Harris in March 2016
|Born||Samuel Benjamin Harris|
April 9, 1967
Los Angeles, California, U.S.
|Subject||Neuroscience, philosophy, religion, spirituality, ethics, politics|
|Notable awards||PEN/Martha Albrand Award, Webby Award|
Samuel Benjamin Harris (born April 9, 1967) is an American author, philosopher, neuroscientist, and podcast host. His work touches on a wide range of topics, including rationality, religion, ethics, free will, neuroscience, meditation, psychedelics, philosophy of mind, politics, terrorism, and artificial intelligence. Harris came to prominence for his criticism of religion, and Islam in particular, and is described as one of the "Four Horsemen of the Non-Apocalypse", along with Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Daniel Dennett.
Harris's first book, The End of Faith (2004), won the PEN/Martha Albrand Award for First Nonfiction and remained on The New York Times Best Seller list for 33 weeks. Harris has since written six additional books: Letter to a Christian Nation in 2006, The Moral Landscape: How Science Could Determine Human Values in 2010, the long-form essay Lying in 2011, the short book Free Will in 2012, Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion in 2014, and (with British writer Maajid Nawaz) Islam and the Future of Tolerance: A Dialogue in 2015. Harris's work has been translated into over 20 languages.
Harris has debated with many prominent figures on the topics of God or religion, including William Lane Craig, Jordan Peterson, Rick Warren, Andrew Sullivan, Reza Aslan, David Wolpe, Deepak Chopra, and Jean Houston. Since September 2013, Harris has hosted the Making Sense podcast (originally titled Waking Up), which has a large listenership. In September 2018 Harris released a meditation app, Waking Up with Sam Harris.
Early life and education
Harris was born on April 9, 1967 in Los Angeles. He is the son of actor Berkeley Harris, who appeared mainly in Western films, and TV writer and producer Susan Harris (née Spivak), who created The Golden Girls among other series. His father, born in North Carolina, came from a Quaker background, and his mother is Jewish but not religious. He was raised by his mother following his parents' divorce when he was aged two. Harris has stated that his upbringing was entirely secular and that his parents rarely discussed religion, though he also stated that he was not raised as an atheist.
While his original major was in English, Harris became interested in philosophical questions while at Stanford University after an experience with the empathogen–entactogen MDMA (colloquially known as ecstasy). The experience led him to be interested in the idea that he might be able to achieve spiritual insights without the use of drugs. Leaving Stanford in his second year, a quarter after his psychedelic experience, he visited India and Nepal, where he studied meditation with teachers of Buddhist and Hindu religions, including Dilgo Khyentse. Eleven years later, in 1997, he returned to Stanford, completing a B.A. degree in philosophy in 2000. Harris began writing his first book, The End of Faith, immediately after the September 11 attacks.
He received a Ph.D. degree in cognitive neuroscience in 2009 from the University of California, Los Angeles, using functional magnetic resonance imaging to conduct research into the neural basis of belief, disbelief, and uncertainty. His thesis was titled The Moral Landscape: How Science Could Determine Human Values. His advisor was Mark S. Cohen.
Harris's writing focuses on philosophy, neuroscience, and criticism of religion. He came to prominence for his criticism of religion (Islam in particular) and is described as one of the "Four Horsemen of Atheism", along with Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Daniel Dennett. He has written for publications such as The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Economist, London Times, Boston Globe, and The Atlantic. Five of Harris's books have been New York Times bestsellers, and his writing has been translated into over 20 languages. The End of Faith (2004) remained on The New York Times Best Seller list for 33 weeks.
Debates on religion
In 2007, Harris engaged in a lengthy debate with conservative commentator Andrew Sullivan on the Internet forum Beliefnet. In April 2007, Harris debated with evangelical pastor Rick Warren for Newsweek magazine. Harris also debated with Rabbi David Wolpe in 2007. In 2010, Harris joined Michael Shermer to debate with Deepak Chopra and Jean Houston on the future of God in a debate hosted by ABC News Nightline. Harris debated with Christian philosopher William Lane Craig in April 2011 on whether there can be an objective morality without God. In June and July 2018, he met with Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson for a series of debates on religion, particularly the relationship between religious values and scientific fact in defining truth. Harris has also debated with the scholar Reza Aslan.
