Sam Harris and the Myth of Perfectly Rational Thought

If we were biased, we’d notice it, right?

In the latest issue of Wired, author Robert Wright expresses his amusement at how Sam Harris characterizes his recent debate with Ezra Klein. Though a more circumspect thinker would at least admit that Klein had zeroed in on a few of his most glaring weaknesses in the discussion, the hilariously self-serving Harris appeared on Joe Rogan’s radio show and crowed about the difference between his approach and Klein’s: he claimed that, while Klein and his ilk are blinded by identity politics, Harris and his disciples maintain a preternaturally rational equanimity. Wright explains:

Not only is Harris capable of transcending tribalism—so is his tribe! Reflecting on his debate with Klein, Harris said that his own followers care “massively about following the logic of a conversation” and probe his arguments for signs of weakness, whereas Klein’s followers have more primitive concerns: “Are you making political points that are massaging the outraged parts of our brains? Do you have your hands on our amygdala and are you pushing the right buttons?”

Of the various things that critics of the New Atheists find annoying about them—and here I speak from personal experience—this ranks near the top: the air of rationalist superiority they often exude. Whereas the great mass of humankind remains mired in pernicious forms of illogical thought—chief among them, of course, religion—people like Sam Harris beckon from above: All of us, if we will just transcend our raw emotions and rank superstitions, can be like him, even if precious few of us are now.

Is Harris just seeing what he wants to see in the mirror? Are we?

The Tribe has Spoken

Wright points out that Harris appears just as prone to intellectual laziness and tribalism as any of the people he criticizes. His rationality wasn’t exactly on full display when he invited “race realist” Charles Murray on his podcast for a cozy chat in which Harris dismissed the criticism of Murray’s shoddy work as a “politically correct moral panic.” What could be more tribal than handwaving away the copious methodological and statistical issues with The Bell Curve as deriving not from completely warranted skepticism but from ideologically-motivated outrage?

Since then, you may have noticed, the phrase “politically correct moral panic” has become Harris’s boilerplate response to controversies ranging from the Evergreen College brouhaha to the allegations of sexual misconduct against Lawrence Krauss. If it doesn’t seem particularly reasonable to frame every matter as a battle between rational agents on one side and hysterical crybabies on the other, it’s even less reasonable to do so while still claiming that one is absolutely above tribalism.

Wright then points out that Harris’s claims, quite apart from their divisiveness, demonstrate only the trappings of rationality itself. He notes that Harris initially made his name in the wake of 9/11 by blaming Islam for terror:

Believing that the root of terrorism is religion requires ruling out other root causes, so Harris set about doing that. In his book he listed such posited causes as “the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza…the collusion of Western powers with corrupt dictatorships…the endemic poverty and lack of economic opportunity that now plague the Arab world.”

Then he dismissed them. He wrote that “we can ignore all of these things—or treat them only to place them safely on the shelf—because the world is filled with poor, uneducated, and exploited peoples who do not commit acts of terrorism, indeed who would never commit terrorism of the sort that has become so commonplace among Muslims.”

If you’re tempted to find this argument persuasive, I recommend that you first take a look at a different instance of the same logic. Suppose I said, “We can ignore the claim that smoking causes lung cancer because the world is full of people who smoke and don’t get lung cancer.” You’d spot the fallacy right away: Maybe smoking causes lung cancer under some circumstances but not others; maybe there are multiple causal factors—all necessary, but none sufficient—that, when they coincide, exert decisive causal force.

Or, to put Harris’s fallacy in a form that he would definitely recognize: Religion can’t be a cause of terrorism, because the world is full of religious people who aren’t terrorists.

Harris isn’t stupid. So when he commits a logical error this glaring—and when he rests a good chunk of his world view on the error—it’s hard to escape the conclusion that something has biased his cognition.

It might not seem like it, but Wright is giving Harris a great deal of credit here. He’s not accusing him of being a mendacious ideologue taking advantage of the credulity and intellectual shortcomings of his audience. He’s accusing Harris of having the same biases he has made a living out of criticizing in others.

