(If you have not read anything by him on his blog, or watched any of his videos on YouTube, I recommend you take some time and do so. I appreciate the link he provided to my essay on wild animal suffering interventionist policies and the praise he gave it (thanks!) and I think it only fair to link to a video of his that I found to be quite compelling, in which he questions the compatibility between negative utilitarianism and deprivationalism.)
From my gauging, there are roughly three major topics brought up:
- The status of The Moral Landscape by Sam Harris
- Sam Harris as an individual and as a force for good in the world
The first and third point are relatively short, it is the second that ABM spends the most time on. What follows are my responses. I have tried to be as unbiased and objective as possible, as well as keep things cool, although there are a few places that my annoyance is clear.
Topic 1: The Moral Landscape by neuroscientist-cum-philosopher Sam Harris:
TML as a book on axiology
ABM makes the argument that welfarism is an axiological position, whereas utilitarianism is an ethical position (a form of consequentialism).
Yes, I will agree that there is a difference between axiology and ethics; ethical theories utilize axiological theories. I will also admit that I was too belligerent in my approach when I called it a rehash of utilitarianism 101.
But I will point out how utilitarianism is implicitly welfarist. From its very origin it has been focused on maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain. To take away welfare from utilitarianism would make it, well, not utilitarianism.
At any rate, TML is not exclusively axiological. I do not have the book with me, unfortunately, but if my memory is correct, Harris accepts notions like a Utility Monster, a direct consequence of classical utilitarianism. He already has developing ideas of ethics within his book.
Later, ABM asks me to give a good reason why non-human animals warrant non-welfarist axiologies (in particular, non-hedonic axiology). I'm not a non-welfarist so I don't know how someone would formulate something like this, but it doesn't really matter, because to demand something like this seems to beg the question - it assumes what is good is what is good for something, when this is exactly what non-welfarists would deny. I will also point out that non-welfarists, or even non-consequentialists, don't have to completely eschew welfare or consequences from their theories, they simply don't see them as constituting their theories entirely.
ABM points out in the video how he would be willing to see TML as a rehashed welfarist axiology. Okay, cool. But we have to make sure we remember that TML's overarching goal was to show how "science" can definitely prove welfarist axiology as the correct axiology.
Again, unfortunately I don't have the book with me, but I don't recall Harris ever mentioning Hume's is-ought gap at any point in the book, something that would be one of the very first things someone learns in an intro to moral philosophy course. Something that would spell ruin for Harris' theory.
From the video, it can be seen that ABM and I already agree that science cannot answer moral or even axiological questions, but can only inform us of important information. This means that the main thrust of Harris' book, which is pasted on the front cover, is wrong. And it's also misleading, as, according to ABM, the book is actually focused on axiology and not ethics. We already have two major strikes against the book.
(EDIT: But there's another strike against it, in regards to meta-ethics. Sam Harris sets up this false dichotomy between realism and anti-realism, where he asserts that moral realism has always been associated with religion, and that his book in a one-of-a-kind attempt to argue realism from a secular perspective. This is just wrong.)
Later, ABM counters my statement that Sam Harris is using an "overly broad and weird" conception of science to make his argument work by reversing this and saying that it could be said that it is I who am using an overly narrow and weird conception of science. This has several problems.
First, it moves the goalposts. It doesn't defend anything, but rather forces me to explain why I have such a narrow conception of science to begin with.
To reinforce my claim, then, I only have to point out that what most people see as science is not what Harris sees as science. ABM claims this is simply a semantic debate, as if we were debating whether or not golf was a real sport. This is rather a substantial debate concerning what we see as science, as science has its advantages and limitations. To allow Harris to call what he does "science" is to lose any meaning science conveys.
The claim that this is just a semantic debate runs counter to one of the most important debates in the philosophy of science - what is science? Certainly some things can't be seriously seen as science. This is not the place and time to settle the debate, though.
ABM wants me to believe that any general inquiry is science - yet this runs counter to the history of science, which was originally called natural philosophy and later split off entirely from philosophy "proper". Furthermore, this definition is too liberal as to make it unimportant. If every sort of inquiry is scientific, then scientific becomes an empty word. Perhaps we ought to limit science to what can be falsified, a la Popper. But this means that there are some things outside the scope of science but nevertheless seem like meaningful inquiry. It's equivocation. There's nothing "stopping" you from calling everything science, but really there's no good reason to call everything science either.
