Sam Harris

The Idiocy of Outrage: Sam Harris's Run-ins with Ben Affleck and Noam Chomsky

Affleck, Harris, Maher
(5,608 words. Link to printable version.)

        Every time Sam Harris engages in a public exchange of ideas, be it a casual back-and-forth or a formal debate, he has to contend with an invisible third party whose obnoxious blubbering dispels, distorts, or simply drowns out nearly every word he says. You probably wouldn’t be able to infer the presence of this third party from Harris’s own remarks or demeanor. What you’ll notice, though, is that fellow participants in the discussion, be they celebrities like Ben Affleck or eminent scholars like Noam Chomsky, respond to his comments—even to his mere presence—with a level of rancor easily mistakable for blind contempt. This reaction will baffle many in the audience. But it will quickly dawn on anyone familiar with Harris’s ongoing struggle to correct pernicious mischaracterizations of his views that these people aren’t responding to Harris at all, but rather to the dimwitted and evil caricature of him promulgated by unscrupulous journalists and intellectuals.

In his books on religion and philosophy, Harris plies his unique gift for cutting through unnecessary complications to shine a direct light on the crux of the issue at hand. Topics that other writers seem to go out of their way to make abstruse he manages to explore with jolting clarity and refreshing concision. But this same quality to his writing which so captivates his readers often infuriates academics, who feel he’s cheating by breezily refusing to represent an issue in all its grand complexity while neglecting to acknowledge his indebtedness to past scholars. That he would proceed in such a manner to draw actual conclusions—and unorthodox ones at that—these scholars see as hubris, made doubly infuriating by the fact that his books enjoy such a wide readership outside of academia. So, whether Harris is arguing on behalf of a scientific approach to morality or insisting we recognize that violent Islamic extremism is motivated not solely by geopolitical factors but also by straightforward readings of passages in Islamic holy texts, he can count on a central thread of the campaign against him consisting of the notion that he’s a journeyman hack who has no business weighing in on such weighty matters.
Sam Harris

Philosophers and religious scholars are of course free to challenge Harris’s conclusions, and it’s even possible for them to voice their distaste for his style of argumentation without necessarily violating any principles of reasoned debate. However, whenever these critics resort to moralizing, we must recognize that by doing so they’re effectively signaling the end of any truly rational exchange. For Harris, this often means a substantive argument never even gets a chance to begin. The distinction between debating morally charged topics on the one hand, and condemning an opponent as immoral on the other, may seem subtle, or academic even. But it’s one thing to argue that a position with moral and political implications is wrong; it’s an entirely different thing to become enraged and attempt to shout down anyone expressing an opinion you deem morally objectionable. Moral reasoning, in other words, can and must be distinguished from moralizing. Since the underlying moral implications of the issue are precisely what are under debate, giving way to angry indignation amounts to a pulling of rank—an effort to silence an opponent through the exercise of one’s own moral authority, which reveals a rather embarrassing sense of one’s own superior moral standing.

Unfortunately, it’s far too rarely appreciated that a debate participant who gets angry and starts wagging a finger is thereby demonstrating an unwillingness or an inability to challenge a rival’s points on logical or evidentiary grounds. As entertaining as it is for some to root on their favorite dueling demagogue in cable news-style venues, anyone truly committed to reason and practiced in its application realizes that in a debate the one who loses her cool loses the argument. This isn’t to say we should never be outraged by an opponent’s position. Some issues have been settled long enough, their underlying moral calculus sufficiently worked through, that a signal of disgust or contempt is about the only imaginable response. For instance, if someone were to argue, as Aristotle did, that slavery is excusable because some races are naturally subservient, you could be forgiven for lacking the patience to thoughtfully scrutinize the underlying premises. The problem, however, is that prematurely declaring an end to the controversy and then moving on to blanket moral condemnation of anyone who disagrees has become a worryingly common rhetorical tactic. And in this age of increasingly segmented and polarized political factions it’s more important than ever that we check our impulse toward sanctimony—even though it’s perhaps also harder than ever to do so.

Once a proponent of some unpopular idea starts to be seen as not merely mistaken but dishonest, corrupt, or bigoted, then playing fair begins to seem less obligatory for anyone wishing to challenge that idea. You can learn from casual Twitter browsing or from reading any number of posts on Salon.com that Sam Harris advocates a nuclear first strike against radical Muslims, supported the Bush administration’s use of torture, and carries within his heart an abiding hatred of Muslim people, all billion and a half of whom he believes are virtually indistinguishable from the roughly 20,000 militants making up ISIS. You can learn these things, none of which is true, because some people dislike Harris’s ideas so much they feel it’s justifiable, even imperative, to misrepresent his views, lest the true, more reasonable-sounding versions reach a wider receptive audience. And it’s not just casual bloggers and social media mavens who feel no qualms about spreading what they know to be distortions of Harris’s views; religious scholar Reza Aslan and journalist Glenn Greenwald both saw fit to retweet the verdict that he is a “genocidal fascist maniac,” accompanied by an egregiously misleading quote as evidence—even though Harris had by then discussed his views at length with both of these men.

 It’s easy to imagine Ben Affleck doing some cursory online research to prep for his appearance on Real Time with Bill Maher and finding plenty of savory tidbits to prejudice him against Harris before either of them stepped in front of the cameras. But we might hope that a scholar of Noam Chomsky’s caliber wouldn’t be so quick to form an opinion of someone based on hearsay. Nonetheless, Chomsky responded to Harris’s recent overture to begin an email exchange to help them clear up their misconceptions about each other’s ideas by writing: “Perhaps I have some misconceptions about you. Most of what I’ve read of yours is material that has been sent to me about my alleged views, which is completely false”—this despite Harris having just quoted Chomsky calling him a “religious fanatic.” We must wonder, where might that characterization have come from if he’d read so little of Harris’s work?

 Political and scholarly discourse would benefit immensely from a more widespread recognition of our natural temptation to recast points of intellectual disagreement as moral offenses, a temptation which makes it difficult to resist the suspicion that anyone espousing rival beliefs is not merely mistaken but contemptibly venal and untrustworthy. In philosophy and science, personal or so-called ad hominem accusations and criticisms are considered irrelevant and thus deemed out of bounds—at least in principle. But plenty of scientists and academics of every stripe routinely succumb to the urge to moralize in the midst of controversy. Thus begins the lamentable process by which reasoned arguments are all but inevitably overtaken by competing campaigns of character assassination. In service to these campaigns, we have an ever growing repertoire of incendiary labels with ever lengthening lists of criteria thought to reasonably warrant their application, so if you want to discredit an opponent all that’s necessary is a little creative interpretation, and maybe some selective quoting.

The really tragic aspect of this process is that as scrupulous and fair-minded as any given interlocutor may be, it’s only ever a matter of time before an unpopular message broadcast to a wider audience is taken up by someone who feels duty-bound to kill the messenger—or at least to besmirch the messenger’s reputation. And efforts at turning thoughtful people away from troublesome ideas before they ever even have a chance to consider them all too often meet with success, to everyone’s detriment. Only a small percentage of unpopular ideas may merit acceptance, but societies can’t progress without them.

Once we appreciate that we’re all susceptible to this temptation to moralize, the next most important thing for us to be aware of is that it becomes more powerful the moment we begin to realize ours are the weaker arguments. People in individualist cultures already tend to more readily rate themselves as exceptionally moral than as exceptionally intelligent. Psychologists call this tendency the Muhammed Ali effect (because the famous boxer once responded to a journalist’s suggestion that he’d purposely failed an Army intelligence test by quipping, “I only said I was the greatest, not the smartest”). But when researchers Jens Möller and Karel Savyon had study participants rate themselves after performing poorly on an intellectual task, they found that the effect was even more pronounced. Subjects in studies of the Muhammed Ali effect report believing that moral traits like fairness and honesty are more socially desirable than intelligence. They also report believing these traits are easier for an individual to control, while at the same time being more difficult to measure. Möller and Savyon theorize that participants in their study were inflating their already inflated sense of their own moral worth to compensate for their diminished sense of intellectual worth. While researchers have yet to examine whether this amplification of the effect makes people more likely to condemn intellectual rivals on moral grounds, the idea that a heightened estimation of moral worth could make us more likely to assert our moral authority seems a plausible enough extrapolation from the findings. 

            That Ben Affleck felt intimated by the prospect of having to intelligently articulate his reasons for rejecting Harris’s positions, however, seems less likely than that he was prejudiced to the point of outrage against Harris sometime before encountering him in person. At one point in the interview he says, “You’re making a career out of ISIS, ISIS, ISIS,” a charge of pandering that suggests he knows something about Harris’s work (though Harris doesn't discuss ISIS in any of his books). Unfortunately, Affleck’s passion and the sneering tone of his accusations were probably more persuasive for many in the audience than any of the substantive points made on either side. But, amid Affleck’s high dudgeon, it’s easy to sift out views that are mainstream among liberals. The argument Harris makes at the outset of the segment that first sets Affleck off—though it seemed he’d already been set off by something—is in fact a critique of those same views. He says,

When you want to talk about the treatment of women and homosexuals and freethinkers and public intellectuals in the Muslim world, I would argue that liberals have failed us. [Affleck breaks in here to say, “Thank God you’re here.”] And the crucial point of confusion is that we have been sold this meme of Islamophobia, where every criticism of the doctrine of Islam gets conflated with bigotry toward Muslims as people.

This is what Affleck says is “gross” and “racist.” The ensuing debate, such as it is, focuses on the appropriateness—and morality—of criticizing the Muslim world for crimes only a subset of Muslims are guilty of. But how large is that subset?

Harris (along with Maher) makes two important points: first, he states over and over that it’s Muslim beliefs he’s criticizing, not the Muslim people, so if a particular Muslim doesn’t hold to the belief in question he or she is exempt from the criticism. Harris is ready to cite chapter and verse of Islamic holy texts to show that the attitudes toward women and homosexuals he objects to aren’t based on the idiosyncratic characters of a few sadistic individuals but are rather exactly what’s prescribed by religious doctrine. A passage from his book The End of Faith makes the point eloquently.

It is not merely that we are war with an otherwise peaceful religion that has been “hijacked” by extremists. We are at war with precisely the vision of life that is prescribed to all Muslims in the Koran, and further elaborated in the literature of the hadith, which recounts the sayings and actions of the Prophet. A future in which Islam and the West do not stand on the brink of mutual annihilation is a future in which most Muslims have learned to ignore most of their canon, just as most Christians have learned to do. (109-10)

But most secularists and moderate Christians in the U.S. have a hard time appreciating how seriously most Muslims take their Koran. There are of course passages in the Bible that are simply obscene, and Christians have certainly committed their share of atrocities at least in part because they believed their God commanded them to. But, whereas almost no Christians today advocate stoning their brothers, sisters, or spouses to death for coaxing them to worship other gods (Deuteronomy 13:6 8-15), a significant number of people in Islamic populations believe apostates and “innovators” deserve to have their heads lopped off.

