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Sam Harris

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A reader below asked me to exposit in more detail what I only alluded to in my post, The scourging of Sam Harris, when it came to substantive disagreements. The reason I did not elaborate much in the post is because Sam Harris’ original contribution had more to do with the deficits of interacting on the internet, and being routinely mischaracterized and having your reputation smeared. In this area I’m in close agreement with Harris, as I’ve experienced many of the same things. I suspect part of it is that like Harris, and unlike many internet commentators, I don’t really exist within a relatively tidy social-ideological bubble. My readership spans the ideological gamut, and though I’m personally on the Right, I don’t have much of a problem posting material which those on the Left may find congenial to their self-image (which naturally results in the tendency for random conservatives to term me a “liberal blogger,” totally unaware that I’m often a token conservative in science and secular circles). I’m not a contrarian, as much as I don’t really care too much about politics. People may remember Richard Feynman 1,000 years from now. They will be far less likely to remember Bill Clinton.

One minor note: I put “perceived” in the title because I understand that I may have misconstrued Sam Harris or his acolytes. I’ve read End of Faith, but have only a cursory familiarity with his follow up work. Of course it is hard to avoid Sam Harris and his detractors if you follow debates on the internet, so I think I have a sense of where he and his critics are coming from. But I could be wrong. A major problem that people have in constructive discourse is misunderstanding the positions of those who they think the disagree with (which is why I routinely ban any commenter who attempts to rewrite my own opinion before launching into their response; if you have to rewrite what I said when I’ve already written my opinion, I don’t see that as a good sign)

First, when it comes to faith in reason, I’ve touched on this several times, so I’m not going to repeat myself too much. When people try to “reason” with those they disagree with it is rarely a matter of convincing them that 1 + 1 = 2, rather than 1 + 1 = -2. Rather, their arguments tend to be embedded in a complex chain of propositions, with unspoken assumptions. You, as the reasonable person have axioms which aren’t out on the table, and these axioms may not be shared by the person whom you are trying to convince. Additionally, the chain of propositions may not be quite so clear across the two individuals. The most extreme skepticism of reason comes from those who we might term as “post modernists,” but even though this extremism is folly we do need to keep in mind that skepticism of truth claims are often rooted in the genuine malleability of interpretation. If the heuristics & biases literature does not ring a bell with you, and you do not have Asperger, I strongly suspect you’ve been engaging in motivated reasoning without even reflecting upon it. The main issue I have with Sam Harris (and many self-described rationalists) is that I think they underestimate the herculean task which true rationalism really is. It may not even be possible to construct a mathematics of morality, and we certainly aren’t close. In everyday discourse, even the highest levels, it is passion which has reason on the leash. And I do not even see this as problematic necessarily, for reason is a tool toward particular ends, which passion may define.

Second, in regards to complex phenomena I think Sam Harris’ model of religious belief and practice is too thin. Religious motivation is a deeply complex phenomena, and I don’t think that Harris and many of the rationalists have adequately addressed this. Richard Dawkins nods to this reality in The God Delusion, but does not truly engage with the literature which he cites. In short, religion is not just a supernatural ideology set forth in a book of fables. Supernatural intuitions are deep cognitive phenomena, perhaps inseparable from other competencies, such as theory of mind and agency detection. Not only that, but unlike some cognitive biases they are not the sum of their parts, but can become the superstructure of a social organism, serving as the focus of binding rituals and communal ecstasy. Furthermore, in complex societies the social dimension of religion is extended, scaled up, and synthesized with other institutions, to create what we call organized or higher religion. This phenomenon invariably manifests itself in a particular class structure, with priests and laiety, which reflects the complex societies in which it developed. Additionally, a philosophical dimension is injected into religion, and the resulting hybrid is often textualized. My problem with some of Harris and his fellow travelers’ conception of religion is that they confuse the distilled textualized form of religion as religion qua religion. I think this misses the deep psychological and social robustness of the phenomena. I am not saying here that Harris would not recognize what I write in this space, as certainly this critique has been leveled at him by others. Rather, he seems to think in many ways that it is superfluous, and that to forward his project he needs to just focus on the textualized manifestation of religion. This I think simplifies the project, as if abolishing irrationality is a matter of uninstalling third-party software. But in fact it may be part of the human BIOS.

