On Sam Harris

Allen Orr on Sam Harris in the New York Review of Books:

Harris’s view that morality concerns the maximization of well-being of conscious creatures doesn’t follow from science. What experiment or body of scientific theory yielded such a conclusion? Clearly, none. Harris’s view of the good is undeniably appealing but it has nothing whatever to do with science.

Orr concludes the essay:

In the end, it’s odd that one can share so many of Harris’s views and yet find his project largely unsuccessful. I certainly share his vision of the well-being of conscious creatures as a sensible end for ethics. And I agree that science can and should help us to attain this end. And I certainly agree that religion has no monopoly on morals. The problem—and it’s one that Harris never faces up to—is that one can agree with all these things and yet not think that morality should be “considered an undeveloped branch of science.”

Even more brilliant is Jackson Lears’ article on Sam Harris: Same Old New Atheism: On Sam Harris | The Nation. In addition to providing historical perspective to Harris’ position, and pointing out his historical ignorance, Lears connects Harris’ project with the Bush war on terror:

Hitchens and Harris, in particular, wasted no time enlisting in Bush’s crusade, which made their critique of religion selective. It may have targeted Christianity and occasionally Judaism, but hatred and fear of Islam was its animating force. Despite their disdain for public piety, the New Atheists provided little in their critique to disturb the architects and proselytizers of American empire: indeed, Hitchens and Harris asserted a fervent rationale for it. Since 9/11, both men have made careers of posing as heroic outsiders while serving the interests of the powerful.

The essay is brilliant and the final two paragraphs a scathing indictment of Harris’ optimism:

Moral progress is unmistakable, he believes, at least in “the developed world.” His chief example is how far “we” have moved beyond racism. Even if one accepts this flimsy assertion, the inconvenient historical fact is that, intellectually at least, racism was undone not by positivistic science, which underwrote it, but by the cultural relativism Harris despises. Ultimately his claims for moral progress range more widely, as he reports that “we” in “the developed world” are increasingly “disturbed by our capacity to do one another harm.” What planet does this man live on? Besides our wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, “we” in the United States are engaged in a massive retreat from the welfare state and from any notion that we have a responsibility to one another or to a larger public good that transcends private gain. This retreat has little to do with Islamic radicalism or the militant piety of the Christian right, though the latter does remain a major obstacle to informed debate. The problem in this case is not religion. Despite the fundamental (or perhaps even innate) decency of most people, our political and popular culture does little to encourage altruism. The dominant religion of our time is the worship of money, and the dominant ethic is “To hell with you and hooray for me.”

Harris is oblivious to this moral crisis. His self-confidence is surpassed only by his ignorance, and his writings are the best argument against a scientific morality—or at least one based on his positivist version of science and ex cathedra pronouncements on politics, ethics and the future of humanity. In The Moral Landscape he observes that people (presumably including scientists) often acquire beliefs about the world for emotional and social rather than cognitive reasons: “It is also true that the less competent a person is in a given domain, the more he will tend to overestimate his abilities. This often produces an ugly marriage of confidence and ignorance that is very difficult to correct for.” The description fits Harris all too aptly, as he wanders from neuroscience into ethics and politics. He may well be a fine neuroscientist. He might consider spending more time in his lab.

Atheism and Agnosticism–Some Links

Martin Amis wrote an appeal to Christopher Hitchens that he should convert from atheism to agnosticism. In a marvelous essay that provides fascinatin detail about Hitchens’ life in addition to anecdotes about his skill as a debater, Amis attacks Hitchens’ atheism (as well as atheism in general):

The atheistic position merits an adjective that no one would dream of applying to you: it is lenten. And agnosticism, I respectfully suggest, is a slightly more logical and decorous response to our situation – to the indecipherable grandeur of what is now being (hesitantly) called the multiverse. The science of cosmology is an awesome construct, while remaining embarrassingly incomplete and approximate; and over the last 30 years it has garnered little but a series of humiliations. So when I hear a man declare himself to be an atheist, I sometimes think of the enterprising termite who, while continuing to go about his tasks, declares himself to be an individualist. It cannot be altogether frivolous or wishful to talk of a “higher intelligence” – because the cosmos is itself a higher intelligence, in the simple sense that we do not and cannot understand it.

Here is Mark Vernon’s response. His take:

For me it’s as much, probably more, the immensity of our inner, rather than outer, space that makes agnosticism so appealing. We are the creature who can plunge into the depths of existence; life at its most real comes to us as a troubling, glorious excess. It’s why we suffer and love. It’s surely something of that energy that Hitchens so powerful channels too.

A thoughtful review by Eric Reitan of Vincent Bugliosi’s Divinity of Doubt: The God Question. Reitan finds the premise of Bugliosi’s book lame: that we simply don’t know whether God exists. For Reitan, that’s obvious, perhaps especially to devout Christians who use language of faith rather than knowledge when talking about God’s existence. Reitan sees the interesting question to be: What do we do in the face of such uncertainty? Bugliosi doesn’t answer that question and Reitan marshalls arguments from Kierkegaard and James to argue his point.

An interview with A.C. Grayling, author of The Humanist Bible: How can you be a militant atheist? It’s like sleeping furiously’.

And then there’s this.