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. 


  1. Grade A stuff you've talked yourself in a circle, I do believe if a scientific paradigm existed in which moral behavior could only be directed by emotion and not objective reasoning I would be a christian.Oh and well being isn't hard to define its in Websters. I mean I get what your saying, what if someone is only happy when killing, In such a case, its as simple as the person in question is confused, their true happiness isn't derived from killing, It's as simple as killing is the only enjoyable thing they have come to experience I think if you take that same person and let them experience things that would normally increase the average human beings, well being they would conform and be happy. A very intelligent man once said half the battle is controlling what you desire. This stands as a fact in my life today. These things aren't hard to understand in fact this whole subject has been over stressed to the point that its gotten this complicated. The easiest way to sum up all of Sam Harris's book and the the theory of the moral land scape, is as simple as saying a society that gets along and works towards improvement instead of awaiting one Apocalypse or another from one god or another, of all of Sam Harris's points I think Religion being dangerous is the most important one.

  2. Interesting, I use the same references (Haidt and Harris) to argue somewhat the same thing (Harris' problems with not taking into account human psychology), but use it to reach the opposite conclusion; that we should bring the paradigm of materialism into the domain of religion. Rather than, as you argue, the opposite, bringing the 'paradigms' of the supernatural into the domain of science. In brief I argue that there's nothing wrong with something that resembles religion, as long as it is empirically backed based on our scientific understanding of human psychology (which necessarily means operating within the materialist paradigm). Anyway, you can read my arguments on my blog, this is the most relevant post, although it doesn't contain all that I have referenced here

    Just because scientists study the whole variety of human moral systems doesn't mean science shows them all to be equally valid. Describing what's there, and in the case of researchers like Haidt, explaining why they are there, is not the same as endorsing all of them equally any more than a journalist objectively reporting why a war has broken out is endorsing that it has done so.