Win Sam Harris’s Money

Image via Wikimedia Commons

Sam Harris has apparently grown weary of what he considers ill-informed attacks on his book The Moral Landscape and its central thesis, that science can be used to definitively determine whether something is “right” or “wrong” morally. So weary, in fact, he’s willing to shell out his own cash and endure a public humiliation if he’s taken down.

On his website, he writes:

Anyone who believes that my case for a scientific understanding of morality is mistaken is invited to prove it in 1,000 words or less. (You must refute the central argument of the book—not peripheral issues.) The best response will be published on this website, and its author will receive $1,000. If any essay actually persuades me, however, its author will receive $10,000, and I will publicly recant my view.

And it didn’t stop there, because in an update, he tells us that a reader has put up a matching pledge, so those totals are now doubled.

Now, I’m a fan of Harris’s, and I pretty much bought hook, line, and sinker his whole Moral Landscape kit and caboodle. But I’m also a little hard-up, so maybe I should take even a disingenuous stab at pulling the intellectual rug out from under him, just to see if I can score some dough. Ah, who am I kidding?

About Paul Fidalgo

Paul is communications director for the Center for Inquiry, as well as an actor and musician. His blog is iMortal, and he tweets as @paulfidalgo, and the blog tweets as @iMortal_blog.
The opinions expressed on this blog are personal to Paul and do not necessarily represent the views of the Center for Inquiry.

  • midnight rambler

    Okay, I will state upfront that I’m one of those scientists who think that most philosophy is bullshit, and I haven’t read Harris’ book. With that out of the way, if the summary on that link is an accurate reflection of the central thesis, it seems to me that this is where the problem lies:

    Conscious minds and their states are natural phenomena, fully constrained by the laws of Nature (whatever these turn out to be in the end). Therefore, there must be right and wrong answers to questions of morality and values that potentially fall within the purview of science.

    No – there is simply no reason why the second sentence follows from the first. In fact, if as Harris argues (and I agree), morality comes strictly from the inventions of conscious minds, then the entire concept of “right” and “wrong” depend on that moral framework rather than any external one that can be evaluated scientifically in the same sense of whether the Earth revolves around the Sun. Anyone seeking to apply science to morality has no basis against which to measure evidence; they can only compare different moral frameworks.

    • joey_in_NC

      Great critique.

      Morality is a totally incoherent concept given naturalism, considering that morality implies that one is free to actually choose the “moral” or “right” or “good” choice. Otherwise, you might as well discuss whether it is “moral” for the Earth to revolve around the Sun, or for a tree to fall during a thunderstorm.

      • EvolutionKills

        Right, because religious morality that condemns imaginary crimes like witchcraft is a huge improvement?

        Harris’ case is that morality is both subjective and objective. He makes a strong case that morality is the concern for the well-being of conscious creatures (thus the rotation of the planets is mute, they are not conscious). Once we can agree to that subjective framework, then science can be used as an objective measuring stick to determine which action cause more or less well-being or suffering; and thus whether the action is more or less moral. Simple as that.

        Hence, Harris’ framework would not condemn someone for an imaginary crime like witchcraft. And with this framework, the last bastion of religion has been sacked; it has no place left to hide and no useful function that cannot be done better by others.

        • joey_in_NC

          Once we can agree to that subjective framework, then science can be used as an objective measuring stick to determine which action cause more or less well-being or suffering; and thus whether the action is more or less moral. Simple as that.

          I understand that. And my point is that it is completely pointless, scientifically speaking, to discuss what is more or less moral if we do not have the free will to actually choose the more moral action. Right? Science says that we do whatever we do because our actions are “constrained by the laws of Nature”, and the notion of should simply doesn’t fit into the equation. That is why I say the subject is incoherent when discussed strictly in the scientific realm.

          But let’s simply forget about that and disregard this blatant cognitive dissonance among naturalists. What does “science used as an objective measuring stick to determine which action causes more or less well-being or suffering” say about individual human rights? You can’t shoehorn individual human rights with something that sounds simply like utilitarianism.

