This View of Life: Why Sam Harris is Unlikely to Change his Mind

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.

via This View of Life: Why Sam Harris is Unlikely to Change his Mind.

I saw this article while putting together the related list on the previous post.  I’m highlighting it because it ties into a number of posts I’ve done over the last couple of weeks.  Haidt is sure that no one will change Harris’s mind, and is willing to bet $10,000 on it.  I suspect he’s making a safe bet.

I thought Sam Harris’s view held a lot of promise when ‘The Moral Landscape‘ first came out.  But I was bothered by the criticisms of it, many of which sounded reasonable to me.  My doubt increased with Harris’s flippant attitude toward those criticisms.  Did he maybe know something they didn’t?  Or was he simply oversimplifying in his zeal to attack religion?

That led me on a quest in much of 2011 to read everything I could on morality.  The more I read, on moral philosophy, meta-ethics, evolutionary psychology, and other topics, the less plausible Harris’s view became.  It became clear that Harris is arguing for a specific type of morality, and only if you accept it, will the science he describes by of any use.

That isn’t to say that science can’t inform morality.  It most definitely can.  But, as I’ve said in multiple posts, it can’t determine it.

Anyway, Haidt gives a good description of the reasons why Harris is unlikely to change his mind based on anyone’s 1000 word essay, and in the process discusses the limitations of reason.  Well worth the read.

21 thoughts on “This View of Life: Why Sam Harris is Unlikely to Change his Mind

  1. Thanks ‘SAP’ for sharing the fruits of your quest. Had I not been devouring the literature coming out of the cognitive science of religion at the time I might very well have embarked on a similar quest as my reaction to ‘The Moral Landscape’ was very much like your own.

    To make a long story short, your recommendation prompted my eventual reading of Haidt’s book – thanks!


  2. Following your last article I read up on Haidt and watched one of his talks on YouTube. I’m much less impressed with him now than I was when I saw him through the filter of your very reasonable article.

    I agree with his analysis of what morality is and how it works. I disagree with his conclusion that there is anything wrong with encouraging people to engage their rationality a little more and to distrust dogma, or even that the New Atheists are being particularly dogmatic. I’m also far from convinced that his method of counting anger/certainty words tells us much of value. I also think it may be a good thing to “sanctify” reason, therefore co-opting the impulse to religion to instead encourage criticial thinking.

    Ok, so the research shows that this isn’t easy, or even that all attempts fail. That does not indicate to me that we should stop trying, or that that it wouldn’t be nice if we could achieve the goal of fostering more reason in the population. I think the goal is right and all Haidt has done is show that the methods are not working very well.

    I also don’t think that Haidt has done much to show the limitations of reason. He has instead found examples of how people are not reasoning correctly. In cases where intuition works best, e.g. consumer choices, then the rational thing to do is to go with intuition. There need be no conflict there.

    On Harris, I think Haidt is right that he won’t change his mind. Of course he won’t. He’s given this a lot of thought. For him to change his mind now would mean being presented with an argument he hasn’t seen before, which is very unlikely to happen. None of the arguments against his position are persuasive to him. I agree that he is wrong, but it’s not necessarily because he is driven by his intuition or his desire to find a rational basis for believing in objective morality (although this could be the case). It may just be because his thought process is different from yours and mine. To believe otherwise is to think that any two reasonable people must always come to the same conclusion following sufficient discussion.


    1. Hi Disagreeable,
      Good to see you here. Welcome!

      I’ve actually never gotten the sense from Haidt that we shouldn’t encourage people to use reason (it’s pretty much what we’re doing when we read his stuff), only that we should be aware of the limitations of doing that.

      I intuitively agree that reason should be sanctified, but by “reason”, I suspect you mean reasoning toward truth. (As opposed to reasoning toward loyalty, authority, etc.) I think we share an emotional commitment to truth, one that not everyone shares. The question is, how do we plant, encourage, or coax that passion for truth in someone who is currently more vested in loyalty to their group, religion, or culture?

      I think what Haidt’s examples about poor reasoning show, is that we can never be sure if we ourselves aren’t operating under a bias. It’s very difficult to detect bias in yourself because your very evaluation of whether or not you are biased will be…biased. Science only gets around this by everyone pointing out each other’s biases, and that often doesn’t get us past our cultural biases. Being aware of this should give us some humility, and I think that was his point about Harris’s certainty language.


