Harris Challenges The World

It looks like Sam Harris is feeling ignored:

It has been nearly three years since The Moral Landscape was first published in English, and in that time it has been attacked by readers and nonreaders alike. Many seem to have judged from the resulting cacophony that the book’s central thesis was easily refuted. However, I have yet to encounter a substantial criticism that I feel was not adequately answered in the book itself (and in subsequent talks).

His solution to this problem?

So I would like to issue a public challenge. Anyone who believes that my case for a scientific understanding of morality is mistaken is invited to prove it in 1,000 words or less. (You must address the central argument of the book—not peripheral issues.) The best response will be published on this website, and its author will receive $2,000. If any essay actually persuades me, however, its author will receive $20,000,* and I will publicly recant my view.

*Note 9/1/13: The original prize was $1,000 for the winning essay and $10,000 for changing my view, but a generous reader has made a matching pledge.

Of course, no essay is ever going to persuade him, as he would not only have to “publicly recant” his views and undercut the entire thesis of one of the books that makes him money, but he would also have to hand out $20,000. Harris does not exactly have a track record of being willing to admit it when he is wrong.

But exactly what is it that someone is supposed to prove wrong?

Harris summarizes his views as follows:

Morality and values depend on the existence of conscious minds—and specifically on the fact that such minds can experience various forms of well-being and suffering in this universe. Conscious minds and their states are natural phenomena, fully constrained by the laws of Nature (whatever these turn out to be in the end). Therefore, there must be right and wrong answers to questions of morality and values that potentially fall within the purview of science. On this view, some people and cultures will be right (to a greater or lesser degree), and some will be wrong, with respect to what they deem important in life.

Science can tell us what various populations of humans value and what these populations think is right and wrong. But when there is disagreement, can science determine who is right and who is wrong with respect to what they deem important in life?

I feel no need to “disprove” Harris simply because I have no reason to think Harris has made a case that needs to be taken seriously.

First, since Harris is calling upon Science to serve as judge in these matters, does Harris take the time to define science? We know that Coyne, for example, defines science such that it is no different from confirmation bias. If Harris employs a similarly dumbed-down definition of science, Harris has no objective way of determining who is right and who is wrong. He has nothing that needs to be “disproved.”

Second, instead of engaging in another publicity stunt and writing word salads, why isn’t Harris, the neuroscientist, doing science to resolve areas of moral disagreement? In science, if your hypothesis is doubted by the rest of the scientific community, you don’t challenge everyone to prove you are wrong and offer to pay them for making you recant. No, instead you go into the lab, design an experiment, and bring the new results to the table. It is the experiment that changes minds, not offers of money.
So here would be my challenge to Harris:

You claim science can determine what is right and what is wrong. You have had three years to show this to be true, leading by example. So get off your ass and DO IT.

Consider the various moral disagreements within the atheist community alone. Why is it the neuroscientist will not go into the lab to show what is right and wrong concerning the following disputes?

1. Elevatorgate. Use science to show whether what happened in that elevator is right or wrong.
2. Use science to define “rape culture” and to what extent it exists.
3. Use science to determine whether it is right or wrong to use a popular blog to accuse someone of rape.
4. Use science to determine whether or not something called “mild pedophilia” exists and, if so, how should society treat it.

But Harris has not lifted even a little finger in effort to show us that science can resolve such moral disagreements in a community that prides itself for its commitment to science. This is what tells us Sam Harris’s argument is hot air. He talks the talk, but cannot walk the walk. It’s all talk, no science.

If for the past three years, Harris had been doing such science, he would not feel the need to engage in such silly publicity stunts to sell more books. Instead, he would be demonstrating the correctness of his views while rescuing the atheist community from its divisions at the same time. He would become a true leader. But Harris won’t do this because he can’t do this. His thesis is useless bullshit.

So there is no need to disprove Harris’s thesis because Harris himself, despite being a trained neuroscientist with plenty of time and money on hand, will not and cannot do it. There is a name for someone who posts taunts and offers rewards rather than going into the lab to do the experiment – pseudoscientist.

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4 Responses to Harris Challenges The World

  1. Crude says:

    I’m pretty sure there’s a prize out there that will be awarded to whoever can prove evolution is true. You just need to do so to the satisfaction of the guys offering the money.

    Simple, eh?

  2. Crude says:

    Not only that, but…

    Conscious minds and their states are natural phenomena, fully constrained by the laws of Nature (whatever these turn out to be in the end).

    Various problems.

    ‘Whatever these turn out to be’? What does it mean to say ‘conscious minds and their states are natural phenomena, fully constrained by the laws of nature’ and, in the same sentence, ‘whatever those are’? If it turns out we have immortal souls or irreducible minds, are those just chalked up to be laws of nature? What if the laws of nature are such that they’re, at the relevant level, opaque to science?

    Therefore, there must be right and wrong answers to questions of morality and values that potentially fall within the purview of science.

    ‘Potentially fall within the purview of science’? So he’s arguing that, at least in principle, he may possibly be right? That’s his big, groundbreaking claim?

    Morality and values depend on the existence of conscious minds—and specifically on the fact that such minds can experience various forms of well-being and suffering in this universe.

    Does science show that these things exist to begin with? How are they defined? Is it just axiomatic?

    What a mess. I think I may enter.

  3. Justin says:

    So Harris thinks that morality is objective. That’s great. I agree the existence of morality takes something like a conscious mind as well. Seeing as how we don’t invent morality, but merely discover it, it seems to require a greater mind, aka God.

    So Harris is admitting God exists?

  4. cl says:

    Shucking the burden of proof eh Harris? Great post.

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