Third, there is Sam Harris’ view of Islam. I have admitted that on some level I agree with much of what he says. I would not want to live in a Muslim society (I was born in one), and if Muslims do not reconstruct their religion I do not think they are appropriate citizens of Western societies. I believe it is fair to state that the average Muslims has a view of the relationship between their religion and society which would be more in place in the 18th century West, than the modern iteration. But, I do not think that Islam or Muslims are an existential threat to the world. To be frank most Muslim societies are more of an existential threat to themselves, because of the tendency toward internal conflict. Western Muslims, with the partial exception of Americans, tend to be economically less productive and somewhat parasitic on their host societies. This is not a recipe for coming domination, though it may be a recipe for segregation, as the democratic vision collapses before our eyes. I think that Robert Pape in Dying to Win has highlighted an important reality, and that is that Islamic violence seems suspiciously correlated with local political and economic disturbances. In other words, there may be material contingent conditions which are driving this ostensibly ideological conflict.

All this does not mean that I believe that Islamic violence is only a reactive force in relation to Western intervention. This is part of a worldview which denies non-Western peoples any agency. Certainly Chinese, Filipinos, and Indians might wonder how it could be that all notionally Muslim violence is derived from interactions with the West. It is more than just a simple reaction to specific sequences of events. Like Harris I do believe that there is an ideological gap between Islam and the rest, and more properly the community of Islamic societies. The reasons for this are complex, but I think one must admit that modern communication and the prominence given to Gulf Arab variants of Islam due to their economic heft play a role. More generally one must remember that Islamic movements such as that of Deoband, Wahabbism, and the Usuli ascendance in Shiism, go back to the 18th century. This was a period when Europe was rising, but the full force of colonialism had not been imposed. Additionally, many of these movements have roots further back into the pre-modern period. In other words Islamic reformism, radicalism, etc., are to some extent endogenous to Muslim societies, and probably an inevitable outcome of modernity, West or no West. Some of Harris’ critiques remove this detail, inverting his simple narrative of Islamic hostility derived from the interpretation of the Koran, to Islamic hostility being a Newtonian reactive force to Western aggression. I believe both these narratives are simple and digestible, but fundamentally wrong.

The elegance and force of Harris’ assertions can cut in several directions. On the one hand they allow his detractors to dismiss him. But it also makes him very appealing to people who are looking for a message. For example, though I disagree with Harris that science can determine human values (at least in the way I’ve seen and read him present it), I actually agree with many of the values that Harris espouses, and I appreciate the unapologetic tone he takes in this domain. Western liberal democratic values need clear-eyed champions, and there just aren’t too many of those. But, as I implied in my original post I am moderately skeptical that these values will ever be universal. I want the West to maintain its status quo, but it will probably be difficult to proactively push other societies in the same direction (though it may be that economic liberalism naturally leads to social and political liberalism). There are many things that are unjust in this world which I do not think that we have a feasible path to correct. I suspect Harris would disagree. I admire his ambition, but I think that that ambition is ultimately going to lead to failure and heartache.

So there you have it. Instead of a simple and powerful rational system, I suggest a complex and almost inscrutable tangle. Rather than grand and ambitious goals, I am offering that it is more practical to attain more modest objectives. Not sexy or romantic, but perhaps viable as more than just a rhetorical project.

(Republished from Discover/GNXP by permission of author or representative)
• Category: Science • Tags: Philosophy, Sam Harris 
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A reader pointed me to this Sam Harris post, Wrestling the Troll. He asked what I thought of the post, and what I thought of Harris. In regards to Harris I don’t think much. I found The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason to be overly simplistic in the model of religion as a phenomenon which he seemed to hold, and I wasn’t really on board with the normative vision Harris was promoting. To be overly pat Sam Harris strikes me as a traditional liberal universalist. In his imagined future all intelligent men and women will bend the knee to John Dewey, and espouse liberal individualist values. Perhaps. That may be the most likely path, but it may not be a very likely path. Most of his follow up works have struck me as extended polemics and provocations. This is often necessary, but I don’t have a large appetite for that sort of material myself. In any case my faith in reason has limits. Harris’ brutally clean and crisp modernist vision is one which I can’t fully support.

But when it comes to the post there was much I recognized. The issue which Harris faces is that in some ways he has a naivete about the power of reason to shape our future and our present. There is almost a guilelessness when it comes to propositions he forwards which are going to shatter the shibboleths of many of his sympathizers. Recently he has outlined a plan for some level of profiling. Though I’m usually skeptical of the efficacy of profiling because of the coarseness of the implementation (e.g., a pro-Western Ismaili or Sikh is more likely to be profiled because of the obligate demands of their religion in terms of dress, as opposed to less visibly “Muslim” political activists who are the really threat), I don’t think that it is an issue that needs to be taken off the table. But for some of Harris’ critics he has committed a grave faux paus. As someone who has almost certainly been profiled I have to be honest and say that I find it interesting that people tend to become much more agitated by those who outline at least a tacit defense of the practice, rather than the practice itself, which is implicitly ubiquitous every single day. In other words, discussion and mooting of an issue is more objectionable than the reality of the issue itself. I suspect that incest may be an appropriate analogy. We all understand that incest occurs all around us. But we would take great umbrage with anyone defending or proposing a systematization of incest.

Of course I do not believe that profiling is objectionable in the same way that incest is. The root of problem here for Harris is that there are particular commitments on the political-cultural Left in regards to issues of diversity and multiculturalism which are difficult to unpack, but which now have a tribal valence. Fundamentally this is less about a clear principle, and more about bright lines which have grown almost organically to a knife’s edge. The major problem plainly is that Sam Harris is an Islamophobe. And that’s OK by me, as I am an Islamophobe. Islam broadly scares me, and Muslim cultures scare me (the mainstream Muslim position is that someone like me should be given time to repent, but otherwise be put to death as a traitor to the religion of my ancestors). I think Harris brings up real issues with the singular resistance to Western modernity which Islam as a civilization seems to present in our day. For example, the OIC actually promoted an alternative set of human rights, consonant with the views of Muslims the world over.

Unlike Harris I am more sanguine about Islam and its role in the geopolitics of our of small planet. I suspect that right now we are at “peak scary Muslim.” But that does not negate the fact that Muslim societies are profoundly illiberal, and present a vision of human flourishing which is sometimes difficult for Westerners to recognize. One can say the same about South and East Asia or Africa, but the difference between these cases and the Muslim world is that non-Western Asian and African societies do not have a coherent response to the Western vision. Rather, they may not accept Western ways in practice, but in general they have acceded to the power of core Western values and institutions (e.g., freedom of religion is officially protected even in states which violate freedom of religion egregiously in practice).

