Apr 182011
 


I recently finished reading Sam Harris’ recent book, titled The Moral Landscape:  How Science Can Determine Human Values. It’s built upon a fairly simple argument that goes something like this:

  • Moral values can and should be determined by what best contributes to the well-being of conscious creatures.
  • Science can tell us, with increasing accuracy, what does or does not contribute to the well-being of conscious creatures.
  • Science can determine moral values.

I agree.

This is common ground that everyone can stand on, regardless of religous beliefs. Harris is arguing from an atheist perspective, but even people of faith should concede that whatever system of values is given us by our faith, those values mean nothing if they do not contribute to well-being, and especially so if they subtract from well-being.

For example, I as a Christian believe that Jesus, as reported in the Gospels, summed up all moral law with 2 commandments: 1) Love God with everything you have; and 2) Love your neighbor as yourself. Now, if I have some moral value that I extrapolate from the teachings of Jesus, and science is able to demonstrate with overwhelming evidence that that particular value actually does more harm to myself or others than it does good, then I should reject that value and assume that I have misunderstood the teaching of Christ on that matter. Afterall, what else could it mean that Jesus said that these 2 commandments are the sum of the law, other than that all other particular laws and moral values given in the Scriptures should be understood in light of these 2? It seems to me that Jesus made Harris’ arguments 2,000 years prior.

We should all, atheist and believer alike, laud Harris’ book for its forceful rejection of moral relativism.

My only critique of the book is that even though Harris states his thesis this way in the introduction, he does not restrict himself to just those arguments. (I get the feeling that had he done so, the book could not have been more than 50 pages.) He goes on to offer a range of arguments in support of radically reductive theories of mind, including an absolute rejection of any notion of free will, which he argues is pure illusion.

By including all of this in his book, Harris seems to be making the claim that these theories of mind go hand-in-hand with the proposition that science can determine moral values. I would argue that they are irrelevant. Generally, knowing the ultimate source of something is irrelevant to practical application. One does not need calculus and theories of gravity in order to properly execute a lay-up in basketball, or to become an expert in archery.

Harris is stretching the argument further than it wants to go, implying that since science can determine the best moral principles , then religion (or any notion of transcendent reality for that matter) makes no meaningful contribution to human values. That is a non sequitir. It would be akin to arguing that because we can fly planes, launch spacecraft, etc., that the search for a Theory of Everything is superfluous. But we know it’s not. In fact, many would argue that knowledge has its own merit, greater than its practical applications. How many physicists would, in a heartbeat, give up our mastery of air and spacecraft in exchange for finally attaining a Theory of Everything, if such a choice were presented? I would guess that most would.

Why? I would argue it’s because we have an inescapable intuition that things have meaning, that the signifiers have real world referents, that something lies beyond morality that is much greater than simply it’s utility to conscious creatures.

Kenneth Taylor

Kenneth TaylorMy name is Ken Taylor, and I like books, coffee, science, religion, learning new things, and comfy chairs. One day I hope to be an expert on one or more of these things. You can find me at my blog, Faith + Knowledge, or on Twitter @Ken_A_Taylor.

  24 Responses to “Sam Harris and The Moral Landscape”

Comments (23) Pingbacks (1)
  1. Great post Ken. I really do appreciate your contribution, and I hope we get to see more in the future. :)

  2. I agree, this was a great post. I definitely admire Harris for taking a stand for objective morality (in the sense of being able to make objective decisions about it) in the midst of a world view that has historically championed the cancer of total moral subjectivism.

    I do agree that his arguments against religion are complete non sequitur (especially since he’s already dedicated an entire book to that end) and that his arguments against free will are irrelevant to his main thesis. However, would you mind explaining his view of free will (or the lack thereof) a bit more for me? From reading a couple of excerpts from the book and hearing a few of his arguments, I was under the impression that he viewed the concept of free will and its implications as valid, just not how we traditionally think about the mechanism of free will.

  3. Thanks for the compliment Luke, and for the subtle spelling correction on non sequitur.
    : )

    What Harris is saying about free will is that it is an illusion. Human beings have this feeling that there is some type of “self” that transcends the sum of our parts and makes choices, independently from causal neural activity. He says that this is an illusion as it doesn’t match up with what we know about the brain.

