Monday, May 12, 2008

Sam Harris, Islam, neurophysiology & historical illiteracy

So far on this blog I concentrated my criticism of Sam Harris on his op-ed piece "Head-in-the-Sand Liberals". While he is eloquent on the need to oppose "faith", he is a very ignorant man on most other things. Here is a sample, his most recent piece on the threat of Islam:

Losing Our Spines to Save Our Necks, The Huffington Post, posted May 5, 2008

Harris complains about the cowardice in the West of publicizing attacks on Islam, the Koran, Muhammed, etc., due to the fear of violent retaliation. He insists that the religion of Islam is intrinsically related to Islamic political violence and wonders where the Muslim moderates are in speaking up against it. He insists on the right of free speech, which he counterposes to the barbarism of Muslims ready to do away with anyone who dares to exercise it in the criticism of Islam. There are, however, some gaps in Harris' argument. He has no real notion of social causality. Doctrines produce behavior, but what produces and sustains doctrines, the interpretation of doctrines, and the translation of doctrines into action? What are the institutions that reinforce dispositions, convey information, and instigate actions? And what about the context in which information is conveyed? The problem begins in the very first sentence:
Geert Wilders, conservative Dutch politician and provocateur, has become the latest projectile in the world's most important culture war: the zero-sum conflict between civil society and traditional Islam.
Wilders is under a death threat for a documentary film denouncing Islam. If Wilders has a right to free speech, and Islam is bad, then surely Wilders should be defended. But note at the outset Wilders is described as "conservative Dutch politician and provocateur". Wouldn't this set off some alarm bell to anyone not in a coma? One might want to know something about what Wilders' politics is all about, how it relates to the Netherlands's Muslim population, and to what extent this population refuses to conform to West European secular democratic norms, and to what extent they are under siege by European right-wing hate groups. What is Wilders' goal in defaming Islam; is it part of an illegitimate assault on the immigrant population? I don't know the answers to any of these questions, but I think they are essential to an assessment of the situation.

Or perhaps Wilders' motive and political agenda are irrelevant to the content of his film: if the content is sound, then what does the political context in which it is generated matter? And regardless of the morality of the situation, doesn't Wilders have any absolute right to free speech in any case? Would anything be different were a person of Muslim origin to circulate anti-Islamic materials, as many, including most famously, Ayaan Hirsi Alihas done?

I have no problem with the denigration of Islam as a general principle, but there is no action that doesn't have a context, and we are deprived of the real social context in which Wilders' film is circulating. We don't know, for example, what percentage of the local Muslim population supported or approved of the assassination of Theo van Gogh, or how the information about the provocative cartoons or this film is communicated to the rest of the Muslim world to stimulate retaliation.

What about Harris' characterization of the global geopolitical situation? Can the very concept of "culture war" explain the world situation? Is it true that the the struggle over Islam is the world's most important culture war? And that the "zero-sum conflict" between Islam and civil society makes sense as an explanatory framework for understanding the world system?

The fact is, Harris is an ignoramus. He lacks the elementary tools to analyze society, and he knows nothing of history. He deduces society from fragmentary facts and abstract principles, as if belief systems are suspended in air and just generate social realities . . . or, are just rooted in the physiology of the brain.

Which brings to mind his only area of expertise. On his web site he presents four surveys, one or more of which he requests his readers to fill out, as part of a research project on the neurophysiology of religion:

Research Volunteers Needed
We are preparing to run another fMRI study of belief and disbelief, and we need volunteers to help us refine our experimental stimuli. This promises to be the first study of religious faith at the level of the brain.
I suggest you take a look at one or more of these questionnaires. I filled them all out. Perhaps they are not as idiotic as they seem. I don't remember much about survey design and psychological testing, but I'm guessing that the questions are designed to elicit telltale responses while concealing their purpose from the test-taker, so that the testees reveal more about themselves than they consciously intend. Still, it's hard not to think that these questionnaires are utterly ridiculous and can't possibly measure what they purport to measure. And can you even imagine the ideological biases of the survey designer? And for all we know, people who concoct questionnaires like these themselves belong in a straight jacket and a rubber room.

But more generally, the question must be asked: what can it mean to ascertain religious faith based upon the study of brain physiology? Of course we can gain knowledge about how dysfunctional thinking operates on the basis of the physiological and psychological mechanisms at work. But separated from real behavior in social context, they are just abstractions, descriptions of abstractly delineated processes. Everyone concedes that environmental stimuli trigger these brain processes, but then don't we have to understand just what the "environment" is, and how its structure and history--i.e. the structure and history of society--create a structure and history of responses and dispositions in the brain? How can we actually know about the genesis of and mechanisms of social reinforcement of belief systems by studying brain physiology in abstracto?

It's too bad people like Harris cannot learn the lessons of the Soviet developmental psychologist Lev Vygotsky, for starters. The same ideological naivete gets repeated over and over. We get a regression to metaphysical abstractions of social behavior--in-/out-groups, prejudice, etc.--in combination with natural-scientifically conceived biological constants, in order to explain behavior, and real society and history drop out of the picture. Instead of institutional analysis combined with the essential concept of ideology, we get pseudo-scientific garbage like "memes" and pseudo-Darwinian explanations of economic systems and social history. But instead of going after the likes of Dawkins, Shermer, and Wilson, let me focus on the problems of self-enclosed biological explanations.

Yesterday I happened upon perhaps the worst "scholarly" book on bigotry I have ever seen:

Dozier, Rush W., Jr. Why We Hate: Understanding, Curbing, and Eliminating Hate in Ourselves and Our World. Chicago: Contemporary Books, 2002. Publisher description.

Perusing the book, and reviewing the bibliography, I am astounded how completely devoid it is of something you will find in all serious books on this subject--real information about society and history. There is no usable social knowledge or information in this crappy book: it's all about brain physiology combined with platitudinizing. I cannot conceive of anything with scientific pretensions more disgraceful.

This is the same clueless ignorant level on which Harris operates. And most other prominent public atheists on the American scene are no better. They are disgraceful representatives of atheism, not because they are too haughty and confrontational in their atheism, but because they are politically bankrupt. With what they contribute to popular enlightenment with one hand, they take back with the other. These people have contributed mightily to the provincialism and miseducation of their fans regarding the nature of their society. Their science-worship itself is a source of ideological mystification.

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