Harris Vignette #1: Are Beliefs in the Head?

In Sam Harris’ attempt to dissolve the distinction between facts and values one essential move is to claim that “beliefs” about facts and values inhere in the head. He does not deny the importance of culture, but encourages us to think about culture as a cause of brain development, rather than the other way around:

The relevant neurosicence is in its infancy, but we know that our emotions, social interactions, and moral intuitions mutually influence one another. We grow attuned to our fellow human beings through these systems, creating culture in the processs. Culture becomes a mechanism for further social, emotional, and moral development. There is simply no doubt that the human brain is the nexus of these influences. Cultural norms influence our thinking and behavior by altering the structure and function of our brains. Do you feel that sons are more desirable than daughters? Is obedience to parental authority more important than honest inquiry? Would you cease to love your child if you learned that he or she were gay? The ways parents view such questions, and subsequent effects in the lives of their children, must translate into facts about their brains. (9-10)

First – there is nothing very objectionable about what Harris says here. The human brain can be described as the nexus of cultural influence, and beliefs can be translated into “facts about the brain”. However, the fact that a certain set of descriptions are possible and correct does not mean they are adequate, and does not mean they don’t conceal essential aspects of the thing described. I therefore want to suggest in two parts that (1) beliefs are not facts about the brain (or the mind for that matter), and (2) we should question the assumption that culture is a mechanism for the development of individuals rather than the other way around.

(1) What is a “fact about the brain”? Reductionists who claim we can reduce thought to physical reality speak of “brain states”, those who resist this speak of “mental states”. But beliefs can not be only a brain state or a mental state – beliefs are about things. Moreover, while some beliefs are reflexive attitudes about our own mental states, most beliefs are experienced as being about things outside the head. Therefore, most beliefs can be delusional – someone might have beliefs about “their children”, and not have any children. The fact they do not have any children is a relevant fact about the belief – we could not fully understand what it meant for them to have that belief without knowing how it fits, or does not fit, into their world of experience. For instance, if I have delusional beliefs, I am likely to subconsciously avoid situations where those beliefs would be challenged by anomalous experiences. Beliefs are therefore not in the head – they are between the head and the world, or rather, they are aspects of the perspectives we take. We can’t understand what it means to have a belief without understanding that beliefs are not simply facts about brain states or mental states – but manners that the body (which includes the brain or mind) encounters and copes with its world. Without a world in which for beliefs to function, beliefs would be useless and nonsensical.

(2) Harris encourages us to think about culture as a mechanism produced by social evolution which enables the further social, moral and emotional development of individuals. This is not surprising given his individualistic approach to neuroscience. However, it is just as descriptively correct to treat culture as that which is developing and influenced by the mechanism of individuals and their brains. We can as easily say “individuals serve culture” as we can “culture serves and influences individuals”. This becomes especially relevant in a discussion about values – do values exist in individuals for the sake of fulfilling them as individuals, or to perpetuate cultural frameworks which sustain social life? Are cultures “adaptive” if they sustain themselves, or if they permit the individuals they co-opt to flourish? The fact that we can conceptualize a culture co-opting individuals to perpetuate it at the expense of the flourishing of those individuals suggests that Harris’ general premise – that there are objectively good and bad values, and science can help somehow in determining them – might be true, and might have something to do with a culture’s adequacy to the needs of human beings. This is a project which I broadly agree with – however, I don’t think we can properly understand what a culture is without understanding the overwhelming sense in which we are not only products, but also servants of culture, and that our values are essentially (not by accident) part of a social fabric which gives them meaning and resonance.



  1. “Without a world in which for beliefs to function, beliefs would be useless and nonsensical”

    An argument for the location of content does not establish the location of the belief.


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