Was Jesus Christ a better neuroscientist than Sam Harris?
On the surface, it will seem obvious to many people that a man who got a PhD in neuroscience from UCLA in 2009 should have a more scientific understanding of the human brain than Jesus. After all, Jesus grew up in the Middle East 2000 years ago. He didn’t know about neurons or neurotransmitters. How could Jesus possibly have a more scientific understanding of human thinking than a doctor of neuroscience? Science hadn’t even been invented yet!!!
And yet, a long journey through the scientific literature has convinced me that Jesus is a better neuroscientist than a man who got his PhD in the last decade.
To be clear, I have nothing against Sam personally. In fact, I used to be a lot like Sam. When I graduated from Harvard in 2004 with a degree in Biochemistry, I believed in human reason and rationality. (So did many of us until 2016 ruined that little theory!) I worshipped facts and piled them up. And I saw it as my job to correct the errors in others thinking. This is the way many young scientists think. Atul Gawande, the medical doctor and writer, sums this up brilliantly in the Commencement Speech he gave last year at Caltech:
“When I came to college from my Ohio home town, the most intellectually unnerving thing I discovered was how wrong many of my assumptions were about how the world works — whether the natural or the human-made world. I looked to my professors and fellow-students to supply my replacement ideas. Then I returned home with some of those ideas and told my parents everything they’d got wrong (which they just loved). But, even then, I was just replacing one set of received beliefs for another. It took me a long time to recognize the particular mind-set that scientists have. The great physicist Edwin Hubble, speaking at Caltech’s commencement in 1938, said a scientist has “a healthy skepticism, suspended judgement, and disciplined imagination” — not only about other people’s ideas but also about his or her own. The scientist has an experimental mind, not a litigious one.”
When I graduated from college, I was like a young Atul Gawande. I was litigious. I litigated like a lawyer. Everyone else’s thinking was on trial and it was my job to “educate” them by telling them everything that was wrong with their thinking. However, rather than going into a PhD program (as I’ve been repeatedly encouraged and pressured to do) I have taken a rather unusual path for someone who majored in biochemistry. I have spent my time with the two most famously emotional groups of humans on the planet: actors and teenagers. It’s a close call as to who is more emotional honestly. Teenagers are emotional because they don’t have experience managing them. Actors are emotional because it’s their job! In acting class, crying in a scene is the ultimate in virtue signaling. It’s how actors show that they’re really emotionally invested in the scene.
I can’t tell you how many times I had to listen to actors talk about “their motivation.” Meanwhile, I was dealing with students who had every available resource but didn’t feel motivated to try. And, at a certain point, I got so annoyed by hearing everyone endlessly talk about motivation and emotions that I turned to the only authority I had been taught to trust: the scientific literature. Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck joked that “all research is really me-search.” Well, that was definitely the case. I trawled through the science looking for the answer to a very personal question: what were emotions and how did they work? And it turns out that there was a whole lot of research on the topic. I read the work of Kahneman, Damasio, Seligman, Dweck, Ekman and many others. And, as I did, I came to the painful realization that all these actors (many of whom never graduated from high school) had a more realistic understanding of the brain that I had gotten while majoring in Biochemistry at Harvard. And that was embarrassing.
It’s important to note here what science is and what science is not. Science is a belief system. Humans believe in things. That’s just part of the human condition. Michael Shermer in his book The Believing Brain does a great job of laying out the many problems this creates for us in our daily lives. Shermer uses the fantastic example of a human in the Serengeti. You hear a rustle in the long grass. Maybe it’s a lion. Maybe it’s not. But your chances of survival go up if your brain creates a false positive. It’s better for your survival chances if your brain assumes there is a lion there when there’s not. If you believe there’s a lion there when there’s not, the cost is pretty low. “Oh! No lion after all.” But if you believe there’s no lion there when there is, then you die. It’s better to have your brain seeing patterns there that aren’t there. The problem is that while that’s great for preventing lion attacks it has also led to all the sorts of problems in human history that Sam Harris decries like witch hunts.
