Julian Baggini meets Sam Harris

It seems that two authors who I refer to in much of my research (as primary sources…) have met… and had an interview… Here’s something to whet your appetite. The full article is linked at the bottom.

The moral formula: How facts inform our ethics

Can science help us tell right from wrong? Sam Harris certainly thinks so. Julian Baggini sits down with one of the ‘four horsemen of atheism’ to learn how facts can inform our ethics

Sam Harris may not be a household name in Britain, but in America he is right up there with Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Daniel Dennett as one of the new atheism’s “four horsemen”.

He burst on to the public science scene in 2004 with his anti-religious polemic, The End of Faith, which he wrote while still a graduate student in neuroscience. It went on to sell half a million copies, and he has been a major public figure ever since.

Having used science to attempt deicide, Harris now threatens to do the same for moral philosophy. In his new book, The Moral Landscape, Harris sets out to convince us that science can not only help us to understand human values, but determine them.

Richard Dawkins has said of the book that “moral philosophers will find their world turned upside down”. However, when the book was released in America last year, they argued it was Harris, a Stanford philosophy graduate, who had got things the wrong way up. I got the opportunity to put some of their criticisms to Harris when I met him in Santa Monica, not far from his Los Angeles home. Read more here.


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About Chris

Scholar of religion/nonreligion... PhD Student (Lancaster University), blogger, singer, actor, thinker... Northern Irish living in Scotland. Co-founder of The Religious Studies Project. Director at the NSRN. Baritone masquerading as a tenor. Vegetarian for no particular reason.

5 responses to “Julian Baggini meets Sam Harris”

  1. Derek Williams says :

    A most interesting read!

  2. Michael Hampson says :

    I read the piece at the link.

    This is just good old-fashioned David Hume Utilitarianism, isn’t it?

    …plus the assertion that science will tell us when we’re happy. Not sure about that bit.

    And then a whole lot of unsubstantiated unscientific prejudice – special pleading – about how people who “forsake all of the joys of learning about the universe” (ie studying science) are lesser people on account of … um … “forsaking all of the joys of learning about the universe” … which just goes to show that even the most determinedly scientific and rational can’t help but slip into special pleading in their determination to have an answer when it comes to the imponderable mysteries…

  3. Derek Williams says :

    @ Michael Hampson
    I believe Harris was arguing that the person who swallows the happy biscuit has a happiness of a lesser quality than one who has cottoned on to the joys of the universe, notwithstanding that each is happy unto himself. Harris’s rationale is that happiness induced by getting wasted on drugs falls short of the ideal of an unmedicated rapture experienced whilst beholding the wonders of the known universe. An individual who is stoned loses contact with reality of the majority; his happiness is artificially induced, even if his life is really collapsing all about him. His consciousness would be as depicted in the film The Matrix, whose protagonists believe they’re doing clever stuff, but are actually plugged into a baby bath. This is certainly a subjective view, but one that I believe would be shared by most of a religious persuasion who by and large discourage substance abuse. Of course there are those who would adduce that religion itself is the happy biscuit.

    Given the well-known negative effects on one’s sense of well-being that can be caused by tiredness, poor diet, illness, and the false positive effects caused by substance intoxication, it is evident that there must be a chemical, and therefore scientifically detectable and thus inducible, basis for at least part of one’s state of happiness. As such, clinical depression can in part be medically ameliorated for example.

    So far as his “worst possible misery for everyone” hypothesis is concerned, this might be alluding to a paradox that to me is exemplified by the Sermon On The Mount, specifically that the greater your suffering, the greater the heavenly reward that you will achieve. The logical corollary I see to this is that the lesser your suffering, the lesser your heavenly reward must therefore be. Further corollary to that must presumably be that anyone who diminishes the suffering of others, is thereby diminishing their ultimate heavenly bliss and accordingly to be castigated for so doing.

    I think Utilitarianism per se is relevant here, insofar as whether it pertains to morality as an outcome of happiness as opposed to a Kantian absolute, or postulates an absolutist utilitarian standpoint whereby the most pleasurable outcome is the sole objective, thus over-simplifying its overarching position that the moral worth of an action is determined by its outcome. By whose heuristic would such presumed worth be deemed? A utilitarian approach might still allow a drunken man to enjoy the wonders of the universe if that paradigm is enlarged to encompass a wider set. So might logical empiricism.

    Aside from his hypothesis that morality is a subset of happiness, I don’t see much else in Harris’s responses that is mutually exclusive with a religious philosophy.

  4. Derek Williams says :

    Continuing from my post above:

    At the heart of concerns over Harris’s hypothesis lie the sense that in his construct, a person’s behaviour, having been deemed nothing more than a sequence of presumably uncontrollable chemical responses to a given state of happiness, is thereby absolved from accountability, either to the state or to God.

    However this ties in with the parallel paradox that if the omniscient God knows right now, everything that we are about to do, then our future is already cast in stone, with our responses to our free will already meticulously known in advance. We were thus created in the full knowledge of what we were about to do. If our choices involve criminality, then with such an awaiting destiny, we would surely be better never to have been been manufactured by God only to be cast off, with his full foreknowledge.

    For morality to have any purchase, it must be believable that a person in any state, under any past or present influence can still rise above himself and behave morally. As to what ‘moral’ actually means, that is the subject for another debate.

  5. religionandmore says :

    Thanks for the comments guys. They were good reads, though I’m too busy to put in my oar right now :)

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