Furthermore, a conception of science as broad as this actually harms science as it makes it too easy for things that are not science to be seen as science. There have to be limitations.
But the biggest issue is that it really is Sam Harris who is playing word games. You ask the average person "what is science" and they're not going to say it's just any general inquiry of any sort. ABM claims that Harris is writing for the public audience, but then later he claims that we should be able to call science something that is not what is usually accepted as science by the general public. This is entirely misleading.
It's not too hard to see how Harris has basically tricked people into buying his book, then, by putting catchy words like "science" on the front cover. People trust scientists as authorities (most of the time, at least), and I am arguing that Harris knows this and intentionally advertised his book this way. It's the exact same thing that is happening when ads say "Science has PROVEN this drug works!" or "According to scientists, X is better than Y!" And people fall for it.
ABM later asks me why someone like Harris should be dismissed for stretching the meaning of a word. I simply have to ask why he feels the need to stretch the word to begin with. Harris' books are not so much redundant as they are unnecessary and misguided.
Topic 2: Sam Harris as an individual
The majority of ABM's video was focused on my accusations against Sam Harris.
Truth vs Effectiveness
First, ABM argues that Harris rose to popularity because he's a better writer and speaker than professional philosophers. This is a major point that is brought up multiple times through the video. Basically, ABM argues that Harris may be incorrect on a great many things, but the fact is that he is a very popular and influential public figure who has connections to consequentialist-related practical programs, like Effective Altruism, and that we ought to see him as a fulcrum for welfarism and not criticize a person who might otherwise be motivating many people to do good.
ABM then hypothesizes that I am an idealist at heart, and not practical-oriented. That I value truth over welfare, or, more specifically, my "politically biased" professional, academic philosophy (who makes more money - a professor or a public intellectual?).
Now, this is partly true. In fact I'm reading a book right now on this, which I plan on making a post on sometime in the future, called Moral Demands in Non-Ideal Theory by Liam Murphy. It's a book on consequentialist ethics (which is actually aimed more at the public, as are all the books in the series), and it defends the theory that consequentialism is actually not an overly-demanding moral theory. Rather, it only seems overly-demanding when not everyone is a consequentialist - non-ideal theory. Thus those who are consequentialists are given an unequal and unfair burden.
Apply this same reasoning to ABM's claim that I am actually not being a welfarist consequentialist by hating on Sam Harris. At first glance, it does seem that I am being counter-productive. This might to true, but this doesn't change a single thing regarding Sam Harris' intellectual virtues, or lack thereof. In ideal theory, I shouldn't have to suck up to this guy, just like I shouldn't have to give away more money because other people are being selfish. But this is non-ideal theory we're talking about.
Luckily I am not super public about my general dislike of Sam Harris. I doubt it would really do anything. From my perspective, the world is non-ideal not just because Sam Harris exists as a public celebrity but because there exists a public that has made Sam Harris a celebrity. Philosophy isn't easy, and it's hard for philosophers to communicate philosophical ideas to the public without butchering them. (Actual philosophers would care about giving people the whole story - but Sam Harris, on the other hand, seems to not care at all.)
However, it's also not the case that all philosophers are like this. Right off the top of my head I think of Peter Singer, who writes opinionated philosophical articles all the time for magazines and newspapers. Or Peter Unger, or Liam Murphy, the late Derek Parfit (RIP), or Jamie Mayerfield. Or Zizek, of whom there is much controversy but who has a lot of interesting things to say. Or the MacAskills. Or even David Benatar, who has written some pretty funny shit. These are public figures who are also professional, and I think it's worth pointing out that for as popular Sam Harris is, the amount of followers who contribute to EA and other projects like that are probably not as large as ABM might think.
Furthermore, we need to remember that one can dispense with Sam Harris without severing ties to Effective Altruism. EA is still in its infancy. Hopefully in the future we won't have to depend on people like Harris to get publicity. For the time being, perhaps it is a necessary "evil" to keep Harris popular. Later on, hopefully not.
"Unfair" criticism of Sam Harris
ABM criticizes people like me for attacking Sam Harris without any restraint. This is problematic in three ways:
First, professional philosophers had initially attempted to explain to Harris why he was wrong. Harris, in reply, decided to set up a competition for people to test their theories against his own from TML, as if he were the arbiter of truth. He ignored these initial criticisms, of which one was from his own friend Daniel Dennett. He still hasn't admitted that TML is flawed.
The second problem is that those who react in such an inflammatory manner are often those who have been targeted by Harris supporters (and New Atheism in general) in an inflammatory manner. Here I'm talking about the people who call all Christians "stupid", who say religion "poisons everything", who openly admonish any sort of apparent "irrationality" they see as such, and who generally are just dickish in behavior. A theologian has the right to defend their discipline; to ignore this is an instance of Kafka-trapping. What goes around tends to come around.
The third problem arises from ABM's conviction that Sam Harris makes philosophical mistakes because he does a lot of things. To which I reply that maybe he shouldn't try to do philosophy.
Sam Harris' podcasts
Later on in the video, ABM mentions how Sam Harris has a wide variety of guests on his two-hour long podcasts. He says that all of them are "happy to be on his [Sam Harris'] show." Well, I mean, of course they're going to say this. Sam Harris reserves the right to kick anyone off his show whom isn't appreciative of his show. Of course they're gonna suck his dick.
Then ABM gish-gallops a list of prominent people who have been on his show, including:
- Dan Carlan
- Joshua Oppenheimer
- Joseph Golstein
- Paul Bloom
- Max Tedmark
- Douglas Murray
- Scott Reits
- Michael Weiss
- Jonathan Hadith
- David Chalmers
- Juliet Kaeb?
- NDGT (yes I fucking hate NDGT, he's a Carl Sagan wannabe)
- Dan Dennett
- David Crackhower
- Eric Weinstein
- William MacAskill
- Jerry Coyne
- Peter Singer
- Andrew Sullivan
- Stuart Russell
- The list goes on and on (I missed a few)
ABM asks why people can disagree with Harris and yet walk away with respect. You don't have to attack a person to not have respect for them. Honestly, if we're just going to speculate here, I would argue that these people come on Sam Harris' podcast shows simply because it's an opportunity to communicate their ideas to the world, not because they necessarily agree with Harris. If there's a reason to watch Harris' podcasts, it's to listen to what these people have to say, not what Harris has to.
Truth and Preferentism
There's another point I want to bring up. Earlier in the video, ABM talked about how he thought animals should be treated with hedonic axiology while humans are treated with preferentist axiology. I think this opens a potential flaw in his reasoning, however, in regards to Sam Harris:
Generally, most people prefer to believe in true things. Even if they are not conscious of this preference, I think it plausible that we can assume that if they were conscious of truth, they would prefer to have it than not.
If this is valid, then it stands that Sam Harris is profoundly harmful to the preferences of the majority who want to believe in true things. This harm may not be equivalent to the harm of, say, a wild animal being brutally killed by a predator, or the suffering of an Ethiopian child, but it's still a harm that needs to be accounted for.
Overall, then, it seems to me that ABM's defense of Sam Harris is only valid so long as Sam Harris continues to be a productive asset to the welfarist consequentialists' goals. He is conditionally valuable as an instrument of good, despite being a turd in general. Whether or not Harris actually is valuable, or whether or not criticism of him is seriously going to effect the goals of EA and other programs, I'm not sure.
Then there's the issue regarding the things Sam Harris advocates himself, which I think are definitely harmful:
Why I believe Sam Harris is a turd
ABM asked me whether or not I thought Sam Harris was ignorant or dishonest. I lean towards dishonest while also supposing he's probably very ignorant about a lot of things as well. But why do I think this?
First, ABM claims my dislike of Harris as an individual is "psychological legwork". I must say I dislike being psychoanalyzed. I could easily just say that his liking of Harris is merely "psychological". It's question-begging.
Additionally, I confess that I when I was younger I used to love the man. I used to love all the New Atheists. Now the only one that I take seriously still is Daniel Dennett, and I don't particularly take interest to his writings on religion or God.