            The second point Harris makes is that, while Affleck is correct in stressing how few Muslims make up or support the worst of the worst groups like Al Qaeda and ISIS, the numbers who believe women are essentially the property of their fathers and husbands, that homosexuals are vile sinners, or that atheist bloggers deserve to be killed are much higher. “We have to empower the true reformers in the Muslim world to change it,” as Harris insists. The journalist Nicholas Kristof says this is a mere “caricature” of the Muslim world. But Harris’s goal has never been to promote a negative view of Muslims, and he at no point suggests his criticisms apply to all Muslims, all over the world. His point, as he stresses multiple times, is that Islamic doctrine is inspiring large numbers of people to behave in appalling ways, and this is precisely why he’s so vocal in his criticisms of those doctrines.

Part of the difficulty here is that liberals (including this one) face a dilemma anytime they’re forced to account for the crimes of non-whites in non-Western cultures. In these cases, their central mission of standing up for the disadvantaged and the downtrodden runs headlong into their core principle of multiculturalism, which makes it taboo for them to speak out against another society’s beliefs and values. Guys like Harris are permitted to criticize Christianity when it’s used to justify interference in women’s sexual decisions or discrimination against homosexuals, because a white Westerner challenging white Western culture is just the system attempting to correct itself. But when Harris speaks out against Islam and the far worse treatment of women and homosexuals—and infidels and apostates—it prescribes, his position is denounced as “gross” and “racist” by the likes of Ben Affleck, with the encouragement of guys like Reza Aslan and Glenn Greenwald. A white American male casting his judgment on a non-Western belief system strikes them as the first step along the path to oppression that ends in armed invasion and possibly genocide. (Though, it should be noted, multiculturalists even attempt to silence female critics of Islam from the Muslim world.)

The biggest problem with this type of slippery-slope presumption isn’t just that it’s sloppy thinking—rejecting arguments because of alleged similarities to other, more loathsome ideas, or because of some imagined consequence should those ideas fall into the wrong hands. The biggest problem is that it time and again provides a rationale for opponents of an idea to silence and defame anyone advocating it. Unless someone is explicitly calling for mistreatment or aggression toward innocents who pose no threat, there’s simply no way to justify violating anyone’s rights to free inquiry and free expression—principles that should supersede multiculturalism because they’re the foundation and guarantors of so many other rights. Instead of using our own delusive moral authority in an attempt to limit discourse within the bounds we deem acceptable, we have a responsibility to allow our intellectual and political rivals the space to voice their positions, trusting in our fellow citizens’ ability to weigh the merits of competing arguments. 

But few intellectuals are willing to admit that they place multiculturalism before truth and the right to seek and express it. And, for those who are reluctant to fly publically into a rage or to haphazardly apply any of the growing assortment of labels for the myriad varieties of bigotry, there are now a host of theories that serve to reconcile competing political values. The multicultural dilemma probably makes all of us liberals too quick to accept explanations of violence or extremism—or any other bad behavior—emphasizing the role of external forces, whether it’s external to the individual or external to the culture. Accordingly, to combat Harris’s arguments about Islam, many intellectuals insist that religion simply does not cause violence. They argue instead that the real cause is something like resource scarcity, a history of oppression, or the prolonged occupation of Muslim regions by Western powers.

            If the arguments in support of the view that religion plays a negligible role in violence were as compelling as proponents insist they are, then it’s odd that they should so readily resort to mischaracterizing Harris’s positions when he challenges them. Glenn Greenwald, a journalist who believes religion is such a small factor that anyone who criticizes Islam is suspect, argues his case against Harris within an almost exclusively moral framework—not is Harris right, but is he an anti-Muslim? The religious scholar Reza Aslan quotes Harris out of context to give the appearance that he advocates preemptive strikes against Muslim groups. But Aslan’s real point of disagreement with Harris is impossible to pin down. He writes,

After all, there’s no question that a person’s religious beliefs can and often do influence his or her behavior. The mistake lies in assuming there is a necessary and distinct causal connection between belief and behavior.

Since he doesn’t explain what he means by “necessary and distinct,” we’re left with little more than the vague objection that religion’s role in motivating violence is more complex than some people seem to imagine. To make this criticism apply to Harris, however, Aslan is forced to erect a straw man—and to double down on the tactic after Harris has pointed out his error, suggesting that his misrepresentation is deliberate.

Few commenters on this debate appreciate just how radical Aslan’s and Greenwald’s (and Karen Armstrong’s) positions are. The straw men notwithstanding, Harris readily admits that religion is but one of many factors that play a role in religious violence. But this doesn’t go far enough for Aslan and Greenwald. While they acknowledge religion must fit somewhere in the mix, they insist its role is so mediated and mixed up with other factors that its influence is all but impossible to discern. Religion in their minds is a pure social construct, so intricately woven into the fabric of a culture that it could never be untangled. As evidence of this irreducible complexity, they point to the diverse interpretations of the Koran made by the wide variety of Muslim groups all over the world. There’s an undeniable kernel of truth in this line of thinking. But is religion really reconstructed from scratch in every culture?

One of the corollaries of this view is that all religions are essentially equal in their propensity to inspire violence, and therefore, if adherents of one particular faith happen to engage in disproportionate levels of violence, we must look to other cultural and political factors to explain it. That would also mean that what any given holy text actually says in its pages is completely immaterial. (This from a scholar who sticks to a literal interpretation of a truncated section of a book even though the author assures him he’s misreading it.) To highlight the absurdity of this idea, Harris likes to cite the Jains as an example. Mahavira, a Jain patriarch, gave this commandment: “Do not injure, abuse, oppress, enslave, insult, torment, or kill any creature or living being.” How plausible is the notion that adherents of this faith are no more and no less likely to commit acts of violence than those whose holy texts explicitly call for them to murder apostates? “Imagine how different our world might be if the Bible contained this as its central precept” (23), Harris writes in Letter to a Christian Nation.

            Since the U.S. is in fact a Christian nation, and since it has throughout its history displaced, massacred, invaded, occupied, and enslaved people from nearly every corner of the globe, many raise the question of what grounds Harris, or any other American, has for judging other cultures. And this is where the curious email exchange Harris began with the linguist and critic of American foreign policy Noam Chomsky takes up. Harris reached out to Chomsky hoping to begin an exchange that might help to clear up their differences, since he figured they have a large number of readers in common. Harris had written critically of Chomsky’s book about 9/11 in End of Faith, his own book on the topic of religious extremism written some time later. Chomsky’s argument seems to have been that the U.S. routinely commits atrocities on a scale similar to that of 9/11, and that the Al Qaeda attacks were an expectable consequence of our nation’s bullying presence in global affairs. Instead of dealing with foreign threats then, we should be concentrating our efforts on reforming our own foreign policy. But Harris points out that, while it’s true the U.S. has caused the deaths of countless innocents, the intention of our leaders wasn’t to kill as many people as possible to send a message of terror, making such actions fundamentally different from those of the Al Qaeda terrorists.

The first thing to note in the email exchange is that Harris proceeds on the assumption that any misunderstanding of his views by Chomsky is based on an honest mistake, while Chomsky immediately takes for granted that Harris’s alleged misrepresentations are deliberate (even though, since Harris sends him the excerpt from his book, that would mean he’s presenting the damning evidence of his own dishonesty). In other words, Chomsky switches into moralizing mode at the very outset of the exchange. The substance of the disagreement mainly concerns the U.S.’s 1998 bombing of the al-Shifa pharmaceutical factory in Sudan. According to Harris’s book, Chomsky argues this attack was morally equivalent to the attacks by Al Qaeda on 9/11. But in focusing merely on body counts, Harris charges that Chomsky is neglecting the far more important matter of intention.

Noam Chomsky
Chomsky insists after reading the excerpt, however, that he never claimed the two attacks were morally equivalent, and that furthermore he in fact did consider, and write at length about, the intentions of the Clinton administration officials who decided to bomb al-Shifa—just not in the book cited by Harris. In this other book, which Chomsky insists Harris is irresponsible for not having referenced, he argues that the administration’s claim that it received intelligence about the factory manufacturing chemical weapons was a lie and that the bombing was actually meant as retaliation for an earlier attack on the U.S. Embassy. Already at this point in the exchange Chomsky is writing to Harris as if he were guilty of dishonesty, unscholarly conduct, and collusion in covering up the crimes of the American government. 

But which is it? Is Harris being dishonest when he says Chomsky is claiming moral equivalence? Or is he being dishonest when he fails to cite an earlier source arguing that in fact what the U.S. did was morally worse? The more important question, however, is why does Chomsky assume Harris is being dishonest, especially in light of how complicated his position is? Here’s what Chomsky writes in response to Harris pressing him to answer directly the question about moral equivalence:

Clinton bombed al-Shifa in reaction to the Embassy bombings, having discovered no credible evidence in the brief interim of course, and knowing full well that there would be enormous casualties. Apologists may appeal to undetectable humanitarian intentions, but the fact is that the bombing was taken in exactly the way I described in the earlier publication which dealt the question of intentions in this case, the question that you claimed falsely that I ignored: to repeat, it just didn’t matter if lots of people are killed in a poor African country, just as we don’t care if we kill ants when we walk down the street. On moral grounds, that is arguably even worse than murder, which at least recognizes that the victim is human. That is exactly the situation.

Most of the rest of the exchange consists of Harris trying to figure out Chomsky’s views on the role of intention in moral judgment, and Chomsky accusing Harris of dishonesty and evasion for not acknowledging and exploring the implications of the U.S.’s culpability in the al-Shifa atrocity. When Harris tries to explain his view on the bombing by describing a hypothetical scenario in which one group stages an attack with the intention of killing as many people as possible, comparing it to another scenario in which a second group stages an attack with the intention of preventing another, larger attack, killing as few people as possible in the process, Chomsky will have none it. He insists Harris’s descriptions are “so ludicrous as to be embarrassing,” because they’re nothing like what actually happened. We know Chomsky is an intelligent enough man to understand perfectly well how a thought experiment works. So we’re left asking, what accounts for his mindless pounding on the drum of the U.S.’s greater culpability? And, again, why is he so convinced Harris is carrying on in bad faith?

What seems to be going on here is that Chomsky, a long-time critic of American foreign policy, actually began with the conclusion he sought to arrive at. After arguing for decades that the U.S. was the ultimate bad guy in the geopolitical sphere, his first impulse after the attacks of 9/11 was to salvage his efforts at casting the U.S. as the true villain. Toward that end, he lighted on al-Shifa as the ideal crime to offset any claim to innocent victimhood. He’s actually been making this case for quite some time, and Harris is by no means the first to insist that the intentions behind the two attacks should make us judge them very differently. Either Chomsky felt he knew enough about Harris to treat him like a villain himself, or he has simply learned to bully and level accusations against anyone pursuing a line of questions that will expose the weakness of his idea—he likens Harris’s arguments at one point to “apologetics for atrocities”—a tactic he keeps getting away with because he has a large following of liberal academics who accept his moral authority.

