Thursday, March 10, 2011

Depth Review: Sam Harris' "The Moral Landscape", Part 1

It turns out I'm short on time today, so I'm turning the Ticker over to ministry associate Nick Peters, who is offering us a depth review of Sam Harris' The Moral Landscape in a series. I'll be back with more on bar arguments against the Resurrection tomorrow.


Sam Harris has been touted as the rock star of the new atheists and his latest book has already begun rocking the blogosphere. What is claimed to be found in it is the way that science can determine human values. What is found inside however is not science, but a lot of philosophy, and not just philosophy but extremely bad philosophy, with of course the customary new atheist rant against religion.

First, a concern about the subtitle of “How Science Can Determine Human Values.” If Harris chose this subtitle, then I have revealed a lot more about him than I ever wanted to know. However, if someone believes that science can determine human values, be very afraid. After reading just a few pages of this book and thinking about this thought, I told my wife that the concept left me terrified for the thought of people taking it seriously, and she knew why immediately.

My wife and I are both diagnosed with Asperger’s disorder. Note how this affects us. It is not science discovering human values as if they existed apart from us. It is science determining them. It is deciding what they will be. Note also that this is human values. Values are subjective. I value X. That tells you about my view of X. That does not tell you about X itself. What is being said then is that science will tell us what we ought to see as good and what we ought not see as good. Do I have any reason to think that if that is consistently believed, then lives like mine and Allie’s who are “disabled” will be seen as not being fully capable of “well-being” and thus need to be eliminated from the gene pool?

Now I want to be clear. I am not saying that Harris himself wants to do this. I do not see this kind of personal evil in him. However, I am saying that if his ideology is lived out, it can have consequences that he himself would not want to have, but he would have to accept, unless of course he wants to look to something besides science to find what is and isn’t good.

I also wish to add that this book is even more horribly researched than The End of Faith. I saw in the back three evangelical Christians referenced. Only one was interacted with and that was hardly an interaction as we shall see when we come to the fourth chapter. There is no mention of Natural Law theory. We will find the objections against religion informing us on morality are incredibly weak and more of what has been seen before. Harris is a terrible researcher. As a conservative, I am reminded of the joke that for a liberal news station, their idea of both sides is having what a liberal says and then what a liberal says about what the conservative says. For Harris, it’s what science says and then what science says about what religion says.

Let’s go to the text for the introduction with this.

At the start, I notice a statement that shows to me the double-standard of the new atheists. In talking about questions of morality, Harris says “And it is important to realize that our inability to answer a question says nothing about whether the question itself has an answer.” (page 3)

Right you are, Harris! Now do you think you could teach the rest of your atheist friends this about the problem of evil where since I cannot supposedly give a specific reason why God allows X, there is no answer? It’s okay to have an enterprise that doesn’t have all the answers immediately, unless that enterprise is religion!

For Harris, the answers, however, are to be found in neuroscience. How do you determine what is good? Well you look at someone’s brain and see how they respond. Now I have no problem with doing experiments of that sort, provided of course they do no injury to the person. My problem is that Harris thinks a brain state can tell you about the external world. It can only tell you about what I think about the external world, and even then it can barely do that.

For instance, I am looking at an object. Suppose you cannot see what I am looking at. Can you study my brain and determine what color the object is? Can you tell me how big the object is by studying my brain? How about its weight? Can you tell me any properties whatsoever? (You might say it’s visible, but even then, I could not even be seeing something for all you know and just hallucinating.)

If all we have is brain states, we cannot even avoid the question of if we’re brains in vats. Maybe we are. People in the Matrix could tell you a lot about what they were looking at and you could have studied their brain states and found out a lot about their brains as well. What you could not find out was if what they were seeing was really there. In the Matrix, it wasn’t. It was all part of a program. Or, maybe we’re in Bishop Berkeley’s world. Maybe the material world is an illusion sustained by the mind of God for us. Why believe in matter?

