In his numerous articles, and presumably in his books on the subject, writer Sam Harris has argued fervently that if religion were not the cause of all brutality, crimes against humanity, and genocide, it is certainly a dominant factor. Together with this argument is usually coupled the idea that the rational approach of the sciences brings morality and an end to dehumanization.
I am thus willing to bet that my piece on the Albigensian Crusade would be eligible for citation as proof of the brutality of those in the sway of religion. I had quite a different impression in mind. The point of looking at the degeneration evident in moving from the early Catholic Church to the destruction of the Cathars, was, in fact, because of the parallel to the United States, not to blast some inherent evil of organized religion. It is the peculiar juxtaposition of power, message, and threats that is so unnervingly similar.
Like the United States, the Church starts with a revolution in its views of society, a new social compact, and a message to the world of that compact. Like the United States, the Church has the elements of this compact enshrined in a founding document, a document that embodies truths so basic to the message that it takes on a revered status. Like the United States, the Church rose to a position of great authority based on the perceived universality of that message for all mankind. Like the United States, the Church put in place bans on inhuman activity. Like the United States, within the Church, movements arose that harshly re-interpreted the 'original meaning' of the founding documents. Like the United States, the Church began to see itself as, to use a recently coined expression, a 'benevolent hegemony', that could impose its superior beliefs on those who it felt needed them by the exercise of its power. Like the United States, the Church then engaged in wars on its borders that it believed were existential in nature. Like the United States, the Church eventually started a war against an intangible, heresy, that led to retraction of many of the policies banning inhuman activity, and the descent into practices once deemed immoral and evil.
The doctrines that make up the founding and rise of the United States are not religious doctrines, nor is the Constitution a religious document. In fact, a good case could be made that the Founding Fathers were squarely in Sam Harris' camp, believers in the morality of the rational mind. But comparisons go both ways: In as much as the Church has later admitted that it descended into evil behavior that it has since recanted and repented, and which forever stains its past, so such a descent will do the same to the United States, if it continues to move in the direction of repudiating its earlier and fervent positions on human rights and against actions like torture. And it cannot be that dogmatism and dehumanization are the sole province of souring religious organizations if they occur and likewise sour secular organizations in the same way. The documents that I relied on to show the about face the Church made between the 7th and 12th centuries on torture were prepared by Catholics. They perceive the changes their church went through as a descent into the ways of the past, into the brutality of the Roman Empire, much the same way that we nervously compare the treatment at CIA Black Sites with the past, the gulags or the Spanish Inquisition.
I'm sorry. I would, as a scientist, love to believe that merely by educating everyone and training them in the methods of rational thought and inquiry that are embodied in science, we could rid the world of all brutality and inhumanity. I would love to think that somehow torture, the subject of this blog, would disappear through an agency as simple, albeit difficult to implement, as scientific or mathematical education. I have a lot to share in common with Mr. Harris, a fascination in the function of the brain, experimentation in the effects of meditation, even a distaste for the effects of those who would eliminate the separation of church and state in America, or would attempt to legislate the theory of evolution out of the minds of its children.
The Wrong Argument
But it isn't true. And one of the best examples of that is Sam Harris himself.
In his 2005 piece, In Defense of Torture, Mr. Harris begins by recounting the ticking bomb argument, pointing out that it can be re-sized to fit the morals of the most fervent doubter, adding 'embellishments' and dire consequences until it awakens, "the Grand Inquisitor in most of us." In his later defenses, specifically for this theory, he invokes the notion of 'thought experiments', which have sort of an elevated status in science after Einstein's theory of relativity. He mentions, "But realism is not the point of such thought experiments. The point is that unless you have an argument that rules out torture even in idealized cases, you don’t have a categorical argument against the use of torture." An argument of absolute immorality does that, and does it quite well. The Convention Against Torture says,
No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat or war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture.
An order from a superior officer or a public authority may not be invoked as a justification of torture.
