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Lack of serious thinking from Sam Harris

by Greg Krehbiel on 12 February 2018

I tried to listen to a discussion between Sam Harris and Jordan Peterson over the weekend. I’m not going to link to the video because it’s stupid.

This discussion was apparently their second attempt. It starts off with both of them apologizing for how bad their first discussion was. Harris mentions that he had insisted on trying to resolve some epistemological question. It wasn’t “what is truth?” but it was something equally annoying. Harris said he didn’t see the point of moving on with the discussion until they first resolved how they were going to decide if something was true.

I always thought Harris was one of those types. I.e., very annoying. Such people approach a conversion like it’s a geometry problem, and it’s absurdly stupid. It’s on the order of stopping to define each word you use. I’ve seen that kind of behavior before (many, many times), and IMO it’s the sign of a personality disorder. You have to agree on terms to some extent, but there’s a type of person who takes it way too far.

Anyway, in response to a request from Harris, Peterson tried to come up with an evolutionary explanation of the idea of archetypes and ethical models (i.e., the ideal person we should look up to and try to emulate).

Harris probably wasn’t understanding what Peterson was saying, because he came back with this very weird analogy.

From an evolutionary perspective, you’re “successful” if you pass on your genes. So, Harris argued, those things (like some religions) that promote either celibacy or sexual restraint have to be mistakes — not proper developments from “success” —
and, if evolutionary principles affect our behavior, the most logical thing for men to do would be to devote all their energy to contributing to a sperm bank.

I started listening to the discussion with a low opinion of Harris, but that ….

The idea that successful evolutionary strategies translate directly into conscious human behavior is absurd, and Harris has to know that. Also, what’s “best for men” — considered in some abstract sense — is not necessarily what’s best for men in the real world. Men can’t succeed if they adopt a strategy that makes women fail.

Harris’ anti-religious agenda is clearly getting in the way of his thinking.

As I explain in Eggs are Expensive, Sperm is Cheap, there are lots of different types of selection and “successes” involved here, one of which is creating a culture that allows humans to thrive. For example, while celibacy — or, for that matter, exclusive homosexuality — is a dead end for that particular man’s genes, having a small number of people in either category might help to create a culture that promotes human flourishing.

Also, humans think about what they do. Just because “success” from an evolutionary perspective means passing along your genes, that does not mean that every human on the planet is obsessed with that goal, or is going to change his ambitions to conform with it.

Anyway, listen to Peterson, but I haven’t seen any reason to bother with Harris.

2018-02-12  »  Greg Krehbiel

Talkback x 7

  1. Ken Crawford
    12 February 2018 @ 9:42 am

    I have yet to find a New Atheist who is worth listening to, outside of trying to figure out what has to be argued against, so it’s no surprise Sam Harris had little to contribute.

  2. Greg Krehbiel Greg Krehbiel
    12 February 2018 @ 9:46 am

    That’s pretty much my experience.

  3. pentamom
    12 February 2018 @ 2:36 pm

    What an incredibly simplistic view. I don’t even buy this evolutionary behavior stuff, but a possible alternate explanation from an evolutionary point of view that comes to mind is that religions that emphasize celibacy for certain members somehow manage to align those who ought to be celibate, with those who would not improve the species by propagation. I am not saying religions actually do that, but I’m saying that I literally came up with that possibility before I got to the end of the paragraph about how Harris thinks religions that promote celibacy are an evolutionary “mistake,” and I’m not even motivated to defend evolution the way Harris is. In my mind that makes it clearly an anti-religious bias, that would jettison the principles of evolved behavior that Harris ought to be committed to, just to find another way to rule out religion as a viable development.

  4. Greg Krehbiel Greg Krehbiel
    12 February 2018 @ 2:45 pm

    Right. There are any number of ways to explain it. Harris just isn’t trying because he wants religion to be stupid, and he wants to make it seem unscientific and backwards and counter-factual.

  5. Robin R.
    12 February 2018 @ 3:25 pm

    I don’t get how evolution is to have any kind of normative implications at all.

  6. Greg Krehbiel Greg Krehbiel
    13 February 2018 @ 8:40 am

    @Robin, I don’t think either of them were saying that evolution has any normative implications. The question — as I understood it — was whether normative ethical principles can arise naturally out of an evolutionary understanding of the world, or whether they should be seen as an error.

    As an analogy, consider the fact that men (in general) prefer women with long hair. Is that something that can arise naturally out of an evolutionary understanding of the world, or is it some artificial thing that’s been imposed on us?

    The point is not whether evolution, per se, has normative implications, but whether things we might take to be normative (like ethics) can be seen to have developed in the context of an evolutionary understanding of history.

    Or, more precisely for their discussion, how the concept of God could have developed naturally.

  7. Robin R.
    13 February 2018 @ 10:47 am

    Nothing could interest me less than a couple of guys speculating on such matters.

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