PZ Myers Roasts Sam Harris

New Atheist PZ Myers recently took New Atheist Sam Harris to the woodshed over Harris’s embarassing exchange with Noam Chomsky:

Harris replies with evasions and a hypothetical. He’s flailing wildly!…….Sam, STOP PUNCHING YOURSELF!……..IT’S A KNOCKOUT. THIS FIGHT IS OVER. WE HAVE ACHIEVED PEAK HARRIS. No, really, that is pathetically petulant. Harris is making a tone argument: Chomsky is not being collegial enough, isn’t accepting his word games, is seeing right through his pretense. He seems to seriously believe he’s winning this debate – I’m worried that he’s suffering from a concussion, except that this seems to be Harris’s default mode…..I am not a reader of Harris, which perhaps explains why I am not disappointed at all. Harris exhibited his usual woefully oblivious moral ineptitude, and Chomsky slapped him down hard. I am most amazed by the fact that Harris then promoted this as a personal victory.

Myers atheistic fans were just as, if not more, brutal:

I read this exchange this morning and almost regurgitated milk from of my nose .. and I wasn’t even drinking milk. :—) Then I looked for a PZ Myers comment, and was not disappointed. Classic SH, from the cloying neediness to be taken seriously as an intellectual, to the moving of the goal posts with dubiously tangential “thought-experiments”, to the tone/civility gambit … all of his moves are there for everyone to see, including the losing of his ass conclusion. It was a little bit like watching a nature show framed in an intellectual battle. You know that the wounded springbok’s demise is inevitable … hmm, maybe it was more like a car crash. Not sure…

Sam Harris’ moral compass reminds me less of a real compass and more of the one from Pirates of the Caribbean, pointing not to true north but rather to whatever his heart desires

I find Sam Harris annoying, not because I disagree with him, but because I often do agree with his bottom line but he does such a horrible job advocating for it. There are good arguments for the positions he takes, but those are not the arguments he makes. He’s a crappy debater, he thinks everything is about him, and he seems more interested in self-aggrandizement than in intellectual conversation.

I’ve never understood Harris’s rise to gnu-atheist superstardom. I took The End of Faith back to Barnes & Noble for a refund the minute I read that bit suggesting there may be credible evidence for reincarnation. And IIRC, that was only like two chapters in.

I saw this last night, and it was a microcosm of why I’m glad I never bothered reading Harris (and why I’m sad I bought two of his books nonetheless). The strawmanning in his cited chapter was bad enough, but then Chomsky shows that Harris didn’t even bother to research Chomsky’s position beyond one source? Or the delicious moment when Harris realizes/admits his beef with Chomsky is about something Chomsky said about Hitchens? For someone with such a reputation as a serious academic, Harris doesn’t seem to care much about thorough or accurate research.

Harris starts the whole fucking thing advising Prof. Noam Chomsky, who is, apart from somebody who writes about ethics, probably THE most influential linguist of our times, likely the most influential linguist since fucking de Saussure, to write like this was going to be published, coming off like a tutor who’S advising a college freshman and you call Chomsky condescending?

Just for the record: It’s Harris who desperately wanted some of Chomsky’s time. It’s Harris who bombards Chomsky with delirious thought experiments and avoids the actual question raised.

I, at least, don’t loathe Sam Harris.
He is just an idiot. Dumb.
I would though stay far away from him. He is so clumsy and mentally fogged up that he could accidently kill someone.

It’s a good thing Harris is trying to tap into the New Age market with his latest book, as a growing number of atheists have begun to realize he not quite the brilliant thinker his PR machine promotes him as.

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9 Responses to PZ Myers Roasts Sam Harris

