Adventus

"The central doctrine of Christianity, then, is not that God is a bastard. It is, in the words of the late Dominican theologian Herbert McCabe, that if you don’t love you’re dead, and if you do, they’ll kill you."--Terry Eagleton

"It is impossible for me to say in my book one word about all that music has meant in my life. How then can I hope to be understood?--Ludwig Wittgenstein

“The opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice."--Bryan Stevenson

Saturday, April 03, 2010

Sam Harris Explains It All For You


Courtesy of Phila, who does this much better than I do, we get the subject for Holy Saturday's meditation (sort of). Viz:

The moment we admit that consciousness is the context in which any discussion of values makes sense, we must admit that...
We are in the realm of tautology?

Isn't this like saying we can't think without a brain, and we can't speak without language? Oh, wait, my confusion is because I'm one of those people who believe in "the Word of God," which means I "just happen to believe that the universe functions in such a way as to place the really important changes in conscious experience after death (i.e. in heaven or hell)."

Yeah, nothing about my religious beliefs places any value on life here and now. Just ask Martin Luther King, Jr. Or Dorothy Day. Or Mother Teresa.

Wow. Just how stupid is this guy? Well, one of the most important philosophers since Plato, was just lazy:

Indeed, Carroll appears to think that Hume's lazy analysis of facts and values is so compelling that he elevates it to the status of mathematical truth.
And Immanuel Kant was an ineffective wanker:

And those philosophical efforts that seek to put morality in terms of duty, fairness, justice, or some other principle that is not explicitly tied to the well-being of conscious creatures--are, nevertheless, parasitic on some notion of well-being in the end (I argue this point at greater length in my book. And yes, I've read Rawls, Nozick, and Parfit).
To which I want to reply: "Of course you did. But did you understand them?"

Apparently not. Because what is truly laughable is that the critique of Rawls' Theory of Justice is that it is too materialistic, too wedded to the utilitarianism it seeks to modify; and yet apparently for Harris Rawls is...not materialistic enough? One wonders if Harris is any more aware of the contemporary critiques of materialism than Robert Wright is, or any more capable of understanding them than he does Rawls, et al.

I would thank God for Sam Harris, but I suppose I must just thank consciousness.

I recognize this is all just good bloggy snark, and not necessarily a considered rebuttal of Harris' points. But Harris' point is this:

In fact, I believe that we can know, through reason alone, that consciousness is the only intelligible domain of value. What's the alternative? Imagine some genius comes forward and says, "I have found a source of value/morality that has absolutely nothing to do with the (actual or potential) experience of conscious beings." Take a moment to think about what this claim actually means. Here's the problem: whatever this person has found cannot, by definition, be of interest to anyone (in this life or in any other). Put this thing in a box, and what you have in that box is -- again, by definition -- the least interesting thing in the universe.

So how much time should we spend worrying about such a transcendent source of value? I think the time I will spend typing this sentence is already far too much. All other notions of value will bear some relationship to the actual or potential experience of conscious beings. So my claim that consciousness is the basis of values does not appear to me to be an arbitrary starting point.
Yes, that's it. Consciousness (whatever that is; he never explains) is where everything happens, so consciousness is the only source of knowledge we have, so consciousness is it's own proof of what has moral value.

If this sounds like Cogito, ergo sum, it basically is; except without Descartes' insights. It's much, much less than that, however, because Descartes understood his Discourse on the Method as merely a beginning, not as the summation of a philosophy. Harris, like Daniel Dennett before him, imagines he has figured it all out. And what he has figured out is that all we know, we know because of consciousness, and all we can know, we can only know because of consciousness. Stop the presses!

Wait. Isn't that pretty much the first principle of Western philosophy? So Sam Harris has invented...the wheel?

If I really want to be pedantic, I'd point out that Harris "believes" this about consciousness, which raises a fairly legitimate question of how he "knows" this to be true; i.e., what upon what reasoning does he base this conclusion, aside from the tautology that all we know is because of consciousness, and therefore all we can know is because of consciousness (By the way, Sam; David Hume wants to talk to you about a little matter of plagiarism.). It's hard to get away from the bloggy snark in order to move to a considered rebuttal but, honestly, it's hard to give this the kind of consideration needed for a reasoned rebuttal. Still, the loose use of terms like "believe" lead us to a serious issue of definition that Harris doesn't address.