          • EvolutionKills

            You’ve proven in the past that you are purposely obtuse and ignorant, so my expectations from your are less than nothing.

            How does being constrained within a natural framework (i.e. no magic), constrain contemplating what we should do? You are not making a logical connection, and you provide no evidence; you simply assert it as such.

            If it is incoherent, it’s because you either don’t care to attempt to understand it. Or you already do, but you are already invested in some other frame work (like divine command theory).

            Need I remind you of religion’s complete disregard for individual human rights throughout most of history?

          • indorri

            Science says that we do whatever we do because our actions are “constrained by the laws of Nature”, and the notion of should simply doesn’t fit into the equation.

            Determinism (or stochastic variations thereof) don’t really refute that. If people are incapable of being motivated to strive towards the well being of others or are capable of being motivated to harm others, that doesn’t take away from there being right and wrong answers as to what causes human well being and suffering.

            You can’t shoehorn individual human rights with something that sounds simply like utilitarianism.

            Why not? Just because we don’t adhere to Natural Law style rights doesn’t mean we can’t consider that human rights does indeed lead to greater human well being. (It could also mean we’re wrong, though).

      • midnight rambler

        Wow, what a way to miss the point.

        • joey_in_NC

          No, I got your point…and I complimented it. I then made a point of my own (probably should have posted in a separate post). Refute it if you want.

    • Bert Russell

      Read Sam Harris’ book, mignight rambler. There’s a bit more to it than the summary leads you to believe; it is, after all, a summary.

    • getz

      “then the entire concept of “right” and “wrong” depend on that moral framework rather than any external one that can be evaluated scientifically in the same sense of whether the Earth revolves around the Sun.”

      the concept of right and wrong is contextual anyways, so there’s nothing weird about whether something is right relative to a particular framework. The problem is that people mistake multiple frameworks for a single one competing over a single judgment. Kind of like people who think 1+1=2 fighting with people who think 2+2=4 over whether 2 or 4 is the REAL answer. One has to fit all. In reality, they’re completely different equations with different right answers. If a framework is presented and coherent, then science can probably be helpful in testing things against it. If you want to be helpful, you can use science to help determine whether your actions are actually helping the desired parties in the intended ways; or other actions are harmful in specific ways, etc.Then you can say “this is the right way to ____” and “the wrong way to ____” and whether someone wants to do something else will be irrelevant to whether you’re right.

      If people are clear on what they’re actually discussing, science won’t cause a problem. If people are unclear, don’t understand concepts like right and wrong, conflate completely different standards etc… then they’re kind of fucked. But Harris at least had an opportunity to clarify what he was talking about and how science relates to it. That’s what will have to be addressed. People can point out other frameworks if they want, but they would be, well, talking about something else, so I don’t think that sort of argument would be what makes the money.

      Although it’s nice that some money is actually going to be given out.

      • midnight rambler

        First of all, your math analogy makes no sense. Both of those are true in the context of basic mathematics, and rely only on the definitions of numbers without which there is no mathematics. There can be no framework where 1+1=3 without redefining 1, +, =, and/or 3.

        Second, you can scientifically evaluate specific issues of “morality” through a strict lens of whether it is beneficial or harmful, given certain basic principles against which to measure them. But there are two problems (at least).

        1) There is no way to select between frameworks; for example, in many cases the principle of “greatest good for the greatest number” might conflict with “maximizing individual liberty”.

        2) Strict benefit vs. harm is not always the same as morality. Suppose we perform a study and find that executing all convicted murderers without the extra appeals they currently get would result in 3,000 fewer murders by paroled convicts, while resulting in “only” 1,000 innocent people being executed; and of the murders prevented, only 30% were of other criminals, while 90% of those wrongly convicted for murder were nonetheless serious criminals. Would that make this new system morally right?

    • Pseudonym

      Okay, I will state upfront that I’m one of those scientists who think that most philosophy is bullshit [...]

