Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Sam Harris is Dancing with the Stars and Tripping over the Science, Morality and Logic

Recently, Sam Harris brought up the topic of Science and Morality, taking aim at a longstanding tradition of philosophy saying it is impossible to derive an ought from is. His Ted Talk, the Reason Project website, his Huffington posts have all been pressed onto the floor, music blaring in his bid to impress the judges and squeeze another best seller out of his fifteen minutes of fame. His upcoming book, The Moral Landscape is his attempt to refute 200 years of science, logic and philosophy. Can he do it?


For those unfamiliar with Sam Harris, he, in 2004, published an emotionally fueled best seller out of his fears of organized religion. Using high school logic, he claimed to refute religion in favor of science once and for all. Normally, such an effort would hardly amount to anything but a C- in a freshman philosophy class with a note to read Wittgenstein, but coming on the heals of 9-11, it became a run away hit and tied Harris to the new atheists revival of the 18th century dream, which thinks religion will fade into the dark history of human history. Thomas Huxley’s silly windmill lancing was alive and well in Harris’s book. Suddenly, a whole industry grew over night channeling the misplace emotions into self-congratulating frenzy of biases and bigotry. Speaking tours, best sellers, and attention followed. Sam was one of the first celebrity intellectuals of the new millennium less for the quality of his thinking and more for quantity of his fame.

The dream, of course, fundamentally misunderstands religion and pits it against science based on a narrow view of materialistic reality, a dream that died with the linguistic turn of Philosophy. The problem for Dr. Harris is that after his borrowed logic, his ideas are nothing more than older forms like Bertrand Russell’s Why I am not a Christian, and knee jerk fear generated by 9-11, there not much to his writing. He certainly lacks the cleverness of Richard Dawkins, the sardonic wit of Christopher Hitchens, or even the grumpy old man charm of PZ Myers. So, his problem is how to maintain his Celebrity? Like many of the past their prime time contestants on Dancing with Stars, he is looking to continue his fame by revising his shtick to include morality. Unfortunately, if his Ted Talk and the rest of his attempts at promotion of his new book, he will disappoint like an aging comic trying to ChaCha with a professional dancer only to look like a buffoon tripping over his and other’s feet. Fame is such a fleeting thing.

Lets, for fun look at his proposal. First, his argument against David Hume Ought/is divide is easy to sum up. Sam simply disagrees. That’s it, no questioning Hume’s assumptions, or his logic; he presents no outline of an argument; Sam just disagrees. Sam speaks and we should listen. Why? Second, he says that morality should be based on human flourishing and that human flourishing is based on states of consciousness. So, he is proposing a neurobiological version of utilitarianism with a group of scientists as the judges of what is moral. Third, he wants to keep the idea of human flourishing both vague and definite. We both can have arguments about what it means, but agreement on what it doesn’t and religion is in the no column. Most damaging is his view of moral philosophy, he does not think it right to even consider it:

First, a disclaimer and non-apology: Many of my critics fault me for not engaging more directly with the academic literature on moral philosophy. There are two reasons why I haven't done this: First, while I have read a fair amount of this literature, I did not arrive at my position on the relationship between human values and the rest of human knowledge by reading the work of moral philosophers; I came to it by considering the logical implications of our making continued progress in the sciences of mind. Second, I am convinced that every appearance of terms like "metaethics," "deontology," "noncognitivism," "anti-realism," "emotivism," and the like, directly increases the amount of boredom in the universe. My goal, both in speaking at conferences like TED and in writing my book, is to start a conversation that a wider audience can engage with and find helpful. Few things would make this goal harder to achieve than for me to speak and write like an academic philosopher. Of course, some discussion of philosophy is unavoidable, but my approach is to generally make an end run around many of the views and conceptual distinctions that make academic discussions of human values so inaccessible. While this is guaranteed to annoy a few people, the prominent philosophers I've consulted seem to understand and support what I am doing.

I do applaud his attempting to fight moral relativism, but brownie points for effort are not an endorsement for his work. I don’t know how good, rational, or coherent his new book will be, as it is not out yet, but the coming previews Dr. Harris has presented, with his philosophical pratfalls and goofing thinking does not bode well. It seems that the clock is on fourteen minutes for Dr. Harris's fame. Well Dr. Harris, maybe there a reality show in your future: Celebrity Intellectuals, Being a Real Live Chauncey Gardner, or Fooling Them Some of the Time for Fame.

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