Sunday, February 11, 2007

Sam Harris in his own words

Commenter “keiths” is calling me to task for my mocking of Sam Harris. Rightly so—it is one thing to say that somebody is wrong and then to give reasons. It’s quite another to say, as I have, that Sam Harris is not worthy of serious contemplation—that he, in fact, has attained a level of absurdity where he should be mocked.

The basis for keiths’s criticism of me stems from comments and a small post I’ve made since reading this post from Joy on Telic Thoughts. In that post, Joy reports excerpts from an article by John Gorenfeld on AlterNet entitled Sam Harris's Faith in Eastern Spirituality and Muslim Torture.

One thing, as something of an aside, Harris’s book The End of Faith is full of errors when it discusses Christianity. (Perhaps Judaism and Islam as well—I wouldn’t know.) For example, in discussing Mosaic civil law, Harris writes, concerning the punishment of stoning:

[I]t is only by ignoring such barbarisms that the Good Book can be reconciled with life in the modern world. This is a problem for “moderation” in religion: it has nothing underwriting it other than the unacknowledged neglect of the letter of the divine law. (The End of Faith, p.18.)

This is not the criticism of a scholar, but a hack. It is a blog-comment level criticism, spruced up a bit by a better than average vocabulary and an editing process. Actually, it is worse than most comments, and I have seen quite a few addressing the same issue. The pattern is always the same:

A: Then why don’t you stone adulterers?
C: Because the New Testament teaches that the ceremonial and civil law was abrogated.
A: That’s a load of crap.

Harris doesn’t acknowledge, as a scholar would, that there are scripture based arguments Christian theologians invoke to explain why we don’t stone people—even if (and then I’d have no complaint) he then attempted to dismantle those arguments. He simply presents his point as a manifestly true example of irrationality (if the bible is true, then we should advocate stoning) and also, absurdly, characterizes it as unacknowledged. But even the least theologically inclined Christian would know enough to say to Harris: Jesus did not command the stoning of the adulteress. He ignored the civil law, and if he did, then so should we. That’s a perfectly good refutation of Harris’s claim that modern Christians are ignoring stoning as a matter of convenience. And that is not the extent of the theological argument, which would include extensive references to the Christians’ relation to the law, from both Jesus and Paul. It’s just the first, simple shot across the bow, and Harris does not even do enough homework to answer that most trivial of rebuttals.

Why does Harris make such poor arguments? Well, he certainly doesn’t posses the subtlety of a Fellini. In fact, he’s quite transparent. One of Harris’s main points, one that he is always trying to make, is that even religious moderates, such as Ken Miller, are not rational. Here his point is: their very moderation that you want me to accommodate proves the irrationality of their beliefs. If they really believed what they claim to believe they’d be all for public stonings—but they adapt their beliefs to modern times and culture, thereby inadvertently demonstrating that their beliefs are not based on absolute truth. Rather than address any possible legitimate explanations, he takes the coward’s way out: he pretends there are none.

This pattern repeats itself throughout his book: error after error. He has, as far as I know, been given a free pass in this regard. Presumably most readers feel whether or not he correctly represents the religions he bashes is secondary—but I think that’s a mistake.

Harris, if you believe him, is all about rationality. A belief, to be rational, must be based on evidence. I agree, and have been saying quite the same thing for all the years I’ve been blogging. You see, Harris makes the same mistake that, ironically, some Christians make, that faith means blind faith. Blind faith is indeed irrational, but Christianity is not based on blind faith. For some of my posts on this subject, look here and here.

My faith is based on evidence—however it is not scientific evidence. It is purely subjective. Among other things, the heavens do indeed declare the glory of God to me, though I acknowledge not to everyone.

So, again Harris is wrong—but let’s grant him his premise and run with it. For the sake of argument, let’s agree:
  1. Harris champions rationality and reason, meaning our beliefs should be based on empirical evidence.

  2. Christianity (for the sake of argument) is not based on evidence, therefore it is irrational.
That gets us back on topic. If his criticism of the great monotheistic religions is based on their irrationality, what will Harris say about eastern and new-age type belief systems?

