Philosophy, Film, Politics, Etc.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Respecting the profession: Harris' reply to Dennett

This year marks the tenth anniversary of Sam Harris' first book, the award-winning best seller, The End Of Faith. Over the past decade, he has earned a good deal of public acclaim and devotion, and for respectable reasons. Sam Harris is a gifted writer and speaker. His eloquence and clarity of expression are enviable. In addition, he has been an outspoken advocate of reason, critical thought and secular values when this has been sorely needed. For these reasons, I would like to see Harris as an ally and potential friend who, like me, wants to make the world more hospitable to atheism and reason. However, his attitude towards the decorum of professional philosophy is hurting the cause, and his own arguments are suffering, too.

In his review of Harris' most recent book, Free Will, Daniel C. Dennett admonishes Harris for not doing his homework and not engaging with "the best thought on the topic." This sort of reaction to Harris is not uncommon from professional philosophers. However, Harris thinks Dennett's tone is uncalled for. Presumably, Dennett disagrees. If he was condescending (and he was), it was for a reason. One obvious reason would be that he wanted to make it clear that Harris was not engaging with the best thought on free will, and that Harris, unlike Dennett, was not qualified to speak authoritatively about what is the best thought on the topic.

Why was it important for Dennett to do that? Because Dennett has a responsibility to the profession. There is such a thing as disciplined philosophy. Professional philosophers place great value on charity, humility, patience, caution, rigor and the ability to carefully perform detailed textual analyses. I'm not saying Dennett is always perfect on all counts, but he has proven himself in the professional sphere and has an excellent reputation among professionals. This is not because they all think he is right, but because they respect his ability to adhere to the decorum and produce compelling results.

Harris seems to think Dennett's criticism was unfriendly, but there's no reason to take it personally. Direct criticism from someone of Dennett's stature should be worn with pride, even if it is harsh. Dennett was clearly annoyed with Harris' book--specifically, the part that deals with Dennett's own work--because, in his professional opinion, Harris was not fairly representing him or the issues. Despite his annoyance, Dennett still bothered to write a lengthy exegetical response. This is presumably because they are friends, but also perhaps because Harris is a leading figure in the atheist/secularist/rationalist movement and Dennett thinks Harris has influence. The short of it is that, yes, Dennett was protecting his "turf," but Harris is wrong to call it vanity. This was not vanity. It was professional responsibility.

In addition to insulting Dennett directly, Harris indirectly insults him (and the entire profession) by refusing to even respect the fact that Dennett bothered to write a lengthy review in the first place.  Harris complains about it all being so boring and tedious, emphasizing his disappointment that Dennett had refused his invitation to a public debate.  Not only are lengthy written analyses boring, he says; they're more likely to lead to confusion and misunderstandings. Apparently, Dennett should know better than to engage in detailed philosophical analysis!

It's hard to take Harris seriously. Sure, public debates can serve a purpose, but they are rarely more focused or productive than the written word. They are not known for their ability to resolve misunderstandings or avoid confusion. If your goal is to carefully present, examine and critically assess arguments, then extended writing is far, far better than a public debate. That's why philosophers earn their professional reputation through publishing in peer-reviewed journals, and not with public debates.  Lengthy philosophical exegesis is Dennett's bread and butter. Harris does not want to engage in it, but his refusal to respect it is absurd. He wants his own philosophical ideas to be taken seriously by professionals, he reads and cites professionals, but he does not respect their discipline. It might seem to some like he just doesn't want to earn his keep.  I think the reason is obvious:  Harris is a dazzling writer and speaker, but he falls terribly short when it comes to critical thinking.  (More on that below.)

True, many members of Harris' readership do not have the patience for, or interest in, detailed philosophical arguments. Some have even admitted that they can't understand or follow Dennett's arguments at all. Harris apparently wants to let that segment of the population set the bar for the rest of us.

This has harmful consequences. By not respecting the discipline, Harris reinforces the belief (common among his fan base) that anybody with half a brain can be an expert philosopher. All you have to do is read a book or two on free will or moral responsibility (written by anyone, really) and you can form an authoritative opinion on the topic. This hurts the debate, because it makes people less inclined to take serious philosophical investigation seriously. As a result, ignorance and arrogance are promoted at the expense of integrity and rigor.


It's important to realize why Dennett refused Harris' invitation.  I doubt it is because Dennett is a much better writer than public speaker (though he is, which is to say nothing against his ability to speak publicly.  He's just a phenomenal writer.)  The reason is that, when you engage in a public debate, there is a presumption of equal competence.  Dennett has spent decades engaging professional philosophers on the issue of free will. He has a great deal of professional stature, and with that comes professional responsibilities. If Dennett shared the stage with Harris on the issue of free will, he would be transferring some of his professional credibility to Harris.  I think it's obvious that he does not want to do that. It would go against his responsibility to the profession. This is not because Harris does not have the formal qualifications of a professional philosopher, but because Harris has demonstrated a severe lack of respect for the decorum of professional philosophy and an inability to engage professionals responsibly.  Even a formal written exchange (like Jerry Coyne suggests) would be too damaging.  A book review was Dennett's best option.

