Thursday, 14 April 2011

The Moral Landscape

I remember the disappointment a few years ago - well . . . quite a few years ago - when one of my fellow physics students asked one of the 'why questions' in a lecture.  The lecturer's answer made me realise for the first time that scientists in general assert that the 'why questions' are answered by philosophers and I felt a bit cheated.  I wondered whether I had chosen to read the wrong subject.  Fortunately at last a few scientists are very publicly telling us that science can and should try to break down these barriers - to take the non-overlapping magisteria by the lapels and make them overlap!

Sam Harris is definitely one of these people, being a neuroscientist, 'New Atheist' and author.  Seeing him live on stage for the first time with Richard Dawkins in Oxford on 12th April was a greater pleasure than I expected.  I found that I liked his presentation style better than his writing, but that will not stop me reading him further.  The event was very much focused on Harris's new book 'The Moral Landscape', with Dawkins generally taking a secondary role of intelligent questioner.

Some people dislike this format where the 'stars' on stage agree with each other too much.  I've heard the term 'love-in' used.  These people tend to want to hear controversy.  For me though, it is much better to hear two intelligent people developing ideas and concentrating on the areas that they want people to understand better.  Better to hear something new instead of the few standard questions that we hear frequently.  Christians have these 'love-ins' every Sunday (assuming that they do actually go to church).  They sit and listen to the preacher in an orderly and quiet admiration of the wise words from the pulpit (even if secretively dissenting over a coffee after the service).  And yet this is exactly what some of them object to in a secular event where we in the audience are said to be worshiping.

Why have I not described the great words that were uttered last night, when I can hardly deny that I was there to see two of my intellectual heroes?  The answer is that I am not a news reporter, and I don't trust myself to do it justice.  Besides that, dear reader, you would find your life enriched by listening to it yourself. The mp3 file is now available on the Pod Delusion web site.  Click for a link.

It is enough to say that Sam Harris made a strong case for the idea that there are objective rights and wrongs that can be determined by science.  He used many interesting examples to demonstrate that a measure of 'well-being' was one option to determine right from wrong and good from evil. 

He also pointed out a favorite concept of mine when trying to explain why religion can't be the sole source of any wisdom or morality.  All the scriptures were written by people with less access to knowledge than anyone in the room last night.  Indeed nobody in the room could ever have met anyone with as little understanding of the world as the authors of these sacred texts.  In moral terms they were no wiser than the average Afghan warlord of today.  (Maybe this is why they made such a mess of transcribing the 'inspired word of god'.)

My mind strayed (as I'm afraid it often does) to some of those movies where the action hero (perhaps James Bond?) arrives in a third world country and is helicoptered in to negotiate with the savage king or tribal chief.  To his surprise, he finds that they speak the Queen's English and were educated at Eton and Oxbridge.  I guess that doesn't happen much in real life and Harris's analogy is safe.

In conclusion - I found Sam Harris to be a fine speaker who got his point across very well.  Some of the questions from the audience were a little less comprehensible - but of course it was Oxford.  Before beating myself up about failing to understand them fully, I remind myself that there are two types of question:  those that seek knowledge, and those that seek to show how much knowledge the questioner wishes to demonstrate.

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