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Sam Harris- The Moral Landscape

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message 1: by David (new)

David (dploskonka) Anyone else getting this when it comes out? October 5th. Would enjoy having a discussion about it.The Moral Landscape: How Science Will Determine Human Values


message 2: by Sean (new)

Sean Cole | 1 comments Just started reading it yesterday.


message 3: by Nettie (new)

Nettie (nettieyeti) | 1 comments I just started on this; going to Sam Harris lecture at GWU next Tuesday! :)


message 4: by Robyn (new)

Robyn (robynverner) I'm quite excited to read this. I'd love to hear everyone's thoughts.

A Sam Harris lecture? Lucky you.


message 5: by Betsy (new)

Betsy I'm trying to read it, but I keep getting interrupted by GR group reads.


message 6: by Stephen (new)

Stephen | 12 comments Hi all,

I’m about half way through the book and so far it’s both intriguing and thought provoking.

I think he sets up some easy straw men to knock down at the start but he does persist to the more subtle predicaments later and he backs his case with reference to numerous scientific studies.

I have to say that I agree with him that there is an intrinsic right and wrong (even if it is not always obvious what it is) and the measure of that is the harm an action can do. Religious people claim god tells us what is right and wrong, but that of course becomes arbitrary and not intrinsic. So I’m 100% with Harris on this.

Where I part company with him is on the related (but different) subject of free will. Harris claims we don’t have this but I take Dan Dennett’s line (detailed in the brilliant ‘Freedom Evolves’) and say we do. Harris does not argue about determinism or quantum randomness here, instead he takes the pragmatic view that decisions are made prior to them becoming conscious thoughts (again backed by scientific experiments). Perhaps this is a difference of definition but Harris seems to be identifying the self as only our conscious awareness, where as I regard the self as wider than that. Just because something has not yet been articulated into words doesn’t mean it’s not a legitimate part of my decision making process.

He then ties himself in knots rather as he tries to both claim we don’t have free will but are, at the same time, responsible for our actions.

That’s as far as I have got.
(By the way I loved both ‘The End of Faith’ and ‘Letter to a Christian Nation’ by him.)

Stephen


message 7: by Daniel (new)

Daniel (deltakilo) | 22 comments Right. I agree with him that we don't have free will (something that Harris has recently been discussing at great length on his blog, http://www.samharris.org/blog/item/mo...), thought I haven't yet read Freedom Evolves, and it may convince me otherwise. But the point is that, assuming it's true that we don't have free will, we can't just use that as a pass to do whatever we want. We would have serial killers on trial saying "Hey, my actions are dictated by neural impulses decided long before I know about them, so it's ok that I raped and killed all those toddlers." It's true (for this argument) that we aren't consciously in control of our actions, but those actions are nonetheless a product of our conditioning, and that includes everything from the time your father beat you with his belt to the prison sentence you served for the crime you committed when you were an adult. We can still influence people's behavior and bring about a higher state of human happiness- let's just make sure our penal system doesn't turn into A Clockwork Orange!


message 8: by Daniel (new)

Daniel (deltakilo) | 22 comments The point is that we can use science to determine the level of suffering/happiness a person is experiencing. This is done, in part, through the use of the fMRI machine, which traces the level of activity occurring in different regions in the brain and, long story short, tells us what someone is experiencing. But, of course, this is not feasible to use on everyone in the world at all times. There is also the idea of simply using math to determine, say, how many people will be hurt in an attack on an enemy versus how many lives will be saved by removing said enemy. These are just examples, and with a little creativity, one can conceive of hundreds of ways that things like this could work. Don't make the mistake of thinking that "science" is all test tubes and frog dissections. You really should try to read this book. I don't drink the "Harris Kool-Aid" either, on the contrary, I make an effort to critically examine the "Harris Evidence" and make up my own mind. And I find him to be a genius.


message 9: by Stephen (new)

Stephen | 12 comments Harris is good but he’s not in the genius category.

