The bigger picture

Poltics and personal life, science and religion

Michael Steinberg

Michael Steinberg
Rochester, New York, US
June 20
I am a writer ("The fiction of a thinkable world: Body, meaning, and the culture of capitalism" [Monthly Review Press 2005]; "A new biology of religion: Spiritual practice and the life of the body" [Praeger, 2012]; "Enlightenment Interrupted: The lost moment of German Idealism and the reactionary present" [Zero Books, 2014]) and an attorney. I'm most interested in how we got into our present-day mess and how we can't separate our self-image from the experience of the world.

OCTOBER 17, 2010 8:58PM

San Harris reinvents the nineteenth century

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Is there anything that Sam Harris doesn't know nothing about? The Salon interview with him about his new book suggests that the answer is no. Science--that is, a specific kind of reason--is where we're supposed to look for moral authority. But Harris either rejects all of western philosophy along with religion or he's just unaware that rationality is an utter failure at establishing valid human goals or ethical standards. This isn't to say that morality needs a god and rewards and punishments to back it up; ethics can be based in emotional life or in human interaction. But reason is a non-starter. If Harris actually thinks science can figure out what the good life is and how we should live it he's living in a dreamworld.

He also doesn't seem familiar with contemporary neurologists like António Damásio whose research strongly suggests that we make decisions emotionally, not out of reason. If that's the case, we wouldn't listen to the scientists even if they had somehow figured out the formula for the proper way to live.

And that promised formula doesn't sound like it's going to be anything more than good old common sense, though of course it's the good old common sense of up-to-date educated Westerners. And it's terribly vague, too. Harris tells the interviewer, "Imagine we discovered that there is a best way to teach your children ... to defer short-term gratification in the service of a long-term goal ... what parent wouldn’t want that knowledge?"

You'll note that he assumes that deferred gratification is a good in itself--and of course it isn't. It depends on what you're waiting for. Revenge killers are really, really good at deferred gratification. The problem is figuring out which long-term goals are worth passing up immediate pleasure for, and Harris doesn't talk as if he knows how hard that is.

Of course his discussion of religion is problematic too. Even his praise of the Jains seems to come from ignorance. Nothing against Jainism, but it's hard to believe that Harris knows what a deeply pessimistic and world-rejecting  tradition it is and how much its non-violence seems to connect with a kind of spiritual masochism. The ultimate act of liberation for Jain monks and nuns is to starve themselves to death, a practice movingly and troublingly illuminated in the first chapter of William Dalrymple's wonderful Nine Lives. How does Harris feel about ritual suicide?

On top of all that, Harris pulls out one of the hoariest of nineteenth-century march-of-progress clichés, "Religion just amounts to bad science." This is self-satisfied nonsense. Religion is a way of transforming the experience of living; only a handful of admittedly very popular ones do it by claiming to know the facts about the universe and humanity.That's one reason that religion doesn't go away. It's a repository of essential practices, not a set of fables from the childhood of a humanity that's fated to mature into a world of--well, Sam Harrises.

But that's not the only chestnut that Harris roasts for our edification.  What is his ethical code but a dumbed-down version of Jeremy Bentham's utilitarianism? Harris figures that we can tell easily enough what's good for people and what's not, so the obvious way to assess the merits of any course of action is to promote the greatest good for the greatest number.

In its pure form utilitarianism is pretty much dead on arrival, as much a corpse as the stuffed body of Bentham himself. But Harris sounds like he's trying to revive it. His kind of ethics leaves out everything that makes being human so difficult and so interesting. I'm no fan of trollyology, the ethics class problems about whether you'd sacrifice someone else's life to save five others and which factors change your decision. But the worst thing about Harris's shallow approach to ethics is that it leaves no room for such problems. The scientific answer is simple: kill the sucker, one life is one-fifth as good as five.


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Okay, thanks. The Sam Harris interview had me thinking oh-KAY, but yeah, people do their main thinking in some other part of the brain than the Pure Reason centre, and even when in PR mode there are some situations where The Greatest Good is either not easily discernible or is emotionally untenable...


But I don't see religion as having the answers...
Hi there, I enjoy your blog, which I discovered fairly recently after reading some old posts you made on a different site (one about Margaret Thatcher in particular). However, I think Harris has many good points, and as a bit of an exaggerator he is fairly effective at communicating them. I think what he is talking about is more of a macro-level worldview. In that case, science and reason (utilitarianism even) can certainly be valid means of establishing a moral and ethical framework for society. most of your objection seems to be on the micro level, and on the micro level, well, I don't think any belief system can give a good answer for the trolly type questions. I think what Harris said, "I do criticize all religion, but I point out that “religion" is just a word, like “sports," is apropos (though maybe he seems to forget this sometimes). Some religions *do* offer bad sciencem, and some religions probably aren't even really "religions"--those are probably the ones which go much further in, as you said "transforming the experience of living." And by extension are desirable even in a utilitarian type of ethics.

Anyway, it's really only in the western world that there is a big conflict between religion and science/atheism.