If you’re reasoning honestly about facts, then the color of your skin is irrelevant. The religion of your parents is irrelevant. Whether you’re gay or straight is irrelevant. Your identity is irrelevant. In fact, if you’re talking about reality, its character cannot be predicated on who you happen to be. That’s what it means to be talking about reality. . . The nature of any argument is that its validity doesn’t depend on who you are. That’s why an argument should be accepted by others, no matter who they are. So in the case of vaccines causing autism, you don’t get to say, “As the parent of a child with autism I believe X, Y, and Z.” Whatever is true about the biological basis of autism can’t depend on who you are. And who you are in this case is probably creating a level of emotional engagement with the issue, which would be totally understandable, but would also be unlikely to lead you to think about it more clearly. The facts are whatever they are and it’s not an accident that being disinterested, not uninterested, but disinterested (that is – not being emotionally engaged), usually improves a person’s ability to reason about the facts. Getting a handle on [the] facts doesn’t require one to say, “As a black man, I know X, Y, and Z.” The color of your skin simply isn’t relevant information. . . Your life experience isn’t relevant information, and the fact that you think it might be, is a problem. ~ Sam Harris, 2016 (neuroscientist, avowed atheist, best-selling author, and social commentator)
I like Sam Harris, a lot actually. I think he is brilliant and his critiques on religion and culture are usually incisive. I have quoted him often in sermons actually. This quote here is from a larger conversation he was having about how to solve the complex social and political problems in our country today. While he is a progressive, his argument here is actually pretty conservative and I think shared by many today, on both the right and left. The main idea is that there is only one reality to be had and if we all just disengage emotionally when confronting different ideas, we can all agree on the facts and live in peace.
To be clear, he makes a great point here. Our identity has nothing to do with whether or not vaccines cause autism or whether or not racism is to blame for the latest death of a black person at the hands of a white cop. I also completely agree that emotions challenge our ability to hear views that conflict with our own. And while we should do our best to emotionally disengage when listening to opposing views, we cannot separate who we are emotionally from how we perceive reality.
Consider what the late philosopher, David Foster Wallace once said, “Observing a quantum phenomenon has been proven to alter the phenomenon. [Writers] like to ignore this fact’s implications. We still think in terms of a story ‘changing’ the reader’s emotions, cerebrations, maybe even her life. We’re not keen on the story sharing its valence with the reader. But the reader’s own life ‘outside’ the story changes the story. You could argue that it affects only ‘her reaction to the story’ or ‘her take on the story.’ But these things *are* the story. . . once I’m done with the [writing], I’m basically dead, and probably the text’s dead; it becomes simply language, and language lives not just in but *through* the reader. The reader becomes God for all textual purposes.”
Here we see what Harris doesn’t seem to. Consciousness altars not just the fabric of reality at the quantum level but the fabric of reality at the lived level of experience. We never define reality in some kind of perfect scientific way, but always subjectively through the lens of our identity and story. My reality as a white, straight, middle-class, college educated, male is different than those from other walks of life. The idea that we can just set aside our identity and always agree on what reality or the facts are, is naive. We experience life as a story, a series of events that form a narrative which in turn, defines reality for us. According to Wallace, “[our] life ‘outside’ the story changes the story. You could argue that it affects only ‘[our] reaction to the story’ or ‘[our] take on the story.’ But these things *are* the story.”
The world is not as simple as Harris wants. This is proven constantly today with the ideological battle being fought over politics and religion. Consider this excerpt from a recent article about how those on the Evangelical right have redefined reality in order support Trump, “People who defend Trump must behave as functional relativists, relegating all of his statements and actions to a place of fluid meaning and interpretation. His gross language about women is just “locker room talk,” so it can’t be held against him. His horrifying language about immigrants and Muslims is just a healthy zeal for the law. His covert dealings with Russia . . . well, maybe Russia’s not so bad after all. All presidents lie, you know. We’re not electing a “pastor-in-chief,” after all. . .I feel like I’m speaking a foreign language to the people who taught me how to talk in the first place. I start feeling like there is some intentional gaslight going on. Maybe I’m wrong, and I misunderstood all those childhood lessons about the importance of civility and respect.” ~ Tyler Huckabee
I understand Tyler’s frustration but there’s nothing rare or new about the human capacity to redefine reality like this. I used to employ the same kind of intellectual gymnastics to explain how I could believe in and even love a God that tortures people and calls me to oppress and exclude. My reasoning back then is pure nonsense to me now. It’s like I was speaking a different language and living in another world. And the fact is, I was! This is because the Bible is, as Wallace says, “simply language, and language lives not just in but *through* the reader. The reader becomes God for all textual purposes.” Thus, there are as many interpretations/theologies as there are readers/believers.
The same principle applies to the complex political narratives we live in today. We are all living in our own realities, even Harris. His is constructed from scientism and objectivism, the belief that reason alone can solve all our problems. And to be sure, he is emotionally attached to this idea, which is ironic. But Harris’ objectivism is shared by many people today on both the political left and right. They too believe that if we could just set aside our emotional attachments to our ideology, we’ll all see the same facts and learn to live in peace. I wish it were that simple but it’s not. Again, I agree with Harris that facts matter and that we should disengage emotionally as much as possible and think critically, but that actually won’t bring the kind of peace we desire. Only love and humility will do that.
What Wallace teaches us is that we are each living in slightly, to very different realities with our own stories and facts. We cannot help that. Blame it on our advanced human brains. Therefore, the best course of action is radical love, understanding, and humility. Blatant disregard for facts and truth needs to be confronted but we need to do that while knowing that no one will ever completely adopt our version of reality. We will always feel somewhat frustrated with “those people” or “that person.” The sooner we realize that facts (don’t) matter, the better off we’ll be.