Sam Harris, Islam and religion:
The most puzzling thing about having supporters and critics is that they might never get to the core of your ideas, but they will definitely represent them and misrepresent them always better than you can.
When we think of Sam Harris we don’t think of him primarily as a thinker or philosopher, but as a scientist first and foremost even when Wikipedia still describes him as an author and philosopher first and as a scientist last. We are not supposed to get a philosopher out of a scientist in the same way we could get an engineer out of a physicist.
However, it has become a common practice today that any scientist who happens to have a public intellectual life and is an author, easily and rapidly, can gain too the status of a philosopher when he or she is able to make claims which even when stepping out of their fields of expertise still are received as sounding by a relatively large audience.
When we ask the question about the ultimate nature of the physical reality to a physicist we can’t expect a metaphysical answer, but rather one that corresponds to the expertise of the physical world.
Sam Harris is a neuroscientist, so if we were to ask him about the ultimate nature of consciousness we can’t expect from him a meta consciousness answer. In fact, Harris is not a philosopher and shouldn’t be expected to have sufficient evidences for any claims concerning any “meta” topic arose from consciousness. Unfortunately, at times, he believes he does and other times he is just unable to hold such distinction.
Friedrich Hegel, the nineteenth century German philosopher, considered his Science of Logic as the ”soul” of his philosophy and his Phenomenology of Mind as his highest spiritual ”dirty business” with matter and as such, a “second class citizen” compared with his Science of Logic. We could say that Hegel ended up embedding Christianity into his system, yet religion, or any religion, felt to Hegel limited, but not without a role, as he emboldened its philosophical conceptual framing into matter in his Science of Logic.
If we compare Hegel’s philosophy to Sam Harris’ rumination on religion we could confidently say that Harris’ ideas are completely trapped in Hegel’s Phenomenology of Mind unable to recognise the ordeals of the unhappy consciousness while constantly throwing diatribe to the religious stage of our mind, but just like a dog, not only barking at the wrong tree, but also peeing on it.
Harris’ happy dismissal to grant religion any rational bases comes from assuming that religions are failed sciences. Harris miserably ignores that all the major monotheistic religions came from the actual development of Natural Philosophy in ancient times.
Before monotheism there was philosophy, but Harris can’t grasp the concept of philosophy on its own, least of all, the fact that monotheism had philosophy as its heritage.
Before the idea of a single God could gain any meaningful shape a great development of mathematics and commerce was required. While the Titans and the Olympians gods and goddesses were battling underground and in the sky of ancient Greece, Natural or First Philosophy was flourishing and different material principles of reality were taking hold of our conception of the world.
Soon after, Plato’s philosophy gave room to Aristotle in a time in which the rudiments of science was flourishing as much in ancient Greece as in Egypt, Mesopotamia and many other parts of the world.
The idea of a single, unifying, omniscient and all mighty entity was a great development in the history of the human mind even when the details of how the world came to be and how the divine was embodied in one single entity was, no doubt, preposterous.
Sam Harris constantly insists in denying religion any part in our mind’s development and looks at it exclusively as an error of human ignorance. However, religion cannot possibly be just the result of ignorance even when ignorance and lack of knowledge have played an important role in its history.
Science as a practice and since its infancy never really opposed religion in the way it did during the Enlightenment. Science was also present in the Middle Ages, and rather than opposing religion, it existed under its control.
Science has always been a way to figure things out by experiment, search and constant trying out. It never had anything to do with God, religion or its denial. In principle science has dealt with other matters of concern.
Science has never had the role to tell us where do we come from as a general blanket or as a metaphysical enquiry, but rather tell us where the known universe came from without the encouragement or denial of any meta presupposition. It is only to blame on religion alone that science became so consciously opposed to religion during the Enlightenment.
It is the Enlightenment spirit what feeds Harris’ mission against religion. His mission? To debunk religion for every empirical path that criss-crossed with science as if religion had been all along an underground pseudo-science fighting an already lost battle.
We know, however, that Harris has arrived too late to take a responsibility that has been carried out in the past and also ignored in countless occasions.
It was not a scientist, but Friedrich Nietzsche, a German philosopher, who announced the death of God almost a century ago. Something might have failed about secular rationality for humanity to undergo a continuous revival of religion today since Nietzsche’s announcement.
