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    Default Why Sam Harris is Unlikely to Change his Mind by Jonathan Haidt

    From Jonathan Haidt at 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.

    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.) As you can see in the graph, the New Atheists win the "certainty" competition. 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%.)


    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.

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    Finally. A voice of reason.
    Or fairness.
    Or something.

    Key point: Fundamentalism/Zealotry leads to distortions of truth and is best to avoid.

    My only quibble is that pictures tell a thousand words, and sometimes those words might be distorted or even false. In this case, the graphic that is presented: The percentage difference between the writer groups are made to look significant by the height of the boxes, but when you look at it in terms of actual percentage, the range is only from 1.35% to about 2.25%. Is that really a significant increase over the span of a book? And how were the words of "certainty" used in context?

    If we put those height differences in context of 1-100%, they'd all look in the same ballpark. And what about books in general? How often do they use "words of certainty" in the non-religious context?

    It's a cute example that gives people something tangible to grab, but it's unclear how relevant it is in supporting the thesis.
    "Hey Capa -- We're only stardust." ~ "Sunshine"

    “Pleasure to me is wonder—the unexplored, the unexpected, the thing that is hidden and the changeless thing that lurks behind superficial mutability. To trace the remote in the immediate; the eternal in the ephemeral; the past in the present; the infinite in the finite; these are to me the springs of delight and beauty.” ~ H.P. Lovecraft

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    Quote Originally Posted by Jennifer View Post
    Finally. A voice of reason.
    Or fairness.
    Or something.

    Key point: Fundamentalism/Zealotry leads to distortions of truth and is best to avoid.

    My only quibble is that pictures tell a thousand words, and sometimes those words might be distorted or even false. In this case, the graphic that is presented: The percentage difference between the writer groups are made to look significant by the height of the boxes, but when you look at it in terms of actual percentage, the range is only from 1.35% to about 2.25%. Is that really a significant increase over the span of a book? And how were the words of "certainty" used in context?

    If we put those height differences in context of 1-100%, they'd all look in the same ballpark. And what about books in general? How often do they use "words of certainty" in the non-religious context?

    It's a cute example that gives people something tangible to grab, but it's unclear how relevant it is in supporting the thesis.
    The graph isn't useful if one is trying to use it as a springboard to argue that Dawkins and friends are more closed minded than Beck and co., it is however useful to illustrate that Dawkins and co. operate in the same realm of ideological stridency that Beck and friends do.

    I don't get the impression that Haidt is trying to prove that one side or the other has the market cornered on reason, but that both sides are equally guilty of ideological insularity.

    More specifically, the article seems to refute the contention that draping one's argument in the regalia of science makes that argument any less susceptible bias.

    This is important because [at least in the MSM] one side is popularly presented as having and exclusive grasp of truth and rightness, while the other is presented less generously.

    Just as the devil can quote the Bible to suit his needs, so to can science be coopted to support ideological positions instead of used (as it usually is) to parse out physical and natural laws.

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    Because fanatics don't change their minds.

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    Quote Originally Posted by DiscoBiscuit View Post
    The graph isn't useful if one is trying to use it as a springboard to argue that Dawkins and friends are more closed minded than Beck and co., it is however useful to illustrate that Dawkins and co. operate in the same realm of ideological stridency that Beck and friends do.

    I don't get the impression that Haidt is trying to prove that one side or the other has the market cornered on reason, but that both sides are equally guilty of ideological insularity.
    Okay. If that's the point, yes, they operate in the same ballpark as far as that standard goes... if the standard of using 2% words in your book that involve "certainty" is indeed a reliable measure of zeal.

    More specifically, the article seems to refute the contention that draping one's argument in the regalia of science makes that argument any less susceptible bias.
    To be honest, this is not really rocket science. I've posted that over a period of years, and I've seen others do the same. A zealot is a zealot is a zealot. Bias is bias.

    This is important because [at least in the MSM] one side is popularly presented as having and exclusive grasp of truth and rightness, while the other is presented less generously.

    Just as the devil can quote the Bible to suit his needs, so to can science be coopted to support ideological positions instead of used (as it usually is) to parse out physical and natural laws.
    It's not really that unheard-of a proposition.
    Reasonable people already know it; unreasonable people will probably never accept it.

