Sam Harris on The Moral Landscape (TED talk of the week)

Well, it finally happened.

In multiple posts in the past I have defended Sam Harris and his efforts towards a scientific morality. I have done this even though I have never seen him speak or read a word of his books. My reason for defending him is simple. I don’t defend him because I believe everyone has a right to an opinion (even though in most matters, I do). I don’t defend him because he and I are in agreement on morality (I doubt we are, although we likely share some positions).

I defend him because I believe that no area of discussion, topic of interest, or intellectual problem should be a priori labeled a non-scientific matter. I say let science try and see what it adds to this already very complex discussion. Sure, others have tried in the past to root morality in science and reason and failed, but our understanding of human biology and neuroscience, in particular, has grown (and will continue to grow) immensely. There are new methods and they have provided us with deeper understanding. While I am skeptical that these studies will be as fruitful as Harris is, I believe his ideas are worthwhile, are worthy of consideration, and have merit.

So what finally happened? I finally saw him speak or read a word of his books (TED talk link here)! AND… my position hasn’t changed. In fact, if anything, my defense of his work will get even stronger. This should not be registered as a full endorsement. I think it may be most instructive to view Harris’ ideas on scientific morality in both a weak and strong form.

The weak form is what is prevalent during the majority of his talk and the strong form comes out in the questions at the end. In the weak form, Harris argues against moral relativism and states that there are moral positions that we can consider as wrong. Furthermore, he notes that it is plausible that there will be multiple positions that objectively could be considered valid. Thus, there is a moral landscape of views, some of which are wrong and some of which are right. His basis for evaluating these uses reason and empiric investigation.

He spent most of his time on which positions could be assigned as wrong and very little time on how to evaluate which ones are right. But, that’s the way of science. We disprove hypotheses but we don’t prove them. The strongest thing we can say is that there is abundant evidence that strongly supports a theory. In this weak form of Harris’ scientific morality, there is nothing that I disagree with on face value. That does not mean I am fully endorsing the argument, but I am willing and excited to read more of his work. This weak form contrasts with the strong form of his argument in which I think he is too optimistic regarding the explanatory power of neuroscience. In the talk, it felt like he slipped up a bit here but I can’t be sure. It’s possible he’s not going to reduce it all to physics and chemistry, but non-reductionists like me have to be skeptical until we see the whole matter play out.

What most concerns and upsets theists about Harris and the other New Atheists when it comes to discussions of morality, I would gather, is that they believe he is taking the power of what goes in morality from them and transferring ownership of it to atheistic scientists… and they don’t trust that the moral rules that will result will be ones they agree or are familiar with or ones that jive with their religious beliefs. It’s possible to be upset because one thinks he is wrong, but that’s not what I’m observing. It seems like theists are more convinced that science simply should not ask questions about morality.

I share the aforementioned concern, as it is one thing for me to say that Harris has a right to these matters and yet another to say he and other scientific elite get to determine the rules of the game. Nevertheless, I won’t let fear interrupt the discussion and I, perhaps naively, believe that Harris and I would probably agree on what positions constitute peaks in the moral landscape.

So, I say let the discussion continue. I, for one, am looking forward to it. Are you?

Posted in Atheism, Mind, Morality, Reason, Sam Harris | 13 Comments

Friday laugh track. You know you’re a scientist when…

Link here.

Posted in Humor, xkcd | Leave a comment

Julian Baggini: Is there a real you? (TED talk of the week)

This week’s TED talk comes from Julian Baggini, a philosopher, writer, and the cofounder and editor of The Philosophers’ Magazine. The talk (Is there a real you?) was given at the TEDxYouth@Manchester 2011 event. I thought the presentation was clear and even though it was somewhat elementary (on purpose), the analogies were both spot-on and thought-provoking.

In this talk, Baggini claims that there is no real you, in the sense that you are a separate thing. There is a you in that you are a collection of your experiences and thus change with time and new encounters. Without using the terminology, he is saying that there is no dualism. There is no separate “you”, “you” are your brain and the experiences you have. Baggini finds this idea freeing as you no longer need to seek and struggle to find out who the static you is, but that, to quote the army (my quote), “you can be all you can be.” With the constraints that genetics imparts, of course.

