Nature’s Monsters?

Every tragedy generates questions. After monstrous mass shootings, we wonder if our gun laws are as insane as they appear. After monstrous hurricanes, we wonder if man-made climate change is making the storms worse. After a monstrous presidential election, we wonder if our cultural institutions, and too many of our people, are hopelessly lost.

As important and vital as all those questions are, what happened in Las Vegas last Sunday night, and the mystery surrounding the motive of the killer, has me asking even deeper questions. I am inviting you to explore some possible answers to those questions. This lengthy journey is not for everyone, but it represents something I believe is important for thoughtful people to do: address the hard stuff. In doing so, I do not want to leave the impression that I am minimizing the suffering involved in this tragedy or disrespecting and ignoring the victims of this horrific crime. Obviously, the victims and their loved ones are owed our sympathy and compassion. The following examination, though, is focused on other issues.

I am fully aware that most of you will not read through this piece in its entirety nor watch the lengthy video at the end. We are, after all, living in the age of tweets. But I encourage you to take the time to read and listen. You may not agree in any way with what is said or claimed. We can discuss that in the comment section. But we can’t discuss it intelligently if you don’t invest the time and your thoughtfulness in what follows. I have pondered these issues and the questions they raise for most of my life, beginning with, as a kid, asking my father why it was that random thoughts, thoughts I didn’t like, popped into my head against my will and beyond my control. He had no answers. That phenomenon was then, and remains so today, mysterious to me.

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PART 1: THE WHY

I stayed awake all night as the tragedy in Las Vegas was unfolding on television. When I found out the killer was a 64-year-old affluent white man with no apparent political or religious or even personal motive for killing innocent people, the first thing I thought of was a man named Charles Whitman, another seemingly “ordinary guy” who killed a lot of people. Since Sunday, a lot of people have mentioned Whitman and his role as the first mass-murderer in American television history, the man whose crime gave us SWAT teams.

I thought of him for a different reason.

Whitman was 25 years old in the summer of 1966, when the Marine-trained sharpshooter “decided” to ride an elevator to the top of the University of Texas Tower and use the many weapons he brought with him—all of them packed, along with supplies such as “canned peaches, deodorant, an alarm clock, binoculars, toilet paper, a machete, and sweet rolls,” in an old Marine footlocker that he moved with a two-wheeler—to kill innocent people. Here’s how David Eagleman, writing for The Atlantic in 2011, described what happened:

Front page coverage of UT sniper, Charles Whitman. Aside from standard A1 features like the brief weather forecast and a daily humor feature, the front page of the next day’s San Antonio San Antonio Express was wholly dominated by shooting coverage. The Photo: Digitized Microfilm / Digitized MicrofilmAt the top, he killed a receptionist with the butt of his rifle. Two families of tourists came up the stairwell; he shot at them at point-blank range. Then he began to fire indiscriminately from the deck at people below. The first woman he shot was pregnant. As her boyfriend knelt to help her, Whitman shot him as well. He shot pedestrians in the street and an ambulance driver who came to rescue them…

By the time the police shot him dead, Whitman had killed 13 people and wounded 32 more. The story of his rampage dominated national headlines the next day. And when police went to investigate his home for clues, the story became even stranger: in the early hours of the morning on the day of the shooting, he had murdered his mother and stabbed his wife to death in her sleep.

Now, I was almost 8 years old on August 1, 1966, and have only a vague recollection of that story as it appeared on the evening news—CNN wouldn’t come into existence for another 14 years. But I can guarantee you that plenty of people labeled what Whitman did, just as Tr-mp labeled what the Las Vegas killer did, as “an act of pure evil.”

Evil. Pure. If it were as easy as that.

Just what is evil? Why do we use the word? Do we need the concept of evil to help us live with the mysteries of our existence, the mysteries of human behavior?

I don’t recall hearing anyone refer to the series of hurricanes that have recently brought with them much death and destruction as “evil.” No one, as far as I can tell, said that what Hurricane Maria did to Puerto Rico and elsewhere was “an act of pure evil.” Why is that? Maria has killed more people than the murderer in Las Vegas killed. Why is one killer seen as evil and the other not?

It seems obvious that the reason we put what hurricanes do in a different context than what human beings do is because storms are seen as natural events that have no intentionality. We know there is no “Maria,” in the sense of a personality making willful decisions to target innocent islanders in the Atlantic. Hurricanes are complex low-pressure tropical weather systems fueled by the evaporation of warm ocean water and “steered” by environmental conditions, such as prevailing winds. They begin life as mere tropical disturbances that may or may not become “monsters” that kill and destroy. Why some do and some don’t is a matter of “organization,” the process of which is not completely understood.

People, on the other hand, are almost universally viewed as moral actors. That seems as obvious to us as the idea that hurricanes don’t have intentions. Human beings, we believe, have free will, and consequently their actions can be judged as right or wrong, good or evil, or somewhere in between. In the case of Charles Whitman, the Texas Tower killer, his actions, like the actions of the Vegas killer, clearly appear to most people as “pure evil.” As noted, Whitman stabbed both his devoutly religious mother and his wife in the heart with a hunting knife before he went to the Austin campus and began his killing spree there, including shooting that pregnant student in the stomach, her boyfriend in the neck, and another student in the mouth. Here is what he wrote in a note he left at his murdered mother’s apartment:

To whom it may concern,

I have just taken my mother’s life. I am very upset over having done it. However I feel that if there is a heaven she is definitely there now. And if there is no life after, I have relieved her of her suffering here on earth. The intense hatred I feel for my father is beyond description. My mother gave that man the 25 best years of her life and because she finally took enough of his beatings, humiliation and degradation and tribulations that I am sure no one but she and he will ever know—to leave him. He has chosen to treat her like a slut that you would bed down with, accept her favors and then throw a pitance [sic] in return.

I am truly sorry that this is the only way I could see to relieve her sufferings but I think it was best.

Let there be no doubt in your mind I loved that woman with all my heart.

If there exists a God let him understand my actions and judge accordingly.

Charles J. Whitman

He apparently wrote that note, on a legal pad, after he had moved his mother—whom he likely strangled and hit in the head with something heavy before he stabbed her—into a sleeping position on her twin bed, and after he washed his hands and knife. He placed the note on her body and covered her up with a bedspread. He left her apartment around 2 A.M. and headed home, home to kill his sleeping wife with the same hunting knife, plunging it into her chest multiple times. At that crime scene he also left a note—most of which he had typed the evening before—one that he finished in his own handwriting after the murder. Here is the entire note, beginning with the typed portion:

I don’t quite understand what it is that compels me to type this letter. Perhaps it is to leave some vague reason for the actions I have recently performed. I don’t really understand myself these days. I am supposed to be an average reasonable and intelligent young man. However, lately (I can’t recall when it started) I have been a victim of many unusual and irrational thoughts. These thoughts constantly recur, and it requires a tremendous mental effort to concentrate on useful and progressive tasks. In March when my parents made a physical break I noticed a great deal of stress. I consulted a Dr. Cochrum at the University Health Center and asked him to recommend someone that I could consult with about some psychiatric disorders I felt I had. I talked with a Doctor once for about two hours and tried to convey to him my fears that I felt come overwhelming violent impulses. After one session I never saw the Doctor again, and since then I have been fighting my mental turmoil alone, and seemingly to no avail. After my death I wish that an autopsy would be performed on me to see if there is any visible physical disorder. I have had some tremendous headaches in the past and have consumed two large bottles of Excedrin in the past three months.

It was after much thought that I decided to kill my wife, Kathy, tonight after I pick her up from work at the telephone company. I love her dearly, and she has been as fine a wife to me as any man could ever hope to have. I cannot rationaly [sic] pinpoint any specific reason for doing this. I don’t know whether it is selfishness, or if I don’t want her to have to face the embrassment [sic] my actions would surely cause her. AT this time, though, the prominent reason in my mind is that I truly do not consider this world worth living in, and am prepared to die, and I do not want to leave her to suffer alone in it. I intend to kill her as painlessly as possible.

Similar reasons provoked me to take my mother’s life also. I don’t think the poor woman has ever enjoyed life as she is entitled to. She was a simple young woman who married a very possessive and dominating man. All my life as a boy until I ran away from home to join the Marine Corps [at this point, Whitman was “interrupted” by “friends,” which he noted in handwriting in the margin; the rest of the note was handwritten after he murdered his wife] I was a witness to her being beat at least one [sic] a month. Then when she took enough my father wanted to fight to keep her below her usual standard of living.

I imagine it appears that I bruttaly [sic] kill [sic] both of my loved ones. I was only trying to do a quick thorough job.

Years before the killing began, Whitman kept a diary. After he murdered his wife, he took the time to go through some of the old diary entries before he left his home to prepare for the killing to come later that day at the University of Texas. One such entry was dated February 23, 1964, and its subject was mostly about how much he loved and valued his soon-to-be wife (they married in August of 1964). Using the same pen that he used to finish his explanation for brutally killing his mother and his wife, he jotted just above the entry:

I still mean it. CJW 8-1-66

That February, 1964, entry had ended with this:

My Darling Kathleen, I love you very much. That statement is so simple but maybe someday I’ll be able to convince you of all the emotions and feelings that it encases. My wife, you are wonderful.

Whitman, again, just after he stabbed his wife to death and covered her bloody body, took the time to comment on that diary entry:

Only time has shown me how right I was in these thoughts over 2-1/2 years ago. My wife was a true person. CJW

This former Eagle Scout—at age 12 he was nationally recognized as the youngest Eagle Scout in the world—also took the time just after murdering his mother and wife to write brief notes to his brother Johnnie and his brother Pat. To Johnnie he wrote:

Kathy and I enjoyed your visit. I am terribly sorry to have let you down. Please try to do better than I have. It won’t be hard. John, Mom loved you very much.

Your brother, Charlie.

To Pat he wrote:

You are so wrong about Mom. Maybe some day you will understand why she left Daddy. Pat, Mom didn’t have any desire to harm Daddy whatsoever. She just wanted what she had worked for. She really needed that $40.00. Thanks for sending it. She’ll never know about that Grandmother or not.

Charlie

Perhaps now is a good time to say a little more about Charles Whitman and what is generally known about his life, since the point here is to try to understand how a human being could commit such murderous acts, acts that people call pure evil.

Whitman first attended the University of Texas on a Marine scholarship, majoring in architectural engineering. His IQ was reportedly above 130. He played the piano, some say “beautifully.” He took amphetamines. He had a bad temper. He was very comfortable with guns. He was apparently a domestic abuser “who expected too much from” his wife, according to a close friend of his. That friend also said Whitman was a “perfectionist,” who “would wipe his hand behind pictures hanging on the wall looking for dust.” The same friend told police that Whitman “had turned atheistic in his belief,” despite the fact that he had attended Catholic parochial schools most of his life. He also “talked frequently about his father” and how much he “hated him.” His father, who ran a successful plumbing business in Florida, was allegedly “very strict and domineering and ran the household with an iron hand.” In the spring of 1966, Whitman went to Florida to bring is mother to Texas, after she reported to him that there were “family problems.” And, as already mentioned by Whitman himself, he suspected something was wrong with him.

Whitman liked to make lists. One such list he titled, THOUGHTS TO START THE DAY.Here are the items on that typed list:

READ AND THINK ABOUT, EVERY DAY

STOP procrastinating (Grasp the nettle)
CONTROL your anger (Don’t let it prove you a fool)
SMILE–Its contagious
DON’T be belligerent
STOP cursing, improve your vocabulary
APPROACH a pot of gold with exceptional caution (look it over – twice)
PAY that compliment
LISTEN more than you speak, THINK before you speak
CONTROL your passion; DON’T LET IT lead YOU — Don’t let desire make you regret your present actions later (Remember the lad and the man)
If you want to be better than average, YOU HAVE TO WORK MUCH HARDER THAN THE AVERAGE
NEVER FORGET; when the going gets rough, the ROUGH get going!!!!!

YESTERDAY IS NOT MINE TO RECOVER
BUT TOMORROW IS MINE TO WIN OR TO
LOSE.  I AM RESOLVED THAT I SHALL 
WIN THE TOMORROW BEFORE ME!!!

Attached to that list was another list, handwritten:

Whitman
1. Grow up (think-don’t be so ready with an excuse)
2. Conduct with superiors (time and place for everything)
3. Know your status and position and conduct yourself accordingly.
4. Courtesy (Generally show respect for seniors but lets personal feeling towd. indiv. show.)
5. Organize yourself and your work so that the insignificant is not a major crisis.
6. When time permits exhaust all effort to find answers before asking the simplest of questions.

Just below that list, was another typed list referencing his wife:

GOOD POINTS TO REMEMBER WITH KATHY
1. Don’t nag.
2. Don’t try to make your partner over.
3. Don’t criticize.
4. Give honest appreciation.
5. Pay little attentions.
6. Be courteous.
7. BE GENTLE.

On the day of the murders, Whitman wrote at the top of the first list the following:

8-1-66whitman's list
I never could quite make it.
These thoughts are too much for me.
CJW

Now, what do we make of all this? What do we make of someone, widely seen as an “all-American boy,” who goes to the trouble of trying to improve himself by such measures and then, with much planning and forethought, brutally murders his mother and wife and fourteen others (one of those shot from the Tower died in 2001 and the death was ruled a homicide connected to Whitman) on a summer day on a college campus in Texas? Why did he commit such a monstrous act? Was he a monster?

Remember that Whitman had asked in his “suicide” note that an autopsy be performed on him. And I believe that Texas law, under the circumstances, required one. So, an autopsy was done. The Atlantic’s David Eagleman explains:

Whitman’s body was taken to the morgue, his skull was put under the bone saw, and the medical examiner lifted the brain from its vault. He discovered that Whitman’s brain harbored a tumor the diameter of a nickel. This tumor, called a glioblastoma, had blossomed from beneath a structure called the thalamus, impinged on the hypothalamus, and compressed a third region called the amygdala. The amygdala is involved in emotional regulation, especially of fear and aggression. By the late 1800s, researchers had discovered that damage to the amygdala caused emotional and social disturbances. In the 1930s, the researchers Heinrich Klüver and Paul Bucy demonstrated that damage to the amygdala in monkeys led to a constellation of symptoms, including lack of fear, blunting of emotion, and overreaction. Female monkeys with amygdala damage often neglected or physically abused their infants. In humans, activity in the amygdala increases when people are shown threatening faces, are put into frightening situations, or experience social phobias. Whitman’s intuition about himself—that something in his brain was changing his behavior—was spot-on.

So, can we blame a brain tumor, affecting the amygdala, for Whitman’s actions? Or was it some combination of the tumor and genes and environment? Or was he simply an evil man, with an evil soul, who made evil choices?

As Eagleman points out, there are many cases in which brain tumors are suspected to be major contributing factors to psychopathic criminal behavior. But not all psychopaths are violent criminals and not all psychopathy is caused by brain tumors (and, to be clear, there is a difference between psychopaths and psychotics, which you can learn here).

To move away from the issue of tumors altering feelings and behavior, there are other brain impairments that are connected to psychopathy.  A neuroscientist named James Fallon has been studying the brains of psychopaths for two decades. Four years ago he published a book, The Psychopath Inside: A Neuroscientist’s Personal Journey into the Dark Side of the Brain.” Here’s how the stunning revelation in the book was described:

While researching serial killers, he uncovered a pattern in their brain scans that helped explain their cold and violent behavior. Astonishingly, his own scan matched that pattern. And a few months later he learned that he was descended from a long line of murderers.

Those close to Fallon had known that he wasn’t “normal.” Here’s how Tanya Lewis of Business Insider told the story:

When Fallon saw that his own scan fit the pattern of brain activity he had found in the psychopaths, he started to question his theory. He thought to himself, “I’m okay, I’m not a bad guy.”

But when he went home and told his wife what had happened — how his brain resembled that of a psychopath, at least according to his theory — she reacted very strangely.

It wasn’t that surprising, she said.

But it wasn’t just his wife who reacted this way. Friends and colleagues told him the same thing, that he was “kind of not there emotionally,” Fallon recalls. Even his daughter thought so — as a young child, she painted her dad as a “dark figure.” Fallon’s psychiatrist friends described things he had done in the past that they said showed a profound lack of empathy (one of the telltale signs of psychopathic tendencies), like skipping a friend’s funeral because he thought it might be boring. His friends and family agreed. “I realized people had been telling me something for years, I just didn’t put it together,” Fallon said.

It’s important to keep in mind that scientists are still researching psychopathology and they don’t have all the answers yet. But they think that people like Fallon have a connection with the world that’s very different from others.

According to some of this research, psychopaths understand when there are people in need or in pain, but they don’t feel it viscerally the way most people do. As Fallon put it, “I don’t get the interpersonal warm and fuzzies.”

So Fallon started looking to his genetics for answers. It turns out he has a gene that’s been linked, in several studies, with an increased risk of violent and aggressive behavior.

An ABC News report continues Fallon’s story:

Two of his distant relatives were notorious: One, Lizzie Borden, was acquitted of murdering her father and stepmother with a hatchet in 1892. Another, Thomas Cornell, was the first in the American colonies hanged for killing his mother in 1672.

Fallon said he escaped the same fate because of the interplay between nature and nurture. He was raised in a loving family. Still, he had some other telltale signs, such as panic attacks, obsessive-compulsive tendencies and social anxieties.

“Looking at my genetics, I had lethal combination, but I just had the happiest childhood growing up,” he said. Fallon’s mother had four miscarriages before his birth and, as a result, he said he was, “treated well because they didn’t think I would be born.”

“There were dark periods I went through, but they didn’t bring me to a psychiatrist, but they told my sisters and teachers to watch out for me,” he said. “My mother instinctively knew there was a problem.”

Conscience and a sense of morality and impulse control lie in the limbic system and in the orbital cortex in the brain, according to Fallon.

“They connect and inhibit each other not unlike the super-ego controlling the id,” he said. “It’s the interface between the intellectual mind and the emotions attending to them.”

Fallon’s brain scans show low activity in both regions of the brain.

“No behavior is really evil or bad — it’s all contextual,” he said. “There is a time for sex and a time for killing, when someone attacks the family. But it’s done in context. The orbital cortex adjudicates the idea of morality and interacts with the amygdala’s drive to eat, drink and screw. There would be mayhem if it didn’t exist.”

As a neuroscientist, Fallon said he always believed humans were ruled solely by their genes and not their environment in the nature versus nurture debate.

“I never took it seriously,” he said. “I was the poster boy for genes causing everything. But I had to eat crow and say I was wrong.”

I consider all these insights to be the most important scientific discoveries of our time. And the research continues. A recent Harvard study concluded:

Psychopaths’ brains are wired in a way that leads them to over-value immediate rewards and neglect the future consequences of potentially dangerous or immoral actions.

The senior author of that study, Josh Buckholtz, an Associate Professor of Psychology, said (emphasis mine):

For years, we have been focused on the idea that psychopaths are people who cannot generate emotion and that’s why they do all these terrible things. But what we care about with psychopaths is not the feelings they have or don’t have, it’s the choices they make. Psychopaths commit an astonishing amount of crime, and this crime is both devastating to victims and astronomically costly to society as a whole.

