Thursday, 24 July 2014

Notes from a Moral Prize Fight

Last year, Sam Harris announced he was seeking challengers for an intellectual prize fight [1]. The reason, he claimed, was that he had yet to see any serious arguments against the moral theory described in his book The Moral Landscape (TML). While detractors might question his eyesight, his claim is likely the swaggering bravado of the cocky prize-fighter who (having cleared sparring partners during training) boast their undefeated status.

Like all prize-fights, a prize was offered; two thousand for the selected essay and twenty thousand if its author managed to put his undefeated theory down for the count. Strangely, essays were restricted to 1000 words. The logic given was that if his moral theory was easy to beat, someone should be able to do it in 1000 words. That sounded like a self-proclaimed world champ requiring anyone thinking they can actually take him, to beat him in the first minute with an arm tied behind their back. In any case, he eased doubts about this limit by assuring everyone the essay would simply act as opening to a refereed dialogue, with increased freedom of movement for the contestant. Fair enough.

This is probably where honest authors should sidetrack slightly to admit they were among the contestants. Having just written a 40+ page critique of The Moral Landscape (and looking for a venue to place it) the timing of Harris's challenge was perfect. But there were some troubling aspects about this challenge. First, entering such a contest might lend credibility to Harris's claims that no serious criticism had yet been offered. Second, by selecting one essay as a "winner", the contest might create an illusion that the chosen essay would contain the only remaining challenge (or "best" challenge) to his moral theory. Finally, there was that galling part about having to limit one's arguments on a complex issue to 1000 words.

Despite reservations, the combination of prize-money, potential fame, and his assurance of a fair fight (further dialogue) did its magic and an essay was entered. The reader is free to speculate which element played the greater role (and may likely be right). But the necessity of the last point in determining the go ahead should not be in question.

This June, Sam Harris announced that a winning essay had been selected (out of several hundred entries) by philosopher-cum-referee Russell Blackford [2]. The author of that essay turned out to be Ryan Born, which freed the author of this essay to observe the coming battle from a respectable distance, while enjoying his latest helping of humble pie.

Casting a critical eye on Born's opening moves (as beaten rivals are likely to do), the essay came off a bit jargon heavy, with blows centered on peripheral claims rather than vital points. Still, it would tweak Harris's nose a bit, and the author seemed to have enough skills to carry on a solid fight once the two began to really mix it up.

Then the bell rang, and the house lights went up. Harris stepped to the center of the ring and announced that contrary to the stated program there would be no refereed dialogue after all [3]. The explanation given was that they just could not make it work for some reason. Why they could not move this debate to a different time, use a different format, or pull in substitutes for Born or Blackford remains a mystery.

What came next (which will be described in a minute) was supposedly agreed to by Born and Blackford. It is unclear if it was based on elements of an extended dialogue they actually had, or not. If it reflected an actual back and forth with Born, then the initial assessment of his prowess was clearly an overestimate. If it was not, and it did not seem to be based on word usage, then it does not seem to have been fair play to Born or other contestants. Were Born and Blackford really ok with what emerged as a replacement for dialogue?

What followed his announcement, ladies and gentlemen, was a surprise exhibition that (to this reporter's jaded eyes) bordered on the grotesque. Having cleared the ring for any chance of rebuttal, not to mention judgment by an impartial referee, Harris launched into a sort of shadow-boxing routine.

With no sense of humility in sight, Harris let us know how Born never really laid a hand on him, and even if he did it couldn't be a real body blow. This last point was arguably valid, but only for the opening essay, which may not have been true in any continuing dialogue (the manifest reason for a dialogue). This of course exposed a weakness in Blackford's described criteria for selecting Born's essay. Had he chosen an essay focusing on essential components of the moral landscape theory, Harris might not have been able to try this kind of stunt (at least so easily).

Apparently the virtue of sportsmanlike conduct fails to register on his landscape map, as Harris's showboating lasted many 1000s of words longer than he had allowed any contestant, including Born to whom he was supposedly responding. Of course he arguably needed the extra wording to move beyond Born's arguments to explain how he could have licked the rest of us too. This whole demonstration included handy stage props such as red herrings and straw men. Perhaps not surprising, he pulled out one of his favorite straw men, David Hume which even in TML never looked much like the original. Still, this allowed him to extend his victories via shadows and straw to some of the most heavy-hitting theorists in history.

