Sam Harris Just Won’t Admit He is Closed-Minded

Sam Harris is a man who is obsessed with maintaining his public image. Thus, it is no surprise to see him lashing out (in his typical low key manner) at psychologist Jonathan Haidt for drawing attention to Harris’s closed-mind. Harris writes a blog entry entitled, “The Pleasure of Changing My Mind,” that is saturated with intellectual inconsistency (as I will show at the end of this blog entry).

But for now, consider how Harris begins:

I spend a lot of time trying to change people’s beliefs, but I’m also in the business of changing my own. And I don’t want to be wrong for a moment longer than I have to be.

This looks like nothing more than posturing and preening. For if Harris is in the business of having others change his mind, and does not “want to be wrong for a moment longer” than he has to be, then why does he not allow any comments on his blog? A man who does not want dissenting viewpoints aired on his own blog is hardly someone interested in having his mind changed.

Harris continues:

In response to the Moral Landscape Challenge, the psychologist Jonathan Haidt issued a challenge of his own: He bet $10,000 that the winning essay will fail to persuade me. This wager seems in good fun, and I welcome it. But Haidt then justified his confidence by offering a pseudo-scientific appraisal of the limits of my intellectual honesty. He did this by conducting a keyword search of my books: The frequency of “certainty” terms, Haidt says, reveals that I (along with the other “New Atheists”) am even more blinkered by dogmatism and bias than Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck, and Anne Coulter. This charge might have been insulting if it weren’t so silly. It is almost impossible to believe that Haidt expects his “research” on this topic to be taken seriously. But apparently he does.

Notice the closed-minded nature of Harris’s response. Harris reflexively rejects the notion that he is dogmatic and responds that such an observation is “insulting,” “silly,” and “impossible to believe.” Harris is so closed-minded about this that he cannot, for the briefest of moments, consider the possibility he is closed-minded. He is too invested (psychologically, emotionally, and financially) in his self-image so he must spin such a possibility as “insulting” and “silly.” Without even realizing it, Harris is making Haidt’s point by so closed-mindedly dismissing the possibility of closed-mindedness.

What’s more, why did Harris carefully omit something else Haidt wrote:

When I was doing the research for The Righteous Mind, I read the New Atheist books carefully, and I noticed that several of them sounded angry. I also noticed that they used rhetorical structures suggesting certainty far more often than I was used to in scientific writing – words such as “always” and “never,” as well as phrases such as “there is no doubt that…” and “clearly we must…”

Anyone who is familiar with both the scientific literature and the writings of the New Atheists will concur – the New Atheists clearly come to us with more anger and certainty than anything you will find in the scientific literature. It is, after all, the difference between apologetics and scholarship.

Harris then tries to deflect this criticism by searching for an example where he did change his mind. Put simply, Harris used to support President Obama’s methodology of turning the war on terror into a secretive, covert war until he saw a documentary. Now, he proudly tells us, “The details of how we have been waging our war on terror are appalling, and Scahill’s film paints a picture of callousness and ineptitude that shocked me. Having seen it, I am embarrassed to have been so trusting and complacent with respect to my government’s use of force.” Well, imagine that. Maybe Sam Harris will change his mind on another topic after he watches “Super Size Me.”

Harris is arguing against a straw man which would equate being closed-minded about the issues he finds vitally important with the inability to change his mind about anything. But that is not the point. Harris’s opinion on the correct tactics in the war on terror hardly amount to a significant component of the agenda and self-image he sells. No one is buying his books on free will or morality or religion because they share his views on the war on terror. There are very few people who seek out his views on the war on terror. The fact that he changed his mind on how to conduct the war on terror is not evidence that he would be willing to change his mind on the bigger, core metaphysical positions he has mapped out and have become a stream of revenue. He may as well have pointed out that he changed his mind about his favorite TV show.

What’s more, if you consider Sam Harris’s New Atheist fan base, it is safe to assume Harris has changed his mind from a less popular position to a more popular position. Which would mean that Harris has good reasons to change his mind about the war on terror: a) it’s a minor thing that can be made to look like a significant change in mind so Harris can sell himself as being will to change his mind; b) it will probably cut down on the number of web sites and magazines criticizing Sam Harris; and c) it will probably result in a modest uptick in the number of people willing to buy a Sam Harris book.

