Guest post on Sam Harris and the duties of public intellectuals


Guest post by Simon Frankel Pratt.

I think that Harris is good at presenting a kind of naive though not completely stupid position that many thoughtful but poorly informed secular Western liberals are likely to arrive at. In a sense, his positions should be the challenge or the foil against which informed experts and public intellectuals frame their answers. For example, Harris’s views on the links between religion and violence are almost entirely wrong, as scholars such as Atran have shown, but they are understandable.

The problem is, of course, that Harris does not engage with the experts.

He does not frame his views as naive or as questions in need of answering, but as the obvious answers. He does not consult with experts on his issues, and when experts tell him that he’s wrong, he either dismisses them impatiently (such as he did with Dennett on the matter of free will) or actually resorts to personal attacks and slurs (as he did with Scott Atran). Instead of offering a clear, concise, and well articulated starting position for us to engage in further enquiry and refinement of our views in light of the evidence, he sells his opinions as discussion-ending truths which we are foolish or harmful to ignore.

This bothers me a lot. It bothers me not just because I dislike Harris’s tone and disagree with his views, but because I see Harris’s actions as a violation of the duties and ethical obligations that public intellectual figures have to guide their audiences to more critical, self-aware, and historically/scientifically informed views.

Comments

  1. says

    Simon:
    Could you provide links to eg: where Scott Atran demonstrates where Harris is wrong?
    Are you referring to Harris’ contention that Islam is worse for promoting violence than other religions? It sounds plausible to this secular westerner who is no expert on Islam, but I’m willing to read up on why it is wrong.

  2. says

    Harris’s generalizations of his own fMRIs on belief change among a few dozen college students as supportive of his views of religion as simply false beliefs are underwhelming. As Pat Churchland surmised: “There is not one single example in [Harris’s work] of what we have learned from neuroscience that should impact our moral judgments regarding a particular issue. There may EXIST examples, but he does not provide any.” (personal communication 2/24/11; see also the fMRI work by our neuroeconomics team lead by Greg Berns in the theme issue on “The Biology of Conflict,” PHILOSOPHICAL TRANSACTIONS OF THE ROYAL SOCIETY, 2012).

  3. Katherine Woo says

    This guest post is a markedly shallow ad hominem. Not a single position of Harris’ is presented, let alone analyzed. Your contention about him failing to engage “experts” fails the sniff test.

    Reza Aslan is a self-professed “expert” on religion, one many left-leaning religious apologists swoon over, and Harris thrashed him soundly in a debate. The entire concept of being a “expert” in subjective fields like the humanities is dubious because of how much ideological allegiances and politics distorts scholarship. John Esposito, a bought-and-paid-for lapdog of the Saudis, is a good example of an “expert” on Islam.

    The New Atheists are primarily guilty of not being ruled by sentimentality and not endorsing ‘progressive’ politics. I disagree with individual positions they take, but I can enjoy people’s ideas, humor, etc. without subjecting them to political purity tests.

  4. RJW says

    @3 Ophelia,

    Interesting, there are also articles in ‘New Scientist’ and the book ‘Why we believe in god/ s’ which explain the evolutionary basis for religious belief.

  5. says

    Hello all, present and future. It might be helpful for me to explain a little bit why this guest post has little substance and is basically just a compact little rant. It was originally a facebook comment in a thread between me and some friends. The original post, which spawned the discussion, was a comment from r/askphilosophy by a grad student in philosophy providing links to various rebuttals of Harris’s moral philosophy. It may be found here. [1] There have been numerous r/askphilosophy threads on why Harris’s positions on ethics and free will are trivial or incoherent, and they are searchable. Do note that this subreddit is home to numerous PhD students and professors of philosophy who give patient and helpful answers to questions no matter how simple or basic; I encourage everyone to take advantage of it. On my own blog, I have written a number of posts on the scholarly literature on radicalisation and violence, on Islam, and on terrorism, as these subjects are related to my past and current academic work. The best among them to start with on this subject is a review of the dominant scholarship [2]. I leave it up to you to google Scott Atran, but I will note that he puts all of his scholarly publications up on his website. Please feel free to direct any questions to me via email if you would like clarifications or recommendations for scholarship on these subjects, as I likely will not be much involved in this comments thread. My contact information is on my blog, under the page titled ‘CV’.

    [1]http://www.reddit.com/r/askphilosophy/comments/1s8pim/rebuttals_to_sam_harris_moral_landscape/cdvcrcv
    [2]http://saidsimon.wordpress.com/2014/08/02/radicalisation-belief-and-violence/

  6. linford86 says

    @KatherineWoo — You are aware that Reza Aslan is nowhere discussed in this article and that Esposito isn’t either? It’s also fairly amusing to me — as an academic in the Humanities — you are so wildly ignorant about the profession that you don’t know the difference between the humanities and the social sciences, or the fact that Simon no where appeals to political affiliation.

  7. Blanche Quizno says

    @RJW, since all the gods and their realm(s) are organized in the manner of the contemporary political/social structure, and since all gods affirm and approve the rulers’ right to rule as they please, we don’t really need to look very far to find the sociological/anthropological basis for religious belief.

    If horses had gods, they’d look like horses, in other words (paraphrasing Xenophanes, of course, of course).

  8. Eric MacDonald says

    I think there are two sides to this story, and Atran’s claims cannot be taken as scientifically confirmed. For example, in the article Ophelia links entitled: “Here He Goes Again: Sam Harris’s Falsehoods,” Atran makes claims which, while true in terms of his own research, do not necessarily subvert some (at least) of Harris’s conclusions.

    For example, Atran says: “Harris’s generalizations of his own fMRIs on belief change among a few dozen college students as supportive of his views of religion as simply false beliefs are underwhelming.” This is unquestionably true, as I have said before in connexion with Boghossian’s claims in his book “How to make atheists.” Specific beliefs, as such, are very often either very poorly understood or provide simply the background of religious action. But it does not follow that explicit beliefs do not underlie the actions of many religious people.

    For example, jihadists may not consciously be following the classical interpretations of Islamic texts regarding jihad, but the motivation of whole groups may be based on such interpretations. Atran seems to think that questionnaires provide accurate answers to the question Atran puts to religious people: “Why are you acting this way?” But religious people generally act from within a social context the theological meaning of which many of them do not understand and accept on trust. Asked to give reasons for “the hope that is in you,” (to quote First Peter) people may not give standard theological answers, but those may nevertheless be the reasons underlying their actions. Asked whether they support abortion, most orthodox Roman Catholics would say no, but very few of them could give detailed answers as to why it is believed by the Roman Catholic Church’s moral theology that abortion is wrong. I find Atran’s analyses of the reasons why religious people do things very inadequate and shallow. Most religious people, when push comes to shove, do things because their religion demands it, even though they do not know why. Asked to give their own reasons, they will give the first answer that occurs to them, without adverting to the theological framework within which they are acting, so they will give the kinds of answers that Atran’s studies attract. But this does not mean that underlying the actions of (to take but one example) jihadists are not very complex arguments concerning the Qur’an and the Sunna. It just means that they have accepted these argumentations on authority. Their personal reasons may even be orthogonal to the arguments from authority, but do not in the slightest change the fact that theological authority at some point underlies their actions.

  9. dshetty says

    . For example, Harris’s views on the links between religion and violence are almost entirely wrong, as scholars such as Atran have shown
    Ok this is going to be interesting.
    If true, not just Harris , a good number of us are wrong :)
    Like a couple of others on this thread , first time I have of it , though.

  10. dshetty says

    The post at @3 links to many more articles so this will take awhile – but the initial response from Atran isn’t good
    What I actually said to him (as I have to many others) was exactly what every leader of a jihadi group I interviewed told me, namely, that anyone seeking to become a martyr in order to obtain virgins in paradise would be rejected outright.
    Perhaps. But isn’t it true that a Jihadi does think he is going to paradise? Whether he will receive virgins or dates is hardly the crux of the matter. Is going to paradise the only motivation for a Jihadi – I doubt it – but is it one more encouraging factor?
    The other issue is the they have told me so it must be true. What next? we ask Right Wing nut jobs if they *love* the sinner and hate the sin?

    Context-free declarations about whether Islam, or any religion, is inherently compatible or incompatible with extreme political violence – or Democracy or any other contemporary political doctrine for that matter — is senseless.
    Agreed – But the point is how many people (say in power) will say Religion is inherently incompatible with violence? And why does Mr Atran not respond to such comments? Why is it only a problem when someone like a Harris or Hitchens makes a broad generalization(usually incorrect).

    claimed that Catholicism and Democracy were inherently incompatible,
    Ah this is interesting.

  11. Seth says

    People like Atran always seem to take people’s stated motivations at their word—except when those stated motivations are religious. Then there *have* to be ‘deeper’ reasons, societal and economic, that the poor and oppressed people just don’t understand. Thus it is not surprising when someone like Atran will uncritically pass along non-religious motivations of jihadists (coincidentally completely ignoring the not-insignificant Islamic tradition of outright lying to non-Muslims in order to advance the faith), because it fits his agenda. Which is it? Can people be trusted to know their own motivations or not? Do the Pew studies that show between 20-70% of Middle Eastern populations support suicide bombing as compatible with Islamic values reflect the truth, or don’t they?