(Article 2, clauses 2 and 3). Why appeal to absolutism here? The principle, as elucidated last week before the House Judiciary Committee by Marjorie Cohn, is called jus cogens. It is that some rules of human behavior are so fundamental and basic, that they supercede all laws and treaties that would limit them. If such laws and treaties were formulated, they would be null and void for having done so. The things for which this principle applies are things like genocide, slavery, aggressive war, and, well, torture.
Such absolutism isn't obviated by a recourse to science, science is full of absolutes. To name a most basic one, nothing is fact unless it can be verified by a repeatable controlled experiment. To name another, much more 'controversial' in its scope (actually quite breathtaking in its implications) but never disputed, the Law of Parsimony: that the simplest theory that accounts for all the known relevant data, is not only the best (Occam's razor), it is also the Truth. Harris' own research is dominated by the belief that the BOLD activation signals in fMRI are mapping out the areas of the brain in which complex cognition is mediated, without knowing what the mechanisms of that cognition are, simply that whatever they are, they require the nutrition of increased blood flow. Most in his new field rely on the neuron hypothesis, and on other aspects of the past studies of the activity of neurons, that are anything but 100% sureties. I don't necessarily dispute any of the dogma in this paragraph, I just assert that science is not without its dogma.
His second argument, however is one that he believes has no refutation. He believes, and I will quote him at length,
In modern warfare, “collateral damage”—the maiming and killing innocent noncombatants—is unavoidable. And it will remain unavoidable for the foreseeable future. Collateral damage would be a problem even if our bombs were far “smarter” than they are now. It would also be a problem even if we resolved to fight only defensive wars. There is no escaping the fact that whenever we drop bombs, we drop them with the knowledge that some number of children will be blinded, disemboweled, paralyzed, orphaned, and killed by them.
The only way to rule out collateral damage would be to refuse to fight wars under any circumstances. As a foreign policy, this would leave us with something like the absolute pacifism of Gandhi. While pacifism in this form can constitute a direct confrontation with injustice (and requires considerable bravery), it is only applicable to a limited range of human conflicts. Where it is not applicable, it is seems flagrantly immoral. We would do well to reflect on Gandhi’s remedy for the Holocaust: he believed that the Jews should have committed mass suicide, because this “would have aroused the world and the people of Germany to Hitler’s violence.” We might wonder what a world full of pacifists would have done once it had grown “aroused”—commit suicide as well? There seems no question that if all the good people in the world adopted Gandhi’s ethics, the thugs would inherit the earth.So we can now ask, if we are willing to act in a way that guarantees the misery and death of some considerable number of innocent children, why spare the rod with known terrorists? I find it genuinely bizarre that while the torture of Osama bin Laden himself could be expected to provoke convulsions of conscience among our leaders, the perfectly foreseeable (and therefore accepted) slaughter of children does not.
This argument is one of many moving parts. In essence, though, it is an argument against the laws of war in their entirety, since the same argument can be made as to all of the bans in the Geneva Conventions: torture, inhumane treatment, denial of a trial, aggressive warfare, you name it, can all pale in comparison to the horror of the massive destruction of war itself in at least some circumstances, especially if one allows justification by means of Gedanken like the embellished ticking bomb theory. So in essence, because the laws of war are incapable of banning war, they are not acceptable, since the war that is not banned are 'more immoral' than the crimes the laws ban.
The argument displays an astonishing ignorance of the underlying premises of the Geneva Conventions, that is, of the laws of war. When Henri Dunant and Gustav Moynier first convened meetings to hammer out the laws of war, their intent was to lessen the brutality of war, which they regarded, as Harris does, as inevitable. In that context, any ban on behaviors must be absolute: if it were not, it is inevitable that an excuse could be found, and quite quickly it turns out, for overriding it. Therefore, as rational a man as Mr. Harris pretends to be should be equally rational in understanding what kinds of prohibitions are and are not effective to carry out the mandate of the originators of the Geneva Conventions: to lessen the brutality of war. Were he to check, Mr. Harris would find that 'collateral damage' is defined as damage that could not be obviated, given the necessity of war, be it killing, injuring, or destroying property. Consequently, by definition, if all the damage is truly collateral damage, it is the best the combatants could do to minimize immorality given war. Any other damage, while it may be claimed to be collateral damage, is more than that.