He doesn’t really address why we all tend to think there is a separate, or in his language, “real” you, but I suppose that would be for another talk. Is the “real” you epiphenomenal? Is it an illusion created by your brain?  Is it something that through our environment we have been trained to create? Is the matrix real? Okay, maybe not that one…

I’m not willing to give up on a “real” you at this point and am not sure that the evidence necessitates it at this point anyway. Even if neuroscience and genetics play a limiting role in our “you-ness” that doesn’t mean these disciplines eliminate it. I don’t see how science can remove the possibility of a separate you that isn’t material (even if I disagree with it), since science wouldn’t be able to test it. More likely, could this “real” you emerge out of the properties of the materials as in his watch and waterfall examples? Wouldn’t this you still be “real”? It could be a simple issue of competing definitions as well. Perhaps Baggini would say that this emergent you is legitimate but not defined as “real” because it’s similar to what we label and attribute to other objects and phenomena?

Clearly, this talk did it’s job and stimulated the creative juices. I’ve got to commend Baggini for that. Whether you agree with him or not, he made his point well and memorable for his intended audience and he also raised more questions than answers for this viewer (and likely many others). It’s very hard to do both in a 12 minute talk. Bravo.

I’ll leave you with a screenshot of his closing quote. Are you fashioning yourself?

Posted in TED talks | 4 Comments

Friday laugh track, courtesy of… Dilbert again!

What’s amazing to me is that many of these are over 20 years old. And still hilarious.

Posted in Dilbert, Humor | Leave a comment

VS Ramachandran on your mind (TED talk of the week)

This week’s TED talk comes from VS Ramachandran, who is Director of the Center for Brain and Cognition and Distinguished Professor with the Psychology Department and Neurosciences Program at UC San Diego. I first became aware of Dr. Ramachandran, as I’m sure many others did, when I read his fascinating book Phantoms in the Brain: Probing the Mysteries of the Human Mind. He has written several other books as well and I am particularly interested in his most latest work, The Tell-Tale Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Quest for What Makes Us Human, so you may see a review of that on this blog at some point.

Ramachandran is an MD, PhD who’s research is focused on using patients with neurological disorders to understand normal brain function. In this TED talk, he talks about three patients with different syndromes (Capgras delusion, phantom pain, synesthesia) and how understanding them has either led to therapy or a better understanding of mental connections. (I’m not a neurologist, but I would gather that calling synesthesia a disorder or disease would be a no-no, from the few people I know who have it, but that’s for others to debate).

I enjoyed the talk immensely. Ramachandran is a great speaker and his work is on a clearly fascinating subject manner. In addition, the way he goes about discovery is akin to solving a murder mystery and often involves cheap or non-modern equipment (which gives him a sort of MacGyver feel, I suppose). His path of discovery makes for good and informative story-telling.

My only beef was one statement he made early on in the talk when he called neurons “little wisps of protoplasm.” Not quite. The molecular and cellular biologist within me cringed at that description. Yes, there’s brilliant and beautiful complexity at the level of the brain that he studies, but neurons themselves are pretty darn complex too. This can only add to the story.


Posted in TED talks | 2 Comments

Review of Evolution of Adam by Peter Enns (a final reflection)

Last week I wrote a 3-part review of Pete Enns’ Evolution of Adam.  Many others have been chiming in as well, with reviews all across the spectrum as you might expect, given the nature of the book. Some have labeled the book as heretical and have Enns fitted for a stake while others think it is THE book to read on Adam that will usher Evangelicals into the future, bring the 2nd coming, cure cancer, and get me to 1,000,000 blog hits a day.

Okay, maybe not.

But reviews have been mixed with the majority of folks that I read and trust overwhelmingly liking the book. So did I.

After writing an in-depth multi-part review and reading a bunch of other reviews (don’t miss RJS on Jesus Creed, either), you would have thought that I would have gotten everything out of my system and have nothing more to say… at least nothing more of merit (assuming what I wrote previously had any merit, anyway). But, to quote Michael Corleone in the Godfather that never happened (*), “Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.” The more I read about the book, the more I couldn’t shake that there was something else I needed to say.

And I finally figured out what it is today. At least I think. So here goes.

