Up@dawn 2.0

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Review of Sam Harris's Moral Landscape

In a nutshell, I like where Harris is going, but whether or not he simply talked himself in a complete circle is something worth considering.

He does some fantastic work laying out how our brains operate when we "believe" something, and what beliefs are made of, from the point of Neuroscience. He further uses this to undermine the belief that morality comes from a higher power, and suggests that moral traits are biologically evolved tendencies which help man evolve as an inherently social animal.

He then goes on to show that people who believe in God (the same way you and I might believe in the text you're reading right now), are probably lying to themselves, and really don't believe that the Eucharist is the physical transmission of the body of Christ into your digestive tract. He later suggests (albeit very implicitly) that those who have a belief in the wild and supernatural, or otherwise "pathologically certain," are what we call Schizophrenics.

He first begins to do this in his section titled "Mistaking our limits" where he tackles the problem of people having emotions that lead them to draw conclusions with a serious degree of certainty. It's quite common for people to use claims of religious experiences as their rationale for believing in a higher power, and in a situation where William James would most certainly agree with me, I attest that you are never going to convince someone that had a specific experience that you did not have that it was "all in their head," even if you are right and they are wrong, because it was their experience and not yours, and they will defer to themselves as the ultimate authority on the matter. Harris takes it a step further, though, and says in his section titled "Do We Have Freedom of Belief," in an address to one of his critics who ruminates on whether or not Harris is denouncing one's freedom to believe what he or she chooses, that you technically COULD believe something that is incorrect because you feel like it, but you're wrong and he's going to tell you.

He finds it an imperative to do so, as well, for if religious superstitions run amok, they will result in the practice of starving children for not saying "Amen," or expecting divine power to resurrect dead toddlers stuffed into suitcases, and brings forth more statistical data showing how religious people have a higher likelihood of being racist, criminal, uneducated, or all of the above.

The counter-productiveness of Harris's tone throughout his book made me seriously question if he intended to actually enlighten any would-be atheists/humanists, or if he simply wanted a medium through which he could vent his frustration with religious apologists to other atheists. As an atheist, I was pleased to read more about the inner-machinations of the human mind, but were I a Christian, I seriously doubt I would be at all receptive to it. Harris does have a right to debate, and tell someone why he thinks they are wrong, and for that reason I feel privileged to offer my critique of his approach. He's trying to catch flies with vinegar, and not honey. He defends his position, as well as the overall position of his fellow "New Atheists," in his section on "The Clash between Faith and Reason," with the straw-man's argument that he, Dawkins, Dennet ,and Hitch are maligned for simply defending logical reasoning and refusing to kowtow to the irrational religious majority. Complaining about the state of he and his three other colleagues, Harris says,

"It is often said that we caricature religion, taking its most extreme forms to represent the whole. We do no such thing. We simply do what a paragon of sophisticated faith like Francis Collins does: we take the specific claims of religion seriously. "

The reality isn't that he's being criticized for arguing his beliefs, or even caricaturing religion, but because his audience, typically Atheists, would like to see more Atheists, and would likely expect a Neuroscientist to understand that an irritated audience is less likely to accept a message, and so we are disappointed in that we seriously doubt any theist will be swayed by his work.

Furthermore, very little about Harris's assertions are absolute. Neuroscience is limited in that it is the study of a single human's brain, and how that brain reacts to certain stimuli, and that data can be combined with tests of other brain responses, and expounded to get an idea of how a society's mores might develop based on that chemistry, especially in his section on "The Tides of Bias," which shows how simply thinking about death can lead judges to impose harsher penalties on defendants. Unfortunately, this reasoning is totally inductive, which is entirely contingent. Hilariously enough, Harris stops to point out that inductive reasoning can lead to seriously false conclusions when not paired with some deductive structure to guide it, and yet he fails to glance back at the mountain of facts that he presents about "how the human brain tends to work in certain situations," not realizing that this will never necessitate that a brain WILL behave in certain ways.
This is why Sociology, Psychology, Neuroscience, and their cousins will never be considered true sciences of the mind, but rather, empirical sciences of the body. Morality and ethics, however, are a abstract constructs which exist within the same realm as philosophy and law. I read the title "The Moral Landscape," and naively expected to read something about how things ought to be, and instead, got a combination of how things ought not to be, and how things tend to be.

I suppose I am grateful to Harris's intent to in a sense say "I'm not entirely sure what the true answer is, but it certainly isn't that God nonsense." He also concludes in a nice, neat chapter about happiness, and points out how "it's all really subjective anyway," which are all things that at some point, we need to accept until we find a better way around these roadblocks, but I'm certain I'm not the only person who wasn't frustrated by, what I would consider a cop-out, and it honestly leads me to believe that this (The Moral Landscape) was nothing more than a highly sophisticated angry rant, to which I am compelled to respond with a less sophisticated one.

1 comment:

  1. It's not just a rant, it's a promissory note. Atheists already know they're perfectly capable of being as good as anyone (and better than moralistic hypocritcal pietists)... but why? How? We need to give an account of value, based on natural facts. As I've said, that's a necessary project. Sam's book is a necessary prequel.