In the mean time, Harris, naively calls religion a “failed science” as if the victories religion has gained has anything to do with trophies not having been given by scientists.
Unfortunately, Harris can’t see beyond his scientific empiricist nose to be able to put on hold his ideological labour of decluttering religion from its nauseating inaccuracies and rather concentrate more on what really matters about religion: What exactly has it brought and continues to bring conceptually onto the table of rationality?
The historical apparition of the conception of a single entity (the One) was a vivid expression not only of how far our mind has gone in its unification of the multiple, but also an evidence of us grasping for the first time the concept of the infinite, simultaneously, in an abstract (God) and in a concrete way (Jesus).
The concept of God, Christ and the Holy Spirit are not just religious conceptualisations born out the religious thinking. They have a great heritage in Plato’s, Aristotle’s and Plotinus’ philosophical works as part of Western’s civilization conceptual evolution of the mind.
The historical apparition of the idea of One God was not, as it is commonly described, the beginning of the Dark Ages, but the beginning of humanity journey into the most abstract realms of our mind via a philosophical negative path: the realm in which we as human are closer and closer to nothingness and our understanding of Otherness got to be so transcendent that we were completely unable to measure up to it in a merely immanent way.
These abstract realms of our mind were based on the pure absolute affirmation of the Other as the most high (God) and us as its opposite (finite and sinners).
After philosophy had it’s golden age, along side science and paganism, a higher way of abstraction came to shape human history with monotheism. The abstraction of God, as it evolved for centuries became so strong and dogmatic that the emerging thoughts, out of the so called limbo of the Medieval era, ended up being labelled as the Dark Ages by the knights of the Enlightenment.
The Enlightenment, also called the Age of Reason, felt the imperative to emphasise their opposition to religion in pernicious ways never seen in the history of the relationship between religion and science.
In antiquity, for the Greeks, Myth and Logos were at the centre of their understanding of life and of the cosmos. The storytelling of the gods and goddesses was a way to put order and reason into their lives.
While for the Greek religion served as a way to keep tradition together and also a way to understand the cosmos through order imbued in the rationality of their Logos, for the Enlightenment religion no longer was of any use to their rational understanding of reality. It is, however, relevant to insist that science is not an exclusive modern phenomenon.
Throughout human history we have as much pagan scientists (Aristotle) as Medieval Christian scientist (Avicenna, Paul of Aegina, St. Albertus Magnus, Al Khwarizmi, Paracelsus, Al-Ghazali and St. Thomas Aquinas).
The strict definition of science came after the breakthroughs in the seventeenth century by Isaac Newton, Francis Bacon, Robert Boyle, and many others who were wholeheartedly Bible believers. Even more remarkable is the fact that the inductive method that gave place to empirical science came from the Bible under the regularity or inductive principle. The regularity principle is the idea that the universe is governed by physical laws that are uniform. That didn’t contradict the existence of a God.
Sam Harris has the pernicious rhetorical habit of articulating the relationship between religion and science more on the side of conflict and battle than on the side of collaboration. His approach in that sense is historically inaccurate.
As we will see later on, such approach has political and personal biases mainly motivated by September 11 terrorist attack. It, no doubt, made him a militant ideologue of science against religion and in particular against Islam.
We face a general problem with widely recognised thinkers today. No thinker today is able to gain relevance as a philosopher or public intellectual unless he or she has already acquired relevance as an specialist in one particular field of human competence.
The fact that specialists can and do gain a holistic approach to their disciplines, allowing them to take their views beyond their particular competence, speaks loud of how certain sectors of societies and certain human practices become more popular and ubiquitous.
Some people believe in the self management of societies (Libertarians-Anarchists) to the extend that government should be made virtually redundant since individuals can spontaneously self-organise in such ways that everything which is individually produced could automatically cater for the collective needs if and when needed.
Surprisingly, this is already happening in the field of philosophy like in not other domain of competence. Most philosophers today, if not all, are specialists and experts in one particular field through which they produce individual contents which cater for our collective spiritual needs. This without reducing such needs just to the popular side of philosophy.
