Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Book Review: The Moral Landscape- Sam Harris


     Over the weekend I finished a book, The Moral Landscape, that I spent less than a week on.  I should have paid more attention to the subtitle of the book How Science Can Determine Human Values (emphasis mine).  I chose to read this book as part of my venture to read more philosophy and at the recommendation of a friend.  My best friend is an atheist and on occasion we get into debates about faith and science.  When telling him that I had not yet read The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins, which he owns as well as several of Dawkins' other works, he commented to me that he wasn't sure why Dawkins got so much attention when some others were 1) more confrontational to religious faithful, 2) better spoken and more suited to speak on the subject, and 3) Dawkins didn't present new ideas in The God Delusion, but rather added his own anecdotal stories and examples to old arguments.  One of the alternative authors he recommended was Sam Harris.  Both The Moral Landscape and Letter to a Christian Nation are short, but Moral Landscape was the only one I could find on audio so I made it to that one first.

     There are many points Harris makes that I do agree with, but the main lacking of the text is that he does not address what morals we should hold, but simply that science (and specifically neural science) is advancing to the point where morals could be prescribed by science.  But essentially he asks us to hold off on waiting for those moral guidelines to come until science advances a little more.  The other main weakness I see with his argument is that there is no universal moral compass and that morals like social fades may change.  He of course has all sorts of great examples of religious short-comings, but so few of them are universal even to the faith or denomination that he pulls the example from- there are bad examples from every walk of life.
Where I do agree with him is that humans do not naturally agree on what is good or seek to do what is good without outside, whether it be religious or social or legal, motivation.  I also have no problem with science prescribing morality, especially when it agrees with faith.

     To disagree with him again, I do not see the sole purpose or benefit of religious faith being to define morals, so I disagree with the conclusions that faith has only arisen out of a need for humans to explain their own morality or that religions will die out as unnecessary if science can give us morality.

     He also seems to forget that First Amendment rights will keep religion from disappearing and keep wrong speech protected.  Those two don't seem to go together, but I remember a video I saw this summer that made me very distraught.  Basically, a private school district in Indiana is using a textbook that claims the Loch Ness Monster is real (like proven beyond a shadow of doubt and is fact real) and that Nessy is probably a dinosaur, therefore dinosaurs didn't go extinct and evolution isn't true.  Now I am very familiar with the teachings of Creationism and Intelligent Design and I have no problem with that, but how can such backwards and unscientific proof be allowed?  Of course, I know that it is allowed, but it frustrates me that such weirdness is protected.  But, of course, that's part of why it is protected and as much as I disagree with it I know it will stick around.  Sam Harris seems to miss this point.
I don't want it to come across that I am anti-religious or that I agree with Sam Harris on a lot, but there are some good points he makes and some short-comings in our society and our religions that together make easier targets for attack.

No comments:

Post a Comment