Book Review: The End of Faith, by Sam Harris

Sunday, January 02, 2005

Note: I have issued a partial retraction to this review.

A Book with Broad Media Exposure

Some time ago, I returned from work one evening and, as I often do, tuned in to Fox News. That particular evening, I saw something at once slightly comical, a little surreal, and very important. Sam Harris, a man who, to my eye anyway, resembles the comedic actor Ben Stiller, was being interviewed about a book called The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason. I remember very little about the interview itself now. What I do recall is my utter astonishment at the sorts of fundamental questions Harris was raising about religion on national television, and on a conservative network to boot. I was astounded. This book had the potential to either very good or very bad. Regardless, because the book clearly sought to examine the role of religion in fomenting terrorism, it certainly had the potential to be, for good or ill, a very important book. Furthermore, the fact that Fox News was interviewing its author indicated that the book would likely not remain obscure for long. (Indeed, the author has had other national exposure.) Based on these things, as well as the fact that Harris made some excellent points in his interview, I decided to read the book and see for myself.

A Mixed Bag Worth Rummaging Through

In my experience with books like this that attempt to tackle major issues, I have usually been either extremely pleased or displeased, and this evaluation has lasted from cover to cover. This book was an interesting exception. Harris did deliver on his promise to ask hard questions about religion, but the book never really got off the ground. Having said that, the book was not a serious disappointment, either. As I stated some time ago, one of my greatest concerns about the book is that it would "champion some new version of revealed truth as a means of knowledge. [The book] would then end up aiding religion while appearing to champion reason." While the book did advocate certain methods from Eastern mysticism, it did so in an unpersuasive and muddled way. Thus my greatest fear went substantially unrealized. How could this be? How does one start out coldly examining the tenets and history of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, but end up espousing a woozy mixture of reason, "empirical" exploration, altruism, and Eastern spirituality? One clue that quickly becomes apparent to many readers, is that the book is somewhat rambling and poorly organized. For example, I can summarize the main point of his book in one sentence as follows: "Since man acts upon the philosophical principles he holds (sometimes with fatal consequences to himself and others), we can not afford to withhold our moral judgment from those who accept such guidance on faith." But I never got this in any one place in the book. Instead, the reader will find the two halves of this stated repeatedly in various parts of the book, especially in the first chapter, where Harris seems to be trying to make his main point. For example: (1) "A belief is a lever that, once pulled, moves almost everything else in a person's life." (p. 12), and (2) "It is imperative that we begin speaking plainly about the absurdity of most of our religious beliefs" (p. 48).

This lack of focus is a symptom of a broader problem that causes the book as a whole to suffer: Harris does not appear to possess a systematic philosophy. My general impression is that Harris is an implicitly rational man grappling with the major problem (a hostile Moslem army of medieval savages with access to modern weapons) of his age, but that he is also, unfortunately, too much a product of his times. As such, he is also explicitly an altruist and has absorbed many of the philosophical premises one might expect from someone who hails from the Academy of our day. The book ends up being something like a roller-coaster going nowhere. One moment, Harris seems on the verge of making a major insight. But he does not, to the frustration of the reader. The next, he seems about to make some monstrous concession to nihilism or religion. Again, he does not, to the reader's relief. Overall, the book has little new, philosophically, to offer its readers. However, it remains an important book for several reasons. First, the book brings some important questions about the epistemology of religion to the public discourse. Second, the book provides a frank look at religious tenets from several Western traditions throughout history. Given the widespread ignorance about religion in our own modern culture, even (or especially) on the part of the religious, it is crucial that the public become familiar with the full extent of the barbarity contained in religious texts. Third, the book examines the historical consequences of religious beliefs being widely and fervently enough held that they can be put into practice. Fourth, the philosophical deficiencies of the book are undercut by its main thesis. As such, it is worth knowing what they are. In this way, the better-informed intellectuals from my readership will know whether they might wish to address these issues themselves. I will discuss each of these points in turn for most of the rest of this review.

Faith as a Means of Knowledge

Though I intend to discuss some of the philosophical deficiencies of this book in more detail later, it is impossible to begin discussing this book in any meaningful way without touching upon the hierarchical nature of philosophic concepts. This book is clearly intended to be an indictment of beliefs accepted on faith. But faith is an epistemological concept. That is, it is one way of answering the question, "How do we know what we know?" A grave weakness of this book is that it neither summarizes nor points its reader to an adequate defense of reason as a means of gaining valid knowledge. Rather, the book seems to either assume that the reader agrees with the validity of reason, that no such validation is necessary, or worst, that no such validation is possible. As a result, the book is vulnerable to the charge that its author is asking us to accept -- on faith -- the validity of reason! As I have already said, the book is quite sloppy philosophically, and as a consequence, the book is permeated with undefended assumptions, which I will have to point out from time to time.

Assuming the validity of reason as a means of acquiring knowledge, as most of the American adults in the target audience more or less would, the first chapter makes many interesting and mostly valuable points, though there are also grave errors. First, Harris echoes the lifelong message of Ayn Rand in illustrating the truth of the proposition that ideas are important: men base their actions on what they hold to be true. Given the propensity of our media to attribute the atrocities of September 11, 2001 to almost anything but the beliefs of the terrorists (or even in the case of Reuters, to pass moral judgment on them), it is crucial to reestablish this connection. This is indeed the most important point of this book. If the book achieves nothing else, it will have done a great service in making people cognizant of the importance of ideas as movers of history. Harris makes some other valid and interesting, though derivative, points. His discussion of religious "moderation" in a section of the first chapter will be a challenge to any moderately religious reader and a clarion call for the rest. His basic question for religious moderates is: "How do you know what to keep and what to discard?"

[W]e must decide what it means to be a religious "moderate" in the twenty-first century. Moderates in every faith are obliged to loosely interpret (or simply ignore) much of their canons in the interests of living in the modern world. ... [T]he moderate's retreat from scriptural literalism ... draws its inspiration not from scripture but from cultural developments that have rendered many of God's utterances difficult to accept as written. In America, religious moderation is further enforced by the fact that most Christians and Jews do not read the Bible in its entirety and consequently have no idea just how vigorously ... God ... wants heresy expunged. (pp. 17-18)

Harris then quotes a Biblical passage (Deuteronomy 13:7-11) that explicitly calls for believers to slay anyone who would "... divert you from Yahweh your God...." He further rightly points out that religious moderation "offers no bulwark against religious extremism" (p.20) because religious moderates "betray faith and reason equally" (p.21). He points out that religious knowledge, unlike fields of rational inquiry, admits of no progress. (This is interesting and true, but again, not a valid philosophical argument against the epistemology of faith.) On one point, that religious dogmas about death and the afterlife are essential to the influence of religious belief, Harris makes what sounds on its face like a good argument, but which is not. He ends by saying that, "Without death, the influence of faith-based religion would be unthinkable." While it is certainly true that, say, the perpetrators of the September 11 atrocities in New York and Washington believed that they'd be going to paradise, is it really necessary for an ethical system to posit an afterlife to cause men to act irrationally? What of the Communists and the Nazis? Communism and socialism, while not traditional religions, provide counterexamples of secular religions which led to barbarism and death, but which did not offer "pie in the sky when you die" to their adherents. (Harris discusses the Holocaust later on in the book, but does not address this issue.) Harris then goes on to make the first of several calls for something he alternately calls "mysticism" and "spirituality."

[T]here is little doubt that a certain range of human experience can be appropriately described as "spiritual" or "mystical" -- experiences of meaningfulness, selflessness, and heightened emotion that surpass our narrow identities as "selves" [emphasis added] and escape our current understanding of the mind and brain. But nothing about these experiences justifies arrogant and exclusionary claims about the unique sanctity of any text. There is no reason that our ability to sustain ourselves emotionally and spiritually cannot evolve with technology, politics, and the rest of culture. (pp. 39-40)

Thus Harris ends a chapter that begins with a probing and uncompromising examination of faith with a non sequitur about the importance of fear of death and a call for "mysticism" that, we will see, he doesn't ask us to examine too closely.

Kant Lite

I do not know much about Eastern mysticism. However, I suspect that Harris's non sequitur about the importance of fear of death and his characterization of mystical experiences above and elsewhere as "selfless" (or unified with the universe) are his way of addressing the "problem" posed by death: deny that you're really an individual. This is made easy to do when the essential question of "What is man?" is glossed over. A strict, hierarchical approach to philosophic questions however, would require that we determine what we are before determining what we should do. In other words, how the hell does Harris know that we are not individuals? (As he asserts by using scare quotes around the word "selves" above.) No answer. How does he know these experiences provide valid knowledge? He mentions that science is beginning to investigate the kinds of experiences he is alluding to, but science is derived from a specific philosophical perspective on the world and how knowledge is acquired. Any gains from these studies will merely add to already validated scientific knowledge about our minds. And how do we even begin to "sustain ourselves emotionally" without a firm grasp of what an emotion is? If Ayn Rand is correct, an emotion is a nearly instantaneous evaluation of one's surroundings based on one's value system which is felt as a percept. If this is true, an emotion -- "heightened" or otherwise -- tells one nothing about himself without some degree of self-knowledge or introspection. But I belabor the point. And, besides, the epistemological meltdown has just begun.

In one sense, Harris does exactly what I feared he might in that he does, in fact, attempt to sell his readers on the notion of some nonrational means of knowledge. He does even more than this, though. He essentially discounts the validity of reason. Harris echoes an argument posed by Immanuel Kant by dressing it in pseudoscientifc garb. As Ayn Rand formulated the argument in For the New Intellectual:

[Kant's] argument amounted to a negation, not only of man's consciousness, but of any consciousness, of consciousness as such. His argument, in essence, ran as follows: man is limited to a consciousness of a specific nature, which perceives by specific means and no others, therefore, his consciousness is not valid; man is blind, because he has eyes -- deaf, because he has ears -- deluded, because he has a mind -- and the things he perceives do not exist, because he perceives them. (p. 30)

So how does Harris (who is, like myself, a neurobiologist) make this argument sound scientific? How, that is, does he appeal to our minds to make them believe that they are not really grasping reality?

The claims of mystics are neurologically quite astute. No human being has ever experienced an objective world, or even a world at all. You are, at the moment, having a visionary experience. The world that you see and hear is nothing more than a modification of your consciousness, the physical status of which remains a mystery. Your nervous system sections the undifferentiated buzz of the universe into separate channels of sight, sound, taste, and touch, as well as other senses of lesser renown -- proprioception, kinesthesia, enteroreception, and even echolocation. The sights and sounds and pulsings that you experience at this moment are like different spectra of light thrown forth by the prism of your brain. We really are such stuff as dreams are made of. ... [N]othing arises in consciousness that has not first been structured, edited, or amplified by the nervous system. ... [T]his gives rise to a few philosophical problems concerning the foundations of our knowledge.... (p. 41)

How does Sam Harris know with such certainty that "no human being has ever experienced an objective world?" No answer. I do not intend to present Ayn Rand's full theory of epistemology here to rebut Sam Harris. Besides, she and her student Leonard Peikoff have already done a much better job of that than I ever could. At this point, I think it sufficient simply to state that as a scientist who understands Harris's gratuitous jargon perfectly well, that he is either trying to pull the wool over our eyes or actually believes that our grasp of the world is shaky at best. I suspect the latter. Harris is so disorganized philosophically, and his views so commonplace, that it would be easy to attribute nearly the whole of his set of beliefs to his having picked them up fairly uncritically from others. (Though his extensive notes and bibliography might make that tough to defend.) Furthermore, though Harris presents this Kantesque formulation and continues advocating "mysticism" later in the book, he succeeds in doing very little damage in doing so. First, these are notions with such common currency, that they will likely have been accepted or rejected already by any educated reader. Second, Harris fails to make a very convincing case against the validity of the mind or for adopting Eastern mysticism. (In fact, it's hard to see what, exactly, we are to accomplish via the latter in any case.) Finally, the central points of the book -- that ideas are important and thus should not be accepted on faith -- serve to undercut the very bad ideas Harris holds and wants us to adopt! Not to exaggerate the importance of this book, but so it was with Aristotle: though he made many errors, his rational methodology enabled later generations to recover from them. This is why, though I have objected lengthily already to some of the ideas in Harris's book, I still regard it as beneficial in the main.

Taking Altruism on Faith OK?

The second chapter consists of Harris's ruminations on "the nature of belief." It is here that he develops further his idea that belief is a guide to action. More importantly, he marshals his arguments against accepting beliefs based on faith. He makes several damning indictments of faith that will appeal to most readers who respect reason. This chapter, infuriatingly, almost ends strongly. I would have liked it to end on this quote.

What about our much championed freedom of religious belief? It is no different from our freedoms of journalistic and biological belief -- and anyone who believes that the media are perpetrating a great fire conspiracy, or that molecular biology is just a theory that may prove totally wrong, has merely exercised his freedom to be thought a fool. Religious unreason should acquire an even greater stigma in our discourse, given that it remains among the principle causes of armed conflict in the world. Before you can get to the end of this paragraph, another person will probably die because of what someone else believes about God. Perhaps it is time we demanded that our fellow human beings had better reasons for maintaining their religious differences, if such reasons even exist. (pp. 77-78)

Unfortunately, just as Harris ends the first chapter with a major epistemological error, he ends this one with an ethical one, by praising altruism. "But there are far better reasons for self-sacrifice than those that religion provides" (p. 78). As Harris has spent the whole chapter discussing belief, one can't help but wonder, "How does Harris 'know' that there is even a single 'good' reason to commit self-sacrifice?" He does not. We have here yet another example of a common belief -- that morality equals self-sacrifice -- that Harris has accepted, but failed to address pro or con, or apparently, even to think about at all. Nonetheless, the larger point of this chapter makes reading it worthwhile.

The Historical Consequences of Faith

Much of the rest of the book does a great service to mankind by cataloging some of the more ridiculous things people have believed on faith and the consequences that have been felt through history whenever faith has had the upper hand in society. Although the book takes Islamofascist terrorism as its point of departure, Christianity and Judaism are not spared its critical eye. This is important in that a focus on Islam alone would too easily allow the Christians in our country to see our modern crisis incorrectly as a sectarian conflict rather than as a direct consequence of the divorce from reason that is religion as such. Furthermore, it is important that our Christians, believing in a highly attenuated version of Christianity and without anything like medieval (or Moslem) fervency, grasp the essence of what they really are advocating. In this respect, Sam Harris does an admirable job of preventing Christians from evading what their professed beliefs would really mean when put into practice. As I have stated earlier, Harris seems to be implicitly rational. I will add that he errs on the side of empiricism, but that in this case, it is a felicitous error. The many and detailed examples here help drive the point home. Harris successively describes in detail the following Christian horrors: the Inquisition, the persecution of witches and Jews, and the complicity of the Roman Catholic Church in the Holocaust. He then devotes a half a chapter to the medieval nature of modern-day Islam. The barbarity listed here is so extensive it sometimes becomes tedious. Some highlights: numerous exhortations to Moslem men to "defend" the faith via armed conflict; a list (by place and year) of 51 massacres of Jews within the Arab world; five pages of quotations from the Koran (in order of appearance) where unbelievers are vilified; and polling data from all over the Moslem world indicating that, at least, 20% (in relatively secular Turkey) of the general public in any given Moslem nation say that suicide bombing in "defense" of Islam is justifiable. After this chapter, he devotes a chapter to the less-than-benign influence of Christianity on modern-day America. Harris provides a few illuminating quotes from government officials, discusses the exorbitant cost of enforcing drug laws, and touches on the threat posed by Christians to embryonic stem cell research.

