atheism

Sam Harris on Morality, Again. Ugh.

I noticed Sam Harris had a new book out. He’s still trying to make that argument that science can somehow determine objective morality. Ugh. I’ve already talked about his ideas here. I found this site (and some of its own links to other pages) fairly interesting. It seems as though we can decide what objective morality is, according to Sam Harris.

Maryann Spikes, of the San Francisco Apologetics Examiner, wrote, “In answer to the question, ‘Who decides what is a successful life?’ Harris proclaims, ‘The answer is:  ‘we do.”  In other words, Harris says we determine objective morality, but this is a contradiction, because objective morality, if it exists, is discovered–not created.”

Unfortunately, it seems he has no idea what “objective” means in that case. Anyway, check out the comments here.

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About J.W. Wartick

J.W. Wartick has an MA in Christian Apologetics from Biola University. His interests include theology, philosophy of religion--particularly the existence of God--astronomy, biology, archaeology, and sci-fi and fantasy novels.

Discussion

14 thoughts on “Sam Harris on Morality, Again. Ugh.

  1. Lol. What is this? Fahrenheit 451? Did you forget to actually read the source material before criticizing it? Do you like having your credibility as low as it is? I think you do.

    Posted by Anonymous | October 27, 2010, 9:40 AM
  2. In your previous post (which I rather enjoyed, btw), you said:

    Thankfully, theists have something on which to base objective morality: God.

    Ah, but which theists and which gods? Your statement is bound to the assumption that the only god and the only theism that is relevant is your particular take on theism and your particular god. Why your religion? Why your god?

    The god of fundamentalist Christianity is very different from the god of progressive Christianity. The variations of the god recognized by Christianity are very different from the variations of the god recognized by Islam. The gods of Christianity and Islam are very different from the goddesses and gods of Wicca and Hinduism. Christianity alone has thousands of denominations, each with their own variations on scriptural interpretation. There are around 40 contemporary religions on the planet, today and countless spiritual practices that have vanished with generations past. Spiritual belief and its attendant body of moral edicts inevitably shift by country, community, culture, era, and category of faith.

    That’s just the thing. We’d all like to think that our sense of right and wrong are somehow written into the fabric of reality itself. Nevertheless, morality and ethics are the byproduct of countless social interactions across time, culture, and country. It’s not like there is one faith, one god, and one set of moral practices recognized across the globe, for all time. One’s faith and its practices are as intertwined with the forces of history, culture, and social ferment as any other body of beliefs and any other social institution. Cleric or scientist, their ideas about the world and the universe rest upon the shifting sands of time and social forces. Basing one’s morality upon the edicts one thinks are handed down by one’s gods or goddesses holds as little objective solidity as basing one’s morality upon the current social beliefs and politics of the scientific community (unwittingly disguised as “scientific research”).

    Quite honestly, I trust neither the scientific community nor religious bodies to determine morality and ethics for me, for all of these social bodies have their respective politics, power plays, and agendas, outwardly spoken or not. Consequently, the best I have to work with is my own heart, my connection to other living things, my experiences, and my intellect. I’ll start from there, and muddle through. It’s certainly not objective, but it’s all that I have to work with.

    This much I think we can both agree on, however: Sam Harris is drawing castles in the air while trying to convince us that he’s building a fortress of stone. A stonemason he is not… and I doubt that I am, either. Ironically, even structures of stone crumble with the passage of time.

    Posted by timberwraith | October 27, 2010, 11:11 AM
    • “Quite honestly, I trust neither the scientific community nor religious bodies to determine morality and ethics for me, for all of these social bodies have their respective politics, power plays, and agendas, outwardly spoken or not.”

      I agree wholeheartedly. I trust in the goodness of God for morality. Your discussions of “which version of Christianity” or “which gods” is interesting, but I think that it misses the point. Progressive and fundamentalist Christians agree that God is the basis of morality, as do Muslims. The difference is the interpretation of that goodness. Note that what I’m getting at here is the shared belief that such morality is based on God. Certainly, varying religious traditions have varying moral beliefs, but this only shows that the interpretation of objectivity is different, not that objectivity does not exist.

      Very interesting comment, thank you!

      Posted by J.W. Wartick | October 27, 2010, 7:06 PM
      • Your discussions of “which version of Christianity” or “which gods” is interesting, but I think that it misses the point. Progressive and fundamentalist Christians agree that God is the basis of morality, as do Muslims. The difference is the interpretation of that goodness. Note that what I’m getting at here is the shared belief that such morality is based on God.

        The point I’m trying to make is that if the nature of deities and their attendant bodies of belief are variable across time, culture, and faith, then it becomes quite difficult to argue that deities/faith can provide an objective source of information to base much of anything upon. It also becomes difficult to argue that employing deities/faith as a source of morality is any more reliable than other methods of establishing moral codes.

        Certainly, varying religious traditions have varying moral beliefs, but this only shows that the interpretation of objectivity is different, not that objectivity does not exist.

        An interpretation of objective reality is essentially the root of subjective experience. We are all subjective interpreters of reality, whatever reality may be at its core. If we can’t agree on which deities to follow, the nature of those deities, or if deities even exist, then we can’t agree on an underlying, potentially crucial aspect of reality. Essentially, we wind up with as many interpretations of reality as there are people.

        Inevitably, with so many interpretations of reality, social forces come into play in determining what a society’s “average” acceptable moral codes might be, and we’re left at square one: trying to claim that an objective version of morality can be determined via subjective experiences filtered through an unwieldy matrix of social forces. Whether theism, scientific research, and/or some other process is employed, we wind up hitting a great big, implacable wall of subjectivity.

