Wednesday, July 11, 2012
Why Sam Harris Is an Atheist
As we saw in our last blog post, Sam Harris set out to demonstrate "How Science Can Determine Human Values," to quote the subtitle of his book. It was a bold attempt to find an objective moral standard based on science. And, in our opinion, he largely failed in the attempt. While he offered many opinions of his own on a wide variety of subjects, he gave few specifically scientific reasons for them. Instead he mainly went over the same ground that numerous theologians and philosophers have traversed for many centuries before, all the while not professing to see any valid objections to his own highly colored opinions. In the end Dr. Harris comes across as an atheist trying hard not to sound like Nietzsche.
In his wandering peregrinations of the mind, however, Dr. Harris stumbled into an age-old trap, the hoary controversy over determinism v. free will. Dr. Harris says that there is no such thing as a free will, but unlike religious determinists of the past such as Augustine, Calvin and Edwards, Dr. Harris is an atheist and a thoroughgoing materialist (and a neuroscientist at that). But this creates a dilemma for him. On the one hand he wants to say that everything that occurs in the human mind has a natural cause, and therefore can be studied scientifically by neuroscientists such as himself. But if this is the case, Dr. Harris' own thought processes have been biologically determined, which raises an intriguing question: how can scientific reasoning be valid? There would be no necessary correlation between what goes on in the scientist's mind and external reality.
Dr. Harris himself is aware of the problem and states it this way: "The problem is that no account of causality leaves room for free will. Thoughts, moods and desires of every sort simply spring into view – and move us, or fail to move us, for reasons that are, from a subjective point of view, perfectly inscrutable" (p. 104).
This, in turn, affects our view of moral responsibility. Dr. Harris challenges traditional notions of sin and culpability. If we only understood the underling causes of bad behavior we would be more compassionate with the erring. At the same time it would open the door to a scientific solution to the problem of human evil.
But then Dr. Harris seems to step back and modify his position somewhat. He argues that a person could be held responsible for his behavior if he had the intention to do harm. However, if our "thoughts, moods and desires" are rooted in our biology and "simply spring into view," then does not the intention also have an underlying social or biological cause? How then, can we hold a criminal responsible for his actions?
Moreover, if our thoughts simply spring into view for reasons that are inscrutable, then what about Dr. Harris' own research? It is remarkable that he managed to earn a doctorate from UCLA with thoughts that "simply sprang into view." And how about his book? How did it come about? (It became a New York Times bestseller.) Dr. Harris is caught on the horns of a familiar dilemma: science depends on the assumption of causality in nature; but causality in the mind means that the scientist himself is non-rational. Dr. Harris, it seems, has led us to a dead end.
Again Dr. Harris appears to back off from his earlier assertions. He tries to argue that while biology and physical circumstances provide the motives for thought and action, that does not mean that we cannot still think rationally. "The fact that reason must be rooted in biology does not negate the principles of reason" (p. 131), he says. We are motivated to think, but we still think. "There is a sense in which all cognition can be said to be motivated: one is motivated to understand the world, to be in touch with reality, to remove doubt . . .As we have begun to see, all reasoning may be inextricable from emotion" (p. 126). But then he goes on to say ". . . the inseparability of reason and emotion confirms that the validity of belief cannot merely depend on the conviction felt by its adherents; it rests on the claims of evidence and argument that link it to reality" (pp. 126-127). It is a little hard to see how the one "confirms" its seeming opposite, but apparently what Dr. Harris has in mind is that our thought processes, while being driven and directed by our emotions, are nevertheless still capable of being rational. A passion for truth should lead us to pursue the truth with all the mental acumen and intellectual rigor at our command. But the problem remains: if everything we think is the result of chemical changes in our brains, how much mental acumen do we really have? Is it not all an illusion?
Dr. Harris is quick to point out how emotion and bias influence the thinking of religious believers and social conservatives. But the argument is a two-edged sword – it cuts both ways. Is it not possible that Dr. Harris' own thinking has been shaped and molded by his personal biases? He notes at one point that dopamine receptor genes seem to play a role in religious belief: people with the most active form of the gene seem to be more religious. Might not a prescription for the drug L-dopa take care of Dr. Harris' atheism problem? Is it not possible that he is an atheist because he wants to be an atheist? The devout Christian sees evidence of Intelligent Design everywhere; Dr. Harris sees it nowhere. Has our perception, or lack thereof, been affected by our natural inclinations?