[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.
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.