Monday, June 4, 2012

The moral landscape: How science can determine human values

By Sam Harris
Book review by Richard L. Weaver II, Ph.D.

There are several things you need to know about this book before picking it up.  First, the book “is based, in part, on the dissertation [Harris] wrote for [his] Ph.D. in neuroscience at the University of California, Los Angeles” (p. 193).  That suggests the sophistication of the material, approach, language, and argument.

The second thing you need to know is that there are forty pages of small-font “References.”  This is fairly typical (perhaps a bit more than normal for most) for a dissertation.  Also, there are forty pages of small-font “Notes” as well.  In other words, this is a highly researched, highly documented work.  Harris is well-grounded in both research and theory.  That leaves (out of 291 pages total) only 191 pages of text (argument).

The third thing you need to know before picking up this book is that, in addition to Harris’s dissertation committee at UCLA, “several outside scholars and scientists reviewed early drafts of this book.  Paul Churchland, Daniel Dennett, Owen Flanagan, and Steven Pinter read the text, in whole or in part, and offered extremely helpful notes” (p. 194).  Also, a few sections of the book were read by an even larger circle of scientists and writers: including Jerry Coyne, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Owen Flanagan, Anthony Grayling, Christopher Hitchens, and Steven Pinker” (p. 194).  Why is this important?  It adds credibility to Harris’s argument, and, as Harris himself notes, “. . . with friends like these, it has become increasingly difficult to say something stupid” (p. 194).

R. Dale of California gave the book two stars out of five at, and his main point is well taken: “It's not a compelling read for someone of my intellect and I have a Masters degree. It may be great for a PHD candidate in philosophy but not for the other 99% of us.”  I found the book challenging, and following the development of Harris’s argument is formidable but stimulating.  Although it may take effort to stay with it, the effort has a wonderful and rewarding result — acceptance of the daring but brilliant and provocative thesis that religions should NOThave a monopoly on morality.  Remember, he wrote his dissertation for a group of neuroscientists at UCLA, and prior to obtaining his Ph.D., Harris obtained a degree in philosophy as well. So, you could easily ask, what would you expect from a philosophical neuroscientist?

I am one convinced by Harris’s position and argument (that science can be used to explain morality), but what I liked most about this book is watching such a gifted person present his ideas and develop his position.  If you like academese, if you like reading a scholar present sophisticated ideas, and if you like reading provocative (mind-stretching) material, this is an ideal choice.  This is not an arm- or rocking-chair book, it is instead a straight-back, hard-seat, old, rough, oak, schoolroom chair.

I truly believe that the arguments are cogent, well-reasoned, and well-clarified by Harris.  They are there and plain to see if everyone (or anyone?) can be open-minded enough to understand, and these ideas are hard to refute.  Also, I found the latest neurological research in human behavior interesting and informative, and I firmly believe, based on the well-reasoned and well-developed argument Harris presents, that such research, and its findings, are clearly superior to religious dogma as a basis for moral clarity.  Of course, for me, that doesn’t require a high level of sophistication to prove.  For me, it is clear at face value, but Harris does such a brilliant job of presenting the case.

This book is revolutionary — groundbreaking --- and it has the true potential of changing the moral landscape, if it hasn’t done so already.  If nothing else, it will challenge you to think, but if it has the impact Harris hopes, it will change the way you think.  He says, “This book was written in the hope that as science develops, we will recognize its applications to the most pressing questions of human existence.  For nearly a century, the moral relativism of science has given faith-based religion — that great engine of ignorance and bigotry — a nearly uncontested claim to being the only universal framework for moral wisdom. . . . few people seem to recognize the dangers posed by thinking that there are no true answers to moral questions” (p.191).  The last line of the book reads, “And I am convinced that merely admitting this [that there is a way to know about meaning, morality, and values in principle] will transform the way we think about human happiness and the public good” (p. 191).

The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values can be purchased at Amazon

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