And even though psychopaths are often portrayed as cold-blooded, almost alien predators, we have been showing that their emotional deficits may not actually be the primary driver of these bad choices. Because it’s the choices of psychopaths that cause so much trouble, we’ve been trying to understand what goes on in their brains when the make decisions that involve trade-offs between the costs and benefits of action. In this most recent paper…we are able to look at brain-based measures of reward and value and the communication between different brain regions that are involved in decision making.

“Trying to understand what goes on in their brains.” That’s what scientists do. That’s what all of us should do. And while there is so much more to learn, and while some of the tentative conclusions may turn out to be mistaken, the overwhelming evidence points to the connection between the physical brain and psychopathy, a connection that only gets more complicated as we throw genetics and environment in the mix. The ScienceDaily article featuring that Harvard study elaborates on the physiology:

What they found, Buckholtz said, was people who scored high for psychopathy showed greater activity in a region called the ventral striatum — known to be involved in evaluating the subjective reward — for the more immediate choice.

“So the more psychopathic a person is, the greater the magnitude of that striatal response,” Buckholtz said. “That suggests that the way they are calculating the value rewards is dysregulated — they may over-represent the value of immediate reward.”

Buckholtz zeroed in on what appears to be the culprit. And I include his lengthy explanation here, even if we laymen aren’t familiar with the terminology, merely to emphasize that we are talking about something physically wrong with the brain:

“We mapped the connections between the ventral striatum and other regions known to be involved in decision-making, specifically regions of the prefrontal cortex known to regulate striatal response,” he said. “When we did that, we found that connections between the striatum and the ventral medial prefrontal cortex were much weaker in people with psychopathy.”

That lack of connection is important, Buckholtz said, because this portion of the prefrontal cortex role is thought to be important for ‘mental time-travel’ — envisioning the future consequences of actions. There is increasing evidence that prefrontal cortex uses the outcome of this process to change how strongly the striatum responds to rewards. With that prefrontal modulating influence weakened, the value of the more immediate choice may become dramatically over-represented.

“The striatum assigns values to different actions without much temporal context” he said. “We need the prefrontal cortex to make prospective judgements how an action will affect us in the future — if I do this, then this bad thing will happen. The way we think of it is if you break that connection in anyone, they’re going to start making bad choices because they won’t have the information that would otherwise guide their decision-making to more adaptive ends.”

The effect was so pronounced, Buckholtz said, that researchers were able to use the degree of connection between the striatum and the prefrontal cortex to accurately predict how many times inmates had been convicted of crimes.

If you have read this far, you may or may not be ready for what Dr. Buckholtz says next:

Ultimately, Buckholtz said, his goal is to erase the popular image of psychopaths as incomprehensible, cold-blooded monsters and see them for what they are — everyday humans whose brains are simply wired differently.

“They’re not aliens, they’re people who make bad decisions,” he said. “The same kind of short-sighted, impulsive decision-making that we see in psychopathic individuals has also been noted in compulsive over-eaters and substance abusers. If we can put this back into the domain of rigorous scientific analysis, we can see psychopaths aren’t inhuman, they’re exactly what you would expect from humans who have this particular kind of brain wiring dysfunction.”

That may not be what most of us want to hear after what happened in Las Vegas. And I understand the intense anger directed at the killer. If he had murdered someone dear to me, I would be out of my mind with anger. But consider that the man who killed at least 58 concert-goers in Nevada had a father who was on the FBI’s “Most Wanted” list for years after escaping from a federal prison in Texas, where he was serving time for bank robbery. Just before that, the father tried to escape from a jail in, of all places, Las Vegas, where, according to the FBI, he attempted to run down an agent with his car. The FBI also noted at the time (1969) that the father had been “diagnosed as being psychopathic.” That’s the father. As for the son who would go on to become a killer, one writer noted,

It seems he was 8 when his father was convicted of armed robbery and sent to prison; 15 when the old man escaped and went on the lam; and 26 when he was re-apprehended.

No one knows what, if any, effect those experiences had on the Las Vegas killer. It is hard to imagine they wouldn’t affect him in some way, even if they didn’t contribute to his crimes. And no one, at this point, knows if the killer had any brain impairments. His brother, who is naturally upset and bewildered by all of what happened, said recently:

I hope to hell they find when they do the autopsy that there’s a tumor in his head or something because if they don’t we’re all in trouble. No one wants to hear this but I’m as touched by this.. my brother is dead who wasn’t this guy that did this. He’s dead… I liked my brother, he was a good guy. This is a horror story in every possible way.

Clark County Sheriff Joseph Lombardo recently referred to the killer as “disturbed and dangerous,” which is a much more informative, if less satisfying, description than calling him “evil.” The sheriff also said that the killer “spent decades acquiring weapons and ammo and living a secret life, much of which will never be fully understood.” Perhaps Sheriff Lombardo is right. Perhaps the killer’s life, a life that led to such an unimaginable act of cowardly violence, will never be fully understood. After all, the life of Charles Whitman isn’t fully understood after all these years. And we must admit that there are plenty of people who have awful parents, troubled childhoods, and even damaged brains who don’t end up as record-setting killers. But there are scientists out there trying to understand psychopaths, especially those who turn to violence. And the closer we get to understanding them, the better off we all will be.

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PART 2: THE WILL

For years now, I have been wrestling with the issue of whether human beings have genuine free will. Certainly we have the sense that we are making free choices. And certainly the idea that we are all free moral agents is socially useful, even if it isn’t strictly true. No one can argue otherwise. But do we really have free will? Is it merely an illusion? And why does it matter whether we have it or don’t?

As for me, like many others, including scientists and philosophers, I have settled on the conclusion that we don’t have free will. We are not free moral agents. Whether we have what some call a soul, which, after our physical bodies die, lives in eternal bliss or torment, is not something that I or science can speak to. But science can, and does for many people, speak to the idea that what we experience as “our will” is just our brain fooling us. Here’s the way Sam Harris puts it:

Free will is an illusion. Our wills are simply not of our own making. Thoughts and intentions emerge from background causes of which we are unaware and over which we exert no conscious control. We do not have the freedom we think we have.

Free will is actually more than illusion (or less), in that it cannot be made conceptually coherent. Either our wills are determined by prior causes and we are not responsible for them, or they are the product of chance and we are not responsible for them.

Now, that may seem strange to some people unfamiliar with the progress of neuroscience. And it may seem strange to categorically claim that none of us is directly responsible for what we do. But if you watch the video below, and carefully follow the argument, you will see the logical basis both for the illusion claim and how to deal with the issue of responsibility that appears problematic if that claim is true. No matter whether our choices are “determined by prior causes” or the “product of chance,” we are not morally responsible for the acts done at the behest of our illusory will, but—and this cannot be missed or misunderstood—we have to be held responsible for them in a social context. No one can have a get-out-of-jail-free card when unspeakable crimes are perpetrated. Until we solve, through science, the problem of how to fix defective brains or mitigate dangerous brain states, we have to quarantine the violent psychopaths. If they can be treated and made well, we should do that. If they can’t, we should keep searching for effective treatments—even as we necessarily isolate them.

I could write even more about the issue of free will. I could cite many learned people who don’t believe in its reality. But the video below does the best job I have seen of explaining the issues involved. If you have read to this point, obviously you are interested in this topic. I ask you to invest more time—with someone much more knowledgeable about the brain science and its implications (including the philosophical fatalism that denying free will suggests) than I could ever be—and then we can have a layman’s discussion in the comments section:

NOTE (January 11, 2018): For some reason the original video I posted below is unavailable. Too bad. I wish I had saved it in my own files. But here is another one that does a good job of explaining the issues:


Theocracy And The Finger Of God

“And he gave unto Moses, when he had made an end of communing with him upon Mount Sinai, two tables of testimony, tables of stone, written with the finger of God.”

—Exodus 31:18

“I’m not running for this position. I’m running to serve God and his will.”

—Judge Roy Moore

Today Republican voters in Alabama will quite likely choose Roy Moore, a twenty-four carat, lawbreaking theocrat, to be their nominee to replace Jeff Sessions in the U.S Senate. And chances are, despite Democrats’ hopefulness, Roy Moore, a twenty-four carat, lawbreaking theocrat, will be Alabama’s next senator, after the December 12th general election.

Moore is infamous for a couple of law-ignoring moments. After he installed a two and one-half ton granite Ten Commandments monument in his courthouse in 2001 (he was chief justice of the state supreme court at the time), a federal judge ordered him to remove it. He refused. He then got canned by the Alabama Court of the Judiciary. But he came back. He managed to get himself re-elected in 2012 as, again, chief justice of the Image result for roy moore and gunstate supreme court. In 2016, this lawbreaker decided it didn’t matter that his state’s ban on same-sex marriage was overturned by a federal judge. He ordered the probate judges in Alabama to keep enforcing the bogus law. He got suspended and eventually quit, after it became clear officials weren’t going to participate in his personally-enforced theocracy. (Although, interestingly and inexplicably there are still eight judges in Alabama who are honoring Moore’s dictum by simply not issuing anyone a marriage license.)

And, now the gun-toting zealot is back yet again.

