Book Review: The Moral Landscape by Sam Harris, Part 1

My Introduction

The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values, by Sam Harris, is a very bad book, and it is bad in complex ways.  It is a mixture of good and bad ideas, and for the book to be properly evaluated they must first be disentangled.  It at least has that much (being bad in a complex way) going for it.  But it does mean that writing a review requires a lot of justification – and that takes time to organize.

I have been trying for a long time to write this review, so I have decided to break it up and post it in parts.  This is the first part.  Since this will be in installments, any feedback that you have will be much appreciated, and I will do my best to respond to your questions and comments, both below and in future posts. (Part 2 and Part 3 are here.)

I care enough to write this review because TML could have been good.  I was honestly excited to hear that Harris was writing about ethical naturalism, my own field of study.  I had been badly disappointed by his previous two books (they are much worse), which I read to see if he might have some new insights that could convert me back to atheism.  Instead I read a totalitarian vision of atheism run amok, with no justification for itself.  I am always hopeful that people can improve, and this book is a relative improvement (over complete insanity), but it is still very bad.

Due to the problematic nature of TML, I have decided to make this book review extremely structured.  I will go through Harris’s book chapter by chapter, and for each one first summarize it, then enumerate the points of agreement and disagreement I have with it, and then evaluate it for specific points and then general points.  I will do this for the notes as well.  At the end I will give an overall evaluation.  This structure is not particularly exciting, but it will be a highly detailed analysis of Harris’s book.

Before going on I ought to articulate my biases.  I am a Roman Catholic philosopher (an adult convert from agnosticism/atheism) specializing in ethical naturalism and natural law.  These two fields have the same subject, with one exception.  Ethical naturalism attempts to derive ethics from nature without reference to God: it is atheistic.  Natural law, on the other hand, is a traditional Catholic method of moral investigation and argumentation, and does the same as ethical naturalism except that God is assumed to be the creator of nature and the confirmer, via revelation, of the ethics found therein.  But nevertheless it is secular, arguing from experience and reason, not revelation to make its points.  Revelation confirms natural law, it is not assumed by it.  The Catholic Church picked up this type of ethics from the Greek and Roman philosophers, and has stuck with it, because (among other things) it allows dialogue with secular culture and non-Christian philosophy and theology.  The Catholic Church, of course, also accepts the Bible and sacred tradition as another source for ethics.  Some of what I say here will be of greater interest to Catholics and/or Christians, but most is applicable more broadly.

My motivation in writing this review is that I hate lies.  The reason I got into ethics is that I love justice and the reason I got into education is that I love knowledge, and lies destroy both.  The Moral Landscape is full of lies, spreading ignorance and doing injustice towards philosophy and religion.  This is not minor stuff; this is the meaning of life we are talking about, the difference between good and evil.  This book advocates evil.  So I must speak.

Introduction, TML pgs. 1-25


Harris states that questions about values are questions about the well-being of conscious creatures (1).  Values are a kind of fact involving happiness or suffering, etc.  These facts can transcend culture because they are rooted in the brain.

Because well-being is rooted in brain states, we can have scientific knowledge about it.  This is objective, allowing us to judge societies as better or worse by their effects (2).

Both the religious and the secular lack sufficient belief in the power of reason (4).  This makes the religious turn to God for morals and the secular turn to relativism.  This is a lopsided dichotomy; it hobbles secularity against religion (5).  Rational inquiry is the only source of insight; faith is only ever right by accident.

Science has defeated religion for centuries.  Morality is the last holdout and science has restrained itself to the benefit of religion (6).  But the holdout will fall.

The moral landscape is a metaphorical terrain of flourishing peaks and miserable abysses.  Different ethics will result in different movements across this landscape.  There may be multiple peaks and valleys (7).  Movement across the landscape can be measured by brain states (8).  Culture is a vehicle for moral development, and culture affects our brains (9).

Knowledge and values can no longer be kept apart.  Science and religion are antithetical and cannot be reconciled.

Hume’s is-ought problem and Moore’s naturalistic fallacy… Moore’s open question argument “but is that really good?” is a verbal trap that can be avoided if we just look to human well-being (10).  Positive psychology has a lot of good data on what causes happiness, yet they then refrain from making recommendations. This field is progressing and will run afoul of religion, just like evolution did, because the fact-value divide is illusory.

Is well-being too hard to define?  We do the same for physical health (11). What Harris advocates is an ethics “fully constrained by our current biology” (13), but not reduced to our instinct (14).

For his argument to work, we need grant only two points: (one) some people have better lives than others; and (two) these differences are related in some lawful way to states of the brain and the world (15).

Some people will say all such differences between “good” and “bad” are just talk, a language game.  But they themselves don’t live that way (17).  If we found a new tribe we would not assume they were in perfect health, but we would assume we could not correct their morality (19).  Enduring traits are not necessarily adaptive; they just didn’t kill everyone (20).  Because memes are communicated, they are not dependent on conferring benefit to their hosts.  Ignorant people can undermine their health, why can’t we accept that they can undermine their well-being too? (21).

Improvements, whether personal or social, are inconvenient and can cause suffering.  This does not negate that progress is good.

Religion is a problem (22).  Dogmatism blocks science, and because science is reluctant to get into morals, dogmatism there reigns (23).  Religion and science are in a zero-sum conflict with regards to facts and values, so faith and reason cannot compromise on morality.  Most intellectuals think it is okay to sedate the masses with delusions (24).  They fail to see how condescending they are.  Many think that starting a war of ideas will lead to science losing.  Harris thinks they are wrong, and also thinks we have no choice: zero-sum conflicts tend to become explicit.  People are dishonest about the “invidious gulf between science and religion” and about moral progress.  How we speak about values and study them in the brain will influence our future (25).

Points of Agreement

Much of what Harris says is perfectly acceptable to Catholics, most Christians, and some other religions. They are, perhaps, most acceptable to Catholics since natural law ethics is one of the twin cores of Catholic morality.  Here is a list of points upon which Sam Harris and (most) Catholics can agree:

We can agree that facts and values can be united.

We can agree that science can help us understand morality.

We can agree that we can have confidence in the power of reason.

We can agree that moral relativism is bad.

We can agree to the metaphor of the moral landscape.

We can agree that there may be multiple peaks on this terrain.

We can agree that culture is important for moral development.

We can agree that Hume and Moore are wrong.

We can agree that positive psychology is giving us good data on well-being.

We can agree to an ethics constrained by human biology.

We can agree that some lives are better (i.e. have more well-being) than others.

We can agree that there is a lawful relation between better (i.e. having more well-being) lives and states in the brain and the world.

We can agree that we can judge other cultures and their moral codes.

We can agree that sometimes suffering leads to personal growth.

We can agree that dogmatism can prevent learning.

We can agree that it is not nice to be condescending.

These points of agreement are all good things.  Harris and Catholics could agree to work together against relativism, for example.  But this agreement would be very hollow because the content of the moralities that each side would like to inject into the vacuum of relativism would be incompatible.  The agreement is largely a formal one, not an agreement of content, though there are some specific points of agreed upon content, such as the power of reason (and I would argue that the Church actually has more confidence in reason that Harris could).

Points of Disagreement

Harris includes a lot of bad ideas in this introduction.  Catholics, most Christians, and some religious people will not be able to agree with Harris on a lot of issues (complete anti-religion being the primary one).  I’ll list the ones that are incompatible with Catholicism.

We cannot agree that all religions are the same.

