Why I Said Sam Harris is Not Smart

I noted on Twitter that I thought Sam Harris was not smart. I got "ratioed bitch" as one Sam Harris fan boy said. In short, most of the responses were negative and slightly angry.

People came with two general responses:

1-I was only saying that because I was too dumb to understand Harris.
2-My critiques of specific errors by Harris might be fair but to call the man stupid because of a few errors was unfair.

I am more sympathetic to the second point. The first point is ridiculous. Harris makes repeated major errors that undermine entire books. I could be dumb as a box of rocks but that would not make his No True Scotsman fallacy that unpins much of 'Letters to a Christian Nation,' any less fallacious. I could ride the short bus every day and yet that would not make Harris's profound confusion about the "Is/Ought" problem any less embarrassing.

Now, as the second group of people pointed out, this might just be two areas of blindness for Harris. And I agree. It is possible that I am judging him too broadly. But he did wrote a whole book on one of those subjects and managed to completely miss the point.  That seems like it takes a special kind to me but whatever.

But let me explain his error and then you can judge for yourself. The challenge with atheism and morals (the subject of Harris' book) is the "Is/Ought" problem. If you are not familiar with the Is/Ought problem I can explain briefly. This problem says this: just because something is a particular way doesn't mean that something ought to be a particular way.

Let's expand this definition with some examples. For most of human history, many powerful people have sought to oppress the weak and the poor. This is an observation of what is (or has been). But I think most people would agree that one ought not to seek to oppress others? The simple fact that many have done this and wanted to do it does not tell us how things ought to be. In contrast, many people think that the fact that humans want love and companionship as evidence that love and companionship are good. Humans ought to seek love. You ought not oppress and you ought love (sorry about the old fashioned word but you get the point).

People are born with some traits that we think are bad (propensity for cancer, violent tendencies etc) and other traits that we think are good (intelligence, propensity for kindness etc). Saying I am born with something (what is) does not tell me if that is good (what ought).

This is the "Is/Ought" problem. You cannot describe what is (or has been) to get to what ought to be. There is a logical/definitional gap you cannot cross... the two are not the same.

And this is a huge problem for atheists. Because atheists (unlike theists) do not believe in an Eternal Lawgiver that creates a list of oughts (commandments). They believe that what is natural is all that there is. In our Is/Ought language, atheists think the Is is all there is. Some skeptics of religion like David Hume have recognized this issue and given it its proper due. But Sam Harris is not that sort of a thinker (although few are as brilliant as Hume).

What does Harris do? Well like most not so bright athiests, he attempts to go to science. Yes folks, science. The field that is by very definition a field for evaluating what Is will be used to tell us what ought to be. Brilliant. How does Harris plan to do this?

The very short answer is that he does it by denying that there are oughts (with words but not in practice) and then proposing a John Stuart Mills style utilitarianism (a different set of oughts). In his, "The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values," (that is seriously the title) he writes,

 "Imagine if there were only two people living on earth: we can call them Adam and Eve. Clearly, we can ask how these two people might maximize their well-being. Are there wrong answers to this question? Of course. (Wrong answer number 1: smash each other in the face with a large rock.) And while there are ways for their personal interests to be in conflict, most solutions to the problem of how two people can thrive on earth will not be zero-sum. Surely the best solutions will not be zero sum. Yes, both of these people could be blind to the deeper possibilities of collaboration: each might attempt to kill and eat the other, for instance. Would they be wrong to behave this way? Yes, if by "wrong" we mean that they would be forsaking far deeper and more durable sources of satisfaction."

A typical Mills sort of utilitarianism. But does this really solve the Is/Ought problem? No!! Of course not. First off, the statement, "we should maximize well-being," is an ought statement. It may be one that you happen to agree with (most people do I think) but it is not by definition true. Remember the Is/Ought logical problem. The fact that most people like to have a sense of well-being does not mean that most people ought to want a sense of well-being. More than one religion says the opposite (that suffering and asceticism is a better life). Further it is clearly a fuzzy goal. What is happiness after all? I have written in the past as to why this is so hard to define let alone measure.

Consider the following: which is better: to be happy all day long (maybe sipping cocktails by the pool with a beautiful woman) or to be knee deep in mud in a jungle with a bunch of stinky men? The answer is not very easy to answer. Supposing in the second example, you are a soldier and you are fighting for the freedom of your country. Supposing that you are at that moment doing what you think God made you to do. The fact that if a social scientist handed you a poll asking how happy you were (on a zero to ten scale) you would probably be tempted to put a negative number, you would not trade places with the cocktail sipping coward for anything and doing so would make you less happy not more. Making Sam Harris style calculations about well-being in the moment hardly seems possible. Let alone the fact that, despite the hand-waving, the happiness of one person often is in conflict with the happiness of another. Every act of crime and violence speaks to this. Most acts of oppression of minorities by majorities are the result of this. The Romans made the Gauls their slaves because they lived in a society where having a bunch of slaves around was fun, legal, and profitable. It wasn't fun for the Gauls but it was a ball of laughs for the Romans. Further, there are times when no happiness or well-being can come from an action but yet it is still right. Say bravely standing up to a tyrant even though you know that he will kill you and there is little or no chance your stand will do anything. Think the man standing in front of the tank at Tiananmen Square. His act did no good for himself or anyone else really. He was probably killed and many others were as well. That photo is banned in China and no good came out of it. In fact, his action probably netted a negative well-being for all since China reacted so violently. But is there anyone that thinks it was wrong for him to do that? No, doing right is right even when the result sucks.

So Harris is regurgitating ideas that neither solve the "Is/Ought" problem nor the massive issues with Utilitarianism. The fact that he didn't get halfway through with this book and realize that it was a non-starter is shocking. The publishers probably didn't even read it. Why anyone takes it seriously is a bigger question.

And this is not the only book by Harris that contains this sort of error.  His "Letter to a Christian Nation," comically utilizes the No True Scotsman fallacy with gusto. After going on and on about the crimes of religious people (lumping all religions together) who, when in power, oppressed, killed, and otherwise acted badly, Harris briefly addresses a very reasonable counter charge:

"Christians like yourself invaraiably declar that monsters like Adolf Hitler, Jospeh Stalin, Mao Zedong, Pol Pot, and Kim Il Sung spring from the womb of atheism."


In other words, Christians point out the obvious fact that when atheists take control things always seem to get worse not better. But Harris goes on,

"While it is true that such men are sometimes enemies of organized religion, they are never especially rational. In fact, their public pronouncements are often delusional: on subjects as diverse as race, economics, national identity, the march of history, and the moral dangers of intellectualism. The problems with such tyrants is not that they reject the dogma of religion, but that they embrace other life-destroying myths...Tyrants who orchestrate genocides , or who happily preside over the starvation of their own people, also tend to be profoundly idiosyncratic men, not champions of reason.”

So, Harris's answer to the charge that getting rid of religion tends to make things worse not better is that these atheists were delusional in other areas. Atheists make up about 2% of the world's population but a majority of the mass murdering dictators not because of their atheism but because of coincidental delusional leanings in other areas. Never mind that the fictional Christian he is interacting with would cry out that many of those delusions were the direct result of the atheism this is a clear No True Scotsman (NTS) fallacy.

Let me explain the NTS fallacy. Imagine a Scotsman having a drink after work announces to his friends his conclusion that all true Scotsman are honest and hard working. But one of the friends, an Irishmen, laughs. He notes that Old Billie is a Scotsman and he is a dishonest drunk who has never worked a full day in his life. The Scotsman is undeterred, "Well, if Old Billie is as lazy as you say, he is No True Scotsman." It is a sort of circular reasoning.

In other words, the No True Scotsman fallacy is when we make a claim about a group that defines the group by the claim. Religious people do this. I could say, "No true Christian would steal from the homeless." And if you were to show me a Christian that did, I could respond that by stealing from the homeless, he showed that he was not a real Christian. No True Scotsman.

Harris has committed this fallacy. Harris says that no rational atheist is a mass murderer and when his Christian interlocutor points to atheists who were mass murderers (and thought rational enough to get power and a following) Harris declares that they are not rational atheists because no rational atheist would commit a mass murder. I honestly do not know if I have seen a better (and funnier) violation of the NTS fallacy.

Is Harris a dumb man? Probably not. I probably should have qualified that a bit. Harris is stupid when it comes to logical arguments about morals and religion. He may be perfectly intelligent in other areas for all I know. 

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