The problem from my perspective, and likely Harris’, is that Muslims have become part of the unofficial protected classes which are subject to an expectation of sensitivity. Many liberals now conflate Islamophobia with racism, which is an accusation that many people take seriously, and which Sam Harris naturally takes personally. Though many Islamophobes may have racist motives, the reality is that the Muslim religion is a retrograde system of thought on the whole, and liberalizing tendencies may not be aided by a hands off laissez faire attitude. From what I can tell Sam Harris treats Muslims with the same brutal skepticism and distaste which his erstwhile fellow travelers exhibit toward conservative Christians. But Christophobia and Islamophobia are not equivalent. Christophobia is a term used only by the tribe of the political Right. Islamophobia is used only by the tribe of the political Left. Though in the abstract each tribe may recognize the existence of both phenomena, operationally the Right ignores Islamophobia, while the Left ignores Christophobia. A secondary dynamic here are charges of anti-Semitism which are occasionally leveled against atheist intellectuals like Richard Dawkins for their anti-Jewish statements. The problem here is that Judaism is a religion, while Jews are a people, and our society has a hard time differentiating an attack on the former from one on the latter (in fact, the most prominent heirs of early modern anti-Jewish thinkers are often secular Jews, who consciously or unconsciously recycle older critiques of the insularity and rank superstition of Rabbinical Jewish culture).

An irony here is that though Sam Harris is being blasted for supporting profiling is in part a function of his deviation from his expected profile. If Michele Bachmann came out with Harris’ argument there might be criticism, but it would probably elicit less shock and anger, because these are the ideas you’d expect from Michele Bachmann. What Harris has done, and what he regularly does, is wander off the tribal reservation and express views which shock and disgust his fellow mindless villagers. By referring to Harris’ critics as mindless villagers I’m not implying that they’re necessarily wrong. Above I indicated that I don’t think much of many of his arguments. But, many of his critics are reacting from emotion, and a sense that he has violated important communal norms. Not a reasoned objection. Rather, reason here is passion’s servant. I think Sam Harris gives reason too much credit, and is too uncritical of its power. But he practices what he preaches, and expresses highly heterodox and uncomfortable viewpoints, probably because he doesn’t take into account the power of social reasoning, and group conformity.

The tribal mind has only a few categories. If Sam Harris goes off the reservation on such an important topic, what is he? To borrow a page from fashionable academy, Harris becomes the Other. The sensitive consideration given to one’s own tribe goes out the window, as Harris is now an outcast. Clearly then one can now probe his motivation, reframe his own argument toward rhetorical advantage without any sense of the importance of fair play. Bad people do not deserve fair play. Sam Harris has voted himself off the island, and now he swims with sharks. Good luck to him!

Where to go from here? Sam Harris ends with a note on comments:

Incidentally, readers often ask why I haven’t enabled comments on my own blog, since they build a sense of community and generate traffic. Needless to say, I know that I have many smart and knowledgeable readers who have valuable insights to share on any topic I’m likely to touch. My reasons for not enabling comments are essentially the same as those given by Seth Godin on his blog. You can read his justification here. I also can’t spare the time to read hundreds of comments in an effort to determine whether they would contribute, however subtly, to the problem of noise and defamation that has now sucked me into its vortex. This is not to say that I don’t care what my readers think. As you can see, I do. And I do my best to read your emails. But generally speaking, I’m at the limits of my bandwidth and have to draw the line somewhere.

I spend between 1/3 and 1/2 of my time on this blog engaging with and reading comments. Why? This weblog has a moderate amount of traffic, so so far I’ve been able to manage the discussion. But it is always of the essence that the discussion be productive and value-added. The problem is that too often active blog comments boards become a forum for dueling trolls, or self-congratulatory back-slapping between fellow travelers. I have no patience for either. When a commenter says something which implies that they know something I ask directly: what do you know? This is a critical juncture. If the commenter does know interesting and illuminating things we all benefit. On the other hand, if the commenter is too stupid to even know that they don’t know what they think they know, you will most assuredly not hear from them again. Such commenters have no one to blame but themselves for setting up an implicit challenge in terms of threshold of value-add.

The ultimate point is not to burnish your own reputation, bask in your own intelligence, or win a futile argument. Rather, the goal is that we all know just a bit more about the world around us than we did before you began to write.

(Republished from Discover/GNXP by permission of author or representative)
• Category: Science • Tags: Culture, Sam Harris 
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Razib Khan
About Razib Khan

"I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. If you want to know more, see the links at"