How Sam Harris Became Sam Harris (plus, many a thought on terrorism and AI risk)

I honestly don’t understand this. How has Christopher Hitchens annoyed you? He certainly had strong views but they were always very cogently argued.

The problem with CH is that he was an asshole.


My overriding impression I took from him was that he spoke forcefully about things precisely because he thought they should be different. There is much in the world that is crap - one philosophy about this is to say we should improve it by addressing those problems head on, and if a few people are offended on the way, then that’s just the way it is.

I actually think there are better strategies to dealing with these problems, but then I’m not subject to FGM or genocide. For that reason, I can’t criticise CH for his approach because he’s done far more to challenge very serious global issues than I ever have.

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Sure, he did argue forcefully and with conviction for his apparent beliefs. But I think what matters is what a public figure says, not how they say it. And a huge part of what CH said, especially later in his life, was vile, mendacious horseshit.


You rather changed the meaning of what I said by removing most of the quotation, but putting that aside, what precisely was mendacious horseshit?

Well, you could just click on the link I provided. Here, it says in part:

Why was Hitchens an asshole? There’s his support for the vile and disastrous Iraq war. There’s his disgusting sexism; he believed that evolution had made women unfunny and that sexual harassment was largely invented (and as an aside, it’s bizarre that Hitchens could say the same kinds of things that Margaret Wente gets excorciated for, and yet Hitchens is considered a great writer and Wente is considered a windbag). There’s his pompous bigotry toward religious people, with examples being too numerous for it to be worth naming individual instances.

It even addresses what you’ve been praising (rather than directly citing anything he actually said) his widely admired, conviction-filled style:

Of all the things that Hitchens has been praised for, it seems his style is the primary focus. This is strange to me because of all the things one could criticse Hitchens for, I think his style has to be one of his greatest flaws. He seemed to revel in being ill-tempered, impatient, and generally difficult to deal with. This is a man who makes Richard Dawkins look humble. I have to think that Hitchens’ style makes him perhaps the worst ambassador that atheists in particular could ask for. He had no interest in trying to understand or engage with the other side, he just wanted to proclaim loudly how right he was and how wrong everyone else was.


Yeah, that sounds wonderful if you’re well connected and white. For people with brown skin and no connections? Not such a great deal at all.


When you hold up the Arab world as an example of backward looking, obsolete regime that needs a good spanking, it begs the question of how these hillbillies came onto the world stage in the first place. It was the oil under their feet, and not their imperialist ambitions, that brought them into the world’s attention, and Arab Muslims as a whole, have had very little say in how their contact with the west is handled.

To ignore this reality is intellectully dishonest. Racist, is the better term.


nope, it’s actually worked out pretty well for most people who’ve tried it on for size, regardless of ethnicity (and it’s certainly better than the alternatives). compare and contrast the two koreas, or turkey or israel vs. any other middle eastern country (though turkey is moving backwards in recent years, because it’s moving away from that standard), chile vs venezuela, and the current state of most former soviet satellite states speaks for itself.

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I have greatly enjoyed Sam Harris’ books and online talks. I take issue though with the meme that he is a neuroscientist. Yes he has a PhD in neuroscience, but to my knowledge, he was never a research scientist. Whenever I read “neuroscientist Sam Harris”, I get the feeling that the writer is arguing from authority. That is, somehow we’re supposed to listen more intently to what Harris has to say because of his previous life as a scientist.

I have a PhD (in physics), and I can attest that it is the bare minimum of deep understanding in a particular field. It’s the equivalent of graduating from a learners permit to a full drivers license. Yes you know more about driving then someone without a license, but far less than someone with years of driving experience. And if you never drive again after getting the license, do you really qualify as an expert?

I don’t know how much research Harris has done — he’s mentioned running fMRI studies — but I haven’t noticed him using his credentials dishonestly or arguing from authority. Compare this with Reza Aslan, a frequent Harris critic, who can’t open his mouth without mentioning that he’s a “professor of religion” and repeatedly using this as a rhetorical weapon despite it being a misleading representation of his credentials.

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Point taken but I couldn’t really care less about Aslan (and really anyone who studies the fantastical musings of long-dead pulp writers and charlatans). When someone starts using the word “scientist” though, I pay attention. In all fairness to Harris, it is probably his publisher and those introducing him at talks that emphasize the “neuroscientist Sam Harris” … and I maintain that they use this adjective to lather his writing in undeserved credence. Almost nothing of Harris’ popular writing requires an understanding of neuroscience.


Yeah, I’m getting paid by South Korea to undermine the heroic anti-imperialist struggle of DPRK.

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?


It boggles the mind that anyone thought Chomsky won that exchange, he came across as extremely arrogant and was totally unwilling to engage with Harris, probably why he failed to understand Harris’ argument at all, he just wasn’t listening to him.