The Self Image We Deserve

There’s an old saying: We hate others because we recognize their flaws, while others hate us because they resent our virtues.

If we’re really critical thinkers, we can’t just scrutinize the beliefs of others; we have to be careful that our own thinking isn’t riddled with prejudice and intellectual laziness. The more people spout affirmations like Belief is easy but thinking is hard, the louder my skeptic alarm rings. Are we focusing on other people’s fallacious reasoning so we don’t have to admit the problems with our own mindset? Do we live up to our motto Question Everything if we never question the things we believe about knowledge, science, and society?

It could be that we’ve just traded religious faith for bad faith, and that’s not much of an improvement.

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  • Anne Fenwick

    Harris’s argument reminds me of that of our local Christian People’s Alliance (a political party in the UK). During the recent local elections, in an area which is about 40% Christian, their campaign literature assured us that their party promoted Christian values and that ‘Christian values work for everyone’!!!*

    * They got 3% of the vote.

  • I’d never deny that there’s a religious aspect to the way young men are radicalized in the Middle East, or that religion is still a powerful identity marker. But the notion that we can just ignore geopolitics and economic issues when dealing with terrorism is just too convenient for Harris and his two-dimensional Islamophobia.

    They got 3% of the vote.

    HAH-ha!

  • Raging Bee

    Yeah, we’d still need the geopolitical and economic factors to explain why some Muslim countries or communities are hotbeds of extremist violence and others aren’t.

  • chemical

    I re-read the Klein-Harris transcript on Vox and one thing that I noticed that really stood out in light of all this. Klein called Harris an anti-anti-racist, and that really clicked with me. One thing I liked about Harris is his willingness to examine an idea regardless of its popularity. So he invites this racist clown Murray on his show, because leftists attacked and de-platformed Murray because he’s a racist clown, and Harris didn’t like that. But Harris just wanted to discuss facts! Harris also contradicted himself when he said that he wasn’t interested in IQ differences between races to Klein, but he also had Murray on the show, who’s made his entire career about discussing differences in IQ between races.

    I think here, with this whole Harris-Klein-Murray kerfuffle, Harris is trying to avoid a political label. He doesn’t want his “rationality” tainted by politics, and as such put himself into this anti-anti-racist camp. So he entertains some remarkably bad ideas by the usual right-wing crazies, just so he can call himself a moderate.

  • I agree. Harris has always used the camouflage of rationalism and objectivity to cover up basically right wing attitudes. Initially he defended himself against charges of Islamophobia by making it seem like his old school fear-the-brown-people rhetoric constituted the only honest acknowledgment of the link between Islam and terrorism that didn’t come from right wing nutjobs. Then he made it seem like his anti-PC rants were the only acknowledgment of the dangers of the “regressive left” that didn’t come from right wing nutjobs. Then (as you say) he made it seem like he was justified in having a meet-cute with Charles Murray because his podcast was the only place where people acknowledged and discussed the evidence of racial differences apart from com-boxes full of right wing nutjobs.

    I see a pattern forming: Harris makes claims that are basically indistinguishable from those of alt-right bigots, but he claims that they’re based on evidence and parsimony rather than prejudice. And I don’t think I’m the only one who smells bullshít.

  • Hey, Shem, interesting and, more impoprtantly, fair post. I agree to a degree. Harris IS strident and arrogant, so much so that I doubt his objectivity sometimes, but he isn’t nearly as entertaining as Hitchens was (although he had the same issues Harris has). I know you post-modernist guys are skeptical of “evidence,” but I think — for Harris and all of us — it’s the one useful tool to identify what is logical or rational or not. In other words, the best tool for being objective and interpreting life objectively while we try (usually failing) to quiet our instinctive and tribal impulses. Easier said than done, of course. But with a subject such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, simple attention to facts on the ground tells you there’s a lot more than religion driving the animosity (although centuries of Christian-Muslim warfare and mistrust means religion is never far away and is a fundamental part of it). And, to my mind, religion turbo charges all the already bad vibes. Anyway, nice job and nicely crafted in good faith. Cheers.

