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%.)