Thursday, February 17, 2011

Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris Debate Rabbis David Wolpe and Shavit Artson (Kindof)

On February 15th I attended the debate "Is There an Afterlife?" staged by the American Jewish University (the acronym is amusing when pronounced). Against such an existence were Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris, interspersedly seated between Rabbis David Wolpe and Shavit Artson who argued the opposing view. The evening would have been better billed as a conversation, given its format, but it was well-moderated and very entertaining.

Hitchens entered last, to a frenzied ovation I felt was a clear tribute to the man, and not an obligatory sympathy of any kind. My feeling is that a large portion of the crowd, if not a majority, was there to see him. That was certainly true for myself - any question of an afterlife having long been settled.

The debate can be summarized as follows: Harris and Hitchens point out that no evidence for an afterlife exists, and that death is an epistemic boundary which is absolute. Hitchens made the point he so often makes that an eternal existence under a cosmic dictator who commands that you stay "at a party which never ends - ever - and also that you have fun doing it," is a scenario most of us would find cringeworthy on closer inspection. So, while belief in an afterlife is largely a manifestation of wish-thinking, we should be careful what we wish for.

Rabbis Wolpe and Artson scoffed and frequently took offense at the alleged "caricaturization" of religion. They took no responsibility for the well-defined beliefs held by most of the religious, opting instead to convince the audience that they were “sophisticated” theists, untarnished by silly beliefs. Every time Harris and Hitchens finished arguing against one religious claim or another, the opposition would predictably chime “but that's not what I believe.”

On many occasions, Wolpe actually responded with such sweeping denialisms as “nobody believes” or “religious people don't say that,” regarding descriptions of the afterlife that many of the Christian and Islamic faithful certainly do believe and declare (think of the rapture or the Mahometan paradise). This continual side-stepping drew objections from both Harris and Hitchens, to no avail.

The moderator, who did a good job in my opinion, repeatedly asked Wolpe to describe his own positive conception of the afterlife, given that he was there to argue for one, but to these prompts Wolpe would only make faces intended to disarm and and then imply “you can't ask me that question, that's not really fair.” Whatever responses he did end up giving seemed more like obfuscation than illumination.

In fact, the only active defense that Wolpe offered was his “feeling, or sense,” that there was something more, something “nonphysical” to human beings which was not explicable on a materialist view. This is a weak type of substance dualism - it only complicates and mystifies, it is incompatible with physics, and it fails to explain anything beyond what is essentially an "it must be due to some spooky stuff" cop-out.

This was the rabbi's only positive argument, and I was sorry that it went unchallenged, since with it he essentially talked himself into a corner. There has been no evidence to suggest that the mind is independent from the brain (Harris did point out that people with brain injuries don't retain their former selves but rather change in often drastic ways). For Wolpe to sense that there is something nonphysical in the universe, whatever it is that is nonphysical would have to interact with Wolpe's brain, giving him the sense of itself, and therefore interacting, physically, with the world. If something interacts physically with the world, then calling it nonphysical seems perfectly ridiculous (even writing the phrase "something nonphysical" feels absurd). Any such physical interaction would in principle be open to scientific study.

To further illuminate the absurd: what happens when a person suffers brain damage resulting from a bike accident at 15 years of age? Upon death, does their whole mind reconstitute as it was before the tragedy? If so, they'll be part of a minority - the majority of souls having had the time to mature through full lifetimes of experience. Do hamsters have little eternal hamster souls? What about bacteria? If bacteria don't have souls, then how is it conceivable for life to have evolved a nonphysical soul out of a purely physical substrate? Did God just drop a soul into early homo sapiens a quarter million years ago, or did homo habilis get a proto-soul? These questions may seem silly. They are... but they are legitimate.

The most patronizing moments of the evening were inflicted by Rabbi Shavit Artson who, every time a chance was given to reply, lamented having the conversation at all. He didn't like the tone. He didn't believe in the argument. He complained about the “cleverness” of the opposition and disparaged what he called the “cartoons” of religion which, perhaps not to reformed Judaism but certainly to religion at large, were exceedingly fair representations of the real thing.

Afterward, I was present when someone asked Artson if he had enjoyed himself. "Not really," he replied after an extended facial contortion. He didn't like nor believe in “religious disputations.” This prejudicial attitude, a kind of a priori sore-losership, was unforgivable. The audience paid for and deserved a lively debate between honest and committed advocates. Hitchens and Harris made their positions perfectly clear, and explained why they felt them worth fighting for. The other side spent most of their time actually denying that they believed the opposite, while never stating what they did believe or why anyone should believe it (which sort of defeats the intended conflict).

Still, it was a great evening thanks to the endless wit from Hitchens, the calm and reasoned argument from Harris, and the occasional cheeky quip from Wolpe (Artson was unredeemable).

The debate has been posted here.

Hitch's biggest laugh was in reaction to an imagined scenario where he and Harris go around attempting to undeceive people of the afterlife as they lay dying. Hitchens observed that, shockingly, people seem to see the opposite as a morally acceptable act when done to himself. “Fuck off!” (his words).


  1. "On January 15th I attended the debate..."


    "These questions may seem silly. They are... but they are legitimate."

