Sam the Man

I have just come back from Sam Harris’s talk in Bristol abut his new book, “The Moral Landscape.” Apart from admiring Sam for his eloquent writing and brilliance at debate and argument, he name-checked me and SuperSense in the latest book  – so I just had to say hello.

His talk was great even though I don’t actually agree entirely with his argument that morality can be studied scientifically. I have a number of concerns. First science is a method but one that is driven by incompatible theories and perspectives. Also some levels of scientific enquiry are incommensurate. For example, as the great vision scientist David Marr pointed out, you can study bird flight from a number of different levels of analysis which have nothing to do with each other but are all perfectly valid. You could study the molecular level of what makes wings and feathers. You could study the aerodynamics of flight. You could study the evolution of flight. You could study migration etc and so on and so on. So my point is that even if you agree that there is some ideal of what is a moral good, there are so many ways you could arrive at some form of analysis.

Anyway enough of that. I do agree that we should challenge moral dogma for the sake of trying to challenge practices that seek to curtail the freedoms of the rest of us. I’m just not sure that this is a “scientific” endeavour.

What had me really surprised during the evening was the level of security that surrounds Sam. There were two very intimidating security guards who stared menacingly at the audience from the side of the stage throughout the talk and at one point, bundled a young man out of the audience for filming with a miniature camera. Even when I was hosting Dawkins the last time he was in Bristol, he did not have this level of protection.

"You Looking at Me?" Minders at the Sam Harris book signing

I admire Sam Harris and I think he is incredibly talented. He deserves his success and fame but I don’t think I would swap places if I had to travel with the level of security he does. It is a real shame because when we met later at the book signing he seemed a genuinely warm guy.


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13 responses to “Sam the Man

  1. Bruce, I don’t see any in-principle reason why you couldn’t study morality scientifically, just as you could study any other intangible human trait such as greed, or anger or kindness. Or even religious belief or spirituality. A scientific approach merely looks at these things in an empirical way. By placing them outside the purview of science, you are effectively giving them superstitious credence. You are saying: ‘There are some things on which science cannot throw enlightenment.’ (Correct me if I’m wrong by paraphrasing you this way, but I think that’s what you mean by saying you ‘don’t entirely agree that science can be studied scientifically’.)

    I examined this problem a little while back in my post A Convenient Kind of Science in relation to the religious arguments of evolutionary biologist Francisco J. Ayala.

    I believe that if you accept a scientific view of the world, then you must be rigorous about that belief. You can’t say that science is right for some things and not for others. The problem is, of course, where you then decide to draw that boundary. You’ve drawn it at morality, but surely that’s arbitrary. Why not say science has no validity commenting on homeopathy, for example, or ‘clairvoyants’ like John Edward who claim to speak to the dead? People who believe in these things say they are outside the realm of science. Why are those claims not as just as valid as your position on morality?

    • brucehood

      Hi Analyph,
      I must respectfully disagree. Your position is very much what Sam is saying in his book. I am arguing that well-being is not an absolute state of the universe that can be measured. I also don’t agree that you can study greed, anger or kindness either as absolute states. Harris uses the example of health – a similarly woolly concept that we still study scientifically but I would also take issue with this example.

      You can use science to inform you about human traits but I don’t believe that science can make the relative judgement in the way that Harris is claiming in his books. He accepts that there are the different peaks in the Moral Landscape, but argues that there is an ideal. Let’s take the most extreme position of his argument. He says that surely it must be the case that there is a possible state of the universe which must be good in that everyone lives long, healthy lives devoid of any misery – this state could in principle exist and therefore every moral peak could be measured against that scientifically. But I just don’t buy that. I would argue that happiness is a relative experience and that requires the good and the bad ergo, you both the peaks and the valleys in the moral landscape – otherwise you get a flat terrain which is not compatible with Harris’s utopian vision.

      Also I am not saying that there are some realms that science can not inform, I just don’t think the science is the best way of going about this. My reason is that science requires testable hypotheses and theories to guide the process and it is not clear to me that the problem is sufficiently well-defined to warrant empirical investigation.

      All the other examples you cite (homeopathy, clairvoyants etc) make specific predictions and therefore are far game for empirical investigation. The irony is of course it that believers do not pay attention to the science but we should not give up as position change. Also why do we need science to prove moral inequalities? You don’t need science to tell you that female circumcision is wrong but I doubt proving it scientifically will change the fundamentalist belief. Rather that requires mechanisms that operate outside of the lab.

  2. I think where we see things differently is in the assessment of the aims of science. I don’t see science as a mechanism of ‘proving’ the absolute. Science is simply a way of seeing things without relying on anything other than what can be observed and corroborated by another observer, in order that we learn more about the things being observed. We can, in that way, quite easily form a method for examining morality and making some predictions based on what we see. Where the ‘science’ of that process comes aground is on the treacherous reefs of religion and superstition.

    You and I and a person from Irkutsk could just as easily observe morality in action as we could observe a bird in flight. It is true that we may not agree on all aspects of the ‘correctness’ of that morality, but we would certainly be able to make some empirical moral observations such as: ‘Most normal people make efforts not to kill other people unless in extreme situations’ or ‘Kindness is generally repaid by kindness’ or ‘Children should be cared for’. Why should observations like that not be scientifically approachable?

    I’m not suggesting we’d be looking for some kind of formula for proper moral behaviour – I think there are many things in the world that can’t be quantified in that manner. But in the same way that we can have sciences that study human social behaviour, say, why should we not have a science that can study morality, and draw useful results from that study?

    I don’t agree with you assessment that happiness is relative. It’s easy to see why by examining the corollary, which must surely be that misery is also relative, and that is plainly not so. You can live a life of misery without ever having experienced happiness, and many people do. With the greatest respect I suggest that your idea that you can’t live happily without also experiencing comparative misery is a rather Methodist mindset 🙂

    You say:

    Also why do we need science to prove moral inequalities? You don’t need science to tell you that female circumcision is wrong but I doubt proving it scientifically will change the fundamentalist belief.

    A statement that actually says to me that we DO need science to aid us with these kinds of views! (Once again I eschew the word ‘prove’ – science is not – or should not be – about ‘proving’. It’s a very wrong way of viewing science)

    You say that female circumcision is wrong, but, without any science, that’s merely a point of view. An Islamic religious zealot says it’s not, and by the yardstick of religion, he’s right. In other words, without some kind of objectivity, your view that it’s wrong can be based on nothing more than your ‘feelings’, and his view that it’s right is based squarely on the dictates of a supernatural being. They are equally correct views if you don’t have a yardstick. If your yardstick is something like ‘common human decency’, then you are making an appeal to some kind of system that sits outside religion and requires humanist and rational views of the world. By raising this example, you obviously believe that I, and other of your readers, will agree that female circumcision is a cruel, barbaric and morally reprehensible practice. Well, you’re right in my case. But why do I think that? Not because I was told so by religion, or because I just ‘feel’ it, but because I am able to understand, through my rational appraisal of the world, that it is painful, unnecessary practice, based on primitive superstition. I can empathise with a victim of such a ritual through my own empirical experience of the world. You and I can agree that it’s a despicable human act because we are able to share a view of the world based on commonly and independently endorsed empirical experience that doesn’t rely on a religion to just dictate to us what should be right or wrong.

    That’s a process that is mighty close to science.

  3. Hi Bruce

    I Too was at Sam Harris’ talk last night and while, like you, I admire Sam Harris tremendously, I found the evening oddly unsatisfactory, and it wasn’t just the minders (unsettling though they were). I felt that Julian had to work quite hard to create any sense of dialogue – and I think we mostly got well rehearsed answers to questions Harris must have heard many times over. What I didn’t get was any of the sense of passion and ‘why this stuff really really matters’ we see in his TED talks, for instance.

