I saw Mr Harris at a disappointing IQ^2 debate recently – disappointing partly as his opponent seemed to either agree with most of what he was saying and partly because he was obviously very jetlagged. Really it was part of a book tour for The Moral Landscape so I put it on my Amazon wish list thinking I may get around to it at some point. Then, I downloaded the Kindle app for my Nexus S and decided to try it out with this book to see what it was like reading a book on my phone (short summary, reading book v. good but hesitant to buy more because of issues with e-book lending and reselling).

Anyway – in the book Mr Harris attempts to make the argument that just as very few informed people now believe in Dualism (the existence of a non-corporeal ‘mind’ the drives the body) they should move on to also remove the taboo that says that science can have no opinion about morals and values. He argues quite successfully that economics, social science, psychology and above all neuroscience can be used to show that show moral decisions about how we live our lives are simply objectively better than others. By setting an objective to maximise human well-being for all of humanity there are certain beliefs that can be eliminated as purely ‘wrong’ in attempting to achieve this. He fully states that this is an extremely hard problem that we are just beginning to research and that there may well be multiple ‘peeks’ in the moral landscape (more than one way to achieve a ‘good’ aim).

Overall the book’s starting and ending chapters cover this subject very well and lay the groundwork of a new science in which there is a vast amount to be done. Sadly the book is let down by the middle section in which Mr Harris, for no really good reason, goes off on an extended rant against organised religion. Now, as readers of this will likely know, I  more-or-less agree with everything he says in this section, albeit with less colourful language, but in this book it just serves as a re-hash of many of his previous writings and an unwelcome distraction from the main strong point of the book.

One of the interesting things about reading a Kindle version is the ability to add bookmarks as you go along. Now that I’ve finished I can go back and specifically mention the things I marked as interesting.

Some lengthy excerpts ahead:

1. “While at Salk, I witnessed scientists giving voice to some of the most dishonest
religious apologies I have ever heard. It is one thing to be told that the pope is a peerless
champion of reason and that his opposition to embryonic stem-cell research is both
morally principled and completely uncontaminated by religious dogmatism; it is quite
another to be told this by a Stanford physician who sits on the President’s Council on
Bioethics.28 Over the course of the conference, I had the pleasure of hearing that Hitler,
Stalin, and Mao were examples of secular reason run amok, that the Islamic doctrines of
martyrdom and jihad are not the cause of Islamic terrorism, that people can never be
argued out of their beliefs because we live in an irrational world, that science has made
no important contributions to our ethical lives (and cannot), and that it is not the job of
scientists to undermine ancient mythologies and, thereby, “take away people’s hope”—all
from atheist scientists who, while insisting on their own skeptical hardheadedness, were
equally adamant that there was something feckless and foolhardy, even indecent, about
criticizing religious belief. There were several moments during our panel discussions that
brought to mind the final scene of Invasion of the Body Snatchers: people who looked
like scientists, had published as scientists, and would soon be returning to their labs,
nevertheless gave voice to the alien hiss of religious obscurantism at the slightest
prodding. I had previously imagined that the front lines in our culture wars were to be
found at the entrance to a megachurch. I now realized that we have considerable work to
do in a nearer trench.”

2. “Consider the Catholic Church: an organization which advertises itself as the
greatest force for good and as the only true bulwark against evil in the universe. Even
among non-Catholics, its doctrines are widely associated with the concepts of “morality”
and “human values.” However, the Vatican is an organization that excommunicates
women for attempting to become priests 13 but does not excommunicate male priests for
raping children. 14 It excommunicates doctors who perform abortions to save a mother’s
life—even if the mother is a nine-year-old girl raped by her stepfather and pregnant with
twins15—but it did not excommunicate a single member of the Third Reich for
committing genocide. Are we really obliged to consider such a diabolical inversion of
priorities to be evidence of an alternative “moral” framework? No. It seems clear that the
Catholic Church is as misguided in speaking about the “moral” peril of contraception, for
instance, as it would be in speaking about the “physics” of Transubstantiation. In both
domains, it is true to say that the Church is grotesquely confused about which things in
this world are worth paying attention to.
However, many people will continue to insist that we cannot speak about moral
truth, or anchor morality to a deeper concern for well-being, because concepts like
“morality” and “well-being” must be defined with reference to specific goals and other
criteria—and nothing prevents people from disagreeing about these definitions. I might
claim that morality is really about maximizing well-being and that well-being entails a
wide range of psychological virtues and wholesome pleasures, but someone else will be
free to say that morality depends upon worshipping the gods of the Aztecs and that well-
being, if it matters at all, entails always having a terrified person locked in one’s
basement, waiting to be sacrificed.

