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The NS Profile: Sam Harris

Sam Harris, one of the “Four Horsemen” of new atheism, believes that science can never be reconciled

Sam Harris, the American writer, neuroscientist and leading proponent of the new atheism, rarely invites indifference. The novelist Marilynne Robinson wrote recently that his "aspirations . . . contain much that is not laudable". The writer and commentator Andrew Sullivan once accused Harris of a "form of intolerance that reminds me of some of the worst aspects of fundamentalism". The columnist Theodore Dalrymple said of a passage from Harris's first book, The End of Faith, that it was "quite possibly the most disgraceful that I have read in a book by a man posing as a rationalist".

His supporters are no less voluble. The jacket of his latest book, The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values, carries gushing testimonials from Ian McEwan ("Reason has never had a more passionate advocate") and Richard Dawkins ("As for religion, and the preposterous idea that we need God to be good, nobody wields a sharper bayonet").

When I meet Harris - a dapper man of 43 who bears a decided resemblance to the actor Ben Stiller - at the office of his English publishers in London, the bayonet is out more or less straight away, even though he is suffering from jet lag after a flight from New York.

A few days before our meeting, the news had broken of the award to Sir Martin Rees, Astronomer Royal and former president of the Royal Society, of the £1m Templeton Prize. The prize, given annually by the John Templeton Foundation, rewards individuals who have made "exceptional contributions to affirming life's spiritual dimension" - or, as Harris puts it in The Moral Landscape, "split[ting] the difference between intellectual integrity and the fantasies of a prior age".

“Rees looks like a cagey and successful choice from the Templeton Foundation's point of view," Harris tells me. "He's certainly not who you'd expect to be shilling for the cause. He is on the record as being a non-believer, but is too politic for his own good, or for our common good. He thinks science shouldn't be in the business of criticising religion, and that scientists can do their job perfectly happily without ever engaging in a contest with religion - but I think that's fundamentally untrue."

Zero-sum game

That "religion and science are in a zero-sum conflict with respect to facts" is one of the central contentions of The End of Faith, the book with which Harris, then aged 36, made his name when it was first published in 2004. He was followed into print in 2006 by the philosopher Daniel Dennett (with Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon) and by Dawkins, who argued in his bestseller The God Delusion that religion is the enemy of science. Dawkins, like Harris, meant all religion - not just the fundamentalist, apocalyptic varieties whose adherents are indifferent to the fate of this world because they await imminent transposition to another.Dawkins, Dennett and Harris later made common cause with Christopher Hitchens, whose polemic God Is Not Great was published in 2007. That year, the quartet convened at Hitchens's apartment in Washington, DC for a discussion, conducted over cocktails, that was filmed and subsequently released as a DVD under the title The Four Horsemen.

As Harris observes in The Moral Landscape, somewhat ruefully, there is now a "large and growing literature" attacking "the so-called New Atheists" (a term coined in 2006 by Gary Wolf in an article for Wired magazine).

“It is often said that we caricature religion," he writes. "We do no such thing. We simply . . . take the specific claims of religion seriously." What Harris means is that the New Atheists treat religion - of the kind espoused by the mildest Anglican as much as the ravings of the most incendiary Islamist - as consisting of a set of purportedly factual claims about the nature of reality, the origins of the universe and so on, to which believers assent as they would to an ordinary empirical proposition about the weather or the colour of my trousers. If that is what religion is, then it conflicts with science by definition.

When I try to suggest that there might be more to religious faith than this description allows, Harris is emphatic. "Look at the New Testament," he says. "It makes a variety of claims that are by definition at odds with what we know to be scientifically plausible."

Yet there are many eminent scientists who also happen to be religious believers - John Polkinghorne, for instance, the mathematical physicist and Anglican priest who won the Templeton Prize in 2002, or Francis Collins, formerly director of the National Centre for Human Genome Research in the United States, who was appointed director of the National Institutes of Health by President Obama in 2009. Why, if atheism is the world-view that best accords with the scientific evidence, do so many intelligent people persist in faith?

For Harris, this can be explained only as a "failure of intellectual honesty". He is parti­cularly scathing about Collins. "There's something repugnant about the fact that he [is a believer] and one of the most prominent and influential representatives of science in the United States," he says. "And he's not some weak-tea Christian - he thinks the dead will walk again and will be remade out of new matter. And not only that, he doesn't keep those crazy convictions private. He publishes on the mutually reinforcing character of those two world-views [science and religion]."

