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Sam Harris's "The Moral Landscape"

via crasch,

In this highly anticipated new book, the bestselling author of The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation calls for an end to religion’s monopoly on morality and human values.

"In this explosive new book, Sam Harris tears down the wall between scientific facts and human values, arguing that most people are simply mistaken about the relationship between morality and the rest of human knowledge. Harris urges us to think about morality in terms of human and animal well-being, viewing the experiences of conscious creatures as peaks and valleys on a “moral landscape.” Because there are definite facts to be known about where we fall on this landscape, Harris foresees a time when science will no longer limit itself to merely describing what people do in the name of “morality”; in principle, science should be able to tell us what we ought to do to live the best lives possible." - The Free Press

"I was one of those who had unthinkingly bought into the hectoring myth that science can say nothing about morals. The Moral Landscape has changed all that for me." - Richard Dawkins

Very interesting! This caught my eye because of my recent debate with easwaran over whether science might ever be able to bridge the "is-ought" gap and give moral prescriptions:

http://spoonless.livejournal.com/180836.html?thread=1532772#t1532772

As I argue in the thread with easwaran, I do not think science will ever be able to say anything about fundamental values, and I do not believe there are objectively right or wrong answers to questions like "how many kittens lives is one human life worth?" I've never believed that moral "truths" are the same kinds of truths that we talk about when we talk about facts about the world--rather, I think they are facts about our personal desires and whims, which are inherently subjective. But I have great respect for Richard Dawkins, and if he says this book (which just came out a month ago) has completely changed his mind on such an important issue, then I will surely give it a chance--perhaps it can change my mind too. Somehow I doubt it, but nevertheless I look forward to reading it! While I've never agreed with the idea of objective morality, I have always found the possibility positively tantalizing and have often thought "I'd like nothing more than for that to be true--I wish it was, but I know it couldn't possibly be."

Comments

( 70 comments — Leave a comment )
easwaran
Nov. 12th, 2010 05:57 am (UTC)
Unfortunately, I've only heard awful things about Harris' stuff. It sounds like he takes relatively simplistic thought about how values relate to mental states, and then supplements it with simplistic thought about how mental states relate to fMRI scans, and then tries to claim that the resulting theory is more "objective" because it uses fancy science. But then again, I haven't actually read his stuff, this is just what I've gathered from some philosopher friends who have read some of it, and seeing on his wikipedia entry that he did some philosophy early in his career, then studied some Buddhism, and then recently got a PhD in some of the brain scanning stuff.
spoonless
Nov. 12th, 2010 03:52 pm (UTC)
Well that's disappointing. Although honestly, I'm not expecting anything out of this book more than the most vague first steps in trying to work towards a way in which morality could in principle be objective. If I get that out of it, I'll be happy because that would be a revolutionary shift in my perspective. If, on the other hand, he tries to oversell it and make it sound like he's already worked out an objective morality and found all sorts of ways in which people ought to behave, supposedly justified by scientific experiments... then I think it will only turn me off to him, and indirectly make me lose respect for Dawkins having endorsed the book so strongly and changed his mind so flippantly.

Just checked his webpage. This caught my eye:

"In May 2006, Harris came under sustained attack in a featured article by Meera Nanda for New Humanist, in which she claimed that his analysis of religious extremism was flawed, and suggested that he was criticizing religion "for what seems to be his real goal: a defense, nay, a celebration of Harris' own Dzogchen Buddhist and Advaita Vedantic Hindu spirituality." Nanda stated that Harris failed to apply the same critical analysis to the eastern traditions as he applied to western religions, and she argues that the detachment from the self in Dharmic spirituality is part of the recipe for authoritarianism.[49]"

It does sound from reading his Wikipedia page that he is somewhat overly critical of Islam. Christopher Hitchens seems the same way. Yes, Islam is terribly stupid, but so is Christianity. Violent? I think only extremist forms of it are. He seems to be aruging that all of Islam is violent and that we ought to declare War on Islam instead of War on Terrorism. That sounds pretty scary, especially since I think that's what a lot of Christians secretly want to do anyway.
vaelynphi
Nov. 12th, 2010 07:03 am (UTC)
I, too, am unimpressed by Harris; should *Dennett* write something on this subject, then I'll get excited. (I'll probably read his book, but I'm not holding my breath that it's going to be even remotely 'groundbreaking'.)
spoonless
Nov. 12th, 2010 03:56 pm (UTC)
Yeah--of the 4 horsemen I think I have the most respect for Dennett, with Dawkins a close second. Harris and Hitchens seem like they are a lot more prone to saying strange or exaggerated things now and then, at least based on looking at stuff they've written online.

