Friday, 21 January 2011
Mostly what I want to say is that I highly recommend this book and completely support Harris' initiative to get the ball rolling on developing morality as a legitimate branch of science. I also wish everyone who read the book would say the same. On that note, I appreciate the pains he must be going through, putting up with the incredulity from many sides. I do not envy him, though I am glad there is someone out there talented enough and willing enough to take on the burden and the challenge. People, even smart people (sometimes, especially smart people), seem to very easily go off track when it comes to sorting out values even though they probably aren't having representative difficulties in practice sorting out their own moral lives.
Can we figure out what the general goal of human flourishing ought to be? Sure, why not? If not, I feel sorry for the reader, since you apparently have no idea how not to live a horrible life. Does it entirely depend on the facts of the world? Um...yeah. Last time I checked. Things that don't have to do with the facts of the world aren't a part of the world... Are there better ways than not of achieving that end? Uh, duh. I can't suddenly choose my way into happiness via the infinite grab bag of methodologies. Is there more than one way to be well off in the world? Yeah, I think we already know that or we wouldn't be asking the question. Do we have to worry about the amoral opinions of sociopaths in order to have sufficient motivation to get this general human initiative off the ground? I think not. I shed endless "crocodile tears" over their broken non-existent hearts. Can science help us push the envelope of moral discernment deeper and wider than ever before? Obviously. Is there a better game in town? [**supernatural crickets are *not* heard chirping**] It seems to me though that Harris' book (which is a delightful 6 hour long lecture in audio form) only seems particularly brilliant in light of the competition. In reality, this is (or should be considered) 101 material. Yes, we are that far behind, but a collaborative effort like this has to start on the ground floor.
I don't share the fear of a totalitarian science that dictates evil Darwinian moral truth to the masses, but I do at least somewhat fear the stereotypical scientists who lack the personal growth and the self-awareness necessary to tackle the many complexities required to square their understanding with the facts of the world and also keep it meaningful and potent for average folk. Many scientists who may be great at their job are simply horrible philosophers. Some people can have high IQ's but rather low EQ's (emotional intelligence). And of course, not every version of intelligence in either category is born equal. It is very easy for smart people to have amazing blindsides when it comes to articulating a conceptual ideology about values, since most ordinary people are far more busy living their values rather than specializing in how to describe what they are doing and why. I'm sure there's some way to work through it and surely our brightest scientific moral philosophers will rise to the challenge in a self-selecting kind of way (in addition to those who mistakenly believe that's who they are), but I await that well-researched and soundly established moral textbook to land on my desk with a pleasantly satisfying thud.
Otherwise, I'm not worried about science coming back with some moral conclusion that I do not approve of though I'm sure it will. Perhaps wearing the male burqa will turn out to be the best way to go! D'oh! If it has done its job, it will have correct conclusions and I will be the one who needs to change his mind. If there is something I don't like, well then I'd better have reasons that map onto the real world and presumably those would already have been taken into account. And if I don't have those reasons what is my basis for disapproval beyond some arbitrary preference or prejudice? Isn't that my problem? Besides, people have a long history of not listening to moral authorities as it is. What's one more, no matter how qualified?
Harris makes frequent use of physical health analogies to bypass most of the objections people throw his way and rightly so. He has to avoid the perils of loaded terminology and erroneous existential expectations. Further complicating things is that we are being asked to discern objective relational principles from the realm of human desires when we would like to hastily toss out that domain of content as arbitrary as a rule. Humans are also most likely to get defensive and therefore irrational when fundamental values are challenged intellectually and yet that's exactly what any serious conversation about getting morality correct has to be about. Unfortunately morality is just abstract enough to get people confused and lost in a mental space they can't see. Yet at the same time it is indispensable enough not to vanish entirely from our interests (I consider morality the security software necessary for maintaining our most important interests). It's why we can have a really good sense of what good is, but be almost entirely unable to spell out all of the stipulations of what that is (One would have to write many volumes on how to fully supplement the loopholes in the golden rule to the extent a robot could be programmed to follow it without messing up horribly). This tension (or lack thereof) allows the appearance of vast differences in moral lifestyles to seem irresolvable to the core, it allows many philosophers to get endlessly lost in trivial obstructions, and it enables many religious people to be baffled just enough to never connect morality to the real world. This is frustrating, because there are many times where I run across complex moral questions that simply can't be resolved without the rigor of a scientific investigation I can't possibly sponsor myself. Only collective and focused efforts could hope to evaluate the facts and without enough support, we'll just be stuck in the dark ages on some questions.
Even our own values change over time, from moment to moment, and we are constantly navigating the perils of self-contradiction, personal ignorance, and our own immaturity when engaging the world of value differences. There's not even such a thing as a genuine cultural baseline inside of one culture for relativism to latch onto. If you are doing any effective moralizing for yourself or your own not-so-static culture or any trouble-shooting whatsoever, you do in fact have all the tools you need to sort the entire world out whether you recognize that or not. And if you are unable to do so, that's probably just a practical problem for yo brains and not representative of a genuine ideological impasse. Humans just aren't that different than each other and I've never met a set of cultural values where I could not discern the basic spectrum of appeal. Finding common denominators is the basis for solving the cultural relativism equation and this is a skill that can be learned. If one isn't a stick in the mud and are willing to engage the differences with the attitude that you could be wrong about how best to pimp out the human condition despite your upbringing and other influences, then differences in cultures are just mutual mountains to scale. Not inaccessible parallel universes. Difficult perhaps on occasion, but certainly not impossible.
So yeah, science should go about the project of exploring all of the non-destructive maximum capacities of human psychology and how to go about making that happen (such as: joy, love, self respect, good friendships, security/trust, contentment, peace/tranquility, self-improving behavior, sense of purpose/self worth, positive social climate and not: misery, loneliness, self-loathing, bad friendships, fear/paranoia, discontentment, anxiety/stress, neurosis, depression, self-destructive behavior, purposeless/worthlessness, negative social climate for general orientation in case you were really that clueless). In a hundred years perhaps it can approach us with such a salient and complete account of all that entails. All the basics? Go for it (It's not like we aren't already well on our way with common sense as well as the field of clinical psychology). A complete account of naturalistic mysticism in the way Harris seems to describe? Awesome. Let's make all of the mystical traditions that are tied down to one bogus ideology or another deeply envious of our cumulative, inclusive, and impartial progress on that front (assuming someone out there hasn't already started championing that goal). I want to know all about what the human brain can do and who is doing it better. Who wouldn't? The folly of the argument in rejection of this will amount to: I am an ordinary human who does not want what science has proven that ordinary humans would in fact most want if they knew any better. Good luck with that.
I'm hopeful that enough people aren't philosophical snobs, that enough aren't so relativistic as to fail to recognize that we have plenty of common ground to work with across the spectrum of humanity, and that enough religious people are saturated enough with reality that Harris will be persuasive. I have just seen way too many ridiculous and unnecessary hurdles thrown in the way that I'm a bit cynical. They just keep coming, even from the smart people, like a large troll is going to come bash us all on the head if we dare get something slightly wrong. *sigh*
There were a few tidbits in Harris' book I think I could quibble about, but this books gets a greater than 95% approval rating from me...and that's rather hard to come by (for what that's worth). On a side note, if Harris is successful in moving the ball forward on this note in the scientific community, this would be such a fitting legacy for the "new atheist" movement. It would forgive many of their sins and help lead the world of skeptics, nonbelievers, and staunch anti-religion contrarians into a positive project with potentially genuinely lasting results.
I went ahead and posted this as my review on Amazon.