The idea that “bad guys” think they’re “good guys” has nothing to do with the point Harris was making, of course everyone has subjective moral justifications for what they do, but he wasn’t concerned with that, when he talks about intentions he’s talking about the objective outcomes of people’s actions, and how they relate to their intentions.

The Nazi’s stated intent wasn’t at all “pure”, their stated intent was to remove Jews from their society. That they saw this as morally justifiable doesn’t mean it was. Harris’ moral philosophy is that it is possible to make objective moral judgements, he’s a consequentialist like Chomsky (though Harris doesn’t like the term himself), the difference is that Chomsky’s consequentialism is of a rather naive sort (and heavily dependant on his biases), Harris’ is far more nuanced.

If someone’s stated intent is to murder someone, and then they murder someone, then they say they’re going to murder someone else, it’s reasonable to assume they’re going to go through with it. If someone doesn’t have a stated intention to murder someone, but through carelessness or accident causes someone to die, it’s far less reasonable to assume they will kill someone else in the future.

The two situations are not morally equivalent, this is clear and well accepted, it’s the reason why most modern legal codes have a distinction between murder, manslaughter, and accidental death.

Chomsky knows all this of course, he’s not an idiot, he just uses it when it suits him (he was fine with discussing how he perceived Clinton’s intent in the Sudan bombing), but just handwaves it away when it doesn’t fit with his biases. He refused to admit it though as a general principle, which was what Harris actually wanted to talk about.

The fact of the matter is we can tell a lot about people’s future actions based on their stated intentions, and how those intentions match up with their actions (including whether we can trust their stated intentions); and this is why there might not be a moral equivalence between a terrorist suicide bombing and collateral damage from a military strike which kill the same number of people (depending on the circumstances) - total body count from a single incident is a very naive way of making moral judgements.

Also, none of this is to say that ‘dirty play’ becomes clean because of this. He isn’t arguing that at all (yet more ad-hom straw manning). Collateral damage is still a moral wrong that needs to be dealt with, we need to be honest about it though, and realise that it’s not equivalent to a deliberate act. Within this there are degrees of “wrong” also, contrast the civilian casualties caused by Assad’s and Russian forces in Syria to those caused by western coalition forces (it’s at least a factor of 100 to 1), with the Russians and Assad appearing to directly target civilians at times so it’s a stretch to call them ‘collateral’ in the first place (a case where their stated intentions appear to be lies). Clearly these two are not morally equivalent either (after Trump came into office the civilian casualty rate increased on the US side, though even then it has not reached the levels we saw with the Russians or Assad).


By all means, please supply some quotes (in context) from Sam Harris that support your rather extreme opinion. I’ve never found anyone who accuse Harris of being genocidal of being able to support their assertion. Perhaps you will be the first?


I wouldn’t hold your breath.

You seem to be unable to tell the difference between criticism of a religion versus attacking the people who practise that religion. Funny how the same people on the left who use the word Islamaphobe against Harris and Hitchens don’t use similar words against those who criticize the Catholic church, Mormonism, evangelicalism or the church of scientology.
One might suggest they are being rather hypocritical.

Islamophobic - “A word created by fascists and used by cowards to manipulate morons.” ~ Christopher Hitchens


First, again, Chomsky is pretty right to be direct with Harris as re: Harris misquoting him in print. What Harris could have said was “You’re right. I’ll fix that. I’m sorry.” Since Harris didn’t say any one of these things, it would have been entirely appropriate for Chomsky to stop talking with him right then.

And again, Harris’ refusal to address his own actions doesn’t speak well for him.

Next, getting again in to the specifics:

And how do you know what state leaders’ intentions are?

Since we can’t read minds, we have to go with what they say.

Which therefore leads us inevitably to these leaders’ subjective moral justifications - because there is no firm logical way to distinguish their justifications from “intent”.

Which brings us back to Chomsky’s point, and which again shows he understands Harris’ argument better than Harris does. It makes no sense to use a state’s justifications as some sort of rule to assert that state’s actions are any more or less immoral.

Again, to Chomsky’s point: the Nazis stated intent was to help humanity. They just conveniently defined anyone who got in their way as not human. To the Nazis, the deaths of those in their way were thus some regrettable but necessary collateral damage towards the greater human value of building the Third Reich.

This shows the problem with Harris’ stated consideration of leaders’ intent.

Chomsky is not engaging in cheap points or strawmen in his pointing out of fascist states’ justifications. He is literally showing how Harris argument can be used by nations to justify their worst actions.

Yes, actions can be weighed and some can be worse than others. But I think it’s hard to overstate how wrong Harris is, to claim that intent is something that can be reliably used to separate good state actions from bad state actions.


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