Harris goes on to critique what religion says about morality. Harris says that for religious conservatives, something is right because God says so. We can use rational inquiry for everything else, but values must come from a voice in a whirlwind. (Page 5)

I don’t know what religious conservatives Harris is talking to and naturally, he doesn’t cite any. The conservatives I know of argue from natural law theory and other such means. Even if they hold to a divine command idea, they hold it in a far different way than Harris gives and would not object to rational inquiry.

Perhaps this might be how Harris was raised with religion, if indeed he was. If so, then he is again in the fundamentalist mindset. He’s just changed allegiance.

Harris also says that multiple moral answers could exist to the same question that could be valid. I agree. Say you want to give money to a charity. Which one? There are multiple answers to that, but some are just wrong. If you give your money to Planned Parenthood for instance, I would say that is wrong.

Harris tries to use food as an example, saying there are many types of food that are healthy. The problem is that food is not healthy in itself but healthy in the sense that it is what brings about health. Actions on the other hand are not what bring about morality per se but they are moral or immoral in themselves. If Harris wants to say that only the ends are good however, which is what I gather from his book, then one wonders what evils cannot be permitted to bring about the greatest well-being for all.

For an example, consider if we have an isolated island where it seems no one will rescue the people on the island. There are 49 men and one woman. This is a community in itself. The men want pleasure and so they make it a practice that regularly, they will each take their turn raping the woman. By doing so, 49 people get great pleasure and 1 gets great suffering, but the many benefit far more than the few.

I’m sure Harris would condemn this, but that is a problem for a view that says, "the greatest good for the greatest number of people." Some actions are just evil in themselves, like rape, and no matter how much pleasure is brought to men by that action, the action cannot be justified.

Harris tells us that science will one day make precise claims about which behaviors are good, which are neutral, and which are worth abandoning. This is a disturbing claim for you can be sure that it will not be science that does it but scientists using science. Richard Dawkins can say all he wants to that science flies people to the moon and religion flies planes into buildings. Never mind that science gave us those planes and religion gave us the impetus to do science. The reality is in both cases, there are people who are evil and people who are good and want to use religion and science both.

Harris goes on to list Moore’s objection to finding goodness in the natural world. Moore said it could not be done and was a naturalistic fallacy. You cannot just say a property is good without knowing what goodness is. Harris’s answer to this is to say carte blanche that well-being is good.

To which Moore would say, “Why?” On the island, is it the well-being of the men, the well-being of the woman, or the well-being of the community as a whole that matter? In reality, should we join the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement for the well-being of the planet? Should we follow new age believers and put the well-being of bacteria on the same level as the well-being of humans? What does Harris believe about the well-being of the child in the womb?

What would it mean to say that well-being is good? Does it mean that well-being is goodness? Then if I say “This pizza is good” or “This song is good”, am I saying that each is well-being? If instead it means what I would think it means, that well-being is that which is described as good, then again the question arises, what is the definition of goodness by which you recognize well-being fits?

Harris never answers. There is no record of Plato’s concept of the good. There is no interaction with Aristotle’s definition of the good in the Nicomachean Ethics. Harris just wants to suddenly say that this is what goodness is. Now I am not opposed to well-being nor am I opposed to calling it good, but Harris has not answered Moore’s objection.

In speaking about maximizing well-being, which again Harris doesn’t explain, he says that whatever can be known about it must at some point translate into facts about the brain and its interaction with the world at large. Thus, the study of reality will come down to studying the brain. We can again come to the brain in the vat problem. I do not believe Harris would just destroy morality if he followed this route and make morality subjective ultimately. I also believe that he will destroy science as our knowledge of the external world could be the same as morality. It’d all come down to brain states.

Interestingly enough, one gets the picture that unwittingly, Harris has fallen into a teleology. Suppose he was right about morality taking place in the brain. Why is it that a properly functioning brain is one that brings about the discovery of moral truth? Harris will say that brains that aren’t functioning right produce psychopaths and others. Why? Why should it be that the functioning of the brain can tell us about a concept that is not material, namely goodness.

