To a liberal, educated public, stalwart atheist and PEN Award winner Sam Harris may come off as a brave iconoclast. But if you take a look at Jackson Lears’s “Same Old New Atheism: On Sam Harris” at the Nation‘s website, you may come away concluding he’s a retrograde bigot. In discussing Harris’s 2010 work, The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Moral Values, Lears, a Rutgers University history professor, takes aim at the “revival of positivism in popular scientific writing,” which he describes this way:

More a habit of mind than a rigorous philosophy, positivism depends on the reductionist belief that the entire universe, including all human conduct, can be explained with reference to precisely measurable, deterministic physical processes. (This strain of positivism is not to be confused with that of the French sociologist Auguste Comte.) The decades between the Civil War and World War I were positivism’s golden age. Positivists boasted that science was on the brink of producing a total explanation of the nature of things, which would consign all other explanations to the dustbin of mythology. Scientific research was like an Easter egg hunt: once the eggs were gathered the game would be over, the complexities of the cosmos reduced to natural law. Science was the only repository of truth, a sovereign entity floating above the vicissitudes of history and power. Science was science.

Though they often softened their claims with Christian rhetoric, positivists assumed that science was also the only sure guide to morality, and the only firm basis for civilization. As their critics began to realize, positivists had abandoned the provisionality of science’s experimental outlook by transforming science from a method into a metaphysic, a source of absolute certainty. Positivist assumptions provided the epistemological foundations for Social Darwinism and pop-evolutionary notions of progress, as well as for scientific racism and imperialism. These tendencies coalesced in eugenics, the doctrine that human well-being could be improved and eventually perfected through the selective breeding of the “fit” and the sterilization or elimination of the “unfit.”

We’re hearing a lot about the meeting of Buddhism and neuroscience nowadays and we might do well to take Lears’s trenchant critique seriously. Harris is popular in some Buddhist circles and he more recently wrote a piece on meditation—the Buddhist practice of Vipassana meditation in particular—for the Huffington Post, where he assures us the rationalist need not be embarrassed for taking up the practice since Western science attests to its efficacy.

As to whether Harris is guilty of bigotry, read Lears’s article and make your own decision. One thing is sure, though: Lears pulls no punches when he calls Harris on his ignorance regarding ethics and politics:

Harris is oblivious to this moral crisis. His self-confidence is surpassed only by his ignorance, and his writings are the best argument against a scientific morality—or at least one based on his positivist version of science and ex cathedra pronouncements on politics, ethics and the future of humanity. In The Moral Landscape he observes that people (presumably including scientists) often acquire beliefs about the world for emotional and social rather than cognitive reasons: “It is also true that the less competent a person is in a given domain, the more he will tend to overestimate his abilities. This often produces an ugly marriage of confidence and ignorance that is very difficult to correct for.” The description fits Harris all too aptly, as he wanders from neuroscience into ethics and politics. He may well be a fine neuroscientist. He might consider spending more time in his lab.

You can read the the Lears article here. Lears is a professor of history at Rutgers University and author of Rebirth of a Nation: The Making of Modern America, 18771920.


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