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Sam Harris in Berkeley: Can Science Determine Human Values?

Sam Harris

Sam Harris in Berkeley

Sam Harris’s presentation in Berkeley about how science is the best tool we have at our disposal to alleviate human suffering and advance well-being.

Last November, Sam Harris gave this terrific presentation and subsequent Q&A session (embedded below) in Berkeley, CA, at The First Congregational Church of Berkeley. He talks, and answers questions, about the ideas laid out in The Moral Landscape, how science is the best tool we have at our disposal to arrive at reasonable and defensible moral standards, to alleviate human suffering, and to advance human well-being.

Ethics, especially ethics & literature, was among the areas I focused on during my graduate studies. One essay I wrote, which appeared in a slightly abbreviated form in a German language anthology on Myth and Ideology, revolved around the problem of how it would be possible to condemn certain acts on ethical grounds from a poststructuralist or deconstructionist point of view. I escalated the question to Auschwitz: if what counts as “ethical behavior” is socially-culturally determined and therefore varies across cultures, who are we to say, for example, that the Nazis were morally wrong when they killed millions upon millions of people who were not defined as belonging to the human race in the cultural story the perpetrators had learned to tell each other? It’s actually not that difficult to answer this question; the idea that postmodern literary theory or cultural theory has anything to do with “everything goes” is nothing more than a perpetuated myth, and there’s also certain brands of American Pragmatism that have provided very useful tools.

From there, my “gut reaction” to criticism regarding Sam Harris’s concepts is rather similar to the reaction from a commenter on YouTube (now lost with the talk’s original upload):

Harris’ argument is so obvious that it just drives me mad that so many won’t see it. Morality is about well-being? There are better and worse ways to seek well-being? I thought such statements were literally on a par with ‘water is wet’ and ‘the sun is hot’, and I really wouldn’t have believed the reaction he’s getting if I hadn’t seen it for myself. I feel like I’m in the Twilight Zone!

Of course, there is really, really much to discuss, and the sooner we start, the better. But that rational discussion itself is what is at stake shouldn’t come as a surprise—given the fact that moral reasoning, historically, has been being hijacked by metaphysics and the idea of external “ideals” on the one hand, still alive and well under various subtle or outspoken forms of Neoplatonism, and by the idea of invisible friends on the other who gave us moral guidelines without which we would all be up and killing each other, a notion propagated by institutionalized superstitions throughout history and around the globe.

In the light of that, here’s Sam Harris’s terrific reply from the Q&A session when asked about the “possible dangers of science”:

Science is our truly open conversation in which we are most constrained by honest observation and clear reasoning. It’s when we make our best effort to get our biases out of the way, and our wishful thinking out of the way, and just talk honestly about what we know and what we don’t know. And the suspicion that this might be the case—it’s a very strange intuition—that the most important questions in human life must fall outside of science because what we’re saying is that when you become most intellectually honest, when you get your wishful thinking out of the way, when you get your biases out of the way, when you rely upon clear reasoning and honest observation, that’s precisely the mood you can’t be in to address the most important questions in human life. That’s weird, and we should point that out. There is no other mood to be in to address the most important questions. And again, I don’t define science narrowly, I’m defining it as evidence-based, rational discussion where people’s convictions are gonna scale with the quality of the arguments and the quality of the evidence. And that is really the antithesis of what happens in religion. And it’s what’s brought to really an exquisit refinement in science per se, but it’s also true of all intellectual discourse.

Now I leave you with the presentation. Fast-forward to 3:05 in the first clip; the introduction isn’t worthwhile and full of glaring mistakes.

Sam Harris: Can Science Determine Human Values?



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