We cannot agree that consciousness is the only criteria for inclusion into the realm of moral consideration.

We cannot agree that religious morality, “faith,” is only ever right by accident (this is also false in an evolutionary and pragmatic sense: if cultural selection occurs, then cultural practices are not by accident, though their justifications may be).

We cannot agree that God has no role in ethics.

We cannot agree that science and religion are in a zero-sum game with each other.

We cannot agree that science and religion are incompatible.

We cannot agree that “faith” and “reason” are automatically opposed to each other.

We cannot agree that brain states and neuroscience are the primary means to determine well-being (We can’t just ask people? We have to scan them in MRIs? More on that later; this, I think, relates to his denial of free will in Ch. 2).

We cannot agree that parasitic “memes” only refer to religion and not atheism.

We cannot agree that “dogmatism” only applies to religion and not atheism.

We cannot agree that the “condescending intellectual elites” consist only of those Harris names as such.

We cannot agree that morality progresses.  (See here for some brief remarks I’ve made on this subject in another context.)

These disagreements are more substantive than the general points of agreement listed above.  Agreements on abstractions and generalities are great, but disagreement on particulars will stop discussion cold.  Notice that several of the disagreements are on double-standards that Harris tries to impose on the conversation, e.g. that parasitic memes do not include his own philosophy, that “dogmatism” is the exclusive province of religion, or that if one is religious one is therefore by definition against reason.

Evaluation, Specific Points:

Here are a few specific points of evaluation, then a few broader critiques.

1)         Religion is treated monolithically. This is incorrect. Religions are not interchangeable phenomena, just read some anthropology.  “Religion,” I would argue,  encompasses the major meaning-making aspects of culture, i.e. the aspect of culture that gives reasons, motivations, and justifications.  It also acts to bind groups (which is extremely odd, if you think about it).  As such, everyone has religion in some way, even atheists.  If Harris wants to treat religion monolithically, he needs to include atheism too; he can’t parse the category to suit his rhetorical needs.

2)         Religion is never defined.  What is religion?  Belief in gods?  One God?  Nirvana?  Reincarnation, the supernatural, the Force, the sacred and profane?  Pure irrationalism?  The only definition I can pick up from Harris is that religious = irrational, and therefore faith means something like “love of the irrational.”  Well, that kinda stacks the deck when trying to discuss things, doesn’t it?  No wonder Harris seems to win every argument with this as his straw-man.

3)         Emotional, arrogant, glib rhetoric.  Harris’s approach to writing is to make it amusing, readable, and emotional.  Harris almost always appeals to emotion, not reason, despite how much he doth protest.  He knows reason isn’t how people work.  People want something to hate and something to love.  All he has to do is find the loves that the reader already has, and then link them to his own point, and he has made his case.  Then he just links reader hatreds to his opposing positions and voila, he has made his case again.  And because we share a common cultural background he already knows what most people love and hate.  All he has to do is name-call over and over and produce anecdotes of bad religion and he has drawn the reader to his side.  After all, who wants to be on the same side as a bunch of irrational perverts?  Exactly.  This is in-group/out-group politics.  By setting himself up as the crusader against evil, Harris automatically attracts followers.  It is pathetic, in the classical Greek sense of evoking emotion, and certainly not rational.  It is a form of rhetorical persuasion to create political unity, not philosophy or science.  I will point out more of these as we go.

4)         Relatively empty concept of well-being.  I know this is only the introduction!  But this is an important critique because this work of filling the concept of well-being has been done in other places (e.g. everybody from Aristotle to Martha Nussbaum and Cristina Traina).  Harris would do well to read it.  This will be further addressed later.

5)         Which bring up another point:  on page seven he says he’s doing this because in order to achieve “a science of human flourishing” we must first admit that it is possible.  But these questions are as perennial as philosophy itself (and Harris notes this on pg. 195).  This is what Aristotle was attempting 23 centuries ago.  Auguste Comte, the logical positivists, the utilitarians, Martha Nussbaum, Amartya Sen, positive psychology, the Catholic Church!  Most religions! (They just define knowledge differently.)  This is old stuff.  The reason philosophers “love-wisdom” is because wisdom is supposed to make people happy.  What is perhaps most interesting here is that in TML Harris is basically advocating a “thick-vague” natural law theory, like Cristina Traina (who borrows the phrase from Martha Nussbaum).  Harris is (almost) doing a kind of contemporary Catholic natural law.  Welcome home!

6)         Science and religion issues.  Harris sees science and religion as existing in a zero-sum conflict for all facts and values.  That is only possible if his conception of science is such that it includes all facts and values.  Well, the bad news is that thinking that science has all the fact-values in not, in fact, a scientific statement – it is a statement of faith.  There is no test or observation that could show it to be true, it is, rather, a metaphysical axiom, a faith statement itself, not science.  This position where science is believed to answer all questions is called scientism and it is one of the most annoying belief systems because it is founded on a contradiction that a “rational” person ought to be able to see.  It is a faith that states that there is no need for faith.  But Harris, of course, keeps this very implicit; he only says there is a zero-sum game going on.  How loaded a statement could that possibly be?  But in that statement is a falsehood that must not be overlooked because it collapses his project.

7)         Fact-value issues.  Harris is correct that facts and values are inextricable.  The barest of facts is a value, and the barest of values is a fact.  The word “fact” has the value of “truth” built into it: that is why we value facts, because we value the goodness of truth.  And every value has facts that it is based on, e.g. I value gold because it is a fact that people will pay ridiculous amounts for it, and that will buy a lot of food if I’m hungry (and I value not being hungry because it is a fact that hunger is unpleasant).

Which brings up another issue… Harris states that the nonexistence of the fact-value split will cause science and religion to collide (11).  That is non-sequitur.  He’s assuming something else first, i.e. that science will not find the same values (all or any) that (any and all) religions have already found.  A bold assertion, and quite improbable.  But it is certainly investigable, which is a good start.

8)         Utopianism.  There is a scientific utopianism underlying The Moral Landscape which should be exposed.  Is our world messed up?  Yes.  Should we try to make it better?  Yes.  Can science help us?   Yes.  So what then is wrong here?  Goals and overconfidence.  Utopias have been tried before and they never work.  Usually they turn into Hell, because if the ends justify the means (which is always their ethic, for some reason), and the value of the prize is ultimate perfection, then that makes justifiable the payment of any cost, often in blood.  In other words, utopian schemes are best avoided.

9)         Question: Is neuroscience actually relevant to this book?  Why?  Why are fMRI scans so much more useful for determining well-being than just asking people how they feel after good or bad things happen to them, or after they do good or bad things?  As I mentioned above, I have a theory on this and it is tied to Harris’s materialistic determinism and denial of free-will, but that will come up when we get to Ch. 2.  Or it could just be that neuroscience is trendy right now, so what else would we expect a trendy author to say?

10)       Does Harris really solve the is-ought problem, or defuse the open-question argument (OQA, the “but is that really ‘good’?” question)?  No.  On p. 12 Harris says the infinite regress of the OQA stops because the idea of “well-being” really does just stop it.  That shows Harris either does not understand the OQA, or is intentionally lying to cover up a sleight-of-hand.  Harris makes “well-being” a synthetic norm, which is a norm defined upon being “good,” just like murder is always “bad” – that’s by definition.  Guess what?  You can just ask again “but why is that good?” and then Harris will get rather frustrated at you, no doubt.