3. “The person who insists that he is committed to treating children with kindness for reasons
that have nothing to do with anyone’s well-being is also not making sense. It is worth
noting in this context that the God of Abraham never told us to treat children with
kindness, but He did tell us to kill them for talking back to us (Exodus 21:15, Leviticus
20:9, Deuteronomy 21:18–21, Mark 7:9–13, and Matthew 15:4–7). And yet everyone
finds this ‘moral’ imperative perfectly insane. Which is to say that no one—not even
fundamentalist Christians and orthodox Jews—can so fully ignore the link between
morality and human well-being as to be truly bound by God’s law.”

4. “In his wonderful book The Blank Slate, Steven Pinker includes a quotation from
the anthropologist Donald Symons that captures the problem of multiculturalism
especially well:
‘If only one person in the world held down a terrified, struggling, screaming little
girl, cut off her genitals with a septic blade, and sewed her back up, leaving only a tiny
hole for urine and menstrual flow, the only question would be how severely that person
should be punished, and whether the death penalty would be a sufficiently severe
sanction. But when millions of people do this, instead of the enormity being magnified
millions-fold, suddenly it becomes “culture,” and thereby magically becomes less, rather
than more, horrible, and is even defended by some Western ”moral thinkers,” including
feminists.’
It is precisely such instances of learned confusion (one is tempted to say “learned
psychopathy”) that lend credence to the claim that a universal morality requires the
support of faith-based religion. The categorical distinction between facts and values has
opened a sinkhole beneath secular liberalism—leading to moral relativism and
masochistic depths of political correctness. Think of the champions of “tolerance” who
reflexively blamed Salman Rushdie for his fatwa, or Ayaan Hirsi Ali for her ongoing
security concerns, or the Danish cartoonists for their “controversy,” and you will
understand what happens when educated liberals think there is no universal foundation
for human values.”

5. “Certain biological traits appear to have been shaped by, and to have further
enhanced, the human capacity for cooperation. For instance, unlike the rest of the earth’s
creatures, including our fellow primates, the sclera of our eyes (the region surrounding
the colored iris) is white and exposed. This makes the direction of the human gaze very
easy to detect, allowing us to notice even the subtlest shifts in one another’s visual
attention. The psychologist Michael Tomasello suggests the following adaptive logic:
If I am, in effect, advertising the direction of my eyes, I must be in a social
environment full of others who are not often inclined to take advantage of this to my
detriment—by, say, beating me to the food or escaping aggression before me. Indeed, I
must be in a cooperative social environment in which others following the direction of
my eyes somehow benefits me.”

6. “Slovic’s experimental work suggests that we intuitively care most about a single,
identifiable human life, less about two, and we grow more callous as the body count rises.
Slovic believes that this “psychic numbing” explains the widely lamented fact that we are
generally more distressed by the suffering of single child (or even a single animal) than
by a proper genocide. What Slovic has termed “genocide neglect”—our reliable failure to
respond, both practically and emotionally, to the most horrific instances of unnecessary
human suffering—represents one of the more perplexing and consequential failures of
our moral intuition.”

