Tom Gilson

Sam Harris: Where Reason Fails, Resort To Dogma

Book Review

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.

Series Navigation (Sam Harris's Moral Landscape):<<< Watching Sam Harris Hurt Himself<<< Sam Harris’s Moral Desperation Move
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7 thoughts on “Sam Harris: Where Reason Fails, Resort To Dogma

  1. Well said.

    The quote about eradicating the belief in witchcraft is terrifying. No more reasoning with people who hold false beliefs; we will just cure them. Heck, even persecuting false belief would be more humane than that.

    Sam Harris is turning C. S. Lewis into a prophet. I wonder when he’ll found the N. I. C. E…

  2. Hi ho 8^>

    Sam Harris appears to be treading in the bootprints of Nietzsche, who famously went insane in the last years of his life, allegedly from syphilis. Someone, and I can’t remember where I read it, speculated that it wasn’t the syphilis that drove him mad. At the time he went mad Nietzsche was developing a “new morality” and that trying to discover a moral code from atheist premises is what really drove him insane. Either way, as you note in your critique, atheistic moralism is an oxymoron.

    Regarding the totalitarian, there was a television show a few years ago lokking into the legacy of social Darwinism. During the program they interviewed Richard Dawkins for the “orthodox” Darwinian perspective and Dawkins, true to form, defended the “theory” of Darwinian evolution and the Darwinian worldview, but condemned “social darwinism”. Then he said something interesting. He said he would hate to live in a Darwinian state because it would be a fascist state.

  3. “…if there is a more important source of value that has nothing to do with the well-being of conscious creatures.”

    What values are more important than the well-being of conscious creatures? Doesn’t religion speak to the well-being of the humans it preaches to? Isn’t that the definition of “salvation” ? Ultimate well-being instead of burning in hell?

    So, by definition, if [religion] didn’t relate to ultimate human well-being, no one would be interested. Christians are trying to save your soul, no?

  4. Rick, yes, religion does speak of the well-being of humans, definitely. But Christianity and Judaism in particular teach of God’s being good, just, loving, merciful, holy, and righteous, in ways that have nothing to do with well-being. This is a new and unfamiliar concept to many people, but it is classic Judeo-Christian theology. These moral attributes of God are eternally true of him, so in that sense they are part of the fabric of reality, completely independent of any other created being. But they have no relation to God’s well-being, because God is also eternally perfect and complete. It makes no sense to speak of his well-being as if it were something that could vary, just as it makes no sense to speak of any change or variation in his moral nature.

    You are right when you say that if religion did not relate to human well-being, no one would be interested You are also right if you think that humans’ ultimate (eternal) well-being is related to one’s moral/ethical life, though it’s not a one-to-one bookkeeping arrangement; God gives better far better than we deserve if we will trust him to do so through Christ. But the question is not about religion, it is about ethical and moral realities; and humans are not the only conscious persons, there is also God himself.

  5. If humans cannot add value to the Christian god, that seems to invalidate the relationship and turn humanity into a superfluousness sideshow this already complete god has no motivation to interact with. Plenty of theologians, pastors, and ordinary Christians will speak in the terms of coherent relationshipping with God as though this were not the case (that their god is actually getting something out of the relationship like glory or honor). So I don’t see any recognition here in terms of these kinds of issues that arise with the theological concepts you say turn the debate. I don’t really think that’s fair, if we are going to blame Harris.

    And that witchcraft quote is horrendous quote-mining. I get that Christians are most often on the edge of their seats waiting for the atheist to conclude, “…and THEN we murder 7 million Jews,” (just like atheists are always on the edge of their seats waiting for the Christians to go, “And then we believe it for a totally indefensible reason we’d never accept in any other context!”) but the context of the witch quote (page 130) is addressed towards the attitude that persuading people through reason is not foolhardy. There was no dystopian mind-control implications if you were not desperate to find some kind of totalitarian connection.

    Oh yeah, and btw: It doesn’t really matter what Harris’ position is on free will since the end result is the same as far as the thesis of the book goes: Continued introspection, new facts, and the persuasion of other people can change the mental states of a person. Everyone believes that right? Hence, there is no implosion in any event.


  6. Ben:

    1. The love of God (it’s a proper noun in this context, by the way, check your grammar) is a love without need. To love is to give, not to take. Even when we give God glory it is not for his good but for ours.

    2. If the witchcraft quote was quote-mining, what about the truth detector?

    3. A logical contradiction is a logical contradiction, and the book is about moral choices—as if we had the capacity to make them.

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