My biggest issue with the book had nothing to do with evolution, of course. After all, I’m a scientist who teaches on it regularly and a Christian who dares to think that even evolutionary psychology has its merits. My issue also had nothing to do with the introduction of biblical criticism and ancient near east comparative studies to our understanding of Genesis. Been there, done that. No, the biggest concern for me was the chapters on Paul and “his” Adam, written from the perspective of Enns’ incarnational model of Scripture. I asked myself (not really in the blog post but personally, although I did mention my concerns in the post)… isn’t Pete running the risk of reducing Paul to a mere commentator on the Old Testament? Isn’t he saying or at worst strongly hinting (without actually saying it) that Paul is no different or no better than the commentators of today? I thought the New Testament was distinct. Isn’t acknowledging that Paul used the Old Testament or that he could have been (gasp) wrong on the historicity of Adam the final nail in the coffin of inerrancy? How can Enns do this? What is wrong with him? He’s an Evangelical, right?

Well, here’s the thing. Maybe he didn’t do that. Some of his readers are saying that he did it or are afraid that he has now made it okay for others to entertain these ideas. But maybe, just maybe, he didn’t say these things himself and my personal thought questions above, while not unfounded, go way beyond what Enns is proposing. Maybe he didn’t do anything new (sorry Pete!), well, at least not anything earth shatteringly new and nothing that every garden variety Evangelical doesn’t himself or herself do on a regular basis when reading the Bible.

So what did Enns do? I think what he did was to systematize what everyone already does. He gave a name to it (incarnational) and applied a hermeneutic that we all already use to places of the Bible that some didn’t want him to. Enns dared apply his model to the words of Paul. Particular words of Paul that are considered to be sacred words having to do with humanity’s origins or so we think, which is what scares us (well, some of us) to pieces. But… we already read the Bible this way. We use discernment and appreciate that the Bible, while the Word of God, is no less inspired, even though it is a product of its culture and its time, whether we admit to or use an incarnational hermeneutic or not. None of us, no not one of us, reads every word of the Bible literally. And Enns is having the courage to say that this is okay. Furthermore, since the Lord Jesus was fully man and was fully God, then we might actually expect the Bible to be both of God and of man. Enns is providing the rationale for what… We. Already. Do. So, no, he’s not prescribing anything new, he’s just applying it to texts that some don’t want him to. He’s using a mechanism of interpretation consistently on the Bible in its entirety instead of on a select few passages here and there.

At least that’s what I think. And now I feel “fully reflected.”

Fault him if you want. I know I will, as I did in my review, and I will continue to do so as Enns and I ponder what it means to be an evangelical Christian in light of modern scholarship. But let’s not forget to put his thoughts and words into the appropriate context.

Let’s turn it around to the reader. Do you appreciate that the Bible is a product of its time and culture? What do you think of Enns’ ideas? Do you agree with him? Do you think it is okay to apply an incarnational model to all passages in the Bible? Are there some passages that are off-limits? How do we decide?   

——————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————–(*) True Godfather fans believe Godfather III never happened. Some blame Sophia Coppola while others blame Andy Garcia. I blame the whole lot of them. Bad movie. The series ends with Godfather II. No, I didn’t see myself including a Godfather reference in a blog post. Ever. I guess there’s a first time for everything.

Posted in Accommodation, Biblical interpretation, Evolution, Evolution of Adam, Pete Enns, Science vs. religion, Theology | 2 Comments

Review of The Evolution of Adam by Peter Enns (post 3)

This is the final post of my 3 part review of Peter Enns’ newest book, The Evolution of Adam. I hope that you all are also enjoying other reviews from the tour, which has supported my point that the book’s primary quality will be to generate conversation. In this spirit of conversation, if you haven’t read it, I recommend this review by Nathaniel Claiborne, as it is systematic and provides criticism that I can’t because of the author’s background.

Today we talk about Paul (Part 2, Ch. 5-7). In my limited time as a member of the blogging community, it is clear that it is one thing for Evangelical Christians to accept that a legitimate reading of Genesis doesn’t necessitate a literal Adam; but Paul is a whole other ball of wax. The story goes, as you all likely know… if through one man sin entered and through one man sin was defeated, then if you say the one man isn’t historical who’s to stop someone from then saying the 2nd one isn’t either? Of more import theologically, if Adam wasn’t literal and there was no actual yes it really happened penalty from sin that is death, then what did Jesus have to die for? Augustine couldn’t have been wrong, could he?

