Friday, 26 October 2012

Are you willing to lie?

Sam Harris doesn't want you to lie. He doesn't want you to lie so much that he wrote a short book about it, and I must say I agree with him: don't lie, the truth will set you free.

Harris goes into what he means by lying and the shades of lying people take. From deception, white lies, twisting the truth, faking praise etc.. all of it he concludes you should no do. Perhaps if you were a spy during war time, then it might be OK to lie, but most of us do not live in that specific scenario. Harris points out that lying by definition is not cooperating with others, so it detrimental to society. Even telling someone that something they wrote was "good" or "nice" when really it wasn't doesn't help the author whose feelings you do not want to hurt. Instead of faking praise, you could offer constructive criticism, and help them improve their work, or save them the time and effort pursuing something that they are just not good at.

Of cause Harris is an atheist, so his motivation for not lying is not based on some divine command. Instead it is more of a pragmatic reason: lying does not help you or society. While I agree with the horizontal aspect of not lying, there was clearly lacking a vertical or moral absolute reason for not lying in this book. He says don't lie as practically it will go well for you if you tell the truth, not because it is in some objective sense "wrong" (whatever that means).

Harris concludes that we should all live lie free posting these questions to the reader:
How would your relationships change if you resolved never to lie again? What truths might suddenly come into view in your life? What kind of person would you become? And how might you change the people around you? 
It is worth finding out  
By which I take Harris to mean that it is possible that we are able to choose to lie or not to lie, which I agree with. But Harris has written another short book on Free Will which says otherwise...

According to Harris, free will is an illusion and you are no more responsible for your own thoughts, actions or ideas as you are at controlling the amount of red blood cells or digestive enzymes your body is making in any given moment. After all, these biological things happen in your body without your control and it is the same with your desires, will, ideas etc.. that come from your biological brain.

You would think that we should therefore not punish people for their actions, as after all people are not in control of themselves, we all just act on what our body is telling us. But when a bear or wild animal runs around suburbia doing what it naturally does (like mauling people for food), it has to be restrained for the good of society  regardless of its natural promptings. So, like lying, pragmatically we should punish people who by share chance and not fault of their own are naturally prone to anti-social behavior like rape and murder, for the good of society.

Harris tries to say that free will is not true, but knowing this still makes us better people not worst, this is because we can understand people better and see that their actions are really causes from their past or biological makeup. Of cause Harris ideas about free will are caused by his own past and biological makeup and who really knows where his argument really came from... the same could now be said about his atheism... (Don't blame me for that snarky comment, I am just doing what the atoms in by body is telling me to do; and if you get upset by that, then you are only doing what the atoms in your body us telling you to do. We are even... but not free).

Harris leans way too much on biology and not so much on historical (philosophical?) arguments about free will. I think if someone was going to write a book about free will they perhaps should look at the historical arguments for and against it and not just the biological science of the brain. Also if I was going to write anything on this topic I think a quick scan over Johnathan Edwards Freedom of the Will might be in order before saying anything. I hear it is quite good.

If I am to be really honest, I found Harris' book on free will quite lacking, and though it undermined everything he wrote in his book on lying, because it turns out I can't stop myself from lying or from telling the truth. My mind just throws up desires and ideas, but somehow Harris has risen above this and told us how the world truly is, all the while using his own biological brain that throws up desires and ideas at him which he has no idea where they came from such as picking beer over wine, or sometimes having a tea instead of a coffee in the morning.

Both these books are short and easy to read. The big problem I found with them is that you can not read them together. So perhaps you should just pick one... if you can.

Doug Wilson has also written a chapter by chapter response to the free will book, which is really quite a good read.


  1. Have you read "Miracles" by C.S.Lewis? He goes into a similar dialog in the first few chapters about thought processes and whether or not pantheism is possible if it is mutually exclusive with reason. I recommend giving it a read :)


  2. Hi Tamsin,

    Thanks for commenting on my blog. I think years ago I may have read Miracles by Lewis, but I am not 100% sure. I have a fat Lewis book on my shelf that may include it, and I may have just never read it. I have another book called "C. S. Lewis's Dangerous Idea" by Victor Reppert that I think expands on this same idea and "the argument from reason" but that book was hard to understand when I read it more than six years ago.

    One of the reasons why I thought to compare these two books in the one post was because of something G.K Chesterton said in the sixth chapter of "Orthodoxy". He would put two skeptical comments about Christianity side by side and show that their arguments are contradictory. I don't think much has changed today. If you are into Lewis you should read Chesterton (I am a bit of a fan boy). Below is the quote I had in mind, forgive me for the length:

    Thus, certain sceptics wrote that the great crime of Christianity had been its attack on the family; it had dragged women to the loneliness and contemplation of the cloister, away from their homes and their children. But, then, other sceptics (slightly more advanced) said that the great crime of Christianity was forcing the family and marriage upon us; that it doomed women to the drudgery of their homes and children, and forbade them loneliness and contemplation. The charge was actually reversed. Or, again, certain phrases in the Epistles or the marriage service, were said by the anti-Christians to show contempt for woman’s intellect. But I found that the anti-Christians themselves had a contempt for woman’s intellect; for it was their great sneer at the Church on the Continent that “only women” went to it. Or again, Christianity was reproached with its naked and hungry habits; with its sackcloth and dried peas. But the next minute Christianity was being reproached with its pomp and its ritualism; its shrines of porphyry and its robes of gold. It was abused for being too plain and for being too coloured. Again Christianity had always been accused of restraining sexuality too much, when Bradlaugh the Malthusian discovered that it restrained it too little. It is often accused in the same breath of prim respectability and of religious extravagance. Between the covers of the same atheistic pamphlet I have found the faith rebuked for its disunion, “One thinks one thing, and one another,” and rebuked also for its union, “It is difference of opinion that prevents the world from going to the dogs.” In the same conversation a free-thinker, a friend of mine, blamed Christianity for despising Jews, and then despised it himself for being Jewish.

  3. I found the quote interesting (length is irrelevant, if the quote is good), although unless it's the same people arguing both sides, they don't necessarily contradict each other. and there are enough denominations and ways of "doing Christianity" that those criticisms can be applicable.

    I've heard about Chesterton but haven't looked at much of his work yet. will have to do so soon.