7. “It is easy to see the role that negative and positive motivations play in the moral
domain: we feel contempt/anger for the moral transgressions of others, guilt/shame over
our own moral failings, and the warm glow of reward when we find ourselves playing
nicely with other people. Without the engagement of such motivational mechanisms,
moral prescriptions (purely rational notions of “ought”) would be very unlikely to
translate into actual behaviors. The fact that motivation is a separate variable explains the
conundrum briefly touched on above: we often know what would make us happy, or what
would make the world a better place, and yet we find that we are not motivated to seek
these ends; conversely, we are often motivated to behave in ways that we know we will
later regret. Clearly, moral motivation can be uncoupled from the fruits of moral
reasoning. A science of morality would, of necessity, require a deeper understanding of
human motivation.”

8. “We are conscious of only a tiny fraction of the information that our brains process
in each moment. While we continually notice changes in our experience—in thought,
mood, perception, behavior, etc.—we are utterly unaware of the neural events that
produce these changes. In fact, by merely glancing at your face or listening to your tone
of voice, others are often more aware of your internal states and motivations than you are.
And yet most of us still feel that we are the authors of our own thoughts and actions.”

9. “Cognitive biases cannot help but influence our public discourse. Consider
political conservatism: this is a fairly well-defined perspective that is characterized by a
general discomfort with societal change and a ready acceptance of social inequality. As
simple as political conservatism is to describe, we know that it is governed by many
factors. The psychologist John Jost and colleagues analyzed data from twelve countries,
acquired from 23,000 subjects, and found this attitude to be correlated with dogmatism,
inflexibility, death anxiety, need for closure, and anticorrelated with openness to
experience, cognitive complexity, self-esteem, and social stability. 40 Even the
manipulation of a single of these variables can affect political opinions and behavior. For
instance, merely reminding people of the fact of death increases their inclination to
punish transgressors and to reward those who uphold cultural norms. One experiment
showed that judges could be led to impose especially harsh penalties on prostitutes if they
were simply prompted to think about death prior to their deliberations.”

10. “Of course, people do often believe things in part because these beliefs make them
feel better. But they do not do this in the full light of consciousness. Self-deception,
emotional bias, and muddled thinking are facts of human cognition. And it is a common
practice to act as if a proposition were true, in the spirit of: “I’m going to act on X
because I like what it does for me and, who knows, X might be true.” But these
phenomena are not at all the same as knowingly believing a proposition simply because
one wants it to be true.
Strangely, people often view such claims about the constraints of rationality as a
sign of “intolerance.” Consider the following from Ball:
I do wonder what [Sam Harris] is implying here. It is hard to see it as anything
other than an injunction that “you should not be free to choose what you believe.” I guess
that if all Sam means is that we should not leave people so ill-informed that they have no
reasonable basis on which to make those decisions, then fair enough. But it does seem to
go further—to say that “you should not be permitted to choose what you believe, simply
because it makes you feel better.” Doesn’t this sound a little like a Marxist denouncement
of “false consciousness,” with the implication that it needs to be corrected forthwith? I
think (I hope?) we can at least agree that there are different categories of belief—that to
believe one’s children are the loveliest in the world because that makes you feel better is
a permissible (even laudable) thing. But I slightly shudder at the notion, hinted here, that
a well-informed person should not be allowed to choose their belief freely … surely we
cannot let ourselves become proscriptive to this degree? 70
What cognitive freedom is Ball talking about? I happen to believe that George
Washington was the first president of the United States. Have I, on Ball’s terms, chosen
this belief “freely”? No. Am I free to believe otherwise? Of course not. I am a slave to the
evidence. I live under the lash of historical opinion. While I may want to believe
otherwise, I simply cannot overlook the incessant pairing of the name “George
Washington” with the phrase “first president of the United States” in any discussion of
American history. If I wanted to be thought an idiot, I could profess some other belief,
but I would be lying. Likewise, if the evidence were to suddenly change—if, for instance,
compelling evidence of a great hoax emerged and historians reconsidered Washington’s
biography, I would be helplessly stripped of my belief—again, through no choice of my
own. Choosing beliefs freely is not what rational minds do.”