Harris says he believes that saying goodness is that which maximizes well-being stops Moore’s objection. Harris says on page 12 that it makes no sense to ask if maximizing well-being is good. Actually, it makes perfect sense to ask that. If I don’t know what goodness is, how can I know if maximizing well-being fits the bill? In fact, considering Harris himself cannot define well-being, then I have more of a quandary. On the island, whose well-being will we go with?

Harris goes on to describe the good life and the bad life. For the bad life, he has a widow in a third world country. At the point of a machete, her son was forced to rape his younger sister and then dismember her. You are on the run with killers in pursuit and such violence has become part of your life.

For the good life, you are married to the most wonderful person you have ever met and you each possess love, intelligence, and charisma. Your careers are rewarding in every way and you have enough means to do the activities that satisfy you most. Furthermore, you’ve just received a huge grant to benefit children overseas.

Now I agree that most of us would choose the second life, but the question to ask first is if Harris is saying the first kind of life is not worth living. If so, are there going to be other lives that are seen as bad lives? Could it be that science might one day maximize the well-being of society by eliminating such bad lives?

Second, Harris is unfortunately making happiness dependent on external realities. Now they do play a part in our happiness, but cognitive therapists today will tell you that what causes happiness is not so much what happens to you, but what you tell yourself about what happens to you. I believe the early Christians being martyred had much happiness as do those who are martyred today, while there are no doubt celebrities with vast wealth who are entirely depressed.

Amusingly, as we go on, we see that Harris says on page 22 that the chief enemy of open conversation is dogmatism in all its forms. This is so amusing since Harris himself is quite dogmatic against religion. Being dogmatic is not bad, however. It is holding to a truth claim based on the end of the thinking process.

Now I believe there are ways of being dogmatic that are not good and there is mindless dogmatism, like that of Harris, but there is nothing wrong with being sure you are right and stating it. If Harris believes such, then he should cease writing books. (Come to think of it, that might not be a bad idea. It would definitely maximize the well-being of society.)

Harris’s dogmatism is seen just two pages later talking about scientists at a convention not wanting to attack religion. Harris describes them as “people who looked like scientists, had published as scientists, and would soon be returning to their labs, nevertheless gave voice to the alien hiss of religious obscurantism at the slightest prodding.” He then says later on on the same page, “Consequently, it should come as no surprise that I see very little room for compromise between faith and reason on questions of morality.”

Yes, everyone. This is the Harris who wants open conversation, but you sure better not bring religion into the conversation! In other words, let’s try to have an open conversation but make sure that conversation is with those who agree with us. Wonderful! I will have an open conversation then on the existence of God, but I will make sure that only other theists are allowed into the conversation. I will have an open conversation on the resurrection of Jesus, but only conservative Christians can join in! Chesterton said that there are two kinds of people, the conscious and the unconscious dogmatists and the unconscious ones are the most dogmatic. Everyone accepts some form of dogma.

Harris continues his mini-tirade against religion and says “If the basic claims of religion are true, the scientific worldview is so blinkered and susceptible to supernatural modification as to be rendered nearly ridiculous; if the basic claims of religion are false, most people are profoundly confused about the nature of reality, confounded by irrational hopes and fears, and tending to waste precious time and attention – often with tragic results.”

What are these basic claims of religion? Well I don’t know. Harris never says it. I have no idea which ones he could mean as I have no problem accepting science as a means to truth. I think it’s the best means we have in fact of discovering scientific truth. This kind of thinking is typical to Harris. Note also it would be hard to say what is meant by the basic claims. Does a pantheist have the same basic claims as a theist?

Is this long? Yes. This is also just the introduction! One can imagine what else is coming up in the future. The reality is that this must be addressed however as already, it is being quoted in the blogosphere. On the back of the book, Dawkins is listed as one who says he unthinkingly accepted the idea that science could say nothing about morals. Now Harris has changed all of that. In other words, Dawkins unthinkingly accepted one claim and then unthinkingly accepted another. Dawkins claims that no one wields a sharper bayonet against the idea that we need God to be good than Sam Harris.

To which I say then that I am pleased that the opposition has such dull bayonets.

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