Excellent critique of Sam Harris


I came across this excellent and thoughtful critique of Sam Harris (and in passing the members of the so-called ‘intellectual dark web’ that he belongs to) by someone who identifies himself as T1J. The title of the video is Why I Stopped Idolizing Sam Harris and, as the author explains, “While I don’t hate Sam Harris like some other progressives, he has stopped being the intellectual hero that he once was in my eyes.” The video explains the reasons for that disenchantment. The video is 23 minutes long but is so well done that I did not notice the time passing.

Like T1J, I too liked Harris when I first encountered him but over time I too became very disenchanted by the fact that his coherent atheist beliefs were either overwhelmed by, or being used in the service of, his quite reactionary political views. As T1J perceptively says at the very end:

“A lot of progressives have a very negative view of Sam Harris. I think this is in large part due to his unwillingness or inability to express himself in a concise way, making it very easy for people to interpret his ideas as bigoted or maniacal. I think that when you take the time to carefully process the things he’s said over the years, it becomes obvious that he is not some crazy racist. But you shouldn’t have to analyze multiple podcasts and dozens of hours of videos in order to decide whether or not someone is a bigot. Maybe it’s you, Sam. But even if he isn’t a racist, the vague and loose way he considers things like Islam and race science do more harm than good to the discourse surrounding them by providing pseudo-intellectual ammo to the weapons of actual racists… He’s a guy who seems to be driven entirely by his own personal principles and his own perspective and he seems unconcerned with how his ideas might affect others. He is a person that’s been right so often that I think somewhere down the line he lost the capacity to conceive of the possibility of him being wrong.”

Harris is notorious for reacting angrily to any criticisms, accusing detractors of dishonesty and evil intent (sentiments that are echoed by his numerous followers), something that is enabled by what I have called the ‘Harris two-step’, a style of argumentation that he unfortunately shares with Charles Murray. I have no doubt that T1J will encounter the same hostile reaction and at the very end of his video he seems resigned to it.

Comments

  1. Reginald Selkirk says

    I haven’t watched the video yet because I surf from work. I was never a huge fan of Harris. I think part of his success was that he is good at spelling things out in black and white. That might make for easy entry to a topic, but the world is shades of grey.

    … it becomes obvious that he is not some crazy racist.

    Is it a virtue to be a sane racist? We all have biases, Harris seems unaware of his own and unwilling to admit to any if it.

  2. jrkrideau says

    I had never heard of Sam Harris until I encountered his name on this blog or P.Z.’s. I will ignore the video as I have ignored Harris for, apparently, many years.

  3. deepak shetty says

    I think this is in large part due to his unwillingness or inability to express himself in a concise way, making it very easy for people to interpret his ideas as bigoted or maniacal.

    I dont hate Sam Harris , mild dislike now is more like it, But the above is incorrect. Its not that Harris is not expressing himself in a concise way or that you have to read/listen to a lot of his stuff to form an overall picture(because I have!) but because he
    a) Seems to have biases that he just cant seem to recognise
    b) Some of his articles seem to take the approach of
    b.1 Make a few reasonable statements at the start
    b.2 Spend the rest of the time arguing the exact opposite
    b.3 Claim his opponents did not see b.1 and are instead focusing on b.2 and misrepresenting him.

  4. cartomancer says

    It’s not about concision. Noam Chomsky is famously long-winded, but nobody thinks he’s a bigoted crypto-fascist who flies the flag for US imperialism at every opportunity.

  5. Reginald Selkirk says

    I found time to watch the video.

    I don’t follow Harris regularly, so his name only comes up to me when he is criticized. Similarly, I am unfamiliar with many of the other names mentioned, such as Dave Rubin. I think this is literally the first time I have heard him mentioned.

    I do not look to Harris as a source or authority. About the only instance of that I can recall is a concise discussion of animal morality he wrote in rebuttal to stupid things said by Francis Collins.
    The Strange Case of Francis Collins (2009)

    Some of the criticisms of Harris have indeed been mistaken or dishonest, but this does nothing to rectify the actual mistakes he has made, some of which are central to his arguments. In his defense of torture, for example, he wanted to argue over whether he was actually defending torture, and he was criticized for using a thoroughly unrealistic “ticking time bomb” scenario. But in that instance he made a more basic mistake in his assumption that torture actually works – that it is a valid method for obtaining accurate information. He simply took that as a given. This is a startling thing to see in a critic of religion, since torture-derived confession has been at the heart of every inquisition and witch hunt in history. And since he was wrong about that, the rest of his argument is completely toast.

    I do not tend toward hero worship, which seems to be a good thing, since so often heroes turn out to be flawed.

  6. Daniel Schealler says

    A valid criticism of Sam Harris from someone who is actually demonstrating familiarity of Sam’s actual work?

    Not sure I agree 100% with everything in the critique, I’d quibble that some things are a bit overstated and some are a bit overstated. But on the whole that video is really damn solid.

    It’s like a damn unicorn. Good find.

  7. Daniel Schealler says

    * I’d quibble that some things are a bit overstated and some are a bit understated.

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