Historian Jackson Lears has an interesting attack on Sam Harris in The Nation. I'm not endorsing everything in this everything-but-the-kitchen sink assault (on both Harris' religious and moral theories), but it's interesting and worth a read.
Russ Roberts did a thought provoking interview with someone who challenges the positivist methodology. i.e. Reducing everything to formulas (as in economics) or consciousness to observing certain neurons firing up (Sam Harris) as meaningful, ehttp://www.econtalk.org/archives/2011/05/byers_on_the_bl.html
Well, that was long. I actually thought I saw the kitchen sink – my eyes aren’t that good though.
Josh Davis says
Interesting find Wes, and definitely thought provoking. I don’t like the fact that Lears attempts to draw connections between “positivists”, eugenics, evolutionary psychology, and the New Athiests. To my mind it’s a strain. He seems to speak of “the positivists” as if they had some strong scientific/moral stance influenced by the theory of evolution, but if we’re talking about say Schlick and Carnap, we’re talking about philosophers who were fundamentally disinterested in moral speculation because it was considered meaningless emotional utterance. They were more like mathematicians interested in modes of representation. If my knowledge of history came from this alone, I might think that Hitler was profoundly influenced by the Tractatus. You can accept certain doctrines of the logical positivists, for example the idea of philosophy as a theory of meaning, without accepting, say, reductionism, and you can accept all of it without having an opinion about evolution. And what the hell is “antimodernism” anyway??
Ethan Gach says
I’m confused. I never knew the positivist thought to have declared certainty. I thought it only vanquished had no real world cash value.
Unfortunately Lears undermines many potentially good criticisms by conflating Harris and U.S. international policy.
I’ve seen many other writers attack Harris with more clarity and more disabling counter arguments. If someone really wants and informed critique they should search out Thomas Nagel, Troy Jollimore, and Russell Blackford.
Tom McDonald says
Ethan: Lears is talking about positivism in the broader cultural sense of “scientism”, not merely the academic philosophy promoted by Carnap. And in my view, for which I’m sorry I don’t have time to provide more support, Lears is absolutely right to make the correlation between Harris’s beliefs and the techno-capitalist worldview. This is because Harris and his positivist admirers are generally not broad-minded or learned enough in the humanities infer the long-view historical connections between their beliefs and larger cultural trends in the Western world. I find particularly significant Lears’ note of E.O. Wilson’s “Sociobiology” of 1975, the groundwork for Wilson’s “Consilience” — a manifesto for ideological scientism if there ever was one. In the 70s we got the rise of the neo-liberal/anti-statist capitalism that has been very good at privatizing the world for techno-scientific-capitalist enterprises ever since. This is not to say that Harris is aware or intentionally for oppressive forms of capitalism, I don’t believe he is, but it is to say there is a cultural correlation, a connection in the zeitgeist. E.O. Wilson though was a self-described conservative.
Tom McDonald says
Thanks for this Mark. This critique gets at what really bothers me about the ‘new atheism’ and scientism: the complicity of their mechanical-naturalist worldview with oppressive forms of capitalism. I’m not even as far Left in my politics as The Nation. I like some conservatives, and I believe in moderated liberal democracy. However, I think Jackson Lears is getting to the heart of what rubs folks like me as deeply wrong with Dawkins, Dennett, and Harris:
“… we really have gone back to 1910, if not earlier. The deregulation of business and the starvation of the public sector have returned us to a landscape where irresponsible capital can again roam freely, purchasing legislatures wholesale and trampling on the public interest at will … This is a predictable consequence of Republican power, but what is less predictable, and more puzzling, is that the resurrection of Gilded Age politics has been accompanied throughout the culture by a resurgence of Gilded Age patterns of thought, no more so than with the revival of positivism in popular scientific writing. … ”
“More a habit of mind than a rigorous philosophy, positivism depends on the reductionist belief that the entire universe, including all human conduct, can be explained with reference to precisely measurable, deterministic physical processes. … ”
“Positivist assumptions provided the epistemological foundations for Social Darwinism and pop-evolutionary notions of progress, as well as for scientific racism and imperialism. These tendencies coalesced in eugenics, the doctrine that human well-being could be improved and eventually perfected through the selective breeding of the ‘fit’ and the sterilization or elimination of the ‘unfit.’ ”
Tom McDonald says
Correction: Thanks Wes!
