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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: 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: 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: 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: 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: 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: 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: 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: 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: 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: 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: February 9 2014 10:59 am By: Chris


Jonathan, I appreciate your attempt at bringing objective analysis to these works. However, corpus linguistics is a robust field with decades of traditions and techniques. It is not as simple as running LIWC across some texts. (LIWC is not particularly respected by serious corpus linguists. Several of your commenters have already pointed out some of LIWC’s flawed assumptions). I will add that frequencies (whether sampled or complete) are typically reported on a per million words scale, to account for different corpus sizes (this would allow researchers to compare your counts with, say, Mark Davies’ corpora at BYU, for example. Percentage alone skews the comparison). If you are serious about using these techniques, I strongly suggest you sign up for the free online course <a href=“https://www.futurelearn.com/courses/corpus-linguistics” title=“Corpus Linguistics”>. Best of luck!

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: 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 11 2014 5:05 pm By: Gerald H.


Harris has the right to express his views in a persuasive manner. He could also be subject to the same. I, also did find the words “must” etc, to be of tyranny origins, during open unbiased discussions. His sincerity is not to be doubted, non the less. Science accepts facts and truths. Truths must be of sequence, to be valid in science.  The “is” and “aught” is not a sequence. If he could say was/were - is/are - shall/should that would be a sequence, averse to throwing “is & aught” into an undefiled marriage bed. When there are only 2 things to compare, in science there is no truth. When there are only 2 things to compare in humanity, there are no morals. What 2 agree upon, let it be so. Therefore we need to also move beyond the relativity of was-is-shall.
The past, present, future aspects of eternity has afforded some to know “was-is-shall-shall be” 
The sanguin was, the maloncholic is, the cholaric shall… what next?
The phlematic shall be the fourth sector in the eternal “caste” as a “helpmeet” to the previous 3 castes. These 4 castes are to be experienced “relatively” in this sequence for the happiness of humanity.
The factual knowledge in the meloncholic sciences is but the 2nd peak of the 4 peaks. Many sanguins have fallen for this as a betterment for being sanguin. But I say, ye should be decieved from the simplicity that is in Christ. The meloncholic seeks to reconcile the center of the matter “heaven” with the things on earth (science). Sam needs to reconcile himself a little bit of the sanguin and make that great ascention unto the view far above the cholaric view.  Science itself is one of the moral landscape peaks. In what sequence does science place itself in that it could be reconed as being part of the truth?

 

Post: February 11 2014 5:58 pm By: Gerald H.


Why not reconcile science with being a little sanguin and see the possibilities of making the ascention and getting a a cholaric view. Just think, science in the hands of the wrong man is still science. It is a heart issue.  Can you see Dennet is sanguine? Harris as meloncholic? Dawkins as cholaric? Only Hitchens could dance to all of the other 3. 
I am not suggesting to make morals into atomistic relativity by having 4 entities, instead of the popular relativity of “counterpart relationships”.
Will a scientific machine read an “ALL CLEAR” signal while Cris Hedges reveled in war during his former days? Why does that same scientific machine not read the same in the latter days of Chris Hedges life?
Does Chris have more of a phlematic diplomatic personality? What took place?  A scientific machine would keep a young person that is raised on it, in a state of being sanguine all his life.  What a tragic loss!!  He would be still on the old highway to glory. That could be the problem we are having today. It is the cholaric Lord against all the other 3 castes. How foolish to think that this will work. Yet, this is the very world all of us have been born into. We need to have a heart change to see and exercise equality in all 4.  So when you read the Bible and see the wind blowing sometime from all four directions, you might see life better as opposed to good/evil   .......and   is and aught.  When the wind blows, it does not determine its temperature, there are forces greater than the wind that determines its heat/cold.

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: 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: 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 16 2014 11:27 pm By: Waldo


@Simon Greenan: Respect is not the issue here. Reason can be sound, clear, functional (or not) or choose whatever other adjective you like that speaks to a quality of the reasoning itself. But respect is a social quality given (or not) for purely social reasons. The reasoning behind the law of gravity does not need to be respected any more than the law of gravity needs to be consciously obeyed. It is entirely pragmatic, and if someone chooses not to be pragmatic in that particular way… well, gravity doesn’t get annoyed.

Respect only enters into this debate when people feel their reasoning skills have been disrespected because others are not listening to them. The more convinced someone is that his/her reasoning is correct, the more intense that sense of being disrespected can be. But that has nothing to do with the quality or validity of the reasoning in question. Reasoned discourse is only ‘reasoned’ when others object, critique, revise or outright reject the reasoning involved; there is no other check on the validity of reasoning. Interpreting those kinds of rejection as disrespectful, no matter how senseless those rejections may seem, undercuts the very foundation that reason is supposed to be built on.

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


Hi Waldo,

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: February 17 2014 12:24 pm By: Waldo


Simon,

Maybe it is a semantic issue, but I can’t help feeling like you’ve stepped past my point. But first, I think you’ve done Haidt a disservice. Granted that simple word counts are the least interesting form of textual analysis. They cast a wide net with a lot of holes. But all this research was meant to show is what we all already intuitively know: Sam Harris is thoroughly convinced of the rightness of his position. WhooHoo… The rest of Haidt’s discussion has long historical roots and decent modern research. The fuzzy distinction between rhetoric and logic has been an issue since (at least) ancient Greece, and there is a lot of scientific evidence that backs up the idea that logic is far more difficult to digest than rhetoric. People invest a lot of emotions in their worldviews, and are not generally or strictly rational when their worldviews are challenged. Haidt may or may not be overstating things - I can’t tell how much credit he gives people with respect to disentangling their emotions - but it would be unrealistic to assume that Harris (or anyone) is immune. Thoroughly unrealistic, when one considers Harris’ strong speech on the subject and observes that a good portion of his life has been dedicated to promoting this view.

