Sam Harris Promotes Himself by Stepping on Science

After reading through Sam Harris’s response to the Great Moral Landscape Promo, it looks like I was right when I noted, “Harris wants to dumb down the definition of science. He wants to draw upon his atheistic/Buddhist intuitions and then, like a typical pseudoscientist, label them science, relying on his dumbed down definitions.” What catches my interest is the way Harris handles science.

He begins his essay:

Most criticisms of The Moral Landscape seem to stumble over its subtitle, “How Science Can Determine Human Values,” and I admit that this wording has become an albatross.

He chose a title that would help sell books and get him noticed and now finds the title to be an albatross.

To my surprise, many people think about science primarily in terms of academic titles, budgets, and architecture, and not in terms of the logical and empirical intuitions that allow us to form justified beliefs about the world.

I suspect very few people think about science “primarily in terms of academic titles, budgets, and architecture.” Most people think about science primarily in terms of results. Science got us to the moon. Science cured various diseases. Science gave us the computer. And science accomplished these results through dependence on the experimental approach. Lab research, field research, and the public sharing and review of these gathered data. So when Sam Harris tells us that Science Can Determine Human Values, we want to see the results. We want to see the experiments that uncover the objectively true human values. And Sam has nothing to offer.

Harris is trying to redefine science as part of his own self-promotion. He has no academic title, he has no research grant, and he is not part of any university or research institute (his own personal think tank does not count). But what he does have are “logical and empirical intuitions” that allow him to form “beliefs about the world” he considers as “justified.” So according to his own definition, it just so happens that Sam Harris is doing science when he writes and sells his books and speeches. Amazing how that works out, eh?

The point of my book was not to argue that “science” bureaucratically construed can subsume all talk about morality.

In other words, the subtitle of his book was misleading – science, as most people understand it, cannot determine human values.

My purpose was to show that moral truths exist and that they must fall (in principle, if not in practice) within some (perhaps never to be complete) understanding of the way conscious minds arise in this universe.

And these moral “truths” come from his intuition and he wants us to consider his intuitions as science.

Harris continues to quietly promote himself:

So you call a plumber. Is a plumber a scientist? No more than a roofer is, but any competent plumber will generate hypotheses and test them—and his thinking will conform to the same principles of reasoning that every scientist uses. When he pressure tests a section of pipe, he is running an experiment. Would this experiment be more “scientific” if it were funded by the National Science Foundation? No.

I have previous disposed of this type of argument before: Sam Harris’s Subtle Attack on Science .

But let me translate Harris’s message: Just because Harris himself is not funded by the National Science Foundation doesn’t mean he isn’t doing science.

More self-promo:

Drawing the line between science and non-science by reference to a person’s occupation is just too crude to be useful—but it is what many of my critics seem to do.

Translation: Just because Sam Harris did not choose a career as a neuroscientist does not mean he is not doing science.

In summary, when Sam Harris argues that science can determine human values, what he really means is that his intuitions, guided by atheism and Buddhism, determine human values and he wants us to consider his intuitions to be science. Just another New Atheist trying to masquerade his/her opinions as science.

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6 Responses to Sam Harris Promotes Himself by Stepping on Science

  1. Dhay says:

    Looking at what immediately precedes one of the quotes above is yields amusing insight into Sam Harris’ readership, or into what Harris thinks of them:

    You awaken to find water pouring through the ceiling of your bedroom. Imagining that you have a gaping hole in your roof, you immediately call the man who installed it. The roofer asks, “Is it raining where you live?” Good question. In fact, it hasn’t rained for months. Is this roofer a scientist? Not technically, but he was thinking just like one. Empiricism and logic reveal that your roof is not the problem.

    So you call a plumber. Is a plumber a scientist? No more than a roofer is, but any competent plumber will generate hypotheses and test them—and his thinking will conform to the same principles of reasoning that every scientist uses. When he pressure tests a section of pipe, he is running an experiment.

