Some public intellectuals have suggested that discussing reality and truth entails a healthy skepticism when attempting any solutions or answers. Although such thinkers may be engaging in intellectually insightful and honest discourse, they fail to explicitly satisfy that which may have pushed them into the public arena to begin with: a sense of what one is to do. Of course, any public figure that attempts to answer such an inquiry with any normative claim must also address David Hume’s IS/OUGHT problem; namely, one cannot derive an ought from an is; a moral fact from a physical one. And then there’s Sam Harris, the thinker who has argued that, yes, we can create a system of morality directly from science.
Born in Los Angeles in 1967, Sam Harris was the son of the Western star Berkeley Harris and Susan Harris, the creator of the hit series “The Golden Girls”. After his parents divorced when he was only 2, Harris recalls that he was raised in a secular manner by his mother, who would define herself as Jewish but not religious.
Harris originally majored in English when he enrolled at Stanford. However after an experience with MDMA in his second year, he decided to take an 11 year break from his studies and travel through India and Nepal, studying meditation and learning from various spiritual teachers. Throughout this, Harris was financially supported by his parents. He recalls that it was both a blessing and a curse since, he was able to basically do whatever he wanted for 11 years but also, because of this, he had neglected to build his writing career.
In 1997, Harris returned to Stanford and completed a Bachelor of Arts in philosophy. Immediately after 9/11, he also began to write what would become his first book “The End of Faith”; which would discuss the issues of religious fundamentalism and the struggle between faith and reason in the modern age. When the book was released it was met with a mixture of reviews. The American historian Alexander Saxton said that it was a “vitriolic and selective polemic against Islam” and that he had failed to understand the multiplicity of factors, outside of religion that led to Islamic. terrorism Stephen Merrit felt that the idea behind the book was coherent; agreeing that religion should be subject to the same principles that govern scientific thought. The “End of Faith” remained as a New York Times bestseller for 33 weeks.
His critique of religion also led to the rise of the “Four Horsemen of Atheism” in 2006. The group, including Daniel Dennet, Cristopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and Sam Harris, became the figurehead of the “New Atheism” movement, which viewed superstition and faith as a threat to contemporary society. This furthered Harris’s rise to fame, with the next few years of his life filled with various debates with commentators such as Andrew Sullivan and Deepak Chopra.
In 2009, Harris received a Ph.D in cognitive neuroscience from the University of California. As he explained
“I realized, perhaps belatedly, that I went into science and got a PhD really very much in the spirit of wanting to be a philosopher who was very well grounded in the relevant science of the mind,”“I needed to know about the brain in order to think about the problems that I wanted to think about.”
His thesis involved the use of fMRI to research the neural basis of belief. Specifically, Harris found that “Religious thinking is more associated with brain regions that govern emotion, self-representation, and cognitive conflict,” “while thinking about ordinary facts is more reliant upon memory retrieval networks”.
In 2010, Harris published “The Moral Landscape”. The book takes the central argument that science can answer moral problems and improve human well-being. This claim was of course met with considerable backlash, with many arguing that Harris had simply failed to fully engage with any literature from moral philosophy. However some psychologists, such as James Diller, favoured the book and argued that
“The Moral Landscape represents an important contribution to a scientific discussion of morality. It explicates the determinants of moral behaviour for a popular audience, placing causality in the external environment and in the organism’s correlated neurological states”.
In 2014, Harris went on Real Time with Bill Maher. Ben Affleck, another guest, confronted Harris over his previous assertion that “Islam is the Mother Lode of Bad Ideas”, calling his views gross and racist. Despite the unfavourable appearance, some conservative thinkers praised Harris and Maher for addressing a topic that they felt was too taboo.
In 2015, Harris emailed Noam Chomsky to discuss whether the US is as evil in its interventionist policies as Islamic terrorism. Harris argued that the intent behind US intervention was justifiable and that Chomsky ignored the moral significance of intentions. Chomsky reminded Harris that his entire career had death with the morality behind intentions and further argued that the US government isn’t naive in its foresight.
“They are not imbeciles, but rather adopt a stance that is arguably even more immoral than purposeful killing, which at least recognizes the human status of the victims, not just killing ants while walking down the street, who cares?”
At no point in the 10,000 word email chain did Chomsky ever address Harris as a serious thinker and argued that Harris’s goal of publishing these emails looked more like some sort of strange exhibitionism. Harris chalked up their inability to have a proper debate as the limits of the medium of email itself.
In 2017, Harris controversially hosted the social scientist Charles Murray on his podcast “Waking Up”. Murray, the author of “The Bell Curve”, a book that examined the difference in IQ between black and white Americans, had been the subject of intense criticism in academic circles. Harris was largely criticized for platforming Murray and his ideas.
