We have seen that Sam Harris abandons scientific reasoning to closed-mindedly dismiss the possibility his mind is closed. When psychologist Jonathan Haidt wrote, “But the benefits of disconfirmation depend on social relationships. We engage with friends and colleagues, but we reject any critique from our enemies,” Harris sought to refute this by raising two examples that were supposed to demonstrate the science of psychology does not apply to him. But let’s take a closer look at those two examples.
Well, then I must be a very hard case. I received a long and detailed criticism of my work from a friend, Dan Dennett, and found it totally unpersuasive. How closed must I be to the views of my enemies?
There are three relevant factors that would likely play a role in Harris’s response to Dennett’s criticism.
Friendship: Harris describes Dennett as a friend. But friends come in many varieties, ranging from Facebook “friends” to life-long companions with whom you can share your deepest secrets. So what type of friend is Dennett?
It’s difficult to say, but I would reasonably guess they are friends in the sense that that are allied culture warriors who probably converse on a private e-mail list along with other New Atheist leaders. But it doesn’t look like there is any great depth to their friendship. We can tell because of the way Sam Harris complained:
The truth is that you and I could have done a much better job—and produced something well worth reading—had we explored the topic of free will in a proper conversation. Whether we called it a “conversation” or a “debate” would have been immaterial. And, as you know, I urged you to engage me that way on multiple occasions and up to the eleventh hour. But you insisted upon writing your review. (emphasis added)
Apparently, behind the closed doors, Harris was pestering Dennett not to review his book and Dennett’s sense of friendship did not oblige him. And if Harris himself was under the impression that their friendship ran deeper than this, it’s safe to say he felt a sense of betrayal by Dennett’s review. For even Jerry Coyne noted, “It’s clear that Sam was both blindsided and hurt by Dan’s tone.”
Thus, we can see that Harris’s description of being unconvinced by a long and detailed criticism from “a friend” is overly simplistic. The dynamic likely entailed much more, such that Harris found himself unpersuaded by an ally who, at first ignored him, and then hurt and blindsided him. That is not a recipe for being receptive.
So let’s turn to the other example: