Today’s our last scheduled discussion of Sam Harris’s Moral Landscape in A&P. Chapters Four & Five cover “Religion” (the center of Sam’s polemical universe) and “The Future of Happiness” (the center of mine), respectively. I’m reading the hardcover edition, which lacks Sam’s response to critics that appears in the paper and digital versions, and on his website. Maybe we’ll tackle that too, today or Thursday.
“Fifty-seven percent of Americans think that one must believe in God to have good values and to be moral.” And yet, “the least religious countries are better off than the most religious,” by many measures (life expectancy, infant mortality, crime, literacy, GDP…). Are values and morality overrated? No, someone’s just confused. Guess who.
The good news: only 42% of Americans believe life has existed in its present form since the beginning of the world. But, that also means 15% have to reconcile divine values with a changing world. Maybe their “common sense dualism” will help: they can assign change to body and timeless truth to mind, and to God. After all, “children, left entirely to their own devices, would invent some conception of God.”
It does seem
extraordinarily unlikely that there is a genetic explanation for the fact that the French, Swedes, and Japanese tend not to believe in God while Americans, Saudis, and Somalis do. Clearly, religion is largely a matter of what people teach their children to believe about the nature of reality.
But… “left entirely to their own devices”…? There seems to be a nature/nurture confusion here. I for one will continue to err on the side of assuming that what I teach kids has a chance of actually influencing their belief.
Scott Atran thinks soccer is a bigger influence than religion. Should the war on terror target the game? Or should we assume that people typically believe what they say, and act on what they say they believe?
Here’s a claim to run by our Lyceum speaker on Friday, who proposes to come to terms with the self:
The specific character of the mind’s dependency on the brain suggests that there cannot be a unified self at work in each of us. There are simply too many separable components…
Next comes the evisceration of Francis Collins, who repeats C.S. Lewis’s “pabulum” about how Jesus must have been our savior because he said such crazy things. Well, that set the precedent; Collins has extended it.
Is it really wise to entrust the future of biomedical research in the United States to a man who believes that understanding ourselves through science is impossible, while our resurrection from death is inevitable?
But at least he accepts evolution. Well, he’s head of the NIH. He’d better.
Sam makes a good point: of course it would be good to gain wider public acceptance of evolution, which is both well established and profoundly inspiring (“from so simple a beginning, endless forms most beautiful”) . But the goal is not simply to tally more evolutionists, it’s genuinely to expand the public understanding of science. That won’t happen if we’re tip-toeing on eggshells to avoid offending the sensibilities of reactionary fundamentalists. “Watch what you say, or the Christian mob will burn down the Library of Alexandria all over again.” Better to give full voice to the best science of our day, and post a few more guards at the library gates.
And if the best rationale for their theism people like Francis Collins can come up with are trite stories about triple waterfalls, unscheduled church services, a feeling of peace, and a sense that values are not implicit in the facts of human well-being in our world, we’re fully entitled to respond: No offense, but: So?
“Anything of value must be valuable to someone…” And that means values reflect facts about how real people assess their own and others’ well-being. It is a fact, sure enough, that we differ in these assessments. Our differences are predictive of our political affiliations. But “if moral truths transcend the contingencies of culture, human being should eventually converge in their moral judgments.” Eventually, in the long run, somewhere over the rainbow. In other words, practically never. All our judgments will never all line up. But some will, and we won’t know which those are until we’ve tried.
“We can mean many things” by happiness and well-being. Good. There are many of us, after all, and we’re all individuals. How is this pluralistic fact of life any kind of objection to Harris’s main thesis that what we’ve learned about the general conditions of our flourishing are relevant to our judgments of value? So long as “science” isn’t trying to squeeze us all into the same reductive state of valuation, I see it as nothing but a big plus to realize that there are many peaks available to choose from, and many charted valleys to avoid.
On another front:
How would you view your decision to have a child if you knew all the time you spent changing diapers and playing with Legos would prevent you from developing the cure for Alzheimer’s…?
I’ve changed plenty of diapers, and played plenty of Legos. It never felt for a moment like a personal sacrifice or a denial of glorious destiny. No regrets here.
Anyway, this is not a reasonable question. Omniscience and foreknowledge of the future are not in our toolbags, but the opportunity to nurture our successors is possibly the best shot most of us will get to plug in to that future.
It’s been said that Sam Harris, in his neuroscientist smock, exaggerates the determinative ubiquity of brain states. But he admits, “human emotions clearly transcend culture, and they are unquestionably influenced by states of the world.” Nothing internal insulates our “belief engines” from direct, immediate contact with the environments in which we must conduct ourselves. They are fitted to the world’s facts, and are reflected in our values. So long as happiness is one of those, we must attend to the facts of how we flourish.
Is that really so controversial a claim?
Russell Blackford seems to think so:
If we presuppose the well-being of conscious creatures as a fundamental value, much else may fall into place, but that initial presupposition does not come from science. It is not an empirical finding… Harris is highly critical of the claim, associated with Hume, that we cannot derive an “ought” solely from an “is” – without starting with people’s actual values and desires. He is, however, no more successful in deriving “ought” from “is” than anyone else has ever been. The whole intellectual system of The Moral Landscape depends on an “ought” being built into its foundations.
Well, wait. Sam didn’t promise a catalog of “oughts,” he just proposed a research program and an in-principle commitment to the idea that we should try to map the field of peaks and valleys in our experience so as to maximize future satisfactions. If our ultimate well-being is not a “scientific” product, call it something else: experiential, existential, whatever. A rose is a rose is a rose, and it’s what 99.999 percent of us are chasing most of the time. Of course it’s something we reckon in terms of the fulfillment (though not the precise “determination”) of actual people’s actual desires. What else should it be?