Well, it finally happened.
In multiple posts in the past I have defended Sam Harris and his efforts towards a scientific morality. I have done this even though I have never seen him speak or read a word of his books. My reason for defending him is simple. I don’t defend him because I believe everyone has a right to an opinion (even though in most matters, I do). I don’t defend him because he and I are in agreement on morality (I doubt we are, although we likely share some positions).
I defend him because I believe that no area of discussion, topic of interest, or intellectual problem should be a priori labeled a non-scientific matter. I say let science try and see what it adds to this already very complex discussion. Sure, others have tried in the past to root morality in science and reason and failed, but our understanding of human biology and neuroscience, in particular, has grown (and will continue to grow) immensely. There are new methods and they have provided us with deeper understanding. While I am skeptical that these studies will be as fruitful as Harris is, I believe his ideas are worthwhile, are worthy of consideration, and have merit.
So what finally happened? I finally saw him speak or read a word of his books (TED talk link here)! AND… my position hasn’t changed. In fact, if anything, my defense of his work will get even stronger. This should not be registered as a full endorsement. I think it may be most instructive to view Harris’ ideas on scientific morality in both a weak and strong form.
The weak form is what is prevalent during the majority of his talk and the strong form comes out in the questions at the end. In the weak form, Harris argues against moral relativism and states that there are moral positions that we can consider as wrong. Furthermore, he notes that it is plausible that there will be multiple positions that objectively could be considered valid. Thus, there is a moral landscape of views, some of which are wrong and some of which are right. His basis for evaluating these uses reason and empiric investigation.
He spent most of his time on which positions could be assigned as wrong and very little time on how to evaluate which ones are right. But, that’s the way of science. We disprove hypotheses but we don’t prove them. The strongest thing we can say is that there is abundant evidence that strongly supports a theory. In this weak form of Harris’ scientific morality, there is nothing that I disagree with on face value. That does not mean I am fully endorsing the argument, but I am willing and excited to read more of his work. This weak form contrasts with the strong form of his argument in which I think he is too optimistic regarding the explanatory power of neuroscience. In the talk, it felt like he slipped up a bit here but I can’t be sure. It’s possible he’s not going to reduce it all to physics and chemistry, but non-reductionists like me have to be skeptical until we see the whole matter play out.
What most concerns and upsets theists about Harris and the other New Atheists when it comes to discussions of morality, I would gather, is that they believe he is taking the power of what goes in morality from them and transferring ownership of it to atheistic scientists… and they don’t trust that the moral rules that will result will be ones they agree or are familiar with or ones that jive with their religious beliefs. It’s possible to be upset because one thinks he is wrong, but that’s not what I’m observing. It seems like theists are more convinced that science simply should not ask questions about morality.
I share the aforementioned concern, as it is one thing for me to say that Harris has a right to these matters and yet another to say he and other scientific elite get to determine the rules of the game. Nevertheless, I won’t let fear interrupt the discussion and I, perhaps naively, believe that Harris and I would probably agree on what positions constitute peaks in the moral landscape.
So, I say let the discussion continue. I, for one, am looking forward to it. Are you?