Monday, April 18, 2011

Sam Harris' "The Moral Landscape," Part 5

Today Nick Peters delivers the last in a series on this popular work.


We are now on the final chapter with which I will conclude this review. Harris is writing here about the future of happiness and right at the start, it is a wonder that someone could write a chapter like this. On page 177 he writes “Despite our perennial bad behavior, our moral progress seems to me unmistakable.”

Indeed: Because we can all watch the evening news and say America is getting better and better.

Harris tells us on the same page that of course the twentieth century delivered “some” unprecedented horrors. (Parentheses mine)

World War 1, World War 2, the Holocaust, Khmer Rouge, Hiroshima and Nagasaki….

Yes. Just “some” horrors. If you want to overlook world wars and killing on a scale never before seen, yes. We only saw some horrors.

Fortunately, according to Harris, we in the developed world became disturbed by our capacity to do harm to our fellow man.

After all, we know all of the above atrocities took place in third world countries and Russia and Germany were not at all developed….

Harris goes on to write about how he has developed his argument, if you want to call it that, in the book. There is nothing new aside from the idea that we must depend on science. Now then is a good time to consider my overall look at Harris’ book.

I have stated before that I think Harris is the worst researcher amongst the new atheists. He consistently denies citing his opponents and even though Polkinghorne and N.T. Wright are referenced in this book, their positions are not dealt with. This is not to say that they are automatically right, but that if Harris wants to say that someone like Collins tells us to read these people and has the implication that this is a bad argument, he should tell us why. What is wrong with the position of Polkinghorne? What is wrong with that of Wright?

I also believe Harris’ whole thesis in facts works against him. If our brains are meant to uncover moral truths about the world, then does this not imply a teleology for us? A proper-functioning brain is one that does happen to discover that acts of genocide are wrong. Why should the brain uncover moral truths however? (Or any truths for that matter?) Why should there be a relation between the way I “feel” and the way the world is? (In saying such, I am not saying morality is a matter of feeling of course.)

At my writing of this, Harris has just concluded recently a debate with William Lane Craig where Harris was thoroughly outmatched. While I do not agree with all of Craig’s positions, Harris’ arguments boiled down to ideas like “YHWH condoned genocide” and “Why should a good Hindu go to Hell?” Harris simply ranted and consistently played the card of “no evidence” thinking that all Christians everywhere eschew the idea of evidence for a position.

It is ironic that the new atheists tend to think simply asserting their position counts as an argument. They do not give evidence that Christians eschew evidence. They do not give evidence that faith is believing something without reason. They do not interact with the arguments of the other side seriously, all the while chiding Christians for doing the same.

It is my hope in fact that the new atheists keep up the march that they’re on. The more that they argue as they do, the better and better the state of affairs gets for their opposition. They have lowered the intellectual level of atheism. When atheists start thinking people like Harris and Dawkins are well-read in the philosophy and theology they critique, we are in good hands. Of course, this does not mean that we avoid our intellectual commitments, but if we sharpen ours blades while our opponents dull theirs, we will have an advantage.

If you are an atheist, I do urge you that if you want Christians to take your arguments seriously, avoid the new atheists like the plague. Never cite them except as a negative example. Look in their bibliographies and indexes and notes and see how much they have paid attention to the other side, and then read their opposition. In fact, read the opposition before the new atheists ever came out to see the new atheists are dealing with arguments that have been dealt with numerous times before. There is indeed nothing new under the sun.

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