The Limits of Discourse
May 18, 2015 8:26 AM   Subscribe

Sam Harris debates Noam Chomsky

Some reactions:
Stop “pretending to have a rational discussion”

Massimo Pigliucci
: a community who worships celebrities who are often intellectual dilettantes, or at the very least have a tendency to talk about things of which they manifestly know very little; an ugly undertone of in-your-face confrontation and I’m-smarter-than-you-because-I-agree-with [insert your favorite New Atheist or equivalent]; loud proclamations about following reason and evidence wherever they may lead, accompanied by a degree of groupthink and unwillingness to change one’s mind that is trumped only by religious fundamentalists; and, lately, a willingness to engage in public shaming and other vicious social networking practices any time someone says something that doesn’t fit our own opinions, all the while of course claiming to protect “free speech” at all costs.
"he only managed to reveal just how out of his league he is on crucial matters on which he fancies himself an informed commentator. "

Anyone who thinks I lost a debate here just doesn’t understand what I was trying to do”.

Fight Fire with Ire
posted by anotherpanacea (153 comments total) 43 users marked this as a favorite
 
Chomsky is one of the most brilliant people in the world. Harris is a hack. I loved this.

Harris really didn't understand what this conversation would look like to outside observers. Even a lot of his own supporters in his own forum think he came off badly.
posted by painquale at 8:30 AM on May 18, 2015 [9 favorites]


I didn't even have to click a link before saying to myself, "Wow, I bet lil' Sam had his ass handed to him. And he's a sore loser to boot!" This should be fun reading.
posted by ReeMonster at 8:31 AM on May 18, 2015 [4 favorites]




I guess this goes with the hilarious Slate interview with Seymour Hersh: ornery old jewish men yelling at idiots.
posted by ennui.bz at 8:38 AM on May 18, 2015 [5 favorites]


(you have to imagine that there is an interior monologue ongoing in each of these "debates" which is entirely in Yiddish and not very polite...)
posted by ennui.bz at 8:40 AM on May 18, 2015 [7 favorites]


Harris is trying to turn this into a question about civil debate and a question about how political opponents can communicate with one another. (Most of his e-mails were also aiming at this goal.)

Everyone agrees that there is a problem when experts dismiss other experts as cranks. Everyone also agrees that experts have a right to ignore genuine cranks. Harris was very quickly exposed as a crank, not an expert. But he just does not have the capacity to think of himself as anything but an expert. That's why he thinks of this debate as "instructive" while everyone else thinks of it as comedy.
posted by painquale at 8:41 AM on May 18, 2015 [14 favorites]


That anyone saw Harris in a positive light after reading this discussion is a testament to the effectiveness of passive-aggressiveness.
posted by huron at 8:45 AM on May 18, 2015 [9 favorites]


Hah, I was going to post this when Sam was tweeting about it. I thought Chomsky's point about intention and morality regarding the Sudan pharmaceutical plant was quite thought provoking. I wish Sam had seen that. Also amazed at Chomsky's brilliance.

Some of the biggest atrocities must occur when people have no voice and simply do not matter at all to the perpetrator - any more than the ants we step on, as Chomsky put it.
posted by Golden Eternity at 8:47 AM on May 18, 2015 [3 favorites]


Everyone agrees that there is a problem when experts dismiss other experts as cranks.

In the early 90s, I watched Chomsky reduce a (white) 20-something to tears in a Q&A by sharply insisting that her personal experiences of racism and classism were totally irrelevant to a historical discussion of these topics. He was right, of course, but subtlety and a desire to win converts by demonstrating that he's more humane than his opponents do not appear to be part of Chomsky's rhetorical tool kit.

That said, Sam Harris would try anyone's patience.
posted by ryanshepard at 8:50 AM on May 18, 2015 [4 favorites]


Intent is magic.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 8:55 AM on May 18, 2015 [3 favorites]


Harris's central thesis here seems to be that good intentions are always ethical. This is true if one accepts a very limited definition of "ethical," but consequently it isn't interesting and it doesn't matter. For the broader definition of "ethical"--the body of moral philosophy--the argument rapidly disintegrates.
posted by Hot Pastrami! at 8:56 AM on May 18, 2015 [4 favorites]


I can't fully explain why I dislike Harris so much. Something about the way he throws his "I'm the calmest, most civil, handsomest, Americanest guy in the room" demeanor around, as if that means he's already ahead on points. Something about the way he decides to take on debating Chomsky the way he's taken on being a neuroscientist, by reading a brief little essay and declaring himself an expert without even pretending to take a wider survey of the man's corpus. Something about his blithely equating Islam with terrorism. Something about the way his well demonstrated failure to even try to truly understand his opponents' positions, as demonstrated here, in the Schneier debate, and elsewhere. Something about the way he insists on making this crotchety old Chomsky debate him when Chomsky clearly has no interest, and then gets huffily offended because Chomsky is clearly contemptuous of his vapidity.
posted by xigxag at 9:00 AM on May 18, 2015 [21 favorites]


So I'm having that problem where I'm reading a debate between someone I've heard of who's smart and someone I haven't heard of, and I have the hardest time actually reading the bits from the person I haven't heard of.

That said, is there any reason not to dismiss this Harris guy by saying something like "It's okay that he's ignored thousands upon thousands of years of ethical inquiry going all the way back to the Presocratics, because he didn't intend to ignore it?"
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 9:03 AM on May 18, 2015 [10 favorites]


Show me proof of Harris's intent and I'll show you proof that his argument sucks regardless of his intent.
posted by straight at 9:05 AM on May 18, 2015 [3 favorites]


"Anyone who thinks I lost a debate here just doesn’t understand what I was trying to do."

Umm. It's true, Sam, I don't really understand what you were trying to do. But you definitely finished up by losing a debate, so there's that.
posted by tivalasvegas at 9:06 AM on May 18, 2015 [8 favorites]


Goddammit, JHarris, noooo!!! I always liked your video game FPPs, but now I'm not sure if I can rea ...

Oh.

Ohhhhhhhh.

Errrr, as you were.
posted by barnacles at 9:07 AM on May 18, 2015 [4 favorites]


Hmm, I also thought of the sea lion cartoon reading this. I'm surprised that Harris, whose work I have only a passing familiarity with, comes across as so naïve about the Sudan bombing specifically and international politics more generally. This line:
I consider his related claims that virtually everyone professes benign intentions, and that such professions are generally meaningless, to be false.
Really needs at least a sentence of explanation or justification, since it seems pretty self-evidently true to me, at least as articulated here.

xigxag
I was recently reading a tumblr post (which now I can't find - this is why I hate tumblr) where someone was discussing the problem they have with E. Yudkowsky and the LessWrong "rationalist" crowd and I think the same thing applies. I'm paraphrasing but the argument was basically that much of their argument takes the form:
  1. Most (foolish) people think this thing.
  2. Here is a clear argument/what rational people should think. (Where this argument is often only clear because it skips over many counterarguments.)
  3. Why do the stupid people think the wrong way? THE WORLD IS INSANE.
I often have the same problem with Harris and "new atheists" in general, despite my more general sympathy with atheism.
posted by Wretch729 at 9:11 AM on May 18, 2015 [11 favorites]


FWIW and in case the links don't illustrate it or it's just tl;dr, Sam Harris is one of the celebrity atheists (alongside Bill Maher and Neil DeGrasse Tyson - though notably, Tyson sometimes intentionally does not identify as skeptic or atheist, but he's often claimed by these communities). I am not personally an atheist but my impression is that Mr. Harris is thought to be more accessible and less passionate/insulting (depending on where you stand, atheism/skepticism-wise) than Bill Maher.
posted by kalessin at 9:12 AM on May 18, 2015


April 30, 2015
From: Sam Harris
To: Noam Chomsky

Noam —
... If you’re so sure you’ve acquitted yourself well in this conversation, exposing both my intellectual misconduct with respect your own work and my moral blindness regarding the actions of our government, why not let me publish it in full so that our readers can draw their own conclusions?

April 30, 2015
From: Noam Chomsky
To: Sam Harris

The idea of publishing personal correspondence is pretty weird, a strange form of exhibitionism – whatever the content. Personally, I can’t imagine doing it. However, if you want to do it, I won’t object.
Heh. Even when he's being accommodating, the prof can barely disguise his contempt for Harris.
posted by Atom Eyes at 9:12 AM on May 18, 2015 [18 favorites]


I had a 2-year working relationship with a "crotchety" professor, similar in age and demeanor to Chomsky. He'd been teaching and researching a very specific topic for something like 40+ years and had such a laser focus on evidence and "is it in the text or isn't it" was basically his only position. Sometimes he came off as a TOTAL asshole and a lot of folks thought he was just plain mean. The reality, as I learned, was just that he wasn't really interested in how he came across or how he presented, he was only interested in the actual claims at hand.
posted by Doleful Creature at 9:12 AM on May 18, 2015 [5 favorites]


That said, is there any reason not to dismiss this Harris guy

The question could've stopped there: no.

It's weird that people as reasonable as Pigliucci don't recognize that this is about politics rather than ethics — that what's offensive about Harris isn't really the mere fact that he's a blowhard with delusions of intellectuality, but rather what kind of blowhard he is. People focus on the wrong part of their inheritance from late-period Hitchens, as if it were the blustery contrarianism that defined them rather than the cheerleading for bomb-dropping dressed up as "humanitarian."

At this point the New Atheists ought to be called the Neoconservative Atheists or the Authoritarian Atheists: it'd better emphasize that the philosophical naivete of their pettifogging debate-club version of rationalism is only what makes them comical, not what makes them horrible.
posted by RogerB at 9:19 AM on May 18, 2015 [29 favorites]


TL;DR: Sam Harris tries to tone-police Noam Chomsky into agreeing with him; fails.
posted by fatbird at 9:20 AM on May 18, 2015 [8 favorites]


This is like that scene in the kung fu movie where the young upstart tries to kick the ass of the 200-year-old master, and gets summarily squashed like a pillbug.
posted by overeducated_alligator at 9:20 AM on May 18, 2015 [6 favorites]


Chomsky will never get a TED Talk, at this rate.
posted by a lungful of dragon at 9:21 AM on May 18, 2015 [40 favorites]


tries to tone-police Noam Chomsky

Never start a land war in Asia.
posted by selfnoise at 9:22 AM on May 18, 2015 [18 favorites]


I've always seen Harris as basically the American Richard Dawkins.
posted by kmz at 9:22 AM on May 18, 2015


The Scottish part of my heritage wants to turn my back to Harris, bend over, and lift my kilt--while muttering something along the lines of "Take a look at my perfect weapon, you twerp."

Now that may not be an ethically or morally appropriate action, but it sure would feel good.
posted by CincyBlues at 9:22 AM on May 18, 2015


I never though much of Sam Harris before this but Good God:
Any systematic approach to ethics, or to understanding the necessary underpinnings of a civil society, will find many Muslims standing eye deep in the red barbarity of the fourteenth century. There are undoubtedly historical and cultural reasons for this, and enough blame to go around, but we should not ignore the fact that we must now confront whole societies whose moral and political development—in their treatment of women and children, in their prosecution of war, in their approach to criminal justice, and in their very intuitions about what constitutes cruelty—lags behind our own. This may seem like an unscientific and potentially racist thing to say, but it is neither. It is not in the least racist, since it is not at all likely that there are biological reasons for the disparities here [italics in original, bolding mine]
I mean that last bit's so not even wrong I don't know where to start.
posted by Len at 9:27 AM on May 18, 2015 [9 favorites]


I've always seen Harris as basically the American Richard Dawkins.

