Magazine Masthead
category: Morality

Why Sam Harris is Unlikely to Change his Mind

Post: February 3, 2014 8:36 pm
Author: JONATHAN HAIDT         Source: TVOL EXCLUSIVE

The New Atheist Sam Harris recently offered to pay $10,000 to anyone who can disprove his arguments about morality. Jonathan Haidt analyzes the nature of reasoning, and the ease with which reason becomes a servant of the passions. He bets $10,000 that Harris will not change his mind.

Reason has long been worshipped by philosophers and intellectuals. In Plato’s dialogue Timaeus, the gods created humankind with a soul of perfect rationality and inserted it into our spherical heads, which were “the most divine part of us and the lord of all that is in us.” (The Gods then realized that they had to create necks, to keep reason insulated from the seething passions of the rest of the body.) During the “age of reason,” the French revolutionaries pulled the Christs and crucifixes out of the cathedrals and replaced them with images of reason. And in our own time, the New Atheists have written books and started foundations urging people to fight religion with reason.

The New Atheist Sam Harris has even gone so far as to argue, in his book The Moral Landscape, that reason and science can tell us what is right and wrong. Morality is—in his definition—limited to questions about “the well-being of conscious creatures.” Well-being can be measured objectively, he says, by methods such as fMRI scans. Therefore, whatever practices, customs, and ways of living maximize those measurements are morally correct; others are morally wrong. He does not say that there is a single best society (hence the image of a landscape, with multiple peaks). But he claims that moral values are facts, no different from the kinds of facts discovered by chemists. Scientific methods give correct answer to questions in chemistry, and they can therefore do so for morality as well. Harris’s confidence in his reasoned argument is so strong that he has issued The Moral Landscape Challenge: He will personally pay $10,000 to anyone who submits an essay so logically compelling that it makes him change his mind and renounce his views. (The contest closes February 9.)

Critics of religion are right that science has a long track record of undermining claims about God’s role in the material world. Miracles don’t seem to occur as frequently as they used to. But the funny thing is that in the last 40 years, science has also undermined claims about the role and reliability of reason in our daily lives. In the 1960s, psychologists began studying the mind as a kind of computer. But in the 1970s, Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky began documenting the many bugs, or intuitive biases, in the software. For example, people are more likely to choose a surgical procedure when the outcome is framed in terms of the odds of survival, rather than the (equivalent) odds of death.

In the 1980s and 1990s, social psychologists began documenting the awesome power of “motivated reasoning” and the “confirmation bias.” People deploy their reasoning powers to find support for what they want to believe. Nobody has yet found a way to “debias” people—to train people to look for evidence on the other side—once emotions or self-interest are activated. Also in the 1990s, the neuroscientist Antonio Damasio showed that reasoning depends on emotional reactions. When emotional areas of the brain are damaged, people don’t become more rational; instead, they lose the ability to evaluate propositions intuitively and their reasoning gets bogged down in minutiae.

In the 2000s, in my own area of research—moral judgment—it became clear that people make judgments of right and wrong almost instantly, and then make up supporting reasons later. The intuitive dog wags its rational tail, which explains why it is so difficult to change anyone’s mind on a moral issue by refuting every reason they offer. To sum it all up, David Hume was right in 1739 when he wrote that reason was “the slave of the passions,” rather than the divine master, or charioteer, as Plato had believed.

I’m not saying that we can’t reason quite well about many unemotional situations where we really want to know the right answer, such as whether it is better to drive or take the train to the airport, given current traffic conditions. But when we look at conscious verbal reasoning as an evolutionary adaptation, it begins to look more like a tool for helping people argue, persuade, and guard their reputations than a tool shaped by selection pressures for finding objective truth. Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber synthesized the large bodies of research on reasoning in cognitive and social psychology like this: “The function of reasoning is argumentative. It is to devise and evaluate arguments intended to persuade…. Skilled arguers are not after the truth but after arguments supporting their views.” When self-interest, partisan identity, or strong emotions are involved, reasoning turns into a lawyer, using all its powers to reach the desired conclusion.

In a recent study by Dan Kahan and his colleagues, people were asked to look at a data table showing four numbers in a two by two grid: The number of patients whose rashes got better, and the number who got worse, after trying a new skin cream, or after receiving no treatment. People who were good at solving math problems earlier in the study were better able to interpret the data and say whether the skin cream worked or backfired, and there were no differences between Republicans and Democrats. But when the exact same data was said to come from a study on whether gun control laws reduce crime or increase it, partisanship hijacked reasoning. When the data supported their preferred side, math whizzes almost always interpreted the data correctly. But when the data supported the other side, the mathematically skilled people usually misinterpreted the findings, just like their less skilled co-partisans.

If reasoning is so easily swayed by passions, then what kind of reasoning should we expect from people who hate religion and love reason? Open-minded, scientific thinking that tries to weigh the evidence on all sides? Or standard lawyerly reasoning that strives to reach a pre-ordained conclusion? 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…”

To check my hunch, I took the full text of the three most important New Atheist books—Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, Sam Harris’s The End of Faith, and Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell and I ran the files through a widely used text analysis program that counts words that have been shown to indicate certainty, including “always,” “never,” “certainly,” “every,” and “undeniable.” To provide a close standard of comparison, I also analyzed three recent books by other scientists who write about religion but are not considered New Atheists: Jesse Bering’s The Belief Instinct, Ara Norenzayan’s Big Gods, and my own book The Righteous Mind. (More details about the analysis can be found here.)

To provide an additional standard of comparison, I also analyzed books by three right wing radio and television stars whose reasoning style is not generally regarded as scientific. I analyzed Glenn Beck’s Common Sense, Sean Hannity’s Deliver Us from Evil, and Anne Coulter’s Treason. (I chose the book for each author that had received the most comments on Amazon.) The graph below shows the results. Harris appears to be the outlier.** Of the 75,000 words in The End of Faith, 2.24% of them connote or are associated with certainty. I also analyzed The Moral Landscape—it came out at 2.34%. (The graph shows no error bars because each bar represents an exact count of certainty-related words, divided by the total word count. There is no variance.)



In the opening paragraph of his Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals, David Hume described the futility of arguing with people who are overly certain about their principles. He noted that “as reasoning is not the source, whence [such a] disputant derives his tenets; it is in vain to expect, that any logic, which speaks not to the affections, will ever engage him to embrace sounder principles.” If Hume is right, then what is the likely outcome of The Moral Landscape Challenge? What are the odds that anyone will change Harris’s mind with a reasoned essay of under 1000 words? I’ll put my money on Hume and issue my own challenge, The Righteous Mind challenge: If anyone can convince Harris to renounce his views, I’ll pay Harris the $10,000 that it would cost him to do so.

