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Sam Harris

We went to see Sam Harris lecturing in Berkley recently on his new book – “The Moral Landscape (How Science can Determine Human Values)”. He also wrote “End of Faith” and is called one of the 3 Horsemen or New atheists along with Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchins.

Some interesting snippets from the lecture – were that people surveyed are charitable when shown a picture of a starving girl, are equally charitable when shown a picture of a starving boy – but are less charitable if you show them together. The degree of empathy or charitableness decreases as you increase the number of people in the picture. He explained how this coincides with Rwanda genocide getting less and less media coverage while a girl stuck down a well can be constant wall to wall news for 3 days.

Another interesting moral dilemma he put forward to think about – was if a train is coming down a track and about to hit and kill a dozen people, and you’re stood by the lever which can divert the train down a siding where it will only kill one person then would you do it. Most people agreed that they would. However if instead of a siding you were sat on a bridge further up the track beside a large man who if you pushed onto the path of the oncoming train would also stop it, then would you do that. That’s a harder moral question I guess.

Some Sam Harris quotes below:

“The president of the United States has claimed, on more than one occasion, to be in dialogue with God.

If he said that he was talking to God through his hairdryer, this would precipitate a national emergency.

I fail to see how the addition of a hairdryer makes the claim more ridiculous or offensive.”

“Man is manifestly not the measure of all things. This universe is shot through with mystery.

The very fact of its being, and of our own, is a mystery absolute, and the only miracle worthy of the name.”

“Consider it: every person you have ever met, every person will suffer the loss of his friends and family.

All are going to lose everything they love in this world. Why would one want to be anything but kind to them in the meantime?”

“In fact, “atheism” is a term that should not even exist. No one ever needs to identify himself as a “non-astrologer” or a “non-alchemist.” We do not have words for people who doubt that Elvis is still alive or that aliens have traversed the galaxy only to molest ranchers and their cattle. Atheism is nothing more than the noises reasonable people make in the presence of unjustified religious beliefs.”

“Tell a devout Christian that his wife is cheating on him, or that frozen yogurt can make a man invisible, and he is likely to require as much evidence as anyone else, and to be persuaded only to the extent that you give it. Tell him that the book he keeps by his bed was written by an invisible deity who will punish him with fire for eternity if he fails to accept its every incredible claim about the universe, and he seems to require no evidence what so ever.”

“In the year 2006, a person can have sufficient intellectual and material resources to build a nuclear bomb and still believe that he will get seventy-two virgins in Paradise.”

“It is time we admitted, from kings and presidents on down, that there is no evidence that any of our books was authored by the Creator of the universe. The Bible, it seems certain, was the work of sand-strewn men and women who thought the earth was flat and for whom a wheelbarrow would have been a breathtaking example of emerging technology. To rely on such a document as the basis for our worldview-however heroic the efforts of redactors- is to repudiate two thousand years of civilizing insights that the human mind has only just begun to inscribe upon itself through secular politics and scientific culture. We will see that the greatest problem confronting civilization is not merely religious extremism: rather, it is the larger set of cultural and intellectual accommodations we have made to faith itself. ”

“Imagine a world in which generations of human beings come to believe that
certain films were made by God or that specific software was coded by him.
Imagine a future in which millions of our descendants murder each other
over rival interpretations of Star Wars or Windows 98. Could anything —
anything — be more ridiculous? And yet, this would be no more ridiculous
than the world we are living in. “