Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Sam Harris Takes On The Tall Trees And Gets Tangled In The "Weeds" A Report From The New Dark Age of "Science"

The exchange of e-mails initiated by Sam Harris and, rather obviously, reluctantly entered into by Noam Chomsky was rather revealing of a number of things, none of them to the benefit of Sam Harris.   That Harris was looking to use Chomsky in his self-generated publicity, what his public career largely consists of, is, I think, rather obvious.  That Chomsky clearly realized this was Harris's goal is, I think as obvious.   Here is how the published (Harris was the one who published it) exchange began:

April 26, 2015
From: Sam Harris
To: Noam Chomsky

Noam —

I reached out to you indirectly through Lawrence Krauss and Johann Hari and was planning to leave it at that, but a reader has now sent me a copy of an email exchange in which you were quite dismissive of the prospect of having a “debate” with me. So I just wanted to clarify that, although I think we might disagree substantially about a few things, I am far more interested in exploring these disagreements, and clarifying any misunderstandings, than in having a conventional debate.

If you’d rather not have a public conversation with me, that’s fine. I can only say that we have many, many readers in common who would like to see us attempt to find some common ground. The fact that you have called me “a religious fanatic” who “worships the religion of the state” makes me think that there are a few misconceptions I could clear up. And many readers insist that I am similarly off-the-mark where your views are concerned.

In any case, my offer stands, if you change your mind.


April 26, 2015
From: Noam Chomsky
To: Sam Harris

Perhaps I have some misconceptions about you.  Most of what I’ve read of yours is material that has been sent to me about my alleged views, which is completely false.  I don’t see any point in a public debate about misreadings.  If there are things you’d like to explore privately, fine.  But with sources.

And what ensues is a repeated statement of misreadings by Sam Harris of things Noam Chomsky said, of Harris inventing things for Chomsky to have said, Chomsky's corrections and Harris's continual insistence on not understanding what he's saying.  It goes on and on, clearly Chomsky knows what I have learned about interacting with the Sam Harrises of the world, that their goal is to get the last word in, figuring that means they win.  I think the entire thing was initiated by Harris in the misguided belief that he could raise his stature by getting Chomsky to talk to him*. 

The exchange, which really has to be read to be believed, reveals what any long term reader of Harris should have already known.   He's an intellectual lite-weight, dishonest and, unsurprisingly, given those, base in his motives and goals. 

Chomsky, wise and clearly familiar with the Harris style of discourse,  included the condition that any exchange they had would be "with sources".  And Harris included a chapter from his "End of Faith" (it is too long to include here but you can read it at the link) which, as Chomsky was able to show, misrepresented him through dishonest characterization, distortion and, what I have found most typical of this kind of discourse, misrepresenting more complex ideas through dishonest simplification and classification.   Chomsky is able to refute what Harris said, which should have been the end of the exchange:

April 26, 2015
From: Noam Chomsky
To: Sam Harris

The example that you cite illustrates very well why I do not see any point in a public discussion.

Here’s the passage to which you refer:

Or take the destruction of the Al-Shifa pharmaceutical plant in Sudan, one little footnote in the record of state terror, quickly forgotten. What would the reaction have been if the bin Laden network had blown up half the pharmaceutical supplies in the U.S. and the facilities for replenishing them? We can imagine, though the comparison is unfair, the consequences are vastly more severe in Sudan. That aside, if the U.S. or Israel or England were to be the target of such an atrocity, what would the reaction be? In this case we say, “Oh, well, too bad, minor mistake, let’s go on to the next topic, let the victims rot.” Other people in the world don’t react like that. When bin Laden brings up that bombing, he strikes a resonant chord, even among those who despise and fear him; and the same, unfortunately, is true of much of the rest of his rhetoric.

