Friday, October 22, 2010

Morality, Religion, Bifurcating Ideologies...and Sam Harris's New Book

Earlier this week, in my philosophy of religion class, I offered a brief review of the questions and controversies surrounding the relationship between morality and religion--a topic that I wanted to touch on in class but (as I was making the difficult decisions one has to make when designing a course) decided not to spend extensive time on.

Because theists so often argue that one cannot have morality without God--or at least that one cannot have any kind of objective morality which can provide normative guidance across interpersonal and cultural divides--it makes sense for atheist thinkers, especially those who believe in an objective morality, to attempt to establish a secular foundation for objectively binding moral standards. Thus, it is no surprise that Sam Harris, the "original" new atheist, would turn his attention to this task.

A few months back I offered my reflection on Sam Harris's efforts to pursue this task in a TED talk. Now Harris has released a book on the topic, The Moral Landscape, developing his claim that science can offer an objective foundation for ethics. Just today, Michael Ruse--a philosopher I greatly respect and author of numerous works in the philosophy of science, (including Darwinism and its Discontents and his most recent book, Science and Spirituality)--offers his take (down) of that book in Religion Dispatches.

Many of the points Ruse makes are similar to those I raised in relation to Harris's TED talk--but Ruse is quicker to highlight Harris's deeper agenda, which is (yet again) to trash religion and people of faith. "To say that religion is a bit of an obsession for Harris," Ruse comments, "is rather like saying Hitler had a bit of a thing about the Jews." Ruse is himself an atheist who wrangles repeatedly with creationists and ID theorists, but he's what William Rowe (the atheist philosopher of religion) would dub a "friendly atheist"--that is, his attitude is one of skeptical but respectful critical engagement with people of faith. I think, like me, Ruse is greatly troubled by the kind of bifurcating ideology--the us/them divide and the villifacion on those on the other side of it--that characterizes so much of the contemporary debate about theism and religious faith.

Often, the issue of morality is invoked by religious fundamentalists to villify atheists: There can be no morality without God, they argue; and hence, atheists must be amoral. The reasoning here is terrible, of course. Even if you think that the existence of objective moral truths in some fashion or another depends on the existence of a God, it hardly follows that atheists can't be deeply moral. Suppose there is ongoing uncertainty about the underlying physics that explains the force of gravity--and suppose that in a debate about this underlying physics, one side in the debate has the right answer. It doesn't follow that those on the other side of the debate don't believe in gravity (let alone that they behave as if it doesn't apply to them).

Ruse, in his review of Harris's new book, seems to worry that Harris is taking a page out of the religious fundamentalist's book--trying to argue, in effect, that religious people can't be genuinely moral because they misconceive the foundations of morality. In fact, Ruse seems to be concerned that pursuing this kind of villification of religious believers is a basic driving purpose behind Harris's book.

How else do we explain Harris's utterly gratuitous 15-page attack on Francis Collins, the head of the NIH who also happens to be Christian--an attack that seems entirely out of place in a book that's supposed to be about the foundations of morality? As one reads his review, one can almost see Ruse blinking in astonishment. If your purpose is to explain the foundations of morality in terms of scientific facts, why ignore G.E. Moore's arguments that this cannot be done (in terms of what Moore calls the naturalistic fallacy) while devoting more than a dozen pages to trashing a scientist who has, buy all accounts (except, perhaps, the accounts of those religious conservatives who want to ban stem cell research) led the NIH with distinction?

In fact, as I argued when Harris first called Collins unfit to lead the NIH in the pages of the New York Times (simply because of Collins' Christian faith), there is a very disturbing similarity between Harris's denunciation of Collins and traditional religious denunciation of heretics. Now, it seems, Harris wants to go further: Belief in God not only disqualifies one from being fit to lead an organization such as the NIH; it fundamentally compromises one's ability to lead a moral life.

To be fair, I have yet to read Harris's book and I am going simply off of Ruse's review. Perhaps Harris's argument is not quite so hostile to religion as all of that. But, of course, having read his other books I'm prone to think Ruse's characterization is right. And if it is, then Harris is once again recreating atheism in religious fundamentalism's image--this time by taking the fundamentalist argument that atheists can't be moral and inverting it to apply to religious believers.

