This morning I finished reading Sam Harris' newest book, "The Moral Landscape." After blogging favorably about the first two chapters, I continued to enjoy Harris' neuroscientific, yet eminently readable, take on how human wellbeing can be expanded via facts rather than faith.
Events in the world, and the brain, affect how we experience life. If we study the relationship between those events and our experiences, we stand a good chance of being able to climb higher on the "moral landscape" (individually and collectively). Harris says:
Throughout this book I make reference to a hypothetical space that I call "the moral landscape" -- a space of real and potential outcomes whose peaks correspond to the heights of potential well-being and whose valleys represent the deepest possible suffering.
Different ways of thinking and behaving -- different cultural practices, ethical codes, modes of government, etc. -- will translate into movements across this landscape and, therefore, into different degrees of human flourishing.
Flourishing. That's an appealing term for what life is all about.
There can be many ways to flourish, just as there are many foods to eat. Yet Harris points out that healthy food and poison are different. It won't be easy, but his hypothesis is that bit by bit humankind will be able to understand what leads to flourishing and what doesn't -- no faith-based religious "Thou shalt..." required.
Per my habit, as I read "The Moral Landscape" I stuck slips of paper into pages that struck me as containing a particularly interesting bit of writing (which is one reason I'm resisting going to an e-reader).
Here's some examples of Harris' provocative thinking (some are direct quotes; some are paraphrases):
(1) He asks what the world would be like if we stopped worrying about "right" and "wrong," or "good" and "evil," and simply acted so as to maximize well-being, our own and that of others. In my opinion, as his, we'd have a better world.
(2) Being uncertain about what the consequences of our thoughts and actions will be doesn't mean there's some other basis for human values, such as religious dogma, worth worrying about.
(3) Brain scanners show that believing a mathematical equation and believing an ethical proposition produce the same changes in neurophysiolology, so it's difficult to make a distinction between scientific dispassion and judgments of value.
(4) Some people say that believing in religion, higher powers, an afterlife, soul, and such always will be with us. Yet at one time a belief in magic, witches, demons and such was rampant in the developed world. Won't reason make further progress?
(5) On almost every measure of societal health, the least religious countries are better off than the most religious. This shows that religion isn't the most important guarantor of societal health, and that unbelief doesn't lead to the downfall of civilization.
(6) Religious believers go around in circles: Adherents generally believe that they possess knowledge of sacred truths, and every faith provides a framework for interpreting experience so as to lend further support to its doctrine.
(7) If we have (or are) an immortal soul, why is our consciousness so obviously altered by brain damage? This is like saying the soul of a diabetic produces abundant insulin. Sure, you can say anything. But where's the evidence?
(8) Atheists have a lot of confidence in their fellow humans. They assume people have enough intelligence and maturity to respond to rational argument, satire, and ridicule on the subject of religion, just as they respond to such discursive pressures on other subjects.
(9) The vast majority of our life experiences never get recalled, and the time we spend remembering the past is brief. So the quality of most of our lives can be assessed only in terms of what fleeting character it has as it occurs -- which includes recalling the past.
(10) There is no more important source of value than the well-being of conscious creatures. If someone claimed to find such a source somewhere, it would be of no possible interest to anyone, by definition. (Ooh, good thinking, Sam Harris.)
(11) "Science" is a specialized branch of a larger effort to form true beliefs about events in the world. It is a fact that John F. Kennedy was assassinated. This is a "scientific" fact, being part of our best effort to form a rational account of empirical reality.
(12) No framework of knowledge can withstand utter skepticism, for none is perfectly self-justifying. It is impossible to stand entirely outside of a framework. So someone can spout stuff like "What if the worst possible misery for everyone is actually good?" or "What if all true statements are actually false?" But we don't have to take that person seriously.
(13) Conscious actions arise on the basis of neural events of which we are not conscious. Whether they are predictable or not, we do not cause our causes.
(14) The moment one grants there is a difference between the Bad Life and the Good Life that lawfully relates to states of the human brain, to human behavior, and to states of the world, one has admitted that there are right and wrong answers to questions of morality.