Together with the many entirely fair critiques of my last entry here was one that I found to be rather off the mark: that it contained a “subtle condemnation of biology and sciences”. I actually believe that this was a misreading by someone who is conditioned to believe that anyone who is in favor of religious perspectives is in all likelihood anti-scientific. There are plenty of inductive reasons why someone might be prone to reach such a conclusion, but I honestly don’t believe that it is applicable to me, at least not in the context of what I was trying to say to Daisy. Yet at the same time I must admit that, like many theists, I do see limits in the extent to which science can replace philosophy and religion in human life. Let me see if I can make a case for that for you.
I see science as a means of searching for understanding of the world we live in, which has resulted in some spectacular insights and, through technological advancement, miraculous changes life as we know it. What I don’t believe in is “Science” as an abstract authoritative determinant of truth in ethical and metaphysical matters –– I’m not a believer within the sort of faith that Richard Dawkins has become high priest of among the so-called “new atheists”. This has been on my mind a fair amount this month, since a friend of mine suggested that some of us participate in Sam Harris’s “The Moral Landscape Challenge” this winter. At this point I am fully intending to do so, even though I don’t think I have much chance of winning, for the same reason that I don’t feel that I have much chance of winning the lottery.
I look at it this way: Given Harris’s ability to top best-seller lists with his attacks on religious beliefs, I’m quite sure there will be thousands of participants wanting to take a crack at him. I’m also quite sure that Harris’s mind is sufficiently made up on the matter where he will allow himself to become confused by seriously considering the merits of any of the arguments he will be presented with. Any reasonably clever under-grad student of philosophy could easily refute Harris’s arguments, but that doesn’t mean he’d be able to recognize the merits of their arguments and admit defeat. Many public intellectuals who are not even theists, and who will be too busy with more prestigious and better paying work to bother with such a challenge –– ranging from Simon Blackburn to Jonathan Haidt –– have already pointed out the multiple flaws in Harris’s arguments. Given his obstinate rejection of their counter-arguments, I’d see it as pretty close to psychologically impossible for his mind to be changed by an argument presented by any of us unknowns. Nor do I see it as particularly likely under these circumstances that he would be able to qualitatively differentiate between those who adequately refute his ideas and those who don’t, to say nothing of being able to judge who best refutes his ideas.
The 1000-word sampler format he has stipulated adds even further to the randomized aspect of the contest. So which, if any, of the hundreds of competently written refutations that he will inevitably receive will come out as the official winner has to come down to a matter of random selection. (I do believe there will be an official winner, but given what I see as the inevitably random nature of the selection process, I’m not at all sure that the winner will be one of those which competently refutes Harris’s position.) But what the hell, I play free raffle drawings for new cars and the like at the grocery store all the time, so why not participate in this one?
So as this relates to my perspective on science which has just been called into question, as I have been pondering such questions anyway, and as, for reasons stated above, I don’t believe that tipping my hand a bit here would seriously reduce my chances of winning, I’ve decided to start offering some of my thoughts here on why I actually don’t believe that science can answer all of our moral questions for us, and where I believe we should go from there. Harris/Dawkins fans, feel free to comment here and critique my perspective to your hearts’ content.
To start with let me give Harris credit for sincerity in at least one regard: I don’t believe he is doing this challenge thing for the money. He might or might not sell enough extra books on the basis of such a contest to cover the minimal prize money he’s offering, but that’s not the point, for him or for the participants. Like Rick Warren, Billy Graham, Tariq Ramadan and many others, Harris is fortunate enough to have become quite financially secure from book sales that have been an incidental part of his holy war on behalf of the ideals he believes in. His interest in offering such a challenge would more likely be a matter of hoping that if he can get a few thousand people –– philosophically inclined theists in particular –– to seriously consider his polemics against their position, he might actually succeed in converting a few dozen or so of them in the process. This in turn would advance the meme he believes in, which he has dedicated his life to spreading, thereby doing far more to justify his existence than additional money in his pocket would. This point will be worth coming back to.
Anyway, as hundreds have already pointed out, the essence of Harris’s moral perspectives are borrowed, through some convoluted form of intellectual heredity or another, from Jeremy Bentham –– the fellow whose mortal remains can still be seen in a glass case in the hallway of University College of London. Bentham’s essential belief was that there are really only two things that matter in life: pleasure and pain. Whenever you increase the former and/or decrease the latter for the population at large, you are doing something morally commendable.
