‘The Moral Landscape’: Values and Belief are Represented in the Brain, but What Does That Mean?

[21 March 2011]

By Rachel Balik

The first minor error in Sam Harris’s latest book is small but critical, and lies in the title of the book. The full title is The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values. A more accurate description is, How Science could hypothetically Determine Human Values.

Harris’s premise is that based on studies of brain activity, we can conclude that some behaviors are scientifically more moral than others. Harris provides a wealth of information from anthropological, sociological, and neurological angles. He also create a case for an objective standard of human well being. What he fails to do is prove how his scientific data yields a definition of this objective standard.

Harris is uniquely compelling in that he’s an accomplished scientist and adamant philosopher. This winning combination makes for gripping writing; the “philosopher scientist” is a now a ubiquitous contributor to the non-fiction canon.  However, in many cases, the pairing leads to fast and dirty conclusions that appear to be grounded in research, but aren’t always. The Moral Landscape is one such instance .Like all popular science writers, Harris has a habit of stating his opinions as though they are obvious, inherent truths. And if we don’t believe them, it’s because our eyes have been blinded by imaginary light beaming from the Tabernacle.

Or, it’s because we’re not scientists so we don’t understand how powerful science is. That’s not a problem. If we’re eager, progressive thinkers, Harris promises to give us the information we need to do away with religion as the arbiter of moral norms. Unfortunately, it doesn’t line up. Even if you agree with everything Harris has to say about religion (which this reviewer absolutely does), it’s difficult to draw hard conclusions based on Harris’s research.

The book ultimately offers two disconnected information streams. The first describes the types of brain activity that offer substantial insight about the level’s of a person’s happiness and well-being. The second parallel stream is the usual rant about how religion is terrible, sprinkled with somewhat heated critique of myriad cultural practices.

That’s not to say his arguments aren’t meticulous, they’re just limited. In his chapter on belief, Harris demonstrates through research that facts and values induce similar response in the human brain, and claims that “fact” and “value” may be identical in the brain. Harris concludes that beliefs and values are in the realm of science, thus science can be a normative discipline.  The knowledge we have about human well-being in terms of safety, health, and success could lead to a moral code.

What Harris actually proves is that any brain can adapt to any set of social norms, and that once information passes through a brain as “fact”, it becomes a value or a belief. Unfortunately, while it is certainly a fact that certain practices are physically dangerous, it is also a “fact” to a suicide bomber that in spite of the self-destruction he’ll undergo, he’ll be amply rewarded in the afterlife. Harris sets out to reject cultural subjectivity, but ultimately, the argument is circular. At the end of the day, people with differing views are stuck in a pissing match about “facts”.

Furthermore, Harris later offers examples when humans resist facts; they believe and behave contrary to information they have. For example, despite statistics showing that most couples are less happy after having a child, people chose to have children and believe it will make them happy. Perhaps there are other facts that color couples’ belief systems. Even so, that means we choose the facts that turn into values, and choose the values that influence our decisions. We live in a world where “well-being” is determined by social factors, and Harris himself offers extensive evidence that there are different types of happiness.

Harris fails to resolve a definition of well-being insofar as it pertains to survival within a social ecosystem or environment. While he makes a good argument for the separation of reason, cognition, behavior, and biology, there’s not much certainty about which agent is acting at any given moment. He does an excellent job of dispelling the assumption that we’re all victims of evolutionary biology; rather we have new, but equally scientific tools of judging what it’s in our interest, and they live in the brain. However, it still seems that facts and values are the unknown input.

Harris successfully demonstrates that science can help us draw conclusions about values that exist, but he doesn’t show us how science helps us to make ontological rules about these values. Early on, Harris predicts that, “no doubt, there are some people who will reject any description of human nature that was not first communicated in iambic pentameter.” He’s off the mark here. Poetry does not determine human nature, but reflects on it. Based on the evidence in Moral Landscape, the same can be said for science.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/138105-the-moral-landscape-how-science-can-determine-human-values/