Sam Harris on Morality, Science and Religion

Sunday, March 28, 2010 at 3:31 PM Bookmark and Share
Update: I've appended to this post some commentary from philosopher and (ex?)scientist Massimo Pigliucci on Harris' assertions about science and morality. Follow the link below for more from Pigliucci and a link to a response from Harris. 

It's uncommon to see overt criticisms of religion (at least Christianity) in the mainstream media, so I did a bit of a double-take when I saw this CNN video piece entitled "Philosopher: Why we should ditch religion."

That philosopher is Sam Harris and if you have a few minutes to spare, you should check out the CNN video and his recent TED talk on science and morality (both embedded below).

Here's the video of his recent TED talk, entitled "Sam Harris: Science can answer moral questions."


Massimo Pigliucci has a post you should read on the arguments put forth by Harris in videos above. I'd suggest you to read the piece in full (and the comments!) if you have time, but if not here is a sample to get a feel where he agrees and disagrees with Harris:
Let me start my commentary by pointing out that I do agree with Harris’ criticism of moral relativism, for much the same reasons that he advances. However, Harris must be living in a semi-parallel universe if he is convinced that “most Western intellectuals” have no problem with burkas, female genital mutilation, beheadings of “blasphemers” and the like. Perhaps a small number of hyper-politically correct and culturally neutral postmodern cuckoos do subscribe to that notion, but it is hardly “the position, generally speaking, of our intellectual community.”

...The crux of the disagreement, then, is embodied in the title of Harris' talk: in what sense can science answer (as opposed to inform) ethical questions? Let me take one of Harris’ examples, the (highly questionable) legality of corporal punishment of children in several US States. Harris rhetorically asks whether we really think that hitting children will improve their school performance or good behavior. But that isn’t the point at all. What if it did? What if a scientific study showed that indeed, hitting children does have a measurable effect on improving those desirable traits? Harris would then have to concede that corporal punishment is moral, but somehow I doubt he would. And I certainly wouldn’t, because my moral intuition (yes, that’s what I’m going to call it, deal with it) tells me that purposefully inflicting pain on children is wrong, regardless of whatever the empirical evidence says...

Of course, I am in complete agreement that our sense of morality is an instinct that derives from our biological history, and that our moral reasoning is carried out by certain areas of the brain. But neither of these conclusions make evolutionary biology or neurobiology arbiters of moral decision making. Of course we do moral reasoning with the brain, just like we solve mathematical problems with the brain....

So, how do we ground moral reasoning? This is the province of a whole area of inquiry known as metaethics, and I suggest that Harris would benefit from reading about it. Ultimately, ethics is a way of thinking about the human (and other relevantly similar organisms) condition. Just as we don’t need a good answer to the question of where mathematics comes from to engage in mathematical reasoning, so it is not very productive to keep asking philosophers for “the ultimate foundations” of what they do (if this sounds like an easy way out to you, remember that neither math nor science itself have self-justifiable foundations). A much more productive line of inquiry, it seems to me, is to combine the best of what both philosophy and science can offer in our struggle to make our world as just and moral as possible.

Harris has posted this (overly defensive?) response to Pigliucci on his website. It appears he may have missed the point of Pigluicci's commentary?


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