That is precisely how he wants you to see him.
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 9:31 AM on May 18, 2015 [3 favorites]


well for starters if you feel the need to explicitly clarify that you are not arguing that certain ethnic groups are biologically lesser than other ethnic groups... your argument might be a bit racist
posted by tivalasvegas at 9:32 AM on May 18, 2015 [16 favorites]


That debate with Schneier on racial profiling at airports is so beautiful that I'm linking it again.
posted by Iridic at 9:34 AM on May 18, 2015 [3 favorites]


Poor Harris. I wish someone had told him to read The Linguistics Wars first. Chomsky is the Chuck Norris of Academia.
posted by ipsative at 9:35 AM on May 18, 2015 [4 favorites]


Two alpha males spar off. Two men enter, one man leaves.

We do need a better model of discourse, for sure, although I suppose if you compare Harris and Ben Affleck, Harris at least has a more mature approach to debate.
posted by Nevin at 9:38 AM on May 18, 2015


I am not personally an atheist but my impression is that Mr. Harris is thought to be more accessible and less passionate/insulting (depending on where you stand, atheism/skepticism-wise) than Bill Maher.

I'm not sure if this is how people view Harris or not, but either way, coming off as less of an asshole than Bill Maher is not exactly a high bar to clear.
posted by brennen at 9:42 AM on May 18, 2015 [6 favorites]


Harris might be able to make use of his intellect if he were somehow able to stop falling in love with his own voice. Instead, we're just left with a very NSFW take on the ouroboros and a lot of empty words.
posted by Dark Messiah at 9:42 AM on May 18, 2015 [1 favorite]


...will find many Muslims standing eye deep in the red barbarity of the fourteenth century.

Well, I think I know what Barbara Tuchman might say...

I once went round and round with a new atheist back when the fad was a bit more prominent. It was extremely frustrating, especially when we got to the Darwinian aspects of his argument. I mentioned Agassiz in a reply. He had never heard of him. I mentioned the von Humboldt brothers around the same issues--he had never heard of them, either. And this guy was a high school science teacher.

On the other hand, about a decade ago a friend of mine once asked me what I thought Chomsky would think about a particular issue. I told him I didn't know and suggested he write Chomsky and ask him. My friend did and sure enough, Chomsky replied to my friend promptly with a serious and well-considered reply. To this day my pal marvels at the fact that Chomsky took time from his busy life to answer my friend more or less as a peer.
posted by CincyBlues at 9:43 AM on May 18, 2015 [16 favorites]


I mean that last bit's so not even wrong I don't know where to start.

That's what is so astonishing about Harris. He constructs a word-wall so remarkably stupid that it becomes almost immune to criticism. You just sort of stammer and stare, dumbfounded. I mean, I literally have no idea how it is possible for him to think that this would cast him in a good light.
posted by dis_integration at 9:44 AM on May 18, 2015 [5 favorites]


Iridic - I'm barely a page into that exchange with Schneier but already it perfectly illustrates what's so grating about Harris. He handwaves away Bruce's initial reasonable points about how designing security systems is hard and how this is a complex issue with half-baked oversimplifications. Gah.
posted by Wretch729 at 9:44 AM on May 18, 2015


Two alpha males spar off. Two men enter, one man leaves.

I saw it as more like, cocky kid pokes sleeping bear, bear swats him away and goes back to sleep. Kid then boasts to his friends how he faced down a bear.
posted by Enemy of Joy at 9:47 AM on May 18, 2015 [27 favorites]


That is precisely how he wants you to see him.

Oh, for sure.

I don't mean it as a compliment though.
posted by kmz at 9:55 AM on May 18, 2015 [1 favorite]


Two alpha males spar off. Two men enter, one man leaves.

Or, "You come at the king, you best not miss."
posted by Sangermaine at 10:02 AM on May 18, 2015 [2 favorites]


Any systematic approach to ethics, or to understanding the necessary underpinnings of a civil society, will find many Muslims standing eye deep in the red barbarity of the fourteenth century.

So Harris has no idea what kinds of things Christian Europeans were up to in the 14th century, I guess, is our takeaway here.
posted by emjaybee at 10:05 AM on May 18, 2015 [6 favorites]


Pigliucci

oh god get this image of a sad pig in clown whiteface out of my head
posted by delfin at 10:07 AM on May 18, 2015 [21 favorites]


...in a narrow sense, untrue.

I would think that anything true only in a broader sense is less true.
posted by StickyCarpet at 10:08 AM on May 18, 2015 [1 favorite]


I was recently reading a tumblr post (which now I can't find - this is why I hate tumblr) where someone was discussing the problem they have with E. Yudkowsky and the LessWrong "rationalist" crowd and I think the same thing applies.

Here it is. su3su2u1 and nostalgebraist are the two Tumblr users I know of who have actual criticism of Less Wrong, not just lolbasilisk mockery.

I'm not familiar with Sam Harris, but if he's as much of a crank as the comments here suggest, it's probably not worth the time to bother.
posted by Rangi at 10:09 AM on May 18, 2015 [7 favorites]


Or, "You come at the king, you best not miss."

Well that's the thing, it's not about ideas it's about dominance. Which is fine, I guess.
posted by Nevin at 10:12 AM on May 18, 2015


I get it. People who disregard intent when determining moral outcomes are terrifying. I can claim good intent endlessly, and all they want to do is think about the effects of my actions! Which are not entirely in my control! The only thing I actually can control are my claims of good intent, which you can trust because I'm very sincere, and obviously a good person, because I'm just a soul whose intentions are good (don't let me be misunderstood).

If we agree on removing intentionality from a moral framework, then I may never be able to do anything, or not do anything, ever again! I may have to examine my actions very very carefully beforehand, and submit to a universe beyond knowing.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 10:13 AM on May 18, 2015 [7 favorites]


I don't have a dog in this fight and I'm as likely to enjoy a good intellectual take-down as anyone else, but I'm struggling to see this conversation as a particularly devastating display of Chomsky's brilliance. It seems simply that he's the one pushing the case that's popular among this crowd, so his spectacular rudeness and all around assholishness in this exchange is being taken as rapier wit and crushing brilliance.

Harris doesn't acquit himself particularly well, but then again the argument never really gets going: Chomsky just isn't interested in actually coming to grips with the argument Harris wants to have--his position is essentially a drawn out version of "do you know who I am! How dare you presume to criticize ME?"
posted by yoink at 10:13 AM on May 18, 2015 [12 favorites]


Any systematic approach to ethics, or to understanding the necessary underpinnings of a civil society, will find many Muslims standing eye deep in the red barbarity of the fourteenth century. There are undoubtedly historical and cultural reasons for this, and enough blame to go around, but we should not ignore the fact that we must now confront whole societies whose moral and political development—in their treatment of women and children, in their prosecution of war, in their approach to criminal justice, and in their very intuitions about what constitutes cruelty—lags behind our own. This may seem like an unscientific and potentially racist thing to say, but it is neither. It is not in the least racist, since it is not at all likely that there are biological reasons for the disparities here [italics in original, bolding mine]

TLDR: I'm not racist but ...
posted by philip-random at 10:15 AM on May 18, 2015


This is hilarious. Chomsky should do Friars Club roasts.
posted by Lyme Drop at 10:15 AM on May 18, 2015 [1 favorite]


Harris doesn't acquit himself particularly well, but then again the argument never really gets going: Chomsky just isn't interested in actually coming to grips with the argument Harris wants to have--his position is essentially a drawn out version of "do you know who I am! How dare you presume to criticize ME?"

I think it's more that Chomsky feels the argument is misbegotten to begin with, and doesn't feel any particular obligation to legitimize it by fully engaging with it merely because it's been offered.
posted by Enemy of Joy at 10:20 AM on May 18, 2015 [16 favorites]


yoink: I'm struggling to see this conversation as a particularly devastating display of Chomsky's brilliance.

Agreed, Chomsky did not articulate much of a stance here, nor did he seem to be trying. The underlying sentiment seems to be, if you truly want to understand my stance, first have the courtesy to read and understand the reams I have written on the matter.
posted by Hot Pastrami! at 10:21 AM on May 18, 2015 [11 favorites]


yoink I agree Chomsky is a crotchety old curmudgeon, but I think you're missing his point. He won't come to grips with Harris' argument because he believes it to be nonsense. If I'm reading this properly Harris is arguing that radical Islamic terrorism is more wrong than, for example, the US bombing stuff because the US has purer intentions. Chomsky says that's hooie.

This link from the post articulates this better than the above the cut link IMHO:
Chomsky repeatedly called out Harris’s rhetorical evasions and sloppy thinking, at one point describing one of Harris’s arguments as “so ludicrous as to be embarrassing.”

For his part, Harris was persistent and calm, but he seemed to fundamentally misunderstand the scope of Chomsky’s critique.

...

Chomsky critiques Harris on two fronts. First, he deconstructs the accusation of “moral equivalence,” a term that “has been regularly used… to try to undercut critical analysis of the state one defends.” Of course there are moral differences between a terrorist attack against defenseless civilians and a U.S. missile strike that was believed to target a chemical weapons manufacturer. The problem with the accusation of “moral equivalence” is that it creates a relativist strawman, distracting us from more substantial ethical questions about U.S. actions.

Second, Chomsky dismantles Harris’s claim that good intentions alone can separate the U.S. from its moral enemies. “Professing benign intentions is the norm for those who carry out atrocities and crimes,” Chomsky points out, and so the claim the U.S. means less harm than it enacts is an empty one.

posted by Wretch729 at 10:26 AM on May 18, 2015 [11 favorites]


I saw it as more like, cocky kid pokes sleeping bear

Bear never sleeps.
posted by Beardman at 10:28 AM on May 18, 2015 [1 favorite]


It seems simply that he's the one pushing the case that's popular among this crowd, so his spectacular rudeness and all around assholishness in this exchange is being taken as rapier wit and crushing brilliance.

Are you new here to humanity?
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 10:31 AM on May 18, 2015 [2 favorites]


My main takeaway from the exchange is that Chomsky is way better at answering his email -- promptly and in depth -- than I would ever have expected.
posted by rollick at 10:33 AM on May 18, 2015 [3 favorites]


It seems simply that he's the one pushing the case that's popular among this crowd, so his spectacular rudeness and all around assholishness in this exchange is being taken as rapier wit and crushing brilliance.

Well but also, Harris's argument is boring and conventional, and Chomsky's contains things I had forgotten about and makes me think hard about how I think about war.

The other thing to consider when assessing this email thread, though, is that time and life and thought are finite, because that is apparently the type of universe we find ourselves in, and every person therefore has to carefully ration out how they choose to spend their time and life and thought.

Harris's take here is lazy — he's got a passionate, intense conviction that he knows more about ethics than other people, born solely of his lack of inquiry into what other people have thought and written about ethics. He thinks he's qualified to hold a debate with Chomsky specifically because he's failed to invest any time in learning what's already been said. How do I know this? I know this because the "well I mean if you have a good heart you'll do good" argument is sub-Disney as far as ethical frameworks go, and this Harris guy is apparently convinced that it is an obvious truth, rather than one of those points of view that shows up on the losing side of Socratic dialogues. As far as I can tell, the only real reason Harris thinks he's qualified to take up Chomsky's time is that he has an internet fan club; unfortunately, having an internet fan club doesn't actually make you an interesting intellectual.

Given that Chomsky has done a great deal of homework indeed on this topic, and Harris has done none at all, it would be disingenuous for Chomsky to pretend as if the two of them were equals in this context. Chomsky is a living, breathing, eventually dying human being rather than an immortal robot programmed to instruct self-regarding lazy people. As such, rather than being spectacularly rude or an all around asshole or whatever, he's being remarkably, admirably, pointlessly patient with this particular sea lion.

If anything, the only thing we can fault Chomsky for in this dialogue is that very patience. It seems pretty clear to me that he understands right from the start that, despite Harris's intent to participate in an intellectual debate, what Harris is really trying to do is humiliate himself in public. And Chomsky patiently, politely helps him go ahead and do it.
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 10:52 AM on May 18, 2015 [43 favorites]


Yoink, the argument never gets going because Chomsky refuses to play with the stacked-deck hypotheticals that Harris keeps dealing out. Since these hypotheticals are merely a way for Harris to avoid engaging with the actual facts of the event regarding which he criticized Chomsky, I think that's fairly reasonable of Chomsky.

I'm strongly sympathetic to the use of hypotheticals in order to determine if I have common philosophical ground with someone. But Harris constructs his hypothetical scenarios by removing (and in fact studiously ignoring) all the facts relevant to Chomsky's extensively-published position. That generally doesn't fly. Plus, Harris refuses to engage with any of Chomsky's questions, even when they're well-constructed to address Harris's (stated) desire to discover relevant moral principles.
posted by daveliepmann at 10:54 AM on May 18, 2015 [5 favorites]


Harris doesn't acquit himself particularly well, but then again the argument never really gets going:

For two reasons: Chomsky is not interested in debating things he's been saying / writing for longer than Harris has been alive; also because Harris is not being the least bit genuine and is relying on sophistry and passive aggression to try and cajole someone who's not buying his sad routine.

I had no idea who Harris was before this, outside of an appearance on the Joe Rogan podcast. He could not have come off worse there, either; trying to draw equivalence between accidentally stabbing a friend and the Al-Shaifa bombing ... 'cause they're both accidents, or something. (I seriously lost track of his overall point as he tends towards analogies that take 10 minutes of setup and qualifiers to make him look wise.)

I don't have any skin in this game, but Harris came off as exactly the kind of self-absorbed, Dunning-Kreuger afflicted pseudo-intellectual that I have no time for in this day and age. Chomsky came off excellent simply because he refused to entertain a child trying to have a grown-up conversation.
posted by Dark Messiah at 10:55 AM on May 18, 2015 [8 favorites]


In short: Harris would be better of hewing to the adage "it's better to remain silent and be thought a fool than open your mouth and remove all doubt."
posted by Dark Messiah at 10:56 AM on May 18, 2015 [2 favorites]


Harris seems to think that American politicians have intentions in foreign policy that don't boil down to "Domestic Polling/get Re-elected". It's pretty hard to take him seriously with that assumption baked into his thinking.

I'm reminded of John Oliver talking to Edward Snowden.

Besides the incredible, just, wrongness of Harris' view that "intentions" are obviously the key to an actor's morality (many major ethical schools would disagree), insisting that America/Americans even have discernable "intentions" in foreign policy is really misguided. They talked a lot about Clinton's intent in bombing that pharma factory in 1999. In the 2000 election, only about 5% of voters listed "foreign policy" as "important in deciding" who to vote for. That's half the rate of "the environment". Do you know how little americans think about the environment? Cut that in half. WTF is Harris talking about?
posted by DGStieber at 10:59 AM on May 18, 2015 [3 favorites]


There's definitely a sense in which Chomsky refused to play ball, but I think it's important not to buy in to Harris's mendacious line that Chomsky was unwilling to have a conversation. Look how many substantive e-mails Chomsky sent! Chomsky refused to have a public debate and refused to treat Harris with anything more than contempt, but he didn't refuse conversation. Rather, he met all of Harris's criticisms head-on and tore them apart. Harris is the one who was unwilling to respond to these criticisms.
posted by painquale at 11:01 AM on May 18, 2015 [13 favorites]


This is sorta odd to me, because I Chomsky is someone who I associate strongly with spouting about stuff he doesn't really have a lot of business talking about, but Harris looks really bad by comparison.

Like. Really. Bad.

Paraphrased:

"I think you wrote a mean thing about me in an email!"

"I'm convinced you don't understand what I've written."

"You made a moral equivalence!"

"No, I said one thing was likely worse than another."

"Muslims have bad intentions bad tho!"

"You know who was really bad: Nazis. And they had all sorts of good intentions."

"That's a moral equivalence!"

"I never said they were indistinguishable."

"But you made a moral equivalence!"

"Actually... nevermind. And the mean thing I said was probably about someone else."

"What????"

"Yeah. And I've never written about you either."

"You're being mean!"

"That's the only true thing you've said."

"I'm going to publish this online and show everyone how mean you are!"

"Really."
posted by ethansr at 11:03 AM on May 18, 2015 [28 favorites]


Harris might be able to make use of his intellect if he were somehow able to stop falling in love with his own voice. Instead, we're just left with a very NSFW take on the ouroboros and a lot of empty words.

I have only the thinnest familiarity with Chomsky (having read a lot about him, but little by him) and have never heard of Harris at all ever, but the difference between each writer's precision was striking. Harris seemed to wander up to his point before slipping away without making it. Chomsky drove straight for his, sharpened it a bit once got there, did Harris a favor by sharpening Harris' own point so he'd have something to work with before plunging both in Harris' face.

Brave of Harris to publish this on his site. Braver still to follow up with that mealy postscript.
posted by notyou at 11:23 AM on May 18, 2015 [8 favorites]


Let’s review this curious non-interchange.

*drops mic*
posted by echocollate at 11:25 AM on May 18, 2015 [2 favorites]


That debate with Schneier on racial profiling at airports is so beautiful that I'm linking it again.

This is the first I have seen of that conversation. Yikes. By the end Harris is comprehensively and unambiguously defeated, yet still clinging to his notion that human intuition trumps random sampling.
posted by Hot Pastrami! at 11:26 AM on May 18, 2015 [3 favorites]


Chomsky is a living, breathing, eventually dying human being rather than an immortal robot programmed to instruct self-regarding lazy people.
You Can't Tip a Buick

Yes, but what if Chomsky were an immortal robot programmed to instruct self-regarding lazy people at the controls of a train approaching a fork in the tracks. If Chomskybot goes right he must debate Sam Harris for eternity, if he goes left he will run over a fat man who was about to go back in time and kill Hitler's mother before Hitler was born. There is an emergency brake cord but if Chomskybot pulls the cord it will prove that language has no underlying biological basis, the Vietnam War was a good and justified war, and that Skinner was right about language. There is a tiny demon inside the control room ensuring that these are the only three choices.

How should Chomskybot choose?
posted by Sangermaine at 11:49 AM on May 18, 2015 [32 favorites]


I'm no fan of Harris, but I think many people in this thread are reading him very uncharitably in this case. He doesn't, for example, think that intention is the most important factor in whether an action is good or bad. He only ever says that it is an element. And his position seems to be that it is a rather indirect element: the reason that intention matters is that it tells you something about whether the acts of a given agent are likely to have good or bad consequences later on. Moreover, he never says that having good intentions is generally sufficient to make an act good. Rather, there are some cases where the same act could be good or bad, depending on the intentions of the agent.

That actually seems pretty defensible to me. For example, it agrees with what Anscombe has to say about murder in her essay opposing Oxford's awarding of an honorary degree to Harry Truman (Mr. Truman's Degree (pdf)). For Anscombe (see the beginning of Section II of her essay), if one kills an innocent with the intention of killing, it is murder; but it might not be murder if one kills an innocent as a foreseen side-effect of justified killing of a non-innocent. "Choosing to kill the innocent as a means to your ends is always murder. ... [But] killing the innocent, even if you know as a matter of statistical certainty that the things you do involve it, is not necessarily murder. I mean that if you attack a lot of military targets, such as munitions factories and naval dockyards, as carefully as you can, you will be certain to kill a number of innocent people; but that is not murder. On the other hand, unscrupulousness in considering the possibilities turns it into murder."

I think the biggest disconnect in the exchange between Chomsky and Harris comes down to whether you're interested in metaphysics or epistemology. As I read it, Harris is saying something like, "In some cases, the same act can be good or bad, depending on the intentions of the agent." And then Chomsky replies saying something like, "You can't ever know what intentions an agent has, so the consequences are the only things that matter." On this reading, Harris is asking about the metaphysics -- what makes an act good or bad? And Chomsky never engages that question. Instead, he moves on to a question about what we can know -- how could we tell whether an act is good or bad? I'm sympathetic to replacing metaphysical questions with epistemological ones where possible, but I think Chomsky could (and should) have been much clearer about why he was making the moves he was making.
posted by Jonathan Livengood at 11:51 AM on May 18, 2015 [9 favorites]


The only winning move is not to play
posted by dis_integration at 11:52 AM on May 18, 2015 [1 favorite]


There is a little discussion -- at Daily Nous and at The Philosopher's Stone here and here -- on the use of thought experiments coming out of the Chomsky-Harris exchange, which might also be interesting to readers here.
posted by Jonathan Livengood at 12:00 PM on May 18, 2015 [5 favorites]


On the other hand, about a decade ago a friend of mine once asked me what I thought Chomsky would think about a particular issue. I told him I didn't know and suggested he write Chomsky and ask him. My friend did and sure enough, Chomsky replied to my friend promptly with a serious and well-considered reply. To this day my pal marvels at the fact that Chomsky took time from his busy life to answer my friend more or less as a peer.

He did the same thing with a friend of mine when we were in University. They ended up emailing back and forth a few times after my friend got over the shock that he got such a thoughtful answer to his initial email.
posted by Jalliah at 12:03 PM on May 18, 2015 [1 favorite]


Chomsky did a fine job explaining that Harris' proposed example of the Al-Shaifa bombing did nothing to support his point. Harris frames it as a state-level "oops, sorry thought you were making bombs there", and Chomsky provided very detailed refutations to that proposition.

Harris is either disingenuous, deluded, or some mix of both. He could barely handle being questioned, in person, by a comedian who commentates MMA — and considers him a friend — without blustering like a fool (link).

I will forever be leery of people who use a lot of words to say almost nothing. That sort of thing is rarely a mistake.
posted by Dark Messiah at 12:11 PM on May 18, 2015 [1 favorite]


I found this bit from Harris kind of amusing/terrible:
1. I have not read Radical Priorities. I treated your short book, 9/11, as a self-contained statement on the topic. I do not think it was unethical or irresponsible of me to do so.

It... basically seems to me like he's saying "Well, I read your short thing, but the other stuff had too many words, so like, I'm just gonna use that short thing as my basis for everything you believe because the rest of it? TL;DR."
posted by Rev. Syung Myung Me at 12:14 PM on May 18, 2015


This 'debate' is a wonderful Rorschach Test. Kudos to Harris for wanting to - and persuading Chomsky to let him - post it publicly.
posted by twsf at 12:14 PM on May 18, 2015 [1 favorite]


(Like, there's a non-dickish way to say "I haven't read that work of yours", but that's not it.)
posted by Rev. Syung Myung Me at 12:15 PM on May 18, 2015 [1 favorite]


I have only the thinnest familiarity with Chomsky (having read a lot about him, but little by him)

Chomsky has quite a habit of crushing opponents in debate (although, this attempt by Harris hardly even qualifies). For those not familiar with his oeuvre, here are some other highlights:

vs Richard Perle on American Foreign Policy

vs John Silber on Nicaragua

vs Alan Dershowitz on Israel/Palestine

vs William F. Buckley on Vietnam

His early political works are also devastatingly incisive.
posted by Noisy Pink Bubbles at 12:16 PM on May 18, 2015 [16 favorites]


I think that Harris was interested in talking about the moral impact of intentions in general, but Chomsky wanted to defend his views about the specific thing that Harris said he was wrong about. Harris veers off into hypothetical situations and Chomsky sticks with the initial concrete ones. In this case, the details that Chomsky brings up serve to nullify the initial point that Harris made in his writing, so Harris looks pretty bad in sticking to the claim that the bombing was done for "good reasons".
posted by demiurge at 12:20 PM on May 18, 2015 [5 favorites]


And then Chomsky replies saying something like, "You can't ever know what intentions an agent has, so the consequences are the only things that matter."