But if Harris does a good job showing the ramifications of religious belief put into practice, he does a poor one suggesting how to dodge the scimitar it wields today. As he has implicitly rational, but explicitly mixed epistemological premises, he likewise implicitly favors survival, but explicitly gives the moral high ground to pacifists, consistent with someone who seems to have absorbed many of his ideas from the dominant intellectual culture.

What will we do if an Islamist regime ... ever acquires long-range nuclear weaponry? ... In such a situation, the only thing likely to ensure our survival may be a nuclear first strike of our own. Needless to say, this would be an unthinkable crime [emphasis added]-- as it would kill tens of millions of innocent civilians in a single day -- but it may be the only course of action available to us, given what the Islamists believe. (p. 129)

If it isn't a crime to kill, in self-defense, an individual pointing a gun at you, neither is it be a crime for us to launch a first strike in the situation described above. Every death would lie on the shoulders of the Islamists and those who armed them. But Harris is so crippled by altruism that he can scarcely rise to the defense of his own life! In fact, Harris's altruism permeates the second half of the chapter called "The Problem with Islam" (where he lists the many barbarities of Islam as indicated above). As a result he ends up wasting considerable time manufacturing a convoluted argument (the "perfect weapon") for America's self-defense after first conceding every major premise (and then some) to, of all people, Noam Chomsky! This is a man who has worked tirelessly for decades to tar the United States as a global villain. How does Harris describe Chomsky? "He appears to be an exquisitely moral man whose political views prevent him from making the most basic moral distinctions -- between types of violence, and the variety of human purposes that give rise to them" (139). For a through debunking of Chomsky's political views and academic reputation, refer to The Anti-Chomsky Reader, edited by Peter Collier and David Horowitz. Suffice it to say, that some of the worst damage Sam Harris's book could possibly inflict on our national discourse about the war would be through setting up a figure such as Chomsky as a moral authority. Again, though, most educated readers already have formed an opinion on Chomsky or will at least have already encountered the substance of his ravings in comic-book form through their familiarity with Michael Moore.

Harris continues his infuriating ethical hobble in the penultimate chapter, "A Science of Good and Evil." As he does in much of the book, he makes a succession of good and bad points in no particular order. Fortunately, he makes his best point immediately at the start of the chapter. In fact, it is such a fundamentally good point that it salvages the remainder of the chapter by inviting criticism. To wit:

Many people appear to believe that ethical truths are culturally contingent in a way that scientific truths are not. Indeed this loss of purchase on ethical truth seems to be one of the principle shortcomings of secularism. The problem is that once we abandon our belief in a rule-making God, the question of why a given action is good or bad becomes a matter of debate. And a statement like "Murder is wrong," while being uncontroversial in most circles, has never seemed anchored to the facts of this world in the way that statements about planets or molecule appear to be. The problem, in philosophical terms, has been one of characterizing just what sorts of "facts" our moral intuitions can be said to track -- if, indeed, they track anything of the kind. (p. 170)

His basic point is that ethics can be approached with reference to the facts of reality. Never mind that he earlier calls into question the ability of the human mind to grasp objective reality. Never mind that he spends a lot of time trying, in turn, to base ethics on the "happiness and suffering of sentient creatures," or on "intuition," or on "moral communities" -- in short, on anything but what we are and what we must do to survive. If we consider the latter two things and approach questions of morality with the proper methodology, we will reach the correct answers. As with the rest of the book, Harris presents an idea whose time has come, but goes nowhere in particular with it. Though Harris develops further ethical arguments in this chapter, it will suffice to say that they are convoluted, somewhat tedious, and for the most part, easily avoidable through a more systematic approach to philosophy. In addition to being an altruist, Harris, incidentally, is also a determinist. Since this position, his assertion to the contrary, directly contradicts the notion of ethical accountability, I will present here the counterargument to determinism as articulated by Leonard Peikoff in Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand.