While I agree with much of what he says it’s largely because he is stating the obvious (even though that is controversial to theists). He sets up straw men and easily knocks them down and he plucks the low hanging fruit (for example Taliban and al-Qaida morality).

I strongly disagree with him, however, on free will. Here he gets an idea in his head that science shows we have urges at the sub-conscious level and takes this to the extreme that everything we do is beyond our control. This is obviously not the case because we can exercise logical thinking about our actions. And anyway, I would claim sub-conscious thoughts are part of my response to things even if they haven’t yet been translated into words.

Whereas Harris is not a genius, Dan Dennett certainly is and he can run rings round Sam any day.


message 10: by Stephen (new)

Stephen | 12 comments ”He has never said what we did is beyond our control”

Therefore what we do is under our control, therefore we have free will.

Don’t get hung up on semantics from Harris, read ‘Freedom Evolves’ it is brilliant.


message 11: by Daniel (new)

Daniel (deltakilo) | 22 comments "This one person never said unicorns don't exist."

Therefore unicorns exist.

Is that acceptable logic now?


message 12: by Stephen (new)

Stephen | 12 comments Ok, if what we do is under our control, then we have free will.

And Harris, according to Xox, has not disputed that.


message 13: by Daniel (new)

Daniel (deltakilo) | 22 comments Well, there has been a lot of clarification of this point on his blog, and that has inspired me to research it a bit further. I hope we can agree that the entire seat of consciousness is the brain. Since everything we do is controlled by our brain, then there's nothing that we do that needs to be attributed to anything else. That is, everything we observe is traced back to physical processes in the brain, so we needn't infer any other source of our actions, but you know that. So, I guess it's all about how we define free will, which is an important distinction to make. We have free will in the sense that there isn't some outside force controlling our actions, no mad scientist or omnipotent supernatural being controlling us. We don't have free will in the sense that, within our brains, we (which is, again a complicated term) don't control things. Our brains do it for us. But in the sense that we are our brains, we do. But I feel I should further explain the notion of "I". You don't say "I'm pumping blood right now." You say "My heart is pumping blood right now." In the same sense, we shouldn't say "I'm deciding whether to divert this runaway trolley." Instead, "My brain is deciding what to do."

But I admit that I'm basically regurgitating Harris' writings, and I will definitely read "Freedom" in the future, and I (or should I say, my brain) may completely change my mind. Anything by one of the Four Horsemen is alright by me!


message 14: by Stephen (last edited Jun 30, 2011 02:10PM) (new)

Stephen | 12 comments Well said Daniel.

I agree it is about definitions, which in themselves are very slippery characters because all we can use is words themselves.

I also agree that it is to some extent a matter of point of view, look one way and ‘we’ are in control, look another way and (as Harris advocates) our urges are at a subconscious level. So yes it’s about how we see ourselves and what is this object/identity called ‘I’ that we talk about with such freedom in everyday language. That might be part of the enigma, we have to put things into language in order to communicate (or even to reason internally) and that takes time, so we are often articulating an event or a mind state after the fact. But then again language is so useful, you say the word ‘I’ in a sentence and the other person immediately gains accurate information, even though the two of you have not sat down and agreed a definition of ‘I’ together. For communication of important information language is great but if you did sit down together and try and define ‘I’ it would take forever deciding where ‘I’ stopped and the rest of the world started.

Interestingly, Harris is trying to move this debate into practical areas. In the past the debate has been about whether you can have free will in a deterministic universe, i.e. if you knew the position and velocity of every particle accurately then you would know what is going to happen, hence you wouldn’t have free will. (We can ignore the theists who just say god gave it to us). When quantum thinking came along that provided a way out, the universe had truly random things in it and you couldn’t know both position and velocity accurately. This quantum thinking is a diversion however, (Penrose notwithstanding). Dennett clearly demonstrates that you can have free will even in a deterministic universe.


message 15: by Daniel (new)