The point here is that the OQA is a trap.  It is a self-contradictory statement because it actually prevents the definition of anything at all, including the words it is composed of.  “But what is ‘is’?” …  “But is that ‘is’?”  The question destroys itself.  Mary Midgely called it “an all-purpose blunderbuss for shooting down every kind of argument… not so much anti-naturalistic as anti-thought,” and she’s right (The Essential Mary Midgely, 176).  The correct solution to the problem is to argue that Moore is being irrational, not that you solved his problem.  And by the way, this is not the same as Hume’s is-ought problem, which we will get to later; this is only the introduction, after all.

11)       Double standards for his own beliefs.  Religion is dogmatic, but not atheism.  Religions memes are parasitic, but not atheistic ones.  Relativistic intellectuals are condescending, but not Harris himself.  This is straightforward intellectual dishonesty.

12)       Random jab at the Templeton Foundation (24).  All the new atheists (NAs) attack Templeton because it threatens their delicate atheistic worldview, apparently.  They say it is because Templeton is polluting science with religion, but if that were the case then the “bad” science ought to be obvious and worthy of rejection no matter how much money is thrown at it, right?  (Templeton does NOT fund creationist research, by the way, and they fund a lot of atheist researchers too, like David Sloan Wilson.)  Why not encourage Templeton to throw its money away on research that is substandard and will never do anything?  Do the NAs not think that “good” science can stand on its own; does it need to be propped up by hobbling competing theories in the free-market of inquiry and ideas?

It is very telling that the supposedly “pro-science” NAs should try to prevent scientific research.  I think that betrays an important point.  The NAs want double-standards to protect their atheistic conception of science. They dislike free inquiry and free competition of ideas, which shows they are not speaking as scientists at all, but as ideologues.  Templeton funds some very interesting research, and that is good for science, not bad for it.  If they think it’s bad, let it be done and fall flat, don’t try to prevent the research in the first place.  The scientific community knows how to ignore bad research, doesn’t it?

Evaluation, General Points:

Overall, I think Christians can accept that science is important for morality, even contributing to our understanding of what is good and evil.  We should embrace new data in moral psychology, positive psychology, developmental psychology, neuroscience, anthropology, sociology, studies on the evolution of morality and religion, and so on.  Christians should be confident that science is not going to harm our faith; fear of science doing that shows lack of faith on our part.  We can be more confident than that, our faith is reasonable; Christianity has weathered worse than a few people poking fun at it.  We have resources in our tradition to deal with science and religion issues, such as St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas, not to mention immense contemporary resources.  And because science is an offspring of the monotheistic worldview, getting this data back should really cause us joy, not fear.  I sure like it.  Gaining this data is wonderful for natural law, and integrating the two is a lot of fun (at least for me… it’s what I do).

That said, sometimes individuals like Harris will appear and try to distort science for the sake of their own ideological agenda.  Harris has a political and metaphysical agenda driving his philosophy and interpretation of science.  His atheism is the obvious, assumed ideology here.  Addressing the deficiencies of atheism is beyond the scope of this review.  Suffice it to say, I think it can be shown that atheism is irrational, or at least less rational than Catholicism.  I used to be an atheist and I left it because I found it intellectually impoverished.  I suppose I’ll have to post on that some time too.

Harris’s politics are the other side of this, and I daresay they drive his atheism (in other words, I think (and I might be wrong) his politics came first, then he chose his metaphysics to support his politics, which is the backwards and wrong way to think about truth).  Harris is an anti-traditionalist, he would like to direct society towards, as far as I can tell, something like JS Mill’s libertarian utilitarianism.  I think this is a bad moral path to take because it disregards thousands of years of cultural evolution (which has a logic of its own) in favor of a system which at its core vitiates group cohesion and turns people into atomistic hedonistic self-seeking free-riders.  In other words, a morality that will likely kill any group that accepts it, at least in its extreme form (talk about parasitic memes).  That is a strong statement, but I think it is the logical limit to which Mill can be taken.  This is a more complex subject because Mill’s libertarianism is in tension with his utilitarianism, but this review is already getting long so for now I’ll settle for brief and brutal.

Perhaps the best response to Harris’s morality is “who cares?” Nietzsche found utilitarianism offensive for precisely this reason: who cares about the happiness of the masses?  The little people don’t matter if there is no Christian God (or other entity) that demands it.  This is the Nietzschean response: Harris is just doing atheistic Christianity.  He has taken the Christian ethic and kicked out the metaphysical underpinnings and said “let’s do this because we get to decide what good means, and I like this.”  This is a serious error.  Retaining Christian morality while removing God yields a nonsensical system, the theology and the ethics are inseparable.

In this lies a broader critique of the “New Atheists.”  The old atheism failed: it never really became popular.  Existentialism burnt out.  Communism fell.  Nietzsche is abhorrent.  They failed because they didn’t sugar-coat the bitter pill.  So the New Atheists have tried a PR trick: get a new image.  “Atheism is good!  We atheists are the moral ones!  We have the moral high ground; it is religion that is evil!  Never mind that we have stolen their ethics and called it our own… ignore that…”  The new atheist image is live-free-of-gods and be moral.  That’s fine.  Being moral is good.  But the morality they are espousing is leftover Christian love-thy-neighbor and goodwill towards all.  Materialist atheism does not justify that.  As an atheist, one can hold that belief by faith or opinion, but not reason.  And if you want to argue that point, please do in the comments, I will respond.  Maybe you can convince me otherwise!

This was only the introduction!  There are five chapters and all the notes still to go!  I hope you will continue with me.  Till then…

UPDATE: Part 2 and Part 3 are here.

I have also adjusted a few minor inaccuracies in this post.  I apologize for them and they have been corrected.

22 responses to “Book Review: The Moral Landscape by Sam Harris, Part 1

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  • phantomposter

    I read the book recently. It was ok. My only criticism is that Harris says the same things over and over in this book.

    See the big problem here, with your list of things that you can’t agree with Harris on, is that Harris can demonstrate his points and you can possibly demonstrate yours. Example? Harris clamis that conciousness is the prerequisite for moral consideratons. You don’t agree because your faith dictates that there are other considerations, the soul I assume. Harris can demonstrate that there is a mind and that we need conciousness in one in order to particiate in moral discussion. There MAY be a soul necceasry, but you can’t possibly demonstrate it.

    This is the problem with the religious view on morality. Secular morality looks at the world and comes up with the best moral considerations it can given the truth that it is presented with and capable of observing. Religious morality asserts itself outright and only changes or adapts after centuries of opposition and often a great deal of lost life in the process.

  • Brian

    Hi phantomposter, thanks for your comment, I appreciate it. You are right that Harris is rather repetitive here; he stretches pretty hard to get to 194 pages of text.

    I appreciate you immediately giving the conversation some content by assuming that I mean the soul as the extra consideration, but I wasn’t trying to argue for that specifically; I think the argument for protecting unconscious human life can be made purely naturalistically, based on entelechy (or teleology), built-in goal seeking behavior, the first one of which is to seek to continue one’s own being. The act of metabolism demonstrates entelechy, no brains required. Yes, this applies to other life-forms too.

    The Thomistic tradition of Catholic moral theology gets its notion of the soul from Aristotle (and it works okay with the Bible too) and is non-dualistic, that is, there are no separate “matter” and “soul” substances, but only one substance with two aspects: matter and form. Neither can exist without the other. The form is the soul, it is what organizes the matter, structures the matter via information. So all life-forms have a soul, ranked from vegetative to sensate to rational. Catholicism has another dualistic strand of tradition which sees body and soul as separate substances, but I think that is unnecessary, though not necessarily wrong.