    The main difference for me between science and religion is falsifiability. Even if both sides can be comprised of zealots, the bottom line is that the scientific method is based on refinement and correction of ideas however zealous, while religion is based on values appealed to by faith. So when it comes to evaluating claims that fall within the realm of science, religion isn't really effective.

    I also think that some things are not "science" and thus they can't be evaluated through science. (Like when I say, "I love <someone>" and how that influences my choices.) In those areas, other systems are more dominant.
    "Hey Capa -- We're only stardust." ~ "Sunshine"

    “Pleasure to me is wonder—the unexplored, the unexpected, the thing that is hidden and the changeless thing that lurks behind superficial mutability. To trace the remote in the immediate; the eternal in the ephemeral; the past in the present; the infinite in the finite; these are to me the springs of delight and beauty.” ~ H.P. Lovecraft

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    Harris is wrong, morality is not objective. I've seen videos of him debating this and it made me cringe. I felt bad for him because it looks like he's backed himself into a corner and doesn't want to admit that he's wrong. This "challenge" is his way of doubling down.
    "We grow up thinking that beliefs are something to be proud of, but they're really nothing but opinions one refuses to reconsider. Beliefs are easy. The stronger your beliefs are, the less open you are to growth and wisdom, because "strength of belief" is only the intensity with which you resist questioning yourself. As soon as you are proud of a belief, as soon as you think it adds something to who you are, then you've made it a part of your ego."

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    Senior Member Lateralus's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Jennifer View Post
    The main difference for me between science and religion is falsifiability. Even if both sides can be comprised of zealots, the bottom line is that the scientific method is based on refinement and correction of ideas however zealous, while religion is based on values appealed to by faith. So when it comes to evaluating claims that fall within the realm of science, religion isn't really effective.
    Religion isn't useful for evaluating anything. Religion is based on revelation (making shit up in your head), not discovery. It's useful for giving people some measure of emotional comfort, that's it.
    "We grow up thinking that beliefs are something to be proud of, but they're really nothing but opinions one refuses to reconsider. Beliefs are easy. The stronger your beliefs are, the less open you are to growth and wisdom, because "strength of belief" is only the intensity with which you resist questioning yourself. As soon as you are proud of a belief, as soon as you think it adds something to who you are, then you've made it a part of your ego."

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    Quote Originally Posted by Jennifer View Post
    Okay. If that's the point, yes, they operate in the same ballpark as far as that standard goes... if the standard of using 2% words in your book that involve "certainty" is indeed a reliable measure of zeal.



    To be honest, this is not really rocket science. I've posted that over a period of years, and I've seen others do the same. A zealot is a zealot is a zealot. Bias is bias.



    It's not really that unheard-of a proposition.
    Reasonable people already know it; unreasonable people will probably never accept it.

    The main difference for me between science and religion is falsifiability. Even if both sides can be comprised of zealots, the bottom line is that the scientific method is based on refinement and correction of ideas however zealous, while religion is based on values appealed to by faith. So when it comes to evaluating claims that fall within the realm of science, religion isn't really effective.

    I also think that some things are not "science" and thus they can't be evaluated through science. (Like when I say, "I love <someone>" and how that influences my choices.) In those areas, other systems are more dominant.
    When it comes to evaluating claims that fall within the purview of spirituality, religion, values, faith and a host of other topics, science isn't really that effective.

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    Quote Originally Posted by DiscoBiscuit View Post
    When it comes to evaluating claims that fall within the purview of spirituality, religion, values, faith and a host of other topics, science isn't really that effective.
    Yes, that was the gist of my last sentence. I think we made a connection here. I feel ... oddly touched.
    "Hey Capa -- We're only stardust." ~ "Sunshine"

    “Pleasure to me is wonder—the unexplored, the unexpected, the thing that is hidden and the changeless thing that lurks behind superficial mutability. To trace the remote in the immediate; the eternal in the ephemeral; the past in the present; the infinite in the finite; these are to me the springs of delight and beauty.” ~ H.P. Lovecraft

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