Finally, Harris dropped the mic and left the ring with these parting words…

"… I appreciated the chance to clarify my views, and I hope readers have found this exchange useful."

It is impossible to know if readers found anything useful in a two part exchange. If this were a real prize-fight perhaps an audible grumble would have emerged from disappointed spectators as they shuffled out. Perhaps some, feeling a bit cheated after an abrupt cancellation and no raincheck offered, would have thrown a chair or rushed the ring to tear up the joint. Well this is the internet and it was an intellectual prize-fight, not to mention free. So there's not a lot anyone can or will do.

But it can be stated, without reservation, that at least one contestant within the audience (who had invested plenty of time and hard work) found nothing useful in this obviously lopsided so-called "exchange", except perhaps fleeting amusement that Jonathon Haidt's prediction came true [4].

It was particularly hard to swallow the line "I appreciated the chance to clarify my views." Like the only real issue was that critics were a bit confused or mistaken? Perhaps he did not understand, but people did not enter the contest to give him the opportunity to clear up their misconceptions, they came for the opportunity to clear up his misconceptions.

The effect produced by such an unsavory mass of gratitude sticking in one’s craw is the distinctly unpleasant choking sensation of having just been conned, misrepresented, and dissembled to (in short, used) by a guy that wrote books on morality and lying.

It is likely that some readers will accuse this report of being a bit melodramatic (guilty as charged! this is literature). Some may go further to suggest that the reporting is biased against Harris due to the author having "lost" the contest. That is, well… that is not entirely true…

Imagine if you will, ladies and gentlemen, that an Intelligent Design (ID) theorist just did the same thing. They put out a brand new 200+ page book outlining their latest theory showing how science "proves" evolution to be useless in explaining the existence of some organ(ism). Said theorist offers a challenge to all "evolutionists" allowing them a chance to debunk this theory, only they have to do it in 1000 words or less (if ID is so ridiculous it must be that easy). He does promise the winner will have a chance for an open, extended, and moderated debate on the issue. Yet after printing one of the essays, with a judge's report stating there are other arguments not within the essay, the IDiot produces a 4000 word monologue purportedly addressing the strongest arguments against his case. At the same time it is announced there will be no debate after all (just couldn't do it!), while offering thanks to everyone for allowing the author to "clarify" their position.

Would anyone in the atheist, scientific, or skeptic community find anything reputable in that exercise? Or would it be denounced as ridiculous? Outrageous? Beyond the bounds of reasonable conduct for a rational or scientific debate? Would it in fact look like the publicity seeking exercise that many would have argued it was to begin with?

It is left to the reader to wrestle with that comparison and conundrum. It is left in your gentle hands, dear reader, to feed Harris his slice of humble pie (or not).

At the very least, further proclamations of "undisputed" might reasonably be met with raspberries and a few rotten tomatoes. The idea that no one has raised significant challenges to his theory, or that they have all been dealt with cannot be taken seriously. After all, Harris just walked out of his own challenge, leaving 400+ entries with potentially all of their arguments unaddressed. Inexplicably, he didn't even manage the simple (and promised ) task of staying in the ring with the first author!

In walking off his own stage, Harris may have hoped to put this fiasco behind him, but things should not go so easy for his so-called "clarification". Indeed, one contestant is stepping back from the departing crowd and charging the ring. He is grabbing this "clarified" moral landscape with clear intent to methodically, analytically (and of course figuratively) pummel it into submission or pieces. After all, the show must go on...

P.S. ---  Hopefully it was clear to readers that this was meant as satire, a tongue-in-cheek review of the Moral Landscape Challenge from the vantage point of a journalist covering a prize-fight (which after all is what it was). It shows how ethics is often handled in reality, through literature, using rhetorical or emotional devices to "shame the man" rather than logical analysis, though some logic underlies its charges. For a serious, analytical review aimed at "discrediting the arguments" Harris made within his clarification you can go to Scientia Salon which has been gracious enough to publish it!

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