The Sam Harris Trivector

The Trivector consists of Sam Harris’ Messiah Complex, Pseudo-Scientific Complex and Eschatological Complex

Messiah Complex:

Sam Harris’ Messiah complex refers to his desire to establish a new religion.

The Trivector consists of Sam Harris’ Messiah Complex, Pseudo-Scientific Complex and Eschatological Complex

Messiah Complex:

Sam Harris’ Messiah complex refers to his desire to establish a new religion.
What is most fascinating about Sam Harris’ view on religion is that he complains that religion is manmade and thus seeks to replace it with a manmade religion (after his own image). More accurately, Sam Harris complains that theistic religions are manmade and make assertions about supernatural transcendence which can only be known through personal subjective experience. In its place, he seeks to establish a manmade religion that makes assertions about materialistic transcendence which can only be known through personal subjective experience. Keep in mind that Sam Harris is an atheist Buddhist mystic (who does not like the terms “atheist” or “mystic” and accepts only the parts of Buddhism which he can personally verify by his personal subjective experience).

In my essay Atheism is Holier Than Theism I provided quotations from various atheists with regards to their desire to establish a secular, or atheistic, or non-theistic, religion. I will reproduce the portion of Sam Harris’ quotations here:

From, Selfless Consciousness Without Faith:

As I sat and gazed upon the surrounding hills gently sloping to an inland sea, a feeling of peace came over me. It soon grew to a blissful stillness that silenced my thoughts. In an instant, the sense of being a separate self-an ‘I’ or a ‘me’-vanished. Everything was as it had been-the cloudless sky, the pilgrims clutching their bottles of water-but I no longer felt like I was separate from the scene, peering out at the world from behind my eyes. Only the world remained. As someone who is simply making his best effort to be a rational human being, I am very slow to draw metaphysical conclusions from experiences of this sort…
There is no question that people have ‘spiritual’ experiences (I use words like ‘spiritual’ and ‘mystical’ in scare quotes, because they come to us trailing a long tail of metaphysical debris)…
While most of us go through life feeling like we are the thinker of our thoughts and the experiencer of our experience, from the perspective of science we know that this is a false view. There is no discrete self or ego lurking like a minotaur in the labyrinth of the brain. There is no region of cortex or stream of neural processing that occupies a privileged position with respect to our personhood. There is no unchanging ‘center of narrative gravity’…
As a critic of religious faith, I am often asked what will replace organized religion. The answer is: many things and nothing…
But what about ethics and spiritual experience? For many, religion still appears the only vehicle for what is most important in life-love, compassion, morality, and self-transcendence. To change this, we need a way of talking about human well-being that is as unconstrained by religious dogma as science is…
I believe that most people are interested in spiritual life, whether they realize it or not. Every one of us has been born to seek happiness in a condition that is fundamentally unreliable…
On the question of how to be most happy, the contemplative life has some important insights to offer.

From, A Contemplative Science:

I recently spent a week with one hundred fellow scientists at a retreat center in rural Massachusetts. The meeting attracted a diverse group: physicists, neuroscientists, psychologists, clinicians, and a philosopher or two; all devoted to the study of the human mind…
We were on a silent meditation retreat at the Insight Meditation Society, engaged in a Buddhist practice known as vipassana (the Pali word for ‘seeing clearly’)_Of critical importance for the purposes of science: there are no unjustified beliefs or metaphysics that need be adopted at all…
Research on the functional effects of meditation is still in its infancy, but there seems to be little question that the practice changes the brain.

From ABC Radio National, Stephen Crittenden interviews Sam Harris:

mysticism is a real psychological phenomenon, that I have no doubt it genuinely transforms people. But it seems to me that we can promulgate that knowledge and pursue those experiences very much in a spirit of science, without presupposing anything on insufficient evidence.

From, Science Must Destroy Religion:

Faith is nothing more than the license that religious people give one another to believe such propositions when reasons fail….
scientists and other rational people will need to find new ways of talking about ethics and spiritual experience. The distinction between science and religion is not a matter of excluding our ethical intuitions and non-ordinary states of consciousness from our conversation about the world; it is a matter of our being rigorous about what is reasonable to conclude on their basis.
We must find ways of meeting our emotional needs that do not require the abject embrace of the preposterous. We must learn to invoke the power of ritual and to mark those transitions in every human life that demand profundity – birth, marriage, death, etc. – without lying to ourselves about the nature of reality. I am hopeful that the necessary transformation in our thinking will come about as our scientific understanding of ourselves matures. When we find reliable ways to make human beings more loving, less fearful, and genuinely enraptured by the fact of our appearance in the cosmos, we will have no need for divisive religious myths.