No without irony, being called a philosopher today is received with a mix of embarrassment and silent complacency. Embarrassment because of the inherent sophistry historically attached to its practice and silent complacency because being philosophical is definitely a sign of a broader and more comprehensive view when you happen to be a specialist with not training or qualifications in philosophy, and yet, full of wisdom about topics out of your competence.
It seems that being a philosopher is what we become either when we are good at artful sophistry or we philanthropically broaden our expert vision to embrace underlying themes which unite us with other fields of competence.
The reality, however, is that the attempts at philosophical thinking by many specialists today, be it from the fields of sciences, the arts, religion or politics, leave too much to be desired. The constant parochial underpinnings of their positions, even when they are presented in their most broaden forms, keep showing conflict of interest and biases.
They are not just the typical default biases we are naturally expected to have when analysing any topic. They are biases with agency, aiming at privileging a particular field of competence camouflaged as a general and neutral discourse based on reason.
There is also a widespread belief that being a philosopher is what we automatically become when we have amassed great deal of success in one field of expertise and along the way it has naturally given us wisdom.
All these definitions of philosophy focus on considering philosophy an “extra” skill that has not soul of its own and always appears spontaneously embedded as a result of acquiring a particular expert knowledge, which over the years, when it has been consistently shaped, give birth to wisdom.
Following Sam Harris’ logic, calling religion a failed science could perfectly apply to philosophy as it was Stephen Hawking’s assumption when he asserted the death of philosophy.
Harris, however, doesn’t go that far since such claim would, obviously, put him in conceptual inconsistencies which Hawking didn’t face since he didn’t have as much vested interest in the Enlightenment as Harris has.
There are, no doubt, some elements of truth in perceiving philosophy as a failed or, even, dead science. Philosophy, in its beginnings was our first attempts at understanding our reality in both, concrete and abstract ways, which at that time were equally clumsy.
However, even when both approaches to reality were clumsy, from the get go we learned lasting fundamental lessons in the way we relate to the concrete and in the way we relate to the abstract.
Those has been lesson learned at a time when sciences have not yet gained the level of specialisation we have today. Such levels of specialisations, however, are the ones today making science neglect the lessons of philosophy and assume that isolated expertise, combined with the advances and improvements of the general scientific method can singlehandedly give us the lessons philosophy gave us long ago. Thus, we assume that the general methodology of sciences can replace the old philosophical endeavours.
Here we face the same issue highlighted above when referring to the need of government in society. We either let individuals and communities to spontaneously organise and figure out on their own their collective and universal needs and concerns or we organise a tax system that allows and reinforces covering those needs and concerns in democratic ways.
Those aligned with Libertarian and Anarchists would still insist that government is not needed since collective needs are already met by businesses and local communities via the free flow of the marketplace.
In the same way, most scientists who gain intellectual public exposure would still insist, sometimes silently and other time openly, that the work they do as public figures expertly addresses collective issues concerning society which raises important and valid philosophical concerns without the need of them being specifically philosophers.
Sam Harris, in this case, believes to raise such concerns not under the backdrop of philosophy but that of general reason and rationality learned from the lessons of scientific research. In this way philosophers are viewed like Libertarians and Anarchists see the government: They might not be strictly needed in society.
We have here similar problems to those which arise out of some small businesses eventually becoming corporations and conglomerate. Even if we didn’t have government eventually a few of the local businesses will outgrow itself and develop a tendency of playing perversely the role of government through transnational, crony practices and monopolistic regulation of the free market.
Obviously, scientists and scientific institutions do not operate strictly as businesses or corporations even when certain scientific research can be geared to favour more profiteers and financialisation interest rather than advancements in knowledge.
Some scientists and scientific institutions can adopt similar philosophies to that of corporations and their monopolistic practices. Scientists and certain scientific communities can grant a universal validity to their scientific rational methods by presenting them not only as overlapping our universal understanding of rationality, but also by adjudicating themselves as the pioneers of such universal rationality.
Probably, the biggest lesson a scientist could learn and keep learning from philosophy is that there is not such thing as universal reason unless the scientist is willing to admit the limitations and the work-in-progress nature of such a statement.
It is not the role of philosophy to mirror the role of government in terms of the wisdom historically associated to it. It is neither its main role to be embedded to scientific discourse, business or corporative rationales to cater for collective or public needs.
