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The moral landscape : how science can determine human values

by Sam Harris

  Print book  |  1st Free Press hardcover ed

Picture an Ethical City   (2012-06-19)


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by dacase

     The Moral Landscape is a carefully-written, interesting, useful, and entertaining work.  Now for the critique...  Harris could have addressed a few additional matters to substantially strengthen the book.

     How is it that science, other than his recent inquiries into morals/ethics/values, occurred and succeeded as much as it has?  Answer:  All the first modern scientists were Christians.  Science arose (that is, evolved from ignorance, superstition, and philosophical/theological outlooks) but once in history, and it wasn't in China, India, Africa, Latin America, and so on.  There was something about the European Christian mindset and culture then that prepared the way.  Atheism goes back a long time, to at least the origins of Buddhism and Confucianism, but it did not lead to science.  The conflation of facts and values can be seen in the origin and early evolution of science, e.g., why did these people gaze at the sky, precisely record its events, and develop the relevant mathematics--because these were useful and pleasurable things to do, much superior to astrology and non-mathematical description.  Some of the early scientists were motivated by religious ends.  Our present-day prevailing atheism was a gradual development in science.

     Harris also could have reported important precedents to his views from psychology, including in particular the conduct and contingency analysis of B.F. Skinner (e.g., Science and Human Behavior; Beyond Freedom and Dignity).  Had Harris known Skinner's theory of psycholinguistics (in my view the only viable theory surviving, yet nearly entirely ignored by mainstream neuroscience) and his critique of physiological reductionism, he would have advanced his own neuroscience enterprise immensely.  A second major precedent, from the 19th Century, is Herbert Spencer.  Science should not be just an elite version of Entertainment Tonight.

     Next, Harris could have elaborated upon the origins and functions of religions, about which much is well known scientifically by anthropologists, sociologists, and psychologists.  Effective ways to change religious thinking are to find common ground and adopt a stance of humility (e.g., self-criticism).  It seems to me acceptable to tolerate erroneous beliefs unless they are manifestly harm causing or intolerant.  I contend that there is no contradiction between tolerance and intolerance-to-intolerance.  Religions have done and do some good, so give credit where due.

      Finally, Harris wrestles with his identity as pessimist versus optimist.  What happened to realist?  Perhaps brain scans are not useful enough to bother with, or are even counter-productive, given the short time we can expect there remains before world-wide calamity (unless this morals agenda succeeds)?  Perhaps a more useful approach is political action and associated philosophical rhetoric such as underpinned the origins of modern science?  Perhaps even fiction and the other arts are more effective to get this ball rolling?  As scientists, let's be realistic about our culture context.  And let's weigh the costs and benefits of different paradigms in a science of morality.

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