Tibor R. Machan
University of Colorado Law Professor Paul Campos, who is a regular columnist in the paper for which I, too, write columns, recently took on author Sam Harris (who has a degree if philosophy and is working in the field of neuroscience), whose book The End of Faith has stirred up quite some controversy over the last few months. Harris's basic thesis is that faith is a dangerous way to go about ascertaining what the world is like because there is no common ground that can be known by it. Faith is, after all, a non-rational commitment and, except for just a few theologians, is understood as ascent to various beliefs without evidence and argument, indeed, even ascent against evidence and argument.
Harris is not putting forth some incredible idea. After all, to believe that Mary gave birth to Jesus without having had intercourse, that Jesus walked on water, made wine from water, and raised the dead does require the rejection of evidence and reason. Ordinarily, if one were informed that someone can do such things, one would naturally be incredulous. These claims contradict established facts and principles of reality. But as matters of faith they are acceptable precisely because faith is not based on evidence and reason but on an act of commitment regardless of evidence and reason. This also best explains why there are so many different, indeed conflicting, faiths, whereas there is just one chemistry, physics, mathematics, or biology (although disputes exist in all these disciplines but with the clear anticipation that they will be settled).
In his column Professor Campos claims that instead of a religious faith, Sam Harris embraces the philosophy of materialism. This is the view that all of reality is composed of but one kind of thing, namely, bits of matter-in-motion. However complicated something may appear—say human life, a tree, a musical composition, and so forth—it must be a variation of matter-in-motion.
This view is indeed one that many accept who reject faith but after reading Harris's work one can only conclude that he is a materialist but a naturalist. And that’s something else. A naturalist holds that everything that exists is part of nature—it must obey natural (scientific) laws, and can be understood by means of the scientific method. But a naturalist, unlike a materialist, is not committed to the reductivist view Campos has attributed to Harris.
Campos appears to be aware of the above when he writes, "Harris wants us to reject 'faith' and embrace 'reason,' by which he pretty much means the philosophical view known as materialism...." But he does not give any evidence that Harris is a materialist. So nearly all of the attributions he makes to Harris' outlook are unfounded, including that Harris cannot provide any rational ground for claims such as that "Torturing a child for one's own sexual gratification is evil," or that "Shakespeare is a better writer than George Lukas," or again that "Human beings have free will." As Campos would have it, "An intellectually honest materialist must reject all these claims." And he is correct, a materialist would—but not a naturalist.
For example, Aristotle, perhaps history's first and foremost naturalist philosopher (who only accepted a purely naturalistic, impersonal “God,” the "unmoved mover" or the first cause of reality), had no trouble making any of those kinds of claims based on rational argumentation. Even Spinoza, for whom God and Nature are one and the same, could defend ethical statements and a certain type of free will. There is indeed a long tradition of human thinking that finds plenty of room for consciousness, mind, free will, ethics, politics, and aesthetics within the realm of the natural. (In our own time Professor John Searle of UC Berkeley would be a prime example, as would the late novelist/philosopher Ayn Rand, as well as the distinguished academic philosophers Professors Martha Nussbaum and Philippa Foot, among many others.)
There is much else in Professor Campos' column that is quite wrongheaded—such as the idea that belief in materialism is a faith. It's not a faith, although it may be a mistaken philosophy. There really is a difference between convictions or beliefs based on reasoning, argument, evidence, etc., versus those based on faith, as I've already noted. Indeed, several theological schools (excluding, however, that of St. Thomas Aquinas) insist that having faith is a virtue precisely because it is held against all evidence to the contrary.
In any case, it is a matter of simple justice to identify Harris not as a materialist but as a naturalist, one who has every logical right to make the claims Professor Campos says he cannot consistently make. Those who defend faith need something more than to equivocate between materialism and naturalism, a move with which they would discredit the latter. It won’t wash.