Thursday, January 6, 2011

Climb Every Mountain - Sam Harris's "The Moral Landscape"

Book cover, courtesy of
The market for manifestos isn't what it used to be.  Take The Communist Manifesto for example, first published as a book in 1848 and serialized in a German-language newspaper in London, it was within a few years translated into several languages and reprinted many times.  Yet it's hard to imagine a publisher picking it up today, not so much because of its explosive political content, but because it weighs in at under 100 pages, at least that's about the size of the 1998 Signet Classics edition.

So even a best-selling author like Sam Harris had some finagling to do to get his recent, The Moral Landscape, which is at its core a short manifesto calling for science to re-engage in the debate over human values, published as a book.  What would have been a clarion cry of "to the barricades" to dislodge the religious monopoly over the divining and devising of moral frameworks, becomes, as a result of market necessities, a longer and less focused work.  Harris's central premise does shine through, even somewhat obscured by the extras that he tosses in to bring the book to a requisite, consumer-friendly 300 pages or so.

The author states clearly at the outset what he aims to accomplish: "The goal of this book is to begin a conversation about how moral truth can be understood in the context of science."

Sam Harris, courtesy of
If all Harris had hoped to do was to start a conversation, then I would have to confess that he would have had me at "hello".  Harris, of course, is best known as one of the quaternion of celebrity atheists who have collectively reframed the discussion concerning the role of religion in society and have called into question the legitimacy of all versions of that God-centered enterprise.  Smart, handsome and well-spoken, he reflects the particular strengths of his three comrades-in-non-belief: part scientist, as is The Selfish Gene biologist Richard Dawkins, part philosopher, as is Breaking the Spell scholar Daniel Dennett and part rhetorician, as is God is Not Great pugilist Christopher Hitchens.

As it turns out, Harris is interested in much more than simply starting a conversation about human values.  In the first chapters of Landscape he outlines a program for seizing the moral high ground from those who have traditionally occupied it, namely theologians and religious leaders, and to do so in spite of the dismissive criticism of moral relativists in academia and elsewhere, who feel that any claim of universal moral truth is fundamentally misguided and that the search for such truth violates some prime directive of anthropological studies which grants equal moral status to all cultures unconditionally.

David Hume, historian and
philosopher (1711-1776)
It is an uphill battle Harris has taken on, made even more difficult since the likes of Enlightenment philosophers, such as David Hume, who is famous for his early identification of the so-called is-ought problem, and of 20th century philosophers, such as G. E. Moore, who would characterize Harris's thinking as a naturalist fallacy, stand in his way.

So, how does Harris address these considered criticisms from philosophical quarters?  He, first and foremost, unabashedly embraces moral realism, insisting that propositions about ethics refer objectively to the properties of things, specifically that "meaning, values, morality and the good life must relate to facts about the well-being of conscious creatures - and, in our case, must lawfully depend upon events in the world and upon states of the human brain."

What distinguishes Harris from his predecessors in their pursuit of a long-sought grounding of a utilitarian system of ethics is his insistence that the field of neuroscience, in which he holds a recently minted Ph.D., will assist us in finally separating the chaff of mere opinion about the nature of human and animal suffering from the wheat of scientific fact.  This is the tantalizing promise that Landscape, as manifesto, provisionally holds forth, but, unfortunately, one on which Landscape, as a book, ultimately fails to deliver.

Harris's article (PDF) in
Annals of Neurology
Only well into the final chapter does the author concede, "I have said very little in this book about the current state of psychological science as it relates to human well-being."  This comes as a remarkable and belated admission.  Much neuroscience has indeed been discussed in the course of the book, but it is the neuroscience of belief and not of happiness that has occupied Harris's attention in the intervening pages.  Why this is so is less of a surprise when one learns that Harris's dissertation research has been used extensively in Landscape, as he notes in his acknowledgement.  Now Harris's scientific investigation of the neural correlates of belief, disbelief and uncertainty is unquestionably interesting stuff, but it is only marginally related to the argument concerning a theory of values that he is supposed to be making.

[Doctoral students dream that their dissertations will see widespread publication.  Best-selling authors such as Harris, though, have the means to make this dream come true by including that work in a larger book.  As an erstwhile graduate student I must say that I sympathize with this temptation.]

Official portrait of NIH
Director Francis Collins
The other significant diversion results from Harris's decision to include an extended critique of religion here as well, very much a continuation of the carefully crafted assault that he launched with his first book, The End of Faith.  Again, it is not for disagreeing with Harris about the failings of religion that I object, but because I don't find much of what he has to say in this regard relevant to his the stated thesis of Landscape.