Philosophy, at its core and in its soul, is just another discipline like any other and is not forged exclusively as an “extra” side effect knowledge by carving out of a particular field of competence universal truths or our universal understanding of reason.
Plato did imagined his ideal society with the philosopher as king and head of the State. The closer Western culture got to Plato’s dream was to have Aristotle as the tutor of Alexander the Great. Probably, the Pope as the supreme pontiff in the wisdom of God also was close to the image of the Sage and, concordantly, to the image of the philosopher.
We know today, however, that Plato’s dream and the image of the Sage in the religious figure, do not really approximate the soul of a philosopher or their common practice across history. Philosophers have had a specific task across history, which can be described as that of taking both, the philosophical and contemporary heritage of human diverse competences and raising them to a level of abstraction that could account for a new or renovated way of thinking. Such level of abstraction have been and could be iteratively embodied throughout history as an enhanced mirror of our present and future reality.
I say mirror because philosophers are not really meant to change the world in the sense scientific innovation and inventions do through rapid and abrupt changes. Philosophers mirror changes in societies in such a way that the enhanced mirror just gives back the actualised potentiality of a given reality that could manifest or might manifest in better optimised ways.
Going back to Sam Harris and his inroads into philosophical issues by way of addressing his visceral opposition to religion singlehandedly from a strictly scientific viewpoint, he tells us referring to Deepak Chopra outlandish claim about the relationship between quantum physics and consciousness:
“I would never be tempted to lecture a room full of a thousand people…about physics. I am not a physicist.”
Harris, no doubt, is right about Chopra. However, Harris makes such statement under the assumption that every attack he addresses to religion is done under the grounds of a scientific approach. That, however, have not been always the case. There are indeed many empirical scientific grounds under which Harris has rightly debunked religion.
There are, however, inconsistent philosophical grounds under which Harris has attacked religion as a result of failing to admit first that he is not a philosopher and second that metaphysical enquires tend to have an open-ended answers, which often can’t be equated with the accuracy and type of rigour that most empirical scientific approaches are driven by.
Harris reshuffles the Christian understanding of religious faith by building out of it the perfect straw man for the amusement of scientific mockery. He tells us:
“God tests our power of credulity by asking: Can you believe in this God on bad evidences, which is the same on faith.”
If Harris would fairly give a philosophical dimension to the question of religious faith, he should have reshuffled his statement into this:
“God tests our power of credulity by asking: Can you believe in this God on locally consistent but universally invalid evidences, or on locally inconsistent but universally valid evidence.”
That was the lesson left by Kurt Gödel and Ludwig Wittgenstein addressing metaphysical issues related not only to science and philosophy but to any field of human competence.
For Gödel there are things which we humans see I can verify as being valid without needing or even being able to prove them to be so. Furthermore, when our beliefs are consistent and sounded it is definitely because they are incomplete and not universal. Reversely, when our beliefs are complete and universal it is definitely because they contain inconsistencies (https://medium.com/@ulyssesalvarezlaviada/kurt-godel-moral-dictum-a44f9357bf69).
Sam Harris fails to understand that the incompleteness of a universal understanding of science comes precisely from it consistency and soundness at the non universal level of intervention in which all science operate. This universal level is precisely the level at which most religions operate. Science consistency cannot respond and should be proud not to be able to respond to universal matters unless it does it in an incomplete manner.
Science and human knowledge lack of a core universal understanding of the cosmos and of our nature not, as Harris wants us to believe, because science is in a continuous process of improvement in which rational thinking empirically recognises its limits. At a conceptual universal level reason will always fail us without us abandoning the particular limited consistency of its local manifestation nor the value of its universality even when as a whole will forever remain inconsistent.
Our rational sense of universality will always remain inconsistent for certain local systems even when valid for certain universal systems. Concordantly, our rational sense of universality will always manifest as invalid for certain universal systems even when consistent for certain local systems. The inconsistent and consistent, together with the valid and invalid form a matrix in which the local and the universal exchange.
Harris has failed miserably to understand these philosophical conundrums of Gödel’s and Wittgenstein’s philosophical heritage. His claims on the universal validity of scientific rationality not only ignores sciences locality, but also the universal rational validity of other fields of rationality like art, literature, politics, economy and, of course, religion.