Reason is indeed crucial for good public policy and a good society. But isn’t the most reasonable approach one that takes seriously the known flaws of human reasoning and tries to work around them? Individuals can’t be trusted to reason well when passions come into play, yet good reasoning can sometimes emerge from groups. This is why science works so well. Scientists suffer from the confirmation bias like everybody else, but the genius of science as an institution is that it incentivizes scientists to disconfirm each others’ ideas, and it creates a community within which a reasoned consensus eventually emerges.

I agree with Harris that the historical shift away from revealed religion as the basis of society and toward democracy, individual rights, reason, and science as foundations of moral and political authority has been overwhelmingly good for people in Western societies. I am not anti-reason. I am also not anti-religion. I am opposed to dogmatism. I am skeptical of each person’s individual powers of reasoning, and I’m even more skeptical of the reasoning of groups of activists, hyper-partisans, and other righteous reformers who would remake society according to their own reasoned (or revealed) vision.

I prefer to think about how cultural evolution has made our society more rational by indirect means. Social institutions (such as science, democracy, markets, and universities) evolve in ways that we often don’t understand, yet they can end up fostering better reasoning and better lives as an emergent property of a complex society. I prefer to follow thinkers such as Friedrich Hayek and Michael Oakeshott who espoused “epistemological modesty” and were skeptical of aggressive rationalism. In 1947, Oakeshott, responding to Harris and his predecessors, described rationalists like this:

"His mental attitude is at once sceptical and optimistic: sceptical, because there is no opinion, no habit, no belief, nothing so firmly rooted or so widely held that he hesitates to question it and to judge it by what he calls his 'reason'; optimistic, because the Rationalist never doubts the power of his 'reason' (when properly applied) to determine the worth of a thing, the truth of an opinion or the propriety of an action."

A humbler and more social view of reason can even help us to reform our paralyzed political institutions. The U.S. Congress could, in theory, be a place where the two parties challenge, disconfirm, and therefore improve each other’s reasoning, as happens among scientists. But the benefits of disconfirmation depend on social relationships. We engage with friends and colleagues, but we reject any critique from our enemies. By all accounts, the social relationships that used to bind our leaders together across party lines have weakened. Few of them live in Washington, or know the spouses or children of anyone in the other party. If we want better laws to come out of Washington, would we be better off requiring our leaders to take courses in rational thinking? Or changing the social conditions that have fostered hyper-partisanship and ramped up motivated reasoning? (I like the proposals offered by NoLabels.org). Relationships open hearts, and open hearts open minds.

If we want to improve our politics and our society, let’s be reasonable about reason and its limitations. Of course, I have used my powers of reasoning (and intuition) to write this essay, and I have drawn on scientific studies to back up my claim that Harris is unlikely to change his mind and renounce his claims about morality. But people are complicated and it’s always hazardous to use scientific studies to predict the behavior of an individual. I could well be wrong.


*Post-Script 1: Harris offers a thoughtful response to this essay here, describing a recent time when he changed his mind not in response to a friend, but to a logically and emotionally compelling documentary.

**Post Script 2: As many commenters pointed out, I should have been more cautious in making claims about group differences based on the 9 data points in the graph, most of which are close together in the middle of the range. In response, I changed the text in the paragraph above the graph on 3/5/14. Originally, the two sentences before the “**” were this single sentence: “As you can see in the graph, the New Atheists win the ‘certainty’ competition.” I also added the parenthetical explanation of why there are no error bars.




_______________


Jonathan Haidt is a social psychologist and a professor of business ethics at the NYU-Stern School of Business. His homepage is here.



Additional Links:

Sam Harris 2010 TED talk: Science can answer moral questions

Sam Harris’ home page




Comments

Post: April 5 2014 8:23 am By: Opps


Some of those comments were worth reading.

Post: April 7 2014 5:14 am By: Confused


Where did all the comments go?

Post: April 7 2014 6:53 pm By: D Raman


“(The graph shows no error bars because each bar represents an exact count of certainty-related words, divided by the total word count. There is no variance.)”

By that logic any statistical estimate should have no error bar because they are an exact calculation from the data. They would have no variance because if you did the calculation again you would get exactly the same answer.

Post: April 7 2014 7:28 pm By: John Channel


The variance within each of the three groups is quite large which suggests that even if it was assumed that dogmatism was being measured the whole thing is rather tenuous.

Who’d be willing to bet that Haidt is unlikely to change his mind and admit that this whole exercise is nothing but pseudo-scientific claptrap?

Post: April 7 2014 8:04 pm By: Hyman Cratz


Comments
Post: February 4 2014 6:08 pm By: eric falkenstein

funny.
BTW, have you read Ray Jackendoff’s work on human values?  It would be interesting to read how you interpret his views, either integrating or rejecting them.
Post: February 4 2014 6:15 pm By: Michael in southen England, UK

That’s a great piece, thank you. I think it’s time to re-read your book.
Post: February 4 2014 8:35 pm By: R Scott LaMorte

I can’t see how such a simplistic analysis can provide useful info when the words aren’t viewed in context. Here’s the first two hits of each of the “certainty words” as found in Harris’s The Moral Landscape:
I’m also curious about how this certainty-words are used in context. Here’s a few from Harris’s The Moral Landscape:
Always:
“Rational, open-ended, honest inquiry has always been the true source of insight into [facts about the well-being of conscious creatures]. Faith, if it is ever right about anything, is right by accident.”
“Many people seem to think that a universal conception of morality requires that we find moral principles that admit of no exceptions. If, for instance, it is truly wrong to lie, it must always be wrong to lie—and if one can find a single exception, any notion of moral truth must be abandoned.”
Never:
“The world’s profusion of foods never tempts us to say that there are no facts to be known about human nutrition or that all culinary styles must be equally healthy in principle.”
“And science and religion—being antithetical ways of thinking about the same reality—will never come to terms.”
That’s last one is pretty dogmatic, sure. But I agree with that statement. Faith that runs contrary to evidence will never reconcile with knowledge based on evidence. Gays either burn in hell or they do not. It can’t be both with the same meaning of the words.
Certainly:
“I am certainly not claiming that moral truths exist independent of the experience of conscious beings—like the Platonic Form of the Good—or that certain actions are intrinsically wrong.”
“Which is to say that there may be some forms of love and happiness that are best served by each of us being specially connected to a subset of humanity. This certainly appears to be descriptively true of us at present.”
Every:
“I am not suggesting that we are guaranteed to resolve every moral controversy through science. “
“Having received tens of thousands of letters and emails from people at every point on the continuum between faith and doubt, I can say with some confidence that a shared belief…”
Undeniable:
“Some version of this progression [of evolutionary morality] has occurred in our case, and each step represents an undeniable enhancement of our personal and collective well-being.”
“It is undeniable, however, that if one side in this [9/11 conspiracy] debate is right about what actually happened on September 11, 2001, the other side must be absolutely wrong.”
Post: February 4 2014 9:09 pm By: mk

“I can’t see how such a simplistic analysis can provide useful info when the words aren’t viewed in context.”
it isn’t useful at all for Haidt’s purpose. Evaluation of the use of certainty language cannot be isolated by the subject and the reasons for certainty. Ask people, for instance, about their personal histories or about well known public facts and you’ll get a lot of certainty. Ask scientists about subjects for which there is a great amount of evidence and you will get a lot of certainty. Ask mathematicians about theorems, etc. Ask people about social psychology and any certainty will indicate ideology because the facts are soft. But ask Haidt about, say, whether Hume demonstrated that you can’t get “ought” from “is” and you will get absolute certainty ... he recently tweeted “my sentiments exactly!” in response to “Moral Landscapes: one of the worst books I’ve read in recent years. Classic is/ought confusion. Didn’t this guy read Hume?”