That aside, my original point was really about the problems inherent in making this a ‘respect’ issue. In academic debates people disagree, and sometimes disagree ridiculously, but academics are generally careful not to take disagreement personally. It’s a matter of professional restraint: they assume the academic they are debating is reasonable and intelligent, and trust that the disagreement will resolve itself over time. It is not an agreement to disagree so much as an agreement that reason will eventually prevail, one way or the other, just not right at this moment.

 

Harris’ work and the New Atheism in general lack that professional restraint, for the reason I highlighted in your post. They assume that disagreement is rooted in ignorance and/or maliciousness and interpret any continued disagreement as intellectual disrespect or intellectual dishonesty. They refuse to credit any sense at all to the person they are arguing with, and so they cannot trust that reason will prevail, and so the whole debate becomes personal in a way that no scientific debate should be personal. Professional restraint requires avoiding the issue of personal (or professional, or intellectual) respect. Do you see what I’m getting at?

Post: February 20 2014 11:35 pm By: simon


Hi Waldo,  Im not sure you are being entirely honest with your self here? Haidt’s ‘analysis’ wasn’t just an uninteresting textual analysis, it wasnt even just meaningless,  it was a transparently motivated contrivance to deal with Harris et al. and that is why it is intellectually dishonest - not because he simply disagrees with or opposes him.  No need to labour this, the responses here have already dismantled this study. If you are simply defending him because you also dislike the ‘new atheists’ then I don’t think he is helping your cause.

The ‘respect’ thing I agree with you on but this is a relatively banal point amongst more interesting disagreements; respect (between combatants) is an optional extra that we hope is present for civil discussion but obviously has no bearing on the issue/truth claims/logical consistency of positions.  If I understand you, you claim N.A. is confused on this matter and go further to suggest they generally cant tell the difference between disagreement and disrespect. I don’t share this ‘intuition’.

I’m sure we also agree however on the term respect in the sense that I invoked.  That we are part of a sub set of the community that ‘respects’ or values principles of reason, the scientific attitude, as a basis for civilization but this is also, I suspect,  a rather banal and uncontentious point…at least for those of us in this sub set. On that criteria, the ‘reasoning’ of individuals need not be respected - again by that I mean it need not be taken seriously. Positions/arguments grounded on revelation for example are a very unreliable way of forming beliefs, we need not respect positions that rely on such faulty untestable sources of knowledge.

Good that you’ve fessed up to your own allegiances, Waldo! I should do likewise by confessing that many of these so called new atheists including Harris are my intellectual heroes (hows that for lacking objectivity). They are heroes for me not because they are immune to bias but because thinkers like Harris, Dawkins, Krauss, Pinker, Dennett, Shermer et al. apart from their scientific and philosophical contributions and abilities as communicators,  are so thoroughly committed, in principle at least, to 1) the project of maximizing true beliefs and 2) arguing that this should trump faith and group loyalty as the more common basis of peoples beliefs.  This is an exciting re-engagement with this project - to be liberated from ones own erroneous beliefs and desperate spin doctoring.  I suspect they are actually quite excited by the possibility of shedding any of their own fallacious beliefs, of being proven wrong, but given the standards of evidence demanded by them this obviously takes some doing. 

The claim that ‘New Atheism’ lacks ‘professional restraint’, that they simply conflate or can’t tell the difference between disagreement and ‘intellectual dishonesty’ or ‘disrespect’ is a generalisation and a straw man that doesn’t really merit much response. They talk constantly of disagreements within the scientific community without making this conflation. The subjects of their writing are obviously and explicitly the problems of ignorance, self deceit, faulty reasoning, and intellectual dishonesty; so this is really an issue of you not agreeing with their choice of targets. Fair enough.

Post: February 21 2014 2:28 am By: Waldo


Simon,

All Haidt said was that it is unlikely Harris will be convinced by anything he reads in the submitted essays. Bad essays will obviously not be convincing, but even good, soundly reasoned arguments are unlikely to sway Harris for good, perfectly understandable psychological reasons. It *may* sway him - reason can dig people out of the deepest mental ruts, given time, and Harris clearly has a strong capacity for reason - but it would not in any respect be easy for Harris to admit defeat if someone does manage to uproot his theory.

 

Haidt simply pointed out that Harris is - wonder of wonders - human, with the normal assortment of foibles and weaknesses that state entails. Feel free to disagree, but…

 

Now, with respect to the rest of your post… I confess that I’m flummoxed. *I* said that the New Atheists refuse to give their opponents respect because they believe them to be ignorant and/or malicious; *You* said that NA do not need to respect the reasoning of anyone whose positions appear faulty and untestable. *I* said that the New Atheists have given up on the possibility that reason will prevail and made the debate personal rather than professional; *You* said that the New Atheists are dealing with the problems of ignorance, self-deceit, faulty reasoning and intellectual dishonesty, which are (as best I can tell) entirely personal comments with no real professional standing. What you describe seems to validate my position perfectly, what you conclude seems to want to refute it. So which side are you arguing here? Are you following the observations or trying to lead them?

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?

Post: February 21 2014 11:55 am By: poor person


You have $10,000 available just to make a (silly) point?

Post: February 22 2014 12:25 am By: Doug Scown


I’m sorry for the brief reply. I enjoyed your essay.  “Iam not anti-reason…I am not anti-religion”.  You also state that many ‘new atheists’ writings are overtly angry eg Dawkins in god delusion and even when he said he wouldn’t in The greatest show… I used to feel the same way. “Is it really necessary to be militant? Doesn’t it just annoy religious people?”

