Final thoughts on The Moral Landscape by Sam Harris…

Well, as promised, I have finished reading The Moral Landscape by Sam Harris.  Below are my thoughts on some things that popped up while reading the book.  Overall, most of his arguments make sense. But until he can do more rigorous neurological testing the arguments do not pose a threat to anyone claiming to have “insider” information on the afterlife and the complex world of human moral consciousness.

However, on page 78 he did list his objections to religious truth that he had addressed in an earlier book, Letter to a Christian Nation.  The main points are listed below in his own words:

  1. Many revealed religions available to us with mutually incompatible doctrines
  2. The scriptures of many religions (including Christianity and Islam) countenance patently unethical practices like slavery
  3. The faculty we use to validate religious precepts, judging the Golden Rule to be wise and the murder of apostates to be foolish, is something we bring to scripture; it does not come from scripture
  4. The reason for believing that any of the world’s religions were “revealed” to our ancestors (rather than merely being invented by men and women who did not benefit from a 21st century education) are either risible or nonexistent – and the idea that each of these mutually contradictory doctrines is inerrant remains a logical impossibility

I could try to answer these points, but I don’t have a solid answer for 3 and 4.  I am sure that some evangelical scholar has written a rebuttal to Dr. Harris’s book, Letter to a Christian Nation.  If I find it I will put the link here.  If not, then search for it yourself.

Another topic that Dr. Harris covered was psychopaths. One story that he told in the book about a contemporary psychopath was absolutely horrible.  That lead me to a series of questions  about what to do with psychopaths until neuroscience gives us some sort of way to “rewire” these lunatics. Should we kill psychopaths after they have committed a horrendous crime, in other words, should justice be death? What if we enacted laws that said any person who has committed child molestation in any form would be put to death as well as physical, mental, and emotional child abuse?  What impact would that have on society?  Now couple these thoughts about crime and the death penalty with what Dr. Harris talked about regarding freewill (some of which I will discuss below) and a whole slew of moral justice dilemmas enter the scene.  I was fascinated by the last ¼ of the book as he talked about neuroscience, psychopaths/sociopaths, our prison system, and the future.

Along this line of thinking, if there was one thing I pulled away from the book that I was certain of, it was that our prison and jail systems are outdated.  True justice equals reformation and reconditioning of those who commit crimes.  Our money should be going towards cognitive therapy treatment and conditioning to release these individuals back into society as productive, not destructive, members.  More could be said here, but that was not the point of the book.

The following are some of the key statements Dr. Harris makes in his chapter about freewill.  I think these are very important to consider, especially since the foundation of Christianity is that we have a choice to make regarding whether Jesus is truth or not.

“All of our behavior can be traced to biological events about which we have no conscious knowledge: this has always suggested that free will is an illusion.” Pg 103 with neurological examples to back it.  Essentially this section showed where chemical reactions in our brain already determine what our decision will be once we are conscious of a “choice”.  Harris argues that the choice is an illusion that our consciousness plays on us because they can show where the decision was made before the person was even aware of a decision needing to be made.

“Clearly findings of this kind are difficult to reconcile with the sense that one is the conscious source of one’s actions…I, as the subject of my experience, cannot know what I will next think or do until a thought or intention arises; and thoughts and intentions are caused by physical events and mental stirrings of which I am not aware.”  This is the key to what he is saying.  Be sure to grasp/understand this.  Your thoughts and intentions are a biological byproduct, not a choice of consciousness.  That is not up for debate.  It is proven.

“Where our intentions themselves come from, however, and what determines their character in every instant, remains perfectly mysterious in subjective terms. Our sense of free will arises from a failure to appreciate this fact: we do not know what we will intend to do until the intention itself arises.”  Pg 106 So here he is saying that they do not know what causes your brain to produce the intentions that arise before they arrive in your conscious thought.  We can theorize a lot in this case such as current decisions are based on past experiences and learned behaviors, but we need more scientific inquiry into the human brain to learn more.  It does not, however, mean that freewill still exists as you currently understand it, but that freewill, if it does exist at all, happens before we are aware of it.