Just the possibility that Roy Moore could sit in the Senate here in the 21st century tells us at least two things. One, it tells us Alabama is a very strange place. But we kind of knew that already. Two, though, it tells us that a large number of American Christians aren’t that far removed from Islamist theocrats all over the world, in terms of how much they despise genuine secularism. And make no mistake about it, we were designed to be a secular nation. Our Constitution is a secular document. It was not handed down by God, but handed down by some entity called “We the People.” And you won’t find any God-invoking language in the document. But, if it is God-invoking language you are after, you can find it in the Preamble to the Confederate Constitution. Wikipedia provides a handy comparison between the original and its treacherous imitator:

  • The Preamble to the U.S. Constitution: “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”[4]
  • The Preamble to the Confederate Constitution: “We, the people of the Confederate States, each state acting in its sovereign and independent character, in order to form a permanent federal government, establish justice, insure domestic tranquillity, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity — invoking the favor and guidance of Almighty God — do ordain and establish this Constitution for the Confederate States of America.”[1]

Even though the traitors invoked Almighty God’s “favor and guidance,” that didn’t work out too well (see: Appomattox Court House, Virginia, April 9, 1865, for evidence of that). But despite that massive failure, the idea—the idea that this is God’s country and not our own—still persists. Jeff Stein, of Vox, recently wrote a profile of Moore. Stein got to the heart of the matter:

Moore’s defense in the Ten Commandments case is instructive. One conservative defense of the tablets could be that local courts should have the freedom to erect whatever monuments they want. This was not Moore’s argument. Instead, he said that the Ten Commandments should stay because they really are divine, and therefore more important than human law.

“The Ten Commandments are not only a sacred text in the Jewish and Christian faiths, as the Supreme Court stated in Stone v Graham,” he writes. “They are God’s revealed, divine law and the basis on which our morality depends.”

Few Christians, of course, can cite or name most of the supposedly vital commandments (which are presented in different versions in the Old Testament). Stephen Colbert famously and hilariously, more than ten years ago, revealed the hypocrisy of a Georgia congressman named Lynn Westmoreland (also noted for referring to the Obamas as “uppity”) and by extension the hypocrisy of most theocracy-minded Christians:

COLBERT: You co-sponsored a bill requiring the display of the Ten Commandments in the House of Representatives and the Senate.

REP. WESTMORELAND: Uh-huh.

COLBERT: Why was that important to you?

REP. WESTMORELAND: Well, the Ten Commandments is not a bad thing, uh, for people to understand and to respect.

COLBERT: I’m with you.

REP. WESTMORELAND: Where better place could you have something like that than a judicial building, or in a court house?

COLBERT: That is a good question. Can you think of any better building to put the Ten Commandments in than in a public building?

REP. WESTMORELAND: No. I think if we were totally without ’em we may lose a sense of our direction.

COLBERT: What are the Ten Commandments?

REP. WESTMORELAND: What are all of ’em?

COLBERT: Uh-huh.

REP. WESTMORELAND: You want me to name ’em all?

COLBERT: Yes. Please.

REP. WESTMORELAND: Umm. Don’t murder. Don’t lie. Don’t steal. Uhhh, I can’t name ’em all.

Funny stuff.

In any case, Sam Harris said of the Commandments (in Letter to a Christian Nation):

They are, after all, the only passages in the Bible so profound that the creator of the universe felt the need to physically write them himself — and in stone. As such, one would expect these to be the greatest lines ever written, on any subject, in any language.

Well, are they the greatest lines ever written? Let’s consider the second of the commandments (I chose Exodus 20:4):

You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below.

Think about the absurdity of that for a moment. The alleged creator of the cosmos, omnipotent and omniscient, allegedly used his own finger to etch out that silly command, rather than publish some insight into, say, what causes many preventable diseases among his made-in-his-image creatures (we human beings finally began to figure that out in the middle of the 19th century, by the way). And consider the secondary absurdity that resulted from that ridiculously trivial commandment. Here is a passage from Wikipedia that demonstrates some of it:

In 726 Emperor Leo III ordered all images removed from all churches; in 730 a council forbade veneration of images, citing the Second Commandment; in 787 the Seventh Ecumenical Council reversed the preceding rulings, condemning iconoclasm and sanctioning the veneration of images; in 815 Leo V called yet another council, which reinstated iconoclasm; in 843 Empress Theodora again reinstated veneration of icons.[114] This mostly settled the matter until the Protestant Reformation, when John Calvin declared that the ruling of the Seventh Ecumenical Council “emanated from Satan”.[114] Protestant iconoclasts at this time destroyed statues, pictures, stained glass, and artistic masterpieces.[114]

All of that from essentially nothing.

There are more absurdities in the Ten Commandments, but Sam Harris deserves the last word on the last one, number 10 (don’t covet your neighbor’s house, wife, slaves, ox, ass, or anything else):

…what are we to make of the fact that, in bringing his treatise to a close, the creator of the universe could think of no human concerns more pressing and durable than the coveting of servants and livestock?

And what are we to make of the fact that a man who may become a member of the United States Senate can think of “no human concerns more pressing and durable” than pushing Iron Age dictates upon the nation and placing them above its man-made laws? As David Dinielli of the Southern Poverty Law Center put it, Roy Moore’s ideology “would allow those who think they know the unknowable and the mystic to impose their beliefs on everyone else.”

And unless a man-made miracle happens in Alabama either today or in December, we will have to deal nationally with a U.S. Senator who has a history of imposing his knowledge of the unknowable on his fellow citizens.

 

Karma, Meet Glenn Greenwald

How ironic it is that Glenn Greenwald has found himself the victim of what he calls “distortions.” Not too long ago, Greenwald was one of those who encouraged the slander of Sam Harris as a “genocidal fascist maniac” for something Harris wrote that was, in my view, misrepresented and distorted. Today Greenwald himself is complaining about being misunderstood, as people read and interpret his latest anti-anti-terrorism piece (“CANADA, AT WAR FOR 13 YEARS, SHOCKED THAT ‘A TERRORIST’ ATTACKED ITS SOLDIERS”) published on his website The Intercept.

Writing about the death of a Canadian soldier on Monday, who, along with another soldier, was deliberately struck by a car driven by a convert to Islam, Greenwald said:

If you want to be a country that spends more than a decade proclaiming itself at war and bringing violence to others, then one should expect that violence will sometimes be directed at you as well. Far from being the by-product of primitive and inscrutable religions, that behavior is the natural reaction of human beings targeted with violence. Anyone who doubts that should review the 13-year orgy of violence the U.S. has unleashed on the world since the 9/11 attack, as well as the decades of violence and interference from the U.S. in that region prior to that.

If you think that sounds like Greenwald is justifying the attack on two Canadian soldiers, you are not alone. But Greenwald attempted to cover himself:

The issue here is not justification (very few people would view attacks on soldiers in a shopping mall parking lot to be justified). The issue is causation. Every time one of these attacks occurs — from 9/11 on down — Western governments pretend that it was just some sort of unprovoked, utterly “senseless” act of violence caused by primitive, irrational, savage religious extremism inexplicably aimed at a country innocently minding its own business. They even invent fairy tales to feed to the population to explain why it happens: they hate us for our freedoms.

I’ll leave it to readers to decide whether Greenwald adequately insulated himself from claims that he was blaming the Canadian government for not only the attack on Monday, but by extension the attacks yesterday on Canada’s National War Memorial and its Parliament, attacks that coincidentally occurred shortly after Greenwald published his controversial article. But given Greenwald’s willingness to distort the arguments of others, readers are not obliged to give him the benefit of the doubt. Referring to the attack on the Canadian soldiers, he wrote:

Except in the rarest of cases, the violence has clearly identifiable and easy-to-understand causes: namely, anger over the violence that the country’s government has spent years directing at others. The statements of those accused by the west of terrorism, and even the Pentagon’s own commissioned research, have made conclusively clear what motivates these acts: namely, anger over the violence, abuse and interference by Western countries in that part of the world, with the world’s Muslims overwhelmingly the targets and victims. The very policies of militarism and civil liberties erosions justified in the name of stopping terrorism are actually what fuels terrorism and ensures its endless continuation.

I’ll let Greenwald in on a secret that most of the civilized world is coming to know: there are violent Islamist extremists, whether primitive or not, whether irrational or not, whether savage or not, who want to kill Westerners simply for being greenwald on twitterWesterners. And Greenwald has become a man at war with those who think that doing something about those violent Islamist extremists is a bad thing, in fact a thing that is perpetuating terrorism.

Greenwald acts as if the terrorists would stop being terrorists if the West walked away from its responsibility to protect itself and others, including Muslims who are most victimized by militant religious extremism, either by death or oppression. He lashes out at the West’s “rage and demand for still more actions of militarism and freedom-deprivation,” while mostly ignoring the actions of militarism and freedom-deprivation done by Islamists who want to establish a theocratic state. He speaks of “the 13-year orgy of violence the U.S. has unleashed on the world since the 9/11 attack” without distinguishing between the just attempt to pursue the 9/11 killers in Afghanistan and the misguided war in Iraq. He mocks what he calls “the standard Churchillian war rhetoric about the noble fight against evil,” as if there is no evil to fight.

But there is evil to fight. And people like Greenwald make it harder to fight it.

In Defense Of Sam Harris

I have followed fairly closely the ongoing controversy among liberals on the issue of how to talk about Islam in the context of what we see going on in the Middle East. Unfortunately, there are some contemporary liberals who are so enamored with the ideas behind multiculturalism (which is not a bad thing in itself; but context is everything) that they can’t bring themselves to see that there are precious few Muslim-majority countries in the world that are advanced enough to have accepted what most of us consider to be necessary and universal human rights.

On comedian and commentator Bill Maher’s HBO show recently, both he and Sam Harris, a liberal and a thinker I greatly admire even when I disagree with him, got into a rather heated (and now famous) debate with actor and liberal activist Ben Affleck and left-leaning journalist Nicholas Kristof. The background issue was “Islamophobia,” a term that liberals have invented to describe what they consider to be unfair and bigoted criticism of Muslims and Islam, found mostly among right-wingers. Maher and Harris, nobody’s right-wingers, were essentially accused of racism and bigotry for their outspoken views on the dangers inherent in not just radical Islam, but in its non-radical form.

Below is the segment, which you can watch and then return for my take on it all, but note the key point that Harris tries to make:

The crucial point of confusion is that we have been sold this meme of Islamophobia, where criticism of the religion gets conflated with bigotry towards Muslims as people. It’s intellectually ridiculous.

