Sam Harris Discusses SuperSense

The very talented and smart Dr. Sam Harris (I am not sure whether he has finished his doctorate so I apologise if I have not given him the correct title) has just published a neuroimaging study of believers and non-believers in the online journal, Public Library of Science (PLoS) where he reports on the brain activation when evaluating the truth of religious (“Jesus Christ really performed the miracles attributed to him in the Bible”) and non-religious propositions (“Alexander the Great was a very famous military leader”). They found differential activation in the brains of believers and non-believers. Thank goodness for that or we would all be screwed! For a full exposition on that remark, see my discussion of mind body dualism in my book SuperSense.

Brain imaging is an immensely seductive technique as it resonates (ha –ha  neuroscience joke) with how we intuitively think the brain works. We like pictures of the internal workings of the brain. I should point out that Harris and colleagues are comparative experts in this fields as I am a virgin imager but about to pop my neuroimaging cherry later in Nov when we embark on a project of neuroimaging believers and non-believers as well. I too am looking for differential activation but one that is counter-intuitive to what one would expect. That’s where I think the technique can be valuable so stay posted. A recent review of the whole methodology of neuroimaging of social functions was highly critical claiming that most studies were subject to experimenter bias. Let’s hope our study avoids this pitfall and produces publishable results though the initial seduction for publishing neuroimaging research seems to have worn off in the scientific community in recent years.

You used to be able to get any imaging study published in the top science journals Nature and Science in the 1990’s but that’s all changed now – every department seems to have scanner now desperately seeking funding to operate. So where does one publish? The Public Library of Science of PLoS is a fast track journal but you have to pay to have your studies published there. There is something that sticks in my throat about that. It smacks of correspondence degrees but I guess all journals have costs and may that will be the way of the future. More importantly it has free public access which is great.

If you did not know, Sam Harris is the best-selling author of “The End of Faith” and “Letter to a Christian Nation,” and has some of the best put-downs I have ever heard when confronted about his out-spoken views in public. He has now returned his attention to his science and I expect that he is enjoying a welcomed relief to the vitriol that must have come his way. So I was delighted to see his recent papers. I blogged his intriguing finding about cognitive dissonance earlier and he seems to gathering empirical evidence to support his theory that belief is primarily transmitted by others.

However, Harris and colleagues’s discussion of my hypothesis (never a theory till proven) in the current paper that beliefs are a combination of intuitive reasoning embedded in culture is somewhat misrepresented and to say that Justin Barrett and I are coming from the same position is simply not true – Barrett interprets cognitive biases as intelligent design! I was pleased that Harris and colleagues acknowledge the supersense hypothesis but a bit dismayed when they dismissed it with the straw man statement, “Whatever the evolutionary underpinnings of religion, it seems unlikely that there is a genetic explanation for the why the French, Swedes, and Japanese tend not to believe in the God of Abraham while Americans, Saudis, and Somalis do.”

Well dah. Come on Sam, I am not like the others. You didn’t read the book-did you? I made it perfectly clear that just as any child is innately endowed to acquire a language, there is no genetic basis for French. What we need to know is why some people believe and some don’t even when they are raised in the same exact environment. That cannot just be culture. Some of us are different – why? I think this new empirical approach to looking at the brain basis of belief is going to be an interesting research agenda as it has implications about individual differences. I hope Harris and colleagues continue this work.

I am more on your side than you realize. So relax. Enjoy life. There probably is no God.


Filed under Research

16 responses to “Sam Harris Discusses SuperSense

  1. jacarandamimosifolia

    Bruce, IMHO it’s worth following Harris’s Reason Project (

    Never mind all this imaging nonsense, I think he’s a great writer on the issues of belief and atheism, much better than Dawkins…

    • brucehood

      I would follow if I had time but as I am increasingly discovering, it is impossible to be on top of every opinion and idea & I am sure that is one of the reasons that the protagonists tend to seem so dogmatic.

  2. “What we need to know is why some people believe and some don’t even when they are raised in the same exact environment. That cannot just be culture. Some of us are different – why?”

    My degrees are in music and marketing, not neuroscience, so it’s with great humility that I ask:

    Why is belief in a god any different from belief in any superstition? i.e. it would seem we believe anything and everything based on what we’re told by people we trust, and reinforced by our peer groups. I have no doubt that if no one ruined the story of Santa Claus we’d have hundreds of millions of adults convinced he was real.

