59 of 66 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Some reviewers seem to be missing the point of the book
I am doing an Msc in neuroscience and was recommended this book and was told it would be an interesting read for someone of my outlook on things. It certainly was. I can't recommend it enough to anyone with an interest in science.
As far as I can tell the message of this books is simple. Unless i'm wrong and i might be, see what you think...
Published on 27 April 2011 by D. Condliffe
4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A mix of weak arguments and sound debate
Among the main claims of "The Moral Landscape" is that there exists such a thing as an objective moral code, that it is more or less equivalent to a form of utilitarianism, and that science can be used to gain information about this moral code and thus about how we should structure our society. The book is divided into five chapters, and covers topics such as the...
Published 23 months ago by Alexander Sokol
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0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Reason in the domain of the subjective,
This review is from: The Moral Landscape (Paperback)
The book raises some central questions about the business of human well-being, which is arguably the most important business on earth!
The contentious notion that science and religion deal with different domains of the reality story- namely the objective and the subjective, seems inaccurate, inconsistent, simplistic and remiss in applying principles of reason to human well-being. The fact that there are other ways of knowing beyond science (such as mystical experience) does not and cannot absolve science of addressing the most significant questions on what is good, true and beautiful, especially given the advances made in the objective sciences of subjective experience - such as neuroscience, behavioural science and cognitive science. What science embraces within its domain is not a static set of phenomena, but an ever-expanding array of `things' based on expansion and deepening of human understanding. Therefore notions of faith and belief should not interfere with sincere and honest attempts of empiricism in dealing with the question - `What constitutes the greatest good for the highest number of people?' Moral relativism can at best profess its inability to effect positive change in the human condition, and at worst paralyze that process due to its negligent stasis of consensus. The fact that science cannot answer all questions about reality should not come in the way of its trying to do so, especially on the most important questions that matter - and the only way to do that would be to allow science and spirituality to complement each other in improving the quality of understanding.
The author talks of three distinct projects that are necessary to dispel this stasis:
1) We can explain why people tend to follow certain patterns of thought and behaviour (many of them demonstrably silly and harmful) in the name of `morality'
2) We can think more clearly about the nature of moral truth and determine which patterns of thought and behaviour we should follow in the name of morality
3) We can convince people who are committed to silly and harmful patterns of thought and behaviour in the name of `morality' to break these commitments and live better lives.
However I do not agree with the author that the third project can be conducted without the first project, not only because its lack of compassionate ground (refer the writings on free will which posit that cultural conditioning plays an key role in choices), but also its lack of scientific tenability (the very act of convincing will not be successful unless we know how to best convince without the use of brute force).
I reproduce below some very interesting conclusions from behavioural science why defy the rational basis of human decision-making, which inevitably have a high impact on moral reasoning. There are 4 types of biases, in addition to the sensitivity to suffering paradox the author describes (we are much more sensitive to the suffering of a single individual than en masse disasters):
* Prospect Theory -Risk averse on gains, and risk loving on losses: which is a distinctly non-rational thing
* Hyperbolic Discounting - Much higher preference for immediate gratification than discounted value for a future gratification
* Status Quo Bias - check box to donate organ, check box to NOT donate organ. The latter yields much higher results for organ donation
* Base Rate Bias - two independent questions asking for some numerical guesstimates, lead to uncannily close answers despite no correlation between the questions at all.
However, the fact that such anomalies can be studied and modelled provides with rich empirical data to create a moral science, rather than shirking the responsibility of creating one such.
5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars,
This review is from: The Moral Landscape (Paperback)
9 of 25 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars I'm sorry I couldn't finish it (but don't blame me),
I've never written a review for a book that I couldn't finish before, but I'm going to for this one because I don't understand why some people feel it is so great. I was expecting something groundbreaking from this book, but in reality it just seems to be rehash of Utilitarianism and a not very good rehash at that.
Most of the first half of the book appears to be pretty much a religious bashing exercise interspersed with a confused setting out of some 'scientific' concept of value. I saw very little science and very much assertion from the author who just dismisses those who disagree with him as wrong without really explaining why.
However, I did persist hoping that things would get better, but after the authors attempt to stumble through his arguments about the notion of free will and moral responsibility from pp.102-112 I had to give up. I'm not denying that the author is right that neuroscience has shown that humans are just as determined as the rest of nature, but once this is admitted then the concept of value and morality becomes obsolete and trying to change the world for the better becomes meaningless.
