Sam Harris: The Global Conversation

Sam Harris is a polarizing figure.

Standing at the forefront of what has been called the “New Atheist” movement, wielding a degree in English, a Masters in Philosophy, a decade of Buddhist meditation, and a PhD in Neuroscience, Harris has made a career out of attacking taboo and promoting a rational, empirical view of the world. His lack of regard for tact around highly sensitive issues such as religion and war has earned him legions of supporters around the world. This has provided him with a livelihood through which he can raise a family.

His lack of tact has also earned him enough death threats to cause him to fill his house with guns, hire bodyguards, and encourage all of his family (including his young daughters) to study martial arts. He regularly interacts with his critics, and has a page on his blog dedicated to correcting misrepresentations of his writing. He claims that many of his critics lie on purpose about his work, and that this only increases fears of violent retribution. He is regularly called a racist and accused of stoking the flames of intolerance towards people of religions from different countries, particularly Islam.

A major problem with Sam Harris is his staunch avoidance of labels and categories. He refuses the label of “atheist”, and encourages others to do the same here. His books are often criticized as not being works of philosophy, or not being philosophical enough. Conversely, they are also criticized for not being science books, and not containing enough science. His admirers and followers are left in a void in which they have no collective identity to share, and so his critics are free to label him and his followers with no recourse from the other side. Harris is regularly shocked that people do not assume his good intent. When someone calls him a racist, all he can do is say that he is not. When someone calls him a sexist, all he can say is that he is not. When Harris and the people who enjoy his writing are labelled as “New Atheists”, there is no response except to say that he doesn’t like the word.

To me, Sam Harris is a Humanist. As opposed to humanism which is the secularist movement arising in opposition to religion, I define Humanism as the movement of people who accept the ideas made explicit in Harris’s The Moral Landscape: all of our moral concerns are centered on the experience of conscious creatures, with positive experiences being good and negative experiences being bad. Harris did not create this movement. Furthermore, the ideas in this book did not originate with Harris, rather he gave them with a new voice and new language. This provides us with a challenge. How do we categorize the work that Harris is doing, how do we understand his position in modern human culture? To contextualize Harris’s work, it is essential to understand his worldview. In the context of his beliefs about the fundamental illusory nature of our sense of self, outlined in Waking Up, his views about free will and love (in this blog post), his aforementioned moral framework, it simply makes no sense to accuse him of racism or sexism or wanting to kill off sections of the human population. Harris’s worldview is unusual for the New Atheist movement because the majority of his views do not originate in the scientific/philosophical traditions of the West, but rather in Buddhist philosophy and wisdom traditions.

All of his works are centered around the lived experience of the individual, encouraging us to interrogate our moment-to-moment experience to discover whether things that we take to be true can stand up to scrutiny. He tells us that people’s beliefs are primary motivators of their behaviour. He tells us that spiritual experiences are possible without supernatural beliefs. He tells us that our lives would be better without lying. He tells us that our moral concerns are based on the experiences of conscious creatures. He tells us that the concept of free will is so irrational that if you actually pay attention it doesn’t even feel like we have free will. Instead of speaking from the objective outsider perspective that is highly traditional in Western culture, Harris speaks from the insider’s subjective experience and merely encourages readers to do the same.

This is an perfect example of how Humanism reinterprets the concept of authority without a belief in higher powers: each person’s experience is equally authoritative, and equally open to question. Harris marshals the facts of the matter when he discusses these topics, he presents his case eloquently and carefully to maximize the persuasive power, he states his opinions strongly and clearly in open defiance of the chance that he may be challenged on his views. In fact, welcoming challenge and disagreement is a central aspect of what Harris is trying to do.

Bubbling under the surface of every piece that Harris has ever written, and motivating every public appearance he has had to date, is the concept of The Global Conversation. Christianity, capitalism, gravity: every idea now prevalent in a given community had to come to people’s attention through its discussion and discussion of alternative ideas, and the ideas that successfully capture people’s attention are the ones that spread the best. The project that Harris has been embarked on since the beginning of his public career in 2005 has been to attempt to set the rules of a truly global conversation, unbounded by the particular taboos of any one culture. One lens through which this may be seen is in his work defining words.

