The Moral Landscape – Sam Harris

August 2, 2011 at 23:17 | Posted in books | Leave a comment
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book coverScience has rather a good track record when it comes to being right about stuff. Crops fail because of disease or pests, not because an incorrect sacrifice was made to the gods. Copernicus was right, whatever the Catholic church might have said. Antibiotics work much better than praying for a miracle cure.  Indeed, the reason you can read these words is because of the careful, steady work of generations of scientists, working to understand electricity, chemistry, mathematics, information theory and a thousand other disciplines, each building on the work of those that went before to create the fantastically complex thing that is the internet, an achievement beyond the imaginings of an alchemist or shaman.

However, it has often been said that science has nothing useful to say about values and morals; science is about facts and things, and cannot shed light on questions such as ‘what is good’? It’s a commonly held position, expressed perhaps most eloquently by Stephen Jay Gould with his ‘non-overlapping magisteria’; in this worldview questions of morality properly sit within the religious realm and are entirely insulated from scientific enquiry.

I’ve never been especially convinced by this argument. Why can’t the scientific method – a method that has proved itself to be the most effective means devised of answering all sorts of questions – also be used to investigate questions of morality? Why are values and ethics immune from rational investigation?

Such attempts that have been made to do this have predominantly come from philosophy, with varying degrees of success. Anyone familiar with the work of Peter Singer can appreciate the way ethical questions yield to the incisive application of logic, and do so in ways that are frequently uncomfortable and confronting. Popular philosopher AC Grayling tackles the very question I posed earlier in his book ‘What is Good?’. But for all these positive examples, there are also less useful contributions. The shadow of David Hume still reaches us from the eighteenth century, the precursor to the kind of woolly moral relativism that asserts that any moral judgement is purely contextual, and as such there are no absolute moral or ethical truths merely societal norms.

It is into this battleground – between the absolute claims of religion and the over-cautious liberal relativists – that Sam Harris throws himself. His thesis is simple – that questions of morality are entirely amenable to examination by the scientific method; that such examination is already possible in rudimentary form today; and thus it is already possible to start to lay the groundwork for a moral framework based on objective truth, rather than subjective opinion. He further contends that, whilst today this may be somewhat crude, there is no reason to suppose that, with appropriate scientific investigation, this could be refined to produce a clear, objective view of how we ought to live our lives. Morality, he argues, can be thought of as an underdeveloped branch of science.

The challenge in such an endeavour is to frame the question of ‘morality’ in such a way that it can be examined scientifically. Harris does this by noting that our being ‘happy’ or experiencing ‘well being’ is in fact no more that a particular arrangement of chemicals and neurones in our brains that gives rise to those feelings; and that further those arrangements come about as a result of external stimuli. These things are facts, and as such can be studied scientifically. If we can understand both those brain states, and how they are linked to external events, we are in a position to be able to maximise well-being through the organisation of ourselves and our society to ensure such brain states are most commonly delivered.

It is undoubtedly reductionist, and may even sound Orwellian, but it is a fascinating argument. The pursuit of happiness and the common good is one that has occupied humans for centuries, and Harris’ approach simply adds an objectivity to the quest that may help to determine whether approach A or approach B is more likely to result in the desired goal. Harris is suitably cautious over whether a genuine absolute answer to such questions can be found; however as he points out the fact that an answer is not practically achievable does not make the question unscientific, nor preclude that in striving to answer it progress will be made. Indeed this is virtually a description of the scientific method; science is a process by which understanding of something is incrementally gained, rather than a way of delivering absolute truths.

In laying out his thesis, Harris takes the reader on a journey thr0ugh research into the brain activity relating to moral questions, into entertaining demolitions of various religious and philosophical viewpoints and includes intriguing questions about free will and the nature of good and evil. Some parts of this book had me standing up and shouting ‘Yes!’, whilst other parts caused much head scratching. Whatever side you take in the debate, this is a thought-provoking book worth reading.


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