What is wrong with Sam Harris

I regularly gripe about Sam Harris here. When I’ve had more lengthy pieces to write, I’ve written against his ignorant approach to Islam, and expressed ambivalence about those aspects of the “New Atheism” associated with Harris.

But if I’m going to keep griping, it might not be a bad idea to rehash specifically why I think the popularity of Harris should be embarrassing for nonbelievers. This mainly because a common response to public criticism of religion is is that the critic has misunderstood religion in general, or is ignorant of the specific traditions criticized. In Harris’s case, the accusations are correct. And since Harris is in a position where he legitimately represents the attitudes of many nonbelievers in the US, it may well be fair to say that American nonbelief often proceeds from a misunderstanding of religion.

(There is some irony here. The New Atheists often say they are justified in their focus on conservative, even fundamentalist beliefs, since these are the most popular. They wave away defenses of religion that represent liberal views and traditions with more intellectual depth. But I have found myself in situations where I have had to ask fellow academics not to dismiss what I call science-minded nonbelief out of hand, just because its most public representatives include very visible scholarly disasters such as Harris.)

So, let me revisit the case where Harris annoys me the most—when he portrays Islam as an essentially violent religion by quoting violent passages from the Quran.

First of all, even trying something like this betrays unfamiliarity with the scientific and scholarly literature on religion in general. Violence is almost never some direct manifestation of the “plain meaning” of religious texts. Most fundamentally this is because religious texts are very often exceptionally unstable in meaning. If there is a theological orthodoxy, this is enforced by means that make a mockery of any naive claims to context-free plain meaning. And even when there is an orthodoxy, most ordinary believers are theologically incorrect. That is, their actual (often tacit) beliefs in everyday contexts, especially when unreflective action is called for, usually diverge very markedly from official beliefs about the supernatural agents of their tradition. I don’t see how anyone who is a serious student of religion could get away with naively predicting violent behavior by examining the ancient texts of a religion. That sort of thing gets beaten out of you as a graduate student, if you even make it that far.

Second, Harris is not just making sweeping general pronouncements about the evils of faith. He is making sweeping claims about a specific tradition, Islam. And few of his pronouncements about Islam are such that they could be taken seriously by a student of that religion. In particular, he shows no awareness of the different and competing processes in today’s varieties of Islam that impose a context on the Quran and thereby render the text meaningful. Simply, how Harris imagines the Quran “says” things has little to do with the many ways Muslim communities interpret texts and conceive of sanctified political action. Ugly and often dangerous as Muslim-associated violence is today, Harris provides no analysis of it that is even superficially plausible. Again, this is because he is demonstrably ignorant of the relevant scholarly literature on what is hardly an obscure subject.

Criticism of religion has to demonstrate some minimal level of competence in the context of religious studies to deserve being taken seriously at all. Harris’s work just does not make the grade.

This is not a one-off thing. In his latest book, Harris makes a big deal of some neuroimaging studies that he interprets as collapsing the fact-value distinction. But that line of argument is not new. I remember philosophers who paid close attention to neuroscience in the late 1990′s debating the matter then; and even with the poorer quality data back then, it was obvious that moral reasoning had a strong cognitive component. And it was already pretty clear that a naive monistic moral realism a la Harris was not the most plausible way to understand out moral perceptions and moral lives. A moral pluralism that deploys metaphors such as a “moral ecology” was the better option then, as it is now. But again, Harris shows no awareness of the most relevant debates: he charges in as if his naive, half-assed view was somehow obviously correct.

All this is enormously frustrating for those of us who bother to do our homework. Worse, it makes it more difficult for those of us who want to see closer connections forged between the natural sciences and the humanities, and who argue that a naturalistic, scientific picture of us being-in-the-world is far better at making sense of human experience than a more traditional, transcendence-seeking picture. Ham-handed attempts like Harris, especially when they get a lot of attention, makes our lives more difficult, because we have to persuade our colleagues that we are not just less loud proponents of a fundamentally flawed approach. Certainly, looking at Harris’s work, it would not be hard to conclude that scientific naturalism is not yet another attempt to shove the world into an ideological straightjacket.

There is more that bears repeating. The self-image of many nonbelievers todays is that of people who reject supernatural beliefs after a process of reasoned criticism. If that is not just empty self-congratulation, we should be demanding at least awareness of the relevant science and scholarship among those who we put in a position of intellectual leadership. Again, Harris does not make the grade. The most dominant note I see in his work is moral posturing. And while that has fed a kind of righteous anger against faith-based nonsense among nonbelievers, I’d be a lot happier if we were more careful to demand intellectual quality alongside the righteous anger.

Interview with Prof. Axgrind
ISIS Violence IS Religious
The Theistic Arguments: A Brief Critique
Evolution vs. The Argument from Providence
About Taner Edis

Professor of physics at Truman State University

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09565179884099473943 The Uncredible Hallq

    "And it was already pretty clear that a naive monistic moral realism a la Harris was not the most plausible way to understand out moral perceptions and moral lives. A moral pluralism that deploys metaphors such as a "moral ecology" was the better option then, as it is now. But again, Harris shows no awareness of the most relevant debates: he charges in as if his naive, half-assed view was somehow obviously correct."

    What are you trying to do with this paragraph? As best I can tell, it just dismisses Harris views (which he defended in a >200 page book) without argument, and then has the chutzpah to accuse him of acting as if he was just obviously correct.

    Perhaps you mean to imply that you have a consensus of the experts on your side, but if so, you just demonstrate your ignorance–it's nigh impossible to get philosophers to agree on anything of consequence.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/13552766380741106854 Jason R. Tippitt

    At the risk of collapsing into a black hole brought on by the sheer irony of such a statement:


  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10778996187937943820 Taner Edis


    Critical reaction to Harris's latest book has hardly been scarce. Let's just say that it is unlikely to lead to a revolution in moral philosophy. That's not because of any metaethical consensus in place, but because Harris's attempt to cut that particular Gordian knot isn't very impressive.

    And don't give me that "dismisses without argument" crap. It's a cheap rhetorical trick—indicating a judgment of a 200+ page argument (quantity is not quality) need not take up 200+ pages itself. If you're actually curious about more of the details behind that judgment, there are constructive ways to ask.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10817974804323066290 shreddakj

    An eloquent rebuke Taner, very nice. Criticism and debate are two of the best tools to make progress and it's always good to see some where it is desperately needed.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/12132821431322748921 LadyAtheist

    Fortunately, we don't have a pope or a catechism, so he's just one person with one point of view. If atheist books continue to sell it will be obvious to believers that we don't all come to non-belief from the same path. I think the average believer is more worried about Dawkins than Harris.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10212971606135991995 Wes


    I don't disagree with your general conclusion about Harris (though, I might word my disapproval more graciously). What I would like to comment on, though, is your continued dismissal of moral realism and promotion of moral relativism or anti-realism (found in several of your posts).

    You are absolutely right to dismiss Harris' work on morality, as many have done, but you go a step farther when dismiss moral realism as a position no one of expertise holds (I don't find this expression in this post as much as I have in others; here, you just mention it in passing: "And it was already pretty clear that a naive monistic moral realism a la Harris was not the most plausible way to understand out moral perceptions and moral lives. A moral pluralism that deploys metaphors such as a 'moral ecology' was the better option then, as it is now." The wording is ambiguous; you may be calling Harris' brand of monistic moral realism "naive" or moral realism generally as naive; I believe that the thrust of your other posts indicate the latter, but you may correct me).

    You will certainly find reasonable people who agree with you, but you must stop pretending that yours is the metaethical view held by most philosophers. It is not; the majority of philosophers are moral realists of one stripe or another.

    Fortunately, we do not have to guess about the opinions of philosophers. David Chalmers, an eminent philosopher of mind, recently surveyed a few thousand philosophers (which, is certainly statistically significant) about our beliefs on a catalog of philosophical issues. There are several ways to filter the data; the one I will link below filters out all undergraduates and focuses exclusively on those who are philosophy faculty or who hold a PhD in philosophy. This group consists of 1807 philosophers (another number that is statistically significant).

    This group was asked the question, "Meta-ethics: moral realism or moral anti-realism?" Only 28.3% held or leaned toward moral anti-realism, 15.2% held a position identified as "other," and 56.4% held or leaned toward moral realism (See here).

    The survey also lets one break this down by specialty. There were 187 respondents who were philosophy faculty and/or PhDs who claimed metaethics as their area of specialization (still statistically significant for this field). Only 27.8% of these respondents claimed to hold or lean to moral anti-realism, 14.9% were classified as "other," and 57.2% hold or lean to moral realism (see here.

    I would, also, like to point out that of the 30 questions asked, only 14 of those garnered agreement of over 50% from philosophy faculty and PhDs, and moral realism was one of those areas.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10212971606135991995 Wes

    Now, this is obviously not an argument for moral realism (I think you fellow blogger, Keith, did a decent job of that when he presented a roughly neo-Aristotelian moral naturalism some time ago). There are many out there who make those arguments, and, if you are interested, I'd be happy to point you in the direction of some of the better ones. The point I want to make is that *you* are in the minority with your dismissal of moral realism. To suggest that it is a naive position widely-rejected by those with expertise in the field is itself naive. You misrepresent the position of philosophers as badly as Harris.

    Again, moral relativism or anti-realism is a viable position held by people who know what they are talking about (e.g. Gilbert Harman and David Wong), but to present it as the consensus view among philosophers is completely misleading. A little humility on your part as a physicist speaking way outside of his field may be appropriate, especially when the majority of those who actually have expertise in that field disagree with you. I haven't seen that humility in your dismissals of moral realism.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10778996187937943820 Taner Edis


    I'm sorry if this comes across as irritated, but I don't think all that should be read what I wrote. I said "naive monistic moral realism a la Harris." That very explicitly refers to Harris's particular brand of moral realism. Moreover, it comes up in the context of discussing what science, particularly neuroscience, can contribute to the discussion over moral realism.