If man's consciousness were automatic, if it did react deterministically to outer or inner forces acting upon it, then, by definition, a man would have no choice in regard to his mental content; he would accept whatever he had to accept, whatever ideas the determining forces engendered in him. In such a case, one could not prescribe methods to guide a man's thought or ask him to justify his ideas; the subject of epistemology would be inapplicable. One cannot ask a person to alter or justify the mentally inescapable, any more than, in physical terms, one can ask him to alter or justify his pattelar reflex. In regard to the involuntary, there is no alternative but to submit -- to do what one must, whatever that is. (pp. 69-70)

Free will is a philosophic axiom, and as such, any attempt to argue against it will result in self-contradiction. In this case, the determinist, as such, would essentially be squawking like a parrot. Having no choice as to the content of his mind, he will be unable to evaluate it. According to his own position, he will be unable to know whether what he is saying -- like an argument in favor of determinism -- is true or false.

Billions and Billions of "Selves"

We finally reach the last chapter, where Sam Harris revisits the idea of "mysticism," a term which he strangely chooses over "spirituality" because he somehow regards it as having -- I am not making this up -- more "gravitas." Thus culminates in stupidity a book that began on such a promising note. I risk sounding overly harsh to a man who has done us all a great service by asking some very important questions and by bringing up some very important historical facts. Nevertheless, I have a point. I think that Harris means well by offering the meditative techniques of Eastern mysticism to us as a method of attaining enlightenment and of spiritual sustenance. However, I not only have numerous major issues with many of the other points he has already raised in this book, I take issue with this suggestion as well. As do hallucinogenic drugs, meditation may indeed offer, under a carefully controlled program of scientific study, some insights on how the mind works. It also undoubtedly provides many with a way to relax. But the suggestion that we are not, in fact, separate entities, based on some out-of-context scientific facts and on certain states achieved during meditation, is ludicrous. It is also precisely the kind of absurd result that can -- and almost always will -- be achieved when philosophy is approached in an unfocused, undisciplined manner. One of the subheadings for this chapter sums up the problem nicely: "What are we calling 'I'?" Throughout much of this book, Harris has built ethical arguments. These are arguments concerning how human beings should act. Should we not be clear on the question of what, exactly, a human being is before we start telling him what to do? (And should he listen to us if we give him orders or lousy arguments?) At the risk of sounding like a broken record, Eastern mysticism is not an idea that is either especially new to most readers or compellingly-enough presented for the book to become a significant source for the spread of bad ideas. For this reason, the final chapter will probably seem to most readers like an interesting, Carl Saganesque bit of wonderment about the amazing universe we all reside in, and nothing more.


The End of Faith is an important book whose lack of philosophical focus hinders itself from greatness. The principle virtues of the book are twofold. First, the book brings to the general public discourse the following four propositions. (1) That ideas guide man's actions, which can include unprovoked mass murder. (2) That faith as a means of gaining knowledge is invalid. (3) That we can therefore no longer afford to withhold moral condemnation of those who indulge in faith. (4) Furthermore, areas of knowledge once regarded as within the provenance of faith can and should be discussed just as rationally as any science. Second, the book details what life "guided" by faith really is like by examining the history of the West as well as the current situation in the Moslem world. By posing the questions he does in the relevant context, Sam Harris succeeds in shifting the debate about what we should do about Islamofascism to a more fundamental question: "Can we afford to suffer the faithful in silence?" Unfortunately, Sam Harris, though he seems well-intentioned and implicitly rational, he approaches philosophical issues in an undisciplined manner that is, at times, explicitly anti-reason and altruistic. This poor methodology manifests itself in a variety of ways: the poor organization of the book, a sometimes plodding prose, numerous instances of missed opportunities to improve upon good points, and numerous trips down philosophical blind alleys that are, alas, already too well-traveled in this day and age. The fact that the book reaches these conclusions is, fortunately, far outweighed by the book's more fundamental message, which I think deserves to be formulated as Thomas Jefferson once put it, "Fix reason firmly in her seat, and call to her tribunal every fact, every opinion. Question with boldness even the existence of God.... Read the Bible, then, as you would read Livy or Tacitus." To the extent that he has succeeded in reminding us forcefully of such great sentiments, Sam Harris deserves our thanks.

Note: I have issued a partial retraction to this review.

