books book reviews

books by sam harris

reviewed by T. Nelson

Score+1

The Moral Landscape:
How Science Can Determine Human Values

by Sam Harris
Free Press, 2010, 307 pages
reviewed by T. Nelson

This book, by a prominent critic of religion and unabashed left-winger, was an early product of the culture wars. The argument it makes seems embarras­singly naive today, but it is valuable in how it reminds us that arguments about morality and ethics are not unique to our time.

For Harris, morality is not a set of principles, but a particularized set of behavioral rules we must follow so as to maximize our well-being in the future. He defines well-being on page 65 this way:

Moral view A is truer than moral view B, if A entails a more accurate understanding of the connections between human thoughts/intentions/behavior and well-being. Does forcing women and girls to wear burqas make a net positive contribution to human well-being? Does it produce happier boys and girls? Does it produce more compassionate men or more contented women? . . . I would bet my life that the answer to each of these questions is “no.”

So there we have Sam Harris's First Commandment: Thou shalt not wear burqas.

Harris's view is that all questions like this can be answered by scientific consensus. Alas, the world is not quite that simple. ‘Good’ and ‘bad’ cannot be defined outside of a goal. That goal might be a short-term one, like gaining the approval of those one admires, or it might be a long-term one, like having one's civilization survive. Whatever it is, to create a universal morality, we would have to create a universal set of shared goals, something that is not only impossible but arguably immoral. What is good for an individual might be bad for everyone else. He recognizes this objection and brushes it aside; but it is an irrecon­cilable contra­diction that can only be settled politically, that is by force.

Even if it could be settled peacefully, it is impossible to know the ‘best’ outcome for any non-trivial goal. The permutations of actions and counter-actions are infinite, which is why humans cannot predict the future. Science might decide, after doing a computer simulation, that the most moral thing to do is to blow up the Earth, but then discover that some guy born in 12,196 will do something trivial that changes the equation. A morality based on infinite particularized knowledge attained in an indefinite future is useless.

Maybe we should give Harris some credit: he is pro-science and he tries to argue against moral relativism. When he asks whether it would be evil to blind all children at birth, he criticizes a moral relativist as saying “It depends on why they're doing it.” But Harris's consequentialist argument—it's wrong if it has a bad outcome—is just as bad; many philosophers have tried and failed to make it work.

What his moral system boils down to is enlightened self-interest. That is a good thing to have, but enlightenment doesn't just come from scientific knowledge. It evolves in a society and its function is to keep the peace. That means it's part tradition and part empirical guide, and it must depend on principles to be useful.

Anyway, we're doing what Harris wants already: telling women they must wear burqas and giving them the right to vote are scientific experi­ments, with ready-made control groups. If someday we discover we don't like the results—if we find we have trouble picking them out in a crowd, for instance, or if they all vote to be relieved of of the burden of raising children—what then?

The answer is that a great civilization might die out when it could have been saved if it had kept moral principles. The closest we have to a universal good is long-term survival of our species. To discover scientifically what promotes this, we would have to experiment with lives and cultures. Evolution is doing those experiments already on our behalf. So in effect Sam Harris's plan is to let nature take its course.

sep 05, 2020

Score-1

Making Sense: Conversations on consciousness, morality, and the future of humanity

by Sam Harris
Harper Collins, 2020, 444 pages
reviewed by T. Nelson

With this book Sam Harris marks his transition from pop philosopher to a popularizer of pop science. It's a collection of transcripts of his podcasts with various scientist-celebrities including David Chalmers, David Deutsch, Nick Bostrom, Max Tegmark, Daniel Kahneman, David Krakauer, Glen Loury, Thomas Metzinger, Robert Sapolsky, Anil Seth, and Timothy Snyder.

A clue about its content is on the back cover, where celebrities like Bill Maher, Ricky Gervais, and Andrew Yang praise the podcasts; one calls Harris a “genius.” In one interview, Timothy Snyder claims that President Trump's heroes are foreign dictators who did away with the rule of law after being elected. In another, where Harris and Glen Loury talk about racism, Loury accuses Harris of having “white privilege.” In the interview with Sapolsky, Harris himself asserts that studies claiming that alcohol protects against dementia were funded by Anheuser-Busch.

It's not all political conspiracy theories; there are some pseudo-scientific conspiracy theories here as well, and I thought I detected a trace of skepticism in Harris's interview with Max Tegmark, who claims to believe that the universe is composed of mathematics. As with Bostrom's claim that AI poses an existential threat to humanity, it's hard to decide whether these claims are intended to be taken seriously or are just designed to attract publicity. Whatever this stuff is, it's not science.

What Harris actually shows is that interviewing celebrities isn't such a great way of getting deep insights. It requires flattering them: if you told them what you really thought of their ideas, they'd probably walk out. So instead of intelligent scientific discussions, what we get is interviews with people who state their political opinions as if they were established facts. It's like a printed version of NPR.

sep 07, 2020