The New Atheist Sam Harris recently offered to pay $10,000 to anyone who can disprove his arguments about morality. Jonathan Haidt analyzes the nature of reasoning, and the ease with which reason becomes a servant of the passions. He bets $10,000 that Harris will not change his mind.
Reason has long been worshipped by philosophers and intellectuals. In Plato’s dialogue Timaeus, the gods created humankind with a soul of perfect rationality and inserted it into our spherical heads, which were “the most divine part of us and the lord of all that is in us.” (The Gods then realized that they had to create necks, to keep reason insulated from the seething passions of the rest of the body.) During the “age of reason,” the French revolutionaries pulled the Christs and crucifixes out of the cathedrals and replaced them with images of reason. And in our own time, the New Atheists have written books and started foundations urging people to fight religion with reason.
The New Atheist Sam Harris has even gone so far as to argue, in his book The Moral Landscape, that reason and science can tell us what is right and wrong. Morality is—in his definition—limited to questions about “the well-being of conscious creatures.” Well-being can be measured objectively, he says, by methods such as fMRI scans. Therefore, whatever practices, customs, and ways of living maximize those measurements are morally correct; others are morally wrong. He does not say that there is a single best society (hence the image of a landscape, with multiple peaks). But he claims that moral values are facts, no different from the kinds of facts discovered by chemists. Scientific methods give correct answer to questions in chemistry, and they can therefore do so for morality as well. Harris’s confidence in his reasoned argument is so strong that he has issued The Moral Landscape Challenge: He will personally pay $10,000 to anyone who submits an essay so logically compelling that it makes him change his mind and renounce his views. (The contest closes February 9.)
Critics of religion are right that science has a long track record of undermining claims about God’s role in the material world. Miracles don’t seem to occur as frequently as they used to. But the funny thing is that in the last 40 years, science has also undermined claims about the role and reliability of reason in our daily lives. In the 1960s, psychologists began studying the mind as a kind of computer. But in the 1970s, Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky began documenting the many bugs, or intuitive biases, in the software. For example, people are more likely to choose a surgical procedure when the outcome is framed in terms of the odds of survival, rather than the (equivalent) odds of death.
In the 1980s and 1990s, social psychologists began documenting the awesome power of “motivated reasoning” and the “confirmation bias.” People deploy their reasoning powers to find support for what they want to believe. Nobody has yet found a way to “debias” people—to train people to look for evidence on the other side—once emotions or self-interest are activated. Also in the 1990s, the neuroscientist Antonio Damasio showed that reasoning depends on emotional reactions. When emotional areas of the brain are damaged, people don’t become more rational; instead, they lose the ability to evaluate propositions intuitively and their reasoning gets bogged down in minutiae.
In the 2000s, in my own area of research—moral judgment—it became clear that people make judgments of right and wrong almost instantly, and then make up supporting reasons later. The intuitive dog wags its rational tail, which explains why it is so difficult to change anyone’s mind on a moral issue by refuting every reason they offer. To sum it all up, David Hume was right in 1739 when he wrote that reason was “the slave of the passions,” rather than the divine master, or charioteer, as Plato had believed.
I’m not saying that we can’t reason quite well about many unemotional situations where we really want to know the right answer, such as whether it is better to drive or take the train to the airport, given current traffic conditions. But when we look at conscious verbal reasoning as an evolutionary adaptation, it begins to look more like a tool for helping people argue, persuade, and guard their reputations than a tool shaped by selection pressures for finding objective truth. Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber synthesized the large bodies of research on reasoning in cognitive and social psychology like this: “The function of reasoning is argumentative. It is to devise and evaluate arguments intended to persuade…. Skilled arguers are not after the truth but after arguments supporting their views.” When self-interest, partisan identity, or strong emotions are involved, reasoning turns into a lawyer, using all its powers to reach the desired conclusion.
In a recent study by Dan Kahan and his colleagues, people were asked to look at a data table showing four numbers in a two by two grid: The number of patients whose rashes got better, and the number who got worse, after trying a new skin cream, or after receiving no treatment. People who were good at solving math problems earlier in the study were better able to interpret the data and say whether the skin cream worked or backfired, and there were no differences between Republicans and Democrats. But when the exact same data was said to come from a study on whether gun control laws reduce crime or increase it, partisanship hijacked reasoning. When the data supported their preferred side, math whizzes almost always interpreted the data correctly. But when the data supported the other side, the mathematically skilled people usually misinterpreted the findings, just like their less skilled co-partisans.
If reasoning is so easily swayed by passions, then what kind of reasoning should we expect from people who hate religion and love reason? Open-minded, scientific thinking that tries to weigh the evidence on all sides? Or standard lawyerly reasoning that strives to reach a pre-ordained conclusion? When I was doing the research for The Righteous Mind, I read the New Atheist books carefully, and I noticed that several of them sounded angry. I also noticed that they used rhetorical structures suggesting certainty far more often than I was used to in scientific writing – words such as “always” and “never,” as well as phrases such as “there is no doubt that…” and “clearly we must…”
To check my hunch, I took the full text of the three most important New Atheist books—Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, Sam Harris’s The End of Faith, and Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell and I ran the files through a widely used text analysis program that counts words that have been shown to indicate certainty, including “always,” “never,” “certainly,” “every,” and “undeniable.” To provide a close standard of comparison, I also analyzed three recent books by other scientists who write about religion but are not considered New Atheists: Jesse Bering’s The Belief Instinct, Ara Norenzayan’s Big Gods, and my own book The Righteous Mind. (More details about the analysis can be found here.)
