Sam Harris

By Kuba Kaliński (transl. Nena Argent, Kuba Kalinski)
Sam Harris letter to a christian nation
Sam Harris
Biographical note
Sam Harris was born in the USA in 1967 and grew up in Los Angeles. His mother came from a Jewish family, his father was a Quaker. Shortly after commencing his studies at Stanford University, Harris had a profound experience with ecstasy. The experience was strong enough to impel the young man to travel around the United States, India and Nepal, practicing meditation in Hindu and Buddhist traditions. Apparently this period lasted eleven years. Sam Harris admitted to having once been a dogmatic Buddhist, but has since abandoned all such dogma. He completed studies in philosophy at Stanford and earned a PhD in cognitive neuroscience at UCLA. In 2004, Sam married Annaka. They have one daughter. He’s best known for his books and speeches that sharply condemn religion, particularly monotheistic Judaism, Christianity and Islam. He’s published: The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason / Letter to a Christian Nation / The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values / Lying / Free Will / Waking Up: Science, Skepticism, Spirituality. “The End of Faith” was on the New York Times bestseller list for 33 weeks and won a PEN Club award in the nonfiction category. The book, as often happens in the case of outstanding and original works, was initially rejected by 15 publishers. Sam Harris and his wife have brought to life a nonprofit foundation for “scientific knowledge and secular values” called Project Reason.

Subjective Viewpoint: Vipassana and Tortures

  1. First Horseman
  2. Sam Harris is the third of the four horsemen that I present. He’s the third and the youngest, but the first in a way, because his book “The End of Faith”, in 2004, opened a new chapter of clash with religion. After Harris’s book, Dawkins, Hitchens and Dennett each took the floor. Their opponents coined the term the new atheists.
  3. Intellectual Intimacy
  4. I feel a personal kinship to Sam Harris due to narcotic experiences and the practice of vipassana.
  5. War on Islam
  6. He’s considered to be radically anti-Islamic. I don’t know how to respect a civilization that permits stoning, punishes extramarital sex with life imprisonment, and accuses rape victims of being the guilty ones. The New York Times reported that Harris arrived at an atheist rally with bodyguards out of fear of being attacked by fundamentalists. He declared that we’re at war not against terrorism but against Islam.
  7. Freedom without Free Will
  8. He rejects the concept of free will. So, how might freedom be understood? You feel differently when confined to a barrel or when standing atop a mountain. You feel differently being the servant who pours wine into a Roman aristocrat’s goblet or being the aristocrat. You experience these differences regardless of whether you believe in free will or not. Freedom means the possibility of choice. A biological machine chooses a path.
  9. Evil is Illness
  10. Murderers don’t kill by their own free choice. Their actions are predetermined by a chain of causes and effects. Their brains have reacted in a particular way. What then is the real cause? Brain cancer? Defective genes? Past traumas? Whatever the cause, the first victim of a murderer is himself. From that perspective, evil is a disease or an undesirable mutation.
  11. Prophet Burgess
  12. If evil acts are the effects of a disease and not the free choice of an evil man, our perspective must change – hatred toward the perpetrator of a crime disappears and compassion takes its place. If one day this revolutionary perspective (a marriage of Christian, Buddhist and scientific elements) becomes truth, and takes root in our way of thinking, there will be radical changes in the legal system and within prison facilities. The concept of punishment would disappear and be replaced by treatment. “A Clockwork Orange” by Burgess is a tremendous, narcotic and prophetic, vision. I wonder, what Harris would say to the problem that arises therein?
  13. Gene Therapy
  14. We (who? people sharing this viewpoint) don’t avoid adjusting to nature as religious fundamentalists do. If somebody is a psychopath let’s apply gene therapy if such a treatment is available.
  15. A Shadow of Intellectual Charm
  16. Sometimes Americans are weird. Hitchens (an Englishman) supported the war in Iraq; Harris supports gun ownership by ordinary citizens. I remain skeptical of both ideas. I admit: my skepticism leads to inconsistency. As usual, when both sides posses valid arguments, specific circumstances must dictate the ultimate criteria for the way I’d act. Call it a lack of the moral backbone or exaggerated flexibility. When a person is in the position of defending his own life, then firearms, training and swift reflexes count – not strict adherence to principles, which only look attractive on paper.

    The noticeable differences between myself and the people I admire allows me not to yield too much to their charm. Nevertheless, I’m curious about their intellectual motivation.