Harris saw clear to the end-game of his debate with Chomsky, and it’s quite possible Chomsky in some murky way did as well. The reason he was so sneeringly dismissive of Harris’s attempts to bring the discussion around to intentions, the reason he kept harping on how evil America had been in bombing al-Shifa, is that by focusing on this one particular crime he was avoiding the larger issue of competing ideologies. Chomsky’s account of the bombing is not as certain as he makes out, to say the least. An earlier claim he made about a Human Rights Watch report on the death toll, for instance, turned out to be completely fictitious. But even if the administration really was lying about its motives, it’s noteworthy that a lie was necessary. When Bin Laden announced his goals, he did so loudly and proudly. 

Chomsky’s one defense of his discounting of the attackers’ intentions (yes, he defends it, even though he accused Harris of being dishonest for pointing it out) is that everyone claims to have good intentions, so intentions simply don’t matter. This is shockingly facile coming from such a renowned intellectual—it would be shockingly facile coming from anyone. Of course Harris isn’t arguing that we should take someone’s own word for whether their intentions are good or bad. What Harris is arguing is that we should examine someone’s intentions in detail and make our own judgment about them. Al Qaeda’s plan to maximize terror by maximizing the death count of their attacks can only be seen as a good intention in the context of the group’s extreme religious ideology. That’s precisely why we should be discussing and criticizing that ideology, criticism which should extend to the more mainstream versions of Islam it grew out of.

Taking a step back from the particulars, we see that Chomsky believes the U.S. is guilty of far more and far graver acts of terror than any of the groups or nations officially designated as terrorist sponsors, and he seems unwilling to even begin a conversation with anyone who doesn’t accept this premise. Had he made some iron-clad case that the U.S. really did treat the pharmaceutical plant, and the thousands of lives that depended on its products, as pawns in some amoral game of geopolitical chess, he could have simply directed Harris to the proper source, or he could have reiterated key elements of that case. Regardless of what really happened with al-Shifa, we know full well what Al Qaeda’s intentions were, and Chomsky could have easily indulged Harris in discussing hypotheticals had he not feared that doing so would force him to undermine his own case. Is Harris an apologist for American imperialism? Here’s a quote from the section of his book discussing Chomsky's ideas:

We have surely done some terrible things in the past. Undoubtedly, we are poised to do terrible things in the future. Nothing I have written in this book should be construed as a denial of these facts, or as defense of state practices that are manifestly abhorrent. There may be much that Western powers, and the United States in particular, should pay reparations for. And our failure to acknowledge our misdeeds over the years has undermined our credibility in the international community. We can concede all of this, and even share Chomsky’s acute sense of outrage, while recognizing that his analysis of our current situation in the world is a masterpiece of moral blindness.

To be fair, lines like this last one are inflammatory, so it was understandable that Chomsky was miffed, up to a point. But Harris is right to point to his moral blindness, the same blindness that makes Aslan, Affleck, and Greenwald unable to see that the specific nature of beliefs and doctrines and governing principles actually matters. If we believe it’s evil to subjugate women, abuse homosexuals, and murder freethinkers, the fact that our country does lots of horrible things shouldn’t stop us from speaking out against these practices to people of every skin color, in every culture, on every part of the globe.

            Sam Harris is no passive target in all of this. In a debate, he gives as good or better than he gets, and he has a penchant for finding the most provocative way to phrase his points—like calling Islam “the motherlode of bad ideas.” He doesn’t hesitate to call people out for misrepresenting his views and defaming him as a person, but I’ve yet to see him try to win an argument by going after the person making it. And I’ve never seen him try to sabotage an intellectual dispute with a cheap performance of moral outrage, or discredit opponents by fixing them with labels they don't deserve. Reading his writings and seeing him lecture or debate, you get the sense that he genuinely wants to test the strength of ideas against each other and see what new insight such exchanges may bring. That’s why it’s frustrating to see these discussions again and again go off the rails because his opponent feels justified in dismissing and condemning him based on inaccurate portrayals, from an overweening and unaccountable sense of self-righteousness.

Ironically, honoring the type of limits to calls for greater social justice that Aslan and Chomsky take as sacrosanct—where the West forebears to condescend to the rest—serves more than anything else to bolster the sense of division and otherness that makes many in the U.S. care so little about things like what happened in al-Shifa. As technology pushes on the transformation of our far-flung societies and diverse cultures into a global community, we ought naturally to start seeing people from Northern Africa and the Middle East—and anywhere else—not as scary and exotic ciphers, but as fellow citizens of the world, as neighbors even. This same feeling of connection that makes us all see each other as more human, more worthy of each other’s compassion and protection, simultaneously opens us up to each other’s criticisms and moral judgments. Chomsky is right that we Americans are far too complacent about our country’s many crimes. But opening the discussion up to our own crimes opens it likewise to other crimes that cannot be tolerated anywhere on the globe, regardless of the culture, regardless of any history of oppression, and regardless too of any sanction delivered from the diverse landscape of supposedly sacred realms. 

Other popular posts like this:


The Soul of the Skeptic: What Precisely Is Sam Harris Waking Up from?

(5,484 words. Printable version.)

             Sam Harris believes that we can derive many of the benefits people cite as reasons for subscribing to one religion or another from non-religious practices and modes of thinking, ones that don’t invoke bizarre scriptures replete with supernatural absurdities. In The Moral Landscape, for instance, he attempted to show that we don’t need a divine arbiter to settle our ethical and political disputes because reason alone should suffice. Now, with Waking Up, Harris is taking on an issue that many defenders of Christianity, or religion more generally, have long insisted he is completely oblivious to. By focusing on the truth or verifiability of religious propositions, Harris’s critics charge, he misses the more important point: religion isn’t fundamentally about the beliefs themselves so much as the effects those beliefs have on a community, including the psychological impact on individuals of collective enactments of the associated rituals—feelings of connectedness, higher purpose, and loving concern for all one’s neighbors.

            Harris likes to point out that his scholarly critics simply have a hard time appreciating just how fundamentalist most religious believers really are, and so they turn a blind eye toward the myriad atrocities religion sanctions, or even calls for explicitly. There’s a view currently fashionable among the more politically correct scientists and academics that makes criticizing religious beliefs seem peevish, even misanthropic, because religion is merely something people do, like reading stories or playing games, to imbue their lives with texture and meaning, or to heighten their sense of belonging to a community. According to this view, the particular religion in question—Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism, Christianity—isn’t as important as the people who subscribe to it, nor do any specific tenets of a given faith have any consequence. That’s why Harris so frequently comes under fire—and is even accused of bigotry—for suggesting things like that the passages in the Koran calling for violence actually matter and that Islam is much more likely to inspire violence because of them.

We can forgive Harris his impatience with this line of reasoning, which leads his critics to insist that violence is in every case politically and never religiously motivated. This argument can only be stated with varying levels of rancor, never empirically supported, and is hence dismissible as a mere article of faith in its own right, one that can’t survive any encounter with the reality of religious violence. Harris knows how important a role politics plays and that it’s often only the fundamentalist subset of the population of believers who are dangerous. But, as he points out, “Fundamentalism is only a problem when the fundamentals are a problem” (2:30:09). It’s only by the lights of postmodern identity politics that an observation this banal could strike so many as so outrageous.

            But what will undoubtedly come as a disappointment to Harris’s more ardently anti-religious readers, and as a surprise to fault-seeking religious apologists, is that from the premise that not all religions are equally destructive and equally absurd follows the conclusion that some religious ideas or practices may actually be beneficial or point the way toward valid truths. Harris has discussed his experiences with spiritual retreats and various forms of  meditation in past works, but now with Waking Up he goes so far as to advocate certain of the ancient contemplative practices he’s experimented with. Has he abandoned his scientific skepticism? Not by any means; near the end of the book, he writes, “As a general matter, I believe we should be very slow to draw conclusions about the nature of the cosmos on the basis of inner experiences—no matter how profound they seem” (192). What he’s doing here, and with the book as a whole, is underscoring the distinction between religious belief on the one hand and religious experience on the other.

Acknowledging that some practices which are nominally religious can be of real value, Harris goes on to argue that we need not accept absurd religious doctrines to fully appreciate them. And this is where the subtitle of his book, A Guide to Spirituality without Religion, comes from. As paradoxical as this concept may seem to people of faith, Harris cites a survey finding that 20% of Americans describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious” (6). And he argues that separating the two terms isn’t just acceptable; it’s logically necessary.

Spirituality must be distinguished from religion—because people of every faith, and of none, have the same sorts of spiritual experiences. While these states of mind are usually interpreted through the lens of one or another religious doctrine, we know this is a mistake. Nothing that a Christian, a Muslim, and a Hindu can experience—self-transcending love, ecstasy, bliss, inner light—constitutes evidence in support of their traditional beliefs, because their beliefs are logically incompatible with one another. A deeper principle must be at work. (9)

People of faith frequently respond to the criticism that their beliefs fly in the face of logic and evidence by claiming they simply know God is real because they have experiences that can only be attributed to a divine presence. Any failure on the part of skeptics to acknowledge the lived reality of such experiences makes their arguments all the more easily dismissible as overly literal or pedantic, and it makes the skeptics themselves come across as closed-minded and out-of-touch.

            On the other hand, Harris’s suggestion of a “deeper principle” underlying religious experiences smacks of New Age thinking at its most wooly. For one thing, church authorities often condemn, excommunicate, or execute congregants with mystical leanings for their heresy. (Harris cites a few examples.) But the deeper principle Harris is referring to isn’t an otherworldly one. And he’s perfectly aware of the unfortunate connotations the words he uses often carry:

I share the concern, expressed by many atheists, that the terms spiritual and mystical are often used to make claims not merely about the quality of certain experiences but about reality at large. Far too often, these words are invoked in support of religious beliefs that are morally and intellectually grotesque. Consequently, many of my fellow atheists consider all talk of spirituality to be a sign of mental illness, conscious imposture, or self-deception. This is a problem, because millions of people have had experiences for which spiritual and mystical seem the only terms available. (11)

You can’t expect people to be convinced their religious beliefs are invalid when your case rests on a denial of something as perfectly real to them as their own experiences. And it’s difficult to make the case that these experiences must be separated from the religious claims they’re usually tied to while refusing to apply the most familiar labels to them, because that comes awfully close to denying their legitimacy.
*****

            Throughout Waking Up, Harris focuses on one spiritual practice in particular, a variety of meditation that seeks to separate consciousness from any sense of self, and he argues that the insights one can glean from experiencing this rift are both personally beneficial and neuroscientifically sound. Certain Hindu and Buddhist traditions hold that the self is an illusion, a trick of the mind, and our modern scientific understanding of the mind, Harris argues, corroborates this view. By default, most of us think of the connection between our minds and our bodies dualistically; we believe we have a spirit, a soul, or some other immaterial essence that occupies and commands our physical bodies. Even those of us who profess not to believe in any such thing as a soul have a hard time avoiding a conception of the self as a unified center of consciousness, a homunculus sitting at the controls. Accordingly, we attach ourselves to our own thoughts and perceptions—we identify with them. Since it seems we’re programmed to agonize over past mistakes and worry about impending catastrophes, we can’t help feeling the full brunt of a constant barrage of negative thoughts. Most of us recognize the sentiment Harris expresses in writing that “It seems to me that I spend much of my life in a neurotic trance” (11). And this is precisely the trance we need to wake up from.

            To end the spiraling chain reaction of negative thoughts and foul feelings, we must detach ourselves from our thinking, and to do this, Harris suggests, we must recognize that there is no us doing the thinking. The “I” in the conventional phrasing “I think” or “I feel” is nowhere to be found. Is it in our brains? Which part? Harris describes the work of the Nobel laureate neuroscientist Roger Sperry, who in the 1950s did a series a fascinating experiments with split-brain patients, so called because the corpus callosum, the bundle of fibers connecting the two hemispheres of their brains, had been surgically severed to reduce the severity of epileptic seizures. Sperry found that he could present instructions to the patients’ left visual fields—which would only be perceived by the right hemisphere—and induce responses that the patients themselves couldn’t explain, because language resides predominantly in the left hemisphere. When asked to justify their behavior, though, the split-brain patients gave no indication that they had no idea why they were doing what they’d been instructed to do. Instead, they confabulated answers. For instance, if the right hemisphere is instructed to pick up an egg from among an assortment of objects on a table, the left hemisphere may explain the choice by saying something like, “Oh, I picked it because I had eggs for breakfast yesterday.”
            As weird as this type of confabulation may seem, it has still weirder implications. At any given moment, it’s easy enough for us to form intentions and execute plans for behavior. But where do those intentions really come from? And how can we be sure our behaviors reflect the intentions we believe they reflect? We are only ever aware of a tiny fraction of our minds’ operations, so it would be all too easy for us to conclude we are the ones in charge of everything we do even though it’s really someone—or something else behind the scenes pulling the strings. The reason split-brain patients so naturally confabulate about their motives is that the language centers of our brains probably do it all the time, even when our corpus callosa are intact. We are only ever dimly aware of our true motivations, and likely completely in the dark about them as often as not. Whenever we attempt to explain ourselves, we’re really just trying to make up a plausible story that incorporates all the given details, one that makes sense both to us and to anyone listening.

            If you’re still not convinced that the self is an illusion, try to come up with a valid justification for locating the self in either the left or the right hemisphere of split-brain patients. You may be tempted to attribute consciousness, and hence selfhood, to the hemisphere with the capacity for language. But you can see for yourself how easy it is to direct your attention away from words and fill your consciousness solely with images or wordless sounds. Some people actually rely on their right hemispheres for much of their linguistic processing, and after split-brain surgery these people can speak for the right hemisphere with things like cards that have written words on them. We’re forced to conclude that both sides of the split brain are conscious. And, since the corpus callosum channels a limited amount of information back and forth in the brain, we probably all have at least two independent centers of consciousness in our minds, even those of us whose hemispheres communicate.

What this means is that just because your actions and intentions seem to align, you still can’t be sure there isn’t another conscious mind housed in your brain who is also assured its own actions and intentions are aligned. There have even been cases where the two sides of a split-brain patient’s mind have expressed conflicting beliefs and desires. For some, phenomena like these sound the death knell for any dualistic religious belief. Harris writes,

Consider what this says about the dogma—widely held under Christianity and Islam—that a person’s salvation depends upon her believing the right doctrine about God. If a split-brain patient’s left hemisphere accepts the divinity of Jesus, but the right doesn’t, are we to imagine that she now harbors two immortal souls, one destined for the company of angels and the other for an eternity of hellfire? (67-8)

Indeed, the soul, the immaterial inhabitant of the body, can be divided more than once. Harris makes this point using a thought experiment originally devised by philosopher Derek Parfit. Imagine you are teleported Star Trek-style to Mars. The teleporter creates a replica of your body, including your brain and its contents, faithful all the way down to the orientation of the atoms. So everything goes black here on Earth, and then you wake up on Mars exactly as you left. But now imagine something went wrong on Earth and the original you wasn’t destroyed before the replica was created. In that case, there would be two of you left whole and alive. Which one is the real you? There’s no good basis for settling the question one way or the other.


            Harris uses the split-brain experiments and Parfit’s thought experiment to establish the main insight that lies at the core of the spiritual practices he goes on to describe: that the self, as we are programmed to think of and experience it, doesn’t really exist. Of course, this is only true in a limited sense. In many contexts, it’s still perfectly legitimate to speak of the self. As Harris explains,

The self that does not survive scrutiny is the subject of experience in each present moment—the feeling of being a thinker of thoughts inside one’s head, the sense of being an owner or inhabitant of a physical body, which this false self seems to appropriate as a kind of vehicle. Even if you don’t believe such a homunculus exists—perhaps because you believe, on the basis of science, that you are identical to your body and brain rather than a ghostly resident therein—you almost certainly feel like an internal self in almost every waking moment. And yet, however one looks for it, this self is nowhere to be found. It cannot be seen amid the particulars of experience, and it cannot be seen when experience itself is viewed as a totality. However, its absence can be found—and when it is, the feeling of being a self disappears. (92)

The implication is that even if you come to believe as a matter of fact that the self is an illusion you nevertheless continue to experience that illusion. It’s only under certain circumstances, or as a result of engaging in certain practices, that you’ll be able to experience consciousness in the absence of self.
****

            Harris briefly discusses avenues apart from meditation that move us toward what he calls “self-transcendence”: we often lose ourselves in our work, or in a good book or movie; we may feel a diminishing of self before the immensities of nature and the universe, or as part of a drug-induced hallucination; or it could be attendance at a musical performance where you’re just one tiny part of a vast pulsing crowd of exuberant fans. It could be during intense sex. Or you may of course also experience some fading away of your individuality through participation in religious ceremonies. But Harris’s sights are set on one specific method for achieving self-transcendence. As he writes in his introduction,

This book is by turns a seeker’s memoir, an introduction to the brain, a manual of contemplative instruction, and a philosophical unraveling of what most people consider to be the center of their inner lives: the feeling of self we call “I.” I have not set out to describe all the traditional approaches to spirituality and to weigh their strengths and weaknesses. Rather, my goal is to pluck the diamond from the dunghill of esoteric religion. There is a diamond there, and I have devoted a fair amount of my life to contemplating it, but getting it in hand requires that we remain true to the deepest principles of scientific skepticism and make no obeisance to tradition. (10)

This is music to the ears of many skeptics who have long suspected that there may actually be something to meditative techniques but are overcome with fits of eye-rolling every time they try to investigate the topic. If someone with skeptical bona fides as impressive as Harris’s has taken the time to wade through all the nonsense to see if there are any worthwhile takeaways, then I imagine I’m far from alone in being eager to find out what he’s discovered.

            So how does one achieve a state of consciousness divorced from any sense of self? And how does this experience help us escape the neurotic trance most of us are locked in? Harris describes some of the basic principles of Advaita, a Hindu practice, and Dzogchen, a Tibetan Buddhist one. According to Advaita, one can achieve “cessation”—an end to thinking, and hence to the self—at any stage of practice. But Dzogchen practitioners insist it comes only after much intense practice. In one of several inset passages with direct instructions to readers, Harris invites us to experiment with the Dzogchen technique of imagining a moment in our lives when we felt positive emotions, like the last time we accomplished something we’re proud of. After concentrating on the thoughts and feelings for some time, we are then encouraged to think of a time when we felt something negative, like embarrassment or fear. The goal here is to be aware of the ideas and feelings as they come into being. “In the teachings of Dzogchen,” Harris writes, “it is often said that thoughts and emotions arise in consciousness the way that images appear on the surface of the mirror.” Most of the time, though, we are tricked into mistaking the mirror for what’s reflected in it.

In subjective terms, you are consciousness itself—you are not the next, evanescent image or string of words that appears in your mind. Not seeing it arise, however, the next thought will seem to become what you are. (139)

This is what Harris means when he speaks of separating your consciousness from your thoughts. And he believes it’s a state of mind you can achieve with sufficient practice calling forth and observing different thoughts and emotions, until eventually you experience—for moments at a time—a feeling of transcending the self, which entails a ceasing of thought, a type of formless and empty awareness that has us sensing a pleasant unburdening of the weight of our identities.

            Harris also describes a more expeditious route to selflessness, one discovered by a British Architect named Douglas Harding, who went on to be renowned among New Agers for his insight. His technique, which was first inspired by a drawing made by physicist Ernst Mach that was a literal rendition of his first-person viewpoint, including the side of his nose and the ridge of his eyebrow, consists simply of trying to imagine you have no head. Harris quotes at length from Harding’s description of what happened when he originally succeeded:

What actually happened was something absurdly simply and unspectacular: I stopped thinking. A peculiar quiet, an odd kind of alert limpness or numbness, came over me. Reason and imagination and all mental chatter died down. For once, words really failed me. Past and future dropped away. I forgot who and what I was, my name, manhood, animal-hood, all that could be called mine. It was as if I had been born that instant, brand new, mindless, innocent of all memories. There existed only the Now, the present moment and what was clearly given it. (143) 

Harris recommends a slight twist to this approach—one that involves looking out at the world and simply trying to reverse your perspective to look for your head. One way to do this is to imagine you’re talking to another person and then “let your attention travel in the direction of the other person’s gaze” (145). It’s not about trying to picture what you look like to another person; it’s about recognizing that your face is absent from the encounter—because obviously you can’t see it. “But looking for yourself in this way can precipitate a sudden change in perspective, of the sort Harding describes” (146). It’s a sort of out-of-body experience.

            If you pull off the feat of seeing through the illusion of self, either through disciplined practice at observing the contents of your own consciousness or through shortcuts like imagining you have no head, you will experience a pronounced transformation. Even if for only a few moments, you will have reached enlightenment. As a reward for your efforts, you will enjoy a temporary cessation of the omnipresent hum of anxiety-inducing thoughts that you hardly even notice drowning out so much of the other elements of your consciousness. “There arose no questions,” Harding writes of his experiments in headlessness, “no reference beyond the experience itself, but only peace and a quiet joy, and the sensation of having dropped an intolerable burden” (143). Skeptics reading these descriptions will have to overcome the temptation to joke about practitioners without a thought in their head.