In The End Of Faith, Harris offered a controversial but popular definition of the ‘faith’: pretending to know things you don’t know. In The Moral Landscape, Harris defined the word ‘morality’: principles by which we can judge the changes in wellbeing and suffering of conscious creatures, a definition which caused outrage among philosophical academics that asserted that the multiple definitions of morality offered in moral philosophy were equally valid and thus no recourse was available to one who chose a deontological moral framework over a consequentialist one like Harris prescribed. In Waking Up, Harris offered a definition of ‘spirituality’: the recognition of the illusory nature of our intuitive conception of self. By offering definitions like these, Harris sought to direct the flow of The Global Conversation by offering a basis on which people of different cultures could discuss topics which they fundamentally disagreed on, but had no way of judging who’s side held more validity. By defining the argument, Harris’s hope is that arguments like these can be carried forward to completion, so that humans can arrive at a true consensus and move on toward more interesting and difficult conversations in mutual collaboration.

Another way of looking at Harris’s focus on The Global Conversation is in his challenge of false consensus in society. Predominantly focusing on religion, though also with interest in political ideologies, and the particular beliefs of a society such as in free will or the morality of lying, Harris seeks to uproot unacknowledged conflict and confusion. Through taking the intuitions used to sustain false beliefs, and challenging them, Harris tries to show us how our first-person experience of the world can be made coherent and intelligible by having the courage to face the possibility of arriving at socially discouraged solutions to difficult problems. This is strongly displayed in Free Will, where he takes apart the notion of humans having conscious control over their experience of decision-making, and then moves from this to discussing how to view retributive punishment and the legal system without assuming that all criminals simply chose to be criminals. Instead, Harris seeks to prove that honest reflection and reasoning will always result in positive effects on humanity, by challenging the notion that free will is necessary for morality to make any sense.

So, under Sam Harris’s Humanism, we humans are forever engaged in the Global Conversation. Our beliefs, opinions, and ideas have important effects on the people around us in ways that we might not ever fully realise, and thus it is of great importance that we make sure our beliefs are true. Harris argues again and again that the only way to do this is to be honest in conversation, to be open to the possibility of being wrong and to accept the unsavoury conclusions arising from the things we believe. In this way, the Global Conversation is a collaboration between humans from all cultures, and disputes that arise are in fact positive offerings for the betterment of humanity, no matter how small the result may seem. Unfortunately for Harris, this is a strong set of cultural norms that he in trying to pioneer. It carries its own dogmas and taboos that are integral to the success of his project.

One is that honesty will always result in morally good outcomes. This is a particular solution to a consequentialist conception of morality, which hypothesises that some situations exist where lying might result in more happiness for all humans than telling the truth. Harris’s project relies on this not being the case, or to be true so little of the time as to be worth ignoring. When people don’t accept this dogma, Harris runs into trouble: people will arrive at their beliefs based on the perceived outcomes of the beliefs, rather than their pure truth value. We can see this in Harris’s dispute with Chomsky, who arrives at his beliefs about the moral stature of nations based on how likely his beliefs are to influence the culture rather than basing his beliefs on an impartial moral comparison between nations, leading to his demonisation of the USA as the leading terrorist group on Earth while paying no attention to other nations that cause on balance far more suffering to people in the world. Another dogma required is in his lack of belief in free will and the self. When interlocutors do not arrive in the conversation sharing these beliefs, they invariably impute a moral condemnation of the character in every critique Harris has of another thinker. They see Harris as dividing the world up into good people and bad people instead of into good ideas and bad ideas, because an underlying notion that they accept is that people freely choose which beliefs to hold, and that these beliefs are a part of their core self and thus not amenable to change. So on, so forth.

Harris cripples his own project by attempt to make it culture-free. By not acknowledging explicitly the importance of social bonds in the development and sharing of belief systems, of cultural norms surrounding conversation, his ideas are only available to people who share his desire to reject local cultural norms, or to those who mistakenly believe that he accepts the cultural norms that they accept (as seen in many of the New Atheists). Harris’s project requires that people give a single label to this constellation of beliefs and conversational norms, so that they can direct their conversation with individuals most effectively towards helping these people to truly join a global rather than local conversation. By identifying as a Humanist, people could instantly communicate that they are open to being incorrect, honest in their communication and reasoning, and see dispute as ultimately being a moral good. By refusing to move towards more difficult topics until disputes regarding free will, spirituality, and faith are resolved, these Humanists could actively preserve the capacity of the Global Conversation to have positive moral outcomes, without confusion.

Until Harris adopts this identity, and defines himself in this open way, his ideas will be diffuse and bogged down in whatever culture he offends enough to have them discuss him at length. His ideas represent a brand new culture, developed from very old ideas: the Enlightenment values. It is new because it is a new language game, but it is the continuation of a conversation that began long before Harris was born. This tradition needs to be named, and recognised. In this way, we will become something new. No longer would we be just a group of like-minded individuals—we would be a community.

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