Even to the best of Harris rational intentions, when he puts forward the argument that all those other fields actually share the same common principles of rationality based on scientific rationality, he perniciously ignores that those other fields share the rational element of it, but not necessarily the scientific one. Harris attempts at doing so are metaphysical in intent precisely in the defective way Wittgenstein referred to it.
This in not way validate religious faith or is in any way a confirmation that God exists. The legacy that Gödel and Wittgenstein left us was the fact that we don’t know exactly what is being asked by the question of who or what is God.
This is not just the result of not having sufficient evidences, but actually not having an accurate description of what is being asked even when intuitively we are able to grasp what is being implied.
So the insufficiency doesn’t come from the answer but rather from the question to such extent that when sufficient evidences are given for the question to be rightly formulated it no longer asks for what it originally intended to ask.
Out of these philosophical enquiries we could be tempted to believe that we should leave God to the believers. Sam Harris, however, wants by all means to resist that. In one of his video presentations he openly admits that his reason for criticising religion was September 11 terrorist attack.
There is obviously a problem here. Even when Harris motivation for such criticism is a political-religious violent event, such motive does not translate well and he perniciously tries to rationalise it in all the wrong ways by using political motives to assert sloppy philosophical assumptions about the universal validity of scientific rationality.
Before we go into it, let’s just answer two basic questions. Does science’s competence include answering to religious questions? Is competence a fundamental requirement to answer religious questions?
Harris tells us:
“The true horror of religion is that it allows perfectly sane intelligent people to believe by the billions what only lunatics or imbeciles could believe on their own.”
Harris knows perfectly that that is not the true horror of religion in general. The true horror, in his own view, is that a particular religion (Islam), is not only connected to the September 11 terrorist attack, but glorifies violence in his Holy book.
However, it wouldn’t be an intelligent move just to focus on blaming one religion. Harris in the above quote masterfully use the language of science and scientific rationality to equate the horror of the terrorist attack to the horror of believing in any religion even when between one and the other there is a huge leap.
Science’s competence doesn’t include answering to religious questions unless religious answers conflict with scientific answers. Yet, Harris’ scientific approach is misleading and doesn’t hold when assuming that all religious argument require scientific scrutiny to be valid.
Furthermore, scientific competence is not a requirement to answer religious questions. Here I have to refer Harris back to Gödel and Wittgenstein lessons.
Harris is not so much concerned with many other “lunatics and imbeciles” in human history as he is with the religious type, particularly, the Islamic type. However, we know from history that the breaking down of reason and rational thinking is not fundamentally caused by a way of thinking or a way of believing, but rather by marrying that way of thinking or belief to a dogma at the mercy of a corrupt political and economical power.
The question to ask would be, why Sam Harris see religion as a major threat to human progress and not any other form of irrationality or non-scientific based thinking? Why does he make religion his archenemy?
He does not. Sam Harris see Islam as a major threat to human progress. He makes Islam his archenemy and yet he fails to admit it and will alway default to not admitting that his rejection of Islam is the only reason for his pernicious attack to religion in general.
There is not sounding reason for Harris to consider all religions as a true horror to humanity. Harris perfectly knows that horror happens and has happened only when we combine dogma, religious or not, with politics and power.
Any religion, at its core, is not so much what is written in their Holy books as what they actually come to be in practice in the real world. Harris often refers to Islamic terrorist threat or violence as if such threat can be easily and directly be traced back to the readings of the Quran. Harris has never given sufficient evidences of such connections.
His insistence in the danger of Islam on looking at the scriptures of the Quran is a purely pedantic rationalised intellectualism rooted in the political bitterness left in some sectors of the American psyche as a result of the continuous terrorist attacks on American soils by Islamic terrorists.
In other of his decent sophistry and seemingly rational sounded attack to religion Harris tells us:
”If you think saying Latin words over your pancakes will turn them into the body of Elvis Presley you’re insane, but if you think the same about a cracker and Jesus you’re a Catholic.”
This analogy is inaccurate and deceptive since it doesn’t apply only to the story of Jesus or Catholic. If you go to a public toilet and shout in front of the urinary: This is not art, this is just a shitty urinary, you are insane, but if you shout the same words at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, while in front of Duchamp’s urinary, you might well be an art critic.
