Book Review: The Moral Landscape by Sam Harris, Part 3

Chapter 2 “Good and Evil.”

In case you missed them, here are part 1 (Introduction) and part 2 (Chapter 1) of my review.

As previously, the structure will be: summary of main points, agreements and disagreements, evaluations of specific points, and evaluations of general points.

The Moral Landscape, Chapter 2: Good and Evil, p. 55-112.


Cooperation is crucial for human well-being. Failures of cooperation are bad. Ethics and morality are how we think about cooperation (55).

Evolution does not entail selfishness, cooperation is fully compatible with evolution. Kin selection, reciprocal altruism, etc. (56). Eye whites show our prosociality by displaying our gaze for others to see. Our selfishness involves concern for others (57).

Morality goes from genes to behavior to social institutions (59).

The Dobu Islanders, whose greatest aspirations in life are to magically betray their closest loved ones. Were they “happy”? No. We can assume they have similar brains to us, and so would not be happy (61-2).

I am a realist and consequentialist, and conscious experiences are the consequences that matter (62). Suicide bombers do not invalidate my hypothesis but support it; they just maximize well-being in the next life.

Knowing the brain will help us determine how actions affect human welfare. We can actually discard the word “morality” is we like and just focus on the idea of maximizing well-being (64).

Joshua Greene is skeptical of moral realism, but he is wrong: just turn it into maximizing well-being. He thinks that just because we are predisposed to think morals are real, therefore they are not real, just a trick (65). Lack of moral consensus does not equal lack of moral truth (66). And just because evolution did not make our intuitions to do morals or physics does not mean morals and physics do not exist (66).

Critique of consequentialism: Dennett’s “Three Mile Island effect”: was Three Mile Island bad? It seems bad. Good? It improved nuclear safety. Or mixed? Population ethics paradoxes… seem academic, except that they turn up in public policy (68).

Paul Slovic’s “identifiable victim effect;” a bias of concern: we are most concerned for one person. Increase the number and we care less about them. Adding context diminishes concern (69).

Our ethical intuitions fail, so we create cultural institutions to correct them (70).

Derek Parfit’s population paradoxes (71).

Consequentialism is less a moral method and more of a claim about moral truth-status (72).

Growing in empathy for others is good.(73).

More biases. Loss-aversion: losses are worse than forsaken gains (75). It’s a moral illusion. Sins of commission are judged more harshly than those of omission (77). Another illusion: the peak/end rule. What happens at the peak and end of an experience determines our evaluation of it (77).

Religious moralities are wrong because they are 1) incompatible, 2) unethical, 3) evaluated by outside norms, 4) there are no reasons to believe them (78).

John Rawls “original position” is brilliant. But it is not necessarily different from consequentialism, even though Rawls says justice might not maximize good (79). What about the majority abusing a minority for pleasure? Well, we should treat people as ends in themselves insofar as that maximizes well-being; selfishness can concede to fairness (80). Injustice is bad because it hurts people.

Interchangeability of perspective is important for morality: for moral judgments, it shouldn’t matter who you are (81). A moral principle: do not have two ethical codes, you might get embarrassed. Having two codes is for tribal ethics. Rawls and Kant both address this (82).

Being good is not easy, most of us think more about what we are going to eat than about what starving people are going to eat, and that is wrong. I do not live in a way that maximizes the well-being of others either, and this prevents me from reaching my own maximal well-being (82-3). I would be happier if I were less selfish, or, I could be more selfish were I less selfish (83).

What if we could manipulate our perceptions of moral reality with drugs? I think our mental states ought to be coupled to reality (84). We must act to maximize our own well-being and that of others, this is wise and ethical (85).

Jonathan Haidt’s social-intuitionist model of moral judgment. Emotion rules moral judgment, reason justifies emotion, and reasoning with others will not changes their emotions or judgments. Because of this Haidt is pessimistic about moral truth claims (85). However, this does not affect moral truth. Consider the Monty Hall Problem: it logically dumbfounds people, yet we can prove the right answer. Moral dumbfounding is the same (86).

