Sunday, May 3, 2015

Sam Harris Awkwardly Debates with Noam Chomsky

Sam Harris Awkwardly Debates with Noam Chomsky |

Harris and Chomsky, talking past each other in a debate I wish had actually happened.
On April 26 of this year, Harris reached out to Chomsky over some comments he had made referring to Harris as a “religious fanatic who worships the state.” Except, well, Chomsky didn’t directly call him that, he was speaking of New Atheists writ large, and arguably Christopher Hitchens specifically. Either way, Harris took to defending his comrades and reached out to Chomsky to clarify their respective positions in a public dialogue.

Harris, to his credit, maintained an impressive civility in the face of pure, unadulterated contempt from Chomsky.
It's a long exchange and worth reading. Neither represents themselves particularly well, I think, with Harris missing the point of Chomsky's replies, and Chomsky coming across as churlish asshole -- but one who happens to have the better argument.

Perhaps tellingly, I read and follow both outside of the professional fields -- I couldn't give you a satisfactory account of Chomsky's work in linguistics, nor could I keep up with Harris in the field of neuroscience. Where I engage with them is in the "public intellectual" space they sort of dabble in and have made names for themselves outside of the fields. Both tend to draw vitriol, sometimes understandably, but both drill into questions of personal and public morality in ways I find illuminating and shed necessary light on areas of debate that are too often only glibly served by policy makers and the press.

Harris has an Islamophobia problem and is, I think, wrong on the issue of regulating firearms. Despite these issues, he is a remarkably effective debater, doesn't shy away from difficult discussions, values transparency -- all qualities we should value in our public intellectuals.

This was a disappointing read. I had hoped for more and, while Chomsky on first read is more on-topic, I agree with Harris that Chomsky's tone undermine the ability to have a meaningful argument. He clearly is contemptuous of Harris's position and mode of arguing, which is fine, Harris misreads the exchange and leaves himself open to the attacks, but attacks they are, and Chomsky undercuts his position and moral authority by making them.

An actual exchange, where Chomsky, in my (rash, perhaps) assessment, could've opened Harris up a little and helped him see where his focus on intentions with regard to morality is off-the-mark in this context might have brought Harris around to a point where both men could had a valuable public discussion. Instead, both I think left with a sour taste that isolates the perspectives of the two, when we would all benefit from seeing the process of one influencing the other to revise their position.

This is one of those times I wish I could do this (blogging) for a living, because I'd like to spend a full day or two annotating the exchange, researching the references, presenting supporting detail (with regard to both matters of historical fact and providing background on the philosophical debate over intention), and critically evaluating the argument in detail. Because I work a 40+ work week at the day job, have kids, other interests and responsibilities, the day or two of effort I'd like to put into doing this would take me several weeks, by which time I expect the work would've already been, and anyone who might be interested would've already read all the would want or need to on the matter.

At least I hope that's what's going to happen, because I'd like to read that level of analysis of the exchange.

As an aside, the other contest folks, based on my twitter stream, were generally interested in (or, if not interested, interested in expressing their non-interest in) was the Pacquiao/Mayweather fight. As a sports fan with a lingering interest in boxing from the end of Muhammad Ali's career, I get it. But Pacquiao (a politician) and Mayweather (as a human being in general) are both terrible, and seem largely interested in bashing women and gays to one extent or another. Those disappointed with the fight and/or its outcome might find they would have been more interested in how to score the clash between Chomsky and Harris, if only it were on twitter's radar.

#HarrisChomsky > #MayPac

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