Check out my review of Ken Wilber's latest book Finding Radical Wholeness

Integral World: Exploring Theories of Everything
An independent forum for a critical discussion of the integral philosophy of Ken Wilber
Scott ParkerScott F. Parker is a writer and editor whose books include Coffee - Philosophy for Everyone: Grounds for Debate and Running After Prefontaine: A Memoir. He has contributed chapters to Ultimate Lost and Philosophy, Football and Philosophy, Alice in Wonderland and Philosophy, Golf and Philosophy, and iPod and Philosophy. He is a regular contributor to Rain Taxi Review of Books. His writing has also appeared in Philosophy Now, Sport Literate, Fiction Writers Review, Epiphany, The Ink-Filled Page, and Oregon Humanities. In 2010 he published the print edition of Jeff Meyerhoff's Bald Ambition: A Critique of Ken Wilber's Theory of Everything. For more information, visit

Literal Sam Harris

Scott F. Parker

How to Read Like Sam Harris

I can't help but wonder what would remain for Harris after resolving all intellectual conversations.

This image keeps coming to me: Sam Harris holding a magnifying glass up to his squinting eye as he examines a novel, utterly confident in his ability to locate the book's thesis.

Where is Christopher Hitchens when you need him to remind Harris that intelligence in a reader is the capacity for irony? For all his power of intellect, Harris seems incapable of carrying on any of his public conversations without reducing every statement he meets to a mere truth claim.

Of course, the real problem with the image of Harris holding the magnifying glass is not that he has the wrong tool for the job or even that he's doing a job that doesn't need to be done, it's the utter unlikelihood of Harris reading a novel in the first place.

that's not fair. But his statements on the topic suggest that even in his private life he's no great lover of literature. And as a public intellectual he will have no truck whatsoever with anything as fluffy as the arts. His narrow focus on figuring out the way things are leaves him oblivious to the virtues of other pursuits—and therefore dismissive of them. If it's exhausting to imagine keeping such company, imagine the shame it would be to live with such limitations.

When I teach freshman composition I will often ask students about their reading backgrounds and practices. One of the common responses I get is something along the lines of “I read only nonfiction because if I'm going to read I want to learn something.” It is understandable that a college freshman might hold such a naive position. But it's distressing when an adult retains it. I know what my students mean, of course: that there is information about the world and that nonfiction writing gathers some of that information and presents it for the reader, while fiction (let's not even get into poetry) merely “makes stuff up.”

About the time I started thinking about this essay and wondering if it would be appropriate to speculate that Harris holds a similarly simplistic view of literature, he posted a list of recommended readings to his blog. The list features the following categories: Mind and Life Sciences; Physics & Mathematics; Philosophy; History, Economics, and Politics; Religion and Religious Criticism; Eastern Philosophy and Meditation; and General Nonfiction. The General Nonfiction section is itself a mix of science, philosophy, journalism, and few examples of what most readers would designate “literature”: Rousseau, Orwell, Didion. This doesn't confirm my suspicion, but it hardly challenges it.

Sam Harris and the Way Things Are

Sam Harris
Sam Harris

Harris's literalism is borne out most famously (or infamously) in his reading of religious texts. Of course, religions do make truth claims. But to treat religion like a system of such claims is either wilfully obtuse or alarmingly imperceptive. It isn't quite like understanding a song as a bowl of tomato soup—there's not nothing there. But it is like understanding Notorious B.I.G.'s “Ten Crack Commandments” as an instruction manual—it misses the point to a degree that is either comic or tragic depending only on the political power the confused listener holds. The kinds of meaning and solace that are available from religious literature, as from literature generally, are largely independent of Harris's brand of objectivity.

Robert Wright, one of Harris's critics, withholds judgement of religion because no one has offered a thorough accounting of whether it brings more good or more evil to the world. For Harris that's the wrong question. His realism assumes there are correct views about the world and incorrect views about the world, and that our job is to discard all of the incorrect ones so that only the correct ones remain. One is left with the sense that intellectual life for Harris is a matter of answering certain questions to satisfaction. Some of these questions have been answered, and those answers must now be propagated; and some questions await definitive answer. The definition of the intellectual I prefer has him or her as someone who keeps the conversation going.

