19 January 2018

Nobody's perfect, and it doesn't matter

On Wednesday's videos of the day post, one comment objected to Sam Harris not on the basis of any actual content of the video posted, but because of his alleged belief in "determinism" (the idea that choice is an illusion and all events, including human thoughts and actions, are predestined and unchangeable).  Now, I don't believe anyone literally believes in determinism in that sense -- aside from the fact that quantum physics has rendered it untenable, no one actually behaves or thinks the way he would if he truly believed that he and all other humans were mere automata with no actual choice about their actions.  Morality itself would be meaningless if one accepted determinism.  Harris may have expressed a belief in some form of determinism for all I know (I'm not as familiar with his thinking as I am with that of Dawkins or Hitchens), but his expressed views on subjects like morality and religion presuppose a world in which humans can meaningfully make choices and judgments.

But -- and this is my point -- even if Harris does believe in determinism in whatever sense, it doesn't matter.

Some people are quick to dismiss the achievements of our thinkers and fighters on the basis of one or two peripheral errors.  The problem is, nobody's perfect.  Hitchens, for example, supported the Iraq invasion, and I was once upbraided by a commenter for posting a video of his because of this, as if being wrong on that single point somehow negated his immense contributions to the struggle against religion.  Bill Maher is known to flirt with anti-vaccine quackery.  Even geniuses are not immune.  Einstein rejected certain aspects of quantum theory which have since been experimentally confirmed.  Isaac Newton wasted his brilliant intellect trying to interpret Biblical prophecies.  But not many people would be so foolish as to bring that up in an effort to discredit calculus.

The case is even clearer when it comes to inadequacies in contemporary knowledge.  It would be absurd to fault Aristotle for accepting a geocentric model of the solar system, for example.  He lived at a time when humans had not yet developed the instruments and knowledge of physical laws necessary to prove the heliocentric model.  Similarly, despite recent advances in brain science, our own time's understanding of how consciousness, thought, and associated mental phenomena actually work is sketchy at best.  Jumping to the conclusion that free will must be an illusion, because our current knowledge cannot account for it, is an understandable error.

Some of our modern heroes such as Dawkins and Randi are, as far as I know, free of any taint of loopy ideas -- but even if I found out that they harbored a soft spot for something like reincarnation or bigfoot (unlikely, I hasten to add), it wouldn't diminish my respect for their contributions at all.  The magnitude of those contributions reduces minor human failings to irrelevance.


Blogger Harry Hamid said...

I agree with this, although I don't know I've given much thought. I realized a while back that most of my "heroes" a) were probably huge jerks, and b) had some ideas that were not up to what I would consider their standard.

I think that's okay. A good idea can survive the thinker and take on a life of its own. The fact that these guys pushed some dumb envelopes along the way doesn't change that.

19 January, 2018 05:35  
Blogger Daniel Wilcox said...

You wrote, "one comment objected to Sam Harris not on the basis of any actual content of the video posted."

I thought I was right on target because Harris claimed that some of Craig's views were "evil," "morally reprehensible," etc in the video.

Of course, if all humans are "puppets," then nothing can be "evil" or "morally reprehensible."

Christian leaders pull this same deterministic twist like Harris. They told me over and over that I and all humans are born incapable of choice, only worthless "clay pots," and that most humans are foreordained to eternal damnation,
then they would insist that I must repent because I hate their God!!

LOL, only it's not funny.

19 January, 2018 12:11  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Harry: I should probably emphasize that when I talk about "human failings" I'm talking about mistaken ideas, not abusive behavior. It's an important difference. But as long as it's just an occasional silly idea entertained by a brilliant person, that shouldn't be allowed to tarnish their contributions.

19 January, 2018 12:39  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Daniel: The video didn't mention determinism or Harris's (or Christianity's) alleged belief in determinism. If it had, I wouldn't have chosen that one to post. In all honesty I can hardly imagine anything more boring than arguing about determinism. It's Harris's moral critique of Christianity that interests me.

19 January, 2018 12:41  
Anonymous PsiCop said...

We live in a time when too many people expect perfect agreement, and can't tolerate differences of opinion or any perceived flaws in those who otherwise see things the way they do. Hence, the outrage over (for example) Bill Maher being an antivaxxer or Grover Norquist for having married a Muslim, by members of their own ideologies. They've been ideologically sensitized to anything deemed a departure from the ideological ideal. Any such differences throw the "purity" of the ideology into doubt, and people just can't handle those doubts.

As a tried-&-true agnostic, doubts are no problem for me. But many people just aren't mature enough to deal with that ... so they pitch fits and get their knickers in knots.

As an aside, this trend is related to the reason many public figures are unable to offer genuine apologies for any wrongdoing or admit error. To do so would be a concession of imperfection, which their followers/fan can't stand. Hence, the now-common phenomenon of the "non-apology apology," which spares followers/fans the trauma of seeing their idol fail in any way; such as all the men who've recently been accused (by the #MeToo wave) of harassment, coming out with statements like, "I don't remember (some event) that way." They're admitting they did ... well, something, to someone ... but not conceding it was actually wrong.

19 January, 2018 14:41  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

PsiCop: I try very hard not to be like that, even when the disagreement is about what I consider a core issue. Hell, the anti-vaccine thing is pretty bad -- that's actually sickening and even killing people -- but I value Maher's work enough that I basically just ignore it.

19 January, 2018 15:42  
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20 January, 2018 10:12  

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