Sam Harris, bothering me with philosophical inconsistency since 2004
For eight years now, I have been critiquing Sam Harris: his hatchet job comparison of Islam to Buddhism where he white-washes the Buddhist tradition and negatively cherry-picks Islam in The End of Faith, trying to figure out how a person with a philosophy degree from Stanford could so badly confused normative and descriptive in both meta-ethics and philosophy of science, jettison with almost no real argument the is/ought distinction, and ignore 200 years of debates on all three topics in his book on morality, and generally pass a flippant “tone of reasonableness” for reason itself. It was good to see Theodore Sayeed‘s take-down of his positions and their incoherence in his recent discussion on Harris, while I have been ranting about this for years and Neera Manda pointed some of this out seven years ago, the fact that Harris still has so much cache in the “secular movement” (whatever that is), means it needs to re-pointed out:
The spirit of the Zionist law attorney infuses a book in which he is approvingly quoted and in which he provides the basis for Harris’s ticking time bomb defence of torture. It’s not for nothing Dershowitz blurbs the book. But is it true as Harris gushes that Israel’s moral capital lies in the fact “They’re still worried about killing the children of their enemies”?
Consider the findings of human rights groups like Amnesty International’s investigation into the Gaza war of 2008:
“Amnesty International on Thursday accused Israeli forces of war crimes, saying they used children as human shields and conducted wanton attacks on civilians during their offensive in the Gaza Strip. “
What about the assertion that Arabs take cover behind their own children? Amnesty finds that although Hamas rocketed Israeli towns during the war, that:
“It could not support Israeli claims that Hamas used human shields. It said it found no evidence Palestinian fighters directed civilians to shield military objectives from attacks, forced them to stay in buildings used by militants, or prevented them from leaving commandeered buildings”
The co-author of the influential Goldstone Report for the UN Human Rights Council, Desmond Travers, has said:
“We found no evidence that Hamas used civilians as hostages. I had expected to find such evidence but did not. We also found no evidence that mosques were used to store munitions. ”
For a man who likes to badger Muslims about their “reflexive solidarity” with Arab suffering, Harris seems keen to display his own tribal affections for the Jewish state. The virtue of Israel and the wickedness of her enemies are recurring themes in his work. The End of Faith opens with the melodramatic scene of a young man of undetermined nationality boarding a bus with a suicide vest. The bus detonates, innocents die and Harris, with the relish of a schoolmarm passing on the facts of life to her brood, chalks in the question: “Why is it so easy, then, so trivially easy-you-could-almost-bet-your-life-on-it-easy to guess the young man’s religion?”
To which historians will answer: Because it is not.
the Harris depiction, Tibetans bear the jackboot of Chinese occupation meekly and in Christ-like surrender to violence in deep contrast to the mindless violence of Palestinians, proof yet again that Islam, and not the depredations of US foreign policy, is the progenitor of terror. From this narrative one would never guess that Tibet fought a bitter conventional war against China. The national liberation struggle of Tibetans doesn’t quite mesh with the dovish non-violence Harris conjures. And so out it goes from the record.
Given that Harris rails against pacifism in later chapters as being, not a worthy but impossible ideal as so many cherish, but an “evil” precept that would let killers go unmolested, his sudden enthusiasm for turning the other cheek is a suspect one. And you will seek in vain for any reference to Arab civil disobedience against the occupation in his work from the peaceful protests of the first Intifada in which scores of unarmed demonstrators were gunned down by the IDF to the present wave of mass hunger strikes.
The Jains are yet another commonly-trotted-out source of comparison for Harris. He wants to know why there are no Jain suicide bombers, unlike those horrid Arab barbarians. It is painful to inform this Princeton graduate of philosophy who presumably took a first year course in the rudiments of logic that Jains, unlike Palestinians, are not occupied by hostile foreign powers, are not displaced from their homes, are not imprisoned en masse without trial and tortured.
Harris never quite stoops to articulate why suicide bombing is objectively worse than more common variants of homicide like the monopoly enjoyed by Christians and Jews on aerial bombing which rubbles entire nations with far more loss of life than a semtex in a rucksack. The mystery unravels when we learn that Harris backed the 2006 carpet bombing of Lebanon and Gaza by Israel on the dubious premise that “there is no question that the Israelis now hold the moral high ground in their conflict with Hamas and Hezbollah. And yet liberals in the United States and Europe often speak as though the truth were otherwise”.