No basic high school level philosophy course is complete without exploring the limits of the validity to this approach. In simple terms we have to ask ourselves, for example, was the exploitation of Saartjie Baartman, “The Hottentot Venus,” as a sideshow freak, a sub-human curiosity and a sexual novelty item in London and Paris a morally right thing to do? You would be hard pressed to find an ethicist these days who would stand up to defend this historic abuse; but since it did give hundreds of Europeans pleasure, a sense of superiority and adventure, increased solidarity and perhaps even increased libido –– all for the nominal price of destroying the well-being and dignity of an African servant girl who probably wouldn’t have had much of a life back in Cape Town anyway –– according to a consistent application of Bentham’s principles it would very definitely have been considered the morally right thing to do. And this case isn’t even hypothetical.
If we consider the defense of innocent victims to be a higher priority than the overall pleasure of the crude and sadistic masses –– as would the vast majority of professional thinkers on the subject, and even “normal people” in the world today would –– in its simplest form, Bentham’s moral philosophy fails right there. So instead of sticking to the simplest form of Bentham’s utilitarian belief, Harris focuses on the negative side of things. He paints a picture of the worst possible condition, where intense suffering for all continues unabated indefinitely. Wouldn’t the prevention of such a situation be a moral goal that everyone could agree on? Rather than focusing on increasing pleasure as a moral goal then, we should simply focus our moral energies on reducing suffering.
The problem with that is something that any middle school student can see quite immediately and intuitively: The simplest and most effective way of eliminating suffering is to eliminate all beings capable of suffering. Would this sort of global suicide solution really be the hypothetical peak accomplishment of human moral action? Highly unlikely. So from there the question becomes, what is there about life that makes it worth embracing and promoting, even if it does involve pain and suffering for many?
Harris doesn’t really take the question that far, and to the extent that he brushes up against this question he speaks of “peak experiences” between the valleys of suffering that somehow might make life worth it. He doesn’t say in very specific terms what these peak experiences might be, but he has faith in science and technology being the best ways of defining them and bringing them about. This in turn leads directly to the justification presented for the dystopian society in the 20th century’s pioneering novel of that genre: Huxley’s Brave New World. Huxley, no Christian apologist himself, doesn’t offer any ideal solutions for the problem of how to find sustainable meaning and purpose in life, but after giving such arguments a carefully constructed coherent expression, he thoroughly demonstrates that the best hope for humanity is not to be found in making people into happy cogs within an immense societal machine. Pretty much every other novel in the same genre thereafter has come to much the same conclusion.
What makes these future horror stories so scary is really the whole idea of people being considered disposable in a system that doesn’t offer any significant amount of choice to those stuck within it. To Harris & Co. these factors don’t really seem to make any difference. Life is essentially random and meaningless for the most part anyway, they believe, regardless of what sort of ideology you espouse. Beyond that people are far more like machines than we care to admit –– following pre-programmed paths and automatically responding to stimuli around us even when we are the most sure that we are choosing our actions and responses for ourselves. So if some group of self-appointed technicians takes it upon themselves to engineer everyone else’s lives so that the average guy can go through life without thinking too much, with a minimal amount of pain and with reliable drug-induced periods of euphoria coming on a regular basis, what’s wrong with that? If you don’t really care about freedom as such, if thinking for yourself isn’t all that important to you, or if you imagine yourself to be one of those who would be in the position of deciding things for everyone else; and if you can’t imagine that life could have any greater meaning than that… nothing.
Philosophers in general tend to be rather addicted to the sensation of thinking freely for themselves, and they are rarely under any illusions that a technocratic totalitarian government would select them as the technicians in charge of things. It thus comes as no surprise that they do not embrace the same sort of Huxleyan vision that Harris does as an ideal for an ideal future. Meanwhile for the less philosophical “normal people” of the Western world there is still the recent historical memory of what happened when the people of Germany and Austria surrendered their freedoms to the technocratic regime of the Nazis (shortly after Huxley’s classic was written) which discourages them from going along with any such system too readily.
The greatest risk/possibility of Huxley’s dystopian vision coming true these days then would actually be if “the one percent” of the population which controls obscene amounts of wealth and power these days were to engineer an Atlas Shrugged style revolution where the rest of the population would no longer be able to challenge their power. In fact this isn’t an entirely unlikely scenario. The “Tea Party” movement’s economic populism seems to have been designed to lay the groundwork in the US for just such a move: convincing the population to think of “entitlement” and “socialism” as dirty words, and to believe that the common folk should be happy just to take whatever the ingenious technocrats in charge of the economy are willing to give them. Government should not try to help the poor majority at the expense of the tiny minority at the top; that would be stealing! If those not within the ruling elite become nothing more than disposable commodities within the system controlled by the unquestioned elite, well… that’s just how life works. Nor, it must be admitted, has the Democratic Party, which theoretically should be the counter-balance to this sort of elitist dynamic, made any decisive moves to reduce this slide towards absolute oligarchical control.
I’m not accusing Harris of being a closet Tea Partier; I’m saying that the Tea Party is the political tool with the greatest possibility of enabling his technocratic ideals to be put into practice, and that should give him pause for thought. I can’t imagine it will.