If you're going to complain that I should have read the whole book before writing the review then it was not my fault that I didn't finish the book, but the series of events that lead up to the moment that I started writing this review that is to blame, but we cannot blame series of events and so really there is nothing to complain about is there?
26 of 69 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Good intention, flawed realization,
This review is from: The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values (Hardcover)
This time the focus of Sam Harris' attacks is less on religious prejudice than on an indifferentistic moral relativism which may impede modern pluralistic and secular society in defending its values. He cites some striking examples of this attitude delivered by anthropologists and psychologists. Though we shouldn't overestimate the influence of this attitude an attack on it is commendable. But what's about the remedy Harris proposes? He wants to convince us that science is able to provide objective values directly. Well, there is no doubt that knowledge and science are a very important precondition for an individual and a society to develop and adopt reasonable and adequate values. But that doesn't mean that science discovers or develops these values directly. Harris erroneously attacks what he misunderstands as "the naturalistic fallacy" - and what we should better name the "Is-Ought-Fallacy" in order to prevent this kind of misunderstanding. Sure, values are facts as well but these value-facts don't tell us which of them to choose - that's what Hume meant and what is still valid. Progress in individual and social value systems is a historical process which procedes as a cultural development on the basis (but not under the spell) of our evolutionary heritage (to which cruelty belongs as much as altruism). Knowledge and science make a very important contribution to better value systems, but they can't produce and justify them directly. A tradition of 2500 years of critical thinking is more likely to come up with adequate values than a tradition of 2000 or 1400 years of repeating the same religious dogma. To accept the long cultural tradition of enlightenment and secular humanism as somehow "arbitrary" and not enough to justify decisions for certain values and morals is falling into the trap of religious thinking with its illusionary ideas of privileged justification by revelation or whatever kind of unarguable authority.
5 of 20 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars What the book doesn't address,
Sam Harris writes on a difficult subject in a (relatively) easy-to-read style. Unfortunately, the book fails by the questions Harris doesn't address. He tries to argue that science knows about what promotes wellbeing. I wonder if he's being disingenuous here. Surely, he must know of the huge problems that philosophers understand are associated with with this approach? Any scientific attempt to achieve ethical objectivity is faced with an implicit subjectivity which cannot be isolated from the process.
He tries to conflate wellbeing with moral goodness and the two things are quite different. He fails to understand that the nature of values are outside the scope of science. Certainly, they can be debated but they aren't empirical notions which can be subject to scientific analysis
3 of 15 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars The Great Pretender,
Sam Harris sets out to show that "questions about values - about meaning, morality and life's larger purpose - are really questions about the well-being of conscious creatures". From this he draws the erroneous conclusion that values, "translate into facts that can be scientifically understood" and asserts that differences in cultural practices can, nay must, be understood within the context of neuroscience and psychology. He further asserts that "the more we understand ourselves at the level of the brain, the more we will see that there are right and wrong answers to questions of human values." Harris divides opinions about the nature of truth into believers and non-believers, claiming both are wrong but opines, 'moral truth can be understood in the context of science." He argues "morality should be considered an undeveloped branch of science." It's a theme he develops as part of the Project Reason which is committed to spreading science and secular values. There's nothing like objective thinking and such commitment shows nothing like objective thinking.
Harris's two-fold intention is to promote neuroscience (funding is still a major issue in American science so every publication helps) and to attack religion. He dismisses the idea of a specific religious morality arguing there is a boundary between reasoned discourse and pious fiction. The fact that he makes no reference to the concept of 'revolutionary' morality on which Enlightenment thinking was based, places Harris firmly in the 'pious fiction' category rather than the 'reasoned discourse' he believes himself to represent. His position, belief if you will, is that as science and religion are antithetical ways of thinking about the same reality, consideration of both is a zero-sum situation. His contention that religion and science are incompatible is per se a dogmatic statement. Harris places his faith in 'rational, open-ended, honest inquiry' conducted by secular and liberal scientists, dismissing scientists who have religious views as deceiving themselves about the nature of reality. It never strikes him that such scientists have different beliefs about similar facts and those beliefs are as valid as his own. He arrogantly dismisses those who do not share his views as lacking intellectual integrity. He should re-read Kuhn's 'The Structure of Scientific Revolutions' to remind himself that scientific consensus does not mean scientific truth.