            Christianity, Judaism, and Islam are all based on dualistic conceptions of the self, and the devout are enjoined to engage in ritual practices in service to God, an entirely separate being. The more non-dualistic philosophies of the East are much more amenable to attempts to reconcile them with science. Practices like meditation aren’t directed at any supernatural entity but are engaged in for their own sake, because they are somehow inherently rewarding. Unfortunately, this leads to a catch-22. Harris explains,

As we have seen, there are good reasons to believe that adopting a practice like meditation can lead to positive changes in one’s life. But the deepest goal of spirituality is freedom from the illusion of the self—and to seek such freedom, as though it were a future state to be attained through effort, is to reinforce the chains of one’s apparent bondage in each moment. (123)

This paradox seems at first like a good recommendation for the quicker routes to self-transcendence like Harding’s. But, according to Harris, “Harding confessed that many of his students recognized the state of ‘headlessness’ only to say, ‘So what?’” To Harris, the problem here is that the transformation was so easily achieved that its true value couldn’t be appreciated:

Unless a person has spent some time seeking self-transcendence dualistically, she is unlikely to recognize that the brief glimpse of selflessness is actually the answer to her search. Having then said, ‘So what?’ in the face of the highest teachings, there is nothing for her to do but persist in her confusion. (148)

We have to wonder, though, if maybe Harding’s underwhelmed students aren’t the ones who are confused. It’s entirely possible that Harris, who has devoted so much time and effort to his quest for enlightenment, is overvaluing the experience to assuage his own cognitive dissonance.
****

             The penultimate chapter of Waking Up gives Harris’s more skeptical fans plenty to sink their teeth into, including a thorough takedown of neurosurgeon Eben Alexander’s so-called Proof of Heaven and several cases of supposedly enlightened gurus taking advantage of their followers by, among other exploits, sleeping with their wives. But Harris claims his own experiences with gurus have been almost entirely positive, and he goes as far as recommending that anyone hoping to achieve self-transcendence seek out the services of one. 

            This is where I began to have issues with the larger project behind Harris’s book. If meditation were a set of skills like those required to play tennis, it would seem more reasonable to claim that the guidance of an expert coach is necessary to develop them. But what is a meditation guru supposed to do if he (I presume they’re mostly male) has no way to measure, or even see, your performance? Harris suggests they can answer questions that arise during practice, but apart from basic instructions like the ones Harris himself provides it seems unlikely an expert could be of much help. If a guru has a useful technique, he shouldn’t need to be present in the room to share it. Harding passed his technique on to Harris through writing for instance. And if self-transcendence is as dramatic a transformation as it’s made out to be, you shouldn’t have any trouble recognizing it when you experience it.


            Harris’s valuation of the teachings he’s received from his own gurus really can’t be sifted from his impression of how rewarding his overall efforts at exploring spirituality have been, nor can it be separated from his personal feelings toward those gurus. This a problem that plagues much of the research on the effectiveness of various forms of psychotherapy; essentially, a patient’s report that the therapeutic treatment was successful means little else but that the patient had a positive relationship with the therapist administering it. Similarly, it may be the case that Harris’s sense of how worthwhile those moments of self-transcendence are has more than he's himself aware of to do with his personal retrospective assessment of how fulfilling his own journey to reach them has been. The view from Everest must be far more sublime to those who’ve made the climb than to those who were airlifted to the top.

            More troublingly, there’s an unmistakable resemblance between, on the one hand, Harris’s efforts to locate convergences between science and contemplative religious practices and, on the other, the tendency of New Age philosophers to draw specious comparisons between ancient Eastern doctrines and modern theories in physics. Zen koans are paradoxical and counterintuitive, this line of reasoning goes, and so are the results of the double-slit experiment in quantum mechanics—the Buddhists must have intuited something about the quantum world centuries ago. Dzogchen Buddhists have believed the self is an illusion and have been seeking a cessation of thinking for centuries, and modern neuroscience demonstrates that the self is something quite different from what most of us think it is. Therefore, the Buddhists must have long ago discovered something essential about the mind. In both of these examples, it seems like you have to do a lot of fudging to make the ancient doctrines line up with the modern scientific findings.

            It’s not nearly as evident as Harris makes out that what the Buddhists mean by the doctrine that the self is an illusion is the same thing neuroscientists mean when they point out that consciousness is divisible, or that we’re often unaware of our own motivations. (Douglas Hofstadter refers to the self as an epiphenomenon, which he does characterize as a type of illusion, but only because the overall experience bears so little resemblance to any of the individual processes that go in to producing it.) I’ve never heard a cognitive scientist discuss the fallacy of identifying with your own thoughts or recommend that we try to stop thinking. Indeed, I don’t think most people really do identify with their thoughts. I for one don’t believe I am my thoughts; I definitely feel like I have my thoughts, or that I do my thinking. To point out that thoughts sometimes arise in my mind independent of my volition does nothing to undermine this belief. And Harris never explains exactly why seeing through the illusion of the self should bring about relief from all the anxiety produced by negative thinking. Cessation sounds a little like simply rendering yourself insensate.

The problem that brings about the neurotic trance so many of us find ourselves trapped in doesn’t seem to be that people fall for the trick of selfhood; it’s that they mistake their most neurotic thinking at any given moment for unquestionable and unchangeable reality. Clinical techniques like cognitive behavioral therapy involve challenging your own thinking, and there’s relief to be had in that—but it has nothing to do with disowning your thoughts or seeing your self as illusory. From this modern cognitive perspective, Dzogchen practices that have us focusing our attention on the effects of different lines of thinking are probably still hugely beneficial. But what’s that go to do with self-transcendence?

            For that matter, is the self really an illusion? Insofar as we think of it as a single object or as something that can be frozen in time and examined, it is indeed illusory. But calling the self an illusion is bit like calling music an illusion. It’s impossible to point to music as existing in any specific location. You can separate a song into constituent elements that all on their own still constitute music. And of course you can create exact replicas of songs and play them on other planets. But it’s pretty silly to conclude from all these observations that music isn’t real. Rather, music, like the self, is a confluence of many diverse processes that can only be experienced in real time. In claiming that neuroscience corroborates the doctrine that the self is an illusion, Harris may be failing at the central task he set for himself by making too much obeisance to tradition. 

            What about all those reports from people like Harding who have had life-changing experiences while meditating or imagining they have no head? I can attest that I immediately recognized what Harding was describing in the sections Harris quotes. For me, it happened about twenty minutes into a walk I’d gone on through my neighborhood to help me come up with an idea for a short story. I tried to imagine myself as an unformed character at the outset of an as-yet-undeveloped plot. After only a few moments of this, I had a profound sense of stepping away from my own identity, and the attendant feeling of liberation from the disappointments and heartbreaks of my past, from the stresses of the present, and from my habitual forebodings about the future was both revelatory and exhilarating. Since reading Waking Up, I’ve tried both Harding’s and Harris’s approaches to reaching this state again quite a few times. But, though the results have been more impactful than the “So what?” response of Harding’s least impressed students, I haven’t experienced anything as seemingly life-altering as I did on that walk, forcing me to suspect it had as much to do with my state of mind prior to the experiment as it did with the technique itself.

            For me, the experience was of stepping away from my identity—or of seeing the details of that identity from a much broader perspective—than it was of seeing through some illusion of self. I became something like a stem cell version of myself, drastically more pluripotent, more free. It felt much more like disconnecting from my own biography than like disconnecting from the center of my consciousness. This may seem like a finicky distinction. But it goes to the core of Harris’s project—the notion that there’s a convergence between ancient meditative practices and our modern scientific understanding of consciousness. And it bears on just how much of that ancient philosophy we really need to get into if we want to have these kinds of spiritual experiences.

            Personally, I’m not at all convinced by Harris’s case on behalf of pared down Buddhist philosophy and the efficacy of guru guidance—though I probably will continue to experiment with the meditation techniques he lays out. Waking Up, it must be noted, is really less of a guide to spirituality without religion than it is a guide to one particular, particularly esoteric, spiritual practice. But, despite these quibbles, I give the book my highest recommendation, and that’s because its greatest failure is also its greatest success. Harris didn’t even come close to helping me stop thinking—or even persuading me that I should try—because I haven’t been able to stop thinking about his book ever since I started reading it. Perhaps what I appreciate most about Waking Up, though, is that it puts the lie to so many idiotic ideas people tend to have about skeptics and atheists. Just as recognizing that to do what’s right we must sometimes resist the urgings of our hearts in no way makes us heartless, neither does understanding that to be steadfast in pursuit of truth we must admit there’s no such thing as an immortal soul in any way make us soulless. And, while many associate skepticism with closed-mindedness, most of the skeptics I know of are true seekers, just like Harris. The crucial difference, which Harris calls “the sine qua non of the scientific attitude,” is “between demanding good reasons for what one believes and being satisfied with bad ones” (199).  



Capuchin-22: A Review of “The Bonobo and the Atheist: In Search of Humanism among the Primates” by Frans De Waal

            Whenever literary folk talk about voice, that supposedly ineffable but transcendently important quality of narration, they display an exasperating penchant for vagueness, as if so lofty a dimension to so lofty an endeavor couldn’t withstand being spoken of directly—or as if they took delight in instilling panic and self-doubt into the quivering hearts of aspiring authors. What the folk who actually know what they mean by voice actually mean by it is all the idiosyncratic elements of prose that give readers a stark and persuasive impression of the narrator as a character. Discussions of what makes for stark and persuasive characters, on the other hand, are vague by necessity. It must be noted that many characters even outside of fiction are neither. As a first step toward developing a feel for how character can be conveyed through writing, we may consider the nonfiction work of real people with real character, ones who also happen to be practiced authors.

The Dutch-American primatologist Frans de Waal is one such real-life character, and his prose stands as testament to the power of written language, lonely ink on colorless pages, not only to impart information, but to communicate personality and to make a contagion of states and traits like enthusiasm, vanity, fellow-feeling, bluster, big-heartedness, impatience, and an abiding wonder. De Waal is a writer with voice. Many other scientists and science writers explore this dimension to prose in their attempts to engage readers, but few avoid the traps of being goofy or obnoxious instead of funny—a trap David Pogue, for instance, falls into routinely as he hosts NOVA on PBS—and of expending far too much effort in their attempts at being distinctive, thus failing to achieve anything resembling grace. 

The most striking quality of de Waal’s writing, however, isn’t that its good-humored quirkiness never seems strained or contrived, but that it never strays far from the man’s own obsession with getting at the stories behind the behaviors he so minutely observes—whether the characters are his fellow humans or his fellow primates, or even such seemingly unstoried creatures as rats or turtles. But to say that de Waal is an animal lover doesn’t quite capture the essence of what can only be described as a compulsive fascination marked by conviction—the conviction that when he peers into the eyes of a creature others might dismiss as an automaton, a bundle of twitching flesh powered by preprogrammed instinct, he sees something quite different, something much closer to the workings of his own mind and those of his fellow humans.