  1. UpstateIslandersFan says:

    It is funny how little I care for either of these people – P.Z. Myers and Sam Harris. One is a crude, reactionary foul-mouthed bigot and the other is a crude, reactionary hollow-mouthed bigot. Underlying some of the New Atheist infighting is something that is perhaps analogous to religious conflict. The underlying creed of the New Atheist movement is materialism and scientism. The schism seems to me to be over how they are interpreted in daily life. The more staid and conservative side is the Dawkins, Harris, Dennett, Coyne side. The more radical is the Myers, Watson, Carrier “social justice warrior” side. The rift is I suppose a social one, with one side claiming Darwinian imperatives for bad behavior (Elevatorgate) and others claiming that they are the victims of knuckle dragging troglydite misogynists (Shermergate). The battle ground, as Michael pointed out in a post a while ago, is evolutionary psychology and it’s kinda ironic to see one group of fundamentalists attack the other. It’s almost as if people have to pick sides. Ultimately, I think the Dawkinett side has the upper hand because it rocks the boat the least socially. The social justice warrior side is seen as too rebellious, to unwilling to shut up and accept the consequences of neo-Darwinian thinking. It’s really quite ironic, because both sides are scientistic, intolerant and wholly unpleasant. I’m sure there are a lot of non-believers who would just as well ignore all of it. Atheist Michael Ruse pointed out that there are obnoxious conflicts over small differences in the New Atheist movement. Sounds a little like religious conflict to me. Anglican philosopher Keith ward noted that even on Dawkins own site, scientific topics can turn downright nasty, between atheists! Can you imagine how much artillery they throw at the other side. I guess it’s just as fun to watch it happen, considering bother the Dawkinett side and the Social Justice Warrior side both see themselves as highly rational and reasonable. Yeah right.

  2. mechanar says:

    and all there is to say is, the atheist wars go on and on and on and on and on and on.(how else has now dont stop beliving stuck in their heads?)

  3. Dhay says:

    In that exchange, Sam Harris proposed that Noam Chomsky give serious consideration to the following wildly imaginative scenario:

    1. Imagine that al-Qaeda is filled, not with God-intoxicated sociopaths intent upon creating a global caliphate, but genuine humanitarians. Based on their research, they believe that a deadly batch of vaccine has made it into the U.S. pharmaceutical supply. They have communicated their concerns to the FDA but were rebuffed. Acting rashly, with the intention of saving millions of lives, they unleash a computer virus, targeted to impede the release of this deadly vaccine. As it turns out, they are right about the vaccine but wrong about the consequences of their meddling—and they wind up destroying half the pharmaceuticals in the U.S.

    What would I say? I would say that this was a very unfortunate event—but these are people we want on our team. I would find the FDA highly culpable for not having effectively communicated with them. These people are our friends, and we were all very unlucky.

    This is of course back to front, deliberately, because Harris evidently means Chomsky (and the audience he means to trash Chomsky in front of) to see that if the “nice guys” and the “bad guys” are swapped around in Chomsky’s narrative, the narrative doesn’t make sense. But Chomsky never claimed the US government acted as “genuine humanitarians”; Chomsky instead was unwaveringly clear that for Chomsky — and Harris should think so too — the US government acted as indifferent, uncaring, and immoral “sociopaths”. Chomsky was so unwaveringly clear on this, so utterly insistent, that it remains a wonder that Harris never understood that — he’s not very bright, is he.

    The above is but a synecdoche for the lengthy trashing the passage would receive if looked at in detail. As lecturers say, I leave that to you, as an exercise.

    What I would like to draw particular attention to is that Harris here describes al-Qaeda as “filled, with God-intoxicated sociopaths”.

    (“Sociopaths”? Perhaps, although I note that sociopathy is a DSM medical condition, so I am startled to find that there are so many in al-Qaeda (and presumably also in ISIS — and even amongst pointedly parenthesised “moderate” Muslims, if Jerry Coyne is to be believed) who are seriously mentally ill; more startled yet that sociopaths should be so passionate about their responsibility to Allah and about establishing an Islamic society, when sociopaths are famously unconcerned about anybody’s interests but their own. Do I detect “rhetoric” here, a word Harris uses (“rather rhetorical language”) in his Postscript (to the exchange) to excuse what are in practice lies.)

    “God-intoxicated”! Time and again, in his blogs, articles and lectures, Harris comes back to the idea that Theists act (and believe?) because intoxicated by their religious experience — time and again. In one lecture he refers to the alleged religious intoxication of the Jihadist about to blow himself up: I can imagine all sorts of thoughts going through a Jihadist’s mind prior to triggering the explosion (probably similar to the WW2 soldier storming a machine gun nest, eg, is this going to hurt, and how much; will they be able to tell from my underpants how frightened I have just found out that I am; oh well, this is a grim task, but necessary; die you b*****ds!) but religious ecstasy and intoxication are unlikely candidates.

    But Harris thinks they are. I sometimes think he supposes that I — I don’t! — and you also — do you? — go around in a near-permanent fug of religious intoxication. Why should he — well, I have to guess, but I note that Harris started out his Buddhist religious life (Raphael Lataster says “[Dawkins’] New Atheist alum Sam Harris would certainly be considered by most religious experts as a Buddhist”) in a fug of MDMA intoxication; he continued it in a fug of LSD intoxication; he abandoned these drugs because of their horrible side-effects — while continuing to recommend their use to others, eventually even to his own daughters, he says — because Buddhist meditation would, with much expenditure of time and effort, and slowly and incrementally, produce the same or very similar effects, ie a fug of Buddhist meditation-induced intoxication.

