Posts Tagged ‘Sam Harris’

Returning to the subject of this post, I asserted that the modern era frustrates a deep, human yearning for meaning. As a result, the Medieval Period, and to a lesser degree, life on the highroad, became narrative fixations. Had I time to investigate further, I would read C.S. Lewis’ The Discarded Image (1964), but my reading list is already overfull. Nonetheless, I found an executive summary of how Lewis describes the Medieval approach to history and education:

Medieval historians varied in that some of them were more scientific, but most historians tried to create a “picture of the past.” This “picture” was not necessarily based in fact and was meant more to entertain curiosity than to seriously inform. Educated people in medieval times, however, had a high standard for education composed of The Seven Liberal Arts of grammar, dialectic, rhetoric, arithmetic, music, geometry, and astronomy.

In the last chapter, Lewis summarizes the influence of the Medieval Model. In general, the model was widely accepted, meaning that most people of the time conformed to the same way of thinking. The model, he reiterates, satisfied imagination and curiosity, but was not necessarily accurate or factual, specifically when analyzed by modern thinkers.

Aside. Regular readers of The Spiral Staircase may also recognize how consciousness informs this blog post. Historical psychology offers a glimpse into worldviews of bygone eras, with the Medieval Period perhaps being the easiest to excavate contemplate due to proximity. Few storytellers (cinema or literature) attempt to depict what the world was truly like in the past (best as we can know) but instead resort to an ahistorical modern gloss on how men and women thought and behaved. One notable exception may be the 1986 film The Name of the Rose, which depicts the emerging rational mind in stark conflict with the cloistered Medieval mind. Sword-and-sandal epics set in ancient Rome and Greece get things even worse.


Caveat: this post is uncharacteristically long and perhaps a bit disjointed. Or perhaps an emerging blogging style is being forged. Be forewarned.

Sam Harris has been the subject of or mentioned in numerous previous blog posts. His podcast Making Sense (formerly, Waking Up), partially behind a paywall but generously offered for free (no questions asked) to those claiming financial hardship, used to be among those I would tune in regularly. Like the Joe Rogan Experience (soon moving to Spotify — does that mean its disappearance from YouTube?), the diversity of guests and reliable intellectual stimulation have been attractive. Calling his podcast Making Sense aligns with my earnest concern over actually making sense of things as the world spins out of control and our epistemological crisis deepens. Yet Harris has been a controversial figure since coming to prominence as a militant atheist. I really want to like what Harris offers, but regrettably, he has lost (most of) my attention. Others reaching the same conclusion have written or vlogged their reasons, e.g., “Why I’m no longer a fan of ….” Do a search.

Having already ranted over specific issues Harris has raised, let me instead register three general complaints. First, once a subject is open for discussion, it’s flogged to death, often without reaching any sort of conclusion, or frankly, helping to make sense. For instance, Harris’ solo discussion (no link) regarding facets of the killing of George Floyd in May 2020, which event sparked still unabated civil unrest, did more to confuse than clarify. It was as though Harris were trying the court case by himself, without a judge, jury, or opposing counsel. My second complaint is that Harris’ verbosity, while impressive in many respects, leads to interviews marred by long-winded, one-sided speeches where the thread is hopelessly lost, blocking an interlocutor from tracking and responding effectively. Whether Harris intends to bury others under an avalanche of argument or does so uncontrollably doesn’t matter. It’s still a Gish gallop. Third is his over-emphasis on hypotheticals and thought experiments. Extrapolation is a useful but limited rhetorical technique, as is distillation. However, treating prospective events as certainties is tantamount to building arguments on poor foundations, namely, abstractions. Much as I admire Harris’ ambition to carve out a space within the public sphere to get paid for thinking and discussing topics of significant political and philosophical currency, he frustrates me enough that I rarely tune in anymore.


If the previous blog in this series was about how some ideas and beliefs become lodged or stuck in place (fixity bias), this one is about how other ideas are notoriously mutable (flexibility bias), especially the latest, loudest thing to turn one’s head and divert attention. What makes any particular idea (or is it the person?) prone to one bias or another (see this list) is mysterious to me, but my suspicion is that a character disposition toward openness and adherence to authoritative evidence figure prominently in the case of shifting opinion. In fact, this is one of the primary problems with reason: if evidence can be deployed in favor of an idea, those who consider themselves “reasonable” and thus rely on accumulation of evidence and argumentation to sharpen their thinking are vulnerable to the latest “finding” or study demonstrating sumpinorutha. It’s the intellectual’s version of “New! Improved!”

Sam Harris exploits rationalism to argue against the existence of free will, saying that if sufficient evidence can be brought to bear, a disciplined thinker is compelled to subscribe to the conclusions of reasoned argument. Choice and personal agency (free will) are removed. I find that an odd way to frame the issue. Limitless examples of lack of choice are nonequivalent to the destruction of free will. For example, one can’t decide not to believe in gravity and fly up into the air more than a few inches. One can’t decide that time is an illusion (as theoretical physicists now instruct) and decide not to age. One can’t decide that pooping is too disgusting and just hold it all in (as some children attempt). Counter-evidence doesn’t even need to be argued because almost no one pretends to believe such nonsense. (Twisting one’s mind around to believe in the nonexistence of time, free will, or the self seems to be the special province of hyper-analytical thinkers.) Yet other types of belief/denial — many of them conspiracy theories — are indeed choices: religion, flat Earth, evolution, the Holocaust, the moon landings, 9/11 truth, who really killed JFK, etc. Lots of evidence has been mustered on different sides (multiple facets, actually) of each of these issues, and while rationalists may be compelled by a preponderance of evidence in favor of one view, others are free to fly in the face of that evidence for reasons of their own or adopt by default the dominant narrative and not worry or bother so much.

The public struggles in its grasp of truthful information, as reported in a Pew Research Center study called “Distinguishing Between Factual and Opinion Statements in the News.” Here’s the snapshot:

The main portion of the study, which measured the public’s ability to distinguish between five factual statements and five opinion statements, found that a majority of Americans correctly identified at least three of the five statements in each set. But this result is only a little better than random guesses. Far fewer Americans got all five correct, and roughly a quarter got most or all wrong.

Indiscriminate adoption by many Americans of a faulty viewpoint, or more pointedly, the propaganda and “fake news” on offer throughout the information environment, carries the implication that disciplined thinkers are less confused about truth or facts, taking instead a rational approach as the basis for belief. However, I suggest that reason suffers its own frailties not easily recognized or acknowledged. In short, we’re all confused, though perhaps not hopelessly so. For several years now, I’ve sensed the outline of a much larger epistemological crisis where quintessential Enlightenment values have come under open attack. The irony is that the wicked stepchild of science and reason — runaway technology —  is at least partially responsible for this epochal conflict. It’s too big an idea to grok fully or describe in a paragraph or two, so I’ll simply point to it an move on.

My own vulnerability to flexibility bias manifests specifically in response to appeals to authority. Although well educated, a lifelong autodidact, and an independent thinker, I’m careful not to succumb to the hubris of believing I’ve got it all figgered. Indeed, it’s often said that as one gains expertise and experience in the world, the certainty of youth yields to caution precisely because the mountain of knowledge and understanding one lacks looms larger even as one accumulates wisdom. Bodies of thought become multifaceted and all arguments must be entertained. When an expert, researcher, or academic proposes something outside my wheelhouse, I’m a sitting duck: I latch onto the latest, greatest utterance as the best truth yet available. I don’t fall for it nearly so readily with journalists, but I do recognize that some put in the effort and gain specialized knowledge and context well outside the bounds of normal life, such as war reporters. Various perverse incentives deeply embedded in the institutional model of journalism, especially those related to funding, make it nearly impossible to maintain one’s integrity without becoming a pariah, so only a handful have kept my attention. John Pilger, Chris Hedges, and Matt Taibbe figure prominently.

By way of example, one of the topics that has been of supreme interest to me, though its historical remove renders it rather toothless now, is the cataclysm(s) that occurred at the conclusion of the last ice age roughly 12,000 years ago. At least three hypotheses (of which I’m aware) have been proposed to explain why glacial ice disappeared suddenly over the course of a few weeks, unleashing the Biblical Flood: Earth crust displacement, asteroidal impact(s), and coronal mass ejection(s). Like most hypotheses, evidence is both physical and conjectural, but a sizable body of evidence and argumentation for each is available. As I became familiar with each, my head turned and I became a believer, sorta. Rather than “last one is the rotten egg,” however, the latest, most recent one typically displaces the previous one. No doubt another hypothesis will appear to turn my head and disorient me further. With some topics, especially politics, new information piling on top of old is truly dizzying. And as I’ve written about many topics, I simply lack the expertise to referee competing claims, so whatever beliefs I eventually adopt are permanently provisional.