De Waal’s latest book, The Bonobo and the Atheist: In Search of Humanism among the Primates, reprises the main themes of his previous books, most centrally the continuity between humans and other primates, with an eye toward answering the questions of where does, and where should morality come from. Whereas in his books from the years leading up to the turn of the century he again and again had to challenge what he calls “veneer theory,” the notion that without a process of socialization that imposes rules on individuals from some outside source they’d all be greedy and selfish monsters, de Waal has noticed over the past six or so years a marked shift in the zeitgeist toward an awareness of our more cooperative and even altruistic animal urgings. Noting a sharp difference over the decades in how audiences at his lectures respond to recitations of the infamous quote by biologist Michael Ghiselin, “Scratch an altruist and watch a hypocrite bleed,” de Waal writes,

Although I have featured this cynical line for decades in my lectures, it is only since about 2005 that audiences greet it with audible gasps and guffaws as something so outrageous, so out of touch with how they see themselves, that they can’t believe it was ever taken seriously. Had the author never had a friend? A loving wife? Or a dog, for that matter? (43)

The assumption underlying veneer theory was that without civilizing influences humans’ deeper animal impulses would express themselves unchecked. The further assumption was that animals, the end products of the ruthless, eons-long battle for survival and reproduction, would reflect the ruthlessness of that battle in their behavior. De Waal’s first book, Chimpanzee Politics, which told the story of a period of intensified competition among the captive male chimps at the Arnhem Zoo for alpha status, with all the associated perks like first dibs on choice cuisine and sexually receptive females, was actually seen by many as lending credence to these assumptions. But de Waal himself was far from convinced that the primates he studied were invariably, or even predominantly, violent and selfish.

Illustration of Veneer Theory
            What he observed at the zoo in Arnhem was far from the chaotic and bloody free-for-all it would have been if the chimps took the kind of delight in violence for its own sake that many people imagine them being disposed to. As he pointed out in his second book, Peacemaking among Primates, the violence is almost invariably attended by obvious signs of anxiety on the part of those participating in it, and the tension surrounding any major conflict quickly spreads throughout the entire community. The hierarchy itself is in fact an adaptation that serves as a check on the incessant conflict that would ensue if the relative status of each individual had to be worked out anew every time one chimp encountered another. “Tightly embedded in society,” he writes in The Bonobo and the Atheist, “they respect the limits it puts on their behavior and are ready to rock the boat only if they can get away with it or if so much is at stake that it’s worth the risk” (154). But the most remarkable thing de Waal observed came in the wake of the fights that couldn’t successfully be avoided. Chimps, along with primates of several other species, reliably make reconciliatory overtures toward one another after they’ve come to blows—and bites and scratches. In light of such reconciliations, primate violence begins to look like a momentary, albeit potentially dangerous, readjustment to a regularly peaceful social order rather than any ongoing melee, as individuals with increasing or waning strength negotiate a stable new arrangement.

            Part of the enchantment of de Waal’s writing is his judicious and deft balancing of anecdotes about the primates he works with on the one hand and descriptions of controlled studies he and his fellow researchers conduct on the other. In The Bonobo and the Atheist, he strikes a more personal note than he has in any of his previous books, at points stretching the bounds of the popular science genre and crossing into the realm of memoir. This attempt at peeling back the surface of that other veneer, the white-coated scientist’s posture of mechanistic objectivity and impassive empiricism, works best when de Waal is merging tales of his animal experiences with reports on the research that ultimately provides evidence for what was originally no more than an intuition. Discussing a recent, and to most people somewhat startling, experiment pitting the social against the alimentary preferences of a distant mammalian cousin, he recounts,

Despite the bad reputation of these animals, I have no trouble relating to its findings, having kept rats as pets during my college years. Not that they helped me become popular with the girls, but they taught me that rats are clean, smart, and affectionate. In an experiment at the University of Chicago, a rat was placed in an enclosure where it encountered a transparent container with another rat. This rat was locked up, wriggling in distress. Not only did the first rat learn how to open a little door to liberate the second, but its motivation to do so was astonishing. Faced with a choice between two containers, one with chocolate chips and another with a trapped companion, it often rescued its companion first. (142-3)

This experiment, conducted by Inbal Ben-Ami Bartal, Jean Decety, and Peggy Mason, actually got a lot of media coverage; Mason was even interviewed for an episode of NOVA Science NOW where you can watch a video of the rats performing the jailbreak and sharing the chocolate (and you can also see David Pogue being obnoxious.) This type of coverage has probably played a role in the shift in public opinion regarding the altruistic propensities of humans and animals. But if there’s one species who’s behavior can be said to have undermined the cynicism underlying veneer theory—aside from our best friend the dog of course—it would have to be de Waal’s leading character, the bonobo.

            De Waal’s 1997 book Bonobo: The Forgotten Ape, on which he collaborated with photographer Frans Lanting, introduced this charismatic, peace-loving, sex-loving primate to the masses, and in the process provided behavioral scientists with a new model for what our own ancestors’ social lives might have looked like. Bonobo females dominate the males to the point where zoos have learned never to import a strange male into a new community without the protection of his mother. But for the most part any tensions, even those over food, even those between members of neighboring groups, are resolved through genito-genital rubbing—a behavior that looks an awful lot like sex and often culminates in vocalizations and facial expressions that resemble those of humans experiencing orgasms to a remarkable degree. The implications of bonobos’ hippy-like habits have even reached into politics. After an uncharacteristically ill-researched and ill-reasoned article in the New Yorker by Ian Parker which suggested that the apes weren’t as peaceful and erotic as we’d been led to believe, conservatives couldn’t help celebrating. De Waal writes in The Bonobo and the Atheist,

Given that this ape’s reputation has been a thorn in the side of homophobes as well as Hobbesians, the right-wing media jumped with delight. The bonobo “myth” could finally be put to rest, and nature remain red in tooth and claw. The conservative commentator Dinesh D’Souza accused “liberals” of having fashioned the bonobo into their mascot, and he urged them to stick with the donkey. (63)

But most primate researchers think the behavioral differences between chimps and bonobos are pretty obvious. De Waal points out that while violence does occur among the apes on rare occasions “there are no confirmed reports of lethal aggression among bonobos” (63). Chimps, on the other hand, have been observed doing all kinds of killing. Bonobos also outperform chimps in experiments designed to test their capacity for cooperation, as in the setup that requires two individuals to pull on a rope at the same time in order for either of them to get ahold of food placed atop a plank of wood. (Incidentally, the New Yorker’s track record when it comes to anthropology is suspiciously checkered—disgraced author Patrick Tierney’s discredited book on Napoleon Chagnon, for instance, was originally excerpted in the magazine.)

Chim (left), a bonobo, and Panzee (right), a chimp, with Yerkes.
            Bonobos came late to the scientific discussion of what ape behavior can tell us about our evolutionary history. The famous chimp researcher Robert Yerkes, whose name graces the facility de Waal currently directs at Emory University in Atlanta, actually wrote an entire book called Almost Human about what he believed was a rather remarkable chimp. A photograph from that period reveals that it wasn’t a chimp at all. It was a bonobo. Now, as this species is becoming better researched, and with the discovery of fossils like the 4.4 million-year-old Ardipethicus ramidus known as Ardi, a bipedal ape with fangs that are quite small when compared to the lethal daggers sported by chimps, the role of violence in our ancestry is ever more uncertain. De Waal writes,

What if we descend not from a blustering chimp-like ancestor but from a gentle, empathic bonobo-like ape? The bonobo’s body proportions—its long legs and narrow shoulders—seem to perfectly fit the descriptions of Ardi, as do its relatively small canines. Why was the bonobo overlooked? What if the chimpanzee, instead of being an ancestral prototype, is in fact a violent outlier in an otherwise relatively peaceful lineage? Ardi is telling us something, and there may exist little agreement about what she is saying, but I hear a refreshing halt to the drums of war that have accompanied all previous scenarios. (61)

Ardi
De Waal is well aware of all the behaviors humans engage in that are more emblematic of chimps than of bonobos—in his 2005 book Our Inner Ape, he refers to humans as “the bipolar ape”—but the fact that our genetic relatedness to both species is exactly the same, along with the fact that chimps also have a surprising capacity for peacemaking and empathy, suggest to him that evolution has had plenty of time and plenty of raw material to instill in us the emotional underpinnings of a morality that emerges naturally—without having to be imposed by religion or philosophy. “Rather than having developed morality from scratch through rational reflection,” he writes in The Bonobo and the Atheist, “we received a huge push in the rear from our background as social animals" (17).

            In the eighth and final chapter of The Bonobo and the Atheist, titled “Bottom-Up Morality,” de Waal describes what he believes is an alternative to top-down theories that attempt to derive morals from religion on the one hand and from reason on the other. Invisible beings threatening eternal punishment can frighten us into doing the right thing, and principles of fairness might offer slight nudges in the direction of proper comportment, but we must already have some intuitive sense of right and wrong for either of these belief systems to operate on if they’re to be at all compelling. Many people assume moral intuitions are inculcated in childhood, but experiments like the one that showed rats will come to the aid of distressed companions suggest something deeper, something more ingrained, is involved. De Waal has found that a video of capuchin monkeys demonstrating "inequity aversion"—a natural, intuitive sense of fairness—does a much better job than any charts or graphs at getting past the prejudices of philosophers and economists who want to insist that fairness is too complex a principle for mere monkeys to comprehend. He writes,

This became an immensely popular experiment in which one monkey received cucumber slices while another received grapes for the same task. The monkeys had no trouble performing if both received identical rewards of whatever quality, but rejected unequal outcomes with such vehemence that there could be little doubt about their feelings. I often show their reactions to audiences, who almost fall out of their chairs laughing—which I interpret as a sign of surprised recognition. (232)

What the capuchins do when they see someone else getting a better reward is throw the measly cucumber back at the experimenter and proceed to rattle the cage in agitation. De Waal compares it to the Occupy Wall Street protests. The poor monkeys clearly recognize the insanity of the human they’re working for.

            There’s still a long way to travel, however, from helpful rats and protesting capuchins before you get to human morality. But that gap continues to shrink as researchers find new ways to explore the social behaviors of the primates that are even more closely related to us. Chimps, for instance, have been seen taking inequity aversion an important step beyond what monkeys display. Not only will certain individuals refuse to work for lesser rewards; they’ll refuse to work even for the superior rewards if they see their companions aren’t being paid equally. De Waal does acknowledge though that there still remains an important step between these behaviors and human morality. “I am reluctant to call a chimpanzee a ‘moral being,’” he writes.

This is because sentiments do not suffice. We strive for a logically coherent system and have debates about how the death penalty fits arguments for the sanctity of life, or whether an unchosen sexual orientation can be morally wrong. These debates are uniquely human. There is little evidence that other animals judge the appropriateness of actions that do not directly affect themselves. (17-8)

Moral intuitions can often inspire some behaviors that to people in modern liberal societies seem appallingly immoral. De Waal quotes anthropologist Christopher Boehm on the “special, pejorative moral ‘discount’ applied to cultural strangers—who often are not even considered fully human,” and he goes on to explain that “The more we expand morality’s reach, the more we need to rely on our intellect.” But the intellectual principles must be grounded in the instincts and emotions we evolved as social primates; this is what he means by bottom-up morality or “naturalized ethics” (235).

