The self-immolation of Sam Harris

Before we get into Sam, I’m going to start things off with a postulate by Yuval Harari. Harari is a colleague of Sam, the two having spoken on podcasts and referenced each other in written works, so I think it will be interesting to use one of his most powerful statements as a launchboard for my demonstration of the incoherence of Sam’s worldview.

Truth and power can travel together only so far. Sooner or later they go their separate ways. If you want power, at some point you will have to spread fictions. If you want to know the truth about the world, at some point you will have to renounce power.

This is a very interesting statement. To understand precisely what Harari means, it is necessary to explain the definitions of both ‘fiction’ and ‘truth’ as used here. To Harari, a ‘fiction’ is a proposition that is accepted by fiat, without underlying backing. We have to understand that Harari is not an individualist, and this may indeed be the most important difference between him and Sam Harris as thinkers. This means that Harari’s ‘fictions’ are not casual statements of mistruth that are shared by individuals, but rather systems-wide simplifications of reality that allow for greater levels of social organization.

Take laws, for instance. Laws are perhaps the prototypical examples of Harari’s fictions in operation (while he would likely demur in favor of God or money, if I discuss these here I’ll risk repeating myself later on). Laws are not grounded in the laws of physics, or the properties of physical matter, or even in our evolutionary biology (not necessarily, at least). Yet by the establishment and acceptance of laws for the regulation of society, higher levels of organizational complexity can be attained. A fiction, in short, is something used on or by a social system to guide it toward certain ends. Dig deep enough into any fiction, and you’ll find an arbitrary proposition at its core.

Truth, by contrast, is the underlying reality of things. I explained ‘fictions’ first, because Harari’s ‘truth’ can in a sense be defined simply as ‘that which contradicts a fiction’. An obvious yet brutal example of a truth is the following: that you and everyone you know is going to die.

Why does that matter? Because within the context of our social systems, we act as if this is not the case. We try our best to save people from death when possible, and to prolong life through whatever means available. We behave as if it is a tragedy, rather than an inevitability, when a large number of people are killed by something unexpected, and in doing so reinforce the idea that death is unnatural, is unnecessary, and (deontologically) ought to be prevented.

This systems-wide behavior reveals a collective ‘fiction’ (strictly in the Hararian sense, of course): we are engaged in a process of collective self-deceit in order to regulate society as so to allow for greater levels of social organization. Without anathematizing death, there is no basis for preventing people from dying, nor for punishing acts that induce death (such as murder). Obviously, any system in which murder is unobjectionable will find it exceedingly difficult to motivate its members to acheive complex tasks, because this generally requires cooperation, which is impossible if prosocially-defective behaviors as extreme as murder are unpreventable (the city of Chicago and its extremely low clearance rate for homicide is exemplary).

With this explained and Harari’s truths and fictions in mind, let’s get back to Sam Harris. Listen to this clip (set to play from 19m 23s) or read the transcript below if you’re short on time. I transcribed the clip carefully and removed some irrelevant muttering, but all errors are (obviously) my own.

Woman: So I have kids, you have kids. Right? Do you have kids?

Sam: Yep. Yep.
Eric Weinstein: We all do.

Woman: All have kids, great. So when it comes to free will, I get it. I’m completely on board, Sam, with your idea that there’s no free will.

Sam: Yep.

Woman: When it comes to raising kids, wh-

S: Don’t tell them. Don’t tell them th- [inaudible]

*AUDIENCE LAUGHS*

There’s a lot to say at this point, but it would be malapropos to cut the remaining context. Let’s hear Sam out. Cont:

W: Sorry but – I have an 18 year old boy, who’s… y’know, gorgeous. And when I’m trying to tell him to do the right thing, and he does something stupid… and then I wanna find out why he did that, I don’t even ask, cuz it’s a stupid question. Cuz he doesn’t even know why he did it, cuz he’s an 18-year-old boy. But when I’m looking at impacting his future behavior, where’s the practical separation between knowing… that there’s really no free will, and wanting your children to be responsible in their behavior and what they do in the world.