So what I believe Sam Harris is saying is that “we are a product of our environmental conditioning”.  Does that mean we do not possess free will?  Not sure.  One of the quandaries he talks about earlier in the book is that we know that losing 30 pounds will in general create a more healthy and beneficial life for ourselves but we can’t seem to act on this knowledge to make it happen.  We don’t change our eating and physical habits to effect the changes that we know we need to make.

I am not sure the two are related but my brain is telling me they are.  If I want to create in myself a desire to lose 30 pounds (which I need to do at the present moment) then could I not educate myself and condition myself to effect the motivational change needed to lose the weight?  By understanding that the decision I want to make (to lose 30 pounds) needs thought processes that I currently don’t possess then could I not empower my brain to make that decision through more knowledge and physical stimulus awareness?  If so, is this free will?  If it is free will at that point then he might point out that I could not have made that decision if the intention to make that decision were not already present.  So then we would be like the big bang theory in need of explaining what caused our first intention.

So there you have it, some of my thoughts on Sam Harris’ book, The Moral Landscape.  I will probably reread it at some point since some of it was worded above my current vocabulary.




3 thoughts on “Final thoughts on The Moral Landscape by Sam Harris…

  1. I think the much greater problem in Sam Harris’s “Moral Landscape” is his subtle adherence to radical subjectivism.
    He argues there is a “continuum of such [moral] facts” and that “we know” we can “move along this continuum” and “We know, we know that there are right and wrong answers about how to move in this space [along the moral continuum]” By illustrating this continuum or progress of acquiring moral knowledge, we inevitably learn it from experience. More simply, Harris’s argument is that we learn these truths from our “reactions.” This view of moral ontology falls within the umbrella of radical subjectivism. But subjective radicalism and we obtain morality through experience is patently absurd. For example, suppose one were to test these theories through conducting an experiment by sticking a bunch of people in a room. All the while, the subjects in the room would watch things that are moral abominations such as, murdering and child pedophilia with images of laughter and joy. Then one were to switch the subject group with subjects who were child molesters. They would then observe the images of murder and child pedophilia to them. In the experiment the test subjects become quite joyful at the images shown to them.
    Now using the paradigm of Harris’s morality based on experience, what I have observe in this experiment is that murdering and raping children is good and bit of fun. However, I change the test subjects to children and parents and watch who react in horror at the detestable images. From their reactions, I should conclude that raping and murdering children is morally abominable. The process repeats itself and the same results would occur. This humanistic utilitarianism leads to a Euthyphro dilemma of sorts for those who claim humans obtain morality from experience. Either, things are wrong originates from conventionalism (where the majority is in the right) and thus morality becomes relative or arbitrary. Or things are wrong because they simply are wrong and in that case, secular naturalists has failed in providing an answer for moral ontology. Therefore, radical subjectivism or secular humanism fails in explaining objective moral values and duties and how they are binding. If there is no God, then it seems to me there can be no objective moral values and duties which flies in the face of our moral experience.
    Great post. Keep up the great work.


  2. I am sorry that I failed to respond to your post until now. It has been quite some time. I do see your point(s) and what I remember of the book is that Harris was arguing for a moral landscape in which morality is determined by a majority consensus for what is right or wrong in a particular time in a particular place – thus the visual he gives of moral peaks dotting the landscape of time. This is grossly inadequate to keep mankind in check from committing horrible atrocities in the name of moral rightness. I loved the movie Elysium for this reason. It shows the tendancy of man to separate ourselves by those who ‘right’ and those who are ‘wrong’. All major religions do it, secular humanist do it, agnostics, everyone! We pick our friends based on it or we isolate ourselves so that we do not have to be challenged by alternate worldviews. What ruled the day in Elysium was an inherent moral correctness that injustice was being done based on something that was intangible – an objective moral truth. It highlights the injustice of our fallen world due to the decisions of mankind where healthcare is not about the right to medicine but the economics of a people group. It is another control mechanism for controlling and distributing wealth, albeit unequally. Anyways, I was all over the place in this reply. Thanks for reading!


  3. Pingback: 40 week abortion, social justice and the gospel of Jesus Christ… | Wadley's Theology

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