        So, here’s the problem, as I see it. Theists (and polytheists) claim that deities form the basis of objective reality. Naturalistic empiricists claim that nature and its physical laws form the basis of objective reality. Regardless of the basis of objective reality, there is the inevitable process of a subjective interpretation of reality: especially when this process of interpretation concerns human behavior. The unreliable nature of subjective interpretation is present in both cases, rendering both methods unreliable. The best you can do is try to argue which method is less unreliable. I guarantee that you’ll go in circles trying to establish that, given that the determination of the true basis for reality is also limited by a subjective process.

        Whose deity? Whose empirical data? Whose interpretation of which deity? Whose interpretation of which data? Do the available holy texts truly represent the will and nature of said deity? Does the correlation found in the data actually represent a true causal relationship between the variables that were studied? Were the holy texts and people’s interpretation of them corrupted by human fallibility? Was the study corrupted by sample bias and the unconscious assumptions of the scientists?

        Posted by timberwraith | October 27, 2010, 10:58 PM
  3. thanks for the link 🙂

    Posted by Maryann | November 2, 2010, 6:06 PM
  4. This is a vacuous post that argues against a straw man. Sam Harris is not arguing for an objective morality in the sense that you are using the word. Everything I’ve heard him say would have him understand morality as something that only exists in the minds of people and possibly advanced other animals. It is not an independent natural force or effect, except as an emergent property of sentient minds. He is arguing for an objectively measurable *definition* of morality that moves the discourse forward without reference to imaginary and arbitrarily chosen mutually contradictory god or gods. You can choose to pin your morality on an ancient text written by a man who saw an angel in a cave, or the primitive missives of iron-age men about seeing Christ after his death, but these choices seem to me to be based on subjective individual interpretations of these texts, and thus ultimately come from your own judgment anyhow. Sam Harris is laying out a more transparent and honest approach that any intelligent person should welcome as a breath of fresh air.

    Posted by Rich | February 25, 2012, 5:12 PM
    • You use many terms which are full of bluster, but provide little argument to back any of them up. If Harris’ view of morality is merely something “that only exists in the minds of people…” he’s done nothing but invent a new subjectivism.

      Posted by J.W. Wartick | February 27, 2012, 5:32 PM
      • What bluster? Your criticism is vague. If some morality exists outside of the minds of people, please tell me more about it. To me, morality is just a set of behaviors and understandings that we have about what is good and proper behavior. It clearly varies among cultures, religions and even species. It clearly can and does change over time. I don’t know what you are talking about when you say “objective morality,” so I could just be misunderstanding your definition. It seems a contradiction to me. Gravity is an objective phenomenon. I think arguing morality is a subjective phenomenon in the same sense would not hold up. Sam Harris does present a morality that we can treat as objective, as long as we agree that the goal is to optimize the well being of sentient beings. But I don’t think he would argue it is objective like matter or energy.

        Posted by wealthychef | February 27, 2012, 6:14 PM
      • The criticism is vague because the post is mainly a link to someone else’s views. Perhaps you’d be better served to see my latest exposition on the topic in which I argue humanism has no ontological basis for morality. See here.

        The bluster should be evident, because throughout your post all you say is things like “You can choose to pin your morality on an ancient text” and “the primitive missives of stone-age men”… These are clearly nothing except bluster–attempts to insult and demean the opponent without actually making any claims. I could make similarly insulting and pointless remarks about Harris.

        Posted by J.W. Wartick | February 27, 2012, 6:19 PM
      • Thanks for the link to you latest exposition on the topic. 🙂 I read it and I now understand your views better. Again, I just take issue with your premise that Sam Harris is arguing for an objective morality. You are arguing against a straw man, which is why I called your post “vacuous.” It is true that there are some atheists that try to claim that morality is objective. But the truth is that morality is not objective and SH never claims it is to my knowledge. Morality is a made up idea, created by humans for humans. The woman’s baby in the example you cited is truly not “worth more” than a rock in an objective sense. But as humans, we value this baby more than a rock and we call that morality.
        This does not mean morality does not exist or is meaningless. This does not mean I have the opinion that murder is awesome. It simply means that morality is not objective. This might make you uncomfortable, and I can understand how that might be the case. I think many people have the feeling that subjective morality leads to chaos and evil. I do not share that feeling.
        I see now why you felt insulted, although my words were provocative, I did not mean to insult you but rather hear how you defended them. Whether you primarily see them as an insult is I suppose your choice and seems to be actually a deflection of their content, which perhaps you prefer not to take on intellectually. The statements you brought up as “pointless and insulting” were not pointless; they express facts which I think gravely undermine ethics that are based on the Bible.
        Perhaps you dispute them. Which part of my “insult” do you take issue with? Do you dispute the idea that the missives were primitive? Show me how they measure up favorably to modern ideas of morality. They do not, thus they are primitive.
        Do you disagree the men who wrote them were iron-age men? I did not say “stone age” by the way. I think you just assumed I was serving up random insults, but in fact that’s just a historical fact. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Iron_Age The authors were literally living in the Iron Age, ignorant of facts that you and I take for granted.
        Finally, do you or do you not choose to pin your morality on an ancient text?
        I don’t think you could make any similar claims about Harris, because he does not pin his morality on ancient texts, ancient gods, etc. So I’m not sure what you meant by that ending sentence.

        Posted by wealthychef | February 27, 2012, 7:21 PM

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