Wes Alwan says
Ethan Gach says
But this is entirely the problem. Lears’ account conflates the science with the worst of pseudo-science practitioners and their destructive political agendas. He may have picked up on an important correlation, but he gets it backwards. Science did not co-opt Hitler, Hitler co-opted science. Evolutionary theory did not bring about Social Darwinism. capitalist oligarchs co-opted evolutionary theory to rationalize their wealth and other’s impoverishment.
Bad people do bad science or distort good science, and then we blame the science rather than the people (or the political culture that motivated them). It would be like blaming science for the studies generated by tobacco companies to prove that smoking was not detrimental to your health.
There’s eugenics that leads to genocide, and then there’s eugenics that prevents disease. Harris is going the extra step of saying that real science, good science, actually leads to the latter, while Lears wants to argue that it inevitably leads to the former. I would be open to claiming that Harris is wrong, without going the added step of painting science as inherently dangerous . It seems a very unconvincing argument based upon an extremely narrow definition, and poor understanding of, science, and a cherry picked view of history.
Lears is mostly correct regarding the neo-atheist gang’s imperialist politics. Hitchens and Harris were with BushCo from 9-11 on. And who can forget Harris’s torture essay, or Master Snitchens insisting Bush was right in 2003. Yet, there have been somewhat leftist or progressive positivists. Carnap was somewhat socialistic, reportedly. Russell however british, glib, sleazy, etcetc rejected eugenics and at times was quite leftist–was an associate of Dewey. He had words for the founding of Israel in ’47, did he not? (and against his nemesis Churchill). And BR protested US involvement in Nam.
So one should not mistake a Hitchens–perhaps witty, but hardly a “heavy”– or Harris as carrying on the tradition. Harris often sounds like Henry Kissinger rather than a responsible scientist.
Ethan Gach says
I agree, but I’m unclear how he causally links their scientism to their support for imperialism. If anything, it appears to me to be more of a contradiction in their numerous punditary positions rather than one being a consistent outgrowth of the other.
Given Harris’s purely consequentialist-cost benefit “ethics” wouldn’t torturing Harris himself be possibly a “good” thing, and bring about some desired end, like fundraising. So, like there could be a TV show, Sam Harris, Tortured Live!–maybe a PBS sort of thing–or for charity. The host and audience–callers–negotiate various deals. So, we need 10,000 dollars before the hour’s up, people—or Sam loses his…..right hand! Yes, cut off, live in Primetime.
Given all the fans of neo-atheists, that might bring in some money. Perhaps not as much as if it were say….some children, like white, say—Mitt Romney’s grandchildren– But some.
Ethan Gach says
If you do the moral calculus incorrectly, sure, anything is possible.
In matters of politics, there are no leftists nor rightists, only selfists — Burl.
Taking it to its existential limit, be libertarian.
Kid Charlemagne says
Great link, thanks. He certainly didn’t hold back. This as the earlier comment highlights is what does bug me about the New Atheists and their fans. Often religion is torn down by setting up a oversimplified straw man (i.e. a presentation of a literalist fundamentalist superstition) while the same critical skills are rarely applied in reverse to the claims of science.
The world is not Manichean, often contemplative spirituality that is aware of it limits produces positive ends like abolition and food drives, and science too can be the domain of egos and overconfidence as much as religion.
It might be worth looking into the Austrian thinkers like Hayek. Applied philosophy for sure but if you touch on Marx it seems right to go to these guys too. Hayek was a big believer that pseudo-science “scientism” can be devastating to a society, we see it all too often. Politicians extrapolating poorly prepared “scientific” studies with very harmful consequences.