    Dualism runs into many problems, but in principle, these are not swept away by body/personality theory either. What's so disappointing about these debates is that the religious don't flesh out the real philosophical strengths of dualism. Instead, they tend to focus on intuitive ethics when confronted with truthiness arguments, and truthiness when confronted with ethical quandaries.

    You absolutely recognized this when you contrasted the clear lines drawn by Harris/Hitchens, and the "soft ecumenicism" of their opponents. In the interest of integrity, I always stand proud as an atheist knowing that my most staunch defenders are willing and able to draw a line in the sand and defend it rationally. Theres something inherently moral about this, and it resonates with me.

    Thank you for the summary, I'm dying to see the video (LA is a bit of a trip for a yankee). Was there any indication when/where(if) the video would be released?


  2. Thanks! February it was. I'll amend it. Appreciate your comments.

    I'm not sure about the video - if it ever goes up I'll post it.

  3. I wish I could have been there. I saw video of Harris vs. Wolfe before and Harris kicked his ass. I can't wait for the video of this one to hit the web.

  4. I went to the debate and it was extremely entertaining. I definitely got my money’s worth. There were moments where Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson went off on long-winded and boring tangents but Hitchens and Harris made up for it, so overall it was a interesting and worthwhile event. Even Wolpe, while unconvincing, was still entertaining.

  5. Great report, thanks.
    If you were me, you would have that great photo of you and CH hanging in your house, enlarged to possibly 5 or 6 feet, maybe obscuring a window.
    Printed T-Shirts and place-mats, too.

  6. Great summary of the debate. I don't mind Wolpe, he has a sense of humor and an easier job than the likes of christian debaters that also have to try to explain jesus, virgin births, etc. Can't wait to see video.

    Hitch looks good in the photo. Any medical updates from him?

  7. Harris say anything about bombing Iran for thought crimes?

  8. i was there. your summary is pretty right on. it was very frustrating to sit there and listen to artson it was like being at church i really don't know why he was there. he did not even deserve to waste hitchens time it like mike tyson fighting some non-confrontational office worker. i enjoyed everyone else as i have seen multiple videos of them debating. i felt so lucky to see hitchens there is nobody i know of that attacks religion like he does with truth and vigor not on tippy toes or some form of fear hitchens never let me down. even though there was 4 speakers instead of the usual 2 meaning less time for hitchens more crap from artson it was worth the money and time. i was three rows back and got to shake hitchens hand i said i appreciate him and him coming out he said "i feel like a politician reaching down" to shake people hands from the stage. what a great night i hope hitchens survives his battle with cancer. thanx to people like hitchens i feel less lonely on my path of truth. give me truth over all. this is my first comment ever. TED

  9. Thanks for sharing this. It's good to know that Christopher seems well. He looks strong in the photo. Can't wait to see video.

  10. I actually had plans on attending that debate. I know Hitch has very few of these left in him, and I think my life will be less if I don't get a chance to meet him. Also Sam Harris is emerging as the top outspoken Atheist in my book. Great article. I will follow your blog, if you have time, check mine out.

  11. Wow, Hitch looks great in the pic. Thanks for your summary of the debate, I hope it's posted soon online.

  12. the event was videotaped and i asked the camera guys on the way out if it would eventually be youtubed. their response: NO WAY.

    they did say, however, it would be posted on "in about a week". (sure am glad i asked. i would've never found it online otherwise.)

    i'm hoping they follow through on that. heck of an entertaining night. sam and hitch were at their best. i really, really hope to be able to watch it again.

  13. I was at the debate as well and am quite jealous of your picture with hitch! i was able to meet sam, which made my night, but couldn't get through the throng of disciples to meet hitch. no worries. it was just good to see him in such good form. if a little thin, perhaps.

    one thing i was aggravated by throughout the night was the almost slap-stick style of humor from Wolpe and Artson. even the humor was much more sophisticated from the other side. hitch effortlessly weaves humor into his points and harris is so dry you never see it coming. "this is how religion makes its sausage" was one of my personal favorites i have to say! but the other side seemed to use humor as a deflection. they so desperately wanted to be "popular" with the crowd, and very much appeared to be more concerned with that than actually winning the debate. not that anyone really expected a "win" either way.

    anyway, it was a great event and neither hitchens nor harris disappointed.

  14. Great article. I too am very jealous of the picture with Hitch! I am still hoping to get it one day! I am so encouraged by how good he looks. I cant wait for my chance. Keep up the good work.

  15. My take on the Hitchens Wolpe Afterlife debate:

  16. saw the debate just now. Gotta say that Wolpe's self-deprecating humour pretty much gets on my nerves after a while. I think he tries to come off as cool and witty, but really it cannot mask the fact that he doesn't have much to counter. Harris' remark that really the two rabbis are representatives of the "liberal religious intelligentsia" was dead on. Wonder whether they can get more "literal" in other circumstances ...

  17. Excellent debate, thanks for posting you summary of it!
    Wolpe and Artson represent what is probably the most watered down and 'nuanced' -verging on deistic- version of religion I've ever known. It's disappointing to see that they weren't there to make any reasoned arguments for their position as Hitch and Sam certainly did. However, I watched the video and do not regret it. Our two front horsemen never fail to nurture and entertain!

  18. My favorite line from Hitchens was his quoting of a limerick:

    We are the pure and chosen few, and all the rest are damned.
    There’s room enough in hell for you—we don’t want heaven crammed.

  19. 'fuck that' is what he said I think.