#Atheism Chomsky Vs Harris. FIGHT!

tumblr_mimvxk36GF1rf67slo1_1280Forget boxing, this was a far more interesting conflict but it’s one that has left me rather confused. As a ‘fan’ of both Harris and Chomsky I found the exchange – linked HERE – to be one that utterly humiliated Chomsky in that he failed to deal with Harris’ arguments (primarily) and in that he was a rude prick through the whole thing (irrelevant really, but perhaps that arrogance was reflected in the paucity of his arguments. Yet, a lot of people, not least of all the Salon/Alternet people seem to think this was bad for Harris.

I just can’t see it and it has been frustrating attempting to understand how anyone could think Chomsky won because they seem to simply make the same failing arguments as Chomsky in an attempt to do so. This is suggestive that there’s some deep philosophical difference between the two camps rendering each unable to see why the other side thinks theirs won. Rather than keep trying to work out why they thought Chomsky came out on top (a seemingly fruitless endeavour) I though I’d try a different tack and explain how and why I thought Harris came out on top. Strictly speaking though, I don’t think Harris had that much to do with it. Chomsky spent the exchanges smacking himself around more than anything.

Again, I had respect for both parties going into this (this will be the sixth time reading this article trying to understand the Chomsky camp). As a left-lib Chomsky is required reading and as a ‘new’ atheist Harris is required reading. I’ll go through this by paraphrasing the published emails in a more simple, colloquial manner to illustrate how I was interpreting what I read.

1. Harris to Chomsky

Hi Mr Chomsky. I’m curious why you don’t want to have a debate with me. Even though we probably disagree on a lot that would be interesting. I’m also curious why you’ve said these things about me which I don’t think are true. People have said I’m wrong about you on some things as well. So it might be good to clear those up.

Conciliatory tone, open to discussion despite differences. This suggests a sincere and honest desire to debate things that interest both men’s ‘camps’ and to clear up any mutual misconceptions. He’s polite, open, deferential even.

2. Chomsky to Harris

You said some things about me which are wrong, but I don’t think it’s useful to discuss these in public. If we do this let’s do it formally.

The full-on grump that comes later isn’t in this yet, but he’s clearly hostile right from the get go. Especially bullish about what may well just be misunderstandings.

3. Harris to Chomsky

Thanks for the reply. OK, but let’s also do this as if we’re going to publish it. I still think it would be useful to discuss misconceptions publicly as a service to readers to show that discussing opposing views is productive. Show me where I misunderstood you so that if I change my view I can show people how. I’d also like to talk about all these other difficult topics (all tricky ethics issues). Here’s what I wrote about you. Can you show me what I got wrong? *Insert length book quote*.

Still conciliatory, negotiating terms, makes his case for why open discussion is useful – and the man has a point, too much discussion is shut down without consideration whether in public or in academia. Provides the necessary material to the other party without complaint – or prompting, and even talks it down as old work and a piece of its time. He downplays its significance and admits its limitations. Humble. The thrust of the argument in the piece is that intentions are a component of moral and ethical decision making and secondarily that Chomsky (amongst others) only seems to compare raw body count when comparing atrocities and not the intentions or, so much, the broader context. The specifics really aren’t that important though it relates to a broader culture clash between PoMo moral relativism and pragmatic rationalism. Oddly, Chomsky is often considered a critic of postmodernism, yet seems to align with some of its conclusions (confusion, dubious equivalence, no right answers etc).

4. Chomsky to Harris

I’m going to have to shift to a more descriptive tone here to convey the issues.

Chomsky replies with specific reference to a particular segment of the quoted text, missing the broader philosophical and ethical question altogether. He specifically talks about the comparison of the Al-Sifi chemical plant bombing to 9/11 but dismisses the pondering of the ethical role of intent as unknowable – but with specific reference to this incident. Even within the quoted material he fails to explain why he considers these specific incidents equivalent, despite suggesting that Al-Sifi might actually be worse. Despite protesting otherwise he goes on to quote himself dismissing the intent (and status!) of the chemical plant to only consider ‘deaths’. Thereby contradicting his assertion a mere two paragraphs beforehand. He also strongly suggests – without any supporting reasoning – that the explanation is that Africans are regarded as ‘things’.

