The Sam Harris Landscape

Posted by on December 22, 2011 in Book Review, Thoughts | 2 comments

Sam Harris may not be quite there with his theory surrounding the scientific basis for morality, but his ideas deserve further entertaining. He outlines these ideas in his book “The Moral Landscape“, where he says that morality is not only measurable, and that a determinable “best-case scenario” can be found within the realms of science, but that science itself through measurable and tangible evidence can offer us moral guidance in the spheres of social interactions. His ideas are intriguing, but at the same time quite obvious. It makes sense given that we are all the same species of social animal, our brains all function more or less the same, and our needs and desires all come from the same place; inside our brains.

The basis for his argument is, regardless of who you are, there is an imaginable bottom end to human experience, one where every living creature suffers to the highest degree possible, where every moment is torturous to be alive, and that everything above this is desirable over this “valley of despair”. From this we can determine ever-increasingly better examples of what a preferable life can be. And all this is measurable, within the brain. This is why it makes sense. The brain is where your life takes place, at least to you. And to me, YOUR life takes place in MY brain, of course only to the extent that I am aware of your life.

I wonder however if this bottom-most valley of human suffering is not a new idea at all, but is the basis for the reward/punishment scenario offered within religious doctrines? It sounds a lot like Hell, wouldn’t you agree? The difference with Harris’ argument is that his “worst of all worlds” scenario is only a platform for us to use to build a case for all the possible “better world” scenarios, rather than a tool for promoting obedience to a doctrinal system.

The other difference between Harris’ ideas and the threat of a biblical hell is that Harris’ ideas are actually measurable and can be observed using an FMRI, whereas the biblical idea is just a musing inside a human imagination. Suffering is real, and I think we would all agree that pain and suffering is far worse than pleasure, at least from an experiential point of view.

Pain and suffering is something we are hardwired to avoid, and this makes sense, pain and suffering being against the idea of thriving as a living being. It is used as a threat and a promise by religions and political ideologies, and is an undeniable reality in this thing we call “life”. Avoidance of pain and suffering is as natural as breathing, and it forms the basis of all societies on earth. Sure, there are those who actively seek to inflict pain on themselves and others, but we label these people as psychopathic or sociopathic, because it goes against our human nature to do so. The moral landscape Harris proposes has its basis in the idea that morality can be observed and measured objectively via the avoidance of the worst of possible lives we could live. This stands as the ultimate of truths in humanity, and really is the biggest threat to the religionist idea that underpinning human life is a god-given morality.

Detractors from this idea will of course argue that without a god that all this is impossible, but given there is no evidence to support the god-hypothesis, what we are left with are the facts about humanity and our natures as social and physical beings.

That said, Harris has not arrived at an outcome, but I do think he proposes one of the most solid cases for an objectively measurable morality, and offers ways to back his claim also. These are yet to come to fruition, but I eagerly await the outcomes of any experiments on this subject.

In this video, Harris speaks with Richard Dawkins on the subject. It is worth a watch, especially since both of these men are much more eloquent, intelligent and well-read than I could ever hope to be.

The book is available for purchase from my “Recommended Reading” page.

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  1. Nice to read an even-handed post on TML.

    It’s critics tend to dismiss it’s conclusion out of hand without pointing to what’s wrong with the argument as laid out in the book.

    Some points I like to make…
    – it’s polemical on purpose, pitting the sciences against traditional moral teachings
    – there’s more to it than its subtitle “How science can determine human values”
    – philosophers since Hume have offered solutions to the is-ought problem
    – not much new here for academics, but big news to readers of best-selling authors
    – it freely grants there are profound practical limits to any future “science of ethics”

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  2. I concur with Blamer. Nice to read a post on his book that is not pure fawning. Harris has a group of followers who idolize him and accept his every word exactly like they would a scared text. His book indeed will not be news to anyone who has had an interest in the is-ought problem or on moral philosophy, in general. His book is definitively “light” on the philosophical aspects of the subject, but does a very good job at summarizing relevant findings in the field of neuroscience. Although his book does not explain exactly or practically how science is suppose to give us conclusive answers, it is an important book because for many people, it is really a revolutionary concept to think that science may guide morality by contributing to the determination of degrees of suffering or of well-being of sentient beings.
    I liked Keenan Malik’s careful review of The Moral Landscape; it can be found here:

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