  • Stephen

    wow, just fkn wow. Are you trolling or just so far from reality you think you are actaully saying something based in reality.
    You and your cronies really have some wierd issues with haris.
    Seems the typical way for wanna be intellectuals to get there feeble brain drpppings into the social ether these days.

  • Thanks for the props, Rick!

    Harris’s arrogance is one thing, but what’s worse about him is what this article shows: the way he frames every matter as a choice between his rigorously thought-out and evidence-based opinion and the totally emotional, uninformed, or faith-based opinion of his opponents. Harris would be the first person to say that his support for Israel, hatred of political correctness, and his openness to the idea of racial differences in IQ are based on evidence; from my point of view, he’s just rationalizing beliefs he didn’t initially arrive at through totally objective reasoning. If both Sam Harris and I say we justify our beliefs through assessing evidence, how is it we can disagree on just about everything apart from the existence of The Big G?

    In this millennium, evidence has become basically an axiomatic expression that can mean whatever we want it to mean. I always say, “Evidence is whatever supports what I believe; if it supports what you believe, it’s not evidence.” In the circumscribed context of a jury trial or a scientific experiment, sure, we can define evidence and judge its adequacy. But in our opinions about politics, history, philosophy, and morality, evidence isn’t quite as easy to define; there’s such a profusion of data points to bring to bear on these matters that how we define, interpret, emphasize and assemble the facts into a coherent narrative is just as important as the facts themselves. I’m just as skeptical when I hear someone say he or she “follows the evidence where it leads” as I am when a believer tells me he or she “obeys God’s will.” The truth is that we don’t follow the evidence, we lead it wherever we want it to go.

    Thanks for posting. I’m glad to see that your blog is going gangbusters and you’ve got a loyal following already. I was jealous to see that Philosophy Matters shared your Bruno article. Congratulations!

  • Hey again, Shem! You are such a generous guy with your time and support of others. I really respect that. And you’re crystal clear, which can be a rare quality to find these days. Regarding “evidence,” you appear far more demanding than I am. I look for whatever objective facts are available and then suss out the most likely probability. If there are no incontrovertible facts available, I generally dismiss out of hand, as with all religions fundamentally based on chimera. As I’ve said before, I don’t cotton to thinking at all about patently unbelievable things, much less overthinking them. But I totally agree with you that we rationalize our preconceived opinions to death and ignore actual facts and what they may mean in the process. The trick is to quiet our intuitions when assessing facts and divining their meaning. Thanks for the kudos on my post. I’m enjoying the adventure. And thanks for letting me know about the the Philosophy Matters share. Had no idea. How did you find that out? Cheers, as always, Shem. Rock ‘n’ roll.

  • Dave Kinsella

    I have to admit, a lot of the atheist blogs on Patheos are just badly thought out rants against Christianity, but this was actually a good article. Food for thought.

  • tophilacticus

    Often Harris will lament that an overwhelming majority of his followers are men, then follow this statement with some variation of the shoulder-shrugging phrase “I don’t know why.” It seems clear he has spent little time looking beyond his perspective, and holding on to the rationality/objectivity lacks emotion. Instead this appears, I am speculating, that pushing down emotion is the visual/surficial equivalent of objectivity. As we discussed earlier, I am much more inclined to ascribe to Gould’s statement on objectivity, where people face and examine their biases rather than hand wave them away.

    p.s. Harris also owns, perhaps. the hypocritical tweet of the year (and that is something as this takes into account the Tweeter-in-Chief). On May 10 (in response to another feud he was having) he tweeted: “I don’t think I will ever understand this impulse to double down (and double down again) on an error. Apologizing to people for having misrepresented them is not that hard–even if you don’t like them. And it’s the only way to remain honest.”