Finally, my vulnerability to authoritative appeal also reacts to the calm, unflappable tones and complexity of construction of speakers such as Sam Harris, Steven Pinker, and Charles Murray. Their manner of speaking is sometimes described pejoratively as “academese,” though only Pinker has a teaching position. Murray in particular relies heavily on psychometrics, which may not be outright lying with statistics but allows him to rationalize (literally) extraordinarily taboo subjects. In contrast, it’s easy to disregard pundits and press agents foaming and fulminating over their pet narratives. Yet I also recognize that with academese, I’m being soothed more by style than by substance, a triumph of form over function. In truth, this communication style is an appeal to emotion masquerading as an appeal to authority. I still prefer it, just as I prefer a steady, explanatory style of journalism over the snarky, reinterpretive style of disquisition practiced by many popular media figures. What communicates most effectively to me and (ironically) pushes my emotional buttons also weakens my ability to discriminate and think properly.

Yet still more to come in part 5.

rant on/

Authors I read and podcasters to whom I listen, mostly minor celebrities of the nonentertainment kind, often push their points of view using lofty appeals to reason and authority as though they possess unique access to truth but which is lacking among those whose critical thinking may be more limited. Seems to be the special province of pundits and thought leaders shilling their own books, blogs, newspaper columns, and media presence (don’t forget to comment and subscribe! ugh …). The worst offender on the scene may well be Sam Harris, who has run afoul of so many others recently that a critical mass is now building against him. With calm, even tones, he musters his evidence (some of it hotly disputed) and builds his arguments with the serene confidence of a Kung Fu master yet is astonished and amazed when others don’t defer to his rhetoric. He has behaved of late like he possesses heroic superpowers only to discover that others wield kryptonite or magic sufficient to defeat him. It’s been quite a show of force and folly. I surmise the indignity of suffering fools, at least from Harris’ perspective, smarts quite a bit, and his mewling does him no credit. So far, the person refusing most intransigently to take the obvious lesson from this teachable moment is Harris himself.

Well, I’m here to say that reason is no superpower. Indeed, it can be thwarted rather handily by garden-variety ignorance, stupidity, emotion, superstition, and fantasy. All of those are found in abundance in the public sphere, whereas reason is in rather short supply. Nor is reason a panacea, if only one could get everyone on board. None of this is even remotely surprising to me, but Harris appears to be taken aback that his interlocutors, many of whom are sophisticated thinkers, are not easily convinced. In the ivory tower or echo chamber Harris has constructed for himself, those who lack scientific rigor and adherence to evidence (or even better, facts and data) are infrequently admitted to the debate. He would presumably have a level playing field, right? So what’s going on that eludes Sam Harris?

As I’ve been saying for some time, we’re in the midst of an epistemological crisis. Defenders of Enlightenment values (logic, rationalism, detachment, equity, secularism), most of whom are academics, are a shrinking minority in the new democratic age. Moreover, the Internet has put regular, perhaps unschooled folks (Joe the Plumber, Ken Bone, any old Kardashian, and celebrities used to being the undeserved focus of attention) in direct dialogue with everyone else through deplorable comments sections. Journalists get their say, too, and amplify the unwashed masses when resorting to man-on-the-street interviews. At Gin and Tacos (see blogroll), this last is called the Cletus Safari. The marketplace of ideas has accordingly been so corrupted by the likes of, well, ME! that self-appointed public intellectuals like Harris can’t contend effectively with the onslaught of pure, unadulterated democracy where everyone participates. (Authorities claim to want broad civic participation, as when they exhort everyone to vote, but the reverse is more nearly true.) Harris already foundered on the shoals of competing truth claims when he hosted on his webcast a fellow academic, Jordan Peterson, yet failed to make any apparent adjustments in the aftermath. Reason remains for Harris the one true faith.

