On my perceived disagreements with Sam Harris

By Razib Khan | August 12, 2012 1:25 pm

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.

MORE ABOUT: Sam Harris
  • aldo

    Is it my impression, or is the blogger, in his discussion on the rise of radicalism, inadvertedly conflating two different phenomena: militant Islam and ultra-conservative Islam? No doubt the two overlap, but they’re different entities; they must also have different causes that shouldn’t rule out historical developments. One of the weakness of the discussion put forward by the New Atheist movement about geopolitical issues – of which the above post seems so typical – is its inability to separate these two entities, putting one (conservative religious movements) as a necessary and sufficient cause of the other (militant religions), and thus classifying them both as endogamous phenomena arising simply from the Wickedness of religion.

    By framing Muslim separatist movements in, say, India and Thailand, in the context of radical Islam, it is easy to see them as an unmistakably Muslim product that should be properly seen as an endogamous phenomenon. But there are some problems with this view — one of the mosty obvious being that similar movements of religious nationalism (and militant separatism) have also emerged among non-Muslim communities in, for example, Ireland, Indian Punjab and Sri Lanka, always in the double context of ethno-religious differences within major groups and of perceived exploitation by the majority group against minorities, leading to separatist ambitions among the latter. Perhaps such movements should be seen as an expression, not of any particular culture, but of the universally human phenomenon of tribalism, which also manifests itself in non-religious identities (specially in ethnic and linguistic nationalism). As for modern Islamic militancy, it had as cradle, not ultra-conservative societies like Iran or Saudi Arabia, but Lebanon and Palestine, the two most secularized societies in the Arab world, and also the two most often victimized by unwanted outside intervention and occupation (with Christians indigenous to those societies being also willing to engage in acts of resistence, including suicide bombing, that those in the West see as manifestations of Muslim Extremism only).

    On another note, I would also like to ask the blogger what he thinks of non-Muslim Third World immigration to the West: does he also have a problem with it? Is Hindu Indian society a better preparation for life in a Western country than, say, life in Muslim Lebanon or Turkey? I leave a link below that works as an answer from me: http://blog.amnestyusa.org/asia/the-worst-place-to-be-a-woman-in-the-g20/

  • http://tuibguy.com Mike Haubrich

    When you say that people will remember Richard Feynman 1000 years from now, will it be for his bongo playing in Brazil’s Carnaval?

  • https://plus.google.com/109962494182694679780/posts Razib Khan

    As for modern Islamic militancy, it had as cradle, not ultra-conservative societies like Iran or Saudi Arabia, but Lebanon and Palestine, the two most secularized societies in the Arab world, and also the two most often victimized by unwanted outside intervention and occupation (with Christians indigenous to those societies being also willing to engage in acts of resistence, including suicide bombing, that those in the West see as manifestations of Muslim Extremism only).

    yes. in fact, as i’ve noted before in the 1970s some of the most radical acts of terrorism were committed by the PFLP, which had disproportionate representation from the christian palestinian community. what we saw in the 1980s, and definitely in the 1990s, was a islamicization of movements which had been secular and often marxist and nationalist. but, an interesting phenomenon today is the emergence of a radical terrorist ‘international’, which is united ostensibly by post-nationalist utopian islamist vision. the roots of this movement were original in national liberation, but portions have now moved beyond that (e.g., much of al qaeda’s original core derived from egyptian islamists who had local concerns within egypt).

  • indian

    aldo #1,
    Muslim separatism in India is seen for what it is because of the Muslims driving the Hindu Kasmiri pundits out of the Kashmir valley with a campaign of threats, murder and rape. Learn some history before you mouth off.

  • https://plus.google.com/109962494182694679780/posts Razib Khan

    #4, no bring local political conflicts into this thread, or i’ll just ban you. indian muslim separatism predates the kashmir issue, and i think can most properly be analogized to nationalism. in particular, the customary ashraf muslim elites carved out their own separate polity where they could play their traditional role with their subordinate groups….

  • jd

    I am a bit confused about your skepticism of argument by reason. The statements you have made point out flaws and pitfalls in people’s arg uments, which I agree everyone should be aware of. But that is altogether different from problems with the concept of argument by reason. If you do not argue by reason, how do you propose we discuss things? Reason seems to be your preferred style. I expect I know what you mean, but if I am right, you are being unclear.

  • https://plus.google.com/109962494182694679780/posts Razib Khan

    #6, more precisely, i am skeptical of certitude in reason.

  • jd

    Thank you. In that I am in complete agreement.

  • http://www.rishon-rishon.com David Boxenhorn

    How do you argue if not by reason? By results.

  • http://www.twitter.com/theogonia31 M87



    Only one particular thing jumped out that you could explain tersely. When you say that you disagree with Sam Harris about science determining human values, are you disagreeing with some minutiae of how to do this & insufficient tools at our disposal or that you fundamentally think that this cannot be achieved through Science even in principle? If I may indulge further, if Science cannot determine human values even in principle, then what could reliably determine it?

    The only way I see that position being tenable is if we reject the formulation of the question itself as being verbal conflation (i.e. HBD might show in the future that human brains are significantly diverse enough to have vastly different values that are not sufficiently malleable to respond to coercion of those values)

    Or is the critique even more fundamental, like the ‘hard problem of consciousness’ or rejection of physicalism etc?

  • Anthony

    Thank you for this post, Razib.

  • Gill

    I don’t get your second point, Razib. Are you saying that Harris’s project is worthless or a waste of time? If so, I beg to disagree (if not, jump to the last paragraph). Granted that a predisposition to religion is built into our BIOS as you say, so Harris is wrong to think that abolishing irrationality (of the religious variety) is just a matter of exposing the absurdities of explicit religious doctrines (I mean, if he does think that; I’m actually not sure). But so what? It’s a mistake that hurts no one. Imagine what Harris would do if he were convinced of your point. I’m not Harris, but being the perfectly sane person he is, he wouldn’t start advocating altering the human BIOS I think. And I expect he’d continue ridiculing explicit doctrines on which organized religions are based, this being the second-best option. To the extent you agree either that atheists are a little bit more rational than believers or that organized religions are more of an evil than a good, Harris’s project has all the justification it needs. Maybe not as worthwhile as he thinks, but worthwhile enough. And to the extent believers are open to rational persuasion, it’s not futile either. (New Atheists did un-convert some believers.)

    That said, maybe you just wanted to say Harris is overly optimistic (sorry I’m trying to restate your position, but I do so not to criticize it). I’m probably with you on that one.

  • Michael Wiebe

    Razib, regarding true rationalism, have you seen the Center for Applied Rationality?

  • https://plus.google.com/109962494182694679780/posts Razib Khan

    #13, yeah. 2 out of 6 people there i count as personal friends.

  • http://gene-callahan.blogspot.com/ Gene Callahan

    “People may remember Richard Feynman 1,000 years from now. They will be far less likely to remember Bill Clinton.”

    Yeah, and people may remember Conon of Samos two thousand years after his death, but they are unlikely to remember Cicero.

  • https://plus.google.com/109962494182694679780/posts Razib Khan

    #15, nice that you use as your example a lawyer whose status rested in getting crooks absolved; your contrast is just as dishonest. how many 3rd century political figures are as well remembered as archimedes?


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at http://www.razib.com


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