    I do think the existence of the soul is demonstrable, however. It is precisely the difference between a living entity and that entity’s corpse. The organizing, informing principle is lost. That might seem unsatisfactory to you, I’m not sure, but it works for what I do.

    When you talk about “religious morality” monolithically you make the same mistake as Harris on the subject: all religions are not equivalent. Certainly different branches of Protestantism have all reacted quite variably to the advent of modernity, not to mention all of the other various religions of the world. Also, I don’t think secularity qualifies as a monolithic entity either. Certain kinds of non-religious worldviews might involve scientific observation, but others do not, such as Marxist communism (despite their protestations to the contrary).

    As far as scientific observation in order to get morals goes, natural law ethics is precisely interested in that subject, which, as I said above, equips Catholicism with an interesting tool for engaging with science and secular thought.

    As for religious morality asserting itself outright, of course it does. It has been around longer, so based on its experiences it is going to have a prepared answer before the new guys come in and give things a fresh look. And the fresh look may well be wrong. Testing it in life will be the proof. Naturalistically speaking, religion merely asserts what has already been tried and not failed. That does not make every religion perfect, as Harris mentions in his book, the most to be said for it is that it did not get everyone killed. That is a good start, but obviously people would like better than bare survival, they want a good life. Most religions think they can supply that too. And at that point you have to stop taking “religion” as an entity and start talking specific religions.

    As for change and adaptation, you speak of religion as only a conserving force, while it is actually also a force for change; Martin Luther King being one example. Violent stasis is certainly something secularity can do as well, just look at Egypt right now, or various other political regimes violently overthrown. You might protest that I am talking politics and not ethics, but in your statement you are too. Moral codes (“religious morality”) do not kill people, they are just information; moral codes as lived through people in a specific political milieu kill people, under certain conditions. I assume you are thinking the Inquisition, or religious wars, or something like that. I would argue that whether religion is a force for stasis or dynamism obviously depends on whether it is the power in charge or not, and that varies with history. If you are in charge, stasis is desirable, if not, then change is. Resorting to violence is then a whole other question, and I would argue Christianity has little justification for it. Most forms of Christianity circumscribe the bounds of justifiable violence very tightly. Religions do vary on the point however; they need to be discussed in specifics, not generalities.

    Thanks for speaking up, if you have more questions lay ‘em on me.

  • phantomposter

    I will make this point agian because, for all of your poliet effort to do so, I do not feel you addressed it.

    There MAY be a soul. When a bodies dies maybe there is something more going on then just the halting of all metabolic function and neuro-chemical reactions. There MAY we some serperate way to define a living body other than what it is made of, but you cannot possibly demonstrate that to be true. You may assert it, you may postulate, posit, and ponder all day long about such things, but you cannot demonstrate them to be real (at least not by any current understanding. I will be the first to go “HOLY DAMN!” if some new discovery taps into this unseen realm).

    So on one hand you can structure and build morality around a bunch of idea that you fancy but can never confirm. OR you can structure morality around that which you can determine to be real without deference to the supernatural.

    If you somehow find a more rewarding type of morality by underpinning it with superstition, then so be it, but you cannot expect a person who doesn’t share your superstition to respect that morality.

    If what you are using soul simply as a synonym for “conceptual definition” and “the state of having an active brain” or “survival instinct” then you are entitled to do so, but doing so adds nothing to the discussion, at least not as far as I can see.

    I look forward to another equaly measured response, but I did not see these points addressed, and if you did address them I am sorry I missed it.

    • phantomposter

      That previous post is full of type-os, I am ashamed. I am sure you can understand what I am getting at though.

      My apologies.

    • Ye Olde Statistician

      The Latin word that has been translated into the English term “soul” is anima, which means “life.” So they question “Does X have a soul?” in Latin becomes “Is X alive?” This can be settled empirically.

      Secondly, as our host points out, “soul” is the substantive form of the body. There is no physical matter without form. (“Every thing is some thing.”) If triangles were alive, “geometric figure” would be the body and “three-sided” would be the soul. There is nothing especially mysterious about this. Soul is simply the form of living bodies — petunias, pigs, and people.

      What confuses Moderns and Post Modern is that Descartes decided that “soul” was a substance in its own right and not the form of a substance. (Substance is a union of form and matter. Thus, a human being is a substance.) The Cartesian error led to all sorts of problems, like the notion that there is a homunculus of some sort living inside our heads! Or the “mind-body problem”: How does an immaterial substance, like soul, interact with a material substance, like body? If one is a Modern, one is forced to suppose that the soul is itself made up of some matter, like ectoplasm, which must somehow occupy the same space as the matter of the body. (If one is a Post-Modern, one simply says, “Whatever,” and returns to the video-game.)

      To a traditional philosopher, there is no mind-body problem any more than there is a “sphere-basketball” problem. No one asks how an immaterial “ideal body” like Sphere “interacts” with the material rubber to make a basketball. The basketball just is spherical. And a petunia, pig, or person just is alive.

  • Brian

    Hi Phantomposter. No problem with the typos.

    Two things to begin, just to be clear. First of all, the soul is irrelevant to the points I am trying to make in my original post. The first time the word “soul” appeared here was in your comment that I wanted to use the soul to justify expanding moral protection beyond just consciousness. Which, as I said above, is not what I was doing.

    Second, I am not a body-soul dualist, which means that I have no vested interest in protecting the dualistic concept of the soul. So you are correct that I did not address your comment, if by that you mean that I did not present a case for the defense of the possibility of a disembodied soul. You’ll have to find someone else to argue for that. In asking me to defend substance dualism you are not asking the right person.

    There are multiple conceptions of the soul possible in Christian tradition. I am what you call a dual-aspect monist, which I explained previously. There is only one substance, with two aspects, matter and form. The form is the organizing principle of the matter and can be called the “soul” if you want to.

    Christians do not need to be body-soul dualists; in the tradition there are at least three major positions on the soul: monism (one substance), dualism (two substances), and trichotomy (three substances: body, soul, and spirit). This is where you need to look at the particulars of specific religious traditions instead inserting your own beliefs of what all “religion” should say.

    On to your other points. The morality I am discussing is not based on superstition, revelation, or the supernatural. Naturalistic ethics and natural law do not rely on revelation or the supernatural. My whole job as an ethicist is to update the natural law field of Catholic ethics based on the newest science. Revelation is considered to confirm natural law, and get at ethics in a simpler, clearer way: via speech (i.e. Jesus and the prophets), not science.

    Now, I happen to like science. I look at anthropology, psychology, sociology, evolutionary theory, and whatever else to put together an understanding of what a human being is, and based on that, what we ought to do in order to live good lives.

    Turing this all back to Harris, in your first comment you say that he can demonstrate there is a mind, and I think that in fact he says the opposite. He thinks he can demonstrate that the mind is illusory (102-105). He is a determinist and opposed to the idea of free will. What, then, is the purpose of morality if we are just elaborate chemical reactions? Harris tells us: reduce suffering. But why choose that? Why not choose Nietzsche’s will to power? Because Harris thinks otherwise. For Harris morality comes down to opinion, not science.

    Anyway, if you really want to discuss dualistic notions of the soul, you’ll need to find someone else. Sorry. If you want to talk about ethics, I love it, lay it on me.