*****

Capuchins
            In locating the foundations of morality in our evolved emotions—propensities we share with primates and even rats—de Waal seems to be taking a firm stand against any need for religion. But he insists throughout the book that this isn’t the case. And, while the idea that people are quite capable of playing fair and treating each other with compassion without any supernatural policing may seem to land him squarely in the same camp as prominent atheists like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, whom he calls “neo-atheists,” he contends that they’re just as, if not more, misguided than the people of faith who believe the rules must be handed down from heaven. “Even though Dawkins cautioned against his own anthropomorphism of the gene,” de Waal wrote all the way back in his 1996 book Good Natured: The Origins of Right and Wrong in Humans and Other Animals, “with the passage of time, carriers of selfish genes became selfish by association” (14). Thus de Waal tries to find some middle ground between religious dogmatists on one side and those who are equally dogmatic in their opposition to religion and equally mistaken in their espousal of veneer theory on the other. “I consider dogmatism a far greater threat than religion per se,” he writes in The Bonobo and the Atheist.

I am particularly curious why anyone would drop religion while retaining the blinkers sometimes associated with it. Why are the “neo-atheists” of today so obsessed with God’s nonexistence that they go on media rampages, wear T-shirts proclaiming their absence of belief, or call for a militant atheism? What does atheism have to offer that’s worth fighting for? (84)

For de Waal, neo-atheism is an empty placeholder of a philosophy, defined not by any positive belief but merely by an obstinately negative attitude toward religion. It’s hard to tell early on in his book if this view is based on any actual familiarity with the books whose titles—The God Delusion, god is not Great—he takes issue with. What is obvious, though, is that he’s trying to appeal to some spirit of moderation so that he might reach an audience who may have already been turned off by the stridency of the debates over religion’s role in society. At any rate, we can be pretty sure that Hitchens, for one, would have had something to say about de Waal’s characterization.

De Waal’s expertise as a primatologist gave him what was in many ways an ideal perspective on the selfish gene debates, as well as on sociobiology more generally, much the way Sarah Blaffer Hrdy’s expertise has done for her. The monkeys and apes de Waal works with are a far cry from the ants and wasps that originally inspired the gene-centered approach to explaining behavior. “There are the bees dying for their hive,” he writes in The Bonobo and the Atheist,

and the millions of slime mold cells that build a single, sluglike organism that permits a few among them to reproduce. This kind of sacrifice was put on the same level as the man jumping into an icy river to rescue a stranger or the chimpanzee sharing food with a whining orphan. From an evolutionary perspective, both kinds of helping are comparable, but psychologically speaking they are radically different. (33)

At the same time, though, de Waal gets to see up close almost every day how similar we are to our evolutionary cousins, and the continuities leave no question as to the wrongheadedness of blank slate ideas about socialization. “The road between genes and behavior is far from straight,” he writes, sounding a note similar to that of the late Stephen Jay Gould, “and the psychology that produces altruism deserves as much attention as the genes themselves.” He goes on to explain,

Mammals have what I call an “altruistic impulse” in that they respond to signs of distress in others and feel an urge to improve their situation. To recognize the need of others, and react appropriately, is really not the same as a preprogrammed tendency to sacrifice oneself for the genetic good. (33)

We can’t discount the role of biology, in other words, but we must keep in mind that genes are at the distant end of a long chain of cause and effect that has countless other inputs before it links to emotion and behavior. De Waal angered both the social constructivists and quite a few of the gene-centered evolutionists, but by now the balanced view his work as primatologist helped him to arrive at has, for the most part, won the day. Now, in his other role as a scientist who studies the evolution of morality, he wants to strike a similar balance between extremists on both sides of the religious divide. Unfortunately, in this new arena, his perspective isn’t anywhere near as well informed.

             The type of religion de Waal points to as evidence that the neo-atheists’ concerns are misguided and excessive is definitely moderate. It’s not even based on any actual beliefs, just some nice ideas and stories adherents enjoy hearing and thinking about in a spirit of play. We have to wonder, though, just how prevalent this New Age, Life-of-Pi type of religion really is. I suspect the passages in The Bonobo and the Atheist discussing it are going to be equally offensive to atheists and people of actual faith alike. Here’s one  example of the bizarre way he writes about religion:

Neo-atheists are like people standing outside a movie theater telling us that Leonardo DiCaprio didn’t really go down with the Titanic. How shocking! Most of us are perfectly comfortable with the duality. Humor relies on it, too, lulling us into one way of looking at a situation only to hit us over the head with another. To enrich reality is one of the most delightful capacities we have, from pretend play in childhood to visions of an afterlife when we grow older. (294)

He seems to be suggesting that the religious know, on some level, their beliefs aren’t true. “Some realities exist,” he writes, “some we just like to believe in” (294). The problem is that while many readers may enjoy the innuendo about humorless and inveterately over-literal atheists, most believers aren’t joking around—even the non-extremists are more serious than de Waal seems to think.

            As someone who’s been reading de Waal’s books for the past seventeen years, someone who wanted to strangle Ian Parker after reading his cheap smear piece in The New Yorker, someone who has admired the great primatologist since my days as an undergrad anthropology student, I experienced the sections of The Bonobo and the Atheist devoted to criticisms of neo-atheism, which make up roughly a quarter of this short book, as soul-crushingly disappointing. And I’ve agonized over how to write this part of the review. The middle path de Waal carves out is between a watered-down religion believers don’t really believe on one side and an egregious postmodern caricature of Sam Harris’s and Christopher Hitchens’s positions on the other. He focuses on Harris because of his book, The Moral Landscape, which explores how we might use science to determine our morals and values instead of religion, but he gives every indication of never having actually read the book and of instead basing his criticisms solely on the book’s reputation among Harris’s most hysterical detractors. And he targets Hitchens because he thinks he has the psychological key to understanding what he refers to as his “serial dogmatism.” But de Waal’s case is so flimsy a freshman journalism student could demolish it with no more than about ten minutes of internet fact-checking.

De Waal does acknowledge that we should be skeptical of “religious institutions and their ‘primates’,” but he wonders “what good could possibly come from insulting the many people who find value in religion?” (19). This is the tightrope he tries to walk throughout his book. His focus on the purely negative aspect of atheism juxtaposed with his strange conception of the role of belief seems designed to give readers the impression that if the atheists succeed society might actually suffer severe damage. He writes,
 
Religion is much more than belief. The question is not so much whether religion is true or false, but how it shapes our lives, and what might possibly take its place if we were to get rid of it the way an Aztec priest rips the beating heart out of a virgin. What could fill the gaping hole and take over the removed organ’s functions? (216)

The first problem is that many people who call themselves humanists, as de Waal does, might suggest that there are in fact many things that could fill the gap—science, literature, philosophy, music, cinema, human rights activism, just to name a few. But the second problem is that the militancy of the militant atheists is purely and avowedly rhetorical. In a debate with Hitchens, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair once held up the same straw man that de Waal drags through the pages of his book, the claim that neo-atheists are trying to extirpate religion from society entirely, to which Hitchens replied, “In fairness, no one was arguing that religion should or will die out of the world. All I’m arguing is that it would be better if there was a great deal more by way of an outbreak of secularism” (20:20). What Hitchens is after is an end to the deference automatically afforded religious ideas by dint of their supposed sacredness; religious ideas need to be critically weighed just like any other ideas—and when they are thus weighed they often don’t fare so well, in either logical or moral terms. It’s hard to understand why de Waal would have a problem with this view.
Sam Harris
 
*****
            De Waal’s position is even more incoherent with regard to Harris’s arguments about the potential for a science of morality, since they represent an attempt to answer, at least in part, the very question of what might take the place of religion in providing guidance in our lives that he poses again and again throughout The Bonobo and the Atheist. De Waal takes issue first with the book’s title, The Moral Landscape: How Science can Determine Human Values. The notion that science might determine any aspect of morality suggests to him a top-down approach as opposed to his favored bottom-up strategy that takes “naturalized ethics” as its touchstone. This is, however, unbeknownst to de Waal, a mischaracterization of Harris’s thesis. Rather than engage Harris’s arguments in any direct or meaningful way, de Waal contents himself with following in the footsteps of critics who apply the postmodern strategy of holding the book to account for all the analogies that can be drawn with it, no matter how tenuously or tendentiously, to historical evils. De Waal writes, for instance,

While I do welcome a science of morality—my own work is part of it—I can’t fathom calls for science to determine human values (as per the subtitle of Sam Harris’s The Moral Landscape). Is pseudoscience something of the past? Are modern scientists free from moral biases? Think of the Tuskegee syphilis study just a few decades ago, or the ongoing involvement of medical doctors in prisoner torture at Guantanamo Bay. I am profoundly skeptical of the moral purity of science, and feel that its role should never exceed that of morality’s handmaiden. (22)

(Great phrase that "morality's handmaiden.") But Harris never argues that scientists are any more morally pure than anyone else. His argument is for the application of that “science of morality,” which de Waal proudly contributes to, to attempts at addressing the big moral issues our society faces.

            The guilt-by-association and guilt-by-historical-analogy tactics on display in The Bonobo and the Atheist extend all the way to that lodestar of postmodernism’s hysterical obsessions. We might hope that de Waal, after witnessing the frenzied insanity of the sociobiology controversy from the front row, would know better. But he doesn’t seem to grasp how toxic this type of rhetoric is to reasoned discourse and honest inquiry. After expressing his bafflement at how science and a naturalistic worldview could inspire good the way religion does (even though his main argument is that such external inspiration to do good is unnecessary), he writes,

It took Adolf Hitler and his henchmen to expose the moral bankruptcy of these ideas. The inevitable result was a precipitous drop of faith in science, especially biology. In the 1970s, biologists were still commonly equated with fascists, such as during the heated protest against “sociobiology.” As a biologist myself, I am glad those acrimonious days are over, but at the same time I wonder how anyone could forget this past and hail science as our moral savior. How did we move from deep distrust to naïve optimism? (22)

Was Nazism borne of an attempt to apply science to moral questions? It’s true some people use science in evil ways, but not nearly as commonly as people are directly urged by religion to perpetrate evils like inquisitions or holy wars. When science has directly inspired evil, as in the case of eugenics, the lifespan of the mistake was measurable in years or decades rather than centuries or millennia. Not to minimize the real human costs, but science wins hands down by being self-correcting and, certain individual scientists notwithstanding, undogmatic.