    Let me spell it out: there's no implication here that moral realism per se is naive, still less that there is any consensus against it. I'm damn well aware that it it is, indeed, the majority position among moral philosophers of many different stripes. I happen to think it's mistaken, but that's not the hobbyhorse I'm riding here.

    Here's another way of putting it: my issue with Harris is not that I judge him to be wrong on certain things. It's that he charges into certain debates without paying attention to the relevant scholarly background.

    Think of it this way: you're in a position to give advice to a student interested in questions about the nature of moral perception in humans. You want to give them a reading list that will introduce her to the best ideas in the field. (Not necessarily those that have attracted popular attention.) You'd include a lot which you can't fully agree with, but is worthy of attention. Would you include The Moral Landscape on your proposed reading list?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10212971606135991995 Wes


    Your response didn't come across as irritated at all.

    You'll have to forgive me for not taking your statement about "naive monistic moral realism a la Harris" in the way you intended. I read that statement in the context of your other discussions of moral realism in which you have been dismissive.

    Most moral realists, of course, disagree with Harris as well, but not with the idea of moral realism; they disagree with how he gets there. There is nothing really distinctive about Harris' view of the nature of moral realism (i.e. he believes moral claims report facts that are true or false). Moral realists agree about the nature of realism, but disagree about the foundations. In that way, there really is no "brand" of moral realism that Harris is pushing; it is the same old moral realism all moral realists hold. The distinctive feature of his view is how he grounds moral truths.

    My apologies, though, if I have misrepresented you.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16641266062186767500 Keith Parsons

    Wes, thanks for the plug. Yeah, collapsing the fact/value distinction does not need neuroscience; it goes back to Aristotle. Really, the idea that there is a fact/value dichotomy has only become entrenched in ethics since Hume's "discovery" that you cannot derive an "ought" from an "is." Ancient, medieval, and early modern ethicists almost always took for granted that the "good for man" is a natural condition and that ethical duties aim at actualizing that naturally good state. Christianity did not change this fundamental outlook; it just added that the highest state of human happiness is one in communion with God. "Our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee" said Augustine. The "fact/value" distinction would have puzzled Aquinas as much as Aristotle.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09565179884099473943 The Uncredible Hallq

    Edis: "It's a cheap rhetorical trick—indicating a judgment of a 200+ page argument (quantity is not quality) need not take up 200+ pages itself."

    Of course it needn't. But in a post ostensibly giving your reasons for thinking we should be embarrassed by Harris, I think it's reasonable to expect some kind of argument.

    The main reason for mentioning page count was just to show how ridiculous it is to accuse Harris of acting as if his views were just obvious. On the contrary, he apparently saw the need to defend them at length. Your contrary to fact assertion on this point is troublesome, to say the least.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10778996187937943820 Taner Edis


    If you want to defend Harris's particular views, do so. Otherwise, stop wasting my time.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/07711295082644210782 Juno Walker

    Taner -

    It's interesting that Harris gives a shout-out to Owen Flanagan – who has a much better argument for "Ethics as Human Ecology" in about 50 pages than Harris does in 200. Have you read Flanagan? That's a chapter in his book "The Problem of the Soul."

    Also, how would you compare Nietzsche's polemic against Christianity with Harris' attack on Christianity/Islam?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10778996187937943820 Taner Edis

    Juno Walker,

    I really like Owen Flanagan. I have four of his books looking at me on my bookshelves behind me now. I used an excerpt from The Problem of the Soul as one of my primary source appendices in my Science and Nonbelief. I first encountered one of my favorite metaphors, "moral ecology," in his work.

    I can't comment on Nietzsche with any confidence. I haven't read him; all I know comes secondhand.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/07711295082644210782 Juno Walker

    Taner – I'm not a philosopher (I'm a dog trainer) but I've been reading all of Nietzsche's works for the past year. His main critique of Christianity – "The Antichrist" – is more of a polemic than a scholarly treatise. It is close in tone (though not in depth and breadth) to Harris' polemics against Christianity and Islam.

    My reading of Nietzsche is that he is much more of a skeptic and anti-realist than Harris. He would probably rip Harris a new one if he were still around. But Nietzsche is heavy on rhetoric and light on dialectic – but that appears to be intentional. Philosopher Brian Leiter has a good handle on him.

    I really enjoyed Flanagan's "The Problem of the Soul." I was less impressed with his follow-up, "The Really Hard Problem." But even that is better than Harris' attempt.


  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10778996187937943820 Taner Edis


    Yes, I found The Really Hard Problem a little flat as well.

    And Nietzsche? Well, nobody's thumped me on the head hard enough to embarrass me into reading him yet. It could happen…

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/13196126096999779200 BeingItself

    Sour grapes.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05896515629513305242 J. Random

    Harris needs to know precisely as much about Islam as a Christian needs to know about Buddhism to reject it: Not much.

    Demanding anything more is the basest special pleading.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10778996187937943820 Taner Edis

    J. Random,

    The issue is not Harris's rejection of Islam. Harris does a lot more than say, announce that the notion of the Quran as a divine revelation is mistaken. He also makes blanket statements about Islam as a social and political phenomenon. In doing so, he mischaracterizes Islam in an irresponsible manner.

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