Sam Harris, and humanity's
moral future

by joel a. wendt

I am a writer, not so much a public speaker.   So I hope you won't mind too much if I read this to the camera*, instead of trying to render it seemingly spontaneously.   I can do spontaneous, but not on this subject matter and in this context.  Basically I have written a response to Sam Harris's talk given at the recent TED conference ...

*exists also as a Youtube video.

As I watched Sam Harris prowl the stage at the recent TED conference, via the YouTube video, I was struck (in part) by how much he resembled a protestant preacher.   His religion was different, but it clearly meant the same thing to him that a preacher's systems of beliefs mean.

For Sam Harris this belief system included a kind of hyper-rationality, coupled with a faith in the teachings and processes of natural science, which from his point of view saw itself as superior - as a truth process - to any world view that might challenge it.  The approach to moral issues that he proposed and defended bore little difference in style and felt passion, to the views of someone whose Bible was the Old and New Testament.  Except in Mr. Harris's case, the content of his Bible included evolution, big bang theory, and modern research on the brain.

Lest the listener of this piece think I'm just another lame-brained Christian fundamentalist, they should actually read my works, which are available for free on the Internet.   The difficulties with modern evolutionary theory are discussed in my essay: the Quiet Suffering of Nature; as regards the big bang theory one can read about those problems in my essay on The Misconception of Cosmic Space as Appears in the Ideas of Modern Astronomy; and, my examination of the limits of brain research - that is discussed in the essay The Natural Christian.

Just like a preacher, Mr. Harris was filled with a kind of self-righteous fervor: asserting that his was the right view; that his kind of science could ultimately answer all deep moral questions with what was right and true; that the world should follow him; and, that this would put an end to those religious views he despised.  Now I do not exaggerate here, for despise was clearly what he felt, as he mocked and criticized religions and peoples for whom he had no real empathy, although in his own view he saw empathy as a human characteristic of high value.  Asked at the end his talk by a kind of moderator, to reconsider his critical views of others, and to reach for a more empathic understanding of what it might mean to be born and raised in a region of the world, with a highly different culture and language, he refused.

He was not interested at that point in a rationality counter to his own, and clearly spoke in an effort to convince not just his audience but himself as well, through what he seemed to feel was rational argument, that the mocking and despising of large groups of people that he exhibited was itself morally defensible.  Although he did not directly refer to it, as one who follows his work I am aware that he regularly includes, in those who should be mocked and found morally wanting, Christians and others who would be tolerant of different religious views.  Mr. Harris has no tolerance for tolerance, which is a classic form of hypocrisy that while allowing no acceptance of others, yet hypocritically finds its own similar in nature views entirely acceptable.

It does not seem to enter into his consciousness that when Christ teaches in the Sermon on the Mount that we should be cautious about judging others and watch more closely the beam in our own eye, and less closely the mote in another's eye, that right there in that teaching is the very core of a moral and ethical principle that is fully rational and scientific.  The thing is that this principle needs to actually be practiced, a personal moral discipline with which Mr. Harris does not seem familiar.

At the same time we should be aware that Mr. Harris is not alone, and that many Christians do not themselves practice it, nor do many of those in other religions, including the religion of atheism.  That Mr. Harris takes of the scientific enterprise and does exactly the same thing - that is fail to see the beam in his own eye first - only continues and compounds the flawed human characteristic so many of us share, that wants to judge, but not recognize in that impulse something profoundly weak and unloving.  Mr. Harris wants us to believe that his religion of science will produce moral teachings that will rival what the Great Teacher of Love offered to the world, while at the same time Mr. Harris is entirely unwilling to love those he mocks and despises.

Trying to be rational, Mr. Harris proposes certain concepts as a basis for his prejudices.  For example, he asserts that what one ought to do is to answer the deep historical questions of the problem of good and evil by holding as the highest values a kind of human rationality (similar to  his), and that the goal of any such limited rationality should express itself within our communities in an effort to promote what he calls the flourishing of the human being.  He presents a fantasy of an idyllic future in which his style of rational morality will replace those values he mocks and despises, which fantasy is nothing new in the history of thought, but just another Utopian dream that is bound to fail because it lacks a willingness to enter into a real understanding of what it means to be a human being.