We should care as much about the morals in ancient texts as their physics – that is, not at all (87).

9/11 conspiracy theorist analogy… Some people are just completely wrong (88). Our feelings of reasoning objectively are often illusory, but that does not mean we can’t try harder to do it (89).

Haidt divides morality in “contractual” (liberal) and “beehive” (conservative), and divides his 5 foundations of morality theory between them. But all 5 of his foundation are really just about harm (89). Conservatives are hypocrites and their morality increases immorality (90).

The brain and morality. Even genuine altruism is selfishness, the brain gets rewarded. Moral motivation and justification are separable (92). Neuroanatomy of morality. The MPFC and trolley problems (93). The moral interpretation of these problems is difficult (94-5).

Psychopaths allow us to see what lacking morality looks like. Here is a case… and there are worse (95-6).

Perhaps 1% of the population is psychopathic. Egocentric and totally lacking in concern for others (97). Fear seems to aid moral understanding (98), and some people cannot be taught to care (99).

Game theory tells us to expect two evolutionary moral orientations: tit for tat and permanent defection (99). Psychopaths look like permanent defectors (100).

Are psychopaths evil? Only the way grizzly bears are evil (100). But natural is not necessarily good (101). We may be innately immoral in many ways, and altruism may require an out-group to oppose. Patricia Churchland questions if we can condemn out-group raids if they were required for us to form a sense of morality based on altruism (101). But just because we got here that way does not mean we have to keep going with it, like descending into a moral valley to climb a higher peak. If we undertake to engineer our future, we will need a scientific understanding of well-being (102).

Free will is an illusion (102). Our brains do a lot before we are even aware of it; our consciousness is often notified last (103). Randomness does not make us free either. I do not change my mind, my mind changes me. We are instruments played by unseen hands, we are not responsible in any way for our thoughts and actions (104). Free will is just what it feels like when a thought arises in the consciousness (105).

Determinism is not fatalism. We still have to act. Choice is just as important as free will advocates think it is. We have voluntary and involuntary action but that does not support free will (105).

Free will is presupposed by both religious notions of sin and legal notions of retribution. How do we maintain moral responsibility if we are “neuronal weather patterns”? (106) Judgments of responsibility depend on the character of the actor, circumstances can mitigate responsibility (107). Condemnation is based on intention and character; if there is a bad pattern, we need no more reason to consider someone dangerous (108).

Determinism does not negate responsibility, but it does call retribution into question. We would lock up natural disasters if we could. Death row inmates had deterministic bad luck; it was not their fault. Morality is a lot about luck. Imagine if we could just “cure” evil universally; retribution thus makes no sense (109).

Brain disorders can negate our best intentions. This should make us more compassionate and move us away from religious metaphysics – immortal souls are so cruel. And yet we think science will dehumanize us! Body/soul dualism is worse, the enemy of compassion (110).

Yet retribution does serve a psychological need. Vendetta would not be so pressing were a disease the cause of a death and not a person. So maybe “sham” retribution would be okay, to make examples of people. But retribution is still based on the illusion of free will (111).

Free will is often presented as a mystery: both objectively impossible and subjectively unequivocal. But we are mistaken (111). When we pay attention we see that free will is nowhere to be found, and that is okay. “The illusion of free will is itself an illusion.” (112)

Points of Agreement:

Once again, these are agreements that can apply to Catholicism, most Christians, and many other religions as well. These are starting to get repetitive with the previous posts, so I’ll try to be quick.

We can agree that cooperation can be good.

We can agree that the Dobu Islanders had a pretty messed-up culture.

We can agree that morals are real.

We can agree that knowledge about the brain and morality is good

We can agree that there are such things as moral illusions, incorrect moral biases, moral dumbfoundedness, and failures of moral intuition.

We can agree that growing in empathy is good.

We can agree that psychopathy is bad.

We can agree that character and intention are important to ethics.

Points of Disagreement:

We cannot agree that cooperation is always good – cooperation can be for evil as well (and Harris knows this too. More below, see Specific Points #1).

We cannot agree that knowledge about the brain necessarily tells us much more about morality than we already knew.

