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Even secular thinking needs objective moral truth

· The New York Review of Books refutes Sam Harris ·

“Once upon a time popular science was the attempt to explain the achievements of scientists to a broad audience. This was a noble endeavor that performed a useful function. How else was the public to learn what physicists, chemists, or biologists had accomplished? Recently, however, a new genre of popular science has appeared, one that shifts the tense from past to future. These new books focus on the great things that science will achieve, and allegedly soon.”

So begins a review of the latest book by Sam Harris: The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values (New York, Free Press, 2010, 304pp) in The New York Review of Books (May 12-25, 2001). The critical analysis is written by H. Allen Orr, professor of biology at the University of Rochester and geneticist who regularly publishes in Science and Nature . Orr, a recipient of the 2008 Darwin-Wallace Medal (awarded every 50 years by the Linnean Society of London), is very critical of scientism and its conviction that all truth, in the last analysis, is scientific.

Sam Harris’ new book, which Orr analyzes, is in some ways a follow-up to his first work, The End of Faith (2004), which became a principal text of the New Atheism, and contained ferocious attacks on organized religion.

Worried about the miserable state of Western thinking today, Harris wants to do away with the false construction of a morality from on-high as well as the relativism which now reigns in secular minds. His attempt is thus to convince readers that objective moral truths exist. The key is science: “morality should be considered an undeveloped branch of science,” he says. It is no coincidence that the subtitle to the work is “how science can determine human values,” definitively removing from the moral scene both religion and relativism.

“The result of all this is not particularly pretty,” says Orr, criticizing both the structure of the text, (calling it awkward and confused and that, “By the end, one worries that Harris has lost focus on the ostensible point of his book: that a science of morality is possible.”) as well as its underlying thesis.

As is known, Orr says, the distinction between fact and value was first put forward by David Hume in his A Treatise on Human Nature (1739). Harris does not accept this distinction but continues in enthusiastic certainty of having finally identified the correct definition of the good: the well-being of conscious creatures. And if, therefore, the moral landscape reflects the world of fact, for Harris it is evident that it can be investigated and easily studied by science.

Harris’ arguments do not convince H. Allen Orr. Firstly, Orr says, to define as illusory the distinction between fact and value is itself illusory: what sense is there in demonstrating the relationship between two judgments by saying that they are products of the same region of the brain? If the same region of the brain is responsible for addition and multiplication, Orr says, would Harris conclude that the distinction between addition and multiplication is only illusory?

Besides, when Harris maintains that morality consists in the maximization of well-being, he ends up with a type of utilitarianism and “plenty of people have raised plenty of questions about utilitarianism,” says Orr. “And Harris doesn’t seem to take seriously the fact that different peoples at different times have had different visions of morality,” Orr writes.

But the real problem, Orr continues, is that the idea that morality is a maximization of well-being of conscious creatures, “doesn’t follow from science. What experiment or body of scientific theory yielded such a conclusion?” he asks. If, for example, we decide that our highest value is that of living as long as possible, medical science can probably help us do that, but it certainly cannot demonstrate that the highest of all possible values is a long life. “Despite Harris’s bravado about ‘how science can determine human values,’ The Moral Landscape delivers nothing of the kind , ” concludes Orr.

Orr considers Harris’s project of proving that morality is “an undeveloped branch of science,” a failure . He is convinced, instead that science requires two great things: asking the right questions and obtaining the right answers. The problem is that today we concentrate exclusively on the latter, to the grave detriment of all of science.

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