“It’s gross and racist,” says Affleck of Maher’s and Harris’ views. To which Harris responds (my emphasis):

Ben, we have to be able to criticize bad ideas. And Islam at this moment is the mother lode of bad ideas.

Affleck says in response:

That’s an ugly thing to say.

Is it? Well, maybe it is. But at this moment it is not as ugly as denying that Islam is the mother lode of bad ideas. Much like Christianity was centuries before, Islam here in the 21st-century is truly the source of a lot of not only bad ideas but a lot of accompanying bad actions. And that is what many liberals find so hard to accept. They want to believe that there is room in the tent of civilization for all kinds of belief systems, and when it comes to Islam, liberals reflexively want to be inclusive. They don’t want to judge Muslim cultures too broadly or too harshly, even though they have little trouble criticizing conservative evangelicals who want to put their fingerprints on government and culture. Perhaps that is because so many conservative evangelicals not only make bigoted judgments about Muslims, but they also make bigoted judgments about liberals.

But the truth is that some belief systems inherently reject our Western notions of civilization, which, for instance, include a profound respect for women’s rights. There are some folks who don’t want to live in any social tent in which women are equal with men. And there are things in Islam, in book-based Islam, that encourage Muslims to shun such Western ideas, that encourage Muslims to not integrate into Western societies too deeply. In the worst cases, there are things in Islam that foster a desire on the part of a minority of Muslims to not just reject universal human rights, but embrace terrorists who want to destroy Western culture—one head at a time.

After the exchange on Maher’s show, Harris wrote:

Kristof made the point that there are brave Muslims who are risking their lives to condemn “extremism” in the Muslim community. Of course there are, and I celebrate these people too. But he seemed completely unaware that he was making my point for me—the point being, of course, that these people are now risking their lives by advocating for basic human rights in the Muslim world.

Harris followed with this:

Although I clearly stated that I wasn’t claiming that all Muslims adhere to the dogmas I was criticizing; distinguished between jihadists, Islamists, conservatives, and the rest of the Muslim community; and explicitly exempted hundreds of millions of Muslims who don’t take the doctrines about blasphemy, apostasy, jihad, and martyrdom seriously, Affleck and Kristof both insisted that I was disparaging all Muslims as a group.

I have read most of Harris’ books and listened to many debates he’s been in. I completely understand where he’s coming from, even if many liberals don’t. There is room in liberalism for both critics of Islam and for critics of genuine bigots who lump all Muslims together and condemn them. Harris is the former without being the latter. But some liberals don’t see it that way and are unfairly attacking a fellow liberal. Here’s what Harris has to say about that:

One of the most depressing things in the aftermath of this exchange is the way Affleck is now being lauded for having exposed my and Maher’s “racism,” “bigotry,” and “hatred of Muslims.” This is yet another sign that simply accusing someone of these sins, however illogically, is sufficient to establish them as facts in the minds of many viewers. It certainly does not help that unscrupulous people like Reza Aslan and Glenn Greenwald have been spinning the conversation this way.

It turns out that Harris had good reason to go after Reza Aslan and Glenn Greenwald (a man whom I have heavily criticized for his stance on the Edward Snowden leaks and his grossly unfair attacks on President Obama). In a post a few days ago that was titled, “On the Mechanics of Defamation,” Harris wrote:

Let me briefly illustrate how this works. Although I could cite hundreds of examples from the past two weeks alone, here is what I woke up to this morning: Some person who goes by the name of @dan_verg_ on Twitter took the most easily misunderstood sentence in The End of Faith out of (its absolutely essential) context, attached it to a scary picture of me, and declared me a “genocidal fascist maniac.” Then Reza Aslan retweeted it. An hour later, Glenn Greenwald retweeted it again.

Here is the Tweet:

You can read for yourself, in context, what Harris meant by the statement that was nicely fitted onto that eerie photograph of him and sent to millions of people around the world. But Harris points out,

Both Greenwald and Aslan know that those words do not mean what they appear to mean. Given the amount of correspondence we’ve had on these topics, and given that I have repeatedly bored audiences by clarifying that statement (in response to this kind of treatment), the chance that either writer thinks he is exposing the truth about my views—or that I’m really a “genocidal fascist maniac”—is zero. Aslan and Greenwald—a famous “scholar” and a famous “journalist”—are engaged in a campaign of pure defamation. They are consciously misleading their readers and increasing my security concerns in the process.

That two liberals would do this to another liberal is unconscionable. Harris ends his blog post with this:

Aslan and Greenwald know that nowhere in my work do I suggest that we kill harmless people for thought crimes. And yet they (along with several of their colleagues) are doing their best to spread this lie about me. Nearly every other comment they’ve made about my work is similarly misleading.

Both Aslan and Greenwald are debasing our public discourse and making honest discussion of important ideas increasingly unpleasant—even personally dangerous. Why are they doing this? Please ask them and those who publish them.

And that is why I decided to write about this issue. Last night, on MSNBC’s All In With Chris Hayes, the host did a segment featuring Reza Aslan in which they discussed these issues. And he did that segment without once mentioning the slanderous tweet that both Aslan and Glenn Greenwald (who also appears as a guest on Hayes’ show from time to time) retweeted and disseminated around the world. I don’t know if Hayes knew about the tweet. But I was sorely disappointed in the liberal commentator, whom I much admire. If he did know, shame on him. If he didn’t know, he or his staff should have done better research.

Sadly, it is quite likely that Reza Aslan and Glenn Greenwald will continue to enjoy the support of liberals in the media, and Sam Harris will continue to endure the slander that is represented by that offensive tweet.

And liberalism is the lesser for all of it.

C. S. Lewis, The Selfless Brain, And The Rational Approach To Spirituality

When I was an evangelical Christian, my thinking on spiritual matters was very much influenced by C. S. Lewis, who was the most famous Christian apologist of the 20th century. In fact, people, and not just evangelical protestant people, still buy and read both his fiction and non-fiction books in this century, a tribute to not only his writing ability, but his endurance as a respected Christian thinker.

His most popular apologetical work is the classic Mere Christianity, many parts of which I have read dozens and dozens of times. The book, essentially a compilation of BBC radio talks he gave during World War II, presents arguments for Christianity that the average person can understand. The reason I mention C. S. Lewis and that book is because of a fascinating interview with Sam Harris that appeared yesterday on The New York Times’ “Opinionator” page. That interview, which I will get to in a minute, made me think of the following passage from Mere Christianity, which I edited for brevity:

At the beginning I said there were Personalities in God. I will go further now. There are no real personalities anywhere else. Until you have given up your self to Him you will not have a real self….

But there must be a real giving up of the self. You must throw it away “blindly” so to speak. Christ will indeed give you a real personality: but you must not go to Him for the sake of that. As long as your own personality is what you are bothering about you are not going to Him at all. The very first step is to try to forget about the self altogether….

The principle runs through all life from top to bottom. Give up yourself, and you will find your real self.

That’s a fairly orthodox way of stating what “following Christ” means, or should mean, to serious Christians. So, with that in mind, let’s move on to that Times interview of Sam Harris.

Harris, a neuroscientist and philosopher and one of the most interesting thinkers in the country today, is mostly famous for critiquing, often mercilessly, the central claims of fWaking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religionundamentalist religion, especially its Christian and Islamic forms. Like Mere Christianity, I have also read parts of Harris’ first book, The End of Faith, many times. He followed that up with Letter to a Christian Nation, and has expressed his science-based criticism of fundamentalism and theistic religion in several debates, discussions, and interviews that can be found on YouTube and elsewhere. (He also has written two excellent books on free will and the intersection of science and morality, which I urge those interested in those subjects to read.)

Harris has a new book out (which I have not yet read), this one on a subject that might surprise many people, but shouldn’t if you carefully read his other works. In Waking Up: A Guide To Spirituality Without Religion, he tries to demonstrate, “that a certain form of spirituality is integral to understanding the nature of our minds.” The shape of that understanding, and its relationship to that Lewis quote above, can be glimpsed in the interview that Gary Gutting, a professor of philosophy at Notre Dame, did with Harris for the Times. Here is part of it:

G.G.: You deny the existence of the self, understood as “an inner subject thinking our thoughts and experiencing our experiences.” You say, further, that the experience of meditation (as practiced, for example, in Buddhism) shows that there is no self.  But you also admit that we all “feel like an internal self at almost every waking moment.” Why should a relatively rare — and deliberately cultivated — experience of no-self trump this almost constant feeling of a self?

S.H.: Because what does not survive scrutiny cannot be real. Perhaps you can see the same effect in this perceptual illusion:

It certainly looks like there is a white square in the center of this figure, but when we study the image, it becomes clear that there are only four partial circles. The square has been imposed by our visual system, whose edge detectors have been fooled. Can we know that the black shapes are more real than the white one? Yes, because the square doesn’t survive our efforts to locate it — its edges literally disappear. A little investigation and we see that its form has been merely implied.

What could we say to a skeptic who insisted that the white square is just as real as the three-quarter circles and that its disappearance is nothing more than, as you say, “a relatively rare — and deliberately cultivated — experience”? All we could do is urge him to look more closely.

The same is true about the conventional sense of self — the feeling of being a subject inside your head, a locus of consciousness behind your eyes, a thinker in addition to the flow of thoughts. This form of subjectivity does not survive scrutiny. If you really look for what you are calling “I,” this feeling will disappear. In fact, it is easier to experience consciousness without the feeling of self than it is to banish the white square in the above image.

