Opinion philosophy

The Problem with Sam Harris’ Cookbook Example

The Cookbook Example

A Taste of Hawaii
A Taste of Hawaii

Ricky Gervais once appeared on Stephan Colbert’s show and had a casual debate about the existence of God. Colbert (a Catholic) asks Gervais (an atheist) how something could come from nothing. Gervais was momentarily stumped, and then referred to scientific facts for support – but Colbert pointed out that Gervais didn’t really know these facts to be true. That he had faith in scientists like Hawking the same way a religious person had faith in God.

Gervais, however, replied by pointing out that he’s comfortable in having faith in scientific facts because they are discoverable and not invented (as are religious myths). If all religious and scientific texts were hypothetically abolished today (and our memories were erased) one would expect that in a thousand years – we would discover the same scientific facts that we had documented before, but we would have invented entirely new religions. Gervais’ clever philosophical observation received applause – and even Colbert acknowledged that it was a solid argument.

it’s like the argument Sam Harris makes. Namely, that it is possible to open to a random page in a cookbook and find in it a semblance of deeply embedded wisdom. Here’s how he relates the story on a podcast with Jordan Peterson. 

Harris wrote this in the end-notes of his book “The End of Faith” and intends it to be a counter-example to Joseph Campbell’s work on mythology.

He walks into a bookstore (Barnes & Noble), and with his eyes closed, randomly grabbed a book and opened it at random. The book was called “A taste of Hawaii: New Cooking from the Crossroads of the Pacific.”

Here’s what Harris wrote in the end-note.

“And therein I discovered it as yet uncelebrated mystical treatise. While it appears to be a recipe for seared fish and shrimp cakes with tomato relish, we need only study list of ingredients to know we are in the presence of unrivaled spiritual intelligence. Then I list the ingredients: One snapper fillet cubed, three teaspoons of chopped scallions, salt and freshly ground pepper… there’s a long list of ingredients. Then I go through with a mystical interpretation of this recipe. The snapper fillet is the individual himself. You and I, awash in the sea of existence, and here we find it cubed which is to say that our situation must be remedied in all three dimensions of body, mind, and in spirit. They have three teaspoons of chopped scallions, this further partakes of the cubic symmetry suggesting that that which we need add to each level of our being by way of antidote comes likewise in equal proportions. The import of the passage is clear: the body, mind, spirit need to be tended with the same care. Salt and freshly ground black pepper; here we have the perennial invocation of opposites. The white and black aspects of our nature. Both good and evil must be understood if we would fulfil the recipe of spiritual life. Nothing after all can be excluded from the human experience. This seems to be a tantric text. What is more, salt and pepper come to us in the form of grains which is to say that the good and bad qualities are born at the tiniest actions and thus we’re not in good or evil in general but only by virtue of innumerable moments which color the stream of our being by force of repetition. Then this dash of cayenne pepper: clearly a being of such robust color and flavour signifies the spiritual influence of an enlightened adept. I go on and on and this is all bullshit because it’s meant to be bullshit.”

Separating the Good from the Bad

Peterson replies that any field has more bullshit than substance. Even science is comprised of 5 percent wheat to 95 percent chaff. It’s difficult to find the diamonds in the rough.

Peterson notes that Sam’s example demonstrates that human imagination is the threat, not religious thinking. The human proclivity to be unrestrained with interpretations characterizes new age thinking. There is a clear difference in quality in literature – and there is a truth embedded in high quality literature that is difficult to define.

But I noticed something else – and it is something that both Gervais and Harris seem to share – which is the presumption that stories, particularly religious myths do not relate to a universal truth about human beings. While there is no question that science has proven to be the most reliable mechanism we have when it comes to truths about the world – it is false to conclude that anything outside the realm of science is not important, influential, or representative of any deep truths about life.

When Gervais postulated that that religious texts a thousand years from now – after the present texts have been destroyed – will appear radically different, he is implicitly assuming that these stories were randomly created. And when Harris cites the funny example of going into a Barnes & Noble and randomly finding a cookbook, before proceeding to invent profound sounding bullshit, he is making the same assumption.

But after reading more about these myths, it doesn’t seem to me , that these religious, mythological stories are random – that they don’t contain different kinds of truths.

The Hero with a Thousand Faces is a book where Campbell outlines the same patterns represented through stories from different cultures and time periods. And the fact that these stories are relatable even today, thousands of years later, suggests that they could not have be random. For people to be moved by these stories after such a long time suggests that these stories may contain something in them that is indeed profound.

As a sense-making mechanism for the modern world, mythology and religion fails. But as a vehicle to recognize your life’s purpose, your deepest fears and desires, and learn the lessons that were painfully derived from the experiences of multiple generations that came before you – mythology and religion does what science can’t do.

Infinite Number of Interpretations

Going back to the problem of having an infinite number of possible interpretations, Peterson rightly accuses science from suffering from the same conundrum. Scientific facts tell you about how the world is but doesn’t tell you how to act.

As far as I understand, there are two reasons for this.

The first reason is that there is no way to derive the same mode of action based on the understanding of a single scientific fact. This is different form saying that one can’t derive a mode of action. In other words, it is conceivable for two people to learn about the same scientific fact but come to different practical conclusions.

The second reason is that there is no way of knowing which facts ought to be given the most weight. A doctor may understand the biological reality of the patient perfectly, but he cannot recommend the best course of action because some of the facts may contradict each other. One fact may clearly indicate that a patient will undergo an immense amount of pain. Another may indicate that undergoing such treatment is the only way the patient can be cured.

Of course, the suggestion – as Peterson pointed out – isn’t that all stories are profound. There is a large percentage of mythology that is of low quality, but some of it is of very high quality. And I don’t see the value of grouping them all together as “chaff”. There is nothing to be gained by doing so. Take the case of the teenager who rebels against the stringent rules of his parents. There is a difference between saying that everything parents say is bullshit, and some of what they say is bullshit. And the difference is crucial, because if you choose to dismiss everything they say as bullshit, then you rob yourself of the opportunity to learn valuable truths about the world that would be extremely beneficial for you.

Another thing about d the cookbook example. Harris was making interpretations, and they seemed completely random, but if you read closely, they aren’t random. Ironically, they border on the religious. The idea of body, spirit, and mind is a religious idea. The Taoist symbol of the Yin and Yang explains the idea of salt and pepper. Sam thinks he is making these up, but he isn’t.

And finally, Sam later admits that there are parts of the Bible that could be considered great literature, but this undermines what he said before. The point he was trying to make through the cookbook story was to show that any random text could be interpreted as a profound purveyor of wisdom. Which is to say that there is no difference in quality between texts.

5 replies on “The Problem with Sam Harris’ Cookbook Example”

Farah: “Okay…. Sam’s error was deducing that all texts are equal in value if they are not strictly scientific …”
> Strawman!?
As far as I can tell, he is not talking about “value” at all.
Sam Harris is just showing with his example that you can take almost any text & read almost any “meaning” into it. That’s it.


Thanks for your comment.

Of course any text lends itself to a number of interpretations. But not all texts can be interpreted in an infinite number of ways, not all are equally vague, or equally valuable. The whole comparison is ridiculous. Of course, you can claim that any combination of words can be interpreted in an infinite number of ways, but once you’ve submitted to this way of thinking, you have no business writing books (As Sam Does). I can just pick up any one of Sam’s books and read into it whatever I like… Why can’t his entire book on Free Will be an ingenious parody against against the “no free will” argument?

There is no assumption that there is no truth in religion. It’s an observation that religion does diverge and lead to wildly different thoughts. If the conclusion is false then it doesn’t matter if you separate the grain from the chaff. You can’t say because something haven’t been proven to be false then you shouldn’t assume that it’s false. Because that’s not what’s happening. First the bible has been shown to be historically false. The stories that have been shown to have elements of truth have all the details completely changed from people of different religions. If you think that’s the truth of separating the grain from the chaff then you are just delusional. Second just because I don’t think you have real knowledge that a number of mints in a box are odd that doesn’t mean I think they are even. Nobody has to pick a position on your claims that haven’t been shown to be true. I don’t need to have a position on big foot or the existence of the 22nd dimension. The point of Sam’s example is you can force the text to work, you can make any text work. What’s important is that your conclusions are repeatable and predictable.

Just because a framework is 90% semantical doesn’t mean it isn’t necessary. Just because we throw out failed models of the universe doesn’t mean religion somehow has less fallacious reasoning. They failed and we use them as examples of failed lines of reasoning.

If you can’t see that the reasoning to make the Christian texts work can also be used to make religions that you probably think are false work then you are the one with the problem.

You can learn about these scientific subjects and prove them wrong and win a Nobel prize. You are literally rewarded for destroying someone’s work because it’s seen as beneficial for society. If I attempted to prove these religious texts wrong that would be considered blasphemy and I would deserve eternal damnation for it.

For a second let’s beg the question that all religion is false and empirical evidence is the best form of knowledge. In a universe like this how would you determine that the view you currently hold is wrong? Idk if you have spent time trying to comprehend the scope of the knowledge of these subjects. But long story short you can’t comprehend all of it. You want to perpetuate that this gap in your knowledge leads to a stance that is identical to faith for some reason. Even though it’s impossible to know the mind of god but possible to learn any of these subjects at random and confirm they are true by trying to prove them false.

Could you perhaps prove yourself wrong by instead of trying to find the similarities, you could compare the differences and ask yourself “are these differences damning to my belief”

Could you perhaps think of a belief that you hold and think of a test that could fail that would raise or lower your confidence in it?

Could you perhaps learn about the subjects that you think are wrong that science has said otherwise and see why the people who study this think it’s true? And I mean really study it. Get a passing grade on a comprehensive exam understanding. Test the research yourself if you like.

Could you perhaps compare your religion to another belief? Maybe people who swear they were abducted by aliens, or think that possessions are real, or think they can change their luck by burying a statue in their back yard, or believe the earth is flat, or believe that truth, belief, and reality are the same thing.

I wonder if when you do the last one if you do the opposite of how you compare the similarities between religion and science. Do you only compare the differences between what you believe and things you don’t like? Do you have a different standard for evidence when it comes to this?

If you have no way to determine if this view is wrong then why should anyone care about what you have to say?

Okay…. Sam’s error was deducing that all texts are equal in value if they are not strictly scientific, that you could gain just as much meaning and wisdom from a cookbook as you can an ancient text that has been used for centuries as the foundation of culture and law. Clearly, this is a stupid comparison to make.

Even if there are various interpretations of religious texts, this does not follow that it is just as valid as a random cookbook as a guide for morality. A non sequitur.

"A gilded No is more satisfactory than a dry yes" - Gracian

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