From, Rational Mysticism:

[In The End of Faith] I used the words spirituality and mysticism affirmatively, in an attempt to put the range of human experience signified by these terms on a rational footing…
this enterprise is not a problem with my book, or merely with Flynn, but a larger problem with secularism itself…
secularism, being nothing more than the totality of such criticism, can lead its practitioners to reject important features of human experience simply because they have been traditionally associated with religious practice…
Our conventional sense of ‘self’ is, in fact, nothing more than a cognitive illusion, and dispelling this illusion opens the mind to extraordinary experiences of happiness. This is not a proposition to be accepted on faith; it is an empirical observation…
The only ‘faith’ required to get such a project off the ground is the faith of scientific hypothesis. The hypothesis is this: if I use my attention in the prescribed way, it may have a specific, reproducible effect. Needless to say, what happens (or fails to happen) along any path of ‘spiritual’ practice has to be interpreted in light of some conceptual scheme, and everything must remain open to rational discussion. How this discussion proceeds will ultimately be decided by contemplative scientists…
[who will] develop a mature science of the mind…
The problem, however, is that there is a kernel of truth in the grandiosity and otherworldly language of religion…
Most atheists appear to be certain that consciousness is entirely dependent upon (and reducible to) the workings of the brain. In the last chapter of the book, I briefly argue that this certainty is unwarranted…
the truth is that scientists still do not know what the relationship between consciousness and matter is. I am not in the least suggesting that we make a religion out of this uncertainty, or do anything else with it.

Pseudo-Scientific Complex:

Sam Harris’ pseudo-scientific complex refers to his desire to become a neuroscientist with the specific purpose of disproving the supernatural.

In my overview of his first published research as a neuroscience (see “The Neural Correlates of Religious and Nonreligious Belief” – Sam Harris’ Neuroscientific Escapades) I noted that Sam Harris stated that his purpose, as a scientist, is to work on proving atheism and to do so in a field of science which is not exactly a hard science but a soft one-maybe malleable enough to find a God gene-meme—thus, he is a pseudo-neuro-scientist.

In 2005 Edge The World Question Center asked a very interesting question, “What do you believe is true even though you cannot prove it?” Sam Harris was one of the responders:

What I believe, though cannot yet prove, is that belief is a content-independent process. Which is to say that beliefs about God-to the degree that they are really believed-are the same as beliefs about numbers, penguins, tofu, or anything else…
What I do believe, however, is that the neural processes that govern the final acceptance of a statement as ‘true’ rely on more fundamental, reward-related circuitry in our frontal lobes-probably the same regions that judge the pleasantness of tastes and odors…
Once the neurology of belief becomes clear, and it stands revealed as an all-purpose emotion arising in a wide variety of contexts (often without warrant), religious faith will be exposed for what it is: a humble species of terrestrial credulity. We will then have additional, scientific reasons to declare that mere feelings of conviction are not enough when it comes time to talk about the way the world is. The only thing that guarantees that (sufficiently complex) beliefs actually represent the world, are chains of evidence and argument linking them to the world…
Understanding belief at the level of the brain may hold the key to new insights into the nature of our minds, to new rules of discourse, and to new frontiers of human cooperation…

Note the future-hopes qualifiers, “…yet…Once…will be…We will then…”

Notice his staked deck: religious faith is a humble species of terrestrial credulity and once the neurology of belief becomes clear religious faith will be exposed for what it is: a humble species of terrestrial credulity.

This is circular illogic. In other words, he is setting out to prove what he already believes to be true-no doubt, he will prove his beliefs even by gyrations that will strain the very neurons upon which he will be experimenting. It appears that Sam Harris’ goal is not to become an unbiased scientist who merely reports conclusions and is prepared to throw away a lifetime of research if it happens to be disproved. Rather, he is attempting to gain a facade of science in order to push his absolutely materialistic worldview.

The results of the study will certainly have to be evaluated on their own merits and yet, my concern still remains with regards to the fact that Sam Harris is setting out to prove his particular, and peculiar, worldview.