    It’s only by assuming that Harris is wandering around obsessed with a fug of religious intoxication himself that I can understand why the idea that other religious people must be similarly intoxicated looms so large in Harris’ mind.

  4. Dhay says:

    I love this part of comment #24:

    … When an expert and experienced philosopher tells you your reasoning is flawed, the odds are not that he is mistaken, but that you are manifesting Dunning-Krueger effect. The sad thing about D-K is however, that most people are blind to their own incompetence and are unable to recognize it without tutoring. And tutoring seems to be actively avoided by the like of Harris (and Dawkins, and some more), because they are surrounded by sycopaths that reinforce their illusion on universal competence even on topics where they lack it in spades. Harris seems further blinded by his exacerbated and irrational fear of the boogeyman called “islam”.
    [My emphasis]

    Aimed at Sam Harris, this passage applies also, in its entirety, to Jerry Coyne, whose expert and experienced theology and philosophy of religion tutor, Eric MacDonald, withdrew from that role in disappointment, and very politely expressing disgust.

  5. UpstateIslandersFan says:

    @Dhay, I read the MacDonald thing and I thought his honesty was quite telling. He had been enlisted to some degree by Coyne, but I think his atheism was perhaps not quite as virulent and unthinking as Coyne’s. Despite his apparent problems accurately reviewing a book written by a Thomistic philosopher of the mind a ways back, maybe he realized that his not believing in God anymore is a personal thing and not necessarily and indictment on those who do. It sounds as if one of the things that may have contributed to his changing worldview was his late wife’s illness and her inability – for lack of a non callous sounding term – be euthanized and to see her suffer. I can imagine that would impact people very harshly and it was at least decent of Coyne, upon his former tutor’s dissociation with New Atheism, to ask his readers not to pile on. On a side note, it’s strange how death and tragedy effects different people in different ways. I know of people whose work with the dying has increased their belief in the transcendent because they come to an acceptance that death and suffering are mysteries and just are, the way natural disasters are. But each person’s journey of disbelief or belief is different and a mystery in and of itself. And so when Sam Harris says believers are intoxicated, perhaps he’s correct on some level or at least for some believers, but for the majority, he’s dead wrong. Perhaps he should read about Francis of Assisi, who came to belief in part because of the futility of serving man instead of God. If Francis was intoxicated, or Martin de Porres or Damian of Molokai, their drunkeness was of a sort maybe we all should imbibe. Harris likes to use the ruse of the fundamentalist Jain, who is so fundamentalist he can’t step without sweeping the ground in front of him lest he step on a bug. He then goes on to say that fundamentalism is the only kind we shouldn’t be scared. Further he argues that “moderates” are just as bad because they enable. It’s a bad argument. But a Christian could simply make the argument back that to be a fundamentalist is not to adhere to anything but self-sacrifice and charity. But that would be above Sam’s head because he needs to present believers as fundamentalists to make his point…I suspect in their secular argument Chomsky he was talking to a wall because – at least it appears to me – at times Harris used ridiculous scenarios to make points. On a side note, I thought the scenario of a humanitarian Al-Qaeda going up against the FDA was hilarious.

  6. UpstateIslandersFan says:

    Oh, and one other question for Harris about intoxication. What were the Stalinists of the 20th Century intoxicated with when they wantonly destroyed churches, mosques and synagogues? It wasn’t simply controlling the means of production, if you catch my drift.

  7. G. Rodrigues says:


    “It’s only by assuming that Harris is wandering around obsessed with a fug of religious intoxication himself that I can understand why the idea that other religious people must be similarly intoxicated looms so large in Harris’ mind.”

    Am I misremembering or did not Sam Harris not only used, but advocated the use of, drugs in order to reach certain mental states?

  8. Dhay says:

    G. Rodrigues > Am I misremembering or did not Sam Harris not only used, but advocated the use of, drugs in order to reach certain mental states?

