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Sam Harris’s Quantum Universe (or, How to Say One Thing While Meaning Another)


Oxford, England.

A basic premise of philosophical logic is that two contradictory propositions cannot both be true. If I put a cat in a box and close the lid, and ask you whether the cat is alive or not, there’s only one ‘true’ answer: it’s either dead or alive. It can’t be somewhere in between.

Schrödinger tells us that, with a few adjustments to the experiment involving a vial of poison and a radioactive trigger, the cat may in fact be both dead and alive at the same time. This is called ‘quantum superposition’ and I have zero idea how it works. But I understand enough to know the reality it describes is bonkers. I am concerned that famous neuroscientist and atheist Sam Harris has entered this reality. This is a plea for him to reach out and explain how things look from the other side in a way we can actually understand.

In a recent podcast titled ‘On the maintenance of civilisation’, Harris repeated his long-term commitment to exposing the effete manoeuvrings of the ‘liberal left’ around the elephant of Islam. According to Harris, leftists like Barack Obama are guilty of a pernicious delusion: that the recent events in Paris had nothing to do with Islam and that Syrian refugees are no more likely to harbour potential terrorists than others. Harris thinks this is a delusion because it is simply ‘untrue’ that ‘no refugees have ever become terrorists’. Indeed, ‘There are Somali refugees living in Minnesota who have gone to fight and wage jihad for al-Shabab.’ Obama’s failure to recognise these facts is a testament to his ‘moral blindness’ and ‘political stupidity’. It’s also a source of great frustration:

every time the president opens his mouth on this topic without describing the problem accurately, avoiding at all costs the noun ‘Islam’, never uttering the words ‘Islamic terrorists’, or ‘political Islam’, or ‘Islamism’, or even ‘jihadism’, the feeling of being lied to just becomes more and more galling.

Like Donald Trump, Harris is galled. And he’s not going to take it anymore. It’s time for some straight-up telling-it-like-it-is.

But wait. Lest Harris be misinterpreted as a right-wing sympathiser, his political neutrality must be made clear from the outset:

there have been many strange and silly declarations both on the right and left relating to this crisis. And what’s especially depressing is that the demagoguery has been coming from both sides. So we’ve had Donald Trump and Ben Carson and Ted Cruz say things like… I think Trump said there should be a registry for all Muslims and we should start closing Mosques, we shouldn’t let any of the Syrian refugees in; Cruz said we should let in only Christians.

The ‘strange’ and ‘silly’ declarations, the ‘demagoguery’ of Trump, Carson and Cruz—all these are further nails in the coffin of reason. Apparently the Republican candidates are ‘completely crazy’. Hey, Cruz even said we should only admit Christians—the gall.

And yet, 1 min 31s later Harris seems to have changed his mind. Perhaps Cruz isn’t so bad after all…

Is it crazy to express, as Ted Cruz did, a preference for Christians over Muslims in this process? Of course not. What percentage of Christians will be jihadists, or want to live under sharia law? Zero.

Hang on a minute. I thought Cruz was ‘completely crazy’, and that the idea we should only let Christians in was evidence of political strangeness, silliness and demagoguery. Sam Harris, explain yourself!

If we know that some percentage of Muslims will be jihadists […]; if we know we cannot be perfect in our filtering; if we know that a larger percentage will […] be committed to resisting assimilation into our society; then to know that a given refugee or family of refugees is Christian is a wealth of information, and quite positive information in this context. So, is it mere bigotry or mere xenophobia to express that preference?

So Cruz’s idea = not so crazy. But does that mean Harris supports Cruz? Of course not.

I hope you understand, I’m expressing no sympathy at all with Ted Cruz’s politics, or with Ted Cruz.

And yet,

it is totally unhelpful to treat him, though he actually is religious maniac, like a bigot on this point. This is a quite reasonable concern to voice, and the fact that we have a president who will not even name the problem is giving the right enormous energy that we really don’t want them to have here.

Sam, if your claim that Cruz’s immigration policy represents ‘a quite reasonable concern to voice’ does not indicate ‘sympathy for Ted Cruz’s politics’ then I don’t know what would. I’m lost and confused: you seem to live in a reality where two states of affair are possible at once. Quantum superposition!

This is not the first time Harris has baffled and puzzled with his rhetorical Janus-facedness. According to his extended ‘Response to controversy’, he has ‘never written or spoken in support of the war in Iraq’. But here he is in 2004, writing for the Washington Times: ‘However mixed or misguided our intentions were in launching this war, we are attempting, at considerable cost to ourselves, to improve life for the Iraqi people’. Sound like support for the war? That’s because it is.

In his blog article ‘Why don’t I criticize Israel?’ Harris begins with an immunising statement seemingly laying out his most fundamental position on Israel:

I don’t think Israel should exist as a Jewish state. I think it is obscene, irrational and unjustifiable to have a state organized around a religion. So I don’t celebrate the idea that there’s a Jewish homeland in the Middle East. I certainly don’t support any Jewish claims to real estate based on the Bible.