The rejoinder Harris offers to those wooly-minded liberal peaceniks who just don’t compute the bottomless evil of jihadism is that Arabs murder civilians intentionally whilst Israel, trained in the Holiness of Arms, kills women and children accidentally. Setting aside the unreality of this claim, which veils the indiscriminate shelling of Operation Cast Lead whose lethal casualty ratio was over 1,300 Palestinians to Israel’s 13, the logic of “collateral damage” is a proven con. As the late historian and WW2 air force pilot Howard Zinn noted:
“These words are misleading because they assume an action is either ‘deliberate’ or ‘unintentional.’ There is something in between, for which the word is ‘inevitable.’ If you engage in an action, like aerial bombing, in which you cannot possibly distinguish between combatants and civilians (as a former Air Force bombardier, I will attest to that), the deaths of civilians are inevitable, even if not ‘intentional.’ Does that difference exonerate you morally? The terrorism of the suicide bomber and the terrorism of aerial bombardment are indeed morally equivalent. To say otherwise (as either side might) is to give one moral superiority over the other, and thus serve to perpetuate the horrors of our time.”
At other times Harris acknowledges that what is termed collateral damage is not accidental but a predictable certainty of industrial war, conceding that “What we euphemistically describe as ‘collateral damage’ in times of war is the direct result of limitations in the power and precision of our technology”. A concession he repeats in this interview with Joe Rogan:
“The reality is that whenever you put Navy SEALs on the ground and let them shoot or drop bombs from Predator drones you’re going to kill some number of innocent people and that’s terrible; and the terrible truth is there is no alternative to that. Unless you are going to be a pacifist, you are going to run the risk of killing innocent people when you have to fight certain conflicts.”
It’s revealing that after this frank admission of the fundamentally anti-civilian nature of modern warfare, he proceeds to defend the incineration of Afghanistan by NATO and vilifies Julian Assange (“creepy bastard”) and Wikileaks for exposing the atrocities of the US state.
And then there is this:
Not quite done with salvaging the humanitarian case for the Iraq war, he offers this defence of collateral damage:
“Chomsky might object that to knowingly place the life of a child in jeopardy is unacceptable in any case, but clearly this is not a principle we can follow. The makers of roller coasters know, for instance, that despite rigorous safety precautions, sometime, somewhere, a child will be killed by one of their contraptions. ” (p. 147)
So there is no moral distinction between cluster bombs and Disneyland. Death is death, so what’s the problem? The claim amounts to holding that there is no difference between choking on a pretzel and sustaining a nuclear attack because, well, in both cases people die. The act of raining down “Shock & Awe” bears no likeness to the far less perilous and unlikely accidents of theme parks which, on the rare occasion they occur, do not make rubble of homes and infrastructure and uproot millions of refugees. And rollercoasters invite the willing patronage of thrill seekers, as opposed to Tomahawk missiles, whose victims do not volunteer for the risk of being shredded. The distinction is both in scale and human agency, between a minuscule risk undertaken freely in the knowledge that one is strapped in by “rigorous safety precautions”, and mass lethality thrust upon one by a hostile foreign power.
And then this:
My hope in this review was not to get tangled in the finer points of Islamic theology, but if former Muslims like myself stand any chance of winning friends and family to the cause of the Enlightenment, we must begin to deconstruct the tabloid caricatures of Muslims by Harris and his fellow immigrant baiters. I use that phrase advisedly. Harris dabbles in the most extravagant conspiracy theories about the impending conquest of Europe by Muslims:
“Islam is the fastest growing religion in Europe. The demographic trends are ominous: Given current birthrates, France could be a majority Muslim country in 25 years, and that is if immigration were to stop tomorrow.”
To understand how nine-months-pregnant with delusion this claim truly is, one has to only reflect that the French Muslim population is forecasted by the Pew Research Centre to grow to 10% by 2030 from its present figure of 7.5%, and France will be the Western European state with the highest number of Muslims. The only country that surpasses it is Russia which, even as it borders autonomous Muslim states, is projected to see her share of Muslims rise to 14%.