Post: April 7 2014 8:07 pm By: Hyman Cratz


Post: February 4 2014 9:57 pm By: Pupienus Maximus

There are so many things wrong here I hardly know where to start.
“Antonio Damasio showed that reasoning depends on emotional reactions.”  Damasio’s somatic marker hypothesis has some, but not much, merit. No doubt, reasoning is _influenced_ by emotional reactions but not _dependent_ on them.  More importantly, Damasio’s work doesn’t much support your thesis here.
When writing about things that are known by virtue of scientific examination “certainty words” are appropriate.  You don’t find them in peer reviewed journals because people writing for peer reviewed journals don’t need to tell their audience what is certain, they can merely show their work.  When scientists (or scientific philosophers, as Dennett names them) are writing for a popular audience they use certainty words as a way to help the lay audience comprehend what is and isn’t important, what things have been properly demonstrated, tested, decided.
Comparing the works of Dennett, Harris, Dawkins to those others is a case of apples and oranges. Beck, Hannity, and Coulter write polemics.  Those others who write about religion similarly start with the goal of convincing by cajolery. Rather like what you are doing on this very page.
The real problem here is your abysmal logical failure of begging the question.  Reason is subordinate to emotion, you claim (though you present it as absolute, quite the extreme claim to make, a rhetorical, if not logical, error). If they are emotional then they can’t be reasonable.  Then you say “I noticed that several of them sounded angry.” Aside from begging the question you make yet another error - going from Harris’ (well reasoned) claim about morality being amenable to scientific examination to including ALL “New Atheists”  Hell, you hit the trifecta by working a bit of ad hominem into it.  Well Harris (indeed, all of them!) are angry therefore their arguments aren’t worthy!   
I could easily say the same about you, that you sound angry, peeved, upset.  I expect you wouldn’t want me to draw from that the same conclusions you are trying to foist off on others.
Post: February 4 2014 10:40 pm By: Mark Sloan

What I read here about the relative roles of reason and passion rings true.  In my experience, it is a rare person who can be convinced by rational argument that something they passionately believe is actually false.  To me it is simply a useful perspective to keep in mind when the person opposing your view seems completely irrational.
While I try to put my passions to the side and focus on reason, I am not always successful.  I expect that is true for Haidt as well as Harris. Does the “certainty” word count data mean that Harris is more passionate and therefore less susceptible to reason changing his mind? I don’t know. The point I took is we all shape our reasoning to avoid changing our passionately held ideas.
However, you should not get the mistaken idea that Haidt is somehow anti science of morality.
Haidt’s Moral Foundations website http://www.moralfoundations.org/ describes universal moral foundations found all around the world.
This is the kind of science of morality work that I most appreciate and expect will be culturally useful long before brain scans are.  Science is about what descriptively ‘is’ and how it works. Such a science of morality may be highly useful in designing moral codes that better meet common human goals. Science is not so good at telling us what those goals ought to be in the way Harris implies.
Post: February 5 2014 12:53 am By: Epicurus

The word “fundamentalis*” is included in the list. Much of End of Faith is about religious fundamentalism! How is this word analysis even remotely appropriate for gauging certainty on the author’s part? A proper word analysis would have to take into account the context of each word on the list (a lot more work) and then be categorized into 2 buckets: 1.) words that display certainty on the author’s part 2.) everything else.

Post: April 7 2014 8:09 pm By: Hyman Cratz


Post: February 5 2014 3:06 am By: Frode

Shoot me or something, but I don’t see much contradiction between the work of Haidt and that of Sam Harris. With regards to morality, the work of Haidt is descriptive, trying to show how we make moral decisions and what influence them. And this article use a lot of space for such issues.
The analysis of Harris is normative. It’s not about what we actually care about when we make moral decisions, but he tries to make the argument moral decisions must ultimately come down to the well-being of conscious creatures. In this view concerns of harm, fairness, liberty, loyalty, authority, sanctity are important to the degree they influence our well-being, although they might have distinct brain foundations. The evolved purpose of our moral impulse is not maximizing well-being. We have evolved to maximize inclusive fitness. Ultimately our moral impulse has evolved for that purpose.
Also I don’t think there is any contradiction in being a skeptic and the literature on thinking biases and errors. I doubt Dawkins knows much about it, but Sam being a neuroscientist, probably does. It is humbling, or maybe not, because knowing it, doesn’t seem to change behavior much. To me it seems all the more reason to be skeptical, and clearly you should be very much so about your own reasoning process. Knowing we seek confirming evidence, and is prone to interpret evidence in a way that favors our views, we should make a real effort to seek dis-confirming evidence. Sam is trying that with this challenge. His mind is very unlikely to change, he is human after all, but it’s still the way to go.
“The New Atheist Sam Harris has even gone so far as to argue, in his book The Moral Landscape, that reason and science can tell us what is right and wrong. Morality is—in his definition—limited to questions about “the well-being of conscious creatures.” Well-being can be measured objectively, he says, by methods such as fMRI scans. Therefore, whatever practices, customs, and ways of living maximize those measurements are morally correct; others are morally wrong.” This misrepresents his argument. If moral truths are about the well-being of conscious creatures, then yes there are objective moral truths. Some states of the world will be objectively better than others. He argues we should use reason and science to try and figure those questions out. But he hardly talks about the current state of that research. To what extent can we really measure happiness? How much do we really know about what maximizes the well-being in a society? Those are difficult questions to answer, and you make it sound like Sam is utterly naive in that respect. Just hook people up to an MRI machine and you will find your answers. It’s not that easy. At this point there is a lot of uncertainty about these issues. I think the position of Sam though is that when the difference in well-being between two states is especially large, you can tell them apart (with reasonable certainty) using common sense and available evidence. With more and better research, hopefully we will be able to make more headway on these issues.
Post: February 5 2014 6:03 am By: Tania

I see commentators here have already shred this article to pieces. I especially enjoyed R Scott LaMorte’s response which shows exactly how simplistic it is to isolate “certainty words” from the topic and the context. You might only be talking about how every one else is certain and you know nothing, and if you emphasize the first part you’ll score higher than any relativist that has ever walked on Earth.
“Water is H20”
“Water is unicorn tears”
“There aren’t unicorns”
“Do you know that for certain?”
“No. You’re right, it’s equally probable that unicorns exists or not. And water might very well be unicorn tears. I have like tons and tons of scientific evidence that clearly contradicts that, but I wouldn’t want to be dogmatic and close minded, so you could be right.”
And even if we should ban all certainty words from our vocabulary to appease accommodationists, even if it was absolutely always (please note the irony here) wrong to use them…
Would that mean that I’m *just as wrong* in saying “I’m sure there aren’t unicorns” as someone saying “I’m sure there are unicorns”. I’m leaving out a 0.000000000001% possibility that there are unicorns, while that person is standing against 99.999999999999% of probability that there aren’t.
And so… a question… how certain are you that atheists are too certain, Haidt? How certain are you that we shouldn’t be using certainty? Obviously, the opposite opinion is just as valid and equal as your own, right? How can relativists not see the inconsistency of how certain they are of their relativism?