However, it is not Christians such as Collins who are the most vociferous critics of Harris and the other New Atheists. The most powerful assaults have come from fellow atheists and secularists. Take the literary critic James Wood, who was brought up in an evangelical Christian household but is now an atheist. Wood has written of the "parochialism" of new atheism. Religion, for Harris and the others, he argues, "seems to mean either fundamentalist Islam or American evangelical Christianity". More "relaxed or progressive" forms of Christianity tend not to register - nor do Hinduism or Buddhism, both of which Harris flirted with in his early twenties after dropping out of an English degree at Stanford University, or Judaism, the faith into which he was born.

Harris swats away the criticism when I put it to him. "If you want to take that tack, at least do me the courtesy of acknowledging that at least 50 per cent of the American population is fundamentalist. This is not a fringe problem. And in the Muslim world it's the same.

“But if you want to talk about some far more relaxed, noncommittal, non-dogmatic form of Christianity or Islam, then let's talk about what it's committed to, because it's committed to some propositional claims. If it's committed to none, then we're just talking about someone who happens to like the Bible as literature, or who happens to like going to St Paul's because he likes the architecture." The problem with this response is that it does not address whether there is more to religion than beliefs about the world. The philosopher Philip Kitcher, an avowed secularist, thinks Harris is attached to something he calls the "belief model of religion", which he finds wanting.

“Besides beliefs," Kitcher wrote in a paper on "militant modern atheism" published last October, "there are emotions, aspirations, desires and actions . . . Those who merely believe, if there are any such people, are not full participants in the religious life." In other words, living in a moral community in which one engages in shared practices is as important to the religious person as believing in a set of dogmas about the metaphysics of transcendent entities.

Beyond belief

Harris does not dispute that religious concepts articulate a moral vision as well as purport to describe the world. But he wishes that scientists wouldn't leave morality to those of faith, and The Moral Landscape is devoted to explaining why they need not do so. "Secular scientists very commonly think that science has nothing to say about morality and human value, and so it's not science's job to tell people what constitutes a good life," he argues.

In the new book, Harris tries to give a scientific answer to the question of atheist morality. "Questions about values", he writes, "are really questions about the well-being of conscious creatures" - and well-being is something that is measurable, scientifically verifiable. The "science of human flourishing" that he lays out in the book is an updated version of utilitarianism, in which well-being replaces pleasure as the source of moral value. Crudely put, in the view that Harris defends, an action is right to the extent that it promotes well-being.

Judging the rightness of an action by its consequences in this way seems to lead Harris, however, to countenance practices that most of us would regard as morally repugnant - such as torture. His arguments about this in The End of Faith caused such controversy that he now maintains a page on his website devoted to the topic. He describes his position thus: "collateral damage is worse than torture across the board". If we bomb civilians, then why are we squeamish about waterboarding?

His opinions are shaped by what seems to him the biggest threat to western civilisation today: radical Islam. The irony is that, in this struggle, he finds himself on the same side as the Christian right. "It's inconvenient, certainly," Harris says laconically. "When I talk to Christians about Islam, they're running the same software. They know how it feels to be sure that the Book is the word of the Creator."

Jonathan Derbyshire is culture editor of the New Statesman

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 18 April 2011 issue of the New Statesman, GOD Special

Photo: Getty Images
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The free market? There's no such thing

There's no such thing as the free market - it's a delusion of left and right, argues Bryn Phillips.

A very long time ago, some wide-eyed utopians dreamed a seductive dream. A dream of a perfect world. A world without coercive constraints on economic activities, where the intrusive hand of government would be eliminated. They conceived of an economy governed by the same laws that operate in nature. And they called it the free market. And over time the left began to believe in this fantasy as much as the right. For the right it is a call to arms against the domination of the ‘villainous’ state; for the left it is the rot at the heart of our ‘inequitable’ economic system. Yet while they disagree on its desirability, both positions assume that a ‘non-regulated’ market can even be possible. One of the key insights of the Hungarian philosopher Karl Polanyi, however, is that there is no such thing as a free market. There never has been, and there never can be. Let me explain.

