The Day Our Brains Stood Still

21 10 2010

Klaatu barada nikto, people! Sam Harris has just come out with another book. Holy Mackerel! Call headquarters. Get the lieutenant!

This altogether unpleasant but not at all surprising news reached me a few days ago. Harris’ new book, The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values, was published by Free Press to not a little fanfare. In fact, within mere hours of its release, a preponderance of 5-star Amazon reviews came out in fulsome praise… must be a lot of Evelyn Wood speed-reading atheists out there, I says to myself. