Thursday, May 10, 2012

Sam Harris: One Symptom...

From the Air

"I really feel, very strongly, that we shouldn't - you know, just shouldn't - use normative language."

I wrote that little quip during my early "Laurie Anderson" phase, all those years ago - so imagine it spoken through a vocoder. The point of it is to poke fun at the people who claim they know moral truth without actually having any reason for that claim. Well OK, I was also teasing an emotivist friend. ;)

I think perhaps the main thing that distinguishes me from most other people you are going to meet (virtually or otherwise) is that I have made it a real effort to separate prescription from description, not just in some academic field or scientific study, but in natural discourse as well - in my everyday life. This is not as easy as it sounds. Our language is laced with the stuff, just like volition permeates just about all language. Nevertheless, I found normative language so interesting that I made it my mission to recognize it when I encountered it.

Profiling Sam Harris

My personal emphasis on normative and descriptive language is why, when I hear Sam Harris, and other fanatics, mixing the two up (usually disingenuously), it "inspires" me to guffaws of cynical hilarity. One cannot do moral philosophy without understanding the basics, like the difference between a statement and a command. Harris not only does not understand these essentially different language functions, but he effectively denies them. If he does understand them and still denies them, then he is playing a liar's game.

People wonder if Harris is a bigot over his profiling advocacy. He might be, but I cannot claim with certainty he is, although the effect may be the same as racism. I do think he is in error. I am convinced he is a victim of a much more insidious and pernicious issue - moral realism. One of the functions of moral realism is to pretend that prescriptions are descriptions - that's actually pretty much its definition. One of the other functions of moral realism is to create and perpetuate conflict. And yes, one of the uses of moral realism is to discriminate on the the basis of race, if one sees race as normatively negative and then confuses that prescriptive assessment with descriptive objective reality. Moral realism is also about orthodoxy of thought, expression, and behaviour. I wonder ... was there ever a time in human history when our societies were locked down in stultifying stagnation due to orthodoxy requirements? One might even refer to such a time as a "dark age..."

Harris confuses his normative evaluations with objective fact and the result is exactly what you would expect it to be - divisive, polarizing assumptions under the guise of "science." His are the noises of the eugenicist, the social Darwinist, and the technocratic totalitarianist. I recommend caution...

If we are to take Harris at his word, we must assume that he really does imagine that racial profiling is somehow "scientific." On first blush, it might even *seem* plausible, even practical, but there are profound underlying errors at work.

Symptoms or The Disease

Let's be blunt - Harris rilly, rilly hates islam. Well, so do I, but I hate islam because it is a "convert or die," dogmatic, anti-reality, ruthlessly control oriented, prescription machine pretending that monstrous acts are objective moral imperatives. For me it is not just the particular prescriptions themselves, although they are certainly significant, but the fact that it prescribes "moral truth" at all. Moral truth is a conflict engine. It divides and polarizes. The heart of the "evil" (if such a word can be said to mean anything in the real world) of religion, all religion, is prescriptivity and the justification of prescriptivity by means of moral realism.

Battle Not With Monsters...

In this specific regard, Sam Harris is identical to islam. Like islam, Harris labours under the delusion that he knows the moral truth and is prepared to set policies, however ugly, in place in order to impose his vision of moral "reality" on others. Harris seems to see only the superficial, overt "moral" doctrines. This is like a doctor seeing the symptoms but being deliberately oblivious to the disease causing them. Some diseases are worse than others, and deserve more immediate attention, but it is in the investigation of infection itself that we find real efficacy against disease. Harris wants to stop the terrorism, but is not interested in the underlying motivations for it. The result is that the motivations remain ignored and untreated. And the tragic irony is that the very same feature that props up the fanatic's zeal in their righteousness, faith, is also what props up Sam Harris's zeal in his own. Faith is why he cannot see that his moral prescriptions are not objective facts. It isn't empirical verification. Values are not empirical entities. Their consequences may be, but not the values themselves.

Plumbing the Derpths

Anyone can critique religions on the basis of their overt moral prescriptions. This is interesting, but is by no means the entire story. It is a little more difficult and subtle to critique the underpinnings upon which the overt moral prescriptions are based - the foundation for the web of nightmares. Certainly, one can look at the commandments to persecute or kill non-believers, to impose orthodoxy, and to shun common to many religions, especially islam, but there are functions beneath that, assumed and unquestioned that prop up such nastiness. The legitimacy of prescriptivity is one, and nothing seeks to establish legitimacy for prescriptivity like the claim that morality is, in some way, objective truth, be it via some divine moral authority or via some attempt to equate values with facts so that one can call it "science."

Too subtle and too difficult for some - like Sam Harris. And that's the generous reading.

Treatment or Cure - What's it going to be then, eh?

Without such more subtle and difficult inquiries all we end up with is disparate camps screaming past each other over whose particular moral prescriptions are more barbaric and immoral, based on the absolute rightness of "my side." This is just how the conflict engines that are religions like it. Remember the whole "mosque at ground zero" kerfluffle? Both the christians and the islamists loved that - they were suddenly a trending topic.

And it's just how Sam Harris likes it too, since he likes to scream just like the others. Harris loves the conflict. It sells books. Meanwhile, Harris deliberately introduces confusion into any examination of the disease itself. He is actually keeping us from doing the work necessary. Instead, he makes money off of lancing boils, and the disease spreads. Harris is, after all, a carrier...

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