Friday, February 04, 2011

Sam Harris' Immoral Landscape

Sam Harris' "The Moral Landscape," much lauded by many reflexive, relatively unthinking New Atheists who have made him into a rock star of the movement, falls far short of its hype. In fact, I one-starred it on Amazon.

What's wrong? Harris is a Platonic idealist in drag. He also engages in scientism. Related to both of these, despite his having an undergraduate degree in philosophy, he really appears not to understand a lot of philosophical issues relevant to this book's subject. Or else, he doesn't care to.

Beyond that, his Islamophobia in the early part of this book seems to largely come straight from the neoconservative playbook. Possibly related to that, he creates straw men out of liberals all allegedly being moral relativists.

Sam Harris tries to draw a hard-and-fast dichotomy between science-based morals and ethics and religious-based morals and ethics in this book.

However, this is the real world, not a Platonic idea (Harris comes off as quasi-Platonic in more than one way in parts of this book), and so, it's not totally amenable to Harris' bifurcation.

Take abortion. Many religious people support at least some right to abortion, but noted atheist Nat Hentoff is 100 percent prolife. Ditto on end of life issues. And, if I looked a little bit, I could surely find atheists and agnostics with less enlightened views on gay rights than many religious people.

Now, as to the science part ... the idea that we can have a science-based morality? Harris offers little in the way of actual neuroscience studies on the brain processing moral issues.

We may well get oodles more such studies in the future, but that's not today. Harris also doesn't address the issues of what MRIs measure, how well this correlates with thought output, etc.

Likewise, he discusses little in the field of well-done evolutionary psychology (to distinguish it from Pop Evolutionary Psychology).

Beyond that, he simply ignores that the study of the human mind, whether from the POV of cognitive neuroscience or evolutionary psychology, is at best in the Early Bronze Age and is arguably, at least on the matter of morality and ethics, still in the Neolithic.

So, while science may at some point (far?) in the future offer us significant oversight on specific moral issues, it doesn't today because it can't. And, per the specific moral issues I listed above, it may never be able to.

Indeed, with reference to that, Harris' approach to science and morality smacks of a fair degree of scientism. And, I write this as an irreligious, skeptical naturalist.

That said, there's several other problems with this book. Read on at the jump for the details! I'm going to address several overview issues first, before making any page-by-page critique of the book.

First is the matter of Harris' Islamophobia. Since Islam is in general cited regularly for examples of immoral behavior and beliefs, we need to examine this.

First of all, it seems much of Harris' Islamophobia comes from the neoconservative political playbook. He favorably references an off-the-wall neocon writer, Bat Ye'Or, whose book on Islam's alleged takeover of Europe was one-starred by me.

Secondly, he's confusing a static historic snapshot of history with a moving picture. If we went by snapshots, 900 years ago, Christian Crusaders would have been the poster boys for immoral behavior. 750 years ago it would have been pagan/animist Mongols. 600 years ago, polytheistic Aztecs.

Finally, if we confine ourselves to today, the Hindu Tamil Tigers of Sri Lanka killed 30,000 in their civil war, far more than al-Qaeda has killed.

Second, whence comes Harris' moral stance, ultimately? I believe he is not just a moral objectivist, albeit a consequentialist (a stance more often associated with moral relativism but compatible with objectivism too), but a moral absolutist -- specifically a Platonic Idealist moral absolutist. There's irony there in spades, since the early and middle Platonic dialogues were devoted to Socrates, deconstruction of other people's definitions of moral issues such as justice. (Of course, Socrates usually doesn't offer his own idealist definition back; such things arise only in later dialogues.)

Third, what of Harris' claims to be examining morality and its foundations from a scientific perspective?
First of all, he's not the first to do so. He didn't invent sociobiology or evolutionary psychology. (Let me be clear here -- much of what passes for science in alleged evolutionary psychology is actuallly the pseudoscience of Pop Evolutionary Psychology. However, unlike a P.Z. Myers, there is legitimate work being done in this field, albeit little and far between.) So, Harris isn't new in his effort and he's certainly not new in his hope.

That said, for someone who wants to be scientific, he seems often lacking. (No shock here; I saw the same problem way back in "The End of Faith." First, from an evolutionary standpoint, Harris doesn't address issues of individual vs. group selection. Now, I'm not as bullish on group selection as, say, David Sloan Wilson, but I do think it deserves more consideration than many evolutionary biologists give it. Second, Harris doesn't devote any scientific examination to cultural evolution. Admittedly, there's not a lot to really nail down ant this intersection of biology and sociology, but Harris doesn't even get into what is out there.

Beyond what I mention above, for someone with a graduate degree in neuroscience, he spends about ZERO time referencing actual neurological study of the brain. No V.S. Ramachandran here, folks! Not even close.

Fourth, Harris and philosophy, not just the "is-ought" issue, but certainly including that.

First of all, for people who have read previous works of his, and not embraced him as a bundle of light, his arrogance in dealing with the philosophical background should be of no surprise. But, it still needs quoting.

Page 197, footnote 1: "Many of my critics fault me for not engaging with the academic literature on moral philosophy. ... First ... I did not arrive at my position ... by reading the work of moral philosophers; I came to it by considering the logical implications of our making continual progress in the sciences of the mind. Second, I am convinced that every appearance of (academic terminology) directly increases the amount of boredom in the universe. ... (T)he professional philosophers I've consulted seem to understand and support what I'm doing"
Let's unpack what's wrong with this quote.