But if we bother to actually read these religious texts and objectively sit back and consider their overt mythology, barbarity and immorality we may as well say “pedophillia? Why be so angry?”

No. If you are pro-reason you must be anti-religious. The ‘must’ sounds militant but its because of the context. We are not discussing preferred flower arrangements. We are discussing overtly ignorant fantasy given over as truth and morality and it is hurting the human race. You are arguing for intellectual relativism and intellectual laziness where all truths are true. If you want confirmation bias thats a perfect example. We only allow religion because it is familiar. Thats why people can do ‘unimaginable’ things like sacrifice, mutilate and kill for insane reasons. Reason and religion cannot coexist. It IS CERTAIN that to embrace religion you MUST embrace credulity. Science (although perhaps not some scientists) invites you to say “I don’t know, can we find out?“And often we do. Religion invites you not just to stop but to be suspicious of thought and reason.  You are told you cannot be with ‘insert various entity’ UNLESS you just believe.Im sorry but on this point you are simply wrong, you have not thought through it enough. You are defending the indefensible.

kind regards

ps I do follow Harris and agree with much of but not all of what he says.  Thanks you listening.

Post: February 22 2014 11:48 am By: Matthew Klein


Well, I’m not a fundamentalist in fact many Christians would argue I’m not own at all since I don’t believe in hell as traditionalists do because love and violence cannot coexist in the mind and heart without defeat aging consequences. I do not believe God is angry though religion constantly seems to market their brand against such a notion the content in their sermons always has the underpinings of; do better, try harder, more surrender, more morality, less pleasure, more denial, more judgement, less peace and compromise. I believe we have heard the wrong message for so long and have given the non-(good news) gospel way to much press. The results are in; inquisitions, revolutions, crusades, hate crimes, persecution, prideful judgement, world wars and rival wars. All these in the name of a version of God.

Slowly but surely though, the evolution of God in our understanding is changing as we are changing. If I can possibly sum up the point of Jesus it would be this, ‘Jesus came to both tell us and then show us that God is at peace with mankind. He is cheering g for us to learn love for each other and ourselves….there is no anger only th punishments of our own disease of fear, and narcissism.’ The good news is that the world is getting better not worse (see world history for proof). So my effort here is not to pursuade you or convince you to change your mind but simply to inform you that your mind and that of the whole world is surely changing every day as sure as the earth rotates to a new sunrise every morning our hearts and minds and perspective of God is changing. The atheist is more like His creator then the atheist realizes because the Atheist rejects religions archaic understanding of God. The heart of the atheist, I believe, is not to rid the world of God but to rid the world of the backward minds that claim to represent their version of God us the truth about God. In many ways the atheists rejection of a love/hate, hell sending, jump through my moral hoops God should be seen as a greater faith. In many ways religion is still practicing ‘bloodetting’ for a cure, to rid the bodies of demons while the atheist crying out for a better scientific way, as well as many ‘God-believers’ in this new age. This age we are in is one of the great awakenings in religion that has ever happened, believers everywhere are exchanging an angry, serve me or else God for a God of peace, compassion, and Grace! Religion pits the believer against the non-believer as us vs them (the sinner).  Grace removes that barrier and says we are all the same, all diseased with the dark stain (aka. Sin) of fear, worry, anger, doubt, self centerdness etc. Grace also says we are now all saints as well, always looking to the Good and not the evil in all of us and removing guilt, fear, anxiety, condemnation and doubt.

In the end it’s all a love story filed with healing and restoration and filled with science and discovery. To miss either is miss God because he is both and the same. It is like missing the beauty of a woman while studying the lines and symmetry of her face. Like missing the passion of sexual pleasure to study the chemical reactions in the body and the brain. Yet the study of the symmetry and the chemicals is what makes the beauty and the passion. One does not exist without the other. Both are nessecary and vital.

I do wonder this often though, “if The atheist simply does not believe in God, then why all the effort?”. I don’t ever see books 250 pages long attempting to disprove Santa Claus or flying reindeer. I think because everyone knows that there is no Santa Claus. I think the Atheist prooves his belief in God be aside with such passion they argue against the religious understanding of God to be free from any sense of the oppression of a diety in exchange for a world of Freedom from demanding angry Gods for a world of Grace and wonder and peace. 

Post: February 22 2014 12:03 pm By: Tania


@Matthew Klein

“I do wonder this often though, “if The atheist simply does not believe in God, then why all the effort?”. I don’t ever see books 250 pages long attempting to disprove Santa Claus or flying reindeer”

Just off the top of my head… maybe because Santa Clause or the flying reindeer are not the basis for any policy? Maybe because they don’t claim that those who don’t believe in them will be condemned in an eternity of unbearable pain? Maybe because there hasn’t been even one killing that has happened in defense of their “honor”?

Post: February 22 2014 12:45 pm By: Mark Sloan


Pavel,
  I am glad to hear you are supportive of understanding morality as natural phenomena being culturally useful. The purpose of the Morality sub-section here is to present just such science and its cultural usefulness and promote discussions on this topic. So subscribe (at the top of the page) to be notified of new articles and stay tuned.
  However, little to none of that science will be built on Harris’ work. There is a large and vigorous mainstream effort in the science of morality that has provided a much more reliable foundation in actual science published in peer reviewed journals.
  Have a look through the articles here to get started on understanding how far along that science is.  It is coming along nicely. Harris suggests developing a science of morality and ignores that this process is already well along and arguably near reaching a scientific consensus.
  I also suggest Martin Nowak’s recent book Evolution, Games, and God that assembles a nice collection of that mainstream science and its implications.

