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Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Jonathan Haidt, Sam Harris, and the New Dogmatism


I've written about Jonathan Haidt's work before ("Aristotle and the Righteous Mind"). Haidt is a social scientist, and his various studies have turned up empirical evidence for the notion that we are moral intutionists, that we are born with intuitive understandings of what is right and wrong, and we routinely make moral judgments without really thinking why. He has also found that we typically adjust our thinking to fit our intuitions rather than the other way around. What this means is that in order for reason to affect our moral judgments, we have to possess an open-mind. If we are absolutely certain that we are right, then it's unlikely we'll ever be open to alternative opinions and the possibility that we might be wrong.

Which is why Haidt has recently offered a $10,000 reward to anyone who can change Sam Harris's mind ("Why Sam Harris is Unlikely to Change His Mind"). As some of you know, Harris is one of the "new atheists," a group that includes the biologist Richard Dawkins and the philosopher Daniel Dennett. Haidt recently fed books written by Harris ("The End of Faith"), Dennett ("Breaking the Spell"), and Dawkins ("The God Delusion") into a text analysis program that counts certainty words (e.g., always, never, certainly, every, undeniable). He also fed in books by social scientists Jesse Bering ("The Belief Instinct") and Ara Norenzayan ("Big Gods"), as well as his own recent book ("The Righteous Mind"). And for good measure, he did the same with books by conservative commentators with a reputation for being close-minded, such as Sean Hannity ("Deliver us From Evil"), Ann Coulter ("Treason"), and Glenn Beck ("Common Sense"). The results of his analysis are presented in the chart below (image from on-line article by Haidt -- "Why Sam Harris is Unlikely to Change His Mind"):


What he found is that the new atheists, the so-called devotees of reason and opponents of dogmatism, were the most dogmatic of the authors analyzed. Their texts included more certainty words than did those by the conservative commentators Beck, Hannity, and Coulter and the social scientists Bering, Norenzayan, and Haidt. And Harris is the worst of the bunch, which is why Haidt's absolutely certain (no pun intended) he'll never have to pay up.

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