/ Consequentialism / Gentle Reformation

Some Curious Admissions From Sam Harris

While hanging out with the guys over at Very Bad Wizards, an atheistic podcast that discusses morality, philosophy and culture, Sam Harris made some fascinating comments...shall I say concessions?

As one of the leading atheists of our day, Sam Harris isn’t shy about sharing his feelings about God. Not surprisingly, he spends a fair bit of time attacking the judgments of God, calling God a moral monster and the like. One need only listen to his debate with William Lane Craig on morality. Just go the 54 minute mark to get a taste.

Now what is fascinating to me is how, on the one hand, Sam Harris can decry the judgments of God with resolute certainty, but then turn around and express caveats and nuances that directly undermine those same condemnations.

What do I mean?

Let me provide a number of quotes from episode 63 of Very Bad Wizards to illustrate the matter. Each will serve as a kind of tent peg grounding an overall point.(1)

Tent Peg #1, It all Comes Down to Consequences

• 1:21:00ish, Tamler: “This is what makes me so suspicious. There is always some reason why the thing that is your intuition ends up working for the best consequences. It is like the Jon Haidt brother/sister case, where people will come up with all these different reasons why it’s actually going to be bad for them to have sex. It’s not like they’ve looked into the research on consensual incest between brothers and sisters. But there’s this sort of tendency to just assume that the consequences are going to work out in the way you want it to work out based on your intuition.”

Harris: “Well, no, I have a (as you know from the moral landscape) very broad view of consequences and competing possibilities, so that there could be many peaks on this landscape, some of which we can’t even imagine and that they’re irreconcilable with other peaks. Again it’s a navigation problem. There are possible experiences of well-being in this universe given all the possibilities of mental life, and you can navigate toward peaks, or you can navigate towards the valleys of pure misery. And there must be right or wrong answers how to navigate, and I think ethics/morality relate to the all of the concerns about navigation that arise once you have multiple agents, or seeming agents, working in this space.”

• 1:24:00ish, Harris: “The thing you haven’t answered, you can’t name something worth caring about, or some justification for your rule, or some deontological principle, that” [doesn’t come down to consequences]-

Tamler: “There is a way in which that is true by definition. Right?”

Harris: “If you see consequences the way I see consequences, you see that they reach into everything and they [pause]- we’re talking about the actual or possible changes in experience across the board for everything that could possibly be affected by a certain action. And again, we can’t always tally that, but that is the measure of whether something is moving in the right direction or the wrong direction.”

Tent Peg #2, There May be Amazing Consequences Beyond our Grandest Conceptions

• “This is why rules are so tempting to follow, and so good to follow most of the time, or much of the time. We can never be entirely sure what consequences are going to accrue, and we can never be entirely sure about our state of information.”

• 1:48:00ish, “I just think there are horizons past which we can’t see, and perhaps can’t even imagine, in terms of the positive states that minds can experience. What would it be like to be a creature 100 times more intelligent and perceptive than we are? What sort of well-being could it be available to? Who knows? I don’t think it’s vacuous to posit that those states of consciousness are possible; given suitable minds those states of consciousness must be possible, whether or not we can discover them.

And this is true for just human beings. We have 7 billion people in the world. There are clearly states of human consciousness that not everyone can have access too. Some people aren’t smart enough. Some people aren’t sensitive enough. Some people can’t pay attention closely enough. We’re not all super athletes of cognition and emotion. So we know that by happenstance we could wander into a circumstance where some of the greatest places human minds have ever gone are now unavailable to all of the existing human beings and would have to be rediscovered by the next generation.”

Tent Peg 3, The Greatest Good Defense, or Frontiers of Unknown Good

• “If we have an alien race that comes to earth and they say, “Listen. We’re going to torture all of you for eternity in ways that we have devised based upon our perfect technology unless you sacrifice this one, innocent little baby, uh, yes, the right thing to do, absolutely, is to sacrifice that one, innocent baby.”

• 1:31:00ish “I suffer the utility monster problem. If an alien being came to earth and drew so much pleasure from consuming us that it completely swamped all the pleasure we would- and not just pleasure, but well-being in every relevant sense that we would accrue by persisting as a human civilization- then, uh, I would say that when viewed from above, uh, yeah, the right thing to have happen would for us to be sacrificed to this utility monster. That’s not to say that I would run willing into his jaws, but in the global sense, I have to succumb to that argument.”