Daniel (deltakilo) | 22 comments I do find it interesting that theists can at the same time believe that we have Free Will, in the purest sense of the term, yet also believe that our actions are dictated by an omnipotent, omniscient being. Anyway, I've always found fascinating the idea of, as you said (very articulately, I must say), being able to trace the movement of every particle in the universe and thereby determining the course of events. It should go without saying that this is impossible to calculate comprehensively, but it is exactly what we do when we, say, plot the path of a space probe around the solar system, or examine a crime scene to determine the direction from which direction a bullet was fired based on things like the position of the body and blood patterns. So we can do it, but that's pretty different from looking at every particle in the universe.
Another thing Harris brings up (I don't know where you are in the book, but you've probably reached this part by now) is the difference between determinism and fatalism, and I've no doubt Dennett brings this up as well. When presented with this view of life, people often argue that they "may as well just sit around and do nothing, since the same thing will happen anyway." But this is the opposite of determinism. The choice to sit around and do nothing is still a choice, and a big one at that, with many consequences. If, as Harris says, he had not chosen to write "The Moral Landscape", it would have not just happened (I for one am endlessly grateful he did). But where he brings this back around to the question of free will is when he says that, if one tries to lay in bed all day and do nothing, they will be practically unable. After a few hours, probably less for more driven individuals, their brains would compel them to get up and do something. I imagine Dennett's view on the matter is similar. Free will is a captivating idea to me, and and important one, I think, and I intend to study it more, and probably have my mind changed a dozen times in my life, which is the joy of science.

Also, I did not realize that I was talking to a published author, let alone one who has been so universally praised. It is an honor have had the opportunity to engage in discussion with you, and here's to much more in the future.


message 16: by Stephen (new)

Stephen | 12 comments Yes, these are fascinating topics.

And as you say, the best way to gain more understanding of them is to read widely round the subjects.


message 17: by Jimmy (new)

Jimmy Now that's what I call an intelligent debate.


message 18: by Daniel (new)

Daniel (deltakilo) | 22 comments Why, Jimmy, that is among the warmest complements I've ever received. And, feel free to join in if you have anything to add.


message 19: by Melki (new)

Melki | 211 comments I have to admit, I too, have been enjoying this conversation. It sort of lacks the "reality TV" quality of a Xox vs Lee smackdown, but I think I've probably learned a little more. I certainly can't wait to read this book.


message 20: by Daniel (new)

Daniel (deltakilo) | 22 comments Ooh! I just found their argument, and you're right. They're really at each other. While I'm always up for a fight (of course, not a real fight, like, with punching), there's nothing like a civil discussion with a likeminded intellectual.


message 21: by Daniel (new)

Daniel (deltakilo) | 22 comments This is addressed in great length in the book (Harris really did a great job at anticipating all the criticism that would be leveled against his idea, and addressing it). But this is a good question, and to some degree, you are right. We simply cannot know everything about a ethical conundrum. But consider this. Is is possible to calculate the number of sand grains on all the world's beaches. Probably not. But does that mean there isn't a definite answer? There is a correct number, and an infinite number of incorrect ones. So, how do we, scientists that we are, address such a question. Do we admit defeat, conceding that the task is impossible? Certainly not! We use all the resources, expertise, and knowledge we have to get the best answer we can. Maybe we won't find the exact number of grains, but we can certainly narrow it down. And ever without going through all that trouble, anyone compos mentis could certainly tell you that 1x10^22 is a lot closer to the right answer than is 17. So, why not do the same with morality? Just as with my (perhaps longwinded) metaphor, anyone can tell you that living in a nice house with good health and steady employment (etc.) is better than starving in a ditch in a war-torn nation. Sure, The Moral Landscape may grasp at the low hanging fruit, but do not forget, Brent, that it was the low hanging fruit that struck the head of Isaac Newton on that fateful afternoon. Would you also criticize him for beginning with something so simple as an apple, rather than immediately calculating the tangential velocity of the sun's orbit around the galaxy's center? Objective morality is a field in its infancy, as astronomy, biology, chemistry, physics, and all other commonplace sciences once were. They all began by answering the easy questions, and look where they are now. Do you think anyone back then could have imagined how well we understand our world? But we have exceeded anyone's wildest dreams. Who are we to say that morality cannot do the same?


message 22: by Stephen (new)

Stephen | 12 comments Daniel is right Brent, the fact that we can’t take every last thing into consideration does not mean that there isn’t a right answer, or indeed a lot of answers that are far closer to being right than the many wrong ones. In fact it is this very point that gives Sam’s book its title, the number of almost right (or even ‘as good as’ right) answers representing the hills and mountains of Sam’s Moral Landscape. Let’s also not forget the low hanging fruit that hit the World Trade Centre, clearly a deep valley (to mix my metaphors!)

And it is science that shows the way. Consider our current knowledge on how the brain works. In the past it was just a black box and people fell for the illusion of a soul, something like a little man inside watching on some internal screen a picture captured by our eyes. Now we may not know every last neural connection in the brain but science has given us a much better understanding of how it works and how consciousness emerges.


message 23: by Stephen (new)

Stephen | 12 comments Too black and white Brent.

You have ignored the posts above which describe shades of grey or Harris' landscape.


message 24: by MadgeUK (new)

MadgeUK What is 'being immoral'? A cannibal doesn't think that eating people is immoral. Is stealing to feed a starving child immoral? Is committing adultery if you are in an impossible marriage and unable to divorce immoral? And so on. The moral landscape changes from century to century - a great deal of what we do today would have been considered immoral by the Victorians.


message 25: by MadgeUK (last edited Jul 05, 2011 09:12AM) (new)

MadgeUK I am not at all scientific Brent so cannot answer those questions but a keen student of history can clearly see 'moral landscape' frequently changing. We have seen it change in our lifetime over homosexuality for instance. I have a theory, not at all scientific or provable, that this may be a response to over-population - we do not need as much heterosexual input as we used to do and so homosexuals are stepping up to the plate, as it were. Is that a sort of evolutionary response or is it cultural I wonder.


message 26: by Stephen (new)

Stephen | 12 comments If you allow morality to change then anything can be justified.

I would argue that there is an intrinsic morality but that we don’t always know what it is. (On the other hand, we can often make a good determination between two actions as to which would be closer to that intrinsic ideal.)

Harris by passes the Hume argument because he doesn’t try to derive ought from is. He first equates goodness with not causing harm and then says that, even though we might not be able to fully calculate the harm in an act, a measure of it must logically exist.

His use of science in the book is to investigate how people believe things and how they weigh up different actions. I have to say that this aspect of the book, while interesting, can sometimes become over interpreted.


message 27: by MadgeUK (last edited Jul 06, 2011 09:58AM) (new)

MadgeUK If you allow morality to change then anything can be justified.

But morality does change whether we like or not and things are justified accordingly. In the Victorian era illegimitacy was considered immoral and both women and children were punished for it. Divorce, even on the grounds of violence, was immoral. Sex outside marriage was immoral and you were ostracised for it. And so on. God was supposed to have 'ordered' the way society functioned and anyone who flouted that order was considered immoral.

Morality is often measured by the Ten Commandments, whether we are Christians or not but is stealing immoral if it is done to, say, preserve a child's life? Is adultery immoral if someone cannot divorce? Is 'honouring' a brutal mother and father moral? Circumstances alter cases, as they say.

I agree that real morality exists outside of religion and is perhaps best encompassed by The Golden Rule of treating others as you would be treated yourself, and in doing as little harm as possible in your life. However, what I consider harmful may not be considered harmful by someone else - like hatespeech, which is viewed differently by different societies. Even paedophilia is not considered harmful in societies which still marry girls very young, just as we once did.

It seems to me that the 'moral landscape' is full of hills, dales and potholes!


message 28: by John (new)

John (noel_efturn) | 15 comments Daniel wrote: ""This one person never said unicorns don't exist."