      This is just a restatement of Sturgeon’s Revelation. Most science is bullshit, too, but the cream does rise to the top.

      • midnight rambler

        The scum also rises.

        I would have said all, I just didn’t want to be absolute in case there was something I didn’t know about.

        • 3lemenope

          I’m curious how you feel about the philosophy of science. Is science as a discipline self-justifying, or should we try to figure out how exactly (and for that matter, whether) science does what (we think) it does?

        • Pseudonym

          Philosophy is the field from which other fields are born.

          Science used to be a branch of philosophy. Logic used to be a branch of philosophy. Linguistics used to be a branch of philosophy. Philosophers today are working on areas of human endeavour which will be whole fields tomorrow.

          Philosophy is like bullshit in the sense that bullshit is the fertiliser from which better-smelling things grow. But a better metaphor is that it’s primordial ooze.

    • the moother

      Wow! You’re so smart…, but not smart enough to either read the book (it’s not even philosophy) or find a vid about it on YT. That’s a shame. Another shame is that, because you already think that there can be no answer to the morality question, there is no reason to study it in its entirety. Harris confronts this particular brand of stupidity in the book and online too.

      The book is not about right and wrong. It’s about everything in between.

      • midnight rambler

        You must live in a strange world indeed where debating an issue equals “no reason to study it”, and morality is not a philosophical issue.

  • DougI

    Ugh, the catch is that I’d have to read one of his books.

    • EvolutionKills

      Yeah, I guess it would help having an informed opinion. Imagine that?

      • jfigdor

        Oh the horror.

      • Pseudonym

        Courtier’s reply!

        • Ash Bowie

          No, the courtier’s reply fallacy says that one cannot offer a reasonable opinion on a matter without first being familiar with every opaque or obscure reference. Suggesting that one read the central text before trying to refute it doesn’t come close to qualifying.

  • Michael W Busch

    I notice that Harris has put himself into the same trap as all of the “prove evolution and get money” so-called challenges where the payout relies on someone being convinced that they are wrong. Effectively, he’s now given himself a financial incentive to never admit to any mistakes in the book. This is not particularly helpful to anyone.

    • Daniel_JM

      Maybe you should read what he offered before criticizing him for something he never said. His offer isn’t just dependent on changing his mind. He is offering $2000 for the best essay against his central thesis even if it doesn’t convince him.

      • Michael W Busch

        That is true. But the larger pay-out is dependent on his admitting to being wrong. He therefore has a >$10,000 incentive to never admit to any mistakes in the book (as long as his fan’s keeping his money as value for Harris, the incentive is higher than $10,000).

        My point still stands.

        • Andrew Hackman

          No… his central point is simply to get the best argument out there… the 2nd is an addendum “If, by chance, you convince me…” he is leaving the possibility open. Nothing wrong with that….

          • Michael W Busch

            You are mistaken. There is something wrong with what Harris is doing: He’s giving himself an incentive to not admit to any mistakes he makes. That is itself quite a large mistake.

            And I’d also say you’re wrong about what his “central point” is. Who is determining what the “best response” is? If Harris himself is, this leaves all sorts of room for biases and for Harris selecting a response that he can poke holes in while wrongly and loudly asserting “this is the best anyone who disagrees with me can do”.

            The 1000-word limit is also a reflection on that: 1000 words is not sufficient space to even begin to address the complexities of ethics / morality, although it is enough to address something relatively simple so he may get some interesting material among the responses. If he were to publish all of the responses he gets, there would be a lot of noise and not much signal, so some vetting is desirable. But Harris setting himself as the sole arbiter is not helpful – especially since his doing so is not at all necessary. There is already plenty of discussion about the book.

            • Robert Groves

              Of course if he is convinced, and openly admits it, he will be showing that atheists are persuaded by evidence instead of being dogmatic in their beliefs.

              • Michael W Busch

                He should be convinced by the evidence regardless of if people provide it to him to get money, or provide it in the particular form that he requests. Giving himself an incentive to not be convinced by the evidence is not helpful.

