Has Sam Harris Been Busy Doing Scientific Research?

Someone recently tried to defend Sam Harris from one of my critiques, where I point out that Harris does very little science for someone who is constantly promoted as a neuroscientist and spokesperson for science:

Holy crap Batman, you’re ignorant about Sam Harris AND Jiu Jitsu!
As someone else on here explained, jiu jitsu a few times a week and daily meditation is a minimal distraction at best. Finding examples of his peer reviewed work takes about….20 seconds on Google scholar.
You seem like a smart guy, way too smart to be making sloppy arguments like this. Obviously the New Atheists got to you and now you’re out on a vengeance quest to straw man hay makers. I guess the Jesus thing can’t be all that consoling if you have to resort to this intellectual dishonesty,
Pick yourself up, son.

So, does 20 seconds on Google scholar uncover all sorts of scientific research from Sam Harris?

Well, Sam Harris is an author on a paper from 2010 entitled, Does Neural Input or Processing Play a Greater Role in the Magnitude of Neuroimaging Signals?

He also co-authored a paper from 2012 entitled Early and late stimulus-evoked cortical hemodynamic responses provide insight into the neurogenic nature of neurovascular coupling. He also co-authored another paper that year entitled, Balanced excitation and inhibition: Model based analysis of local field potentials

In 2013, he was co-author of another paper entitled, The resting-state neurovascular coupling relationship: rapid changes in spontaneous neural activity in the somatosensory cortex are associated with haemodynamic fluctuations that resemble stimulus-evoked haemodynamics.

And there are more.

So it looks like I was wrong and Harris has indeed been busy publishing lots of neuroscience research. Or am I?

There is a problem here. Sam Harris is a research associate at the University of Sheffield. And last time I checked a map, England is a long way from Los Angeles. So is Sam such a devoted super scientist that he flies back and forth to England to carry out this neuroscience research, all while finding the time to write books on meditation and practice martial arts?

Or, could it be…….that Sam Harris is a rather common name.

Well, check out this neuroscience paper from Sam Harris. Make sure to look at page 2.

So Sam Harris does indeed do a lot of cool neuroscience research. But he’s not the Sam Harris who helps lead the New Atheist movement.

Look, this was not difficult to figure out. If New Atheist Sam Harris was responsible for this research, given his massive ego, he would have been announcing each paper to the world, complete with victory laps.

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38 Responses to Has Sam Harris Been Busy Doing Scientific Research?

  1. agrudzinsky says:

    This is a great example of how shallow judgments and arguments can be and how careful we need to be with information found on Google.

  2. Looks like most of Harris’ publications stem directly from his UCLA dissertation work. See, for example http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0007272. Also check out the correction! Oops, forgot to mention his competing interests.

  3. Chuck says:

    So it was Glabius who was sloppy and dishonest. Love it!

  4. Doug says:

    Oh dear, poor Glabius… do you suppose that he has the “intellectual honesty” to own up to his… “mistake”?

  5. itsonlyphotos says:

    As I was reading this, I was thinking, “oh, that’s nice of Michael to acknowledge if his information was incorrect.” Then I clicked on the link and understood where you were going with it. It is strange how Sam Harris (the media personality) is regarded as someone actively engaged scientific research when by all indications he has other priorities.

  6. …Sam Harris amazes me because he seems to skate by on an image of a brooding, conscientious and diligent seeker of the truth, when in fact he is a media personality, ever ready to be called on to engage in midday or late night talking heads discussions. Reading Atheist Delusions, I got a great idea for how vapid he can be, mischaracterizing not only Christians but even misrepresenting the school of Buddhism he claimed to have studied.

  7. Holy crap, Batman, you really handed this commenter like a champion bullfighter.

  8. Dhay says:

    The paper linked to, above, by ‘Good Man Strong Man’ has been criticised in detail and at great length by statistician WM Briggs; I have in the responses to a number of posts here added quite a few criticisms of my own; here’s another criticism, the credit for which I share with Allallt, who in response to Michael’s January 25, 2015 post entitled “One in Four Americans Believe the Sun Revolves Around the Earth…..Oh no!” made this comment:

    Here’s one that will interest you: I don’t agree with the studies that find “X number of people believe (wrong scientific claim)”. I was asked to complete a survey on the street a few years back that was full of scientific claims all written out in long hand. One of them was something like this:
    Which of the following sentences best describes Earth’s position in the solar system:
    (a) The sun orbits the earth
    (b) The earth orbits the sun
    (c) Both the sun and the earth orbit a central point.