    He goes as far as to undermines the notion of moral responsibility. He says that people should still be held accountable for crimes, but not for any retributive reason. Rather, a justice system is only for the purpose of preventing further harm to society. He states at one point that “The men and women on death row have some combination of bad genes, bad parents, bad ideas and bad luck – which of these quantities, exactly, were they responsible for? No human being stands as author to his own genes or own upbringing, and yet we have every reason to believe that these factors determine his character throughout his life.”

    There are other parts where his view on free will seems a little more nuanced, but I have to confess confusion about that. He ends up saying that even the illusion of free will is itself an illusion, which seems logically consistent, but I have no idea what it means.

  4. I actually didn’t intend to correct your spelling, as much as I’d like to think that I noticed your misspelling.

    And the part of the book where he states that the illusion of free will is really an illusion is actually one of the few parts of his book that I have had direct access to, and I think I know what he means.

    Typically when people hear a causal-determinist view of human choices, they automatically assume it implies fatalism, that we have no control over our actions. And, to an extent, that is an implication of the view. That is to say, from a determinist understanding of the world, if we had a snapshot of every movement of energy and every location of particles in existence, we would be able to predict the next moment, and the next, and the next ad infinitum. Thus the illusion of free will and the sinking into fatalism.

    However, what it seems Harris is saying when he comments that this illusion is also an illusion is that no human ever has the whole picture. We do not have a snapshot, and therefore we have choices to make, based on what limited knowledge we have. So I think he is arguing that determinism should not lead to fatalism, and that we should still make our free will decisions (which we all make for various reasons/which are all influenced by various causes).

    I do think this discussion should have been placed in another book, however, for the same reason that you state (that clear understanding of theory is not strictly necessary for practical application).

    One of the main arguments against “truly” free will (as in, a literal free agent which transcends the body and makes decisions) is that we never see decisions being made for no reason whatsoever, that decisions always have at least one cause. I’ll admit, that I haven’t thought/read much about this particular issue, though, and although I can see why this argument is made I haven’t worked out how sound it is.

  5. Thanks Luke, that helps a little, although it still seems logically inconsistent to me. You said that “We do not have a snapshot, and therefore we have choices to make, based on what limited knowledge we have.” But in a deterministic model, what meaning can the idea of “making choices” possibly have? It seems like the factor of how much knowledge we do or don’t have has no bearing on how much free choice we do or don’t have. In one scenario, we have all knowledge so we know what will happen next. In the other scenario, we have limited knowlege, so we don’t know what will happen next. In both scenarios, the same precise thing happens, and there is no “self,” much less an ability of said “self” to make decisions free from a chain of causality that began billions of years before human existence.

  6. Forgive me for this, but I’m going to give my response under the assumption that either someone reading this discussion or you are unfamiliar with some basic topics in the philosophy of free will.

    For starters, there is a general problem with the conception of “free will” whether determinism or indeterminism happen to be true. In a deterministic world, choices are simply events in a chain of causality, and they are therefore not “free” in the truest sense of being separate from the causal chain. However, in an indeterministic world, there is no cause for actions, and actions therefore are random, which equally undermines the notion of “free will.”

    The views of free will that Sam Harris seems to be specifically coming against are the Libertarian and Hard Deterministic views (which are both “incompatibilist;” those holding these views see either free will or determinism being true, but not both). Libertarianism is the notion that man is an agent truly free from causality, but this fails to deal with the above issue of randomness of will. Hard determinism eschews the notion of free will altogether, but Harris seems to reject this notion because of the almost universal experience of free will (regardless of its actual mechanisms).

    Compatibilists (which Sam Harris seems to be) deal with the problem of free will in a deterministic world by redefining what we mean by “free will.” So no, “making choices” wouldn’t mean the same thing from this point of view as we have traditionally taken it to mean. However, we do experience a process of making choices, of weighing options and deciding on a particular one, and this is why Sam Harris and other compatibilists insist that we should still call our experience “free will,” even if we have to change our understanding of the mechanisms of free will.

