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.
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.