I don't think he quite says this, and in fact, says something close to the opposite, when he essentially says that bombing despite being aware that people will die and not caring is worse than actively trying to kill them, in that the former is treating people like ants that can be stepped on without consequence. The main point he's hammering is that taking the intentions that the agent says they have at face value is not a good idea.
posted by damayanti at 12:26 PM on May 18, 2015 [9 favorites]


I loved this when I read it on Harris' blog. I loved that Harris thought he came off looking so good. I know the term gets thrown around a lot, but this had Dunning-Kruger Effect written all over every Harris word.
posted by OmieWise at 12:34 PM on May 18, 2015 [5 favorites]


Jonathan Livengood's distinction between the two points of view resonates for me. Insofar as the discussion was about the al-Shaifa bombing (which I think is not what Harris wanted), Harris would start with "What if we take the Clinton administration's professed intentions at face value? What are the ethical implications and how do we read that event?" But Chomsky is basically like, "Fuck that! We are smarter than that, we know more about how politics works and about how warfare works and if you are paying attention at all you know to not trust professed intentions!" And Harris is all "no no you are being mean and I am just trying to have a simple discussion about ethics."

Harris's hypotheticals and reliance on intent are, I think, interesting philosophically but not interesting, and indeed detrimental, when talking about real world politics.

He needed to engage with a philosopher, not Noam Chomsky
posted by wemayfreeze at 12:45 PM on May 18, 2015 [1 favorite]


I don't think he quite says this, and in fact, says something close to the opposite, when he essentially says that bombing despite being aware that people will die and not caring is worse than actively trying to kill them, in that the former is treating people like ants that can be stepped on without consequence. The main point he's hammering is that taking the intentions that the agent says they have at face value is not a good idea.

That's fair. I guess I was taking Chomsky to be saying something a bit different. Something like ... the U.S. government didn't have either good or bad intentions with respect to the lives of the people affected by the Al-Shifa bombing. Indifference with respect to X is not a variety of intention with respect to X. (Is indifference related to caring? And does caring actually have something to do with intention? I'm not at all sure.)

But I think you're right that Chomsky gives more play to intention than I was granting. Still, I think it is puzzling exactly how Chomsky thinks intention matters for the morality of an act. He obviously thinks that expressing good or benign intentions is insufficient. And he thinks that in at least some cases, indifference is worse than intending harm. Is there a general attitude that can be distilled from that?
posted by Jonathan Livengood at 12:47 PM on May 18, 2015


P.Z. Meyers, one of the last Rationalists who has not embraced the Assholism of the "New Atheists" had an excellent analysis of the 'debate'.

Harris is the lead man for the "New Atheists" in their alliance with the "Christianists" pushing America into an all-out War on Islam (which to his eternal shame, even President Obama is somewhat supportive of). He obviously has more admiration for Osama Bin Laden as an adversary than Noam Chomsky. You can't argue "good intentions" when your own intentions are so bad and so ineptly camouflaged. Between this and the aggressive Anti-Feminism of these "New Assholists", I have abandoned the use of the term Atheism in defining my own philosophy in favor of Secular Humanism. (As have many others; that Religious Landscape Study is showing an increase in 'nones' who don't identify as Atheist).
posted by oneswellfoop at 12:58 PM on May 18, 2015 [5 favorites]


And does caring actually have something to do with intention? I'm not at all sure.

Couldn't you look at it as Clinton intentionally not caring about the lives of people that would be affected by the pharma strike? Or if unaware of the damage it would cause, criminally negligent? If you are going to drop a bomb on something, you are responsible for making a reasonable judgement of the damages it will cause. Choosing not to investigate this is an intentional act. How about the drone strike on Zawahiri that reportedly killed hundreds of children? Or the decision not to rescue illegal immigrants in the Mediterranean?
posted by Golden Eternity at 12:58 PM on May 18, 2015 [3 favorites]


I think the biggest disconnect in the exchange between Chomsky and Harris comes down to whether you're interested in metaphysics or epistemology.

I hardly think this is the right way to characterize it. Or at any rate it's being incredibly fair to Harris. Chomsky touches quite directly on the 'metaphysics' here when he talks about the Western view of African citizens as not-even-human. He addresses the issue of Clinton's intentions quite directly by basically saying: Clinton didn't care whether or not al-Shifa was a legitimate target or what the consequences would be, and Clinton ignored the warnings of Human Rights Watch etc. This meets up quite squarely with your quote from Anscombe: "On the other hand, unscrupulousness in considering the possibilities turns it into murder."

The real disconnect is in Harris' apparent total lack of reading comprehension and utter refusal to actually engage in a meaningful discussion, the sort of thing where someone makes an assertion and you respond directly to it, instead of spinning up idiotic thought experiments about a benign al-Qaeda and its super-computer-virus which are almost entirely orthogonal to the real life situation under discussion. The only conceivable scenario in which the al-Shifa bombing is not an atrocious crime is one in which Clinton was misled by a malicious intelligence agent to believe that the facility was in fact a bad place filled with bad people and they had to be stopped right now in order to avoid some other greater calamity. But nobody thinks that is true. And even then, Clinton is to blame since he hired and trusted the subordinate. So the question is: what's worse? Bringing down two skyscrapers with full knowledge of the consequences, or unscrupulously bombing a country half-way across the world without really caring how many people it kills? If the latter ends up killing the same or more than the former, then one might regard the latter as even worse by dint of its indifferent regard towards the horrible consequences.
posted by dis_integration at 1:06 PM on May 18, 2015 [8 favorites]


> Kudos to Harris for wanting to - and persuading Chomsky to let him - post it publicly.

C: You wish me to return your fizzling petard?
H: Yes, so I may sit myself upon it in a prominent place for the public to view.
C: As you wish.
posted by hank at 1:11 PM on May 18, 2015 [10 favorites]


Is there a general attitude that can be distilled from that?

From Chomsky's fourth email: "As for intentions, there is nothing at all to say in general."
posted by mr_roboto at 1:13 PM on May 18, 2015 [4 favorites]


I'll buy that Harris had a different sort of conversation in mind — one in which the purpose was not to win but to exchange ideas and gain greater understanding of the disagreements between two people. I am not sure he was successful convincing Chomsky that this was his good-faith aim.

His opening email comes off as rather passive-aggressive, as though Sam's annoyed that Chomsky had (apparently) once said some not-so-nice things about him, and wants Chomsky to admit he was wrong. His next message contains a lengthy excerpt from his own book, and I think things would've gone much better had he just paraphrased his arguments in that excerpt instead of reproducing them in their original smugness. The tone of that excerpt was necessarily different than the spirit of the exchange he was hoping to create.

His al-Shifa hypothetical, while ludicrous, was still a fair thought experiment for determining whether or not intentions matter, in the general case. If Chomsky's view is that intentions never matter, then it's fair game for Harris to try to construct a hypothetical to disprove that assertion. Then Chomsky can come back and say "OK, intentions matter in that bizarre case, but not in plausible real-world situations," or "I would judge those two scenarios much differently, but for reasons other than intentions," or something like that. Then they'd be getting somewhere.

Still, I agree that Harris comes off horribly here, as he usually does. For someone who hones his words so sharply, he seems not to realize the effect they produce in others. His prose has precision but no accuracy. I would've liked to hear the two of them go in depth on the moral value of intentions, or on the actual facts of the bombing of al-Shifa. But Harris tried to have both discussions through a high-latency communications medium, meaning they never got very far on either one.
posted by savetheclocktower at 1:14 PM on May 18, 2015 [1 favorite]


Couldn't you look at it as Clinton intentionally not caring about the lives of people that would be affected by the pharma strike?

Yes, you could look at it that way. And I agree that failing to make the relevant calculations is a kind of negligence. I think Comsky is more or less completely right on the particulars in this case. And focusing on the case, as opposed to backing away to something much cleaner to get at his more theoretical question, was a mistake on Harris' part.

My question about caring versus intention was prompted by thinking something along the following lines. I could care very deeply about someone and even want what is best for her. And yet, I might intend to harm her and then go on to harm her because other considerations outweigh my caring. Similarly, I could be indifferent about someone -- in the sense of not caring one way or the other what happens to her -- and intend harm to her for some other end. Maybe she's just in my way. So ... I'm not sure what the relationship is supposed to be between caring and intention. (But I could also just be taking "care" in the wrong sense, too. Maybe I'm reading it too narrowly?)

As a side note, we should be cautious about slipping between "intending to X" and "intentionally X'ing." Many people think that if you foresee a side-effect of your actions, and act anyway, you bring about the side-effect intentionally, but you don't intend to bring about the side-effect. Here is a classic example: You are a soldier hiding from the enemy in the jungle. You see that there is a poisonous snake approaching you. You could shoot it and save yourself, but if you do, you will give away your position, which you do not want to do. Suppose you shoot it. You intend to shoot it. You do not intend to give away your position. But since you know that you are giving away your position by shooting, you intentionally give away your position.
posted by Jonathan Livengood at 1:20 PM on May 18, 2015 [1 favorite]


I'll buy that Harris had a different sort of conversation in mind — one in which the purpose was not to win but to exchange ideas and gain greater understanding of the disagreements between two people. I am not sure he was successful convincing Chomsky that this was his good-faith aim.

...so...you could say he did get a lesson in the importance of consequences regardless of intentions.
posted by kagredon at 1:23 PM on May 18, 2015 [1 favorite]


From Chomsky's fourth email: "As for intentions, there is nothing at all to say in general."

Yes, that's what he says. But should we believe him? ;)
posted by Jonathan Livengood at 1:23 PM on May 18, 2015


And then Chomsky replies saying something like, "You can't ever know what intentions an agent has, so the consequences are the only things that matter."


That is a misreading of Chomsky. He states [emphasis mine], "As for intentions, there is nothing at all to say in general. There is a lot to say about specific cases, like the al-Shifa bombing, or Japanese fascists in China (who you should absolve, on your grounds, since there’s every reason to suppose that their intention to bring an 'earthly paradise' was quite real), and other cases I’ve discussed, including Hitler and high Stalinist officials. So your puzzlement about my attitude towards intentions generally is quite understandable. There can be no general answer. "

He's not saying intentions don't matter. He's saying that "good intentions" in a broad, non-specific sense is a meaningless platitude. And moreover that the good intentions of the US (which are not so much "good intentions" as an unexamined belief that whatever we do is by definition on the side of good) don't mitigate its role in various atrocities. Elsewhere Chomsky has made his opinion clear that powerful nations tend to fall prey to their own good-intention-flavored KoolAid, reframing their own self-serving misdeeds as "righteous exceptionalism" and painting their enemies as "diabolical by [their]...very nature."

Harris hypothesizes, what if the US had been conquered? Could we imagine our outlawed government asking for suicide bomber volunteers? Hell no, we're above that, he decides. But how does he reach that conclusion? Just because. Cuz we're not stuck in the 14th century like those Muslims. But the thing is, he's mixing cause and effect. Hegemons are well-served by so called rules of war, which function as stabilizing forces. Hegemons don't need to "suicide bomb" because that's an anti-hegemonic tactic. Any theory of morality that excuses "Shock and Awe" but demonizes throwing rocks at tanks is seriously broken.
posted by xigxag at 1:35 PM on May 18, 2015 [24 favorites]


"You're not going to convince anyone of anything by calling them an idiot"

"I'm not trying to convince you of anything. I am just calling you an idiot."
posted by Legomancer at 1:38 PM on May 18, 2015 [11 favorites]


That is a misreading of Chomsky.