    “Self” here is simply the special configuration of atoms, molecules, cells, organs, etc. that create a particular complex system in space-time. So no, from this view it is not independent of the rest of the world in an ultimate sense; it is only independent as a result of our separating it from the rest of the world in our minds. However, recognizing this special configuration as a “self” allows us to deal with it specifically as opposed to having to deal with the entire cosmos at once in every situation.

    Hope that helped to explain it a little bit better.

  7. It may be that I haven’t thought this through well enough, but the choice between determinism on the one hand, or the idea that our decisions are random on the other, seems like a false dichotomy. The idea of an agent being in some sense free from the causal chain would seem to me to be the precise opposite of random. If my choices are ultimately traceable to the very beginning of the big bang, THAT would make them random, would it not? (I have a feeling I must be misunderstanding what ‘random’ means in this context.)

  8. Well, the choice between determinism and indeterminism does seem to be a true dichotomy, but I think “random” may have been the wrong word for me to use here. “Random” used in reference to the will is referring to the fact that choices that are not part of a causal chain would have no reason whatsoever for being chosen. That is why they would be random, as we would have nothing to point to as a means of understanding the choice in the context of the laws of nature and everything else we know about the world in general and the situation of choice in particular. To admit even the slightest hint of a reason for a decision being made is to admit causation for that decision.

    Personally, I don’t know that we ever see any decisions being made for no reason whatsoever, but I’m definitely open to the possibility that it happens.

  9. “To admit even the slightest hint of a reason for a decision being made is to admit causation for that decision.” I see what you’re saying, and it’s starting to make a little more sense to me now. This leads to a another question then: Is it a tenable idea to distinguish “free agents” as beings that can BE the causes of their own actions. For example, if I make a choice based on reasons that I have considered carefully, is that qualitatively different than “the ball traveled the trajectory that it did because of gravity and the force with which it was hit, etc.”? Or is this only a difference of complexity?

  10. Yes, the argument is that it is only a difference of complexity. That is, the part of us which does the “choosing” was developed according to specific laws of nature from less complex means of going with a given option (such as instinct, etc.), and is therefore just as much a part of the chain of causality as the very options we are choosing between.

    Daniel Dennett (who has the most robust argument for compatibilist free will that I’ve come across) explains that, from a determinist point of view, all of our choices could in principle be reduced to simple physical mechanisms, but that it is impractical to treat such complex organizations of physical systems as simply a sum of the parts. This, he says, is why we have developed our notion of “personality,” or “self,” and how by attributing personality to these complex organizations we can deal with them much more easily and simply than if we had to deal with all of the parts.

    As for the question of “free agents” BEING the causes of their own actions, that seems to imply that all free agents must be, in a sense, First Causes. And that doesn’t seem a tenable idea at all to me, though I’m open to arguments for it.

  11. And let me just clarify by saying that I’m not advocating determinism here. I’m currently agnostic in regards to determinism vs. indeterminism, as scientists are still not sure how quantum indeterminacy affects other levels of existence.

    Either way, though, the issue of defining “free will” is still there.

  12. I want to continue the discussion, but I’ve been trying to do a little reading up so that I understand these concepts better. I’ll get back to you soon.

  13. I figured that’s what was going on. Looking forward to continuing.

  14. Well, I’ve read some more of Harris’ book, and I was wrong about Harris being a compatibilist. My apologies.

  15. No problem. I wish I had known enough about this stuff to be able to have clarified it sooner. : )

    In other news, I was wondering, do you have any thoughts on the subject of whether information is physical or not, and whether that would have any bearing on the free will discussion? It seems that if information is non-physical, and if our choices are influenced by information, then those choices would not be determined by physical causality.

  16. Yeah, interesting discussion either way.

    My reflexive response to your question is, “Wouldn’t that still be causality?” As in, “Wouldn’t the information also be governed by laws and principles and therefore be determined, even if it’s not a physical determinism?”

    But that’s one of my top subjects to study in the coming months, so I don’t know if that’s really a relevant question to ask.