Paradoxically, Harris can be a virtuoso conversationalist: he is an exceptionally clear communicator, he asks penetrating questions, he is capable of great nuance and insight, he moves easily between particulars and universals, and he tends to be generous in his understanding. Yet even as he excels at—and seems to delight in—this activity, he is driven to end it. It is as if he thinks if he does a long enough podcast he'll eventually get to the end of the line. I can't help but wonder what would remain for Harris after resolving all intellectual conversations. Maybe then there would be time to pick up that novel?

Sam Harris Tending toward Edification

Even Harris's position on the self is less phenomenological than ontological. It isn't enough for him to experience annata (and then direct others toward it). He must amend to the experience of no-self the truth of no-self. A person who is ignorant of annata, he repeats, has not only missed out on a powerful subjective experience but, further, failed to recognize a truth about reality. But consider the self: looking for it reveals that it can't be found. The experiencing subject necessarily eludes objectification. One response, then, Harris's, is to say the self is therefore not real. Another is to say that a knife that cannot cut itself is still a knife.

But let's say the impossibility of objectifying the self is experienced phenomenologically as the dissolution of the self. What is the difference between experiencing the illusory nature of the self and arguing that this experience conforms to the way things really are? What is gained? What does Harris add to the conversation when he claims his experience supports and is supported by the really, really real instead of leaving off with his description of the experience?

Harris confronts such skepticism when he emphasizes the practical flourishing that follows from meditation. But he leaves himself vulnerable to it whenever he claims to know more than he does. Amending ontological justification to subjective experience comes across as a rhetorical embellishment that risks discrediting his account of the experience itself. Just as the efficacy of prayer being independent of one's belief in god cannot be taken as evidence for God, the effects of meditation neither confirm nor disconform the way things are. Harris admits as much when he points out that enlightenment does not correspond with omniscience, but he fails to see that the same line of thought should lead him to the conclusion that psychology does not penetrate ontology. Harris is at his best here when he follows Buddha, who declined to answer metaphysical questions by saying that they don't tend toward edification.

I don't know—nor could I— how much whatever is the case impacts our experience of what is the case. It's nearly impossible for me to wrap my mind around the limitations the particularities of my mind place on my ability to do such wrapping. It's definitionally the limit of thought. Nevertheless, I can appreciate those limits without transcending them and infer that there's no view from nowhere.

Harris's one-time professor Richard Rorty and long-time antagonist is famous for arguments that more or less align with those I'm making here. Rorty's claim that we don't know what, if anything, “the way things really are” means can be maddening if you're set on refuting it. It is a hard target to hit, and its consequences can be disorienting. Harris, for one, is strongly opposed to pragmatism. He uses a long footnote in The End of Faith to hash out his argument with Rorty. And, as usual, Harris argues powerfully and seemingly exhaustively for his position. The pragmatism he rebuts indeed ends up squished beneath the “rock of realism.” But the pragmatism he lands his rock on isn't Rorty's (or mine here). The pragmatist takes consensus to serve socially as truth, not to be truth. The thrust of pragmatism is epistemological, not ontological. According to the pragmatist, the reason there is no truth is that truth is a concept we assign, and the application of that concept can have no verification from neutral ground. Harris wants pragmatism to claim there is no reality, when what it does say is that we can never be certain that our claims about reality match what it is apart from those claims, because that would be a pragmatism he could confidently reject.

The first thing you notice reading or listening to Harris is his tone of utter confidence. I trust that he takes his positions to be rhetorically neutral and his vehemence in their defense, therefore, to be primarily a defense of the rationality that produced them. But for the moderately skeptical reader or listener that vehemence belies Harris's personal stake in his commitments. In this context, I might invoke Stanley Fish, who, In his essay “God Talk,” argues that “reason is a nonstarter in the absence of an a priori specification of what is real and important, and where is that going to come from? Only from some kind of faith.”