In short. Chomsky doesn’t recognise the underlying argument and derails by getting into specifics on the quoted instances. Even then he contradicts himself, two or three times, and exposes bald assertions about the intentions of others considering them a worsening factor, while simultaneously dismissing intent. It’s a muddled, assumptive, paradoxical mess that doesn’t remotely address what Harris is asking for clarity and correction on. It’s also quite rude. At least he asks what Harris thinks he has wrong about him, though he asks in an aggressive tone.

5. Harris to Chomsky

Harris notes that Chomsky is no longer addressing the point he’s trying to raise (“running into the weeds”) and tries to drag him back to the topic. He notes that he hasn’t read some of Chomsky’s work that relates, but notes – as I have above – that Chomsky isn’t addressing the point about intent – a more generous and conciliatory read than I put onto it. He further reinforces that this is the question being asked by creating a thought experiment about a well-intentioned version of Al-Qaeda. The question is then reasserted. Plainly and clearly. Intentions matter in regard to questions of morality and ethics, do you agree or not?

It’s worth noting here that much of Harris’ current work is bent towards the question of whether we can apply reason to moral questions. His TED talk on the moral landscape is relatively short, but explains this better than I can in this blog. He believes that it can, I agree, perhaps this fundamental view is the problem between the two camps.

Perhaps I can craft a better analogy than Harris to make the point here.

Suppose a group, in ignorance of modern science, sincerely and fervently believes that docking the little toe from a baby protects them from demons. Are they acting ethically? In their context and beliefs and not knowing any better, probably yes, and it might be somewhat unfair to judge them.

Suppose that same community, a century later, is still doing this despite demons being proven not to exist and the harm or risk of cutting off baby toes has been well proven. Now they know the facts but persist, because of tradition? Are they acting ethically? Probably not.

Also can we not say that one ethical structure can be better than another? Is it more moral and ethical to accept LGBT people as normal and part of society, or to throw them from buildings to their death because a magic book tells us to? This is a stark example, but a real one. Can we reasonably say one is better than the other? I believe so, so does Harris.

6. Chomsky to Harris

Chomsky ignores the restatement and simplification of the point being argued, despite the relative clarity Harris gave it. He says that he has examined intentions, but it appears that he did so in order to dismiss them, since that is – again – how he uses it here. He further grows more accusatory and further tries to derail by getting Harris to address questions that aren’t really part of the discussion and, again, being distracted by specifics and attempting to derail into specifics. All without addressing the re-clarified first question. It’s not great form to introduce new arenas of argument before the first ones are dealt with. Frankly, it’s a ‘Gish Gallop’ of sorts. Again, paradoxically, while dismissing intent he makes bald, unsupported assertions about the motivations and viewpoints of those involved in his chosen negative examples. Indeed, he goes further in starting to make accusations about Harris’ morality when it hasn’t been raised and the topic is being discussed at a remove from the personal. He also confuses understanding for apologia, an elementary mistake and one a thinker of his calibre should not be making.

Short version, he again ignores the question and heads off to argue with/against things that haven’t been said and to get lost in specifics. Petulance and anger may explain the lack of rationality here. Even the best people can lose their temper but there’s no explicable reason here to get angry.

7. Harris to Chomsky

Harris is starting to get testy now, but remains remarkably calm considering. He identifies that Chomsky is not addressing the point and may be actively trying to shut down or avoid the point. Harris also – correctly – identifies that those on Chomsky’s ‘side’ would probably like to see this exchange as they – like him – would think he was winning and/or wiping the floor with Harris. Again Harris tries to drag Chomsky back to the topic and restates the question a third time, even more clearly. He also, more gently than I would, draws out some of the paradoxes, confusions and biases in Chomsky’s sidelines, a remarkably generous thing to do given they don’t really relate. Most of this is irrelevant.

I share Harris’ exasperation at this point.

8. Chomsky to Harris

Chomsky heads off into the weeds again, still failing to address the actual point. Again makes ‘telepathic’ assertions about motivations and feelings and again tries to deflect and derail and go off into specifics. Tellingly he finally does explain why he’s not answering the question: “There’s no answer” – in his opinion. Something he could have done many stages ago, but refused to. Not that this really constitutes an answer at all. More like an admission. However he does, again, contradict himself by simultaneously asserting that they don’t matter. Impressive to contradict yourself when one half of the paradox is you refusing to make an assertion at all.

