Too much wit outwits itself
Folk saying quoted by Hegel 1
I stumbled upon this extraordinary exchange between Sam Harris and Ezra Klein, late the night before last and though, I was supposed to be going to sleep, I couldn’t stop till I’d finished it. I’d previously come across Harris by reading bits of his books in bookshops. The style is that of an adolescent kid who’s figured out that Santa isn’t real and spends the rest of his time proving that God isn’t real. Fair enough. No-one knows if God is real, or what God might be if God is real. Once one has reached that insight, writing whole books about the Santa insight – that God could be about as real as Santa – seems pretty lame. They’re certainly not books I’ll be reading.
Anyway, I’m spared writing that much, very directly on Harris’s exchange with Klein, because Henry Farrell has done it for me.
One of the minor plagues of our time is a specific flavor of Enlightenment Man Rationalism – see Harris, Dawkins, Pinker – in which the Enlightenment Man … casts himself as the bold-honest truth-seeker, who is willing to follow reason wherever it takes him, even if (and perhaps especially if) this upsets the vulgar prejudices of the right-thinking herd. … The problem, as Harris so aptly demonstrates, is that reason usually isn’t independent of our passions, but their slave (see Hume, passim). … This doesn’t mean that reason is useless – if harnessed through appropriate social means, it can be extremely valuable in figuring out the truth. The fact that we are much better at poking holes in other people’s rationales than in our own means that groups that harness this capacity can reach better judgments than individuals. But it does highlight the possibility of an unfortunate circuit that can occur where an individual has prejudices, uses reason to elaborate good rationales for those prejudices, and then convinces himself through his own reasoning capacity that he was right all along.
One possible (but by no means necessary) implication is that individuals with an unusually high faith in the power of individual reason to demolish prejudice may, precisely by virtue of that belief, be especially vulnerable to a feedback loop in which their reasoning reinforces their own prejudices rather than undermining them. … The prejudices thus reinforced might be gross ones, as in the case of Charles Murray. … They might also be more intellectualized, as is very possibly the case of Sam Harris, whose commitment to Reason as he understands it appears so strong as to be irrational – not obviously susceptible to argument or change in the light of facts. Here, perhaps it is less the content of the heresy than the more refined attraction of iconoclasm itself that charges the circuit.
There’s something peculiarly thick-headed about the New Atheism – the parallels between its idolatry of reason and the faith of more conventional religion have become an argumentative cliche. But there is less (that I’ve seen anyway) about the specific ways in which its more specific notion of individual reason can armour-plate bad ideas against criticism.
Jerry Vinokurov’s comment on Henry’s post is also excellent:
The thing with Sam Harris and people who follow in his wake is that they’re a lot more like conspiracy theorists than they let themselves believe. They’ve taken their atheism and turned it into a fetish object, thinking that this is proof of their reasonableness, and since they’re reasonable people, the things they do and say are also reasonable, QED. … Like conspiracy theories in other domains, the Harrisites seem to think that they’ve been entrusted with a secret knowledge; anyone who fails to recognize the truth of their preaching is, pick one, in league with the conspiracy/ipso facto unreasonable. That’s really all there is to it.
The thing about “reason” is that it’s actually a lot of work. To make a case for even relatively simple propositions requires a fair amount of effort: you have to marshall evidence, state your assumptions, and work out the causal connections between where you’re starting and where you’re trying to end up. That Murray and Harris are obvious fraudsters can be inferred from the absolute poverty of the very reasoning process they claim to be so fond of: at every opportunity, they cut corners, skip steps, and jump to unwarranted conclusions. When they get called out on it in even the mildest ways (I like to clown on him but I do think Ezra Klein did a decent job of it in a Vox column earlier this week), they bristle and take it as a personal offence. They’re lazy, bad thinkers who are incapable of engaging with contrary ideas, but like all conspiracy theorists, they valorize themselves as brave truthtellers, because that’s the easiest path to take.
Quite. That is certainly on display in the exchange with Klein. And don’t you love Harris’s concession at the end of his self-immolation by publication? After showing commendable emotional candour and transparency he immediately retreats to the defensiveness by which he protects himself throughout from the humility that might lead to his breaking through into some self-awareness. All this in a champion of ‘reason’!
Judging from the response to this post on social media, my decision to publish these emails appears to have backfired. I was relying on readers to follow the plot and notice Ezra’s evasiveness and gaslighting (e.g. his denial of misrepresentations and slurs that are in the very article he published). Many people seem to have judged from his politeness that Ezra was the one behaving honestly and ethically. This is frustrating, to say the least.
Here’s precisely the same candour without self-awareness. Sam’s writing about the debacle of his pained discussion with Jordan Petersen:
The resulting exchange … was not what our mutual fans were hoping for. Rather than discuss religion and atheism, or the relationship between science and ethics, we spent two hours debating what it means to say that a proposition is (or seems to be) “true.” This is a not trivial problem in philosophy. But the place at which Peterson and I got stuck was a strange one. He seemed to be claiming that any belief system compatible with our survival must be true, and any that gets us killed must be false. As I tried to show, this view makes no sense, and I couldn’t quite convince myself that Peterson actually held it. The response on social media suggests that most listeners found our exchange as perplexing and frustrating as I did.
The italicised words are about as strong a signal as one ever gets to dial up the humility – to look in the mirror. This brings me to my comment on the debatelette that broke out six months or so ago on the “Chicago” style of seminar debate – basically take no prisoners. As I wrote then:
[W]e’re all emotional creatures. And attacks set off those emotions which then disturbs our search for truth with the fight or flight response. One can be perfectly direct in one’s criticism whilst at the same time being pleasant, charming if you’re really on your game (not that I’m making any claims for myself here) and, broadly speaking, encouraging.
I learned the economic way of thinking when I was a kid because my dad was an economist. I subsequently went on to do economic training. But that’s all it was – training. The only real education I got was studying history where I came to understand the importance of trying to listen sympathetically to sources to understand what they’re getting at.
Generally speaking, economists have no idea of the value of this interpretive skill. But it means that a great deal of the time, when they’re thinking they’re disagreeing, a good deal of the disagreement is really misunderstanding and talking at cross purposes.
In short, obviously, clarity and directness of expression are very valuable in a seminar if it’s supposed to be a vehicle for truth-seeking and mutual edification. By the same token civility, indeed generosity in discussion are hugely valuable to keeping that search on the straight and narrow of inquiry rather than emotional overload of self-defence.
Finally, let me quote from a favourite philosopher who struggled with these issues and broke through to an understanding of truth which had it that it was not something that was expressible as a set of propositions about reality. Here’s R.G. Collingwood describing a breakthrough in his thinking about one thing, which became the leitmotif of his whole philosophy. If you’re curious you can read a little more about this here:
Every day I walked across Kensington Gardens and past the Albert Memorial [which] began by degrees to obsess me .… Everything about it was visibly mis-shapen, corrupt, crawling, verminous; for a time I could not bear to look at it, and passed with averted eyes; recovering from this weakness, I forced myself to look, and to face .… the question: a thing so obviously, so incontrovertibly, so indefensibly bad, why had [the architect Gilbert] Scott done it? .… What relation was there, I began to ask myself, between what he had done and what he had tried to do? If I found the monument merely loathsome, was that perhaps my fault? Was I looking in it for qualities it did not possess, and either ignoring or despising those it did?
- Quoted from memory. ↩