Though it is merely a footnote, the Sudan case is nonetheless highly instructive. One interesting aspect is the reaction when someone dares to mention it. I have in the past, and did so again in response to queries from journalists shortly after 9-11 atrocities. I mentioned that the toll of the “horrendous crime” of 9-11, committed with “wickedness and awesome cruelty” (quoting Robert Fisk), may be comparable to the consequences of Clinton’s bombing of the Al-Shifa plant in August 1998. That plausible conclusion elicited an extraordinary reaction, filling many web sites and journals with feverish and fanciful condemnations, which I’ll ignore. The only important aspect is that single sentence—which, on a closer look, appears to be an understatement—was regarded by some commentators as utterly scandalous. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that at some deep level, however they may deny it to themselves, they regard our crimes against the weak to be as normal as the air we breathe. Our crimes, for which we are responsible: as taxpayers, for failing to provide massive reparations, for granting refuge and immunity to the perpetrators, and for allowing the terrible facts to be sunk deep in the memory hole. All of this is of great significance, as it has been in the past.

It goes on to review the only evidence available—we do not investigate our crimes, indeed bar investigation of them—which is from quite credible sources, estimating that casualties might well have been in the tens of thousands.

Your response is interesting both for what it does not say and what it does say.  What it does not do is answer the question raised: “What would the reaction have been if the bin Laden network had blown up half the pharmaceutical supplies in the U.S. and the facilities for replenishing them? We can imagine, though the comparison is unfair, the consequences are vastly more severe in Sudan. That aside, if the U.S. or Israel or England were to be the target of such an atrocity, what would the reaction be?”

Anyone who cites this passage has the minimal responsibility to give their reactions.  Failure to do so speaks volumes.

Let’s turn to what you did say—a disquisition on “moral equivalence.” You fail to mention, though, that I did not suggest that they were “morally equivalent” and in fact indicated quite the opposite.  I did not describe the Al-Shifa bombing as a “horrendous crime” committed with “wickedness and awesome cruelty.” Rather, I pointed out that the toll might be comparable, which turns out on inquiry (which is not undertaken here, and which apologists for our crimes ignore), turns out to be, quite likely, a serious understatement.

You also ignored the fact that I had already responded to your claim about lack of intention—which, frankly, I find quite shocking on elementary moral grounds, as I suspect you would too if you were to respond to the question raised at the beginning of my quoted comment.  Hence it is simply false to assert that your “basic question” is one that “Chomsky seems to have neglected to ask himself.” Quite the contrary, I asked myself right away, and responded, appropriately I believe, to your subsequent charges.  The following is from Radical Priorities, 2003.

Most commentary on the Sudan bombing keeps to the question of whether the plant was believed to produce chemical weapons; true or false, that has no bearing on “the magnitude with which the aggression interfered with key values in the society attacked,” such as survival. Others point out that the killings were unintended, as are many of the atrocities we rightly denounce. In this case, we can hardly doubt that the likely human consequences were understood by US planners. The acts can be excused, then, only on the Hegelian assumption that Africans are “mere things,” whose lives have “no value,” an attitude that accords with practice in ways that are not overlooked among the victims, who may draw their own conclusions about the “moral orthodoxy of the West.”

Perhaps you can reciprocate by referring me to what I have written citing your published views.  If there is anything I’ve written that is remotely as erroneous as this—putting aside moral judgments—I’ll be happy to correct it.

In his response to that Harris proves my point about his mode of thinking by starting by complaining, in effect, that what Chomsky said is too detailed for him to make into a facile squib useful for his purpose.  No doubt Harris is aware of the level of thinking among his readers, of the kind who seem to spend most of their time spreading his style of hate-talk discourse on comment threads.  

April 27, 2015
From: Sam Harris
To: Noam Chomsky

Noam —

We appear to be running into the weeds here. Let me just make two observations, before I recommend a fresh start:.... 

I think an accurate translation of "running into the weeds" would be the all too familiar first semester Freshman whine, "But that's haaarrrrrd!"  though older folks on internet comment threads often say "word salad" instead.   The insistence on brevity due to a widespread lack of attention span would seem to be taken as a valid intellectual practice among lots of people with college and graduate degrees these days, even when the issues under consideration can't be honestly reduced to suit their phony debate rule. 

I do recommend you go through the entire exchange and you might want to look at some of the comment threads in the many places where this exchange has been copied from Harris's website.  Harris wrung a clearly reluctant permission to publish it from Chomsky, clearly believing that by publishing it he was demonstrating that he was on the same intellectual level as Chomsky when the substance of what was said by both proves that intellectually, he's still in training pants.  