    Yes, Harris most certainly strongly advocates the use of drugs, and those mental states include:

    … some people cannot afford to give the anchor of sanity even the slightest tug. [Who, Sam? Is it your next reader? How would they know?]
    … my abstinence is born of a healthy respect for the risks involved.
    … you will know what it is to be clinically insane.
    … mental states that are best viewed as forms of psychosis.
    … profound effect, for better or worse
    … states of mind so painful and confusing as to be indistinguishable from psychosis.
    … psychotomimetic and psychotogenic …
    … the valleys are deep. My “bad trips” were, without question, the most harrowing hours I have ever endured, and they make the notion of hell—as a metaphor if not an actual destination—seem perfectly apt.
    … these excruciating experiences …
    … what it is like to suffer from mental illness …
    … Depending on the character of one’s experience at that point, notions of salvation or damnation may well apply.
    … once the doors to hell opened, they appeared to have been left permanently ajar.
    … excruciating …
    … Have you ever traveled, beyond all mere metaphors, to the Mountain of Shame and stayed for a thousand years?
    … For the next several hours my mind became a perfect instrument of self-torture. All that remained was a continuous shattering and terror for which I have no words.
    … I believe I was positively affected by my good trips, and negatively affected by the bad ones, for weeks and months.
    … terrifying …

    It is a testimony to Harris’ “rather rhetorical language” (ie ability to lie while nobody notices), to his advertising copywriting skills, to his used-car-salesman skills, and to his skills at misdirection that I strongly suspect that many will finish the blog article (which became a “Waking Up” chapter) with a vague feeling that drugs are wonderful and that, hey, why don’t I try LSD too. Heck, doesn’t Harris say of his two daughters, “But if they don’t try a psychedelic like psilocybin or LSD at least once in their adult lives, I will wonder whether they had missed one of the most important rites of passage a human being can experience.


    I suppose the excruciating seemingly endless horrors of a bad trip, and the “weeks and months” of being negatively affected by them, count as mere collateral damage, excused by Harris’ claim, in his spat with Chomsky, that ,”Where ethics are concerned, intentions are everything.”

    Yes, Sam Harris, what’s a little collateral damage, when your good intentions in fulfilling your Bodhisattva vow by spreading Buddhism outweigh all objections.

  9. Dhay says:

    Looking for an Amazon review of Jerry Coyne’s FvF, I first stumbled upon reviews of Evolution is True, and my eye was drawn to passages in the third-ranked ‘most helpful review’, by a Dr Peter Davies.

    Coyne (p. 248) describes that, “There is an increasing (and disturbing) tendency of psychologists, biologists and philosophers to Darwinize every aspect of human behaviour, turning its study into a scientific parlour game.” He liberates us (p. 250) from some of the genetic determinism that sometimes accompanies evolution, “There is no reason, then, to see ourselves as marionettes dancing on the strings of evolution. Yes certain parts of our behaviour may be genetically encoded, instilled by natural selection in our savanna-dwelling ancestors. But genes aren’t destiny….”genetic” does not mean “unchangeable.””


    Odd, for in recent years Coyne’s blog posts seem to say that we are “marionettes dancing on the strings” of prior causes, the prior causes being genes and environment, which wholly determine how we will behave at all times.For Coyne, we are indeed “marionettes”, despite his clarification (or is it obfuscation) that we are not dangling from the strings of only our genes.

    Sam Harris, too, sees us as “marionettes dancing on the strings” of prior causes: Dan Dennett’s extensive and detailed criticisms of Harris’ idea that we have no free will, reproduced in Harris’ January 26, 2014 “Reflections on FREE WILL” blog entry include — and the criticism should include Coyne’s identical ideas, too:

    I cannot resist ending this catalogue of mistakes with the one that I find most glaring: the cover of Harris’s little book, which shows marionette strings hanging down. The point, which he reiterates several times in the book, is that the prior causes (going back to the Big Bang, if you like) that determine your choices are like the puppeteer who determines the puppet’s every action, every “decision.” This analogy enables him to get off a zinger:

    Compatibilism amounts to nothing more than an assertion of the following creed: A puppet is free as long as he loves his strings. (p. 20)

    In Harris’ framework of ideas, no free actions; no free “decisions”: no free “intentions”, either, whatever his claim to Chomsky that “Where ethics are concerned, intentions are everything.”

    Dr Davies’ review continues, quite startlingly:

    Coyne liberates evolution from its role as chief evidence for atheism. “Nor must it promote atheism, for enlightened religion has always found a way to accommodate the advances of science. In fact, understanding evolution should surely deepen and enrich our appreciation of the living world and our place in it.” (p. xix). Denis Alexander makes a similar point in his recent book, “Creation or Evolution: Do we have to choose.”

    Reading Coyne’s blog nowadays, it seems incredible that just a few years ago Coyne could possibly have written, “Nor must [evolution] promote atheism, for enlightened religion has always found a way to accommodate the advances of science.”

    Coyne referring to “enlightened religion“? Coyne an accommodationist?

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