We cannot agree that Harris knows much about religious morality.

We cannot agree that morality is about maximizing selfishness.

We cannot agree that free will is an illusion.

Evaluation, Specific Points:

1)         Are ethics and morality about how we think about cooperation or about how we think about well-being? That might sound like a dumb question but it’s not – cooperation and well-being are not equivalent. Harris should agree to this because he knows that religions tend to increase cooperation, and yet he also argues that religions decrease well-being. Cooperation can be for evil ends, as with Al-Qaeda or German Nazis. Their cooperation does/did not increase well-being, in fact they decrease(d) it quite a bit. Harris is dealing with some important ideas here. If morality is about cooperation then it is about groups. Where are the limits of these groups? Are they meant to be universal? If it is about the well-being of conscious creatures, then at least that is more inclusive (even if still deficient).

2) On page 63 Harris discusses maximizing good consequences in the afterlife. This is a very interesting idea to me, since it relates to cultural evolution (one of my research interests). David Sloan Wilson makes the case that religion exists as a result of helping cultural groups in their competition with the environment and each other. He splits religion into two parts: beliefs, and the effects of the beliefs. Natural selection only works on the effects, not the beliefs themselves – only the practice is selected, not the theory behind the practice. If “wash your hands” is the practice, it doesn’t matter whether God says to do it for purity’s sake or science says to do it to wash off germs. The theory is irrelevant, only the practice is selected for. The only relevance theory has is how well it motivates the practice.

Being concerned with ultimate things, religion is highly motivational. In fact, it might be more motivational than just plain old “well-being” as Harris is promoting. So I have a question for Harris, a rework of Plato’s “Noble Lie.” What if a scientific morality just doesn’t do it for people? What if, in order to maximize well-being, a big ‘ol lie about an afterlife and/or all-seeing God is simply the best option? Evolution is cleverer than we are, after all (Leslie Orgel’s Second Rule). So we should expect evolved cultural traditions to be smarter than we are too – let’s call it Green’s corollary. Cultural evolution has created some very good ways of motivating behavior, such as legal systems, religions, money, secret police, etc.

Now, there are two things I’m not saying here. First is that religion is necessarily a lie; that would be rather self-defeating of me. My belief is that a true religion would have beneficial effects on its believers, and especially on groups of believers. Second is that religion’s motivating power simply must necessarily be better than that of any scientific morality – I am not saying that. I am perfectly comfortable with the idea that a scientific morality could be motivating. In fact, my work with science and Catholic natural law presupposes that any science of morality could be motivating. I’m just wondering if Harris has thought of this problem and solution. Because it makes religion not so bad – a successful religion becomes a codification of evolutionarily relatively better practices.

3) P. 64. If well-being is all about mental states, then why not get everybody on drugs or stick electric stimulators into their brains? It’s way easier than actually trying to get people to be good. Why not? Harris gives no indication of his view on this.

4) P. 68. Here Harris has some good critiques of consequentialism: Dennett’s question, paradoxes, the value vs. method problem. I’m glad he brings these up and it makes me wonder why Harris still claims to be a consequentialist. He really ought to be doing virtue ethics. More on this in 7) below.

5) I want to actually say something good about Harris’s book now. He does a great job exposing moral paradoxes, moral dumbfoundedness, and intuition failures. The Monty Hall problem is a great example of something which blows people’s brains, and there are plenty of similar situations in ethics, such as loss-aversion and the identifiable victim effect. Harris does a great job with this. For these few pages his book shines. Then it goes dim again.

6) Harris’s understanding of religious ethics is appalling. Once again he flippantly delivers four ideas about religious ethics that are just wrong, and reflect his deep ignorance (or malice).

My summary, from above: Religious moralities are wrong because they are 1. incompatible, 2. unethical, 3. evaluated by outside norms, 4. there are no reasons to believe them (78).

One at a time…

1. How could the incompatibility of religions possibly argue against the correctness of any particular religion? That is completely non-sequitur. If the multiple-choice test has 10,000 mutually incompatible answers, that does not make them all wrong. It just means that only one can be right. Which is exactly how multiple-choice tests work, after all. In fact Harris is playing this game as well – his system is one of the options too, mutually incompatible with all the others, and, if his logic here were correct, also wrong.

2. Unethical… from Harris’s perspective. How can he possibly be judging objectively here? Biblical teaching changes over time, it is true, slavery is acceptable early on, and becomes less acceptable later, finally terminating in “there is no… slave nor free… but all are one in Christ” (See Galatians 3:28 and Colossians 3:11). Why this transformation occurs can be argued over, but in general the idea is that God works with the human material He has available, which early on was pretty barbaric.

Now let’s consider contemporary morality. Utilitarian/consequentialists like Peter Singer are pushing to legalize infanticide now, which is against Judeo-Christian ethics as well. And he thinks bestiality is acceptable too. Should we trust Singer or the tradition on this one? I’m sticking with tradition.

3. Judged by outside norms… like what? Harris’s norms? Or some other religion’s norms? This is just another way to phrase 2. above. All Harris is saying here is that people have different norms that they apply to things as they see fit, some compatible with some religions and others not. There is no universally accepted set of norms shared by all humans that makes all ethics clear as crystal and judges all previous systems of ethics. Pursuing that is the entire point of Harris’s book, if it already existed then he wouldn’t need to argue for trying to call it into existence!

4. No reasons to believe religion. Has Harris really done all the work for us? Thanks. What Harris is really arguing is another version of 1., namely that there are too many religions and it is too hard to figure out which one might be correct. I suppose this could be called the argument from laziness – doing the work is too hard, so just assume there is no answer and make up some other stuff instead. Obviously lots of people think there are lots of data supporting lots of different religions. All that means is that a lot of people are wrong, not that everybody is wrong (though it is possible that all options are wrong), as I stated above. Clearly Harris thinks his ideas are the exception, just like everybody else does. Even Joshua Greene, whom Harris mentions as a moral skeptic, thinks his position is right and everybody else is wrong.

This gets tedious fast. It all boils down to the fact that people DON’T AGREE on ultimate reality and how to act based on it. This is not a religious problem but a human one. It is a problem involving the interface of the human mind and reality, epistemology and ontology all in one big mess. And what counts as evidence to some does not count as evidence to others, and so on.

What this really boils down to is that Harris doesn’t think any religion is true… therefore (he asserts) no religion is true. Not much there, really.

7) Alright, now we get to a major deficiency of Harris’s book. Harris is doing the wrong kind of ethics. He should not be a consequentialist, he should be a virtue ethicist. Then his system could actually approach making sense.

Virtue ethics, also known as character ethics or aretaic ethics, is more concerned with habitual character traits than individual particular actions. VE has been around since the Greeks, but was supplanted in the West in recent centuries by the warring parties of Kantians and consequentialists.

Harris is stuck in Anglo-American analytical philosophy’s false dichotomizing. The choice is not either utilitarianism or deontology, both are wrong because they answer the wrong question as to what ethics is (ethics is about becoming a good person, not only doing good acts). The solution is virtue ethics. The only way to become happy is to become good. Doing good acts is one part of this, but the habituation to virtue is even more important, and that makes intentions important too, not just consequences. The point of ethics is  not to act so as to maximize well-being in some heartless mechanical calculation. For robots, that might work, but for humans, no.

Harris, like many Anglo-American analytic philosophers, thinks tradition offers nothing worthwhile, so he reinvents the wheel, calls it new, and mis-labels it. Well, it’s not new. It’s old, back to the ancient Greeks, particularly Aristotle. Harris says he doesn’t want to be beholden to the idiosyncrasies of another man’s system (p. 195), but instead he is beholden to his own idiosyncrasies. Take your pick. Here are just three examples where Harris is more of a virtue ethicist than consequentialist:

P. 73: Harris is concerned with growing in empathy for others, in other words an internal disposition towards empathetic action.  This gets close to virtue ethics.

P. 108: “What we condemn in another person is the intention to do harm.” Emphasis in the original.  It is the character that matters, not so much the consequences.

And in The End of Faith p. 147 and 255n47. On page 147 he says intention is everything: “Where ethics are concerned, intentions are everything.”  Then in the note he says actually intention is not everything: “Intentions matter, but they are not all that matters.”  Besides being a contradiction (and backpedalling in his notes is not uncommon), it does show he thinks intentions are important, not only consequences. Character, not just results – this is important.

There are more (this is an ongoing problem in his work). But in any case, Harris should look to virtue ethics and Aristotle and even St. Thomas Aquinas (!)– it might help him out.

8 ) P. 83, 92. Harris is wrong here, and it displays his confusion between utilitarianism and virtue ethics again. Morality is NOT about maximizing selfishness. With that attitude you get corrupt, vicious persons, instrumentalizing perceived goodness for personal gain.

Morality is about becoming a good person, and the point of studying morality is to become good. The happiness produced from this is not a happiness of selfishness, but a happiness of loving the right things: truth, beauty, goodness. That we become fully alive by this is an effect of our goodness, not the cause of our pursuit of it. The change is internal. I know Harris might be trying to say that there is some irony in the fact that only through selflessness can we find happiness, which is what selfish people are pursuing, after all, but can’t get it because their selfishness prevents it. But because Harris is speaking as a utilitarian, not a virtue ethicist, I am inclined to think that he really does think that this is about maximizing selfishness.

9) P. 93-95. Trolley dilemmas.  Here I actually agree again with Harris against Joshua Greene.  Studies of trolley dilemmas with fMRI are too simple.  That’s fine for preliminary work, but these results should not be considered settled science yet.  Harris is right that there really are moral differences between the “switch-hitting” scenario and the “pushing the fat man” scenario (both actions kill one to save five, but that is not the only morally salient consideration). See here for more on these dilemmas.

10) The given example of a psychopath is horrifically disturbing and unnecessary; it is a sadistic example of child abuse. I wish I hadn’t read it.

I can’t help but feel manipulated by the use of this passage in Harris’s book. Why did he include it? Ostensibly, because “abstractions” were not good enough, we needed to know the gory disgusting truth about psychopathy. Needless to say, the use of this passage is not insignificant. It tells us a lot about Harris and his project in The Moral Landscape.

First, as I have said before, Harris relies on shock-value and emotion, not reason. This story is meant to horrify – and thereby psychologically bind us to our guide, Harris – who only shows it only to educate us, of course.

Second, with Harris manipulating us this way, choosing from an arsenal of the grotesque, we should be wary of his character as well. Good people don’t dwell on the specifics of this stuff, unless they must, for the sake of fighting it and stopping it. Harris is not doing that here. Here he is sharing it to shock and manipulate us for his own ends. He is literally appropriating that evil act, the victim and victimizer, as supporting players in his book. Disturbing.

And, by now, exactly what we should expect from Harris.

11) P. 102-112. Free will… oh dear. Harris is still plugging this stuff over on his blog too (links to an excerpt from his book from this section).  All I can say about this is that the experience of free will is one of the most primary sensations of every human being.  Saying that science makes is unreal does not make it unreal.  Saying that brain scans show actions begin before we are cognizant of them does not indicate that we lack free will, it indicates that we may not know all of the causes of our thoughts. That is not determinism, that is lack of understanding.

But how can we have free will if science doesn’t allow for it? I can just ask you is if there is any “you” in you. Do you think? Are you conscious? Personal experience is more primary here. Until science explains that, the issue cannot be pushed further. Don’t ask me how free will works. We already know that it does.

Until Harris can show the exact deterministic nature of the input and output of the mind, including every variable, we have no reason to believe his assertions.  He is making a philosophical claim here for which he has neither strong evidence nor argument. I’m more inclined to think he is importing his Hindu/Buddhist metaphysics here, and calling free will an illusion based on his “religious” beliefs.

Yes, I did just say that: I think Harris is drawing on religion for his metaphysics of free will (see Harris’s Wikipedia article about his Eastern influences). And he’s using debatable scientific evidence to back up his religious beliefs.

So don’t give up on free will just yet.

Evaluation, General Points:

Secular Calvinism. That is the best way to sum up Harris’s ethics as displayed in this chapter. Good and evil exist, but you have no control, none, over whether you are saved or damned. The only thing you can judge yourself by is how your life is going, thus displaying God’s favor (or not). If your life is going badly, you are damned. If it is going well, you are saved. Deterministic nature is God, and science is how we discover God’s will in order to restrain the damned from harming the well-being of the saved. The parallel is uncanny.

This would be more concerning were it not so very, very comical. An American atheist, who vigorous rejects Western religion, reiterates the classic American founding religion, Calvinist Puritanism, in secular terms. How interesting.

Yet look at poor Harris’s situation. He is so very passionate for his beliefs. He really hates religion because he really thinks religion encourages evil. Yet he has taken the religious milieu of his mother country and secularized it in such a way that its main tenets are all still there but cloaked in new language. Right about now, that should make Harris hate his own beliefs, though I doubt he would accept my analysis, instead saying that science has found these things, that he is not just reiterating Calvinism in secular terms.

But this is a very interesting way to look at the book.  “Atheist argues for secularized  theology (Calvinism) in order to advocate secularized religious ethics (utilitarianism).”  That is historically exactly what happened in England (Calvinism yielding to utilitarianism), after all, with America following suit.  It makes the book make a lot more sense, actually.  Harris has taken his unconscious understanding of the way the world ought to work, spiffed it up with his conscious efforts to attack religion and argue for a new morality, and created an awkward chimera of American culture, with a taint of Eastern mysticism: Calvinist yet secular, individualist yet with no self, liberty-seeking yet without free choice.

Much more could be said on this, but it this section is already long enough.

Once again, here are part 1 and part 2.

Please leave your comments. And as always, if you think I have made a mistake, write it in the comments and be specific. Like with page numbers. The more specific you are they more likely you will make me change something. I’ve done it before and will do it again.

6 responses to “Book Review: The Moral Landscape by Sam Harris, Part 3

  • Scott Forschler

    Hi again Brian. This is late since I was out the country all summer, but I do have to challenge you on some points here, confining myself just to point 6 though, on Harris’ criticisms of religious morality.

    1. The analogy is a bad one, leaving out essential features of at least the monotheistic worldview that Harris is most concerned about, namely that there is a God is concerned about human well-being in some fashion, is infinitely powerful, and wants us to do certain things, including believing in some true facts about God, amongst others. So let’s fix your analogy to reflect that. Let us hypothesize that a competent professor is teaching 10,000 students about some topic. We later survey the students about their knowledge of the topic, and they have 10,000 different and contradictory answers. There may be many explanations for this; they may not all have been in class, paying attention, etc. But that’s partly due to the professor’s limited power. Let’s assume the professor has the power, if he chose to use it, to directly communicate to each student telepathically or through each person’s I-phone or other telecom devices, to convey the information. If we still get 10,000 different answers, likely explanations are that the professor either didn’t care enough about delivering the information to do so most effectively, or isn’t a good teacher, or perhaps doesn’t even exist. Or, we might conclude that most of the students are just deeply, horrifyingly stupid. But it’s easier to believe that there’s a problem with the professor than with 10,000 students. If we add even more to make the analogy closer yet to the original case, and claim that the 10,000 students were genetically engineered by the professors, who designed their brains to be able to competently process just the material he wanted them to know (and then, perhaps, to make their own decisions about what to do with it), and we still get wild disagreement, blaming the students looks more and more implausible.

    So this is one of those analogies which, once corrected and re-applied, shows the opposite of what was originally intended.

    2. My response there is mostly already given; if God is imagined as having made “the materials he had to work with,” well, he can’t really blame the material then if it’s tough to work with, can he? Besides, he’s omnipotent, so no material should be able to resist his will. You’re assuming too close an analogy with finite, less potent human creators, which defeats the very hypothesis you’re trying to support.

    Singer versus tradition (as if there was even just *one* tradition of Christian ethics)?? Brian, you surely know what a false dichotomy is. Please.

    3 & 4: you seem to admit that you’re just rephrasing earlier criticisms here.