Post: February 22 2014 1:03 pm By: Mark Sloan


Matthew,
  Harris and other “new atheists” when asked, “Why are you writing these books?” commonly give three major reasons. The 9/11 attacks on the world trade center and the religious ‘wars’ going on in the middle east, other harm done by religion such degrading and subjugating women, and the common intolerance and bigotry against atheists such as claims that theism is necessary for morality and therefore atheists must be immoral.
  Perhaps your religion provides net benefits. Count yourself lucky.
  I also recommend Martin Nowak’s recent book “Evolution, Games, and God” that describes the fruitful mainstream work in the science of morality and its implications.  I understand Nowak is a practicing Catholic and the book was co-edited by a theology professor who is also religious.  They seem comfortable with both their religion and the emerging science of morality.
  I share their interest in making the science of morality useful to everyone, regardless of religion or lack of it.

Post: February 23 2014 11:20 am By: Waldo


@Mark,

I can’t tell whether you are merely reporting that NA reasoning or endorsing it. Either way, it’s worth pointing out how specious that reasoning is. Secular leadership over the last century or two, aided by the awe-inspiring technological advances of secular science, have engaged in genocides, pogroms, large-scale displacement of peoples, vastly destructive wars, enhanced interrogation techniques, long-distance assassination by unmanned drones, etc, and etc. Let things go on as they are for another couple of centuries and the intellectuals of that error will be decrying the intrinsic oppressive abusiveness of secular liberalism.

What it comes down to - and this observation doesn’t require much in the way of science aside from using one’s eyes - is a primal tendency to favor in-groups over out-groups. This can be exacerbated by religious differences or by secular differences or by personal differences; the severity of the outcome isn’t much influenced by the rationalizations people latch onto.

 

As food for thought, consider that whenever someone comes along and suggests (to quote the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy) that people be nice to each other for a change, it is almost invariably cast as a religious (or perhaps spiritual) sentiment. It *could* be interpreted as a perfectly pragmatic secular ideal, but that is rarely if ever the case. Why is that?

Post: February 23 2014 2:27 pm By: Mark Sloan


Waldo,

Denmark, Sweden, and Norway are perhaps the most secular countries on earth. I see them a source of much good in the world, not “engaged in genocides, pogroms, large-scale displacement of peoples” and so forth.

On the other hand, I expect we are both familiar with “destructive wars, enhanced interrogation techniques, and long-distance assassination by unmanned drones” launched by a previous US president who is said to have told multiple people that “God told me it was the right thing to do.”

Perhaps you are thinking of Hitler and Stalin? They were both paranoid, power mad dictators. Their crimes had nothing to do with either secularism (in Russia) or Christianity (in Germany).

The science of morality specifically describes how and why acting morally (being nice to each other) is a pragmatic means of achieving common goals such as increased durable well-being.

See for example on this site:

http://www.thisviewoflife.com/index.php/magazine/articles/profiles-in-evolutionary-moral-psychology-oliver-scott-curry

and

http://www.thisviewoflife.com/index.php/magazine/articles/the-evolution-of-fairness3

Post: February 23 2014 4:26 pm By: Waldo


Mark,

I could match your Danes, Swedes, and Norwegians with Quakers, Mennonites, Sufis, and other completely non-violent religious groups. And that’s only a small sampling from the Abrahamic traditions; most religious communities are about as threatening as pop-tarts, and nearly as sweet. But we both know that pulling out a few cherry-picked examples is analytically meaningless regardless which one of us is doing it, so let’s write that approach off as mere rhetoric.

Plus, I’ll note I’m also thinking of Mussolini, Mao, Pol Pot, Saddam Hussein, Bashar al-Assad, Idi Amin, Columbian drug lords, most of the governors of the US South up to and through the 1960’s, Sheriff Joe Arpaio, Lehman Brothers, Kim Jong il and Kim Jong un, and any number of people and groups who have wreaked havoc on their corners of the world for reasons having nothing to do with religion. Just how many people do we need to dismiss as paranoid and power-mad before we stop thinking of them as abnormalities and start seeing them as an identifiable regularity of the secular world.

 

Perhaps the ‘new science of morality’ isn’t interested in observing regularities of that sort…

 

I’m all for the scientific study of morality; that’s a great idea. But it’s not going to be much of a science if it starts out with a deeply-held anti-religious bias.

Post: February 23 2014 7:51 pm By: Mark Sloan


Waldo,
I think you are tarring me with a brush I reject.
  I have a special interest in making the science of morality useful to religious people. As does at least one of the leading people in the mainstream science of morality field, Martin Nowak, who I have read is religious. His wonderful book Evolution, Games, and God, a collection of mainstream papers in the field, was co-edited with a professor of theology who is also religious.
  Note that Harris does NOT do mainstream work in the science of morality. He is off by himself, and generally disapproved of in the field as a source of more noise than light while ignoring mainstream advances in the field.
  I am particularly interested in producing science that will be helpful to religious people because of the following. The communities religions form are important to human well being and there may be no adequate fully secular replacement for them.
  And, obviously, there are areas in their morality where I think religions could use some help. Specifically, in understanding the shameful origins in exploitation of evolutionarily immoral norms such as “Homosexuals are evil!” and “Women must be submissive to men!”. I expect some religious people might be interested in understanding those origins.
  Some Christians might even be interested in why Jesus is quoted as saying “Do to others as you would have them do to you” summarized Judaic morality and forms of the Golden Rule are almost universal. Science knows, but many Christians do not.

