One of the “horsemen” of the “new atheism” has invited his opponents to enter the lists, and he’s willing to pay the champion.
Sam Harris published The Moral Landscape about three years ago. In this book he argues that science is the real basis for morality. Science doesn’t merely describe “what is”; it also tells humans “what ought to be.” Using scientific empiricism, we can objectively determine right from wrong. If a science of human flourishing informs morality, then humanity has no use for gods and religion.
His arguments have been attacked, but Harris claims that he hasn’t encountered “a substantial criticism” (a somewhat subjective phrase for such an objective fellow). But he’s willing to be swayed if someone comes up with something “substantial,” and he’s putting his money where his mouth is. Here’s his announcement on his blog.
So I would like to issue a public challenge. Anyone who believes that my case for a scientific understanding of morality is mistaken is invited to prove it in 1,000 words or less. (You must refute the central argument of the book—not peripheral issues.) The best response will be published on this website, and its author will receive $1,000. If any essay actually persuades me, however, its author will receive $10,000, and I will publicly recant my view.
How generous and open minded of him. There’s nothing like the promise of cold, hard cash for promoting thoughtful moral reflection.
Call me a cynic, but I have my doubts that Harris offers this challenge in good faith. If he’s not really interested in changing his mind, then why offer the money? Here are my speculations regarding his $1,000 bounty.
First, it’s been three years since the book came out. By offering a prize for the best refutation, Harris will convince thousands of arm-chair apologists to buy his book and write their own critique. He’s going to make more money off this contest than he’ll pay out to a winner.
Second, Harris will get thousands of brief essays arguing for a religiously grounded morality. His research assistants can then comb through them, and these essays will end up being the basis for his next book. It will be entitled something like The Dumb Things Apologists Say. If you enter, he can use your name and essay however he sees fit. Read the terms.
By participating, each entrant agrees … to the use of his/her name, voice, performance, photograph/video, image and/or likeness for programming, advertising, publicity and promotional purposes in any and all media, now or hereafter known, worldwide and on the Internet, and in perpetuity by Sponsor and its designees, without compensation (unless prohibited by law) or additional consents from entrant or any third party and without prior notice, approval or inspection, and to execute specific consent to such use if asked to do so.
I for one will not be helping him with his latest book proposal.
Sam Harris isn’t interested in furthering our understanding of the moral framework. This is a stunt. Unfortunately, it’s a stunt that will probably make him lots of money.