  • Brian Green

    I find your re-worked analogy to be humorous, interesting, and even verging on instructive, but off the mark. You are addressing the question about why God didn’t just implant religion or “something” into all of our heads directly, more or less, not the same question Harris and I are addressing about incompatibility negating religions. If you think otherwise, let me know, maybe I’m missing it. I think you are saying that’s pretty bad work, to let humanity get 9999 wrong answers out of 10000.

    But that is an extremely interesting point. When it comes to morality, there are commonalities among almost all human groups: don’t kill, don’t steal, don’t lie, don’t commit sexual improprieties (whatever those might be in that culture), etc. It’s almost like a “natural law” is implanted in us, isn’t it! 🙂

    And that is built into our human nature, boiled up out of reality with us, no need for divine telepathic intervention. Not hard to work with, not easy to work with.

    The usual understanding of why God doesn’t make it “easy” on us is that God wants us to do some of the work. If you want to go back to your professor analogy, giving the answers to everybody in the class (even broadcast during the test itself) is one way to get everybody an “A” (and even with that some students still won’t get it). But the better way is to make them work for it and actually internalize the information and hopefully by doing that become better or “more” than they were before. Natural law covers the basics. Revelation patches up the unclear spots. Everybody gets the textbook, but only the students who come to class really get it. Maybe something more like that.

    And of course “Singer vs. tradition” overall is a false dichotomy. I wasn’t saying that. I was giving a limited example: on incest and bestiality I’ll not follow Singer. In other ways Singer is very “traditionally” Christian, helping the poor and all that.

    Anyway, welcome back, even though you always disagree with me and occasionally make me look bad. 🙂 If you have more, go for it.

  • Scott Forschler

    Well, I’m not saying Harris made the point sufficiently clear; I concede he often leaves missing premises. But look, the point about 10,000 views was, in your context, about religious views, not moral ones; I assume you are paraphrasing one of SH’s points on this, so don’t veer off into talking about ethical diversity, and stick to the point on religion. If you make the parallel response that God must want us to figure out supernatural truths on our own, then the analogy to the competent professor breaks down, since we’d see a lot more agreement if the professor really “patches up all the unclear spots” enough so that only clearly lazy and incompetent students didn’t get at least the basic points. Of course, internalizing data is better than just having it pre-programmed thoughtlessly, but still if the textbook + lecture is really quite clear, and the professor genetically engineered the students–not to have the necessary data programmed in like robots, but to have the basic capacity to absorb the kind of information he later wants them to have when it is presented clearly, then you shouldn’t have the kind if wild diversity you have with religious belief.

    You can make modern ethicists look bad by cherry-picking their stranger claims and comparing to the best of your preferred one; if you compare Singer’s very strong admonition to help strangers in need to other things that were long part of Christian tradition–slaves, serve your masters, I will not suffer a woman to speak in the assembly, stoning homosexuals and slaying first-born sons of all ages, and so forth–then things come out rather differently. Or do you think there is *NO* racism, sexism, incest, adultery, or child-massacre approved of by God or his messengers in the Bible, that book which, erm, “patches up the unclear spots” in our moral catechism? 🙂

  • Brian Green

    I don’t understand why you wouldn’t expect wild diversity of belief. We evolved to be capable of religion, and in the absence of divine revelation the capacity found content regardless of truth. Revelation then comes along and provides content, and some people stick with it while others splinter off in other ways. How does that disprove God? I see not logical connection between diversity and falsity other than the one I initially pointed out: that among diverse options only one can be correct.

    As for Singer and the Bible, the difference there would be 2 to 4 millennia. Everyone was barbaric back then, even the civilized peoples. Being evenly compared to them is no point of pride.