  • phantomposter

    OK, my previous post was hurried and I didn’t express myself well. I will start over for the sake of clarity so that we are on the same page and not talking past each other:

    I started by commenting on your statement (regarding Harris): “We cannot agree that consciousness is the only criteria for inclusion into the realm of moral consideration.” Obviously you say a LOT more than that in your review, but I think this disagreement is a fundamental one from which most of your other disagreement stems.

    I assumed that when you say that consciousness is not the only criteria for moral considerations that you were implying a “soul” as a different criteria. My criticism of that statement was that Harris CAN demonstrate that there is consciousness but you cannot demonstrate that there is a soul. Therefore, while it is possible that there may BE a soul, Harris’ position is the reasonable one. While you may be able to personally justify disagreement on the premise that you happen to believe in a soul, you cannot expect that anyone not subscribing to that particular non-demonstrable claim shall take your justification seriously.

    You responded that you do not believe in what I might traditionally think of as a soul (and you were right, when I was saying “soul” I was not envisioning what you described) and then went on to outline what you mean by this “other criteria” which we may choose to call a soul.
    My objection was then to pretty much restate my main case, that a soul may exist but that the system works fine without it and it is nothing more than an unnecessary and untestable extra assumption and Ockam’s Razor ought to be applied.

    However because your definition of this other criteria was not at all what I expected I did go on to add that you may choose to call the atomic forces that dictate “form” a soul if you want. You may choose to call neuro-chemical function a soul if you want, and you may choose to call basic survival instinct a soul if you want, and if you don’t wish to call any of these things a “soul” you are still free to attribute some “other” quality to them, but doing so seems superfluous. And if your “other criteria” that goes beyond Harris’ criteria of “consciousness” includes brain function, the necessary atomic forces to create forms, and some type of will to live, then I think all you have done is add the background conditions for consciousness to arise to the list of criteria already stated by Harris. Doing so, it seems to me, is unnecessary because when Harris says that consciousness is his criteria, he obviously implies the background conditions necessary for consciousness.

    There, I think that is a better representation of what I was trying to convey before.

    Now if I have missed anything this time, we can back up and take a better accounting of what we aren’t agreeing on.

  • Brian

    Thank you, that was a helpful reboot to the conversation. I think we actually might have little to no disagreement on the soul. For the type of ethics I am doing I don’t need to call it that, I can call it the state or condition of being alive, or life-force or whatever. “Soul” is a good summary word, though perhaps its ambiguity can cause a few problems (at least a few comments worth!) under certain circumstances.

    The difference I think between you and I is that you, like Harris, are valuing consciousness while I am valuing life. The soul is irrelevant to that debate, the question is which is more important: consciousness or life. That is a matter of the focus of value.

    Let’s make this concrete. Harris would give no moral standing to a human embryo because it is not conscious. I disagree with that because the embryo is alive, and as a living being, given the right conditions it will turn into an adult human. In other words it has an innate teleology which it is trying to fulfill – a purpose – and the achievement of that purpose is good for that embryo. This is straight Aristotelian/Thomist Catholic natural law.

    Good is in the achievement of good goals, not only in the well-being of conscious creatures. That is all I was trying to say.

    Consciousness is important because obviously the embryo grows up to be conscious and do conscious kinds of things. But life with the potential for consciousness is also important because it has entelechy, a built-in goal which it is seeking by its simple existence, not by any consciousness. And as I said, this applies to animals too. Animals have their own goals, which I think they generally ought to be left to fulfill unless we have good reason to stop them (like a tiger is trying to eat me, or disease use me as a vector). The embryo “wants,” in a non-conscious way, to live. So let it live. Let it achieve its goal.

    Morality is more in letting things develop to their full potential than in just the well-being of the already-conscious. Well being is a means, not an end in itself.

    There, that redirects the conversation to what I think you were trying to get at, while still leaving enough ambiguities for discussion. “Creatures with potential for consciousness” or “just conscious creatures now” might be the foci of the two positions. What do you think?

  • phantomposter

    Excellent, well stated.

    Ok so let’s do away with “soul” in this discussion since neither of us need it.

    So Harris’ sole criteria is consciousness, and your other criteria is life.

    The problem I see with this, at least if you reject any kind of mind/body dualism, is that “Life” is just another word for “very complex chemistry”. When we look at a human (setting aside animals for the time being unless they become relevant again) we are looking at primarily Carbon, Hydrogen, and Oxygen arranged in specific ways.

    So imagine that we have a rock made out of exactly the same atoms as a human, and then a human as we know it, both in the same room. The question we are faced with is “What properties does the human have that the rock doesn’t that we value?”

    Let’s say that we arrange the rock so that it is exactly in the form of a human. We could call this an “atomic sculpture” maybe. It is atomically the same form, but we deliberately deny the form whatever process is needed to “jump start” it. I guess you could also make the example of literally building a human body out of meat. We might have some sort of morbid attachment to the familiar form, but that alone doesn’t compel us to grant it moral consideration. So I think we can toss out physical form as the valued criteria between the two.

    Now let us say that we leave the rock in the form of a rock, but arrange it in some way that it has the ability to metabolize a nutrient paste we smear on it and, given enough time, replicate. It is now alive, but I doubt we grant it any moral consideration.

    Now let us say that we sculpt the rock in human form again, and bring it to life, but still deny it consciousness. This gets questionable. Some people are tempted to grant the rock moral consideration at this point. I for one am not.

    Now let us say that we take the rock and arrange it in such a way that it’s form is unlike anything we would determine to be “life”, and is not familiar as anything but a rock, however it does have consciousness. We are immediately compelled to give the rock moral considerations of some kind, especially if that consciousness is advanced and self aware.

    Let’s now turn back to the human. What if we take away the human’s brain all together, making no consciousness possible, and the regaining of consciousness impossible, but keep the form alive through artificial means. This is questionable. Many people wish to still grant this atomic arrangement moral consideration because it has the form and life. If we then pull the plug and the life function stops, with only the form remaining, we recognize a corpse and no longer grant moral consideration to the thing.

    So what I get from this exercise is this:

    Form is not enough for moral consideration. We may have an attachment to and respect for familiar forms, but void of life and consciousness, form alone does not compel us to grant moral considerations.

    Life alone is not enough. Life housed in a form we have no regard for does not compel us to moral considerations. We give no moral consideration to a metabolizing rock, or bacteria.

    Consciousness, at least of an advanced and self aware nature, is an automatic qualifier for moral consideration. This is demonstrated by our inclination to grant moral consideration to a non-living rock that houses an advanced consciousness.

    The tricky part is where Life and Form meet. When Life is housed in a Form we are somehow attached to, some of us are compelled to grant moral consideration. I for one am not. My question to you, if you agree, would be why? Consciousness is enough all on its own regardless of the other two. The other two are not enough by themselves for moral consideration, but somehow we start to want to grant them consideration when they team up.

    I submit that the only reason we want to grant the team of Form and Life moral consideration is because our experience in this world teaches us that familiar forms that are alive house consciousness. I think this intuition to grant living familiar forms moral consideration stems only from the instinct, which is almost ubiquitously true, that these two outward signs indicate a consciousness. I am claiming that what we really value is consciousness, but our intuition is just poorly equipped to deal with a circumstance that happens so rarely that nature could never have prepared us for it, and that circumstance is form and life without consciousness housed within.