Damon Stanley says
As much as I disagree with Harriss, I cannot take Lears seriously. He seems to blame positivism and scientism to some extent for the horrors of the 20th century (WWI, WWII, etc.). This is bull. The only problems remotely related to science was the creation of the nuclear bomb (and this was more of a result of WWII). Scientific racism and eugenics were always racist not scientific, relying on bunk-science like phrenology, just as in earlier times racism relied on bunk-religion (black skin was thought to be the Mark of Cain). Science did not lead to racism, racism just adopted a poor scientific covering. The most recent example, The Bell Curve, is again criticized for being un-scientific.
Like some other commenters, I cannot buy the claim that scientism leads to these political beliefs. I’m not sure that Hariss’ moral absolutism is an outgrowth of positivism/scientism, rather it seems that positivism is used as a rather poor justification for pre-existing beliefs and prejudices.
Strictly speaking, positivism/scientism should lead to amorality (because of the is-ought dichotomy). So even though I don’t agree with Hariss, I cannot agree with Lears.
While I disagree with Sam Harris in almost every respect, I have never felt more sympathy with him than at this moment. Nobody, not even Harris, deserves this.
It seems as if Lears approached it like a sermon to an already convinced group of the faithful, not a serious intellectual critique of Harris’ positions. Two representative examples occurred when he accused Harris of claiming that “torture is just another form of collateral damage”, which he has never argued, and when he said Harris has argued “that pacifism, despite its (allegedly) high moral standing, is ‘immoral’ because it leaves us vulnerable to ‘the world’s thugs.'”
Lears just drops this in, as if he could rely on American liberals’ knee-jerk attitude to pacifism to get him past the tedious business of actually constructing an argument for nonviolence. It’s not as if critiquing nonviolence is strictly a right-wing affair. Plenty of leftists have critiqued pacificism’s efficacy and its assumed position of moral authority (e.g. Peter Gelderloos’ How Nonviolence Protects the State and Ward Churchill’s Pacifism as Pathology).
I was also amused to see Harris accused of “not [being] interested in religious experience” when he has already explicitly argued that practices such as meditation can enrich one’s life. Now, when Lears does get around to addressing this bit of contradictory information, he does so sneeringly and in a manner that is reminiscent of the very worst Eurocentrism he is supposedly decrying:
It’s as if Lears believes that anyone who finds more merit in Eastern religion than Western religion is simply some spiritual fashionista out for the most trendy sect available. Admittedly, this is true of some people, but such people’s superficial approach is only possible because of decades and centuries of scholarly examinations of the philosophy and religion of Asia by people who took it very seriously indeed (Mohammed Marmaduke Pickthall for Islam and Alexandra David-Néel for Buddhism both come to mind, as well as hundreds of scholars, many in Germany and England, who have spent their lives translating and commenting on Eastern religious texts).
This whole article seems to be less about Harris and more about Lears’ establishing his bona fides as a self-suppressing leftist. As someone who currently identifies as a leftist (a real leftist, and not an American liberal), I’m constantly dismayed to see people who position themselves as being “on my side” slamming the Enlightenment project—the very one from which leftist philosophy as we know it today arises—and by playing footsie with the most reactionary theocracies just because they appear to be opposed to globalization and neoliberalism (but may not actually be—witness Saudi Arabia’s theocracy as a case in point).
The article hits its nadir when it touches on these aspects of things, coming close to excusing female genital mutilation and the burqa as cultural practices beyond the criticism of Westerners—as if women of color in the so-called “third world” are not quite as deserving of autonomy as Western white women. I loved the mention of the burqa as a “mobile home” without a hint of criticism for a society in which women are forced to don the burqa merely to go outside in the first place. Just because such criticisms may coincide with the interests of neoliberalism, allowing them to frame their wars in terms of moral intent, it does not follow that we who oppose neoliberalism must embrace reactionary societies that oppress women as a matter of course.
I almost feel as if I shouldn’t even have to say this, but I see this dynamic play itself out in white academia’s discussions of non-white cultures all the time. I don’t see how the imperialist approach that treats non-whites as ‘savages’ is markedly improved by treating them as a kind of cultural curio which should be appreciated only for “what it is” (thus imposing an essentialist vision on non-white cultures, as if these curious people can only act and understand their world in one way) and not be subjected to evaluation.