Enns’ introduces his argument well early in Ch. 5:

“In this chapter we also take a closer look at how Paul uses the Old Testament in general. Paul’s handling of his Scripture is marked throughout by a creative engagement of his tradition. That creativity stems from two factors: (1) the Jewish climate of his day, likewise marked by imaginative ways of handling Scripture; and (2) Paul’s uncompromising Christ-centered focus. In other words, Paul’s understanding of the Adam story is influenced both by the interpretive conventions of Second Temple Judaism in general and by his wholly reorienting experience of the risen Christ. Paul is not doing “straight exegesis” of the Adam story. Rather, he subordinates that story to the present, higher reality of the risen Son of God, expressing himself within the hermeneutical conventions of the time.” (p 81)

“In making his case, Paul does not begin with Adam and move to Christ. Rather, the reality of the risen Christ drives Paul to mine Scripture for ways of explicating the wholly unexpected in-breaking of the age to come in the crucifixion and resurrection of the Son of God. Adam, read as “the first human,” supports Paul’s argument about the universal plight and remedy of humanity, but it is not a necessary component for that argument. In other words, attributing the cause of universal sin and death to a historical Adam is not necessary for the gospel of Jesus Christ to be a fully historical solution to that problem.” (p 82)

Creative. Imaginative. Christ-centered. Higher reality. “Use” of Old Testament. These are the buzzwords and themes that permeate through the last three chapters of the book. Does this feel like, as Claiborne writes in his review, Enns is using his incarnational model of Biblical interpretation to its detriment and is favoring the “human-ness” of the Bible at the expense of the “God-ness” of it? Is Enns relegating Paul’s writing to that of a commentary? Or even worse, is it more like an “inspired” term paper?  This reader doesn’t think so, but even for me Enns is treading lightly. I would imagine he’s got some heavy work cut out for himself with most others. Is Enns sensitive to this? Absolutely. He follows the previous paragraph immediately with:

“I hope it is crystal clear that my intention in looking at Paul’s argument in this way is not to undermine Paul or complicate Paul unnecessarily simply to make room for evolution. Without question, evolution requires us to revisit how the Bible thinks of human origins. But many will immediately recognize the complex and unavoidable network of issues before us in addressing what Paul says about Adam, why he says it, and what we should take away from it—wholly irrespective of evolution. My motive is to allow some of those issues to come into play as we look at the specific problem of what to do about Paul in light of evolution. Further, although I feel strongly enough about my own thoughts to write a book like this, I make absolutely no claim to have found the best path forward in this complex set of issues. Rather, I remain now, as I stated at the beginning, committed to offering some perspective for interested readers to begin exploring Paul’s theology on their own in light of the reality of evolution.” (p 82)

In Ch. 5 Enns looks at the Old Testament occurrences of Adam (outside of Genesis) and finds that they do not support “Paul’s Adam.” Enns says that while Adam is to be found, there is “not any indication that Adam’s disobedience is the cause of universal sin, death, and condemnation, as Paul seems to argue (p82).” Why not? If this was the key event in human history that it is built up to be, why isn’t it mentioned or reflected upon again? Opponents would argue that Adam is mentioned in genealogies and this indicates he is historical. But, Enns is right. There is no discussion theologically of the ramifications of his disobedience until the New Testament. Furthermore, when obedience and disobedience are a focus of Old Testament texts it is in relation to Israel receiving blessing or curse and is not connected to Adam’s initial act. Of course, the absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence so this argument, while interesting, is not without its limitations.

In the Western world, it is nearly impossible to divorce our reading of Paul and Genesis from Augustine’s later idea of original sin. Enns mentions this and compares the original sin view with the Eastern orthodox view of Adam, in which Adam’s act of disobedience was not a fall from perfection or a “pre-sinful” state but an act of youthful ignorance or immaturity. The story then becomes one of seeking wisdom (note this is highly sought after in the Old Testament), but in an inappropriately childish and impatient manner. For Enns, this reading of the text does not negate the reality of sin and need for a Savior, but he believes biblically the source of these doctrines is Paul and not Genesis.

