How many angels fit on a pinhead?

Comments on Pharyngula’s blog led me to a discussion about the Sam Harris & Chris Hedges debate. I know I don’t keep up – luckily there’s no god to judge my atheism orthodoxy – because this is ages old, but I found the tapes on truthdig.

This debate between Sam Harris (outspoken atheist) and Chris Hedges (Christian, outspoken against the fundamentalist right) is one of the rare debates that actually expand your thinking. Both are excellent speakers. Both make some unassailable points, as well as speak occasional tosh. (Like any of us. Except me of course.)

Lots of these “debate” things are just creationist fronts or debates about ideas, like the medieval discussions over how many angels can fit on the head of a pin (I.e the premise is meaningless, the detail is mind-numbing and the importance is non-existent.)

Ignore the content to some extent and just consider the approaches. Pure thought vs thought in the world. “Proper science” and “social science.”

“Proper science” is good at the logic. I.e.., it tells you that the “God” concept is nonsense. This is so self-evident that you can get pretty fed up with restating it. All the same, Sam Harris does it beautifully and probably as well as anyone can.

He also points out that the spiritual and ethical and emotional aspects of the human psyche don’t require a belief in a sky-god. This is always good to hear because religious believers can often appear to have cornered the market in transcendence.

Social science is good at understanding the ideological consequences of beliefs. Hence, Chris Hedges was able to discuss the social context that has created fundamentalism of every kind. (For instance, he argued that the basically secular PLO was ousted by Islamic fundamentalists, as a direct consequence of the actions of the US and Israel.) He’s not an atheist but I can’t see how that that makes him wrong. I couldn’t even see how most of what he said was affected one way or another by him being a believer. (Although I may not have been payng total attention.)

I don’t think there’s a real split between social science and “proper” science. However, a lot of “proper” scientists know much very little about social science. I certainly believe many atheists could learn a lot from the sociology of religion.

Reference, our recent ill-advised foray into a discussion of ADHD on the Pharyngula comments that seemed to do nothing but generate misconceptions… Say, for instance, a new psychoactive medicine is developed. “Proper” scientists can understand the biochemistry and study its mode of action. It is the realm of social science to ask questions about how it is used, why it is used, who has access to it, how do social relations influence what medicines are developed, who pays for the development, who pays for the end-product, what does it mean to the individual to experience its effects, and so on, ad infinitum. These are not just boring topics to “proper scientists” (just as biochemistry is to me) They are also things they have not been trained to evaluate (just as biochemistry is to me).

The different modes of thinking can be mutually incomprehensible. So, it’s great to find a real debate that illuminates an issue from two sides.

Ie, ignore the Christian stuff that comes from Hedges and consider the approach. That is, a recognition that ideas have consequences. Our beliefs have no importance except where they find social expression. Quoting Alun’s comment on a post here.

Someone with a personal hotline to a god with no social support is merely a lunatic (as defined by the rest of society)