Post: February 24 2014 1:07 am By: simon


Waldo,

It is revealing that you continue to sidestep the thrust of the posts here including mine, by redirecting you comments back to yours/Haidts rather facile and uncontested point for which nobody is denying: that all of us have to contend with bias. If that’s “all Haidt said” no one would waste there time responding. We are pointing out the bogus “analysis” Haidt concocts, which you are curiously trying to brush off with a wave of the hand. 

On this other point regarding the question of faulty reasoning and the problem of name calling (my term) you appear to be wilfully(?) “flummoxed”, presumably because you insist that they are the same thing - that say one cannot address the topic of faulty epistemology and bad reasoning because this is simply equivalent to dealing with disagreement through ad hominem attack?  You equate one with the other (at least in the case of NA literature). I do not. You invent a bogus contradiction and then claim that I have made it. To argue that a discussion of the problems of bad reasoning is just an (ad hominem) rhetorical device (used by NA) is itself a cynical rhetorical trick. Its used in the following ways: 1) “ah its all a wash out; we are all biased.” 2)  The new atheists [predominantly scientists employing the scientific method] who claim that X is, lets say,  “irrational” is proof that they are just biased because “irrational” is (also) a pejorative term and they are just ‘attacking the man”. But actually X may really just be irrational, yes? It is a very weak response to criticism but failing good arguments, it is often the only one some individuals can muster.

The underlying project of new atheists, as with science and much of philosophy is precisely the attempt to develop more reliable methods of acquiring knowledge and weeding out methods that are not - that’s why the scientific method works - why it makes so many discoveries and confirms predictions. Again it seems you are really just disagreeing with the target of this work if you agree that this suite of thinking problems does indeed exist.  Instances of ignorance, self-deceit, faulty reasoning, intellectual dishonesty, etc: do they occur or not? I am sure I have been guilty of, at least, the first 3.  Are they nothing more than pejorative terms new atheists level at those who disagree with them?!  To intentionally conflate these matters in the case of NA literature is suspicious and fails to take seriously the useful interrogation of belief formation and the reliability of the processes that give rise to them. The fact that such inquiry must contend with its own proneness to bias doesn’t disqualify it.

I suspect however you are a bit reluctant to concede that all methodologies are not in fact equally valid. By way of example I gave you knowledge acquired through revelation as a generally less reliable source - the revelations of Joseph Smith or L.R. Hubbard to name two. I’m not sure if you agree with these ostensibly uncontentious examples or not?  What about an even less contentious example if that’s possible: the 17th century methodology for determining who was or wasn’t a witch! Is it mere atheist rhetoric to point out they were “irrational” methods or were they in fact irrational?  Some methods really are better equipped at mitigating the problem of bias than others don’t you think? Say through double-blind testing?

Are you pulling the ad hominem card on “new atheists” because you just don’t like the fact that they are arguing that faith is one such faulty epistemology? This is an objective question and any offense or offense taken is incidental not rhetorical…happily incidental for some perhaps but incidental nonetheless. ; )

Post: February 24 2014 10:19 am By: Waldo


Hey Mark,

I wasn’t actually trying to tar you with any brush at all; I was objecting to particular line of reasoning I find noxious. Apologies if it came across badly.

That being said, I will make one observations. Your claim that you want a “science that will be helpful to religious people” has a bad taste to it. Medicine is the only arena that kind of phrasing is used, and only when a particular group of people is genetically different, or has a specific disease or disability: e.g. only people of African descent can get sickle-cell anemia, only women can get pregnant, and smokers have a higher risk of lung cancer. Science should simply be useful, and a science of morality should simply be useful to everyone (the world could use a good dose of ethics all the way around). So unless you think that religion is a dysfunctional condition which needs to be treated separately… Do you see what I mean?

Post: February 24 2014 11:20 am By: Mark Sloan


Waldo,
  Of course, I am interested in a science of morality for everyone. I expect secular humanists will welcome a firm foundation in science for defining moral codes that are more likely to achieve common goals such as increased well-being.
  Religious people who have looked to their religion for moral guidance will not be so welcoming. Special attention to presentation will have to be made to make it useful to them.
  Religious people are unlikely to say “Oh, I can no longer look to religion as a source of my morality!” What I hope for is that by understanding the shameful origins in exploitation of norms such as “Homosexuals are evil” and “Women must be subservient to men”, they will be motivated to re-interpret their scripture and abandon dysfunctional norms, as has already been done so commonly (for purely philosophical reasons) in religions.

Post: February 24 2014 11:58 am By: Waldo


Simon,

I’ll remind you that the purpose doing research is to provide evidence with respect to a given theoretical claim. Bad research (if that’s what this is) would not refute the claim; it’s just bad research. You accept Haidt’s ‘facile’ theoretical claim that Harris will have a hard time rejecting his own work and parting with ten thousand dollars. Why are you hung up on research that does not (to your mind) give useful evidence supporting a claim that you already accept? That’s like asking for a divorce because your spouse messes up Valentine’s day.


I’ll add that if you were to run a word count on my own writing you’d find that I rank low; I tend to avoid absolutist terminology, for philosophical reasons. So Haidt’s research certainly measures *something*. There is plenty of room with this kind of research to argue about interpretations, of course, but dismissing the research out of hand (as ‘bogus’) is problematic.

 


Now, I am flummoxed (and yes, I like that word; deal with it) for one and only one reason: you do not seem to be aware of the nature of your own argument, and I am having a hard time figuring out how to bring that awareness in. So let’s try it this way. Yes, ignorance, self-deceit, faulty reasoning, intellectual dishonesty exist; they always have and they always will. We are born ignorant, we quickly learn self-deceit, we often fail to grasp reasoning, and we all have sufficient pride to make true intellectual honesty difficult. That’s part of being human. However, we cannot address the issues of ignorance and self-deceit by attacking people for being ignorant and self-deceiving. Or better put, we cannot do that and still call ourselves scientists or rationalists. The entire motivation behind science is to enable people to understand things for themselves independent of authoritarian dictates. If people choose not to understand, well… that is entirely their business, and we have to trust that with some encouragement they (or their children, or grandchildren) will choose differently. Demanding respect in the absence of understanding runs against the very core of science.