    In one breath he will criticize his opponents as hysterical, political, and irrational, then, sometimes in that same breath, use political slogans to describe them. He, like Peterson, seems to be banking on saying something/doing something they know will provoke other groups to social media rage, then hold them up as the strawman poster child of tribalism/Marxism. That is pretty dishonest. Its pretty clear in his conversations with geneticists, he knows little about that field. It is ironic that Charles Murray and The Bell Curve has become Sam’s cross to bear. He just cant help himself with that.

  • tophilacticus

    I would say I am skeptical that there is one perspective to view evidence. I am not sure if this is the post-modernist stance you mean. I don’t doubt the evidence, I doubt the meaning and the conclusions drawn from it. Evidence, as well as “objectivity,” are being used in a very specific way as Shem discussed. Ironically it often is used as an appeal to authority (like God says_____) to bludgeon any opposition and dismiss/redirect “the conversation.” I can’t believe I just used a Samism. He also is not well versed in some subjects that he is hanging his hat on as an authority: specifically The Bell Curve and Charles Murray. He often will talk about the science of the book (the book may have some studies in it, but it is much more a work of political thought than anything). In his podcast with Siddhartha Mukherjee, physician and author of The Emperor of All Maladies, as the guest, he brought up Murray and race and intelligence in genetics and it became pretty clear Harris was out of his depth. Perhaps this was his reliance upon determinism and no free will that limits his grasp – as Mukherjee brought up epigenetics, a concept which seemed to frustrate Harris.

    Religion is part of the problem in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but the situation has not always been quite this way. Forced relocation is another significant factor that cannot be ignored. There is a similar dynamic with an intense history in the Balkans, where religion and forced relocations (and much worse) are involved too.

  • Jim Jones

    > a lot of the atheist blogs on Patheos are just badly thought out rants against Christianity

    And I’m a fairy who will grant you three wishes.

    Hmmm! Apparently saying something doesn’t make it so.

  • safetynet2razorwire

    Not defending how Harris has shaped his brand. Like most those known for their unconventional views and values controversy is his lifting wind. Which is quite effective at lifting his career kite. It does, however, translate mainly to ‘preaching to the choir’ – at the price of alienating those who find their acceptance of their birth-religion’s worldview … unenthusiastic … uninspired. Sam Harris seems to me a more suit-savvy ‘Mr. Collins (of Pride & Prejudice ‘fame’) – managing to make doctrine-free atheism sound pedantic – and therefore dogmatic. Sam Harris seems to be all edges – from his choice of costume to his speaking style to his views themselves. Contrast Harris with the other surviving member of atheism’s trinity of magi – Richard Dawkins. While Dawkins has immortalised in print on, by now, circa 4 million book-covers the phrase (blasphemous to everyone devoted to a monotheist faith) “The God Delusion” – his good humour has worked magic in ‘humanising’ (ironic this be needed) secular humanism.
    If anyone would, it seems, own the hatred of monotheists it should be Dawkins. But it is Harris who receives the deepest disdain. Dislike greases the slope leading to hatred – and Harris has the ability to rub even those on the same page the wrong way.

    That said? Shem’s attempt to dismiss Harris’ assessment of the relationship between the fundamentals of Islam and Muslim perpetrated violence is far more effectively used as a comparison in support of his position.“We can ignore the claim that smoking causes lung cancer because the world is full of people who smoke and don’t get lung cancer.” Sam Harris’ assertion that when we’re told to ‘ignore the claim that submission to Islam causes terrorist acts – because of all sorts of other conditions’ we should respond “in a pig’s eye” has a better analogous relationship with that ‘lung cancer’ comparison. In 2016 89% of all global terrorism-caused deaths resulted from Islam inspired acts.

