Wednesday, April 20, 2011

God's Quality Control 6.2

Here I continue my thoughts on the debate between Sam Harris and William Lane Craig at the University of Notre Dame on April 7, 2011. The focus of the debate is this question: "Are the foundations of moral values natural or supernatural?" We've heard Craig's non-arguments in favor of his claim that "if there is a god, then we do have a sound foundation for morality." Now we move on to his non-arguments in favor of his second point.

<clip 10:59 If there is no god, then there is no foundation for morality.>
<clip 11:10 If "god" does not exist, then what basis remains for the existence of objective moral values?>

Let's recall that for Craig, objective means binding. His question again boils down to the same question he asked before: "To what authority can we appeal when attempting to impose our will on others?" Hold on to that thought.

<clip 11:43 Within atheism, there is no way to claim that human well-being is objectively good.>
<clip 11:59 Harris calls this "The Value Problem.">

I haven't finished Harris' book yet, but so far I haven't found anything there about the value problem. From what I can tell, value problem is the name Harris used in his Huffington Post article in January of 2011 to refer to a certain class of criticisms of his ideas. He sums up the value problem as follows: "There is no scientific basis to say that we should value well-being, our own or anyone else's." His answer, which seems to go over the heads of his critics, is to replace the term well-being with the word health, saying, "There is no scientific basis to say that we should value health, our own or anyone else's." Here we can see why people object to Harris' ideas: they can't imagine a morality based on anything other than coercion. But consider: we don't cast about for a justification to make sick people well--we just accept that making sick people well is a worthy goal. Harris is proposing that we stop bothering about finding a justification to promote the flourishing of sentient beings and just decide and agree that promoting their flourishing is a worthy goal. Then, just as we use science to understand better the continuum from healthy to dead, we can use science to understand better the continuum from suffering to flourishing. And just as we use science to decide how to treat the sick, we can use science to decide how to treat sentient beings in general.

I like to think of this morality as invitational rather than coercive. Rather than order each other about in the name of our cosmic cookie, let's simply look at the already available science that shows what best causes sentient beings to flourish.

<clip 12:05 The purpose of Harris' book is to explain the existence of objective moral values.>

As I say, I haven't finished Harris' book, but even just having read half of it so far, I'm pretty sure that this is absolutely not the purpose of Harris' book. The only sense in which Harris discusses objectivity is in the sense that we are rapidly becoming able to use science to determine, with minimal bias, whether someone is flourishing or suffering. Harris' thoughts on objectivity are really not about morality at all; in fact, he uses the word rather sparingly, at least in the first half of the book.

<clip 13:09 A sort of herd morality has evolved among humans.>

Let's talk about the emergence of morality for a minute. Yes, all social animals (for this discussion I'll ignore eusocial species) have a kind of morality that is nothing more than a simple result of natural selection. The basic idea is that in societies, individuals who cooperate tend to have more reproductive success than those who don't. That can be considered a kind of morality, but it's not the morality we're really talking about here.

The other kind of morality, the one we're currently saddled with, is an unfortunate invention of humans, a clumsy set of rationalizations built on top of our instincts. Consider the fact that many social animals form troops that defend a particular territory. Watching a band of howler monkeys declaring their ownership of their land to their neighbors, I can easily imagine the visceral feelings of love and pride for one's people, hatred and fear of anyone outside the group. The human brain is a very powerful machine for fabricating justifications and explanations. Once our brains got involved, twisted so-called moral concepts started popping up everywhere: we treat each other well because we're good. We can kill those others because they're evil. We deserve reward; they deserve punishment. We couldn't see that all we were doing was slapping justifications on top of our instincts. Now we can see it, and not a moment too soon. If we don't change this, the superstitionist hope for the world to end horribly will become a reality.

That's 6.2. Thanks for watching.

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