Later in the interview, Harris expresses in another way his argument against the notion that there is a self or an “I”or a “sense of being a subject” inside our bodies:

The moment that you truly break the spell of thought, you can notice what consciousness is like between thoughts — that is, prior to the arising of the next one. And consciousness does not feel like a self. It does not feel like “I.” In fact, the feeling of being a self is just another appearance in consciousness (how else could you feel it?).

Breaking that “spell of thought,” cutting through the illusion that there is a little “me” or “soul” inside our heads or elsewhere, is really what meditation—the kind without “invisible entities, spiritual energies, other planes of existence and so forth”—is all about, Harris insists:

Consciousness exists (whatever its relationship to the physical world happens to be), and it is the experiential basis of both the examined and the unexamined life. If you turn consciousness upon itself in this moment, you will discover that your mind tends to wander into thought. If you look closely at thoughts themselves, you will notice that they continually arise and pass away. If you look for the thinker of these thoughts, you will not find one. And the sense that you have — “What the hell is Harris talking about? I’m the thinker!”— is just another thought, arising in consciousness.

If you repeatedly turn consciousness upon itself in this way, you will discover that the feeling of being a self disappears. There is nothing Buddhist about such inquiry, and nothing need be believed on insufficient evidence to pursue it. One need only accept the following premise: If you want to know what your mind is really like, it makes sense to pay close attention to it.

Recall that C. S. Lewis’ said the first step in truly becoming like Christ “is to try to forget about the self altogether.” But then he says, “Give up yourself, and you will find your real self.” Undoubtedly, Harris would say that such a notion of expunging one’s self in favor of another self in Christ is as misguided as simply sticking with the illusion of the first self. And, also undoubtedly, not many people predisposed to believe in the idea of a soul or self at the center of their consciousness will be convinced by Harris’ arguments.

But before one rejects Harris on this subject, one should remember that he is a neuroscientist. He knows a thing or two about the brain and what science has discovered about how it works, after more than a century of examining it. And I will quote something he said in that Times interview that everyone should consider, especially those folks among us who are inclined to make “faith-based assumptions about what exists outside of our own experience”:

...claims of this kind are generally suspect because they are based on experiences that are open to rival interpretations. We know, for instance, that people can be led to feel an unseen presence simply by having specific regions of their brains stimulated in the lab. And those who suffer from epilepsy, especially in the temporal lobe, have all kinds of visionary experiences.

Think about that. A doctor poking around in your brain can make you feel like We Are Not Alone. Mind-blowing stuff.

As for more on our experiences of the metaphysical and how they appear to be generated, researchers at the University of Missouri “have found a neuropsychological basis for spirituality, but it’s not isolated to one specific area of the brain,” according to a professor of health psychology, Dr. Brick Johnstone. He added,

Spirituality is a much more dynamic concept that uses many parts of the brain. Certain parts of the brain play more predominant roles, but they all work together to facilitate individuals’ spiritual experiences.

As far as that disputed “self” we have been discussing, Dr. Johnstone said,

Neuropsychology researchers consistently have shown that impairment on the right side of the brain decreases one’s focus on the self. Since our research shows that people with this impairment are more spiritual, this suggests spiritual experiences are associated with a decreased focus on the self.

Leaving aside the temptation to snarkily associate “impairment” with enhanced spiritual experiences, I will close by noting that other studies, involving non-impaired people, those who devotedly practice meditation and prayer, have shown that they can purposely reduce the influence of the right side of their brains and thus enhance their spiritual experiences. That seems to me what Harris is essentially arguing.

From all of this the question arises: Is that a good thing? Is earnestly pursuing experiences of self-transcendence or spirituality something all of us should do? Beats me. I’ll have to spend more time thinking about it. But I will let Harris have the last word for now:

A rational approach to spirituality seems to be what is missing from secularism and from the lives of most of the people I meet.

 

Beware Of Dogmatists

dog·ma·tism: the tendency to lay down principles as incontrovertibly true, without consideration of evidence or the opinions of others.

When writing critically about religion, it is sometimes hard to adequately convey both the idea that fundamentalism is undesirable and dangerous and that other, less dogmatic, forms of spirituality can be, and often are, forces for good. People often conclude from some of my criticisms of religious faith: “You hate religion, period.” Well, I don’t. There are many religion-motivated people who do a lot of good in our communities. Each and every day. Thus, allow me to explain, in more detail, where I’m coming from. Then, I promise, I will resume my blogging on politics.

What I don’t like, and what I believe all thinking people should aggressively attack, is any form of religion that does not admit to what a couple of commenters on my latest piece (“‘Without God, I Am No One’—Bullshit That Needs Our Attention“) called “humility,” the idea that one’s vision of God is not necessarily the correct one and that “the next person may understand God even better than I do.”  I have no quarrel with anyone who holds religious views in that context.

My quarrel is with the dogmatists. I believe, and I think the evidence from history supports it, that religious dogmatism is mostly a destructive force, even if it isn’t (these days) always manifested in violence against others. I ambrose biercehappen to think that dedicating precious time and minds and other resources to discussing or settling dogmatism-inspired controversies is a colossal waste, a form of destruction. (And I am one who has spent a lot of time exploring the meandering contours of Christian theology.) So, I want to be clear that the form of religion I dislike is not the kind that admits to uncertainty or doubt. With increasing passion, I am attacking the kind of religious dogma expressed by people like Douglas McCain, whose fanaticism and dogmatism may have finally led him to Syria to kill and be killed in the name of his religion, but who first began by embracing incontrovertible beliefs and essentially enslaving himself to his unquestionable notion of God.

Evidence should always be our guide, wherever it leads. As a former evangelical Christian, I am now open to evidence that God exists or that he doesn’t exist. I have to admit that most of the evidence is for the latter, but I’m not dogmatic about it. I have before described myself as a theist, even though my faith is really a hope that there exists a being who will enforce common notions of justice at some point in the life of this universe or beyond. Really, I suppose, I am an agnostic. I don’t know if it is even possible to discover the existence or non-existence of God. But I do know that I don’t have much faith that a collection of old writings, written by ignorant and bigoted men, has anything at all to do with finding God. In fact, in so many ways, they lead the other way.

One commenter wrote,

It is entirely possible to be a serious, devout Christian and still maintain an awareness that, however binding you may personally find the Bible, the next person is entitled [to] view things differently.

Of course that is true. Most serious, devout American Christians do believe people are entitled to view things differently. After all, we live in a country with a secular Constitution that values no religion over another, and most of us have been taught to respect the religious views of others.

But my argument is not about whether this or that religious dogmatist thinks others are or are not entitled to hold one view or another. I am not saying that zealous believers necessarily want the government to step in and demand that people become fellow fundamentalists and fanatics. My argument is with the zealotry, the fundamentalism, the fanaticism itself. It is about whether we should continue to leave unchallenged the views of people who say things like, “Without God, I am no one,” or, “The Bible is all I need in this life,” people who enslave themselves to their necessarily imperfect idea of God. And I especially think we should challenge the views of people who teach their children such dangerous and injurious ideas. Deliberately closing the minds of children, essentially drowning their imaginations in dogmatism, shouldn’t be something our 21st-century culture accepts in silence. We should object to it, and loudly.

In addition to all that, I think we should challenge religious dogma because—and this may be painful for some to hear—there is an element of narcissism involved in its expression. If you think about it, it is an amazing expression of egotism, even if it is in our culture a regrettably acceptable expression of egotism, to say after some personal escape from calamity, “God blessed me today.” Let me give you an example.

The Christian medical missionary, Dr. Kent Brantly, was recently released from the hospital, to much fanfare, after he was apparently cured of Ebola. No one can say for sure that it was the experimental drug he was given or whether it was his own immune system or some other treatment or mechanism that made him well. It even may have been the prayers that people offered up to God that did the trick. That is certainly what Dr. Brantly claimed:

…there were thousands, maybe even millions of people around the world praying for me throughout that week, and even still today…what I can tell you is that I serve a faithful God who answers prayers…Through the care of the Samaritan’s Purse and SIM missionary team in Liberia, the use of an experimental drug, and the expertise and resources of the health care team at Emory University Hospital, God saved my life—a direct answer to thousands and thousands of prayers.

“God saved my life.” How often have we heard people say that? After the 2011 tornado here in Joplin, I heard that a lot. And I always wondered what those other people, those who didn’t survive the tornado, did to not deserve God saving their lives. And I wondered, when I heard Dr. Brantly talk, why those other people, now in the thousands, who have died or will die at the viral hands of Ebola, did to not deserve God’s blessings? Is Dr. Brantly’s life worth more to God than those others? Are those who survived the Joplin tornado worth more to God than those who didn’t?

People who claim that “God saved my life” should be challenged to explain why others were undeserving of such salvation. They should be challenged to explain why they were so special to the Creator Of The Universe. We would certainly challenge them if they said, “God exempted me from income taxes,” or “God has a plan for my life that includes being President of the United States.”

I submit to you that in any other context what Dr. Brantly said, and what some of those who survived the Joplin tornado said, would be taken as expressions of an unhealthy narcissism. But we don’t bat an eye when people talk that way about God saving them after an illness, a car wreck, or a horrific storm. And my argument is that we should bat an eye. In fact, both eyes, and say, “How do you know?” Or, more to the point, “How can you know?”

I will end this with a YouTube video that was put together by someone named Devon Tracey, an atheist (unfortunately, a much too dogmatic atheist) who took a presentation by Sam Harris and cleverly matched it with images and other video to make Harris’ speech on God and morality much more entertaining. Although there are some points I would quibble with, I urge you to watch with batting eyes:

“We Are All Living In Israel”

“[The Israelis] have been brutalized by this process—that is, made brutal by it. But that is largely due to the character of their enemies.”

—Sam Harris, “Why Don’t I Criticize Israel?”