    But the person who read these out to me read them out fast and pressured me into a speedy answer. That means I will have been attempting to answer these questions semantically, not from my understanding. What that means is that I will have been trying to select the answer that has the sounds that are the most familiar, instead of trying to articulate my understanding. … The truth is, I don’t know which answer I gave, because I was being pressured.

    Another question was about the ratio of oxygen:hydrogen in water. Again, I was under pressure and robbed of the time to recall if it was 2:1 or 1:2 (obviously the answer is 1:2, but the oxygen and hydrogen have been reversed from the order we normally see it in and the question doesn’t specify if they want their answer by mass or by number of particles. Under pressure, this can be confusing). I know the answer to both these questions, and did at the time, but I reckon I got them wrong because of the environment I was asked and because of the way they were presented.

    Sam Harris’ paper tells us his thirty experimental subjects, each in the confined space of an fMRI scanner, were reading and considering questions then choosing an answer and selecting and pressing the appropriate answer button at a rate quicker on average than one answer every four seconds.

    Sounds fast to me, sounds pressured to me, sounds like Allallt’s street survey, or worse; so the same considerations and comments will apply; they “will have been attempting to answer these questions semantically, not from [their] understanding”; they “will have been trying to select the answer that has the sounds that are the most familiar, instead of trying to articulate [their] understanding.”

    Harris’ experiments, then, and their results, have nothing to do with the process of understanding, but with a knee-jerk recollection (or stab at recollection) of understandings already arrived at by other processes. Harris doesn’t prove that (eg), to a brain scan, believing that the truths of ‘Santa Claus is a myth’ (true for everyone), ‘The Biblical God really exists’ (true for a Christian) and ‘The Biblical God is a myth’ (true for an atheist) look identical, but instead proves that knee-jerk affirmative answers under pressure always look the same to a brain scan.

    And likewise disbelief, where Harris proves that knee-jerk affirmative answers under pressure always look the same to a brain scan whether the negative answers are the consequence of a religious belief system or of an atheist belief system.

    What did Harris set out to prove in this experiment and paper? Well, in a 2007 Time article entitled “What Your Brain Looks Like on Faith”, he said he expected to prove that

    “belief is belief is belief”.

    Before that, in his 2004,blog post entitled “What Do You Believe But Cannot Prove?”, Harris said

    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.

    But no, Harris has not by his experiment and paper proven that all beliefs are the same (at the neurological level), whatever is believed, but that snap assent always (very transiently) looks the same at the neurological level, whatever is being assented to.

    Harris talks up his experiment and paper as having made some sort of significant discovery about religious belief; but heck, no, it hasn’t.

  9. Dhay says:

    Michael > I point out that Harris does very little science for someone who is constantly promoted as a neuroscientist and spokesperson for science.

    It’s been obvious for some time that Sam Harris is a retired neuroscientist: basically, he trained, qualified, then retired immediately; he has produced nothing since. For some years there was a continual unactioned promise that Project Reason (ie Harris) would carry out, or perhaps just fund, further neuroscience research:

    UPDATE: Project Reason is currently preparing to run another neuroimaging study on belief. Our goal will be to discover which regions of the brain allow people to change their beliefs, or prevent them from doing so, in response to new evidence.


    This Biology of Belief webpage and promise last appeared in the WayBack archive on 21 January 2015; presumably the suggestion that Harris might reverse his early retirement has now quietly been unsuggested, and his continuing retirement confirmed.

    Note that having a qualification in a speciality does not make you a practitioner in that speciality, so Harris’ promoting himself as a neuroscientist is a form of deception; to promote himself validly as an actual neuroscientist (as opposed to one who retired years ago, and who bears the title merely as an honourific) he needs to be a practitioner of neuroscience; he also needs to be engaging in the updating of skills (CPD) which all professions engage in, either by research or by eg attending seminars; in Britain (and in the USA?) retirement or other cessation of practice of a profession results in ineligibility to be a Member of the relevant Institution. That Harris is a neuroscientist is dubious at best, it’s a claim which the evidence shows he is not now entitled to — or it’s an outright lie.

    Is Harris a “spokesperson for science”, then? Apparently not, not any longer, if indeed he ever was. The WayBack archive site shows that Project Reason — “spreading science and secular values” — effectively closed down sometime in May or June 2015, the little content relevant to its aims of spreading science and secular values vanishing, leaving only three accessible pages.

