on October 16, 2005
Sam Harris' book The End of Faith is, ostensibly, a book meant to dismantle the notion "faith" and "religion" in contemporary society. That is, he wishes to convince the reader to forego his belief in "ridiculous" religion and become a reasonable person. I concur with Harris primary thesis that this is a most important change which needs to catch on in 21st Century society. However, the book that Harris has written might as well be called "an introduction to contemporary philosophy" for he often distracts himself with other philosophic issues that he feels a need to expound on.
In "The End of Faith" Harris covers the topics of religion/atheism, epistemology, meta-ethics, the mind/body problem and the phenomenology of the spirit. Toss in a few non-philosophic chapters on the history of brutality in the Christian tradition as well as an analysis of contemporary Muslim and Christian faith and you get an idea of how far-reaching Harris' book attempts to be. Instead of this breadth being a testimony to the grandness of the books goals, it actually hinders it. As anyone who has read philosophy will know, arguments, to be truly convincing, most move slowly. The counter-argument must be presented with total conviction to be adequately refuted. Harris is not one to indulge in such a laborious methodology. Religion is written off from page one as obviously illogical and unreasonable. I agree totally with Harris that it is, but his deficit of counter-argument leaves me thinking that a true believer would have a hard time renouncing their faith in light of his writing. No mention is made about the many philosophic arguments for the existence of God, and the refusal to address these famous counter-examples leaves his own argument weak. Thomas Aquinas receives nary a word, nor does his ontological proof of God's Existence (considered the most well reasoned of all his "proofs"). Nor does Harris do much historical biblical scholarship--certainly learning about how the Bible was actually written, and it's historical place in Western Society could convince many readers of the Bible's invalidity. Harris doesn't bother. He is too busy.
Harris realizes that for many people, dare I say most, morality without religion is a total canard. Of course anyone who has ever studied ethical theory knows that this is most surely not the case. Indeed, one could even argue that if morality is a canard than it simply is so, religion or no. Harris sketches out a bare bones ethical theory in the book; a theory that seems, on the surface, to represent a utilitarian perspective. However, utilitarianism is never is directly discussed, nor is Kant and his categorical imperative, both of which are the basis for all contemporary ethical debate. He regulates his decision to avoid these terms to a footnote, "the linkage between happiness and ethics (in Harris' writing) is not a mere endorsement of utilitarianism...I have elected to bypass the categories of moral theory that usually frame any discussion of ethics--utilitarianism and deontology being the most common. I do not believe that these categories are as conceptually distinct, or as useful, as their omnipresence in the literature suggests." That is quite a claim about ethics he has made. Indeed, Harris is shrugging away 300 years (at least) of ethical theory with a mere footnote. Perhaps I am being a tad hyperbolic but, it is clear that, more than his brevity on the subject, it is Harris' cavalier attitude toward the rigor of Philosophic argument that makes him an ultimately unconvincing writer. If he, in the footnote, had explained that it was merely a matter of simplifying the subject for the reader, or keeping focused on his thesis that made him elect to bypass these traditional arguments about morality in the chapter the educated reader could move on. Instead, he makes a rather ambitious claim about ethical theory, and then feels no need to argue for it. This truly is philosophic chauvinism.
I was also saddened by the fact that Harris' often spoke of including animals in our moral sphere as sentient creatures but never even suggested to the reader, even in a footnote, how such a view of morality might force a person to change some of their habits, particularly in regards to how we use them for food. He does not even suggest further reading on the topic. I agree the book is not about such issues but, when Robert Nozick brought up the issue in "Anarchy, State, and Utopia," it was not entirely germane to that books over-arching arguments either. Nozick nevertheless gave the reader more to ponder about the way in which we treat non-humans sentient creatures. If you are going to bring it up, then...
The books last chapter deals with consciousness and problems with identity. Strangely, the chapter becomes an endorsement of Eastern philosophy and meditation. Forceful claims are made about consciousness itself and he attempts to argue them in light of thinkers ranging from Buddha to Sartre. Certainly Harris' is trying to offer the reader a rational spiritual alternative to dogmatic religious faith but the scope of this chapter is just too broad. Not only does he criticize all of Western Philosophy since the days of the Greeks, he does so for their inability to recognize what he sees as the faultiness of normal subjective experience, that is the experience of the "I" in existence. He endorses a Eastern view that through meditation one can experience consciousness without the "I" being present, that is to say, consciousness without the normal modalities of identity and subjectivity. This is all fascinating stuff and his arguments for it seem relatively sound, if sketchy. However, by the time a person reads this chapter the focus of the book has lost nearly all it's coherence. It would have served Harris better to write an entirely different book on this subject and keep "The End of Faith" about what it claims to be about.
Despite my tirade of criticisms above, "The End of Faith" is still to be recommended. In an age where theocracy is on the rise and books like the argument-free "Purpose Driven Life" sells millions (and "inspire" criminals to confess their sins), a book that endorses rationality and faithlessness is sorely needed. For a better look at some thorough arguments against religion I recommend George H. Smith's well-argued "Atheism, the case against God," or even Bertrand Russell's classic, "Why I am not a Christian." No doubt Harris' book is geared toward the masses and he would say that it is not a philosophy text. If that was his goal, he has failed. He has written a philosophy book whether he likes it or not. It's just not a very well argued one.