I think the issue of how morality and religion intersect is an important one. But I think it is crucial that we explore this and related issues without the sort of hostile us/them thinking that puts those with different ideas into a morally disabled "out-group."  This is not to say there is no truth to the notion that certain ways of thinking can have morally pernicious effects. After all, I just argued in my most recent Religion Dispatches article that allegiance to a doctrine of biblical inerrancy can threaten our capacity for empathy and compassion. But there's a difference between focusing on specific ways of thinking (making a concrete case that their implications are damaging and inviting critical response), and pursuing an agenda of ideological disqualification in which an entire group of diverse human beings is cast beyond the pale--be it Muslims, or Christians, or Jews, or Hindus, or atheists. If any way of thinking has morally pernicious effects, this surely does.

Is Harris guilty of this? I'll decide for sure once I've read his book. But whatever is the case with Harris, let us agree that neither theists nor atheists have a corner on being moral, and neither theists nor atheists have a unique claim on harboring ideas with questionable implications for our prospects of living the most virtuous life we are capable of. In the struggle to understand what it means to live a good life--and the place of religious faith and respect for science in that struggle--bifurcating ideologies only impede progress.


  1. Hi, Eric-

    I also enjoyed and agreed with Ruse's article. Harris doesn't seem to be making much sense these days, and is becoming an ever bigger embarrassment to the cause.

    "Often, the issue of morality is invoked by religious fundamentalists to villify atheists: There can be no morality without God, they argue; and hence, atheists must be amoral. The reasoning here is terrible, of course."

    Well, I would suggest that their reasoning is pretty clear. If you accept that god speaks through the accepted avenues of scripture and the patriarchial church, then forsaking them means likewise forsaking any moral bearing they supply as intermediators of god's directives. Seems pretty simple. You just have to know how they approach it.

    But your point about the mechanism of moral origin/transmission is very interesting, of course. As an atheist, I think our real point is to plumb the actual depths of this issue, since false beliefs on this score can lead to so much harm.

    If we live in a already moral universe then we can't escape it and everyone would be moral without exception. If we live in an amoral universe where morals are only supplied by the dauntingly rare intercessions of god's spoken word, then we have to pay close heed to those words, or we will quickly fall off the wagon and into sin, not to say chaos.

    Lastly, if we live in an amoral universe but have morality built in by Darwinian means, then those would vary as do all other biological traits, creating a population occupying a moral spectrum, from psychopathic to self-abnegating. And we would have to figure out how to live together by setting some minimal standards of universal morality, together with voluntary associations that keep higher standards among themselves. And we would want to keep learning- paying attention to reasoned arguments relating our moral ends and means, as well as knowing as much as we can about human nature, in order to enculture better morals in each other as time goes on, which we might call "moral progress".

  2. post-script:

    I forgot a common view, which Francis Collins and Eric espouse, I think, which is that morals are built into humans not (entirely) by evolution, but by god's benevolence, while he also grants the free will to use that built-in though rather shaky moral sense to navigate our way through his world. A world which is, if not amoral, at least providing wide scope for immorality, empirically speaking.

    This is reminiscent of the creationism argument where god places fossils in the ground to confuse us into thinking that evolution is true, where in actuality it was all god's handiwork. Evolutionary biologists are quite far along in developing excellent theories about the origin of morals through the evolutionary process, being mostly a matter of feeling (and selecting) group vs individual interests. So a theological approach seems unnecessary. Of course it additionally fails to provide any mechanism for its supposed action, other than the usual god-did-it.

    Even the timing is murky, since the typical assumption is that humans got morals specially implanted at some magic point during their otherwise natural evolution. But increasingly close study of other animals shows that they have morals too- gophers, chickadees, meerkats, and many other animals serve as sentries for their groups, complete with rather detailed languages communicating alarms for a diverse array of predators. This is not to mention the extraordinary study of chimpanzees which as demonstrated their personalities, moral attachments and uncommon, if human-like, depravities.