    The defense of Islam from culpability usually reads like this: “These appalling acts are committed out of a warped idea of what Islam proselytises” – “This is not promoted by nor even acceptable to ‘real’ Islam”. Which requires near complete failure to study Islamic theology. Such study shows that Salafi Sunni Islam is, as it claims, Islam as per the properly abrogated Quran. Islam’s apologists cite portions of the Quran that ceased to be ‘salaf’ during Mohammed’s lifetime – superseded by subsequent declarations of the ultimate will of Allah. Unlike most ancient scriptural texts the Quran’s decrees regarding what is right or wrong change over the course of the Quran’s writing. Earlier expressions of the ultimate will of Allah are replaced be each succeeding expression. (Just as a later ‘Last Will & Testament’ negates any earlier ones.) That’s what ‘abrogation’ means. Complicating abrogation is the fact that the Sura are not presented in chronological order. More than a millennium of qur’anic scholarship gives us Islam’s clerical consensus on what the actual ‘last declared will of Allah’ is. One suggestion? When you’ve reduced the Quran to the bits that abrogation distills it down to – enter as many phrases as possible into Google Translate to learn a little about how the English translation comes off as compared to the Arabic original. I know I found it eye-opening. What I saw after that winter’s efforts confirmed that when it comes to the most ‘true to the Quran’ modern expression of Islam is, unsurprisingly, Wahhabism (Saudi Arabia’s state version) – and its global clones called ‘Salafi’. Wahhabi/Salafi hold that any deviation from the expression of Islam as it was in the days of The Prophet and his Companions is infidel. Their most widespread expression is spread by ‘The Muslim Brotherhood’ – with its most recent and well-known expression being ISIL ‘the new caliphate’.These two (Saudi Arabia and ISIL) expressions of 7th century Islam both and each offer a clear understanding of the nature of Jihad. Confirms that while, yes it can use non-violent means, it grants sanctification of any sort of violence against ‘infidels’ and especially ‘apostates’.

    So. While Sam Harris (the messenger) may invite personal dislike? The simple fact that 9 out of 10 terrorist acts committed against the global community over the past several generations have their origins in fundamentalist Islam. In other words that ‘messengers’ message is itself the clear unvarnished truth.

  • Dave Kinsella

    You have illustrated my point wonderfully.

  • Jim Jones

    No pretty sure YOU covered it.

  • Raging Bee

    I’ll take that dig seriously when you show us a better-thought-out critique of our “rants against Christianity.”

  • Raging Bee

    We eagerly await your actual refutation of our criticisms of Harris.

  • Raging Bee

    Not defending how Harris has shaped his brand.

    To respond with your own words: “In a pig’s eye.”

    Oh, and while you and Harris’ other fanboys are screaming about Muslim terrorism, it should be pointed out that, in America at least, more people are murdered by white right-wingers than by Muslim terrorists. And the white right-wingers are becoming more prominent and more powerful. So as an American, I have a serious problem with your stupid-assed attempts to divert attention away from my own country’s real problems.

  • Dave Kinsella

    Sam Harris has some decent arguments. Dennet. Shermer. Others also. Then there are the less direct critiques by researchers, scientists, philosophers and authors such as Leon Festinger, Noah Harari Yuval, Robert Cialdini, Stanley Milgram and others. While many of them are not attacking Christianity out of a sense of outrage, they are engaged in serious thought about the human condition, which very often shows the absurdities and fuzzy thinking of religious people. At the same time they sometimes show the advantages, strengths and pluses of religion in the world.

  • Raging Bee

    “Some decent arguments” do not outweigh or justify the unjustifiable horseshit he’s been spouting for years.

    At the same time they sometimes show the advantages, strengths and pluses of religion in the world.

    Yeah, the operative word here is “sometimes.” Enough pluses to outweigh the minuses?

  • Dave Kinsella

    I disagree on the amount of shit Sam Harris has contributed to the discussion over the years. As a Fundamentalist I deeply loathed him. Now I see that he was right on so much all along. At the same time I think he too harshly criticizes and downplays the place and positive role of religion in our world.

  • I appreciate you so much for your willingness to engage these issues.

  • Shem is good reading. I followed him to Patheos.

  • After 9/11, Harris appealed to a lot of us who felt besieged by Islamist terrorism on one side and the patriotic Western neoliberal shakedown on the other. Religion seemed as good a target as any, something with which we could externalize the enemy and tell ourselves we were doing something constructive for civilization by insulting strangers online.