The concept of an economic sphere completely divorced from government and civil society institutions, Polanyi argues, is a “stark utopia”—stark, because the attempt to bring it into being is destined to fail and will inevitably bring about dystopian consequences for human beings and nature alike. However, there is a gulf of difference between a market and what Polanyi calls a market society. The first is a necessary part of any functioning economy, one of many different social institutions on which the common good depends; the second imperils human society by attempting to subject almost everything that social life depends upon to market principles: health care, legal security, and the right to earn a wage. When these ‘commodity fictions’ (Polanyi’s words, not mine) are treated as if they are genuine commodities, produced for sale in the marketplace, rather than inherent rights, our social world is thrown before the lions and major crises inevitably follow on. The financial crisis of 2008 and the Wall Street Crash, arguably being just two examples. 

The flip side to all this, Polanyi argues, is that human beings tend to mobilise in response to such crises, but the resulting resistance is not always necessarily democratic (think the New Deal)—it it is just as likely to be authoritarian and nasty. For all their wickedness, the Nazi Party came to power on a protectionist ticket, promising to restore order in the face of the social chaos created by the crash of the early 1930s. Looking at today’s world through this prism, isn’t free market ideology the common thread that links many of today’s problems too—global warming, rising anti-Semitism, xenophobia, and economic instability?

To any rational thinker, then, the very idea that markets and governments are independent and autonomous institutions is clearly dangerous nonsense. Government action is not some kind of Orwellian “interference” in the autonomous sphere of economic activity. In simple terms, the economy just cannot exist without the mediating influence of government and social institutions. It’s not only that society depends on schools, a legal system, and other public goods that only government can provide. It is that every major input the economy needs in order to function—land, labour, and money—originate and are maintained through sustained government action. The supplies of money that enable us to purchase goods, the employment system, the arrangements for buying and selling land, all are supported and organised through the exercise of government’s authority, rules, and regulations. Put simply, there is no such thing as a “free market”.

In light of this doesn’t the quixotic left need to stop tilting at windmills and see the world as it really is? It’s time we changed the terms of political debate and made it clear that the frustrating economic problems we face today are exclusively political problems. This means rejecting the illusion of a deregulated economy altogether. Instead of parroting the fallacious ideology of the free market, we need to close the book on this myth and tell an alternative story. 

As the academic Margaret Somers has pointed out, what happened in the 1980s in the name of “deregulation” was, in truth, simply “re-regulation”, this time by laws and policies completely opposite to those of the mid-twentieth century—of Attlee and Roosevelt. Those older regulations laid the foundations for greater social equality, a thriving middle class and increased economic and political security. The reality is that, between the ‘Big Bang’ of 1986 and the present day, government continued to regulate, but instead of acting to protect workers and customers, it devised novel policies aimed to help multi-national corporations and the financial services industries maximise the returns on their investments, by reforming anti-trust laws, putting obstacles in the way of unionisation, and handing out bank bailouts without any conditions attached whatsoever. In 2008, 1.3 trillion pounds were transferred to the banks in the UK overnight—the biggest transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich in history—but nothing was asked for in return. You get the picture. 

The implications of Polanyi’s critique for the left are critical. If regulations are necessary features of markets, then surely we’ve got to stop fixating on the ‘regulation versus deregulation’ debate that has distorted political discourse for the last thirty years, and instead discuss what kinds of regulations we want to see put in place? Those designed for the exclusive benefit of capital and the billionaire class? Or those that jointly benefit workers, customers, and businesses? We must not ask whether the law should intervene in the market but rather what kinds of rules and rights should be expressed in these laws—those that recognise that it is the expertise and experience of employees that help make firms profitable and productive, or those that rig the race solely in favour of employers and centralised capital? 

The truth, of course, in the 1930s as now, is that the poor have always struggled to keep their heads above water in the face of forces that overwhelm them. Confronted by the economic failures and instabilities brought about by what political philosopher Maurice Glasman calls “market utopia”, we must be relentless in guarding against the threats which the advocates of free market ideology unwittingly present to democracy and peace. Unless there are some serious initiatives to chart a new course, we can only expect that the threat from the nationalist right and the anti-Semitic hard-left—that is currently growing across Europe— will grow stronger.

“Fortune is arranging matters for us better than we could have shaped our desires ourselves,” says Don Quixote, as he advances towards the windmills on the plain. Taking Polanyi seriously means the left needs to confront reality. Or the economic inequities it rallies against will prevail. Another major crisis will become inevitable. And we may well have no say in our destiny at all.