1. Harris might actually have learned something by engaging with other moral philosophers either of today or the past. That would include wrestling more with Hume's is-ought; that would certainly include a provocative AND nontechnical book like Walter Kaufmann's "Beyond Guilt and Justice."
2. Is Harris saying he's either too dumb or too lazy to "translate" language of academia to a general audience? Or a too-arrogant mix of both? One of the best classical philosophers on moral issues was Hume, precisely because he wrote in a way for the general public (of a certain educational level) to understand.
3. Neuroscience is a "hard" science with plenty of its own technical language. That doesn't stop Harris from wanting to focus on advances in scientific discovery, albeit while, rather than discussing them in a nontechnical level, not discussing them at all. I smell a HUGE steaming pile of hypocrisy here.
4. In light of what I noted above about Socratic dialogues, Harris never discusses what happens when two big moral issues, like "fairness" and "compassion," collide. This is one of the brilliancies of Kaufmann's book mentioned above.

In light of all that, let's look at Hume's famous is-ought issues.

Hume discusses the problem in book III, part I, section I of his A Treatise of Human Nature (1739):
In every system of morality, which I have hitherto met with, I have always remark'd, that the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary ways of reasoning, and establishes the being of a God, or makes observations concerning human affairs; when all of a sudden I am surpriz'd to find, that instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought, or an ought not. This change is imperceptible; but is however, of the last consequence. For as this ought, or ought not, expresses some new relation or affirmation, 'tis necessary that it shou'd be observ'd and explain'd; and at the same time that a reason should be given; for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it.
Hume calls for caution against such inferences in the absence of any explanation of how the ought-statements follow from the is-statements. But how exactly can an "ought" be derived from an "is"? The question, prompted by Hume's small paragraph, has become one of the central questions of ethical theory, and Hume is usually assigned the position that such a derivation is impossible. This complete severing of "is" from "ought" has been given the graphic designation of Hume's Guillotine.

See Wikipedia for more on the "is-ought" issue.

Several issues here:
1. "Ought" is multivalent. Sometimes, most notably in ethics, it has an explicitly moral tone. Other times, far from that. For instance, in late 19th-century physics, scientists said the ether, the luminiferous ether, "ought" to weigh a certain amount, even though experiment rebelled against that.
2. In the case of ethics, to worry about "is-ought" is to approach the issue the wrong way. Rather, staying within Hume, one can ask what ethics can be naturalistically devised and supported. In this case (contra what Harris seems to say) we turn to evolutionary psychology **properly done** (and not Pop Ev Psych), as well as evolutionary biology of non-hominids. We can, through cultural anthropology, partially reinforce hominid ev psych findings. That then said, we would note that often, there is not one "right" ethical answer to some issues of ethics. We also should note, per someone like Walter Kaufmann, sometimes there is no right answer at all, or that a "right" answer may be culturally determined, or that a "right" answer for an individual may be the "wrong" answer for society. In this last case, no science gives us "the answer" as to whether individual needs or societal needs should prevail. And, for that matter, different religions may give us different answers, or the same religion may give us different answers at different times, as they do on other issues such as collective guilt.

Re a critic of my Amazon review, who invited me to look at a Harris post on Huffington Post.

Harris' "refutation" of his critics actually confirms much of what they say about him on the Islamophobia. Ditto on his .... gullibility, for want of other words, on the credibility of the psi folks.

As for his stance on Buddhism, it seems clear he's trying to have his cake and eat it, too, by purporting to be on a search for "the authentic Buddha," in essence. Shades of Albert Schweitzer!

That said, the review by John Horgan, which Harris loathes? I think Horgan goes too far in taking science to the moral woodshed, but, in a general way, he's right. To this day, Western scientists still have few problems with exploiting indigenous peoples, for example. One might fault Horgan for failing to distinguish science from individual scientists, but this is part of connecting Harris' stance to scientism, I think.

On the good side, though, he does some great petard-hoisting on Harris:
Some will complain that it is unfair to hold science accountable for the misdeeds of a minority. It is not only fair, it is essential, especially when scientists as prominent as Harris are talking about creating a universal, scientifically validated morality. Moreover, Harris blames Islam and Catholicism for the actions of suicide bombers and pedophilic priests, so why should science be exempt from this same treatment?
And more:
Harris asserts in Moral Landscape that ignorance and humility are inversely proportional to each other; whereas religious know-nothings are often arrogant, scientists tend to be humble, because they know enough to know their limitations. "Arrogance is about as common at a scientific conference as nudity," Harris states. Yet he is anything but humble in his opus. He castigates not only religious believers but even nonbelieving scientists and philosophers who don't share his hostility toward religion.
Finally, Horgan raises the same concerns about neuroscience I do:
Harris further shows his arrogance when he claims that neuroscience, his own field, is best positioned to help us achieve a universal morality. "The more we understand ourselves at the level of the brain, the more we will see that there are right and wrong answers to questions of human values." Neuroscience can't even tell me how I can know the big, black, hairy thing on my couch is my dog Merlin. And we're going to trust neuroscience to tell us how we should resolve debates over the morality of abortion, euthanasia and armed intervention in other nations' affairs?
Indeed. But, that, too, is part of Harris' scientism. That said, P.Z. Myers and Vic Stenger, on their claims to have proved the nonexistence of god, show that Harris isn't alone among New Atheists in falling into the pit of scientism.

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