Brother Luís Dias informs us that arch-atheist Sam Harris has thrown down the silken gauntlet. Pfffssshh! Or maybe it’s pfffthclunk? Because this one’s stuffed full of hope—to the tune of twenty large.
I neither joke nor jest: “hope” is the right word. For his glove is only potentially a Christmas stocking. More likely he’ll give away only a tenth the promised amount.
To explain. Harris is having a contest, inviting refutations of the central thesis to his The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values. He says that if anybody can convince him, he’ll publicly recant his error and fork over the twenty gees. But in a fit of magnanimity, even if he doesn’t allow himself to see his mistakes, he’ll still sign a check for two thousand and publish the winning essay on his website.
The only dueling tool you’re allowed is one-thousand spare English words. Never mind it took Harris over fifty times that many. Which he used to entangle himself in a dense thicket of fallacy. So be of good cheer: a blade is a quicker and cleaner kill than a bludgeon. (Look at those metaphors fly!)
Here’s what you have to disprove:
Morality and values depend on the existence of conscious minds—and specifically on the fact that such minds can experience various forms of well-being and suffering in this universe. Conscious minds and their states are natural phenomena, fully constrained by the laws of Nature (whatever these turn out to be in the end). Therefore, there must be right and wrong answers to questions of morality and values that potentially fall within the purview of science. On this view, some people and cultures will be right (to a greater or lesser degree), and some will be wrong, with respect to what they deem important in life.
Anybody else notice that he started with an unjustified—and false—premise? Utilitarianism is one of philosophy’s walking dead. It was slain long ago, yet the damn thing doesn’t have the good sense—or taste—to fall down. Skip it. For now.
Harris provides himself a FAQ, of which the most interesting question is this:
2. Can you give some guidance as to what you would consider a proper demolition of your thesis?
If you show that my “worst possible misery for everyone” argument fails, or that other branches of science are self-justifying in a way that a science of morality could never be, or that my analogy to a landscape of multiple peaks and valleys is fundamentally flawed, or that the fact/value distinction holds in a way that I haven’t yet understood—you stand a very good chance of torpedoing my argument and changing my mind.
Notice he says only a “good chance”. Harris isn’t his own judge. He tapped fellow ardent atheist Russell Blackford who will judge the submissions and “evaluate” Harris’s response. Best of Irish Luck, Rusty. Hope you don’t need sleep. (Prediction: since this contest is on the internet, more judges will be recruited.)
Smart money says Harris won’t acknowledge his errors. He’ll have to pony up the two thousand (only one of which is from him; the other half of both prizes came from a secret admirer), but unless a miracle occurs best guess is he remains status quo ante contest. So let’s pray for that miracle. They happen.
I tease Harris, but at least a thou. of his own? Boy! Plus—salute the man!—he’s got the guts to do this in public. Even if he leaves on his blinders, there’s all those souls who will read the exchange and find happiness. Man, I’m so stoked about the whole thing that I vow to buy Harris a massive glass of Château Thames Embankment if ever we should meet (all I can afford; he can swap it for beer). I say this even though his statistics are rotten.
Who besides me is entering?
Postscript I’m not going to post my winning (or winnable) essay here until February 10th.