Therefore unicorns exist.

Is that acceptable logic now?"


Ok, on the count of 3, everyone repeat after me: "Unicorns Don't Exist" 1, 2, 3...


message 29: by John (new)

John (noel_efturn) | 15 comments John wrote: "Daniel wrote: ""This one person never said unicorns don't exist."

Therefore unicorns exist.

Is that acceptable logic now?"

Ok, on the count of 3, everyone repeat after me: "Unicorns Don't ..."


Good Job everyone! There was a unicorn standing right outside my office window. I managed to get the three people in the world who never said that unicorns don't exist to say that unicorns don't exist. And it disappeared!

Ok, let's try a little tougher one. Everyone repeat after me: "God does not exist"


message 30: by Stephen (new)

Stephen | 12 comments Madge, I am all for trying to understand people from the past with respect to their culture at the time. This would perhaps be called the ‘social mores’ of that time.

However, if you say morality is variable then you can justify anything because someone could just say that such and such an act (like flying a plane into a skyscraper) is moral to me and you would not be able to disagree.

The morality of religion is arbitrary, theists just have to accept what god lays down (or rather what is in their revered texts). They don’t do things because it’s right but because they are told to. Often, however, they pick and choose from their texts but then how are they making that choice unless they have some inbuilt feeling for right and wrong.

I agree with you that using the golden rule is probably a very good guide to how to act. And I think that comes very close to the idea of an intrinsic right and wrong.


message 31: by Daniel (new)

Daniel (deltakilo) | 22 comments John, repeat after me: "Pragmatism doesn't work."


message 32: by Daniel (new)

Daniel (deltakilo) | 22 comments Harris compares morality to health in many cases, particularly this one. In victorian times, "healthy" was living beyond 30 years, avoiding dysentery and consumption. In the Neolithic period, it meant not dying as a child from your rotting teeth. Now it means maintaining a low blood pressure and BMI, and a healthy person can live to be well into her 80's and 90's. Do we have any illusions that all three are valid definitions of health? Not at all. We are healthier now than we ever were, and everyone (who cares enough to research these things, that is) acknowledges this.
Well, in certain cultures, stoning adulterous women and homosexuals is acceptable. In the late 1600's, burning witches was considered moral. But we now know that they most certainly are not. We are still more moral than we ever were, and it's time we acknowledged this as well.
But this is not to imply that we have the perfect morality now, any more than we have the perfect health. One day, we may look back upon our current epoch and find it to be barbaric and backwards. Just as we may one day live to be 200 years old and never experience even the slightest sickness, we may one day live in a global society in which all people are treated equally, where war and crime are not even part of our vernacular. Both of these should be our ultimate goal, and science is the way to reach both.


message 33: by MadgeUK (last edited Jul 08, 2011 02:34AM) (new)

MadgeUK I think I am just unhappy with the word morality because it is so tied up with religion and we frequently use it to make judgements about other people's different ways of looking at things. In general I would call things that harm others 'immoral' whether it be flying planes into buildings or performing a clitorectomy. For many other things I would rather live and let live until times and attitudes change, or are changed by persuasion, such as education.

I fully realise that my attitude gets my knickers into a twist but I also think it protects me from knee-jerk moralistic reactions - not that I am saying there are any of those here BTW!


message 34: by John (new)

John (noel_efturn) | 15 comments Daniel wrote: "John, repeat after me: "Pragmatism doesn't work.""

I know. I'm sorry.


message 35: by Daniel (new)

Daniel (deltakilo) | 22 comments Kind of a paradox, isn't it? Everyone thinks that pragmatism doesn't work. Therefore pragmatism doesn't work. But that implies that pragmatism works. But, I guess because pragmatism doesn't work, it doesn't matter what everyone thinks. So it's not really a paradox, is it? Sorry for wasting your time with a not-paradox.


message 36: by John (new)

John (noel_efturn) | 15 comments Daniel wrote: "Kind of a paradox, isn't it? Everyone thinks that pragmatism doesn't work. Therefore pragmatism doesn't work. But that implies that pragmatism works. But, I guess because pragmatism doesn't work, i..."