In September 2013, Harris began releasing the Waking Up podcast (since re-titled Making Sense). Episodes vary in length but often last over two hours. Releases do not follow a regular schedule. The podcast has a large listenership.
In September 2018, Harris released a meditation course app, Waking Up with Sam Harris. The app provides daily meditations; long guided meditations; daily "Moments" (brief meditations and reminders); conversations with thought leaders in psychology, meditation, philosophy, psychedelics, and other disciplines; a selection of lessons on various topics, such as Mind & Emotion, Free Will, and Doing Good; and more. Users of the app are introduced to a number of types of meditation, such as mindfulness meditation, vipassanā-style meditation, loving-kindness meditation, and Dzogchen.
In September 2020, Harris announced his commitment to donate a least 10% of Waking Up's profits to highly effective charities, thus becoming the first company to sign the Giving What We Can pledge for companies. The pledge was done retroactively, taking into account the profits since the day the app launched 2 years previously.
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Harris is known as one of the most prominent critics of religion, and is a leading figure in the New Atheist movement. Harris is particularly opposed to dogmatic belief, and says that "Pretending to know things one doesn't know is a betrayal of science – and yet it is the lifeblood of religion." While broadly opposed to religion in general and the belief systems religions entail, Harris believes that all religions are not created equal. Often using Jainism to contrast other fundamentalist groups, Harris highlights the difference in the specific doctrine and scripture as the main indicator of a religion's value, or lack thereof.
In 2006, Harris described Islam as "all fringe and no center," and wrote that "the doctrine of Islam [...] represents a unique danger to all of us", considering that the GWOT should be at war against Islam. In 2014, Harris said he considers Islam to be "especially belligerent and inimical to the norms of civil discourse", as it involves what Harris considers to be "bad ideas, held for bad reasons, leading to bad behavior." In 2015 Harris and secular Islamic activist Maajid Nawaz cowrote Islam and the Future of Tolerance. In this book, Harris argues that the word Islamophobia is a "pernicious meme", a label which prevents discussion about the threat of Islam. Harris has been described in 2020 by Jonathan Matusitz, Associate Professor at the University of Central Florida, as "a champion of the counter-jihad left".
Harris is critical of the Christian right in politics in the United States, blaming them for the political focus on "pseudo-problems like gay marriage." He is also critical of liberal Christianity—as represented, for instance, by the theology of Paul Tillich—which he argues claims to base its beliefs on the Bible despite actually being influenced by secular modernity. He further states that in so doing liberal Christianity provides rhetorical cover to fundamentalists.
Harris holds that there is "nothing irrational about seeking the states of mind that lie at the core of many religions. Compassion, awe, devotion, and feelings of oneness are surely among the most valuable experiences a person can have."
Harris rejects the dichotomy between spirituality and rationality, favoring a middle path that preserves spirituality and science but does not involve religion. He writes that spirituality should be understood in light of scientific disciplines like neuroscience and psychology. Science, he contends, can show how to maximize human well-being, but may fail to answer certain questions about the nature of being, answers to some of which he says are discoverable directly through our experience. His conception of spirituality does not involve a belief in any god.
In Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion (2014), Harris describes his experience with Dzogchen, a Tibetan Buddhist meditation practice, and recommends it to his readers. He writes that the purpose of spirituality (as he defines it – he concedes that the term's uses are diverse and sometimes indefensible) is to become aware that our sense of self is illusory, and says this realization brings both happiness and insight into the nature of consciousness. This process of realization, he argues, is based on experience and is not contingent on faith.
Science and morality
Social and political views
Harris describes himself as a liberal, and states that he supports raising taxes on the wealthy, decriminalizing drugs and legalizing same-sex marriage. He was critical of the Bush administration's war in Iraq, fiscal policy, and treatment of science. During the same time period he also voiced criticism that liberals were dangerously downplaying the threat posed by Islamic fundamentalism. He is a registered Democrat.
During the 2016 United States presidential election, Harris supported Hillary Clinton in the Democratic Party presidential primaries against Bernie Sanders, and despite calling her "a terribly flawed candidate for the presidency," he favored her in the general election and came out strongly in opposition to Donald Trump's candidacy. Harris has criticized Trump for lying, stating in 2018 that Trump "has assaulted truth more than anyone in human history." During the 2020 United States presidential election, Harris supported Andrew Yang in the Democratic primaries. Harris also introduced Yang to podcaster Joe Rogan.
