Samuel Benjamin Harris (born April 9, 1967) is an American author, neuroscientist, and podcast host. His work touches on a wide range of topics, including rationality, religion, ethics, free will, neuroscience, meditation, psychedelics, philosophy of mind, politics, terrorism, and artificial intelligence. Harris came to prominence for his criticism of religion, and Islam in particular, and is described as one of the "Four Horsemen of Atheism", along with Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Daniel Dennett. His academic background is in both philosophy and cognitive neuroscience.
Harris in March 2016
|Born||Samuel Benjamin Harris|
April 9, 1967
Los Angeles, California, U.S.
|Education||Stanford University (B.A.)|
University of California, Los Angeles (PhD)
|Subject||Neuroscience, philosophy, religion, spirituality, ethics, politics|
|Notable awards||PEN/Martha Albrand Award, Webby Award|
|Thesis||The Moral Landscape: How Science Could Determine Human Values (2009)|
Harris's first book, The End of Faith (2004), won the PEN/Martha Albrand Award for First Nonfiction and remained on The New York Times Best Seller list for 33 weeks. Harris has subsequently published six other books: Letter to a Christian Nation in 2006, The Moral Landscape: How Science Could Determine Human Values in 2010, the long-form essay Lying in 2011, the short book Free Will in 2012, Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion in 2014, and (with British writer Maajid Nawaz) Islam and the Future of Tolerance: A Dialogue in 2015. Harris's work has been translated into over 20 languages.
Harris has debated with many prominent figures on the topics of God or religion, including William Lane Craig, Jordan Peterson, Rick Warren, Andrew Sullivan, Reza Aslan, David Wolpe, Deepak Chopra, and Jean Houston. Since September 2013, Harris has hosted the Making Sense podcast (originally titled Waking Up), which has a large listenership. In September 2018 Harris released a meditation app, Waking Up with Sam Harris.
Early life and educationEdit
Harris was born on April 9, 1967 in Los Angeles. He is the son of actor Berkeley Harris, who appeared mainly in Western films, and TV producer Susan Harris (née Spivak), who created The Golden Girls among other series. His father, born in North Carolina, came from a Quaker background, and his mother is Jewish but not religious. He was raised by his mother following his parents' divorce when he was aged two. Harris has stated that his upbringing was entirely secular and that his parents rarely discussed religion, though he also stated that he was not raised as an atheist.
While his original major was in English, Harris became interested in philosophical questions while at Stanford University after an experience with the empathogen–entactogen MDMA (colloquially known as ecstasy). The experience led him to be interested in the idea that he might be able to achieve spiritual insights without the use of drugs. Leaving Stanford in his second year, a quarter after his psychedelic experience, he went to India and Nepal, where he studied meditation with teachers of Buddhist and Hindu religions, including Dilgo Khyentse. Eleven years later, in 1997, he returned to Stanford, completing a B.A. degree in philosophy in 2000. Harris began writing his first book, The End of Faith, immediately after the September 11 attacks.
He received a Ph.D. degree in cognitive neuroscience in 2009 from the University of California, Los Angeles, using functional magnetic resonance imaging to conduct research into the neural basis of belief, disbelief, and uncertainty. His thesis was titled The Moral Landscape: How Science Could Determine Human Values. His advisor was Mark S. Cohen.
Harris's writing focuses on philosophy, neuroscience, and criticism of religion. He came to prominence for his criticism of religion (Islam in particular) and is described as one of the "Four Horsemen of Atheism", along with Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Daniel Dennett. He has written for a variety of outlets including The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Economist, The Times, The Boston Globe, and The Atlantic. Five of Harris's books have been New York Times bestsellers, and his writing has been translated into over 20 languages.
Debates on religionEdit
In 2007, Harris engaged in a lengthy debate with conservative commentator Andrew Sullivan on the Internet forum Beliefnet. In April 2007, Harris debated with evangelical pastor Rick Warren for Newsweek magazine. Harris also debated with Rabbi David Wolpe in 2007. In 2010, Harris joined Michael Shermer to debate with Deepak Chopra and Jean Houston on the future of God in a debate hosted by ABC News Nightline. Harris debated with Christian philosopher William Lane Craig in April 2011 on whether there can be an objective morality without God. In June and July 2018, he met with Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson for a series of debates on religion, particularly the relationship between religious values and scientific fact in defining truth. Harris has also debated with the scholar Reza Aslan.
In September 2013, Harris began releasing the Waking Up podcast (since re-titled Making Sense). Episodes vary in length but often last over two hours. Releases do not follow a regular schedule. The podcast has a large listenership.
In September 2018, Harris released a meditation course app, Waking Up with Sam Harris. The app provides daily meditations, long guided meditations, and a selection of other lessons on various related topics. Users of the app are introduced to a number of types of meditation, such as mindfulness meditation, vipassanā-style meditation, and loving-kindness meditation.
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Harris is known as one of the most prominent critics of religion, and is a leading figure in the New Atheist movement. Harris is particularly opposed to dogmatic belief, and says that "Pretending to know things one doesn't know is a betrayal of science – and yet it is the lifeblood of religion." While broadly opposed to religion in general and the belief systems religions entail, Harris believes that all religions are not created equal. Often using Jainism to contrast other fundamentalist groups, Harris highlights the difference in the specific doctrine and scripture as the main indicator of a religion's value, or lack thereof.
While broadly critical of religion in most forms, Harris considers Islam to be "especially belligerent and inimical to the norms of civil discourse", insofar as it involves what Harris considers to be "bad ideas, held for bad reasons, leading to bad behavior." Harris is especially critical of mainstream support of Islam as a religion of peace, and describes Islam as "all fringe and no center."
Harris is critical of the Christian right in politics in the United States, blaming them for the political focus on "pseudo-problems like gay marriage." He is also critical of liberal Christianity—as represented, for instance, by the theology of Paul Tillich—which he argues claims to base its beliefs on the Bible despite actually being influenced by secular modernity. He further states that in so doing liberal Christianity provides rhetorical cover to fundamentalists.
Harris holds that there is "nothing irrational about seeking the states of mind that lie at the core of many religions. Compassion, awe, devotion, and feelings of oneness are surely among the most valuable experiences a person can have."
Harris rejects the dichotomy between spirituality and rationality, favoring a middle path that preserves spirituality and science but does not involve religion. He writes that spirituality should be understood in light of scientific disciplines like neuroscience and psychology. Science, he contends, can show how to maximize human well-being, but may fail to answer certain questions about the nature of being, answers to some of which he says are discoverable directly through our experience. His conception of spirituality does not involve a belief in any god.
In Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion (2014), Harris describes his experience with Dzogchen, a Tibetan Buddhist meditation practice, and recommends it to his readers. He writes that the purpose of spirituality (as he defines it – he concedes that the term’s uses are diverse and sometimes indefensible) is to become aware that our sense of self is illusory, and says this realization brings both happiness and insight into the nature of consciousness. This process of realization, he argues, is based on experience and is not contingent on faith.
Science and moralityEdit
Social and political viewsEdit
Harris describes himself as a liberal, and states that he supports raising taxes on the very wealthy, decriminalizing drugs and legalizing same-sex marriage. He was critical of the Bush administration's war in Iraq, fiscal policy, and treatment of science. However, he also believes liberals dangerously downplay the threat posed by Islamic fundamentalism. He is a registered Democrat.
During the 2016 United States presidential election, Harris supported Hillary Clinton in the Democratic Party presidential primaries against Bernie Sanders, and despite calling her "a terribly flawed candidate for the presidency," he favored her in the general election and came out strongly in opposition to Donald Trump's candidacy.
Harris has discussed existential risk from artificial general intelligence in depth. He has given a TED talk on the topic, arguing it will be a major threat in the future and criticizing the paucity of human interest on the subject. He argues the dangers from artificial intelligence (AI) follow from three premises: that intelligence is the result of physical information processing, that humans will continue innovation in AI, and that humans are nowhere near the maximum possible extent of intelligence. Harris states that even if superintelligent AI is five to ten decades away, the scale of its implications for human civilization warrant discussion of the issue in the present.
Glenn Greenwald has claimed that "[Harris] and others like him spout and promote Islamophobia under the guise of rational atheism." Greenwald claimed that Harris's Islamophobia is revealed by his statements such as: "the people who speak most sensibly about the threat that Islam poses to Europe are actually fascists", and "[t]he only future devout Muslims can envisage — as Muslims — is one in which all infidels have been converted to Islam, politically subjugated, or killed." Harris has rebutted these claims and asserted that some of Greenwald's quotes were deliberately taken out of context to prove his point.
Harris has criticized the way the term Islamophobia is commonly used. "My criticism of Islam is a criticism of beliefs and their consequences, but my fellow liberals reflexively view it as an expression of intolerance toward people", he wrote following a disagreement with Ben Affleck in October 2014 on the show Real Time with Bill Maher. Affleck had described Harris's views on Muslims as "gross" and "racist", and his statement that "Islam is the Mother lode of bad ideas" as an "ugly thing to say."
In April 2017, Harris stirred controversy by hosting the social scientist Charles Murray on his podcast, discussing topics including the heritability of IQ and race and intelligence. Harris stated the invitation was out of indignation at a violent protest against Murray at Middlebury College the month before and not out of particular interest in the material at hand. The podcast episode garnered significant criticism, for instance from Vox and Slate. Harris and Murray were defended by conservative commentators Andrew Sullivan and Kyle Smith, as well as by neuroscientist Richard Haier, who stated that the points Murray claimed were mainstream indeed enjoyed broad scientific support. Harris and Vox editor-at-large Ezra Klein later discussed the affair in a podcast interview, where Klein criticized Harris for rebuking tribalism in the form of identity politics while failing to recognize his own version of tribalism. Hatewatch staff at the Southern Poverty Law Center wrote that members of the "skeptics" movement, of which Harris is "one of the most public faces", help to "channel people into the alt-right".
In May 2018, Harris was profiled by Bari Weiss in The New York Times as part of the "Intellectual Dark Web" (a term coined semi-ironically by Eric Weinstein to refer to a particular group of academics, public intellectuals, and media personalities).