Frankly, he’s just being a dick and repeating the same mistakes at this point.

9. Harris to Chomsky

Harris again attempts to be polite and to de-escalate by offering Chomsky the out that some of the miscommunication is down to the limitations of email. He apparently gives up on getting a straight – or any – answer and in essence throws up his hands and tries to address one of Chomsky’s specifics, the Al-Shifa bombing. Apparently hoping that he can sneak the actual point back in by talking about Clinton’s intentions and information in that incident. After all, why would you bomb a simple chemical plant in retaliation for an embassy bombing?

10. Chomsky to Harris

Ironically. Chomsky refuses to deal with his own misconceptions of Harris, despite beating Harris over the head about the same thing the other way around, even though Harris has been trying to get an answer so he can be sure for the whole set of exchanges. He seems to think the specific case of Al-Shifa is important, when it is not. It should be lost into the general point but again, Chomsky seems determined to hide amongst specifics. Again he seems to claim to read minds and intentions and again contradicts himself by considering these simultaneously important and unknowable at the same time.

11. Harris to Chomsky

Harris rightly notes that despite his every effort to be accommodating it’s not being reciprocated. He suggests getting some other eyes on the discussion as neutral moderators who might help to make it more productive. He gives Chomsky direct video reference to Chomsky’s commentary on him (and apparently Hitchens) so that it might possibly be replied to. He again appeals for calm and again tries to draw Chomsky back to the original point so that if he’s wrong he can correct himself (or if he’s right, not). In another line of attack and attempt to get a proper answer he valiantly deals with Chomsky’s deflection again, trying to turn it into an example of what he’s trying to determine.

12. Chomsky to Harris

Appears to largely ignore the previous message, preferring to use the time to attack Harris again. He reiterates the same mistakes and problems he’s made before and continues to refuse to provide an answer or reasoning that can deal with Harris supposed misconception of his standing on the issue. Chomsky has come into this wanting Harris to admit that his views on Chomsky’s positions are false, but has failed to give Harris any reason to think they are false (quite the opposite!). It’s just a parade of everything he got wrong before, and his petulance.

At this point it just degenerates into ‘this isn’t worth having’.


Harris comes across as, mostly, being rational, objective, distanced, honest and sincere in genuinely trying to have a fruitful discussion. HE repeatedly tries to get Chomsky to provide the information and answers he needs to know whether his interpretation in his (10 year old book) was wrong or not. Eventually, with more patience than most people can muster, he gives up.

Chomsky comes across as a petulant, crotchety old man whose anger has gotten the better of him, yet it’s anger with no reason to exist. He remains angry and dismissive, never really addresses the points Harris is trying to raise, constantly tries to deflect, contradicts himself frequently and is left looking like an irrational arsehole.

Honestly, I went in expecting to see Harris ‘pwned’, after all he didn’t do that well against Batfleck (given the format). Here though he acquits himself admirably over Chomsky, the elder statesman, and makes him look like a lunatic. How anyone can interpret this as Chomsky winning or showing Harris up is beyond my ability to fathom.


6 responses to “#Atheism Chomsky Vs Harris. FIGHT!

  1. I read the exchange and disagree. Boiling it down: the main disagreement was about US intentions and how much they matter. Harris thinks when the US kills thousands of people it’s OK because in the West they’re civilised folk that wouldn’t kill so many people if they could help it. Chomsky calls bullshit on that and points to concrete facts regarding Clinton’s bombing of the Sudan pharmaceuticals factory.

    And of course Chomsky is frustrated: he’s dealing with an apologist for mass killings who had previously misrepresented him in print.

    • Yeah, that’s not how I read it at all. Rather the general principle of whether intentions matter (though referencing the US). I also don’t see Harris as an apologist for anything but rather someone trying to understand and navigate these issues on a rational basis – running up against emotion.

      After that exchange it doesn’t seem like Gnome was misrepresented and it seems like he lets misrepresentations of Harris rule his emotions and his emotions rule his brain. Lost 90% of my respect for him, gained more for Harris.

      • Harris, at least in his book excerpt he quotes, engaged in a thorough defence of the US’s right to bomb other countries because they are civilised and have good intentions and the 3rd worlders are stuck in the 14th century. He has been an apologist. Do you read the extract in a different way?

