Monday, October 13, 2014

Harris's etymological failure (revised / appended 10/20/14)


This post is a response to some bad psychology that one of my favorite intellectuals, Sam Harris, has created.  Forced to respond to an ugly misrepresentation of his views slopped on Twitter by contrarian idea-monger Glenn Greenwald and others, Sam cited this excerpt from his book, The End of Faith:

“The power that belief has over our emotional lives appears to be total. For every emotion that you are capable of feeling, there is surely a belief that could invoke it in a matter of moments. Consider the following proposition:
Your daughter is being slowly tortured in an English jail.
“What is it that stands between you and the absolute panic that such a proposition would loose in the mind and body of a person who believed it? Perhaps you do not have a daughter, or you know her to be safely at home, or you believe that English jailors are renowned for their congeniality. Whatever the reason, the door to belief has not yet swung upon its hinges.
“The link between belief and behavior raises the stakes considerably. Some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them. This may seem an extraordinary claim, but it merely enunciates an ordinary fact about the world in which we live. Certain beliefs place their adherents beyond the reach of every peaceful means of persuasion, while inspiring them to commit acts of extraordinary violence against others. There is, in fact, no talking to some people.”

Sidestepping the raw nerve of Harris’s remark that “it may even be ethical to kill people for believing” some propositions, I only want to spotlight his psychological error that effectively co-defines belief (or faith), feeling and action.  In his argument, Harris conflates belief with delusional belief, then conflates a delusional belief with any belief that is so emotionally compelling the believer may feel forced to act on it.

Otherwise put, in order to support his own tendentious (delusional) belief that ideas themselves compel antisocial actions (this is the crux of his argument against Islamic ideology), he posits a neurotic or psychotic straw man as the Muslim Everyman, so ensnared by an emotionally pregnant belief that he must comply, and destroy.

But a believer in a philosophical idea or religious script need not be delusional: One may have questioning insight into the idea or script.  One may have a delusional belief or psychotic experience that remains fallow: A schizophrenic may have “command hallucinations” yet refuse or otherwise fail to comply with the command (to hurt someone or commit suicide, as examples).  And even a delusional person may have insight: I suppose I know that not everyone is untrustworthy, but it sure feels that way.

Many if not most people have very fixed beliefs – delusions – that could be called normative and not crazy.  If I believe I am smarter than I am,* I am delusional as my narcissism may absolutely prevent me from accepting the truth.  If you believe your wife is better looking than she is and you reframe all contrary evidence in a self-serving way, you too are delusional.  The difference between dispassionately accepting all the evidence – however disenchanting it may be – and believing something because it feels right or good, is less a toxic dichotomy that separates the scientist from the fundamentalist, and more a slim and permeable difference whose poles meld together in most people’s human nature.

What Harris most fails is, in effect, the etymology of emotion.  The word reflects the fact that feelings move us, or “move out” in the form of action.  Fear will impel us to run away; love to touch or embrace; hate to fight or disown someone; guilt to apologize or make restitution.  It is feeling, not thought, that causes behavior.  We know, also, that feeling makes thinking, as in the Depressive Personality disordered clients I’ve seen whose unseen pain, emotional starvation has forced them to grow a pessimistic and self-protective philosophy of the world.

From a psychologically sound base, therefore, Harris has reason to rewrite his first sentences: "The power that emotion, specifically emotional pain, has to generate, sicken and potentiate our thoughts appears to be total.  Corrupted feeling, from hateful to manically beautiful, will so often create the defense of a congruent or self-protective thought."

Sam, living on the plane of thought, burying his birthright of body-feeling as the foundation of the Self, may never see these things.  His deeper sight is blocked.  As Fritz Perls said, “Lose your mind and come to your senses.” 


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* I have used these examples in my earlier post, Easy crazy, January 19, 2014.

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Comments are welcome, but I'd suggest you first read "Feeling-centered therapy" and "Ocean and boat" for a basic introduction to my kind of theory and therapy.