When Harris admits ' we form beliefs about facts: and belief in this sense constitutes most of what we know about the world' he unwittingly defines materialism as belief about facts. His arguments incorporate appeals to the authority of others (Dawkins, Dennett, Fodor and Pinker) who share his atheism and unfounded belief in the ability of science to determine morality. History is not on his side. Huxley considered blacks inferior, sterilisation programmes were introduced in pursuit of the science of genetics, experiments in the use of brain implants were designed to control social behaviour and there is currently widespread concern about the impact the use of anti-depressants has on adolescents. Perhaps the 'Boys From Brazil' wasn't fictional after all, just an idea waiting for Harris to translate it into the intellectual arena. His 'science' of morality is a re-statement of Benthamite utilitarianism and he appears not to realise Benthamism not only failed but its application (especially in relation to the Poor Law) produced widespread misery.
Harris appears unable to grasp there is no evidence to support his contention that morality has evolved independently of social order. Societies which adopted moral codes did so on direction from above, that is, the leadership of the society. This was not achieved by appeals to abstract morality but by persuading social leaders to change. Such persuasion was often induced by the political and social environment of the time before adopting institutional forms. No greater proof of Harris's stupidity is needed beyond his neo-Trotskyist belief that science can provide answers to what we should do and should want. The limitations of scientific 'morality' was demonstrated by the development of the nuclear bomb and the decision to use it at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Over half a century later science cannot say whether it was right or wrong to do so. This is not a result of moral relativism but of political judgement because science is incapable of making value judgements. His brave new world is the old world in mufti.
It's ironic that Harris claims science can determine moral values in a book lacking moral values. In proclaiming a commitment to secular values Harris excludes those for whom secular values are unconvincing. Harris condemns those who disagree on the basis that he knows what is right and they are fools for believing otherwise. In essence Harris references science in support of secular values while imagining those values are in themselves scientific. Harris is not spreading science through reason but secular values through prejudice. It's the classic liberal patronising error of believing in his own superiority. This is explicit in his claim "we can convince people who are committed to silly and harmful patterns of thought and behaviour in the name of 'morality' to break these commitments and to live better lives." By what defintion? Harris considers he knows the nature of moral truth and everyone should follow his lead. Plato was right to ask 'Who guards the guardians?'
Morality is a suitable subject for study but science is not a suitable instrument with which it can be studied. Science does not rely on value-free judgements and Harris's value-judgements are painfully obvious to all but himself and his cohorts. Those value judgements are political in nature and it is dishonest of Harris not to admit it. In the tradition of conspiracy theorists he provides a blanket condemnation of his imaginary enemies and, in so doing, undermines any pretence of objectivity. His 'rationalism' is irrational, dogmatic and based on a naturalistic fallacy. Harris is the great pretender claiming to be rational but revealing his ignorance, bigotry and inability to distinguish between science and pseudo-science. Two stars.
2 of 13 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Worrying,
This review is from: The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values (Audio CD)
I'm still getting counselling after reading Sam's truly appalling Letter to a Christian Nation - an object lesson in how to confront a real problem (Protestant fundamentalism) with a mix of sanctimony, condescension, hypocrisy, insult an apparently inexhaustible supply of half thought out arguments, and just enough sinister throwaway remarks to suggest to me as a left-leaning physically disabled person that I might not wish to live in his utopia.
Finding himself in uneasy agreement with religionists about the dangers of moral relativism, Harris has drawn up this alternative moral code based on utilitarnism/consequentialism and neuro-science. Now I won't go into what's wrong with this argument since William ("Bill") Lane Craig pretty effectively destroyed it when debating with Harris at Notre Dame University. To anyone liable to dismiss Craig out of hand due to his Christian beliefs, I would simply urge them to watch the debate again (on YouTube) and see how many of Bill's arguments could not have been made by a non-religious agnostic. Not many as I recall. Bill's arguments appeared to be these:
1. If wellbeing for the masses is the key arbiter then it could equally apply to a libertine society which encourages not virtue but viciousness.
2. An `ought' means nothing unless it derives from a `can' but Harris does not believe in free will.
To those who claim that Harris tackled the first objection through discussion of the Dobu tribe, I would advise them to read Sade's Juliette which does not rely on superstitious savages as an example! The mafia is also a microcosmic example of honour among thieves.
