|Book cover, courtesy of|
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|
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|
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
[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
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|
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|
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.
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 thoughtsarise.blogspot.com.
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.
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''.
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.
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.
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