Commentary Magazine


Sam Harris Won’t Change His Mind. But Neither Will Most of the Rest of Us.

Jonathan Haidt is a leading social psychologist. Earlier this month he wrote a fascinating article on why the “New Atheist” Sam Harris won’t change his mind.

Here’s the context: Mr. Harris said he would personally pay $10,000 to anyone who submits an essay so logically compelling that it makes him change his mind and renounce his views. Professor Haidt in turn said he would pay Harris $10,000 if anyone could convince Harris to renounce his views. Haidt’s confidence has little to do with the quality (or lack thereof) of the arguments opposed to Harris; it rests instead on Harris’s dogmatism.

What Haidt found in analyzing the works of Harris is that he’s a person who is so deeply committed to his point of view–his investment in his outlook and attitudes are so central to his self-understanding–that no set of arguments, however persuasive, could cause Harris to rethink his previous positions.

If it’s any comfort to Harris, he has a lot of company. In his article Haidt echoes a theme he’s written on before–the enormous power “motivated reasoning” and “confirmation bias” have in our lives.

“People deploy their reasoning powers to find support for what they want to believe,” he writes. “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.” Haidt says that his own area of research, moral judgment, makes it clear that “people make judgments of right and wrong almost instantly, and then make up supporting reasons later.” David Hume was right when he said that reason was “the slave of the passions” rather than its charioteer.

Haidt observes, too, that “disconfirmation”–being open to having one’s views challenged, learning from this experience, and as a result improving one’s reasoning–depends in part on social relationships. “We engage with friends and colleagues, but we reject any critique from our enemies,” he writes. “Relationships open hearts, and open hearts open minds.”

This doesn’t mean reason doesn’t have a vital role to play or that some individuals aren’t capable of more self-detachment than others. And in terms of Harris’s atheism, Haidt would agree with me, I think, that his arguments about morality, science, and faith still need to be confronted even if Harris harbors great antipathy for religion which skews his judgments.

That said, the core argument made by Haidt is an important one. Assume you believe, as I do, that grounding our views in moral intuitions and what Burke referred to (in an uncritical way) as “prejudice” is entirely legitimate. It’s still the case for many of us that in all sorts of areas–including religion, politics, and philosophy–we subordinate intellectual honesty in order to ratify our pre-existing opinions. We’ve settled on what we believe is the right and true answer; everything after that consists of confirming what we believe.

We all engage in this to some extent; it’s a matter of degree, of whether we’re able to absorb, let alone dispassionately examine, evidence that challenges our presuppositions. That’s true of Sam Harris–and it’s true of me. He has his biases and predilections, I have mine, and you have yours. The question, really, is whether we recognize them and what we do with them. Are they instruments or obstacles to ascertaining the reality of things? 

It’s fair to say, I think, that one of the gifts we sometimes receive in life is to have people who have standing in our lives alert us to our blind spots–and, in the process, gently remind us that searching for truth requires us from time to time to reexamine and refine our assumptions. If you think it’s easy or common, just ask yourself the last time you did it.