Post: April 7 2014 8:11 pm By: Hyman Cratz


Post: February 5 2014 7:50 am By: Matt Collin

Let’s assume that `certainty words’ do measure what you argue they measure.
Let’s take a hypothetical situation in which I write a book supporting a particular point of view, and X% of my words are found to be `certainty words.’
Let’s imagine I hire an editor, who takes out unnecessary, extraneous wording, cleans things up, makes things more precise, but does not change the number of `certainty words’ per argument.
The edited book will have a lower X%, just by virtue of having a different writing style.
Discuss
Post: February 5 2014 12:46 pm By: Mark Sloan

Frode, I really like your comment just above (at 3:06 AM).
As you say, Haidt’s work is about what morality descriptively ‘is’ as a part of science (as is the work of Nowak, Churchland, Gintis, and many others). I see this mainstream science of morality work as having great potential for being culturally useful in designing moral codes that will better meet human goals. We can expect that increased well-being will commonly be the goal of enforcing moral codes. But that goal, I think, is an ‘ought’ choice beyond the bounds of science.
Harris, on the other hand, is making a claim that the ultimate goal of moral behavior normatively ‘ought’ to be increased well-being based on science.
The problem philosophers and Haidt have with Harris’ work is in the logic of the justification for that ought from science (which deals only with what ‘is’ and how it works.)
Are both approaches part of the same good fight, a science based understanding of morality that better serves human needs and desires than existing alternatives? Sure. It seems to me though that Harris’ generates more noise than useful results.
Then from you comment:
“…clearly you should be very much so about your own reasoning process. Knowing we seek confirming evidence, and is prone to interpret evidence in a way that favors our views, we should make a real effort to seek dis-confirming evidence. Sam is trying that with this challenge. His mind is very unlikely to change, he is human after all, but it’s still the way to go.”
I see the key phrase is “he is human after all”. And let us not forget, the other participants in this discussion are also human with the same shortcomings..
Post: February 5 2014 12:53 pm By: Mark Sloan

Matt, I wondered the same. What if it was the case that advocacy books with a high % of certainty words were known to greatly outsell books with low % certainty words? (Perhaps due to controversy providing free publicity.) If I knew that was true and was writing an advocacy book, I might aim to beat Harris’ number.

Post: April 7 2014 8:13 pm By: Hyman Cratz


Post: February 5 2014 1:09 pm By: John Kubie

Neither Harris nor Haidt make adequate distinction between values and actions. In my mind, a moral system is a system of values, the values that motivate behavior. An individual has a certain set of values, often in competition. For example, personal nutrition (hunger) may come in competition with concern for the well-being of others. The choice of whether to eat or behave for others is a measure of relative value. Harris makes a strong argument that “concern for the well-being of others” is the core moral value. Haidt muddies the waters by confusing concern for others with other, sometimes conflicting social values.
Post: February 5 2014 2:50 pm By: bryan

It is a well-worn argumentative approach to start with what is non-controversial (or “certain” or “undeniable”) and then to attempt to derive non-obvious conclusions from them. I’d be curious to see how many of the “certainty” words in each of those books is used in a context like that. Certainly not every attempt to derive to non-obvious conclusions from obvious starting points is successful, but I don’t see anything wrong with the basic argumentative structure. (You’ll also notice the “certainly” at the beginning of that sentence functions as a concession!)
Post: February 5 2014 2:52 pm By: Jack

So sick of pretentious posers on both sides of all issues. I’ll be right and you can be wrong in my view….and you’re right and I’m wrong according to your view. Neither will change with discussion, but there will be whole lives lived full of hatred toward each other and the abuse of each side will continue in fruitless eternal cycles.
Post: February 5 2014 3:47 pm By: tjamesjones

thank you - like the second comment by michael in southern england, I also enjoyed it and am encouraged to re-read your book.  Amusingly you’ve managed in the rest of the comments section to annoy all the right people, always a good measure of an argument in my non so humble opinion.
Tom also in southern england.
Post: February 5 2014 4:11 pm By: PeeWee

“I’ve essentially engineered my own philosophical intervention and inspired people to produce more negative reviews of my work.” - Sam Harris Contest Q/A
“Do I think it likely that my mind will be changed? No—because I don’t currently see how I’m in danger of being wrong. But it could change. Like any scientist or philosopher, I don’t want to be wrong a moment longer than I need to be (certainly not in public).” - Sam Harris Contest Q/A
The prize is actually 2000 for the best submission and 20000 for a successful change of his mind.
Post: February 5 2014 4:42 pm By: Ryan

Vapid postmodernist relativism is worthless, but very influential. God help us all.

Post: April 7 2014 8:15 pm By: Hyman Cratz


Post: February 5 2014 5:22 pm By: holly

people have time to do this?  P R stunt
Post: February 5 2014 5:32 pm By: CarlTuesday

Isn’t a 10,000 (or 20,000) prize, whatever it actually is, just a really big incentive NOT to change your mind?
Post: February 5 2014 6:27 pm By: Michael R

Haidt doesn’t offer much criticism of Harris’ view that well-being (emotions, more accurately) can be measured. Rather, his main concern is “aggressive rationalism” that tries to “remake society”. Despite good intentions and “optimism” of rationalists, Haidt is sceptical that it will turn out for the good. The French Revolution being one such failed example.
His other point is that we resist change, even when presented with good arguments to do so.
To sum up, I think Haidt is warning that Harris is another revolutionary trying to remake society in his own vision. Haidt would rather we put our energies into building good relationships that cross political and religious divides, rather than trying to remake society with a grand new vision.
At first I struggled to understand Haidt’s point but, on reflection, I think he’s saying that, given the serious problems facing the Western world (see Haidt’s asteroidsclub.org) and the paralysed politics that is failing to solve them, Haidt is drawing your attention to where our energies need to be directed i.e. not on remaking the world, but on coming together to solve our big problems.
So, I don’t think Haidt is specifically addressing The Moral Landscape Challenge. Rather, he’s addressing the whole idea of remaking society according to a new scientific morality. Haidt would probably agree that we can measure emotions (and thus measure well-being/morality). But I think Haidt is just pointing out that the whole vision of remaking society is not the best way to go about change.
For me, the takeaway phrase is “cultural evolution” i.e. change should be gradual and conciliatory, rather than revolutionary. While I agree that ideally we want to end up in a world where emotional fulfilment/well-being is our guiding light, how we get there is another question entirely. Change management is a whole subject in itself.
At this point in time, I’d side with Haidt. The problems facing the world, particularly the West, are huge, and we need to come together, not re-imagine society is some grand new rationalist revolution. Now is not the time for that.
Post: February 5 2014 6:32 pm By: archimedes

