Sunday, May 03, 2015

Sam Harris vs Noam Chomsky - atheist writer in search of a cause?

It was one of those Facebook moments, I saw a link to Sam Harris' website promising an exchange between him and Noam Chomsky. I thought that that would likely be an odd conversation to have. Here's a neuroscientist who essentially wrote one short - but bestselling - atheist polemic that I enjoyed reading a great deal. Then came a dreadful book on how science can determine human values and I didn't bother reading whatever he produced since then. Well, then there's Noam Chomsky. You will know (of) Noam Chomsky. He doesn't need an introduction. Love him or loathe him, unlike Harris he is one of America's foremost intellectuals.

I have come to know Chomsky as an invariably courteous correspondent who takes the time to reply to emails even while being overwhelmed with many other competing demands on his time. I couldn't believe - and I encourage you to read the beginning of Harris' exchange with Chomsky - Harris approach to this exchange. You would have thought that there would have been a mutual interest on both sides to have a public debate with a view to publishing the content of that debate.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Harris tells Chomsky that there are purported millions of followers both have that would just appreciate this debate. Chomsky doesn't clearly care one way or another. I must say, I have never heard such nonsense before. I can't wait for Harris to write to the Pope with a similar declaration, insisting that the Pope just must reply to him, because both men have millions of followers that can't wait to read said exchange.

Anyhow, I wasn't surprised to see Chomsky being too polite to tell Harris to go away and leave him alone (he tried initially, but being the guy he is, he eventually relents and engages Harris). Harris, ever keen on publicity, writes early on that he wants Chomsky to reply in such a way that the exchange can be published. Chomsky says 'no', it's one thing to agree to an informal email forth-n-back with someone harassing you for replies, it's quite another to see that published. Well, to cut a long (email conversation) short, Harris eventually coaxes Chomsky into agreeing to let him publish the exchange on his website.  You can tell, Chomsky mostly wants to end the conversation, so he succumbs to Harris bugging him, in order to move on with his actual work, rather than indulge Harris any longer.

I can't help but wonder what Harris' next publicity stunt will look like. My bet, Harris emails Pope. Dreadul, just dreadful. I finally got the meaning of 'people full of themselves'. It tells you all that you need to know about Harris that he chose to actually publish this exchange.


  1. I was really looking forward to the discussion, because I respected and admired both these people before it. Unfortunately, that has changed.

    And having read the exchange, I came away with a 180-degree different opinion from yours. For example, Chomsky (surely intentionally) fails to identify a thought experiment for what it is, and generally acts like a stereotypical teenager throughout. As highly as I thought of Chomsky, my opinion of him is now much lower, both for his intellectual ability, and his personality.

    Harris ultimately did concede (post-exchange) that he mis-characterized Noam's having addressed the issues, but (in my words -- Harris is far too polite) only because Noam's conclusion is nearly indistinguishable from failing to address the subject. I'm left wondering why I used to admire this person. Was I naive? I think so.

    I would encourage your readers to read the entire exchange for themselves, and listen to Harris' audio recording concluding the discussion to the audience, and make up their own minds.

    One thing.. . You say: "Harris tells Chomsky that there are purported millions of followers". No, he only says "probably ... a million", and that comes at the end. At the beginning he only mentions "many, many", and he is (or was) correct about that.

  2. AnonymousMay 20, 2015

    For me, Harris started showing his true colors when I heard his stance on the Israel-Palestine conflict. This debate fully unveiled him, and now I think he must be profoundly confused about the source of his views like this. It's as though he found a way to trick himself to confirm and reaffirm his views, contradicting his own claims to be so open-minded and ready to change his mind... Very Disappointing.


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