 


This is my main concern with Harris’ conception of moral science. It leads too easily to a world in which people in white lab coats become a kind of rarified secular priesthood: the sole arbiters of moral truth and knowledge for the unwashed masses. That may have advantages over entrenched religious dogma, true. But it’s not really much of an improvement, is it?

Post: February 24 2014 3:05 pm By: Mark Sloan


Waldo, I would like to reply to the last paragraph in your comment to Simon.
  Assuming the subject is mainstream science of morality (not Harris’ hopelessly vague kind), I don’t see your fear as realistic that “people in white lab coats become a kind of rarified secular priesthood” and make mysterious moral pronouncements.
  The reason this is not realistic is that the conclusions are so simple that first, anyone can understand them, and second, due to our evolutionary history they will seem intuitively true.
  In mainstream science of morality, the problem moral behavior solves can be called the universal cooperation/exploitation dilemma: how to reliably obtain the benefits of cooperation without being exploited. Game theory shows there are many strategies to accomplish this and perhaps the most powerful is indirect reciprocity.  (You do something for someone, who may not be able to reciprocate, but someone else in the society see that, and recognizing you as a good person, is willing to help you when your need help.)
  Now most people will not have any idea what “indirect reciprocity” is, but they all can understand “Do to others as you would have them do to you”, which is a beautiful phrased admonition to act consistent with indirect reciprocity, and we can intuitively know it is the heart of morality.
  It seems to me a huge advantage that everyone can know, of their own knowledge, what morality is as an evolutionary adaptation and not have to rely on either religious dogma or even standard moral philosophy (which is often as impenetrable as religious dogma for average people).

  You might find my article in this morality section illuminating:
Would Abandoning Moral Foundations Make For A Better Society?
    http://www.thisviewoflife.com/index.php/magazine/articles/would-abandoning-moral-foundations-make-for-a-better-society

 

Post: February 24 2014 6:17 pm By: simon


Waldo,

There is nothing in your last post that remotely responds to the subtance of my points. This is probably for the best; I can get back to work.


Cheers
p.s.  “Haidt’s research CERTAINLY measures something”? Be careful, you are going to spoil your nice low ranking on the ‘certainty words’ meter!

Post: February 24 2014 9:57 pm By: Waldo


Simon,

I’m not sure what you think is non-responsive. Allow me to review, and elaborate as necessary:

1. You suggested that I’m brushing off Haidt’s ‘bogus’ analysis. I explained to you that (a) Haidt’s research is not as ‘bogus’ as you seem to think, and (b) any problems with his research are irrelevant, since we both accept the claim the research was meant to support. I’m sure Haidt appreciates your constructive criticism, and perhaps he’ll do something more to your liking next time, but you’re not making any effort to refute his thesis, so… whatever.

2. You made a number of assumptions about my motivations and then asked me directly about the status of ignorance, self-deceit, and etc. I explained that I was confused by your apparent failure to grasp the nature of your own argument (its trajectory and ramifications). I assumed you understood that I was referring to both your specific argument and the arguments presented by the New Atheists in general, but perhaps I should have made that more explicit. So to make things clear, I contend that the New atheists (and you yourself) have given up anything that looks like the practice of science and instead are using the *concept* of science as though it were an incontestable authority. In other words, the entire movement has collapsed into a form of scientism, and thus all of its carping other people’s ignorance and self-deceit lacks credibility.

 

3. I did neglect to comment on this putative equality of all methodologies, but only because I thought the assertion was too absurd to mention. There is something exceedingly bizarre about the statement. When did science stop developing methodologies to test theorems and start comparing methodologies to each other directly? We do not reject creationism because it has a bad methodology (whatever *that* means). We reject creationism as a matter of science because it is not supported by evidence from any methodology that we can operationalize.

 

4. I did not answer your last question because I was trying to keep the discussion impersonal. You seem to have convinced yourself that I am making ad hominem attacks against the New Atheists (and possibly against yourself, I’m not sure). I don’t believe you can actually substantiate that, but also I don’t believe there is anything I could say that would help change your attitude. I’ll note for the record that I am not religious in any conventional sense of the term, though I don’t expect you’ll believe me. Again, whatever: there is nowhere that line of thought can go that won’t be a pointless waste of time.

 

P.s. I certainly do use absolutist terminology when it’s appropriate, and sometimes even when it isn’t. If that spoils my nice low ranking, well… once more, with feeling: What.Ever… :-p

Post: February 24 2014 10:14 pm By: Waldo


Mark,

Yes, my last comment was directed specifically at Harris et al’s conception of moral science. I recognize Sam’s place at the outskirts of the community of discourse, but he has enough of a following to merit specific attention.

I’ve been feeling an urge to dig deeper into some of the things you’ve said - particularly your emphasis on the “shameful origins of evolutionarily immoral norms,” a phrase which really wants to be unpacked, and your most recent reference to game theory, a topic on which I have some strong opinions - but it hasn’t seemed appropriate here. Let me go read the article you linked and then I’ll toss in my two cents there.

Post: February 27 2014 12:23 pm By: Waldo


@Mark,

Reading those articles reminded me of all the (mostly personal) reasons I left academia. Sigh…

At any rate, responding to those articles would take a good-sized essay in its own right. I have a blog where I dump stuff when I cannot resist the urge to intellectualize, and this topic will likely end up there. If you’re interested, give me an email address and I’ll send you a link when I’ve published it.