Harris intended for his book to begin a debate he was prepared to actively participate in. But he quickly ran into the problem that postmodern criticisms can’t really be dealt with in any meaningful way. The following long quote from Harris’s response to his battier critics in the Huffington Post will show both that de Waal’s characterization of his argument is way off-the-mark, and that it is suspiciously unoriginal:

How, for instance, should I respond to the novelist Marilynne Robinson’s paranoid, anti-science gabbling in the Wall Street Journal where she consigns me to the company of the lobotomists of the mid 20th century? Better not to try, I think—beyond observing how difficult it can be to know whether a task is above or beneath you. What about the science writer John Horgan, who was kind enough to review my book twice, once in Scientific American where he tarred me with the infamous Tuskegee syphilis experiments, the abuse of the mentally ill, and eugenics, and once in The Globe and Mail, where he added Nazism and Marxism for good measure? How does one graciously respond to non sequiturs? The purpose of The Moral Landscape is to argue that we can, in principle, think about moral truth in the context of science. Robinson and Horgan seem to imagine that the mere existence of the Nazi doctors counts against my thesis. Is it really so difficult to distinguish between a science of morality and the morality of science? To assert that moral truths exist, and can be scientifically understood, is not to say that all (or any) scientists currently understand these truths or that those who do will necessarily conform to them.

And we have to ask further what alternative source of ethical principles do the self-righteous grandstanders like Robinson and Horgan—and now de Waal—have to offer? In their eagerness to compare everyone to the Nazis, they seem to be deriving their own morality from Fox News.

De Waal makes three objections to Harris’s arguments that are of actual substance, but none of them are anywhere near as devastating to his overall case as de Waal makes out. First, Harris begins with the assumption that moral behaviors lead to “human flourishing,” but this is a presupposed value as opposed to an empirical finding of science—or so de Waal claims. But here’s de Waal himself on a level of morality sometimes seen in apes that transcends one-on-one interactions between individuals:

female chimpanzees have been seen to drag reluctant males toward each other to make up after a fight, while removing weapons from their hands. Moreover, high-ranking males regularly act as impartial arbiters to settle disputes in the community. I take these hints of community concern as a sign that the building blocks of morality are older than humanity, and that we don’t need God to explain how we got to where we are today. (20)

The similarity between the concepts of human flourishing and community concern highlights one of the main areas of confusion de Waal could have avoided by actually reading Harris’s book. The word “determine” in the title has two possible meanings. Science can determine values in the sense that it can guide us toward behaviors that will bring about flourishing. But it can also determine our values in the sense of discovering what we already naturally value and hence what conditions need to be met for us to flourish.

De Waal performs a sleight of hand late in The Bonobo and the Atheist, substituting another “utilitarian” for Harris, justifying the trick by pointing out that utilitarians also seek to maximize human flourishing—though Harris never claims to be one. This leads de Waal to object that strict utilitarianism isn’t viable because he’s more likely to direct his resources to his own ailing mother than to any stranger in need, even if those resources would benefit the stranger more. Thus de Waal faults Harris’s ethics for overlooking the role of loyalty in human lives. His third criticism is similar; he worries that utilitarians might infringe on the rights of a minority to maximize flourishing for a majority. But how, given what we know about human nature, could we expect humans to flourish—to feel as though they were flourishing—in a society that didn’t properly honor friendship and the bonds of family? How could humans be happy in a society where they had to constantly fear being sacrificed to the whim of the majority? It is in precisely this effort to discover—or determine—under which circumstances humans flourish that Harris believes science can be of the most help. And as de Waal moves up from his mammalian foundations of morality to more abstract ethical principles the separation between his approach and Harris’s starts to look suspiciously like a distinction without a difference.

            Harris in fact points out that honoring family bonds probably leads to greater well-being on pages seventy-three and seventy-four of The Moral Landscape, and de Waal quotes from page seventy-four himself to chastise Harris for concentrating too much on "the especially low-hanging fruit of conservative Islam" (74). The incoherence of de Waal's argument (and the carelessness of his research) are on full display here as he first responds to a point about the genital mutilation of young girls by asking, "Isn't genital mutilation common in the United States, too, where newborn males are circumcised without their consent?" (90). So cutting off the foreskin of a male's penis is morally equivalent to cutting off a girl's clitoris? Supposedly, the equivalence implies that there can't be any reliable way to determine the relative moral status of religious practices. "Could it be that religion and culture interact to the point that there is no universal morality?" Perhaps, but, personally, as a circumcised male, I think this argument is a real howler.
*****
The slick scholarly laziness on display in The Bonobo and the Atheist is just as bad when it comes to the positions, and the personality, of Christopher Hitchens, whom de Waal sees fit to psychoanalyze instead of engaging his arguments in any substantive way—but whose memoir, Hitch-22, he’s clearly never bothered to read. The straw man about the neo-atheists being bent on obliterating religion entirely is, disappointingly, but not surprisingly by this point, just one of several errors and misrepresentations. De Waal’s main argument against Hitchens, that his atheism is just another dogma, just as much a religion as any other, is taken right from the list of standard talking points the most incurious of religious apologists like to recite against him. Theorizing that “activist atheism reflects trauma” (87)—by which he means that people raised under severe religions will grow up to espouse severe ideologies of one form or another—de Waal goes on to suggest that neo-atheism is an outgrowth of “serial dogmatism”:

Hitchens was outraged by the dogmatism of religion, yet he himself had moved from Marxism (he was a Trotskyist) to Greek Orthodox Christianity, then to American Neo-Conservatism, followed by an “antitheist” stance that blamed all of the world’s troubles on religion. Hitchens thus swung from the left to the right, from anti-Vietnam War to cheerleader of the Iraq War, and from pro to contra God. He ended up favoring Dick Cheney over Mother Teresa. (89)

Jon Laing
This is truly awful rubbish, and it’s really too bad Hitchens isn’t around anymore to take de Waal to task for it himself. First, this passage allows us to catch out de Waal’s abuse of the term dogma; dogmatism is rigid adherence to beliefs that aren’t open to questioning. The test of dogmatism is whether you’re willing to adjust your views in light of new evidence or changing circumstances—it has nothing to do with how willing or eager you are to debate. What de Waal is labeling dogmatism is what we normally call outspokenness. Second, his facts are simply wrong. For one, though Hitchens was labeled a neocon by some of his fellows on the left simply because he supported the invasion of Iraq, he never considered himself one. When he was asked in an interview for the New Stateman if he was a neoconservative, he responded unequivocally, “I’m not a conservative of any kind.” Finally, can’t someone be for one war and against another, or agree with certain aspects of a religious or political leader’s policies and not others, without being shiftily dogmatic?

            De Waal never really goes into much detail about what the “naturalized ethics” he advocates might look like beyond insisting that we should take a bottom-up approach to arriving at them. This evasiveness gives him space to criticize other nonbelievers regardless of how closely their ideas might resemble his own. “Convictions never follow straight from evidence or logic,” he writes. “Convictions reach us through the prism of human interpretation” (109). He takes this somewhat banal observation (but do they really never follow straight from evidence?) as a license to dismiss the arguments of others based on silly psychologizing. “In the same way that firefighters are sometimes stealth arsonists,” he writes, “and homophobes closet homosexuals, do some atheists secretly long for the certitude of religion?” (88). We could of course just as easily turn this Freudian rhetorical trap back against de Waal and his own convictions. Is he a closet dogmatist himself? Does he secretly hold the unconscious conviction that primates are really nothing like humans and that his research is all a big sham?

            Christopher Hitchens was another real-life character whose personality shone through his writing, and like Yossarian in Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 he often found himself in a position where he knew being sane would put him at odds with the masses, thus convincing everyone of his insanity. Hitchens particularly identified with the exchange near the end of Heller’s novel in which an officer, Major Danby, says, “But, Yossarian, suppose everyone felt that way,” to which Yossarian replies, “Then I’d certainly be a damned fool to feel any other way, wouldn’t I?” (446). (The title for his memoir came from a word game he and several of his literary friends played with book titles.) It greatly saddens me to see de Waal pitting himself against such a ham-fisted caricature of a man in whom, had he taken the time to actually explore his writings, he would likely have found much to admire. Why did Hitch become such a strong advocate for atheism? He made no secret of his motivations. And de Waal, who faults Harris (wrongly) for leaving loyalty out of his moral equations, just might identify with them. It began when the theocratic dictator of Iran put a hit out on his friend, the author Salman Rushdie, because he thought one of his books was blasphemous. Hitchens writes in Hitch-22,

When the Washington Post telephoned me at home on Valentine’s Day 1989 to ask my opinion about the Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwah, I felt at once that here was something that completely committed me. It was, if I can phrase it like this, a matter of everything I hated versus everything I loved. In the hate column: dictatorship, religion, stupidity, demagogy, censorship, bullying, and intimidation. In the love column: literature, irony, humor, the individual, and the defense of free expression. Plus, of course, friendship—though I like to think that my reaction would have been the same if I hadn’t known Salman at all. (268)

Hitchens and Rushdie
Suddenly, neo-atheism doesn’t seem like an empty place-holder anymore. To criticize atheists so harshly for having convictions that are too strong, de Waal has to ignore all the societal and global issues religion is on the wrong side of. But when we consider the arguments on each side of the abortion or gay marriage or capital punishment or science education debates it’s easy to see that neo-atheists are only against religion because they feel it runs counter to the positive values of skeptical inquiry, egalitarian discourse, free society, and the ascendency of reason and evidence.

            De Waal ends The Bonobo and the Atheist with a really corny section in which he imagines how a bonobo would lecture atheists about morality and the proper stance toward religion. “Tolerance of religion,” the bonobo says, “even if religion is not always tolerant in return, allows humanism to focus on what is most important, which is to build a better society based on natural human abilities” (237). Hitchens is of course no longer around to respond to the bonobo, but many of the same issues came up in his debate with Tony Blair (I hope no one reads this as an insult to the former PM), who at one point also argued that religion might be useful in building better societies—look at all the charity work they do for instance. Hitch, already showing signs of physical deterioration from the treatment for the esophageal cancer that would eventually kill him, responds,

The cure for poverty has a name in fact. It’s called the empowerment of women. If you give women some control over the rate at which they reproduce, if you give them some say, take them off the animal cycle of reproduction to which nature and some doctrine, religious doctrine, condemns them, and then if you’ll throw in a handful of seeds perhaps and some credit, the flaw, the flaw of everything in that village, not just poverty, but education, health, and optimism, will increase. It doesn’t matter—try it in Bangladesh, try it in Bolivia. It works. It works all the time. Name me one religion that stands for that—or ever has. Wherever you look in the world and you try to remove the shackles of ignorance and disease and stupidity from women, it is invariably the clerisy that stands in the way. (23:05)

            Later in the debate, Hitch goes on to argue in a way that sounds suspiciously like an echo of de Waal’s challenges to veneer theory and his advocacy for bottom-up morality. He says,

The injunction not to do unto others what would be repulsive if done to yourself is found in the Analects of Confucius if you want to date it—but actually it’s found in the heart of every person in this room. Everybody knows that much. We don’t require divine permission to know right from wrong. We don’t need tablets administered to us ten at a time in tablet form, on pain of death, to be able to have a moral argument. No, we have the reasoning and the moral suasion of Socrates and of our own abilities. We don’t need dictatorship to give us right from wrong. (25:43)

And as a last word in his case and mine I’ll quote this very de Waalian line from Hitch: “There’s actually a sense of pleasure to be had in helping your fellow creature. I think that should be enough” (35:42).