The Humanistic Worldview of Sam Harris

By Makito Miyashita

This essay examines the works of Sam Harris, outlining the explanatory power of his world view, assessing its coherence, and offering a Christian response. Harris’ concern is that Humanity is headed to a detrimental End, as religious faith, (what he sees as incompatible beliefs about the world) is causing people to kill each other.[1] Harris asserts that science, knowledge, and reason can save human society from imploding, as they can objectively adjudicate between opposing views.  

In The End of Faith, Harris concludes as follows: “Consider it: every person you have ever met, every person will suffer the loss of his friends and family. All are going to lose everything they love in this world. Why would one want to be anything but kind to them in the meantime? We are all bound together.”[2] This quote encapsulates much of Harris’s world view.

All people have an outlook upon the world, whether explicit or implicit. A good world view can answer the following six basic questions well, in a logically consistent way, and in a way that resonates with our lived experience. These are questions of Ontology (What is ultimate reality? Is there anything beyond what can be physically observed?), Epistemology (How do we get to know this reality?), Anthropology (What is a human? Who or what am I?), Eschatology (Where are we headed? What is my purpose or goal in life? What happens when we die?), Morality (How do I know what is Good and what is Bad? What is right and what is wrong?) and Polity (How do we live together as a society?).

Getting back to Harris, epistemologically, he appeals to human reason as the key to knowing and as he asserts his appeal is based on evidence and reason, he assumes that his readers will share his viewpoint. Ontologically, his statement implies that there is nothing beyond the natural, physically observable world, and therefore, eschatologically, nothing follows death. Consequently, for Harris, morality boils down to ‘be kind to each other’, and since ones’ actions affect others, human polity should take the form of a global civilization organised around a universal morality, based on observable scientific data.[3] 

As a philosophical naturalist, Harris disregards the supernatural, and any ‘evidence’ for the existence of the supernatural a priori. That is, before looking at the evidence, he has made a judgment about what counts as valid evidence in the first place.  Any belief, according to Harris should be based on evidence, with the corollary that anything with insufficient evidence should be discarded.[4]

As a naturalist, and a ‘believer’ in science, he disregards any claims based on history, because historical ‘evidence’ cannot be replicated.

However, accepting evidence, either scientific or historical, requires the same process of trust, or ‘faith’ in the person or instrument that reveals the information about said topic.  Thus, Harris needs to either accept or deny both as valid forms of evidenceIn this context, Harris could benefit from his own statement: “If someone doesn't value evidence, what evidence are you going to provide to prove that they should value it? [5]  As C.S. Lewis said, ‘if Naturalism is true, then we do know in advance that miracles are impossible: nothing can come into Nature from the outside because there is nothing outside to come in, Nature being everything.’[6] Yet, if nature is not the sum total of everything, then there is no reason to exclude the naturally impossible occurring due to power deriving from outside of nature.

That is to say, God has revealed himself to humanity by coming into this world from outside of creation, in the person of Jesus (John 1), the evidence of whose death and resurrection have been historically validated.

Harris has an optimistic anthropology and eschatology,[7]  claiming that ‘Despite our perennial bad behaviour, our moral progress seems to me to be unmistakable… Today, we are surely more likely to act for the benefit of humanity as a whole than at any point in the past.’ He also espouses a moral realism predicating the existence of a definite good and a definite bad. He rightly exposes the weakness of moral relativism,[8] and asserts that the ‘good’ should be what upholds the well-being of conscious creatures.[9] Harris argues that “Well-being” is a scientific, objective measure which can be used as a universal measurement of morality. According to Harris, "It makes no sense … to ask whether maximizing well-being is 'good',"[10] This is true, since he has redefined moral ‘good’ with non-moral ‘well-being.’ "Good and evil” he asserts “need only consist in this: misery versus well-being." [11]

However, by grounding Morality in naturalism, deriving the ethical “what we ‘ought’ to do”, in the “naturally observable what ‘is’”, any real sense of right or wrong slips away. For example, the statement “racism is wrong,” only means “When I encounter a racist comment, the part of my brain that registers displeasure gets activated.”  

Harris also states that science is truly objective and can be the arbiter of truth and morality.  Yet Harris does not give any reason why objectivity and truth, which are his preeminent values, should be valued in the first place. Far from being an objective judge of the evidence, Harris approaches the world from his value system, moving from values to facts. 

The problem is, Science is not as objective as first seems.[12]  Furthermore, being a naturalist, Harris believes that everything that man experiences, including the experience of evil, can be explained as mental states. As a determinist, he argues that humans do not have free will, which makes space for greater compassion and forgiveness.[13]  Essentially, everything bad becomes an accident. Yet, the assertion that free will is an illusion is detrimental to living in community and is quite dehumanising. Without ‘free will’ it is impossible to hold people responsible for their actions, thus leading ultimately to evil ceasing to be evil, as well as any good that we espouse as actually good, and this undermines both Harris’s quest for the salvation of humanity, and his thesis that there is an objective morality.

Referring to the lack of free will, Harris argues that “The urge for retribution depends upon our not seeing the underlying causes of human behaviour.”  However, if this is the case, then his moral outrage towards religious believers should disappear, for according to Harris, they believe in ‘irrational ideas’, not of their own volition, but because of material brain chemistry over which they have no control.[14] Further, Harris posits that “happiness and suffering, however extreme, are mental events…changing your perception of the world is often as good as changing the world… During the normal course of events, your mind will determine the quality of your life.”[15] This statement completely undermines Harris’s thesis that there is an objective ‘Good’ and ‘Bad.’ He has done an about turn from his original claim, saying that the subjective outlook on life determines wellbeing, rather than, what can be empirically measured. 

