May 4, 2011


Same Old New Atheism: On Sam Harris (Jackson Lears, May 16, 2011, The Nation)

During the past several decades, there has been a revival of positivism alongside the resurgence of laissez-faire economics and other remnants of late-nineteenth-century social thought. E.O. Wilson’s Sociobiology (1975) launched pop-evolutionary biologism on the way to producing “evolutionary psychology”—a parascience that reduces complex human social interactions to adaptive behaviors inherited from our Pleistocene ancestors. Absence of evidence from the Pleistocene did not deter evolutionary psychologists from telling Darwinian stories about the origins of contemporary social life. Advances in neuroscience and genetics bred a resurgent faith in the existence of something called human nature and the sense that science is on the verge of explaining its workings, usually with reference to brains that are “hard-wired” for particular kinds of adaptive, self-interested behavior. In the problematic science of intelligence testing, scientific racism made a comeback with the publication of Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray’s The Bell Curve in 1994.

This resurgent positivism provoked ferocious criticism, most of it serious and justified. Stephen Jay Gould took dead aim at what he called “Darwinian Fundamentalism,” arguing that strict adaptationist accounts of evolutionary thought presented “a miserly and blinkered picture of evolution,” impoverished not only by the lack of evidence but also by the reductionist tendency to insist on the simplest possible explanation for the complexities of human and animal behavior. Other critics—Noam Chomsky, Richard Lewontin—joined Gould in noting the tendency of Darwinian fundamentalists to “prove” adaptationist arguments by telling “just-so stories.” These are narratives about evolution based on hypotheses that are plausible, and internally consistent with the strict adaptationist program, but lacking the essential component of the scientific method: falsifiability. This was a powerful argument.

Within the wider culture, however, reductionism reigned. Hardly a day went by without journalists producing another just-so story about primitive life on the savanna thousands of years ago, purporting to show why things as they are have to be the way they are. In these stories, the parched fruits of a mirthless and minor imagination, all sorts of behavior, from generals’ exaggerations of their armies’ strength to the promiscuity of powerful men, could be viewed as an adaptive strategy, embedded in a gene that would be passed on to subsequent generations. In the late twentieth century, as in the late nineteenth, positivism’s account of human behavior centered on the idea that the relentless assertion of advantage by the strong serves the evolutionary interests of the species. Positivism remained a mighty weapon of the status quo, ratifying existing arrangements of wealth, power and prestige.

The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, injected positivism with a missionary zeal. “Once I had experienced all the usual mammalian gamut of emotions, from rage to nausea, I also discovered that another sensation was contending for mastery,” Christopher Hitchens wrote several months after 9/11. “On examination, and to my own surprise and pleasure, it turned out to be exhilaration. Here was the most frightful enemy—theocratic barbarism—in plain view…. I realized that if the battle went on until the last day of my life, I would never get bored in prosecuting it to the utmost” [see “Images in a Rearview Mirror,” December 3, 2001]. Putting aside the question of how Hitchens intended to “prosecute” this battle other than pontificating about it, and the irrelevance of his boredom to dead and maimed soldiers and civilians, one cannot deny that he embraced, from a safe distance, the “war on terror” as an Enlightenment crusade. He was not alone. Other intellectuals fell into line, many holding aloft the banner of science and reason against the forces of “theocratic barbarism.” Most prominent were the intellectuals the media chose to anoint, with characteristic originality, as the New Atheists, a group that included Hitchens, Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris. In the shadow of 9/11, they were ready to press the case against religion with renewed determination and fire.

Atheism has always been a tough sell in the United States. In Europe, where for centuries religious authority was intertwined with government power, atheists were heroic dissenters against the unholy alliance of church and state. In the United States, where the two realms are constitutionally separate, Protestant Christianity suffused public discourse so completely in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that some positivists felt the need to paper over their differences with religion. US politics has frequently been flooded by waves of Christian fervor. Sometimes religion has bolstered the forces of political sanctimony and persecution, as with Prohibition in the 1920s and anticommunism during the cold war; but it has also encouraged dissenters to speak truth to power—to abolish slavery, to regulate capitalism, to end the Vietnam War. [...]

[H]arris has the more impressive credentials. In addition to being a prolific pundit on websites, a marquee name on the lecture circuit and the author of three popular books, The End of Faith (2004), Letter to a Christian Nation (2006) and The Moral Landscape (2010), he is a practicing neuroscientist who emerges from the lab to reveal the fundamental truths he claims to have learned there. Chief among them are the destructive power of religion, which Harris always defines in the most literal and extreme terms, and the immediate global threat of radical Islam. Everything can be explained by the menace of mobilized religious dogma, which is exacerbated by liberal tolerance. Stupefied by cultural relativism, we refuse to recognize that some ways of being in the world—our own especially—are superior to others. As a consequence, we are at the mercy of fanatics who will stop at nothing until they “refashion the societies of Europe into a new Caliphate.” They are natural-born killers, and we are decadent couch potatoes. Our only defense, Harris insists, is the rejection of both religion and cultural relativism, and the embrace of science as the true source of moral value.

Harris claims he is committed to the reasonable weighing of evidence against the demands of blind faith. This is an admirable stance, but it conceals an absolutist cast of mind. He tells us that because “the well-being of conscious [and implicitly human] creatures” is the only reliable indicator of moral good, and science the only reliable means for enhancing well-being, only science can be a source of moral value. Experiments in neuroimaging, Harris argues, reveal that the brain makes no distinction between judgments of value and judgments of fact; from this finding he extracts the non sequitur that fact and value are the same. We may not know all the moral truths that research will unearth, but we will soon know many more of them. Neuroscience, he insists, is on the verge of revealing the keys to human well-being: in brains we trust.

To define science as the source of absolute truth, Harris must first ignore the messy realities of power in the world of Big Science. In his books there is no discussion of the involvement of scientists in the military-industrial complex or in the pharmacological pursuit of profit. Nor is any attention paid to the ways that chance, careerism and intellectual fashion can shape research: how they can skew data, promote the publication of some results and consign others to obscurity, channel financial support or choke it off. Rather than provide a thorough evaluation of evidence, Harris is given to sweeping, unsupported generalizations. His idea of an argument about religious fanaticism is to string together random citations from the Koran or the Bible. His books display a stunning ignorance of history, including the history of science. For a man supposedly committed to the rational defense of science, Harris is remarkably casual about putting a thumb on the scale in his arguments.

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Posted by at May 4, 2011 8:34 PM

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