  • Scott Forschler

    But Brian, both of your points count *against* “revelation” being capable of clearing things up so nicely; since there remains great diversity of religion in the presence of revelation–granting, for the sake of argument, that there has been any. Indeed, some of the hottest contention is between people who agree on the words or source of some revelation, but disagree on its content. And if revelation cleared up the uncertainties, then people who got it millennia ago should have gotten the cleared up message. They didn’t, so either God’s revelation didn’t clear things up and can’t be counted upon for doing so, or there was no such revelation, and what appeared to be people writing things in the name of God was just that and nothing more. This is a logical connection, but it’s more inductive than deductive. One could try to cast it into deductive form but the premises would need to be described rather tightly, and I’m content to say that the weight of evidence is against revelation as clearing-up, barring some rather extraordinary further hypothesis about what these terms mean and how normal people respond to evidence, etc.

    I wasn’t comparing Singer and barbaric people as a point of pride for the former; I was comparing your argument with an equally silly form of cherry-picking, and hence by /reductio ad absurdum/ suggesting that this is a silly form of comparison, one that you could not endorse upon reflection. The proper move, then, is to find a *better* basis for comparison, not to say “hm, Scott must be saying that his use of this cherry-picking strategy is good.” I’m saying all uses of this strategy are bad ones. This is rather obvious, and your attempt to recast what I’m doing in a negative light, to make it look like I was doing something sillier, again illustrates that you are simply trying to avoid admitting that your case was made on the basis of flawed argumentation.

    Argument like these are used all the time and are found acceptable in other realms by all people; if there was persistent diversity of opinion about whether chocolate or strawberry were better ice cream flavors, that would count heavily against its being decided by revelation, so much so that (obviously) no one would consider this. Such arguments are not accepted in religions because each religion engages in special pleading for its own case (except for Hinduism and the like, which try, just as implausibly, to include all POVs). Those who want to be convinced, or rest content, in strategies of misconstruing opposing arguments, will be convinced by them. Religion works not by having *different* arguments from those Harris & many atheists use, but by *evading* those arguments, refusing to face them, insisting upon redescribing them instead of addressing them as they stand. Or so several data-points of the present discussion tends to suggest.

  • Brian Green

    Scott, I understood your cherry picking point. Once again I was being facetious and once again the internet ate the humor before it got to you. I really should learn my lesson.

    And I agree on your point about evading arguments and re-describing them, but I wouldn’t limit it to religious people, of course. After all, the first thing you did when you commented was to re-describe the multiple choice exam analogy that I had proposed and turned it into an analogy that you liked better and that you thought proved your point. And your most recent ice cream analogy, while hunger-inducing, is yet another reiteration of this operation and I still have no idea why persistence of disagreement would or could argue that revelation had not occurred other than that in this particular case it is ridiculous in the first place.

    Redescription is simply what people do when they are trying to investigate and/or explain something. It needn’t be intentional evasion, it might just be that they are exploring for a good answer, ironing out the wrinkled ideas in their cortices.

    As for revelation… Revelation requires interpretation, and interpretation can go wrong. Catholics believe that the reason Jesus left a Church behind was for the purposes of authoritative interpretation of the text. In the absence of that authority guess what happens? thousands of splinter groups. You seem to think revelation would or should somehow compel agreement in itself, in the absence of interpretation. That would be interesting if it were true, but God does not want to compel anyone into belief, if it were too obvious it would violate free will.

    Lastly, where you mention that milllennia-old revelation ought to have been cleared up, you are correct that it would have been correct. Or rather, that it was correct for them at the time, and since then specifics have changed. Hence Christians do not follow the Levitical laws and so on. Maybe rather than an analogy of one course we should be thinking of two different courses. If you have Newtonian mechanics 1st semester and relativistic physics the second, don’t use your notes from the first semester to answer test questions in the second, except insofar as the two courses agree. An imperfect analogy of course, but not an evasion, simply a revision to try to tackle the concept. You are of course allowed to change or “evade” it again as you wish.

    If you think I am evading something please state it again and I will try to respond to it. But I think the problem is that we are starting from very different sets of assumptions (of course) and some of our words and concepts are not overlapping precisely, e.g. “revelation” and how exactly it would operate on people. And so whenever I do not agree with you and I respond with another point – perhaps by modifying a premise of yours that I think is incorrect – you decide I am evading. You can think that, or we can try to figure out why we disagree and pinpoint the conceptual sticking points.

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