how does the bible score ?
Post: February 5 2014 7:02 pm By: Derek

Never mind the silly word-count analysis. Haidt is not offering any argument against the positions of Harris et al; he’s giving us a variation of the old atheists-are-rude canard: they are swayed by their emotions. That’s probably true! And Haidt’s $10K bet is probably safe, as well—maybe because, when presented with the mythical, perfect Rational Irrefutable Argument for God, an enraged Sam Harris will balk… or maybe because Harris is simply right and the RIAfG doesn’t exist.
Post: February 5 2014 9:36 pm By: Mark Sloan

Michael, good post!
But the largest problem I have with Harris is not that he is fomenting disruptive revolution, but that his approach is unproductive in terms of actually telling us how to increase well-being. In contrast, Haidt’s work, and the work of mainstream people in the science of morality field, has the potential to be highly productive in terms of telling us how to better cooperate and what moral codes are most likely to actually increase well-being (perhaps the most common goal for enforcing moral codes). This may not be too far from your point that the need now is to gain whatever science can reveal that will enable us to more effectively cooperate to solve our pressing problems.

Post: April 7 2014 8:17 pm By: Hyman Cratz


Post: February 5 2014 11:08 pm By: Forstena

Science can never prove a negative, viz. it can never be proven scientifically that atheism is a true fact.  So, atheism is a faith.
Morality is not inborn in humans.  Morality is a set of values that have to be taught, then internalized and obeyed.  To be obeyed, they must be based on some authority.
Can reason be a strong enough authority?  For the convinced non-believer, quite possibly.  But is morality based on reason strong enough to drag the unwilling or doubtful along?  Not bloody likely.
Faith, if inculcated early and deeply, can provide a much more solid foundation for morality.  Religion, even if it should be wrong, is a powerful force that can inculcate constant moral behavior more deeply than pure reason—esp. when reason always must be doubted and questioned.  Religiosity survives because it cannot be doubted, it is pure faith, and faith alone.
There is therefore a good reason to believe in a god, if you care about teaching and obeying good moral rules.  Faith is stronger than reason, but can be strengthened and supported by reason.  On purely moral grounds, it would seem irrational to oppose faith.  Harris seems so confused.
Post: February 5 2014 11:59 pm By: LindaRosaRN

Isn’t Harris’s estimation of what the fMRI can do overblown?
Post: February 6 2014 12:26 am By: sigaba

“how does the bible score ?”
Or an actual YE creationist text?  None of the counterexamples are actual God/origin books, they’re all political punditry, which is usually written in a manner meant to evoke journalism tropes.  “Treason” is written specifically to *seem* like an investigative expose but all of the source information is stacked to make its highly dogmatic conclusions sound like common sense.  Someone like Dennet is writing about dogmatic metaphysics and not hiding behind some pretense of objectivity.
Glenn Beck in particular is legendary for using rhetorical open-mindedness as a feint—he can “just ask questions” for days, but it doesn’t say much for his open mind that all the answers are always implied to be “yes.”
To the author I would just say: look at your claim critically.  You’re telling us you have a *computer program* that can tell us how *dogmatic* a text is to the percentage point, without any reference to external knowledge or context, with a level of accuracy that would allow us to rank the works.  Is the existence of dogmatism even falsifiable?  This analysis reeks of scientism.
Post: February 6 2014 3:13 am By: etseq

How’s that new gig at NYU biz school going Haidt?  I heard they paid big bucks for you so that you can now shill for corporations.  Better step up your game though because this is crap…
Post: February 6 2014 1:32 pm By: Jimbino

Nonsense.
If you ask a group of physicists and laymen a series of questions regarding phenomena of nature, you will find the physicists certain of their answers and the laymen uncertain.
For example, “Will a helium balloon inside your car driven in a curve to the right move to the right or the left?” you will get 99.99% certainty from the physicists and a befuddled look from the layman.
Likewise if you ask, “What does the infinite series S = 1+1/2+1/4 + ...” sum to?”
Likewise if you ask, “Have any miracles occurred since priests started abusing children?”
Post: February 6 2014 1:36 pm By: Jimbino

It’s hard to read an article with such infelicities as “...when the exact same data was said to come from a study….”

Post: April 7 2014 8:18 pm By: Hyman Cratz


Post: February 6 2014 4:14 pm By: Mark Sloan

LindaRosaRN,
I’d say what fMRI can do is way overblown.
See my comment at 9:36 PM for what science of morality work will actually be useful in increasing well-being.
Post: February 6 2014 10:28 pm By: Wendy Yup

“In 1947, Oakeshott, responding to Harris and his predecessors, described rationalists like this:”
Harris wasn’t born yet in 1947.
Post: February 7 2014 1:47 pm By: jefscott

So this entire article boils down to something like this: the emotional sphere of our brains leaves us susceptible to certain biases, and so ultimately Harris is unlikely to change his mind.  (I also presume he wouldn’t have written entire books and spent years of life carving out a position that he could easily be dissuaded out of - though that is another topic)
Why is this at all interesting?  Did I miss something as to why this was worth being published?  Aren’t we all aware of the fact that we are susceptible to bias?  Harris has never claimed to be a robot incapable of making mistakes from bias, and has talked many times about the ways in which we are all colored by our own bias.  Harris has also explicitly stated that he thinks it’s unlikely he’ll change his mind.  He’s not trying to hide anything.
Of course Harris wouldn’t offer $10,000 of his money if he thought it likely he’d be dissuaded.  He’s constructed a challenge in such a way as to get a few of the best arguments against his positions in the open so he can respond and let the readers make up their minds.
Post: February 7 2014 3:31 pm By: Mark Sloan

jefscott, I really liked the practical insights it gave me into why discussions about morality are so ineffective at changing people’s minds. That, plus a lot of good links to the literature on the subject, is what I have gained.
Post: February 7 2014 7:53 pm By: robert