Fair enough. But obviously, that’s not all he has to say:

Though I just said that I don’t think Israel should exist as a Jewish state, the justification for such a state is rather easy to find. We need look no further than the fact that the rest of the world has shown itself eager to murder the Jews at almost every opportunity. So, if there were going to be a state organized around protecting members of a single religion, it certainly should be a Jewish state.

Note that these paragraphs are not complementary poles of a dialectical argument whose interaction can yield a Hegelian synthesis, a third term that pushes knowledge forward. They are flatly contradictory and incompatible. On one hand a state organized around a religion is ‘unjustifiable’, and the other ‘if there were going to be a state organized around protecting members of a single religion, it certainly should be a Jewish state’. Ergo, a state organized around a religion is justifiable. The second term simply reverses the first.

There follows a splurge of spurious arguments about the secularity and reasonableness of Israel versus Palestine that does nothing to paper over the enormous inconsistency opened up by these two contradictory statements. These arguments have been extensively debunked by people better educated in the Israel-Palestine conflict than me, and so I will not go into them here. Suffice it to note the recurrence of a now-familiar device: the deployment of a contradictory viewpoint to cover a tendentious argument with an aura of reasonability.

One final example. In his podcast response to the Paris attacks of November 13, Harris reiterated his claim that ‘beliefs guide behaviour’ and that ‘certain religious ideas—jihad, martyrdom, blasphemy, apostasy—reliably lead to oppression and murder.’ Against Obama’s claim that ‘ISIL is not Islamic’, Harris says

It may be true that no faith teaches people to massacre innocents, exactly. But innocence, as the president surely knows, is in the eye of the beholder. Are apostates innocent? Blasphemers? Polytheists? Islam has the answer, and the answer is no.

But Harris has read his Edward Said. And so the familiar strategy of inoculating himself against anti-essentialist critique by detaching Muslims from Islamic extremism comes up again:

I would not want to create the impression that most Muslims support ISIS. Nor would I want to give any shelter or inspiration for the hatred of Muslims as people. In drawing a connection between the doctrine of Islam and jihadist violence, I’m talking about ideas and their consequences, not about 1.5 billion nominal Muslims, many of whom do not take their religion very seriously.

I predict 1.5 billion Muslims would balk at the idea they ‘do not take their religion very seriously’ but anyway, let’s go along with this for a moment. Harris continues,

But a belief in martyrdom, a hatred of infidels, and a commitment to violent jihad are not fringe phenomena in the Muslim world. These preoccupations are supported by the Qur’an and numerous hadith. […] A hatred of infidels is arguably the central message of the Qur’an. The reality of martyrdom and the sanctity of jihad are about as controversial under Islam as the resurrection of Jesus is under Christianity. It is not an accident that millions of Muslims recite the shahada, or make pilgrimage to Mecca. Neither is it an accident that the horrific footage of infidels and apostates being decapitated has become a popular form of pornography throughout the Muslim world. Each of these practices, including this ghastly method of murder, find explicit support in scripture.

And here we have it: the re-attachment of Muslims and ISIS. Although Harris begins with a weak caveat (‘most Muslims do not support ISIS’), the force of his logic compels the opposite conclusion: if ISIS’s core doctrines are the very essence of Islam, if a hatred of infidels is the ‘central’ message of the Qur’an, and if ‘horrific footage of infidels and apostates being decapitated has become a popular form of pornography throughout the Muslim world’—don’t you love the exactitude?—in what sense is being Muslim any different to supporting ISIS? Though Harris does not say it, there is only one logical conclusion to be drawn from this massive fudge: Islam = ISIS, and any Muslims who are not ISIS are just not Muslims. Again, if this is not ‘giving shelter or inspiration for the hatred of Muslims as people’, then what is?

I would suggest Harris’s ‘vaccinated polemicism’—a polemicism that incorporates a moderate dose of self-reflexive critique—is in fact a dangerous form of ideology control. It’s what enables him to say one thing while meaning another, to give the impression of reasonableness while endorsing the most noxious ideas of the right. Gone are the days when people simply said what they thought and meant. Now they say what they don’t mean and mean what they don’t say. It’s all there—not exactly between the lines, but buried in the narrative enough that a casual reading will yield a reasoned picture of reality, not one of paradox and contradiction biased toward the right end of the political spectrum.

Inevitably, I will be accused of misrepresentation. Cenk Uygur recently asked whether there has ever been ‘a critic of Sam Harris who has not been accused of misrepresenting him’. I am among the accused, having written once already about Sam Harris and been charged with misrepresentation by about a dozen commentators. Harris is arguably the most misinterpreted man in history. But my question is this: is our consistent hermeneutical failure surprising when so many of his arguments take the shape of a quantum superposition upturning ordinary logic?

Sam—we don’t all have access to your world. Have some compassion. Open up the box, show us the cat.

Marek Sullivan is a PhD student at Oxford University.

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