Note: I wrote this critique of Sam Harris back in 2019 as a non-believer, just months before knowing Jesus really is God. I no longer hold to the more materialistic explanations I make here, but I think it still makes valid points against Harris’ selflessness and anti-religiosity.
I wish to be able to distinguish my ideas from Sam Harris’, so I began his ‘Waking up’ audiobook. He spends a lot of time going after religious institutions, which maybe I would do if I were simply more outspoken of what I really believe. Instead, perhaps, I speak in religious terms when referring to the subjective, like Kierkegaard.
What I might call out Harris on is his bias for physicality in considering the real, and in connection with this, his view of the subjective ‘moment’ as something that too could be scientifically grasped and treated as empirical. In that case, I could definitely see a difference between him and me, for which I rejoice.
To me, the subjective begins where what is communicable of experience ends, while Harris doesn’t seem to draw a line here, perhaps figuring it obvious that some things just couldn’t be communicated. Maybe he doesn’t realize the essence of spirituality is precisely in the incommunicable, and his attempts to nail down the spiritual are lacking on account of his overencompassed view of science and the explicitly knowable.
You couldn’t include subjectivity in science, only the concept of subjectivity. Science could only take for granted that subjectivity exists, for example in studying the preferences manifested by consumers in an economy, but could not touch on each ‘I’ experiencing itself uniquely.
I would not object to Harris’ view of the self as an illusion, in the way Buddhists mean. Saying something is an illusion is different from saying it’s not real at all, however. My favorite movie is just a collection of still images, but it’s no less true and of value to me on account of that. If Harris isn’t denying that he, Harris, exists, just because the ‘I’ is constructed from an abundantly connected network of neurons, then I’m with him on that.
In addition, it remains a complete mystery how any ‘I’ is uniquely its own. Why, of all the ‘I’s in this crazy world, is this ‘I,’ and no other ‘I’,’ me? I don’t know yet to what extent Harris’ ‘I’ acknowledges this, what could only be called a miracle. The question of why this consciousness is accessible to me, this one specifically and not any other, remains of great interest and significance, yet out of reach of scientific inquiry. Even if I concede that this ‘I’ is necessarily limited by the material of which it is constituted, as Harris points towards, the question of why remains valid and never to be satisfied in any communicable way.
Harris makes a point to not bash the ‘I’ unequivocally, but says the “conventional sense of self.” I can’t disagree with that, even referring to it as a matter of preconception of self.
We could understand the self as it is indicated by a network perpetually in flux, the immediacy of memories over a timeline in accordance with variations of environment. The ‘as indicated by’ above is important, as to not limit the definition of self to what is observable.
“What has to be given up is not the I, as most mystics suppose: the I is indispensable for any relationship, including the highest, which always presupposes an I and You. What has to be given up is not the I but that false drive for self-affirmation which impels man to flee from the unreliable, unsolid, unlasting, unpredictable, dangerous world of relation into the having of things.” — Martin Buber, from I and thou
One other thing I would criticize Harris for is his methodological collectivism when it comes to criticizing the major religions. He’s stuck in focusing on each religion having a primitive, harmful “centralized” institution, but admits exceptions to his judgment who do go by the name of Christian or Muslim. His inability to look primarily at individual religious practitioners, and insistence on being able to label an organization, prevents him from seeing the dynamism and constant evolution of religious understanding.
Harris seems to feel that sacred texts such as the Bible and Koran could be discarded in that what value they have is said better elsewhere. If the ‘practical’ essence of the Psalms was distilled into an altogether new book, would this mean a better book than the Psalms? Or is it like expecting a song or symphony to be ‘better’ if it could somehow be stripped of its frivolous melodic distractions?
For all his admission that much of consciousness is a mystery, he settles much of his argument on biological grounds, feeling consciousness to be divisible because the brain could be manipulated into manifesting itself in predetermined ways of awareness. That still doesn’t quite grasp whatever wholeness of identity is experienced, nor even touches on the uniqueness of what in our ignorance could only be called each soul.
I don’t quite get why I feel defensive about his person as compared to Jordan Peterson, whom I also disagree with but give much props to without reserve. Harris is definitely undeserving of David Bentley Hart’s minimizing though, and among the three — Harris, Peterson, and Hart — I’d say Harris is the most mentally healthy if only for his habitual meditation. Ultimately, I think my opposition to him stems mainly from disagreeing with the extent to which he believes we are capable of explaining the world.
Harris specifically says of mystical experiences induced by psychedelics that they could be understood scientifically. I believe he is referring to systematizing the use of psychedelics and of classifying experiences, and not so much that the experience itself could be transmitted. In that sense, his views go hand in hand with mine, although I emphasize that the understanding gained from the mystical is not scientific, whatever neurological symptoms could be accounted for. Mysticism also makes clear that subjectivity itself is not sufficiently covered by language, therefore not codifiable, and not scientific.
His appeal for secularism is also misguided. Superstition doesn’t automatically go with disregard for and looking down at other people. That’s like thinking someone who believes in myths in the way children literally take them is dangerous. Arrogance over one’s superior scientific ways is a bigger threat and more likely to divide people, just as the ‘South Park’ episode ‘Go God go’ depicts. I don’t peg Harris as a particularly arrogant guy, but his faith that the classificatory process known as science will usher an enlightened age, a faith shared by ‘Star trek’ creator Gene Roddenberry, is the beginning of a neglect of what personhood is.