The big surprise about an evening with Sam Harris
Last weekend I attended An Evening with Sam Harris hosted by Think Inc at the Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre. A packed room of at least 1000 people heard one of the ‘four horsemen of the non-apocalypse’. I have read a number of Harris’ works and engaged extensively with his works and I always enjoy hearing high profile speakers live, so I was quite looking forward to the evening.
I’ve collected some of my thoughts in this review and I must confess the evening was mixed. There were some excellent moments and other parts which were, slow or well, even boring.
1. A quality host makes for a quality night. I must confess I was a little surprised when the evening began and it became clear that Sam Harris wasn’t going to give a presentation. I was expecting a similar format to that of the Holy Trinity Down Under. Instead Harris was interviewed for an hour by comedian and former Project host, Charlie Pickering. Pickering was an excellent pick as host. He was knowledgeable, quick witted and provided real energy to the discussion (which was unfortunately needed at times).
I particularly appreciated his comment after playing a clip of former Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott speaking about the massive problems in Islam which required a ‘reformation and an enlightenment’. Pickering quipped, ‘it’s ironic that a Jesuit-Catholic was calling for a Reformation’. Unfortunately the cleverness of Pickering’s observation was lost on the mostly atheist audience.
2. Sam needed a sleep. Throughout the evening Sam Harris seemed tired. He is naturally quietly spoken, but during the evening I felt this was accentuated. He was rarely animated and despite the best efforts of Pickering the conversation was at times technical and even boring. Harris speaks with great precision but the conversation lacked consistent energy and a solid hour dealing with philosophical topics can be a little wearying. Given the price for the evening (the cheapest tickets were $79) it might have been wise to let Harris have a couple more days resting up.
Moreover, this was perhaps where Pickering needed to engage more contemporary and personal issues in the conversation. This was the main weakness of Pickering’s approach. The great opportunity of an ‘evening with…’ is to get behind the scenes, to hear things that you couldn’t otherwise glean from a person’s writings. Yet I felt that Harris just shared what he had written in his books and hence for the most part I felt that Harris shared little that I hadn’t already read in his writings or knew. This made for a disappointing experience.
With that said, the most interesting, and engaging, part of the conversation was the opening discussion on gun ownership.
3. Gun ownership is like a religion. I was surprised when Pickering opened the conversation with questions on guns. The ethics of gun control is a fascinating source of division within the atheist community (often between North Americans and the rest of the world), and Harris himself has been at the heart of such division e.g. see this piece. Hence this was a great opportunity for genuine controversy and disagreement. Harris admitted that he got hate mail from both sides!
Harris made the fascinating admission that ‘gun ownership’ to some was like a religion, ‘gun ownership is their central identity’. Harris estimated that there might be around 1 million adherents to this ‘religion’. I agree with Harris’ perspective that gun ownership is like a religion. Interestingly this admission demonstrates that atheism and religion are not binary opposites (as I outline here). Perhaps it would be worthwhile to ask how dangerous the ‘gun ownership religion’ might be?
4. The irony and inconsistency of denying free will. The most technical aspect of the conversation surrounded the philosophy and science of free will. Pickering pushed and asked excellent questions to unpack some of Harris’ contention that we do not have free will. Harris maintained that all we have to explain human behaviour are our genes and environment. He contented that before making a “choice”, ‘we know neuro-physiologically your mind is made up’.
This naturally led to questions of the nature of fatalism and determinism. Harris rejected fatalism suggesting that we still have a choice, ‘there is no sense of inevitability, but mystery’. I wonder how many atheists are satisfied with the acceptance that our ‘choice’ is simply a ‘mystery’?
Despite Harris’ protestations, his conclusion that choice resides in some form of ‘mystery’ undermines his proposal to deny free will. If our decisions are simply the result of our genes and environment – then it’s hard to not see determinism sliding into fatalism. The slide to fatalism represents that we are just dancing to the tune of DNA in a giant system.
Harris’ proposal also fundamentally undermines the notion that there are such people as ‘freethinkers’. In Harris’ view there are no such thinkers – hence some of the language used in atheist gatherings should be modified. Perhaps to ‘gene and environment reactors’?
The assertion to deny free will had many and enormous implications for the later conversations about the ‘goodness’ and value of alternative cultural systems (notably Islam) – the irony of which seemed to be lost on all participants.
