Jackson Lears on Sam Harris

My assignment was to read 85% of the articles in The Best American Science Writing of 2013 and then try to connect them within a critical analysis of Lears’ article. 

In his essay “Same Old New Atheism: On Sam Harris,” Jackson Lears tackles the philosophies, behaviors, ethics, theories and books of Sam Harris, and with him the entire class of “New Athiests.” While the New Athiests’ claim begins with the premise that religious fervor is the dangerous root of the world’s problems, Lears finds that Harris and his cohorts manipulate anti-religious fervor and create larger social problems through their moral and political pronouncements.  Lears casts them in the light of history and current events as following in line with ideas that have led to catastrophic moral crimes against humanity.

Indeed, part of the article’s argument notes Harris’ justification of torture as collateral damage necessary to wipe out the evils in the world.  Lears ties his analysis, or attack, of Harris to a string of mishaps and science gone wrong—what we’ve learned not to do.

Central in Lears’ argument is separation of church and science, and of science and state.  Lears points out that using science to make ethical or political claims likens you to Strangelovian thinkers. Then he dissects Harris’ public efforts in the last decade at making “ex cathedra pronouncements on politics, ethics and the future of humanity” (236)—Harris’ three books.  Lears is disgusted at his translation of scientific findings (mostly in neuroscience) into answers to “high-minded questions,” a failed attempt that only reveals an “Olympian agenda” and Harris as “a social engineer with a thirst for power” (234).

Lears has a problem with positivism, the idea that “the entire universe, including all human conduct, can be explained” (216) and deterministically, precisely measured, and that logical mathematical, scientifically derived information yields all-authoritative knowledge.  As he unfolds history and positivism’s role in it, Lears often points to relativism as the theory behind progress and one that has undercut the use of science for evil, which he says is fed by positivism in action.  But dependence on relativism is by no means Lears’ only defense – it only scratches the surface in parts of his attack against Harris’s brand of positivism.

The similarity of Harris’s arguments to public policy debates, Lears says “reveal his comfortable cohabitation with imperial power.”  Abusing this power, Harris is a fanatic trying to “refashion the societies of Europe” since “they are natural-born killers, and we are decadent couch potatoes,” Lears says.  “Our only defense, Harris insists, is the rejections of both religion and cultural relativism, and the embrace of science as the true source of moral value.”

Positivism in Harris’ command binds science and morality together in constant reduction to the simplest explanation and believing that everything can be explained by natural laws and that science can explain it.  In this application science is infused with a holy characteristic—the ability to not only judge morality but to determine the politics that should guide the United States and the rest of the world too.  Lears traces this attitude through its connections to scientific racism and imperialism.  He also points out the “application of science to advanced technology” and its subsequent use as a “tool in the hands of unrestrained state power” (p. 217). Lears leans on relativist thinking—that science is socially-constructed, based upon a changing consensus—and the idea that perhaps scientists are susceptible to misuse their power like anyone else. Science might not be the “sure guide to morality.”

Jennifer Couzin-Frankel’s article resonates in this context as well as she traces the mess made of scientific inquiry where money and fame is introduced.  In “Aging Genes” she shows how the pursuit of human longevity can become a manic and power-crazed quest for the ultimate answer. Neuroscience, like genetics, would very much like to unlock the key that holds all the answers currently missing in the scientific understanding of the most central systems guiding human life.  Whether a quest to find the gene that prolongs life, a map through the human brain, a trek to the fountain of eternal youth or Christ’s walk up Calvary to save all lost souls, it is clear that humans seek rescue from death, the answer to the limitedness of our bodies and a place to store our spirits where they can be in dialogue with other beings of consciousness.  Humans are the only conscious beings on the planet, and possibly in the universe; lonely by nature we seek some consciousness to share.  Religion is this dialogue; it offers a welcome shared interest in our well-being and a bit of guidance, direction and purpose.  Science taunts with the same—a bold explanation with the potential to order and give direction to our collective knowledge.

In Rachel Aviv’s article “God Knows Where I Am” her ill-fated character, Linda Bishop, also followed her desire for the ultimate dialogue: she sought God in order to give her life, choices and situation a higher meaning and depended on his direction for her diagnosis.  It all made perfect sense to her in the master plan, and the key was understanding the plan.