What interests me more, however, is Harris's assertion that morality can be deduced from neuro-science - a haard argument to sustain,, not least as in order to make his case he has to bring in philosophy. Besides, moral considerations may well affect even as banal a decision as whether or not to buy a CD by Bach or Beethoven, and the moral balance may be so subtle as to be borderline unmeasurable. Staying on the subject of that great composer, I couldn't help thinking of one of his more infamous admirers while listening to the section on A World Without Lying. Only one thing would be more amusing than watching The Omen Trilogy with Richard Dawkins (come on Damian!), and that would be watching A Clockwork Orange with Harris ("Yes but it works!).
The idea behind Harris's `wellbeing' paradigm is that no-one questions the fundamental basis of medicine - which might come as a revelation to the Deaf and autistic communities, as well as to members of the Mad Pride movement.
To put it mildly, however, Harris does not preoccupy himself with the moral dimension to buying CDs, or even to more obviously moral conundrums such as whether it is ever permissible to smack a baby. Instead he focuses on the most ghastly extremes -corporal punishment, forcing women to wear the Burkha, blood feuds and genital mutilation. His reason for this approach is threefold. Firstly, such examples simply demonstrates that the argument can be made in favour of neuro-scientific morality based on wellbeing, even if in most cases the scenarios will be less extreme. Secondly, many of these atrocities are given legitimacy through religion. Thirdly, liberal moral relativists refuse to condemn such atrocities. There is something inherently suspect when so many excuses are given by Harris,and inevitably they can not stand. After all, he also elaborates in detail on child abuse practiced by Catholic priests which would appall even some paedophiles and which neither the Pope nor moral relativists would defend.
If I can digress for a moment, the section on Catholic child abuse is a rare slip by Harris back into Letter-style moments of lunacy. For sure the Catholic Church hierarchy behaved atrociously but in the main their cover-ups were an attempt to save face, not to give a seal of approval to paedophilia. Yet of course sexual abuse does not just take place in religious educational establishments. So should everyone who occupies any role whatsoever in a school step down lest by continuing in their jobs they give cover to paedophilia? After all they are clearly sending out the message that secular educational establishments are a good thing and risking entrapping vulnerable children in abusive situations. Can we assume that Harris will not collude with this duplicity and will personally educate his child at home? Who decides when individual malpractice should be seen as emblematic of the whole? I hope it's someone more balanced and fair minded than Harris.
Harris makes a quite preposterous case for suggesting that marriage is natural, yet in a debate which I heard a few years ago the point was made that among mammals, only thre percent are truly monogamous, and humans are not among the three percent. Even if they were, there are ample marriages where force, coercion or political or religious machinations are involved to make Harris's assertion dubious.
Harris refutes the charge of arrogance sometimes laid, generally by religious people, at the foot of scientists. He claims that in scientific forums the tone is invariably one of modesty, caused by the pperfectly reasonable desire not to be seen making a fool of oneself. In fairness the same point has been made by far more reasonable people than him. Yet Harris's claim here has to be seen alongside another quote taken from Letter to a Christian Nation, to wit "there have been some incredibly arrogant scientists". Now it is true that the two statements are not self contradictory but it does suggest that Harris has in The Moral Landscape not been altogether frank.
Now here is potentially offensive thought experiment. If my logic is faulty then I would be sincerely interested to know in what regard: Being gay does not affect one's social skills, but it severely reduces one's chances of finding a sexual partner. Even if primates are congenitally bisexual, they are also likely to have preferences and this is likely to be fore the opposite sex. However there are no counter-balancing aptitudes that explicitly derive from homosexuality such as greater creativity or an aptitude for science.
Autism reduces one's social skills, and one's chances of finding a sexual partner are massively reduced, since the condition affects one's ability to engage in `normal' modes of social conduct. However at least for some autistic people there are very real counter-balancing aptitudes that derive explicitly from the condition - phenomenal power of concentration and memory. So how would Harris feel about abortions for autism? Remember that at the heart of the MMR vaccine scandal was the fear of children developing autism. How would Harris feel about attempts to detect a `gay gene'. I'm not a gambling man but I'll wager he would be quite appalled by even the suggestion. Either as I believe both are equally abhorrent or both are equally acceptable. So, to conclude,can science determine human values? Probably not given Craig's objections, but also given how many ingrained assumptions are processed in our minds as `common sense' (and protected by a veil of taboo) and are therefore liable to affect our interpretation of that scientific information. Harris is not like a sailor in a yacht being led by the wind and tides of science but is rather like a man who is sufficiently confident that he knows what is right to defy the wind and fix an outboard motor to take him to the `correct' place. In that, he is like the rest of us. However it is in his belligerence and closed mindedness that he is genuinely dangerous.
