Thursday, December 6, 2012

Book Review: The Moral Landscape

“In my view, morality must be viewed in the context of our growing scientific understanding of the mind.” -from page 198

    Sam Harris has some fascinating ideas, and isn’t afraid to challenge the reader on preconceptions.  With a conversational style, he presents his thesis in an approachable format.  Sadly, like so many calls to action, those who most need to be convinced are those who will either a) not read it or b) not allow themselves to understand it.  However, his assertion that morality can and should be studied in the same way we would any other branch of science makes perfect sense to me.  As has happened before while reading Harris, I find that his words express my own thoughts in ways I have been unable.  It’s both frustrating (because I should have been able to articulate my thoughts) and liberating (because I see them more consciously and conscientiously reasoned than I ever could).  Like reading Christopher Hitchens, I find his books to be so rife with excellent quotes that I could spend hours just scribbling them down.  Or perhaps I should get a second copy and a highlighter?

“It seems to me that we already know enough about the human condition to know that killing cartoonists for blasphemy does not lead anywhere worth going on the moral landscape.”  -from page 75

    As a secularist and staunch moderate, I try very hard to look at things from multiple angles.  I try to see both sides (or more) of a debate.  I try to see things from others’ point of view.  And I have always heard that being tolerant of others’ beliefs was a virtue.  But, over time, I’ve found that tolerance of dangerous beliefs and practices, and turning a blind eye to human misery caused by them is a bankrupt, and ultimately immoral stance.  In the book, Harris sites the book by Steven Pinker in which the anthropologist Donald Symons is in turn quoted (that’s too many steps away for me, so I’ll paraphrase).  Symons says basically that a barbaric act (such as the genital mutilation of a child) when committed by a single person against a single child is a shocking, appalling event.  The perpetrator would be reviled and punished harshly by a disgusted community.  However, this same act carried out in exactly the same way, on a large scale can be excused as ‘cultural heritage.’  As Harris himself points out, conservative Islam is a ‘low-hanging fruit’ when it comes to finding examples of things that (extracted from their cultural/religious context) any sane person would consider …let us say, unconstructive behavior.  But it is hardly alone.  In my job, and in my position as a Dork, I frequently come into contact with anime and manga (Japanese cartoons and comics).  And I’ve been called a racist for pointing out the sexualization and fetishizing of children (not to mention the persistent rape fantasy) that runs rampant in the art and writing.  People I consider sane, honest, caring human beings (and especially women who otherwise show every sign of being modern, feminist, free-thinkers) become genuinely upset when I point this out and say that I’m unfair, often attempting to gloss things over by dropping some hints of ‘cultural differences.’  I don’t buy it.  If these same acts were illustrated or animated in an American film, these same people would be the first to condemn it.  Or in the Catholic Church (my own upbringing, from which I actually have little but fond memories), there is the well documented endemic corruption, sexual abuse, and culture of suppression on a level that might best be described as ‘Biblical.’  Yet even the more sane and even handed adherents to the faith seem unwilling or unable to face, much less address the issues.  With that core-deep rot still festering, any talk about it by outsiders is still seen as unfair targeting and intolerance.  Well, yes, I’m intolerant of the sanctioned abuse of children and the systematic occultation of truth in pursuit of maintaining the fallacy of moral authority.  And getting back to that ripe and 'easy pickins' fruit, shooting a little girl in the head because she dared to read is wrong.  I don’t care what collection of fairy tales you get your marching orders from, it’s wrong.  And if you think being born in a different geographic region or to parents to read a different set of myths is enough to justify that kind of behavior, you’re wrong, too.  Anyway, back to the book…

“Doubt about evolution is merely a symptom of an underlying condition; the condition is faith itself--conviction without sufficient reason, hope mistaken for knowledge, bad ideas protected from good ones, good ideas obscured by bad ones, wishful thinking elevated to a principle of salvation, etc.” -from page 175

    Mr. Harris’ discussion of ‘answers in practice’ vs. ‘answers in principle’ is very important, and a distinction that he rightly points out is often misunderstood.  I can’t tell you how many times people have said, ‘well, if there is no God then how do you explain [fill in the blank].’  Often, the explanation is fairly simple (the idiot Bill O’Reilley’s ‘tide goes in; tide goes out’ statement could be explained away by a child of 10 without much difficulty…it’s the Moon, dumbass!) but others might be extremely complex or dealing with subjects I don’t know much of anything about.  Because I don’t know the answer does not for one moment mean or even imply that there is no answer.  Nobody can say exactly how many grains of sand there are on all the beaches in the world.  Nobody.  I’m sure a mathematician can come up with a formula to give a ballpark figure, but nobody can tell you the exact count, down to the very last grain.  Yet, there is a number.  There are a certain number of grains of sand, a specific number of stars at this very moment, and a finite number of cups of coffee being pored.  The fact that no one can tell you the exact number does not mean there is no answer.  There is no answer in practice, but still a very real answer in principle.

