On my perceived disagreements with Sam Harris

Gene ExpressionBy Razib KhanAug 12, 2012 5:25 PM


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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 touchedon 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.

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