Yeah, as I said earlier, fair enough.

That said, I disagree with Chomsky about whether there is anything general to say about how intentions matter to the moral character of an act. And I'm not sure, despite his express statement, that there is nothing general that Chomsky is implicitly committed to when he makes his judgments in specific cases. Maybe he's right, but in that exchange he doesn't make any argument for what amounts to particularism about the relationship between intentions and the moral evaluation of actions. Does anyone know if he makes an argument for such a view elsewhere? If so, where?
posted by Jonathan Livengood at 2:01 PM on May 18, 2015 [1 favorite]


What might, "[something] general to say about how intentions matter to the moral character of an act," look like?
posted by rhizome at 2:20 PM on May 18, 2015


Well, in Jonothan's previous example, if a soldier were court-martialed for giving away his unit's position to the enemy, I'm sure the sentencing would be different if he did it with the intention of giving up his unit, versus out of ophidiophobia.
posted by Golden Eternity at 2:45 PM on May 18, 2015 [1 favorite]


Sam Harris in a nutshell.
posted by rhizome at 3:37 PM on May 18, 2015


What might, "[something] general to say about how intentions matter to the moral character of an act," look like?

I don't know if these will work, but here are a couple of honest attempts.

[1] In all pairs of cases where some bad outcome results and where the cases differ only in the intentions of the agents, an act is morally worse if the agent intends a bad outcome.

Example. Suppose a soldier is part of a firing squad, and an innocent victim is to be executed. In one case, the soldier intends to kill the victim. In another case, the soldier intends to carry out a justified, lawful order. In both cases, the soldier fires and the victim dies, but the first act seems morally worse.

(Plausible rejoinder: It isn't the act that is worse here, it's the agent. I'm not sure how far that rejoinder goes.)

[2] In all cases where a morally neutral act causes a bad outcome, an act is morally worse if the agent intends for the bad outcome to occur for its own sake while fully realizing that it is bad than if the agent intends for a good outcome to occur that did not occur owing to circumstances that she had reason to think were unlikely to occur.

Example. Pressing a button is a morally neutral act. Consider two agents. The first thinks that by pressing a given button, she delivers a lethal dose of poison to a hospital patient. The second thinks that by pressing a given button, she delivers a life-saving antidote to a hospital patient. But unbeknownst to the second agent, the antidotes were mislabeled and what the button press will deliver in this case is actually a lethal dose of poison. In both cases, the patient dies, but the first act seems morally worse.

These are, of course, very stilted, academic principles and illustrative examples. But I think that with some effort, we could probably come up with better principles and better illustrative examples.
posted by Jonathan Livengood at 4:11 PM on May 18, 2015


I'm mainly familiar with Harris through his book The Moral Landsape. What's strange and sad to me is that the position Harris advances seems to align with Chomsky's points about the Al-Shifa strike. Strange, because the two are not in agreement. Sad, because it suggests to me that Harris' thinking is clouded by outrage or contempt.

Here is how the book blurb on Harris' own website describes his argument in The Moral Landscape:
Harris urges us to think about morality in terms of human and animal well-being, viewing the experiences of conscious creatures as peaks and valleys on a “moral landscape.” Because there are definite facts to be known about where we fall on this landscape, Harris foresees a time when science will no longer limit itself to merely describing what people do in the name of “morality”; in principle, science should be able to tell us what we ought to do to live the best lives possible.
My understanding of Harris' argument is essentially that well-being and suffering can be described (and, if not quantified, at least qualified) based on empirical observation. Furthermore, Harris asserts that moral actions are those that increase well-being; amoral actions are those that reduce well-being.

In advancing this idea, Harris separates the moral value of an action from the actor's moral responsibility. He essentially argues that the actor's intent is primarily important because it is a predictor of whether that actor is likely to cause additional harm in the future:
If the accused appears unrepentant and anxious to kill again, we need entertain no notions of free will to consider him a danger to society ... Clearly, we need to build prisons for people who are intent upon harming others. But if we could incarcerate earthquakes and hurricanes for their crimes, we would build prisons for them as well. (pp 108-109)
In other words, intent is a useful predictor of future harms, and steps should be taken to prevent people from committing future acts of premeditated violence. However, the focus on negative intent is merely a practical issue. When possible, measures should be taken to prevent harmful but well-intentioned actions. Elsewhere, he correlates an actor's moral responsibility for the "outrage" we feel, but additionally states that "our retributive impulse is profoundly flawed."

Following Harris' logic, you could reasonably conclude that outrage is not helpful, especially when it clouds our ability to deter future harmful actions.

And yet, in his exchange with Chomsky, here is how Harris concludes his quoted passage from The End of Faith:
If we want to draw conclusions about ethics—as well as make predictions about what a given person or society will do in the future—we cannot ignore human intentions. Where ethics are concerned, intentions are everything.
And this is where Harris deviates from the core beliefs he professes in The Moral Landscape. Intentions are not everything. What actually matters is the likelihood of future harmful acts. The actor's intention is only a proxy indicator of likelihood.

(Incidentally, Harris makes a similar mistake in his debate with Bruce Schneier. He repeatedly confuses the proxy indicator, "looking Muslim," with what he believes is an actual indicator, "being Muslim.")

If we would imprison earthquakes for their harmful effects, then we should be ethically bound to imprison well-intentioned but harmful humans. Suppose President Clinton expresses no remorse for the Al-Shifa strike: Harris' ethics demand that the strike be treated as an impeachable offense, because his good intentions are likely to cause additional harm in the future.

Let me try to wrap this up. If Harris is given a soapbox, his professed ethics system should steer him toward a morally correct action: Do what he can to improve well-being and reduce suffering. Harris is unlikely to have any significant influence on the ethics systems of other cultures. Rather than cast blame at Muslim ethics, Harris should advocate for a guiding philosophy of radical peace here in the United States.

And yet, Harris seems far more interested in who to condemn and how loudly to condemn them. This suggests to me one of two things: That he has not embraced his own philosophy, or that his passionately felt sense of outrage is responsible for an enormous intellectual blind spot.
posted by compartment at 4:18 PM on May 18, 2015 [11 favorites]


I've enjoyed watching Sam Harris' practiced manner of putting away your bog standard variety of rabble-rousing Evangelical huckster, and that's fun in a cheap applause line sort of way but it's not an achievement : con artists and demagogues are not the same sort of opponent as informed, thoughtful career academics and intellectuals. And a discussion like this one is not comparable to a topic he's capable of breezily disposing of like "is the Bible literally true?" or "Are the ten commandments a good and sufficient basis for civilization?"

In the same way working out on the heavy bag doesn't prepare you for the boxing ring, he's being absurd to think that being a star on the punch-a-preacher circuit makes him a leading intellectual on whatever he chooses to turn his hand to.
posted by George_Spiggott at 5:05 PM on May 18, 2015 [8 favorites]


I didn't fully catch what their disagreement was about, but I think the significance of the debate is that Chomsky seems to hold the title of academic left mainstream, but is bitterly defending himself and sticking with the old material. Chomsky even highlighted any mention of atrocities as though one needed a special understanding to appreciate them for being worse than they might appear, and even made this point at least once with Bill Clinton. But this exchange is not happening in a vacuum. Chomsky needs defending and needs exchanges like this to clarify himself because he was once an outspoken denier of Cambodian genocide, repeatedly minimizing the scope, scale and the blame. He even continued until the late eighties, and only until the nineties did he acknowledge it as the great act of genocide it was (though qualifying it as an outpouring of fury). If Harris had ever made the same mistake, the Chomsky in this debate would not have spared him the details.
posted by Brian B. at 5:25 PM on May 18, 2015 [1 favorite]


So let me make sure I understand these comments: HARRIS BAD!!!!!!
posted by tunewell at 5:27 PM on May 18, 2015 [1 favorite]


I have never been able to swallow Chomsky's politics because in some general way the ratio of crypto-conspiracism to ordinary benightedness, failure, etc. just doesn't fit the world for me--it's like whether you believe more in a House of Cards universe or a Veep one. Or something. And he is all monologue to be sure. But it wasn't until that movie with Michel Gondry that it really struck me how poorly Chomsky picks up up other people in some ways. There's lots of trademark Chomskian micro-tantrums and refocusings in that movie, and no doubt due to some language barrier, and Gondry talking like the whimsical creative artist he is and all, but it was really striking how many times Chomsky misunderstood Gondry's questions, interests, etc., and made me wonder if he might be on the autism spectrum or some such.

That said, I can't imagine what Harris was trying to accomplish here. They both come off as colossal dickheads.
posted by batfish at 5:36 PM on May 18, 2015 [2 favorites]


And he is all monologue to be sure.


This.

I'm not saying Chomsky wasn't right or smarter than Harris but he meanders in his explanations and has zero common touch. He doesn't seem to have the ability to engage in dialogue when he has to listen and attempt to understand that other person's point of view.

I understand the idea of not suffering fools gladly, but he is a wall.
posted by tunewell at 6:00 PM on May 18, 2015 [2 favorites]


Do what he can to improve well-being and reduce suffering

Ironically in Harris' case, this phrase is a basic marker of consequentialist ethics. For Harris to discuss "intention" over and over (and make a hash of treating it in utilitarian terms) is to abandon the significant school of thought that took intention-based ethics furthest: virtue ethics, which goes all the way back to Aristotle (which Harris would have known had he not dismissed it all as too boring to bother with). There's even room there to basically dismiss collateral damage as immaterial, so long as, say, Clinton was clearly presidenting as presidentially as possble.

So let me make sure I understand these comments: HARRIS BAD!!!!!!

I see you've been to the Sam Harris School Of Rhetorical Technique.
posted by fatbird at 6:18 PM on May 18, 2015 [13 favorites]


"Most of us are not pacifists." One of the broadest and unsupported generalizations I have seen in a while, in "respectable" print.

The rescue of migrants adrift at sea by poor, Iindonesian fishermen, the sharing of their homes, with the dispossessed. Indonesian fishermen displayed considerably more humanity than the organized governments of Myanmar, Thailand, Bangladesh and the rest. Harris tried to make some point about moral supremacy, what moral supremacy in comparison to whom? Muslims? Poor uneducated people? Then he goes so far as to agree with many of Chomsky's points. So if Harris wants a public education, maybe he should pay for a class from Mr. Chomsky. Harris is frustratingly uninformed, but making money writing.

This is as if a third grader tried to debate the principal and expected a dialogue between peers.
posted by Oyéah at 6:23 PM on May 18, 2015


"Most of us are not pacifists." One of the broadest and unsupported generalizations I have seen in a while, in "respectable" print.

...is it your contention that most of us are, in fact, pacifists?
posted by Pope Guilty at 6:25 PM on May 18, 2015


In this nation we are expected to behave as pacifists to succeed in school, sports being the outlet for aggression. We expect to walk down the street in safety, we try to teach peaceful behavior at home. We would like to have good days, generally those are productive, joyous, or satisfying and I generally think bad days are emotionally wracking.

I would say we would like to live in peace.
posted by Oyéah at 7:34 PM on May 18, 2015 [2 favorites]


...is it your contention that most of us are, in fact, pacifists?

The rest of us are Atlanteans. It's just a matter of surface area and probability.
posted by George_Spiggott at 9:41 PM on May 18, 2015 [1 favorite]


I think a few people here need a reality check on Chomsky. He seems to really believe the communist dogma he vigorously defends but carefully avoids advocating. But don't take my word for it, examine below a so-called non-expert who reviewed his body of work and seems to be able to challenge him at will, especially when it touches on Chinese communist abuses which Chomsky defends to Americans. Note that Chomsky is not a historian, but that is his persona in literature.

http://www.russilwvong.com/future/chomsky.html

Perhaps the biggest problem I have with Chomsky is that he's an unreliable source of historical information (and because of what he says about the self-brainwashing of US intellectuals, the reader isn't highly motivated to go look at other sources). In particular, as a reader, I usually assume that if a writer provides a selective quote from someone else, it should provide a reasonably accurate summary of what the other person said.