    There’s a Home page with “Learn More” and “Donate” buttons; the former takes you to the “About” page, which contains what was formerly the “Mission Statement”, lists of Trustees and Advisory Board members, and another “Donate” button; the latter takes you to the “Donate Now” page which, despite the Project Reason website being shut down for all practical purposes, still seems to be fully functional.

    Is it honest to solicit donations, and presumably to continue to rake in regular monthly, quarterly and annual donations from those who selected to do so — is it honest to do so, now that the Project Reason site appears to exist merely to solicit new donations; and, of course, to provide a legal pretext for continuing to keep those existing regular monthly, quarterly and annual donations rolling in until such time as the donors catch on.

    If the Project Reason site is now nothing but a donation-collection site, shorn of content, what now is Project Reason itself? Call me a cynic on that one.

    Whatever it is, Project Reason is not now (or in practice ever, beyond trivially) a spokes-site for science; Harris’ own blog certainly isn’t; and their owner, Harris, clearly isn’t a spokesperson for science.

    Harris is, however, a spokesperson for Buddhism; and he is a spokesperson for the Ecstasy and psychedelic drugs which he fears to take himself.

  10. Andrew says:

    The writer of this is amazingly stupid and scientifically illiterate. You found another guy with the same name who is a neuroscientist that isn’t the famous one… That’s your big point? Seriously? Ummm… No one is claiming that Sam Harris is the author of those papers? Where do you get your information?
    Your other point that Dr. Harris would flaunt this paper if he wrote it is idiotic considering it’s been cited by a whopping two people. Ever seen a scientific journal? Obviously not. You don’t have the intellectual ability to handle big words like those in the papers you mentioned, that may explain your incredible idiocy.
    Lastly, your whole thesis that Sam isn’t contributing to science is ridiculous, you have proven you don’t know what a scientist is. He is a PhD neuroscientist from one of our nations finest universties. You’re an intellectual peon. He is a neuroscientist and an author. He did his work, defended his thesis, and writes books about his interests and people buy them. Maybe you will one day learn how things like publishing and impact factor work before criticizing a man with real accomplishments.

  11. Doug says:

    @Andrew — did you actually read the O/P? Sam Harris has “real accomplishments”? Don’t embarrass yourself.

  12. Dhay says:

    The above response is quite unlike the ‘Andrew’ who occasionally responds here — I’d say this is the troll who has spent the last day or so trolling under the name ‘Larry Olson’.

  13. Kevin says:

    For some reason, the colossal idiot Sam Harris tends to attrace the most blindly devoted followers to defend him. Must be a Buddhist thing.

  14. TFBW says:

    Consider it a cautionary tale about the effects of prolonged meditation and/or use of psychoactive drugs.

  15. Dhay says:

    Andrew > Your other point that Dr. Harris would flaunt this paper if he wrote it is idiotic considering it’s been cited by a whopping two people.

    This seems to be the only point worth addressing in your otherwise quite uncomprehending mess of a response. The paper you refer to, by the British Sam Harris and the team of researchers he is working with, has indeed been cited twice in the fifteen months since publication (says Google.) But with epilepsy being such a specialist field for research, you would be idiotic to expect more.

    The paper’s bibliography citation dates tell us that this research was heavily based upon Harris et al’s previous research (one paper in each of 2012, 2013 and 2014 — they are obviously an active and productive team), with the most recent research by other researchers being two papers in 2012.

    There’s a reason for this, I’m sure: a team is familiar with and has immediate access to its own research, is eager to build upon it, and probably has a rolling plan of what research to start immediately after each phase and its paper has completed; other teams must wait until the research paper has been published before they can use the research results, build upon them with their own research, and cite the original paper in their own paper’s bibliography.

    From this paper’s bibliography, it looks like that process of attracting citations from other researchers take approximately two years. That this paper has already attracted two citations looks good in that light, and especially in a narrowly specialised field; on previous form, I fully expect both citations to be by Harris et al as they plough on with their continuation research.

  16. Brian says:

    Dhay has produced an excellent summary of Sam’s research here:


    Almost everyone here seems to be very unfamiliar with academic culture. I have only a BS, but I’ve coauthored so many peer-reviewed publications I don’t even put them all on my CV.

