinary problem because the doctrine of Islam really -- we are at war with Islamic fundamentalism, but the fundamental -- we're only at war with Islamic fundamentalism because the fundamentals of Islam really are a problem. And I just want to make clear that I'm not talking about a race here. I'm not talking about Arabs, I'm not talking about an ethnicity. I'm talking about John Walker Lynn -- the white guy from Marin who went to fight with the Taliban. I'm talking about the logical consequences of ideas. One study, actually of Al Queda operatives found that two thirds of them were college graduates. And middle class. Only 52% of Americans have been to any college. Ok, this is not merely a problem of education. I don't know how many more architects or engineers need to fly planes into our buildings before we realize this is not merely a problem of education. That our situation is far more sinister than that. It is possible to be so well educated that you could build a nuclear bomb and still think you're going to get the 72 virgins in Paradise. Another problem with religious moderation is that it is -- it represents a fundamentally unprincipled use of reason. It really is intellectually bankrupt. At least fundamentalists talk about evidence. You ask a fundamentalist why he believes that Jesus is coming back and he'll give you an evidentiary story and he'll give you an argument. It's not a good argument, but he'll say things like, "The New Testament confirms all things the Old Testament prophesied." Or, "all the prophesies in the Bible have come true in history." These are not good, reasonable claims, but if, if this was true, this would be an argument for, you know, maybe the Bible is eminating from some omniscient source. It -- what do moderates talk about when you ask them why they believe in God? Moderates talk about meaning. This belief gives their lives meaning. They, they talk about the good consequences of believing as they do. I want you to appreciate for a moment just what a nonsequitor this is when you transfer it to some other subject, some other consoling proposition, this is, actually, is an example in my book -- Imagine if your neighbor claimed to believe that there's a diamond buried in his backyard that's the size of a refrigerator. And you ask him why. You see him out on his lawn, digging, every Sunday with his family. Imagine how you'd feel about his mental faculties if he said, "well this belief gives my life a tremendous amount of meaning. You don't understand. My family and I really enjoy digging for this on Sundays and it really has a remarkable bonding effect on us." [LAUGHTER] Or what if he said, "I don't want to live in a universe where there wasn't a diamond buried in my backyard. [LAUGHTER] It's -- it's pretty clear that these responses are inadequate and deeply inadequate. They're, they're worse than that. They really are the responses of a madman or an idiot and it's so easy to see, and yet change the subject to the existance of God who can hear your prayers, who's looking out for you, despite all the other devastation we see in the world going on each day, God is protecting you and your family. You change, you change the subject to that proposition and all bets are off. In fact, you could not possibly get elected to office in this country unless you endorse that kind of thinking about the existance of God. Another problem with religious moderation is that it is, it's not only intellectually bankrupt, it is theologically bankrupt. It's not like a closer look at the books delivers moderation. I've got news for you. I've read the books. God is not a moderate. [LAUGHTER] And, and there's nowhere -- you read, certainly -- let's just take Christianity and Judaism for a moment -- You read the Old Testiment -- I mean, that is a -- the world view urged upon us -- the, the kind of society urged upon us is so needlessly horrible. The truth is, most fundamentalist Christians and Orthodox Jews can't take God at his word. I mean, you -- the killing never stops. If you, if you were going to draw your world view, if you were going to draw your "to-do" list out of books like Leviticus and Deuteronomy and Exodus, you're going to make Mullah Omar of the Taliban look like Franklin Delanor Roosevelt. It is -- if your children talk back to you, you kill them. You kill homosexuals. You see your neighbor working on the Sabbath, you kill him. [LAUGHTER] If a woman's not a virgin on her wedding night, take her to the edge of town and stone her to death. If you come, if you come into a town and you see someone praying to a foreign God, you kill him, you kill his family you kill every man, woman and child in the town. You kill wizards, you kill mediums, you kill fornicators you kill adulterers. The list is long and preposterous. And there are actually some groups in this country, that want to return to that style of life. There's this movement -- it's probably not well-known to you all, but Christian Reconstructionists, also known as Dominionists, actually just bite the bullet here and say, "Yeah, that's what God wants." That law has not been rescinded." And they're right. The law is not rescinded and many Christians are living with this idea that Jesus, somewhere in his ministry, fundamentally repudiated all Old Testament thought. There are few lines where you could get Jesus to say something seemining like that, but there's so much else in the New Testament that ramifies Old Testament law. And these Christian Reconstructionists are, by the way, amazingly influential that the level of activism we see in the fundamentalist community now has largely been seeded by them because they -- another thing that Christian Reconstructionists believe is that Jesus is not going to come back until after a millenium of Christian dietific domination of the globe, so we have to fully establish a Christian world before Jesus comes back. They're a minority in believing this, but their, their energy -- the energy with which they've approached that task has been contagious and they, you -- these