I am reading Sam Harris' The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values, a book which expends a great amount of effort doing everything but what the title promises. And one of the many things he mentions that have nothing to do with the central claim he makes in the book is this argument:
There are many revealed religious available ... the idea that each of these mutually contradictory doctrines is inerrant remains a logical impossibility.Harris uses the term "inerrant" here, but it makes no real difference to simply use the term "true," as many versions of this argument do. But pay careful attention to the term "each" in this statement. Does it mean "any particular one"? Or does it mean "all"?
If it means "all," then it is sound argument: All of the religions that make truth claims that are mutually exclusive cannot be true at the same time in the same world. But if it means "any particular one," then the argument is not sound, since it is not logically contradictory to say that one is true and the others are not, which is what each individual one (with the exception of something like Bahai, which makes the former claim) asserts.
Harris and other New Atheists such as Richard Dawkins rely on an equivocation of this term "each" to make their argument. They think that to say that "all religions cannot be true at the same time in the same world" means the same thing as "no one of them could be true at the same time in the same world." But these are two entirely different statements. And they nowhere state how you get from one to the other.
Can't we think of numerous questions on which there is a plurality of opinion as to what is true and what is false? In fact, one wonders how Harris would react to the same argument aimed at his own cherished science. There are numerous scientific controversies that have attracted mutually exclusive explanations. Is each of them false simply by virtue of the fact, that there are others that logically contradict it?
There is now a debate over Global Warming and whether it is caused by humans are not. There are two mutually exclusive sides--one saying it is, and one saying it isn't. Under the argument of Harris and the New Atheists, neither of these positions can be true.
There is a controversy going on about whether Intelligent Design can be proven scientifically. There are two mutually exclusive sides--one saying it can, and one saying it can't. Under the atheist argument, neither one can be true.
There is a controversy over whether same-sex marriage is constitutional. There are two mutually exclusive sides in the debate: one argues it is, one that it isn't. Under this argument, both must be rejected.
I could go on. But the point is, this argument makes absolutely no sense, and it's a measure of the philosophical sophistication of the New Atheists that they think it does.
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