Eschatological Complex:

Sam Harris’ Messiah complex refers to his the fact that the very thing he fears most turns out to consist of his view on the end of life as we know it.

Sam Harris virtually premises his arguments against religion on the concept of nuclear war, that religious terrorists could, or will, or can get their hands on nuclear devises and actually bring humanity to an end. This is how he describes what prompted him to write his book The End of Faith:

It really was my immediate response to September 11th and continues to be my response to the fact that every time I open the newspaper, fully half of the news, often unacknowledged, is coming out of the religious divisions in our world. We are continually bearing witness to how maladapted and unnecessary these religious ideas are.[fn]Ben Adler, Sam Vs. I Am[/fn]

Professor Richard Dawkins points to the same event as that which motivated him to, let us say, the extreme when he was interviewed by Larry Taunton, Richard Dawkins: The Atheist Evangelist:

How do we account for this surge in atheism’s popularity and Western culture’s growing enmity for religion? Sept. 11. Dawkins says that the events of that fateful day ‘radicalized’ him.

Out of curiosity, I do wonder why it was the 9/11 attacks that motivate them, why this that event break the camel’s back? Surely, “religious divisions” particularly in the form of Islamic terrorism had caused numerous atrocities, bombings, the murder of civilian noncombatants, etc. Was it “In my own backyard” syndrome? One can only wonder however, it does make me wonder if people do not, after all, react to such events largely based on how it personally affected them.
That is to say that certainly, Sam Harris was aware that likewise events had previously occurred, did he take this happening in his own turf personally? I am not here questioning the legitimacy of taking such events in general, nor such particular backyard events personally. What I am wondering is if we do not exaggerate the “problem of evil” by taking it personally. How could one possibly exaggerate an event such as 9/11? This is the difficulty of the question that I am asking, since we are all so emotionally invested, and quite rightly so, it is difficult to remove ourselves emotionally and engage the logical. Part of the difficulty is our emotional investment (attachment) but part is also that we might consider ourselves, or consider those, such as me, who are asking such questions as heartless. The bottom line of what I am aiming towards is this: do we make the “problem of evil” worse by taking it personally, by thinking that “Well, now it happened to ME!” or “…to MY family!” or “…in MY backyard!”?

I am not sure that I would go as far as asking whether Sam Harris employed the “In my own backyard” syndrome as an excuse to express his prejudices against religion. I am going only as far as questioning why his public statements were premised upon 9/11.

That was somewhat of a circumlocution, a consideration of what prompted Sam Harris in the first place. Now we come to his particular concern which is the fear of nuclear annihilation or Armageddon which he makes reference to in various ways such as:

We must come to terms with the possibility that men who are every bit as zealous to die as the September 11th hijackers may one day get their hands on nuclear weaponry…weapons of mass destruction will eventually be available to anyone who wants them.[fn]Sam Harris on the Reality of Islam[/fn]


a plausible scenario in which much of the world’s population could be annihilated on account of religious ideas that belong on the same shelf with Batman, the philosopher’s stone, and unicorns.[fn]Chris Lehmann, Among the Non-Believers – The tedium of dogmatic atheism[/fn]

We may, in this regard, mention Bertrand Russell who eventually became an advocate against nuclear weapons/war (see here for the pseudo-rationality of both Sam Harris and Bertrand Russell).

The bottom line issue is to ask what, as atheist, did and do Sam Harris and Mr. Russell think about humanity’s end? Although they may not have specifically stated it, it seems a logical inference to assume that they share the views of personages such as Dan Barker and Everett Dean Martin (pay particular attention in the part that the sun plays in their eschatological views):

In his debate with Paul Manata Dan Barker stated, “There is no moral interpreter in the cosmos, nothing cares and nobody cares.” So does anything ultimately matter? “…what happens to me or a piece of broccoli, it won’t the Sun is going to explode, we’re all gonna be gone. No one’s gonna care.” His ultimate point here was that we should care in the here and now because that is all we have.