To provide an additional standard of comparison, I also analyzed books by three right wing radio and television stars whose reasoning style is not generally regarded as scientific. I analyzed Glenn Beck’s Common Sense, Sean Hannity’s Deliver Us from Evil, and Anne Coulter’s Treason. (I chose the book for each author that had received the most comments on Amazon.) The graph below shows the results. Harris appears to be the outlier.** Of the 75,000 words in The End of Faith, 2.24% of them connote or are associated with certainty. I also analyzed The Moral Landscape—it came out at 2.34%. (The graph shows no error bars because each bar represents an exact count of certainty-related words, divided by the total word count. There is no variance.)
In the opening paragraph of his Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals, David Hume described the futility of arguing with people who are overly certain about their principles. He noted that “as reasoning is not the source, whence [such a] disputant derives his tenets; it is in vain to expect, that any logic, which speaks not to the affections, will ever engage him to embrace sounder principles.” If Hume is right, then what is the likely outcome of The Moral Landscape Challenge? What are the odds that anyone will change Harris’s mind with a reasoned essay of under 1000 words? I’ll put my money on Hume and issue my own challenge, The Righteous Mind challenge: If anyone can convince Harris to renounce his views, I’ll pay Harris the $10,000 that it would cost him to do so.
Reason is indeed crucial for good public policy and a good society. But isn’t the most reasonable approach one that takes seriously the known flaws of human reasoning and tries to work around them? Individuals can’t be trusted to reason well when passions come into play, yet good reasoning can sometimes emerge from groups. This is why science works so well. Scientists suffer from the confirmation bias like everybody else, but the genius of science as an institution is that it incentivizes scientists to disconfirm each others’ ideas, and it creates a community within which a reasoned consensus eventually emerges.
I agree with Harris that the historical shift away from revealed religion as the basis of society and toward democracy, individual rights, reason, and science as foundations of moral and political authority has been overwhelmingly good for people in Western societies. I am not anti-reason. I am also not anti-religion. I am opposed to dogmatism. I am skeptical of each person’s individual powers of reasoning, and I’m even more skeptical of the reasoning of groups of activists, hyper-partisans, and other righteous reformers who would remake society according to their own reasoned (or revealed) vision.
I prefer to think about how cultural evolution has made our society more rational by indirect means. Social institutions (such as science, democracy, markets, and universities) evolve in ways that we often don’t understand, yet they can end up fostering better reasoning and better lives as an emergent property of a complex society. I prefer to follow thinkers such as Friedrich Hayek and Michael Oakeshott who espoused “epistemological modesty” and were skeptical of aggressive rationalism. In 1947, Oakeshott, responding to Harris and his predecessors, described rationalists like this:
“His mental attitude is at once sceptical and optimistic: sceptical, because there is no opinion, no habit, no belief, nothing so firmly rooted or so widely held that he hesitates to question it and to judge it by what he calls his ‘reason’; optimistic, because the Rationalist never doubts the power of his ‘reason’ (when properly applied) to determine the worth of a thing, the truth of an opinion or the propriety of an action.”
A humbler and more social view of reason can even help us to reform our paralyzed political institutions. The U.S. Congress could, in theory, be a place where the two parties challenge, disconfirm, and therefore improve each other’s reasoning, as happens among scientists. But the benefits of disconfirmation depend on social relationships. We engage with friends and colleagues, but we reject any critique from our enemies. By all accounts, the social relationships that used to bind our leaders together across party lines have weakened. Few of them live in Washington, or know the spouses or children of anyone in the other party. If we want better laws to come out of Washington, would we be better off requiring our leaders to take courses in rational thinking? Or changing the social conditions that have fostered hyper-partisanship and ramped up motivated reasoning? (I like the proposals offered by NoLabels.org). Relationships open hearts, and open hearts open minds.
If we want to improve our politics and our society, let’s be reasonable about reason and its limitations. Of course, I have used my powers of reasoning (and intuition) to write this essay, and I have drawn on scientific studies to back up my claim that Harris is unlikely to change his mind and renounce his claims about morality. But people are complicated and it’s always hazardous to use scientific studies to predict the behavior of an individual. I could well be wrong.
*Post-Script 1: Harris offers a thoughtful response to this essay here, describing a recent time when he changed his mind not in response to a friend, but to a logically and emotionally compelling documentary.
**Post Script 2: As many commenters pointed out, I should have been more cautious in making claims about group differences based on the 9 data points in the graph, most of which are close together in the middle of the range. In response, I changed the text in the paragraph above the graph on 3/5/14. Originally, the two sentences before the “**” were this single sentence: “As you can see in the graph, the New Atheists win the ‘certainty’ competition.” I also added the parenthetical explanation of why there are no error bars.
Jonathan Haidt is a social psychologist and a professor of business ethics at the NYU-Stern School of Business. His homepage is here.
Sam Harris 2010 TED talk: Science can answer moral questions