    If Sam Harris was still doing research, would he be flaunting it? Who knows? Who cares? The fact is he isn’t doing any research. He’s a former scientist who is currently a famous author/speaker. That’s not a crime is it?

    His PhD isn’t fake, UCLA has one of the best neuroscience programs in the world- but yes, let’s face it: his research looks more like philosophy. And yes, the experiment essentially produces a negative result. Nothing new is really learned about the nature of belief. That’s 95% of all research though- only scientists who uncover radically new truths become famous *as* scientists.

    The academic pipeline works like this:
    It’s easy to get into college.
    It’s easy to get into gradschool.
    It is very, very hard to get a faculty position. You also cannot get a faculty position as a new PhD. You must do years of post-doc research first. This will likely go nowhere. Unless you are an all-star and your research is amazing, you will not get a faculty position and you will have wasted 2+ years doing post-doc research being horribly underpaid. I have many, many friends who get their PhDs and quit their field to go into industry. If Sam Harris is a famous, successful author and his research didn’t really break any new ground, why the hell would he give up his career and be a dead-end neuroscientist?

    So I guess the conspiracy theory here is that he wanted to spend 3-4 years at UCLA just so he could call himself “Dr. Harris”. Maybe that’s true, but we can’t read his mind. Did he decide to study neuroscience only because it sounds more impressive than philosophy? Again, maybe.

    He isn’t really claiming to be doing active research is he?

  17. Kevin says:

    Is he a neuroscientist? If not, maybe he shouldn’t allow himself to be called “neuroscientist” since he is not a neuroscientist. If I had completed my business degree and then got a job in a different field, I wold not refer to myself as a”business manager”.

    I believe that is the entire point.

  18. Dhay says:

    Brian > The fact is he isn’t doing any research. He’s a former scientist who is currently a famous author/speaker.

    First, Thank you for your heads up on academic culture and the academic pipeline.

    Kevin’s response agrees with the part of your response which I have just quoted, and sums up the position of most here quite nicely. For full understanding, it (and the OP) needs to be understood in the context of Sam Harris’ promoting himself as a neuroscientist at almost every opportunity — the occasions when he doesn’t are where he is debating on Islam, where emphasising irrelevant neuroscience credentials would surely get him looked at askance; the OP is a response to that self-promotion as a neuroscientist, which you yourself rightly also dismiss.

    His PhD is indeed not fake; it is, as judged by whomsoever was capable of assessing Harris’ crossover neurosciences-cum-philosophy thesis, worthy of the award of a PhD; however much some people (eg the statistician WM Briggs, Michael, and especially me) find fault with the “Neural Correlates …” paper he published prior to his thesis, his PhD is a genuine achievement.

    Brian > So I guess the conspiracy theory here is that he wanted to spend 3-4 years at UCLA just so he could call himself “Dr. Harris”.

    Harris has been a Buddhist for a very long time, probably since before he was twenty: his philosophy BA and philosophy-cum-neuroscience PhD are very much consistent with his having great eagerness — which I feel sure will have sprung from his Buddhism — to understand the workings of the mind, the brain, and consciousness; I feel sure his searches and researches have sprung from a genuine interest in those subjects, not just from the wish to acquire a rather handy set of I’m-the-expert qualifications with which to elevate himself as a leader to follow, and with which to impress those he would lead sufficiently that they would follow along the same path of drugs and meditation he himself followed.

    Drugs excepting, this is the Bodhisattva path, which — drugs excepting — I have no hesitation in accepting as a traditionally noble calling, aiming as it does to bring all sentient beings to enlightenment and thus to the cessation of suffering — and in the process to The Moral Landscape’s aim of maximising the well-being and minimising the suffering of all sentient beings — yes, it’s Buddhism represented as scientific morality.

    If one wishes to pursue neuroscience and the investigation of consciousness and the brain, a PhD is but the starting point. Harris won’t have become an expert on all aspects, for as Isaac Newton said, “I was like a boy playing on the sea-shore, and diverting myself now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.”

    Brian He isn’t really claiming to be doing active research is he?

    Not now, though it looks like Harris did have genuine plans to perform, or to commission, further neuroscience research. From June 2011 until May 2013 the Project Reason’s The Biology of Belief page declared:

    UPDATE (June 15, 2011): Project Reason is currently preparing to run another neuroimaging study on belief. Our goal will be to discover which regions of the brain allow people to change their beliefs, or prevent them from doing so, in response to new evidence. If you would like to support this work, donations of any size are greatly appreciated.