    A decade and a half later, the simplistic sloganeering of the Four Horsemen should embarrass anyone who initially fell for it. Though the village atheists are still around, many of us nonbelievers realize that our most intractable problems —racism, income inequality, global warming, the corporate takeover of our legislative processes— have little to do with religion. On the other hand, when religion is still regularly invoked to justify discrimination and oppression, it’s impossible to subscribe wholeheartedly to the idea that it plays a positive role in our society.

  • Dave Kinsella

    What’s funny is that Christians were saying that to the angry atheists 10 years ago but they wouldn’t listen. While I am no longer a Christian (because much of what Harris teaches is true) I still hold to the fact that religion has been, can be, and continues to be (but not always) a force for good. The real problem and the real solititon is the same: humanity.

  • Chuck Johnson

    Dave, your superstition is showing.

  • Chuck Johnson

    Harris believes his own malarkey.
    Religionists believe their own malarkey.
    We need better thinking that what these politically-motivated fools have to offer.

  • Dave Kinsella

    Superstition in what exactly? That religion has been, and conintues to be, a force of good in the world? Sorry, but that’s a matter of cold hard historical fact. Of course I do not deny that it is also a force of evil. My contention is that the real problem is not religion. The real problem is humanity.

  • Chuck Johnson

    That’s a more balanced sentiment.
    Humanity is more than just the real problem.
    It’s also the real promise.

  • Dave Kinsella

    I pretty much said the same thing in both comments. What is it that you were calling superstition the first time?

  • Chuck Johnson

    Your bias against the “rants” of atheist blogs.
    Such complaints (rants) are on a solid foundation.

  • Dave Kinsella

    Maybe it’s just the nature of blogging, but I find many of them poorly thought out. I find many of them vindictive and angry. I’m not saying I’m above those emotions, but I don’t find them particularly helpful.

  • safetynet2razorwire

    Perhaps less ‘raging’ and more reading is in order, ‘Bee’ (Summer School?)
    (If yours is an attentions span issue my apologies.)

    If you had informed yourself even minimally you’d know just how ridiculous your blurt is (and makes you seem). Nothing. Absolutely nothing in my 5750 comments (okay, okay ‘essays’) would remotely suggest I’m a ‘fan’ of Harris and 2) that I make “attempts to divert attention” from American asshattery. My easily accessible online archive (just push the icon at upper left) shows a near 20 to 1 ratio of condemnations of your condemnation-worthy nation. I agree that your country has ‘real problems’ – and I’ll go you one better and assert that they are now terminal.

    As a citizen of the greater world I’ve nary a concern in re your embarrassed American ‘feels’. But that doesn’t mean I don’t want to be kind to you – so I offer these pointers. Learn to research. Learn to read. Try Summer School.:)

  • Raging Bee

    Oh dear, should I have included a trigger warning for your benefit?

  • safetynet2razorwire

    Dear me, no. But perhaps everything should include one for yours?:)

  • Chuck Johnson

    So many of those blogs are by atheists who were formerly Christians.
    The anger that they show is typically caused by a feeling of betrayal.

    This is the twenty-first century.
    In order to promote the outlandish supernatural stories that have been handed down to us over thousands of years, much dishonesty and much gullibility are required.

    The angry bloggers are reacting to the deceit in Christian teachings and their own gullibility.

    I myself have never believed the supernatural part of the Christian teachings.

  • gravytopTOO

    “more people are murdered by white right-wingers than by Muslim terrorists.”

    This fact is irrelevant unless one knows the absolute numbers in the United States of 1) right-wingers, and 2) muslims.

    I would guess there are at least 40 million right wingers (although if you have better numbers, I’m happy to hear them,) but fewer than 4 million Muslims. For that reason, to simply compare the number of terrorist incidents…

    Fcuk it, there’s no point in arguing with an ideologue who doesn’t understand numbers and stuff.