Saturday, May 18, 2013

BkRev: Sam Harris, The End of Faith

Sam Harris, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason, New York, W. W. Norton, 2004, 348 pages (paperback with Afterword).

In Sam Harris's 2004 book, The End of Faith, the title states not a fact but the author's goal: to put an end to faith. "Throughout this book," Harris says, "I am criticizing faith in its ordinary, scriptural sense—as belief in, and life orientation toward, certain historical and metaphysical propositions." (pp. 64-65) In particular, Harris says, "religious faith is simply unjustified
belief in matters of ultimate concern—specifically in propositions that promise some mechanism by which human life can be spared the ravages of time and death." (p. 65) "When the evidence for a religious proposition is thin or nonexistent, or there is compelling evidence against it, people invoke faith." (p. 232)

Harris writes seven chapters that arc from the world's problem, which is faith, to Harris's solution. Chapter 1, "Reason in Exile," presents the problem: Religions such as Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, which are faith-based worldviews, cause ignorance, superstition, oppression, and violence because they are irrational, that is, faith-based worldviews are not based on evidence; they are not subject to criticism; they are welded to events that supposedly happened thousands of years ago; and therefore they are not open to revision today in light of modern knowledge. Cultural taboos, such as the constant call for "tolerance," prohibit us from challenging them, Harris argues.

Chapter 2, "The Nature of Belief" describes belief and reason, as Harris understands those concepts. (A later post here on The Main Event will focus on Harris's views of reason and mysticism.) In this chapter Harris shows that he understands that ideas have consequences and irrational ideas, such as those based on faith, have terrible consequences. In Chapter 3, "In the Shadow of God," he shows the roots of the Inquisition and the Holocaust in religious unreason and particularly in holy scripture. In Chapter 4, "The Problem with Islam," Harris demonstrates that the problem with Islam is Islam itself. In Chapter 5, "West of Eden," he shows that Christianity in great measure shapes the legal system of the United States.

Once he has presented the problem, Harris turns to offering an alternative to religion as the source of ethical guidance. Ch. 6, "A Science of Good and Evil," describes opportunities, problems, and (according to Harris) the initial successes of a scientific approach to ethics.

Chapter 7, "Experiments in Consciousness," claims that, despite all their failures, religions have offered a certain truth: One can have extraordinary experiences if one goes beyond the "ordinary uses of attention," that is, consciousness. (p. 204) After a discussion of such topics as striving to lose one's sense of self as a step toward happiness, Harris admits: "Inevitably, the foregoing will strike certain readers as a confusing eruption of speculative philosophy." Harris goes on to advocate "nondualistic empirical mysticism." (p. 215) The West, Harris says, is standing on the shoulders of dwarfs when it relies on Western philosophers—instead of Easterners who pursue goals such as "liberation from the illusion of self." (p. 215)

STYLE. Throughout this 358-page book, Harris's style is generally clear, except that he does not concisely and formally define his terms. He is often vivid, especially in his indictment of the Abrahamic religions. His writing flows. It is casual, even though he writes about fundamentally important subjects. His metaphors are imaginative.

Imagine that we could revive [and talk with] a well-educated Christian of the fourteenth century. The man would prove to be a total ignoramus, except on matters of faith. (pp. 21-22)

Harris is at times sarcastic, which is unfortunate because sarcasm is an indirect form of communication. Readers who need the greatest clarity, those who are first approaching a difficult subject, need direct communication, generally free of sarcasm, except perhaps as an occasional touch for emphasis on the ridiculous. (p. 36, for an example)

Harris's style is often pithy: ". . . 'the rise of Islamic fundamentalism' is only a problem because the fundamentals of Islam are a problem." (p. 148) And, in dealing with Islam today: "We are in the presence of the past." (p. 150)

HARRIS'S ETHICS: APPLIED MYSTICISM AND REASON. Ethics is the study of what humans ought to do—that is, what actions they should take here in this life on earth. Harris is an altruist. He holds that serving others is the standard of action. He rejects religion's support for altruism.

The help rendered to the poor by Christian missionaries in the developing world demonstrates that religious ideas can lead to actions that are both beautiful and necessary. But there are far better reasons for self-sacrifice than those that religion provides. (p. 78)

A rational approach to ethics becomes possible once we realize that questions of right and wrong are really questions about the happiness and suffering of sentient creatures. If we are in a position to affect the happiness or suffering of others, we have ethical responsibilities toward them—and many of these responsibilities are so grave as to become matters of civil and criminal law. (pp. 170-171)

Harris thus takes "happiness and suffering" as a utilitarian starting point of an investigation into what is moral and what is immoral. (pp. 170-171) "To treat others ethically is to act out of concern for their happiness and suffering. It is, as Kant observed, to treat them as ends in themselves rather than as means to some further end." (p. 186) Harris does not explain why he chooses that starting point.