    • brucehood

      Dear Nick
      (I do not know you & if I met you in the street for the first time time, I would not say ‘Dear’) the tone of your question is sincere. As an areligionist – yes I just invented my new position- just to complicate the vast spectrum of belief – religion and supersition are based on common misconceptions. Sorry to be boring but read the book and then you’l understand

  3. Leigh

    I am becoming more annoyed for you by the day. The commentary on your thesis nearly always misses the mark. I am reading Supersense for the second time, taking in bite-size pieces and doing some deep processing to ensure that I can explain it to others.
    I did something similar when I was trying to understand the biological sciences and still do with new information. I envisaged many of the characters from the history of science suddenly materializing and posing questions about the current state of their ideas. My first run at an explanation usually revealed a copious array of shortcomings which led me to tighten up and study, study, study.
    It’s an odd methodology perhaps but very effective nonetheless.
    Given that I do not know you personally, why on earth am I compelled to represent your ideas honestly whereas so many others seem utterly intent on missing the point?
    It cannot be that I am simply drawn to your ideas and as such will only represent them honestly as I do the very same thing with someone’s views who are opposite to mine. (Before I begin to bug them about the content.)
    I cannot tell you how weary I am of this culture of misrepresentation.
    What a price we pay for caring about what is true.

    • brucehood

      Heh Leigh, It’s not ME that is annoying you. It’s that some people have decided that they think they understand my hypothesis when they don’t and then simply reiterate a straw man argument. The nature OR nurture position that they take is the sort of level of first year students essays that I give low grades to!

  4. Leigh

    Annoyed for you Bruce, not by you.
    Re-read first sentence.

  5. I’m not sure how to do a trackback, so:

    Trackback: We must be ever-vigilant about the moralistic fallacy

    (Summary of how it relates to this post: I am wondering if Harris’ and other nontheists misunderstanding of your theory is partially a result of them engaging in the moralistic fallacy)

  6. R Harvey

    Hey Bruce,

    Just saw this…Do I need to read your book to understand the following?

    It seems naive to lump superstitions together with belief in God. The concept of God, unlike superstitions, explains the existence of the universe, although people differ as to whether they accept this explanation. In fact, this explanation is both rational and self-consistent. No-one has ever proposed to me a more convincing explanation to this ‘Fundamental Problem of Metaphysics’.

    Also, if we were to posit ‘blind’ evolution as true, then the only reason our brains work the way they do is because of some evolutionary advantage. Thus there is no necessary connection between our brain’s workings or mental states and the universe out there, as long as that conduces to the survival of our species. This seems to be the implication of your argument for religion: that it’s just in our heads. However, the sword cuts both ways, as a theory such as evolution is only made by our minds. In effect, blind evolutionary theory undercuts the claim of any science to be true knowledge in reality, while religion conserves it according to the argument that God allows humanity truthful knowledge reality.

    • brucehood

      Yes, you have to read the book to understand the subtle argument… only kidding (but I assure you that you will learn stuff you never knew). It would make it easier if people were familiar with the position I am taking but I will answer your points.

      Religions are necessarily cultural whereas supernatural beliefs (including superstitions) are not. Supernatural beliefs can be entirely individual and idiosyncratic and this is why I reject the meme theory as accounting for all belief.

      Your second point is more subtle and clever. I agree, there does not necessarily need to be a direct relationship between the way we reason (& believe) and the actual state of the universe. (I happen to think that there will always be aspects that we can never appreciate due to being immersed within the structure of the universe).
      But I disagree with your last point that both evolutionary theory and religion are “just in our head.” One is completely independent of the human mind (evolution) and the other is wholly dependent of people (religion). Appreciation of both is in the head but that does not make them equal.
      Does that make sense. … or supersense?

      • R Harvey

        Thanks for your polite reply. Just in response to the last point. I don’t think I made clear enough the position I was putting forward.

        I was contending that just as ‘blind’ evolutionary theory views religion as a mental construct that does not refer to a ‘really-existing’ God, but just a useful idea for survival, so its own logic must be extended to view all scientific theories as similar constructs.

        So if blind evolution is true then the entire correspondence between scientific theory and reality is problematised and we can never know whether they really tell us about the world, or just help us to survive. However, evolutionary theory itself must come under this same judgement, however mind-boggling that idea might be. So a thorough-going evolutionist has to accept that unlike other scientific propositions they may believe, if evolution is true, then paradoxically they can never prove it and all scientific knowledge is reduced from a search for ‘truth’ to the mere pragmatic ‘utility’ that it presents to our senses.

        Now, if scientists are happy to accept that, then fair enough. However, it seems that many want to have their cake and eat it. That is, they want to fully believe in the reality of blind evolution and use it in their theories to make all sorts of comments on the beliefs and actions of humans without realising the epistimological implications and indeed limitations for their own scientific project. And if thats the scientists, what about the popularisers, journalists and angry cocksure atheist bloggers?

  7. R Harvey

    Actually I just wanted you to know that this critique is not originally mine, though I have thought about it and turned it over in my own head before placing it before you in an abridged form. If you are intrigued, then you can find a more thorough treatment by a greater scholar than myself here:

    • R Harvey,

      I would first point out that the way our brains have evolved actually runs quiet contrary to scientific thinking. It takes years of education to train our brains to operate in that manner, and we do it largely be repurposing neural circuitry that evolved for a different purpose.

