A momentary lapse of reason?

I’ve been following with great interest Sam Harris’s extended exchanges with his critics. First it was Daniel Dennet, who wrote a lengthy and scathing critique of Harris’s book Free Will, calling it a “veritable museum of mistakes.”

I am grateful to Harris for saying, so boldly and clearly, what less outgoing scientists are thinking but keeping to themselves. I have always suspected that many who hold this hard determinist view are making these mistakes, but we mustn’t put words in people’s mouths, and now Harris has done us a great service by articulating the points explicitly, and the chorus of approval he has received from scientists goes a long way to confirming that they have been making these mistakes all along.  Wolfgang Pauli’s famous dismissal of another physicist’s work as “not even wrong” reminds us of the value of crystallizing an ambient cloud of hunches into something that can be shown to be wrong.  Correcting widespread misunderstanding is usually the work of many hands, and Harris has made a significant contribution.

Not to be outdone, Harris wrote his own blistering critique of Dennett’s piece, during which he lamented the sad state of intellectual discourse:

In recent years, I have spent so much time debating scientists, philosophers, and other scholars that I’ve begun to doubt whether any smart person retains the ability to change his mind. This is one of the great scandals of intellectual life: The virtues of rational discourse are everywhere espoused, and yet witnessing someone relinquish a cherished opinion in real time is about as common as seeing a supernova explode overhead. The perpetual stalemate one encounters in public debates is annoying because it is so clearly the product of motivated reasoning, self-deception, and other failures of rationality—and yet we’ve grown to expect it on every topic, no matter how intelligent and well-intentioned the participants. I hope you and I don’t give our readers further cause for cynicism on this front.

Unfortunately, your review of my book doesn’t offer many reasons for optimism.

To help demonstrate his own open-mindedness, Harris launched the Moral Landscape Challenge, in which he pledged to pay $10,000 to anyone who submits an essay so logically compelling that it makes him renounce his views on science’s ability to determine morality (which he defines as “the well-being of conscious creatures”).

Now social psychologist Jonathan Haidt (The Righteous Mind)has stepped up to the plate and issued The Righteous Mind Challenge, in which he has offered to pay Sam Harris $10,000 if anyone actually does succeed in changing his mind about morality. Haidt thinks it’s a pretty safe bet Harris won’t change his mind, based in part on Haidt’s own theories about moral psychology as well as a statistical analysis of “certainty” words found in Harris’s books.

Harris issued a sneering response to Haidt’s challenge, in which he scoffed at Haidt’s methodology and then presented an example of his willingness to reconsider his views on important issues, such as America’s use of covert operations. It appears Harris is having a change of heart based upon repeated viewings of Jeremy Scahill’s documentary Dirty Wars. (Cahill’s book had a profound influence on me as well.)

What I find interesting in all of this is how easy it is to fall prey to very thing we are critiquing while we are critiquing it. I offer two quotes from Haidt’s article on Harris as a case in point. Here’s the first quote:

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’ve heard this argument many times before. Science is essentially infallible, because even though an individual scientist can be wrong, we can count on his or her peers to uncover his or her error and get things back on course. It sounds great. The problem is, this system depends on all scientists functioning as dispassionate observers. Peer review is sort of like democracy in this regard. It’s only as good as its citizens.

However, as a moral psychologist, Haidt should be more aware than anyone that scientists are anything but dispassionate observers. They are susceptible to all sorts of temptations–grant money, position, prestige, fear of looking foolish, etc. Furthermore, fear of ridicule and hope of gain can just as easily distort entire systems. Groups are just as susceptible to confirmation bias as individuals. Peers can help hold individuals in check, yes, but what if the entire system is biased in a given direction?

For example, perhaps astrologers have their own peer review system that incentivizes astrologers to disconfirm each others’ ideas. Does that mean astrology is essentially a self-correcting system from which we can expect a reasoned consensus to emerge? Only the stars know…

Haidt goes on to say,

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.

So, right after he affirms his confidence in science as an institution, Haidt expresses his skepticism about the reasoning capacity of other types of institutions, clearly assuming that scientific institutions could never be activist, hyper-partisan or self-righteously seeking to remake society in their image. But given the history of science–which is riddled with activists, hyper-partisans and self-righteous social engineers seeking to conform society to their vision of the good–how could he possibly arrive at such a conclusion?

It seems to me that Haidt merely winds up proving his own point, that “individuals can’t be trusted to reason well when passions come into play.” I agree with him, but I think he places far too much confidence in groups (at least his preferred groups), because groups are just as likely as individuals to have their reasoning capacity clouded by passion.

Furthermore, I think he’s too hard on Harris, whom he accuses of placing too much confidence in his powers of reason to “determine the worth of a thing, the truth of an opinion or the propriety of an action” (to quote Michael Oakeshott, whom Haidt quotes in his article contra Harris). As Haidt admits at the end of his piece, he is relying just as strongly on the same tool in his critique of Harris–right after he reminds us to be reasonable about reason and it’s limitations.

And look at that, I’ve just used the same tool to deconstruct Haidt’s argument. I don’t know where that leaves us, except perhaps to a better understanding of why so many people turned to Pink Floyd–and hallucinogenic drugs–in the 1970s.

About Kevin Miller

Kevin Miller is an award-winning screenwriter, director and producer who has applied his craft to numerous documentaries, feature films and shorts. Recent projects include "The Chicken Manure Incident," "Hellbound?," "Drop Gun," "No Saints for Sinners," "spOILed," "Sex+Money," "With God On Our Side," "Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed" and "After..." In addition to his work in film, Miller has written, co-written and edited over 45 books. He lives in Kimberley, BC, Canada with his wife and four children.