Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Sam Harris’s Brave New World A book review:The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values

I start my day with a cup of coffee with a teaspoon of cinnamon. Recent evidence points to cinnamon helping to reduce the chance of diabetes. Also, I am not alone in having current research change my daily living, whether it is talking cinnamon or how I disciple my young son, scientific findings effects sexuality, diet, parenting, relationships, and almost all areas of human living that once was thought of as the exclusive realm of religion. Sometimes we follow the advice of scientists to our chagrin.

This should be news to Dr. Sam Harris, the popular naysayer of religion. Science, according to his latest diatribe against religion, The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values, has had little impact on the way we live our lives because science refuses to make moral judgments, principles and values. It, under the spell of David Hume, has forgone its responsibility in guiding human ethics, leaving it to religion. Dr. Harris tries to make the case that science should be in the business of telling us how we should live our lives with a metaphor of a landscape. Peaks are those places where human well being is found and the valleys are places of religion (though he does not implicitly say religion, only most of his examples of ethical valleys tend to come from religion and we are directed to such inferences).

One does have to admire Dr. Harris’s courage to go against three hundred years of philosophical history, though the distinction between the foolhardy and courageous is, sometimes, hard to make. He, it should be noted, does not so much go against the last three hundred years as he, more often than not, chooses ignores it. He briefly acknowledges it by which he thinks it allows him to wave his hand in a “your fired” manor. Those expecting an analysis of metaethics or a clear methodology for the founding of a moral science will be sorely disappointed. He relies on emotion responses from his readers over clear cut cases of moral outrages like North Korean leadership oppressing his people or Muslim suicide bombers.
His argument in The Moral Landscape is a simplistic updated form of utilitarianism. Instead of greatest good, Dr. Harris substitutes the term, “well being.” By this he is hoping to avoid the problems of classical utilitarianism. Though, truly, the target is less in finding a basis for morality, than indulging in what made him famous, ad hoc and non sequitur attacks on Christianity and Islam. He begins and ends with a very dramatic claim that seems to rely on stereotypes and not evidence. Quote:

For nearly a century, the moral relativism of science has given faith-based religion—that great engine of ignorance and bigotry—a nearly uncontested claim to being the only universal framework for moral wisdom.

For him, religion makes the claims for moral certainty and secular science up until Dr. Harris, has settled for a defaulted moral relativism. He makes spirited attacks both on moral relativism and religious dogmatic morality, like when he tells us of walking away, cue bowed head sadly shaking at such ignorance, from a conversation in which another secular woman scholar chided him for calling acid throwing Taliban evil. Her point was that there are cultural conditions to moral judgments, but after being pushed to the extreme by Dr. Harris, she advocated a repugnant moral relativism. He is as correct for judging her morality harshly in similar fashion we would find the advocacy of nuclear genocide based on a bad understanding of theology or thinking I am abuse my toddler son by telling him Jesus loves him. The fact that these are extremes and that few intelligent people are at either poll does not deter Dr. Harris in his battle. Nor does the evidence for his claim has as much validity as the flying spaghetti monster deter Dr. Harris.
His claim comes from his own bias and his Manichean splitting of the world into the Children of the Light, rational science believers, and the Children of the Dark, irrational religion types. The problem for Dr. Harris is the existence of ethics departments both within and without religious and science institutions. If Dr. Harris were valid in his assessments, neither Notre Dame nor MIT would need ethics departments, Notre Dame because all ethics has been codified and all one had to do is consult the code, and MIT because science has nothing to do ethics, therefore no need for a department asking moral questions. The concept of wrestling with moral issues seems far from Dr. Harris’s Manichean reasoning. The isness of ethics departments gets in the way of the oughtness of his arguments.

One, reading his book, would expect a full critique of Hume’s is/ought distinction, either in a whole a chapter or section at least. Yet, the taking Hume out to the philosophical woodshed is lacking in The Moral Landscape. Hume is introduced and then dismissed with a bold declaration of disagreement as if Hume whole argument were a flavor of ice cream. If, the reader is guided to speculate, Dr. Harris disagrees with Hume that should be enough. His engagement of Hume’s argument occurs just three times, the above introduction, and then later he points out Hume was arguing against Religious types and, by implication, science should exempt. Finally, in an endnote, he quotes fellow celebrity atheist, Daniel Dennett’s attempt to answer Hume. Dennett tries his ice walk in socks against Hume, saying values have to be found on something. The ought has to be formed by the is, for that is all we have. Yet, if science only describes what is and what is only says what is and not what ought to be, and values come from what we believe ought to be, then is and ought still are divided. Dr. Harris provides no bridge between the two other than to treat Hume’s logic as an opinion to differ. Dr. Harris, in other words, abandons logic if it gets in the way of his beliefs.