Furthermore, Jonathan Haidt argues (as I understand him, correct me if I’m mistaken) that motivated reasoning leads to cherry-picking facts and evidence. In practice, that means that selection bias results in opinions being argued as facts. Under such conditions, even well-meaning folks are prone to peddling false certainty. This may well be the case with Charles Murray, who is at the center of the Harris debacle. Murray’s arguments are fundamentally about psychometrics, a data-driven subset of sociology and psychology, which under ideal circumstances have all the dispassion of a stone. But those metrics are applied at the intersection of two taboos, race and intelligence (who knew? everyone but Sam Harris and Charles Murray …), then transmuted into public policy recommendations. If Harris were more circumspect, he might recognize that there is simply no way to divorce emotion from discussions of race and intelligence.

rant off/

More to say on this subject in part 2 to follow.

Long again this time and a bit contentious. Sorry for trying your patience.

Having watched a few hundred Joe Rogan webcasts by now (previous blog on this topic here), I am pretty well acquainted with guests and ideas that cycle through periodically. This is not a criticism as I’m aware I recycle my own ideas here, which is more nearly thematic than simply repetitive. Among all the MMA folks and comedians, Rogan features people — mostly academics — who might be called thought leaders. A group of them has even been dubbed the “intellectual dark web.” I dunno who coined the phrase or established its membership, but the names might include, in no particular order, Jordan Peterson, Bret Weinstein, Eric Weinstein, Douglas Murray, Sam Harris, Jonathan Haidt, Gad Saad, Camille Paglia, Dave Ruben, Christina Hoff Sommers, and Lawrence Krauss. I doubt any of them would have been considered cool kids in high school, and it’s unclear whether they’re any cooler now that they’ve all achieved some level of Internet fame on top of other public exposure. Only a couple seem especially concerned with being thought cool now (names withheld), though the chase for clicks, views, likes, and Patreon support is fairly upfront. That they can usually sit down and have meaningful conversations without rancor (admirably facilitated by Joe Rogan up until one of his own oxen is gored, less admirably by Dave Ruben) about free speech, Postmodernism, social justice warriors, politics, or the latest meme means that the cliquishness of high school has relaxed considerably.

I’m pleased (I guess) that today’s public intellectuals have found an online medium to develop. Lots of imitators are out there putting up their own YouTube channels to proselytize their own opinions. However, I still prefer to get deeper understanding from books (and to a lesser degree, blogs and articles online), which are far better at delivering thoughtful analysis. The conversational style of the webcast is relentlessly up-to-date and entertaining enough but relies too heavily on charisma. And besides, so many of these folks are such fast talkers, often talking over each other to win imaginary debate points or just dominate the conversational space, that they frustrate and bewilder more than they communicate or convince.

Considering that the ongoing epistemological crisis I’ve been blogging about over time is central to the claims and arguments of these folks (though they never quite call it that), I want to focus on the infamous disagreement between Sam Harris and Jordan Peterson on the question of what counts as truth. This conflict immediately put me in mind of C.P. Snow’s lecture The Two Cultures, referring to the sciences and the humanities and how their advocates and adherents frequently lack sufficient knowledge and understanding of the other’s culture. As a result, they talk or argue past each other. Lawrence Krauss provided a brief update almost a decade ago (long before he was revealed to be a creep — charged with sexual misconduct and brought low like so many men over the past year). Being a theoretical physicist, his preference is predictable:


Twice in the last month I stumbled across David Benatar, an anti-natalist philosopher, first in a podcast with Sam Harris and again in a profile of him in The New Yorker. Benatar is certainly an interesting fellow, and I suspect earnest in his beliefs and academic work, but I couldn’t avoid shrugging as he gets caught in the sort of logic traps that plague hyperintellectual folks. (Sam Harris is prone to the same problem.) The anti-natalist philosophy in a nutshell is finding, after tallying the pros and cons of living (sometimes understood as happiness or enjoyment versus suffering), that on balance, it would probably be better never to have lived. Benatar doesn’t apply the finding retroactively by suggesting folks end their lives sooner rather than later, but he does recommend that new life should not be brought into the world — an interdiction almost no parent would consider for more than a moment.

The idea that we are born against our will, never asked whether we wanted life in the first place, is an obvious conundrum but treated as a legitimate line of inquiry in Benatar’s philosophy. The kid who throws the taunt “I never asked to be born!” to a parent in the midst of an argument might score an emotional hit, but there is no logic to the assertion. Language is full of logic traps like this, such as “an infinity of infinities” (or multiverse), “what came before the beginning?” or “what happens after the end?” Most know to disregard the former, but entire religions are based on seeking the path to the (good) afterlife as if conjuring such a proposition manifests it in reality.