Sam Harris STILL Arguing With the Empty Chair

Sam Harris must really be hurting after his public humiliation from his misguided attempt to engage Noam Chomsky (recall that Chomsky views Harris as a “religious fanatic”). We can tell this because he is in full damage control mode.

Harris, the man who tells us he has discovered there is no self through scientific experimentation with his meditation and drugs, is a man who is totally obsessed with his self-image. And this whole embarrassing incident with Chomsky allows us to watch him try to micromanage his self-image.

Consider when Harris first posted the exchange, he ended his introduction as follows:

I will let readers draw lessons of their own.

But that wasn’t true. When the critical stories and critical tweets began to pour in, Harris was no longer content on letting readers draw their own lesson. He decided to add a lengthy postscript, where he could continue to scold the empty chair that Chomsky left behind.

Harris, who seems quite impressed with himself, probably thought he turned the tide with that post-script. Not so. Web articles kept coming in, laughing at Harris. People were laughing at him on Twitter, likening him to a kid who was convinced he was winning a video game when his controller wasn’t even connected to the console. PZ Myers and his fans piled on, portraying Harris as a boxer who punched himself unconscious. In addition to all this, notice that none of Harris’s allies came to his defense. Neither Coyne, nor Dennett, nor Dawkins ever tried to defend Harris. Harris was left standing all alone with his mind-numbed followers.

I suspect Harris has had many sleepless nights as he obsessed over the self-inflicted damage he had done to his self-image. So, two weeks after his post-script, Harris comes back for more and again continues to argue with the empty chair. This time, he posted a 10 min podcast on his blog entitled, “Final Thoughts on Chomsky.”

In the podcast, Harris begins flattering himself as a seeker of truth, concerned only by the fact that it is so hard for people with differing viewpoints to have a discussion. Then we get the new spin: Harris tells us that the conversation was all “an experiment.” He wasn’t trying to have a debate, y’see. He was merely running an “experiment” as part of his research efforts to come up with ways to converse with people. That the experiment failed does not reflect on Harris’s great genius in anyway. My guess is that Harris’s fans buy into the whole story in their mind-altered conditions.

Anyway, after trying to spin his encounter as a disinterested experiment, Harris then proceeds to use the majority of his time to scold the empty chair. He goes on and on, even invoking new analogies, trying to make his case, but this time lashing out not only at Chomsky, buy Chomsky’s fans.

He then ends by acting as if people requested him to make the podcast, claiming there is nothing left to say. The final minute of his podcast contains Harris making his sales pitch.

Hilarious.

I’m not sure who Harris’s PR person is, but I don’t think it was good advice to revisit this episode of his “career.”

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16 Responses to Sam Harris STILL Arguing With the Empty Chair

  1. UpstateIslandersFan says:

    Harris: So I just wanted to clarify that, although I think we might disagree substantially about a few things, I am far more interested in exploring these disagreements, and clarifying any misunderstandings, than in having a conventional debate.
    If you’d rather not have a public conversation with me, that’s fine. I can only say that we have many, many readers in common who would like to see us attempt to find some common ground. The fact that you have called me “a religious fanatic” who “worships the religion of the state” makes me think that there are a few misconceptions I could clear up. And many readers insist that I am similarly off-the-mark where your views are concerned.

    Sounds to me like he was trying to have a public confrontation and not so much a private experiment. Maybe I’m missing something.

  2. Hopeful Curmudgeon says:

    Watching this story unfold reminded me of the following passage from the Bible…

    2 Timothy 3:2-4, 8-9 NET

    For people will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, arrogant, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, ungrateful, unholy, unloving, irreconcilable, slanderers, without self-control, savage, opposed to what is good, treacherous, reckless, conceited, loving pleasure rather than loving God. …And just as Jannes and Jambres opposed Moses, so these people – who have warped minds and are disqualified in the faith – also oppose the truth. But they will not go much further, for their foolishness will be obvious to everyone, just like it was with Jannes and Jambres.

  3. Al says:

    He was trying to arrange a debate. If he denies this, he is a liar.

  4. Michael says:

    Nice catch!

  5. UpstateIslandersFan says:

    I’ve got a great idea. Put Harris and Richard Carrier in a room and let them debate which is better Coke or Pepsi. Lock the doors and see which one passes out from sophistry induced fatigue first. Perhaps someone could throw some fMRI work in there to find the neuro correlates of blowhardism.