Chomsky doesn't appear to adhere to this rule.

This means that it's necessary to check his references very carefully. I assume not everyone who reads Chomsky does this.

Orwell describes the phenomenon of extreme partisan writing in "Notes on Nationalism":

Much of the propagandist writing of our time amounts to plain forgery. Material facts are suppressed, dates altered, quotations removed from their context and doctored so as to change their meaning. Events which it is felt ought not to have happened are left unmentioned and ultimately denied.
["Notes on Nationalism" (1945)]

Chomsky doesn't alter dates or deny events occurred, but he does appear to omit material facts and take quotations out of context.

As Stanley Hoffman puts it in a 1969 letter to the New York Review of Books: Chomsky has a tendency

to draw from an author's statements inferences that correspond neither to the author's intentions nor to the statements' meaning ...
[http://www.nybooks.com/articles/11370]

I assume (given Chomsky's intellectual stature) that he's not being consciously dishonest, that it's simply an example of William James's observation about one's existing beliefs driving one's interpretation of evidence. But in Chomsky's case, it seems pretty extreme.

posted by Brian B. at 10:37 PM on May 18, 2015 [2 favorites]


I would say we would like to live in peace.

I would argue that our foreign policy that is constructed by the politicians that we elect would say otherwise.

How many nations are we conducting military operations in currently? Our nations foreign policy is not one of pacifists.

Just because we don't brawl in the street doesn't make us a peaceful nation.
posted by el io at 10:45 PM on May 18, 2015


In this nation we are expected to behave as pacifists...

The national orgasm at the annual Super Bowl military flyover suggests otherwise.
posted by Lyme Drop at 10:57 PM on May 18, 2015


I think the most interesting thing about Sam Harris is the amount of time people spend attacking arguments he doesn't make and positions he doesn't appear to hold. It seems that there is some really powerful pattern matching going on.
posted by arbitrarywords at 11:28 PM on May 18, 2015


Harris is a doofus and no one requires that Chomsky respond helpfully or without anger, but I've seen of lot of classroom dynamics like this, and perhaps because I see Chomsky (perhaps incorrectly) as the dominant figure coming into this exchange, I'm a little saddened by how he was willing to write 10K words of response without much effort to actually put those words to much use. What was Chomsky trying to accomplish in this exchange? Why was he bothering with these emails? I'd pay real money to get Harris's ear for a few thousand words and try to make him a slightly better person, even if I think the chance of persuading him of anything was fairly minimal; at the very least, if I was forced to talk with him for 10K words, I'd try to get something out of it instead of just rolling my eyes vigorously for a few hours.

Moreover, in Chomsky's dismissal, he repeatedly elides "intentions" with "professed intentions"; claims that the latter are unbelievable (true) and the former unknowable (false); and resists efforts to make general moral arguments about intention while nevertheless often doing so:

As I’ve discussed for many years, in fact decades, benign intentions are virtually always professed, even by the worst monsters, and hence carry no information, even in the technical sense of that term...

As for (1), I have been discussing it for 50 years, explaining in detail why, as we all agree, such professed intentions carry little if any weight, and in fact are quite uninformative, since they are almost entirely predictable...

while you have completely failed to address “the basic questions” about the significance of professed intentions (about actual intentions we can only guess).

As for intentions, there is nothing at all to say in general.


No one, even Harris, puts much stock in "professed intentions" -- this is a straw man. And while it is certainly true that "There can be no general answer" (straw man), it is not remotely the case that there is "nothing at all to say in general" about intentions. In fact, Chomsky makes some very general claims:

I suggested what I think: that one might argue that on moral grounds, (b) [murderous disregard] is even more depraved than (a) [intentional murder].

As for the specifics of intentions, no one is arguing about "sincere intentions" (a term Chomsky employs, only to critique; another straw man), nor is the relevant notion here "good intentions" in some banal sense. The question of intention is an intentional one (in the philosophical sense): what were the thoughts, intended outcomes, and moral concepts in the mind of the actor. This is the same sense that intention is used in almost every moral system including throughout our legal system, and it has nothing to do with sincerity or some simplistic sense that the actor feels himself to be doing good in the world. These actual, non-professed, cryptic but discoverable intentions matter to Chomsky even in this specific debate:

It is inconceivable that in that brief interim period evidence was found that it was a chemical weapons factory, and properly evaluated to justify a bombing. Plainly, if there had been evidence, the bombing would not have (just by accident) taken place immediately after the Embassy bombings (along with bombings in Afghanistan at the same time, also clearly retaliation). There’s no rational way to explain this except by assuming that he intentionally bombed what was known to be Sudan’s major pharmaceutical plant

He is quite right that the bombing was clearly in retaliation, but that doesn't at all mean that "he intentionally bombed what was known to be Sudan's major pharmaceutical plant." As Harris (poor soul) rather earnestly points out:

(Is it really "inconceivable" that the government already believed it to be a chemical weapons factory?)

The idea that the timing was a coincidence is again a straw man, and the robust defense of Clinton is that, like all presidents, Clinton has at any given time a long list of potential military targets, and merely chose one off the list to retaliate against. There is no question Clinton knew the likely collateral damage and either disregarded it or considered the costs worth the payoffs; and it is quite likely that Clinton knew it was also a pharmaceutical plant. Whether Clinton genuinely believed it to also be a chemical weapons factory is, though, also a relevant question. In some ways, that question no more gets Clinton off the hook than does the question of whether Bush genuinely believed there were WMDs in Iraq. Even if Bush did, that belief was based on a combination of imbecility and self-deception that is potentially (and here I make a Chomsky-esque move) even worse than both (a) intentional murder or (b) careless disregard. And perhaps a similar change can be leveled at Clinton. But still, that intent -- even of a state, even of a cipher like a President -- does quite plausibly matter. And continually eliding it to "professed intent", dismissing the idea of generalization, and claiming that actual intents are unknowable is all weirdly unhelpful, in the "why is he bothering with this if it makes him so mad" way. Harris deserves stomping, but like Gates stooping to pick up a $100 bill, I don't know why Chomsky bothers -- particularly if it's just to throw the bill in the trash.
posted by chortly at 11:43 PM on May 18, 2015 [5 favorites]


(On the other hand, why did I myself bother with that long exegesis just now? Clearly there's some sort of compulsion at work in these things...)
posted by chortly at 11:46 PM on May 18, 2015 [1 favorite]


Chomsky bothers because he tends to reply to his email, as a couple of people in the thread have noted. It isn't like he buttonholed Harris and wouldn't let him escape -- Harris kept coming back for more. I also suspect that for Chomsky writing a series of responses like this is about as significant an investment of time and effort as watching a cat video for us lesser mortals. Even if you think Chomsky comes off like an unhelpful jerk in this exchange, it hardly reflects badly on him that he responded to all the emails Harris sent and then allowed Harris to publish the results.
posted by No-sword at 12:09 AM on May 19, 2015 [1 favorite]


I mean, Chomsky even warned Harris repeatedly that he (Harris) was out of his depth and that publishing the emails would not be a good idea!
posted by No-sword at 12:12 AM on May 19, 2015 [2 favorites]


I guess it's easy to take my question rhetorically, but mostly I was genuinely wondering. (I certainly don't give a damn about his tone or being mean to Harris or whatever.) Would Chomsky actually reply with a long series of exchanges if you or I wrote to him? And if so, is he doing it for self-entertainment (cat video), or does he have some objectives and intention (that word again!) for the exchange?
posted by chortly at 12:26 AM on May 19, 2015 [1 favorite]


I agree that Harris got too caught up in how shitty Chomsky was being to him. I really feel like some of the things people are dinging Harris for are things he knew were an issue, but he really was trying to engage in a dialogue. For instance, people fault him for sending him the long excerpt from his writing, but Chomsky says basically, "people sent me your lies about me" and Harris says, this isn't the tone I'd take in a conversation, but this is the only thing I've ever written about you. Where is it wrong? As a counter-paraphrase to ethansr's, it seemed more like the following to me.

SH: Hey, I asked some friends who know you to reach out to you to see if we could do a public conversation to clear the air. But it sounds like you thought I wanted a traditional debate, which I don't. I think it could be good, especially since it seems like you think I'm an asshole and I bet we have more in common than you think. Also, I want to correct any misconceptions I have.

NC: Maybe I'm wrong about you. All I know is what I read in the stuff people send me when you slander me and make me think you are an asshole. I'm not interested in hashing that out in public though. And don't be vague, Asshole.

SH: Cool. I'd really like it to be public though. If I'm way off and find out I've misread your views, it would be good for people to see how we work that out. We could so a phone call or via email. Think about it. Anyway, as for the slander, here's the only thing I ever wrote about you. I wouldn't use this tone in a conversation or exchange with you, but this is it. [Insert long excerpt from End of Faith.]

NC: See, now that's why I think you are an asshole and I'd never have a public discussion with you. Here's an excerpt from a passage that you misrepresented. [Insert short excerpt from 9/11] You say I didn't address intention, but I did elsewhere [insert short excerpt from Radical Priorities]. And by the way, you should have answered the rhetorical question in my book. So, you are wrong. I did think about intentions and I wrote about 2 years later. Point me anyplace I was as wrong about you as you are about me (setting aside the places where I might call you immoral or an asshole).

SH: Whoah. Can we start over? I didn't read that second book. But the stuff you quote from the 9-11 book still seems to me to be ignoring intentions. I'll answer your rhetorical question thusly: it depends on intent. Here are two hypothetical intents and what I would think of them. Intent is all-important.

NC: Send this to some grownups. Why don't you just apologize for being wrong? I did address intentions. I can't believe you tried to attack in me in print without reading all of my stuff first. You are really shabby. I I did address intentions and my point is that people's stated intentions aren't really important. You really aren't very good or serious. I've written a ton of books you should have read before trying to talk shit about me. And by the way, the Bill Clinton is a war criminal and incredibly immoral and George W. Bush was a religious zealot at least as bad as ISIS and Al Qaeda. Oh my god, you are just the worst ever, whoever you are. If you aren't going to stop being so useless and terrible, maybe for grins you could tell your readers (ok, me, since I want this all private) just what do you think Clinton bombed that Al Shifa plant for if it wasn't to kill innocents and ruin everything always and everywhere? Also: you are an asshole.

SH: What is wrong with you? Did I wake you from a nap or something? Jeesh! Why are you being such a prick?I'm not going to answer your stupid question, because you haven't answered my question first. You say I misrepresented it, then you go along and prove my point by going apeshit on Clinton like you just couldn't help yourself. You really think that intention doesn't count?

NC: No, you still misunderstand me, dummy. I am saying Clinton bombed the plant as a retaliation for the embassy bombings as a show of force. He did it knowing that there would be enormous (eventual) casualties, because he doesn't care about Africans any more than he cares about ants. It's worse than Al Qaeda bombing the twin towers because at least Al Qaeda knew they were treating those people they murdered like people, not ants. Now, it seems obvious you won't retract what you said about me, so we can't have a public conversation. And you won't tell me where I've been wrong about you (other than the part about you being immoral and an asshole--that seems undeniable at this point).

SH: Sigh. You are making me sad. You've never written anything about me as far as I know. You did say some nasty stuff about me in a video..well, about me and Hitch. But, to asnwer the other question you think I did not answer--I think you are wrong about Clinton. I think he really did think there were chemical weapons there. Apparently I am wrong. What evidence do you have for that?

