Same Old New Atheism: On Sam Harris
During the presidential campaign of 1964, a bit of doggerel surfaced among liberal wits, as they pondered the popularity of Barry Goldwater on certain college campuses:
We’re the bright young men,
who wanna go back to 1910,
We’re Barry’s boys!
We’re the kids with a cause,
a government like granmama’s,
We’re Barry’s boys!
What could be more ludicrous than the spectacle of young people embracing an old reactionary who wanted to repeal the New Deal? One might as well try to revive corsets and spats. Progress in politics, as in other matters, was unstoppable.
These days the satire rings hollow; so too its hubris. Except for the spats, we really have gone back to 1910, if not earlier. The deregulation of business and the starvation of the public sector have returned us to a landscape where irresponsible capital can again roam freely, purchasing legislatures wholesale and trampling on the public interest at will. The Supreme Court has revived the late-nineteenth-century notion that corporations are people, with all the rights of citizenship that personhood entails (including the ability to convert money into free speech). This is a predictable consequence of Republican power, but what is less predictable, and more puzzling, is that the resurrection of Gilded Age politics has been accompanied throughout the culture by a resurgence of Gilded Age patterns of thought, no more so than with the revival of positivism in popular scientific writing.
More a habit of mind than a rigorous philosophy, positivism depends on the reductionist belief that the entire universe, including all human conduct, can be explained with reference to precisely measurable, deterministic physical processes. (This strain of positivism is not to be confused with that of the French sociologist Auguste Comte.) The decades between the Civil War and World War I were positivism’s golden age. Positivists boasted that science was on the brink of producing a total explanation of the nature of things, which would consign all other explanations to the dustbin of mythology. Scientific research was like an Easter egg hunt: once the eggs were gathered the game would be over, the complexities of the cosmos reduced to natural law. Science was the only repository of truth, a sovereign entity floating above the vicissitudes of history and power. Science was science.
Though they often softened their claims with Christian rhetoric, positivists assumed that science was also the only sure guide to morality, and the only firm basis for civilization. As their critics began to realize, positivists had abandoned the provisionality of science’s experimental outlook by transforming science from a method into a metaphysic, a source of absolute certainty. Positivist assumptions provided the epistemological foundations for Social Darwinism and pop-evolutionary notions of progress, as well as for scientific racism and imperialism. These tendencies coalesced in eugenics, the doctrine that human well-being could be improved and eventually perfected through the selective breeding of the “fit” and the sterilization or elimination of the “unfit.”
Every schoolkid knows about what happened next: the catastrophic twentieth century. Two world wars, the systematic slaughter of innocents on an unprecedented scale, the proliferation of unimaginably destructive weapons, brushfire wars on the periphery of empire—all these events involved, in various degrees, the application of scientific research to advanced technology. All showed that science could not be elevated above the agendas of the nation-state: the best scientists were as corruptible by money, power or ideology as anyone else, and their research could as easily be bent toward mass murder as toward the progress of humankind. Science was not merely science. The crowning irony was that eugenics, far from “perfecting the race,” as some American progressives had hoped early in the twentieth century, was used by the Nazis to eliminate those they deemed undesirable. Eugenics had become another tool in the hands of unrestrained state power. As Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer argued near the end of World War II in Dialectic of Enlightenment, the rise of scientific racism betrayed the demonic undercurrents of the positivist faith in progress. Zygmunt Bauman refined the argument forty-two years later in Modernity and the Holocaust: the detached positivist worldview could be pressed into the service of mass extermination. The dream of reason bred real monsters.
The midcentury demise of positivism was a consequence of intellectual advances as well as geopolitical disasters. The work of Franz Boas, Claude Lévi-Strauss and other anthropologists promoted a relativistic understanding of culture, which undercut scientific racism and challenged imperial arrogance toward peoples who lagged behind in the Western march of progress. Meanwhile, scientists in disciplines ranging from depth psychology to quantum physics were discovering a physical reality that defied precise definition as well as efforts to reduce it to predictable laws. Sociologists of knowledge, along with historians and philosophers of science (including Karl Mannheim, Peter Berger and Thomas Kuhn), all emphasized the provisionality of scientific truth, its dependence on a shifting expert consensus that could change or even dissolve outright in light of new evidence. Reality—or at least our apprehension of it—could be said to be socially constructed. This meant that our understanding of the physical world is contingent on the very things—the methods of measurement, the interests of the observer—required to apprehend it.
None of this ferment discredited the role of science as a practical means of promoting human well-being: midcentury laboratories produced vaccines and sulfa drugs as well as nuclear weapons. Nor did it prove the existence (or even the possibility) of God, as apologists for religion sometimes claimed. But it did undermine the positivist faith in science as a source of absolute certainty and moral good. As ethical guides, scientists had proved to be no more reliable than anyone else. Apart from a few Strangelovian thinkers (the physicist Edward Teller comes to mind), scientists retreated from making ethical or political pronouncements in the name of science.
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During the past several decades, there has been a revival of positivism alongside the resurgence of laissez-faire economics and other remnants of late-nineteenth-century social thought. E.O. Wilson’s Sociobiology (1975) launched pop-evolutionary biologism on the way to producing “evolutionary psychology”—a parascience that reduces complex human social interactions to adaptive behaviors inherited from our Pleistocene ancestors. Absence of evidence from the Pleistocene did not deter evolutionary psychologists from telling Darwinian stories about the origins of contemporary social life. Advances in neuroscience and genetics bred a resurgent faith in the existence of something called human nature and the sense that science is on the verge of explaining its workings, usually with reference to brains that are “hard-wired” for particular kinds of adaptive, self-interested behavior. In the problematic science of intelligence testing, scientific racism made a comeback with the publication of Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray’s The Bell Curve in 1994.
This resurgent positivism provoked ferocious criticism, most of it serious and justified. Stephen Jay Gould took dead aim at what he called “Darwinian Fundamentalism,” arguing that strict adaptationist accounts of evolutionary thought presented “a miserly and blinkered picture of evolution,” impoverished not only by the lack of evidence but also by the reductionist tendency to insist on the simplest possible explanation for the complexities of human and animal behavior. Other critics—Noam Chomsky, Richard Lewontin—joined Gould in noting the tendency of Darwinian fundamentalists to “prove” adaptationist arguments by telling “just-so stories.” These are narratives about evolution based on hypotheses that are plausible, and internally consistent with the strict adaptationist program, but lacking the essential component of the scientific method: falsifiability. This was a powerful argument.
Within the wider culture, however, reductionism reigned. Hardly a day went by without journalists producing another just-so story about primitive life on the savanna thousands of years ago, purporting to show why things as they are have to be the way they are. In these stories, the parched fruits of a mirthless and minor imagination, all sorts of behavior, from generals’ exaggerations of their armies’ strength to the promiscuity of powerful men, could be viewed as an adaptive strategy, embedded in a gene that would be passed on to subsequent generations. In the late twentieth century, as in the late nineteenth, positivism’s account of human behavior centered on the idea that the relentless assertion of advantage by the strong serves the evolutionary interests of the species. Positivism remained a mighty weapon of the status quo, ratifying existing arrangements of wealth, power and prestige.
The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, injected positivism with a missionary zeal. “Once I had experienced all the usual mammalian gamut of emotions, from rage to nausea, I also discovered that another sensation was contending for mastery,” Christopher Hitchens wrote several months after 9/11. “On examination, and to my own surprise and pleasure, it turned out to be exhilaration. Here was the most frightful enemy—theocratic barbarism—in plain view…. I realized that if the battle went on until the last day of my life, I would never get bored in prosecuting it to the utmost” [see “Images in a Rearview Mirror,” December 3, 2001]. Putting aside the question of how Hitchens intended to “prosecute” this battle other than pontificating about it, and the irrelevance of his boredom to dead and maimed soldiers and civilians, one cannot deny that he embraced, from a safe distance, the “war on terror” as an Enlightenment crusade. He was not alone. Other intellectuals fell into line, many holding aloft the banner of science and reason against the forces of “theocratic barbarism.” Most prominent were the intellectuals the media chose to anoint, with characteristic originality, as the New Atheists, a group that included Hitchens, Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris. In the shadow of 9/11, they were ready to press the case against religion with renewed determination and fire.