[Sam Harris](http://samharris.org/) is offering $20,000 to anyone who can change his mind on morality
by submitting a convincing essay. Here’s mine:
In his efforts to bring answers to "the really hard problem", Sam Harris boldly dismisses the bulk of nearly every effort made by those who came before him, sometimes as though there were no problem at all. He insists that science is just as free to explore the phenomena that govern the inner lives of human beings as it does the phenomena that we experience collectively, in the natural world. That just as our scientific understanding of the molecular constituents of chocolate doesn’t keep us from enjoying it, so it should be with some future scientific understanding of love or morality.
He is wrong about this and would be wise to change his mind on the matter. The image he draws of a landscape of peak and valleys would be impressive indeed, if only he had some data to map to it. A theoretical outline alone just isn’t sufficient enough to base his sweeping conclusions on. even once we reach the point someday where the discoveries in neuroscience push psychology to the fringes, scientists will continue to be dumbfounded when attempting to adequately and reliably quantify the lasting and socially edifying form of human well-being known as morality.
No matter how many breakthroughs science achieves in revealing what goes on inside the human mind, there will always be depths of our inner conscious (and morally salient) experience that defy measurement. And just as there are significant limitations that would prevent us from successfully traveling in time, so too are there significant limitations preventing us from building a dependable, functioning, scientific understanding of morality. Now, just because a lot of successful scientific research has been achieved in both of these areas, shouldn’t lead anyone to automatically conclude, no matter how clever Mr. Harris makes it sound, that any practical, complete kind of working system could be developed from it.
While science has a lot to say about humanity that embarrasses religious people,
it has little room to maneuver when operating within the minds of individuals. "Avoiding the worst possible misery for everyone" is an interesting postulation that certainly advances the philosophical discussion of morality, but does little work on the tough job of building a scientific framework of the kind he anticipates will bring breakthrough discoveries in morality.
Though Mr. Harris claims that nothing under the sun can escape the light of science, he has publicly admitted himself, back in 2007, that to examine the claims of contemplatives, you have to build your own telescope. (transcript cited below) As flourishing human enterprises rely on the accumulation of methods, tools and techniques which give each successive generation a leg up, in order to make progress in your own mind, it’s like you have to start from scratch. Serious contemplative efforts don’t seem to be able to benefit from human knowledge gathering and preservation like science does. How
this fundamentally disadvantaged science of self improvement figures in his moral landscape understanding remains to be fully explained. Otherwise, we may be sharing the same telescope after all.
Below I’ve pasted the transcript where this came from:
“—our habitual identification with discursive thought, our failure moment to moment to recognize thoughts as thoughts, is a primary source of human suffering. And when a person breaks this spell, an extraordinary kind of relief is available.
But the problem with a contemplative claim of this sort is that you can’t borrow someone else’s contemplative tools to test it. The problem is that to test such a claim—indeed, to even appreciate how distracted we tend to be in the first place, we have to build our own contemplative tools. Imagine where astronomy would be if everyone had to build his own telescope before he could even begin to see if astronomy was a legitimate enterprise. It wouldn’t make the sky any less worthy of investigation, but it would make it immensely more difficult for us to establish astronomy as a science.
To judge the empirical claims of contemplatives, you have to build your own telescope. Judging their metaphysical claims is another matter: many of these can be dismissed as bad science or bad philosophy by merely thinking about them. But to judge whether certain experiences are possible—and if possible, desirable—we have to be able to use our attention in the requisite ways. We have to be able to break our identification with discursive thought, if only for a few moments. This can take a tremendous amount of work. And it is not work that our culture knows much about.