Love, Doubt, Children


Here's Sam Harris's latest letter to me. It begins:

Hmm...I'm afraid you chased a few red herrings in your last essay. I did not, for instance, beckon you to a world of my delusions, perfectly free of contingency. Nor did I claim that science is the gateway to such a world. I merely asked you to imagine what it would be like if our discourse about ethics and spirituality were as uncontaminated by cultural prejudice as the discourse of science already is. You appear to have misread me. Consequently, much of your last essay targeted terrain that I have never thought to occupy. I did hear some bomb-blasts in the distance. They were magnificent.

You are, of course, right to point out that science is beholden to the limits of human cognition (though it has begun to escape some of these limits with the aid of computers). Our cognitive horizons are clearly bounded by our neurophysiology, and our neurophysiology is a consequence of our evolution on this earth-which, as you know, is teeming with slithering contingencies as far as the eye can see. The point that I was trying to make is that science is not nearly as beleaguered by contingency as religion is. And this is what is so right with science and so wrong with religion. Needless to say, the discourse of science already exists, and it already functions by norms that are quite alien to religion. If applied in religion, these norms would leave very few traditional doctrines still standing. But contrary to your fears on the matter, this would not make religious music, art, or architecture any less beautiful.

This brings me to a related topic of confusion: there is nothing "purely rational" about the world I am advocating. Your comments seem to invoke a stark opposition between reason and emotion that I do not believe exists (and which now seems quite implausible at the level of the brain). The feeling we call "doubt" can be considered an emotion, and this is this feeling that prompts me to object to much of what you have written over the course of our debate. Could I find your reasoning doubtful without the feeling doubt? I don't know. But it has long been clear that people with neurological injuries that impede certain aspects of emotional processing fail at a variety of reasoning tasks. More to the point, perhaps, I do not think there is anything unreasonable about love, or about valuing love, or indeed, about valuing it above most (perhaps even all) things. While love is not reducible to reason, it is not in conflict with it either. So I think it is time we retire facile oppositions between cold rationality and juicy aesthetics, between truth and beauty, between reason and emotion, etc.

Regarding the fate of our children ...

It continues here.

(Photo: Rebecca Jones hugs her dad Staff Sgt. Robert Jones during a homecoming ceremony for members of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force February 15, 2007 at Camp Pendleton, California. By Sandy Huffaker/Getty.)