    It all seems rather suspiciously like morals are a gradual development through evolutionary time, now raised to new heights (or possibly depths) in our self-conscious and language-enhanced cognitive world.

  3. Eric and Burk

    I'm not sure I understand what is meant by morality being either a fact of the universe or a result of evolutionary processes, because I don't think I understand exactly what morality is.

    This may perhaps reflect a certain amorality on my part, insomuch as I never feel myself dismissing an action or judgement as wrong in principle. I find myself instead trying to imagine living in an environment where the stance in question feels right, and then wondering if I should enjoy living in such an environment.

    So, to use everybody's favourite cliche, I don't think torturing babies is wrong per se, I rather don't want to live in a world where torturing babies is considered okay. My hunch is that it would require such a suppression of empathy, such an elevation of barbarism, that to live amongst it would be lead a withered sort of existence.

    So, using little more than self interest and a cobbled together theory of human nature, I find my moral radar is surprisingly well matched to those with a far more absolutist view of morality. This may be the washing out effect of culture, genes or even God, but whatever the reason, making pragmatic links between the morality we fashion and the society it produces seems to me to be the real challenge.

    Who was it who provided the aphorism 'is does not imply ought, but ought does imply can'? Working out the can is I think a reasonable job for biologists, sociologists, psychologists and all to get cracking on. Issues of morality in sexuality seem to me to be the classic case of our social norms having to dovetail with our natures if we are to really explore our potential.


  4. That personal well-being and human flourishing are good things, is a truism. As is the claim that scientific knowledge can help in one's moral reasoning.

    In any case I wonder how Sam Harris would react if science were to discover that religious belief and a religious lifestyle are conducive to personal well-being. What if science were to discover that the best state of future well-being of the human race would be produced if all peoples embraced the better varieties of their traditional religions, and that on the contrary atheism is not conducive to peoples’ well-being? That’s not a far-fetched scenario; there are already several statistical studies that show a strong correlation between religiosity and personal well-being (as well as between religiosity and charity).

  5. Hi, Bernard-

    What makes you not want to live in such a society? Why not be a hermit in the forest? It isn't only our self-interest in some purely objective level that leads to our choices, but the desires we have that in the end characterize wherever it is we want to get to.. what is good.

    As you say, a cobbled-together theory of human nature can address this. But it also begs the question of where that nature came from and what its detailed operations and flexibility are. Some say it was implanted by god, despite zero evidence and plenty of alternate evidence that the implanting happened via evolution.

    So it seems important (from the atheist and evolutionary biology perspective) to figure out in more detailed ways how it is that human nature came to be, with whatever morals & desires we have inborn. This is where "is" implies "ought"- our inborn desires (including for survival) interacted with our inborn means to get there collectively (morality) in a perpetual loop over evolutionary time, producing human nature.

    If at this point, most humans (including you) have similar moral natures and desires, then an absolute model would appear to match quite well, even though no absolute mechanism (other than game theory and evolution, perhaps) was ever operative.

  6. Hi, Dianelos-

    You pose an interesting question. I certainly wouldn't want to speak for Harris, but his dalliances with Buddhism indicate some sensitivity to this model (I hope). Your proposal is very much like William James's as well, who was pro-religion on purely pragmatic and personal grounds.

    I would hope that atheists would take such information in stride, and concede that subjective and perhaps even objective well-being is enhanced by such belief, if so. But we would not therefore take the next (pragmatic) step and accept the truth of any particular religion therefore, since so much else militates against it on a rational plane. We would also point out the practical dangers of putting one's self at the disposal of one of so many different & conflicting sects and doctrines.. enslaving one's self, in essence. Forgive me, I am reading about John Milton right now!

    So we would be left with a model of humanity that says it is better-off psychologically with a religious crutch, much as we might be better off without having eaten of the fruit of the tree of life in the first place(!)

    That said, I think it isn't true universally, judging from the happiness level in mostly secular Europe (which is declining due to austerity right now, however!). Yet humans vary, and I think one can say without any doubt that a very large proportion of humanity is far happier with religion that without. So even without making universal & statistical claims, your proposition is certainly true to some degree and we just have to deal with it, whichever side we are on.

    This is really what animates my participation in this blog, since the pursuit of truth/wisdom (philosophy) should not be beholden to emotional congeniality and to tests of charity or other poll-driven human goods. Perhaps I am terribly biased towards the "truth" part of philosophy and less to the wisdom and "what is good" parts of the discipline. But it just seems that they are separate questions, and if the universe is a cold pitiless affair, then wishing it otherwise via whatever imaginative and shamanistic practices, while doubltess congenial and pleasant, wouldn't be proper philosophy in anyone's book, I think.

  7. Burk

    Yes, of course, one's desires are the starting point for such self interest, and undoubtedly there is a genetic component to these, just as there is clearly a cultural one. Some claim there is also a spiritual side to our deepest yearnings, and I'm personally sceptical about that.

    I'm also rather sceptical about the usefulness of science when it comes to understanding our essential nature. I think it's methodology is a lousy match for the question, and a lot of evolutionary studies in particular seem to do little more than reproduce the researcher's initial prejudices. The area of sex difference is my favourite example, and although some of the studies can be fun in a horoscope-reading sort of a way, immeasurable damage is being done in education by those who insist on telling boys they are naturally inclined to be competitive, have short attention spans and find language difficult. It drives me nuts.

    I am always struck by the fact that Shakespeare was a contemporary of Galileo's. And yet when we examine his work we find an understanding of the human stain that I'd claim is unsurpassed. And theatre is full of such heroes. I learn more about our nature watching and thinking about Waiting for Godot than I ever could reading a science text book I think. This is not to argue that science can't add to our understanding of human nature, but compared to literature I would argue its achievements to date are crass and unsophisticated.


  8. Hi, Bernard-

    I think we actually agree here. I was speaking on a very theoretical level, and don't claim that science is actually any where near a full appreciation of either inborn desires, morals, or the social systems that develop them into culture. And I agree that art (among many other pusuits) is a leading way to investigate these issues. This even leads me to class religion as a form of art, maybe unbeknownst to its practitioners.

    But I think that over time, our knowledge will accumulate on all these fronts and what seems readily apparent now in the sketchiest outline (i.e. evolutionary paths to our traits and to their population distributions) will deepen into more serious insight.

  9. Burk,

    Philosophy asks a range of questions--not merely about what reality is like and about what we can know, but about the limits of human knowledge (and hence the possibility of truths that are beyond knowing). Philosophers also ask about beauty and goodness--about what values are and how we ought to live, and how these question might be related to questions about reality.

    The question that frequently takes center stage in my recent writing--what we have a right to believe in the face of irresolvable uncertainty--really falls under the broader question of how we ought to live. But from my vantage point (given my intuitions about the nature of ethical judgments and my reflection on them), the fact that a belief is recommended on the basis of its ethical value MAY actually say something about reality.

    Let's call this a hypothesis that I take very seriously and am not prepared to cast away simply because a metaphysical perspective that happens to be dominant these days--reductive materialism--leaves no room for it.

    So in a sense, I agree with you that religion is like art--certainly more like art than like science--in terms of how it fits into human life and the function it serves. I think where we differ the most is in terms of what we think about art and its relation to truth.

  10. Eric-

    That makes me curious about how you view art. I'd offer that art has both generative and analytic aspects. It presents the human condition in all its complexity, for our mutual enlightnment and enjoyment, and also generates new social conditions if sufficiently persuasive/transformative. It can be spoken of as "true" if it represents some bit of humanity in a way that stirs us with recognition or perhaps with inspiration.

    So it is an enclosed system, in a way, concerned with representing and enhancing the human condition, however that can be done. Some of this is "reality"-based, in that the human condition actually exists and has concrete origins. But much is also imaginative, since much (virtually all, really) of our condition takes place in imaginative terms, open to ideological framing and hugely varying interpretation.

