One of the prominent ‘Gnu Atheists’, neuroscientist Sam Harris, has a new book out titled (Amazon link) The Moral Landscape in which he argues that science should become the authority on moral issues (rather than religion). Here’s a presentation he gave at TED on the topic:
Harris also appeared this week on The Daily Show, where – as usual – Jon Stewart brought up some good questions amongst some fun jokes.
But not all in science believe Harris is on the right track. Well-regarded science journalist John Horgan vehemently disagrees with a number of Harris’s ideas, citing the rather dodgy morals displayed by various researchers over the past 100 years of ‘scientific progress’. Also,
Harris asserts in Moral Landscape that ignorance and humility are inversely proportional to each other; whereas religious know-nothings are often arrogant, scientists tend to be humble, because they know enough to know their limitations. “Arrogance is about as common at a scientific conference as nudity,” Harris states. Yet he is anything but humble in his opus. He castigates not only religious believers but even nonbelieving scientists and philosophers who don’t share his hostility toward religion.
Harris further shows his arrogance when he claims that neuroscience, his own field, is best positioned to help us achieve a universal morality. “The more we understand ourselves at the level of the brain, the more we will see that there are right and wrong answers to questions of human values.” Neuroscience can’t even tell me how I can know the big, black, hairy thing on my couch is my dog Merlin. And we’re going to trust neuroscience to tell us how we should resolve debates over the morality of abortion, euthanasia and armed intervention in other nations’ affairs?
Coincidentally, this week I’ve been reading Henry Stapp’s Mindful Universe, in which he too discusses the possibility that science could offer a way forward with moral thinking – but in his case, he believes it is only quantum physics that allows science to do so. In fact, Stapp specifically cites materialist science (of the sort most ‘gnu atheists’ subscribe to) as eroding “not only the religious roots of moral values but the entire notion of personal responsibility” (due to the implications of determinism versus free will)…”This conception of man undermines the foundation of rational moral philosophy…It not only erodes the foundations of earlier value systems, but also acts to strip man of any vision of himself and his place in the universe that could be the rational basis for an elevated set of values.”
What do you think – what is the moral landscape of the future, and what map are we going to follow? Cold, objective science? The cutting edge of complicated, nonintuitive quantum physics? Antiquated, sometimes bizarre religion? How do we approach the tough moral questions if we don’t use any of those?