The Raving Theist

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Sam Harris, Pro-Lifer?

January 15, 2007 | 14 Comments

Amanda of Pandagon wonders where atheist author Sam Harris stands on “sperm magic,” i.e. abortion. Because he’s apparently sympathetic to one form of magic — reincarnation — she’s concerned that his irrationality may extend to an embrace of the pro-life philosophy. No need to worry. In the The End of Faith he compares fetuses to rabbits, and in Letter to a Christian Nation, as Nicholas Kristof points outs, he mocks conservative Christians for opposing abortion. Although he hasn’t written extensively on the subject, I suspect his views on later-term abortions aren’t materially different from Amanda’s — he’s somewhat queasy about interfering with the emergent brainwaves but not to the extent that he’d necessarily prohibit it before birth.

The divide on abortion is not an especially religious one. Planned Parenthood employs clergy to promote a pro-choice creed, and the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Freedom is devoted to justifying abortion from a faith-based perspective. My experience with adherents of Eastern religions like Harris is that they tend to lean pro-choice. So (apart from the fact that his views on abortion are so easily ascertainable) I’m puzzled why Amanda targeted Harris for the “sperm magic” gibe. I doubt she’d go after a liberal Christian in the same way, worrying that his or her beliefs in Jesus or prayer or the afterlife might down the road lead to an irrational opposition to feticide.

As I’ve noted before, Amanda’s charge that a belief in the soul must underlie the every pro-life position is erroneous. An argument can be made that the eternality of the soul would render any killing — of a fetus, of a baby, of an adult — morally permissible because “death” would lack any real consequence. Because reincarnation also involves the notion of an eternal (if migrating) soul, its value as a predictor of pro-life views is also questionable.


14 Responses to “Sam Harris, Pro-Lifer?”

  1. nekouken
    January 15th, 2007 @ 7:49 pm

    “As I’ve noted before, Amanda’s charge that a belief in the soul must underlie the every pro-life position is erroneous.”

    Not so erroneous a charge, as I see it; in your defense of your own pro-life position, you’ve referred to a “self” that represents and is a reflection of the individual, and suggested that this self exists from the moment of conception, before the development of the brain or the central nervous system, and continues to exist until (at least) the moment of death, suggesting you believe there is more to human consciousness than biological mechanics. If you believe such a thing, that you are more than the sum of your observations and experiences, and that your physical body houses this self — that this constant self is the aspect of each of us you view as worth protecting — then you’re believing in a soul, whether you choose to call it one or not.

  2. Godthorn
    January 15th, 2007 @ 9:10 pm

    There can be no “self” or “soul” prior to consciousness. There is no such presence or quiddity during coma or dreamless sleep. Minus consciousness, nothing matters.
    As for reincarnation, that’s a favor provided for gods by man, not for man by gods.

  3. Drusilla
    January 16th, 2007 @ 3:26 pm

    There can be no “self” or “soul” prior to consciousness. There is no such presence or quiddity during coma or dreamless sleep. Minus consciousness, nothing matters.

    Where is the self when a patient is under general anaesthesia? Where is the self when we are in dreamless sleep?

  4. Thorngod
    January 16th, 2007 @ 4:51 pm

    Nowhere. The brain resurrects the self (consciousness), when it can and needs to. The pattern for the self is in the brain’s memory matrix. Consider coma: The self that re-emerges after a number of years is less and different. The memory matrix has deteriorated. The lengthier the coma, the more deterioration of the “self.”

  5. Drusilla
    January 16th, 2007 @ 5:22 pm

    Are you saying that the self the brain resurrects each time one has general anaesthesia is “less and different” but imperceptably so because the time out is briefer than a lengthy coma? Ditto when we sleep? Ditto for a brief coma? If so, is there a cumulative effect of some sort?

    And what of those who are clinically dead for a lesser or greater time? Does the severity of the time out affect the brain’s ability to store the “memory matrix”?