And the Spanish Inquisition and antisemitism and the Holocaust…
The human tendency to believe that we are the good guys and other people are the bad guys is the defining problem of human history. And it’s a problem that arises because our brains can’t track more than about 150 individuals. This is known as The Dunbar Number.
In fact, you’ve probably run up against your Dunbar Number in using Facebook. When we first got on Facebook, a lot of us went on a friending spree. Yipeeee!!! I can have a million friends. And then, a few years later, we start seeing people on our Facebook feeds who make us go…
Facebook may allow us to friend thousands of people but our brains just won’t. We run up against our Dunbar Number all the time. Relationships take time. Family and best friends are INCREDIBLY time-consuming. And so, almost everyone else on the planet we judge through stereotypes. You can like that. You can dislike that. And yet, that’s the reality of human affairs. The key is how do we manage that. Knowing that we are forming stereotypes for our group, how should we and especially public figures like Sam Harris engage with other tribes? Well, I think we should be good ambassadors. We should try and form bridges with cultures that see the world differently. Having taught at a Christian school that teaches the controversy, I can tell you firsthand that Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins are terrible ambassadors for science. You can read about that here. They epitomize the arrogance and smug condescension that is the worst of any tribe. As someone who doesn’t have a Professorship to protect, I have the economic freedom to call them out in front of the whole world. Why me?
Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins will tell you that they are skeptics. However, they are skeptics in the same way that conspiracy theorists are. They trust no one but have unlimited faith in their own powers of reason. This leads to bizarre contradictions in thinking like conspiracy theorists who simultaneously are libertarian and think the government screws up everything and yet is simultaneously utterly brilliant at deceiving the public on 9/11, aliens and the moon landings. Which is it?
A real scientist is not just skeptical of the thinking of others but, especially, their own thinking. The human brain hears lions where there are none. It BOTH imagines that your spouse is cheating on you when they’re not AND correctly hints that your spouse might be cheating on you long before you have proof or a confession. Your brain is endless suggestion machine. Some ideas are good. Some are bad. Wisdom lies in being able to sift through the ideas and pick out the good ones and throw out the bad ones. You probably don’t work with particle accelerators or try and figure out black holes or use gene therapy to try and cure diseases but every human throughout history has had to be a scientist. We all have to make sense of the noise our brains hand us and figure out what the signal is. And Jesus was perhaps one of the best cognitive scientists of all time. With no access to MRIs or EEGs, he figured out patterns in human thinking that have stood the test of time. And that’s something that I only realized after finishing my formal education.
By the time I read Jon Haidt’s The Happiness Hypothesis, I’d already been softened up. I was beginning to realize how much emotions mattered in human thinking. Paul Ekman’s Emotions Revealed had taught me that our faces constantly transmit emotional data. Kahneman’s work had taught me that for decades science had known that human rationality wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. And Damasio’s Descartes’ Error had showed me that patients who have their ventromedial prefrontal cortex removed or impaired can’t make good life decisions BECAUSE their thinking and their feeling have been separated out. This last one was really upsetting to me. It flipped everything I’d thought about my own brain on its head. I’d thought emotions got in the way of good decisions. Actually, emotions helped make good decisions possible because we often figure out something is emotionally off long before we can put this into words. Detectives call this the hinky meter. Something doesn’t add up and you follow that feeling until you find the answer. In the study of scientific and technological innovation, they call this process of following your hinky meter (often for decades) a slow hunch. You know something is there but you’re not sure what it is. You just keep examining the clues until you solve the puzzle. At the end of 2010, I found myself in the Sahara desert with my parents I followed my slow hunch to a vital turning point.
Surrounded by sand dunes that stretched as far as the eye could see with nothing but the delicate grunt of camels in my ears, I read the book that finally laid me low.