    I agree with Eric; “because of my religion” is a powerful motivator, even if the motivatee doesn’t understand all of the intricate traditions and strains of thought at play. When someone says they are acting out of their religious impulses, I tend to believe them unless I have some fairly weighty evidence to the contrary. The Islamic State is not sawing people’s heads off because of Western oppression; it is sawing people’s heads off because it wants to establish a theocracy. And if it ever realised its dream of a worldwide Caliphate, none of Atran’s well-meaning sycophantism would keep his neck off of the sawing block…unless he was willing to betray his supposedly-secular principles to pledge his loyalty to the cult of death.

  12. Derek Freyberg says

    If you look at the page linked to in Ophelia’s comment #3, you see clear criticism of Atran’s historical assertions on that page. As to his assertion that the Tamil Tigers were Hindu, when it was pointed out that a number of their top leaders were Christian, he claimed that it “reinforced his point” – really? As to his assertion that Japan’s interpretation of Zen Buddhism was a call to a war of extermination against the Japanese, this was rebutted and ignored. Japan’s imperialist ambitions were aided by its interpretation of Shinto, not Buddhism. This is not a defence of Harrris per se, but if Atran can’t be trusted even to get his history correct, what else has he got wrong?

  13. Al says

    Thank you for playing, Eric. Regarding Atran’s research, you’ve just demonstrated that you have no idea what you are talking about

    ‘For example, jihadists may not consciously be following the classical interpretations of Islamic texts regarding jihad, but the motivation of whole groups may be based on such interpretations. Atran seems to think that questionnaires provide accurate answers to the question Atran puts to religious people: “Why are you acting this way?” But religious people generally act from within a social context the theological meaning of which many of them do not understand and accept on trust.’

    This very point is made by Atran here;
    http://sitemaker.umich.edu/satran/files/ap_ginges_atran.pdf

    ‘ …[This does not mean that] the behavior of Muslim jihadists has nothing to do with their religious beliefs. In our own interviews and experiments with militants, we have found overwhelming support for the idea that suicide bombing is an “individual obligation” (fard al-ayn) for any Muslim when the society around them fails to fight off the perceived onslaught of infidels (this notion of jihad against infidels as the “sixth pillar of Islam”— on par with the five traditional pillars of belief in God, prayer, alms for the poor, fasting at Ramadan, and pilgrimage to Mecca—is considered heretical by most religious Muslims).

    But then goes onto say.

    But such radical religious commitment arguably has less to do with traditional and institutionalized forms of religious learning and teaching than with the sacralization of political aspirations into new, nontraditional forms of group identity and commitment into new, nontraditional forms of group identity and commitment.’

    Atran has not pulled these observations out of thin air. Marc Sageman’s work came to similar conclusions, which points out that most jihadis and jihadi leaders especially tend to come from a secular, scientific, education as opposed to a religious education (Leaderless Jihad, 2008, p. 59). Most of these young people are “born again” in their late teens and early twenties and have little knowledge of religion beyond the fact that they consider themselves ““true Muslims”, who must fight enemies near and far to defend their friends and the faith that makes their friendship meaningful and enduring.

    As for your allegation of his explanations being inadequate and shallow, well, they were inadequate and shallow enough to attract the attention of the US Department of Defence who fund his research. Still, Eric knows best.

  14. Eric MacDonald says

    Seth, I agree with you (how could I not?!). Just a note on this agreement. A review of Atran’s Talking to the Enemy, after having given Atran’s explanation that Islamist jihadis fight for political rather than religious reasons, remarks, rather tellingly:

    But perhaps, on the other hand, a narrative does exist that is used by disaffected young Muslims in order to justify killing in the name of Islam. Atran’s exploration would have benefited from an examination of this narrative. [Financial Times review]

    The fact that Atran doesn’t attend to the religious narrative, I suggest, simply disqualifies his analysis from serious consideration. Certainly, some young men in every generation are lawless, asocial, etc., but there is a long tradition of jihad in Islam, with attendant religious justification. Just because jihadis don’t know the details of the religious justifications for jihad does not mean that they do not engage in jihad for religious reasons, and it is very troubling that Atran suggests otherwise. Indeed, so complex are Islamic traditions that the faithful are with good reason told to seek the advice of an expert, so their religious justifications for their actions would be, in general, in any case fairly sketchy. If anthropology of the type practiced by Atran does not allow for the inclusion of details from religious beliefs (no matter how recondite or inherently contradictory), and merely uses personal testimony as confirmation of his theories (which often seems to be the case — I find Atran very frustrating to read precisely because of this), it is scarcely surprising that religion is somehow left out or at most included as a shadowy background to what is going on. Atran speaks of terrorists as being members of local groups who are “fighting for each other,” but fails to notice the widespread movements composed of such semi-kinship groups. Like buddies joining up during the Second World War, of course, when they were fighting they were, in a sense, “fighting for each other” (as many of them testify); but it would be a serious mistake to suppose that this was the reason they joined up in the first place. I find Atran’s continuing claim that his position is scientific very disturbing, for the scientific content of what amount to “opinion” pieces is fairly slight on the ground. Perhaps that is why the suggestion that the solution to the Palestine-Israel problem is “to make friends of our enemies” seems to be so absurd. Only someone who thinks that religion is not at the centre of this conflict could offer such a preposterous suggestion without seeing how ridiculous it is.