    And what of resurrection? In this context, it means “to raise from the dead.” Are you saing we are dead when under general anaesthesia? Or asleep? Or in a coma? If so, you are saying resurrection is a common, everyday occurrence, is a fact. If that is true, might it be possible that the brain’s “memory matrix” is somehow stored in a fashion we have yet to discover when a person dies (in a fashion that you would consider final) and that it could be resurrected at some point?

  6. Godthorn
    January 16th, 2007 @ 9:37 pm

    Drusilla- To Para 1, yes. To Para 2, yes.
    To Para 3: The body is alive, but where is the “self”? Unconscious, it is non-existent. It remains potential as long as the body is alive and the brain is functioning. As for “resurrection” after the brain deteriorates, that’s a trick only mystics and theologians seem to understand.

  7. qedpro
    January 17th, 2007 @ 12:47 pm

    bummer, i thought the raving atheist was back, but alas its the raving antiabortionist

  8. Ian Thorpe
    January 17th, 2007 @ 1:21 pm

    I’ll have to talk to Amanda about quantum physics and some of the weird properties of atoms.

  9. Drusilla
    January 17th, 2007 @ 2:29 pm

    Godthorn, “Unconscious” is not the same as “non-existent.”

    I am having difficulty with what I think you are saying that we are dead while under anaesthesia, while in a coma, when in non-REM sleep – a great deal of the time – even though brain activity continues. If that’s so, it’s amazing that we let all these dead people return to life (become zombies) rather than just bury them. Isn’t that the proper thing to do with the dead?

  10. Godthorn
    January 17th, 2007 @ 3:12 pm

    Drusilla, The truly braindead body is never resurrected. That’s because it can no longer regenerate its consciousness. If oxygen and bloodflow are supplied in time, brain activity is reactivated. If then the brain’s ability to generate consciousness has not been damaged, the person reappears–though not always totally his or her previous self.

    There is no such thing as a “zombie”–except as a figure of speech.

    We don’t “let” those people come back to life. We force them to. If we let them, they will die–because the body will die and the person cannot survive without the body.

  11. Kyle
    January 21st, 2007 @ 11:03 pm

    Amanda’s post was idiotic, but it didn’t hold a candle to the “articles” that inspired her.

    They were total misrepresentations of Harris’ “beliefs.” He does not “believe in” reincarnation or anything supernatural, at all. He has only stated that he has passing interest in scientific reports on Indian infants with corresponding birthmarks, speaking in ancient languages, etc. And until there is conclusive evidence to one view or the other, which he admits seems unlikely to be declared, he is neutral. Until, of course, there is sufficient evidence for such phenomenon.

  12. Gathercole
    January 27th, 2007 @ 5:33 am

    re: self

    When a person is asleep the unique self still exists in the unique structure of the brain, it’s just not activated at the moment. When a person dies, the brain is destroyed and so is the self. The difference between sleeping and death is the difference between a PC that’s turned off and one that’s been smashed to bits with a hammer. And that makes the moment of conception the moment where the first circuit is etched into the motherboard; an important first step, but nowhere near a self.

  13. Godthorn
    January 27th, 2007 @ 8:56 pm

    It seems to me that “self” implies conscious recognition, but I wouldn’t argue with your definition as presented. My use of the term was intended in the sense of the “I,” which is manifest only in a state of consciousness.

    The computer offers a close enough modeling of the physical body and brain, and it also illuminates the difference between the sleeping body and the “I” that the computer lacks and which exists only in consciousness.

  14. Steven
    January 29th, 2007 @ 12:37 am

    Harris isn’t an adherent of Eastern religion but thinks that Buddhism may be able to tell us something about altered states of conciousness and how the mind works with prolonged meditation. Stuff like that. The guy studies neuroscience and the science of belief. I have never read in his books or articles that he believes in reincarnation. Harris is first and foremost a skeptic.

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