  17. I’ll Exchange Tolstoy’s Brain for Proust’s
  18. I’m disturbed by a problem related to the thesis posed by Harris and other neuroscience experts. The mere statement that there’s no free will, well grounded by philosophical arguments and empirical data, doesn’t seem controversial anymore; we may assume it to be true. My “inner thoughts” are irrelevant to my acts, because they aren’t the source of my actions or decisions. Processes within the brain, unavailable to my conscious mind, are the real causes. Thoughts are only echoes of those processes. They can be an indicator of where to look for the cause – in the physics of the brain, in its structure and the processes taking place therein. But if that’s the case, the exploration of Harris’s thoughts, or those of Hitchens, or anyone else, doesn’t make a lot of sense. It would be wiser to study their brains, not their echoes. Perhaps in the not so distant future we won’t have works of Proust and Tolstoy on our shelves, but replicas of the brains of these great minds. After dinner, while sipping coffee in the salons of the rich, we’ll admire the collections, “Oh, you have Lem’s brain! How about an exchange for Asimov and Hoyle? Both are well-preserved!”
  19. Superfluous
  20. Harris about the mind: “Thoughts just appear. What else could they do?” The influence of Buddhism? Maybe. But I think that this seemingly trivial observation is compelling regardless of the religious context. Every(?) child at some stage notes the externality of thought, its unstoppable influx. With regards to your inner voice, you can assume different perspectives: identify yourself with the inner speaker, identify yourself with the inner listener, not identifying yourself with either of them. “I” means body and social structure (ignotum per ignotum…). If we only identify ourselves with the speaker, we can consider ourselves “creators” of thoughts. We’re creators of thoughts to the same extent that we’re observers. It’s just a process on the monitor of consciousness. The subject (“I”) is superfluous, an excess added afterward, like god.
  21. Substitute Problems
  22. From an atheist’s perspective, the issues of euthanasia and abortion (in Poland, foolishly baptized as “substitute problems”) are presented as follows: since there’s no soul or eternal life, we can only speak about life in biological terms, and (assuming that numerous complex social, physical and chemical processes continue) about the mental / psychological life of a person. Biological life, governed by genes, is endless. Man is the sum of his cells, and a person. It happens that biological life continues, but the person no longer exists, or doesn’t yet exist. It’s not about killing a person, just interrupting a mechanical biological process. There’s no pain or suffering, we don’t collide with god’s plan. Even if serious defects are revealed after birth, eliminating the newborn would only be an interruption of a biological process. It’s still not a person. I wouldn’t dare vote in favour of a law that forces all mothers, in all possible circumstances, to take care of every conceivable monster. I perceive such a law as totalitarian, sentimental, false and cynical all at once. Nature will always, without exception, be smarter and more cruel than our legal systems or wishful thinking.
  23. Totalitarian Religious Mind
  24. Atheists say: if someone thinks differently than we do, he may act according to his own criteria, but he can’t forbid us to act according to ours. Opponents say: “The fetus is not your property.” To that we answer: “Neither is it yours.” We don’t force believers into doing what they might consider inappropriate. We require them not to force us to do what we consider inappropriate. For us, the alternative is: tolerance for other viewpoints or war for freedom – freedom to act and freedom to restrain from action. We don’t require them to act in the name of something they don’t believe. We require that they don’t expect others to do things contrary to their beliefs. If you want to raise the bar higher for yourself, no one prohibits it.
  25. The Dispute between a Liberal and a Religionist
  26. If I accept abortion and euthanasia and you don’t, then we may create a legal framework in which a person who chooses abortion or euthanasia can do so in relation to himself, but a person who rejects it, is likewise free not do so. In this way there’s freedom of choice. Opposition to this proposal is essentially a dispute between the liberal and totalitarian mind. Most religions, in particular Judaism (and both its descendents) are totalitarian systems. They use the euphemism: “universal”. What does this have in common with Sam Harris’s books? Nothing in particular. We both are atheist and we both strongly oppose the influence of religion in society.
  27. Cat’s Agony
  28. My cat died yesterday. He died in agony. I didn’t have money to call the vet, I had no weapon to shoot him; I’m not so insensitive as to strangle or drown him. I’m unable to do such things. The state prohibits the sale of poison. The state takes care of everything. So the cat was forced to die in agony because the law forbids the sale of poison in drugstores. The reason doesn’t matter. Paternalistic do-gooderism leads to more suffering, not less.
  29. Wrinkles on the Ocean
  30. The inner voice has paradoxical qualities. On the one hand, in terms of neuroscience, it’s only the surface activity of an ocean of neurons; in Buddhist terms, an impermanent illusion. On the other hand, it’s exactly what we study the most – the inner voices of Harris, Newton, Dostoyevsky. We exist, in our minds, in the form of non-durable wrinkles on the ocean’s surface. What we think, who we are, and what we say are not our own works, they simply arise.
  31. Taxi Driver
  32. The inner voice is born in the process of socialization and the learning of language in the early years of life. These processes occur simultaneously; perhaps they are one and the same. Later we are never alone, even if we live alone. We speak to others in silence; we always talk to them, amongst them. In a memorable scene from “Taxi Driver” Robert De Niro says to himself in a mirror: “You talkin' to me?” Who’s he talking to if there’s no one else? (“You talkin’ to me? You talkin’ to me? You talkin’ to me? Then who the hell else are you talkin’ to? You talkin’ to me? Well, I’m the only one here. Who the fuck do you think you’re talking to?”)
  33. Five Variants of I
  34. It’s common to hear the saying, “there are always two possibilities”. In the case of the inner voice, “I” is the speaker or the listener. I’d say there are usually five possibilities. For example: “The sky is blue” and “The sky is black”. The possibilities are:

