Sam Harris

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Sam Harris
Sam Harris 2016.jpg
Harris in March 2016
Born Samuel Benjamin Harris[1]
(1967-04-09) April 9, 1967 (age 49)
Los Angeles, California, U.S.
Occupation Author, cognitive neuroscientist, non-profit executive, philosopher
Citizenship United States
Education Philosophy (B.A. 2000), Neuroscience (Ph.D. 2009)
Alma mater Stanford University
University of California, Los Angeles
Genre Non-fiction
Subject Neuroscience, philosophy,[2] religion
Notable works
Notable awards PEN/Martha Albrand Award
Spouse Annaka Harris (m. 2004)
Children 2

Signature
Website
SamHarris.org

Samuel Benjamin "Sam" Harris (born April 9, 1967) is an American author, philosopher, and neuroscientist.[3][4] He is the co-founder and chief executive of Project Reason, a non-profit organization that promotes science and secularism, and host of the podcast Waking Up with Sam Harris.[5] His book The End of Faith (2004), a critique of organized religion, appeared on The New York Times Best Seller list for 33 weeks and also won the PEN/Martha Albrand Award for First Nonfiction in 2005.[6] Letter to a Christian Nation (2006) was a response to criticism of The End of Faith. In The Moral Landscape (2010), Harris argues that science can help answer moral problems and aid human well-being.[7] He subsequently published a 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 activist Maajid Nawaz, Islam and the Future of Tolerance: A Dialogue in 2015.

Harris is considered a member of the "Four Horsemen of New Atheism," alongside Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and the late Christopher Hitchens. He advocates separation of church and state and is a critic of religion and a proponent of the liberty to criticize it.[7] He has praised Advaita Vedanta and Dzogchen, however, as "they contain empirical insights about the nature of consciousness that do not depend upon faith."[8] Harris' writings on religion have drawn both praise and criticism.

Harris has written articles for The Huffington Post, Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, The New York Times, Newsweek, and the scientific journal Nature. His articles discuss topics including religion, morality, neuroscience, free will, terrorism, and self-defense.[9] He regularly gives talks around the United States and the United Kingdom, including a speech at TED, where he outlined the arguments made in his book The Moral Landscape.[10] Harris has made numerous television appearances, including interviews for Nightline, Real Time with Bill Maher, The O'Reilly Factor, The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, and The Last Word, among others. He has also appeared in the documentary films The God Who Wasn't There (2005) and The Unbelievers (2013).

Early life and education[edit]

Harris was born on April 9, 1967 in Los Angeles.[11] He was raised by a single mother since the age of two.[12] He is the son of actor Berkeley Harris and TV producer Susan Harris, who created The Golden Girls.[13] His father came from a Quaker background and his mother is Jewish.[14] Harris has stated that his upbringing was entirely secular,[15] and his parents rarely discussed religion, though it was always a subject that interested him.[16][17]

In 1986, as a young student at Stanford University, Harris experimented with MDMA, and has since written and spoken about the powerful insights he felt psychologically under the drug's influence.[18][19]

Harris became interested in spiritual and philosophical questions when he studied at Stanford University. He was fascinated by the idea that he might be able to achieve spiritual insights without the use of drugs.[20] Leaving Stanford in his second year, he went to India, where he studied meditation with Buddhist and Hindu religious teachers,[20][21] including Dilgo Khyentse.[22] Eleven years later, in 1997, he returned to Stanford, completing a B.A. degree in philosophy in 2000.[17][23][24] Harris began writing his first book, The End of Faith, immediately after the September 11 attacks.[17]

He received a Ph.D. degree in cognitive neuroscience in 2009 from the University of California, Los Angeles,[17][25][26] using functional magnetic resonance imaging to conduct research into the neural basis of belief, disbelief, and uncertainty.[17][26] His thesis was titled "The moral landscape: How science could determine human values", and his advisor was Mark S. Cohen.[27]

