Deconstructing Sam Harris

Some writers treat even the possibility of empirical truth as a threat. To them, the idea that some things might be facts, and not just beliefs, signals the return of slavery, colonialism and Nazi eugenics, not to mention the final triumph of the ruling class over the oppressed peoples of the third world.

This extreme view, a product of postmodernist relativism, lies at the heart of the no-holds-barred attack  on Sam Harris by Jackson Lears in the May 16 issue of The Nation.

To Lears, Harris is a demonic figure, both personally and intellectually repugnant. His article, Same Old New Atheism: On Sam Harris, accuses Harris of every kind of academic, political, and social evil on the postmodernist’s list.

In doing so, Lears both overstates Harris’s influence and understates the validity of empirical science. A significant part of the reason for this error is that Lears can’t see past his own biases against rationalism. He misconstrues the nature of “truth” and, as a result, constructs a “straw man” no less misleading than the ones he accuses Harris of attacking.

I have quite a bit of sympathy for Lears’s accurate characterization of Harris as a narrow-minded, aggressive, and didactic writer. Despite sharing Harris’s atheism and a good part of his rationalist stance on truth in science, I have many of the same moral and political objections to the extremity of Harris’s The End of Faith, Letter to a Christian Nation, and The Moral Landscape that Lears does. Where we part company, however, is over Lears’s mischaracterization of empirical science as a naive and amoral  servant of the status quo and his absurd postmodernist rejection of the search for “truth” as an oppressor’s power grab.

Harris first, empirical science second.

Lears accuses Harris and the other “New Atheists” of first defining religion as Bible literalism, then using this extreme form of fundamentalism as the target of all of their arguments against religion. For Harris, and to only a slightly lesser extent for Dawkins, religion is not merely an unjustified belief — it’s the primary source of the world’s evils.

The embodiment of this extremism for Harris is Islam, which he typically portrays as a backward, militant, and dangerous remnant of a less civilized past. Its spread must be stopped, its forces defeated, and its destructive moral values reformed. No less than the future of human progress is at stake. It’s this sense of “the clash of civilizations” that led Harris and Christopher Hitchens to “sign on” to George W. Bush’s new Christian crusade in the Middle East.

Lears sees Harris’s apparent fear and hatred of Islam as a return to the moral superiority viewpoints of 19th century colonial powers. He writes:

For Harris, pragmatism and relativism undermine the capacity “to admit that not all cultures are at the same stage of moral development,” and to acknowledge our moral superiority to most of the rest of the world.

Off-putting as Harris can be — he writes with a well-developed certainty and an annoying arrogance — Lears is equally annoying when he continuously associates empirical science with extreme positivism, making the silent case that anyone with any sympathy for rationalism is some sort of mechanical monster. Indeed, he even uses the word: “The dream of reason bred real monsters.” By this, he means of course Nazi eugenics and the rest of the anti-rationalist Honour Roll.

Lears makes all the standard accusations that empirical science is a tool of the ruling class, a soulless methodology easily turned to the moral dark side. These are tiresome and familiar arguments, and they suffer from exactly the same sort of bias-driven misrepresentation as the most strident “New Atheist” arguments about the evils of religion — the distorted, straw man arguments that Lears decries when he’s not the one making them.

Lears is careful to point out that his criticism of science doesn’t “prove the existence (or even the possibility) of God, as apologists for religion sometimes claimed.” What Lears fails to mention is that neither do any shortcomings of empirical science prove the truth (or even the reasonableness) of politicized relativism. Our own biases are nonetheless biases despite being ours.

The most credible of Lears’s criticisms is his take on the behavioural sciences, those which rely most on statistical methodologies and speculative interpretation. That brain science continues to show that there is, despite Lears’s rejection of the possibility, a single brain-based “human nature,” is indisputable. What that means, and how we might apply that knowledge, is not as clear — and may not be, in any real sense, in the realm of scientific investigation. While Lears delights in pointing out the limitations of evolutionary interpretations of the adaptational reasons for innate brain functions, he fails to make the crucial distinction between fact and interpretation, and that failure greatly weakens his entire anti-rationalist position.

Lears spends considerable time and space on the limitations of the scientific method (with particular emphasis on the “decline effect,” about which much more soon). He spends no time or space on the limitations of politicized relativism, itself a rigid stance which requires him to equate fact with authority, and authority with oppression. It seems that Lears is a firm member of the theory group who believe that if anything is allowed actually to be true, minorities will be mistreated and workers exploited. With Lears, we appear to be in the same general conceptual landscape as that occupied by Randall McGuire in Anthropology as Political Action (reviewed here), a landscape in which dispassionate interest in empirical fact is both impossible and morally reprehensible. It’s a landscape in which the Queen of Hearts would feel right at home.

There’s much more in Lears’s article (which consumes almost 7,000 words), but it’s all much the same. Harris is evil, and empiricism serves evil. End of story.

For a highly-decorated historian, Lears has little trouble turning this entire area of our intellectual history into a very short, and very one-sided, summary.