Episode 035: Sam Harris, Science and Morality

atheism Ethics Philosophy podcast

So-called new atheist Sam Harris maintains that moral values are really scientific facts, and that they have no connection to God (indeed, God does not exist, thinks Harris).

Episode 35 is an analysis of a recent talk given by Harris gave on science and human values. The talk was part of a TED conference, and you can see it here. Here I offer an explanation of how I think he has failed. In brief, I think his entire presentation is an exercise in circular reasoning.

Harris has a new book on the subject, The Moral Landscape, which is to be released later this year.

 Glenn Peoples

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{ 22 comments… add one }
  • Jason S. Kong April 25, 2010, 4:36 am

    You’re evil. I just wanted to read it.

  • Rob April 25, 2010, 1:22 pm

    Excellent episode, as usual. I enjoyed the occasional ‘definitions’ which you give to phrases like “realism” or “antirealism.” I also found listening to your “Moral Argument For God’s Existence” episodes to be helpful to really understanding this one.

  • Kenny April 27, 2010, 4:56 am

    Good podcast. You did indeed tear Harris a new one 🙂

  • Chris April 27, 2010, 4:52 pm

    This was my introduction to your show and it made a very good first impression, I’m a fan. I hope your awesome analysis gets the notice it deserves, I’ll be listening to this for the rest of the week.

  • The Angry Atheist April 27, 2010, 9:12 pm

    This whole group of ‘New Atheists’ don’t seem to realise what you stated towards the end of your podcast is true; once a deity is gone any chance of objective morality (and any reason to act ethically) goes and we are left with moral nihilism.

    It would be good if they could read some Foucault, Derrida or another postmodern philosopher and see that in a post-religious world/paradigm there are no foundations for morality. Yet the “New Atheists’ seem too arrogant, have you read Richard Dawkins ‘critique’ of postmodernism? Its an appalling piece of philosophy but highlights his level of thinking on this subject.

  • Glenn April 27, 2010, 9:34 pm

    Angry Atheist – Well, there might still be some reasons to act in a way that other people think of as “morally” – it earns respect, it encourages people to treat you in a way that you often like to be treated etc. It just removes the ability to say, as a matter of fact, that those who dispense with this beautiful lie and live as they please, are actually doing anything wrong.

  • The Angry Atheist April 27, 2010, 9:37 pm

    Should Richard Dawkins and co read some Foucault or Derrida?

  • Anon April 27, 2010, 11:08 pm

    Richard Dawkins and co need to read Glenn’s blog and listen to his podcasts.

  • Kenny April 28, 2010, 6:08 pm

    If I were given the herculean task of defending Harris’s position, I would have tried to plump for some property identity claim. I could have first tried to establish that the property of being right was identical to the property of promoting (or, perhaps, at least not conflicting with) the well-being of humans and other sentient creatures. I would have argued for this claim by appealing to various empirical facts about the function of morality within human societies in addition to appealing to certain conceptual claims and moral intuitions. I would have argued that out of all the candidate properties out there for being the referent of the term ‘right’, the property described above is the best candidate, given all the relevant empirical, intuitive and conceptual data. Then I would have gone on to argue that the well-being of humans and other sentient animals is itself a property that can be determined by scientific means (by evolutionary psychology, happiness indicators or whatever). I’m not saying that this sketch could be filled out in a convincing way. But it would have a least been a shot of actually arguing for Harris’s position , unlike what Harris himself gave us.

  • Glenn April 28, 2010, 6:24 pm

    Indeed Kenny – people have actually argued for a naturalistic morality after all. Harris’s problem is that he just didn’t argue at all.

  • james April 30, 2010, 6:08 pm

    Kenny, where can you buy those Happiness Indicators you speak of? I’ll get two.

  • George May 25, 2010, 9:36 pm

    I watch stuff from time to time on TED – Do you think you could sling a little lingo in a TED talk for us?

  • Glenn May 25, 2010, 10:18 pm

    I don’t know George – what does it mean to sling a little lingo in a TED talk?

  • George May 25, 2010, 10:55 pm

    Watch some TED stuff and then you’ll see. Keep up the good work though Glenny.

  • Pat August 6, 2010, 9:01 pm

    I just watched Harris’ talk and listened to your podcast-good work Glenn.

    Harris didn’t really argue for anything and in fact his talk was so poor and contained such little information I was thinking in parts that maybe I had missed what he was arguing. This was not the case though; Harris just did not present his case well.

    Is Harris arguing for a sort of utilitarianism? It seemed like that in many parts. The way he critiqued the practices of Muslims fathers killing their raped daughters seemed to rest on some Western liberal assumptions about morality. It was a shame that he did not elaborate on how we can use science to say that what these Muslim men do is objectively wrong. In fact it was a shame that he did not go into some applied ethical work (I suspect that he can’t do this thought for obvious reasons). He should not be too sure that the moral values we will get from science support the values that we in the West already hold (if in fact we can get values from science), for all we know these values could state the opposite and support the practices of these Muslim men.

    All in all a poor show. I liked your comments at the end about the lack of understanding about is being discussed by the New Atheist movement.

  • Andrew August 7, 2010, 7:23 pm

    Great podcast! you need to publicize this more!

    I definately agree with “Angry Atheist” when he states that atheism leaves us with moral nihilism.

  • Colin August 25, 2011, 7:16 am

    Just wanted to say that I thought this podcast was wonderful, and heartily agreed with the whole thing.

  • David September 20, 2012, 6:06 pm

    Wonderful, inspired critical analysis of Harris thought, or lack of thought. And your self-discipline to avoid the ad hominem was clearly a fruit of the Spirit in your life.

    But what can Harris do when he, a “natural man” “receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.” At least Dawkins recognizes that you cannot get an “ought” from an “is.” Dawkins has written of his hopeless amoral universe:

    “The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference. As that unhappy poet A.E. Housman put it: ‘For Nature, heartless, witless Nature Will neither care nor know.’ DNA neither cares nor knows. DNA just is. And we dance to its music.

    River out of Eden (1995) p.133.

  • Dan September 4, 2014, 3:01 pm

    This was a very reasonable argument, but you’re deflecting attention from Harris’ point, which is about the rather dangerous sociological effect religion has, particularly on less educated followers who ‘act out’ in their god’s name. Sure, like any good salesman, Harris doesn’t bore his audience by connecting every little logical dot for them, but that’s why he’s a well known speaker. If you’re honest, you’ll admit that you have a lot you can learn from him. I’ll listen to more of your podcasts – I’m honest and I know I can learn from you. I did not read the blog policy, but suspect that this is ok – sorry if not.

  • Glenn September 4, 2014, 7:02 pm

    Dan, that was not Harris point. If you doubt that, go and watch the video in question. It’s called “Sam Harris: Science can answer moral questions” because that’s what it’s about. His point there was that he takes serious issue with those who say that science offers us no foundation for morality, and his case consists of his attempt to do so.

    So there’s no deflection here. I directly and fairly closely addressed his actual argument.

    If he had tried to make the case that religion has a dangerous sociological effect – quite a different claim, I would have tackled that argument and shown that it fails. But in this video he offers no serious arguments for that claim. It wasn’t his point (although I realise that this is what he believes).

    “If you’re honest,”

    Are you serious?

    “I did not read the blog policy”

    Well you stated that you have read it when you commented here (you ticked the box). If you’re honest…

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