Friday, December 10, 2010

The Limits of a Paradigm: Sam Harris

I've been meaning to write about Sam Harris for a while. This is because I think that if he just had one slight change in his thinking, his ideas would make a lot more sense. I say this because I believe science is in desperate need of a paradigm shift, in the sense that Kuhn talks about in "Theory of Scientific Revolutions" (great historian/philosopher of science). Currently science is in a materialist paradigm. What is real is defined by the ability for humans to think logically about a phenomenon. Empirical observations and the scientific truths that follow are the only kind of truths that individuals or society can really think or do anything about, so it is the only meaningful aspect of reality. This is what the scientific paradigm purports. Of course the average person does not necessarily think this way. But this does not mean that the paradigm does not effect society as a whole. The beliefs of scientists shape the direction of our thinking--they define aspects of what it means to be human, they lead the development of our new technologies, and they serve as the first lens with which we interpret the material world. And don't get me wrong--there have been amazing strides in improving the well being and equal treatment of humans within this paradigm. But now we are at the paradigm's limits, as illustrated by Sam Harris's dilemma. 

Here's what Mr. Harris is grappling with, in my view: He is fully committed to the materialist paradigm. This has lead him to many drastic conclusions about religion, namely that it is a useless, and at times harmful conglomeration of myths and beliefs that need to be done away with. But then he is faced with the question of morality. After all, many people cite religion as the source of their moral compass. So when he is campaigning against religion, some in his opposition respond by saying that religion dictates morality--without it, people would be amoral. So, Sam Harris has written a book to explain that no, science can be and *should* be the source of morality. 

But here is where Harris comes up against the issue of his paradigm. Harris claims that "values are facts about the well being of conscious creatures". Thus, we can reach logical, objective conclusions about what is a moral act by determining whether the act "increases well-being". He then imagines there being a 'moral landscape' where there are peaks and valleys in terms of behaviors that increase well being more or less. With this structure in place, scientists can then make objective claims about moral behavior. Thus, we can objectively say that killing a woman because she was raped is amoral. 

Well duh. After reading countless articles and speeches that Sam Harris has made about this book "The Moral Landscape", I couldn't find anything in his moral theory that makes it significantly different from Utilitarianism. The idea that in a given situation, people should commit the act that will have the best consequences for the most people has been around for at least 200 years. The twist, it seems, is that to Harris, we can investigate empirically what increases human 'well-being' and then prescribe those things as moral acts. 

So if this idea has already been around, why hasn't it caught on already? Why do we need people like Sam Harris to remind us of it's virtues? 

Well for one, it's very difficult to define 'well-being' or any other word you'd like to replace it with. Take a minute just to think about your closest friends, and the huge range of activities they like to participate in, ways they like to relate to people and ambitions that they have in life, and you'll begin to have a picture of why constructing a general sense of 'well being' (that goes beyond meeting one's basic survival needs) is a monumental, if not impossible task. 

But there is a missing piece of information here. Because cognitive scientists and neuroscientists have been studying moral judgments for quite a while now. Instead of trying to determine what morality should be, however, they have been attempting to study how people do behave morally. Jonathan Haidt has been one of the central investigators. And what have they found? 

That moral decision making is committed on the basis of emotional reactions, not 'rational' decision making. So here is the real  difficulty of science trying to make moral prescriptions. Because science has shown us that we do NOT reason our way into our moral decision making. So a process like the one Sam Harris describes has been proven by science to not be the way people actually act. 

So on the one hand, Sam Harris is interested in winning his argument against religion by constructing a  moral basis that is completely objective. By doing this, he wants to prove his paradigm. Not only that, but I think Harris is genuinely disturbed by the proliferation of moral relativism that has followed from the scientific paradigm that we are currently in.  But the scientific paradigm includes a belief that empirical observations and the scientific truths that follow are the only kind of truths that individuals can really think or do anything about. This makes them the only meaningful aspect of reality, and thus the only source for objectivity---the only things that are 'true'." And religion contends that there are moral truths that can not be understood in the scientific method of finding truth. This conflicts with the current scientific paradigm. So Sam Harris, being a good scientist, feels compelled to remedy this aberration within the paradigm. 

But on the other hand, the scientific method/paradigm itself, in studying individual moral behavior, has proven that people do not think rationally, or scientifically, about how to behave morally. More often than not, the motivation for moral behavior is emotional, not 'reasonable'. So why wouldn't Sam Harris, who so firmly believes in the reality of this paradigm, not construct a 'scientific' moral system that somehow appeals to people's emotions? One that causes them to shift the way they feel about other people and encourages them to act for the well-being of conscious creatures. After all, this would be the method that is scientifically proven to get people to behave morally--and isn't that the purpose of creating any moral system?

Of course, Sam Harris can't do that--because what would that look like, if not religion. So, in this way, Sam Harris is stuck within his own paradigm. He can only suggest a moral system that his own paradigm has proven would be ineffective. Without it, if one believes in the scientific paradigm one can very easily conclude a moral relativity that Sam Harris and many others find very disturbing. But what if he could shift his paradigm, just a little bit? 