In 2018 Harris debated Jordan Peterson on the relationship between scientific fact and religious values when one is attempting to define truth. In the same year, he launched a meditation course app called “Waking Up’. He would pledge to donate 10% of its profits to highly effective charities, becoming the first company to sign the “Giving What We Can” pledge.
In 2020, Harris renounced his virtual membership from the “Intellectual Dark Web”, a group which included Jordan Peterson, Ben Shapiro and Dave Ruben. He argued that the members were finding a false equivalency between the Left and Right.
“We have a sitting president who is essentially a QAnon conspiracist. […] Biden’s next tweet would have to say something like, ‘We have evidence that the CIA invented the coronavirus to kill black people.’ He would have to be that maniacal, and the whole Democratic Party along with him, for there to be an equivalence”.
Oh and he has practiced Ju-Jitsu for much of his life.
One of the most prominent themes throughout Harris’s work is his critique of religious faith. Harris argues that we practice religion largely out of its ability to satisfy our cognitive tendencies, such as animism, the belief that certain objects and places possess a spiritual essence. However he argues that this reason is not worth the fact that much of religion involves a dangerous rejection of empiricism. As he writes “Pretending to know things one doesn’t know is a betrayal of science — and yet it is the lifeblood of religion”.
Harris goes on to argue that religion has the tendency to compartmentalize morality from the very real experience of suffering; justifying mutilation and sacrifice as serving a higher purpose and thus ignoring their ability to cause physical harm. At the same time, religions tends to commit a great deal of time in the advancement of what Harris calls “pseudo-problems’ such as gay marriage, where there is no actual suffering that takes place.
“They will happily contribute to the surplus of human misery if it serves their religious beliefs”.
Importantly, Harris argues that not all religions are of equal harm. He regularly brings up Jainism, an ancient Indian religion, that is heavily focused on non-violence, open-mindedness and asceticism and compares it to fundamentalist groups who are willing to kill if it advances their cause.
Although Harris does criticize the Christian Right in its political focus on pseudo-problems and the Christian Left in its ability to provide a rhetorical cover for fundamentalism, he tends to identify the greatest religious threat in the practice of Islam. He asserts that there is one religion on earth that is capable of violently disrupting civil society in the developing world. During the Danish Cartoon crisis of 2006, he stated that “Throughout western Europe, Muslim immigrants show little inclination to acquire the secular and civil values of their host countries, and yet exploit these values to the utmost — demanding tolerance for their backwardness, their misogyny, their antisemitism, and the genocidal hatred that is regularly preached in their mosques.”
Although he often draws a distinction between the fact that he is attacking Islam the belief system and not demonizing Muslims, Harris’s tendency to generalize such groups has been met with intense criticism. As Irshad Manji wrote,
“[he] is right that liberals must end their silence about the religious motives behind much Islamist terror. At the same time, he ought to call out another double standard that feeds the liberal reflex to excuse Islamists: Atheists do not make nearly enough noise about hatred toward Muslims.”
Despite his opposition to religion, Harris does in fact embrace spirituality. He argues that the main purpose of spirituality is to allow us to realize that our sense of self is an illusion. From this realization, we gain both happiness and further insight into our own consciousness. However, Harris does strongly argue against the idea that such an embrace in spirituality requires a belief in God or some sort of religious faith. Rather, spirituality should be understood through science, all the while accepting that spiritually offers access to certain truths unaccessible by way of the scientific disciplines.
Harris argues that one of the best ways to practice spirituality is through meditation.
“We are sleepwalking, and when you learn how to meditate, you recognize that there is another possibility, which is to be vividly aware of your experience in each moment in a way that frees you from routine misery. Meditation is simply the practice of learning to break the spell and wake up.”
He argues that some of the insights found through meditation reflect the spiritual teachings of religious leaders throughout the ages. Through experiencing each moment we open ourselves up to a deep mystery and profundity that reflects certain transcendental experiences as described by saints and mystics.
One of Harris’s greatest claims is that we can and should construct a morality based on science. As he argues, morality depends on the existence of consciousness. The minds that produce consciousness, constrained by the laws of Nature, experience forms of well and ill being. From this, he argues that the only moral framework worth discussing is one where the Good means an increase in the well being of conscious creatures. Hence there must be right and wrong answers that exist within science; the very discipline that is concerned with studying the laws of Nature.
Some people, Harris observes, simply lead better lives than others. This difference is in some way related to our inner neurological state and the external state of the environment that surrounds us. Hence when people abstractly describe better or worse ways of life, they are in fact making claims based on material facts surrounding their brain and environment.
Harris argues that science is related to morality in three specific ways. Firstly, it can explain why humans do what they do in the name of morality. This is achieved through evolutionary psychology. Secondly, science can determine which patterns of though and actions humans should follow. And finally, science should be tasked with persuading humans to act in a scientifically moral sense
Such an argument reflects other philosophical systems such as that of ethical realism, which proposes that moral facts do exist and ethical naturalism, which argues that such moral facts relate to the physical world. Harris points out that his championing of well-being is not simply utilitarianism, as his philosophy is open to an ever-evolving and scientifically informed definition of well-being.