                Again, what Harris is doing is both badly structured and unnecessary to assess the validity of his ideas. And I am repeating myself, so I am done.

                • Andrew Hackman

                  “He should be convinced by the evidence regardless of if people provide it to him?” That is like the Mormon claim that I need to believe the book of Mormon in order to believe it. If he has not yet heard evidence that has convinced him… and is asking the listening audience for a good counter argument… so that he MIGHT be convinced…. To me, that seems like the structure for how one’s mind might be changed. You seem upset that he has not already changed his mind on what, to you, is a very clear point. Bad on him for not taking your side.

            • Andrew Hackman

              So the better option is do nothing? Not only is he inviting critique, he is sweetening the pot, putting out a challenge. I think it is a great way to get some discussion going… even if he only posts 1 response…. those other responses are going to be out there on blogs and postings everywhere. Kudos to him.

              • ZenDruid

                I agree. At least he has the stones to raise a very polarizing issue. I give him kudos just for broaching the question.

            • LesterBallard

              Apparently Russell Blackford is judging the essays.

        • Daniel_JM

          Actually your point doesn’t stand. He isn’t taking about admitting “any mistake” as you keep on claiming. He is taking about arguments that contradict his central thesis. An he will pay out money for a good argument that doesn’t convince him, despite your original claim.

          You seem to have such an aversion to Harris that you won’t even remotely interact with what he is asking for. Creating massive staw-men about arguments you haven’t even read isn’t very commendable. I’d encourage you to at least actually read what kind of essay Harris is asking for before making a bunch on untrue claims.

          Seriously, did you even read Harris’ post before making all your claims about what he was asking for? Because it sure doesn’t appear like you did.

    • revyloution

      Your argument assumes that Harris values money over being right. Not all people place their values this way.

      Personally, I would rather be poor with knowledge than rich with ignorance.

      • Pseudonym

        Sam Harris seems to value pretty much anything over admitting that he was wrong about something.

        Nonetheless, I’m very much looking forward to Simon Blackburn’s entry.

    • Croquet_Player

      As we can all see, no one can wait to throw money at an atheist! Make it rain! Harris is obviously in it for the money! Woo hoo! When I’m not promoting Harris, I’m just scooping leftover coins out of the streets. WIN.

    • the moother

      It’s only 10 grand… Harris has enough cash…, it’s not a “financial incentive to never admit to any mistakes in the book”… If he’s proven wrong he’ll just pay out the pocket money and write a new book about how he was wrong and earn another half a million off it..

      That hardly puts him in the same boat as the others who offer a million. Stupid theory is stupid.

  • Travis Myers

    I think the confusion over whether Sam Harris’ thesis is correct stems from the vagueness of the subtitle “How science can determine human values.” It seems obvious that, in one sense, it is certainly true that science can determine human values, but in another sense, it is definitely false. Given an initial small set of fundamental values (possibly only one), you can use science to determine what secondary values you should have. For instance, given that you value the happiness of conscious creatures, you can use the scientific method to deduce that you should also value things like the absence of cruel and unusual punishment, the absence of poverty, the presence of a fair justice system, etc. However, you can never use science to determine your initial fundamental values. Those will always have to just come from each person’s subjective reflection upon what they truly value most.

    • Grotoff

      The fundamental value of conscious creatures’ wellness is one that is hardcoded in human DNA. Every society on Earth agrees with the principle, though they differ on who to put in what category.

      • Travis Myers

        Right, I agree that science can tell us what humans do, in fact, value. But it can never tell us what we should value at the most fundamental level. You can’t derive an ought from an is. It makes no sense to say “Here’s what the current state of the universe is; but here’s what the current state of the universe ought to be.”

