A losing lottery ticket

Oh, man, bad idea. Really bad idea.

Sam Harris has issued a challenge. Shades of the Randi challenge, right? Only Harris’s is rather different.

It has been nearly three years since The Moral Landscape was first published in English, and in that time it has been attacked by readers and nonreaders alike. Many seem to have judged from the resulting cacophony that the book’s central thesis was easily refuted. However, I have yet to encounter a substantial criticism that I feel was not adequately answered in the book itself (and in subsequent talks).

So I would like to issue a public challenge. Anyone who believes that my case for a scientific understanding of morality is mistaken is invited to prove it in 1,000 words or less. (You must refute the central argument of the book—not peripheral issues.) The best response will be published on this website, and its author will receive $1000. If any essay actually persuades me, however, its author will receive $10,000, and I will publicly recant my view.

What a display of vanity.

He’s so clever and so right that he’ll give you TEN THOUSAND DOLLARS if you can persuade him he’s not right. He might as well have made it a billion.

I sent Patricia Churchland a Facebook DM suggesting she collect an easy ten grand. I don’t suppose she’ll bother, though.

Update: it’s now $2000 for the best response and $20,000 for the potential persuader, because a “generous reader” (aka besotted fan) matched his prize.


  1. Al says

    Given Harris’ past behaviour of ignoring his critics’ arguments in debates, this is an utterly pointless exercise. This is nothing more than an attempt to increase sales of the book.

  2. Anne Marie says

    Excellent, now he has even more incentive to never, ever change his mind! Brilliant plan! He definitely understands psychology well!

  3. says

    Given that the judging is done solely by the issuer of the challenge, with no apparent objective standards, I think the proper comparison is not to Randi, but to Ray Comfort.

    The whole beautiful thing about the Randi challenge is that it starts with a clear description of what the applicant thinks he can do, along with a long discussion of the method of testing and objective criteria for success, which the applicant must sign off on before the testing is even started. That’s what makes it a valid test.

  4. Bjarte Foshaug says

    If any essay actually persuades me, however, its author will receive $10,000, and I will publicly recant my view.

    That’s it? No pre-determined criteria for what counts as a refutation, only that he, himself, has to accept it in retrospect? What a “challenge”…

  5. thephilosophicalprimate says

    This does not surprise me. Harris has a REAL problem even contemplating the very idea that perhaps he might have made a wee bit of a mistake. He said flat-out stupid things about torture, then doubled down when criticized. He said ill-informed and foolish things about ethical theory, and this is something like the twelfth time he’s doubled down without showing the slightest hint that he’s taken any objections seriously. He’s a self-important, self-promoting jackass whose intellectual merit has been overestimated by many people right from the start, but by no one more than himself.

    Now let me tell you what I *really* think…

  6. eigenperson says

    Wow, that is incredibly stupid. Offering a prize for the best essay arguing against your view is fine. But offering a prize if someone can convince you you’re wrong, with no objective criteria for when you will admit you were wrong, is the sort of dishonesty I expect from creationists and global warming deniers.

  7. says

    ‘Kay, but isn’t ‘losing lottery ticket’ pretty much redundant? Or at least redundant something like 10^12-1 out of 10^12 times?

    (/Figure you heard it coming, but anyway… And come to think of it, this may be one of the very few wagers that makes the lottery look pretty good by comparison.)

  8. says

    I offer another challange:
    I make the best Spaghetti Bolognese.
    I bet one trizillion bugs* that you can’t cook better Spaghetti Bolognese. I will judge your attempts fairly.
    I will also eat free Spaghetti Bolognese for the rest of my life.

    *spelled correctly

  9. screechymonkey says

    That’s it? No pre-determined criteria for what counts as a refutation, only that he, himself, has to accept it in retrospect?

    Doesn’t Harris still think he “won” his exchange with Bruce Schneier about airport security? That fills me with confidence in his ability to admit when he’s been refuted….

  10. says

    Can I get a $20 Amazon voucher if I just send him a facebook message saying I couldn’t give a rat’s arse about even reading Landscape because his ridiculous bollocking-on about racial profiling (aka “It’s totes okay because 1) Muzzies’re totes gonna be bombers more than anyone else 2) srsly they DO pretty much all look like Arabs – the crazy ones anyway 3) they could totes profile me, too, because I look Semitic you guys and I’d be totes fine with it because Security!”) – among other things – made me averse to reading anything else he wrote? There’s a Robert Crumb book I want.

  11. says

    For the record, I never read anything of Sam Harris. My comment was based entirely on the merits of the challenge itself.

    Every time I’ve heard Sam Harris and his writings mentioned, I’ve gotten the impression that they’re very tedious. That may be unfair, but I honestly can’t be bothered to find out. My reading list is already so long that I’m not likely to get through it in one life time, so I’m a bit careful about what I add to it.

  12. says

    Doesn’t Kent Hovind have a $10,000 challenge for anyone to prove (read: convince him of) evolution (read: his specific, wrong take on evolution)?

  13. Dave Ricks says

    Sam Harris will take submissions by email February 2-9, 2014.  But I wonder, will he post all the submissions for the public to read, and post a response to each submission?  That would be beneficial to the public, to see a debate.  But Harris’s blog doesn’t allow comments, so I expect him to filter any discussion by his perception of the discussion.  His challenge is not a debate; it’s not for the benefit of the public.

    And from his essay contest rules:

    For any Canadian selected entrant(s), before being declared a winner of a prize, he/she will be required to correctly answer a time limited mathematical skill testing question without mechanical or other aid (failing which the selected entrant(s) will not be eligible to win a prize.)

    In that case, would he show the public the essay, and the math question that disqualified it? So the public could judge the essay was good, and Harris was frivolous?

  14. Richard Smith says

    @Dave Ricks (#19), re Canadian entries:

    As a Canadian who hasn’t entered into too many contests, I’ve always been under the impression that the “skill testing question” was only for random draws, in order to satisfy some fiddly rule differentiating lotteries/games of chance from contests of ability, where each category would fall under different governmental guidelines and regulations (at least, outside of Quebec; inside of Quebec, it’s pretty chaotic). So, to prevent a random draw from being considered a lottery, the winning entry had to have the correct answer to the question.

    I would think that any essay contest, where the contents are being judged, would automatically fall under the latter category and would, therefore, not require a further test. Either Harris is unfamiliar with Canadian (aka Quebec/Rest-of-Canada) contest regulations, or I’m not, or he knows what he’s doing and this is an (unintentional?) admission that the winner will actually just be a random selection.

  15. Richard Smith says

    I guess I should have said, “Either Harris is unfamiliar with Canadian…contest regulations, or I am.” Grammar is a harsh mistress.

    (Of course, Grampar wasn’t always the nicest, either…)

  16. says

    I have correctly answered a Canadian skill testing question, they’re ez.

    I believe the “central argument” is sound. Once everyone agrees (and we are a long way from that now), the really hard part begins. Which will require further books.

    My understanding was that Sam just wanted to put the idea (a scientific model of values) on the table for discussion.

  17. Deepak shetty says

    while I liked parts of the book its fairly simple to see that well being isnt the only attribute that humans consider for morality – could we for example kill a depressed suicidal orphan and harvest his organs so that we can save five other people?

  18. Bjarte Foshaug says

    As long as Sam Harris kept himself to criticizing religious faith (and I include belief in contra-causal free will in that category), I thought he had some useful things to say. I found The End if Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation both articulate and to the point, and while the former had some troubling aspects, I appreciated the way it focused on the specific dangers of specific religious doctrines.

    That said, he really does seem the embodiment of the Dunning Kruger Effect when talking about topics outside his field of expertise. One thing Bruce Schneider said during the profiling debate that stuck with me was that “security engineering requires something more than intuition”. It think that hits the nail on the head. Harris really does seem to go with whatever makes intuitive sense to him a lot of the time and not be overly concerned with whether or not the available research backs up his intuitions. In fact, I’m now starting to worry that the initial halo-effect caused me to overlook some major weaknesses of that exact kind in his first two books as well.

    Ok, so let’s return to The Moral Landscape and its “central thesis” for the zillionth time. In the first chapter of the book (page 28 in my copy) he makes it clear that he is not “merely saying that science can help us get what we want out of life”, but rather that “science can, in principle, help us understand what we should do and should want – and therefore what other people should do and should want in order to live the best lives possible.” At the very beginning of his TED talk he also brings up the idea “that science can help us get what we value, but it can never tell us what we ought to value”, and he calls it an “illusion”. He then goes on to describe the idea “that there is no description of the way the world is that can tell us how the world ought to be” as “quite clearly untrue”.

    From the above it seems quite clear to me that he does indeed argue that science can not just help us act according to our values, but it can also help us arrive at those values to begin with. In the book he spends a lot of ink arguing for the objective truth of the proposition that some behaviors are more conducive to the well-being of conscious beings than others (hardly a sensational claim), and hence morally better. However, the very idea that well-being is worth something (or, for that matter, that something is worth something) is in itself a value-judgement, and hence an example of the very kind of thing that science should help us arrive at in the first place. If that’s not begging the question, then I don’t know what is.

  19. yahweh says

    You guys are so bitter.

    “The depressing truth that Harris never really confronts is that no one really wants to maximize the well-being of everyone. Economies depend on not doing so: cheap labour is the engine that drives various economic miracles and tigers. Lip service is paid to the idea of eradicating poverty, but meanwhile all sorts of visible and occult mechanisms make sure that there will always be plenty of poor people around. Rich countries subsidize their own cotton farmers at the expense of desperately poor African counterparts. Where is the brain reward for the feeling of fairness then? Africans are far away, and easy to ignore, so their immiseration doesn’t interfere with the well-being of prosperous Europeans.”

  20. says

    Update: Harris isn’t judging the essays, Russell Blackford (someone entirely unsympathetic to Harris’s position) is.

    I’m not saying that this means that someone winning is *likely*, but it’s possible. Especially since Harris is required to respond to the essay, and Blackford will judge if Harris’s response is adequate.

    You can also publish your entry yourself too.

  21. says

    I have yet to encounter a substantial criticism that I feel was not adequately answered in the book itself

    OOh, lead with an argument based on ignorance, Sam. That is sooooooo epic.

    Hint: even if you truly were unaware that there are substantial and effective criticisms to your book (some of which were emplaced hundreds of years before you wrote it!) does not mean that your book is correct. It simply means you’ve never studied Hume, Kant, and Rawls – and apparently have read “Bentham for Dummies” …

  22. says

    For the benefit of everyone who may have subscribed to one thread’s comments and not the other, I will repeat this in all: I have explained my agreements and disagreements with both Ophelia and Sam in my analysis of this contest and its aims in What Exactly Is Objective Moral Truth? I don’t think the contest is all that bad an idea. And I am certain Harris’s core thesis is correct. (It’s just that I’m almost as certain he’s not the best man to defend it.) I explain both there.

  23. says

    I’m not too happy about the challenge, because I’d have to read the book to play.

    Like Richard Carrier, I rather believe what I gather is the main thesis. But most of the objections seem to center of the Ought-Is problem, which is supposed to be (apparently) the logical impossibility of deriving an Ought from what Is. I am so shameless as to think logically deriving Ought from what Isn’t is the real fool’s game. Since I’ve found Harris’ thinking on topics like torture and profiling or Islam to be less than impressive, I’ve never been convinced The Moral Landscape was worth my time.


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