    a) the first is true, the second is false
    b) the second is true, the first is false
    c) both are true
    d) both are false
    e) sometimes a, sometimes b, sometimes c, sometimes d

    The relation between “I” and the inner voice corresponds to the fifth possibility: e.
  35. Harris’s Atlantis
  36. Concepts with undefined borders, linguistic fractals, allow us to transmit information, but leave ample room for different interpretations and different actions. Language can be a map: some words, like roads on a map, are well defined with no possibility of misinterpretation. But the absence of specific boundary lines around seas, forests and mountains, or the lack of information about flora and fauna, doesn’t convert the map into a useless piece of paper. On Harris’s map, the concepts of “god” and “free will” are names for a mythical, nonexistent, continent - Atlantis. The concepts of consciousness, spirituality and identity, are mountains without well-defined borders. We don’t know where they end or the exact height of their tallest peaks.
  37. Sanctimonious Bosh
  38. The strongest accusations against Harris, Hitchens and others of a similar ilk, come from intellectual Bolsheviks who say they aren’t leftwing enough, not scientific enough, not green enough. Leftist saints would convert us all into ultra-scientific-gay-feminist-alter-globalization-vegans. Accusations include pointing out double standards and intellectual contradictions, and blaming them for disseminating warmongering imperialistic doctrines. Here is where I take a step back and go to live amongst Polish Catholics. At least they don’t talk nonsense about it being possible to imagine human life without sin. Compare smug extreme left-wingers to Joseph Tischner, for instance. This Polish priest was a stronghold of clarity, a man with a sense of humor and a healthy balanced mind; someone you want as a friend regardless of his religious beliefs, just like that – without nonsensical drivel, communist absurdities or sanctimonious bosh.
  39. The Market of Ideas and Sleeping Pills
  40. Harris draws attention to the leftist mantra that’s repeated time and time again: Did Islamists attack? Well, we have to understand them, let’s look at the poverty in which they live. Interestingly, Harris notes, that it’s never the other way around: Did the poor attack? Well, we have to understand them, let’s look at what religion they profess. Harris forgets that people reciting the first refrain are true Marxists who repeat Marx’s mantra: “social being determines consciousness”. This affirmation is similar to the neuroscientific assertion: “brain determines consciousness”. Of course in the first case we’re referring to social awareness, in the second to individual consciousness. I suspect, although I can’t prove it, that a human being is a device that operates on the basis of feedback. Existence forms an idea, the idea forms the existence. It’s unjustified to perceive only one part of the equation. Improvement of our life depends on both levels, not just one. Physical hunger, plus spiritual poison, leads to delinquency and crime. The problem with a moderate viewpoint, which I defend in this case, is that it’s trivial and sells poorly in the ideas market – like Kołakowski’s antiquated obviousness (which I recommend if you’re short of sleeping pills). “Islamists attacked because we’re guilty of terrible capitalism!” It’s stupid, but sells better. Personally, I don’t trust anyone who employs self-flagellation to prove moral depth and, a fortiori, reason.
  41. Non-runners
  42. Harris is right: atheism is not a name that defines a common doctrine. Atheists can profess very different viewpoints; they only share an aversion to religion and the idea of god; they manifest this aversion in various degrees and forms. Atheist is a word like “non-runner”. We just walk.
  43. To Be or not to Be a Philosemite
  44. He’s of Jewish origin. A Jew accused of anti-Semitism and philo-Semitism. Anti-Semitism, because he dared to note that the Jews invented themselves as a chosen nation – one which surpasses others due to having a secret alliance with god. This observation isn’t original, but has the antiquated virtue of being true. It isn’t a justification for routs and Shoah, not even in the slightest. It’s only a reminder that stupid ideas don’t cease to be stupid just because their followers were unjustly murdered.
  45. Causes according to Aristotle
  46. I think that either there’s a contradiction in Harris’s thoughts, or he uses the same word in two different senses. These senses are so different that the issue requires clarification. Either we say: “Religion is the cause of evil”, or “Brain damage is the cause of evil”. Of course, we’re talking on two different levels, but let’s keep a minimum of intellectual rigor – what was the cause of the attack on the WTC? Does the solution consist of:

    a) opening suspects brains
    b) eliminating religion
    c) bombing Afghanistan
    d) bombing Afghanistan with sacks of flour and condoms
    e) all of the above

    A mind capable of unraveling this mystery hasn’t yet been born.
  47. Divorce
  48. The alliance between religion and ethics crumbled. We become more and more practical. As the Chinese are.
  49. Why Torture?
  50. On the one hand, Harris recognizes that torturing people like Osama bin Laden may be justified, on the other, that perhaps we’ll soon treat murderers as sick people (once we discover exactly how their brains work). I can try to explain this serious inconsistency by saying that when I write about “Harris” I refer to different statements taken from different periods of his life. A man who understands the secrets of the brain may change his views. I hope this is the case, but what if he still holds both views? If Osama bin Laden was a seriously ill man, as seriously ill as Hitler, then torturing him couldn’t be justified. He needed to be treated by a doctor, not by people with sadistic tendencies working for the government. Even if we don’t yet have drugs to treat certain cerebral afflictions or to alter structure or brain functions, we must treat him as an incurably ill man.
  51. I Was Wrong
  52. My loyal translator, and critique of my notes, pointed out that I didn’t understand Harris. I admit that both of them are right. Even if we consider a criminal as someone who is sick, there may be reasons for torturing him. If we suspect that he knows where the bombs are located, and he doesn’t want to cooperate, but with that knowledge we could save innocent lives, unfortunately, torturing him may be the right solution. Not as punishment, but as a way to protect life. What else? Wait with folded arms until more innocent people die?
  53. Soviet Psychiatry
  54. I evoke “A Clockwork Orange” once more. This dystopian vision, where someone (the state?) could decide to effect mechanical changes in the brains of others, motivated by desirable changes in social behavior, brings with it the danger of repeating what occurred in Soviet psychiatric hospitals.
  55. Osama bin Laden as a Guinea-pig
  56. If free will is a delusion, but neuroscientific treatments remain elusive, we’re forced to stick with what we have, prisons, plus a bad conscience. To sentence someone to death or life imprisonment would be the same as multiplying suffering by suffering. Seen from this perspective, the Norwegians were right about isolating Breivik without the death penalty or torture. Killing or torturing him wouldn’t change anything. Killing Breivik in order to satisfy our understanding of justice would be morally false. Our understanding of justice is false. Bin Laden’s death, as well as the deaths of Hussein, Ceausescu, and others, didn’t obliterate their guilt. Instead, it merely blurred reality. We could be wiser: capture Ladens to study their brains. Reason would have won over revenge. These are no longer Harris’s thoughts. I use the thoughts of people I admire like shoulders of the Titans. I stand on them trying to reach a more distant star. Or I descend to the ground and meditate upon a dried leaf.
  57. Religion as a Screen
  58. Religion creates devout people, but not hypocrites. People are hypocrites and use religion to hide their duplicity. Who said that? I did, or someone like me.
  59. For whom is Harris Important?
  60. The work and activity of people like Sam can’t be overestimated. It may seem trivial only to someone who has never had a soft spot for god, and such people aren’t numerous. Most are ambivalent. As someone said: “For years, I thought there was something wrong with me. I was always asking: Why don’t I get this? Why don’t I get this? And then last year I read “The End of Faith”, and Sam basically explained it to me – there’s nothing to get.”
Sam Harris - The End of Faith
The End of Faith
Sam Harris - 
The Moral Landscape
The Moral Landscape
Sam Harris - 
Free Will
Free Will
Sam Harris - 
Letter to a Christian Nation
Letter to a Christian Nation
Sam Harris - 

