Watching Sam Harris Hurt Himself

Book Review

I’m not sure which is more painful: seeing a brilliant intellect like Sam Harris be so deceived, or knowing how surely he is deceiving others. Either way I grieve. So far I’ve only read the introduction to his recent best-seller The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values, but that’s enough to observe him continuing to stumble about in abject blindness. It is not a new discovery for me. But just like watching replays of a football player being injured on the field, it still hurts to see it happening over and over again.

Harris devotes a major portion of this book’s introduction to what he calls the zero-sum game between the facts of science and of religion. That’s not really what he means, of course. What he means is that the sum of facts in religion is zero, except where it has accidentally happened upon some smattering of truths that science can also affirm. He cannot contain his astonishment over scientists who think otherwise. “Here is our situation,” he says on page 25:

If the basic claims of religion are true, the scientific worldview is so blinkered and susceptible to supernatural modification as to be nearly ridiculous; if the basic claims of religion are false, most people are profoundly confused about the nature of reality, confounded by irrational hopes and fears, and tending to waste precious time and attention—often with tragic results. Is this really a dichotomy about which science can claim to be neutral?

You would think someone who has spent so much time proclaiming the horrors of religion would consider it his responsibility to have a clue what he’s talking about. He stands in famous (if not good) company, I’ll grant him that: Lawrence Krauss and J.B.S. Haldane made the same mistake. But they haven’t made (or didn’t make, in Haldane’s case) quite the career of it that Harris has. The linked article contains my full rebuttal to the elementary error he exhibits in the first clause of this quote. Suffice it here to say that Christianity is not a doctrine of a capricious God, and it never has been. Harris is running from demons of his own invention.

That’s the answer as it applies specifically to Christianity. I would note also the childish naivete in his dichotomizing religion and science into two separate but homogeneous buckets. It’s as if he thinks that religion is all one sort of thing, and science is all another sort of thing; and that science is whatever religion isn’t, and vice versa. But religion is not all one sort of thing. As a Christian believer I can affirm Harris’s opinion that many people are tragically confused, confounded, and wasting precious time and attention on false beliefs, including false religious beliefs. But see where the relevant dichotomy lies: it’s not between a methodology (science) and a mindset (religion, whatever he means by that), but between true and false beliefs. The line Harris cuts between the two is so simplistic, that alone should signal him he’s on a fool’s track.

Still he blunders blithely along. He had already written on page 7,

It seems inevitable, however, that science will gradually encompass life’s deepest questions—and this is guaranteed to provoke a backlash. How we respond to the resulting collision of worldviews will influence the progress of science, of course, but it may also determine whether we succeed in building a global civilization based on shared values…. Only a rational understanding of human well-being will allow billions of us to coexist peacefully, converging on the same social, political, economic, and environmental goals.

He does like that word rational, which to him is synonymous with scientific. I would like to know how he can rationally justify his optimism “that science will gradually encompass life’s deepest questions”—inevitably, even. The book will be moving later into neuroscience, Harris’s own field of research, but any conviction that someday neuroscience will actually determine human well-being—or the path toward achieving such well-being among peoples—is based not on laboratory findings but on a philosophical commitment to a certain interpretation of such findings, not to mention a lot of irresponsible extrapolation and wishful thinking on his part.

Even if he were not so dreadfully misled on that, though, his hope of “a rational understanding of human well-being” leading to a state where billions of us coexist peacefully, sharing “the same social, political, economic, and environmental goals,” is that of a man raised in a darker cave of ignorance than Plato’s. The last time I heard of anyone trying to use “scientific” means to get everyone to share all the same goals, they killed millions of their own people in the attempt, and we called it totalitarianism.

I’ve been to all the world’s major communist countries but North Korea. I’ve seen how Mao overcame discord and hunger in China, and led the nation to a peaceful coexistence. It makes for a beautiful picture, until you look at the cadres watching over everyone’s movements, or read the country’s modern history. I’ve witnessed the results of Russia’s attempts to do the same. I’ve seen Cubans accosted by police just for chatting with an American. Now, that’s a great way to keep your people sharing the same social, political, economic, and environmental goals: don’t let them hear any opposing viewpoints.

Maybe later in the book Harris will pull some rabbit out of his hat and propose a better way to get everybody in the world to think alike. I certainly doubt it. Pardon me for jumping to conclusions before I read to the end, but if I turn out to be wrong, and he actually proposes a viable way to accomplish this, I’ll eat the book page by page and post the video so you can watch me doing it.

I haven’t even begun to look at Harris’s take on a scientifically-based morality. I will, I promise. I’m willing to put myself through watching more painful re-runs of the man hurting himself. Maybe by doing so I can help some other player avoid his mistakes and stay healthy on the field.

Series Navigation (Sam Harris's Moral Landscape):

Sam Harris: “Firmware” To Upgrade Your Ethics >>>Sam Harris: Where Reason Fails, Resort To Dogma >>>

Comments

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  2. casey

    I agree. There was an NPR podacst with Sam HArris, two scientists and a philospher discussing the virtue of a morality based on the findings of science. It as quite absurd. The Achille’s hill of their argument was that they agreed that if one defines morality as increasing human flourishing and diminishing human suffering then science is the primary tool to understand this best. But my biggest issue with that is that the value (moral) decision to value human flourishing over human suffering wasn’t based on science at all…which destroys their entire argument.

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  4. Ben

    “Maybe later in the book Harris will pull some rabbit out of his hat and propose a better way to get everybody in the world to think alike. I certainly doubt it. Pardon me for jumping to conclusions before I read to the end, but if I turn out to be wrong, and he actually proposes a viable way to accomplish this, I’ll eat the book page by page and post the video so you can watch me doing it.”

    Um, isn’t his plan for doing that to get the ball rolling on developing a moral science? Harris has discussed the “persuasion-problem” as he calls it in several forums. Perhaps you’ve missed those, but he doesn’t expect to convince everyone any more than the problem of getting everyone on board with moderating global warming. And aren’t all of the cliche’ examples you give of totalitarian failures to create lasting consensus on common values part of the “facts of the universe” Harris’ conception of moral science would take into account in terms of moving forward? “It didn’t work.” Well, that won’t be the prescription will it? I’m sure there are still some examples in the world of that continuing onward (like how China keeps trying to censor the internet), but I don’t think anyone here honestly believes that’s going to last forever. And we can probably come up with some good reasons for that, too.

    Ben

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    Tom Gilson

    Funny he didn’t mention his plan, the modesty of his goals, or the persuasion problem in this context. You’d think he would have—it’s his book on the subject, after all.

  6. Melissa

    I’m not sure whether you’ve seen this article:

    http://www.abc.net.au/religion/articles/2011/02/07/3131377.htm

    but Sam Harris spells out exactly how he sees the future.

    “However, some people were not ready for this earthly paradise once it arrived. Some were psychopaths who, despite enjoying the general change in quality of life, were nevertheless eager to break into their neighbours’ homes and torture them from time to time. A few had preferences that were incompatible with the flourishing of whole societies: Try as he might, Kim Jong Il just couldn’t shake the feeling that his cognac didn’t taste as sweet without millions of people starving beyond his palace gates.

    Given our advances in science, however, we were able to alter preferences of this kind. In fact, we painlessly delivered a firmware update to everyone. Now the entirety of the species is fit to live in a global civilization that is as safe, and as fun, and as interesting, and as filled with love as it can be.”

    A utopia where anyone who disagrees with Sam Harris and friends can be painlessly cured.

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