In sum, I doubt Dennett will reply to Harris.  I hope he does not.  To do so would be to give Harris a degree of respect he has not earned.  Maybe if Harris had put some compelling arguments on the table, then Dennett would humbly consider a reply. Alas, Harris has done nothing of the sort. His arguments, in fact, betray his own failure to think carefully and responsibly about the issues.

 I'll now turn to a discussion of Harris' errors. Most of them are severely painful.

First up, a stirring combination of hypocrisy and false accusation. Harris criticizes Dennett for drawing our attention to the possible social and political consequences of regarding free will as an illusion. Yes, Dennett has emphasized the importance of recognizing the social and political consequences of one's view of free will, but Harris is wrong to claim that Dennett has made this his primary argument. Dennett's primary argument is that there is real sense to be made from the way ordinary people experience and talk about free will. Dennett is trying to preserve and explain those intuitions about free will which make sense.

 Harris, in contrast, is doing exactly what he says Dennett should not be doing.  Harris is the one whose primary argument is an appeal to the political consequences of his point of view.  Harris' argument against Dennett (and compatibilism in general) is not philosophical or scientific. He just thinks compatibilists are changing the subject instead of confronting the way people think and talk about free will. (Ironically, when it comes to philosophy, Harris is the one more likely to change the subject without realizing it.) Harris is worried because he thinks untenable notions of free will have bad consequences for our criminal justice systems, among other things. That is a political argument about the consequences of Dennett's arguments, and it is the entirety of Harris' argument against Dennett. Harris doesn't think Dennett's philosophical or scientific arguments are flawed. He just thinks what Dennett is talking about shouldn't be called "free will." Harris is presenting a political argument, and yet, he criticizes Dennett for presenting a political argument!

How about the time Harris wrongly accused Dennett of misinterpreting him and then attempted to clarify by repeating the same error?  Harris originally wrote, "And to the extent that the law of cause and effect is subject to indeterminism—quantum or otherwise—we can take no credit for what happens." Dennett's reading is a natural reading of the line: that personal responsibility diminishes as indeterminacy increases. In response, Dennett points to counter-examples from his own previous publications. However, Harris says that Dennett has misread him. And this is how Harris attempts to clarify his point:

I am not saying that the mere addition of indeterminism to the clockwork makes responsibility impossible. I am saying, as you have always conceded, that seeking to ground free will in indeterminism is hopeless, because truly random processes are precisely those for which we can take no responsibility.

This clarification is still false, and for the same reason. Dennett and Harris do agree that we cannot ground free will in indeterminism, but it is not for the reason Harris states. It is because indeterminism does not generate free will. It's not because "truly random processes are precisely those for which we can take no responsibility." In fact, we can take responsibility for "truly random processes." Dennett even explained why when he corrected Harris' initial mistake. He described people who design and utilize random computer processes, and who can be held responsible for them. We can take responsibility for the creation and utilization of truly random processes (assuming such processes are possible), and to that extent, we can also be responsible for the outcomes.

Perhaps Harris is still not expressing himself clearly. If so, there is no reason to blame Dennett, who is just trying to make sure the subject is approached responsibly. After all, it does look like Harris said that personal responsibility is diminished to the extent that there are non-deterministic processes in the world, even though he says that is not what he meant. And it does look like he's now saying that people cannot take responsibility for truly random processes, which is still false, and for the same reason. But okay, let's say Dennett (and I) have just misread him. How should Harris respond? With sarcasm and condescension?

Dennett is one of Harris' most capable audiences. If Harris think Dennett has misread him, then he should be concerned about other critical audiences misreading him, too. He has every reason to humbly and carefully resolve the confusion. Instead, he blames it on Dennett and regards the whole thing as a bore. A more professional attitude would earn Harris a lot more respect, and could help improve the public's general perception of philosophy, as well.

Harris complains about decorum, too. He says Dennett is not following Rapaport's rules, because Dennett did not preface his criticism with a positive comment. That's embarrassingly sloppy. Harris could not possibly have missed the elaborate praise which begins Dennett's review. Dennett acknowledges that Harris has accomplished a good deal, as far as challenging the supernatural view of free will goes. If anything, his praise is excessive.

Harris also accuses Dennett of being disingenuous for calling Harris' mistakes "valuable," and even accuses Dennett of lying about his sincerity. If a person says they are being sincere, you should take them at their word, unless you have a compelling reason not to. And you should be extra careful about your reasons before you put your accusation into print. To do otherwise is in very poor form. This all falls under the principle of charity. In this case, Harris' reading is extremely uncharitable. It is most plausible that Dennett did see value in publicly exposing Harris' errors.

Then there's Harris' careless treatment of Dennett's sun analogy. In the analogy, free will is likened to the sun. Dennett's point is that there is a freedom which is rightly called "free will" and which has been misunderstood throughout much of history, much as the geocentric model was a misunderstanding of the earth's relationship to the sun. The geocentric model is likened to the supernatural view of free will. The heliocentric model is likened to compatibilism. Harris gets it all wrong, claiming that free will is likened to the geocentric model. He not only misconstrues the analogy, but he simultaneously accuses Dennett of begging the question and misunderstanding the debate. None of this is justified, and all of it is uncharitable.