        Harris levels the charge at Chomsky that he didn’t consider intentions. Chomsky points out that he did (atrocities are condemned even when the intentions were supposedly good; US planners must have known the likely human cost to their bombings).

        It’s not really an abstract discussion of the role of intentions in moral judgements is it? The whole discussion was from the beginning framed around Chomsky’s comparison of 9/11 to Clinton’s bombings.

      • I don’t think I have anything to add here that isn’t already in the piece. It’s clear we’re not seeing this the same way at all.

  2. Thanks for you post. I had a similar starting position as you. I agree with your assessment.

    I thought I didn’t need the play-by-play, as the exchange does stand on its own, but I did find your analysis illuminating, and I agree with it, except for the gendered insults. I like dicks and pricks.

    “Frankly, it’s a ‘Gish Gallop’ of sorts”. I was thinking this myself, so I’m pleased to see I’m not alone.

    “[Chomsky] contradicts himself by considering [intentions] simultaneously important and unknowable at the same time”. The evasions, failures, and rudeness were bad enough without this particular problem, but as you’ve drawn it to my attention in several places, I can see that it was even worse than I thought.

    Regarding the YouTube video, Chomsky seems to want to brush it aside, claiming he was maybe only talking “about Hitchens, whose views I know about, whereas in your case I only know about your published falsifications of my views”. (This is consistent with an earlier statement but reveals a weasel: “MOST of what I’ve read of yours is material that has been sent to me about my alleged views”). In the video he was asked specifically “Do you see a way to … separate the staunch secularism of HARRIS and Hitchens from their warmongering (in HARRIS’ case, outright support for torture)?” The reply is “[some ego stuff] … well first of all, I think that they are religious fanatics. They happen to believe in the state religion which is much more dangerous than other religions for the most part. So they, BOTH OF THEM, happen to be defenders of the state religion, namely the religion that says we have to support the violence and atrocities of our own state because it’s being done for all sorts of wonderful reasons, which is exactly what everyone says in every state. It’s just another religion, like the religion that markets know best. It doesn’t happen to be a religion that you pray to every once a week. But it’s just another religion. It’s very destructive.” Chomsky was talking out of his ass then, or now, or both.

    I am flabbergasted that the exchange is being interpreted other ways. It bothers me far more than the blue-white-gold-black dress did. It seems that dogma and authority are more important to swaying opinion in this subject, even when the exchange is right there to read.

    Regarding authority, I’ve read other reviews of this exchange which go on to deny that Harris is even a philosopher, which is kind of odd… who cares? It’s the ideas that matter. But what they’re trying to do is define his particular thoughts right out of the whole concept of philosophy, to protect a person who ought to be able to explain himself. It must be irritating to them that Harris does actually hold a philosophy degree from Stanford, and I suspect is known more for being a philosopher than the neuroscientist that he also is.

  3. I want to comment on the “state religion” claim by Noam, which is indirectly echoed by Joey Jones’ comments.

    Harris’s position is that intent matters.

    In the case of 9/11, the intent was to kill and harm as many Americans as possible, even by the thousands, using available means. And that is what happened.

    In the case of Al-Shifa, Noam agrees that “Clinton did not want or intend to kill anyone at all”. Clinton wanted to destroy a chemical weapons facility, and did so in a way designed to minimize harm. The result was many, many deaths. (The interstate highway system also results in many, many deaths).

    Noam appears to suggest that the interstates, and Al-Shifa, are actually worse than 9/11. This is even in spite of the fact that 9/11 was likely more successful than its planners could have dreamed, due to the towers actually collapsing, resulting in deaths that would otherwise not have happened. Apparently many deaths are worse when you’re trying to do something good, than when you’re already trying to cause many other deaths, because somehow attempting to minimize deaths means you consider humans to be bugs, but planning to slaughter humans by the thousands means they’re… what, exactly? Poultry?

    What sort of world would we live in, if intention didn’t matter? What does Noam’s world look like? Would doctors be convicted of murder every time their treatments (particularly experimental) resulted in the patient’s death? And how would we travel, knowing that the roads are worse than terrorists? Do all of our parents belong in prison for rape (after all, what is consent but intention, and intention doesn’t matter)? It’s one thing to be a critic of bad foreign policy, but Noam apparently gets there from nonsense. Nonsense can appear to be useful because it can logically get you anywhere you need to go (and more). But it’s still nonsense.

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