But anyway, here's a working list of why I think Sam Harris is a turd:
- He is a self-proclaimed "neuroscientist" who has questionable credentials and motivations and who practically cheated his way to his PhD. Dishonest and manipulative.
- He is a racist, and an Islamophobe who would like to racially profile and torture brown-skinned people from Middle Eastern countries, and when this was pointed out, he changed his blog posts without telling anyone. You don't have to disagree with Harris' views to see how he is blatantly dishonest.
- Harris makes poor arguments, and is criticized by professional philosophers (like Daniel Dennett or Massimo Pigliucci or a Neuroethics magazine (Neuroethics!) or Thomas Nagel or Simon Blackburn), but doesn't redact his views, merely shifts the focus and moves the goalposts. It's not about finding truth, it's about him and how he looks to everyone else. He'll concede to others when it's beneficial in the long run.
- Harris degenerates philosophy. From TML:
"Many of my critics fault me for not engaging more directly with the academic literature on moral philosophy. There are two reasons why I haven’t done this: First, while I have read a fair amount of this literature, I did not arrive at my position on the relationship between human values and the rest of human knowledge by reading the work of moral philosophers; I came to it by considering the logical implications of our making continued progress in the sciences of mind. Second, I am convinced that every appearance of terms like “metaethics,” “deontology,” “noncognitivism,” “antirealism,” “emotivism,” etc., directly increases the amount of boredom in the universe."Well, if that last quote isn't a kick in the privates to all the professional philosophers working on these sorts of things, I don't know what would be. Does Sam Harris actually believe that his lack of interest is a serious argument against what he finds to be uninteresting?
What is ironic is that if Sam Harris had recognized and included meta-ethics in his book, his book probably would never have been published to begin with, because his position has already been discussed in the past.
Later, ABM points out how Sam Harris, when asked what books he recommends reading, said that he recommended Bertrand Russell's History of Western Philosophy and Derek Parfit's Reasons and Persons. The first book is widely recognized by professional philosophers to be incomplete and more of a historical artifact than anything. The second book is not an easy read and it's ridiculous for Harris to expect the average Joe to read it without any background. The point, thus, is that Sam Harris essentially just gish-galloped philosophical texts to look knowledgeable.
ABM claims that I am being unfair in that I'm criticizing Sam Harris' approach while not criticizing the approach of ABM himself, which he calls "walking the tightrope" and being more informal than an SEP or graduate essay. The reason, though, is because Sam Harris is a major public figure and thus I expect more from him, and also I've already shown how he's a turd and basically deserves this fire. It may be a little insulting when I say this but I see neither my blog nor ABM's blog as serious contenders in the public perception, at least not right now. I see them as places where we practice refining arguments for the sake of argumentation and because we generally just enjoy doing it. It's a hobby more than a livelihood.
What I find to be curious is that ABM and Sam Harris have similar views. ABM is a determinist (if I remember correctly...?) and so is Sam Harris. ABM is an atheist and so is Sam Harris. ABM disapproves of many things going on the Middle East that Sam Harris also does. If I may speculate, it seems as though ABM happens to have similar views as Sam Harris, either by accident or by influence, and thus it's easier to downplay the problems Sam Harris has. So I have to ask ABM if he got some of his views from Sam Harris or if he just happens to agree with him on some things?
Then, later, ABM compares professional philosophers' disregard of Sam Harris' work with the general disregard of antinatalism, of which we both profess allegiance to. I believe this is a red herring. David Benatar, for example, has already stated that he doesn't expect AN to take off and has articulated many convincing reasons why this is so (biological urges, biases, etc). This is not the same with Sam Harris. There's no reason to believe Sam Harris is being "ignored" by the philosophical community simply due to some political reason or because he represents a threat to their discipline, as many professional philosophers have already shown how he is misguided. Both AN and Sam Harris don't "play by the rules", but the reasons are different. AN is taboo and Sam Harris is just an idiot. There are political reasons why Sarah Perry's book Every Cradle is a Grave is being ignored - then same cannot be said, I think, about Sam Harris' books, since at least his books have been addressed.
ABM later uses prophetic reasoning to assert that our own arguments for AN would be ridiculed by the professional philosophical community. This hasn't happened yet, so I don't see any reason to believe this. If anything they'd probably just get ignored as academia, just like anything else, has priorities.