“We will embarrass our descendants, just as our ancestors embarrass us.  This is moral progress.”  -from page 179

    The basic point of Harris’ book as I see it is once we admit that there is a worst case scenario for the existence of sentient beings and a best case scenario, then we have admitted that there is ‘right’ and ‘wrong.’  That the end of the spectrum closer to the best possible scenario is ‘better’ than the end closer to the worst.  Thus, things that move us up to the better end are ‘good’ and the things that move use down are ‘bad.’  This can be studied with logic, reason, and yes, scientific method to understand what is moral.  He proposes, in a sense, a new branch of scientific inquiry, using neuroscience as a springboard.  We can no longer stand by and let people say that science can’t answer questions about how we should live, what is right, and what we should value.  And we can’t turn a blind eye to things that reason tells us are evil and detrimental to the well-being of sentient beings, in the name of tolerance.  It doesn’t take much investigation to see that the world’s various religions have little to add to the discussion morality, beyond unhealthy obsessions with the minutia of sexual couplings and dietary choices.  It is well past time we turn to the one consistent source of enlightenment and advancement in this world, open scientific exploration.  We cured sickness, extended lives, achieved connectivity on a global level, and reached out to the stars with it.  So, why not use it to find ways to live the best, most fulfilling lives possible?

“Methodological problems notwithstanding, it is difficult to exaggerate how fully our world would change if lie detectors ever became reliable, affordable, and unobtrusive.”  -from page 134

    If I have a complaint about the book, it’s that the introduction and first two chapters feel a bit repetitive.  I felt similar about sections of The End of Faith, where it seemed Harris belabored some of his points, explaining them from too many angles.  Saying the same thing in several, slightly different ways.  But, considering the responses to his books that I’ve seen, a lot of people, even those with enough education and sense seemingly to know better, might have needed it spelled out in even more excruciating detail.  You may disagree with his interpretation of the facts, or with his thesis in general.  But at least pay enough attention to actually know what he’s saying (which I hope I’ve done).  This sort of ignorant criticism always reminds me of an angry review I heard for the film ‘A.I. Artificial Intelligence,’ where the viewer was incensed by the arrival of aliens in the third act.  His anger might have been valid had the third act featured aliens.  The viewer simply wasn’t paying attention to what the dialog clearly explained, jumped to conclusions, and got it totally wrong.  Agree or disagree.  But try to understand what you’re agreeing or disagreeing with.

We're robots, dumbass.  Listen to what we're saying!

“Whether religion contributes to societal dysfunction, it seems clear that as societies become more prosperous, stable, and democratic, they tend to become more secular.” -from page 147

    Some books make me feel good, not because their content is designed to do so, but because of the effort and thought needed to digest them properly.  Like the feeling the body gets after a serious workout, I feel elated, a bit tired, but stronger for it.  Reading Sam Harris is like power lifting with my brain, and I like it.  I was reminded of reading Jane McGonigal’s fascinating book Reality is Broken, which challenged me to look at the world in a different way, and to do something about it.  I’m a working class schlub, but I’m trying to achieve a deeper understanding of the universe, life, my self, and all that jazz.  Understanding and accepting that I am both an animal and a sentient being, the product of hundreds of millions of years of evolution, was a huge step in knowledge both of myself and the greater universe.  I do not fear my insignificance in the scope of the universe, just as I don’t sell short my effect on those around me.  We humans are amazing creatures and we can be so, so much more.  The petty, fear-based scribblings of long dead power seekers need not dominate our future.  Science is a liberator, and I think Mr. Harris is right that the time has come to turn its revealing eye on the way we live and the things we value.  It’s time to get real about reality, to build a better world.

Sometimes I wish evolution was directed.

“The framework of the moral landscape guarantees that many people will have flawed conceptions of morality, just as many people have flawed conceptions of physics.” -from page 53

The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values
Author: Sam Harris
Publisher: Simon And Schuster
ISBN: 978-1-4391-7122-6


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