    I have no problem at all with Sam Harris’ thesis and – in a sense that was my problem last night – there was nothing I found especially challenging or thought provoking . However, there is one question that (as so often happens) occurred to me on the way home, and I wonder if I may share it with you. Harris’ thesis is predicated on the idea that conscious entities make value judgements, and perfectly reasonably he asserts that a universe with no conscious entities can have no morality. He then asserts that these particular conscious entities (humans) should choose well being as the bedrock on which to build an evidence-based and testable moral system. This makes good sense to (most of) us, but it seems to me that’s largely because we have empathy. Now empathy is probably a consequence of our evolution as a social species. But – and here’s the question I would have asked – other conscious entities in the universe may have evolved without empathy and hence a system of values based on well being may well seem (not only alien) but meaningless to them – even if they have a strong evidence-based scientific system. So while Harris’ notion of conscious entities creating value systems might be universal, the actual values and moral system that emerge will not be..?

    Best wishes

    • brucehood

      Yes – he did seem a little subdued – I wonder if the constant sound problems distracted him or maybe the presence of two burly geezers bundling people out of the hall.

      BTW that same chap who was bundled out was just ahead of me in the signing queue and proceeded to try engage Sam in conversation before thrusting a padded envelope into Sam’s hand… which caused the minders to flinch again. He then turned and said, that’s Bruce Hood pointing at me which immediately me feel guilty for some reason… it was all very weird to say the least.

      Anyway back to your point about empathy and consciousness in general…. much over-rated in my opinion.. as Pinker puts it, “consciousness is not the commander-in-chief but the spin-doctor of experience” and I happen to think that cognitive dissonance is a mighty strong mechanism when it comes to moral reasoning. So I am not sure that I even accept Sam’s premise that conscious entities can form evidence-based moral opinions – not to mention all the selective biases that operate when we evaluate anything. But that is the pedant in me. Your point is well made however that it is feasible that a sophisticated species could evolve without empathy – a race of engineers and trainspotters maybe?;)

      • Gosh the minder weirdness was even stranger than I thought.

        Yes I was struck by how much Harris’ argument rests on consciousness and, like you, I think consciousness over-rated. As you say there seems to be growing evidence for consciousness as post-hoc rationaliser. As an engineer:-) who researches social robots I’m very interested in both artificial consciousness and artificial empathy. Or at least the problem of how to build robots that behave as if they are conscious, empathic, etc. So that then raises the interesting question, is something that behaves as if it is a moral agent, really a moral agent? I think the answer would have to be yes. So that would suggest that robots – in principle at least – could be moral agents.

  4. jacarandamimosifolia

    On Alan’s empathy question, I notice that Simon Baron-Cohen is also talking in Bristol – next month – about this very subject. Apparently: “…he presents a new way of understanding what it is that leads individuals down negative paths, and challenges all of us to consider replacing the idea of evil with the idea of empathy-starvation. By bringing cruelty into the realm of science, he at last delivers us from ‘evil’.” ….which sounds promising…

    BTW, if the burly bouncers flinched when the guy handed Sam H and envelope, what on earth did they do when you put your arm around him? He does look distinctly nervous in your picture…

  5. Rae

    I was at the talk Sam Harris gave in London on Monday, on the same subject. He’s engaging, witty and dry in his humour. I was struck, however, by his tendency to couch the inconsistencies in his logic in terms of highly emotive topics (e.g. child abuse) and to hedge certain questions so he could trot out answers that he’s clearly spent a long time pondering (and thus avoiding the weaker points of his reasoning).

    That said, his arguments were very thought-provoking! And all delivered when viciously jet-lagged…

  6. jacarandamimosifolia

    Lots of critics seem to focus on SH aiming at the ‘easy targets’ of various religions – the most lurid or emotive outcomes of belief – and cite this as a flaw in his arguments. I don’t agree. Given what we know, if the Catholic church was a person not an entity, surely we’d judge them as a psychopathic serial child-abuser, rather than a psychopathic serial child-abuser that, nevertheless, should be treated with respect and fairness becuase they’ve been around a long time and provide nice places for lots of people to go on Sundays…

  7. Pingback: The Moral Landscape and the Dexter Dilema « Philosopher in a Phonebox

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