Sam Harris published a book titled The Moral Landscape. In it he attempts to hold to objective moral truth with a goal of human well being as self-evident. But he also holds that this objective moral truth is due to purely natural forces. He presumably believes that no one has given a valid challenge to his theories, for he issued what he called The Moral Landscape Challenge, an offer of money to the best response to his book, and more money if you could change his mind. I submitted a response, but since I do not expect to win any money, I’m posting my response here.
Response to Sam Harris’ Moral Landscape Challenge
Harris rightly concludes that morals can be objectively right or objectively wrong. He lists several examples of situations that are wrong, and is correct in refuting relativism.
However, several problems are apparent:
First, Harris asserts, but does not prove, that morals have a material cause. The book does not present an explanation for how natural causes can result in valuing human well being, the central cause of morality in the book. This is an “atheist of the gaps” type theory, where he recognizes that objective morality exists, but has no sufficient explanation, and natural causes are all that are allowed, so therefore it must be due to purely natural causes. This is equally invalid as any god-of-the-gaps theory. Naturalism is assumed in the argument from the start. If we start with blind natural forces, how do we get to the point where human well-being is moral? What mechanism gets us here? This is a huge leap which is only answered with atheist-of-the-gap type arguments.
Second, recognizing that objective morality exists proves the premise of the moral argument for the existence of God. Harris fails to show how his explanation does not support God as the source of morals. Christians would agree that morality permeates the physical universe, but attributes the cause to God’s nature. Since Harris’ cause stops at an unexplained natural cause, he fails to eliminate God as an ultimate source.
Third, when Harris does refer to brain function in relation to thoughts, he fails to distinguish between proximate causes and ultimate causes. Indeed, he fails to distinguish between material causes, efficient causes, and instrumental causes. Even if Harris were to prove that neuron firing causes thoughts, this does not prove neurons are the ultimate or efficient cause. His conclusions are similar to saying “I’ve discovered the source of the mark on this board. It is due to a saw. Therefore no carpenter exists.”
Fourth, Harris fails to explain how, if morals are ultimately the result of a natural force, how we can distinguish between some natural forces as moral while others are not. If morals and moral thoughts are caused by physics and chemistry, why would we call this effect moral? It is insufficient to merely say we can distinguish between one force and another; we must also show why one is moral and the other not.
Fifth, if morals are the result of natural laws, there is no provision for the cause of evil. All effects would be natural effects which are proper and must necessarily happen. Yet Harris clearly does distinguish between good and evil, which is the central thrust of his argument for human well being. Harris builds a good case that evil exists, but fails to sufficiently explain how it comes to be. If thoughts and morals are purely the result of natural causes, how can we have some that are evil, which ought not to happen?
Sixth, Harris’ argument is not falsifiable. To the naturalist, all causes are purely natural and there is no way to test non-natural causes. The cause of the mark on the board again stops at the saw, and whatever cause is beyond that must be physical, because that is all that is allowed to be considered. Harris’ appeal to future research rings hollow, since the history of the naturalist’s position has always been to push off all causes as ultimately physical. Again, this is an atheist of the gaps explanation.
Seventh, regarding the cause of moral thoughts being a prerequisite neuron firing, such an explanation could be a fallacious observation of cause and effect. In any electrical instrumentation and control system, the effect of an adjustment lags the signal that causes the effect. So the effect of being aware of conscious thought could very well be the neuron signal making the thought; this does not prove that “I” did not make the thought, but merely that I am aware I made it a fraction of a second after I made it. The physical evidence of neuron firing is one of the few hard evidences presented, and it is invalid.
Eighth, Harris compares brain function in different types of belief statements, saying they are similar in structure, supposedly supporting the idea of values being purely neurophysical. This is like saying “values can be recorded in ink, and facts can be recorded in ink, so they are probably the same.”
Ninth, Harris fails to fully address the source of the classic is/ought problem. He attempts to explain the problem away by saying that ought is merely another way of saying the same thing as his argument, human well being. He approaches the problem not from how to cross the is/ought divide, but by justifying ought as a fact, a point the moral argument for God agrees with. The closest he gets to dealing with the divide is in a footnote quote from Daniel Dennett: “If “ought” cannot be derived from “is,” just what can it be derived from?” Nowhere does Harris explain how God could not be the source, nor does he explain how purely natural forces result in morals, he merely states that they do.
While not a point of argument, Harris comes to a humorous conclusion about the possible origin of the classic is/ought problem, saying “it seems to be another dismal product of Abrahamic religion.” One wonders whether Hume would be laughing or outraged. Nevertheless, the is/ought problem is most known as coming from one of religion’s greatest foes, the skeptic David Hume.
In conclusion, the book is primarily philosophy and speculation attempting to prove a purely material cause in a supposedly scientific way. While it is correct that morals are objective, it fails to demonstrate a natural origin.