The Great Teacher of Compassion, Gautama Buddha, proposed what he called: the Four Noble Truths, which Mr. Harris has to know of as a modern educated man.   But in Mr. Harris's universe, the first truth can't be seen, which Gautama Buddha put forward as: Life is Suffering.

This true down to earth observation of the human condition is essential for understanding existence, and lacks the dreaming idealism and Utopianism that pervades Mr. Harris's thought.  Moreover, the next three Noble Truths involve solving the problem of suffering within ourselves, and not by going out and demanding the rest of the world change to accord with our own view.  For all his search for true moral values, Mr Harris seems not to have discovered Gandhi's dictum: Be the change you want to see in the world.

Assuming as another of the highest values, Mr. Harris believes in the rational perfectibility of the human being, and that if we just were as rational as is he, most all suffering would be eliminated from life because out of science would arise a moral expertise that would reveal, as if from on high, universal moral laws which all should then be taught to obey.

In Mr. Harris's universe, the religious demagogue would be replaced with a scientific demagogue, who of course would not recognize his own hypocrisy at all.  Yes, I am a little bit exaggerating his argument, but only a little.   The core of it remains as described, and we will seldom find in Mr. Harris's work a value we might call: human freedom.  The behaviorist B.F. Skinner got so wrapped up in his limited view of human nature coupled with an adoration of science that he wrote a book called: Beyond Freedom and Dignity, arguing for using scientific methods to modify human behavior, and thus supposedly producing happier people.  Sadly Harris seems to want to resurrect this horrible way of viewing human beings as perfectible clay for a moral molding by natural scientists.  

As a social philosopher I am not surprised that Mr. Harris's views are popular and thought by many others to be highly rational and appropriate.  We do exist in an Age when there has arisen a religion of natural science that has been aptly described as scientism.  Its believers accept uncritically the theories of natural science, and given that this same Age also contains a falling apart of many institutional religions, who are justly criticized for their own obvious hypocrisies, it is no wonder that at the intersection of scientific and religious debate there is little resolution - but rather a lot of seemingly heated conversation, which displays yet little real light or true human warmth.

Not only that, but many today who are fans of his work are themselves unfamiliar with the great history of ideas in Western Civilization in which all these matters have been discussed and elaborated with far greater wisdom than Harris offers.

The reality is that the public debate now going on between those whose beliefs involve the teachings of modern materialistic natural science, and those whose beliefs involve religious principles that they will not allow to be rationally examined - this debate is deeply flawed because both sides are seldom willing to be at least a little bit self-critical (look to the beam in the own eyes), and for the most part don't bother to be historical - that is they don't recognize that these questions are not new, and in fact the way the present day debates are conducted, their superficiality becomes obvious whenever we look to that aspect of the  past where these questions were more thoroughly examined.

Both sides today tend to act as if no one before them thought about these matters.

Now it is not my place here, or is there the time here to do so, but it is possible to elaborate more fully about how to deepen the debate.  I wrote of this on my website in the essay: Does God Exist (which is not a proof of God but rather a proof of the superficiality of the modern debate).  Instead of deep discussion, we mostly get the disputants preaching to their own semi-educated choirs. What we need is instead to renew our acquaintance with what the past has thought and taught, and from there go forward with each side seeking not to justify its own biases, but rather with a willingness to understand each other better (less beam, more mote), and more importantly to actually be seeking the truth.

Rather than pronounce willy nilly the possession of the truth, the sides come together to seek the truth together, recognizing in true humility that to be authentically wise is to cultivate ignorance.  While this is unlikely, given that self-importance and egotism easily attaches to one who proclaims to know better than the other guy, it remains possible to do so, however improbable.  For the reality is that both science and religion, as presently practiced, were they to actually seek the truth together, would find that they share a similar kind of one-sided flaw.

The claim of Harris's kind of  scientism for an exclusive power in the realm of truth is excessive, in the same way that the claims that many religions assert of being a primal moral authority is excessive.   Both are out of balance, and both are filled with the clinging death grip of a fundamentalism that cannot image it could ever be wrong.