Well, let’s first look at Gorenfeld wrote in the AlterNet article:

[A]ccording to Harris, our civilians must evolve past churchgoing to "modern spiritual practice," he writes. "[M]ysticism is a rational enterprise," he writes in his book, arguing it lets spiritualists "uncover genuine facts about the world." And he tells AlterNet there are "social pressures" against research into ESP.


Asked which cases are most suggestive of reincarnation, Harris admits to being won over by accounts of "xenoglossy," in which people abruptly begin speaking languages they don't know. Remember the girl in "The Exorcist"? "When a kid starts speaking Bengali, we have no idea scientifically what's going on," Harris tells me. It's hard to believe what I'm hearing from the man the New York Times hails as atheism's "standard-bearer."

Harris writes: "There seems to be a body of data attesting to the reality of psychic phenomena, much of which have been ignored by mainstream science." On the phone he backpedals away from the claim.

We see the problem: while Christianity is irrational because it is not based on evidence, mysticism is rational. But why is a Buddhist monk’s transcendental state more real than a Christian’s conviction that they experience a living God? Harris never says. It’s easy to come away with the feeling that his reason is no more compelling than he likes one (Buddhism) and hates the other (Christianity.) And not just me—some honest atheists have criticized Harris for his claims that eastern spirituality and mysticism are rational.

Now, keiths, as I stated at the beginning of the article, complains that I base my mocking on Harris on what Gorenfeld wrote that Harris said in an interview and not Harris’s own words. Fair enough, and given that I don’t know keiths I can only assume that he is the very epitome of fairness—that his concern over Gorenfeld’s writing would be just as great if Gorenfeld had interviewed Mike Behe, and reported that Behe said silly things in the interview, silly things not found in his books. I have to believe that keiths would be just as adamant that those reported statements could not be held against Behe. What is worth noting, however, is that, as far as I know, no substantive charges regarding the accuracy of Gorenfeld’s article have been leveled.

No matter. Because, I have read The End of Faith and I know what it contains. So to appease keiths I’ll withdraw the charge that Harris admits to being won over by accounts of "xenoglossy." Maybe Gorenfeld fabricated that. No evidence that he did, but let’s, on keiths’s account, deny Gorenfeld the benefit of the doubt. I’ll stick to what is in Harris’s book.

The juicy chapter in The End of Faith is chapter seven, Experiments in Consciousness, and in the notes pertaining to that chapter. I’ll present some excerpts—and keep in mind that Harris has arguably attained the position of standard bearer for rationalism. He despises even “moderate” monotheism for its irrationality. So what does he have to say about eastern spirituality, in his own words? We get an early glimpse when he compares wise men of the east to, well, unnamed western theologians:

Nevertheless, when the great philosopher mystics of the East are weighed against the patriarchs of the Western philosophical and theological traditions, the difference is unmistakable: Buddha, Shankara, Padmasambhava, Nagarjuna, Longchenpa, and countless others down to the present have no equivalents in the West. In spiritual terms, we appear to have been standing on the shoulders of dwarfs. (The End of Faith, p.215. Emphasis added.)

Thus we have a bold assertion that the likes of Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, and John Calvin are “dwarfs” compared to eastern mystics. No reason for the ranking is provided, just an unsupported assertion that would not bode well for a student looking for a good grade on a freshman writing assignment. But the denigration of great western theologians is secondary—it’s the beatification of mystics that seems to be at odds with the office of Supreme Guru of Rational Show-Me-The-Empirical-Evidence Thought.

Soon after we are treated to another unscholarly assertion, one that is absent the evidence that Harris allegedly esteems so highly, this time in the form of a bizarre challenge. Harris writes:

While this is not a treatise on Eastern spirituality, it does not seem out of place to briefly examine the differences between the Eastern and Western canons, for they are genuinely startling. To illustrate this point, I have selected a passage at random from a shelf of Buddhist literature. The following text was found with closed eyes, on the first attempt from among scores of books. I invite the reader to find anything even remotely like this in the Bible or the Koran.
And in the present moment, when (your mind) remains in its own condition without constructing anything, awareness, at that moment, in itself is quite ordinary.

