I thought I’d give Sam Harris equal time with Richard Carrier and analyze his opening statement from his debate with Willian Lane Craig on “Is the Foundation of Morality Natural or Supernatural?”. This topic is less contentious to me that “Is Naruralism True and Deism False?”. I’m going to summarize Harris’s argument, hopefully without too much distortion, commenting as I go.
Many fear that without the conviction that moral truths exist, that words like “right” and “wrong”, “good” and “evil”, actually mean something, humanity will just lose its way. I actually share that fear. I’ve come to believe that this concern that many religious people have, of the erosion of secular morality, is not an entirely empty one.
Yes, morality is valuable. Next, I’ve removed a long anecdote that motivates his argument and some sniping at comments made by Craig. Then, back to the meat of it:
In claiming that values reduce to the well-being of conscious creatures—–as I will–—, I’m introducing two concepts: consciousness and well-being. Let’s start with consciousness. This is not an arbitrary starting point. Imagine a universe devoid of the possibility of consciousness, a universe entirely constituted of rocks. There’s clearly no happiness or suffering in this universe; there’s no good or evil. Value judgments don’t apply. For changes in the universe to matter, they have to matter, at least potentially, to some conscious system.
Or, in religious terms, until man ate from the tree of knowledge, he could not do evil.
What about well-being? The well-being of conscious creatures, and the link between that and morality, may seem open to doubt, but it shouldn’t. Here’s the only assumption you have to make. Imagine a universe in which every conscious creatures suffers as much as it possibly can, for as long as it can. I call this “the worst possible misery for everyone”. The worst possible misery for everyone is bad. If the word “bad” applies anywhere, it applies here.
This seems difficult to argue with. Sounds like hell.
The minimum standard of moral goodness is to avoid the worst possible misery for everyone. If we have a moral duty to do anything, it’s to avoid the worst possible misery for everyone. And the moment you admit this, you admit that all other possible states of the universe are better than the worst possible misery for everyone. You have the worst possible misery for everyone over here, and all these other constellation of experiences arrayed out there, and because the experience of conscious creatures is dependent in some way on the laws of nature, there will be right and wrong ways to move along this continuum. It will be possible to think that you’re avoiding the worst possible misery for everyone—–and to fail. You can be wrong in your beliefs about how to navigate this space.
It is possible to make the world a better place, but nontrivial. I agree.
So here’s my argument, for moral truth in the context of science. Questions of right and wrong, and good and evil, depend upon minds. They depend upon the possibility of experience. Minds are natural phenomena. They depend upon the laws of nature in some way. Morality and human values, therefore, can be understood through science, because in talking about these things, we are talking about all of the facts that influence the well-being of conscious creatures. In our case, we’re talking about genetics, and neurobiology, and psychology, and sociology, and economics.
OK, here is where we hit a real reductionist claim. “Minds are natural phenomena”. Are they? I’d say that the objective evidence that we have (and Harris, as a neuroscientist, would know) points to this being the case. And yet there is still much we don’t understand about consciousness. I think it’s premature to say that the religious experience isn’t a conduit to a higher dimensional or supernatural phenomena or entity. In other words, I’m agnostic on this issue.
I view this space of all possible experience as a kind of moral landscape, with peaks that correspond to the heights of well-being, and valleys that correspond to the lowest suffering. And the first thing to realize, is that there may be many equivalent peaks on this landscape. There may be many different, but morally-equivalent ways for human beings to thrive. But there will be many more ways not to thrive. There will be many more ways to fail to be on a peak. There are clearly many more ways to suffer unnecessarily in this world than to be sublimely happy.
But are the peaks all equivalent, or are they merely local maxima, with there being one true peak, which I’d call utopia, waiting to be found?
Harris then spends more time talking about cultural relativism, coming to the conclusion:
Things can be right or wrong, or good and evil, quite independent of a person’s opinions.
In other words, morality is absolute, not relative. Absolutely!
Harris then attempts to shore up his case for an objective definition of well being, ending with:
In talking about morality and human values, I think we really are talking about mental health and the health of societies… But what do we do when someone doubts the truth of this proposition? All we can do is appeal to scientific values. The value of understanding the world. The value of evidence. The value of logical consistency. If someone doesn’t value evidence, what evidence are you going to provide to prove that they should value it? If someone doesn’t value logic, what logical argument could you provide to show the importance of logic?
This is an argument that morality should not invalidate scientific principles (which I agree with) and that it should be possible to reason about morality (which I also agree with). Harris then seems to claim that all those who believe that morals are inspired by God are denying these two statements. I disagree on this point, though those who adopt a fundamentalist approach to religion certainly do.
But there are others who seek to understand the religious experience in the context of science, and what it knows to be true (i.e. scientific theory). I’d put these questions to Harris (and possibly Craig does, later in the debate; I’ll have to read on):
- What is the source of the altruistic impulse?
- If consciousness is the source of suffering, why are we conscious?
- Why do so many of us seek absolutes, rather than being relativists?
The first two could plausibly be answered with hypotheses of evolutionary advantage. Maybe altruism is a tribal survival trait, and we merely misapply it to the entire species. Maybe the advantages of consciousness (e.g. the ability to defer gratification) outweigh the disadvantages of suffering and their negative side effects. Possibly the answer to the last question lies in a need for simplicity, for an innate preference to a closed model of reality that is inaccurate over an open one that is correct.