Post: March 7 2014 2:30 am By: Salim Tarik


Sam Harris makes “a” “definition” of morality in terms of fMRI and then challenge people to disprove him. It’s like saying “I define x=3” and then saying “I dare you to disprove me.” Definitions per se cannot be a challenge as you cannot prove or disprove definitions. He should be discussing if his definition is any good to humanity rather than if it is disprovable or not.

Post: April 1 2014 3:44 pm By: Dean MacDaniels


After reading your article here and Harris’s rebuttal, there is no question for me, I give this one to Harris. The certainty words faux analysis you trot out as an argument is so idiotic it smacks of the kind of BS Limbaugh and Hannity pull on a daily basis.

Post: April 1 2014 4:58 pm By: Waldo


@Dean MacDaniels,

Sorry, I have to disagree. I’m keeping an open mind until Harris posts the winning entry and subsequent argumentation, but my suspicion at this point is that Harris has picked a weak opposing argument that he can easily refute. It would help to see more info about Ryan Born (apparently the actual winner), but Born doesn’t have much of a web presence that I can find.

 

I don’t believe Harris would have done this with any purposive intention of subverting his own challenge, mind you, but rather because his ontological convictions are so strong that no credible and effective argument against his position could possibly make sense to him (not, at least, in the course of a thousand words). It’s exactly the same problem one would have arguing with Beck or Hannity: Both are intelligent men, but their worldviews are so solidified that they have a hard time seeing anything that lies outside their immediate pre-given understanding of the world. And I mean that literally: they cannot see it, because they cannot imagine it, because their world is a fixed and defined entity that does not already include it. Whether Harris’ worldview is that solidified is something we will have to wait to see, But Haidt makes a decent case that it might be.

Post: April 2 2014 2:22 am By: Peter C


I happen to think Sam Harris is wrong in this case.

But I also think Haight’s analysis is bogus.

But that it is bogus is irrelevant, because even if the analysis were sound, the textual analysis is incapable of providing any information about the soundness of Sam Harris’s argument.

The textual analysis is simply one variant of argumentum ad hominem. Rather than engage Sam Harris’s argument there is simply an argument attacking the man, an argument saying Sam Harris is wrong because in some superficial way Sam Harris is like Beck etc.

I dub these types of arguments the psychologist/psychiatrist fallacy, because I’ve frequently seen them used by psychologists and psychiatrists in public discourse, that is, labelling a person as having some global defect in their thinking, personality etc., and thinking that that labelling in some way defeats a particular, sometimes sound, argument that person might have presented, when like all fallacious arguments nothing is added but noise. 

Of course, whether an argument is sound or unsound is not conditional on the virtue or shortcomings of its creator and the understanding of that, which happened more than two thousand years ago, was a major advance in rational discourse.

Post: April 2 2014 12:19 pm By: Waldo


@Peter:

We could debate whether Haidt was ever making a claim about the soundness of Harris’ argument. Some people take excessive conviction as a sign that an argument is flawed, on the grounds (I suppose) that rational argument rests on a level of introspection and self-questioning that cannot exist in the presence of absolute certainty. That’s not a claim I’d make, though it is an interesting point for reflection, and I don’t know whether or not Haidt would make it himself.

Either way, we should be careful about dismissing Haidt’s claim as psychologism, because we run the risk of psychologism in our own right. What motives are we attributing to Haidt when we assert that he is making an ad hominem assertion? What makes us think that Haidt is trying to dispute Harris’ philosophical argument at all?

 

Look, Harris made a $10,000 bet that no one could make him change his mind; Haidt pointed out how safe a bet that actually was. Harris probably made this bet honestly, but his honesty has much less to do with the soundness of his argument than with his self-perception as a rationality-driven scientist. Haidt quite reasonably noted the possibility that Harris’ self-perception was skewed: reasonable considering the large body of research demonstrating near universal attributional biases in humanity. Everyone except the clinically depressed thinks they are a bit more on the positive side of [whatever] than they have credible reason to believe, and I’m quite certain Harris (along with all other academics) sees himself as being a good bit more rational than he actually is in practice. Harris could not seriously imagine himself as a zealot, and why should he? So in the end the Harris/Haidt discussion has nothing to do with the quality of Harris’ arguments, but only with the hubris of Harris’ bet.

 

I mean seriously: pick a topic, and I’ll bet you $5 right now that you cannot change my mind about it. You are not going to win that bet, no matter how good your argument, unless I make the effort to be inordinately self-aware and self-reflective. And that $5 is *not* going to help me do that.

 

Sam’s challenge can be answered: his reasoning is sound from the perspective of some select presumptions, but punch a hole in those presumptions and the whole argument deflates into something Sam wouldn’t want to be seen saying. This issue has got my goat up, so I’ll do that if I’m given the opportunity (or perhaps fail in the attempt, which would be interesting and useful in its own right), but if anything I did or said actually got Harris to give me $10,000, I would be surprised and impressed by his integrity. One does not run across people with that degree of self-honesty very often.

 

That is not an ad hominem; That is a fact of life. We just have to keep our saving grace in mind: that a well-made argument will tend to persist above and beyond the weaknesses of our own egos.

Post: April 2 2014 6:17 pm By: Peter C


“Some people take excessive conviction as a sign that an argument is flawed” and they are wrong because “excessive conviction” is not a property of an argument.

An argument is like a mathematical proof. The psychological motivations, or indeed, any of the characteristics of the person who happened to construct the proof are irrelevant when it comes to the soundness of the proof. To properly engage in rational debate individuals need to avoid falling into the trap of attacking the person and instead they need to focus solely on the argument.

