Sam Harris: An Intellectual Profile

Sam Harris took a rather unique path to his role in academia.  While working towards a philosophy degree at Stanford University, Harris took an eleven year hiatus during his studies; his sabbatical was spent in India under the tutelage of various Hindu and Buddhist spiritual teachers perfecting meditation techniques.  This pursuit was grounded in his interests in both philosophy and spirituality, interests that have informed his work throughout his career.  Three years after Harris’s return to Stanford, he completed his B.A. in Philosophy, and later earned a Ph.D. in Cognitive Neuroscience from UCLA.  His educational background has given him the clout and wherewithal to pursue three interrelated topics as a public intellectual: philosophy, neuroscience, and religion (or a lack thereof).

Much of Harris’s philosophical and neurological work has emphasized the understanding of human existence within the world and how best to live as people.  Resultantly, his work has been centered around two fundamental ideas. Firstly, Harris believes that people do not have freewill.  Secondly, Harris contends that questions of morality are not grounded in faith, the divine, or personal convictions, but that science can give us a tangible moral framework with which to perfect our lives.

In his book, Freewill, Harris outlines the argument that we as people are, in no sense of the word, free to make our own decisions.  Agency and choice are delusions, ideas we have constructed that crumble upon the most basic investigation.  While I will not delve too deeply into the actual logical steps taken by Harris throughout the work, I will say that he makes a rather compelling argument against the traditional, intensely American, fundamental idea of free choice.  His vehement denial of freewill has both philosophical and neurological evidence (insofar as disagreed upon philosophical premises can be considered evidence).  To summarize the book, allow me an earnest attempt at nutshelling: we are not the causes of our own choices (i.e. I had two options and I consciously and of my own volition, agency, and freewill CHOSE one of them).  Choices are states of mind that happen to us, things that we suffer in the same way we feel pain and perceive the natural world.  For most of the freewill believing populace, this is a radical idea, one that can certainly be deeply disturbing.  Harris argues, however, that a lack of freewill does not necessitate any drastic changes in the way we will live.  There is still a modicum of accountability for our actions, and we won’t simply stop trying to live (mostly because we don’t have that kind of control), although for many live could seem meaningless without freewill.  Rather, we should use this sort of insight to frame our understanding of the world around us, the things we consider good and evil, the praise we give to the successful and the admonitions we use to chastise failure.

There is certainly plenty of room for intelligent dissent from Harris’s bold freewill claims.  But the value of his thesis lies in his successful navigation of a complex issue, turning it into an accessible book (it’s really more of a pamphlet, which is even more impressive for the brevity) and starting an intellectual conversation with other academics and readers alike.  This is the true value of the public intellectual.  Not to dictate and educate, or to tell people how things are, but to explain a well-reasoned argument and challenge others to challenge it.  It is about involving the public in a debate, inviting them to contribute and question.  Harris does a remarkable job of this in not only his discussion of freewill, but also in espousing ideas of morality and religion.

Harris’s doctoral thesis was a foray into the world of belief; he used fMRIs to measure neurological reactions to belief, disbelief, and uncertainty in forming his theory of morality (not quite a theory, but almost) entitled, “The Moral Landscape: How Science Could Determine Human Values.”  He has also delivered a TED talk of the same name, in which he briefly outlines the suggestion that morality is a measure of human well-being, and that with advances in the field of neuroscience we should be able to someday be able to have factual basis for moral decisions.  While this is an incredibly undeveloped and controversial idea, Harris is fulfilling an important social role by raising an antiquated philosophical idea through a new scientific lens.  Detractors argue that there is nothing novel about Harris’s ideas, and that they are are merely tantamount to secular moral philosophy, but his diametrically opposed views force others to reevaluate and defend their own ideals, which furthers the discourse dramatically.

Harris is certainly most well known for his views on religion.  Raised in a secular household, Harris has become one the most prominent atheists in the academic community, mentioned in the same breath as Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and the late Christopher Hitchens.  Harris has written The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation, both criticisms of religion in the United States and worldwide.  The former has drawn scathing criticism as a hateful, Islamophobe’s diatribe (a criticism I will address later), but is undoubtedly an intelligent examination of faith in the abstract.  At it’s core, faith and all later derivations of a faith-based belief system are anti-intellectual because they are anti-logical.  All critical intellectualism is based upon evidence that has been evaluated through a lens of reason and faith is a denial of these basic principles.