    We will announce our results once they have been published in a scientific journal.

    –Sam Harris
    [Opens slowly.]/

    After May 2013 the first two sentences, announcing plans for future research, remained, but the last two sentences, soliciting funds and promising to publish the results, were removed, indicating the plans had actually been dropped. In January 2015 the entire page was removed, so I’d say he finally gave up on the idea entirely.

  19. Dhay says:

    Harris’ UPDATE > Our goal will be to discover which regions of the brain allow people to change their beliefs, or prevent them from doing so, in response to new evidence.

    I’m not surprised that Harris has quietly dropped this proposed experiment; the more I think about how one could go about it, the more problems I see arising. The cynic in me says that the sub-text is that Harris wants to give his followers the opportunity to jeer at brain-defective Christians and Muslims for having an over-active this, or an under-active that; or maybe so that he could jeer at the debate opponents he routinely fails to change the minds of; maybe I’m just over-cynical, though I really cannot envisage what practical use his results could be.

    Nor would it be trivial to design an experiment to obtain those results: you would need, for example, a group of Republicans (or Democrats), half of whom would be persuaded by new arguments presented to adopt the presented position, and half who wouldn’t; the latter are easy to find, but the former are probably simply feeble-minded people who never knew the issues in the first place and are easily led by anyone claiming to speak with authority; so no real-life persuasion exercises, then.

    One could use mathematics: in Harris’ first neuroscience paper the research team used 1.2^57 = 32608.5153 as an example of a statement the truth or falsity of which is undecidable; my own poor mathematical intuition saw straight away that it was obviously false (although the psychology undergraduates evidently all or mostly thought it undecidable); a moment’s reflection told me the reason why it was clearly false was that with an exponent of 57 the trailing digits should have shot across the room; another moment’s reflection says that 1.1^57 will have 57 trailing digits, so 1.2^57 will probably have a similarly large number; indeed (another moment) unless 2^n is zero for some n, 1.2^57 will also have exactly 57 trailing digits; a further moment says 2^n always results in last digits cycling through 2, 4, 8, and 6, so yes that’s definitely 57 trailing digits; if the “undecidable” answer has only four trailing digits, it cannot be correct, it’s definitely false.

    There we have a good example of new information being presented which should, with sufficiently mathematically intelligent experimental subjects, yield a mind-change signal of some sort in some part or parts of the brain, a signal which can be measured and mapped. Of course, if the new evidence is convincing, as here, everyone should change their minds, and the fMRI results for any who, perversely, are not convinced by this new evidence are actually measuring unintelligent bewilderment.

    So, Harris also needs to expose his subjects to new evidence which is not 100% convincing, so that he can get the “unconvinced brain picture” half of his results. Well, he can expose them to obviously 100% false new evidence, at which point he already knows that he’s just going to get the “disbelief” picture he got in his “Neural Correlates …” research; or he can expose them to new evidence which eg 50:50 might or might not be persuasive — in which case, why should anyone be persuaded, and what value should be put on the “persuaded” brain images as against the “unpersuaded” one; and in any case the experiment all too easily slides into measurements of “belief” and “disbelief” — in this case belief or disbelief in the new evidence — which again merely repeats his “Neural Correlates …” albeit with different believed and disbelieved statements.

    A final problem is that Harris’ “Functional Neuroimaging …” and “Neural Correlates …” experiments studied the subjects’ brain under System 1 (intuitive rapid-recollection of truth/falsity) conditions. Anyone who followed my 1.2^57 discussion will have been using System 2 (rational deliberation), which mind-change takes time and probably involves difficult-to-measure because changing brain patterns; and any other ‘new evidence’ experiment will also necessarily involve System 2 and probable measurement problems.

    I would say that Harris’ proposed study was doomed from the start, and obviously so; more fool him for not taking a moment to think it through.

  20. Dhay says:

    Dhay > …unless 2^n is zero for some n, …

    Phrased it badly: that should read, “… unless the last digit of 2^n is zero for some n, …”

  21. Doug says:

    “obvious false”… perhaps, but not according to the conventions of how mathematics is commonly taught:
    1.2^57 = 32608.515250675155…
    which is legitimately rounded to 32608.5153

    Once upon a time, “logarithmic intuition” was a significant part of a mathematical education.
    We know, for example, that:
    2^15=32768 &
    (taken together, gives us 1.4142^30~32768)
    And, we could approximate:
    which gives 1.2^60~1.2^57~32768~32608.5153.
    (which is altogether too close to decide against the result)

  22. Dhay says:

    Thanks, Doug, and I can agree. Whether exactitude is required, or mere precision is acceptable (and if so to how many decimal places or significant figures) definitely needs stating.

