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

[Originally posted 2/14]

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

  1. Regual Llegna says:

    I would treat Harris with his own ideas, as i do with anybody, if free will does not exist then Sam Harris opinons and ideas don’t come from him, don’t matter he is not a source for those knowledge.

    “If we are to credit anything for changing Harris mind, we should credit his DVD player for working.”

    Yes the documentary, Scahill have the credit for the knowledge, if Scahill has free will then he have the credit from the documentary.

    Harris fails because he is selectively relativist about some ideas and others not, he live in the “doubt”, not the skeptic type of doubt (this only exist if the person has some interest), but on a self-imposed “doubt” based on selective needs, so he thinks that he don’t need to claim that he have any objetive idea at all. Of course if he was completely objetive and had some conviction he will develop a problem-solutions, in what he thinks is the problem.

    I bet that then he will end doing a Vladimir Lenin:”The goal of socialism is communism”, because the only type of society that a atheist idea develop was the communist model, which was not even original because is based in the “imperfections” of the manarchy in contrast with the olygarchy and see the his own people as resourses more than any other model of goverment.

    —————————————————————————————————————————
    He seems to have some personal need:
    He, and all the others gnu atheist, objetively does not want to end the religious belief “problem” because this will end their PROFIT and CELEBRITY/IDOL status out of anti-theists and others antireligious people.

    With gnus:
    “Long term solutions for their problems are hopeless and baseless, and short term solutions don’t even exist or are stupid/death.”

  2. itsonlyphotos says:

    I still don’t understand materialists who prosteletize materialism but think they can get away with using language that implies purpose. These people exempt themselves from the very thing they put on others, which is determinism. At least the eliminativists try to avoid talking in such ways.

  3. Dhay says:

    > 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.

    Here’s Sam Harris’ first self-deception: everyone else surely recognises that Haidt’s challenge was not in good fun, it was a cynical piss-take, an exercise in ridiculing a pretentious prat. The amount tells us Haidt thought it a certain bet, that Harris certainly wouldn’t change his mind. Haidt was right, as he knew he would be.

    > 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.

    Content Analysis has been around a very long time: as I first came across it, it was a venerable and respected technique for analysing newspaper content — you can count up how many articles there are on any given topic in a period, weight them by size, weight and font of headline, number of column-inches following, whether pictures accompany, and where placed within the paper to build up a numerical score which can be compared with the scores for other topics in the same newspaper or the same topic in another paper — giving a comparison of how different newspapers treat the same and different topics.

    Variations on the theme use word-search counts to determine that Genesis had multiple authors, and what each wrote; that Isaiah had multiple authors; that Shakespeare’s plays were or were not written partly or wholly by someone else.

    > 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.

    Surely nobody, least of all Haidt, expected the word-search to be taken as serious research: it’s a Content Analysis lite technique to get a back-of-envelope quick result to serve as an illustration to others, and a quick empirical numerical check for Haidt — really, it just confirmed expert intuition born of years of experience as a psychologist — of Harris’ books’ certainty level.

    Haidt’s results were in the form of a comparison: as Harris puts it, “even more blinkered by dogmatism and bias than Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck, and Anne Coulter.”

    For myself, I wrote off the ‘Moral Landscape Challenge’ as a marketing and publicity stunt, timed perfectly for the launch of the following book; it gave it maximum publicity and, er, demonstrated Harris’, er, effortless intellectual superiority over all-comers when Harris claimed to have defeated the opponent adjudicated as the best. That opponent denied defeat, and was — under protest — denied proper debate of the issues.

    Well, what would one expect: I know what Haidt and I expected.

  4. Maria Sederholm says:

    Thank you!
    How very liberating that other people see through Harris. The recent “Waking Up” podcast – with Professor Jordan B. Peterson, made the “neuroscientist’s” personality abundantly clear. Harris turned what was supposed to be a conversation into a cross examination and a sermon. I, and many others, have commented extensively on Harris’s way of conducting the “conversation” as well as his arguments and reasoning.