It gets worse for Harris when we consider the manner in which Harris completely ignores his metaphysical pontifications when responding to Haidt.

The first example of intellectual inconsistency comes from Harris’s attempt to posture as a proud free agent. His blog entry is entitled, “The Pleasure of Changing My Mind.” He writes, “I’m also in the business of changing my own. And I don’t want to be wrong for a moment longer than I have to be.” He even ends his blog entry with the following: “So I remain committed to discovering my own biases. And whether they are blatant, or merely implicit, I will work extremely hard to correct them.”

The man who commits to discovering his own biases, the man who will work hard to find them, the man who doesn’t want to be wrong, and takes pleasure in changing his mind, is the same man, as Harris insists, who is merely a puppet. Whether or not Sam the Puppet changes his mind is simply a consequence of the puppet’s genes and environment. So I’m not sure why the puppet is supposed to get some credit for changing his mind. Whether or not he happens to change his mind all depends on whether or not a certain string gets pulled. In this case, Harris just happened to watch a documentary and just happened to trust it as truthful and objective. So something flipped a switch in his brain. Had he gone out for dinner and not watched the documentary, he would not have changed his mind. If we are to credit anything for changing Harris mind, we should credit his DVD player for working.

The second example of intellectual inconsistency occurs when Harris lashes out at Haidt. For not only does Harris abandon his views about free will, he also abandons his views about broadening the definition of science. Harris accuses Haidt of a pseudo-scientific appraisal and describes Haidt’s analysis as “research” (note the quote marks). Yet the same Sam Harris tells us we need to get rid of any narrow definition of science and embrace “claims about the world on the basis of evidence and logic” as science. Well, according to that dumbed-down definition, Haidt is indeed making a claim about the world (Harris is part of the world) that is based on evidence and logic. According to Harris’s earlier words, Haidt is doing science. Science therefore gives us evidence that Harris is dogmatic. How does Harris respond to science? He lashes out at science by denigrating it as pseudoscience. How ironic!

See how it works? When Harris wants us to accept his pop writings as science, he relies on a dumbed-down definition of science. But when that dumbed-down definition of science means that science has shown Sam Harris to be dogmatic, suddenly it becomes non-science; it becomes pseudoscience. Again and again, we get to see the New Atheist leaders dishonestly defining science to suit their agenda.

Summary: A trained psychologist thinks Sam Harris is dogmatic and Harris closed-mindedly dismisses this observation as “silly” and “insulting.” Harris then argues against a straw man position by searching for an example where he changes his mind about some issue that is trivial relative to the context of his overall posturing and message. To do this, he not only abandons his deterministic metaphysics to posture as a proud free agent, he also abandons his definition of science he laid out just a few weeks ago. Harris writes well, but his thinking is confused, arbitrary, and dogmatic.

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12 Responses to Sam Harris Just Won’t Admit He is Closed-Minded

  1. TFBW says:

    I think that “apologetics” is too charitable a word for what Harris and other New Atheists do. It implies a level of reasoned support of which they fall short. I think that “advocacy” is a better fit, without being unduly negative. One can expect an advocate to wilfully ignore the portion of evidence and reason that doesn’t support his position. I expect greater candour from an apologist, however.

  2. Michael says:

    Point taken. There can be no rational denial that Harris is an advocate. So it would make sense to study advocates and what makes them tick. The burden would then be on Harris and his fans to explain why traits, commonly seen in advocates, magically don’t apply to Harris.

  3. Mike Soussan says:

    we are all close minded … otherwise our brains would fall off … 😉 Sam Harris has good points and his ideas are very necessary right now … but he is not god … ad hominen attacks are not warranted … unless your livelihood is threatened, then by all means, shoot on …

  4. Michael says:

    Since you agree Harris is closed-minded, why won’t he admit he is closed-minded?

  5. dougborg says:

    “Anyone who is familiar with both the scientific literature and the writings of the New Atheists will concur – the New Atheists clearly come to us with more anger and certainty than anything you will find in the scientific literature.”

    I hope the irony of that statement is not lost on you given the subject of this article and Haidt’s methodology for criticizing Harris’s works.

    “… Haidt is indeed making a claim about the world (Harris is part of the world) that is based on evidence and logic. According to Harris’s earlier words, Haidt is doing science.”