  • Brian

    Ah, here is where it would be more helpful to know your educational background. (To be fair, my background was genetics before I got into ethics. You’ll notice a genetics bias in my other postings here on TMMF.) I was using the word “form” in a philosophical sense to mean “that which makes something the way it is,” i.e. that which “in-forms” structure through “in-form-ation.” The form is the organizing principle of the matter and as such is more than physical form, it is what makes a “whole” out of just parts. I’m not sure if you are using the exact same definition as I or not. DNA is a major part of the form of a creature, even thought it is just a long molecule. It is not the whole form because it needs the rest of the cell in order to actually do anything. Anyway, I’m just asking your background because I don’t want to be rude and define terms if you already know them, but neither do I want to cause misunderstandings by not defining terms. And you can choose not to answer too.

    So you are correct, a sculpture, even of all human parts and organs and looking very real, would not get moral consideration. And a conscious rock might get moral consideration (I only say might because I’ll only believe it when I see it – i.e. I think strong AI is probably impossible).

    A human with his or her whole brain removed does not have a complete human form, they are more like a collection of parts (a “heap” as Aristotle would say) than a whole. Therefore the immoral act would be in removing the brain, not in turning off the machines keeping it “alive.”

    Consciousness does grant moral consideration under normal circumstances, yes, no problem. All I want to do is draw the circle wider and include those with the future potential for consciousness as well.

    Here’s a quote from you above: “When Life is housed in a Form we are somehow attached to, some of us are compelled to grant moral consideration. I for one am not.”

    Like sleeping people? They have life and form but are not conscious. Now, I’m not saying you want to kill sleeping people, very likely you do not, but they are not conscious. Nor are people who have fainted or are in a coma with hope of recovery. If you agree with me that these entities are still worthy of moral consideration even though unconscious, then you agree that consciousness is not the only moral criterion.

    About now the word “consciousness” becomes rather problematic because one can argue that a sleeping person is still consciousness, in that, for example, if you pinch them or yell at them they might react. A fainted person might react too, but a person in a coma will not. Likewise, if you poke a snail it will react, it has a certain consciousness to it. If you are limiting consciousness to self-consciousness as in self-aware (as judged by mirror self-recognition), then great apes, elephants, dolphins, corvid birds and some parrots are all up for moral consideration, but infants under about 8 months are not, even though infants are very cute and are on a trajectory to pass mirror self-recognition very soon. And, of course, infants also react if poked or yelled at – and fetuses do too.

    So my questions are this. First, what about those asleep or otherwise temporarily unconscious? Second, what about those who have never been conscious but are on a trajectory to become conscious? Third, what is consciousness anyway and how do we test/measure it, i.e. who and what has consciousness and why? Fourth, what’s the point of giving moral consideration to the conscious? What about consciousness is so special – is it because it lets us feel pain/pleasure, have goals, reproduce, or what? If consciousness is just a complex chemical reaction, why not just treat conscious creatures like big test tubes – why bother with their well-being?

    My point with these questions is to show that the potential for consciousness is also a morally valid consideration, or, as I started above, life with a trajectory (teleology, entelechy) towards consciousness deserves moral consideration as well.

  • phantomposter

    My area of formal education is in History and Religion, with a healthy sprinkling a philosophy and ethics (I was rather indulgent in college on the humanities classes, that was how I treated myself, suffer through the math class and then go on to Cultural Anthropology to relax). My personal studies extend beyond History and Religion into Science, and more into Science as Philosophy rather than the details of specific fields, although I do attempt to be as educated as a layman can be on the different branches of science as they relate to the humanistic issues I am more passionate about. It’s not hugely relevant, but does help when we are not sharing the same definitions.

    So here is what I need you to explain further before I can really go on: I am not understanding your definition of “form”. If you are talking about form as “that which makes something the way it is”, then aren’t you just talking about physical laws? That which makes a water molecule “the way it is” is proton, neutron, and electron count of the atoms that build the molecule and the way their valence electrons interact. What makes bacteria the way they are is a complex set of chemical reactions dictated by the physical laws of the molecules the bacteria is made of. Humans are just a vastly more complex version of the same chemistry. Life is just complex chemistry, and that already explains “the organizing principle” of life. If you want Chemistry and “the organizing principle” to be two different things, then I am afraid I’ll need more explanation.

    So my question: When you say “form” what do you mean other than “The physical laws that dictate how matter is arranged and what it will do once arranged in certain ways”? And if you don’t mean anything more than that, why is that any factor at all in considering a thing in a moral light? Physical constants are ubiquitous; you can hardly define one thing from another using a feature that all things have.

    I understand you asked other questions that I didn’t address here, I am only asking for clarification so we don’t talk past each other and then I will gladly move on to the meat of your argument.


  • Brian

    Excellent question, good move to always seek clarity. Now let’s see if I can give an adequate answer…

    First, the underlying theory here is Aristotelian four-cause theory. The Wikipedia page is not that great, but it is a start:
    And in Aristotle’s own words:
    This stuff is hard to understand, and I’m quite capable of confusing myself when talking about it. So let’s see what I can do…

    Why is form different from just physical chemistry? A form makes a whole out of parts. Form is the reason you can’t make a meat sculpture of a human (like Frankenstein’s monster) come alive. It has to be a “whole” from the beginning, from the first cell. But let’s get smaller and simpler. What about a one-celled organism? Craig Venter and his synthetic biology people recently made a synthetic genome and injected it into a cell to get the cell of one species to transform (there’s that root “form” again) into another. So there is obviously a chemical aspect to it. A genome is a macromolecule that organizes cellular activity in a way that the system as a whole is self-perpetuating. (Notice the word “self” appears too; the “form” makes a “self”).

    Chemistry, I would say, does not have a “self,” but biology does. Selves are self-contained elaborate chemical reaction vessels, if you want to talk purely mechanistically, that seek – yes, literally have intention – to maintain their chemical reaction. The bacteria, if it has motility, will move up a chemical gradient towards a food source. This ties into Aristotle’s fourth cause: the “final” (as in the point of everything) cause, a thing’s teleology. Living forms always have a purpose, typically “stay alive” and “reproduce.” Simple. Chemistry does not have a self or a purpose, it just flows down the thermodynamic gradient. Life fights the gradient.

    But organisms (and organism means organized – its nice how the language used all refers back to this same philosophy of biology) do have selves and purposes. Now if you want to get into how life can do this while non-life can’t the best approach it to try to figure out how life could possibly have evolved in the first place, or what it is life is even doing, when it is being alive.

    About this time I move away from Aristotle and into Terrence Deacon (, a professor at UC Berkeley, who has a new book coming out (look for it in a few more months) on exactly how chemistry turns into biology. It is through semiosis, which is the process of an interpretant deriving meaning from representations. Semiosis done by life and not by humans is called biosemiotics ( Biosemiotics is different from usual philosophy of biology in that typically philosophy of biology is totally reductionistic. We talk about DNA being a “code” but we don’t really mean that, it’s just chemicals. Well biosemiotics let’s DNA really be a code, with symbolic representation, interpreters, and objects refered to. So it is chemistry with a purpose: chemistry for the sake of getting something done, whether it be molecular replication, metabolizing sugar, following chemical gradients towards food, you name it. This all works great with Aristotle, so it works great with naturalistic ethics and Catholic natural law too.