The Faith of Sam Harris

The smugness and self-certainty that many of Harris's readers and viewers find so off-putting is much less offensive when he's an ally. His arguments are forceful and articulate, and his cutting characterizations of his opponents can't but appeal to your vanity when you're on his side. I'm thinking of myself here, at least in certain moods. In less gung-ho moments, I find myself divided about his project. On the one hand, it's easy for me to respect the efforts of a person who is attempting to create an original and seamless worldview that can withstand some scrutiny. On the other hand, how do I not pause when I notice the faith his attempt is based on, a faith I do not share.

Harris thinks the scientific method (broadly understood, broadly applied) can, in theory if not in practice, offer a full account of the nature of reality. But what grounds that notion? What makes him think the world can fit inside an image of itself?

Harris's faith in science to figure it all out should be revealed to him by the criticism he receives for his view that human flourishing can be translated into brain states, an idea that misunderstands flourishing in a way an AI might if it had downloaded information about humans but never encountered one, let alone lived as one. In Harris's view, there would be nothing wrong in principle with living as brains in vats. Why wouldn't we all take the blue pill and remain in the Matrix? But flourishing can't be defined objectively. Each subject must decide anew what flourishing means and how to pursue it.

The End of Faith, Sam Harris

Harris can maintain that different brain states (or different sets of behaviors) are more or less likely to correspond with human flourishing than others. But he'll get nowhere explaining what human flourishing is or why anyone should be concerned about it. And if he takes that as his bedrock, he will be unable to say why or account for others who do not. If serving God as you believe is demanded by your religion is more important to you than widespread human flourishing, then serving God as you believe is demanded by your religion is more important to you than widespread human flourishing. I agree with Harris that you're wrong about this, but that doesn't mean I can pretend that deep down you unknowingly already agree with me and then proceed as if we have this common ground. We do not. Harris has so much faith in rationality as he advocates for it that he thinks anyone who disagrees has only to be straightened out. (To credit his consistency on this position, Harris willingly changes his mind according to these criteria, when he is confronted with what he recognizes as a winning argument.) However, those criteria are his, not everyone's. And there is no compelling reason to think anyone who does not share his approach will care at all how carefully he applies it. Witness the masses of people indifferent to his arguments. It's not even that they have refuted him to their satisfaction (though some have) but that his arguments have no purchases with them. They don't bother about Sam Harris. His faith in rationality is contrary, therefore, to much evidence.

It is actually Harris's faith that is greater than that of most religious followers. It is he who thinks questions can be answered in this life. It is he who seems to imagine the possibility of finishing his work and living out his days in a rational utopia reading literature or pursuing some other “meaningless” hobby. The religious person at least has the sense to imagine that his faith is no salve in this life. His problems and temptations will persist regardless. If there is a paradise, it's in another life.

But, as we often hear, if faith came easy it wouldn't be faith. Without commenting one way or another on the merits of faith, we can observe that the criticisms of faith are inherent in the justification for it—it is the criticisms themselves that faith seeks to overcome.

Harris, of course, will say his method is not faithful because it is supported by the evidence: it works. But this says more about the evidence that interests him and what he wants to do with it than it does about what human life offers. Whenever I break from cheering for his evisceration of religious faith, I remember that among the religious people I know very few are religious because they think religion is the best available description of the data they've collected, and I acknowledge that Harris has buried a lot of straw men under his pen.

As powerful as the scientific method is, I have never found it helpful in reading poetry or making friends or making meaning in life.

But unintentionally. Harris insists on reading everyone as if they're doing what he's doing: trying to figure out how things are. He can't seem to imagine other ways of going about things, and so he understands religious views as bad versions of his own. It's no wonder, therefore, that he finds them lacking. According to the rules, as Harris has written them, Harris wins. But those religious believers, I'm afraid, are playing a different game altogether. The End of Faith to them is as relevant as the NBA rulebook to two friends playing chess.

It's like his eyes have never given him trouble, so he assumes they play no role in how he sees and therefore reveal the world as it is. He's so used to seeing through these eyes that he can't take seriously the possibility that other people's eyes work differently or that they're looking for something else. As powerful as the scientific method is, I have never found it helpful in reading poetry or making friends or making meaning in life.

If I could say one thing to Harris directly, I think I'd ask him to put the magnifying glass down and pick the novel up so that he might give himself a chance to see the world through someone else's eyes for once.

Comment Form is loading comments...