This is partially why Mr. Harris's performance (again lets not miss the fact that it is a performance) seems so similar to that of a preacher.  Just as do the hyper-religious, the hyper-rational assumes self-righteously a superior point of view.  Mr. Harris firmly believes he knows more than others, and that his approach is better, and there is no reason whatsoever for him to reconsider his views.  He wants to rid the world of the religious bigot, all in the name of himself as possessing a superior moral position.

Now the mystery of evil can be thought about carefully.  It can be understood how it is that suffering exists.  It can be known that the human being is (in a small way) perfectible.  At the same time, to come to such an understanding will require of both science and religion a sacrifice, because the truth is not only good (that is moral), but it is also beautiful.  The poet, through Art, is closer to the meaning of existence than either the hyper-rationalist or the hyper-religionist.

It will not be fruitful for the future of humanity for the scientific mind and the religious mind to be at war with each other.  In taking such a one-sided approach, both fail in their utility for helping the human condition.  Religion must become in its essential practices scientific, and science must become in its essential practices religious.  The impulse toward meaning of the artist needs to marry the two sides, who only through mutual love and compassion toward each other will then rightly lead humanity into the future.   At war with each other, they will only increase the divisions that if unchecked are to be the destruction of life itself.  Partially this means that as individuals, if we want peace to exist between our own rational and moral strivings, we need to do this by evoking the artist within.

If Mr. Harris wants to attack the religious and reveal the moral superiority of his version of science, he really needs to do this with regard to the more proven teachers, not with the weakest and most troubled.  When he feels up to taking on the Buddha and Christ and Gandhi, as well as their true students, then Mr. Harris will have shown himself capable and worthy of being listened to as an authority on the moral life.  But he doesn't do that, instead he goes for the cheap shot, the easy and lamest prey, such as the father who under social pressure wants to kill his recently raped daughter, as if somehow Harris is superior and deeper than someone weak and confused and brought low by cultural circumstances many more resist than fall into.

Humanity's deepest teachers of the truly moral life all share a particular moral fact in common, as the bedrock for all other moral development, and it is this: moral development is not an act of the intellect, but of the will.  It is not about having the right idea, but about having the right force of will.  That will works on itself first, before it ever looks upon the world as something that needs to be changed.  Otherwise, we are nothing but a self-righteous hypocrite, and having learned nothing of the true nature of self, or of compassion or of love, we will only effect the world as a destructive force, not as a creative one.

This is sad and I as said before, a tragedy.  Mr. Harris is not a moral authority, but simply a confused soul, who can't distinguish the truly good among religious teachers from the fundamentalist lost in the arid dessert of rigid belief.  In attacking those, Harris reveals himself to be their kin, lost in his own fundamentalist relationship to a kind of natural science related to in the soul as a system of belief, but certainly not as the harbinger of future moral leadership in a world of suffering he can't trouble himself to really empathize with, or understand.  Christ could not have been more plain, when He said: we need to wash out the inside of the cup our self first before we can ever make the outside of who we are truly clean.

The basic problem for Mr. Harris, and his theories about morality, is that he doesn't actually  know anything about the real religious components of the moral life.  Lacking practice and experience he, like the fundamentalist religious preacher, is just an opinionated scientist wandering in a field where he is completely out of his depth.

Just consider the reply he wrote recently to his so-called critics.   No mention there of the teachers of compassion, love and non-violence.   Not even his critics seem to grasp what is at issue, which suggests that the heart of the religious and the moral life has escaped them as well.  Perhaps we have here a situation that is cultural-wide, so one might be tempted to cut Harris some slack.

Once more the Catholics are up to their necks in the child abuse scandal, this time focusing on Europe instead of America.  Clearly institutional religions in the West have somehow not really learned to live out of the teachings of Christ.  It should then be clear that I don't cut organized religion any more slack than I refuse to cut Harris.  If you are going to engage yourself in seeking to assert a moral superiority, whether based on religious or scientific doctrine, you had better be ready to engage the real depths of these teachings, and not the superficial and hypocritical ways in most practice their religions.

Much more could be said, but given the complexity of an authentic search for moral reality all I can do is refer to my own work, which work will refer to others as it should.  If the viewer of this video is interested in transcending his own biases, especially the biases he shares with Mr. Harris, then they may receive some help from my works, the directions in which they point, and which they can begin to explore by just visiting my website Shapes in the Fire.

Thanks for listening.