NC: Aha! I knew I'd never written about you. I'd have remembered that. Look, I already told you, Clinton bombed that plant for retaliation because, despite what he and everyone involved has said, I know his real motivations because otherwise he would have waited and because he had to known that in addition to the one person killed in the bombing, thousands would eventually die as a direct result. I always look at intentions and I am a better judge of intentions than those who took the actions are at judging those intentions.

SH: Wow, you really are a prick. We should send it to our mutual grownup friends so they can see what a prick you've been to me. Look, it seems to me that even given what you say of Clinton's bombing--assuming you know his real intentions--it is still not as bad as what Al Qaeda did on 9/11. Amirite?

NC: Let's review. You are nobody. You ask to clear up some misconceptions we have about each other, but I don;t know you from Adam. And then it turns out, jeeze, this is the guy who lied about me, that insignificant asshole. And I've never said a peep about you (since, as I've established, you are nobody). And then the one thing we can clear up, you double down on. To answer your stupid question: you can't take seriously people's professed intentions. OK? And as for whether or not Clinton is worse than Al Qaeda one could argue Clinton is (and that one is me and I'm asserting that Clinton is a monster who committed atrocities). But then, you are an asshole and wouldn't understand.

SH: Wow. What a meanie. Forget it. This haas been terrible. Sorry for wasting both our time.

NM: Now we can agree. You are asshole are the highest (and lowest) order. But really, doesn't George Bush suck?

SH: I get it, you win old man. Since you think you wiped the floor with me and I think you treated me like shit, how about you let me publish it?

NM: Whatever. This wasn't meant to be public, but I really don't care. I wouldn't, but I'm not an asshole. Maybe you are.

SH: Maybe I am.
posted by Cassford at 12:48 AM on May 19, 2015 [10 favorites]


Harris comes off about as well when he tries to do philosophy.

And Chomsky is amazingly smart.
posted by persona au gratin at 12:56 AM on May 19, 2015


I have read both examples in Wvong §3.5. The preceding §3.4 is also weak, but the author claims §3.5 as the damning critique of Chomsky, so I'll focus on this. Simply put, Wvong is wrong on both counts.

With the Viet Cong example, Wvong is so utterly lazy that his statements offend me, instinctively on purely intellectual grounds. First, he copies Huntington's rebuttal (which, incidentally, the point about the significance of the "next sentence" actually is cleverly left moot in the rebuttal), then picks one line out of Chomsky's verbose response without having to demonstrate any understanding whatsoever of the rebuttal. This is supposed to pass for the bad things Chomsky "appears" to do (note also this hedging). So it's Wvong who is actually guilty of the Orwellian cherry-picking/framing that he deplores, unwittingly and hypocritically.

In the Asiatic countries example (Kennan §VII, entitled "Far East"), Kennan's quotation, written in full, does indeed in my opinion espouse a morally repugnant worldview. So if Wvong's argument hinges on telling readers to read Kennen themselves… Well, I just did that, and by my own standards, Chomsky's critical summary of it passes as a perfectly appropriate reading. It's not so much that Chomsky changed the meaning of so-and-so's text; but more that the meaning of the text was pretty despicable despite the original author's intentions. And when Chomsky points this by highlighting the inconsistencies in the text as any intellectual criticism is supposed to do, you get reactions from people who can neither a) understand how to think critically, nor b) tolerate the cognitive dissonance of their "intentions" not matching people who have different mental models and resultant negative interpretations.

I've seen Wvong's page before, but after looking over this part I'd say he's simply not careful at working with texts which causes him to make these unrigorous not-useful associations.

Chomsky's activist oeuvre has had plenty of political critics. He is not above a healthy dose of skepticism and verification, but from a purely academic point of view, I just don't buy the existing standard criticisms. All the ones offered that I have seen are incoherent and logically improper, like Wvong's.
posted by polymodus at 1:20 AM on May 19, 2015 [3 favorites]


I don't have a strong opinion on Less Wrong, but when they were mentioned here on MeFi in a previous discussion I checked them out and was amused when I saw them advocating Bayesian reasoning as a mechanism for rationality in philosophy. “Amused” because I had a vision of my frequentist colleagues having strokes over Bayesianism going too far, and my AI colleagues having fits over it not going too far enough and evangelizing about Dempster-Shafer theory or fuzzy probability theory.

In principle I approve of using formal methods to try to make better, more rational decisions. In practice I worry about them using methods that aren't “messy” enough to grok reality, and falling to Engineer's Desease; modeling the global economy as a linear optimization problem and putting all their retirement savings in nickles or something.
posted by traveler_ at 1:40 AM on May 19, 2015 [1 favorite]


It seems like we could generate a general theory of intentions in the way that Harris suggests: by articulating a hierarchy of harms. This is why torts are punished less punitively than criminal negligence, which is dealt with less punitively than intentional criminality.

But why should we want that? In point of fact, people do more harm in the world through negligence and benign intention than they do through deliberate evil. So a consequentiality review of our hierarchy of intentions would force us to adopt Chomsky's preferred account, where collateral damage is worse than murder, because collateral damage kills more innocents than sociopathy ever could.

Mere cruelty is sated and exhausted while the dutiful, disinterested bureaucrat continues to work dispatching his victims. Under conditions of modern warfare, the drone is worse than the beheading, but we're built wrong--our moral psychology is not calibrated to modernity--for realizing it.
posted by anotherpanacea at 5:42 AM on May 19, 2015 [3 favorites]


I mean, Chomsky even warned Harris repeatedly that he (Harris) was out of his depth and that publishing the emails would not be a good idea!

This is a basic fact of life for Harris. For example, Dan Dennett, his friend, reviewed his book on consciousness and said "Once again, Harris is ignoring a large and distinguished literature that defends this claim." That's the third or fourth time he says Harris hasn't read the basic literature just in that review. That he's ignorant of the basics in every field he dips his toes into is a consistent refrain in all the reviews I've read of his work. The only thing he is really good at is bleating about how there's no god - which hardly makes him special or worthy of attention. I mean he's literally sophomoric, in that he's never said or written anything publicly (I've never bought any of his work) that we all didn't say ourselves as college sophomores. I truly can't wrap my head around the fact of his broad popularity.
posted by mrbigmuscles at 6:09 AM on May 19, 2015 [11 favorites]


guess it's easy to take my question rhetorically, but mostly I was genuinely wondering. (I certainly don't give a damn about his tone or being mean to Harris or whatever.) Would Chomsky actually reply with a long series of exchanges if you or I wrote to him? And if so, is he doing it for self-entertainment (cat video), or does he have some objectives and intention (that word again!) for the exchange?

From my experience there is a good possibility he would. I posted up-thread about what happened with my friend.
We were just regular students. Average nobodies. That he replied was surprising and completely unexpected.

My friend is a pretty smart guy so maybe Chomsky saw 'something' that made him reply. I dunno. Can't even remember what they had a convo about though likely something around the War in Iraq as that was going on at the time. They ended up going back and forth a few times. I do remember that the emails were pretty substantial and not just a couple of lines. We talked about why he would reply and our only conclusion at the time was that he is just a really intellectually focused guy who just likes talking about ideas and is just super practiced at communicating in writing. My friend took several hours to write his emails, it was a labor. I expect Chomsky, as someone said above just wings this type of discourse off like it's nothing. He was really quick too. My friend got his first reply back the day after he sent it.

The whole thing was pretty wild.
posted by Jalliah at 6:39 AM on May 19, 2015


I am struck by how strange it is that anyone thinks that it's possible to steer Metafilter consensus away from someone by calling them a communist.

the people's site is blue and green, it's hosted oft our plated beans. and ere those beans grew stiff and cold, we've pondered well their every fold.
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 10:31 AM on May 19, 2015 [7 favorites]


Holy crap, I've just read that Harris vs Schneier piece.

Harris: Intro I hope will make me sound solemn.

Harris: What are the chances that any given terrorist will be Muslim?

Schneier: High. But oddly enough, and counter to intuition, that fact turns out not to be enormously important in the context of designing effective security systems.

Harris (with much handwaving): But, but, but, Muslims! Also, security's not as hard as you say it is.

Schneier: Actually it is, and here's why...

Harris: But let me change the subject for a minute. I don't want to talk about racial profiling any more. Let's talk about behavioral profiling instead.

Schneier: Could we perhaps stick to the point?

Harris: Naw. We already established that I disagree with you on that. Also, Israelis! That has to count for something, right?

(Schneier and Harris go back and forth for a while until Harris appears to be getting the first faint glimmer of a clue that he might be starting to understand Schneier's argument, whose patent correctness he clearly finds distressing)

Harris: Okay, I'm prepared to agree with you but I still think you're wrong.

Schneier: Next point. Modifying existing procedures using racial profiling does not improve their reliability, and here's why...

Harris: I think it would have to!

Schneier: No it doesn't, because X, Y, Z, A, B, C, chapter, verse....

and it just continues relentlessly in this vein for thousands and thousands of words, at the end of which Harris cherry-picks one or two caveats that Schneier has made in order to self-justify studiously ignoring the main thrust of his argument.

For a man who so loudly trumpets his own New Atheism, Sam Harris displays a huge degree of attachment to his own assumptions, and precious little insight into the fact that people who do things for a living could reasonably be expected to know more about those things than he does.

He's a blowhard and a lightweight, and I for one have now lost all desire to pay him any further attention. Chomsky was far more courteous to him than he deserved.
posted by flabdablet at 11:30 AM on May 19, 2015 [11 favorites]


Is this "new atheism" thing about "thyself as God?" Kinda sounds like it, but I'm unfamiliar.
posted by rhizome at 11:38 AM on May 19, 2015


I believe "new atheism" is basically an attempt to claim Western society, particularly the former British empire, is A-OK even if it has some people who think the Christian Bible is literally true (and, let me tell you, they take great joy in dismantling and belittling people who argue that it is), but we really need to do something about Islam, which is inherently bad.

Something about people like this Harris fellow misunderstanding or assigning ill intentions to entire cultures and Dawkins claiming to be "culturally Christian" while an atheist and also making the odd comment about "minor pedophilia" or being incensed that an atheist woman might think atheist men mistreated her. That's new atheism, I think.
posted by mikeh at 11:45 AM on May 19, 2015 [3 favorites]


New atheists are people who really hate God but really love American foreign policy, especially when the latter involves indiscriminately bombing Mohammedans.

That's just my opinion, though. A less partial view may be found here.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 11:53 AM on May 19, 2015 [5 favorites]


> I think a few people here need a reality check on Chomsky. He seems to really believe the communist dogma he vigorously defends but carefully avoids advocating.

Chomsky's an anarchist (anarcho-syndicalist or libertarian socialist), not a communist. Russel Vong, who you linked to, recognizes this and understands the distinction, though he disagrees with Chomsky's politics:
From what I can tell, Chomsky believes that capitalist democracy is fundamentally unjust. Creating a just society requires radical change, even revolutionary change, to bring about true socialism -- based on popular control rather than state control -- and this can only be done through popular struggle, not by reforming the existing system. This is similar to Marx's critique of capitalism, but Chomsky is also anti-Leninist ... He believes that we can learn a great deal from the Spanish anarchist movement ...
He follows with a couple direct quotes from Chomsky about this.

I don't think this is a completely accurate description of Chomsky's political beliefs, but it's not far off and at least in the ball park. Vong's clearly read some of his books and understood what he was saying.