Anything out of the context that originates it has a high likelihood of being perceived as nonsensical. When refer to Jesus and Christianity we are often in a context of symbolism, while when we refer to pancakes and Elvis the likelihood for symbolism is slim and accordingly getting Elvis out of pancakes would be more likely insane.
Harris tells us with proud self-content for the achievements of science against religion:
“Religion was the discourse that we had when all causes in the universe were opaque. We didn’t know the basics of anything.”
Harris completely neglects that the secularism that came attached to science is also causing reversals in our culture in the same way Marshall Mcluhan, the Canadian philosopher, predicted them in 1988 in his seminal work, Laws of Media.
These reversals are kind of sending many people back in time, without the need for time-travel, to exactly that time when ”all causes in the universe were opaque and we didn’t know the basics of anything.” Many are calling it, our post-truth and post-fact era.
Flat-Earthers give us the perfect image of some people going back in time even using ”scientific” approaches and not necessarily with any religious underpinnings.
Secularism is our new ”religion” and is far more addictive and toxic than the old single God religion. Why Harris is so much concerned with the worshipping of one God when the worshipping of products, brands, celebrities and all sort of technological devices is lobotomasing many brains into a digital primitive cave state? We have even gone back to a pure state of totemism, no so much of the electronic devices, but of the immortalising self-image that can be constantly taken to achieve the highest Nirvana of the selfie.
In a moment of honest confession and after a long two parts of youtube podcast with Jordan Peterson Sam Harris tells his youtube audience:
”There is an interesting thing happening. I don’t know quite what this mean but I have been noticing in the last few weeks that when I said things that are overtly disparaging of religion I have been getting push backs from my audience in ways that I never had before. My calling, in this case, Catholic dogma bullshit was deemed offensive by some people.”
There are ”lunatics” and ”imbeciles” in this world, as Harris calls them, who in some cases are criminally insane and in other cases morally bankrupted. There are, however, other kind of people to whom Harris would still refer as ”lunatics” and ”imbeciles” not just because their beliefs conflict scientific truth, but because Harris fails miserably to see, not in the religious historical facts, but in the religious spirit, a drop of the human spirit.
Harris doesn’t understand secularism and least of all religion from a philosophical standpoint. Harris understand them from a narrowed scientific-theoretical standpoint mixed with great deal of self-taught wisdom.
It would be extremely naive to assume that religion is the biggest enemy of science as Sam Harris’ narrative tends to suggest. Science, if any, has had enemies from all sides of human practices even from within. However, rather than calling them enemies let’s refer to them as clusters of friction and oppositions.
Science has found these clusters of friction in Idealism, in Materialism, in Solipsism, in Atheism, in Empiricism and in all ideologues of ”isms”, even when in some instances they appear and have appeared as the guardian of science. Such clusters of friction are far from being just religious. They have shown up in politics, in finances, in businesses, in art, in religion or even in science itself.
Science is an exploration of any reality built on conjectures and best working hypothesis. The solidity of its body of work is as fragile as the entire sequence of our DNA. If we human were to disappear from the face of this universe, the objective world wouldn’t disappear, but it would be an entirely different objectivity.
Harris opposition to religion is not a scientific one, but a heavily political one camouflaged almost to perfection with the political correctness of rationality and Enlightenment. Harris has completely ignored that the bigger opposition religion had during the Enlightenment did not come from science, but rather from philosophy and literature in general. Hence, science has not been necessarily required to make real progress in our opposition to religion. Shall we recommend Marquis de Sade to Harris or maybe just Voltaire? I would rather recommend Spinoza, since he was both, rationalist and religious.
I do agree with Harris in what concerns the conflicts between scientific findings and religious factual inaccuracies. I do also agree with him in what concerns religion attempts to based their beliefs in scientific findings or the efforts to force a correlation between the two as Deepak Chopra continues to do.
Harris is a scientist and a public figure concerned with spiritual issues. He is not a philosopher and he has not the same authority to talk about his subject of expertise as he talk about a general understanding of rationality, least of all, to make claims about scientific rationality being the axis of rationality in general. Those are philosophical issues which Harris has not the expertise to lecture us on.