In a nutshell, Harris’s argument is, firstly, the experience of evil is simply a matter of brain states, and so it is not actually evil.  Secondly, if this experience was inflicted on you by a person, it is not evil, since nobody has the free will chose to do anything. And finally, if the experience is painful, just alter your outlook and it won’t be so bad.  This is immensely un-compassionate and has no comfort to offer in the face of real suffering that we experience.

Why should anyone ignore ‘pain’ as evidence that something is not as it should be, and who will account for the physical damage caused by one to another? The Bible offers an alternate explanation of wrongful human behaviour: Sin, from which we need salvation, and a more freeing vision for justice, namely that God will carry it out (e.g. Rom 12:19).

In Lying, Harris states that ‘To lie is to recoil from relationship’[16] noting that “by lying, we deny others a view of the world as it is… In this way, every lie haunts our future.”[17]  This indeed is damaging to our polity. However, he needs to go further. Lies destroy relationships, because as Harris notices, relationships are built on trust, which is rendered impossible if one discovers that the other person in the relationship has given false information. The Bible describes how Satan is the father of all lies, who deceived the first Man (Gen 3, John 8:44), from whom we are all descended.  It also provides explanations about the nature of God, mankind and the universe. Could it be that the Bible offers a more realistic solution to the concerns Harris himself raises? What if Harris’s world view, that the observable physical world is all there is, is actually the lie that Satan has fed humanity, to destroy our relationship with God, the author of life, and with each other, thus making human polity, in the form of a global society, impossible to achieve?   

Harris wants what is a ‘Christian’ moral order, yet he presents no grounds for people to adopt his outlook, as he denies the ontological ‘fact’ that underpins everything. Harris believes that good reasoning based on Scientific fact will save humanity.

However, only a God who is external to creation and not a part of it, can judge the world impartially. Thus, in terms of morality, the resurrection of Jesus becomes our cue.[18]  Because Jesus was resurrected, ‘human values’ arrived at independently of God, are judged as by God as ‘sin’, and the perfect righteousness that Jesus lived is upheld.

However, given the evil rampant in human society, we begin to see that humanity itself is the problem and so more information or logic cannot, in and of itself, enable humans save themselves by being “anything but kind” to each other. Efficacious salvation must derive from outside humanity. It must come from and can only come from Jesus, who is himself God, outside of this creation, yet who has come into this creation, who can reveal to us the true reality about what is, who God is, and who we are, where we are headed, what is right and wrong, and how we can live together.

For kind of society that Harris wants, a transformation of the human character is required. Christianity posits that this transformation is possible due to the historically validated life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, God’s divine son.  Such transformation into the compassionate likeness of Jesus, holds the only possibility of achieving Harris’s moral world where no-one would “want to be anything but kind” to everyone else. This transformation is displayed within the Christian community. [19] Yet the ‘goodness’ of this message should not be judged by Christian practice (after all the Bible does not teach us that we will be able to live a perfect life, even for Christians), but on the goodness of the God who is willing to die for humanity’s sake.


 

Bibliography


[1] Sam Harris, The End of Faith: Religion Terror and the Future of Reason (New York: W.W. Norton, 2004), 12; Sam Harris, The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values (New York: Free Press, 2010), 10-25.

[2] Sam Harris, The End of Faith: Religion Terror and the Future of Reason (New York: W.W. Norton, 2004), 226.

[3] Harris, The Moral Landscape, 7.

[4] Harris, The Moral Landscape, 144.

[5] Sam Harris, Is the Foundation of Morality Natural or Supernatural? William Lane Craig vs Sam Harris, University of Notre Dame, Notre Dame, Indiana, United States – April 2011  https://www.reasonablefaith.org/media/debates/is-the-foundation-of-morality-natural-or-supernatural-the-craig-harris-deba/

[6] Clive. S. Lewis, Miracles: A Preliminary Study (Glasgow: Collins 1982), 14.

[7] Harris, Moral Landscape, 177.

[8] Harris, Moral Landscape, 43-45.

[9] Harris, Moral Landscape, 12.

[10] Harris, Moral Landscape, 12.

[11] Harris, Moral Landscape 198.

[12] William A. Wilson, ‘The Myth of Scientific Objectivity’, First Things: A Monthly Journal of Religion & Public Life, (November 2017): 27-34. Cited 17/10/2018. Online: https://www.firstthings.com/article/2017/11/the-myth-of-scientific-objectivity.

[13] Sam Harris, Free Will (New York: Free Press, 2012), 45.

[14] Harris, Free Will, 55.

[15] Sam Harris, Waking Up (New York: Simon & Schuster 2014), 204.

[16] Sam Harris, Lying (Los Angeles: Four Elephant Press 2013), 41. Kindle.

[17] Sam Harris, Lying (Los Angeles: Four Elephant Press 2013), 41. Kindle.

[18] Oliver O’Donovan, Resurrection and Moral Order (2nd ed.; Leicester: Apollos, 1994), 13-15.

[19] Craig R. Hovey, What Makes Us Moral?: Science, Religion and the Shaping of the Moral Landscape: A Christian Response to Sam Harris (London: SPCK) 2012. 82-101.