The main reason I'm willing to give this book a shot is Dawkins' endorsement.
(no subject) - vaelynphi - Nov. 12th, 2010 06:51 pm (UTC) - Expand
geheimnisnacht
Nov. 16th, 2010 02:32 pm (UTC)
Interesting, I didn't you take the stance "I do not think science will ever be able to say anything about fundamental values". My stance has recently been:

-Scientific inquiry is the only revealer of truth
-Philosphy (and similar lines) are only "human approximations" to these truths
-Some problems/questions are currently untenable to science, and some of these may remain forever untenable due to complexity issues.
-Where unable, science should be replaced with philosophical/etc arguments.

An example of a philosophical approximation would be "Everyone has a right to their life". This works most of the time, but perhaps there are some extreme cases where it does not. Building from that as an axiom, you can go further and try to address more problems

Your example of the kitten vs human lives is perhaps one of those we are unable to process currently, so we should look to philosophy instead. The above axiom would be relevant here, but then you could claim other axioms such as "all life is sacred". In the end, it seems like it would essentially be a popularity contest between axioms.
spoonless
Nov. 16th, 2010 03:17 pm (UTC)

-Scientific inquiry is the only revealer of truth
-Philosphy (and similar lines) are only "human approximations" to these truths
-Some problems/questions are currently untenable to science, and some of these may remain forever untenable due to complexity issues.
-Where unable, science should be replaced with philosophical/etc arguments.

If you're thinking of truth as a representation of reality, as in... objective truth, then I agree.

But I don't think when people talk about human actions being "right" or "wrong" they are talking about that kind of truth. They're really just expressing whether they like or dislike certain actions. So if it counts as "truth" at all it's a radically different kind of truth than the kind of truth where you're trying to describe the world. If you hold that "everyone has a right to life" is true, then it doesn't mean there is some fact of the world that everyone has a right to life. If there was, then you could just measure whether everyone has a right to life and record the result. But there is no such fact one way or the other, there is only our subjective desires... namely, that most of us would like to live, and would like to see others live. So I don't think of morality as involving any kind of objective truth. I used to just take a completely non-cognitivist view where people are just mistaken when they say that moral claims are about truth. But lately I've been liking more the subjectivist approach, where moral claims are seen as true or false, but only for a particular person or a particular society... it's going to vary from person to person or society to society. So it's not an issue of complexity here, it's an issue of there not being a right or wrong answer that science or anything could find.
(no subject) - geheimnisnacht - Nov. 21st, 2010 12:16 pm (UTC) - Expand
spoonless
Nov. 16th, 2010 03:20 pm (UTC)

but then you could claim other axioms such as "all life is sacred"

Do you really think that words like "sacred" can be given an operational meaning and studied objectively?
(no subject) - geheimnisnacht - Nov. 21st, 2010 12:11 pm (UTC) - Expand
spoonless
Nov. 16th, 2010 03:52 pm (UTC)

An example of a philosophical approximation would be "Everyone has a right to their life". This works most of the time,

I think there are two very different uses of the word "right". One of them is a legal construct... something that is agreed upon by a society... that people will be legally allowed to do a certain thing, as opposed to not allowed to do it. I agree with this kind of right. The other kind is a "divine right" or a "natural right". I don't think I believe in this kind of right, although I agree with the idea that it might be a good or a bad idea for a certain society to include certain basic rights. But whether it's a good idea is going to depend on what that society wants to optimize for, so even saying that "X should be a right" (as opposed to "X is a natural right" which I think is just a totally wrong way of speaking)... is still culturally relative. It's not something that is objectively true or false.

Edited at 2010-11-16 03:54 pm (UTC)
(no subject) - geheimnisnacht - Nov. 21st, 2010 12:29 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - essius - Nov. 29th, 2010 09:17 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - geheimnisnacht - Nov. 30th, 2010 06:26 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - spoonless - Nov. 30th, 2010 04:18 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - spoonless - Nov. 30th, 2010 04:28 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - geheimnisnacht - Nov. 30th, 2010 04:53 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - essius - Dec. 4th, 2010 07:00 am (UTC) - Expand
essius
Nov. 29th, 2010 08:59 pm (UTC)
The reason that modern science will never be able to say anything about fundamental values is not because science gets us truth (which it sometimes does) and ethics is reducible to subjective preferences or societal consensus (which it clearly is not, though I notice you disagree). Rather, the modern sciences are empirical while ethics is part of philosophical or metascientific knowledge. It is from the latter and not the former that we derive transcendental concepts such as being, unity, truth and goodness, and that is true both of ontological goodness generally and moral goodness (the good of the human being qua rational agent) specifically. A failure to properly distinguish science from metascience is one of many significant defects of the New Atheism, and we see this defect in the thinking of Harris, Dawkins and even Dan Dennett (see his Darwin's Dangerous Idea; cf. criticisms in Joyce's Evolution of Morality; Rosenberg and Sommers "Darwin's nihilistic idea: Evolution and the meaninglessness of life," Biology and Philosophy 18: 653-68, et alii). Not all are making this error (cf. Carroll and Meyers), but quite many of them indeed are.

