Reason and Passion: in religion and government


Just as the role of god(s) has been undermined over the last centuries, in the last decades, so has the role and reliability of reason in our daily lives. There are two conflicting models to describe the relationship of passion and reason: Plato saw reason as controlling the passions like a charioteer controls wild steeds but Hume saw reason as the slaves of passion — here as slaves caring reason on a palanquin. I couldn’t decide how to illustrate this so I made two: this one above and below.

In September 2011, Sam Harris published his book “The Moral Landscape” and two years later (Aug. 2013) he made a contest which ends in 3 days — Sunday February 9th — where he will pay anyone $20,000 if they can persuade Harris that his theory is wrong.

Harris’ central argument is:

Morality and values depend on the existence of conscious minds—and specifically on the fact that such minds can experience various forms of well-being and suffering in this universe. Conscious minds and their states are natural phenomena, fully constrained by the laws of the universe (whatever these turn out to be in the end). Therefore, questions of morality and values must have right and wrong answers that fall within the purview of science (in principle, if not in practice). Consequently, some people and cultures will be right (to a greater or lesser degree), and some will be wrong, with respect to what they deem important in life.

I agree with this view in part — but it does not seem the whole picture because:

  • Like other animals, humans seem to be willing sacrifice their own well-being for others — particularly their offspring.
  • A particular behavior is intimately tied with others in a complex web such that one behavioral practice (or moral) can not be judged alone but only in relation to all the other interconnected values and actions.

Well, I don’t really want to discuss his views here.  Sam is much brighter than I am, and I am sure he has replies to my simple objections.  I haven’t read the book or heard his talks where he replies to common objections.  But that is not the point of this post instead, I want to point you to something more important!

Today I read an EXCELLENT article by Jonathan Haidt who stakes $10,000 that no one will win Harris’ contest. Not because Haidt feels Harris is right, but because he feels the chances of Harris changing his mind are catastrophically slim.

What Haidt writes in his fine article is based on the same insights I use here on Triangulations when arguing against what I call hyper-rationalist atheists — and heck, even beliefism theists.

For real fun, Haidt ends his article with a very optimist plug for an organization in the US congress which is trying to take into account the complex relationship between reason and passion while they nurture new relations between policy makers.

So, with no further ado, please go read Haidt’s article!



Filed under Philosophy & Religion

21 responses to “Reason and Passion: in religion and government

  1. Lamar87

    Morality is relative but it’s initial beginnings may be subject to a physical law and evolution of the human mind. Much like how people evolve on a biological level according to evolution, people change their perspectives and values based on evolution of culture and the influence of others. Therefore any universal law tied to morality is subject to change according to our surroundings. Morality is both relative and universal. They do not have to be mutually exclusive. Same with reason leading passion or reason being a slave to passion. Reason and passion will switch roles within an individual multiple times within their life. These theories are too static.

    On an unrelated note, I’ve been reading off and on for about two years now and I’m usually content to just reading. But I do have to say that I admire your posts regarding Buddhism. I would say your dead on with most of your observations and I am glad I stumbled upon your blog.

    Good Day.

  2. Ignostic Atheist

    I’m viewing Haidt’s article as a clever ploy to reduce or remove Harris’ bias. He set up with accurate science that states that people are driven by their biases, but follows it up with meaningless crap about certainty language. This infuriates Harris (being the subject of crap science), who then sees Haidt covering the 10,000 reward for changing his mind and so he *wants* to make Haidt pay.

    At the very least, covering the reward removes just that obstacle from an open mind.

  3. I think Sam Harris has not understood the true relationship between the human morals viz-a-viz natural human instincts; which has truly been explained in the book “Philosophy of Teachings of Islam”. Sam Harris should read the question and its answer given by Mirza Ghulam Ahmad 1835-1908 in the above named book. I think he will get convinced and save the prize money also. Sorry for Jonathan Haidt, he may lose.

    I give below a passage from the book:

    “It is characteristic of the human self that it incites man to evil and is opposed to his attainment of perfection and to his moral state, and urges him towards undesirable and evil ways. Thus the propensity towards evil and intemperance is a human state which predominates over the mind of a person before he enters upon the moral state. This is man’s natural state, so long as he is not guided by reason and understanding but follows his natural bent in eating, drinking, sleeping, waking, anger and provocation, like the animals. When a person is guided by reason and understanding and brings his natural state under control and regulates it in a proper manner, then these three states, as described, cease to remain the categories as natural states, but are called moral states.” Unquote

    One may like to read answer to the “FIRST QUESTION- The Physical, Moral and Spiritual States of Man” from the above book; about twenty pages in all.