• 2:08:00ish, [Previous Retort: Why not just favor your own race or country?] “Let’s say you have a group of neo-Nazis who get immense fulfillment out of their brotherhood, and they love their kids, they listen to Wagner... so you’ve got these guys, the question is: what are they missing? There’s no question that we could have what you would consider to be a pathologically happy tribe exporting its misery to the rest of the world by some kind of perverse entropy shedding effect, where they’re racist, they victimize others, but they’re having a grand old time doing it. That could be a very positive experience for them. But I’m not suggesting that they must be terribly unhappy and just not know it. But there are certainly states of consciousness that are not available to them- they’re not experiencing. They don’t know what it’s like to be filled with love for all humanity, because they’re precisely not filled with love for all humanity.”

“Everyone is trying to play the best game they know how to play. And almost by definition everyone is playing the best game they know how to play. And some people are playing very small games that give them a certain kind of pleasure, but they’re totally captivated. There is a range of conscious states that they don’t even know- there’s a range of kinds of collaborations with people and creativity and social institutions that haven’t been invented- none of this stuff is going to happen because we just have a bunch of people playing video games or collecting crap off of Ebay, and they haven’t conceived of what is possible in the future, and we’re never going to get there. It is possible for everyone to be wrong about what is potentially available to creatures like ourselves. And the claim I’m making is that there are frontiers of experience that he’s [the Nazi] clearly not aware of, and if we could dial them directly into his brain, he would surely prefer some of them to what he’s got.”

By way of summary, Sam Harris asserts that:

• Consequences form a complex matrix of results that reflect the smallest details and extend to the greatest ends. Knowing how all the details work together is difficult, if not impossible to fully anticipate/conceptualize.
• There are potential vistas of goodness/well-being that transcend our present conception of good/well-being. This is doubly true for those who are “totally captivated” by their ignoble and myopic perspectives.
• There are grand ends which justify or validate means designed to magnify those grand ends, i.e., consequences in their total aggregate serve as the ultimate rule for determining the rightness of a particular end.

As a Christian, I think Harris has put his finger on some important truths. And as a result, these insights (unwittingly on his part, I suspect) seriously undermine the force and ground of his objections against God’s judgments.

Here’s why.

How does Harris know that he isn’t like one of the neo-Nazis who is locked in own little world of myopic conceptions? What if his mind, as a man suffering from the noetic effects of sin, cannot imagine or rightly judge what serves the greatest good? What if he needs to be renewed in the image of God (Colossians 3:10)?

What if there is a Being that is at least 100 times smarter than he is. And what if that Being says something like, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the LORD”? Shall Mr. Harris say that he knows better? If so, upon what basis? According to his own fallen, limited perspective? Or does he presume to know with certainty that he isn’t fallen or that he does know better?

Also, if we are unable to calculate the sum total of all consequences (their infinite cascade through history and overall effect on well-being), how does Sam Harris know that God’s judgments in the OT aren’t right and good, when viewed from a larger perspective, and when viewed through a lens that is more just than our marred conceptions of justice?

Isn’t God the one who says that He works all things out according to the purpose of His own will (Eph 1:11), and that He works all things out for the good of those who love Him (Rom 8:28)?

Lastly, Sam Harris concedes that a utility monster would be right to devour the world. God is not the utility monster of Harris’ imagination, but what if the greatest conceivable good in all of reality is the magnification of God’s glory? What if the magnification of God’s glory spells the greatest possible end of happiness and good for humans and angels? If God is the most glorious Being, and if we are made to share in that glory, finding deepest satisfaction in Him, then the greatest imaginable end would be for God to magnify His glory, or name, or fame. Anything else would be idolatry. Anything else would be second best and fall infinitely short. It would be entirely fitting, therefore, indeed supremely right for God to sovereignly orchestrate the details of reality in such a way so as to maximize the glory of His glory.

Given Harris’ admissions, I cannot see how he, in principle, could deny this. And given his finitude, as well as his own recognition of man’s dire condition (as falling woefully short of the virtues he recognizes and praises), I cannot see how he can so dogmatically condemn the judgments of God in the OT. Sam Harris would no doubt condemn what those pagans did. The question is: does Sam Harris know how to best deal with those evil actions? Can he tell us what perfect justice looks like? Can he tell us how all of the consequences work out on the canvas of reality? More humility is surely in order; but that doesn’t serve his own ends, when he is talking to Christians.

All of this is a classic case of wanting your pie and eating it too.  His moral system doesn't supply the kind of certainty required to make the kind of dogmatic assertions he levels against the One whom he so vigorously opposes.

For further reflections, I would encourage the Christian to consider the following by John Piper: He asks whether or not God is a megalomaniac:


Also, there is the classic work by Edwards, entitled, “A Dissertation Concerning the End for Which God Created the World.”

(1) And here I should say that while I have tried to preserve the exactness of their words, free flowing speech doesn’t always translate well into writing. So I have smoothed the words out slightly, but have tried to preserve the essence of the quote.