        For most practical purposes, the distinction between ought and is doesn’t really matter because, like you said, most people basically agree at a fundamental level. Sam Harris has pointed out (and I agree with him) that we are in essentially the same situation when it comes to health as we are when it comes to morality. Science can’t tell us that not dying or not being in chronic pain is a good thing. But if you accept those basic premises, then science can tell you that smoking cigarettes is not good for your health. This may seem like nitpicking, but I think it’s the reason why there’s so much confusion over Sam Harris’ thesis. Sam Harris (as far as I know) refuses to admit that you have to accept some preliminary premises first before science can help you, and philosophers correctly point out that Harris is mistaken on this point. If only Harris would just come out and say “Yes, you do have to start from a small set of basic values which science cannot provide, but that doesn’t matter for most practical purposes because every other endeavor also requires you to accept basic premises which cannot be proven from within that endeavor.”

        • indorri

          Except for Harris to say so would play into unnecessary morality word games. Frankly, I think WOPR had the correct response to this.

          It’s like saying “everyone has a different idea of health” because while technically true, it’s meaningless unless you are just starting to understand the entire map-territory shebang. Philosophers who are objecting to this seem enthralled at having to have teleological underpinnings for morality. Sam Harris and naturalistic moralists don’t care for that. Morality means human well being because we are referring to human well being. “Morality” is the word for that, and if it bugs people that we don’t philosophically justify that, they can come up with some other word.

          • Travis Myers

            There are a number of problems with simply saying “I define morality to mean human well-being.” The most obvious is that it would seem to preclude animal well-being. You might remedy this by saying “Okay, I define morality to mean the well-being of all conscious beings.” The very fact that you feel like you might need to change the definition shows that what you and most people actually mean when they say “morality” is not equivalent to that definition, but is something more fundamental.

            But why did you feel the need to fix the definition? It seems to me that there are two possible reasons: the first is that you reflected upon what you value and decided that indeed you do value the happiness of animals. The second is that you recognized that valuing the happiness of humans but not valuing the happiness of animals leads to a contradiction in terms of other things that you value. The point is that you can always (in principle) trace the argument back to some initial values, and discussions of morality involve figuring out what things you value and whether or not the things you value are consistent with each other, and then using observations of the real world (that’s where science comes in) to extrapolate principles of behavior that are most likely to bring to fruition those things that you value.

      • Nancy McClernan

        The fundamental value of conscious creatures’ wellness is one that is hardcoded in human DNA.

        I hadn’t heard about DNA hard-coding. Where did you hear about it?

        And if it’s hard-coded, how is it possible that societies differ on who to put into what category?

        • 3lemenope

          I think Grotoff is making a slightly-too-strong claim. What does seem to be inherent in humans is empathy (it is rather the exception to find a human that does not exhibit the trait), an ability to imagine the inner lives of others (something we do so compulsively that we readily imagine the inner lives of things that could not possibly have them), and an ability to evaluate personal experiences to sort the desirable ones from the undesirable ones. These, taken together, naturally lead to an elevation of approaches that consistently produce desirable experiences or minimize undesirable ones to the status of generally applicable values.

          • Nancy McClernan

            Considering all the genocides in history, as well as garden variety day-to-day brutalities, it seems like the alleged inherent empathy module is easily and regularly overridden.

            • 3lemenope

              It’s not so much overridden as bypassed. The trick, it seems (gleaned from actually asking folks who have been convinced to participate in a genocide), is to get a person to view the target as non-human. Once they fall outside the defined categories of concern, the empathy circuit never gets engaged, and you can do whatever you like without an impinging conscience.

              • Nancy McClernan

                What’s the difference between “overridden” and “bypassed” in this context?

                And considering how easy it is to get a person – or actually vast numbers of persons for years on end – to view the target as non-human, it seems that this hard-coded empathy circuit is notably feeble.

                Although I’m not sure if I buy the “non-human” argument. When someone stalks and shoots their ex, is it because that person viewed the ex as non-human? Because surely, deliberately gunning down another person cannot by any stretch of the word be considered empathetic.

                • 3lemenope

                  What’s the difference between “overridden” and “bypassed” in this context?

                  The difference is in the implication of where the moral defect arises. The implication of “overridden” is that there are states of experience which the empathy circuit can’t handle properly, and so it generates errors (empathy failure). The implication of “bypassed” is that the error does not arise from any feature of the empathy circuit, but rather from some upstream process (such as that which identifies external entities as humans).