The only problem I have with your article, is that you seem to be predicting something that is very very likely, though not for the reason that you portray. Of course Sam is unlikely to change his mind. Why the heck would he have gone through all the trouble to write a book about something he didn’t feel confident in asserting? Also why issue a challenge of this sort unless you had heard countless criticisms that you had already considered and answered to your own satisfaction?  How often has someone offered such a public and open invitation to criticism? He is having the essays reviewed by a third party that is also critical of his idea. He also recently posted the full article of Danniel Dennets rebuttal to his Free Will book. Sam Harris is in the business of open and Honest conversation of important philosophical topics, he answers critics. Not too many writers put themselves so open to direct questioning. I agree he is unlikely to change his mind. I think the reason has less to do with bias, and more to do with the fact that he thought about the challenges possible to his idea and found them weak.
I would be curious to hear your criticism of The Moral Landscape. You somewhat misrepresented the position in your article. Making it sound like Sam thinks we can measure right and wrong with a scanner. Not at all what he was implying. Just that we have many ways to look at the consequences of actions, laws, economic systems, and choices. We can evaluate the rightness and wrongness of our actions, the morality, based on the consequences felt by conscious creatures. What causes more suffering, what mitagates it. These are answerable questions. Not easily answered always. We can study quality of life, suicide rates, rates of depression, infant mortality, crime statistics. stress related illness statistics may be one source of data. Brain scans may be usefull too, but by and large that is probably a distant prospect, that doesn’t mean the thesis isn’t true. That morality is defined by the well being of conscious creatures. What else could it be?

Post: April 7 2014 8:21 pm By: Hyman Cratz


Post: February 7 2014 8:13 pm By: robert

Also Books written by new Atheists by definition will deal with topics related to certainty. They are arguing against a belief system that holds truths with certainty. One true faith. Divine creation. Many of these certainty words may just be saying things like “one cannot know with certainty. “How can one be Certain.”  “Clearly different fails can’t all be right”
This article seems to take exception with Sam Harris’s confidence rather than his actual thesis. ‘Certainly’ a better use of you time would have been post an actual critique of the idea, or hadn’t you thought of one.
Post: February 7 2014 9:38 pm By: Mark Sloan

Robert, good question in your 7:53 PM post.
  Jonathan can speak for himself, but I am happy to clarify what my issues with The Moral Landscape are.
  The assertion to be disproved in the contest is “questions of morality and values must have right and wrong answers that fall within the purview of science”. And you are specifically asking what is illogical about claiming that “morality is defined by the well-being of conscious creatures”, which Harris also claims.
  First Harris has not shown how to derive the assertion that “morality is defined by the well-being of conscious creatures” from the facts of science. This is an old problem in moral philosophy, which treats deriving oughts from facts as virtually always a logical error. But many non-philosophers do not ‘buy’ this thinking and I don’t expect there is anything a philosopher can say that will change Harris’ mind. That is well plowed, well manured ground.
  But my criticism of the The Moral Landscape is not philosophical. It is that The Moral Landscape is simply bad science.
  The mainstream work in the science of morality field is showing that morality, as a natural phenomena, does not have the ultimate goal of increasing well-being. Indeed, morality as a natural phenomena has no fixed ultimate goal.
  That science shows that morality as a species independent natural phenomenon has a universal function, not an ultimate goal. In highly simplified form, that function is “increasing the benefits of cooperation in groups.” See, for instance, the very mainstream reference “Evolution, Games, and God: The Principle of Cooperation” edited by Martin Nowak and Sarah Coakley.
  Groups of people generally favor (consciously or unconsciously) some version of “well-being” (as Harris would say, what else is there?) for the goal of enforcing moral codes. This makes Harris’ claim sound right.
  But there is nothing in the science of morality as a natural phenomena that says people are somehow wrong if they pick another goal for their cooperation. What science tells us authoritatively is morality’s universal function, not its ultimate goal.
  But so what? We don’t need science to tell us what the ultimate goal for enforcing moral codes is. Elsewhere than in some religious groups, people already pretty much agree what the goal is. What people need are answers on how to achieve their goals, and, relevant to morality, what moral code is most likely to do that.
  Science is gangbusters at telling us how to do things that will be most likely to achieve our goals. And there is some gangbuster knowledge in science about how to increase the benefits of cooperation in families, communities, and larger societies.
  So the science of morality is actually moving to a point where MOST “questions of morality and values … have right and wrong answers that fall within the purview of science”. So Harris will have that much. But that science has little to nothing to do with Harris’ brand of science. And nobody’s science can show we are somehow wrong if we pick a goal for enforcing moral codes that is different from “well-being”.
Post: February 8 2014 12:13 pm By: Wanda

Mr. Haidt:  Your article was easily debunked by thoughtful, rational people in this comment section.  I will not be reading any of your books.  I have read Harris and Dawkins.  Comparing them in any way to the likes of Beck, Hannity, Coulter, et al is simply ridiculous.
I just wanted to let you know that reasoning people, not the followers of Coulter, Beck, Limbaugh, Hannity and company, but rational folks, will not be able to take you seriously.  But congratulations on perhaps cashing in on the large group of sheep who follow their like.  They’ve made a ton of money off the uneducated and you will probably do so now too.
If all you care about is money, then kudos to you.  If you actually have a conscience, however, then I’d say you might have a problem living with yourself at some point.  You will not have a very good historical legacy, either.  But as George W. Bush said, “History,” shrugging, “we’ll all be dead.”

Post: April 7 2014 8:22 pm By: Hyman Cratz


Post: February 8 2014 12:50 pm By: Derek

Mark Sloan @9:38pm:
  Thank you for spelling out explicitly what Harris’s challenge is—it wasn’t clear from Haidt’s piece, and it’s more interesting than the way I had interpreted it.
  Re your first point: from my understanding I think Harris would not disagree with you. He stipulates that utilitarianism (more or less) is the starting point. It’s sort of like a first postulate, not something that can be derived.
  Re your second point: perhaps “morality as a natural phenomenon” is not really Harris’s primary concern. What you describe is how altruism could have evolved. Harris, I think, is after something different: given a utilitarian goal, can reason be used to find the best possible behaviors for any situation? You’ve given me some thoughts to chew on but I believe that Harris is essentially correct here.
Post: February 8 2014 5:35 pm By: Mark Sloan

  Derek, having written the 9:38 post, it occurred to me I could write an entry for Harris’ contest. The draft title is “Mainstream science of morality results contradict Sam Harris’ two main claims”.
  I have now done so and am pleased with the result.
  In my present draft, this is how it ends:
“There will be a culturally useful science of morality. It will not be based on Harris’ claims, but Sam Harris would obviously be a great communicator to champion it.”
Post: February 8 2014 9:06 pm By: Uncertain

Perhaps this is an idiotic article, possibly penned by an intellectually dishonest pseudoscientist. Maybe having this piece widely read could conceivably result in a lessening of the reputation and influence of someone who might not deserve it. I don’t know for sure ... but I hope so.
Post: February 8 2014 9:10 pm By: Uncertain

“Well-being can be measured objectively, he says, by methods such as fMRI scans. “

Are you sure? Because, well, he says that’s not his position; what he’s talking about is *the possibility of a science* that might employ tools *of that sort* ... in, you know, the future.
Post: February 9 2014 9:02 am By: Jason Schutte