      1. Hi SAP,

        No, he doesn’t out and out say we shouldn’t reason, but he does seem to criticise the new atheists for championing reason as opposed to intuition, faith and dogma.

        He calls out Massimo Pigliucci for dedicating his blog to “the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them.”, Dawkins for the mission statement of the RDF: “Our mission is to support scientific education, critical thinking and evidence-based understanding of the natural world in the quest to overcome religious fundamentalism, superstition, intolerance and human suffering.” and Harris for the mission statement of Project Reason.

        We all have intuitions which are adaptive and are which useful, so for Haidt this seems to mean that there is nothing much wrong with thinking with our gut (except in the case of public policy where he acknowledges that consequentialist reason is important).

        Basically, I think Haidt is right in most of what he says, but I disagree with him where he implies that the New Atheists are wrong to champion reason above other forms of cognition or that there is something paradoxical about being dogmatically anti-dogma. This latter is in much the same justifiable category as intolerance of intolerance or using violence to protect ourselves from violence.

        He also talks about the “rationalist delusion”, whereby we cannot be sure that we are rational so there is something wrong with the belief that we are. I think assuming that we have some basic ability to reason is simply necessary as we can’t get anywhere without it. We ought to assume as little as possible but we have to assume this at a minimum. I agree with him that it makes sense to test our beliefs by discussing them with those who hold different viewpoints, but I disagree that the “rationalist delusion” is a real delusion in the way that the God Delusion is.

        On the analysis of words used, Haidt’s findings are intriguing but that kind of language is to be expected in a persuasive text. Churchill didn’t say “It is expected that we will probably fight them on the beaches and in other such locations”. I think you’d find much the same kind of language in popular science books aimed at debunking creationism, and rightly so. Where there is no opposing viewpoint to overcome, as in an engineering textbook, or in a scientific paper describing results, that language is not necessary.

        Yes, it is interesting that the New Atheists use more forceful language than the likes of Beck and Coulter, but given that this kind of language is appropriate in persuasive writing I’m not sure that’s a bad thing (not that it’s necessarily good either).


        1. Hmmm, well, I guess I don’t interpret Haidt’s writings as being that anti-rationalist. To me, he usually seems more descriptive than prescriptive. I’ll grant that he does seem to bend over backwards at times to see the conservative viewpoint, perhaps too much, although I can’t rule out my own bias in that evaluation.


          1. He does seem to have had some bad interactions with the NAs. The spat with Massimo Pigliucci is particularly unfortunate since Massimo is just as critical of NAs, and since Haidt would have been an excellent guest on the Rationally Speaking podcast.

            I do think he has a point though. One I’ve noticed myself. The NAs are committed to not seeing any adaptive role for religion, since it would complicate their message. That may avoid compromise of their advocacy, but it’s not a scientific attitude. And most social scientists (most of whom are personally nonbelievers) see their attitude as simplistic.

            On the reason delusion, I think his criticism of them isn’t so much about reason itself, but that anger, certitude, and evangelism tend to make for poor reasoning.


          2. Hi SAP,

            >The NAs are committed to not seeing any adaptive role for religion<

            Are they? When Haidt said this I thought he was a little off-base. I thought I was generally on board with the New Atheists, but I have no problem seeing an adaptive role for religion. I just think it's probably outlived its usefulness and can in principle be replaced with non-supernatural alternatives. That was my understanding of the New Atheist view in general.

            I guess this may be what separates Dennett from the others? He in particular is very clear that religion is/was adaptive, and that religion evolved just like any other adaptation.


          3. Good point. A lot of people take the NA label, and there is diversity. But I think it’s a fair assessment of the views of people like Dawkins, Harris, Coyne, Myers, and a good proportion of the NA rank and file. Their typical position is that religion is an “evolutionary misfire”, a spandrel, a virus to be expunged.

            I agree Dennett is more thoughtful than the others on this.

            The question of whether we’ve outgrown religion is an interesting one. I’m open to the idea that we may have. But I’m also open to the possibility that we’ll kill off all the ancient religions, only to have them be replaced by new ones calling themselves post religious.


          4. Possibly so, which is why I think it might be a good idea to “sanctify” reason. If we’ve got to have some sort of doctrine, some common cause, shared heroes and villains, then let the doctrine be the enshrinement of skepticism and intellectual honesty as virtues, the common cause be the betterment of mankind through understanding and technology, and let the scientists, philosophers, engineers and humanitarians be our heroes and the pseudoscientists and peddlers of woo the villains.