      The classic example is the co-option of our evolved verbal acumen to facilitate mathematics. Even something as simple as a multiplication table cannot rely on the parts of our brains evolved to deal with numbers, because that part starts to lose track after about the quantity 3. But we have evolved a tremendous ability to remember phrases, thus, it is trivial to remember the phrase “six times seven equals forty-two.” And in like manner, we use education to co-opt neural circuitry intended for other purposes in order to engage in all sorts of modern thought processes.

      Typically, behavior that uses the brain in the “natural” manner emerges without intervention (e.g. toddlers learn to talk without having to go to school to study it) while other behaviors have to be learned (e.g. children don’t just learn to read on their own, they need to study it in order to co-opt the evolved speech centers of the brain and other related neural circuitry into dealing with written language, an invention far too recent in human history to have shaped our evolutionary path)

      I think this is important to recognize — that science is most definitely not a product of “blind” biological evolution, but rather, the result of millennia of conscious struggle — but I don’t think it quite addresses your main point.. Which if I may paraphrase, I think you are saying that even this conscious struggle I refer to must necessarily have been performed by brains that evolved via pure natural selection, so what’s so special about that?

      The second thing I want to point out is that in regards to religion as an adaptive trait, it does not necessarily follow from this that any given religion is false. Now, I happen to think they are for different reasons, but I don’t really understand why you would feel that this threatened your faith. In fact, I don’t even think that Bruce’s hypothesis that religion and superstition have the same evolutionary origin necessarily counts as evidence in determining the existence or non-existence of a god or gods. I think it’s relevant — given the track record of superstitions, Bruce’s theory if true ought to at least give believers some pause, I would think — but not really evidence per se.

      The last point I want to make is to directly address your primary thesis: That if the scientific method is ultimately the product of evolution selecting solely for reproductive success (even though there were millennia of conscious, i.e. not “blind”, struggle to develop it) then how can it be viewed as a conduit to “truth” rather than as simple an evolved tool for reproduction?

      The short answer is that, on a base level, you’re right — without making some assumptions about the validity of empirical data, etc., there is no epistemological underpinning for science. But if you are going to make that argument, then there is no epistemological underpinning for anything, and we are left with mere solipsism — which, among other things, I find to be both boring and useless.

      The long answer is that what makes science different from other epistemologies is that it is parsimonious with its assumptions. About all you really have to assume to get the ball rolling on “proving” the validity of science is that a) there is a shared reality that we all exist in, b) that our individual perceptions, while they certainly do not directly reflect that reality, are affected by reality in somewhat predictable ways (and remember, it’s the same reality for all of us), and that c) observing trends in our past perceptions is somewhat predictive of future perceptions, i.e. trends suggested by empirical data have a tendency to continue, and d) that the phenomenon observed in (c) is a result of the shared reality assumed in (a).

      I think that’s really all that needs to be assumed. From that, our perceptions will show that the scientific method time and time again outperforms other methods for predicting our future perceptions. And since we have already assumed (d) that predictive power indicates a reflection of the shared reality we assumed in (a), it therefore follows that science is the most reliable conduit to discerning trends in that shared reality.

      Not only are there very few assumptions required, but I think they are pretty easy assumptions to agree to. To reject (a) is solipsism. To reject (b) is to posit that everyone is insane. To reject (c) or (d) is essentially post-modern deconstructionism, a philosophy which I find fascinating but mostly pointless. The average person believes none of these things, so I think they would have an easy time accepting those four assumptions.

      In contrast, an epistemology based on, say, divine revelation, requires a whole chain of assumptions that would be far more controversial. It assumes that a) there is some sort of shared reality, b) that shared reality is controlled by another being who has a direct conduit to that reality (somehow), c) this hypothetical other being for some reason cares a whole lot about the conscious beings on this particular planet, d) our perceptions of this hypothetical being sometimes reflect the messages that this hypothetical being is sending us, e) this hypothetical being WANTS to send us messages that reflect shared reality, f) there is some sort of means to distinguish between perceptions that reflect messages from the hypothetical being vs. other perceptions, and then g) h) i) all sorts of assumptions about what the means posited in (f) would be, which vary from religion to religion.

      That’s a lot of damn assumptions, and I have a hard time granting an intuitive acceptance to a lot of them.

      So that’s my answer: If one refuses to make any assumptions whatsoever, then fine, science and religion and astrology and “mother’s intuition” and just-making-stuff-up are all equally valid epistemologies. I admit that. However, if one is willing to make just a few basic assumptions about the existence of a shared reality and that we have at least some cloudy ability to access it, then science will quickly demonstrate itself as the most reliable “way of knowing.”

  8. Bruce,
    Like the new term: areligious. Maybe that’s what I am. I change my views daily. Agnostic. Pantheist.

    By the way, I haven’t really gotten into the whol controversy over your book basically because I just don’t view the book, subject matter, you, as being the least bit controversial. I also don’t understand why people are taking your material, your research, your assertions, and trying to pigeonhole them.

    Actually, I do understand that people are doing that because people always take material and try to reshape it to fit their own needs. It just bugs the ever-loving hell out of me.


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