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Beyond the Smokescreen
by Robert Weiss
10/21/06
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Beyond the smokescreen of Sam Harris’s vociferous, often sarcastic arguments against the literal belief and application of texts held sacred by religious believers, he takes an inconsistent leap of faith of his own that belies the title of his book. After arguing vehemently that all faith claims must be tried to the limit in the court of empirically-derived evidence, Harris proposes that we expose ourselves to a "range of human experience…that surpasses our narrow identities as ‘selves’ and escape our current understanding of the mind and brain." He asserts that it is possible to have insights into our own subjectivity using techniques such as meditation and the use of psychedelic drugs.

Curiously, Harris still wants to assert that we can apply a "truly rational approach" to the subjective dimension of our lives. He wants to have his cake and eat it too. In the West, our humanistic premises have brought us to the impasse of a total dichotomy between subjective and objective. We are divided, even in our own beings. Harris’s sophisticated language and arguments create an impressive front for what is nothing more than an Eastern mystical leap of faith over this dichotomy. Can you imagine trying to scientifically analyze someone’s acid trip or astral travel? These are to be experienced, not quantified, and constitute a departure from reason as a means to discovering what is genuine and true.

Ironically, there is no future for reason in the direction that Harris points. After his scathing dismissal of holy texts as worse than irrelevant and hopelessly passé in our 'progressive' age, Harris’s proposals seem antiquated, evoking a sad sense of déjà vu. With breathtaking dogmatism, Harris baldly states that “no human being has ever experienced an objective world or even a world at all” (George Berkeley espoused a similar notion in the 18th Century).

The conundrum for Harris is that having advocated the extirpation of religious faith derived from literal interpretations of holy books, proposing instead a 'rational' inquiry into subjective experiences, in the end, he has to abandon reason and the real world. Having denied His Creator and the verbal, propositional revelation give to us about the origin of the universe, he ultimately has no epistemological basis for even knowing that the physical world is real.

What is disappointing is that Harris rides such a high horse as he skewers anything faith-based that is not supported by his criterion of evidence, while ignoring his own leap of faith into mysticisms that cannot be tested according to his own standard.


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