And to think I have always believed a paradox to be two physicians. Who'da thunk it?


message 37: by Daniel (new)

Daniel (deltakilo) | 22 comments That took me a minute, John, but that is wickedly clever.


message 38: by John (last edited Jul 08, 2011 11:55PM) (new)

John (noel_efturn) | 15 comments Daniel wrote: "That took me a minute, John, but that is wickedly clever."

One day my boss said, "John, we've got a new paradigm around here."

I said, "Great. Here's a nickel, go get yourself a cup of coffee."

(100% guaranteed true story)


message 39: by Tom (new)

Tom Lichtenberg MadgeUK wrote: "I think I am just unhappy with the word morality because it is so tied up with religion"

I completely agree with that. As soon as I hear the word "morality" I want to walk away. The word comes pre-loaded with bias. Maybe it's because I grew up in the age of 'the moral majority' of the Nixon era. The word makes me think of bigots defending their turf.


message 40: by Roxy (new)

Roxy (Roxy641) | 45 comments Tom wrote: "MadgeUK wrote: "I think I am just unhappy with the word morality because it is so tied up with religion"

I completely agree with that. As soon as I hear the word "morality" I want to walk away. Th..."


"Christian morality" - whatever that is, I'm wary of whenever a christian claims they are more moral than non-christians. And given that christians can't agree on woman priests or any other issue of the day, what is is the point in them claiming any kind of moral highground.


message 41: by Stephen (new)

Stephen | 12 comments Having finished this book now here is my review...

Review – The Moral Landscape by Sam Harris

This book is typical Harris, if you liked his excellent ‘End of Faith’ and ‘Letter to a Christian Nation’ then you will undoubtedly like this one. It pulls together his twin interests of philosophy and neuroscience, both of which he holds a degree in, and puts forward the (some would say audacious) case that science can, in theory, tell us about morality and values.

The mainstream thinking about morality has, of recent times, been that there is no such thing as an intrinsic right and wrong, i.e. that one has to understand the context, the background and the history of any actions and allow that different people can legitimately consider a given action as either right or wrong depending on their viewpoint. (The one caveat to that is the religious position in which God defines right and wrong via whatever sacred text applies, but that of course becomes arbitrary and hence not intrinsic.)

Harris sets out to convince us that right and wrong should be equated with ‘well being’, whether taken individually or collectively, and as such could in principle be measured. He admits that you can’t always perform the measurement but the fact that there must be such an answer (albeit possibly unknown) means that there is an intrinsic right and wrong. In general he lays out a good case for this, backed up by numerous examples from scientific studies of both behaviour and brain neuroscience.

The ‘Landscape’ of the title refers to an imagined landscape of all possible actions, with good actions represented by hills and bad ones by valleys. So, even though there may be an intrinsic ‘right’ action (the highest hill in the landscape), there are probably many that are nearly as good (the other hills around). He says that as long as you are moving uphill then you are moving in the right direction. While interesting as a thought experiment, this image does get a little stretched and somewhat confused at times.

On the hole, however, I found the book to be a little on the light side. I think he sets up some easy straw men to knock down at the start, although he does persist to the more subtle predicaments later. It is easy to identify the bad actions (as he in fact does), for instance flying aircraft into buildings, which is unjustifiable in anybody’s book.

He gives a good account of the latest research into brain fMRI scans of subjects performing different tasks. His own research is in this field, especially for instance the investigation of the neurology of belief where he compares scans of people viewing statements like 2 + 2 = 4 with scans of people considering ethical situations. While it may be fairly ease to associate brain areas with aspects like perception processing and motor control I think there is a big danger of over-interpreting scans of other thinking processes, it could easily be that he has identified areas equivalent to (say) giving something a mental tick of agreement rather than the actual thoughts involved in belief, and certainly advocating this as a possible lie detection device (as he does) is a step too far. Further, this type of scanning completely misses one of the most important aspects of the brain, its chemical side. The brain is awash with chemicals, neurotransmitters, hormones and the like.