Harris has been criticized for failing to articulate exactly why human well-being has an objective component. Russell Blackford argues that well being its yet to be measured reliably and that even if a definition of well being could be agreed upon, this requirement to maximize well being simply isn’t evident in any empirical sense. Despite Harris’s openness to respond to such critiques, Blackford notes that
“he sometimes suggests that science depends on certain values, but that is very different from saying that it determines values. In any event, what does this amount to”?
Steve Isaacson further argues that Harris fails to honestly challenge Moore’s infamous open-question argument, which claims that no moral property, such as goodness, is identical to any natural property. Harris dismisses this argument as a word game.
This dismissal isn’t rare in Harris’s writing. In one footnote he writes
“Many of my critics fault me for not engaging more directly with the academic literature on moral philosophy … [but] I am convinced that every appearance of terms like ‘metaethics,’ ‘deontology,’ ‘noncognitivism,’ ‘antirealism,’ ‘emotivism,’ etc. directly increases the amount of boredom in the universe.”
Some, such as Simon Blackburn, have argued that such a claim signifies an absence in intellectual humility, stating that Harris “joins the prodigious ranks of those whose claim to have transcended philosophy is just an instance of their doing it very badly”.
Regarding free will, Harris argues that, in a metaphysical sense, free will does not exist. As he states “neuroscience reveals you to be a biochemical puppet” From this, Harris argues that it is simply unreasonable to punish people out of retribution. His stance on free will has been considered somewhat simplistic, as Daniel Dennet argues that Harris fails to address the compatibilist theory of free will in which, as Schopenhauer puts it, “Man can do what he wills but he cannot will what he wills.”
Regarding Sam Harris’s political views, he appears to be a progressive liberal, in favour of raising taxes, decriminalizing drugs and the legalization of same-sex marriage. Nonetheless, Harris has consistently criticized the left for failing to address the threat of Islamic fundamentalism.
In conclusion, Sam Harris could be seen as figurehead for the frustration felt by those who see religion as an anchor, weighing down the potential for progress and scientific advancement. Through using absolutist language and disregarding entire fields of philosophy, Harris continues to stubbornly declare that the issue of moral relativism is more or less a closed one thanks to scientific fact.
However, through his stubbornness, Harris has likely paved the way for a great deal of positive change. His podcast, listened to by millions, regularly hosts a diverse set of thinkers, undoubtedly spurring an atmosphere of curiosity and self-discovery. His advocacy for meditation, born in his wanderlust years in India, is inarguably a healthy one; encouraging millions to practice mindfulness and self-reflection. His willingness to openly debate and respond to criticism is admirable. And his push for a moral system grounded in empirical fact is an honourable one, concerned with the minimization of human suffering above all else.
However, also in his stubbornness, Harris engages in the same sort of cognitive biases that he has criticized in religion. As one article points out, Harris regularly commits an attribution error. He judges groups that he is already critical of based on their character while judging groups that he considers more favourably based on situational factors.
“This asymmetrical attribution of blame was visible in the defence of Israel that Harris famously mounted during Israel’s 2014 conflict with Gaza, in which some 70 Israelis and 2,300 Palestinians died. Granted, Harris said, Israeli soldiers may have committed war crimes, but that’s because they have “been brutalized…that is, made brutal by” all the fighting they’ve had to do. And this brutalization “is largely due to the character of their enemies.” — Wired
Unfortunately, for Harris, the world is far more complicated than he would like. Individuals across all belief systems, religious or scientific, are vulnerable to cognitive bias and tribalism. Hence we have seen both religion and science used in the best and worst of ways. And despite the ability for science to explain why and how things interact and exist, it is yet to be convincingly argued that science can tell us what we should do in any universal sense. This is perhaps the greatest issue of Sam Harris, that in his pursuit of a simplified and objective solution to our moral problems, he may find himself repeating the very same dogmatic biases that he has criticized so often in religious practice.
Paper on “The Moral Landscape”: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3501430/
Chomsky vs Harris: https://samharris.org/the-limits-of-discourse/
Harris On Religion: https://samharris.org/the-case-against-faith/
Russell Blackford Critique: https://www.abc.net.au/religion/the-virtues-of-moral-scepticism-against-sam-harris/10101708
A Response to Critics 1: https://www.huffpost.com/entry/a-response-to-critics_b_815742
Sam Harris Response To Critics Regarding “The Moral Landscape: https://samharris.org/clarifying-the-landscape/
Guardian Interview with Harris: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2019/feb/16/sam-harris-interview-new-atheism-four-horsemen-faith-science-religion-rationalism
Harris Directly Responds To Is/Ought Issue: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UuuTOpZxwRk