Views[edit]

Criticism of Abrahamic religions[edit]

Harris says that religion is especially rife with bad ideas, calling it "one of the most perverse misuses of intelligence we have ever devised".[28] He compares modern religious beliefs to the myths of the Ancient Greeks, which were once accepted as fact but which are obsolete today. In a January 2007 interview with PBS, Harris said, "We don't have a word for not believing in Zeus, which is to say we are all atheists in respect to Zeus. And we don't have a word for not being an astrologer". He goes on to say that the term atheist will be retired only when "we all just achieve a level of intellectual honesty where we are no longer going to pretend to be certain about things we are not certain about".[29]

Harris states that he advocates a benign, noncoercive, corrective form of intolerance, distinguishing it from historic religious persecution. He promotes a conversational intolerance, in which personal convictions are scaled against evidence, and where intellectual honesty is demanded equally in religious views and non-religious views.[30] He also believes there is a need to counter inhibitions that prevent the open critique of religious ideas, beliefs, and practices under the auspices of "tolerance".[31] He has stated on his blog that he has received death threats for some of his views on religion.[32]

Columnist Madeleine Bunting quotes Harris from his book The End of Faith: "Some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them." Bunting declares that Harris's statement "sounds like exactly the kind of argument put forward by those who ran the Inquisition".[33] Quoting the same passage, theologian Catherine Keller asks, "[c]ould there be a more dangerous proposition than that?" and says that the "anti-tolerance" it represents would "dismantle" the Jeffersonian wall between church and state.[34] Writer Theodore Dalrymple described the passage as "quite possibly the most disgraceful that I have read in a book by a man posing as a rationalist".[35] A fellow contributor at The Huffington Post, R. J. Eskow, has written a number of columns commenting on Harris’s statements. In one column, Eskow characterized Harris as espousing a "brand of evangelical atheism," and questioned whether it was a creed of "intolerance."[36]

In response to some of the most frequent criticisms of his work—many of which he says are unfair and which misunderstand or distort his true positions—Harris maintains a long and frequently updated post on his personal website where he addresses each claim.[37]

In positive book reviews of The End of Faith, Nina Burleigh agrees with Harris' premise that religious "faith" is leading humanity into ruin, and the world would be better off without the three major religions,[38] and Richard Dawkins cheers the fact that while the book won't "change the minds of idiots," it will encourage other intelligent people to come out and raise their voices.[39]

Islam[edit]

Harris speaking in 2010 at TED

Compared to various other major world religions, Harris considers Islam to be "especially belligerent and inimical to the norms of civil discourse." He asserts that the "dogmatic commitment to using violence to defend one’s faith, both from within and without" to varying degrees, is a central Islamic doctrine that is found in few other religions to the same degree, and that "this difference has consequences in the real world."[citation needed]

In 2006, after the Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons controversy, Harris wrote, "The idea that Islam is a 'peaceful religion hijacked by extremists' is a dangerous fantasy—and it is now a particularly dangerous fantasy for Muslims to indulge. It is not at all clear how we should proceed in our dialogue with the Muslim world, but deluding ourselves with euphemisms is not the answer. It now appears to be a truism in foreign policy circles that real reform in the Muslim world cannot be imposed from the outside. But it is important to recognize why this is so—it is so because the Muslim world is utterly deranged by its religious tribalism. In confronting the religious literalism and ignorance of the Muslim world, we must appreciate how terrifyingly isolated Muslims have become in intellectual terms."[40][41][42][43] He states that his criticism of the religion is aimed not at Muslims as people, but at the doctrine of Islam.