    Scientists regularly debate and criticize the methodologies used to back up a claim about the world. Haidt may be using a science-like method to analyze Harris’s writing, but that does not mean it is good methodology, beyond criticism, or that it his claims should be automatically considered. Harris’s dismissal of Haidt’s claims as “silly” based upon the way he analyzed his writing does not make him closed minded. Harris makes it pretty clear how unreliable Haidt’s methodologies can be in the last paragraph of his article.

  6. Michael says:

    Scientists regularly debate and criticize the methodologies used to back up a claim about the world. Haidt may be using a science-like method to analyze Harris’s writing,

    Full stop. According to Harris’s dumbed-down definition of science, Haidt’s analysis is not “science-like.” Haidt’s analysis is science. Thus, Haidt’s analysis is scientific evidence of Harris’s closed mind. For Harris to lash out at the analysis as “pseudoscientific” indicates Harris is not being honest and/or intellectual consistent when he defines science.

    but that does not mean it is good methodology, beyond criticism, or that it his claims should be automatically considered.

    No one said otherwise. The issue is Harris abandoning his own definition of science to attack the analysis as pseudoscientific.


    Harris’s dismissal of Haidt’s claims as “silly” based upon the way he analyzed his writing does not make him closed minded.

    You are right – it does not MAKE him closed-minded. It is simply one line of evidence that indicates he is closed minded. This is all the more significant given there is no evidence he is open minded.

    Harris makes it pretty clear how unreliable Haidt’s methodologies can be in the last paragraph of his article.

    It depends. It is unreliable as “the final word,” but it is reliable as a preliminary analysis. It’s the type of analysis one might find in the preliminary findings of a grant proposal.

    What’s more, Harris and his fans conveniently ignore the other way in which such an analysis is unreliable – it is likely to be plagued by false negatives. For example, when Harris preaches that a religious upbringing is an “ludicrous obscenity,” such extreme language is clear evidence of his closed mind. And Haidt’s analysis would not pick it up.

  7. richardjwalker@hotmail.co.uk says:

    Yes, you are far better off taking things on faith.

    Then you can hide behind that as a means to never change your mind or accept difficult truths.

  8. Mike Soussan says:

    How open does a mind have to be Michael? i hope, not that open that we can hear the wind whistle between our ears … Some people are full of doodoo and you have to call them on that, and some of us have sphincters as loose as a clown’s pocket. I am not trying to defend Sam Harris, it is just that I resonate with his views anf find them somehow reflecting the zeitgeist … not that they are sealtight as far as inconsistencies is concerned, only that it is as far a mere mortal can go at this time and we can all use his insights as stepping stones for further and more improved … versions of the story 😉

  9. Michael says:

    Yes, you are far better off taking things on faith.

    Then you can hide behind that as a means to never change your mind or accept difficult truths.

    If atheism is true, I have no choice in the matter.

  10. Michael says:

    How open does a mind have to be Michael?

    That depends. When Harris insists “there is no evidence for God,” and demands that we either change his mind with “the evidence” or consent to his view that raising a child to be religious is a “ludicrous obscenity,” his mind should be open enough to change. Doesn’t truth in advertising apply? If he is going to posture as a judge, shouldn’t he have an open mind about the things he wants to judge?

    As for his “insights,” they seem to be tied to extremism and an Iron Age notion of “Reason.” I noticed from his reply to Dennett that he is beginning to become angry about the fact that he isn’t convincing many people in academia with his insights. They are not convinced and it’s their fault, he seems to think. He doesn’t come across as a trustworthy guide, if you ask me.

  11. Michael says:

    not that they are sealtight as far as inconsistencies is concerned

    LOL. Er, his inconsistencies have sphincters as loose as a clown’s pocket. When the author of a book telling us that we have no free will replies to Dennett by posturing as a proud free agent, it’s more than inconsistent. It tells us he doesn’t even take his own philosophy seriously. It tells us his philosophy is unlivable mental masturbation. So why even bother with it?

    As for him abandoning his dumbed-down definition of science, that’s more than inconsistent. That’s intellectually dishonest. And that is not trustworthy.

  12. Jimi Burden says:

    Good points about Harris and calling him out on changing his mind about the war on terror. That’s really minor. I’ve read all the new atheists’ works and they use more certainty words. I wonder if the books were re-written in more modest prose, how effective they would be? Perhaps not at all.

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