    I missed out on “logarithmic intuition”, though I was taught the similar but less mathematically advanced “back of envelope” answer checking techniques.

    Harris’ UPDATE > Our goal will be to discover which regions of the brain allow people to change their beliefs, or prevent them from doing so, in response to new evidence.

    ‘New evidence’ need not necessarily cause one to change one’s mind: if three witnesses say they saw A hit B, a further witness saying the same should change nobody’s mind.

    Implicit in that goal statement is that the ‘new evidence’ should be compulsive enough that it is reasonable to accept it and change your mind, and unreasonable to reject it and not change your mind; that way the two brain states sought for study can be clearly distinguished; if the ‘new evidence’ isn’t compulsive, and if it it reasonable to go either way, the researchers will not know in any individual case whether they are looking at a reasonable brain or at an unreasonable brain.

    (The researchers also need to add a “I didn’t understand the evidence” button, so they don’t get either state mixed up with mere bewilderment.)

    Looks like even my mathematical formal proof fails the ‘Doug’ test of whether it can be considered convincing ‘new evidence’; of two mathematically inclined people, one would change their mind, the other not, and both for good reason.

  23. Ted LeMoine says:

    OK so the people bashing Harris and his lack of published scientific works in journals don’t realize the he is semi or completely retired while he continues to have 4 best selling books…….a black belt in multiple martial art disciplines. …..selling out every venue he attends for years……..Has a PHD in neuroscience (so he is not pretending to know science like some claim on here) Donates more time and money to charities than some billionaires do……..Has appeared on and had his own Podcasts and is also a regular on Big Think donating his time. Travels the world preaching humanism and equality for all regardless of religion race or sexuality preference. Also the author of this paper clearly has the wrong Sam Harris in his quote of a scientific paper. 3 mins of research could have corrected that If this is what you deem as unsuccessful and not worthy of admiration then I sense some sour grapes. I’m not even a big fan of his but how can anyone claim he isn’t qualified or is unsuccessful. Clearly these people just different in their viewpoints of reality with Sam

  24. Kevin says:

    He is completely retired, since he has done essentially zero science yet harps that Francis Collins is not qualified to be the head of the NIH. I’m not a student simply because I once went to college. If being a student is not a core part of my identity, then I am not a student. Sam Harris was never a scientist to any appreciable degree.

    His books largely suck, unless you’re an anti-religious bigot. There are enough of those apparently to make his books best sellers and his venues sold out.

    Did you read the blog post? Michael points out that it’s the wrong Sam Harris. Actually, I’m pretty sure the mis-identification is the entire point of this particular blog post.

    I don’t think “unsuccessful” was one of the charges laid against Harris, unless it’s a qualifier preceding “scientist”. A PhD does not make a good scientist, nor does the lack of one make a bad scientist. Good science makes a good scientist.

  25. Valentin says:

    “… that he flies back and forth to England to carry out this neuroscience research…”
    This shows how deep you have fallen in the pit of ignorance—so deep that no voice but that of a God (read “delusion”) could possibly reach you.

  26. Michael says:

    “… that he flies back and forth to England to carry out this neuroscience research…”
    This shows how deep you have fallen in the pit of ignorance—so deep that no voice but that of a God (read “delusion”) could possibly reach you.

    How so?

  27. Valentin says:

    Not in the mood to elaborate, but he doesn’t really have to fly back and forth, and even if he did, he could do his writing work on the way.

  28. Kevin says:

    Well at least we have to give Valentin points for coming up with an insult (read “best argument” for a New Atheist”) that he didn’t have to go online or read a New Atheist book to find.

    Oh wait.

  29. Dhay says:

    Valentin > … that he flies back and forth to England to carry out this neuroscience research…”

    Plainly Valentin is one of those people who think that irony is what a blacksmith does. Well, Valentin, I’m delighted to tell you that you’re right, it is.

  30. Valentin says:

    I knew I was right!

  31. Michael says:

    Not in the mood to elaborate, but he doesn’t really have to fly back and forth, and even if he did, he could do his writing work on the way.

    Er, you are aware that I was right, right?