Ultimately, Harris is on track when it comes to this notion of well-being. But unfortunately what counts as well-being is not a scientific notion. What is it to flourish in terms of survival of individuals, species, or even culture(s) (whether or not the latter is understood in terms of "memes")? That's a question science can answer. But what is it to flourish as a human being? Is flourishing really reducible to survival, or is it something else? These are metascientific questions, and as such they are not ones that science can answer. Science does not give us an ontological understanding of substance, nor can it divide substances into animate and inanimate or, further, animate substances into rational and irrational. And without this metaphysics of the human person, there is no way to determine what counts as true well-being, or achievement of real eudaimonia or human flourishing. So Harris is on the right track but he diverges too far from Aristotle and fails to keep in mind the differentiation of the sciences into the mathematical, the physical, and the metaphysical. Perhaps he fears that conceding too much to metaphysics will require confronting the First Mover arguments, which no atheist old or new has ever succeeded in defeating.

Edited at 2010-11-29 09:00 pm (UTC)
spoonless
Nov. 30th, 2010 03:51 am (UTC)
Thanks for the link to Meyers and Carroll's thoughts on the subject, I had not seen them. I've actually met Sean Carroll a couple times, and had dinner with him once... he was in the same fairly close-knit community of physicists I was working in during graduate school. I knew he had made comments in his blog from time to time about stuff like this, but I had no idea people viewed him as a New Atheist! I guess he must be getting a much wider audience these days than when he started his blog on his personal website back in the day.

After reading his thoughts on this subject, I find they are pretty much identical to mine. I wonder if there is something about being trained as a physicist that lends one to thinking about certain issues in certain ways.
spoonless
Nov. 30th, 2010 04:08 am (UTC)
I think there may be something to your point about needing philosophy and not just pure science to settle moral questions. I'm definitely a lot more open to (although still skeptical of) the idea that science + philosophy combined can answer moral questions than I am to the idea that science alone can do it, where I'm pretty certain the answer must be no. However, you seem to have a much different view from me of what philosophy is about and can do.

I see philosophy as a way of clarifying concepts and sorting out what the best way is to talk about things. You seem to see it as something that goes beyond that and makes inquiries into a whole nother realm that science can't touch. I guess this may be a subtle difference but I think it's important.


Science does not give us an ontological understanding of substance, nor can it divide substances into animate and inanimate or, further, animate substances into rational and irrational. And without this metaphysics of the human person, there is no way to determine what counts as true well-being, or achievement of real eudaimonia or human flourishing.
Harris is on the right track but he diverges too far from Aristotle and fails to keep in mind the differentiation of the sciences into the mathematical, the physical, and the metaphysical. Perhaps he fears that conceding too much to metaphysics will require confronting the First Mover arguments, which no atheist old or new has ever succeeded in defeating.

Science cannot divide substances into animate and inanimate because it has demonstrated--beyond a shadow of a doubt--that Aristotle was completely wrong about there being a dichotemy between the two.

That's the main reason the First Mover argument has no relevance today--there is no such thing as a mover because it was an incoherent concept. It was based on Aristotle's crude 4th-Century BC folk-physics, rather than physics as it's understood today. The idea of a "mover" makes no sense in the modern world, because we know that there isn't any distinction between animate and inanimate things, just a spectrum of complex behavior from crystals to viruses to cells to organisms. We know that when an object is in motion it remains in motion unless a force acts on it, contrary to Aristotle's false belief that objects can only move when animate "movers" act on them, and will come to rest soon after one of these imaginary movers acts on them. We have concrete examples of things like robots that act on their own without anything Aristotle could have mistaken for a mover--things which did not exist in his time and which if did, surely would have enlightened him and changed his mind.
(no subject) - geheimnisnacht - Nov. 30th, 2010 04:58 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - spoonless - Nov. 30th, 2010 07:12 pm (UTC) - Expand
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(no subject) - geheimnisnacht - Dec. 4th, 2010 05:55 pm (UTC) - Expand
(2) Vindicating Aristotle - essius - Dec. 2nd, 2010 12:11 am (UTC) - Expand
Re: (2) Vindicating Aristotle - spoonless - Dec. 2nd, 2010 02:07 am (UTC) - Expand
Re: A First Mover - spoonless - Dec. 4th, 2010 05:48 pm (UTC) - Expand
First Mover - spoonless - Dec. 4th, 2010 05:49 pm (UTC) - Expand
First Mover - spoonless - Dec. 4th, 2010 06:26 pm (UTC) - Expand
Addendum - essius - Dec. 4th, 2010 05:08 am (UTC) - Expand
datavortex
Nov. 30th, 2010 04:10 pm (UTC)
Just finished this book. It's a very strong argument and it definitely affected my own views. I would now accept that neuroscience can contribute to defining what is provably a moral good.