In November 2020, Harris criticized members of the intellectual dark web (IDW) for extending the principle of charity to President Trump's attempt to question the legitimacy of the 2020 United States presidential election. Harris opposed the tendency on the left to dismiss Trump supporters as racist and irredeemable, but he figuratively handed in his "imaginary membership card to this imaginary organization" in response to unnamed members of the IDW finding equivalency between the two sides. "We have a sitting president who is essentially a QAnon conspiracist. [...] Biden's next tweet would have to say something like, 'We have evidence that the CIA invented the coronavirus to kill black people.' He would have to be that maniacal, and the whole Democratic Party along with him, for there to be an equivalence [...] the Republican Party has become a personality cult devoted to a fake strongman who really is doing his best to undermine our democracy."
Harris has discussed existential risk from artificial general intelligence in depth. He has given a TED talk on the topic, arguing it will be a major threat in the future and criticizing the paucity of human interest on the subject. He argues the dangers from artificial intelligence (AI) follow from three premises: that intelligence is the result of physical information processing, that humans will continue innovation in AI, and that humans are nowhere near the maximum possible extent of intelligence. Harris states that even if superintelligent AI is five to ten decades away, the scale of its implications for human civilization warrant discussion of the issue in the present.
Reception of Harris's ideas has spanned a range of topics and come from a variety of journalistic and academic sources.
Harris's first two books, in which he lays out his criticisms of religion, received negative reviews from Christian scholars. From secular sources, the books received a mixture of negative reviews and positive reviews. In his review of The End of Faith, American historian Alexander Saxton criticized what he called Harris's "vitriolic and selective polemic against Islam," (emphasis in original) which he said "obscure[s] the obvious reality that the invasion of Iraq and the War against Terror are driven by religious irrationalities, cultivated and conceded to, at high policy levels in the U.S., and which are at least comparable to the irrationality of Islamic crusaders and Jihadists." By contrast, Stephanie Merritt wrote of the same book that Harris's "central argument in The End of Faith is sound: religion is the only area of human knowledge in which it is still acceptable to hold beliefs dating from antiquity and a modern society should subject those beliefs to the same principles that govern scientific, medical or geographical inquiry - particularly if they are inherently hostile to those with different ideas."
Harris's next two books, which discuss philosophical issues relating to ethics and free will, received several negative academic reviews. In his review of The Moral Landscape, neuroscientist Kenan Malik criticized Harris for not engaging adequately with philosophical literature: "Imagine a sociologist who wrote about evolutionary theory without discussing the work of Darwin, Fisher, Mayr, Hamilton, Trivers or Dawkins on the grounds that he did not come to his conclusions by reading about biology and because discussing concepts such as 'adaptation', 'speciation', 'homology', 'phylogenetics' or 'kin selection' would 'increase the amount of boredom in the universe'. How seriously would we, and should we, take his argument?" Philosopher Daniel Dennett argued that Harris's book Free Will successfully refuted the common understanding of free will, but that he failed to respond adequately to the compatibilist understanding of free will. Dennett said the book was valuable because it expressed the views of many eminent scientists, but that it nonetheless contained a "veritable museum of mistakes" and that "Harris and others need to do their homework if they want to engage with the best thought on the topic." On the other hand, The Moral Landscape received a largely positive review from psychologists James Diller and Andrew Nuzzolilli. Additionally Free Will received a mixed academic review from philosopher Paul Pardi who acknowledged that while it suffers from some conceptual confusions and that the core argument is a bit too 'breezy', it serves as a "good primer on key ideas in physicalist theories of freedom and the will".
Harris's book on spirituality and meditation received mainly positive reviews as well as some mixed reviews. It was praised by Frank Bruni, for example, who described it as "so entirely of this moment, so keenly in touch with the growing number of Americans who are willing to say that they do not find the succor they crave, or a truth that makes sense to them, in organized religion."