                  And considering how easy it is to get a person – or actually vast numbers of persons for years on end – to view the target as non-human, it seems that this hard-coded empathy circuit is notably feeble.

                  Exactly the implication I was intending to strain out with the word choice, as per above.

                  Although I’m not sure if I buy the “non-human” argument. When someone stalks and shoots their ex, is it because that person viewed the ex as non-human?

                  Yes. Murders of the nature you are describing tend to be typified by extreme, often post-mortem, violence to identifiying features. The intent is to depersonalize the victim, to erase them as a person.

                  For another strand of evidence, militaries throughout history have reported, among draftees and conscripts particularly, a marked desire to avoid harming even enemies fatally. Modern military training is designed to painstakingly break down the natural instinct to avoid killing.

                  Because surely, deliberately gunning down another person cannot by any stretch of the word be considered empathetic.

                  I don’t see why not. Empathy isn’t magic; it is only one of three major factors that I listed as contributing to a natural propensity to morality. A person can easily be empathetic but have an errant sense of what other people find desirable, or may even get off on vicariously experiencing other people’s undesirable emotional states. Empathy itself just means you are able to intuitively model to a decent approximation how someone feels as a result of an event. Necessary but certainly not sufficient for a natural morality.

                • Nancy McClernan

                  So let’s review:

                  The difference is in the implication of where the moral defect arises. The implication of “overridden” is that there are states of experience which the empathy circuit can’t handle properly, and so it generates errors (empathy failure). The implication of “bypassed” is that the error does not arise from any feature of the empathy circuit, but rather from some upstream process (such as that which identifies external entities as humans).

                  So from this statement I understand that the issue is “where the moral defect arises.”

                  And the moral defect arises, apparently either through:

                  ~ an override, which is a “state of experience” that the empathy circuit can’t handle properly;

                  ~ a bypass, which is an upstream process;

                  So what’s the difference in this analogy between a “state of experience” and an “upstream process”?

                • 3lemenope

                  Who said it was an analogy? I tend to think that brains are nothing more or less than squishy computers.

                • Nancy McClernan

                  So what is it? Neural circuitry?

                • 3lemenope

                  What is what? I’m not understanding exactly what you’re not understanding.

                • Nancy McClernan

                  So are you saying that the “empathy circuit” is an area of the brain?

                • 3lemenope

                  I don’t think we know enough about how the brain works to confidently point to a particular piece of substrate and say “There! That’s where empathy is processed!”. But there is plenty of reason to believe that mind is entirely supervenient upon brain-stuff (most obviously, that brain damage causes mind damage), so if empathy is an output that the brain generates, it must generate it somehow using its physical means of processing.

                  We can also guess with reasonable warrant about which processes are downstream of others, simply due to conceptual prerequisites and the flow of information. In order to be aware of an external event at all, perceptive processes must be engaged first. Then likely a large amount of post-processing where the brain tries to assign identities into the field of perception (probably by discriminating amongst objects in the perceptive field, identifying prominent characteristics, heuristically matching those characteristics against experience to find similarities, and then reintegrating the field to model the spatiotemporal relationships between the objects in the field). Once identities are assigned, valuation can then occur (probably first and foremost “relevant/irrelevant to my interests?” and more discriminating criteria from there).

                  Empathy is a high-level social process, so it’s probably downstream of a heckuva lot of processing.

                • Nancy McClernan

                  So empathy is a social process. What’s an example of the “processing” of which it is downstream?

                • 3lemenope

                  Well, if empathy is the modeling of other minds’ emotional states, everything that would be required to be processed to act upon that goal would be upstream. You have to perceive an object, successfully identify the object as a person, then correctly recognize and interpret the data the object provides about possible internal states (facial expression, tone of voice, actions undertaken, and so forth).