Haidt doesn’t address the soundness of the argument, instead he attacks the source of the argument, and therefore he adds only noise.

In his response, Harris demonstrates that Haidt’s analysis is bogus. Having destroyed the soundness of the analysis, Harris has no need to delve into the character of Haidt. As Harris demonstrates, Haidt’s analysis is simply a piece of pseudoscience. But Haidt’s analysis is worse than bogus, it is irrelevant precisely because it says nothing about the soundness of Harris’s argument. Haidt’s analysis was simply a sophisticated form of name calling.

Haidt’s approach was also bad form because the ad hominem approach makes it personal, and when you make it personal things often start to get nasty very quickly, and rational discourse ceases.

Post: April 3 2014 2:54 am By: waldo


Peter,

It would be nice if philosophical arguments were like mathematical proofs. That would have made my life more pleasant in so many ways.  grin  Unfortunately, whereas mathematical proofs work by manipulating axiomatic statements within a well-ordered system of logic, philosophical arguments are as often as not debates about the nature of the system in question itself, and as such do not lend themselves easily to formal results.

 

At any rate, I think you overestimate the effectiveness of Harris’ response. What that response showed me is that Harris does not distinguish between dogmatism and confidence. For example, he offers two parallel passages in paragraph 3 as a loose refutation of Haidt’s methodology, observing that it would be “terrifically stupid” to claim both passages display the same degree of dogmatism. But looking at the passages, they are *in fact* equally dogmatic, in the definitional sense that they both present their separate claims as indisputably and unquestionably true. The thought behind the first passage is more consistent with scientific reasoning and evidence, and is thus more credible, granted. But the leap from ‘more credible’ to ‘obvious and undeniable’ *is* the leap from reasonable confidence to the ideological rigidness that marks dogmatism.

 

To put that more succinctly, one can suffer from an imperious attitude whether one is right or wrong, and being right doesn’t really make the attitude more justifiable. And if you doubt Harris has that imperious attitude, please consider that his entire argument in that 3rd paragraph is merely that any disagreement with his own assessment of his examples is “terrifically stupid”.

 

You keep suggesting that Haidt was trying to discredit Harris’ philosophy through personal attacks, which would be ad hominem if it were true. However, I see no evidence whatsoever that Haidt was even trying to address Harris’ philosophy. He describes it neutrally in paragraph 3 of this article and mostly ignores it for the remainder, focusing on the bet and the psychological limitations of reason that would affect the outcome of such a bet. So if Haidt is not trying to discredit Harris’ work in the first place, what makes you think this article is ad hominem? Color me bemused…

Post: April 3 2014 3:14 am By: Peter C


Haidt doesn’t address the argument, that is the whole point.
Instead there is simply getting down and dirty about Harris’s character. Various negative claims are made concerning Harris’s character. These claims may be true. Or false. But nothing except the rather bogus textual analysis, which Harris refutes, is provided to support these negative claims.

At some point, one must vacate the field, when the other either does not know or continues to ignore the rules of the game.

I leave to you the field. And the last word.

Post: April 3 2014 10:26 am By: Waldo


The Moral Landscape challenge is not a meaningful scientific methodology; success or failure at changing Harris’ mind says absolutely nothing about the integrity of Harris’ theories. The Challenge is a book-sales technique, or at best a lure designed to get disinterested people to engage his work. If Sam had wanted people to focus on his philosophy he should not have made a circus out of it. But Sam went ahead and made a clown of himself, so there is no sense in critiquing Haidt for laughing at the performance.

Further, as I have explained to you and several others here, Haidt’s textual analysis may not be the best crafted piece that’s come down the pike (no offense), but it is methodologically sound within its limitations and for its purpose, so it is far from ‘bogus’. And Harris’ ‘refutation’ is, if anything, of lower scientific quality then the research it purports to refute.

 

I’m sorry if you think I’m ignoring the rules of the game, but (to be frank) I’ve been trying to show you that we are not playing the game you think we are. But… c’est la vie!

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?

Post: April 7 2014 8:39 pm By: Hyman Cratz


Post: February 22 2014 12:25 am By: Doug Scown

I’m sorry for the brief reply. I enjoyed your essay.  “Iam not anti-reason…I am not anti-religion”.  You also state that many ‘new atheists’ writings are overtly angry eg Dawkins in god delusion and even when he said he wouldn’t in The greatest show… I used to feel the same way. “Is it really necessary to be militant? Doesn’t it just annoy religious people?”
But if we bother to actually read these religious texts and objectively sit back and consider their overt mythology, barbarity and immorality we may as well say “pedophillia? Why be so angry?”
No. If you are pro-reason you must be anti-religious. The ‘must’ sounds militant but its because of the context. We are not discussing preferred flower arrangements. We are discussing overtly ignorant fantasy given over as truth and morality and it is hurting the human race. You are arguing for intellectual relativism and intellectual laziness where all truths are true. If you want confirmation bias thats a perfect example. We only allow religion because it is familiar. Thats why people can do ‘unimaginable’ things like sacrifice, mutilate and kill for insane reasons. Reason and religion cannot coexist. It IS CERTAIN that to embrace religion you MUST embrace credulity. Science (although perhaps not some scientists) invites you to say “I don’t know, can we find out?“And often we do. Religion invites you not just to stop but to be suspicious of thought and reason.  You are told you cannot be with ‘insert various entity’ UNLESS you just believe.Im sorry but on this point you are simply wrong, you have not thought through it enough. You are defending the indefensible.
kind regards
ps I do follow Harris and agree with much of but not all of what he says.  Thanks you listening.