    Alright, finally, so how is a form different from pure chemistry? In a sense it is pure chemistry, but it has definitely crossed a threshold in that regular old chemicals do not have purposes, selves, or make wholes out of parts. The complexity of the system as a whole (and here you can get into network science, which is a future potential path of mine) yields something the parts do not have. Hence the Aristotelian axiom “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”

    You can choose to interpret all of this reductionistically, but then you run into the problem of how humans can have selves, or purposes, or interpret symbols. And this makes consciousness an illusion too, which we then have to wonder why we should care about since it is not real. The reductionism solves one problem but creates another: humans become “just” chemical reactions. While that might strictly be true in one sense, there is nevertheless something obviously different between a fire burning and a human doing math: reading symbols and finding answers. Biosemiotics says that interpretation is built into life itself; the transition from chemistry to biology is the threshold, not the transition from animal consciousness to human consciousness.

    Okay, that was a crazy excursus into Aristotleian form theory as updated into biosemiotics. I practically just wrote you my dissertation. In any case I highly recommend anything by Terrence Deacon, he’s one of the smartest people I have ever met, he may well revolutionize philosophy of biology and make Aristotle fashionable again.

    To make a long story short, the difference between “form” and complex chemistry are purpose, self, and an organized whole-out-of-parts. I don’t know if the above made much sense, but the basic idea is that when chemistry starts having purposes, it is something more than “just chemistry,” it is a life-form, and that means it has a form, a self, an organizing principle. Your counter-interpretation (reductionism) can be logically adhered to, but I think as a side-effect it makes human life and thought unintelligible, which is always bad for rational investigation of anything.

    So there are then two competing models with costs and benefits each. 1) Form-theory makes life and consciousness understandable while positing a radical break between chemistry and life, while 2) reductionism posits a perfect continuity from life to non-life, but makes life and consciousness just chemical reactions, leaving us wondering why we can wonder why (to paraphrase Feynman). We can choose our models based on whatever criteria we please. I choose mine based on the fact that I think I am conscious, not an elaborate fire.

    And anyway, my main point is still that the locus of moral protection ought to be entelechy and the potential for consciousness, not just consciousness right now.

    Exhale. Your turn. I hope that made at least a modicum of sense. And you can be an atheist and think these things, too, I hope you agree. And thanks, this is a fun conversation.

  • phantomposter

    Ok, well that explains it better certainly. It has been a long time since I read about the Four Causes and it didn’t even click that you were referring to the Formal Cause. I had also never heard of Biosemetics. I gave the Wikipedia article a read. I will say for now that, as you admitted, a reductionist application of Ockam’s razor makes short work of that stance, but that is a discussion for another time, and a long discussion it would be.

    I will move on to the question of moral consideration for the unconscious and the yet-to-be conscious. I don’t think Formal Causes really get in the way of my stance. Again to restate my stance: When we decide to grant moral consideration to something, consciousness, and not any other quality, is what we require and value when making that judgment. I also state than any apparent respect for other qualities are really just intuitive “misfirings” meant to reinforce the true valued quality which is, again, consciousness. I think the examples of the unconscious and the yet-to-be conscious are good reinforcing examples of this.

    The Sleeping:
    I will set aside the issue of whether sleepers are technically conscious or not. I can argue for their moral consideration without needing them to be technically conscious. I submit that we do not grant sleepers moral consideration for their own sake. If we were to inject a sleeper with a poison they would be unaware of what was happening to them, and once their brain shut down they would be unable to regret the transgression or care about their plight. We grant moral consideration to the sleeping out of respect for those who are awake. Those of us that are awake know that we will ourselves have to sleep before too long. Nobody wants their 4-9 hour daily lapse in consciousness to disqualify them from moral consideration, so we pay others the same courtesy we expect to be paid to ourselves when we sleep. Moral consideration of the sleeping is based not on any quality they posses at as sleepers. The quality we are respecting is the inference (based on almost insurmountable evidence) that their consciousness will resume shortly. We can see clearly that what we value in a sleeper is the dormant consciousness by the fact that we general regard dying in your sleep to be a peaceful and desirable way to pass. We consider death in your sleep to be a good death not for the benefit of the sleeping state, but because it spares the consciousness the unpleasant experience of dying.

    The Comatose:
    The same argument that is made for sleepers is made for those in a coma. We do not pay comatose patients moral respect because of any feature of their comatose state, but out of respect for the state of consciousness they once had and the wager that their consciousness will resume. The only difficultly in discussing moral consideration for those in a coma comes from uncertainty. Earlier I presented an example of a body with its brain removed, making resumption of consciousness impossible, but the body kept alive artificially. You seemed to agree that such an entity does not warrant moral consideration. If we were medically able to say with a certainty whether a comatose patient would resume consciousness or remain in a coma forever, then the moral issue would be easy. The body that would resume consciousness would be kept alive and we could pull the plug on the body that would never resume thinking and still sleep well at night. Again we are valuing the body laying in the hospital bed primarily by its function as housing for consciousness. Any other secondary consideration I can think of stems only from our attachment to the persona once housed in the form and the hope that it may emerge again.

    The Unborn:
    I agree with Christopher Hitchens who says that “the phrase unborn child connotes a physical reality”. That is to say that once a fetus has achieved consciousness, it qualifies for moral consideration and has achieved personhood. That doesn’t make the abortion debate easy. We still run into the same moral conundrums that we do any other time the well-being of one person conflicts with the well-being of another.

    The Pre-Conscious Unborn:
    What about the various stages reproductive matter passes through before achieving consciousness? Do I grant moral consideration to Zygotes, Fallopian Implantations, or individual sperm and eggs? The answer is…no I do not. Well that is not completely true, I grant a tiny amount of consideration to these entities but only out of respect for their potential consciousness and not out of respect for any quality they posses prior to achieving that potential. I think the same could be said for most people whether they have ever admitted that to themselves or not. Imagine a Zygote, frozen in that stage of development, never to reach consciousness. Do you grant any moral consideration to that entity? I suspect not. I suspect that the only moral consideration anyone grants to this tissue is an invested respect in a property we can reasonably conclude it will one day express. Again consciousness is what we seek and value for moral consideration.

    I say again that Harris is still correct. We do not grant moral consideration to anything incapable of consciousness. The only circumstances under which we grant moral consideration to unconscious material is in regards to consciousness that will be resumed or achieved. If there was some other property independent of consciousness (or investment in a potential return of that property) that we used for moral consideration, we ought to be able to point that out. Even when we talk about the Form of a thing in the Aristotelian sense we still understand consciousness to be THE vital and defining aspect of that Form, since the exact same “whole as defined separately from its parts” looses all moral consideration is we extract that one part, consciousness (and any potential to regain or develop it) from the whole.

  • Brian

    Remember Ockham’s Razor only applies to the simplest solution which still explain the phenomenon. I would argue that reductionism can’t actually explain the phenomenon of consciousness, which is why it ends up getting called epiphenomenal or illusory (as Harris calls free will – I will have to re-read to see if he calls consciousness illusory too). Given that most humans still experience consciousness despite that, I think Ockham’s razor might actually work against reductionism in this case. If you turn consciousness into an illusion, and yet still experience it as real, I think you have a problem. You should either try to stop experiencing consciousness as real, or else change your theory.

    Your “out of deference to the awake” argument has one serious flaw, that being when certain groups of humans are considered less than human and are therefore incapable of reciprocity. In this case no one else really worries about killing them because they do not identify with them as fellow humans, their positions are not interchangeable: there is no reciprocity. This is especially true when the designated inferior group has no capability of retaliation. Abortion is a prime example, no adult ever has to worry about being a fetus again, and so who cares about whether they can be targeted for death. Also in this category are poor people in faraway lands: we can bomb them with near impunity because they simply can’t retaliate. Likewise with certain classes of people in our own nation, such as the very sick.