are not -- people believing this stuff are not fringe characters in our society. They are people who can get Karl Rove on the phone who want to practice the world of Leviticus -- killing homosexuals, for instance. To linger on this point, what they -- what Chritianity to take a specific subset actually advocate -- it's not an accident that St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquaines, two of the great lights of the Christian tradition both thought heretics should be tortured. And, actually, Augustine thought they should be tortured and his argument for the use of torture actually laid the Aquaines thought they should just be killed outright. These are -- these are the great lights of, of the Christian tradition. These guys are still taught in every Great Books Seminar in the country. And, and, it's important to point out that this is totally reasonable, given certain rather ludicrous ideas. But, but if you think that the Creator of the Universe really wrote this book, it's insane not to live by it. And living by it gets you, by no accident, the kind of life we saw for five hundred years in Medievil Europe -- we were burning people alive for heresy. Again, from our perch in the present, we look back on this and we think, "Well, these people were just deranged. This was just a whole culture plunging into psychopathology." It's really not true. It -- just think about this -- if your neighbor can something to your child that is just so spiritually wayward that it could put your child in peril for eternity -- literally, just drive your child into eternal torment, that person next door is far more dangerous than a, a child molester. So really believing this stuff has consequences and we secularists and moderates have fundamentally lost touch with the fact that millions and millions of people really believe this stuff. The, the final problem with religious moderation, in my view is that, because most of us -- most moderates are, are content to merely relax their hold on all these superstitions and tabloos that are coming to us from these traditions because, because moderation is just a, a hewing to these traditions and to these texts and to these dogmas but just kind of relaxing the literalism. And it is believed that that is good enough and in fact that is somehow necessary and redeeming and that's indispensable to us as a culture. It prevents us from developing rational, creative, 21st Century alternatives to religion. The, the search for better alternatives has stopped because we're Jews, we're Christians, we're Muslims and all of that is terrifically important. It's important to remember that we decide what's good in the Good Book. We take our ethical intuitions to the text and when we read the Golden Rule, for instance, we decide that, yeah, that is a great installation of our ethical intuitions. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. OK? That's a keeper. We decide that. If this is, if the Bible is the best book we have on moral questions, in, you know, if you're a fundamentalist, is that the best book we have because it's literally been inspired by the Holy Ghost or it's literally been dictated by the Creator of the Universe, if you're a moderate, then it's the best book we have because the, the wisest people in the wises tradition that has ever existed has delivered us this text. If either of those claims are true, well, consider -- consider what kind of morality falls out of that. I mean, consider a moral question that has been solved to everyone's satisfaction. Consider the question of slavery. Slavery was an abomination. We are all -- we are relieved of a terrible moral burden no longer practicing slavery. Thomas Jefferson would have been a better man had he freed Absolutely. If this is the best book we have -- the Bible is the best book we have, Old or New Testment, by the way, practicing slavery. The Creator of the Universe clearly expects keep slaves. He simply tells us not to beat them so badly that we knock out their eyes or their teeth because then we have to set them free. But He otherwise tells us how to keep slaves. Jesus clearly expects us to keep slaves. He never repudiates the institution of slavery. He talks -- he, he refers to slaves in his parables. He talks about slaves being beaten by their masters and never puts this into question. Paul and First Timothy admonishes slaves to serve their masters well and to serve their Christian masters especially well so as to partake in their holiness -- if this is the best book we have, the abolitionists were on the wrong side of the argument and if -- it should be a surprise to no one that slave holders of the south for many long years justified their practices by resort to the Good Book. So my argument, and really one of the central conclusions of my book is that all we have is human conversation. All we have is, is our own ethical intuitions, exercised in conversation with other human beings. You can either put your faith in a 21st Century conversation with all our intellectual resources available to us, or you can put your faith in some other century's conversation as enshrined in one of these books. You can put your faith in, in an iron-age conversation . You, you can take the Bible, or you can put your faith in a seventh century conversation and take the Karan. The problem with faith is that it really is a conversation stopper. It, it, the moment you -- faith is a declaration of immunity to the powers of conversation. It is a -- it is a reason why you do not have to give reasons for what you believe. And this is really a problem because when the stakes are high we have a simple choice between conversation and violence at the level of societies. We have a choice between conversation and war. Faith, religious faith is the only area of discourse where immunity through conversation is considered noble. It's the only area of our lives where someone can win points for saying, "there's nothing that you can do to change my mind." Imagine if there's a medical doctor saying, "there's nothing to be said that will change my mind." That is -- that claim is synonimous with saying, "I'm taking no state of the world ultimately into account in believing what I believe." "There's nothing to change about the world that would cause me to revise my beliefs." This is, this should be clear that this is intrinsically divisive. I mean the only thing that guarantees our collaboration with one another is truly open-ended. Is our willingness to have our core beliefs revised through the power of conversation. Now there are two kinds of conflict born of, of faith and, and its mode as a conversation stopper. There are a lot of people dying in the name of faith and they're not specifically theological grievances being exercised. You take something like, uh, the violence in Northern Ireland or the fragmentation of, of the former Yugoslavia. These are, these are conflicts that when these societies got stressed, they broke along religious lines but it's not like the IRS (sic) were fighting over the, the, the doctrine of substantiation. But, still the problem is their moral identities are organized around this this adherence to a tradition. And there, there are clearly other forms of of division in our world. There's nationalism, there's tribalism, naturally, there's racism but religious faith is the most articulate layer of human difference. It is really, it is really the level at which you can learn to dehumanize other human beings. So there's that violence. And it is, it is pervasive in our world. But then there is also the added violence that is explicitly theological where people would not otherwise be behaving this way at all, but for what they believe about God and this is Jihadism and the, the daily explosions we, we see or read about in the world is, is the preimenent example here. So my argument really, and, and the central argument in my book is to make religious war unthinkable. The way that things, like slavery and cannibalism seem poised to become. To make it unthinkable we have to undermine the dogma of faith. We have to repudiate this idea that beliefs can be sanctified by other than evidence and argument. Now, I just said many nasty things about religion. This is, this is not to say that religion is merely a shell game -- that it's just a tissue of lies and self-deceptions and cognitive errors that are designed to inure us to the threat of death. It is that to some significant degree. But it is not merely that. There is not doubt that human beings have spiritual experiences, for lack of a better word -- I use these words -- I use words like "spiritual" and "mystical" in my book and have received much grief from atheists on the subject but there's no doubt that there's a wing -- there's an end of the spectrum of positive human experience that very few people explore and that has traditionally been explored in a religious contemplative context and it is fanastically interesting. It should be of interest to us scientifically and personally. Every culture has produced people who have wandered off into the desert for forty days or forty nights or twenty years in a cave and come out talking about how human experience -- our moment to moment experience in the world can be deliberately transformed. Through meditation, through introspection, through prayer -- through deliberate use of intention. The, the problem is that these claims have always been made in a religious context and are now in our world, virtually always cluttered with religious dogma, to a greater or lesser degree. Uh, one in the spirit of violating the taboo of noticing the differences among our religions, the wisdom of contemplative lives spiritual, mystical wisdom has by no means been evenly distributed througout the world. No moreso than scientific insight has been evenly distributed. The East really does have something over the West when it comes time to talk about an empirical, non-dogmatic, first-person science. It approaches introspection and really delivers the goods. It's not -- there have been extraordinary individuals in the West. There have been the Meister Eckhardts and othr people who transcended the limits of their, their doctrine, but the, the, the disparity is rather extraordinary between Eastern and Western mystical wisdom. I mean, it's every bit, in my mind, it's every bit as, as extraordinary as the difference between Western sci -- western medicine and Eastern medicine. I mean, maybe there are some conditions for which Eastern medicine is better, but if you have an appendicidis, you'd better hope you can get to a Western hospital and get a Western-trained surgeon to work on you. Incidentally, if you do get appendicitis you might consider the fact that you've been intelligently designed. The appendix is proof-positive that this is a bogus idea. [LAUGHTER] So, I want, uh -- I've lost track of time. How are we -- do you -- is anyone keeping the clock? OK. Uh, yeah. Yeah. Well, briefly -- what I wanted to say is what I think are the messages of our contemplative tradition. That, that we can incorporate into our 21st Century world -- that we must incorporate, really -- because the burden is upon us to develop a thorough-going science of human happiness and approach the human happiness that addresses human happiness at every level -- biochemically, psychologically, economically, politically -- every level. And one of -- one necessary level, I would argue, is contemplative. We have to make sense of the fact that it's possible to go into a cave for ten years and be perfectly happy. That's not to say that that's a path for everybody. There's no doubt that there are people who go into caves who are completely deranged or deranged by the experience, but it -- one of the core insights about our contemplative condition is that there is something about human consciousness that can be recognized as the present moment. The very part of you that is hearing the sound of my voice. There is something to be recognized about what it is tobe conscious at this moment that transcends the vagueries of pleasant and