My reaction to Sam Harris’s latest book has progressed from “painful” to “alarming”—alarming for what Sam Harris is doing to himself, and what he proposes for the rest of us.
How, for example, does one explain a paragraph like this from one who claims to champion rationality?
This does not mean, of course, that we have no mental freedom whatsoever. We can choose to focus on certain facts to the exclusion of others, to emphasize the good rather than the bad, etc. And such choices have consequences for how we view the world. One can, for instance view Kim Jong-il as an evil dictator; one can also view him as a man who was once the child of a dangerous psychopath. Both statements are, to a first approximation, true. (Obviously, when I speak about “freedom” and “choices” of this sort, I am not endorsing a metaphysical notion of “free will.”)
This epitomizes the rest of Sam Harris’s The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values (following the introduction, of which I wrote on Monday). This affirmation of mental freedom appears some twenty-seven pages after a full eleven-page discourse denying free will, not just as a “metaphysical notion” but as any kind of notion whatever. Here he claims we have mental freedom, the ability to “choose to focus on certain facts,” while elsewhere he absolutely denies mental freedom of any sort. (That fuzzy-philosophical word “metaphysical” seems to have been thrown in to give Harris some wiggle room—not metaphysical free will, perhaps, but some other kind of free will instead. But there is no other kind, at least not any that could be relevant here.)
Note that this is in a book about making better choices to improve human well-being.
Not all of the book implodes on itself so obviously; some of it just leaves an impression of a foggy mess, like the famous college phrase, “If you can’t dazzle them with your brilliance, baffle them with your ….” It is awash with analogies and scenarios which at first appear to hold water, but which evaporate on closer inspection. Their apparent weight is an illusion fostered only by their plenitude. Harris’s attacks on religion are astonishingly prejudiced, conflating all beliefs as if they were one, picking out the worst and pointedly ignoring that which is good and true.
I will not bother tearing it apart bit by bit. It’s not necessary, for at the very end he finally ‘fesses up:
The claim that science could have something important to say about values (because values relate to facts about the well-being of conscious creatures) is an argument made on first principles. As such, it doesn’t rest on any specific empirical results.
And all along he’s been telling us that science is the key to moral truth. What gives? Continuing:
That does not mean that this claim couldn’t be falsified, however.
Really, Mr. Harris? What do you mean by that? He goes on,
Clearly, if there is a more important source of value that has nothing to do with the well-being of conscious creatures (in this life or a life to come) [the end toward which he thinks all morality aims], my thesis would be disproved. As I have said, however, I cannot conceive of what such a source of value would be: for if someone claimed to have found it somewhere, it could be of no possible interest to anyone, by definition.
So much for its being open to falsification, or any other empirical testing. Sam Harris’s whole thesis of science-based morality collapses upon itself.
Maybe it’s a lack of imagination, a closed, dogmatic frame of mind, that is to blame. He cannot conceive of any source of value apart from some conscious person’s well-being, and he insists if there was such a thing it could not possibly be of interest to anyone. He cannot conceive of the possibility of a God whose well-being is not at stake—for this God is eternal, changeless, and perfect—and who is also the eternal source of value to himself and to all of creation. If he could just register a standard theological conception like that into his thinking—not necessarily agreeing with it, mind you—then he might have something more interesting and relevant to say about these things.
But apparently he cannot. So much the worse for his being able to understand what he criticizes. Nor (as he says elsewhere) can he conceive of any account of causality that would permit human free will—for he cannot imagine any causal principle other than the physical. Again, if he would at least address what Christianity believes, he might have something worth listening to; but no, he cannot get as far as conceiving it. Why should his inflexibility of thought limit others’ understanding of the world?
Nor can he understand (as I wrote last time) why some people with a scientific frame of mind could countenance religious realities. Again, I think this is due to his unimaginative, constrained, dogmatic, unyielding insistence that religion is what Sam Harris says religion is, and the world is the way Sam Harris says it is.
In Monday’s blog post I wondered how he would propose to bring about a worldwide convergence on “the same social, political, economic, and environmental goals.” I promised I would eat the book page by page, and post the video, if he provided a better answer than all the despots who have tried to force a similar result. See if you think I need to get out the saltshaker and the video camera, as you read this from page 130:
What if we were to connect the fear of witches with the expression of a certain receptor subtype in the brain? Who would be tempted to say that the belief in witchcraft is, therefore, ineradicable?
Or this, which he approvingly puts forth a few pages later:
The development of mind-reading technology is just beginning—but reliable lie detection will be much easier to achieve than accurate mind reading. Whether or not we ever crack the neural code, enabling us to download a person’s private thoughts, memories, and perceptions without distortion, we will almost surely be able to determine, to a moral certainty, whether a person is representing his thoughts, memories, and perceptions honestly in conversation. The development of a reliable lie detector would only require a very modest advance over what is currently possible through neuroimaging….
There may come a time when every courtroom or boardroom will have the requisite technology discreetly concealed behind its wood paneling, Thereafter, civilized men and women might share a common presumption: that wherever important conversations are held, the truthfulness of all participants will be monitored.
Is that how he proposes to achieve agreement on common goals? Is this how we are to improve our moral prospects? Huxley and Orwell knew they were writing dystopias; Harris actually thinks this would be good for the world. I suppose he thinks the agency that mandates all these truth detectors will install them in its own council chambers, too. Good luck with that. One would think that Harris’s “scientific” mindset might be more realistic about the way such power always tends toward dictatorship.
He devotes a full chapter to religion, and it’s clear he dreams of the day when manipulations like these would cure us of all religion. But the idea of eradicating religion brings names like Mao, Stalin, and Castro to mind. Harris never says he favors totalitarianism, but it’s hard to imagine any other way to accomplish what he proposes.
Maybe (I’m speculating here) this is a reflection of his totalizing obsession with “science” as he understands it. As has been said elsewhere about winning, it seems for him not to be the best thing, but the only thing. Science is indeed a very good thing, but not the only thing. One who regards it as the only thing is certain to end up with a warped view of reality—one that will surely implode upon itself.
In one way that’s already happened, as I’ve just written. In another way it hasn’t, for Harris himself remains oblivious; he has not yet personally experienced the effect of that collapse. Painful as it is, I say the sooner he does experience it, the better. Not because I enjoy seeing someone like Sam Harris suffer that way—I don’t—but because it might mean he would wake up, change his mind, and stop trying to bring the rest of us along to share it with him.