  6. Once again, atheism is simply a lack of belief in gods. Atheists can have differing opinions on just about anything and everything else. Just because an atheist uses sound reasoning to reject ancient superstition, that doesn’t mean they are correct or logical on everything about which they present an opinion. I disagree with Harris on many things, such as his defense of torture. It’s fine to debate his arguments and criticize them, but to attempt to use his opinions on other subjects to pretend like his atheism is ill-founded is fallacious.

  7. Kevin says:

    While it’s true that a person can rationally come to the correct conclusion in one matter and completely blow it in another, I think the point would be that there is zero evidence to indicate that the self-described people of Reason are any better at using it than those they mock.

  8. TFBW says:

    prototypeatheist said:

    It’s fine to debate his arguments and criticize them, but to attempt to use his opinions on other subjects to pretend like his atheism is ill-founded is fallacious.

    Did someone do that? You seem to be responding to something that someone said, but I can’t see any mention of his atheism being ill-founded. Rather, the OP focuses on his public relations image management efforts, noting that he’s more concerned with perception and appearances than science and reason proper. Are you responding to something that was actually said here, or did you take it as a tacit implication of something?

  9. Dhay says:

    Why does Sam Harris enter into these “debates”?

    Harris has a long, long history of debates, which are recorded via his blog posts. So far as I can see, the first was dated November 25, 2006, entitled, “Sam Harris vs. Dennis Prager”. The debate was hosted by Jewcy over four days, with each debater submitting one post per day.

    Harris’ blog shows a cartoon of Harris skewering Prager in fencing.
    Jewcy > Sam Harris sends us this cartoon. As I suggested in [an earlier] post, atheists around the web are joyously shouting from the desktops that Harris scalped Dennis Prager in their Jewcy debate. Prager is known for being deadly formidable in debate, so the atheists are extra giddy about this one. One of Harris’s fans was so overjoyed that he drew this for Sam.

    Harris was so overjoyed with the cartoon, and with the “joyous”, “giddy”, “overjoyed” reaction of his fans, he sent the cartoon to Jewcy, and also reproduced it on his own blog.

    Jewcy reports “an unholy avalanche of attention on the internetz and … some exploding comment threads here on the site [where] Harris’s supporters seem to outnumber Prager’s by a hefty margin.”

    Hmm. What exactly was the scalping, skewering, or “win”? The cynic in me says the Harris’ “win” was merely Harris’ fans flooding into the normally much smaller but now “exploding comments threads” in order to claim a win for Harris; which “win” they then claimed because the influx of a large fanbase overwhelmed the voices of the fewer regulars.

    Prager was evidently not at all cowed or beaten by Harris, and posted on Day 4 as if he, Prager, had produced the superior arguments and Harris had argued against misrepresentations of those arguments.

    Harris finished Day 4’s exchange with a refrain, the wording of which has by now become very, very familiar indeed, namely, “our debate clearly reveals how difficult it is to change another person’s mind.” (Read, I think, “to get a clear, acknowledged win.”)

    Prager had had different aims: “I wanted readers to attain clarity about the differences between atheism and Judeo-based theism.”

    The two did not end up with a convergence of minds; they did not end up with a mutually acknowledged winner; they did not even agree on the very purpose of the debate.

    Harris’ real win was not the debate result, which debate was never, realistically, going to change Prager’s views, nor even, realistically, going to change the views of onlookers: Harris’ real win was the ecstatic adulation of his fans.

    He was going to try this again and again, wasn’t he.

  10. Just because atheists use reason to come to the conclusion that there is no valid justification for believing in any anthropocentric deities, that doesn’t mean they apply reason equally well to all of their positions. There are many atheists who believe in an afterlife, conspiracy theories, ghosts, etc.

  11. Michael says:

    Once again, atheism is simply a lack of belief in gods.

    That’s your opinion. Not all atheists agree on this. For example, PZ Myers does not agree with you. He wrote:

    Dictionary Atheists. Boy, I really do hate these guys. You’ve got a discussion going, talking about why you’re an atheist, or what atheism should mean to the community, or some such topic that is dealing with our ideas and society, and some smug wanker comes along and announces that “Atheism means you lack a belief in gods. Nothing more. Quit trying to add meaning to the term.” As if atheism can only be some platonic ideal floating in virtual space with no connections to anything else; as if atheists are people who have attained a zen-like ideal, their minds a void, containing nothing but atheism, which itself is nothing. Dumbasses.

    What’s more, what of all the atheists from Coyne’s blog who deny Dr. Holly Ordway was once an atheist because she wasn’t serious atheist? If simple lack of belief in God is enough to be an atheist, Ordway was an atheist. Yet many atheists deny that. Clearly, your definition is not shared by them.