unpleasant experience. There's a kind of mystical wellbeing that we can discover. It's interesting to note that solitary -- going into a cave into solitary confinement is considered a punishment even inside a prison for most people. This, this is what it's like to be the prisoner of one's thoughts. In the West, we have a really impoverished perception of sanity. We think all day long -- from the moment we, we're chased out of bed by our thoughts in the morning -- we think, think, think, think, think all day long -- and very few of us, and certainly very few exemplars in the Western tradition have, have talked intelligently about the possibility of not being lost in thought. What would a human mind be like if it was not continuously colored by this dis, discoursivity. And, and in the East and in Buddhism, specifically, they have spent millenia on this and have delivered some very compelling insights and just to lest this seems like a crazy eruption of speculative philosophy, I want to try to tie this down for a second -- because it really -- it -- I want to make sense to you of the claim it's possible -- there's something to be glimpsed about the nature of your consciousness right now that's not obvious to you, yet is right on the surface and by analogy, I want you to reflect on the existance of the blind spot -- the optic blind spot. We all know that we have a blind spot in both visual fields. It, it results from the transit of the optic nerve to the retina of each eye. We've all, I am sure, all of you have had it pointed out to you. You draw a spot on a piece of paper and you move that piece of paper until that spot disappears and it proves that there's something -- there's an area in your visual field that you're not getting information from, although your visual field seems seamless to you. Now, most people in the world don't know about the blind spot and those of us who know about it, go for decades without thinking about it and we certainly don't notice it. But it is there to be noticed. If you look out across this room somebody is probably missing a head. [LAUGHTER] If you -- it's there to be seen and it takes some doing to see it. There's an analogous fact about the nature of human consciousness -- and, and, and the fact is this: consciousness does not feel like a self. It does not feel like we take ourselves to be, moment to moment. Most of our lives -- the sense that we are the thinker of our thoughts. The, the experience of, the experiencer of our experience, and most of us feel like, we don't feel identical to our sphere of experience. We feel like we are having an experience. We feel like we are riding around in our head, somewhere behind our eyes not identical to our body, not identical to the contents of consciousness. This is a kind of cognitive error that really can be seen through, and it takes some doing, it takes some study, it takes some meditation, it can take a lot of work, but it holds immense implications for us as a species, and it holds immense implications for our conception of human happiness and what is normative human behavior. And finally, science is starting to turn it's attention on this, and I'm sure many of you know that there is a very fruitful dialogue happening in between neuroscientists and contemplatives, mostly Buddhist contemplatives, but contemplatives generally, and what it links up to in neuroscience is this idea that, that our brains really are plastic, that they are, that there's a neuroplasticity there that allows the brain to change itself based on how it is used. The brain is really an instrument that changes based on how it is played. And in positive mental states, our skills essentially, just as you can learn to play the piano, you can learn to feel differently about other human beings, that you can learn to feel compassion where you otherwise wouldn't. And this dialogue is just beginning but it is something that, it is a dialogue we need to have completely unconstrained by religious dogmatism. [Silence] [Silence] So, to wrap-up I just want one way of summarizing and what I've said is that, everyone really is really a scientist, in that everyone is making claims about the way the world is. And everyone is a mystic in the sense that everyone is seeking happiness in a context that is, in some basic sense, hostile to the terms of our search. That we are seeking happiness, seeking durable happiness, in the context of an ever changing experience. So, what I'm asking you to imagine is, what would it be like to have a culture where we came to terms with this fact, where we came to terms with the reality of death, that this astonishing fact that all of us are going to die. This astonishing fact that living long enough all of us will witness the death of everyone we love. If it is possible to find true well being in the midst of this circumstance. We should be desperate to find it, and we should be desperate to use all of our tools, all of our 21st century tools, and articulate these truths in terms that are not devicive, in terms that do not demand belief in the preposterous. So my argument really is that the end game for civilization, if we are talking about long-term thinking, the end game is not political correctness, it is not the mere toleration of patent absurdity. It really is reason, and reasonableness, and an openness to conversation. Thank you very much.

Video Details

Duration: 1 hour, 20 minutes and 4 seconds
Country: United States
Language: English
Director: Chris Baldwin for the Long Now Foundation
Views: 357
Posted by: bobappel on Oct 23, 2008

The Long Now Foundation
San Francisco, CA
Dec 9th, 2005

The View From The End Of The World with Sam Harris.

With gentle demeanor and tight argument, Sam Harris carried an overflow audience into the core of one of the crucial issues of our time: What makes some religions lethal? How do they employ aggressive irrationality to justify threatening and controlling non-believers as well as believers? What should be our response?

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