I’m not quite sure how any of this is relevant… This is simply not a valid study, considering that the words in that final print edition of the book are reworked, edited, and combed over by people in the publishing industry to “polish” the book for effect. The nature of “celebrity” is such that these people, in the academic and entertainment news industry, are expected to take a stand and be certain. Who writes a book on a subject, purporting to be an expert, for popular consumption, not academic, and doesn’t take a stand?
Beyond this there are a million subjective factors within language development including education, socioeconomic background, writing style, etc. that are not mentioned let alone accounted for. Considering all this, and the fact that I do understand the gist of what you’re trying to get after, you’re not measuring the right thing, therefore you’re getting the answer that’s expedient. It has to be remembered that the sciences and backgrounds these people come from mean they were taught to write in different ways. I expect certainty from a neuroscientist, I do not expect or want it from a news anchor…
In my opinion the only way to develop an accurate index of this with regard to any author is to not only test ALL their works, but to account for changes and certainty within set categories. Let’s not forget that people change as well, become more and less certain based on new information, this is, after all, science. I think it’s intellectually dishonest for anyone to imply that the words someone writes are a direct corollary to what they will or won’t do in the future. The inability to account for live and future variables reveals the fundamental flaw in this whole line of human behavior prediction, the poverty of historicity.

Post: April 7 2014 8:25 pm By: Hyman Cratz


Post: February 9 2014 2:23 pm By: Ryan

Meanwhile, Bertrand Russell’s “Why I Am Not a Christian” scores a 2.41 on that same scale.
So, does that mean Russell’s lack of faith was necessarily “unreasonable”, according to this sort of postmodernist fortune-telling?
Does Haidt think it a damning fact that it would have been exceedingly difficult to convert Russell to the light and love of Jesus Christ? Does this prove the Bible is more “reasonable” than Bertrand Russell, I wonder?... Good grief!
Oh wait… maybe “writing” and “reasoning” AREN’T synonyms after all! But, perhaps Haidt already knows this, and is purposely conflating the two for polemical reasons… Whatever the case, what Haidt is up to here is both unscientific, and unconvincing.
Post: February 9 2014 2:34 pm By: Ryan

I find it baffling that Haidt actually thinks this shows New Atheists “write like polemicists, not scientists,” when the data shows, if anything, that Hannity, Coulter, Norenzayan & Haidt all similarly score under 1.5, while Bering & Beck are literally tied at 1.56. If similar scores mean similar reasoning, then it is he and his selected cohort that are seemingly auditioning for a job with Fox News, not the likes of Harris et al.
Post: February 9 2014 3:49 pm By: Tania

Here’s my response to this article, if anyone is interested.
I even contacted the word count service, actually, to make sure I understood how it works. You’ll find their response interesting.
http://diavgeia.blogspot.gr/2014/02/why-sam-harris-shouldnt-change-his-mind.html
Post: February 9 2014 3:57 pm By: Krishan Bhattacharya

For shame Mr Haidt:
“Well-being can be measured objectively, he says, by methods such as fMRI scans.”
Harris says this nowhere.  I invite you to produce a quote supporting this.
Post: February 9 2014 8:16 pm By: Ryan

I think I see what’s happened here. Haidt has adopted the affectation of avoiding “certainty words”, believing that it makes his arguments appear more reasonable. Once this affectation is embraced, he then goes further to negatively judge those people and arguments that DO use such words, regardless of the context of their words, or whether they add or subtract to the substance (as opposed to the style) of the writing.
So, is Haidt simply an exceedingly effete internet troll? I’m not certain, but that does overwhelmingly appear to be the case, here.
No doubt, I could excise all use of the pronoun “I” from my writing, and then go on to “analyze” the writing of others, paying special attention to their use of the word “I”, and deduce, accordingly, that they pay excessive (or dare I say narcissistic?) attention to themselves and their own thoughts…
But, as should be obvious, that would be pretty fallacious argumentation.
And to think, this guy is taken seriously by people, somewhere, so I have heard…

Post: April 7 2014 8:27 pm By: Hyman Cratz


Post: February 9 2014 9:54 pm By: Ryan

I wonder what Hume had to say about the futility of arguing with people who are correct. I wonder what he would have thought of Haidt: is here merely confident, or is he objectively right? Is it possible to be both?
Golly, philosophy sure poses some tough questions….. better do a textual analysis! That’ll get us somewhere, I’m SURE… maybe.
Ok, that’s enough… this site is starting to smell like freshly-shot barrel-fish…
Post: February 9 2014 10:29 pm By: Bill Brock

I am an atheist who often finds the rhetorical excesses of the New Atheists tedious.  But the “methodology” employed in this article is stunningly moronic.
Post: February 9 2014 11:00 pm By: Bill Brock

Thought experiment: what would the “% certainty words” score of a given Platonic dialogue, e.g., the Jowett translation of _Gorgias_, be?
What valid conclusions could one draw from this score?
Post: February 10 2014 8:44 am By: Bob B.

I found this article through Andrew Sullivan, The Dish.  My reaction there was “so what”?  Reading the excellent comments above confirm my reaction.  Shoddy article.
Post: February 10 2014 7:36 pm By: Daniel Edward Loftin

While I have some reservations about your argumentation, I realize that this is a blog post, not a dissertation. It is apparent that reason is swayed by passion, as is noted by Sam Harris in his excellent book, “Free Will”. Only a slight dig is intended by my citation of Harris. I think a point that you could have developed profitably is the difficulty atheist apologists face in arguing ex nihilo. A truly atheistic description of the world in which we live would not have to argue aginst the existence of deity, since the issue would never arise from the atheistic point of view. You mentioned this in the beginning of your article, but I wish that you had developed that line of reasoning.
Post: February 12 2014 7:54 pm By: humanityu akhbar

How to debias people?
Buddhism has a good track record…
There are other ‘ways of liberation’ that serve to get one to be more mindful, to learn how our own bodies, neurologies etc work
Like yoga…
Western Psychotherapy…
Discordianism…
Agnostically yours

Post: April 7 2014 8:28 pm By: Hyman Cratz


Post: February 13 2014 5:59 pm By: DDosCapitol

“Or changing the social conditions that have fostered hyper-partisanship and ramped up motivated reasoning? (I like the proposals offered by NoLabels.org). Relationships open hearts, and open hearts open minds.”
There’s a strong counter-argument that the “hyper-partisans” are actually bound together by stronger relationships with each other and the other Washington DC elites than with their “hyper-partisan” constituents, and that much of the “partisan” rhetoric is merely rhetoric.
Despite alleged partisan gridlock, we have an ever larger, more powerful government, a shrinking private sector, as well as policies which uniformly favor “multiculturalism” and other mores of the monoculture promoted in our schools and universities.
While I agree with what the author has to say as to the science, the failure to account for how the values and goals of the leadership of both major parties are increasingly similar leaves a glaring hole in the political side of his analysis.  The idea that “hyperpartisan Left vs. hyperpartisan Right” is the crux of our political problems is a straw man.  Authoritarianism vs. Libertarianism is another axis of conflict which has increasing importance.  I’d argue that a political re-alignment along those lines is taking place, and I’d like to know how moral foundation theory addresses that more than discussing the clichéd and misleading left/right debate.
Post: February 16 2014 11:47 am By: Waldo