Sam Harris - quotes & fragments

From introduction to Moral Landscape

The people of Albania have a venerable tradition of vendetta called Kanun: if a man commits a murder, his victim’s family can kill any one of his male relatives in reprisal. If a boy has the misfortune of being the son or brother of a murderer, he must spend his days and nights in hiding, forgoing a proper education, adequate health care, nd the pleasures of a normal life. Untold numbers of Albanian men and boys live as risoners of their homes even now. Can we say that the Albanians are morally wrong to have structured their society in this way? Is their tradition of blood feud a form of evil? Are their values inferior to our own? Most people imagine that science cannot pose, much less answer, questions of this sort. How could we ever say, as a matter of scientific fact, that one way of life is better, or more moral, than another? Whose definition of “better” or “moral” would we use? While many scientists now study the evolution of morality, as well as its underlying neurobiology, the purpose of their research is merely to describe how human beings think and behave. No one expects science to tell us how we ought to think and behave. Controversies about human values are controversies about which science officially has no opinion. I will argue, however, that questions about values—about meaning, morality, and life’s larger purpose—are really questions about the well-being of conscious creatures.

The beginning of End of Faith

THE young man boards the bus as it leaves the terminal. He wears an overcoat. Beneath his overcoat, he is wearing a bomb. His pockets are filled with nails, ball bearings, and rat poison. The bus is crowded and headed for the heart of the city. The young man takes his seat beside a middle-aged couple. He will wait for the bus to reach its next stop. The couple at his side appears to be shopping for a new refrigerator. The woman has decided on a model, but her husband worries that it will be too expensive. He indicates another one in a brochure that lies open on her lap. The next stop comes into view. The bus doors swing. The woman observes that the model her husband has selected will not fit in the space underneath their cabinets. New passengers have taken the last remaining seats and begun gathering in the aisle. The bus is now full. The young man smiles. With the press of a button he destroys himself, the couple at his side, and twenty others on the bus. The nails, ball bearings, and rat poison ensure further casualties on the street and in the surrounding cars. All has gone according to plan. The young man's parents soon learn of his fate. Although saddened to have lost a son, they feel tremendous pride at his accomplishment.They know that he has gone to heaven and prepared the way for them to follow. He has also sent his victims to hell for eternity. It is a double victory. The neighbors find the event a great cause for celebration and honor the young man's parents by giving them gifts of food and money. These are the facts. This is all we know for certain about the young man. Is there anything else that we can infer about him on the basis of his behavior? Was he popular in school? Was he rich or was he poor? Was he of low or high intelligence? His actions leave no clue at all. Did he have a college education? Did he have a bright future as a mechanical engineer? His behavior is simply mute on questions of this sort, and hundreds like them.1 Why is it so easy, then, so trivially easy—you-could-almost-bet-your-life-on it easy—to guess the young man's religion?

Quotes from various sources

The president of the United States has claimed, on more than one occasion, to be in dialogue with God. If he said that he was talking to God through his hairdryer, this would precipitate a national emergency. I fail to see how the addition of a hairdryer makes the claim more ridiculous or offensive.

In fact, "atheism" is a term that should not even exist. No one ever needs to identify himself as a "non-astrologer" or a "non-alchemist." We do not have words for people who doubt that Elvis is still alive or that aliens have traversed the galaxy only to molest ranchers and their cattle. Atheism is nothing more than the noises reasonable people make in the presence of unjustified religious beliefs.

I know of no society in human history that ever suffered because its people became too desirous of evidence in support of their core beliefs.

If you think that it would be impossible to improve upon the Ten Commandments as a statement of morality, you really owe it to yourself to read some other scriptures. Once again, we need look no further than the Jains: Mahavira, the Jain patriarch, surpassed the morality of the Bible with a single sentence: "Do not injure, abuse, oppress, enslave, insult, torment, torture, or kill any creature or living being." Imagine how different our world might be if the Bible contained this as its central precept. Christians have abused, oppressed, enslaved, insulted, tormented, tortured, and killed people in the name of God for centuries, on the basis of a theologically defensible reading of the Bible.

Unreason is now ascendant in the United States—in our schools, in our courts, and in each branch of the federal government. Only 28 percent of Americans believe in evolution; 68 percent believe in Satan. Ignorance in this degree, concentrated in both the head and belly of a lumbering superpower, is now a problem for the entire world.

We are now in the 21st century: all books, including the Koran, should be fair game for flushing down the toilet without fear of violent reprisal.