REVIEW – The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values – Harris

2011, Free Press, 320 pages

“Sam Harris, do not crucify freedom upon the cross of Science!”–Edwin Wong

Book Blurb

Sam Harris’ first book, The End of Faith, ignited a worldwide debate about the validity of religion. In the aftermath, Harris discovered that most people–from religious fundamentalists to non-believing scientists–agree on one point: science has nothing to say on the subject of human values. Indeed, our failure to address questions of meaning and morality through science has now become the primary justification for religious faith.

In this highly controversial book, Sam Harris seeks to link morality to the rest of human knowledge. Defining morality in terms of human and animal well-being, Harris argues that science can do more than tell how we are; it can, in principle, tell us how we ought to be. In his view, moral relativism is simply false–and comes at an increasing cost to humanity. And the intrusions of religion into the sphere of human values can be finally repelled: for just as there is no such thing as Christian physics or Muslim algebra, there can be no Christian or Muslim morality. Using his expertise in philosophy and neuroscience, along with his experience on the front lines of our “culture wars,” Harris delivers a game-changing book about the future of science and about the real basis of human cooperation.

Author Blurb

Sam Harris is the author of the bestselling books, The End of FaithLetter to a Christian NationThe Moral LandscapeFree Will, and LyingThe End of Faith won the 2005 PEN Award for Nonfiction. His writing has been published in over fifteen languages. Dr. Harris is cofounder and CEO of Project Reason, a nonprofit foundation devoted to spreading scientific knowledge and secular values in society. He received a degree in philosophy from Stanford University and a PhD in neuroscience from UCLA. Please visit his website at samharris.org.

The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values

The book catalogs so many fails in religion that it might have been called, The Immoral Landscape: How Religion Fails to Determine Human Values. Agreed, religion has failed on many counts. But, perhaps it has worked some good as well? Did faith not inspire artists–Bach, Michelangelo, the poet of the Song of Songs–to create awesome works of art? Was Christianity not instrumental in improving conditions for slaves in the Roman world? Does religion not give something for the people to believe in? Many other examples are possible.

Harris’ presentation lacks balance. This lack of balance is deliberate. He cites one after another in an endless litany the fails of religion and neglects to mention any good that it has done. People who applaud Harris will love it. The lack of balance, however, may be off-putting for moderates. And religious folk may find the presentation distasteful. Even Nietzsche, who wrote works such as The Antichrist, attacked the church in a way that religious people could, if not agree with, see the point of view. Nietzsche’s pronouncement, for example, that “the very word Christianity is a misunderstanding–at bottom there was only one Christian, and he died on the cross,” for example rings true to many Christians who see a wide gulf between the teachings of Jesus, the original Christian, and Saint Paul, who founded organized Christianity a generation later. This seems to be a valid point: Christianity is misguided from the bottom, as the God of Paul and the God of Jesus are fundamentally different in the same way as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is not the God of the Jesus. To attack religion as Harris does by saying it causes war, incites hatred, and gives rise to abhorrent practises is beside the point. If, as Harris argues, there are no gods, then is religion responsible or would it be more accurate to say human nature is responsible?

Harris’ argument that science and reason inform human values rests on a debatable premise. The premise is that the greatest good for the greatest number should be the greatest good. He doesn’t come right out and say it, but that’s what I gathered. He comes from a utilitarian school of thought. He could have just as easily have said that science and reason support eugenics or something like that, and then come up with supporting arguments. Of course, he doesn’t say that but instead says that we should use science to advance the happiness of the human race. If this is the case, I would have a few questions for him. Say I agree, for the moment, that there are no gods. What if, however, science could demonstrate (through some brain scan or through looking at actuary tables) that the belief in religion or the gods makes people healthier, more fulfilled, and longer lived? It would be a sort of placebo effect. And what if science could scientifically demonstrate that, if you took this placebo away from these people that their lives would be made less rewarding. Would you still, in the name of reason, strip these people of their god?

Because religion is a barbaric relic, Harris elevates science and reason over us as the new arbiter of human value. Science and reason will teach us ethics and morals. My spider-sense tingles here. At least under the old gods, one could say: I respect your practise, but seeing that I am not Catholic (or a Buddhist or a Protestant or a Muslim, etc.,), I do not subscribe to your practise. I am free to choose. But if science and reason can, as Harris argues, tell us how to comport ourselves, where is there to hide? Can one, in the same way, say, “I respect your practise, but seeing that I don’t believe in reason, I do not subscribe to your practise.” Whoever controls science and reason becomes a new god. And woe to the heretics who doubt the new gospel! My spider-sense tells me that if Project Reason gets its way, there will be a new Inquisition, one in which the freedom to dissent will be crucified on the cross of Science.

If you’re going to base human well-being on something, it might as well be science, right? Religion has made so many mistakes, after all. So many mistakes it can’t be trusted. But I remember they used to have this thing called margarine. “Natural animal fats are bad for the heart,” the scientists said, “have this science butter instead.” But today I think most people would say butter is healthier than margarine. It may prove true in the future for the current rage for this “healthy” meat substitutes such as “Beyond Meat.” The point is that science makes mistakes too. And when science makes mistakes, the repercussions are big, since you had put your trust in science. Here’s a secret: it’s when you’re most confident that, paradoxically, you’re in the gravest danger. Science tends towards innovations with short term track records. But since it has the backing of science, we tend to trust it. And this brings us to an interesting point: is tradition, which has been honed through history and time superior, or is science, the product of continual innovation and experimentation better?

One thing tradition has going for it is that it stands the test of time. It is robust. It grows stronger through time. If a custom has been around for a hundred years, chances are it will last for another hundred years. If a custom has been around for two hundred years, chances are it will last another two hundred years. And so on. One advantage of religion is that it embraces tradition. In embracing tradition, its precepts are tested through the persistence of time. Science is the opposite. It destroys tradition. And it shoots forward into the future at a breakneck pace. As Harris himself writes, “The totality of scientific knowledge doubles every few years.” Take diet, for instance. There’s a lot of things we would consider odd with a diet prescribed by religion, whether kosher, halal, or a Buddhism. But, if your goal is health and longevity, would you try that, or one of the latest fad diets prescribed by science?–the Atkins diet, the Paleo diet, the Ketogenic diet, margarine, beyond meat, etc.,? In my mind, the answer is simple: if you’re not sure, go with tradition. Tradition doesn’t throw out the baby with the bathwater.

Harris argues that you shouldn’t trust religion because it’s done a lot of bad things. And then he brings up the notable examples. Let’s take a look at our judicial system of trial by jury. I’d say it works pretty well, most of the time. And I would suggest most people agree. But sometimes the trial by jury system makes big blunders. If I were to cite these blunders, would it be a good argument to get rid of it. I would say no. But maybe you say, “If it makes many blunders, let’s get rid of it on the condition that there’s something better to replace it with.” Okay. Harris has something better to replace religion with: he has this thing called science. But then, on a closer examination, is science completely pure, only working good? Science has never done evil, never come up with nuclear bombs, chemical warfare, and designer drugs?

Sam Harris, do not crucify freedom upon the cross of science.

Science, through the mediator of art, will arbitrate human values. Case in point: Goethe’s Wahlverwandtschaften (Elective Affinities)

Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong, and I’m doing Melpomene’s work.

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