Anthropologist Scott Atran has criticized Harris for what he believes is an unscientific highlighting of the role of belief in the psychology of suicide bombers. Atran later followed up his comments in an online discussion for Edge, in which he criticized Harris and others for combating religious dogmatism and faith in a way that Atran believes is "scientifically baseless, psychologically uninformed, politically naïve, and counterproductive for goals we share".[44]

In an article in The Nation reviewing three of Harris’ books, Jackson Lears states that when Harris’ arguments are evaluated "according to their resonance with public policy debates, the results are sobering...", continuing:

From him we learn, among other things, that torture is just another form of collateral damage in the "war on terror"—regrettable, maybe, but a necessary price to pay in the crucial effort to save Western civilization from the threat of radical Islam… As in the golden age of positivism, a notion of sovereign science is enlisted in the service of empire. Harris dispenses with the Christian rhetoric of his imperialist predecessors but not with their rationalizations for state-sponsored violence.[45]

In April 2012, Harris voiced support for profiling, stating, "We should profile Muslims, or anyone who looks like he or she could conceivably be Muslim, and we should be honest about it."[46] The following year, columns in Al Jazeera and Salon accused Harris and other New Atheists of expressing irrational anti-Muslim animus under the guise of rational atheism. Glenn Greenwald wrote a column in which he agreed, "The key point is that Harris does far, far more than voice criticisms of Islam as part of a general critique of religion. He has repeatedly made clear that he thinks Islam is uniquely threatening … Yes, he criticizes Christianity, but he reserves the most intense attacks and superlative condemnations for Islam, as well as unique policy proscriptions of aggression, violence and rights abridgments aimed only at Muslims."[46] Harris wrote a response to this controversy, which also aired on a debate hosted by The Huffington Post on whether critics of Islam are unfairly labeled as bigots:

Is it really true that the sins for which I hold Islam accountable are “committed at least to an equal extent by many other groups, especially [my] own”? ... The freedom to poke fun at Mormonism is guaranteed [not by the First Amendment but] by the fact that Mormons do not dispatch assassins to silence their critics or summon murderous hordes in response to satire. ... Can any reader of this page imagine the staging of a similar play [to The Book of Mormon] about Islam in the United States, or anywhere else, in the year 2013? ... At this moment in history, there is only one religion that systematically stifles free expression with credible threats of violence. The truth is, we have already lost our First Amendment rights with respect to Islam—and because they brand any observation of this fact a symptom of Islamophobia, Muslim apologists like Greenwald are largely to blame.[47][48]

Harris has criticized the term "Islamophobia". "My criticism of Islam is a criticism of beliefs and their consequences," he wrote following a controversial clash with Ben Affleck in October 2014 on the show Real Time with Bill Maher, "but my fellow liberals reflexively view it as an expression of intolerance toward people." "Islamophobia is a term of propaganda designed to protect Islam from the forces of secularism by conflating all criticism of it with racism and xenophobia. And it is doing its job, because people like you have been taken in by it."[40][49]

Harris's views have received support. Writing in the New York Post, Rich Lowry defended Harris and Maher by arguing that their liberal critics are unable to "talk frankly about the illiberalism of much of the Muslim world" as "[i]t entails resisting the reflex to consider any criticism of the Third World as presumptive racism."[50] Various other writers have expressed support as well.[51][52][53][54][55][56] In an article about Harris' televised clash with Affleck, Guy P. Harrison of Psychology Today expressed understanding of Affleck's anger with the negative stereotyping of Muslims, but also wrote, "I am very familiar with Harris's work and have never seen reason to suspect him of being a racist or bigot. And I pay close attention to such things, having written a book about the concept of race and the problem of racism. I'm confident that Sam Harris is not a racist."[57]

Christianity[edit]

Edited excerpts of Harris' remarks during a debate with William Lane Craig at Notre Dame University in 2011