But not all the power of science nor her endless quest for God’s plan could save Bishop from her fate. Indeed her diagnosis history as Aviv tells it is speckled with changing descriptions and definitions, and her diagnosis was based on a shifting consensus between her doctors, theories of the day, herself and God.  The point resonates where Lears notes the difficulty of replicating reliable results and making analyses that are much more than “so vague as to be meaningless” in the field of neuroscience.  Although, Harris’ attempt to tie the brain’s lack of differentiation between fact and value does echo the struggle Bishop’s doctors and family faced to understand how her mind made sense of things.

In his article, Lears lists Kuhn as a scientific philosopher who showed science as based upon a shifting consensus and socially constructed, along with historians and sociologists of knowledge—all relativists who Lears credits with eliciting true social change.  Lears notes: “scientists in disciplines ranging from depth psychology to quantum physics were discovering a physical reality that defied precise definition as well as efforts to reduce it to predictable laws” (218).

In “Symmetry: a ‘Key to Nature’s Secrets’” Steven Weinberg writes about the near impossibility of completely mapping the natural world or obtaining a conclusive knowledge of it.  He shares the struggle physicists face in trying to test and understand the unknown, things they cannot see—all their methods are based in laws of symmetry and mathematical modeling.  Through symmetry he introduces readers to the basic concepts that began physics exploration of matter.  He massages the reader’s understanding down to the molecular level, and he teaches the rules and laws that scientists develop in order to guide what they “see” or think they see.

Just about the time you are feeling elated that physics isn’t really all that daunting—you think you understand how all matter is built, that you have a good picture in your mind of the other side of a molecule, a basic grasp on a few of the laws of symmetry and basically the whole world of physics in your mental palm—Weingard pushes your happy little cart over the edge and rolls you down a hill of let downs.  One picture in your mind is destroyed after another, one law bends, another is re-built, the whole system morphed due to a new finding or technology, and all the things you thought you understood are suddenly turned on end.  Welcome to the life of a physicist.  There are many things we simply cannot understand and do not know about matter, which makes up everything in existence.

As Weinberg notes, “This is all quite speculative…much of what we observe in nature will be due to the accident of our particular location, an accident that can never be explained, except by the fact that it is only in such locations that anyone could live.”  Make sense?  What he’s saying is that the viewpoint of the observer affects the entire science of “seeing” the other side and understanding the order of things; depending on the scientist’s angle it will look completely different.  In short – it’s all relative.  Is Weingard a relativist then?  He notes: “If symmetry principles are an expression of the simplicity of nature at the deepest level, what are we to make of a symmetry that applied to only some forces, and even there is only approximate?” He does not sound confident that all of existence can be boiled down to a set of rules that give a conclusive answer, as positivism would suggest. At the mention of physics, Lears might interject that along the way it was used to create atomic bombs the number of which now in existence could blast the planet, literally, to pieces; a perfect example of science leading not to ultimate morality but to untold horror.  This makes a good argument against Harris.

Lears’ article is a story of competing philosophies, of power, politics, rules, rightness, morality, doctrines and dogma.  If I thought I understood positivism, here it is morphed over in so many applications it’s daunting.  His exploration of the intersection of science, religion, politics, war and society highlights the places science and dogma co-mingle.  Lears walks the reader through Harris’ use of positivism as a grounds for making moral claims therefore opening the door for himself to interpret advances in his study of neuroscience broadly and in a social and cultural arena.  Lears also shows how Harris participates in the “war on terror” through his Athiest attack of religion, especially Islam, and how the terrorist attacks of 9/11 “injected positivism with a missionary zeal,” thus setting the stage for players like Harris to test the waters. Or, in Harris-fashion make a giant scene and jump in screaming at everyone standing around the edges and then splash and thrash around, soaking everyone, even those not swimming with you.  Harris’ books are just this kind of scene, according to Lears.  He offends Christians, he offends scientists, he offends Lears, for sure.

I could not find any evidence of Lears’ article submitted to the challenge Harris issued on his blog August 31, 2013.  The Moral Landscape was published Oct. 5, 2010, and Lears’ article came out five months later on April 27, 2011 in The Nation, the challenge two years later.  There is a response on his blog listing Lears’ headline and a link to the article, where Harris writes: [Note: This may be the most idiotic and unbalanced response to my work I have ever come across.—SH]

Harris did, however, write a 10,000+ word response to critics on his blog, found in a link off of an FAQ, through the words “response to a few critics” but it doesn’t mention Lears.  It is a grand effort, including lengthy quotes from various papers and detailing the history of articles published online and elsewhere in response to the book. Harris wrote and wrote.

“Well,” he must have thought, “I have to earn my $20,000 back,” as he ignores Lears, his most venomous critic.


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