In Ch. 6, Enns portrays Paul as an ancient man with a radical message. This is clear. Paul would have believed what his fellow Israelites did regarding the physical structure of the world which we know today is wrong. Most have no trouble agreeing with that. However, when it comes to Paul’s theology, it is much more difficult for us to say “he was wrong.” Don’t misread me. Enns is not saying that Paul was wrong and I am not either. But it is interesting how we deal with inspiration (1). In leading up to Paul’s use of Adam, Enns paints a picture of how Jewish interpreters post-exile leading up to Paul’s time understood the Adam story. This section was fascinating and reminded me of just how much there is for a Christian to learned by engaging with ancient Judaic texts. From these interpreters, Enns notes that:

“Thus far we have seen Adam as victim, exalted human, priest, and innocent bystander to Eve’s shenanigans; in no case is Adam responsible for human sinfulness, which is what Paul says. Other interpreters, however, are somewhat closer to Paul’s meaning.” (p 101)

Ch. 6 ends with Enns giving multiple examples of Paul’s creative use of the Old Testament in his writing (2 Corinthians 6:2 and Isaiah 49:8, Abraham’s “Seed” in Galatians 3:16, 29, Galatians 3:11 and Habakkuk 2:4, Romans 11:26–27 and Isaiah 59:20, Romans 4 and Genesis 15:6). It is in this section of the book that my previous concerns about inspiration  (just a commentary?) arose and I noted in the margin, “OK, so if Paul is more than a commentator of today, why are his letters more “relevant” than extra-biblical materials?”

The 7th and final chapter of the book is on “Paul’s Adam”, exploring Romans 5:12–21 and 1 Corinthians 15:21–22, 44–49. Enns writes that Paul views Adam as an historical and symbolic figure. However, while the notion of Adam as representative figure or “federal head” is a method of synthesizing evolution with a literal Adam, Enns writes that this is not an option biblically and would not have occurred to Paul. Instead, Paul sees Adam through the lens of Christ. His understanding of who Adam was is directly shaped by Christ and not vice-versa. But yes, Paul most certainly would have viewed Adam as historical. If science, biblical criticism, and archaeology rule out the existence of an historical Adam, what then happens to Paul’s connection of Adam and Christ? Is it no longer valid? Must we throw out this central theological point because Adam may not have existed?

If you think Enns is going to say yes, you’re crazy! He writes, “the uncompromising reality of who Jesus us and what he did to conquer the objectively true realities of sin and death do not depend on Paul’s understanding of Adam as a historical person (p 122)” and says that without Adam, the universal and self-evident problems of sin and death and Christ’s death and resurrection of Paul’s theology still remain. Enns believes that Paul went beyond what Genesis indicates of Adam, but that the theological ramifications of Christ’s death and resurrection are still essential.

Sin, as it has been said, is the one Christian doctrine that is empirically verifiable, and Enns argues that we don’t need Adam to explain that we sin. We just know that we do it. It’s self-evident and so is death.  To the third theological point of the death and resurrection of Christ, this “is the singular focus of Paul’s writings and missionary activity, God’s climactic statement of his love for and presence in the world (p 125).” The resurrection was not a cultural assumption. It was an historical occurrence in real time.

Enns ends the book with a Conclusion chapter containing nine theses that he believes form the core issues before us with respect to Adam. They are a summary of the previous chapters and a couple points that he just begins to unpack. Like the rest of the book, these were very interesting, but in the end, left me wanting more. That being said, don’t get me wrong, I very much liked this book. It will be (it already has been) an amazing conversation starter and will hopefully pave the way for the discussion of evolution and theology that is necessary within Evangelicalism. Evolution and other scientific findings from neurobiology, psychology, genetics, and sociobiology are rewriting what it means to be human from a scientific perspective. If Evangelicalism wants to remain relevant and at least have a chance of saving and transforming the lives of our intellectual brethren for the Gospel and the furthering of God’s kingdom, these issues need to be addressed and, more importantly, there needs to be group assent that it is safe to do so. I hope and pray that books like The Evolution of Adam will be the catalysts needed and thank Pete for his willingness to throw his hat in the ring. Evangelicals would do well to respond graciously and with humility (without sacrificing criticism when needed) to help foster an environment of encouragement and safety so that others will follow in his lead.

And to Pete… thanks, brother. We needed this book.


(1) I taught on the age of the earth today in my biology class and mentioned that no one reads all of the Bible literally. We use discernment to say that particular books or even portions of books are poetic, prophecy, wisdom, historical, etc. Even in books we label as historical we accept minor mistakes or details that aren’t identical in different Gospel stories by way of our discernment. So, it is fairly easy for us (or some of us) to acknowledge that Paul could be wrong on some things, like the structure of the physical world or women’s roles in the church. But in theological matters or issues of Old Testament interpretation, no way, dude! I’m not saying this shouldn’t be the case, but am just pointing it out.

Posted in Accommodation, Biblical interpretation, Evolution, Evolution of Adam, Pete Enns, Science vs. religion, Theology | Leave a comment