Take for instance the protracted excoriation of Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health and a former leader of the Human Genome Project, who also happens to be an "unrepentant" (as far as science is concerned) born-again Christian.  To be sure, it is perplexing how a scientist as accomplished as Collins can reconcile his reliance on a rational system of understanding the world with his conviction that God has specifically meddled in the process of human evolution.  Nonetheless, whether Collins is simply a misguided thinker or whether, by setting a bad example, he disqualifies himself from holding a position of significant scientific authority, has little to do with presenting the case for the science-based values agenda that Harris has proposed as his stated goal.

In spite the structural flaws resulting from this kind of padding, I feel that Landscape succeeds as an important political tract.  To see why I say this it is useful to reflect on a brief history of the "values" debate that rages between science and religion.

Charles Darwin by Julia
Margaret Cameron
For the better of the past several millennia, religion has ruled the roost as far as pronouncements on morality goes.  It still does.  Inroads have been made by science, beginning most notably in the Renaissance when the view of the universe centered on Earth and on man was called into question.  Not explicitly an attack on the existing moral order, the discoveries of Copernicus and Galileo cast doubt on the legitimacy of religion's claims to exclusive authority over important philosophical matters.

With the publication of On the Origin of Species in 1859, Charles Darwin brought this simmering confrontation to a head.  In one respect the appearance of his theory of evolution signaled the beginning of the utter routing of religion as an arbiter of claims concerning the physical world, although, admittedly, keepers of the faith such as Francis Collins persist in offering a significant  "God of the gaps" rearguard resistance.  Yet the near elimination of religion from the battlefield of science, left believers ensconced as the uncontested rulers of the realm of morals and values.

In an attempt to settle the issue once and for all and to thwart the reintroduction of religion into the U.S. secondary school curriculum under the guise of a so-called theory of Intelligent Design, in 1997 Stephen J. Gould fashioned a truce of sorts, that goes by the name non-overlapping magisteria (NOMA).  Gould's division of the world into separate domains - one with morality and values as the province of religion, and one with nature as the province of science - was widely accepted in a Rodney King, "can we all just get long?" kind of way.

Missouri Compromise Line
The problems that plague NOMA, though, are not unlike those that beset the Missouri Compromise after it was enacted into law in 1820.  For those unfamiliar with this episode of American history, the smoldering disagreement over slavery, hardly resolved by the concessions of the Constitution of 1787, flared up again as the status of that "peculiar institution" in the newly acquired territories had to be finalized.  By partitioning the map according to agreed upon free and slave-holding domains - the non-overlapping magisteria of that day and age - the Solons of the U.S. Congress had hoped to forestall, if not prevent, a catastrophic internecine conflict.  As the eruption of the Civil War 40 years later demonstrated, they had succeeded only in delaying the inevitable.

In this regard I see Harris with Landscape playing a role similar to that of a firebrand American abolitionist pamphleteer of the mid-19th century, disdainful of a compromise which he feels inappropriately concedes vast territory to the control of forces whose judgement and integrity he considers faulty, and  not the least bit interested in seeking accommodation,  he has decided, in no uncertain terms, to undermine a flawed and fragile truce.

Although Harris's new book may fail in certain ways as an entirely coherent treatment of the question of the the scientific basis of human values, it succeeds quite well as a political and intellectual broadside, shots fired marking the end of a ineffectual "gentlemen's agreement" ceasefire over disputes of moral legitimacy.  In a world where the Taliban and the Tea Party do not demur in staking their own claims on the moral landscape, I for one am very glad that Sam Harris has taken up the battle.

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Climb Every Mountain - Sam Harris's "The Moral Landscape" by Marc Merlin is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
Based on a work at


Tito Tinajero said...

I do find it interesting that in your review you place the anti-religious parts of Sam's book as asides Sam tossed for filler. It is clear by how he handles the content of Hume's is/ought argument (dismissive with only quoting Dennett's very flawed critique in his end notes) that his "central" thesis really is not what his book is about. It is just another anti-religious polemic fro him in the guise of ethical text. Certainly, he does spend hardly anytime developing his neo-utilitarianism, but spends most of his space bashing religion. Sam is a professional Religion basher, who simply does very fifth-rate-standing-on-the-sidelines type of science (there are so many undergraduates in science doing so much better work, makes you wonder if his popularity has more to do with his celebrity than science). Proof: He does quote Andrew Newburg's work on Religion and MRIs, but he does not deal in any way with Dr. Newburg's idea that humans are hardwired religously and that religion could be a human asset. Newburg would seem to be a target for Sam's antireligious attitude, but he avoids the work, even as he is aware of it. Sam seems to ignore research that challenges his views than confront it. Sounds more like religious zealot than working scientist.