Harris has been accused of Islamophobia by journalist Glenn Greenwald and linguist and political commentator Noam Chomsky. Greenwald claimed that Harris's Islamophobia is revealed by his statements such as: "the people who speak most sensibly about the threat that Islam poses to Europe are actually fascists," and "[t]he only future devout Muslims can envisage — as Muslims — is one in which all infidels have been converted to Islam, politically subjugated, or killed." After Harris and Chomsky exchanged a series of emails on terrorism and U.S. foreign policy in 2015, Chomsky said Harris had not prepared adequately for the exchange and that this revealed his work as unserious. Kyle Schmidlin also wrote in Salon that he considered Chomsky the winner of the exchange because Harris's arguments relied excessively on thought experiments with little application to the real world. In a 2016 interview with Al Jazeera, Chomsky further criticized Harris, saying he "specializes in hysterical, slanderous charges against people he doesn’t like."
Harris has argued that his views on this and other topics are frequently misrepresented by critics and has accused some of his critics of deliberately taking quotes out of context. He has also criticized the way the term Islamophobia is commonly used. "My criticism of Islam is a criticism of beliefs and their consequences, but my fellow liberals reflexively view it as an expression of intolerance toward people," he wrote following a disagreement with actor Ben Affleck in October 2014 on the show Real Time with Bill Maher. Affleck had described Harris's views on Muslims as "gross" and "racist," and his statement that "Islam is the mother lode of bad ideas" as an "ugly thing to say." Several conservative American media pundits in turn praised Harris and host Bill Maher for broaching the topic, asserting that it had become taboo.
Harris's dialogue on Islam with Maajid Nawaz received a combination of positive reviews and mixed reviews. Irshad Manji wrote: "Their back-and-forth clarifies multiple confusions that plague the public conversation about Islam." Of Harris specifically, she said "[he] is right that liberals must end their silence about the religious motives behind much Islamist terror. At the same time, he ought to call out another double standard that feeds the liberal reflex to excuse Islamists: Atheists do not make nearly enough noise about hatred toward Muslims."
In April 2017, Harris stirred controversy by hosting the social scientist Charles Murray on his podcast, discussing topics including the heritability of IQ and race and intelligence. Harris stated the invitation was out of indignation at a violent protest against Murray at Middlebury College the month before and not out of particular interest in the material at hand. The podcast episode garnered significant criticism, for instance from Vox and Slate. Harris and Murray were defended by conservative commentators Andrew Sullivan and Kyle Smith, as well as by neuroscientist Richard Haier, who stated that the points Murray claimed were mainstream indeed enjoyed broad scientific support. Harris and Vox editor-at-large Ezra Klein later discussed the affair in a podcast interview, where Klein criticized Harris for rebuking tribalism in the form of identity politics while failing to recognize his own version of tribalism. Hatewatch staff at the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) wrote that members of the "skeptics" movement, of which Harris is "one of the most public faces," help to "channel people into the alt-right." Bari Weiss wrote that the SPLC had misrepresented Harris's views.
Harris was profiled by Weiss in The New York Times as part of the "Intellectual Dark Web" (a term coined semi-ironically by Eric Weinstein). She described the group as "a collection of iconoclastic thinkers, academic renegades and media personalities who are having a rolling conversation — on podcasts, YouTube and Twitter, and in sold-out auditoriums — that sound unlike anything else happening, at least publicly, in the culture right now." In November 2020, Harris stated that he does not identify as a part of that group.
In 2018, Robert Wright published an article in Wired criticizing Harris for, despite claiming to be a champion of rationality, ignoring his own cognitive biases and engaging in faulty and inconsistent arguments in his book The End of Faith. He wrote that "the famous proponent of New Atheism is on a crusade against tribalism but seems oblivious to his own version of it." Wright wrote that these biases are rooted in natural selection and impact everyone, but that they can be mitigated when acknowledged, whereas he said Harris offered no such acknowledgement.
The UK Business Insider included Harris's podcast in their list of "8 podcasts that will change how you think about human behavior" in 2017, and PC Magazine included it in their list of "The Best Podcasts of 2018." In January 2020, Max Sanderson included Harris's podcast as a "Producer pick" in a "podcasts of the week" section for The Guardian.
In September 2020, Harris became a member of Giving What We Can, an effective altruism organization whose members pledge to give at least 10% of their income to effective charities, both as an individual and as a company with Waking Up.
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Mr. Harris, who gathered his fan base as a pugnacious atheist and fierce critic of Islam
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03:50 I'm a registered Democrat
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