Thursday, October 09, 2014

Sam Harris: The End Of Liberalism?

   A rabid Anonymous left a link to this in comments. It was apparently supposed to be proof that Harris is a nut...but...didn't work...
   Well...the guy is weak when he discusses philosophy, but I think he sometimes says plausible things about other stuff. I'm not a fan of the New Pop Atheists in general, but there's no reason to worry about such summary judgments overmuch.
   This op-ed is interesting. I've had similar worries myself, and expressed them here. Harris claims to have fair knowledge of the relevant empirical questions about Islam. I don't claim any such knowledge. But there are some things we seem to be able to say independently of that knowledge:
For example:
1. It's reasonable to have some prima facie concerns that Islam may be notably illiberal.
2. Empirical evidence (in particular, survey data) is relevant to confirming and disconfirming such concerns.
3. Liberals (God bless 'em) are extremely hesitant to criticize Islam (or anyone else's religion, culture, etc. for that matter)
4. If we did, hypothetically, face a threat from a particularly illiberal religion or culture, liberals would be bad at recognizing this.
   One way to put the concern goes like this: liberals have a tendency to shout down concerns such as those expressed above rather than answering them objectively and dispassionately. But if the relevant propositions are false, one would expect that the falsifying evidence would simply be produced. Often, however, outrage is proffered instead of evidence.
  Liberals often presume that it is wrong to make negative judgments about other religions and other cultures, and assume that anyone who would do so is doing so out of racism, ethnocentrism, or some similar type of prejudice. (Note: they typically do not think that it is wrong to make positive judgments about other religions and cultures...)
   Unsurprisingly, liberals are approximately as bad at recognizing the failures of liberalism as conservatives are at recognizing the failures of conservatism.
   But: the point is that Harris's conclusions all seem to be in order so long as his premises are true. If there really is a strong tendency among Muslims to be illiberal, then that is a cause for concern--and should be a cause for concern among liberals. (I didn't understand the stuff about 9/11 truthers, though...I never saw that as a particularly liberal phenomenon...)
   The question, then is: are his premises true?
   I think it's often a good policy to settle questions like this before looking at the empirical evidence.  Afterward, it's easier to make excuses.
   Incidentally, the rabid Anonymous pointed specifically to Harris's alarming line:
The people who speak most sensibly about the threat that Islam poses to Europe are actually fascists.
It was probably injudicious of him to include that line, but I respect him for not concealing the fact that he believes it. The Anonymous presumably wanted this to show that Harris is sympathetic to F
fascists. But that is not what Harris intends nor says. Immediately after this line he writes:
To say that this does not bode well for liberalism is an understatement: It does not bode well for the future of civilization.
That is, he is not praising European fascists, but, rather, saying that they happen to be right about this one issue. The point seems to be something like: liberals have become so confused about this point that even the fascists are righter than they are...  Granted, a line like that should always send us to red alert...but in this case there's nothing nefarious afoot. The Nazis were environmentalists. That doesn't make environmentalists Nazis.
   At any rate, it's worth looking at this question with a clear eye. I don't know what the answer is, but I have little time for those who refuse to ask the questions, nor for those who try to answer them with wishful thinking.

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