Harris is also uncharitable when he defends his own puppet analogy against Dennett's criticism, which Harris seem to have misconstrued. Dennett does not accuse Harris of taking the puppet metaphor too literally. He accuses Harris of using the puppet metaphor to misconstrue compatibilism. Dennett is pointing out that, according to compatibilism, we are nothing like puppets. Embracing compatibilism is nothing like a puppet loving its strings. The puppet metaphor is simply misleading, and in a way which hurts the debate, since it leads to a poor conception of Harris' opposition. Harris can disagree, but that would involve a more elaborate justification of the puppet metaphor. The point is that Dennett, an expert in the field, is extremely dissatisfied with the way Harris has represented compatibilism. If Harris wants to respond, he should be a lot more careful.

Harris also wrongly accuses Dennett of contradicting himself. This isn't embarrassing for Harris, actually, since the issue is subtle. However, it does reflect the depth of Harris' confusion about the issue of free will. Harris writes: "At some points you say that I’ve thrown the baby out with the bath; at others you merely complain that I won’t call this baby by the right name (“free will”). Which is it?"

Dennett is not being inconsistent. The baby, in this case, is the idea of free will. Dennett thinks that he and others over the centuries have developed a finer, more robust understanding of free will--of the experience of freedom itself. Harris presents a view which is consistent with compatibilism, but not always consistently. (I will explain the inconsistency in a moment.) Furthermore, Harris denies that there is any actual experience of free will worth talking about. Thus, even though Harris could pass for a compatibilist (albeit an inconsistent one), he is denying something essential about human experience--about the psychological reality of rational agency.

So here's Harris' inconsistency. He says, "But can we blame Austin for missing his putt? No. Can we blame him for not trying hard enough? Again, the answer is no—unless blaming him were just a way of admonishing him to try harder in the future."

I disagree, Dennett disagrees . . . and Harris seems to disagree, too, since he contradicts his own point later on, when he talks about Tiger Woods. Woods (because he is an expert and therefore in a position to know) is more culpable, says Harris: "People who have the most ability (self-control, opportunity, knowledge, etc.) would seem to be the most blameworthy when they fail or misbehave." If you are in a position to know and to act accordingly, you have more responsibility. That is practical sense. It's why we hold scientists to higher standards, for example. (And it's also why we should respect the authority of professional philosophers, too.) But this contradicts Harris' claim that we cannot blame people unless we are trying to motivate them. Harris says that one's abilities, including self-control, give them a greater amount of responsibility and, at the same time, we can only hold people responsible if doing so has good consequences. That's a contradiction.

Since we're talking about punishment and responsibility, I should mention that I don't think Harris has offered a compelling argument about retribution. He says that his view allows us to dispense with a certain kind of hatred once and for all--the kind of hatred which comes from holding somebody ultimately responsible for their actions. However, if I hate a person who commits a heinous crime without remorse, I don't think they are ultimately responsible. I am aware that they are the product of other causes. Yet, I hate their act and their attitude towards it. This is because they are in a position to know and are able to act accordingly. This kind of hatred helps shape our expectations about society.  I have an emotional problem with treating some people as equal members of society. They have betrayed a certain level of trust and I cannot comfortably allow them to circulate in society unless some steps have been taken to punish them.  The desire for retribution--even death--plays a vital role in the construction of social responsibility.  If we do not respect that desire, society may suffer.  So, yes, personal responsibility opens the door to a particular kind of hatred, but I don't see anything wrong with leaving that door open. I would say the same thing about personal responsibility opening up the door to a special kind of love, too.

Harris makes a lot of mistakes, some subtle, but most are glaring. There's nothing remarkable about that. Even professional philosophers can make errors like these (though usually not so many in such a small space). The reason this is so embarrasing for Harris is because he is making all of these errors at the same time he is being so condescending and disrespectful to the discipline. If he were more willing to adhere to the decorum--more patient, humble, cautious, charitable, rigorous, and so on--he probably would not have made all of these mistakes. And even if he had, he would not have looked as bad doing it. Harris' disrespectful and irresponsible approach to professional philosophy may be winning him points with others who similarly refuse to recognize any value in the profession, but I see no good coming out of it.

A couple years ago I attended a three-day philosophy "meisterkurs" in Berlin led by Jason Stanley, a prominent philosopher currently at Yale. Unlike me, most of the attendees were philosophy professors and doctoral students, but there was one attendee who was not a philosopher by training at all. He was a scientist who wanted to see how professional philosophers go about their business. Over lunch on the last day, he told me he was surprised. Even though he did not understand a lot of the details, he was very impressed with how open philosophers are to criticism, how interested we are in promoting and exploring challenging points of view, and how patient and friendly we are with our disagreements. (I include myself here because, even though I lack the formal qualifications, I participated heavily in the event.) In short, he witnessed the charity, humility and patience that professional philosophers spend years cultivating. I only wish more people had the patience and willingness to make such observations. Perhaps then the profession would regain more of the public's trust.