Everett Dean Martin makes the very same point, in virtually the same words:

At the end of all our striving and efforts sees our world a frozen clod whirling through emptiness about a cheerless and exhausted sun, bearing on its sides the marks of man’s once hopeful activity, fragments of his works of art mixed with glacial debris, all waiting in the dark for millenniums until the final crash comes, when even the burned out sun shall be shattered in collision with another like it, and the story shall be over while there is no one to remember and none to care. All will be as if it had never been.[fn]Everett Dean Martin, The Mystery of Religion, quoted in Dan Gilbert, Our Retreat From Modernism, p. 33[/fn]

Thus, Dan Barker, Everett Dean Martin and logically inferred Sam Harris, Bertrand Russell, et al, believe that humanity will come to an end when the sun explodes (short of evacuating the solar system in spacecrafts). Sam Harris is consumed with the idea of manmade nuclear annihilation but committed to naturally occurring nuclear annihilation. He is consumed by the idea of a manmade nuclear annihilation that may never occur but committed to the idea of naturally occurring nuclear annihilation that will occur. Do not escape from the backyard quite yet.
Do not simply state, “Oh, well, sure, but the sun will not explode of millions of years.” Firstly, the argument still stands. And what is the point of counter arguing thusly? It is the reverse of the “In my own backyard” syndrome-it is the “Yeah, that’s a shame, but at least it’s not happening in my own backyard” here “backyard” refers to “lifetime.”

And so what is the difference between manmade nuclear annihilation and natural nuclear annihilation? Is it that in the one case we would blame religion? Who will be around to blame, or voice the complaint? If humanity is whipped out it will not matter how it occurred.

In summation, Sam Harris appears to be motivated in becoming a scientist in order to “prove” what he already believes. He will do so in order to inform his secular religious doctrine. This will squelch the possibility of nuclear annihilation by theistic religious motivation. Yet, in the end, all of this will in the end all of this will amount to nothing-“we’re all gonna be gone. No one’s gonna care.”

4 thoughts on “The Sam Harris Trivector”

  1. If you found this book
    If you found this book intriguing, you will definitely enjoy reading My Stroke of Insight – a Brain Scientist’s Personal Journey” by Jill Bolte Taylor, and her talk on TED dot com about her stroke which is an 18 minute talk you Must Not Miss! (there’s a reason it’s been forwarded friend to friend millions of times!). When you read the book and see the TEDTalk, you’ll understand why this Harvard brain scientist was named Time Magazine 100 Most Influential People. Her unique experience, combined with her perspective as a neuroanatomist, and her sensitivity and awareness (not to mention beautiful writing style!) has produced something so powerful and so revolutionary that I think it’s going to become a transformational movement in itself. Oprah also did four interviews with her (that I was able to download on the Oprah website) that are also worth checking out.
    I am trying to share Dr Taylor’s story with as many people as I can because I truly believe if everyone saw it the world would be so much better and people would love one another and no longer fight.

  2. Trying to equate men’s
    Trying to equate men’s extinction within millions of years and nuclear extinction in our lifetime is like telling a doctor he doesn’t need to worry about a life threatening condition in a child because the child will ultimately die of old age anyway. Yes, it’s about “my own backyard”, as in, it concerns me, it warrants my energy investment, because it *is* in my own damn backyard.

  3. Your criticisms are so
    Your criticisms are so self-unraveling that I'd suspect you were trolling if you hadn't put in so much humourless effort.

    You say Sam wants to replace manmade religion about supernatural transcendence that can only be known through subjective, personal experience with another manmade religion about materialistic transcendence that can only be known through subjective, personal experience.

    First off, saying that his problem with existing religions is that they're "manmade" is almost to pick a word at random. He thinks they're nonsense to the core, and you've assigned his complaints a single word because it sets up your next attack point.

    He doesn't want to set up a "religion", he wants to explore the subjects that religion purports to deal with without dogma, in the same way we now explore brain disease without the dogma of demon possession.

    He says exactly this in one of the quotes you've highlighted: "we can purse these experiences … without presupposing anything on insufficient evidence." Where are you getting this "new religion" stuff? It's just a damning catchphrase you pulled out of … thin air … because it has a whiff of illicit/taboo to christians (because of marketing decisions made by generations past, to prevent the establishment of competing nonsense-peddling-for-profit organisations).

    "(Sam) is setting out to prove what he already believes to be true".

    You deduce this about him based on his response to the question "what do you believe that you cannot yet prove." Literally any possible response to that question would be equally vulnerable to your criticism.

  4. As far as I can tell, I’ve
    As far as I can tell, I've just neatly deflated every purported idea in this posting.

    I'd like to stress that this deflation happened automatically and in real time as I was reading: putting it in words probably took more time than it was worth, but I had to express the utter baffled frustration the initial reading provoked.

    In summary: these ideas were awful to the point of nonexistence.

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