So instead of trying to find objective morality empirically and then using that as a tool for moral decision making, why don't we accept the idea that there may be objective, non-rational truths that can not be quantified, but can only be experienced. And experiencing and living these truths will make you a more moral person. And let's also agree that there are thousands upon thousands of people out there who claim they know these truths--priests, rabbis, monks, nuns, cult-leaders, healers, psychics, self-help gurus--who actually don't. And that these people should be found, and outed for what they actually are--fakers. (And I have reason to believe this could be done in a scientific fashion). But let's also suggest that perhaps there are people out there who have experienced those truths, and have honestly useful methods for other people to experience those truths that could benefit other people. And that some of these people might be related to religious sects, but this does not necessarily mean their truths are automatically discounted. 

If the paradigm could shift to accept the existence of a relevant reality that cannot be discovered scientifically, perhaps Sam Harris' quandary could be solved. I believe that there are many discrepancies like this that we are currently butting heads with and a shift in this direction could be very positive for humanity's quest for truth. 

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

How do you know what you want?

Making decisions in life is difficult. With even the simplest choices, I find myself tearing through the given options, imagining distant consequences that create entire lives I have to choose to lead or not. In this way, everything can be seen as life-altering, and thus paralyzing. To me, what makes it so difficult is that I actually want two conflicting things. I have strong values in life that conflict with each other, and make me consider different options.

But let's define the soul as: the a priori subjective belief that you are a unique, individual, unified perspective. So accepting the objectivity of yourself. You cannot observe yourself. You can not perceive yourself. You are yourself. But "I" thinks it can perceive itself. It is the I that explains to 'you' who you are and what you can or can't do, the I that tells other people the same, the I that narrates your experiences. But you,  the soul, the perspective, have your experiences. It is often the I that makes the decisions about who you should or shouldn't date, what you should or shouldn't do, where you should or shouldn't live. But you can also act.

So what does this mean for decision making, the suggestion that there is a real you, a you that is separate from most of your conscious thoughts? Before the idea of a 'real' you, the conflicting values that lead to indecision seem to be of equal weight. The introduction of  a 'real' you implies that one value is wrong (not the 'real' you) and another value is right (the 'real' you). So now decision making is not a gamble. It is a real tangible something. We must investigate this 'you' and find out what he or she wants, and then do that thing.

Of course, investigation of this you, as the I should know by now, is fundamentally impossible. Only you can know you. The I can only know what lays outside of you. So we can not rationally determine or describe who we are. We can only experience who we are.

It is my assertion here that most decision making is gambling--and people rarely do what the soul 'them' actually wants. This is again because the I has no way of knowing what you want. It can only look outside of you and construct an identity that the I wants. But this will always feel empty, because the soul or 'real' part of you who perceives and has feelings and experiences is not getting what it wants. Some people, because of the stress and doubt that difficult decisions cause them, choose to completely ignore their conflicting feelings, and become increasingly attached to the I that has been constructed. Others, because of the sadness felt when you think what you want is impossible or out of the question for you never make any decisions. (because of the I's convictions--you are of course meant to do exactly what you are meant to do).

My definition of the soul may be hard to swallow. But instead of wondering whether it is objectively true (something that would be impossible) think instead about the consequences of believing it is true.When you are conflicted about a decision, just imagine that you are a unified consciousness. That there is indeed, something that you actually feel--not just think--that you want.

As a young person, when I try this exercise, I often come up with the feeling of: "I don't know". This may seem like a stopping point, or a loop. You can't decide what to do, so you feel that you don't know what to do. Duh. But it is actually an invitation. Having the real and deep experience of not knowing, of ignorance, turns quickly into curiosity. It the spark of real passion and investigation.

I suggest these things not only as a way to determine what you want in life. I suggest them because people's inability to have accurate ideas about what the 'real' them wants is actually extremely damaging to the outside, material world and other individuals in it. A central desire for most people in American consumerist culture is to make money, and then more of it. Another strong desire that most people express is to be 'successful', which I think roughly means be recognized by their relevant peers to have more value than the average person. And yet, it's not difficult to see that both of these 'desires' have immediate detrimental effects on the environment as well as our fellow humans.  We have ravaged the earth with our insatiable need to consume material goods, as advertising agencies have convinced us that only their products will make us feel good enough. And we operate daily under the conviction that some people are just better, and of more worth, than others, and it is our purpose to prove our individual power to others.

But I am for better or worse completely convinced that at the end of the day individuals are good and want to do what is good. And yet, most people claim to have these desires, that are very damaging for things outside of them. Some might then conclude that people are actually at the core not good. But I instead suggest that these desires aren't actually real. Even if you feel them strongly, what about the other desires that you have, buried deep, that can sometimes conflict? How about your desire for the people around you to be happy? For you to feel and trust real love around you? For there to be less suffering around you? Your desire to relax and enjoy the inherent beauty in artful creation or natural evolution? Your desire to no longer strive, no longer want? To just be?

A world where these desires could be met could be created. But it would first require a shift in our beliefs about what we actually want. What world do we want to live in? What are we doing to achieve that world, instead of striving to make our place in this world we can agree is not ideal? Which aspect of our desires would we like to be real? The choice is ours to make.