                  Successfully building an accurate-enough-to-be-useful model of another person’s mind states also implicates parallel processes, like models of social structure and interpersonal protocols; successfully identifying laughter, for example, leads to possibilities that can be winnowed by looking at the context that generated the laughter (was there an unexpected event? a joke? is the person being tickled? is the other person their boss? subordinate?) which give clues as to in what way the external sign (the laughter) correlates with internal states.

                • Nancy McClernan

                  Since “the empathy circuit” you’ve mentioned is not an analogy but something that is related to the brain but since “we know enough about how the brain works to confidently point to a particular piece of substrate…” we are no closer to identifying a clear difference between a “state of experience” and an “upstream process” in the context of the elusive empathy circuit, your excessive verbiage notwithstanding.

                • 3lemenope

                  Are you serious?

                • revyloution

                  Unfortunately Elem, I think she is. There was a huge whooshing sound about 3 posts up where she completely misses the point.

                  I think she seems to be dancing around the point she wants to make, but is incapable of articulating it, or lacks the confidence to put her thoughts down in a concrete fashion where they could be picked apart.

                • 3lemenope

                  I almost wrote that I felt like I had wasted my time, but that strictly speaking wouldn’t be true, because at least it gave me an excuse to think more rigorously about how to articulate a theory of mind, something I hadn’t really much bothered with lately.

                • revyloution

                  I never feel that it’s a waste of time, for that reason and one other. Your audience is not just the person your’e arguing with. You have a huge potential audience for your thoughts, and they will exist into perpetuity. You may never break through Nancy’s mental blocks, but you just may convince someone else to think more deeply about the subject.

  • Atheist for human rights

    Too bad Sam Harris is a neo-con and a bigot, cause he really nailed it with that book.

    • Andrew Hackman

      Why a bigot? Because he considers Islam a more dangerous religion presently than any of the others? That’s just being a statistician, not a bigot.

      • Artor

        Because he’s publicly advocated for profiling people based on whether they “look Muslim.” It’s frustrating that he’s so brilliantly spot-on on so many points, and so vehemently blinkered on that issue.

      • 3lemenope

        It’s being a lazy statistician; numbers mean nothing without proper contextualization. Unless something *massive* changes, I will as an American always be at greater risk of harm from a Christian doing Christiany things than a Muslim doing Islamic things even if the average Christian is much less dangerous on a per case basis than the average Muslim because I’m surrounded by Christians and the vast majority of Muslims are half a world away. It’s a bit like a person who is terrified of dying in a plane crash who thinks nothing of driving without their seatbelt on. Yes, plane crashes are dangerous, but so are car accidents, and you do a heckuva lot more driving.

        • Nancy McClernan

          Yes, I think that the debate with Bruce Schneier revealed just exactly how very little Sam Harris actually cares about facts and statistics.

          In case anybody here hasn’t read it:
          http://www.schneier.com/essay-397.html

          If Harris hasn’t changed his mind when presented with facts from someone who actually has hard data, then why should anybody make an effort to convince him he’s wrong about anything else?

          As the debate makes clear, Harris is hardly the go-to guy for logic and reasoning, in spite of all his true-believer fanboys.

  • sminnis

    My gripe with this book was the use of the word “science” in the subtitle. What he’s really talking about is reason, obviously related to but not quite the same thing as science. I rather like his metaphor of the moral landscape, but it’s still based on the premise that what he calls human flourishing is an objective good. I agree with him that it’s good, but I disagree that it’s objectively so.

    • midnight rambler

      I’m pretty sure that from a non-human perspective on Earth, human flourishing is an objective bad.

      • the moother

        And all those non-humans that have read the book might agree with you. So, therefore, there is no need to study the question of morality?

        As one that has read the book only by title, you sure have plenty to say on a topic you know nothing about.

        • midnight rambler

          So, therefore, there is no need to study the question of morality?

          No, so therefore human flourishing is not an objective good.

          For someone posting so many comments at once, you sure have awfully little to say.

