Response to Critics
By SAM HARRIS - SAMHARRIS.ORG
Added: Fri, 25 Feb 2011 08:27:29 UTC
Among the many quandaries a writer must face after publishing a controversial book is the question of how, or whether, to respond to criticism. At a minimum, it would seem wise to correct misunderstandings and distortions of one’s views wherever they appear, but one soon discovers that there is no good way of doing this. After my first book was published, the journalist Chris Hedges seemed to make a career out of misrepresenting its contents—asserting, among other calumnies, that somewhere in its pages I call for an immediate, nuclear first-strike on the entire Muslim world. Hedges spread this lie so sedulously that I could have spent the next year writing letters to the editor. Even if I had been willing to squander my time in this way, such letters are generally pointless, as few people read them. In the end, I decided to create a page on my website addressing controversies of this kind, so that I can then forget all about them. The result has been less than satisfying. Several years have passed, and I still meet people at public talks and in comment threads who believe that I support the outright murder of hundreds of millions of innocent people.
The problem posed by public criticism is by no means limited to the question of what to do about misrepresentations of one’s work. There is simply no good forum in which to respond to reviews of any kind, no matter how substantive. To do so in a separate essay is to risk confusing readers with a litany of disconnected points or—worse—boring them to salt. And any author who rises to the defense of his own book is always in danger of looking petulant, vain, and ineffectual. There is a galling asymmetry at work here: to say anything at all in response to criticism is to risk doing one’s reputation further harm by appearing to care too much about it.
These strictures now weigh heavily on me, because I recently published a book, The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values, which has provoked a backlash in intellectual (and not-so-intellectual) circles. I knew this was coming, given my thesis, but this knowledge left me no better equipped to meet the cloudbursts of vitriol and confusion once they arrived. Watching the tide of opinion turn against me, it has been difficult to know what, if anything, to do about it.
How, for instance, should I respond to the novelist Marilynne Robinson’s paranoid, anti-science gabbling in the Wall Street Journal where she consigns me to the company of the lobotomists of the mid 20th century? Better not to try, I think—beyond observing how difficult it can be to know whether a task is above or beneath you. What about the science writer John Horgan, who was kind enough to review my book twice, once in Scientific American where he tarred me with the infamous Tuskegee syphilis experiments, the abuse of the mentally ill, and eugenics, and once in The Globe and Mail, where he added Nazism and Marxism for good measure? How does one graciously respond to non sequiturs? The purpose of The Moral Landscape is to argue that we can, in principle, think about moral truth in the context of science. Robinson and Horgan seem to imagine that the mere existence of the Nazi doctors counts against my thesis. Is it really so difficult to distinguish between a science of morality and the morality of science? To assert that moral truths exist, and can be scientifically understood, is not to say that all (or any) scientists currently understand these truths or that those who do will necessarily conform to them.
But we must descend further before reaching a higher place: for occasionally one’s book will be reviewed by a prominent person who has not even taken the trouble to open it. Such behavior is always surprising and, in a strange way, refreshingly stupid. What should I say, for instance, when the inimitable Deepak Chopra produces a long, poisonous, and blundering review of The Moral Landscape in The San Francisco Chronicle while demonstrating in every line that he has not read it? (His “review” is wholly based on a short Q&A I published for promotional purposes on my website.) Admittedly, there is something arresting about being called a scientific fraud and “egotistical” by Chopra. This is rather like being branded an exhibitionist by Lady Gaga. In retrospect, I see that the haste and bile of Chopra’s fake review are readily explained: we had recently participated in a debate at Caltech (along with Michael Shermer and Jean Houston) in which the great man had greatly embarrassed himself. And while I am certainly capable of being both scientifically mistaken and egotistical, I am confident that anyone who views our exchange in its entirety will recognize that I am the firefly to Chopra’s sun.
Why respond to criticism at all? Many writers refuse to even read their reviews, much less answer them. The problem, however, is that if one is committed to the spread of ideas—as most nonfiction writers are—it is hard to ignore the fact that negative reviews can be very damaging to one’s cause. Not only do they discourage smart people from reading a book, they can lead them to disparage it as though they had discovered its flaws for themselves. Consider the following published remarks from the philosopher Colin McGinn, whose work I greatly admire:
I think Sam Harris’ idea is equally bad [as religion-based morality], I’m surprised he’d write on it. There’s just some really bad thinking in Sam Harris’s new book, I haven’t read it yet, but that’s because from what I’ve heard, it sounds terrible and wrong-headed and just bizarre. He’s trying to make science do what religion used to. His basic philosophical reason is a fallacy, it’s impossible to derive ought from is, the naturalistic fallacy, it’s a complete misconception that you can. I’m surprised Sam Harris would fall for that. A few weeks ago, Anthony Appiah nailed him for it in the New York Times. I have no idea why that arises in some scientists. The idea is wrong. It’s been refuted. It’s hard to believe they still argue that point.
No matter that I cannot find a single, substantive point in Appiah’s review not already addressed in my book, McGinn appears to know otherwise through the power of clairvoyance. Many other philosophers and scientists have begun to play this game with The Moral Landscape, without ever engaging its arguments. And so, mindful of the dangers, I have decided to answer the strongest criticisms that have appeared to date. Failure beckons on both sides, of course, as my response will be all-too-brief for some and far more than others can stomach. But it is worth a try.
As far as I know, the best reviews of The Moral Landscape have come from the philosophers Thomas Nagel, Troy Jollimore, and Russell Blackford. I will focus on Blackford’s (along with a few of his subsequent blog posts) as it strikes me as the most searching. It also seems to echo everything of interest in the others.
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