    Another part of the problem here is this question: does moral value inhere in conscious creatures as a class or conscious creatures as a present state? Harris is perhaps himself unclear on this. I’ll address it in a future part of the review.

    I think moral value inheres in conscious creatures as a class, so it includes all humans, and to a lesser extent some other animals. But I am still unclear on your perspective. I think you have actually stated that you agree with me in one place, but disagree with me in another. Your words:

    “We do not grant moral consideration to anything incapable of consciousness. The only circumstances under which we grant moral consideration to unconscious material is in regards to consciousness that will be resumed or achieved.”

    So, then, moral value lies in conscious creatures as a class. It is the capacity for consciousness that counts, which is also my position. But:

    “we do not grant sleepers moral consideration for their own sake. If we were to inject a sleeper with a poison they would be unaware of what was happening to them, and once their brain shut down they would be unable to regret the transgression or care about their plight. We grant moral consideration to the sleeping out of respect for those who are awake.”

    So, moral value lies in conscious creatures as a present state. Not what you said above and not what I would agree with. Tell me if you think I am interpreting this wrongly.

    In any case, we’ve had a long discussion on this and I really need to get around to writing part 2. We can keep talking here, but my responses may slow down a bit.

  • Dan


    Your words: “So there are then two competing models with costs and benefits each. 1) Form-theory makes life and consciousness understandable while positing a radical break between chemistry and life, while 2) reductionism posits a perfect continuity from life to non-life, but makes life and consciousness just chemical reactions, leaving us wondering why we can wonder why (to paraphrase Feynman). “

    My comments:

    You seem to have two objections to reductionism – one intellectual and the other visceral. From an intellectual point of view, you don’t see how it is physically possible for inanimate matter to produce life, so you posit a mysterious essence or power which you call purpose. Man has done this from time immemorial whenever confronted with unexplained phenomena. Once we understand the mystery, we drop the magic in favor or a physical explanation.

    I think that you find it impossible to accept a reductionist explanation of life because you don’t understand the power of the extremely complex organization of matter. I’ll use an airplane as an analogy. An airplane is a pile of inanimate matter, but it does something no arbitrary pile of inanimate matter can do – it defies gravity and flies. If I live in a primitive stone-age culture in the Amazon and have never before seen an airplane, I will probably be awed by it and think that it is a magical device possessing special powers. We, however, are not flummoxed because we understand the organized complexity that makes the phenomenon of an airplane possible. We understand that it has no special powers, that it is made of mundane matter, and that the phenomenon is the result of how its matter is organized. But we balk at accepting the same explanation for life and self- awareness because we don’t yet understand them. We are like the Amazonian, in awe of the mystery; and so we attribute special powers to them. Now, the organizational complexity of life and of the brain that produces self-awareness is many orders of magnitude greater than that of an airplane, so it’s going to take some time to understand them. As we come to better understand their staggering complexity, however, I think it will become clear how quantitative differences in organizational complexity can give rise to qualitative differences in phenomenology, and another mystery will be solved.

    From a visceral point of view, I don’t think you want the mystery to be solved. We experience life, have feelings about it, and have a sense of self. We have purpose and meaning, and if we are really “merely” chemical processes, then all this goes away. I don’t believe that this is so. I think that you make two mistakes. First, you think in terms of quiddities, thus you think of the chemistry that supports life as distinct from all other chemistry. If the essence of a thing is absent, then it is no longer that thing. The option you have is to categorize things by their phenomenology, which you can perceive, rather than by their quiddity, which is a property you can only infer. You are no less you if it turns out that the mechanism that animates you can be explained chemically. The second mistake you make is that you look objectively for subjective answers. Meaning and purpose, for example, are not things out there in space and time. They are inside your head. You create the meaning and purpose in your life. This may seem somewhat solipsistic, and I suppose it is, but our minds are all quite similar, and so the realities and concepts they create are similar; consequently, even if our internal worlds are independently generated, they overlap quite a bit and create an apparent objective reality. It’s an uncomfortable idea for those of us weaned on the myths of supernatural societies and unending fraternity. It would probably not play out as well as we might think (fish and guests, as Ben Franklin said, begin to stink after three days), but the reality of our isolation is something that may be difficult to accept. Nevertheless, reality is not a matter of choice or preference. Just as morality is not relative, neither is reality.

    I didn’t like Harris’ book at all. I thought it was poorly organized and poorly written. I think his principal point – that science has something to say about morals – is nothing new. Secular humanists have applied reason to morals for two centuries. He was tediously repetitious on certain points, rehashed his objection to religion, and made some frightening implications about a future where brain-scanning neuroscientists would be the mediators and enablers of our moral lives. Shades of 1984!

  • Brian

    I’m swamped right now but I will get around to responding to your points. As a prelim I’ll just say I have no problem with the “mystery of life” being solved since that is one of my research interests. In fact, I think what I described above (in biosemiotics as described by Deacon) is a completely naturalistic explanation for the existence of purpose and meaning in nature. Teleology is not a product of mind, it is a product of life. I’m not exactly sure why contemporary Westerners are so obsessed with the idea that “mind” is the locus of purpose/value and not “life,” but it might be historically related to nominalism and ethical voluntarism. Anyway, that is tangential for now, maybe I’ll get into it in another post. I’ll say more here and on this when I get a chance, hopefully in a few days.

  • Brian

    Hi Dan,

    Thanks for commenting; I’m glad the post is proving thought-provoking. Let me say I agree with your last paragraph completely and will definitely talk about those things in future parts of this review. We definitely agree on that.

    To begin, I would appreciate a bit of clarification on your above comment.

    First, you say I “don’t understand the power of the extremely complex organization of matter.” You then provide the example of an airplane as an understood complex object, and then argue that by extension reductionism will come to explain life and mind, eventually. If you could begin to explain how that will happen I would appreciate it, since, as I said, that is a research interest of mine. If you know the answer, don’t keep it to yourself.

    This is the fundamental problem that I see: as you said above, minds can have purpose, but other things can’t. So how is mind different from other things? What allows minds to form purposes? Appealing to some special property that appears through “complexity” just substitutes the word “complexity” for “magic.” Explain why your solution is not magic. Use a natural example, not one designed by a mind, if you need an example.

    As I said previously, I have no problem with the “mystery” being solved because it is just more interesting information about God’s creation. I have no vested interest in dualism (if that is what you are implying I am appealing to), as I have stated above at length in this comment thread. Dualism is only one strand among of several traditions of how reality is constructed.

    Anyway, in your next section you make a rather strong appeal to meaning and purpose existing only inside heads. How do you know that? You can’t just assert the nature of reality is X and say case closed. You need to defend it.

    This returns to the same question: why do minds get to have purposes but nothing else does? Why does purpose suddenly appear there, but not prior?

    As for quiddity and phenomenology, I do natural law and naturalistic ethics, so the quiddity matters. The nature of a thing is its essence. We don’t just argue based on what we agree that we see, we argue based on what it means and why that is of value. To make an ethical argument your need a “why” and the “why” is built on a “what.” Where do you get your “why” with no “what”? Tell me why essence is unimportant, why can we appeal to mere phenomena?

    Finally, it seems to me that what you are doing in your comment is not making an argument, but merely asserting with no evidence. You are using your premise for a conclusion. Your point appears to be something like: “Reductionism is true. Therefore reductionism is true.” If this is not in fact what you are arguing, tell me why. Do you have reasons to be a reductionist other than axiomatic assertion?

  • anonymoususer

    A piece of crap. An ideology for people that have no souls.

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