    Short version of podcast, i. e. my personal extraction of it:
    Jordan Peterson: I don’t know if I’m right but I believe …
    Sam Harris: You shall have no other gods before Me

    I know for a fact that Harris doesn’t want to have a conversation with journalist Vikram K. Chatterjee, or anyone else who’s is eager to change his mind on Maajid Nawaz. But of course, when the collaboration with Nawaz no longer serves his own personal interests, he can once again say: “I am embarrassed to have been so trusting and complacent”.

    Interesting to note is that Sam Harris’s fellow “horseman” – professor Daniel Dennett, has views on religion that differ a great deal from Harris’s, something which becomes apparent in these two enlightening interviews.

    http://freethoughtblogs.com/pharyngula/2011/12/30/in-conversation-with-dan-dennett-guest-post-by-kaustubh-adhikari/

  5. Dhay says:

    > Sam Harris is a man who is obsessed with maintaining his public image. …

    Which might be why Sam Harris has recently taken to blog-posting picture-memes, six so far; each a cartoon (that’s not a criticism) picture illustrating a quote ascribed by the cartoonist to Harris; the cartoonist is good, and the quotes are mostly either familiar or both plausible and buried more deeply than I care to suffer listening out for within a podcast; yet the first looked both nigglingly familiar and nigglingly unfamiliar, so eventually I checked it out; here’s the text of Meme #1:

    We must continually remind ourselves that there is a difference between what is natural and what is good. Nothing is more “natural” than being mauled and eaten by a bear. — Sam Harris

    https://www.samharris.org/blog/item/meme-1

    The obvious question is, where’s it from, and what’s the context, how does this make sense; the scant accompanying text just identifies the artist and the artist’s website, so I googled the quote: there’s no match at all for the exact quote, or even the exact first sentence; it’s nothing that Harris has written.

    There’s always the possibility that this is a memorable quote from some lecture or podcast of Harris’, but if so, it’s not a memorable enough quote that any fan has jotted down the words and put them online anywhere.

    There is something similar in Chapter 2 (“Good and Evil”) of his The Moral Landscape, the fourth paragraph in the section headed “Evil”:

    We must continually remind ourselves that there is a difference between what is natural and what is actually good for us. Cancer is perfectly natural, and yet its eradication is a primary goal of modern medicine. Evolution may have selected for territorial violence, rape, and other patently unethical behaviors as strategies to propagate one’s genes—but our collective well-being clearly depends on our opposing such natural tendencies.

    Note the difference; and no, this “cancer” original version doesn’t recur or precur in a Meme #1 “bear” version.

    Are there any bears around? Yes, actually, in the first paragraph of the same section:

    When confronted with psychopathy at its most extreme, it is very difficult not to think in terms of good and evil. But what if we adopt a more naturalistic view? Consider the prospect of being locked in a cage with a wild grizzly: why would this be a problem? Well, clearly, wild grizzlies suffer some rather glaring cognitive and emotional deficits. Your new roommate will not be easy to reason with or placate; he is unlikely to recognize that you have interests analogous to his own, or that the two of you might have shared interests; and if he could understand such things, he would probably lack the emotional resources to care. From his point of view, you will be a distraction at best, a cowering annoyance, and something tender to probe with his teeth. We might say that a wild bear is, like a psychopath, morally insane. However, we are very unlikely to refer to his condition as a form of “evil.”

    No part of Meme #1’s “Nothing is more “natural” than being mauled and eaten by a bear” is to be found in that paragraph except “is”, “and” and “bear”; no mauling, no eating; there’s a lot of artistic licence and textual mangling being used by the cartoonist.

    For the cartoonist to put out this distorted quote as “Harris said” is artistic licence; for a fan to post it on as “Harris said” is ignorance; for Harris to blog it as “Harris said” is misleading – presumably knowingly misleading – and rather careless with the truth.

    Harris tells us in his book, Lying, that “To lie is to intentionally mislead others when they expect honest communication.” I wouldn’t normally bother to nit-pick something as trivial as this meme and the blog post in which Harris “owns” the quote. But Harris tells us he never lies, it’s against his deeply held philosophical principles.

    No doubt the blog post will be amended to include a correction or clarification.

    Nice cartoons.

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