It is enlightening to read a neo-prophet of pseudo-enlightenment dismiss Hume’s powerful logical argument with such flippant disregard for reason. But, Dr. Harris is less concern with ethics and more concern offering a catalog of various crimes done in the name of religion. He has so many examples from Afghanistan Taliban throw acid on women’s faces to a small group, claiming to be Christians, who killed a young boy and carried him around in a suitcase. There are tales of horrors for the prurient tastes, though none involving science. There is no retelling of the Dr. Josf Mengele experiments on twins in Auschwitz. Nor is there any talk of Tuskegee experiments that allowed poor share croppers die of syphilis to analysis the course of the disease. These experiments were done in the name of science and were inline with the scientific method for finding data. Most of us recoil morally from these examples as we do from the ones Dr. Harris cites. Of course, such evil done in the name of science does not invalidate science. Science research tends to be morally neutral. Science is about data and finding patterns despite what we believe about nature. If science calls into question out dogmatically held views, them we should at least examine them.

While he does not take on Hume, he spends several pages on his tired tirade against Dr. Francis Collins, the current head of National Institute of Health. Dr. Collins, by his very existence as a believing scientist, offers a direct evidential challenge to Dr. Harris worldview. Dr. Collins’s crime of publishing his beliefs as beliefs and not as science in his The Language if God makes Collins, for Dr. Harris, the very form of a bogyman. Dr. Harris claims that Dr. Collins commented intellectual suicide by bridging science and faith. News to anyone following NIH, as Dr. Collins has had a very successful first year, but again evidence does not stop Dr. Harris ranting on the dangers of faith. He then links Dr. Collins to Dr. John Polkinghorne theological writings. Dr. Harris points out that to his ear Polkinghorne’s writing sounds like the Alan Sokal hoax so it must then meaningless. By this same logic, the Pitdown Man hoax should invalidate Evolution. The whole of the book continues under the religion hurts human well being, while science increases human well being. He never entertains that religion helping human well being could be a finding of science.

The other person only dealt with in Dr. Harris’s endnotes is neuroscientist Dr. Andrew Newberg. Finding his research there should be a surprise. It shows an awareness of Dr. Newberg work, but an unwillingness to engage its most damning element to Dr. Harris’s thesis. What if practicing religion increases human wellness? Dr. Newberg work may provide a link between better health and spiritual experiences. The fact that Dr. Harris must be aware of this premise and yet chooses not to confront it say more about his methodology than his own arguments. He only considers evidence that supports his thesis and ignores evidence that challenges his position. Bad science makes for good copy for the choir of atheists willing to open their wallets to purchase this latest denouncement of religion

Dr Harris toward the end of his book provides a slim view of what he has in mind with a discussion on the psychology of human happiness. He makes some startling claims from current research. Humans are less happy as parents, even though they think they would be happier as parents. Also, being parents gets in the way of the work of contributions to society. Quote:

However, most of the research done on happiness suggests that people actually become less happy when they have children and do not begin to approach their prior level of happiness until their children leave home. Let us say that you are aware of this research but imagine that you will be an exception. Of course, another body of research shows that most people think that they are exceptions to rules of this sort: there is almost nothing more common than the belief that one is above average in intelligence, wisdom, honesty, etc. But you are aware of this research as well, and it does not faze you. Perhaps, in your case, all relevant exceptions are true, and you will be precisely as happy a parent as you hope to be. However, a famous study of human achievement suggests that one of the most reliable ways to diminish a person’s contributions to society is for that person to start a family.

The solution may be to outsource parenting. We can begin to imagine the future as Dr Harris. Maybe make factories of human beings were we could steer the babies of great promise, let us call them Alphas, into being the overlords of science. One could easily see a category of five levels: Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta, and Epsilon. If one can synthesize a new drug, for now call it Soma, that could produce euphoria in the level of brain without any side effects, then it would increase human flourishing. We would, of course, keep areas were primitive humans would live for entertainment and research like say in present day New Mexico. Science would dictate to us what makes us happy, there would be no need for human autonomy outside the ruling science class of Alphas. The population could be contained to two billion or so. There would be no need for Shakespeare, Dostoevsky and certainly not the Bible. Dr. Harris’s beloved science (please do not confuse it for real world science, this is a religious faith) would be all that we would need. There would be no more wars, no more religions, no more suffering, no more freedom, no more human beings. What a Brave New World Dr Harris has in mind for us.


Panda said...

I am looking for articles that make credible antitheses to Harris' arguments. After reading this article I have found none so far. It is clear you disagree with the general ideas of Harris but you don't offer specific examples of how his specific arguments are wrong. All of your critiques are already brought to the readers of Harris's books followed by his defense and explanation. If you believe he is wrong you have a poor practice of debating his opinions.

Tito Tinajero said...

Panda if you want argument against Harris look no further than Hume. Simply put: Hume made a strong distinction between what is and what we want to be. Harris seems to be aware of this and NO WHERE DOES HE OFFER any credible critique of HUME past he saying he disagree with it. (Opinion is not reason and if he offers no way to bridge it other "I don't like it" is the height of irrationality. He could have at least offered John Searle's attempt. But to offer nothing but opinion makes his book less an argument and more (irony meter going on overload) a statement of faith. I pointed this out and I guess you missed that one.