Evolution and the Anthropic Principle
Richard Dawkins vs Ken Wilber
Where Am I
The Cheshire Cat
I Could Have Been a Contender
What I Wish Id Said
Keeping Up with the World
The Flight of the Phoenix
The Power of Fog
Naming the Unnamed
Principles in Art
Spirit and Matter
The Enlightenment Conundrum
On Believing
Water? What Water?
Telling Stories 2
I believe in Rainbows
Whom Can We Believe
Patterns by Paul Simon and Douglas Hofstadter
Copyright Inheritance
Broad Minded
Beliefs Part Two
A Long drawn-out solstice
The Quest for, and the Illusion of, Certainty
To the Ends of the Earth
The Meaning Of Life
We Hold These Truths
There are Beliefs
Music and Language
Circular Thinking
Runaway World
Deep Playmate
An Alchemy of Telling
Cultural Genes
The Joy of Science
The Conundrum of Human Nature
No, The Computer Isn't Smarter than I Am!
A Rant on Religion
The West Wing Turning Right?
The Geometry of Spring
Music as Language
What is Art
Beauty and Spirit
You Don't Understand Us
The New God of Probability
Gene Hackman as President
Being Lifted Out of the Ordinary
The Head and the Heart
Pay Attention!
Music Poetry and Meaning
On Seeking Truth
Perceptions and Reality
The Marriage Bond
Taboo is a Right
Copyright versus Copyleft
Cycles of Transcendence
Ego and Self
The Big Picture
Mindfulness as Larger Mind
The Power of Words
The State of the Union
Out of My Mind
Family Thoughts
One Life
Telling Stories
Small World
Bigger Realities
What Comes Next
Humor as a Higher Level of Consciousness
Sometimes Everything Goes Wrong
Emotional Resonance
Extraordinary Respect
Insight Meditation
Us and Them
Paradox and Paradigm
To Reach
I Don't Know
Don the Romantic
The Guy in the Blue Saab
The Sound of Silence
Eating is an Intimate Act
Evolution of Spirit
On Cloning and Other . . .
Creativity and Psychic Phenomena
Magic in My Life
My Difficulty with Aaron
Mindful & Mystic
Taste of Irony
Music Appreciation
Levels of Consciousness

There are Beliefs, and then There are Beliefs

Sam Harris, in his book The End of Faith, claims that people’s religious beliefs are often without any scientific validity. He cites in particular the Islamic belief that if one kills “enemies of the Faith” (that is, non-believers) by blowing them up along with one’s self, one is guaranteed an immediate place in paradise. This belief, Harris says, is not only dangerous to world peace; it is without any factual basis. A less-drastic belief (to non-believers) that he mentions in his book is that of Fundamentalist Christians who believe that the bible is the literal word of God.

Harris argues from the viewpoint of positivism, a philosophy developed by Auguste Comte in the beginning of the nineteenth century, which stated that the only authentic knowledge is scientific knowledge. Positivism has come to be an assertion that scientific knowledge is physical knowledge. “If it can’t be measured, it isn’t real.” Harris is currently in research studying the physical effects of beliefs on the brain. His assumption is that “beliefs” are nothing more than particular brain states.

However, in criticizing other people’s religious beliefs, Harris is committing a performative contradiction—implying that his belief is true, while other people’s beliefs are not, because their factual basis can’t be demonstrated. In fact, neither can his.

Ken Wilber, in several of his books, writes about performative contradictions—statements that violate their own claims. For example, he says that the “New Paradigm” approaches to the question of valid truth “are internally self-contradictory.” While the postmodern insight that the world is not an innocent perception of ours, that it is in part  an interpretation that we add to what our senses tell us, the argument that “there is no objective truth, only different interpretations,” is plainly illogical. If everything is an interpretation without any basis in reality, then the claim itself has to be read in the same light. If the claim is true, then it is merely an interpretation itself, with no more basis in fact than any other—therefore, of no consequence. It is internally self-contradictory.

All this is not to claim that a belief about blowing oneself up on a crowded bus is anything but detrimental to a peaceful society. The basis for my generalization is grounded, not in measurable fact, but in a belief that a world I want to live in does not have such preventable tragedies. My belief, which I admit I’ve never subjected to scientific scrutiny, is supported by a lot of history and inductive reasoning.

And I believe that Sam Harris’s book won’t do much toward eliminating suicide bombing. Its polemics are apt to do just the opposite—reinforce the resistance of religious fundamentalism to what most of us in America believe is of high value: peace and freedom.

There are points in our thinking where we run out of demonstrable facts. We all do this, even hard-core empirical scientists. Science itself is based upon a faith that it will answer questions that no other method has been able to do. Ken Wilber, in his book The Marriage of Sense and Soul, proposes that science be opened up to include ways of knowing that are not physical. It is possible, he says, to apply the same criteria to questions of the mind as to questions of the senses—sensory experience is but a sub-set of direct experience. Verification of findings in any realm depends upon the agreement of knowledgeable peers, and these exist in non-physical realms as well.

The most fruitful attitude toward beliefs of all kinds is apt to be that they are all tentative, amenable to confirmation or rejection as the various states of the world become clearer to us. That they are an inevitable characteristic of human thought seems certain. Even that idea is offered as tentative—who knows what new discovery will prove it wrong?


May 4, 2006

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