The Happiness Hypothesis laid me low because it revealed to me that, in the realm of human affairs, science had only rediscovered and reclarified what the wise men of the past had known. In fact, this knowledge has been creeping into the scientific community for a while. For science to admit that religion might have valuable insights into reality would be to admit that science had fallen prey to a powerful myth about its special place in the search for understanding. And yet, that’s exactly what science has quietly been doing. Buddhism has been rebranded as a science of the mind to make it palatable to scientists. Oh! The Buddha. He’s one of us. Really, he was #TeamScience all along. Every time I think of this, I’m reminded of Dave Chapelle’s hilarious racial draft sketch. Chapelle satirizes the way tribes like white, Asian and black all claim Tiger Woods as one of theirs. Tiger Woods has all these different backgrounds. Does he belong to one of them or does he belong to none of them? In the sketch, black people use a draft pick to claim Tiger Woods as their own and from now on he’ll be regarded as 100% black.
If science is going to retroactively draft the Buddha as #TeamScience, then we’re going to also have to draft Jesus as a neuroscientist. And that is not something people with neuroscience PhDs like Sam Harris will want to do. Sam Harris has made his public career out of attacking a group of belief systems he puts in a bucket he calls religions. Sam meditates and talks about the value of Eastern philosophy. And yet, his approach to Western belief systems like Christianity and Islam is lawyerly. He endlessly finds fault with the belief systems closest to home and struggles to see the profound virtues. I used to think like Sam and then Jon Haidt showed me that Jesus of Nazareth was a great scientist. And that is why Jon Haidt’s book was so personally devastating to me. It revealed to me that, in many ways, this great new project that was science was actually just reinventing the wheel. Time and again, Haidt’s book shows that science has merely confirmed what the great teachers of the past were saying.
Take the following quote from Luke 6:42:
How can you say, ‘Brother, let me take the speck out of your eye,’ while you yourself fail to see the beam in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the beam out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.
Jesus turns out to be spot on. The human mind is AMAZING at finding the faults in other’s thinking and terrible at finding the faults in our own thinking. This is what young Atul Gawande and younger Hunter Maats fell prey to. We learned some science and we thought we knew it all. And so, we went around with our newfound knowledge telling everybody else what was wrong with their thinking while being totally oblivious to the fact that we hadn’t understood that science requires us to not only be skeptical of what others think but to also be skeptical of what we think. Jon Haidt has also taken issue with Sam Harris. In this article, Haidt calls Sam a rationalist. And uses this 1947 quote from Michael Oakeshott to lay out what that means:
“[The Rationalist’s] mental attitude is at once sceptical and optimistic: sceptical, because there is no opinion, no habit, no belief, nothing so firmly rooted or so widely held that he hesitates to question it and to judge it by what he calls his ‘reason’; optimistic, because the Rationalist never doubts the power of his ‘reason’ (when properly applied) to determine the worth of a thing, the truth of an opinion or the propriety of an action.”
Like the conspiracy theorist, the rationalist is skeptical of everyone else’s thinking but seldom questions their own “reasons.” Yes, there are specks in other people’s eyes but there is no log in my own…or if there is it is much smaller than that of other people. Sam Harris’ bias against religion not only drives what he pursues as a topic for his PhD but distorts his conclusions. In the paper based on his PhD “The neural correlates of religious and nonreligious belief”, Sam Harris divides his test subjects into two groups “Christians” and “rational” thinkers to look for some basic difference in the brains of these humans. To Harris, it is like Christians and atheists are two different subpopulations of humans. The statistician William M. Briggs did a lengthy exposé on Harris’ paper and concludes:
“During the course of my investigation of scientism and bad science, I have read a great many bad, poorly reasoned papers. This one might not be the worst, but it deserves a prize for mangling the largest number of things simultaneously. What is fascinating, and what I do not here explore, is why this paper was not only published but why it is believed by others. It is sure evidence, I think, that scientists are no different than anybody else in wanting their cherished beliefs upheld such that they are willing to grasp at any confirmatory evidence, no matter how slight, blemished, or suspect that evidence might be.
I do not claim, and I do not believe, that Harris and his team cheated, lied, or willfully misled. I have given sufficient argument to show the authors wore such opaque blinders that they could not see what they were doing and so choose to write down that which they imagined they saw, which was a preconceived, incoherent concoction about how “Christians” would differ from “rational” thinkers.”
