Sunday, May 08, 2011

The Moral Landscape by Sam Harris

Jeez ... I never blog. Gotta change that.

As I mentioned earlier, I just recently finished Sam Harris' The Moral Landscape.

Of the Four Horseman of "New Atheism", Harris is probably my favorite author. I've previously read his Letter to a Christian Nation, a very good book and I highly recommend it.

That book, as the title implies, is shorter and is a good introduction to Harris. The Moral Landscape is significantly more scholarly and incorporates a lot of research from Harris particular field of expertise, neuroscience, which he has a PhD in. In The Moral Landscape, Harris not only makes the compelling argument that morality can be defined scientifically but also takes on the criticism of atheists as being moral relativists. If anything, a morality that depends on the well-being of others, as his science-based morality does, is anything but. There are right and wrong answers to moral questions, completely independent of religion. For example, murder is not wrong because the Bible says it is. People would know it is wrong if there were no Bible. The Bible merely reflects many of the universal moral truths that we already know. When religion seeks to dictate morality outside of that is where it runs into problems. Now, obviously, his explanation is not as simple as mine, but that is the general gist of it.

One of the most important things I took from the book was that the morality of separate cultures is not necessarily equal and should not be respected as such. This is a valid criticism of many liberals and where the charge of moral relativism often comes from. As he says, "the moment we admit that we know anything about human well-being scientifically, we must admit that certain individuals or cultures can be absolutely wrong about it."

The "moral blindness in the name of 'tolerance'" allows "highly educated, secular, and otherwise well-intentioned people to pause thoughtfully ... before condemning practices like compulsory veling, genital excision, bride burning, forced marriage ..." This learned confusion is the same thing that blamed Salman Rushdie for his fatwa or the Danish cartoonists for the Mohammed controversy.

Other parts of the book delve into the neurological reasons for belief and why those who believe reason in a certain manner. Creationism and general Christian distrust of science can be explained by the fact that "people tend to seek evidence that confirms an hypothesis rather than evidence that refutes it. This strategy is known to produce frequent reasoning errors. Our bias toward belief may also explain the 'illusory-truth effect,' where mere exposure to a proposition, even when it was revealed to be false or attributed to an unreliable source, increases the likelihood that it will later be remembered as being true."

Why people initially pick up their beliefs is due to several factors that are "more emotional and social than strictly cognitive. Wishful thinking, self-serving bias, in-group loyalties, and frank self-deception can lead to monstrous departures from the norms of rationality. Most beliefs are evaluated against a background of other beliefs and often in the context of an ideology that a person shares with others. Consequently, people are rarely as open to revising their views as reason would seem to dictate."

People often have certain beliefs because they want to feel good or as Harris says, "to hew to a positive state of mind - to mitigate feelings of anxiety, embarrassment, or guilt ..." Because their happiness is dependent on those beliefs, any evidence that runs counter is ignored.

The ideas that he espouses here are not necessarily new, and I believe most of us already know them to be instinctively true, but he does a good job of establishing a scientific basis for studying and quantifying morality.

In my next post, I'm going to try and touch on some of the possible evolutionary reasons for belief and will also go further into Harris' criticism of noted science/religion reconciler Francis Collins.

"We have, in fact, two kinds of morality side by side; one which we preach but do not practice, and another which we practice but seldom preach." -- Bertrand Russell


CyberKitten said...

This is on my Amazon Wish List..... Though I must admit I'm a bit tired of this sort of thing ATM...

TF said...

That looks great...

but DAMN.
This was going to be my philosophy dissertation topic (as in a scientific/evolutionary explanation of ethics and morality) :(

CyberKitten said...

Well, the nice thing about philosophy is that no one *really* has the last word on anything.... [grin]

wunelle said...

It's definitely on my list (with free sample downloaded on the iPad), but like CK I'm a bit overrun lately with the science-versus-religion thing. Not because I've lost any enthusiasm for the cause, but because in my mind science has triumphed in all these controversies, full stop. I'd much rather see science and rationality steaming full ahead without this defensive rearguard action.

Harris's basic premise--to the extent that I can comment on it when I've not read the book--seems very sensible and strongly supported in the main, with plenty of room left for debating nuances and details; there seems no cause that I can see for finding controversy in his thesis, and yet the mythmongers are apoplectic that he dare even speak the words. It's this militant irrationality and the stiff-armed protection of a fairy tale world that I'm rather over at the moment.

Still, I'll look forward to the rest of your review and will surely read it myself coming up.

dbackdad said...

TF -- When you get your dissertation done, I'm sure we'd all love to read it!

CK -- "... nice thing about philosophy is that no one *really* has the last word on anything ..." -- Indeed. I love that too.

Wunelle -- " ... science has triumphed in all these controversies ..." -- I completely agree and have never known a time where I didn't. However, it's really just in the last 5 years or so that I've really even tried to read the philosophical underpinnings of that. I'm relatively new to the four horseman of atheism, have never read Bertrand Russell or Grayling. So, I'm just playing a little catch-up.

Speaking of the four horseman, did you read Hitchens' Vanity Fair article this week? I guess he's finally lost his voice. It's all very sad and one feels that the end is near.

wunelle said...

I did read the article and felt just as you do. We know the end is coming for him, and sooner than later, but one just hates to see it. First the appearances, then the voice, and soon enough the writing. Such a loss.

I'm reading Matt Taibbi's book Griftopia at the moment and (not that anyone can replace the Hitch) it gives me some solace that there are other verbal loose cannons in the world. I find I need this as a corrective against all the armies of irrationality that speak out on a daily basis. Griftopia is brilliant and absolutely infuriating--and it fills in lots of blanks in my knowledge of the world of high finance (these things are incomprehensible quite by design). Highly recommended--and a review to follow.

CyberKitten said...

dbackdad said: However, it's really just in the last 5 years or so that I've really even tried to read the philosophical underpinnings of that. I'm relatively new to the four horseman of atheism, have never read Bertrand Russell or Grayling. So, I'm just playing a little catch-up.

Funnily I'm planning on a recommended Atheist Library posting soon.....