This begins a series of posts I call “The Life Examined”. My goal is to look at the lives of inspiring thinkers in order to find patterns and better understand my own choices. In this first installment, I will briefly explore the life of Dr. Sam Harris.
Sam Harris, born 1967, was an English major at Stanford before he dropped out and went to Asia to study meditation. In an interview he said that his experimentation with MDMA was a major contributor to his decision to drop out of school. He continued exploring and traveling for eleven (!) years before returning to Stanford to finish an undergraduate degree in philosophy. A little over ten years after that, he completed a PhD in neuroscience at UCLA, investigating through fMRI the nature of belief and certainty. Today he is the CEO of Project Reason, is the author of three popular books, is a close collaborator with the New Atheist movement (Dawkins, Dennet, Hitchens) and has written numerous articles for the LA Times, Washington Post, NY Times, Nature, etc.
Dr. Harris’ most recent book, The Moral Landscape, outlines the position of many modern thinkers in the post-religious world. While philosophers have been writing about the nature of naturalistic morality in an absurd world for centuries, Sam diverges from the confusing philosophical debates, instead pushing the claim that morality is fundamentally a scientific discipline.
Two critical components of Sam Harris’ life provoked me to conduct this exposé. The first is his radically extended “burn-out” period before completing his undergraduate education. The second is his very aggressive agenda, forcefully pushing secularism and science into a very nonsecular, unscientific world. I will address my views on these in turn.
Sam Harris was 42 when he completed his neuroscience PhD. During his formative years, instead of staying in the lab, he was floating in a boat off a lake in Nepal with 400μg of LSD in his head. Eleven years later, when he was returning to the US to resume his undergraduate work at Stanford, he fell squarely in the category of the “burn-out”.
In my time at Stanford I met and interacted at some length with several burn-outs. These people had, through a combination of abusing drugs, spending time with low-quality friends, a poor reading of Nietzsche, and probably some predisposition, destroyed their motivation. While the phenomenon began in the counterculture movement, I don’t think that today people drop out of society for cultural reasons, but I’m not sure. The presence of burn-outs provides a salient reminder to those flirting with excessive experimentation that it is possible to go too far.
Sam Harris has made me rethink the fear of excessive experimentation. He reports that he took acid more than ten times before he turned 20, and he didn’t receive a college degree until his thirties, but today he is a best-selling author and highly respected intellectual. If anything, he provides evidence that if one wants to have a good understanding of how their brain works, they ought to do dramatically more reflection and experimentation than the average person does. What the optimal cutoff point is remains unclear, but after reading about Dr. Harris, the looming shadow of burn-out-edness concerns me less.
This leads me to my second observation – that Sam Harris is highly motivated to fight religiosity. What motivates an individual to lash out at the institutions that, while clearly based on misinformation, do the most charity and healing of any organizations in the world? The common atheist stand is to say, “Well, I don’t agree with religions, but as long as they don’t oppress anyone and stay out my life, they can keep amusing themselves.” Sam takes a much more vigilant stand. The mission statement of his company reads:
Project Reason is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit foundation devoted to spreading scientific knowledge and secular values in society. The foundation draws on the talents of prominent and creative thinkers in a wide range of disciplines to encourage critical thinking and erode the influence of dogmatism, superstition, and bigotry in our world.
When most scientifically-minded people think about religion (or, as it is written above, dogmatism, superstition, and bigotry), they notice that the religions of the world are some of the greatest hoaxes / mindtraps that mankind has ever been created. Then they return to the traditional atheist perspective above – “not my problem.” Sam Harris makes religion his problem.
Critics of the new atheist movement rightly point out that if we simply erased religion from the world, we might be significantly worse off. If people did not have their comfortable defense mechanisms, if people didn’t have the fear of God and social pressure to donate money, and if religious organizations weren’t trying to heal the world, we’d be in bad shape. But of course this isn’t what the new atheists want. They want the gradual elimination of the world’s religions along with the gradual replacement of the good services those religions provide. The world without religion needs many thousands of new community centers, schools, charities, therapists, funeral homes, and university philosophy departments. While one can certainly argue that this progress is not as important as, say, wiping out malaria, it is hard not to like the future these new atheists are working towards.
If I were to summarize the life of Sam Harris, it would look like this: a man, deeply troubled by crises of meaning and spirituality, steps out of the system for many years to explore his mind and identity. He then supplements his own exploration with academic training in philosophy and neuroscience. During this process he develops a very strong sense of the deplorable state of our societies and cultures with regard to basic knowledge about life and the mind. So he makes it his mission to educate the world through books and through business.
Sounds promising. This year Sam Harris turns 44.