WIRED magazine interviewed Sam Harris in an article “Good Without God” (Nov 2010 p. 106). His approach annoyed me because it seems to be creating unnecessary animosity between people. The conflict he generates seems unnecessary and hurtful to everyone concerned and therefore is counterproductive to all concerned. The article concludes with the interviewer asking, Q:”A lot of people must hate what you’re saying. Do you worry about your personal safety? A: I take security seriously and I’ve gotten my share of weird emails. I don’t tell people where I live.” The way I see it, if people are hating Harris for what he is saying about untestable aspects of reality, he is making the world a more hostile and less desirable place in which to live.
People fight viciously over the most inane things! For example, in the world of paleoanthropology, intelligent people fight about things like long dead people, sometimes really long gone, and they contend so angrily a book has been written about their fights: Bones of Contention: Controversies in the Search for Human Origins. These angry fights are about the interpretation of the meaning of pieces of rock which they find and not about the ultimate meaning of life. It makes sense to discuss these things because we are all interested in our origins. But when it comes to the ultimate reasons for a person’s conscious existence, that search, it seems to me, is left up to every individual to ferret out for himself. It is a quest which occupies every minute of his conscious existence. It isn’t something someone else decides for him or anyone else. People turn to respected people as authorities and can get together and discuss aspects of immortal questions, but usually they walk away sadder and more confused than when they first encountered their interlocutor. But after all it is their right to believe as they see fit.
Sam Harris avers that people who aren’t in total agreement with true scientific knowledge about reality are making the world a worse place for everyone. Especially scientists who are also religiously inclined when off the job are being dishonest and somehow injuring the entire society of the world forevermore by their untestable beliefs corrupting their quest for natural truth. He is being overly optimistic to think everyone should live absolutely honest lives. He claims as his ideal the maximizing of psychological and social health, as if testable science has the perfect answers for those problems. Daily living and problem solving has little to do with published scientific reality and is based on personal habits formed from actual experience with natural reality.
There are no perfect answers when it comes to psychological and social problems and we as humans have developed ways of muddling through our daily lives which work well enough. We are forced to make constant adaptations to our environment and absolute scientific or religious answers will probably be too intellectualized and to slow to work in the moment and will inhibit successful action. We humans work with our vast assemblage of learned habits and if we have honed these reasonably well we live well into our geriatric age with a benighted smile on our faces rather than being destroyed by poor conscious choices of our youth. Some scientists achieve this lifetime of happiness and some devout religious people do too. So Harris’s social and psychological health are independent of either of these mental frameworks. His seeking for the best functioning habits in scientifically constrained brain scans will probably find some interesting things. Fully functioning people will have more appropriate responses to various stimuli, but a screening of the 1972 movie A Clockwork Orange might give more clarity to human adjustments to programmed stimuli. My suggestion to a young person:
Act as if your present behavior will be locked in for the rest of your life.