          5. Possibly so, which is why I think it might be a good idea to “sanctify” reason. If we’ve got to have some sort of doctrine, some common cause, shared heroes and villains, then let the doctrine be the enshrinement of skepticism and intellectual honesty as virtues, the common cause be the betterment of mankind through understanding and technology, and let the scientists, philosophers, engineers and humanitarians be our heroes and the pseudoscientists and peddlers of woo the villains.

            Major objection. I think, it’s precisely the practice of dividing the world into “good and evil” (fidels vs. infidels, proletariat vs. bourgeoisie, etc.) camps which causes great strife. I think, this is exactly the ideology we must avoid and denounce.

            Here is experimental data to support this view

            Click to access 2006-7.pdf

            “Betterment of mankind” through understanding and technology has been the common cause since the days of yore. The problem is that everyone has his own idea of what constitutes the “betterment of mankind” and everyone who does not share this idea is placed into the camp of “villains”. This is the type of thinking that got the world where it is now.

            Perhaps, Christianity aimed to break this vicious cycle with it’s “do not judge” and “forgive and you will be forgiven” commandments. But somehow, it ended up with saints and villains all the same. Now, there are New Atheists, with their own flavor of saints and villains. Will it ever stop?


      2. I intuitively agree that reason should be sanctified, but by “reason”, I suspect you mean reasoning toward truth. (As opposed to reasoning toward loyalty, authority, etc.)

        The problem is that definition of “truth” is not very clear. And if we try to establish it using reason, we have a circular reasoning problem, as usual.


          1. Are you sure that this is meaningful? I may be missing something, but it sounds like tautology to me. We cannot pursuit truth with reason unless we define truth. And to define truth we need to use reason. The goal and the way of reaching it are one and the same.

            I think, circular reasoning is the bane of philosophy. I think, it even can be used as demarcation criterion between science and philosophy. I know that I deal with a philosophical question and not a scientific one when I find myself in a loop of circular reasoning mumbling something like “reality is real” where “real” means “existing” where “existing” means “real”. Or “I believe that my beliefs are justified by what I believe is evidence”. Or “I think that I think that I think…”


          2. I’m not quite sure I see the tautology. There are multiple definitions of truth, and the problem of induction, and philosophically it’s definitely possible to get lost in an epistemological morass, but I perceive all that to be only tangentially related to what I was saying.

            But maybe I’m missing something?


  3. Hi SAP,
    Hope all is well. I couldn’t help but offer a comment on your site. I usually never do this (or really have the time to do so) but I know J Haidt’s work quite well and wanted to share a thought. One of the things that came to mind with Haidt’s work (and your summary of thoughts above regarding Harris) is Haidt’s concern for the “left” and “right” partisan paradigm in the US. For Haidt, the US are a people who are now becoming more polar opposites, or so it seems. So his hopes are that as a society we don’t lose dialogue with one another and continue to create a hostile environment for us to live as a result. Sam Harris is a point of concern for Haidt because Harris pushes on one direction very hard encouraging those on the other side to push harder in the opposite direction. Haidt needs to challange Harris if he really believes his own thesis. It is very easy for people to create hate for one another and a quick search of the New Atheists on line can demonstrate how vicious they feel they need to be. A thought for reflection: what we are witnessing is a cultural war and “I wonder” if this indicates a policy of multiculturalism has failed? We are observing whether or not people can actually get along with these different cultural values that compete for the power to run the state. So far, my reflections lead me to believe I that various cultures such as these cannot get along. Maybe I’m wrong?! But, as mentioned above, I’m just sharing some thoughts as I ponder this battle Harris is waging against his culture.

    By the way: neuroscientist, psychariatrist and leading researcher for the neuroscience and religion, Andrew Newberg, would agree with J. Haidt. Once you have your brain commited to a worldview its’ nature is to only seek evidence which will support that worldview and usually “cannot see” evidence which contravenes or consider evidence to the contrary, let alone change your mind.

    Thank you for your time.


    1. Thanks Michael. I appreciate your thoughtful comment. I tend to think multiculturalism can work, but it’s definitely not as easy as a monoculture. I think part of Haidt’s message is that we don’t all start from the same place, and I’m always struck by how inconceivable many people find that to be.

      Anyway, your thoughts are always welcome!


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