In praise of Sam Harris

In case you’re interested, I was a guest on the first podcast of Challenging Opinions Episode One – Education, Religion and Liberty. Give it a listen if you’re so inclined. A brief selection from the transcript:

Vox argues that Sam Harris is the worst Atheist debater around, but he is willing to give him a little praise:

William: You can very easily accuse people on the liberal wing, on the left, of being too tolerant of fundamentalist Islam, and Sam Harris stands up to the intellectual inconsistencies of some people on the left such as noted philosopher Ben Affleck;  that tendency does exist and he does challenge it, isn’t that true?

Vox: That’s absolutely true, and I would go even further and praise Sam Harris for biting the bullet, for addressing one of the most important flaws of the atheist secular humanist perspective, which is their discomfort with the obvious difference between “what is” and “what could be”.”

That’s what I find fascinating about Sam Harris. On the one hand, he is intellectually careless and the most intrinsically incompetent debater I have ever observed. His idea of defending his ideas is to make an assertion with obvious flaws, then attempt to deal with the straightforward criticism of those flaws by claiming that what he very clearly wrote or said isn’t what he really meant. He does this in every single debate!

On the other hand, he doesn’t hesitate to take the giant conceptual bull by the horns and wrestle with it. In The Moral Landscape, Harris recognized that the Humean distinction between “is” and “ought” is a tremendous problem for secular humanism. The fact that he utterly failed in his attempt to use science to equate the two doesn’t mean that we should not praise him for embracing the philosophical challenge and giving it his best shot.