I actually submitted an entry to Harris’ challenge, partly because I had an interesting argument to make and partly because I was fascinated by the challenge of making a complex argument in a thousand words or less. At this point I’m mostly curious whether the entries will ever see the light of day. Too many opportunities for intentional or unintentional filtering…
I suppose it all comes down to a question of intellectual honesty, and it would take a heroic level of intellectual honesty for Harris (or anyone) to seriously question such a significant aspect of his life’s work. But I have been impressed before - more than a few times - by people’s adherence to principle, so we’ll see what happens.
Post: February 16 2014 1:40 pm By: Nick K

“science has also undermined claims about the role and reliability of reason in our daily lives.”
Mr. Haidt, you’re (deliberately?) misconstruing Harris’ use of the word ‘reason’. Harris’ use of the word is in the narrow sense of using logic and objectively verifiable evidence to make or support a claim. The examples you cite following the quote above are more accurately termed ‘intuitions’.
The remainder of the article falls apart once that distinction is realized.
Post: February 16 2014 3:10 pm By: Brendan

I think this is a bit of a straw man. In reading Sam Harris one thing I remember clearly is how often he attributes certainty to the religious. So the incidence of certainty words could well be explained by his criticism of THEIR certainty. Secondly, he’s also clear to say he’s not anti-religion but anti-dogma, as you did here. In fact he never uses the word atheist in The End of Faith.
Yes, everyone is biased and it will be harder to convince Sam than an agnostic on the issue. But there are few people that have shown more intellectual honesty and willingness to reshape views on the basis of evidence and argument than Sam.
Post: February 16 2014 3:26 pm By: Timmy

How does one criticize reason? With reason it seems. With this article, Haidt reminds me of when my dog chases it’s tail.

Post: April 7 2014 8:35 pm By: Hyman Cratz


Post: February 16 2014 10:10 pm By: Simon Grennan

I’ll let my passions out of the bag here.  You speak rightly of the problem of our rational powers too often being put under the thumb of our passions. The interaction must (did I say that?)be more complex though. One of the reasons my emotions are ‘set off’  is when   I think reason has not been respected, when there is a potent whiff of hypocrisy (ie. logical inconsistency), and when the conclusions are not justified by what is, in truth (whoops there I go again), an appallingly simplistic methodology ( nicely illustrated by laMorte who, CERTAINLY did put it in the grave).  The bristling reaction is not because my feelings are hurt, or my beliefs threatened, but because the principles of logic, reason, and, well, just careful thinking - the best basis for our sense of justice and fairness   - have not been adhered to.
In short, you’ve simply tried to score points on an opponent using a highly motivated and transparently bogus methodology (which conveniently places your own work in the most “enlightened” position). When sloppy scholarship is called out for what it is, it really doesn’t matter who’s wagging what.


Post: February 17 2014 2:32 am By: Simon Grennan

Thanks for your thoughtful response. I suspect this is mostly a semantic issue,  but Ill think about your comments. Suffice to say I obviously do not imagine that ‘reason’ is some personified entity that can be literally insulted or disrespected or ‘annoyed’.
In any case, Haidt, whom I’m not familiar with, was really ‘found out’ here and it was good (socially if you like) that others let him know. It reminded me of that great Monty Python movie where the ‘wise’ knight determined that the accused woman was indeed a witch because she weighed more (or was it less?) than the duck!  Haidts ‘research’ was no better.

I agree I was mostly concerned - as is everyone else here - about the kind of culture we have without this particular ‘respect’ by which I mean ‘value’. This surrendering to reason and evidence is a value and to be sure a personal goal and this is what Haidt was ostensibly concerned with as well.
At some point it is a decision to be made. As Harris has said, we must “pull ourselves up by the boot straps” at some point - what evidence can you offer someone who does not VALUE evidence? It is a (social) problem that many people at least claim to place their ‘heart’ or ‘gut’ or ‘intuition’ above reason and rationality and say so explicitly (obviously Im not including Haidt amongst them).  The problem for the rest of us is we do value it but are rather bad at it as we’ve discovered.  So I mean “respect” on a much more fundamental level of values… it doesn’t just enter the picture when individual combatants feel disrespected. Agreed, gravity will be just fine without such notions.
What I was really mulling over was a sense of how much our passions can be inflamed by bad reasoning it seems on a more abstract level beyond personal or ‘team’ stakes.  It seems a more complex feedback loop than the dogs tail analogy allows.

Post: April 7 2014 8:37 pm By: Hyman Cratz


Post: February 21 2014 3:39 am By: Pavel Stankov

Jonathan Haidt is making an oxymoronic statement: “Using Reason I will show you that Reason cannot be trusted.”
This is simply not what Sam Harris is saying. In the first chapter he explicitly clarifies that a lot of confusion could be saved if we distinguish “observable in principle” and “observable in practice.” Just because it’s not perceivable to us what brain state someone is in, it doesn’t mean that this state is absolutely unknowable and therefore we can’t make a meaningful statement about their level of well-being.
In just the same way it is true that our own individual reason-producing faculties are fallible. But the argument goes well beyond our opinions; in fact, Harris is a moral realist, which means that morality, like objective Truth, is non-relative and discoverable as an object in the world. Even if rationality should fail our petty emotional brains as we are all attached to our private worlds and those annoying little details we take for granted, it doesn’t mean there isn’t an objective Truth, and, please take this the right way, a Platonic Reason.
Someone might argue that this may very well be true, but it has no practical significance.
Yes.
Not for now.
But Harris says he’s laying a foundation for an entire new branch of science, undeveloped and hitherto ignored, but holding an incredible potential. He’s explaining how the methodology makes sense by giving a few obvious examples without making a clear practical statement or considering a real case study.
For now “The Moral Landscape” is purely theoretical, but - and i hope i can also contribute to this project - i expect investigation to sky-rocket from this very fruitful base. It has an enormous potential for empirically minded positivists; it’s time we turn the tide of, as i call it, Postmodernist Anthropological Feminist Frenchness, and show that Ethics is a real thing that doesn’t depend on dogma and is open to the knowledge of all honest and curious individuals.
Let’s find out the best way to live and relate to others, the way we’ve found so much of value in our lives - not by accident or intuition or someone’s dubious revelation, but by some good and slow and meticulous thinking. Without the dogma of those who claim to know everything because of some Bronze Age scriptures and the wishy-washiness of those who are afraid to even start asking the most important questions out of some odd insistence that everything is relative.
Haidt is right: we are both skeptical and optimistic.
And very unapologetic about it.
And if we weren’t… just what are we left with?