Is Sam Harris Getting Frustrated?

It looks to me like Sam Harris is getting frustrated:

In recent years, I have spent so much time debating scientists, philosophers, and other scholars that I’ve begun to doubt whether any smart person retains the ability to change his mind. This is one of the great scandals of intellectual life: The virtues of rational discourse are everywhere espoused, and yet witnessing someone relinquish a cherished opinion in real time is about as common as seeing a supernova explode overhead. The perpetual stalemate one encounters in public debates is annoying because it is so clearly the product of motivated reasoning, self-deception, and other failures of rationality—and yet we’ve grown to expect it on every topic, no matter how intelligent and well-intentioned the participants.

It’s good to know that Harris is aware of things such as “motivated reasoning, self-deception, and other failures of rationality.” It’s just that none of it could possibly apply to him! It’s something that applies to “scientists, philosophers, and other scholars.” The great scandal of intellectual life is that these scientists, philosophers, and other scholars won’t change their minds and agree with Harris.

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4 Responses to Is Sam Harris Getting Frustrated?

  1. Dhay says:

    Harris to Dennett (from link):

    “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.”

    Harris brought the review upon himself. Had Harris been sensible, he would have asked Dennett’s opinion of his ideas and book while it was still in preparation, in order to have the “conversation” or “debate” before publication rather than afterwards; then he could have had a private debate, and a better book should have emerged from that. Instead, Harris has reaped the whirlwind, with an obviously frustrated Dennett writing a review of “Free Will” that is nearly as long as Harris’ (slim) book, and that strongly and in detail criticises, contradicts and condemns Harris’ central ideas. Here’s a snippet:

    “Entirely missing from Harris’s account—and it is not a lacuna that can be repaired—is any acknowledgment of the morally important difference between normal people (like you and me and Harris, in all likelihood) and people with serious deficiencies in self-control. The reason he can’t include this missing element is that his whole case depends in the end on insisting that there really is no morally relevant difference between the raving psychopath and us. We have no more free will than he does. Well, we have more something than he does, and it is morally important. And it looks very much like what everyday folks often call free will.”

  2. Dhay says:

    Dennett must still like Harris; or did so in 2012: in his 2012 essay, “Erasmus: Sometimes a Spin-Doctor is Right”, End Note 13 of which says, “Sam Harris’s book (“Free Will”) will receive a detailed commentary from me in the near future”, nonetheless seems to describe Harris (on page 10) as a prominent neuroscientist – despite Harris having published a mere two papers, and having now abandoned the field for journalism – when he says, “Today, some prominent neuroscientists and psychologists, and a few outspoken physicists and biologists, declare that free will is an illusion, much as Luther did, …”; for if he doesn’t have Harris in mind here, I have no idea who he does mean (and would appreciate suggestions of alternative candidates) (do I also detect Stenger and Coyne here); but he immediately continues, “…and I am among those opposing them.”; and just a little later, “I see the scientists’ arguments for the illusory nature of free will as simplistic, philosophically naïve, and ultimately unjustified by the science they cite, echoing Erasmus’ charges about Luther’s crude misreadings of scripture.”

    So Dennett would probably not agree with Harris’ “Moral Landscape” sub-title, that science can determine human values, but would instead disagree with that on the grounds that the scientists’ arguments (on the fundamental and core human moral values issue of free will, hence all values depending on it) are ultimately unjustified by the science they cite.

    “Sam Harris’s book will receive a detailed commentary from me in the near future”, said Dennett in that 2012 essay, but the commentary did not appear until January 2014. The delay is probably indicative of the pressure Dennett came under.

    Harris says, “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… I was hoping to spare our readers a feeling of boredom that surpasseth all understanding.” I think Harris has it the wrong way around when he complains that what could have been a lively and interesting debate has instead been replaced with something boring: their long-delayed angry exchange is that lively and interesting (and instructive) public debate.

  3. Dhay says:

    Looks like Sam Harris’ rejection of the idea of free will derives from his vipasyana meditation practice: Harris says, “Apparent acts of volition merely arise, spontaneously (whether caused, uncaused or probabilistically inclined, it makes no difference), and cannot be traced to a point of origin in the stream of consciousness. A moment or two of serious self-scrutiny, and you might observe that you decide the next thought you think no more than you decide the next thought I write.

    I do agree with this: yet these conclusions, drawn from watching the “monkey mind”, do not rule out free will. OK, you are not your thoughts (etc), nor do your thoughts directly cause your actions – but so what? The more obvious conclusion is that your thoughts and your actions both of them result from your free will.

    As a neuroscientist who accepts that each consciousness is produced by a brain that is not itself within that consciousness, surely he should be able to accept that free will – however explained – does not have to originate within consciousness.

    I have no real doubt but that Harris got his idea of no-self, hence no free-will, from the Buddhist sutras: but as another core Buddhist, Ken Wilber, would say, “It’s not so much what you say but the depth from which you say it“; that is, Harris’ superficial understanding leads to superficially wise pronouncements. Fortunately, Daniel Dennett has criticised and attempted to correct the worst excesses of Harris’ idea of free will, though Harris is so far strongly resisting. Hence Harris’ ‘Marionette’ blog in reply, and this blog reporting that strongly worded exchange.

    Interestingly, if you look at these two of Harris’ blogs, you will find it is just free will that Harris is denying, and that he is opposed to the common New Atheist idea that the laws of physics and neuroscience leave no room for there to possibly be such a thing as consciousness – so Harris is an untypical (or perhaps even a trojan) horseman of the New Atheist apocalypse.

  4. Michael says:

    Good catch. I do agree with your assessment about the untypical nature of this horseman. Take a look at this:

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