S: Okay… Well, this is an important question-

*APPLAUSE*

S: I think that there are many false assumptions about what it must mean to think that there’s no free will. I think there’s no free will, but I think that effort is incredibly important. I mean, you can’t wait around… I think the example I gave in my book is, well, if you wanna learn Chinese, you can’t just wait around to see if you learn it. It’s not gonna happen to you. There’s a way to learn Chinese, and you have to do the things you do to learn Chinese. Every skill or system of knowledge you can master is like that, and getting off of drugs is like that, and getting into shape is like that, and straightening out your life in any way that it’s crooked is like that. But the recognition that you didn’t make yourself, and that you are exactly as you are at this moment because the universe is as it is in this moment has a flip side, which is… you don’t know how fully you can be changed in the next moment, by good company, and good conversations, and reading good books, and… you don’t know, what you – you are an open system. It’s just a simple fact that people can radically change themselves. You’re not condemned to be who you were yesterday.

There’s a little more, but I think this is a good place to pause.

For the most part, Sam Harris is an incredibly rigorous, logical, and consistent thinker. After rejecting Islam I was drawn to Sam because he not only took the axiomatic standpoint of atheism, but also explored the implications and consequences of atheist realism by trying to develop what is essentially his own ‘atheist ethic’. His books ‘Lying’ and ‘Free Will’ are not just his own thoughts directed at a public audience; they’re actually a series of meditations through which Sam challenges himself, redressing areas that had long been considered ‘dead-ends’ wherein the repercussions of atheism (irrespective of its analytical correctness) are so deeply negative that in the final analysis pursuing such a worldview is simply not worth the trouble. In this respect, his philosophy is even comparable to Kantian deontology, which constitutes a similar attempt at grounding human morality in logic and proofs. Not bad, Sam. Not bad.

But nothing within Sam’s credentials can ameliorate the discrepancy we see in this conversation, between Sam’s philosophical idealism (what he calls ‘moral realism’) and his stated claims. Obviously we can let Sam off for the “Don’t tell them” line – it was a joke, and the audience got that. But as he goes on, we see the ethos within “Don’t tell them” repeated, explicated, and justified.

According to Sam, suppressing the ‘truth’ (that free will is an illusion) can at times lead to the actualization of greater potential. Obviously, we all know this already; at the most basic level, that is what religions do. By gathering the local township for collective prayer, meditation, and socialization, religious organizations have for time immemorial been using what Sam and Harari would call a ‘fiction’ to better people’s lives and endow them with a sense of meaning, purpose, and spiritual fulfillment. Yes, I am aware that the same mechanism can also be used for harm as well – that’s obvious, and unrelated to my point. The key here is that compromising the ‘truth’ in order to attain Hararian ’empowerment’ is precisely what Sam has criticized religion for.

This is why the Sam’s declaration that truth ought to be sacrificed in abet of empowerment (at least some of the time) is of such fundamental importance. His suggestion that we should utilize fictions in order to improve our social reality is devastating for moral realism, because it means that his desired system of social organization is essentially a religion, by virtue of operating along the same principles. By acknowledging that some aspects of reality (truth) should be set aside in name of functionality (power), Sam accepts the legitimacy of moral systems to uphold fictions for the good of their adherents. It is not just that he acknowledges that this is possible – he actually suggests that it ought to be pursued.

For what it’s worth, Sam himself admits this difficulty later in the video, conceding that what you say to people should be ‘true and useful’. But if it is valid and correct to use baseless fictions (such as the existence of free will) in order to better our lives, then we are instead promoting ‘what is useful and not true’. At this point we are effectively ruling out the possibility that there are ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ modes of social organization, since the discussion now moves to what level of usefulness justifies the abnegation of truth, and so on and so forth. The question ‘which moral system is correct’  becomes ‘which moral systems balance fiction and power appropriately’. Far from moral realism, this perspective is so blatantly pragmatist as to make William James turn in his grave. Moreover, Sam’s dismissal of the validity of religious systems based on their unrelatedness to material reality now seems positively hypocritical in light of his advocacy for those very same methods.

In short, if we accept Sam’s proposition, then it is meaningless to strive for the creation of a social system upholding an ‘objective’ or ‘correct’ moral reality. Instead, the question that then results is: ‘to what extent must we sacrifice the truth in order to attain the truth’. Needless to say, such a question – at least from Sam’s own moral realist perspective – is utterly incoherent.

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