And when you look into yourself in this way nakedly (without any discursive thoughts),

Since there is only this pure observing, there will be found a lucid clarity without anyone being there who is the observer;
only a naked manifest awareness is present.

(This awareness) is empty and immaculately pure, not being created by anything whatsoever.

It is authentic and unadulterated, without any duality of clarity and emptiness.

It is not permanent and yet it is not created by anything.
However, it is not a mere nothingness or something annihilated because it is lucid and present.

It does not exist as a single entity because it is present and clear in terms of being many.

(On the other hand) it is not created as a multiplicity of things because it is inseparable and of a single flavor.

This inherent self-awareness does not derive from anything outside itself.

This is the real introduction to the actual condition of things. –Padmasambhava
One could live an eon as a Christian, a Muslim, or a Jew and never encounter any teachings like this about the nature of consciousness. (The End of Faith, p.215-216. Emphasis added.)

Don’t worry if the Padmasambhava scripture is impenetrable—Harris assures his readers it’s the real McCoy:

While the meaning of the above passage might not be perfectly apparent to all readers—it is just a section of a longer teaching on the nature of mind and contains a fair amount of Buddhist jargon (“clarity”, “emptiness”. “single flavor”, etc.)—it is a rigorously empirical document, not a statement of metaphysics. Even the contemporary literature on consciousness, which spans philosophy, cognitive science, psychology and neural science, cannot match the kind of precise phenomenological studies that can be found throughout the Buddhist canon. (The End of Faith, p.217. Emphasis added.)

Why is Christianity irrational and Buddhism rational? Because, Harris tells us, the monotheistic religions are based on faith, but Eastern mystical consciousness-raising is “rigorously empirical.” In his notes, we get further educated in this matter:

[I]t remains true that the esoteric teachings of Buddhism offer the most complete methodology we have for discovering the intrinsic freedom of consciousness, unencumbered by any dogma. It is no exaggeration to say that meetings between the Dalai Lama and Christian ecclesiastics to mutually honor their religious traditions are like meetings between physicists from Cambridge and the Bushmen of the Kalahari to mutually honor their respective understandings of the physical universe. (The End of Faith, p.293-294. Emphasis added.)

It is often said that a person cannot learn these things from reading a book. In the general case, this is undoubtedly true. I would add that one is by no means guaranteed to recognize the intrinsic nonduality of consciousness simply by having an eminent meditation master point it out. The conditions have to be just right: the teacher has to be really delivering the goods, leaving no conceptual doubt as to what is to be recognized; and the student has to be endowed with sufficient concentration to follow his instructions and to notice what there is to notice. (The End of Faith, p.298. Emphasis added.)

There is more we could present on Harris’s view on the experimental science of meditation. Since this is already an outrageously long post, I’ll just jump ahead to the penultimate paragraph of the book:

Mysticism is a rational enterprise. Religion is not. The mystic has recognized something about the nature of consciousness prior to thought, and this recognition is susceptible to rational discussion. The mystic has reason for what he believes, and these reasons are empirical. The roiling mystery of the world can be analyzed with concepts (this is science), or it can be experienced free of concepts (this is mysticism). Religion is nothing more than bad concepts held in place of good ones for all time. It is the denial—at once full of hope and full of fear—of the vastitude of human ignorance. (The End of Faith, p.221. Emphasis added.)

I submit that Harris, just based on his own words from a single source, suffers from a serious lack of self-consistency. His complaints against Christianity:
  1. Suffer from a lack of basic knowledge of Christian doctrine, such as when he suggests we have no good reason to abandon the Mosaic civil law except to shoehorn Christianity into modern times. (I might as well mention another obvious comeback to that particular argument: the early Christians also “ignored” the Levitical punishments, even without the rarefied sensibilities of modern men like Harris.)

  2. Suffer further from the fact that while he condemns Christianity for its lack of evidence, he does not apply the same standard to mysticism—thereby calling his credibility into question. Big time.
So I have to conclude, based on his own words, that Sam Harris is indeed little more than a clown. He has done no scholarship worth mentioning, and cannot present a self-consistent viewpoint. Most unforgivable for “Mr. Rational.” I’ll continue to mock him, if you don’t mind. His own words provide more than sufficient fodder.

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