Harris has roundly criticized Christianity, and has reserved additional and particular derision for specific branches. He has described Mormonism as less credible than most Christianity, "because Mormons are committed to believing nearly all the implausible things that Christians believe plus many additional implausible things", such as Jesus returning to earth in Jackson County, Missouri. Harris has referred to Catholicism as "ghoulish machinery set to whirling through the ages by the opposing winds of shame and sadism", and criticized the Catholic Church for spending "two millennia demonizing human sexuality to a degree unmatched by any other institution, declaring the most basic, healthy, mature, and consensual behaviors taboo." Harris has also criticized the Catholic Church's structure and forced celibacy within its ranks for attracting pedophiles, and blames its opposition to the use of contraception for poverty, shorter lifespans, and the proliferation of HIV/AIDS.[58]

Judaism[edit]

Harris, who was raised by a secular Jewish mother and a Quaker father, has stated that his upbringing was entirely secular. Fellow critic of religion Christopher Hitchens once referred to Harris as a "Jewish warrior against theocracy and bigotry of all stripes".[15]

In The End of Faith, Harris is critical of the Jewish faith and its followers:

The gravity of Jewish suffering over the ages, culminating in the Holocaust, makes it almost impossible to entertain any suggestion that Jews might have brought their troubles upon themselves. This is, however, in a rather narrow sense, the truth. […] the ideology of Judaism remains a lightning rod for intolerance to this day. […] Jews, insofar as they are religious, believe that they are bearers of a unique covenant with God. As a consequence, they have spent the last two thousand years collaborating with those who see them as different by seeing themselves as irretrievably so. Judaism is as intrinsically divisive, as ridiculous in its literalism, and as at odds with the civilizing insights of modernity as any other religion. Jewish settlers, by exercising their "freedom of belief" on contested land, are now one of the principal obstacles to peace in the Middle East.

Harris has said he holds somewhat paradoxical views about Israel and Judaism, and is still genuinely undecided on some things. "I don’t think Israel should exist as a Jewish state. I think it is obscene, irrational and unjustifiable to have a state organized around a religion. So I don’t celebrate the idea that there’s a Jewish homeland in the Middle East. I certainly don’t support any Jewish claims to real estate based on the Bible. Though I just said that I don’t think Israel should exist as a Jewish state, the justification for such a state is rather easy to find. We need look no further than the fact that the rest of the world has shown itself eager to murder the Jews at almost every opportunity. So, if there were going to be a state organized around protecting members of a single religion, it certainly should be a Jewish state. Now, friends of Israel might consider this a rather tepid defense, but it’s the strongest one I’ve got. I think the idea of a religious state is ultimately untenable."[59]

Advocacy of the Indian tradition[edit]

In contrast to the "Abrahamic religions", Harris states the "The Indian tradition is comparatively free of problems of this kind."[8] The "Indian tradition" includes Advaita Vedanta and Buddhism (with a particular emphasis on Dzogchen).[8]

On atheism[edit]

Although Harris has associated himself with the "New Atheism", he considers the term "atheism" to be problematic. He has stated "I never thought of myself as an atheist before being inducted to speak as one".[60]

On spirituality, mysticism, and the paranormal[edit]

Despite his anti-religion sentiments, Sam Harris also claims 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."[20] Similarly, Margaret Wertheim, who considers herself to be an atheist, contends that Harris's account of religious faith as the source of many social evils should be viewed "with considerable skepticism". "I would like to stand up for religion and the value of faith", she said, and concluded after her mother told her it was Catholicism which motivated her extensive charitable works, "that the left hand of God is also one of the greatest powers for social change on this planet."[61]

In January 2007, Harris received criticism from John Gorenfeld, writing for AlterNet.[62] Gorenfeld took Harris to task for defending some of the findings of paranormal investigations into areas such as reincarnation and xenoglossy. He also strongly criticized Harris for his defense of judicial torture. Harris has stated that he believes torture should be illegal, but that it in certain extreme circumstances it may be ethical to break the law.[37] Gorenfeld's critique was subsequently reflected by Robert Todd Carroll, writing in The Skeptic's Dictionary.[63] On his website Harris disputed that he had defended these views to the extent that Gorenfeld suggested.[37]

Science and morality[edit]

In his third book, The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values, Harris says that "Human well-being is not a random phenomenon. It depends on many factors—ranging from genetics and neurobiology to sociology and economics." Harris says that it is time to promote a scientific approach to normative morality, rejecting the idea that religion determines what is good. He believes that once scientists begin proposing moral norms in papers, supernatural moral systems will join "astrology, witchcraft and Greek mythology on the scrapheap".[64]

A number of scholars and scientists have criticized Harris' arguments in the media.[65][66][67][68][69][70] Soon after the book's release, Harris responded to some of the criticisms in an article for The Huffington Post.[71] In a review of Harris' book, anthropologist Scott Atran stated

Contrary to Harris’s latest screed, there is no such thing as a science-based universal morality. And abolishing religion will do nothing to rid mankind of its ills.[72]

Academic philosophers have also criticized The Moral Landscape as being unsatisfactory.[73][74] Massimo Pigliucci, while identifying himself as being a "moral realist" like Harris, evaluates Harris' challenge to Hume's is-ought distinction as errant, deeming Harris to be a consequentialist:

Harris entirely evades philosophical criticism of his positions, on the simple grounds that he finds metaethics "boring." But he is a self-professed consequentialist -- a philosophical stance close to utilitarianism -- who simply ducks any discussion of the implications of that a priori choice, which informs his entire view of what counts for morality, happiness, well-being and so forth. He seems unaware (or doesn't care about) the serious philosophical objections that have been raised against consequentialism, and even less so of the various moves in logical space (some more convincing than others) that consequentialists have made to defend their position.[75]

John Horgan, reviewing The Moral Landscape, argues that Harris' central thesis strikes him as "not only misguided but potentially harmful." Horgan argues that Harris has misunderstood the nature of science as an enterprise that discovers, not constructs, aspects of reality. Horgan also worries that Harris fails to take into consideration the history of disastrous attempts to create a "science of human flourishing", attempts, like Marxism and eugenics, that became the bedrock of the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany.[76]

Free will[edit]

Harris says the idea of free will is incoherent and "cannot be mapped on to any conceivable reality." Humans are not free and no sense can be given to the concept that we might be.[77] According to Harris, science "reveals you to be a biochemical puppet."[78] People's thoughts and intentions, Harris says, "emerge from background causes of which we are unaware and over which we exert no conscious control." Every choice we make is made as a result of preceding causes. These choices we make are determined by those causes, and are therefore not really choices at all. Harris also draws a distinction between conscious and unconscious reactions to the world. Even without free will, consciousness has an important role to play in the choices we make. Harris argues that this realization about the human mind does not undermine morality or diminish the importance of social and political freedom, but it can and should change the way we think about some of the most important questions in life.

Commenting on Harris's book Free Will (2012), Daniel Dennett disagrees with Harris' position on compatibilism, and asks if Harris is directing his arguments against an unreasonably absolute or "perfect freedom" version of compatibilism, which Dennett would describe as an incoherent, straw man version.[79][80]

Eddy Nahmias, a prominent philosopher in the area of free will, is similarly unimpressed by Harris' claims. In his review of Harris' book in The Philosophers Magazine, Nahmias says Harris' definition of free will is mistaken. He charges Harris' definition with relying on some "nebulous X-factor". Nahmias says Harris simply asserts his definition of free will, without offering any evidence to back up his claim, and Harris misreads or ignores the arguments offered by compatibilists.[81]

Social and economic politics[edit]

Harris describes himself as a liberal, and states that he supports raising taxes on the wealthy, decriminalizing drugs, and the rights of homosexuals to marry. He was critical of the Bush administration's war in Iraq, fiscal policy, and treatment of science.[82]

Organizational affiliations[edit]

In 2007 Harris and his wife, Annaka Harris, founded Project Reason, a charitable foundation devoted to spreading scientific knowledge and secular values in society.[83]

Harris is also a member of the advisory board of the Secular Coalition for America,[84] a national lobbying organization representing the interests of nontheistic Americans.