We have all seen the news reports featuring Israeli jets dropping bombs on sites in Hamas-controlled Gaza, sometimes killing civilians. And we have seen Hamas-fired rockets falling on sites in Israel. We’ve heard confusing reports of cease fires and no cease fires. We’ve seen the United Nations plead for peace. We’ve seen the United States gaza deathsdo its best to calm things down. Just today we saw a strike on a park in Gaza near a hospital. Ten people were killed, nine of them children. Both sides blame the other and both sides are making truce demands that neither side can abide.

So, because we Americans like to keep moral score, who is to blame for what we have seen and heard?

There are about 8 million people living in Israel today, about ten times more than when the nation was founded in 1948 as a homeland for Jews, including European Jews fleeing the ravages of persecution. Of that 8 million, 75% are Jews and 21% are Arabs. In 1947 the United Nations recommended a plan to divvy up territory in a way that would hopefully make everyone happy, but most Arab leaders—Arabs were actually in the majority at the time—rejected the offer, seeing the move as another attempt by Europeans to do what they were good at: colonize. The fighting soon began.

And it has continued.

After spending some time, years ago, studying Judaism, I discovered that most people who today identify themselves as Jews don’t do so, thank God, because of any specific religious claims related to the veracity of the Hebrew Bible. Most Jews who live in Israel (the only nation in the world with a Jewish majority) are either openly secular or what I call “flexible” in their adherence to Judaism. These two groups constitute an overwhelming majority of the Jewish population and only a small minority (8% or so) are of the ultra-Orthodox variety we often think of when we think of outwardly observant, true-believing, extremist, sometimes radical, Jews. Because most people in Israel don’t have a religious ax to grind, they would gladly live peacefully alongside Arabs, most of them Muslim. Problem is that many Arab Muslims, with guns and rockets and a radical understanding of the Quran, don’t want to live peacefully with the Israelis.

One of the leading groups of Israeli-hating Arab Muslims is Hamas, a political and military organization that is considered a terrorist group by the United States and Israel and other Western nations. A child of the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas was founded in 1987 in order to do what other Arabs could not do: boot out the Jews and establish an Islamic state. To this end, Hamas, which won a majority in the Palestinian Parliament via a democratic election, has attacked both military and civilian targets in Israel, sometimes using suicide bombers. In the present fight, they have encouraged civilians in Gaza to challenge Israeli attacks “with their bare chests.” In other words, Hamas has no problem with civilians, including women and children, dying for its larger cause. Hamas leaders have stored rockets in schools and, according to the Israelis and other sources, placed missile batteries in residential neighborhoods. I will soon get back to this point.

As for the Israelis, several of their attacks have seemed to be out of proportion to the injuries inflicted upon them. And they are certainly losing the PR war because of it. But should they? Let’s start with a point that Sam Harris makes (the bracketed “Note” is from Harris):

One of the most galling things for outside observers about the current war in Gaza is the disproportionate loss of life on the Palestinian side. This doesn’t make a lot of moral sense. Israel built bomb shelters to protect its citizens. The Palestinians built tunnels through which they could carry out terror attacks and kidnap Israelis. Should Israel be blamed for successfully protecting its population in a defensive war? I don’t think so. [Note: I was not suggesting that the deaths of Palestinian noncombatants are anything less than tragic. But if retaliating against Hamas is bound to get innocents killed, and the Israelis manage to protect their own civilians in the meantime, the loss of innocent life on the Palestinian side is guaranteed to be disproportionate.]

Harris speaks of  “a kind of moral illusion,” when it comes to people blaming “Israel for killing and maiming babies” and “for making Gaza a prison camp.” He writes:

The truth is that there is an obvious, undeniable, and hugely consequential moral difference between Israel and her enemies. The Israelis are surrounded by people who have explicitly genocidal intentions towards them. The charter of Hamas is explicitly genocidal. It looks forward to a time, based on Koranic prophesy, when the earth itself will cry out for Jewish blood, where the trees and the stones will say “O Muslim, there’s a Jew hiding behind me. Come and kill him.” This is a political document. We are talking about a government that was voted into power by a majority of the Palestinians. [Note: Yes, I know that not every Palestinian supports Hamas, but enough do to have brought them to power. Hamas is not a fringe group.]

The discourse in the Muslim world about Jews is utterly shocking. Not only is there Holocaust denial—there’s Holocaust denial that then asserts that we will do it for real if given the chance. The only thing more obnoxious than denying the Holocaust is to say that it should have happened; it didn’t happen, but if we get the chance, we will accomplish it. There are children’s shows that teach five-year-olds about the glories of martyrdom and about the necessity of killing Jews.

All of that “gets to the heart of the moral difference between Israel and her enemies,” Harris says, and in order “to see this moral difference, you have to ask what each side would do if they had the power to do it.” Harris makes a point we often fail to consider, when we are thinking about this conflict:

 The Israeli army could kill everyone in Gaza tomorrow.

Even given that Harris is certainly overstating the case, the point is that the Israelis, if they wanted to, could wipe out much of the Arab population not only in Gaza, but the West Bank too. They could cause unfathomable destruction and death, if they had the will to do so. But they don’t. And getting back to the point about the use of civilians, they don’t use women and children as cover, a point that Harris hammers home with ferocity in a passage I will quote at length:

The truth is that everything you need to know about the moral imbalance between Israel and her enemies can be understood on the topic of human shields. Who uses human shields? Well, Hamas certainly does. They shoot their rockets from residential neighborhoods, from beside schools, and hospitals, and mosques. Muslims in other recent conflicts, in Iraq and elsewhere, have also used human shields. They have laid their rifles on the shoulders of their own children and shot from behind their bodies.

Consider the moral difference between using human shields and being deterred by them. That is the difference we’re talking about. The Israelis and other Western powers are deterred, however imperfectly, by the Muslim use of human shields in these conflicts, as we should be. It is morally abhorrent to kill noncombatants if you can avoid it. It’s certainly abhorrent to shoot through the bodies of children to get at your adversary. But take a moment to reflect on how contemptible this behavior is. And understand how cynical it is. The Muslims are acting on the assumption—the knowledge, in fact—that the infidels with whom they fight, the very people whom their religion does nothing but vilify, will be deterred by their use of Muslim human shields. They consider the Jews the spawn of apes and pigs—and yet they rely on the fact that they don’t want to kill Muslim noncombatants. [Note: The term “Muslims” in this paragraph means “Muslim combatants” of the sort that Western forces have encountered in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. The term “jihadists” would have been too narrow, but I was not suggesting that all Muslims support the use of human shields or are anti-Semitic, at war with the West, etc.]

Now imagine reversing the roles here. Imagine how fatuous—indeed comical it would be—for the Israelis to attempt to use human shields to deter the Palestinians. Some claim that they have already done this. There are reports that Israeli soldiers have occasionally put Palestinian civilians in front of them as they’ve advanced into dangerous areas. That’s not the use of human shields we’re talking about. It’s egregious behavior. No doubt it constitutes a war crime. But Imagine the Israelis holding up their own women and children as human shields. Of course, that would be ridiculous. The Palestinians are trying to kill everyone. Killing women and children is part of the plan. Reversing the roles here produces a grotesque Monty Python skit.

If you’re going to talk about the conflict in the Middle East, you have to acknowledge this difference. I don’t think there’s any ethical disparity to be found anywhere that is more shocking or consequential than this.

And the truth is, this isn’t even the worst that jihadists do. Hamas is practically a moderate organization, compared to other jihadist groups. There are Muslims who have blown themselves up in crowds of children—again, Muslim children—just to get at the American soldiers who were handing out candy to them. They have committed suicide bombings, only to send another bomber to the hospital to await the casualties—where they then blow up all the injured along with the doctors and nurses trying to save their lives.

Harris makes the additional point, one he has made in other contexts, that there is disproportionate outrage in the Muslim world and in liberal circles, when some offense, real or imagined, is committed against Islam or against a Muslim:

Every day that you could read about an Israeli rocket gone astray or Israeli soldiers beating up an innocent teenager, you could have read about ISIS in Iraq crucifying people on the side of the road, Christians and Muslims. Where is the outrage in the Muslim world and on the Left over these crimes? Where are the demonstrations, 10,000 or 100,000 deep, in the capitals of Europe against ISIS?  If Israel kills a dozen Palestinians by accident, the entire Muslim world is inflamed. God forbid you burn a Koran, or write a novel vaguely critical of the faith. And yet Muslims can destroy their own societies—and seek to destroy the West—and you don’t hear a peep.

If you are familiar with Sam Harris’ writings, you have heard his criticism of the larger “Muslim world” before, as well as his frustration with those on the left who fail to take seriously the threat of radical Islamists. And set in the context of this present Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he does seem to have a point. Sure, there are bad actors in Israel. Sure, Benjamin Netanyahu and the Israeli Defense Forces have much to answer for. Sure, any solution to the problem between Jews and Arabs is not enhanced by killing civilians in Gaza. I have several times criticized Israeli actions regarding their dealings with Palestinians. But in terms of a larger moral equivalency, there is no comparison between Israel and Hamas, or between Israel and other even more radical Muslim groups. As I said, most of Israeli society is not wedded to some Iron Age notion of religion. They don’t want to impose Judaism on the rest of the world. There is no correspondence between a nation mostly populated by secularists or flexible followers of a mild form of Judaism and a group of radicalized people who won’t quit until the land is Allah’s or until they, or their women and children, are dead.

Harris will have the last word:

What do groups like ISIS and al-Qaeda and even Hamas want? They want to impose their religious views on the rest of humanity. They want to stifle every freedom that decent, educated, secular people care about. This is not a trivial difference. And yet judging from the level of condemnation that Israel now receives, you would think the difference ran the other way.