    Atheists can have differing opinions on just about anything and everything else. Just because an atheist uses sound reasoning to reject ancient superstition, that doesn’t mean they are correct or logical on everything about which they present an opinion.

    Since reason doesn’t seem to able to generate a consensus on anything else that is not anti-religious, it’s probably the case that reason had little to do with the lonely consensus of atheism among atheists. After all, it’s a simple fact that reason had nothing to do with Coyne’s conversion to atheism. Should he be special and unique?

    I disagree with Harris on many things, such as his defense of torture. It’s fine to debate his arguments and criticize them, but to attempt to use his opinions on other subjects to pretend like his atheism is ill-founded is fallacious.

    Can you quote me where I am using his opinions on other subjects to pretend like his atheism is ill-founded is fallacious?

    I’m simply amused by the New Atheist movement and the way some many Gnus, who constantly posture and preen as if they are so smart, follow such a clown like Sam Harris – the guy who sets out to “arrange a debate” and then denies he ever had a debate.

    Did you ever notice that only Gnus are impressed with Gnus?

  12. There’s nothing to agree or disagree with. PZ Myers is wrong. Atheism is a lack of belief in gods. Anything beyond that is atheism PLUS something, hence the failed “Atheism Plus” movement that Myers was a big fan of.

    If someone doesn’t believe that gods exist, they’re an atheist. If they later become religious, that doesn’t mean they were disingenuous when they said they were an atheist, it just means that they never understood why their new religion is irreconcilable with the facts. Like I said, there’s no special knowledge needed to be an atheist, since there are no tenets and no dogma. It doesn’t take any special knowledge to lack belief in Bigfoot or fairies or unicorns, it is simply the default position, and is perfectly reasonable until such a time that evidence for any of these myths is presented to substantiate them.

    It’s obvious what you’re doing. You’re taking the opportunity to present Sam Harris as a front man for “New Atheism”, and using his questionable political opinions to pretend that atheists are wrong about gods not existing because Harris can’t successfully defend his opinions in other areas.

    Harris is a smart guy, and has presented some really good stuff when it comes to criticizing religion. That doesn’t mean all atheists agree with everything he says. This is what theists LOVE doing – pretending that atheism is some sort of movement or ideology that looks to people like Harris or Hitchens or Dawkins for guidance on how to be an atheist, and that we all have to agree with everything they say. You guys just wait for the slightest hint of controversy, then jump all over it to pretend like their arguments against religion are invalid because they have poorly supported opinions elsewhere.

  13. Michael says:

    There’s nothing to agree or disagree with. PZ Myers is wrong. Atheism is a lack of belief in gods.

    But that’s just proto’s opinion. PZ Myers would say he is wrong. So who is right? How would we know? Clearly, there is no One True Definition of Atheism.

    If someone doesn’t believe that gods exist, they’re an atheist.

    Or, they could be an agnostic.

    It’s obvious what you’re doing. You’re taking the opportunity to present Sam Harris as a front man for “New Atheism”, and using his questionable political opinions to pretend that atheists are wrong about gods not existing because Harris can’t successfully defend his opinions in other areas.

    Sounds like a conspiracy theory. No, I am not using his questionable political opinions to pretend that atheists are wrong about the existence of God. I’m simply entertained by the behavior and thinking of leaders in the New Atheist movement, a movement that both mocks the religious and assures us of its high standards when it comes to reason and evidence. 😉

  14. Dhay says:

    I’m not going to listen to long video or sound debates — life’s too short, and I’m no Harris fan. So I won’t comment on them.

    I note that in the June 24, 2009 blog entitled, “Sam Harris vs Philip Ball” the series of lengthy exchanges started because Ball had been insufficiently eulogistic of the launch of Harris’ Reason Project (as it was then named) and insufficiently condemnatory of the BioLogos Foundation or of the Templeton Foundation, and had been put into Harris’ “Hall of Shame”; Ball objected, publicly; Harris instigated the debate, finishing the invitation, “I’m not entirely sure where our respective misunderstandings leave off and our genuine differences of opinion begin, but it might be interesting for readers to watch us struggle to sort things out.”

    Note that phrase, “… interesting for readers …” – Harris has his eye fixed on his fan base.

    The debate deteriorates in what is nowadays a predictable manner. It starts off with both agreeing to try to sort out the “tempest in a teapot”, but rapidly descends into acrimony.

    On Day 6 Harris starts with the announcement that, “I think our debate has run its course”, because Harris is suffering from tedium and boredom, “in a way that I fear will be shared by many of our readers”. This is apparently caused by Ball pursuing arguments of Ball’s choice.