Ernie Croot said...

Dear Marc,

That's a thoughtful essay; and I agree that he is not unlike the abolitionists of old (though perhaps not quite as fiery).

Although I have not read Harris's book, I did recently watch a Ted Talk by him on the same subject, and my feeling was that he is somewhat right and somewhat wrong, as I will now discuss.

I think that science (neuroscience in particular) can help in two ways regarding morality: It can help us to understand the neurobiological basis for what we call morals and ethics, and it can help us to extend our morality to new contexts (e.g. do whales suffer when we place them in aquariums, separated from their gam?).

But I don't think it can help us, for example, to resolve moral quandaries that come up in economics, which often come down to either: competing morals that are not universally-shared; or an inability to measure the relative value of moral gains against moral losses (e.g. Is housing a human right? If so, then it is our moral duty to raise taxes to ensure that everyone will have a place to stay. Yet, raising taxes harms the population as a whole (less money for food, clothing, etc.). Is the loss of the many outweighed by the good of the few in this case?); or no set boundaries (framework) in which the problem could be resolved rationally (e.g. when considering the ``greater good'' do we only take into account the immediate gains of the whole population, or do we project that out and estimate the gains over a lifetime?).


About Sam Harris as a ``fifth-rate scientist'': This might be true (I would guess 1.5-rate -- i.e. better than second-rate, but not near the top). There have been any number of scientists in the past who were great communicators of science, who the general public probably thought were ``great scientists'', yet who were considered *only* merely ``pretty good'' by the scientific establishment. Carl Sagan comes to mind. My opinion about Sagan is more-or-less the same as that appearing in the following review by Jason Rosenhouse of the Mooney & Krishenbaum book ``Unscientific America'':

(Type `Sagan' in the search window to find where Jason starts talking about him.)

A particularly amusing example of how popular Sagan once was appeared in the film ``Miracle Mile'' about the impending end of the world by nuclear annihilation, where the characters were trying to figure out whom to contact in order that they make it to safety. Sagan was right at the top of the list of ``great scientists''.

Marc Merlin said...

Hello, Tito,

Thank you for your comments!

Apparently we agree on one thing: much of Harris's book has little to do with his claimed central thesis. You cynically believe that that thesis was nothing more than a pretext for him to engage in additional religion-bashing. I cynically believe that market exigencies led Harris to pad a sincere manifesto exhorting science to re-enter the debate over values with other work of his, including the kind of attacks on religion for which he is best known. Maybe cynicism is the other thing we have in common :)

I have to admit I find your characterization of the Harris as a fifth-rate scientist to be a sort of Sam-Harris-bashing. Don't get me wrong, I don't think Harris has established (or, given his personal priorities, likely ever will establish) himself as an accomplished neuroscientist. I also don't imagine that Harris considers himself to be a scientist of the first or even second rank. He certainly doesn't present himself as such.

What Harris is, if I can reconstruct his biography correctly, is someone with an undergraduate degree in philosophy, who while embarking on graduate studies in neuroscience, as a result of the 9/11 tragedy, decided to write a book attacking religion, which (unexpectedly) launched him on a career as a public intellectual. It would seem therefore that criticism of the science in his popular writings (as Ernie Croot suggests) should focus on how well he communicates those ideas and not whether he is a world-class researcher or not.

For what it's worth, as you probably have guessed, I am sympathetic to many of Harris's anti-religious views, although I do not agree with his most strident positions. That said, my essay here was not an endorsement of the man, but a critical look at his book. I believe I make a good case that it stands as a political manifesto, abrogating the NOMA truce, and, although it includes some religion bashing (in particular with regard to his treatment of Francis Collins), that it is much more than that.


Tito Tinajero said...

Dear Marc,

Thank you for answering me. I do believe that I did engage in some Sam bashing. The reason has more to do with his attitude of smugness and not his atheism. When he presented at TED, Sean Carroll, an atheist himself, called Sam to elaborate on the reasons to reject Hume's is/ought distinction. Sam responded with a tweet calling Sean an idiot, but offered no reasons to reject Hume other than personal dislike. Now, I reiterate that Sam did this not to some looney Creationist or New Agey type, but to a well respected Cal Tech scientist, as if even questioning Sam was a sin. The irony is that Sam was even wrong on this issue and as of yet come up with one credible reason to reject Hume. Even PZ Myers sided with Carrol on this one. Since then, I think of Sam as less a public intellectual or scientist, but a celebrity atheist. Reading the Moral Landscape has rather reenforced my impressions of Sam. Sad, He will now crave a career of atheism and not of science.