I couldn’t agree more. Sam Harris’ thinking is blinded without him even realizing it. He thinks of the brains of Christians as having some fundamental difference from the brains of “rational” (read atheist) thinkers like him. For some time, I’ve been pushing for a #ScientificReformation because there’s a lot of bad science being done across the board. That UCLA awarded Sam Harris a PhD in neuroscience for a paper this bad is just further evidence of how necessary that #ScientificReformation is and that it will have to come from outside. The basic problem that William M. Briggs points out is that many people in science have the SAME log in their eye. Science is a tribe and that tribe has many of the same prejudices as Sam Harris against Christianity and Islam and so because it validates the prejudices of many scientists and other rationalists, it is believed. Ah, yes. We scientists are somehow different or better than Christians. Yes! Yes! This makes perfect sense.
And this is where the Dunbar Number becomes so important. Humans have to stereotype. Our hardware can only handle about 150 relationships. Everyone else to us is a stranger. And we build up narratives about other tribes and what terrible, stupid people they are. In Jesus’ time, the group that his own people despised the most were the Samaritans. And so, Jesus told a simple story that defied that stereotype. He told a story of a good Samaritan.
It’s interesting to revisit that story because it’s a truly brilliant piece of teaching tailored to the person he’s trying to teach. The prelude to the parable is massively revelatory:
Behold, a certain lawyer stood up and tested him, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?”
He said to him, “What is written in the law? How do you read it?”
He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, with all your mind, [Deuteronomy 6:5]; and your neighbour as yourself [Leviticus 19:18].”
He said to him, “You have answered correctly. Do this, and you will live.”
But he, desiring to justify himself, asked Jesus, “Who is my neighbour?”
A lawyer “desiring to justify himself.” He wants to justify his own behavior. And so, Jesus tells a story that sets his own beliefs in conflict:
Jesus answered, “A certain man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who both stripped him and beat him, and departed, leaving him half dead. By chance a certain priest was going down that way. When he saw him, he passed by on the other side. In the same way a Levite also, when he came to the place, and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a certain Samaritan, as he travelled, came where he was. When he saw him, he was moved with compassion, came to him, and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. He set him on his own animal, and brought him to an inn, and took care of him. On the next day, when he departed, he took out two denarii, and gave them to the host, and said to him, ‘Take care of him. Whatever you spend beyond that, I will repay you when I return.’ Now which of these three do you think seemed to be a neighbour to him who fell among the robbers?”
He said, “He who showed mercy on him.”
Then Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”
Rather than get into an argument with the lawyer who clearly wants to justify himself, Jesus places a story before the group that defies the stereotypes of the Jewish people 2000 years ago. He has a priest and a Levi (two supposedly good guys) leave the beaten man on the side of the road and he has a Samaritan (supposedly a bad guy) help the Samaritan. Then, rather than tell the lawyer what to think, he puts the lawyer on the spot. He forces the lawyer to verbalize that what matters aren’t your rationalizations but your behavior towards others. Jesus pushes this Jewish lawyer to move past his tribal thinking and to focus on behavior. Jesus outmaneuvers the lawyer’s endless rationalizations. In the end though, it’s worth noting that even 2000 years ago Jesus wasn’t saying anything new. He was just trying to get the lawyer to practice what he preached. He was trying to get him to live in accordance with Leviticus. And that’s the great irony of Anti-theism. Leviticus contains the best and worst of the monotheistic religions. There is stoning for adultery, homosexuality, subjugation of women and a demand that slaves submit to their masters. And yet, it is also Leviticus that contains the commandment to love your neighbor as yourself. Jesus’ great insight was to extract that principle from Leviticus and make it the cornerstone of a new belief system.
But when the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together. And one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”
Jesus took Leviticus and separated the wheat from the chaff and the sheep from the goats. He used critical thinking. And that is something Sam Harris celebrates but doesn’t seem to practice. Jesus was a great teacher but rather than focus on what he got right and celebrate that he focuses on the faults of Leviticus and condemns Christians for not living their own principles. I can do no better than to repeat the 2000-year-old words of a simple man born to a humble carpenter’s wife:
How can you say, ‘Brother, let me take the speck out of your eye,’ while you yourself fail to see the beam in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the beam out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.