So if faith is the antithesis of logic and reasoning, which are the basis of accepted knowledge, can a religious person be regarded as an intellectual person?  Undoubtedly there are many such people; it seems that these folk construct a sort of partition where they separate these two parts of their minds.  The faith remains separate from the intellect, and reasoning in most areas of life remains untainted.  That is to say, intellectualism can still be had, but this is in spite of faith, not as a part of the influence of faith.

Blogger Stephen Mack writes of this relationship in his article, “The Cleric As Public Intellectual.”  In writing about the many social activists throughout American history, Mack notes, “These men and women have been intellectuals of a special kind—people whose religious training and experience shaped their vision of a just society and required them to work for it.”  While I agree with Mack’s historical emphasis on the importance of religion, I believe (in what I think to be a very Harris-ian view) that these intellectuals were not special because their religion informed their intellectual pursuits, but because they were able to compartmentalize their religion away from their intellectual work so successfully.  Mack points to the movement of abolition as one example of faith motivating positive social change, so as to say faith has played an important role in progressive thought.  However, it’s impossible to know what would have happened in the absence of faith; perhaps without such an uncritical framework of thought in the past, we wouldn’t have spent the time since our country’s inception subjugating various racial, ethnic and gender minorities (among so many others).

It is also possible that we shouldn’t consider these figures to be intellectuals.  The character of abolition came from a religious faithful empathy, not an intellectual argument.  Just because they made the proper intellectual decision (by today’s standards) doesn’t necessarily mean that they are intellectuals, because they arrived there by the wrong means.  If I say that I’m going to get a promotion because my horoscope told me to expect positive change in my life, and I get a promotion, it doesn’t mean I can see the future.  It means I happened to be right about something, and because my belief was not grounded in reason and evidence, I could have just as easily been wrong.  This is why religion is harmful and as no place in an intellectual mindset; had God decided that slavery was good (as he did for many people), then they would have gone with that.  At its core, religion is anti-reasoning and therefore anti-intellectual.  All intellectual decisions are based upon reason.  If I came into a conference about whether Pluto should be considered a planet, and I said that a Plutonian came to me in a dream and declared it to be a planet, I would lose my influence and invariably end up in a mental institution.  Why is it different for one to say God informed their decision?

Then again, maybe their religion pointed them in a certain direction, and then intellect took over for justification and for implementation.  Still the religion is not the pertinent part for the intellectual work, it is unrelated, only giving the goal.  A pursuit can not be intellectual in nature if it is not based on logical steps.  A leap of faith can’t be made in intellectual argument, but it can inform an underlying moral theory that can be argued for intellectually.  There is no such thing as “religious intellectual work”.  There is intellectual work done by people who are religious (if we are being generous).

But I digress.  As noted before I mounted my soapbox, much of Harris’s work has been mired in controversy with accusations of bigotry and Islamophobia.  Harris has defended his statements many times in both interviews and his blog, and while I agree that these accusations are not as credible as many liberals would like to think, that is not the reason I address this controversy.  Regardless of who is correct in the debate, Harris’s sometimes radical statements are exactly what is starting the debate.  This is one of the main reasons he is such an important figure.  He addresses difficult, taboo topics and engages the public, challenging them to think and create informed opinions.

In another of Stephen Mack’s articles, “The Supposed Decline of the Public Intellectual”, Mack alludes to this very idea, stating that the primary function of the public intellectual is “simply to keep the pot boiling.”  I would like to add a condition to this; while it may be implied, I think it is important to say that the public intellectual must keep the pot boiling intelligently.  Donald Trump is sure-as-hell keeping the pot boiling.  Is he a public intellectual?  No.  He is a self-absorbed megalomaniac shooting spitballs at our country from the back of the classroom.  Sam Harris, however, through his well-informed dissent with the liberal political coalition with which he normally aligns is a perfect example of keeping the pot boiling intelligently.  His legacy will be measured in the extent to which he furthers the uncomfortable discussions, and inspires others to continue them in their own intellectual work.

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