  4. Scott McGreal

    Thanks for posting the link to Haidt’s article, I found it very interesting. Actually, it was a little unsettling to learn that Sam Harris and co. express more certainty than someone like Ann Coulter! Although I suspect that Harris et al. express more nuance as well. I think Haidt made some good arguments that most people are predisposed to use reasoning in a “lawyerly” way to persuade people of the rightness of their own opinions. On the other hand, I have heard about people with strong opinions who have actually been persuaded to change their minds based on their consideration of the evidence, (I have even done it myself on occasion) so it does seem to be possible, although unusual. I suspect that being willing to acknowledge the possibility that one might be wrong, as Haidt does at the end of his article, is a key component to being more reasonable about the use of reason.

  5. @ Lamar87:
    Right, I agree with your first paragraph. Hopefully I wrote nothing that appeared to disagree.

    Concerning Buddhism, may I as what it is that you admired in my posts about it that were “dead on” and what your experiences have been?

    @Ignostic Atheist:,
    Interesting analysis. Nicely done.

    @ Scott McGreal:,
    I actually don’t like Haidt’s efforts to find categories for political temperament which is your field. I am sure you have read his his 5 moral value system: 1) Care for Others/Do no harm; 2) Fairness/Justice/Equality; 3) In-Group Loyalty; 4) Respect for Authority; and 5) Purity. Your colleague Gregg Henriques criticizes them here and he has more critiques. His category choices seem to simply review his biases and then they are a bit force-fit. But I have not studied him. Any quick thoughts?

  6. @paarsurrey
    The passage you quote is nice and has nothing to do with Islam or religion. In fact,the phrase a “when a person is guided by reason and understanding…” suggests that this passage has nothing to do with religion.

    My second comment is this. You seem to be convinced that Sam Harris will be convinced by a response found in Mirza Ghulam Ahmad’s book. If so, why don’t you enter the competition and make some money?

  7. @Sabio:
    I find, as always, your posting interesting, but I need to find some time to read about Haidt and read his article. At the outset, I am taken aback by moral rule #4: Respect authority. In my view, this is nonsense. Neither respect nor disrespect, but question! Most of the time, “authority” is a on the corrupt side. So, respect should not be part of any moral system (unless the system is addressed to those with slave mentality.)

  8. @ Takis,
    Of course you’d find “respect for authority” to be distasteful! And you are right, you need to do further readings where you will discover that Haidt posits these as dichotomous (spectrum) traits which depending on where people fall on the spectrum, you can predict their politic. You’d be a democrat here in the USA, I wager, if your personality was typed by Haidt.

    PS: I am ignoring paarsurrey as an evangelistic troll who can’t listen, who just wants to share the good news of his messiah.
    Best wishes to you on engaging.

  9. @Sabio Lantz :02/07/2014 at 12:47 pm

    I think I never asked you to convert to my side. Did I?
    I just gave the reasons; and the reasons given in Quran of which I am sincerely convinced. It is up to you to accept them or not and to give your reasons/arguments. The same I expect from the viewers of your blog.

    Please don’t be angry.

  10. @paarsurrey,
    So, stop quoting the Qur’an, stop talking about your messiah guru. Interact with the post. Learn to listen.

    Please don’t be dense.

  11. @Takis Konstantopoulos:02/07/2014 at 11:56 am

    I have already done what you have suggested. One may like to read:

    “In response to Challenge of Sam Harris: Reason, passions and Morality”

    Mirza Ghulam Ahmad had written about 140 page on the topic.
    He quoted a lot of verses of Quran from which he got the insight into it.

    He taught us in his teachings as to how one could derive claims and reasons from the verses of Quran on the ethical, moral and spiritual topics; we don’t quote Quran just for authority; we present the reasons/argument given by Quran as we understand.

    Thanks and regards

  12. @paarsurrey:
    Hi, I was about to reply, but Sabio intervened. I actually find it extremely interesting when I encounter a person who is totally convinced about the authority of a single source without any other reason other than that the source claims to be correct. It’s such a bootstrap, such a self-referential statement. It is very peculiar that this person cannot see the fallacy of this argument. Consider the statement:

    “John is moral because he says he’s moral. In fact, I found his note book and in it John had wtitten `I am moral, I am moral, I am moral’, [7919 times]. Therefore, it is an unquestionable fact that he is moral.”

    paarsurrey, the reason that I insisted in asking you so many questions earlier is because I wanted to prove that your arguments are of the above type. A much more intellectually honest approach to your worldviews would be that you believe in the Quran but are unable to give rational proofs of its infallibility; that you are a member of Islam because you think it’s the best religion, but that you leave a little margin that some other religion may be better. Your view, however is:

    All religions point to the one-true-god, all are great, but there is one that stands out. And that is Islam. And the reason that Islam is the best is because the first Mohammedan, i.e., Mohammed himself, wrote a book called Quran and Quran is the first religious document stating its infallibility within its pages.

    Do you see that your reasoning and the reasoning about John’s morality are of the same type?

  13. Our postings crossed over the hyperspace.
    In your latest one, you write

    “I have already done what you have suggested.”

    Well, good luck then, and I honestly wish you win Sam Harris’ prize.

    But, to be fair, even if Harris changed his mind internally, he would probably never admit it (because he probably thinks too much of himself, he is probably much more arrogant than he appears to be–this is my hunch) and so chances you win the prize are slim. Despite the fact that I disagree with you, I would be happy if you won the prize.

  14. @Takis Konstantopoulos : 02/08/2014 at 11:03 am

    I don’t agree with you; reason could always be countered with reason; and I am a good listener.

    Mirza Ghualm Ahmad was a man of reasoning; he always preferred reasoning as far as reasoning could go reasonably. The treatise “Philosophy of Teachings of Islam”; was read in a “Conference of Great Religions” of the world held at Lahore on December 26-29, 1896.

    I think he convinced me heart and soul with the first sentence of the treatise whereby he announced a golden rule for comparative study of religions; (could be extended to include Atheists also); namely:

    “It is necessary that a claim and the reasons in support of it ( i.e the topic) must be set forth from a revealed book”.

    When we were discussing, as you have mentioned, you asked me some questions; and I told that the scriptures of other religions don’t claim it and they don’t give reasons. I remember that after a lot of research; you acknowledged its truthfulness; yes they don’t have it.

    The Atheists don’t have a Revealed Book; and incidentally none participated in that world conference from their side; they can be included in this golden rule however , in my opinion, in a way.

    You will agree that for comparative study of revealed religions and others is facilitated with this rule.

    Is it not reasonable?

    Thanks and regards

  15. I am listening too to what you are saying and, by applying elementary reasoning, I can see that you always reduce the problem to a source which one should not refute or question further. You now claim:

    I think he [Mirza Ghualm Ahmad] convinced me heart and soul with […]
    “It is necessary that a claim and the reasons in support of it ( i.e the topic) must be set forth from a revealed book”.

    Is this supposed to be a profound statement or what? Why would anyone need a revealed book? A good book, sure, and there are many good (and bad) books written by people. For instance, to understand Electricity (and Special Relativity) I might choose Jackson’s Electrodynamics, but I wouldn’t choose a book based on the fact that someone told me ii’s “revealed”. Similarly, to understand evolution, I would ask around, search for myself, and look at the work that has been done. But never I would trust anything which was declared as “revealed”.

    You then continue by saying

    The Atheists don’t have a Revealed Book;

    Sure. Why should an atheist have a revealed book? (Actually, what *is* an atheist? Atheist is not a club, it is not a religion, it is not a homogeneous group, it is none of the above.) Moreover, why should *anyone*, atheist or not, have a revealed book?

    So, you see, you reduced everything to the infallibility of a [the?] revealed book. So, sorry, this is not reasonable. It is the very refutation of reason!

  16. @Takis Konstantopoulos:02/08/2014 at 11:08 am

    “If Harris changed his mind internally”; even that will be enough for me for my satisfaction. One who has been convinced heart and soul cannot remain arrogant in the topic publicly. It will always be pricking in his mind.

  17. @paarsurrey: and what about all this baloney about “revealed books”?

  18. Our friend may mind it. Please start a thread, in nice words at your blog.

  19. Lamar87

    Hey Sabio, due to laptop issues at the time, I replied to you by e-mail if you would like to see my response. My responses will stay on the blog from here on out as long as my laptop is liking me.

  20. @ Lamar: Yes, thank for your reply.

  21. @Takis Konstantopoulos: 02/10/2014 at 5:08 pm; and further to my response 02/10/2014 at 5:17 pm

    Did you start a topic on “Revealed Books” on your blog? If so please mention its link.

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