  32. Maria Sederholm says:

    COSMOS 7 December 2015
    “The brain according to Sam Harris
    Neuroscientist Sam Harris is a prominent atheist. He talks to Andrew Masterson about his longstanding interest in the human brain and its belief systems.”
    A prominent atheist, NOT a prominent neuroscientist …
    Harris: “I needed to know about the brain in order to think about the problems that I wanted to think about.” WOW. Harris clearly doesn’t want to think about the problems that arise when making a fool of himself. Or perhaps he just hasn’t done enough brain imaging of his own brain yet …

  33. Dhay says:

    Thanks WA, it got spotted a few months back and there’s already a number of references to it (and criticisms of it) scattered about in recent threads:


    One response links back to this thread, but yes, it’s good to have it recorded here too, to be found by those who arrive by Google search.

  34. Dhay says:

    Thanks also to Maria Sederholm – three responses above – whose response presumably got buried by a flurry of responses to other threads. The Cosmos article you linked to is interesting indeed.

    Sam Harris there explicitly says that he never intended (“expected”) to pursue a career as a neuroscientist, he instead pursued neuroscience as a means to other ends.

    US neuroscientist and philosopher Sam Harris never really expected to spend his career in a lab. …

    “I realised, perhaps belatedly, that I went into science and got a PhD really very much in the spirit of wanting to be a philosopher who was very well grounded in the relevant science of the mind,” he tells Cosmos. “I needed to know about the brain in order to think about the problems that I wanted to think about.”


    Personally, I work with the idea that the brain-related problems that Harris wanted to think about were his Buddhism and how to evangelise Buddhism in full (monkish guru-based Dzogchen) or ‘Buddhism lite’ form to the general public in the face of established competition from its main competitors (Christianity in the West and Islam much of elsewhere):

    … Buddhism offers a truly sophisticated, empirical approach to understanding the human mind, whereas Christianity presents an almost perfect impediment to such understanding.
    [Waking Up, Chapter 1, see Harris’ blog]

    He’s also up to his usual weird claims, such as:

    … he explains. “The religious use of terms like ‘spiritual’ and ‘mystical’, and the move that I consider to be intellectually illegitimate, is to extrapolate from changes in your personal experience to claims about the way the Universe is at large.”

    He says a Christian, for instance, might interpret a feeling of joy as proof of the omnipresence of God.

    Well, well, I’m a Christian, I have felt joy many times, yet I have never. ever. interpreted a feeling of joy as proof of the omnipresence of God.

    (I reflect that feeling cold, wet, miserable, sore of leg, exhausted, suffering from multiple raw blisters and crying in pain and frustration – I have run some very long races – has equal claim to joy to being “proof” or “non-proof” of the omnipresence of God; if not, why not.)

    (I also reflect that, isn’t it Zen Buddhist monks who treat the experiencing of the joy of Satori – an emotional release as a result of suddenly letting go of very prolonged, very intense efforts, by the look of it – as certain proof of the truth of Buddhist teaching, a proof that they have now realised a significant level of enlightenment. “Proof” by joy or bliss is part of Harris’ Buddhist tradition, not of the Christian. Where’s Harris’ understanding of that ‘dark night of the soul’, that ‘dryness and sterility’, that total absence of ‘consolations’ through which many pass on their way to mature Christian understanding and practice. Harris is projecting from his own Buddhist religious experiences onto Christianity, projecting an ‘it must be similar’ which begs a ‘why?’

    Here Harris shows his anti-theism, and shows that when your main tool is a hammer, everything looks like a nail; the atheists’ (and Harris’) Argument From Suffering against the existence of God is correct and much-loved in atheist eyes but in error in Christian eyes; the flip side of that error, the idea that the opposite proves the opposite, that joy or bliss “proves” God exists, is as much an error as the Argument From Suffering; it is essentially the same argument, on its flip side, the same error.


    A little later comes a passage which could have been said by The Buddha, including:

    Your life is very much the result of what you pay attention to. There’s nothing especially mysterious about this, but it’s something where you can really do a lot of work on self-inquiry and learn a lot about how to no longer suffer unnecessarily.

    The Buddha phrased the first line in terms of your thoughts, what you think, but it’s recognisably the same. Harris enlarged on that “ lot of work on self-inquiry” in his 2011 blog post, “How to Meditate”, where he says: “The practice of mindfulness is extraordinarily simple to describe, but it is in no sense easy. Here, as elsewhere in life, the “10,000 Hour Rule” often applies. And true mastery probably requires special talent and a lifetime of practice.”