Which adds weight to my conclusion that what we see in this kind of thing, especially the pretensions of the neo-atheism that Harris did so much to incite, a new dark age which, despite whatever you might believe, is actually conducted at a far, far lower level of intellectual practice than medieval discourse, being sciency and media savvy taking the place of logical rigor and familiarity with the contents of what is under discussion.  There are lots and lots of people who maintain that Harris won the argument, a lot of them citing Chomsky's detailed seriousness, articulate mastery of detail and completeness in their declaration, he loses. 


In a footnote to that chapter of his major opus, Harris says:

 47, Are intentions really the bottom line? What are we to say, for instance, about those Christian missionaries in the New World who baptized Indian infants only to promptly kill them, thereby sending them to heaven? Their intentions were (apparently) good. Were their actions ethical? Yes, within the confines of a deplorably limited worldview. The medieval apothecary who gave his patients quicksilver really was trying to help. He was just mistaken about the role this element played in the human body. Intentions matter, but they are not all that matters.

I would like a citation of where that bit of atheist lore comes from because I looked for more than an hour this morning and I can't find it.   I doubt it ever happened, it would have 1. been entirely a violation of the teachings of Jesus, of his apostles, of the entire prophetic traditions and the teachings of the Catholic church and every other Christian church I've ever heard of, 2. if true, far more certainly and commonly documented than I'm finding it is.  No opportunity to reveal the sins of Christianity would go so unsourced as this one would seem to be.   What did Harris base his claim on?  

*  A similar tactic to the one H. Allen Orr noted Daniel Dennett was rather frustrated to not have been able to take when Stephen J. Gould and others ignored his provocative statements. 


  1. There is a controversy now about the canonization of an American saint by Pope Francis, which he is due to finalize when he comes to America. Critics say the soon-to-be saint was a slave master and abused the natives, and doesn't deserve sainthood.

    I know nothing of the case, having never heard of the man, who founded several missions in California. I do know the Catholic church was an arm of the Spanish king, and was anything but Christian and docile in dealing with the natives here. OTOH, an historian interviewed on BBC said both critics and supporters of the canonization were cherry-picking facts to support their positions.

    Same as it ever was.

    But it came to mind when I read Harris' charge that Christians baptized babies, and then immediately dispatched them. I put that down with my Baptist friend's sincere belief the priest impregnated the nuns, and buried the aborted fetuses on the grounds of the convents. Balderdash and lies, in other words.

    The exchange at the Salon site has been almost comical. It made me look up some of what I'd posted about Harris, and the best of what I had was reviews of his books (which I've never bothered to read, life is too short to waste it on fools). The reviews were far more intelligent than anything raised by any of the Harris fanboys at Salon, who retreated into "oh, yeah?" and "Prove it!", the sandbox taunts of children that pass for logic in most comment sections.

    For people who profess to be "logical" and "rational" and, therefore, completely anti-religious (the three go hand in hand, especially with the "New Atheist" fanboys who love them some Harris, et al.), they really aren't capable of the hard work of reasoning. Chomsky is a supremely rational thinker (too much so for some of his positions, frankly). As one commenter at Salon said, Chomsky gutted Harris like a fish. Yet neither Harris nor his supporters had the intelligence (or reasoning ability) to realize what had happened.

    Reasoning really is supremely difficult. It's almost amusing how few people are capable of it, yet think themselves more rational than thou. Small wonder Harris has such a following among them.

  2. I don't like to engage in this kind of argument, but PEN has given an award to "Charlie Hebdo" for their "courage." Salon published in article making reference to a speech Garry Trudeau gave on the matter (I need to look up the original) and I agreed with Trudeau that "Charlie Hebdo" wasn't really to be honored because of their martyrdom, that it didn't elevate what they did, which Trudeau described as "punching down" rather than up.

    The connection is that PEN also gave Harris an award for his first book, "The End of Faith." He was praised as the time (not necessarily by PEN) for his "courage."

    It's a very warped idea of courage that's being bandied about; seems to be all about a very particular class of people. Same as it ever was, I suppose....

  3. I don't have a whole lot of respect for PEN or the scribbling profession, with some notable and honorable exceptions. I will look into it, it sounds worth looking into.