Having said that, I would totally agree with his basic premise, that there is an intrinsic morality and that it is probably tied to ‘well being’ in some sense. The main argument for this, however, is not scientific but philosophical; if you allow morality to vary then anything can be justified, someone could say I think it was right to fly those aircraft into the buildings and you couldn’t argue with him. I’m all for trying to understand another’s point of view but on this point I’m 100% with Harris. We may not always be able to determine which actions are the right ones but doesn’t mean there isn’t a right one. Perhaps the golden rule of treating others as you would want to be treated yourself would be, as Harris puts it, ‘moving uphill in the moral landscape’.

Now I might have left this review there but I have to say there is one large disagreement I have with the book. Where I part company is on the related (but different) subject of free will. Harris claims we don’t have this but I am much more inclined take Dan Dennett’s line (detailed in the brilliant ‘Freedom Evolves’) and say that we do. Harris does not (as others have) argue about determinism or quantum randomness here, instead he takes the pragmatic view that decisions are made prior to them becoming conscious thoughts (again backed by scientific experiments) and hence we have no control over them.

Perhaps this is a difference of definition but Harris seems to be identifying the self as only our conscious awareness, where as I would regard the self as wider than that. Just because something has not yet been articulated into words doesn’t mean it’s not a legitimate part of my decision making process. Also, just because something is an urge doesn’t mean we can’t consider it rationally before acting.

He then goes on and ties himself in knots rather as he tries to both claim we don’t have free will but are, at the same time, responsible for our actions.

I agree that it may be to some extent a matter of point of view, look one way and ‘we’ are in control, look another way and (as Harris advocates) our urges are at a subconscious level. So maybe it’s about how we see ourselves and what is this object/identity called ‘I’ that we talk about with such freedom in everyday language. That indeed might be part of the enigma, we have to put things into language in order to communicate (or even to reason internally) and that takes time, so we are often articulating an event or a mind state after the fact. But then again language is so useful: you say the word ‘I’ in a sentence and the other person immediately gains accurate information, even though the two of you have not sat down and agreed a definition of ‘I’ together. For communication of important information language is great but if you did sit down together and try and define ‘I’ it would probably take forever deciding where ‘I’ stopped and the rest of the world started.

Interestingly, Harris is trying to more this debate into practical areas. In the past the debate has been about whether you can have free will in a deterministic universe, i.e. if you knew the position and velocity of every particle accurately then you would know what is going to happen, hence you wouldn’t have free will. (We can ignore the theists who just say god gave it to us). When quantum thinking came along that provided a way out, the universe had truly random things in it and you couldn’t know both position and velocity accurately. This quantum thinking is a diversion however, (Penrose notwithstanding). Dennett clearly demonstrates that you can have free will even in a deterministic universe. (As an aside, in terms of understanding brain processes, also from a scientific perspective, I would highly recommend Dennett’s ‘Consciousness Explained’; he can run rings around Harris any day.)

A couple of other minor gripes: firstly, in the section on belief, which is quite interesting, he doesn’t distinguish belief from faith. This is important because you can believe in something if you have evidence for it but faith is belief without evidence, indeed often in the face of evidence to the contrary (I can’t think of anything more stupid). Secondly, in the section on religion, there is no recognition of cultural evolution as being different from biological evolution; he seems to confuse the two with statements like ‘we are becoming more moral’. Take away our culture and we are genetically the same as stone-age man.

One good section at the end of the book is a long and critical demolition of Francis Collins (the current director of the USA National Institute of Health, which has control of an annual budget of $30billion). Collins (a Christian) advocates no barrier between science and religion and Harris does an excellent job of demonstrating the delusion of this position.


message 42: by MadgeUK (new)

MadgeUK The main argument for this, however, is not scientific but philosophical; if you allow morality to vary then anything can be justified, someone could say I think it was right to fly those aircraft into the buildings and you couldn’t argue with him.