Harris' argument is essentially a patch on Aristotle. He argues that ethics, through science, "can help us get what we want out of life." His "further claim is that well-being is what we can intelligibly value--and "morality" (whatever people's associations with this term happen to be) really relates to the intentions and behaviors that affect the well-being of conscious creatures." The telos of the Nicomachean Ethics is to discern what, within the community one lives in, leads to the "good life," and then to do it. This we call ethics, which simply means "how one behaves in a community."

Morality, on the other hand, can be understood differently. " 'Morality,' " Harris says, "(whatever people's associations with this term happen to be) really relates to the intentions and behaviors that affect the well-being of conscious creatures." Let's stop right there, with the dismissive parenthetical. For a "detailed argument" (as he says at the outset he wants to present), this is a pretty big term to toss away with an offhand remark. It might be fair to say morality relates to ones intentions to affect one's well-being. The same, of course, can be said of "ethics;" but here the confusion begins, and Harris only makes it worse. First, morality should be understood as something transcendent of ethics in the metaphysical sense: that is, it is impossible for me to be ethical if I find myself alone on a desert island, but it is still possible for me to be moral. One is a relationship to a community, the other a relationship to an ideal, even to a deity. This is not a common distinction but it is a useful one. Aristotle's Ethics is not so much a rule book as it is the first self-help guide. His advice is, in sum: find the happiest, most respected man in your community, and do what he's doing. Morality, on the other hand, says there are things you should do, and things you should not do, regardless of the ethos of where you are. Jesus of Nazareth, for example, directly challenged the ethos of Rome on the basis of the covenant Israel claimed with the God of Abraham, but Jesus didn't base his moral teachings solely on a strict adherence to the Torah. Had he done so, it would have been very hard for Paul to preach to the Gentiles, or for Jesus to put much distance between his followers and the Pharisees. That he did challenge the ethos of Rome is proven by the crucifixion (it's Holy Saturday as I write, so now I've managed to make this post topical). Clearly his moral teachings are not bound to the ethos of first century Palestine, and while over time Christian ethics has become encrusted with the ethos of many centuries and cultures, it is Christian morality that still calls to us today. This is, admittedly, a rough distinction, but it serves our purposes here.

The problem for Harris is that this kind of discussion of morality brings in the concept of transcendence, a concept he is loath to acknowledge and anxious to dismiss. All things, he avers, are known to consciousness, and what is not known to consciousness is not known, and transcendence necessarily infers a state of being beyond consciousness and therefore inaccessible to consciousness, and therefore unknowable. One is tempted to simply point him to Kant and move on; but that would be cheating.

Let's examine the concept of "transcendence" then. Is language purely a product of my consciousness, or is it somehow apart from me? If it is, and yet it has no empirical existence (I cannot touch, taste, or smell language, I can only hear sounds which I am told are "language", or read symbols which I interpret as "language"), is it not in some sense "transcendent," i.e., it existed before me and will exist long after me? You may say it is purely a product of consciousness, but does not that explanation imply a transcendence, something beyond the individual, a shared reality that exists at least so long as consciousness is available to be aware of it? And is consciousness really a reality, or merely a symbol, a product of a language game, which we use to refer to a concept we all try to agree on, but can't fully explain (and yes, Harris runs into Godel's theorem of incompleteness any minute now, but don't tell him, he might let his foot off the epistemological gas pedal)? Does "transcendent," in other words, necessarily entail a state of being, or is it simply something beyond any one individual, in which case even the polis is transcendent of the person.

And isn't it?

So Harris has two definition problems: his loose use of the concept of transcendence, and a wholly unexamined idea of the difference between "morality" and "ethics." He dismisses both because he never considers them. He regards transcendence as some kind of false analogy to "super-consciousness," some thing that must be wholly other to consciousness and therefore wholly unknowable by it (such is his epistemology). Of course, most of Christian theology (at least) is concerned with the relationship of the Creator to creation, and how the Creator can be wholly other and yet known by the Creation, of which one part lays claim to the consciousness Harris seems to rely on (without every identifying it), while the rest of Creation is assumed (by people from the Psalmist to St. Francis to 19th century Scots) to be equally aware of the Creator. Harris' implicit claims for consciousness partake of the very dualism he would probably eschew in the name of science; which would be funny, if it weren't so sad. Likewise, he regards religion as the province of those wholly concerned with the afterlife, wholly unconcerned with this life. Nice work, if you can get it. Against that I would add to what I've already observed a few words from Wittgenstein:

In religion every level of devoutness must have its appropriate form of expression, which has no sense at a lower level. This doctrine, which means something at a higher level, is null and void for someone who is still at the lower level; he can only understand it wrongly and so these words are not valid for such a person.
...
Christianity is not a doctrine, not, I mean, a theory about what has happened and will happen to the human soul, but a description of something that actually takes place in human life. For 'consciousness of sin' is a real event and so are despair and salvation through faith. Those who speak of such things (Bunyan for instance) are simply describing what has happened to them whatever gloss anyone may want to put on it.
Which is the politest way of saying Harris doesn't know what he's talking about that I can come up with. As for his definition of science (upon which part of his argument turns), it's simply laughable. All I can do is point him toward Descartes, and advise him to try to learn a thing or two before he speaks again.

What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.
--Wittgenstein

9 Comments:

Blogger Phila said...

It's hard to get away from the bloggy snark in order to move to a considered rebuttal but, honestly, it's hard to give this the kind of consideration needed for a reasoned rebuttal.

That's the problem, alright. It's a form of the Gish Gallop, IMO...it takes a lot less time and effort to throw all this stuff out there than it does to rebut it line by line.

You, of course, make a lot of points I hadn't considered (and some I couldn't have, 'til you made them). I think what irritates me most is a) Harris mistakes this for a philosophical project as opposed to a political one; b) he imagines we suffer culturally from some sort of unwillingness to judge others and meddle in their affairs, for better or worse; and c) he doesn't seem to have considered the possibility that his ideas could reasonably be rejected on the basis of the same sort of "universal" judgments he treats as axiomatic when it suits his purpose.

Well, that and the victimized tone he affects while lashing out in defense of his effort to treat nonconforming thought as imbecilic.

Anyway, you've served forth more food for thought than I could swallow in a year, as per usual.

8:54 PM  
Blogger Phila said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

2:37 PM  
Blogger Phila said...

it is impossible for me to be ethical if I find myself alone on a desert island, but it is still possible for me to be moral.

Had a question about this, then realized you'd answered it.

2:39 PM  
Blogger Grandmère Mimi said...

So how much time should we spend worrying about such a transcendent source of value? I think the time I will spend typing this sentence is already far too much.

So then, why does Harris bother? The question nagged at me as a distraction as I read your post, Robert, which is a shame. I'll need to read again, and perhaps I'll get over that hump a move on to the meat of your post.

2:59 PM  
Blogger Grandmère Mimi said...

"I'll get over the hump and move on...."

Sometimes I wonder why I even bother with preview. I still make far too many mistakes.

6:58 PM  
Blogger Rmj said...

Mimi--It's Harris' dismissive attitude that bothers me, too. I have trouble reading that article (Phila read it twice; he's a better person than I).

It's instructive to read, for example, Descartes' "Discourse." Descartes was famously arrogant and imperious in person, with no patience for those he thought less intelligent than himself, and made no secret of his disdain for those he disagreed with (or who disagreed with him). But in the "Discourse," he is quite humble. Philosophers can be brats, but the best ones are humbled by what they don't know. Harris seems puffed up by the little he does know, and counts sufficient.

It annoys me no end. Like you, I have a lot of trouble getting past it.

7:05 PM  
Blogger Grandmère Mimi said...

Robert, I confess that I could not read the article through even once. Harris' assertion that as science matures it will show us the way to morality seems absurd to me.

And there's no transcendence, but morality is "out there" waiting for science to mature and discover it. I'm probably getting even my objections wrong, because I could not stay tuned in to Harris. He seems not very smart to me, but what do I know?

7:51 PM  
Blogger Rmj said...

And there's no transcendence, but morality is "out there" waiting for science to mature and discover it. I'm probably getting even my objections wrong, because I could not stay tuned in to Harris. He seems not very smart to me, but what do I know?

Actually, you hit the nail on the head. The problem with people who give up metaphysics is that they need something to replace it, and usually they replace it with...metaphysics.

Although they never call it that....

I suppose it can be abandoned, but the rigor of thought required to do so is beyond most people, and especially beyond Harris.

9:51 PM  
Blogger Phila said...

Although they never call it that....

The Singularity is near!

10:32 PM  

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