Sam Harris’s Moral Swampland


My original intention was to write a long and detailed critique of Sam Harris’s most recent book The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values (2010).  Harris is the author of two previous books promoting a naïve form of antireligion and is one of the Four Horseman of Atheism, a posse of atheist secular conservatives also known as the New Atheists, that also includes Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, and Christoper Hitchens.  However, since the book has already been widely reviewed and most of its manifold failings have been identified (among them that Harris’s version of ethics is utilitarianism in science drag), I will not repeat those points and instead will focus on two problems that particularly struck me, one of which has been alluded to but not detailed, the other of which has not been mentioned in the reviews I read.

The first problem, the one some reviewers have noted, is Harris’s apparent lack of interest in philosophers who have previously (over many centuries) wrestled with questions of morality.  As I read his book, I became aware that one of his strategies is to create colossal straw men arguments; he creates extreme but vague versions of his opponents and them knocks them down, but he rarely names names or provides quotations.  For example,  on page 17 he asserts that “there is a pervasive assumption among educated people that either such [moral] differences don’t exist, or that they are too variable, complex, or culturally idiosyncratic to admit of general value judgments,” but he does not identify whom he’s talking about nor does he quote anyone who holds such a view; the statement is also absolute (as so many of his statements are), in that he does not qualify the category: he does not say, for example, “80% of educated people,” nor does he define what he means by “educated.”  Furthermore, the word “pervasive” has negative valence without explicitly declaring it; anything “pervasive” has taken over (evil is pervasive, good is universal, for example).

On page 20 he states that “Many social scientists incorrectly believe that all long-standing human practices must be evolutionarily adaptive,” but he does not identify who those many social scientists are, nor specify how many constitutes many; nor does he quote any of them to support or even illustrate his assertion; nor does he offer so much as a footnote reference to any social scientists who allegedly hold this view.  In his hostile statements on religion, one who pays attention will note that he has not only oversimplified religion, but also seems to limit his conception of religion to the most conservative strands of contemporary Judeo-Christian systems.  He rarely refers to theologians and then only to contemporary and conservative ones. His bibliography runs to 40 pages, or about 800 sources (give or take), but the only theologians in this extensive listing are J.C. Polkinghorne and N. T. Wright.  Nothing of Augustine or Aquinas, nothing of Barth or Bonheoffer or Fletcher.  If he had bothered to consult any of these and other theologians and moral philosophers, he might have seen that his ideas have already been more extensively and more deeply explored than he manages to do in this book.  He does try to wriggle out of this problem in the long first footnote to Chapter 1, but it is disingenuous.

I also question that he has actually carefully and completely read all 800 (give or take) sources he lists.  It would take an inordinate amount of time to read all of them, to read them carefully to ensure one has properly understood them, to take adequate notes, and to think about how they fit into or relate to one’s thesis and argument.  For example, it strikes me as odd that he lists 10 sources by John R. Searle, 3 of which are densely argued books, but refers to Searle only once in the body of his book and 3 times, obliquely, in his endnotes.  One wonders, in what sense then is Searle a source?  Is he a source by association only?

The other major problem I have with Harris’s book is in my view more serious:  He mistakes “brain states” for thoughts.  This is a common error among those who imagine that scanning the brain to measure areas of activity or measuring the levels of various hormones such as oxytocin suffices to explain human thought.  (Harris confesses to a measurement bias on p. 20 when he writes that “The world of measurement and the world of meaning must eventually be reconciled.”).  That a particular region of the brain is “lit up” tells us only where the thought is occurring—it tells us nothing about the content of that thought nor anything about its validity.  This is because human thoughts are generated, shared, discussed, modified, and passed on through language, through words, which while processed in the brain nevertheless have meaningful independence from any one particular brain, and therefore have a degree of freedom from “brain  states.”

Harris’s inability to properly distinguish between brain-states and thoughts is apparent in an interesting passage on pages 121-122:  Here he discusses research he conducted using fMRI’s that identify the medial pre-frontal cortex as the region of the brain that is most active when the human subject believed a statement.  He discovered that this area is activated similarly when the subject is considering a mathematical statement (2 + 6 + 8 = 16) and when the subject is considering an ethical belief (“It is good to let your children know that you love them”).  This similarity of activity in the same brain area leads Harris to conclude “that the similarity of belief may be the same regardless of a proposition’s content.  It also suggests that the division between facts and values does not make much sense in terms of underlying brain function.” How true.  Yet nonetheless, human beings (including quite obviously Harris himself) do make the distinction.

But he goes on:  “This finding of content-independence challenges the fact/value distinction very directly:  for if, from the point of view of the brain, believing ‘the sun is a star’ is importantly similar to believing ‘cruelty is wrong,’ how can we say that scientific and ethical judgments have nothing in common?” (italics added)  Aside from the fact that he does not specify who that “we” is and that he does not prove that anyone has said that there is “nothing in common” between scientific and ethical judgments, there is the fact that, in language, that is by actually thinking, we can make the distinction and do so all the time.  “This finding” does not challenge the distinction; it merely highlights that the distinction is not dependent upon a “brain-state”.  The MPFC may be equally activated, but the human thinker knows the differences.

The underlying problems with Harris’s thesis are at least threefold.  One is that his hostility to and ignorance of religion blocks him from considering or accurately representing what religion has to say about ethics.  Another is one habitual among conservatives, to tilt at straw men while mounted on rickety arguments.  The third is his reductionism to the absurd degree.  Arguments of the type offered in this book mistake the foundation for the whole edifice; it is as if, in desiring to know and understand Versailles, we razed it to its foundation and then said, “There, behold, that is Versailles!”

Note: A partial omission in the original post of 1 May 2011 in the quotation in the second to last paragraph was corrected on 2 October 2011

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  • […] human nature (as, for example, detailed elsewhere on this blog in my post on Sam Harris’s Moral Swampland).  According to the Times report, Diederik Stapel of Tilburg University has admitted to falsifying […]

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