    Did you get that – Harris has now declared the debate over. Then, having declared the debate over, Harris launches into a long and vitriolic put-down of Ball, including the classic, “… (can you really be serious? It is rare to find such a crystalline example of academic cant. I think you’d be wise to remove the letters H-I-E-R-A from your keyboard for a while) …”, and, “I realize that my tone of chastisement has probably grown very tedious and could be mistaken for hostility.”

    Oh, most certainly. The series of insults (“chastisement”) after the debate has ended looks like Harris was playing to the gallery of adoring fans, fans presumably unable to tell insult and brilliant rhetoric apart, who would consider a kitchen squabble an intellectual debate. You just don’t speak to anyone like that, Harris. Ever. The effect on the recipient is, you end up divorced or punched. So it’s done for effect upon the fans, to hammer home Harris’ superiority in the fans’ eyes, by denigrating his opponent.

    The “boredom” shuffle sounds very familiar to us nowadays: in The Moral Landscape Harris didn’t want to discuss genuine philosophical problems with his views, so he decided not to “bore” his readers with them; as an argument, that’s a mere brush-off, about as meaningful as, “Sorry, I can’t go on a date with you, I’ve got to wash my hair.”

    We can look at the “boredom” shuffle another way: although this is notionally a debate, Harris doesn’t have his eyes on the actual arguments, in willingness to follow the arguments wherever they go, but instead has his eyes firmly on his fans. For Harris, this is not a debate, but entertainment for his adoring fans, who must not be bored or disappointed. Harris wants a repeat of the “scalp” his fans claimed for him in his Prager debate.

    Ball’s Day 6 reply complained:

    One somewhat frustrating aspect of this exchange for me has been that you seem to insist that any disagreement with your point of view is not genuine disagreement as such but is missing the point. My sense is that you cannot conceive how any sane, rational person can hold a point of view different from your own, so that if they insist on doing so, they are obviously being either obtuse or stupid. Your first long paragraph is all rhetoric along those lines. …

    Then came … tada … Postscript: Disputing the Indisputable

    Yes, an enormously lengthy postscript, in which Harris had the emphatic last word and put-down.
    (When you are posturing for your fanbase, you cannot afford to let the other person have the last word.)

    Note that “indisputable” in the title, it will have been Harris’ own position that was “indisputable”, and Ball, “disputing”; how else would Harris mean it; this confirms what Ball wrote, that Harris “cannot conceive how any sane, rational person can hold a point of view different from [Harris’ “indisputable”] own, so that if they [Ball] insist on doing so, they are obviously being either obtuse or stupid [“disputing the indisputable.”]

    Ball decided he would have the last word, via his own blog; Harris didn’t add Ball’s post to the other posts on Harris’ blog, giving the no doubt deliberate impression that the exchange was all done and dusted with Harris’ Postscript. It wasn’t.

    Ball’s final paragraph was:

    Sam thinks that ‘my religious friends’ (I am in fact not simply arguing from my experience with friends who have a religious belief) are mistaking hope for knowledge. He says “If these friends of yours are really religious—that is, really conforming to the doctrine of Christianity, Islam, Judaism, etc.—they will have taken a further step toward delusion and mistaken this hope for a form of knowledge.” I have sad news, then, for ‘these friends of mine’: Sam Harris says you are not truly religious. Apparently Sam wants to ensure that ‘religious believers’ include only those people whose beliefs he can most easily attack. Well, that’s one way to win an argument, I suppose.

    For those who aren’t already aware, Ball is an atheist. Harris ripped into Ball because he isn’t a vehement New Atheist like himself, and eg wouldn’t agree “to ensure that ‘religious believers’ include only those people whose beliefs he can most easily attack.”

    Harris has a 2005 blog post entitled, “The Virus of Religious Moderation”, attacking the ordinary moderate Christian as if they were extreme Fundamentalists; here it looks as though Harris could have written a blog post attacking ordinary moderate atheists for not being extreme New Atheists; perhaps it will yet appear, perhaps entitled, “The Virus of Atheist Moderation.”

    Shades of Coyne and his hatred of “accommodatheism”!

    I was young at the time, but I seem to recall there was a period of US history when not only was someone a “pinko” Commie fellow-traveller if they so much as supported unionisation, they were even a “pinko” Commie fellow-traveller if they didn’t enthusiastically support the McCarthy “witch-hunts”.

  15. Michael says:

    Nice find! Thanks.

  16. Larry Olson says:

    Look up on the hoover website Noam Chomsky “closet capitalist”.

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