Jordan Peterson vs Sam Harris Part 3
There is a reason why atheists like Sam Harris have such compelling priestly power. They seem to offer up a veritable Ark of reason—a holy vessel—to protect us from the outer darkness and the encroaching flood of unreason.
The waters are rising, Sam Harris tells us. And our only hope is rationality. Reason is the ‘good news’, the possibility of redemption and illumination. Everything we fear is beyond that border of reasonable discourse, like those screaming gargoyles outside of a medieval church. The church of rationality will provide shelter from the storm, hope for a world of limitless wellbeing and reasonableness. Notice how religious metaphors fit nicely within the philosophy of Sam Harris and the new atheists in general.
Perhaps there has always been a tendency to deify rationality—from the ancient cults of the materialism to the present day new atheists. Its almost humorous to notice how rationalists become highly unreasonable—in defence of their quasi-religion. By straw-manning religion they make effigies of the devil to burn, while entreating us to remain safe within the borders of a prescribed, rational world, a world we can name, analyse, and describe — as if that were all there is.
In my own arguments with ‘new atheists’ (as opposed to more refined or reasonable ‘old’ atheists), I marvel when I’m told to ‘believe’ in human reason or ‘have faith’ in the scientific method. My arguments are to no avail. The new atheists have built a wall of belief as high as the wall around the Mormon temple in Utah—they are as impenetrable as the the most the most virulent bible thumpers. And the new atheists are incapable of noticing that they have unconsciously absorbed a religious substructure and a fundamentalist view. This is revealed in their language but also their beliefs and ethics.
It isn’t that atheists like Sam Harris are in bad faith, only there is monologic there, which is nearly impossible to break through — this is exactly the same spell he accuses religious fundamentalist as being subject to. They take the Bible literally! Certainly Harris is unlikely to abandon his atheist family or his ‘belief system’. Some people need Jesus to give them a sense of security, but we could easily replace Jesus with science, according to Sam Harris. Science is the highest, the most important, the most meaningful, the only thing that can save us — and we should have faith in It. Science is Jesus, in other words.
Few of us journey outside our own hobbit hole of ideology, but Sam Harris is not that kind of ideologue. He is more like somebody who goes to the edges of his Shire, so to speak—to the borders of spiritual mysticism. After all he had built his career on criticising religion (while still practicing it in a buddhist context). One can feel in his tone—or monotone—a hysterical need for order and control which bulldozes over any nuance.
Sam Harris would like the world to be more reasonable and less religious, but this is a pretty unreasonable thing to ask. Man is, in almost every way, religious by nature—even if he is a particularly ardent atheist; atheism has its religiosity as well. Its hard for some new atheists to lose their entrench beliefs, or to admit that rationality will never really rule this world, and that some other obscure beast does. The existence of Donald Trump, for instance, seems to fly in the face of all reason and rationality. There are bigger forces of good and evil beyond our understanding and control.
The Cult of Materialism
Outside the walls of ideology we find the unexpected, the novel, the surprising, the anomalous. There is danger there but also the call to adventure. We might find unexpected allies and fellow travellers outside the wall—there will be dragons and dark riders, or maybe even a princess. The fact that Sam Harris almost never speaks of literature or poetry reveals the limitations of his analysis. Neuroscience can only tell us so much.
One thing is certain: we cannot be in full rational control over the life adventure, and if we remain too much within the realm of analysis, it’s hard to experience existence fully. That is why the heroes’ journey is described in literary tropes: metaphors bypass the rational part of the brain.
The merely rational mind ‘rations’—cutting the world into manageable parts the way we dissect a pig foetus in biology class. While this allows us to discriminate, it also keeps us bound to the corpses of dead concepts. Clearly, rationality is necessary for mapping, but you can’t make a map as big as the world. To put it in another way: you cannot make love with your brain, as everyone knows.