Harris says our ethical rules, such as "Murder is wrong," should be "anchored to the facts of this world." (p. 170) What is the nature of that anchoring? According to Harris, we have ethical "intuitions," but he rejects the idea that religions are sources of them. (pp. 170-172) Instead, we "harbor some rudimentary sense that cruelty is wrong." (p. 172) "Our ethical intuitions must have their precursors in the natural world," where we see that even monkeys have some concern for other monkeys. Thus "our ethical intuitions have their roots in biology." (p. 172)

We should, Harris holds, develop ethics from the science of consciousness. However, that science is in its infancy. (p. 174) "There will probably come a time when we achieve a detailed understanding of human happiness, and of ethical judgments themselves, at the level of the brain. Just as defects in color vision can result from genetic and developmental disorders, problems can undoubtedly arise in our ethical and emotional circuitry as well." (p. 175)

To establish a scientific, rational ethics, we will need to abandon not only religious sources but also abandon philosophical relativism and pragmatism. (pp. 178-179) "In philosophical terms, pragmatism can be directly opposed to realism." (p. 180) "To be an ethical realist is to believe that in ethics, as in physics, there are truths waiting to be discovered—and thus we can be right or wrong in our beliefs about them." (p. 181) This ties directly to "intuitions," because with an intuition the world around us enters our brain to deposit a truth.

INSIGHTS. Harris, despite his fundamental flaws, often has valid insights into our society. Consider five examples:

1. Harris knows that ideas ("beliefs") are important because they motivate actions. (p. 44) Harris knows that ideas move history. He does not rely on the cliches of economic, racial, or other determinism. (Harris is, however, a determinist in the sense that he rejects the idea of free will. [Ch. 6, n. 7, pp. 272-274] That position parallels his reductionism, specifically his notion of wanting to reduce the functions of consciousness to circuits in the brain, as on pp. 56 and 123.)

2. "What is the alternative to religion as we know it? As it turns out, this is the wrong question to ask. Chemistry was not an 'alternative' to alchemy; it was a wholesale exchange of ignorance at its most rococo for genuine knowledge." (p. 14) By "genuine knowledge," Harris means scientific knowledge, that is, knowledge gained through the methods of the various specialized sciences such as physics and biology.

3. Harris clearly understands that religious "moderates" are people who have accepted only some elements of their religions or have realized that they are "obliged to loosely interpret (or simply ignore) much of their canons in the interests of living in the modern world." (p. 17)

Religious moderation springs from the fact that even the least educated person among us siimply knows more about certain matters than anyone did two thousand years ago—and much of this knowledge is incompatible with scripture. (p. 19)

The problem that religious moderation poses for all of is that it does not permit anything very critical to be said about religious literalism. (p. 20)

Religious moderation is the product of secular knowledge and scriptural ignorance . . . . (p. 21)

By failing to live by the letter of the [holy] texts, while tolerating the irrationality of those who do, religious moderates betray faith and reason equally. (p. 21)

To see that our problem is with Islam itself, and not merely with 'terrorism', we need only ask ourselves why Muslim terrorists do what they do. (p. 28) 

The concessions we have made to religious faith—to the idea that belief can be sanctified by something other than evidence—have rendered us unable to name, much less address, one of the most pervasive causes of conflict in our world. (p. 29)

Religious moderates are, in large part, responsible for the religious conflict in our world, because their beliefs provide the context in which scriptural literalism and religious violence can never be adequately opposed. (p. 45)

4. Harris lambastes Christianity and Judaism (e.g., p. 94) as well as Islam, but recognizes that the practices of Christianity and Judaism today are more moderate, that is, adapted to modern knowledge and standards. "While my argument in this book is aimed at faith itself, the differences between faiths are as relevant as they are unmistakable. . . . [and] Muslims have more than their fair share of" bad beliefs.

5. He connects faith and politics. "Because we are a people of faith, taught to concern ourselves with the sinfulness of our neighbors, we have grown tolerant of irrational uses of state power." For example: "Each year, over 1.5 million men and women are arrested in the United States because of our drug laws." (p. 162)

CONCLUSION. For students of contemporary culture, The End of Faith offers a chance to look closely at a mixed case. Politically, Harris is neither conservative nor liberal but a composite. Likewise, philosophically, Harris is neither a religionist appealing to faith nor a nihilist. Instead he attempts to rebuild conventional ethics—altruism, the doctrine that reveres self-sacrifice for the sake of others—not on the foundation of religion but on the twin footing of specialized Western sciences and Eastern mysticism. His attempt fails, but his effort reflects the confused nature of our culture. 

Burgess Laughlin
Author, The Power and the Glory: The Key Ideas and Crusading Lives of Eight Debaters of Reason vs. Faith,

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