6 of 33 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Unreadable,
I was really looking forward to getting into this book, but was sorley disappointed. It's written in such a style that I really struggled to follow the arguments.
I'm aware this is probably a reflection on my intelligence, but the author needs to tone it down, and make an effort to reach all levels.
3 of 23 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars One of the worst books I've ever read,
This review is from: The Moral Landscape (Paperback)
There are too many things wrong with this book to being to describe. Harris basically advocates utilitarianism dressed up with verbal diarrhea. As far as I know, there havent been any philosophers who take this book seriously, and for good reason. It's really really bad. I would urge people to view the debate (it is on youtube) between William lane Craig and Sam Harris to see the inadequacy of Sam Harris' ridiculous theories exposed. I have no love for prof craig and his strain of evangelicalism, but he exposes Sam Harris' pseudoscientific nonsense for what it is. I'm sure plenty of other writers have too.
6 of 38 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars It Doesn't Do What It Says On the Tin,
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
Sam Harris sets out to show that moral values exist apart from theistic beliefs and that they can be grounded in science. This is a fascinating theory, and novel angle from which to approach the current God debate. Harris suggests that sentient beings seek to flourish and science proves that well being exists where this is allowed to happen, and the reverse when it is stymied. Harris, however, fails to prove his case. If there is no God to ground our moral values then everything is permissible. Murder, rape, theft cannot be judged "evil", "wrong" or "bad" because there is no vantage point from which to assess such deeds, apart from cultural mores which shift and change through human evolution. Tomorrow Nazism or fascism might sweep the world and it could become acceptable or fashionable once again to beat to a pulp people of different racial backgrounds. The Nazis, moreover, would have argued that they were "flourishing" under the Third Reich - so even Harris' notion of what it means to flourish as a human being is up for grabs. There is no way out of this cul-de-sac for Harris, alas. For we are merely an assemblage of random molecules. Atheism provides no higher court of appeal, only the culturally contingent values of the day. In his recent debate with William Craig Lane, at the University of Notre Dame (7th April 2011 - the full debate is available on YouTube), Harris flopped spectacularly in his attempt to defend his thesis. I think that any honest atheist who watches/listens to this debate will appreciate the flaws in Harris' reasoning, and also understand why Richard Dawkins has repeatedly refused to debate Lane in public (to date Lane has felled two of the Four Horseman in public debates).
Lane's summary of how the debate went is apposite:
"Since Harris believes that objective moral values and duties do exist and agrees that some foundation must be given for them, my task was simply to argue that theism, if true, provides such a foundation, whereas atheism does not. I defended Divine Command Theory, that our moral duties are constituted by God's commands, which are in turn reflections of His essential nature, which determines what is good. Against Harris' theory outlined in his book I lodged what I think are three knock-down (even knock-out!) objections: (1) Harris holds that goodness is identical to the well-being of conscious creatures. But he admits that it's possible that the so-called moral landscape featuring the highs and lows of moral states and the landscape of creaturely well-being could fall apart, so that the peaks of well-being would be occupied by evil people. The problem is that if it's even possible for two things to be non-identical, then they are not, in fact, identical. So it turns out that goodness is not identical to creaturely well-being after all, as Harris had claimed. So his whole theory collapses. (2) Since science is descriptive, not prescriptive, it is impossible for science to derive an "ought" statement from an "is" statement. Hence, there is no source of moral duty on Harris' view. (3) Harris is a determinist who denies that we have free will in any sense at all. But determinism is incompatible with moral responsibility ("ought" implies "can"). So on Harris' view objective moral duties are impossible."
P.S. I would also draw your attention to the video of Sam Harris in dialogue with Richard Dawkins in Oxford on the latter's website. At the outset of his talk Harris sets up a straw man definition of religion which he proceeds to knock down. He defines religion as being less concerned with the truth or validity of its beliefs or claims and as being more concerned with its "functional" uses. Having so defined religion Harris then argues that these "functional" values could obtain even if there wasn't a God. However even a GCSE RE student will know that this is a warped, reductionist definition of religion. In 1 Corinthians Chapter 15, for example, St Paul says that Christianity would be a self deceiving faith if Christ had not risen from the dead. Such sentiments at least argue against Harris' notion that religions are not concerned with truth claims. Harris' inaccurate and shoddy definition of religion gravely undermine the thesis of his book.
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The Moral Landscape by Sam Harris (Paperback - 12 April 2012)