Sam Harris, idolater of reason, outs himself

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?


  1. Quoted from memory.
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16 Responses to Sam Harris, idolater of reason, outs himself

  1. John R Walker says:

    There is something missing in the writings of the likes of Harris and Dawkins.
    St Paul seems apt : “ if I …comprehend all mysteries and all knowledge…but do not have love, I am nothing.”

    • Jay says:

      Is this the same St Paul who said, if the Bible is accurate ““I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent.” (1 Timothy 2:12) and made numerous vile and homophobic comments that would see him facing the courts if he made them today? The man was an architect of hate who licenced the Church to strip away the rights of women and gays for the next two millenia. Lest that remark be considered over the top, it should be remembered that many pagan societies accorded women a much higher social and legal status than that allowed by Christianity and LGBTI had varying levels of tolerance and acceptance.

      One could be openly gay and in a homosexual relationship in pagan Rome,for instance, yet within a matter of decades the new Christian authorities commenced a pogrom against same that lasted until Christianity was defanged by an increasingly secular society.

      Sam Harris and the other New Atheists say some silly things at times but I nonetheless thank them for their work in washing the stink of religion, and in particular Christianity, off our culture.

      • Jay
        Am told that in the early centuries of the church women often played quite significant roles, possibly at times even even the role of bishop.
        And am also told that much of the more ‘misanthropic ‘ teachings, or more exactly -interpretations and translations- came later, often from the monastic academic cultures of around 700 ad and later.
        It’s definitely the case that the early UK church, which came directly by sea from the levant quite early on , was more democratic and culturally much less authoritarian, than the Roman based church that arrived in the 7th to 8th centuries.

        BTW would you also tar the likes of Wilberforce and Wesley with the same brush.

        • Jay says:

          Tom Cruise seems quite nice but that is not enough to change my assessment of Scientology.

          • Jay be it political parties, church groups or any other human group, it’s not about whether a person is nice.
            The faults , flaws , folly, and on occasion outright cruelty, are applicable to all humans, believers and unbelievers alike.
            And confusing a “ church for everyone” ,with a “club for the right kind person “ is not (at all )unique to, churches. It’s what power is all about .

  2. derrida derider says:

    OT, but I’m glad to find someone had the same view of the Albert Memorial as myself – it approaches a platonic ideal of ugliness. If the vista of the stars from the top of a mountain makes you want to believe, against all reason, in a heaven then the Albert Memorial makes you want to believe in a hell, if only to put Gilbert Scott there.

    On topic, I’m much less disdainful of the New Atheists than you. No, they don’t have ultimate truths inaccessible to others – but then they would not claim to. And they are not claiming knowledge of things they do not, actually, have knowledge of. That is their legitimate beef with the religionists, especially as such claims to special knowledge on the part of organised religion have historically been, and still are, used to pursue very earthly goals of power over others.

    • John R Walker says:

      Your complete (and near total )misunderstanding of the point of Nicholas’s article is unfortunately a perfect example of the point of the article.

      • David Walker says:

        John, I’m afraid I’m in the camp you think DD is in: I can’t quite understand the point Nick is trying to make here.

        I also couldn’t really understand why Harris was so eager to pursue Klein either. The Klein exchange is Harris at his worst, not his best. He’s perfectly capable of an admirable civility and generosity in discussion – not to mention a great deal more clarity than most of us can manage. But even very bright people can go off the rails occasionally.

        I also cannot understand the hostility towards people who spend time pointing out that the evidence for gods is unconvincing. It seems a fairly important point in the sweep of our affairs, worth making and potentially helpful in moving us to a better understanding of how we ought to behave.

        No matter what Henry Farrell thinks, I also remain generally in favour of “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”. In fact, it’s one of many reasons I like Club Troppo. I’m not sure why this is a wholly bad thing.

        And John, I’m afraid I can’t see what in Harris or Dawkins denies love. As far as I can tell, both are strongly in favour of it.

        There’s a lot I don’t understand.

        • David the article that is linked to at the beginning of Nicholas’s piece is(I think ) actually about IQ inhertabilty (and race). That piece has one big ,unstated ,proposition: high IQ equals superiority .

          Re Dawkins his concept of rationality seems to me to be pre Riemannian.

  3. paul frijters says:

    Hmmm. I read the Ezra/Harris exchange and the piece on Vox of the Murray/Harris interview. In the past, I reviewed a book on genetics and IQ and have written on troppo about how obesity and genetics are now routinely linked in the popular media and scientific writings (without incurring the same social opprobrium). The GWAS studies mentioned (but not critically discussed by either of these sets of writers) also attracted my attention. Indeed, the Vox discussion of the GWAS results make clear those authors in fact totally buy into a genetic explanation of IQ, simply saying that there are some groups where the genes haven’t been given the best environment (by which logic, any difference observed in a ‘good environment’, such as high income groups, would only be genetic).

    I ask myself whether Sam Harris has a point that the genetics-race issue is being treated differently to other gene-related issues in social science, and whether opponents of the social and political implications of these gene-race theories demand more answers than anyone can give, quickly employing strong emotional words to describe what others do (‘moral’ this, ‘ethically’ that). Do I see the same people attacking the gene-obesity theorists with the same venom?

    I do see the social usefulness of shutting people up who say things we don’t like. But I don’t like seeing that played out in the halls of academia. Having said that, both protagonists are professional milkers of attention who live on boundary, so the dog fight we are seeing feels a little staged.

    I don’t really see what this says about New Atheists or that kind of thing. In my perspective, people can’t help being religious. If you worship Reason then that is your god. For has anyone ever seen Reason? Touched her? I didnt’ get the impression though that any dog in that fight cared too much for Reason. Their gods are much closer by.

    • Nicholas Gruen says:

      Thanks Paul,

      Your way of explaining it is fine with me.

      There are lots of ways of saying that Harris and Dawkins are gloriously unaware of what they’re lecturing others on. As Hegel would have called him (or at least used words to this effect) someone whose metaphysics comes by default (or by accident since they seem to think they can take commonsense – and their kind of commonsense at that – to a metaphysical debate.)

      I think there’s also no doubt that Harris has a point that IQ is being treated differently. This is the best popular treatment of that that I’ve seen. Indeed since I’ve seen it, I think I may have been somewhat unfair to Harris on this debate – as I didn’t chase down each of the references – which would have been pretty prohibitive in terms of my time. I’m still happy to say that I really disapprove of people escalating things as Harris did here without searching for whether they might be missing something, along with their interlocutor.

      • Nicholas
        Is it surprising that statements like : some human groups-races ( or whatever)have a greater propensity for say prostrate cancer , don’t have the same click-bait factor as propositions about race and IQ ?

        As for the belief bit
        I am ,I think, sane enough to know that I am not rational .

  4. Russell Affleck says:

    Sam is just plain gullible. He’s a cheerleader for the scientific method and not a practitioner. There is no stupid mainstream idea that he does not believe through faith. You get sick of people like that. People who talk up an epistemological storm but never practice what they preach.

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