Wittgenstein vs. Sam HarrisPosted: February 8, 2013
Wittgenstein once remarked, and I tend to agree, that anyone who ridicules religion is a “charlatan or worse.” Sam Harris seems to have made a career of it. He’s a bright guy, a good writer, and at least 75% right, so far as I can tell, but he doesn’t let his unfamiliarity with something he dislikes stop him from making brazen statements about it. For example, he claims that “thousands of years have passed since any Western philosopher imagined that a person should be made happy, peaceful, or even wise, in the ordinary sense, by his search for truth” (really? [this is a dead link, but it's in the End of Faith, I swear) and that Islam is not compatible with peacefulness. These statements aren't worth refuting, and you will find many more incendiary and dubious claims if you happen to read one of his books without succumbing to the congratulatory "I'm right and you are too for buying my books" tone.
Anyways, I wonder about his thinking on a subject that he does have some serious expertise in. In a pretty interesting study, the Neural Correlates of Religious Belief, he and his team do fMRI scans of the brains of religious and non-religious folks while they answer "true" or "false" to statements like "Jesus Christ really performed the miracles attributed to him in the Bible," "Alexander the Great was a very famous military leader," and "Alexander the Great was probably able to fly and wield other magic powers."
After taking the fMRI's, he compares the brain activity of the believers and non-believers, concluding that "[d]espite vast differences in the underlying processing responsible for religious and nonreligious modes of thought, the distinction between believing and disbelieving a proposition appears to transcend content.”
Would Wittgenstein approve? Not likely. Regardless of the (maybe convincing?) evidence, this last quote is arguably based on a belief that the word “belief” has some sublimated, idealized meaning that can be separated from a particular use of the word. Wittgenstein, on the other hand, argued that religious belief is fundamentally different from empirical belief about the world, although superstition is an indefensible admixture of the two. As he skeptically asks in the afore-hyperlinked lecture, “How should we compare [religious and non-religious] beliefs with each other? What would it mean to compare them?”
Why, for example, should it be true that a common neural framework reflects anything other than a network of areas involved with responding to true or false questions? Well, that’s what “belief” is, you might say. Not so fast, we might have to separate the mechanism by which we express belief from the source of the impulse. One brain region/network might code religious processing, and another factual processing, but they share a common mode of execution when faced with true false questions (and the common areas’ extensive, frontal executive lobe involvement is conspicuous here). How exactly have you have shown a “distinction between believing and disbelieving” that “transcends content? You have shown that a common neural area is involved in answering true/false questions, but the significance to the respondent of those true/false questions may be utterly unrelated. As Ludwig notes, “What we call believing in a [religious fact] or not believing in a [religious fact] – The expression of belief may play an absolutely minor role.” It is an expression of belief that Sam Harris has illuminated, to a degree, not some ephemeral “belief” process.
Harris and his crew seem to be aware of this problem. They first tailor the study by way of sample selection, as the members of the religious cohort have to have a “literal” belief in the Bible, and the religious and non-religious sample questions are both grammatically “factual” claims about the world. They attempt to address Wittgenstein’s concerns with the following excerpt:
“One cannot reliably infer the presence of a mental state on the basis of brain data alone, unless the brain regions in question are known to be truly selective for a single state of mind. As the brain is an evolved organ, with higher order states emerging from lower order mechanisms, very few of its regions are so selective as to fully justify inferences of this kind.”
Again, can we ever infer the existence of a “belief” “mental state” or “state of mind” that encompasses both religious and non-religious belief? In response to a hypothetical “state of mind” type argument, LW says:
“You might say: “We compare the states of mind.”
How do we compare states of mind? This obviously won‟t do for all occasions. First, what you say won’t be taken as the measure for the firmness of a belief? But, for instance, what risks you would take [based on a belief]?”
In other lectures, he notes that there might be a correspondence between our metaphysical sense of word’s use and a physical mental state, he claimed, but it would almost be a coincidence if there were. Why need there be any consistent “higher order state” reflected in our use of a word like “believe,” regardless of that use’s context? This study arguably provides evidence that such a neural belief process might exist, but we definitely cannot conclude that that process is only present as a ”belief” process, or that the common neural foundations have any correspondence to what we imagine when we think of “belief” at all. Do people go to fact church like they go to religious church? No? Why not? Seems like that’s something Harris et al should address. There seems to be a presumption that all “belief” has a physical correlate to be measured just like “pain” does, which is Wittgenstein dismisses outright.
This sort of hedging from the team-
“Whatever larger role our regions of interest play in human cognition and behavior, they appear to respond similarly to putative statements of fact, irrespective of content, in the brains of both religious believers and nonbelievers”
also wouldn’t assuage Ludwig’s concerns. Doesn’t the religious folks’ different brain activity in response to religious statements that they “literally” believe in suggest that they might not “literally” believe them in the same way that either group literally believes that there is a cloud overhead? It’s perfectly reasonable to expect an atheist and a Christian to walk away from a (superficially mutually intelligible) conversation about whether God exists thinking “Boy howdy, that other guy really doesn’t get it at all.” They would both be right. Aside from all of the debatable conclusions about the nature of “belief,” we get a useful insight out of the study.
Potentially revealing a motive for his reason-thumping, religion riduling public persona, he notes that increased firing in non-believers’ ventral striata when addressing blasphemous statements teaches us that “[n]onbelievers may take special pleasure in making assertions that explicitly negate religious doctrine.” Perhaps we have also discovered the motivation for the questionable conclusions that he draws from this study.
So, in short, Wittgenstein seems to have anticipated and dismissed the Harris team’s arguments decades earlier. For someone who claims to be a fan of Wittgenstein’s philosophy, he spends a lot of time making the sorts of claims that Wittgenstein was committed to debunking.