Chomsky has never been shy about advocating beliefs he actually holds. He's never 'vigorously defended' communist dictatorships; he's been pretty clear about his opposition to dictatorships, communist or otherwise.
posted by nangar at 12:07 PM on May 19, 2015 [3 favorites]


I don't think this is a completely accurate description of Chomsky's political beliefs

If anyone wants a concise distillation of Chomsky's political philosophy, I suggest you read his Government in the Future (or listen to it).
posted by Noisy Pink Bubbles at 12:55 PM on May 19, 2015 [4 favorites]


Since no-one's mentioned the Foucault debate yet, I'll just leave this here.
posted by aspersioncast at 1:02 PM on May 19, 2015 [2 favorites]


New atheists are people who really hate God but really love American foreign policy

Could someone explain this, really? I mean, I've always felt a distance from the new atheists but never understood the reason. Yet this actually does seem to describe something at work here that I don't understand.

Dennett's no fan of American policy (foreign or domsteic), though, so that might explain why I like him.
posted by anotherpanacea at 2:00 PM on May 19, 2015 [1 favorite]


Could someone explain this, really?

Hitchens and Harris (mainly) have both managed to effectively derail new Atheism in some people's minds by entangling their espousal of it with a fairly rancid and brain-dead flavor of Islamophobia. (And I say this as someone who doesn't automatically toss out the word "islamophobia" on the least pretext.) Ayaan Hirsi Ali contributes to this as well but she's a pretty special case and for reasons I could write pages about I'd consider her separately. In Hitch's case it's of a piece with his perplexing and often deeply intellectually dishonest lockstep with the Bush administration on so many issues post-9/11; and with Harris I have some reason to suspect it's down to him being pro-Israel, but I haven't explored that too deeply.

But as far as I'm concerned this is entirely on them. I have brown hair and fart in elevators but that doesn't mean that having brown hair is about farting in elevators. Reminds me of how I've heard several music buffs say that Kenny G. has ruined the soprano sax for them. Never mind Coltrane and Sanborn and Marsalis, etc. I guess.
posted by George_Spiggott at 2:15 PM on May 19, 2015 [1 favorite]


I don't think he quite says this, and in fact, says something close to the opposite, when he essentially says that bombing despite being aware that people will die and not caring is worse than actively trying to kill them, in that the former is treating people like ants that can be stepped on without consequence.

Which I note, should be a very familiar philosophy for those who've read any of Terry Pratchett's more engaged Discworld novels: treating people as things is the worst you can do in his worldview too.
posted by MartinWisse at 2:31 PM on May 19, 2015


treating people as things is the worst you can do in [Terry Pratchett's] worldview too.

A view that descends from Immanuel Kant's categorical imperative, "Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in that of another, always at the same time as an end and never merely as a means."
posted by Rangi at 2:38 PM on May 19, 2015 [2 favorites]


And of course Chomsky never denied nor approved of the Cambodian genocide: what he did and continues to do is show how it was a consequence of the American on Vietnam as it was exported to Cambodia and Laos, how the US after Vietnam invaded Cambodia to put an end to the genocide (and also because Pol Pot was threatening his own invasion) threw its weight behind the remnants of Pol Pot's government to the point of letting them keep their chair in the UN and finally, how the Nixonian bombardments of Cambodia and Laos are shoved under the carpet when you focus solely on what happened after Pol Pot came to power, while reminding the reader that these bombardments were of a similar magnitude of awfullness as the genocide and only not classified as crimes against humanity because it was the US that carried them out.

In general of course Chomsky is justifiably skeptical regarding the ritual denouncing of whatever the official enemies of the US are up to now, seeing it as his duty as an American citizen to criticise his own government, rather than playing his part in their propaganda machine.
posted by MartinWisse at 2:42 PM on May 19, 2015 [7 favorites]


someone was discussing the problem they have with E. Yudkowsky and the LessWrong "rationalist" crowd

i like CRS' dismissal: "watching self-proclaimed 'rationalists' cowering in superstitious fear..."
posted by kliuless at 2:46 PM on May 19, 2015 [2 favorites]


"watching self-proclaimed 'rationalists' cowering in superstitious fear..."

Meh. If Pascal's Wager can be taken seriously as a philosophical argument for centuries, a souped-up version that doesn't depend on religious assumptions should also be worthy of consideration. The precise reasons why acausal blackmail is not a problem are more subtle than you'd think; it's not enough to dismiss it as "haha, look at those nerds afraid of imaginary things."
posted by Rangi at 3:35 PM on May 19, 2015 [1 favorite]


How have we gotten on to LessWrong in this thread? What does it (or Yudkowsky) have to do with Harris and Chomsky?
posted by Jonathan Livengood at 5:07 PM on May 19, 2015


According to LessWrong's ethics is it even wrong to kill millions of people? As long as you personally benefit and it doesn't damage the gene pool? How do their ethics work anyway? I think Harris may be right that Chomsky can't escape intention entirely, but it is a very minor point that does not do much damage to Chomsky's arguments. Any non-evil system of ethics is ultimately metaphysical.
posted by Golden Eternity at 5:27 PM on May 19, 2015


How do their ethics work anyway?

From what little I've read, they're pretty much strict utilitarians. Is it wrong to kill millions? Not if doing so allows millions + 1 to live/flourish/survive/etc.
posted by fatbird at 7:26 PM on May 19, 2015


How have we gotten on to LessWrong in this thread?

Wretch729 compared their method of argument (selectively advocating for one side of a debate and implying that most people only believe the other side because they're irrational) to that of Harris and other "new atheists." Can't say whether this template really is typical of either group, but I will note that the top post on Less Wrong by votes is a detailed critique of the Singularity Institute, and that at least one member of Less Wrong is quite capable of persuasively describing his opponents' arguments before completely taking them apart. Personally, I would much prefer to argue with them about a typically-held position, like the dangers of AI or the validity of many-worlds in quantum mechanics, than to argue with an atheist about political or religious topics. (Partly because people get more passionate and less reasonable about politics and religion, the exact two areas that distinguish "new atheists" from other people.)
posted by Rangi at 7:40 PM on May 19, 2015


>treating people as things is the worst you can do in [Terry Pratchett's] worldview too.

>A view that descends from Immanuel Kant's categorical imperative, "Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in that of another, always at the same time as an end and never merely as a means."


See also: Instrumental rationality, at the feet of which much of the mess our modern world finds itself in can be laid, I reckon.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 8:28 PM on May 19, 2015


Instrumental rationality does not mean using people as instruments. It means, given that you want to achieve a goal (for reasons determined by your own values and morals, which could be Kantian), how should you achieve it? Finding the best way requires instrumental rationality. If you value human life and want to, say, prevent terrorist attacks, techniques of instrumental rationality will tell you whether screening Muslims at airports is an effective way of doing so. (Spoiler: it isn't.) Instead, someone thinking rationally might come up with strong bulkheads sealing the passengers from the pilot, or trained security guards among the passengers.

Compare with epistemic rationality, which is about arriving at true beliefs. The difference between the two types can result in "rational irrationality," where someone has legitimate goal-oriented reasons to not have maximally true beliefs. For example, the effort of answering some question might exceed the benefit of the answer:
That any civilized human being in this nineteenth century should not be aware that the earth travelled round the sun appeared to be to me such an extraordinary fact that I could hardly realize it.

“You appear to be astonished,” [Sherlock Holmes] said, smiling at my expression of surprise. “Now that I do know it I shall do my best to forget it.”

“To forget it!”

“You see,” he explained, “I consider that a man's brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose. A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort that he comes across, so that the knowledge which might be useful to him gets crowded out, or at best is jumbled up with a lot of other things so that he has a difficulty in laying his hands upon it.
A Study in Scarlet
posted by Rangi at 9:12 PM on May 19, 2015 [2 favorites]


I'm aware of what the term means. And you are exactly right that "It means, given that you want to achieve a goal (for reasons determined by your own values and morals, which could be Kantian), how should you achieve it? Finding the best way requires instrumental rationality" except there can be and too often is a problem with the word 'best'.

Instrumental reason gave us corporations who were willing to design and build the 'best' (that is, most efficient, goal-focussed) ways to commit industrial-scale genocide during the Nazi era. It gave us the world's biggest arms merchant selling weapons to groups and nations who then, almost without fail, turn around and use them against the merchant nation and its allies.

The problem I gestured at is that instrumental reason, when the Important Actors are corporations and nation-states, leads down a path where the goals can be and frequently are utterly divorced from any kind of ethical calculus, Kantian or otherwise.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 9:21 PM on May 19, 2015 [1 favorite]


All true. I should have said that the reason non-human actors like corporations and states have amoral/immoral goals is not because they're instrumentally rational, and that a moral human would also need instrumental rationality to be effective—but it sounds like you agree with me there.
posted by Rangi at 9:38 PM on May 19, 2015 [2 favorites]


And of course Chomsky never denied nor approved of the Cambodian genocide:

It is often claimed that he said it was American propaganda at the time, later suggesting the low estimates were based on known evidence at the time, which is a blatant contradiction if true. But it's only the beginning of a flawed worldview, one which suggests a rarefied external locus of control, where hidden forces control everything. A true genius can find compelling ways to make it all seem obvious and real, but reality has bigger plans. The federated peasant or worker revolution he imagines would be religious in nature in most places, or even fascist, and the intellectuals would be hard pressed to find a union to join anyway. This frees them to form a government, and when the same paranoia that spawned it begins to fight for its existence, the fantasy switches to a nightmare, because pre-emptive violence was justified in the beginning from intellectual provocation alone. What interests me more is the demagoguery along the way, of course.
posted by Brian B. at 11:16 PM on May 19, 2015


Chomsky's position on Cambodia is that US news sources like the New York Times paid more attention to communist massacres than to capitalist massacres and the massacres of US client states. Which was true.
posted by anotherpanacea at 5:20 AM on May 20, 2015 [1 favorite]


The problem is whether the massacres have intellectual authorship, for lack of a better term. Capitalism is impersonal, mostly non-caring. But communism etc. pretends to care, and is very personal and might even interrogate you to find out what you think if you don't show off enough. After each revolution proves Chomsky wrong, especially the secular ones, only denial is expected. Chomsky seems to think it is morally better when the people who kill you have a hand in it, rather than impersonal bombs or disease. I disagree. When too many strangers are concerned about your thoughts, seek safe haven immediately.
posted by Brian B. at 8:04 AM on May 20, 2015


I don't think that Chomsky believes that the US has done more harm than communism. I think he believes that we're especially responsible for the harm the US does, because we're actually immensely powerful as citizens if we are willing to get off our asses.

In that context, Chomsky says that detailing the crimes of communists (and ignoring our own crimes) is about deflecting attention and keeping us on our asses. Chomsky then worries about moral equivalence because there's a clear moral inequality between things I do and things you do: I can't stop you but I can stop myself. And he worries about inattention and own-side bias.

I also think what I wrote above is true, though I'm not sure if it is an accurate characterization of Chomsky's own views: hatred doesn't kill nearly as many innocent people as indifference and good intentions. The Nazis needed lots of people who didn't personally detest Jews to help the antisemitic Germans commit the genocide. We Americans needed lots of people who tell themselves they're helping Iraqis to assist the Islamophobes kill innocents there.

But that last is me, not exactly Chomsky.
posted by anotherpanacea at 8:13 AM on May 20, 2015 [8 favorites]


Capitalism is impersonal, mostly non-caring. But communism etc. pretends to care, and is very personal and might even interrogate you to find out what you think if you don't show off enough.

[falls into the River Plate]
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 8:18 AM on May 20, 2015


yeah, I can't say I've studied him that deeply, but it's always felt to me that if Chomsky happened to have born in Soviet Russia, he would have focused on skewering that particular worldview as opposed to America's. Likewise, Mao's China. Which isn't to say he would've survived as long in either of those cultures. Or certainly been permitted to speak as freely ...
posted by philip-random at 8:36 AM on May 20, 2015


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