Highly recommend the text.
spoonless
Nov. 30th, 2010 04:23 pm (UTC)
Interesting, thanks for the recommendation.

Last night I just watched his TED talk, as well as read some responses to him and his responses back and it got me thinking about this topic more. I think the whole subject is pretty interesting, I will make a post some time on what my current thoughts on it are because just watching his TED talk helped me see things in a somewhat different light than I'm used to thinking of them in. I still think that ultimately, the foundations of morality are subjective, although I should probably read his book to see exactly what he is saying--I think he may be making an important point that does not necessarily contradict subjective morality in the way I think of it.
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geheimnisnacht
Dec. 5th, 2010 06:01 pm (UTC)
I'm sure there are a few handfuls of nuanced definitions of "desire". What I am trying to describe here, as desire, is just "wanting to do something" e.g. feeling hungry means you desire to eat, thirst is the desire to drink, lust is the desire for sex. Is there any emotion associated with hunger? Not in my definition, but emotion is probably one of the loosest words out there.

Anyway, so I'm saying that because of empathy, one might desire to help another person in a tough situation. Because of guilt one desires to admit wrongdoing. Here your desires are, more or less, the set of actions you'd like to take at a given time.

I think there are values involved in this if you look at it the right way. Indeed, the issue of gay marriage is often considered a "values" issue in politics.

I'm really baffled how you keep missing the point. Am I that bad at explaining things? I am only talking about the innate desire to have sex with a certain person. Some desire men, some desire women. There is no value associated with the desire itself. You don't say "I value heterosexuality", you say "I am a heterosexual" or equivalently "I desire heterosexual sex". Yes, how that desire fits into the grand scheme has become a value debate because of the arbitrary axiom "Practicing homosexuality is immoral" followed by some of the religious. Technically, I suppose, anything could be arbitrarily made a value, but practically it has at least been restricted to actions for the most part. Religions, as far as I know, recognize that you can have "urges" and it is only immoral if you act on it, instead of suppress it.
spoonless
Dec. 6th, 2010 02:47 am (UTC)

Is there any emotion associated with hunger? Not in my definition, but emotion is probably one of the loosest words out there.

I guess I think of emotion in the general sense of anything that drives people to action... whereas emotion in a more narrow sense is a particular kind of drives, those that somehow feel more "mental" and less "physical". I want to say that if you took away all emotion then people would no longer act to do anything, since they would have no goals or values. But I guess I need to also take into account less mental and more instinctual things, like hunger and "physical pain" (as opposed to emotional pain). I think there is a continuum there and I admit desire may be somewhere in between physical and emotional, or maybe refers to either. A more physical manifestation of it would be hunger or raw sexual lust, whereas a more emotional manifestation of it would be passion or love. Anyway, this takes us off on a tangent and is probably not all that interesting, but just wanted to clarify how I think of emotion just in case we are thinking about it completely differently.

I am only talking about the innate desire to have sex with a certain person. Some desire men, some desire women. There is no value associated with the desire itself.

I would have to disagree there. What else is value if not utility? If you derive some satisfaction out of sex with men, then you value it. If you don't then you don't. Right?

you don't say "I value heterosexuality", you say "I am a heterosexual" or equivalently "I desire heterosexual sex".

But you do say "I value the company of men" or "I value sex with men" or "I value relationships with men".

I think one distinction we need to make here is between fundamental values and derived values. This is I think a clear example of a fundamental value, in that it's not derived from anything... it comes directly from your desire for sex or relationships with a certain type of person. A derived value would be something like "I value laws that will protect and support my lifestyle, so that I can keep on practicing it." My whole point is that fundamental values do not depend on reason, only emotions and instincts. Reason only comes into play when you want to derive other values from your fundamental values.
(no subject) - geheimnisnacht - Dec. 6th, 2010 04:01 am (UTC) - Expand
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