    Harris here invites his readers – “You awaken”, “your roof”, “you call” – to put themselves, in their imaginations, in the position of a bumbling idiot; a bumbling idiot so utterly stupid that they need someone to point them towards realising that if it isn’t raining – and to really rub in how stupid they are, that it hasn’t rained for months – that it ain’t going to be rain pouring through the roof. In that position, any normally intelligent person would not immediately call a roofer.

    That Harris thinks his readership will not feel insulted, when asked to imagine themselves as bumbling idiots, shows that Harris has – perhaps without justification, or perhaps Harris judges his readers are genuinely bumbling idiots who will feel no dissonance when imagining themselves in that role – that Harris has a very poor opinion of the intelligence of his readership.

  2. Dhay says:

    So you call a plumber. Is a plumber a scientist? No more than a roofer is, but any competent plumber will generate hypotheses and test them—and his thinking will conform to the same principles of reasoning that every scientist uses. When he pressure tests a section of pipe, he is running an experiment. Would this experiment be more “scientific” if it were funded by the National Science Foundation? No.

    Here’s a link to the last of seven blogs (which in turn links to the other six) by statistician WM Briggs: http://wmbriggs.com/blog/?p=4942. In these seven lengthy blogs, Briggs excoriates in detail and at length the many, many defects of method and reasoning used by Sam Harris in his paper entitled, “The Neural Correlates of Religious and Nonreligious Belief”.

    Briggs concludes: ”During the course of my investigation of scientism and bad science, I have read a great many bad, poorly reasoned papers. This one might not be the worst, but it deserves a prize for mangling the largest number of things simultaneously.”

    Would Harris’ experiment have been more “scientific” if it were funded by the National Science Foundation? No.

    Looks like, in terms of using correct principles of reasoning, a mere plumber pressure-testing a pipe is more of a scientist than Sam Harris, using fMRI, has shown himself to be.

    It’s worth remembering that Harris is not actually competent to pronounce on what are or are not correct principles of reasoning, or on what is or is not (by his definition and usage) science.

  3. Dhay says:

    Is a plumber a scientist? No more than a roofer is, but any competent plumber will generate hypotheses and test them—and his thinking will conform to the same principles of reasoning that every scientist uses. When he pressure tests a section of pipe, he is running an experiment.

    When Sam Harris dumbs down science so drastically, it will be for a purpose: I await his claim that everyone taking mind-altering drugs is running a scientific experiment upon themselves, to discover their “inner landscape”; and that taking mind-altering drugs is essentially the same as being a respected scientist.

    Which brings us to the next question: is the claim that “science can determine moral values” — using a drastically dumbed-down version of science — is that going to morph into a claim that, “drug experiences can determine moral values.” I suspect that for Harris, that can be put in the past tense: “drug experiences did determine moral values.”

  4. TFBW says:

    Science, Sam Harris style. When the knight tests whether the alleged-witch weighs the same as a duck, he is running an experiment.

  5. Dhay says:

    Let’s discover the opinion of a scientist’s scientist — Lord Kelvin was the foremost scientist of his day:

    “When you can measure what you are speaking about, and express it in numbers, you know something about it, when you cannot express it in numbers, your knowledge is of a meager and unsatisfactory kind; it may be the beginning of knowledge, but you have scarcely in your thoughts advanced to the stage of science.”
    (Quoted from WM Briggs’ blog, at http://wmbriggs.com/blog/?p=13284)

    No, I don’t think Lord Kelvin would allow Sam Harris’ roofer and plumber to be scientists, or to have engaged in scientific thinking.

  6. Dhay says:

    You awaken to find water pouring through the ceiling of your bedroom. Imagining that you have a gaping hole in your roof, you immediately call the man who installed it. The roofer asks, “Is it raining where you live?” Good question. In fact, it hasn’t rained for months.

    Reading the review linked below, it seems quite possible that the mindless idiot Harris refers to as “you” is not the “you” of the Sam Harris blog reader — though it might be — but Sam Harris himself.

    The most detailed example Waking Up gives of suffering is Harris’s personal anecdote of a recurrent plumbing issue in his home, which he calls a “horror movie.”
    http://www.newrepublic.com/article/119397/sam-harriss-waking-review

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