-- CAV


Corrected typo in one quote. Corrected one link. Included link to partial retraction at beginning and end. Added links to Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology and Objectivism: The Philosphy of Ayn Rand.

11-9-06: Added links to Amazon for all books.


Anonymous said...


You did a yoeman's job dissecting End of Faith, finding its strengths and weaknesses. But what I find most interesting about Harris's very provocative but disorganized and over-stuffed book is that it has created such a stir, a stir which continues from hard cover into soft cover, almost two years since its original publication. It is striking a chord, a nerve,an anxiety. If there was no Sam Harris, he'd have to be invented. Perhaps endless struggles with Middle East forces accounts for some of it. But I suspect that the fundamentalist movement in this country may have as much or,increasingly, more to do with it. Theocratic tyranny is frightening to many Americans, whatever its geographic or theological headwater.


Gus Van Horn said...


Thanks, and I'm glad you found this useful. I would agree that the interest in the book is also fed by fear of our own theocrats in America. This makes Harris's book doubly shameful.


Anonymous said...

As Ayn Rand formulated the argument in For the New Intellectual:

[Kant's] argument amounted to a negation, not only of man's consciousness, but of any consciousness, of consciousness as such. His argument, in essence, ran as follows: man is limited to a consciousness of a specific nature, which perceives by specific means and no others, therefore, his consciousness is not valid; man is blind, because he has eyes -- deaf, because he has ears -- deluded, because he has a mind -- and the things he perceives do not exist, because he perceives them. (p. 30)

So how does Harris (who is, like myself, a neurobiologist) make this argument sound scientific? How, that is, does he appeal to our minds to make them believe that they are not really grasping reality?


How does Sam Harris know with such certainty that "no human being has ever experienced an objective world?" No answer. I do not intend to present Ayn Rand's full theory of epistemology here to rebut Sam Harris.

I have only just begun to read the Harris book (and am already having serioud probems with the disinenguous treatment of Chomsky I came across [discussion here from Harris's own webpage]).But your remarks on Kant caught my attention. One may well disagree with Kant (it's easy), but one should disagree with what he actually said. Your treatment of Kant seems to imply that he posits a universal subjectivism; this could not be further from the case. The structures of intuition and the categories are (he believes, at least) the very basis for receiving objective content about the world. He does not say that we do not perceive reality; he says that we do have knowledge of the objectively true world. Wanting to know more than science can provide (what science provides is precisely knowledge of this objective world), that is, wanting a "god's-eye" view of the world, that is what Kant claims we can't have. I seriously doubt that objectivists believe that we can know everything that has ever happened or that will ever happen--that would be exactly what this god's-eye view would provide, and which Kant claims we can't have.

One may disagree with Kant, either because one believes that objective knowledge is impossible, or because one believes that objective knowledge is obtained in some other way, but to ascribe this kind of subjectivism to Kant is really to not understood his position.

Kant does sometimes use the word "reality" [Wirklichkeit] at times to refer to this "god's-eye view" world, but, again, I doubt that Ayn Rand is claiming that humans have that kind of knowledge (otherwise the objection would rest on equivocation involving "reality"). (See the Critique of Judgment, remark to section 76. German)

OK, maybe I'm being nitpicky. But one should disagree with him for what he actually believed.

Gus Van Horn said...


You say,

[Kant] does not say that we do not perceive reality; he says that we do have knowledge of the objectively true world. Wanting to know more than science can provide (what science provides is precisely knowledge of this objective world), that is, wanting a "god's-eye" view of the world, that is what Kant claims we can't have. I seriously doubt that objectivists believe that we can know everything that has ever happened or that will ever happen--that would be exactly what this god's-eye view would provide, and which Kant claims we can't have.

You could help me understand what you are trying to say by explaining the difference between "perceiving reality" and "having knowledge of the objectively true world" by means of perception. Your argument makes it sound like Kant thinks that to know anything, we must be omniscient.

Rand certainly does not claim that we are omniscient, nor is it necessary to have to know everything about reality to know something about it with certainty.