          • the moother

            What’s the difference if human flourishing is an objective good from the perspective of bacteria or small, cute mammals? It might be an objective good for an alien civilization that will come and enslave us. What’s the difference… it’s got nothing to do with this book at all… It’s just noise… you sure do make a lot of it.

            • midnight rambler

              If it’s “from the perspective of…”, then it’s not objective, it’s subjective.

          • Ash Bowie

            “No, so therefore human flourishing is not an objective good.” Yes, it is…for humans! Harris is not arguing that human flourishing is a universal good. His book does not address non-human morality.

      • 3lemenope

        Domesticated and foodstuff species disagree. Also head lice, pigeons, deer, rabbits, goldfish, squirrels, and rats. Actinobacteria, Coliform bacteria. Rhinovirii. Yeasts. Lawn grasses, shrubbery woods. Roses, tulips, carnations, and other visually striking flowering plants. Fibrous plants…

    • Grotoff

      No, he’s not referring to reason. He’s referring to empiricism. Brain states are knowable by empirical data. Data can also reveal what actions have what effects on brain states, and thus on the experience of sapient organisms.

      Harris does begin with an ought statement. “The wellness of sapient beings should increase.” This is a universally acknowledged human principle. Who counts as a sapient being and in what circumstance is debated all over the world, but not the principle itself. Some exclude slaves and women, and other include cows and bugs, but the principle stands. It’s truth is dependent on the nature of humanity and its evolutionary path. But it is as useless a principle to argue against as “the world I experience with my senses objectively exists”.

  • FlyingFree333

    To any and all commenters: If you haven’t read the book don’t spout your uninformed and ignorant opinion.

    • Croquet_Player

      Damn right! (How’s it going?)

      Let’s admit the uninformed and ignorant to the discussion just this one time. I’m pretty sure I am one of their Fairy Godmothers. (They’re young and … unlettered.)

  • revyloution

    I think most people misunderstand the purpose of morality. Morality serves only one function: To allow the mutual cooperation of a group to achieve a goal. Certain types of morality can achieve certain goals, i.e. Islamic morality serves to subjugate women.

    The end goal of any society is social stability. As societies grow, we can identify the morals that lead to social instability, and those that lead to social harmony. We can also identify morals that lead to environmental stability or dissonance. In this sense, Harris is completely correct that we can use the tools of science to identify which morals are ‘good’ and those that are ‘evil’ insomuch as we can identify those that lead to both social and environmental harmony.

    • the moother

      Wow, someone seems to have read the book…! As far as I can tell, those that have, are either in the “fair point” or the “meh” category… It’s only those that have not read the book that have got plenty to say against it…

      Reminds me of The Selfish Gene which morons have read my title only for nearly 40 years.

    • indorri

      I haven’t yet read the book, but I have watched one, I think it was a TED video where he seems to be making the same points, and one point is that individual human wellbeing is also taken into account.

      The point I took away from his talk is that morality is a reference (with human wellbeing and social stability as its referent). Sam did well turning the conversation towards that and away from the philosophical navel-gazing of what is True Morality™.

  • Croquet_Player

    Well, that’s some cash on the table. Who’s up?

  • Gordon Duffy

    I also need the money, but found the book terribly convincing.

  • DesertSun59

    Anyone who claims or asserts that a genocidal tribal Jewish deity INVENTED in the Bronze Age by tent dwelling desert peoples, is the source and center of morality, is a bona fide moron. Genocidal deities are not sources of morals. Period.

  • ShoeUnited

    I’m intrigued by his book. On a personal bias, I argue with the summary. But then I consider the Price Equation and find that hard to argue against. I’m gonna have to read his book just to know whether or not I’ve got something to argue.

  • Nancy McClernan

    Did Harris ever change his mind about profiling people who look like Muslims after his debate with Bruce Schneier? Because if he didn’t then it’s clear that Harris is impervious to evidence-based arguments on moral issues and his claiming that science is the best way to determine morality is laughable hypocrisy.

  • Digital Liberty

    LOL. That was my 1st thought also: “Do I actually have to believe my own submission to collect the cash?”


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