Further, it is possible to move down the slope that Mr. Harris finds to be not slippery into justifying genocide. Here's the biggest possible ticking bomb theory: A scientific prediction that unless 4 billion less people inhabit the world by the end of the next five years, the planet will tend, with probability one, to a rapid warming that will diverge within 200 years to the climate of the planet Venus -- that is, all life on earth will be extinguished. Since nothing could possibly be as brutal and immoral as the total and permanent destruction of life itself, genocide now becomes the 'torture solution'. Hey, it's a thought experiment, its elements are, or were, all actually valid, only with all the numbers changed, just as the ticking bomb experiment changes the numbers to render an excuse for torture.
Harris then argues that torture should remain always illegal, but should be practiced when necessary. So apparently he does not really believe in the rule of law, either. Then his final "Harris Law of Torture" is that torture should never be practiced in any circumstances unless the prisoner is Osama bin Laden. After all his talk about how the excesses of Mao and Pol Pot can be seen as religious in nature and not atheist because they were personality cults, which are basically religions, he himself ends up believing in the personification of evil.
Somehow, perhaps, the psychologists devising tortures for the black sites, or the physicists who worked on the Manhattan Project, would have to fit Harris' characterization of 93% atheist, I would assume. They are, after all, as a result of being scientists, uncontaminated by the 'dogma of faith'.
Which I guess is why Robert Oppenheimer, relying on his own translation from Sanskrit, upon witnessing the very first atomic explosion, quoted the Bhagavad Gita (Lit. God's Song), saying "I am become death, the destroyer of worlds."
His core argument on religion is that only religion can produce the rigidity of thought and strong emotions necessary to dehumanize people sufficiently to kill or be cruel. His argument is that if there were another discipline that could do this, then because it can do this, it is therefore a religion. Rationality is the only way to avoid evil, therefore science is the antithesis of religion, and is always a force for the good. In essence: religion is the root of all evil because 'root of all evil' is the definition of religion. Science is the root of all good, because there are only two possibilities, and the other one is the root of all evil. (I would imagine that I am anathema to Harris).
His second argument is that because thought experiments are the basis for the theory of relativity, and the theory of relativity is science, they are a universal method of determining the truth, and need not be grounded in empirical data. True to form, the minute his situational ethics becomes divorced of any absolutes whatsoever, it immediately descends into approval of the very cruelty it purports to expunge. But then that would be one of the many consequences of the Stanford Prison Experiment, which is science, no?
Hegemony and Humility Don't Mix
How does one avoid this consequence? Perhaps by being a bit more humble. Instead of standing overlooking the Sea of Galilee imagining that one has mastered the destruction of self, and then going on to assert ones self as superiorly trained, one must in fact understand the shaman, as well as the Buddha. The shaman is capable of putting reality together in multiple ways, that is his/her distinguishing cognitive characteristic. That is another aspect of the spiritual, perhaps, one that, because of its intensely personal nature, its absolute requirement of belief without independent verification, is much more difficult to sterilize of its trappings and render as purely cognitive neuroscience in its essence. In small ways, this flexibility of perception led to developments in psychophysics and cognitive neuroscience too. But in its essence, the shaman phenomenon asserts that no one perceptual tradition would hold the supremacy of objectivity. That phenomenon is borne out in many experiments, not the least in experiments on inhumanity like the SPE. It therefore argues that concepts like jus cogens, like absolute prohibitions, like a ground level denial that torture can ever be the morally good behavior to practice, are just as valid as any thought experiment, and perhaps lead to a superior morality than elevating science as the next benign hegemony. Scientific inquiry, like the Constitution of the United States, like the Gospel of the Church, is after all, rooted itself in humility.