ABM provides a link to a video on Chomsky which is allegedly proof of political biases. This is an example, I think, of someone who has been influenced by people like Sam Harris and believe in a definition of free will that isn't compatible with the ongoing philosophical discussion on it. Chomsky is absolutely correct that the Libet experiment does not undermine free will, and ABM had asked me for an explanation of how this could be so. So I'll just go ahead and quote directly from my book on cognitive science (The Cambridge Handbook of Cognitive Science edited by Frankish and Ramsey, pp. 102-103):
"Several philosophers have criticized Libet's interpretation of the bearing of his experiments on conscious agency and free will. First, it is worth noting that although the conscious urge to move may lag behind the onset of brain activity, it still precedes the actual onset of movement. Libet's interpretation of his finding is premised on the view that only the initial element in a causal chain, i.e., only a cause uncaused is metaphysically dubious and certainly hard to square with a naturalistic stance. A conscious mental state may play a causal role in the production of an action even though it doesn't trigger the whole causal process. If it makes a difference whether or not a causal chain contains conscious mental states as elements, and in particular if there are differences in the kinds of actions that can be the outcome of such chains or in the conditions in which such actions can be successfully performed, then it is fair to say that conscious mental states make a difference and are causally efficacious. One may note that the unconscious processes that precede conscious awareness are not themselves uncaused and that, by parity of reasoning, Libet should also deny that they initiate the action.
"Second, as Mele (2003) points out, it is unclear whether the readiness potential constitutes the neural substrate of intentions or decisions rather than of desires or urges. If the latter, no one should be surprised to find that desires precede conscious intentions, and finding that we have such desires does not commit us to acting upon them. For all Libet has shown, it may be that another conscious act is necessary before the event associated with the readiness potential leads to action. Third, Libet's analysis focuses on proximal intentions (the proximal causes of overt behavior, whose contents in this case may be expressed as "I flex my wrist thus and thus now."), but it neglects distal intentions (whose content may be expressed as "I will flex my wrist when I feel the urge."). Yet, it is quite implausible that the participants in his studies would have produced hand movements at will unless they had formed the distal intention to do so in compliance with the experimenter's instructions. This suggests that distal intentions are not causally overt."I'm not going to type up the part about the critiques of Wegner's studies since it's rather long.
Now, I agree that Chomsky was a bit dismissive of determinist and compatibilist positions, but I don't take it that seriously because Chomsky, in this situation, is not being watched by millions of people every day like Sam Harris is. Harris has more influence than Chomsky. We simply have to remember that not all philosophers are good at all philosophy, Sam Harris included (if he could even be called a philosopher). Recall how ABM was willing to pardon Sam Harris for his mistakes because he "does a lot of things" but apparently isn't ready to extend this to people like Chomsky. This is not consistent.
Contrary to what ABM argued, Sam Harris is not "steering" the philosophical discussion in the right direction, as philosophers don't need his help. If he's doing any steering, it's into a ditch on the side of the road.
A few more things ...
ABM criticizes the subreddits I provided in my earlier exchange with him, calling /r/badphilosophy "cultish" and /r/askphilosophy my "beloved subreddit philosophers". Okay, guess I'll offer a defense.
First, /r/badphilosophy is the place all the professionals from /r/askphilosophy go to vent their frustrations. It's a circlejerk and it's not supposed to be taken too seriously. That is what I meant when I said it was satirical. It's right, but it's distasteful, and that's exactly why it's so funny sometimes.
At any rate, I might be getting on board with being a moderator with a new subreddit, /r/bad_philosophy , which aims to be a bit more civil and reasonable than the original one.
ABM mentions my own mention of Singer's (et al) book The Point of View of the Universe, which analyzes Henry Sidgwick's moral realism. ABM called it insulting. I apologize if this came across this way, it was not intended.
Finally, ABM asks me why I haven't discussed Brian Caplan's defense of natalism, and offers this as an analogy to why the New Atheists haven't discussed classical theism, or what he calls deism (they are not equivalent). The reason is that I think Sarah Perry already did a good enough job dismantling his argument in her book. I see no reason to rehash it.
Topic 3: Theism
...ah, fuck it, it's getting late. I'll do a post on this later.