Neuroscience[edit]

Building on his interests in belief and religion, Harris completed a PhD in cognitive neuroscience at UCLA.[21][26] He used fMRI to explore whether the brain responses differ between sentences that subjects judged as true, false, or undecidable, across a wide range of categories including autobiographical, mathematical, geographical, religious, ethical, semantic, and factual statements.[85]

In another study, Harris and colleagues examined the neural basis of religious and non-religious belief using fMRI.[86] Fifteen committed Christians and fifteen nonbelievers were scanned as they evaluated the truth and falsity of religious and nonreligious propositions. For both groups, statements of belief (sentences judged as either true or false) were associated with increased activation of ventromedial prefrontal cortex, a region of the brain involved in emotional judgment, processing uncertainty, assessing rewards and thinking about oneself.[26] A "comparison of all religious trials to all nonreligious trials produced a wide range of signal differences throughout the brain," and the processing of religious belief and empirical belief differed in significant ways. The regions associated with increased activation in response to religious stimuli included the anterior insula, the ventral striatum, the anterior cingulate cortex, and the posterior medial cortex.[86]

Writings and media appearances[edit]

Harris's writing focuses on neuroscience and criticism of religion, for which he is best known. He blogs for the Washington Post, the Huffington Post, and formerly for Truthdig, and his articles have appeared in such publications as Newsweek, The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Boston Globe, and the British national newspaper The Times.[87]

Harris has made numerous TV and radio appearances, including on The O'Reilly Factor, ABC News, Tucker, Book TV, NPR, Real Time, The Colbert Report, and The Daily Show. In 2005, Harris appeared in the documentary film The God Who Wasn't There. Harris was a featured speaker at the 2006 conference Beyond Belief: Science, Religion, Reason and Survival. He made two presentations and participated in the ensuing panel discussions. Harris has also appeared a number of times on the Point of Inquiry radio podcast. Harris engaged in a lengthy debate with Andrew Sullivan on the internet forum Beliefnet.[88] In April 2007, Harris debated with the evangelical pastor Rick Warren for Newsweek magazine.[89] In April 2011, he debated William Lane Craig on the nature of morality.[90][91]

In September 2011 Harris's essay Lying was published as a Kindle single.[92]

Harris has appeared as a guest on The Joe Rogan Experience podcast five times, most recently in June 2016. The conversations have each lasted around three hours and have covered a variety of topics related to Harris's research, books, and interests.

On September 28, 2012, Harris spoke at the Festival of Dangerous Ideas in Sydney, Australia.[93] His speech was on the delusion of Free Will,[93] which is also the topic of his book of 2012.[94]

On April 7, 2013, Harris announced his book, Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion, which describes his views on spiritual and contemplative experiences.[95] The book was published in late 2014. One of the subjects of the book is Dzogchen, a Tibetan Buddhist teaching.

Personal life[edit]

Harris was a serious student of the martial arts and taught martial arts in college. After more than twenty years, he began practicing two martial arts again,[96] including Brazilian jiu-jitsu.[97] Harris was at one point a vegetarian, but gave it up after six years, citing health concerns.[98] In 2015 he returned to vegetarianism for ethical reasons, with the intention of eventually going vegan.[99]

Harris has been reluctant to discuss personal details such as where he now lives, citing security reasons.[100] In 2004, Harris married Annaka Harris, an editor of nonfiction and scientific books.[101] They have two daughters.[102]

Podcast[edit]

Beginning in September 2013, Sam Harris began publishing the podcast Waking Up with Sam Harris, in which he discusses his views, responds to critics, and interviews special guests. The podcasts vary greatly in length of time, anywhere from 8 minutes to over 3 hours. The podcast has no regular release schedule, although the frequency of releases has increased over time.[103]

Books[edit]

References[edit]

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