All this doesn’t mean that rationality is not an essential, even vital tool in the whole panoply of sensory tools, or that it is not necessary to sharpen our intellectual mind. But what if the the analytical mind with all its might, is the the lesser part of reason. At the risk of sounding cliché, the heart has its reasons as well. And so do the guts. Without other embodied modes of understanding, like art, music, literature, dance—even religion—mere rationality degenerates into a fear-based philosophy. Fear can lead the mind to create the most elaborate crystal mind-palaces, but those are easily blown over by a strong wind.
We can also point out that ‘Faith in rationality’ falls apart in difficult circumstance. We ‘believe’ that we are pretty rational until faced with something serious . But when things fall apart, when faced with ultimate uncertainty, we must reach for resources beyond the rational mind. A dark night of the soul often reveals to us the wastelands of a fragmented mental landscape. Our ‘Empire of Dirt’ is the inanimate world of mere mental construct — severed from the world of feeling and real action.
Religion, myth, story, and symbol are our intermediate sense-making threshold. The journey to embodiment is told in religious, mythological or poetic terms — poetry can tell a more complete story than science. Ulysses, The Inferno, and the Bible — not to mention Alice in Wonderland — are durable mirrors for reality despite their strangeness, because they accurately describe reality more than any microscope can.
The song Hurt, originally written by Trent Reznor but fully realised as a masterpiece by Johnny Cash, tells this story, of the sorrow of a world constructed on a merely rationalistic basis, without the heart. It is confession and a prayer for redemption in the face of the singers own death. In the video it shows Cash looking at his vast creations — his wealth and power and fame — and realising that, in light of greater things, his empire is nothing at all. So then what does matter? Such questions are not the domain of science, but the domain of philosophy and religion.
The Paradox of Reason
The rational mind is like a magic box. It can make any kind of argument which seem to reflect the truth, or seem to solve seemingly intractable problems. Or can it? The trouble is: there is always a miscalculation somewhere. Life cannot be ordered to one’s will, and things always happen which are beyond our control or best intentions. Furthermore, even great scientific discoveries begin in the intuitive mind as Einstein has pointed out. And where does this mind, capable of unreasonable intuition and reasonable conclusions come from? We don’t know. It is a mystery
It seems to be necessary to repeat that I’m not arguing against rationality, science, logic or clear thinking or saying that they are not indispensable. I’m rather pointing out the limitations of rationality in isolation, and saying that there are other modes of knowing than merely conceptual ones. Moreover, when floods of ‘irrational’ experience come, the rational mind might not be able to help us any more.
Actually, the wild visions of religious texts like The Book of Revelation or The Tibetan Book of the Dead may be the deepest and most precise descriptions of reality we have, paradoxically enough. This kind of deep, collective poetry, requires an incredible amount of phenomenological precision. The rational mind can always provide reasons and explanations for things—but sometimes there is the need to be unreasonable—and poetry will never be reasonable. When deeply engaged in the world, our rational concepts become a background phenomenon or disappear entirely.
The liquidation of rationality doesn’t only happen in dramatic peak experience, but anytime we experience some kind of disorientation or dissolution of the ego. The best analogy for this is dreaming— irrational dreaming is happening all the time, during our waking lives, and even while we are making rational decisions. Such seemingly irrational phenomena may be revealing some kind of intelligence that is bubbling up unfiltered from the unconscious mind. If we were truly empirical, we would not discount such phenomena, or remain within the shallow waters of ordinary conceptuality.
Being able to think through things clearly is a vital aspect of intelligent sense making, and ‘making habitable order from chaos’, which is one of Peterson’s tropes. But he also warms of too much order, which is the same thing as too much rationality. The French revolution, which was the first attempt to create a society based on logic and reason, has shown us that the ‘goddess of reason’ can leave a lot of severed heads in its wake, disconnected to bodies—that reason can drown the world in blood, just as religious wars can. There is no limit to what we can fabricate with the mind, and we can find reasons for anything — even the worst of atrocities. Don’t the the worst tyrants always have all kinds of good reasons for what they do?
I believe Jonathan Pageau has it right in the video below. That Sam Harris, who can be admired for his relentless dedication to a dubious project, is actually a religious fundamentalist.
Support or contact Andrew Sweeny:
Thanks Stephen Lewis for the edits