The irony is that the majority of those who support the sort of “new atheist” dogma which Harris publicly champions seem to have something of an allergy to authoritarian regimes in general, since historically, more often than not, such regimes have had a heavily religious component to them. Harris’s own favorite whipping boy in this regard is the Taliban. But rather than promoting personal freedom, justice and individual liberty as solutions to this problem, what Harris is effectively suggesting is that organizations like the Taliban be replaced with a more competent, secular and scientific form of totalitarian control; what Neil Young poetically refers to as “a kinder, gentler machine gun hand.” How else can the ideal of scientifically detecting and engineering greater states of satisfaction in the population be achieved? But is this really what we want?
The above critique –– tearing down the opposition’s dogmatic position –– is the easy part. Offering a viable alternative is the hard part. When it comes to dealing with real live human beings, with all of their destructive passions and mutual antagonisms, designing a system to help them thrive and meet their individual needs while respecting each of them as intrinsically valuable and entitled to freedom as individuals has proven far easier said than done. So let me start by saying that while I don’t believe that science, in some abstract authoritative sense, can provide us with the ultimate goals that we should be striving towards, I do believe that science as a set of methods of looking for information without any particular ideological baggage attached, and technology as a collection of tools which provide means of achieving personal goals we set for ourselves without determining what those goals should be, are especially useful for promoting human thriving and social stability. At best they are means of keeping ourselves honest as we search for understanding, and of avoiding unnecessary pain and risks in the process. The trick is to keep these particular pursuits within their respective roles as servants rather than as authoritative structures. As long as we don’t let science blind us to other aspects of the human experience, or let technology determine what is important about us as people, we should be OK with them, but that’s far easier said than done.
When it comes to setting goals that are ultimately worth living for, I believe that there are a number of different means by which this can be done, and that the greatest risk for us as humans is when some authoritarian figure or another declares that he has the exclusive (God-given) right to determine which lives have value, on what bases, and which lives are more readily disposable. I don’t believe that making such declarations based on the authority of “science” makes them any less dangerous than basing them on the authority of some deity or another.
Harris points out that presuppositions of given values are inevitably built into the activities of the “scientific community” as such, and science cannot be done without certain presuppositions in terms of basic values, but that does not mean that the validity of such values can be conclusively proven by way of experimentation or scientific observation. This makes it rather absurd to refer to such values as matters of “absolute fact” that can be discovered and declared on the basis of some sort of scientific authority.
I believe the path to greater peace and stability in human society is that of having the humility and sincerity not to claim the sort of exclusive handle on truth which makes us feel entitled to eliminate those who don’t share our perspective. This points to something that both theocracies and “brave new worlds” have been guilty of. The alternative is to build a system of mutual respect based on empathy and appreciation for our commonality in many important regards. In religious terminology this means seeing other human beings as also made in the image of God and entitled to certain expressions of respect on that basis, given that none of us are entitled to put ourselves in the place of God to judge the ultimate value of another person’s life. In secular terms that would mean recognizing our common heritage and shared long-term interest as part of the same remarkable process of life. This is far easier said than done though, and claims of special revelations and whiz-bang technological innovations cannot be trusted to iron out the moral bumps along the way for us.
But this essay is already more than twice as long as Harris’s little contest rules will allow for, and at that it still doesn’t include some significant points I have in mind on the subject. All in all I don’t see myself as likely to make any serious money off of these ideas, especially not by way of Harris. So why am I bothering with all this?
I guess I have to admit that I too do this to advance the sort of memes I believe in –– which for me include love, justice, tolerance and the spirituality found in the Christian tradition. That doesn’t mean I do this to belittle processes of scientific discovery or to promote any particular power structure based on European cultural traditions, though I recognize that the sort of memes I believe in have often been used to do such things. I have no vested interest in the maintenance of the power of those currently controlling our cultures though, and I don’t see tradition for its own sake as something to be desperately clung to. Nor do I see academic rationalism as a pure, sterile process unto itself as the key to solving all of the world’s problems. I believe in carefully, rationally and systematically thinking things through; and combining that process with connecting with and caring about the messy business known as human life. I see that as my best chance of finding happiness, purpose and longer-term satisfaction in life for myself and those I care about. I also happen to see that as the essence of the Christian gospel. I recognize that your mileage may vary though, and I don’t give myself the right to send those who disagree with me to hell.
Harris, and others like, him have very different ways of going about giving their lives meaning. I don’t find his approach particularly coherent or promising, but as long as he isn’t using it to belittle the value and dignity of those I care about (or even if he tries to use his ideas for such purposes, but does not do so particularly effectively) I can leave him to it. If he’s offering a podium for presenting what is important to me, I’ll take a crack at it. The rest, as I’m prone to conceptualize it, is up to God.