If Kant hold that we can "perceive reality[ without having] knowledge of the objectively true world", then he is claiming that we don't grasp reality through our senses.


Anonymous said...

Dear Gus,

I'm so interested to have a copy of Sam Harris End of Faith.

Unfortunately, I live in the most believer country in religion of Islam Saudi Arabia. They will not allow this book for Saudis to read and ordering a hard copy will get me in trouble with local authorities. I'm not sure how you can help me getting a full PDF copy.

By the way, there is a considerable number of atheists in Saudi. We cannot reveal ourselves as atheist and lack of freedom to read makes non-believers to minimum. Thanks to internet that allows us read some exerts of the opposite opinion. Believing in Islam in Saudi Arabia is a must not a choice. I wonder how someone chooses to believe when he or she have no choice to not believe.

If by any means you or your readers can send me a PDF copy of the book please send it to:



Anonymous said...

Thanks for this review. It is a fairly accurate summary of my thoughts on the book, but I could not have expressed them as well. Plus I'm too lazy to go to all that work. ;-)

I've recommended the book to all my friends despite its flaws. I think it is a good book that could have been great, but the ideas in it are ideas that need to be discussed, pondered, dissected, and argued about. By everyone -- agree or disagree with them, the subjects Harris opines on are subjects everyone needs talk about.

-- Deryk

Gus Van Horn said...


Thank you, but I think you're letting Harris off too easily.

A far better book than Harris's would be Ayn Rand's Philosophy: Who Needs It. Chapter 7 of that book alone is all that needs to be said -- And it has been said better. -- on the subjects Harris talks about.

All the best.


Thomas Rowland said...


I've just given a preliminary skim of your review which I will follow up with a careful read when I get a chance. It looks like I am in much the same place you were. I'll let you know what the virdict is upon further reflection.


Unknown said...

I would like to comment on two things in this very long review:

"Harris does not appear to possess a systematic philosophy. "

"as a scientist who understands Harris's gratuitous jargon perfectly well, that he is either trying to pull the wool over our eyes or actually believes that our grasp of the world is shaky at best."

Regarding the first item there is always the economical question whether a person should really "start with the big bang" every time he tries to explain something? My point of view is that Harris' book wouldn't have become the success it is if one had to wade through a very long-winded "systematic philosophy". I think his decision to simply stand on the shoulders of others and assume a little knowledge in advance by his readers was acceptable.

Also, a very long and very academic rendition of "the great philosophical issues that be" would have obscured the very poignant message from Harris (and Dawkins for that matter) that while we debate the finer points of theology there are VERY practical things happening right here in very un-philosophical space: planes flying into buildings, wars being fought and horrible atrocities being committed by the people of faith. I suppose the Wittgenstein quote got lost somewhere, but I have to agree that when it comes to suffering we "just know it's bad". Somehow we hit solid rock. Most humans have the same basic propensities across cultures when you manage to pull out the religious factor. (Was it Harris og Dawkins that explained this best?)

As for the last quote I mention, that is a classic fallacy of bifurcation. I offer a third explanation: Harris is simply observing that science has known for a very long time: that we do not so much "see objective reality" as we "construct a perception that is USEFUL for us in this Middle World" (the latter phrase is borrowed from Dawkins and anyone should look up the video "Richard Dawkins on the strangeness of science: tedtalks" on YouTube).

Gus Van Horn said...

(1) One needn't explain his entire philosophy in order to have a systematic philosophy or to argue with one as his basis.

(2) Anyone who claims that you can "know" that you do not "see objective reality" is contradicting himself.

Danmark said...

This was probablly the largest collection of condescending, smark, snippy and sarcastic remarks ever collected by a man in a peice of literature. Never has a man written such an acclaimed peice of work that would so horribly impact our world since Mein Kamph. If Sam Harris's world were to come to fruition, a world without faith, mankind would be directionless and hopeless. He has taken a side against faith, the one and perhaps only force powerful enough in this world to move the masses towards good and charity

Gus Van Horn said...


You are a more fitting spokesman for faith than you seem to realize. Thank you for speaking up.