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Moral dissention

Moral dissention

Every generation somebody discovers a scientific framework to explain everything as far as one particular field or another is concerned. In The Moral Landscape we see neuroscientist Sam Harris devising a moral construct based on brain science. Reviewer William Sheridan suggests this might be a new ideology or belief system every bit as dogmatic as the various forms of fundamentalism it is intended to supplant.

I don’t know if I’d go that far. Neuroscience and cognitive psychology have already helped the open minded find  ever more open terrain to explore more freely. Yet Harris and other neurologically informed enthusiasts would do well to remember the silliness that the science of earlier eras now presents us with as Sheridan muses below. Today’s maps of the brain in action might eventually be no more credible than phrenology is to us. – DRO.

The Moral Landscape by Sam Harris; The Free Press, New York, 2010. Reviewed by William Sheridan

Neuroscientist Sam Harris uses this book to argue that modern science not only explains the operations of the universe, but can also provide the basis for social policies that will assure human wellbeing.  He claims that science can replace all of the folklore of traditional cultures with a rational worldview that unifies facts and values.  However initially positive this may sound, it has serious drawbacks.

If science could account for all aspects of life that are “good” (beneficial) for human wellbeing AND all of the aspects of behaviour that are “bad” (detrimental) for human wellbeing, then science would be a totalitarian worldview by definition (like other totalitarian accounts, it would cover EVERYTHING!).  Such a position represents Knowledge Imperialism.

Positivistic Science of the 19th century once aspired (implicitly) to this position.  Science as envisioned by Harris would aspire to it explicitly.  How did Sam Harris arrive at this conclusion, and should the rest of us agree with him?  The foundational premise behind this ideology is that of “consilience,” a new proposal for unifying science.  We should consider the consequences of this proposal, something Harris overlooks.

First let’s think through a historical perspective.  New sciences often go through a similar exuberant phase.  In the early days of Newtonian Mechanics, all of life was portrayed as a “balance of forces.”  With Darwin, all trends became “evolutionary.”  Interpreters of Einstein saw social reality as “relativistic.”  According to the behaviourists, all social variations were due to “conditioning.”

Glandular biologists of the 1930s cited “secretions” as the basis of individual differences.   Geneticists proposed that “everything human was controlled by the human genome.”  Now we have neuroscientists (like Sam) interpreting all cultural variability as “brain-based.”  A deep knowledge of the history of science would reveal that each of these scientific “rising stars” was simply re-interpreting the same phenomena again and again, but each from within their own distinct vocabulary and mind-set.

What of Harris’ argument.  The facts and values of human wellbeing certainly coexist – but that does NOT make facts and values identical.  And he is certainly correct that the vocabulary we use to discuss these issues leaves much to be desired.  However, it is possible to have a comprehensive view of knowledge without insisting that EVERYTHING (in the final analysis) is based on just one thing!  A landscape has peaks and valleys (different altitudes), but it also has flora and fauna (different kinds of things).  “Facts” tell us what is, whereas “values” tell us what should be – values must be based “on” facts, but are not the same “as” facts.  The concept of “wellbeing” doesn’t resolve this, because there are radically different definitions of wellbeing!

Both a nation at war and the mafia expect their young men to fight for, and if necessary die for their respective causes, each of which they eulogize.  Interestingly enough, both systems propose “loyalty” as the basis for their rules of behaviour.  Since dying is not in everyone’s concept of wellbeing there must be something more to morality than the simple facts of the case.  Although this appears to be a sincere attempt to assist humanity, it needs to be considered from a wider perspective.

The book’s whole argument requires deconstruction.  Since morality is all about values, what is a value?  Certainly not just an ideal that one advocates – that’s only rhetoric.  A value is something (anything) for which one consistently strives.  People can name and organize their values. Other creatures must settle for simple pursuit, but all living things “value” food and water.  Because people use symbols to one extent or another, it is usually considered appropriate to “ask them” what they value and why.  Simultaneously their behaviour can be observed to see if answers and actions coincide.

Many people these days have a skeptical, even jaded view of the supernatural. I am one of them.  But I am careful not to “button-hole” others and proselytize regarding my beliefs.  On the other hand, my parents were fundamentalist Christians, who never tired of telling others “the truth” about sin and salvation.  Fortunately I have learned better!  Sam apparently does not share my sense of civility.  He is quite prepared to condemn any and all whose moral views do not conform to his own rather stringent standards. He rationalizes this by saying that his position is scientifically supported and “obviously correct.”

Actually, the substance of most of what Harris recommends is quite acceptable generally.  Tolerating the intolerable is neither necessary nor advisable.  Furthermore, many of his suggestions seem workable.  So where do our views diverge?  I don’t find science a credible foundation for morality.  Pragmatism would give similar results, but avoid extremist posturing.  In his current state of mind, Harris is a fundamentalist (of science) in a similar fashion to my parents who were fundamentalists (of religion).

Does it really matter how we label these concepts?  According to this book it does – so let’s see where that goes.  Harris’ vision of science is an over-idealized version of a particular knowledge management methodology.  Furthermore, many of the things he attributes to “science” can more appropriately be assigned to “technology.”  Science is more of a semiotic system (symbols for understanding), whereas technology is more of an existential system (techniques for problem-solving).

The “all or nothing” attitude is the real problem with fundamentalism.  The agenda of fundamentalists, of whatever belief, is to eliminate tolerance of all alternatives and dissentions.  If science ends up replacing religion as the dominant worldview, it will likely be prone to all of the excesses that science was originally developed to overcome!  That is neither advisable nor necessary.  We can achieve both individual and social wellbeing without grandiose ideological straight-jackets – a sense of cooperative and coordinative commitment would be entirely sufficient.