Of all the prominent atheists, I respect Sam Harris the least. I find his arguments the least persuasive.
Side note. I found out recently that Christopher Hitchens, another prominent atheist (and all-around gloomy guy) has a brother who was at one time also a militant atheist and eventually became a Christian. He recently wrote a book about his path toward faith. I find that remarkable.
Back to Harris. He recently gave a TED talk that so bothered me so much that I feel compelled to respond, even though no one here cares at all.
Here’s the issue. Many people of faith argue (and I agree), that it’s difficult, if not impossible, to establish a moral framework, a system for evaluating what’s right and wrong, without religion. Science can tell us much about facts. But it can’t tell us about values.
Harris disagrees, saying that science is sufficient to answer such questions. He argues that values are, in fact, based on facts. For example, we care more about animals than rocks. Why? Because the former has a greater degree of consciousness. And this is a testable fact. He adds that he has never encountered a value system that isn’t reducible to a concern about conscious experience, and since science can answer the question of what is conscious, science is a reliable guide for morality.
The problem is, his argument begs the question. Even if science can help us elucidate what things have a conscious experience, it still can’t tell us why we should care about others’ conscious experience. In other words, science may be able to help us measure moral values we hold. But science still doesn’t answer why those moral values should be there in the first place.
That’s basically the problem with his entire approach – it always begs the question. He says afterwards that we know that there’s a continuum between suffering and an idyllic state. And he claims that there are objective, measurable answers about how to move people along that continuum. Again, that begs the question; several questions in fact. How do we know the criteria for this continuum? Is being poor on the wrong side of the continuum, even one is happy? If happiness is the criteria, how do you define that? Science can’t.
Furthermore, why should we care about others well-being? In history, there have been many cases where societies only cared about their own well-being. There are extreme examples like the Nazis. But in ancient times, caring only about one’s own society was the norm. Empires’ entire economies (like the Romans) depended on conquering and pillaging other lands. We now think that’s wrong, and that we should care about other societies in addition to our own. But why?
His whole talk is predicated on the premise that morality is about maximizing human well-being and flourishing and that science can establish how to do that. But he fails to explain the most basic question – why should morality care about human well-being? And science just can’t answer that.
Later, he addresses the question of how we can resolve moral questions when many people have different ideas about what morality is. He argues that just as there are experts in the sciences whose opinions should matter more, we should acknowledge that people can be more or less knowledgeable about morality, and thus they’re ideas should be held in more esteem or discredited. Isn’t it obvious, he says, that we should disregard the ideas of the Taliban.
Again, this begs the question. It’s a circular argument. He’s saying that in figuring out whose ideas of morality are valid, we should evaluate them according to.. who is most moral. That makes no sense.
Anyway. I find it odd that Sam Harris garners so much respect. Hitchens and Dawkins I understand, even if I disagree. But Harris doesn’t even make sense.