Saturday, May 21, 2011

The Moral Landscape by Sam Harris -- thoughts on Chapter 3

     Chapter 3 is, so far, the most interesting of the book.  Here we get some pay-off for Harris's new doctorate in neuroscience.  In this chapter he talks about belief.  This is the first time I have ever read a scientist document that the same areas of the brain are activated when we believe mathematical kinds of statements and moral ones; he uses this to futher explode the fact/value distinction:

          "This finding of content-independence challenges the fact/value distinction very
            directly; for if, from the point of view of the brain, believing "the sun is a star"
            is importantly similar to believing "cruelty is wrong," how can we say that
            scientific and ethical judgments have nothing in common?"(Harris pg 113, Nookbook)

      His statement that true statements are usable ones reminds me of philosophers like Heidegger and his notion of "equipment".  For Heidegger, experience is, borrowing the notion from Husserl, always "intentional"; that is, perceptions are all of an object, not raw patches of color or durations of sound.  For Heidegger, these objects are all equipment that we use pre-reflectively until we change our standpoint to a reflective one, e.g., this is a hammer that I am using, and these are its parts.
          "When we believe a proposition is true, it is as though we have taken it in hand as
            part of our extended self: we are saying, in effect, "This is mine, I can use this.
            This fits my view of the world."(Harris pg. 113, Nookbook)

Harris's ideas heare seem of a piece in may ways with Heidegger's.

     I know what you're thinking.... "You are actually drawing a comparison between Heidegger and Harris?!"  Talk about two people who come from different places!   But introspection could give the idea and philosophy that our perceptions of fact and value are related to useability.  And that's the sort of method used in phenomenology.  More than the "rational reconstructions" you get from analytic philosophy, introspection might have some connection with what we actually might see going on in the brain. It's possible that in the future science might be able plumb a universal grammar ala Chomsky and its correlates in brain, and that might be more like a rational reconstruction, but so far Harris has only shown locations in the brain that are involved in the evaluation of propositions it already understands, rather than how such propositions must be constructed syntactically.

    Harris has a lot of faith in science's ability to discover sources of error in logic and also moral reasoning.  He references some interesting research by Robert Burton and Chris Frith and concludes:

          "The fact that we are unaware of most of what goes on in our brains does not
            render the distinction between good reasons for what one believes and having
            bad ones any less clear or consequential."(Harris pg.119, Nookbook)

     So, the fact that reason turns on itself does not mean that we have to give up.  We can analyze the brain in different contexts and conditions and draw valid inferences from observations.  We can use the information we get from such examinations to help us be wary of circumstances in which we are likely to fall into particular types of error. 

          "The truth is that people can transcend mere sentiment and clarify their thinking on
          almost any subject."


This puts Harris at odds with much contemporary thought, where reasoning is seen as "interested" and thus relativism ensues.

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