There are many who have argued that Hiroshima and Nagaski were 'moral' raids because they achieved the 'greater good' - that is, stopped even more slaughter. Ditto the wholesale bombing of Dresden. I still hold to my argument that anything can be morally justified, given the context of any given period of history. That what is considered moral now is not what stone age man considered moral. As a student of Victorian history, I know what was thought to be moral for women and the lower classes then is certainly not regarded as moral now.


message 43: by Stephen (new)

Stephen | 12 commentsI still hold to my argument that anything can be morally justified

And you’re happy with that?

As a student of Victorian history, I know what was thought to be moral for women and the lower classes then is certainly not regarded as moral now.

It sounds like you are saying that how women were treated in those days was ok!


message 44: by MadgeUK (last edited Jul 16, 2011 10:59PM) (new)

MadgeUK And you’re happy with that?

There is nothing I can do to change what has gone before, I can only seek to change what is happening now and if I disagree with a moral stance I do that - as I have actively done with women's issues, homosexuality, and racism in my lifetime. What happened in the past informs us now - because of the Holocaust our revulsion for fascism has prevented such a political movement taking hold again in the West, for instance. As the saying goes, those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it.

It sounds like you are saying that how women were treated in those days was ok!

Of course not but why beat myself up about it - there is nothing I can do to help women who lived 200 years ago! I can only try to prevent the same ideas taking hold again.

'The moving finger writes
And having writ moves on
Nor all thy piety nor wit
Can cancel half a line of it.'


message 45: by Daniel (new)

Daniel (deltakilo) | 22 comments Harris, as you would know, had you made the effort to read his book, does not have "chapters" devoted to Francis Collins. He does not even have a chapter on the subject. He is referenced at some length in the "Religion" chapter, because he serves as a fantastic example. Harris is discussing the matter of "accomodationism," which he deems to be a pretty big problem, and rightly so. There is an article about this on his blog, across which you would have run, had you bothered doing any research at all. But since I know you won't look it up, I'll summarize it for you: the point is not to "get people to believe in evolution." The point is to encourage people to value evidence, which will lead not only to belief in evolution, but non-belief in gods. And don't pretend that attempting to garner more funding for neuroscience research is selfish on the part of Harris. Are you deliberately ignoring that fact that this research has the potential to (and, in fact already does) save innumerable lives, or did you simply not know that (the brain is not meant to cool the blood, you know)? It's not as if he gets to spend that money of his yacht, as if he had (or would have) one to begin with. He runs a charitable organization, to which any extra money would go anyway. And I find it particularly telling that you deem him a "armchair" philosopher, a misconception that is corrected in the first sentence of his Wikipedia page. Look it up if you don't believe me. Harris is a neuroscientist, and every one of his books are comprised largely of references to scientific studies. The only reason Harris would have to want to replicate the success of The Selfish Gene is that that book furthered our understanding of the world, thereby allowing us to help people. That is the ultimate goal of all of his books. I know, I read them.

And I apologize for responding so angrily.


message 46: by MadgeUK (new)

MadgeUK A rather spooky idea that all lies will soon be able to be detected - what about white lies and cheating on the spouse??!!

http://www.samharris.org/site/full_te...


message 47: by Roxy (new)

Roxy (Roxy641) | 45 comments MadgeUK wrote: "A rather spooky idea that all lies will soon be able to be detected - what about white lies and cheating on the spouse??!!

http://www.samharris.org/site/full_te..."


I heard on an edition of the tv quiz "Qi" that in the USA lie-detectors had become so unrealiable that they could no longer be used as proor that a suspect had lied.

Surely all lie-detectors can pick up is "guilt" if someone doesn't feel guilty aren't they more likely not to show up when tested?


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