Sunday, January 23, 2011

Russell Blackford on Sam Harris and Me

I've been discussing Sam Harris a bit at Russell Blackford's blog, Metamagician and the Hellfire Club. Russell's published a review of Sam's new book, The Moral Landscape, and he makes some very strong criticisms, all of which I agree with. Russell has also quite surprisingly and kindly drawn attention to me and Specter of Reason, even though he has suggested that I'm a bit too hard on Sam. I am indeed much more critical of Sam's recent work on moral philosophy.

I cannot help but worry about popular attitudes towards atheism and philosophy, and I don't think New Atheism has always and only been of help. Don't get me wrong. The New Atheists have done a lot that is good. But they have also done some harm, and I'm worried about their overall direction. Sam's recent work (his public appearances as well as his new book) may be the worst so far. It strikes me as both arrogant and ignorant (a dangerous combination), and exploitative of the intellectually impoverished times. Philosophy and atheism deserve better than this.

I used to defend Sam Harris' approach to atheism, even though I never agreed with him on many of the finer points. Now I find it impossible to support him. His recent work is an insult to philosophy and I can't see it doing any good. It will hopefully inspire other, more sophisticated thinkers (like Russell) to become more vocal. It may even help them attract a wider audience. But that is no reason to praise Sam's recent work. I wouldn't celebrate a famine which devastated an impoverished community just because it inspired long-overdue aid.

I am not happy that Sam Harris represents popular atheism. Of course, I appreciate the need for many voices. I wouldn't try to stop him from speaking or publishing--not like I could, anyway. But that doesn't mean I should pretend that I like it. It doesn't mean I should support him.

As I recently commented on Russell's blog:

'I was once very happy to see people like Harris and Dawkins lead the atheist movement, even though I would have done things a bit differently than them. But I'm afraid they have failed to give popular atheism the philosophical integrity it needs and deserves. They've turned off many would-be allies, and they've made it pretty easy for many people to use "New Atheism" as a pejorative. Maybe the current situation is the best we could hope for at this historical and cultural juncture, so maybe I shouldn't be too hard on them. But I do wish atheism had a better public voice.

I think the hullabaloo over Harris' new book is a product of the intellectual poverty of our times. When Harris dismisses the majority of moral philosophy, he is preaching to a choir of ignorance. The public has no patience or appreciation for philosophical sophistication. Perhaps they shouldn't, but neither should they act as if they knew better. It's the arrogance coupled with ignorance that is so damaging. The poor public opinion about philosophy may even be affecting our institutions of higher learning. Philosophy departments (even some of the best) are being gutted. I'm deeply concerned about atheism and philosophy, and as much as I respect what Harris has done in the past, I'm worried about how he might be affecting the future of both.'

I'm not sure how much Russell would agree with my concerns here. He hasn't been so explicit about it, but he has made a concerted effort to praise Sam's work in developing the New Atheist movement, and he strongly encourages pretty much everyone to buy Sam's new book. Russell has already admitted to a possible bias, though. He has a vested interest in seeing the market for such books improve. I wouldn't chalk too much up to bias, though. I'm sure he really does think there is enough value in Harris' book to warrant such a strong recommendation. Still, I wonder (at the risk of inappropriate speculation) if the bias might be in play a little bit. In any case, his review has not sold me on the book, but maybe that's because I'm a bit more familiar with the philosophical issues than Harris' intended audience.