11. “While it has been widely argued that religious
pluralism and competition have caused religion to flourish in the United States, with
state-church monopolies leading to its decline in Western Europe,6 the support for this
“religious market theory” now appears weak. It seems, rather, that religiosity is strongly
coupled to perceptions of societal insecurity. Within a rich nation like the United States,
high levels of socioeconomic inequality may dictate levels of religiosity generally
associated with less developed (and less secure) societies. In addition to being the most
religious of developed nations, the United States also has the greatest economic
inequality. 7 The poor tend to be more religious than the rich, both within and between
nations.”

12. “The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV), published
by the American Psychiatric Association, is the most widely used reference work for
clinicians in the field of mental health. It defines “delusion” as a “false belief based on
incorrect inference about external reality that is firmly sustained despite what almost
everyone else believes and despite what constitutes incontrovertible and obvious proof or
evidence to the contrary.” Lest we think that certain religious beliefs might fall under the
shadow of this definition, the authors exonerate religious doctrines, in principle, in the
next sentence: “The belief is not one ordinarily accepted by other members of the
person’s culture or subculture (e.g., it is not an article of religious faith)” (p. 765). As
others have observed, there are several problems with this definition. 62 As any clinician
can attest, delusional patients often suffer from religious delusions. And the criterion that
a belief be widely shared suggests that a belief can be delusional in one context and
normative in another, even if the reasons for believing it are held constant. Does a lone
psychotic become sane merely by attracting a crowd of devotees? If we are measuring
sanity in terms of sheer numbers of subscribers, then atheists and agnostics in the United
States must be delusional: a diagnosis which would impugn 93 percent of the members of
the National Academy of Sciences. 63 There are, in fact, more people in the United States
who cannot read than who doubt the existence of Yahweh. 64 In twenty-first-century
America, disbelief in the God of Abraham is about as fringe a phenomenon as can be
named. But so is a commitment to the basic principles of scientific thinking—not to
mention a detailed understanding of genetics, special relativity, or Bayesian statistics.”

13. “And on almost every measure of societal health, the least religious countries are
better off than the most religious. Countries like Denmark, Sweden, Norway, and the
Netherlands—which are the most atheistic societies on earth—consistently rate better
than religious nations on measures like life expectancy, infant mortality, crime, literacy,
GDP, child welfare, economic equality, economic competitiveness, gender equality,
health care, investments in education, rates of university enrollment, internet access,
environmental protection, lack of corruption, political stability, and charity to poorer
nations, etc.12 The independent researcher Gregory Paul has cast further light on this
terrain by creating two scales—the Successful Societies Scale and Popular Religiosity
Versus Secularism Scale—which offer greater support for a link between religious
conviction and societal insecurity. 13 And there is another finding which may be relevant
to this variable of societal insecurity: religious commitment in the United States is highly
correlated with racism. 14
While the mere correlation between societal dysfunction and religious belief does
not tell us what the connection is between them, these data should abolish the ever-
present claim that religion is the most important guarantor of societal health. They also
prove, conclusively, that a high level of unbelief need not lead to the fall of civilization.”

14. “Whether morality becomes a proper branch of science is not really the point. Is
economics a true science yet? Judging from recent events, it wouldn’t appear so. Perhaps
a deep understanding of economics will always elude us. But does anyone doubt that
there are better and worse ways to structure an economy? Would any educated person
consider it a form of bigotry to criticize another society’s response to a banking crisis?
Imagine how terrifying it would be if great numbers of smart people became convinced
that all efforts to prevent a global financial catastrophe must be either equally valid or
equally nonsensical in principle. And yet this is precisely where we stand on the most
important questions in human life.”

15. WIf our well-being depends upon the interaction between events in our brains and
events in the world, and there are better and worse ways to secure it, then some cultures
will tend to produce lives that are more worth living than others; some political
persuasions will be more enlightened than others; and some world views will be mistaken
in ways that cause needless human misery. Whether or not we ever understand meaning,
morality, and values in practice, I have attempted to show that there must be something to
know about them in principle. And I am convinced that merely admitting this will
transform the way we think about human happiness and the public good.”

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