This fetish for the breeding habits of immigrants is one that Harris cultivates with far-right nationalists like Robert Spencer and Daniel Pipes. He admits: “With a few exceptions, the only public figures who have had the courage to speak honestly about the threat that Islam now poses to European societies seem to be fascist.” (Letter To A Christian Nation, P. 85)
And then this:
It’s a forgivable indulgence to ascribe this military cowboyism of Harris to a misplaced idealism to bring democracy at the point of Hellfire missiles, but that would be to misread him. Gravely. The reason he presses for US interference in the region is that, like his deathly silence on the pro-democracy movements of the Arab Spring that have dynamited his notion that Muslims are hot for theocracy, he thinks only Western imposed dictators can lead Muslims to Enlightenment:
“It appears that one of the most urgent tasks we now face in the developed world is to find some way of facilitating the emergence of civil societies everywhere else. Whether such societies have to be democratic is not at all clear. Zakaria has persuasively argued that the transition from tyranny to liberalism is unlikely to be accomplished by plebiscite. It seems all but certain that some form of benign dictatorship will generally be necessary to bridge the gap. But benignity is the key and if it cannot emerge from within a state, it must be imposed from without. The means of such imposition are necessarily crude: they amount to economic isolation, military intervention (whether open or covert), or some combination of both.” (The End of Faith, p. 151)
He has his reasons for shrinking from writing about the most revolutionary and hopeful changes of the modern political era, namely the great Arab Awakening that is sweeping away the US-backed tyrants in North Africa and the Middle East. It began of course last year, and in the interval, Harris has found time to devote thousands of words to ethnically profiling Muslims at airports. His justification for ignoring the awakening is that he thinks “we cannot merely force Muslim dictators from power and open the polls. It would be like opening the polls to the Christians of the fourteenth century”. Although conceding that “our collusion with Muslim tyrants” has been despicable, “our culpability on this front must be bracketed by the understanding that were democracy to suddenly come to these countries, it would be little more than a gangplank to theocracy”. Those who delight in the flowering of Arab democracy must remember that “the only thing that currently stands between us and the roiling ocean of Muslim unreason is a wall of tyranny and human rights abuses that we have helped to erect”. (p. 132)
The region’s people are unfit to be trusted with self-determination because they are morally inferior: “It is time for us to admit that not all cultures are at the same stage of moral development.” Indeed, such is the moral depravity of these barbarians that “At this point in their history, give most Muslims the freedom to vote, and they will freely vote to tear out their political freedoms by the root”. The solution then is for the US to command stewardship of the area imposing “benign” dictators in the place of bad ones who may lead Muslims to reform.
Sayeed goes on to recount how Harris’s flirtations with supernaturalism had James Randi on his tail and he backtracked, but apparently that has changed too:
“One appears far more likely to meet extraterrestrials or elves on DMT than traditional saints or angels. As I have not tried DMT, and have not had an experience of the sort that its users describe, I don’t know what to make of any of this.”
Is this the product of a mind scattered by intoxicants? Apparently not. Harris repeated the same flight to occultic planes at the Melbourne atheist convention where, after enthusing about the curative powers of spiritual meditation, he was desperate to reassure the assembled gathering of skeptics that his fascination with “aliens and insectile like creatures” is not “insanity”. Observe that he says these are not vacant hallucinations by high school stoners on a par with UFO sightings and crop circles, but that corroboration comes from “smart and serious people” of an extra-dimensional universe occupied by elves, reptilians and extra-terrestrials keen to impart scientific knowledge to lowly mortals about whose veracity “I don’t know what to make”. Welcome to David Icke territory.
The paranormal debunker James Randi chastised him for this quackery, twice, saying there were no choices to be made between virgin births, reincarnation, alien reptiles and telepathy– that bunk was bunk, and that science had once and for all spoken. And finally Harris appeared to step back from the crankdom: “My position on the paranormal is this: While there have been many frauds in the history of parapsychology, I believe that this field of study has been unfairly stigmatized.”
Or maybe not. It’s a custom of his when interrogated by experts to berate scientists for being mean to New Age bosh-mongers. He alone is the true empiricist who, though having just recently acquired his doctorate at the late age of 40, knows more about the scientific enterprise than all those intolerant and smug lab rats who graduated decades ago. So when the pressure mounted on him, his last ditch effort was to backtrack somewhat: “I have not spent any time attempting to authenticate the data” because it is not worth his time. Which begs the question of why he trumpets their mumbo jumbo as “credible evidence” that is “ignored by mainstream science”. Plainly what is not worth one’s time is not “unfairly stigmatised”.
And just when it appears that Harris wants to extricate himself from the unwisdom of wading into mystical humbug and pseudoscience, he slides right back into sham insisting that he “cannot categorically dismiss their contents.”