  17. I guess I would say that the idea of causality could potentially break down if we’re talking about non-physical stuff.

    I want to revisit this idea of a First Cause. You said that the idea of free agents all being First Causes is untenable, and I agree. However, from what I’ve read, it seems like the idea of a First Cause usually assumes that there can only be two categories for events: it is caused by something else, or it is a First Cause. My question is, would you find it untenable to suggest that there can be a third category, that exists in between these two? That an event can be limited by other events but not entirely determined? I still don’t understand why that would be untenable, especially if we allow for non-physical stuff, where laws of causality may or may not work in the same way.

  18. One thing to add: the more deeply I think about it, it seems easier to define free will by what it isn’t, moreso than by what it is. Perhaps a definition could be: an action that is neither random nor completely determined by previous events.

  19. I’m not opposed to the idea, but I’m having trouble understanding how something could be both nonrandom and undetermined. Would you mind expounding a bit?

  20. For me, this is coming from a difficulty I’m having reconciling the idea of a choice with randomness or with being determined. Even after trying to familiarize myself a little bit with compatibilist arguments, I’m still having trouble wrapping my mind around it.

    The only thing I can say in trying to expound, and I may be grasping at straws, is that perhaps we can say free will choices aren’t determined by past events only, but also by future events. The choice-maker acts based on anticipated results of his choices. But because the future only exists as imagined possibilities (at least in the mind of the choice-maker), then the choice cannot truly be said to be determined by causal processes. Tell if I’m making any sense here. : )

    In this sense, choice or non-choice would perhaps not be so binary, but a spectrum. If I see something heavy about to fall on my head, my decision to move would be a choice in the most minimal sense possible. The other end of the spectrum would be the higher kinds of choices that only human beings make, choices that involve the use of logic, ability to process long-term outcomes and entire chains of events, a deep sense of morality, high levels of emotions, self-awareness, and especially the ability to intentionally shut down instinctive behavior in order to make more beneficial/ethical choices.

  21. The only thing I can say in trying to expound, and I may be grasping at straws, is that perhaps we can say free will choices aren’t determined by past events only, but also by future events. The choice-maker acts based on anticipated results of his choices. But because the future only exists as imagined possibilities (at least in the mind of the choice-maker), then the choice cannot truly be said to be determined by causal processes.

    You’re making sense, but I don’t agree with your conclusion. The thing is, this anticipation of results is itself part of the causal chain, as the very act of anticipating the future is a past event which someone takes into account in making a decision.

    In this sense, choice or non-choice would perhaps not be so binary, but a spectrum. If I see something heavy about to fall on my head, my decision to move would be a choice in the most minimal sense possible. The other end of the spectrum would be the higher kinds of choices that only human beings make, choices that involve the use of logic, ability to process long-term outcomes and entire chains of events, a deep sense of morality, high levels of emotions, self-awareness, and especially the ability to intentionally shut down instinctive behavior in order to make more beneficial/ethical choices.

    This is essentially Dan Dennett’s explanation of free will. It’s definitely something unique to humans, and it definitely describes our experience of free will quite accurately. The only thing that’s lost is how we normally articulate free will, as making entirely undetermined choices; however, I don’t think that this normal understanding is a situation that we really want to experience, so it’s definitely worth losing.

  22. That makes sense. And just to clarify, you stated that we normally talk about free will as “making entirely undetermined choices,” and that it’s “worth losing” this understanding. I agree with that, and I am no longer trying to make any kind of argument for entirely undetermined choices.

    What I want to say is that physical causes limit our choices without completely determining them. The problem I’m having with the compatibilist arguments is that if everything I am and everything I do can, theoretically, be traced back to events that happened long before I even existed, in what sense is my will free at all? Why even attempt to hang on the term ‘free will’?

    Maybe I should read some Dennett to try to understand this better lol.

  23. Yeah, that’s exactly the problem that this term has always had in philosophy, and no one has really “solved” it. Because of this, all compatibilist arguments (Dennett’s included) essentially boil down to trying to redefine what we mean by “free will.”

    Definitely a messy issue to get into any way you look at it.

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