    Get that: the practice of mindfulness is a skill that requires special talent, and a lifetime of practice; special talent, and – assuming a socially acceptable two half-hour meditations per day – takes twenty seven years of practice to get 10,000 hours level competent; nothing much to show for your efforts for a very, very long time (or even a lifetime or two or ten thousand – hence the Buddhist doctrines of karma and reincarnation, which give a glimmer of explanation and hope to the majority non-special un-talented meditators), a very, very long time even for those who have a special talent for meditation.

    I don’t think Harris-style Buddhism is going to sell.

  35. Dhay says:

    Further on in that Cosmos interview, Harris laments that atheists are unelectable in the USA:

    Atheism is the only variable, the only political identity you can have in the US, that makes you more or less unelectable, just in principle.

    Some polling has been done where you say that a member of your own political party is fully qualified to be president. Would you vote for him if he was a [………….] And then you fill in the blank: homosexual, Muslim, Jewish, black, and so on. There is no variable apart from atheist that causes you to lose the majority of your own political party.


    Hmmm, yes, very, very unelectable.

    … the first study I saw on this topic was 2002 – and Americans, famously xenophobic and Islamophobic from 2001 onwards, vastly preferred the prospect of a Muslim president to an atheist president.

    Atheists have a seriously bad image problem; here’s my probably very incomplete look at why:

    1) Atheism has been closely linked with Communism, a serious enemy of mainstream US culture, for many decades.

    2) Madalyn Murray O’Hair seems to have been hated and hateful, presenting as atheism’s self-declared representative a very bad image of atheism.

    3) The Freedom From Religion Foundation sets itself up in title and eg Christmas Saturnalia banner wording as explicitly anti-religion, and their frequent legal lawsuits seek to suppress or contain unconstitutional but entirely natural expressions of the majority Christian culture in the public sphere, and the FFRF will – rightly, I think – be perceived not as defenders of the constitution but as atheists being actively hostile to religion and the majority culture.

    4) When you look at the media, you find moderate atheists are restrained and almost hidden from view; on the other hand, the likes of today’s New atheists like Richard Dawkins, Jeffrey Tayler, Hemant Mehta – the usual suspects, including, yes, Sam Harris – are very visible, very vocal, very hostile figureheads opposing religion and majority culture.

    5) The more vocal New Atheists say publicly that Christians are “deluded”, “a bit thick”, faith-heads, incapable of or opposed to ‘Science and Reason’ – and many other gratuitous insults.

    6) As regards the infamous internet atheists, what worse advert could you possibly have that these are as a group hostile ranters against religion and against the religious majority culture. Friendly !? Atheist, anyone.

    That being so, is it any surprise that Harris can report that right after 911 and Twin Towers, “Americans, famously xenophobic and Islamophobic from 2001 onwards, vastly preferred the prospect of a Muslim president to an atheist president.”

    Atheists have a seriously, seriously bad image problem; and it’s a home goal.

  36. Dhay says:

    That December 2015 Cosmos interview clearly announced, without identifying it in any way, that the latest Neural correlates of maintaining one’s political beliefs in the face of counterevidence research and paper (or some research or paper, at any rate) was then in progress, its results “still being compiled.”

    Unless Cosmos is rather more prominent than it appears to these British eyes to be, this hardly counts as a very public announcement; Sam Harris’ first proper announcement appears to appear a year later, on 26 December 2016, when he blogged the paper had finally been published.

    Perhaps Harris had podcasted about it before his blog announcement – as I rarely listen to any of his podcasts, I would be unaware of it; but I doubt it — please tell me if I’m wrong — because if there’s any indication on Harris’ website’s Forum that any fan was aware of the coming paper, informed by Cosmos or some podcast, I’ve missed the signs.

    Not that his fans would have been interested enough to comment. I note that on Harris’ Forum the paper’s publication has (so far) aroused one single thread containing one single post. Very short, it but announces the paper, links to it, and raises a question; and it has aroused zero further comments:


    Do Harris’ fans care about this latest research and paper, are they wildly excited, are they even vaguely interested in neuroscience? Apparently not, on the evidence of Harris’ own fan Forum.

    So much for the claim that atheists are interested in, and promote, ‘Science and Reason’; it’s not a claim to make of Harris’ fans, anyway.

  37. Pingback: Politics and Values | The Only Winning Move

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