Why are we so critical of ‘bad’ people? Why are we critical of ‘sub-optimal’ decisions that affect human well-being? Why are we so critical of a man who kills his daughter out of shame because she’s raped?
Harris’ response to this particular scenario was, ‘what are the chances that represents a peak of human suffering?’. Harris suggested that this act should be ‘unthinkable, a ghastly misuse of human life’. Yet if you deny ‘free will’ then this man was just doing what his genes and environment told him. it plainly wasn’t unthinkable. It becomes hard to raise any objections against the man’s moral responsibility or utility. Once free will is denied, it seems impossible to avoid moral relativism.
Why does Harris think this doesn’t represents a ‘peak’ of human suffering (hence a morally correct decision)? Because his genes and environment told him.
Why does the the man who kills his daughter think this is the right thing to do (hence a morally correct decision)? Because his genes and environment told him.
Who is right?
Ultimately it’s the one with the most power to coerce the other (and that’s exactly what their genes and environment led them to do).
Without free will there can be no moral responsibility. Without moral responsibility the critiques on Islam and other ideologies lose force. Just as you can’t lock up hurricanes, how can we then critique or lock up any ‘false’ ideologies or valleys in the moral landscape. The moral landscape is reduced to a sea of DNA and we sail along wherever it takes us.
5. Be careful when criticising dogma. After a long period discussing guns, psychedelic drugs, free will, ethics and the power of ideas, we finally got to what I was anticipating – a forthright criticism of religion and theism.
Harris responded to the critique that some atheists are just as fundamentalist and dogmatic as religions. He thought this was a ‘cute move’ which ‘goes over smoothly’, but suggested that it was a totally false analogy.
It was false because ‘there is no principle in “not being convinced” as accepting claims religiously without evidence and argument.’ He proposed that there are ‘thousands’ of dead gods that ‘every’ Christians and Muslims reject without paying them any attention. Hence all the atheist needs to just reject them all.
Harris’ argument appears to be built on the assumption that religiously held beliefs are all held without evidence and argument – which is a dogmatic assertion of many atheists believe – ironically contrary to the evidence [the reasons and evidence for theistic belief may be bad, but they are still based on reason and evidence]. Similarly the idea that because Christians reject all other gods means that we can reject all gods appears to justify wholesale communal ignorance i.e. because a Christian rejects Thor with no justification, then an atheist can justify rejecting all gods. Where is the critical enquiry?
His ‘argument’ rests on ignorance, laziness, assertion and ironically dogma. So rather than demonstrating how the analogy was ‘totally false’, Harris seemingly demonstrated its truth.
Moreover, throughout the evening Harris was critical of ‘dogma’. yet when you deny free will and with it free thinking, how is impossible to avoid the conclusion that everyone believes their own ‘dogma’ simply based on their genes and environment?
6. The underdog steals the show. I confess I’d not heard much of Maajid Nawaz before the evening. Yet, the dynamic of the evening changed remarkably when he came onstage. He brought energy and rhetorical flourishes that I had expected from Harris. Nawaz really did steal the show. Harris’ comments seemed pedestrian and less incisive than Nawaz who engaged the questions with thought and intellect as he engaged a fascinating discussion on the nature of being liberal and the ‘regressive’ left.
If the ‘clap-o-meter’ (the somewhat annoying tendency for the audience to clap seemingly profound statements) was any barometer of audience engagement then the last half of the evening was far more engaging than the first (where Harris by himself rarely got an applause).
This was the big (and pleasant) surprise about an evening with Sam Harris.
7. Where were the women (again)? Like many other atheist ‘rallies’ that I’ve attended there was a certain irony in the critiques of Nawaz and Harris and other questioners about religious misogyny. With no female stage presence, and a predominantly male audience and only one female questioner amongst a whole line of men, the critique loses some force. I recognise the challenge in organising an event when your main speakers are male, but there seemed no self-awareness of the irony of this critique. Again, this event demonstrated that modern atheism is profoundly dominated by young white males.
Overall. The evening was mixed. It was nice to hear Sam Harris in the flesh, but unfortunately he didn’t really share much that I hadn’t already read or heard. The undoubted highlight was the conversation, dynamism and insights of Maajid Nawaz alongside the wit and humour of Charlie Pickering. Sam Harris himself was well, a bit disappointing.