    None of this, by the way, is to support Sam Harris’s position on either morality or free will, but it seems to me that to give religious reasons for jihadi violence, and to question anyone who chooses to ignore the evidence of religious reasoning in respect of it, makes perfect sense. How could the tradition of jihadi violence, and its substitute, the dhimma contract, simply be ignored when considering the bloody borders (and interior) of Islam?

  15. Katherine Woo says

    @linford86

    You are aware that Reza Aslan is nowhere discussed in this article and that Esposito isn’t either?

    It is called offering specific evidence to refute a general claim. Aslan is not discussed, precisely because he is an “expert” whom Harris has engaged, and was the first one I thought of. Your obtuse posturing is meant to appear as condescension, but is really petty dishonesty on your part.

    It’s also fairly amusing to me — as an academic in the Humanities — you are so wildly ignorant about the profession that you don’t know the difference between the humanities and the social sciences,…

    Then you are easliy ‘amused,’ because I made no claims on the categorization of the humanities versus social sciences.

    Further I said “like the humanities,” which since I apparently need to point this out to an alleged academic, is what we engineers call ‘an example.’ But since your broach the topic, religion squarely falls under a traditional understanding of what ‘the Humanities’ entails. Again your attempt to look superior just makes you look foolish.

  16. Eric MacDonald says

    Al, I’m quite aware of what Atran says. My point is that the conclusion … that “such radical religious commitment arguably has less to do with traditional and institutionalized forms of religious learning and teaching than with the sacralization of political aspirations into new, nontraditional forms of group identity and commitment into new, nontraditional forms of group identity and commitment,” is simply nonsense, and there is no reason for supposing it true. This is his idea that jihad groups are groups of disaffected young men who are buddies. To study the Qur’an and the Sunna (the example of Muhammad which gives the Qur’an its meaning) is to provide evidence enough for the tradition of jihad through the centuries, including the present day. The dhimma contract is a waiving of the penalty of the jihad for a blood price, and it or its substitutes are still the rule in many Islamic nations (for example, by the way non-Muslims are often treated by the courts, as though they were dhimmis). To suggest that contemporary jihad is in any sense non-traditional and that it forms a non-traditional form of group identity is nonsense. Where on earth does science come into that historical (and quite mistaken) judgement? I have been reading Atran for years. I find him an irritation to read, and his claim to scientific street cred is often not at all convincing, nor do I think that public intellectuals should be bound by his conclusions which, by and large, I find laughable (especially in this case). I think Harris is quite right to ignore Atran’s supposedly scientific conclusions.

    Jihad is a perfectly comprehensible Islamic practice, made obligatory by the Qur’an and the Sunna, and that it should be making a dramatic reappearance on the historical scene is perfectly reasonable, given the growth of religious fundamentalisms worldwide. Political and other reasons (including greed) have attended jihad throughout its history; but none of this makes its contemporary appearances non-traditional. I simply do not understand how he can come to such a conclusion. Islam itself is a political creed, and jihad is carried out for religious as well as political ends. The aim is, in Muslim terms, “to claim back” territory for Allah, and to bring about the “reversion” of those who, though originally born Muslim (since all are born Muslim in terms of classical Islam), have strayed from the right path. Jihad still performs this function, whatever jihadists might say when asked.

  17. Tim Harris says

    I agree with Eric about Atran. I remember being appalled by an episode in one of his books: some Islamist Indonesian pal of his saw on his island some immigrants from Bali who were celebrating, in a splendidly Balinese way, a wedding. ‘Animals!’ exclaimed his pal. And went to say that he’d like to set a bomb off among them (or kill them is some other way – but I’m pretty sure it was a bomb). But it was not so much this that appalled me as Atran’s response. As I recall, he did not react in any normal way, but went into ‘understanding’ mode and waffled on to no important end… I’m not awfully fond of SH, but SA can be dasngerously silly.

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