Robert Wright published an article in Wired in 2018 criticizing Harris for his perceived ignorance of his own cognitive biases. He wrote that "the famous proponent of New Atheism is on a crusade against tribalism but seems oblivious to his own version of it." Wright wrote that these biases are rooted in natural selection and impact everyone, but that they can be mitigated when acknowledged, whereas he said Harris offered no such acknowledgement.
Harris has also drawn criticism from academics, who often accuse him of failing to do sufficient prior research into the topics he addresses. In reviewing The Moral Landscape, neuroscientist Kenan Malik wrote, "Imagine a sociologist who wrote about evolutionary theory without discussing the work of Darwin, Fisher, Mayr, Hamilton, Trivers or Dawkins on the grounds that he did not come to his conclusions by reading about biology and because discussing concepts such as 'adaptation', 'speciation', 'homology', 'phylogenetics' or 'kin selection' would 'increase the amount of boredom in the universe'. How seriously would we, and should we, take his argument?"
Cognitive scientist and philosopher Daniel Dennett praised elements of Harris's book Free Will (2010), but nonetheless described it as containing "a veritable museum of mistakes." Dennett said the book was valuable because it reflected the private opinions of many scientists not directly specialized in free will, before noting, "Harris and others need to do their homework if they want to engage with the best thought on the topic."
In 2015 Harris exchanged a series of emails with linguist and political commentator Noam Chomsky. The exchange mostly revolved around the role of intentions in atrocities, in particular whether the bombing of the Al-Shifa pharmaceutical factory by U.S. President Bill Clinton was morally analogous to the September 11 attacks perpetrated by Al-Qaeda. Chomsky said Harris had not prepared adequately for the exchange, "the usual procedure in work intended to be serious." Kyle Schmidlin wrote in Salon that he considered Chomsky the winner of the exchange because Harris's arguments relied excessively on thought experiments with little application to the real world. In a 2016 interview with Al Jazeera, Chomsky said that Harris "specializes in hysterical, slanderous charges against people he doesn’t like" and that despite Harris's denials, his rhetoric resembled Islamophobia.
In 2017, the UK Business Insider included Harris's podcast in their list of "8 podcasts that will change how you think about human behavior", and PC Magazine included it in their list of "The Best Podcasts of 2018". In January 2020, Max Sanderson included Harris's podcast as a "Producer pick" in a "podcasts of the week" section for The Guardian.
Harris has been reluctant to discuss personal details such as where he now lives, citing security reasons. In 2004, he married Annaka Harris, an author and editor of nonfiction and scientific books. They have two daughters.
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- Harris, Sam (September 19, 2006). Letter to a Christian Nation. Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. ISBN 0-307-26577-3. OCLC 70158553.
- Harris, Sam (October 5, 2010). The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values. Free Press. ISBN 978-1-4391-7121-9. OCLC 535493357.
- Harris, Sam (2011). Lying. Four Elephants Press. ISBN 978-1940051000.
- Harris, Sam (March 6, 2012). Free Will. Free Press. ISBN 9781451683400.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
- Harris, Sam (September 9, 2014). Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion. Simon & Schuster. ISBN 978-1451636017.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
- Harris, Sam; Nawaz, Maajid (October 6, 2015). Islam and the Future of Tolerance: A Dialogue. Harvard University Press. ISBN 978-0674088702.
- Harris, Sam (August 11, 2020). Making Sense: Conversations on Consciousness, Morality, and the Future of Humanity. Ecco. ISBN 978-0062857781. OCLC 1148079474.
- Harris, S.; Sheth, S. A.; Cohen, M. S. (February 27, 2008). "Functional neuroimaging of belief, disbelief, and uncertainty". Annals of Neurology. 63 (2): 141–147. doi:10.1002/ana.21301. PMID 18072236.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
- Harris, S.; Kaplan, J. T.; Curiel, A.; Bookheimer, S. Y.; Iacoboni, M.; Cohen, M. S. (October 1, 2009). Sporns, Olaf (ed.). "The Neural Correlates of Religious and Nonreligious Belief". PLOS One. 4 (10): e7272. Bibcode:2009PLoSO...4.7272H. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0007272. PMC 2748718. PMID 19794914.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
- Douglas, P. K.; Harris, S.; Yuille, A.; Cohen, M. S. (May 15, 2011). "Performance comparison of machine learning algorithms and number of independent components used in fMRI decoding of belief vs. disbelief". NeuroImage. 56 (2): 544–53. doi:10.1016/j.neuroimage.2010.11.002. PMC 3099263. PMID 21073969.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
- Kaplan, Jonas T.; Gimbel, Sarah I.; Harris, Sam (December 23, 2016). "Neural correlates of maintaining one's political beliefs in the face of counterevidence". Scientific Reports. 6: 39589. Bibcode:2016NatSR...639589K. doi:10.1038/srep39589. PMC 5180221. PMID 28008965.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
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Mr. Harris, who gathered his fan base as a pugnacious atheist and fierce critic of Islam
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03:50 I'm a registered Democrat
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