Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Sam Harris's "The Moral Landscape"

This is a book that I looked forward to. I had watched the TED Conference video and found it very convincing:

The book is a popularized version of his Ph.D. thesis in neuroscience. That research worked with brain imaging to examine the underlying activity of belief. This book spends very little time on brain physiology and most of its effort on discussing religion, morality, and brain states. He wants to sell the idea that science can investigate and develop appropriate theories of morality. I'm sympathetic, I liked the video, but this book didn't advance the argument all that much for me. The book is more expansive, but it didn't deepen the argument. I was dissatisfied.

He has a short chapter on "Moral Truth" that was OK. It sets you up by pointing out that the David Hume claim that you "can't derive an 'ought' from an 'is'" is misleading. Harris's argument is that you can't science off the ground without value judgements, so science as well as religion, start on all fours and can be operated the same way, i.e. use the scientific method to develop a deeper factual understanding. I'm sympathetic with the argument. The only problem is that first step. He is correct to point out that both science and morality can't get started without some value judgements, but he doesn't explore this enough to satisfy me that the two fields can be melded. I'm sympathetic. I just wanted a clearer argument.

He has a long chapter on "Good and Evil" that left me dissatisfied. Too much muddling along.

I liked the chapters on "Belief" and "Religion". These are his strong suits. First, his research into belief is excellent. Second, his viewpoint on religion is spot on.

The final chapter on "The Future of Happiness" is interesting but not sufficiently persuasive. I'm sympathetic to the argument that morality is a kind of objective knowledge. But I have a real problem with the utilitarians, and Harris is a type of utilitarian. The latest terminology is "consequentialist". Despite the new-fangled terminology, this has the same problem the as the original utilitarians: whose happiness, how do you value it, how do you count it, is all happiness equally valuable, etc. He addresses these concerns but doesn't put them to bed. Philosophers for two centuries haven't put this to bed. I'm sure it is on the right track, but I don't feel Harris significantly advanced the ball here.

I do accept that science has a lot to say about happiness, about what makes conscious creatures flourish and science can say a lot about the hills and valleys of a "moral landscape". But I don't think Harris appreciates that this endeaver is infinitely more complex than the task physicists have set themselves in trying to develop a "theory of everything". The moral landscape is infinitely more complex. Worse, it is dynamic as conscious creates come and go and their needs and interactions change over time. He sets a noble project for a science, but it is far easier said than done.

I'll leave you with a taste for the book from a section on religion which is Sam Harris's strong suit:
With respect to our current scientific understanding of the mind, the major religions remain wedded to doctrines that are growing less plausible by the day. While the ultimate relationship between consciousness and matter has not been settled, any naive conception of a soul can now be jettisoned on account of the mind's obvious dependency upon the brain. The idea that there might be an immortal soul capable of reasoning, feeling love, remembering life events, etc. all the while being metaphysically independent of the brain, seems untenable given that damage to the relevant neural circuits obliterates these capacities in a living person. Does the soul of a person suffering from total aphasia (loss of language ability) still speak and think fluently? This is rather like asking whether the soul of a diabetic produces abundant insulin. The specific character of the mind's self at work in each of us. There are simply too many separable components to the human mind -- each susceptible to independent disruption -- for there to be a single entity to stand as rider to the horse.

The soul doctrine suffers further upheaval in light of the fatal resemblance of the human brain to the brains of other animals. The obvious continuity of our mental powers with those of ostensibly soulless primates raises special difficulties. If the joint ancestors of chimpanzees and human beings did not have souls, when did we acquire ours? Many of the world's major religions ignore these awkward facts and simply assert that human beings possess a unique form of subjectivity that has no connection to the inner lives of other animals. The soul is the preeminent keepsake here, but the claim of human uniqueness generally extends to the moral sense as well: animals are thought to possess nothing like it. Our moral intuitions must, therefore, be the work of God. Given the pervasiveness of this claim, intellectually honest scientists cannot help but fall into overt conflict with religion regarding the origins of morality.
I find the above bit about brain and "soul" to be especially telling. My mother died of a brain tumour. The tumour would cause her to inexplicably fall down at times. When they removed the tumour she was left with left neglect. This made it utterly obvious that a chunk of "her" had been removed. She no longer paid any attention to her left side. If she had a "soul" it suddenly lost awareness of half her body at the same time as a small chunk of her brain in the parietal area was removed. How odd. She also developed cognitive deficits that made it difficult for her to recognize me and her other children because at the same time they removed a bit of the occipital lobe. Again, how odd that her "soul" would suddenly lose a competence because a bit of matter was removed from her brain. If removing chunks can cause the "soul" to go haywire, what happens when you put the body with brain in the ground and let the body decompose? What kind of "soul" remains? It is obvious that a "soul" is no more than the physical brain and its capabilities. Religious mumbo-jumbo about "souls" and afterlife, etc. is just a heap of nonsense.

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