And yet, how can I judge Sam? I was Sam. I was litigious. I found faults in everyone else’s thinking and would not find fault in my own and then I read the sacred texts of my own people, the people of science, and the scales fell from my eyes. I had ears but could not hear. I had eyes but could not see. And I realized that the problem that Jesus and science have been struggling against is that our minds create the illusion that any of us sees the world as it really is. The Buddhists (who now scientists can apparently retroactively claim as part of their tribe) call this problem maya but scientists call this problem naive realism. As Jon Haidt writes:
If I could nominate one candidate for “biggest obstacle to world peace and social harmony,” it would be naive realism because it is so easily ratcheted up from the individual to the group level: My group is right because we see things as they are. Those who disagree are obviously biased by their religion, their ideology, or their self-interest. Naive realism gives us a world full of good and evil, and this brings us to the most disturbing implication of the sages’ advice about hypocrisy: Good and evil do not exist outside of our beliefs about them.
Lots of people have disagreed with Sam Harris’ behavior. Muslims like Reza Aslan. Liberal actors like Ben Affleck. Scientists like Jon Haidt. And now a lowly teacher no one has ever heard of named Hunter Maats who can only clarify what humanity already knew. And part of that clarification is about what science is.
Science is an approach to bringing our beliefs in conflict with evidence. It’s about being skeptical not just about other people’s beliefs but most especially about our own beliefs. And it’s pretty much impossible to do that when you stay within your own tribe. That Jewish lawyer couldn’t rethink what he believed about the Samaritans until Jesus forced him to confront the idea of a Good Samaritan. Now, I find myself in the odd place of having to defend religious people from the intolerant behavior of people like Sam Harris.
And, of course, Sam Harris as a lawyer can justify himself. He can pull out statistics. He can point to the worst parts of Leviticus. He can talk about suicide bombings. He can talk about clitorectomies. And yet, why does Sam Harris not talk about his own failings? Why does he not talk about William M. Briggs conclusion on reading Sam’s paper that:
“During the course of my investigation of scientism and bad science, I have read a great many bad, poorly reasoned papers. This one might not be the worst, but it deserves a prize for mangling the largest number of things simultaneously.”
Because Sam Harris for all his talk of meditation and Eastern philosophy is more interested in the speck in his brother’s eye than the log in his own. Jesus may not have known about neurotransmitters and neurons. He may not have used the words maya or naive realism. But it is clear to me that Jesus Christ understood the problems of human thinking far better 2000 years ago than Sam Harris with his neuroscience PhD does today.
Of course, that can change. People can learn. I did. Why shouldn’t Sam? Well, because Sam is allowed to hide behind his justifications. No one is willing to call him out. And yet, I think that’s what really loving your neighbor as yourself requires. It requires calling each other out. It requires humanity taking turns at picking the splinters out of each other’s eyes so we can all see more clearly. Sam Harris despises witch hunts and inquistions and that has made his mind righteous. And so, he and Richard Dawkins have conducted a new kind of witch hunt against religion in the name of science.
One of the great recurring themes of the New Testament is Jesus’ struggles with the Pharisees and the Sadducees, priests who had memorized the law but did not live it. Instead, they used their knowledge to acquire power for themselves and to belittle others. I no longer see this as a failure of religion. Rather, I see it as an age-old trap of human society. And so, I name Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins scientific false prophets knowing that for my pains I will be crucified on social media by their followers.
And I’ve realized that’s great actually. When you speak honestly you #CreateTheControversy. You get people’s attention. And then you can use that attention to #TeachTheControversy. I’m saying Jesus Christ was a better scientist than Sam Harris with his neuroscience PhD. And whether you agree with that or disagree with that, a conversation around that will teach us all a lot about what science actually is and reveal that Fundamentalism isn’t about religion at all. It’s about having what Jon Haidt calls a Righteous Mind.
I look forward to speaking with all of you.
Love to all humanity — Hunter “Toto” Maats