    Suppose culture A has a warlike ideology which makes it successful vs culture B which has a strongly pacifist, or at least peaceful ideology. Each ideology/myth is wrong in any objective sense, but one wins on a Darwinian basis. Does that make ideology A more true than B? Does that make it better? This is a common setting both now and prehistorically. I'd agree that a cultural artform/ideology that promotes Darwinian survival is in some senses true in the simple terms of presenting the problems of survival in a more useful/effective way or promoting successful behaviors (successful in the narrowest sense). But its actual contents are not thereby validated. Only direct empirical testing. reason, & analysis can make that judgement.

    And I would argue that in a complex social/cultural setting, successful behaviors may be based on beliefs that are far less true than competing beliefs. Specifically, fanaticism usually wins out over reason and pacifism. So the whole proposition that the ethics & behaviors you choose to value are somehow a validating test of the (scientific) truth of an artistic product or ideology doesn't seem to work, and indeed seems more circular and subjective than indicative of "truth" in what I would take as a philosophical sense.

    This incidentally also forms a general critique of one of atheism's main arguments, that seeing reality more clearly is necessarily better in any but a strictly scientific sense. Not necessarily so, as Dianelos raises in his question!

    Sorry to meander, but my upshot is that claims need to be made specifically. Either one makes a scientific claim about how extra-social reality operates, using empirical/logical arguments, or one can make artistic/cultural claims about myths that generate successful art, social ethics, survival behaviors, etc. What I don't see is how one can make a case for overlaps between these fields, (particularly going from the social to the extra-social), due to the vast scope of social imaginative/artistic construction.

  11. Burk

    I think I would claim that there is such a thing as truth in art, and I suspect the reason I would do so is pretty similar to the reason some theists would claim there is truth in their religious tradition.

    To take an example, a favourite play of mine is Harold Pinter's The Birthday Party. Pinter once said, 'beneath the thing that is being said, another thing is being said' and the opening of The Birthday Party presents a breakfast scene of quiet desperation, with the Meg, the hostess of a run down boarding house, talking without speaking, her utterances, whilst coherent, reduced to nothing more than noise, and the harder she tries to connect, with her husband and her boarder, the more futile the task becomes. Played well, this scene mines something so deeply true about the human state that it rips at the heart to watch it.

    Now, I would argue that this particular truth is not reducable to any empirical observation about human needs, programming, behaviour or evolution. Such methods can approach it, but all miss out an essential element of that truth, one that can only be experienced in the theatre. That element is, as you observe, an act of imagination.

    Truths like this are central to my life. They sit as the most important, useful and defining ideas I have about my own existence. Perhaps we could choose not to call them truths, on the grounds that no two audience member will see them in exactly the same way; they can not be prodded, dissected, tested or used to generate predictions. But I'm not sure how comfortable I am giving primacy to one form of pragmatism over another.

    Science is tremendously helpful when it comes to providing explanations and predictions in the physical world, and art is tremendously helpful when it comes to adding depth and meaning to the imaginative world, which is the world I primarily live in.

    Is there perhaps a case for simply saying, well there are different kinds of truth then, so let's just judge all the various ways of knowing against the riches they can offer? Isn't this in some sense smarter than insisting one view is the really 'true' view (a trap fnudamentalists of all stripes fall into so readily)? It doesn't stop us being sceptical, challenging, or curious. Indeed it promotes these virtues, I think.


  12. Bernard-

    I hope I didn't give the impression that I disagree with art being very truthful to the human condition.. I do agree and it is. The point I was trying to make is that truths of what you agree is the imaginative and rich world of human experience are not veridical when remade into claims about the non-imaginative natural world.

    That would be a species of magical thinking, like the proposition that because the myth of Santa Claus creates so much joy and good behavior that it is also true in a veridical/natural way as well. Nothing could be more pernicious to a clearly distinguished philsophical approach to reality. Likewise with more profound feelings of mysticism, world-shifting emotion, religious epiphanies, etc. These may be personally transformative and even deeply illuminating about human affairs. But they can't on their own say anything about extra-social reality.

    One certainly would have the right to take them as clues and hypotheses, if one wishes, but the proper criteria for judging them to be naturalistically real/actual lie elsewhere.