This kind of confusion puts all of us in danger. This is the great story of our time. For the rest of our lives, and the lives of our children, we are going to be confronted by people who don’t want to live peacefully in a secular, pluralistic world, because they are desperate to get to Paradise, and they are willing to destroy the very possibility of human happiness along the way. The truth is, we are all living in Israel. It’s just that some of us haven’t realized it yet.

 

Muslim Internment

Recently I read an essay written by one of my favorite thinkers, Sam Harris (author of bestsellers The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, And the Future of Reason and Letter to a Christian Nation, among others). The essay is titled, “In Defense of Profiling,” and its basic argument is that at our nation’s airports,

We should profile Muslims, or anyone who looks like he or she could conceivably be Muslim, and we should be honest about it.

Harris claims that all the unnecessary screening procedures at airports amount to a “tyranny of fairness” because they are wasted on “people who do not stand a chance of being jihadists.”  While I recommend reading Harris’s post, I also recommend reading a thoughtful rebuttal of it written by security expert Bruce Schneier, who argues that Harris’ profiling idea is a bad one because,

It doesn’t make us any safer—and it actually puts us all at risk.

Schneier offers several good arguments against profiling Muslims at airports and the one I find most convincing is this one:

Beyond the societal harms of deliberately harassing a minority group, singling out Muslims alienates the very people who are in the best position to discover and alert authorities about Muslim plots before the terrorists even get to the airport. This alone is reason enough not to profile.

This deliberate harassment and resulting alienation is not something to ignore just because “we” are not the ones being harassed or alienated. As with most important policy issues, it comes down to this: What kind of country do we all want to live in?

I bring up all this because of the shameful nonsense in the news about right-wing legislators, including Michele Bachmann, and their conspiracy theories about Hillary Clinton’s aide, Huma Abedin, being nefariously connected to the Muslim Brotherhood.

Even John McCain found what these legislators did—and continue to do— shameful and he, along with a handful of Republicans, denounced it. But other prominent conservatives, including Newt Gingrich and Rush Limbaugh, have defended Bachmann and her colleagues, claiming she was only asking questions and not making allegations.

Gingrich suggested that the Muslim Brotherhood may have influence over the Obama administration and he asked Bachmann’s critics,

What is it they are afraid of learning?

Gingrich’s and Limbaugh’s and Bachmann’s curiosity would be admirable if, say, it was applied to Mitt Romney’s tax returns, but it is disgusting in this case because there is no evidence—exactly no evidence—that the Muslim Brotherhood or any other Muslim group has “infiltrated” our government. The only “evidence” is that there are folks working in the government who happen to be Muslims.

And that is why people like Sam Harris are wrong to endorse profiling at airports. Once such profiling is widely accepted, the public can easily slither into dangerous reasoning like the following, from the founder of an Arizona Tea Party group:

Have you ever read the Quran? I suggest you do so, because anyone that is a Muslim is a threat to this country, and that’s a fact. There is no such thing as a moderate Muslim. If they are Muslim they have to follow the Quran. That’s their religion and that’s their doctrine.

As the AzCapitolTimes reported, the Tea Party honcho is planning on recalling John McCain for criticizing Michele Bachmann’s smearing of a government official and he also endorsed an email from an extremist website (which used to be hosted by WordPress, by the way) that accused McCain of defending “Islamic enemies of America.”

You see? If you are a Muslim you are ipso facto a threat to the country and if you dare to oppose such specious and culturally-damaging reasoning you are defending our “Islamic enemies.” Such hysteria characterizes reactionary politics these days, and Sam Harris, a man whose mind I admire greatly, contributes to it with his advocacy of profiling Muslims at airports.

I share with Harris a deep aversion to fundamentalist Islam, which is similar to my deep aversion to all fundamentalist religions. But I ask again: What kind of country do we want to live in? Isn’t taking your shoes off at an airport and undergoing a brief screening better than pushing a whole group of people into metaphorical internment camps?

Ideology, Reason, And The Brain

My friend and Joplin blogger Jim Wheeler recently wrote a short review of Edward O. Wilson’s book, The Social Conquest of Earth. Jim commented:

…I often find myself amazed at the depth of ignorance about science in the modern general public. It is almost as if we were two species, one cognizant and rational and the other, larger one, superstitious, primal, tribal, and bellicose. There is some evidence that groups of humanity may be evolving apart in those regards.

That’s interesting because on “Up with Chris Hayes” this past weekend, we were treated to an absolutely fascinating discussion about ideology and brains, featuring Chris Mooney, author of The Republican Brain, and Jonathan Haidt, who wrote The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion.

Hayes introduced the two authors  by stating that an “insidious” feature of our current political polarization is that it is “difficult, if not impossible, to relate to people at the other end of the spectrum. They seem irrational, detached from reality, outright crazy.” He then posed this question:

If through evolution we’ve all inherited the same moral intuitions, then how do we end up so far apart on so many basic political issues?

Given the nature of our modern life, this question is one of the most important we can ask. Just what makes some of us seem, as Jim Wheeler suggests, “cognizant and rational,” and others seemsuperstitious, primal, tribal, and bellicose“?

Now, anyone interested in this topic should follow the link above and watch the segment (I can’t post it here at the moment), but the answer to that crucial question seems to be pretty much how Hayes summarized the current “social-psychological research” on the subject:

“Reason” is essentially constructed ex post to come up with reasons to justify things that we already arrive at viscerally and through intuition.

In other words, all, or at least most, of us are led around by our emotions, by our gut, and we essentially adopt some form of reasoning after the fact to support our emotional preferences. If that is true, it has profound implications, no? It would mean, for instance, that in order to change someone’s mind, the appeal should be an emotional one rather than a logical, rational one.

Consider this story on NPR this morning:

When pollsters ask Republicans and Democrats whether the president can do anything about high gas prices, the answers reflect the usual partisan divisions in the country. About two-thirds of Republicans say the president can do something about high gas prices, and about two-thirds of Democrats say he can’t.

But six years ago, with a Republican president in the White House, the numbers were reversed: Three-fourths of Democrats said President Bush could do something about high gas prices, while the majority of Republicans said gas prices were clearly outside the president’s control.

The flipped perceptions on gas prices isn’t an aberration, said Dartmouth College political scientist Brendan Nyhan. On a range of issues, partisans seem partial to their political loyalties over the facts. When those loyalties demand changing their views of the facts, he said, partisans seem willing to throw even consistency overboard.

Nyhan suggested that,

partisans reject facts because they produce cognitive dissonance — the psychological experience of having to hold inconsistent ideas in one’s head. When Democrats hear the argument that the president can do something about high gas prices, that produces dissonance because it clashes with the loyalties these voters feel toward Obama. The same thing happens when Republicans hear that Obama cannot be held responsible for high gas prices — the information challenges their dislike of the president.

In other words, Nyhan continues, “partisans reject such information not because they’re against the facts, but because it’s painful.”  Now we can see why it is so hard to change someone’s mind with “the facts.”

All of which has now compelled me (!) to soon post a piece I have withheld due to its personally disturbing implications. The tease:

In his latest book, philosopher and neuroscientist Sam Harris tackles the issue of free will. He says,

Free will is an illusion. Our wills are simply not of our own making. Thoughts and intentions emerge from background causes of which we are unaware and over which we exert no conscious control.  We do not have the freedom we think we have.

Master Ryuken, Rush Limbaugh, And The Perils Of Delusion

As we witness the reactionary elements of the Catholic Church try to take the country backward in time (and because I find “surging” Rick Santorum’s exploitation of that issue so repugnant I cannot bring myself to write about it just yet), I found fascinating an essay written by Sam Harris (famous for his book, The End of Faith) that relates to what I often try to confront on this blog.

Of all things, Harris’ essay is about Brazilian jiu-jitsu, and I won’t get into the details of why he wrote the piece, but I do want to present the part of it that has to do imagewith how people deceive themselves and rationalize contradictions (often with the complicity of others), which applies to political ideology as well as religious faith.

As you read the following, think of “Master Ryuken” as “Rush Limbaugh“:

Martial artists are often slow to appreciate how their beliefs about human violence can be distorted by their adherence to tradition, as well as by a natural desire to avoid injury during the course of training. It is, in fact, possible to master an ancient fighting system, and to attract students who will spend years trying to emulate your skills, without ever discovering that you have no ability to defend yourself in the real world. Delusions of martial prowess have much in common with religious faith. A crucial difference, however, is that while people of faith can always rationalize apparent contradictions between their beliefs and the data of their senses, an inability to fight is very easy to detect and, once revealed, very difficult to explain away.

There may be no case more perplexing or egregious than that of Yanagi Ryuken, a purported master of aikido. Master Ryuken apparently believed himself capable of defeating multiple attackers without deigning to touch them. Rather, he could rely upon the magic power of chi. Video of him demonstrating his devastating abilities shows that his students were grotesquely complicit in what must have been a long and colorful process of self-deception. Did these young athletes actually think that they were being hurled to the ground against their will? It is hard to know. What seems certain, however, is that Master Ryuken came to believe that he was invincible; otherwise he wouldn’t have invited a martial artist from another school to come test his powers.

Harris then presents a video of Master Ryuken working first with his deluded students (you need only watch a minute or so to get the point):

And then the video of Master Ryuken’s “encounter with physical reality“:

Harris continues:

Of course, it is sad to see a confused old man repeatedly punched in the face—but if you are a martial artist, or have even a passing concern with safeguarding basic human sanity, you will take some satisfaction in seeing a collective delusion so emphatically dispelled. (Just think of what must have been going through the minds of Master Ryuken’s students as they witnessed this performance.)

A  lesson for any of us engaged in political or religious thinking who would abandon facts for fantasy, but particularly important for those who follow folks like Rush Limbaugh who, in an intellectual encounter with a liberal skilled in debate, would fare no better than Master Ryuken above.

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