Sam Harris and the Truck-Sized Hole in the Book

Flaming arrows are heading Sam Harris’ way because of his new book, The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values. The problem, says my old blogging friend Josh Rosenau, is the truck-sized hole in the middle of Harris’ argument. Times reviewer Kwame Anthony Appiah adds:

(H)ow do we know that the morally right act is, as Harris posits, the one that does the most to increase well-being, defined in terms of our conscious states of mind? Has science really revealed that? If it hasn’t, then the premise of Harris’s all-we-need-is-science argument must have nonscientific origins.

Josh talks through the implications of science as morality in this example:

How awesome would it be to say to an anti-abortion activist: “sorry, your moral system is scientifically disproven, like geocentrism”? But talking about abortion gets to the core of Harris’s problem: to whom we accord moral status (is an 8-cell embryo morally equivalent to an adult human?), how much status we accord to sentient non-humans (we accord chimps fewer rights than humans, but where does an 8-cell embryo fall on that axis?), and how we balance different people’s needs (must we let a woman die to protect the life of an embryo?) are all questions that are fundamentally about values, and that are not ultimately scientific, and however much Harris wishes otherwise, he can’t answer them.

I’ve ordered but have not yet received the book, so my comments must remain uninformed worries for the moment. I’m worried about Harris’ tendency to simplify complexities and ignore inconvenient facts. I’m wondering how science detached from values could make the right calls on such moral issues as abortion and same-sex marriage. (For one frightening example, take a look at the “science” that is already being employed in the marriage debate.) But I do remained intrigued by Harris’ landscape metaphor. The idea that there are similar but different moral peaks is intriguing. I look forward to reading the book.

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2 Responses to Sam Harris and the Truck-Sized Hole in the Book

  1. Why is it we frame this debate as science vs. religion, as if those were the only two ways of developing moral and cultural values? My own set of ethics is drawn from the study of Aikido, meaning that it is rooted in, of all things, war, albeit war looked at from new perspectives. Then there are a variety of what one might call spiritual practices — meditation, yoga, Chi Gong — that are practiced by many without being associated with any religion. And of course there is philosophy itself, which can draw from both science and religion, but is not committed to either.

    Then there’s the fact that our scientific knowledge is far from complete — particularly in neuroscience. Humans have done horrific things in the past based on the scientific understanding of the times, the most awful (in my mind) being treatment of some human beings as less than human because half-baked science said we were of different races and some were inferior to others.

    But science is, at least, open-ended and ever-changing. We learn more every year. Many religions — particularly the most fundamentalist — are rooted in particular points in history and unwilling to change. And why do we need a god, anyway — why should something outside of ourselves be the moral arbiter? That seems like an idea more related to a time when the world seemed arbitrary and magical, and humans were incapable of explaining it.

    I’m rambling here, but the gist of what I’m saying is that it seems like too many people are narrowing the discussion to science vs. God, when there is so much more out there.

    And thanks for continuing this discussion, because you’re allowing me to deepen my understanding of my own personal beliefs. I don’t believe in God — that is, I don’t believe in a force, much less a being, that created our lives and sets the rules. God is an idea humans made up before they developed better tools to explain the world. But I’m often annoyed by the atheists who refuse to allow room for anything that can’t be explained by the science of our time. (As a science fiction writer, I can always conceive of where the science might be somewhere down the road, and when I do that, it makes certain of our scientific beliefs du jour look very primitive.)

    There are mysteries in the world. Perhaps someday humans will be able to parse all of them scientifically, but that’s not going to happen in my lifetime. Meanwhile, we should use other means to explore those mysteries, and not just assume they’re the result of “God.”

  2. dianesilver says:

    I don’t think you’re rambling. You’re making a lot of sense. As I’ve gone on this quest, I’ve begun to see glimpses of people who’ve stepped off the dichotomy that Harris appears to be creating. As I’ve gotten deeper into friendship with a United Methodist minister who is preparing for a momentous step, I’ve begun to meet people who are religious, yet don’t see an either-or swamp. They think deeply about morality and goodness and don’t fall into the Fundamentalist’s trap.

    At the same time, my quest has led me to talk to my secular friends about goodness in ways I never did before. This has made me realize that we seldom talk about the issue in those terms. We’d talk about how so and so is wrong and about social justice, but never about morality. It was just a given, I suspect. Something in the air. But because we never talked openly — or maybe thought about what is right or wrong — I worry that we’ve handicapped ourselves. We may well have made it harder to live good lives because we never thought about what that meant outside of being anti-war, pro-social justice and pro-environment.

    OK, now I’m rambling. You weren’t, but I am. What I’ve just written is a half formed thought. More on this later.

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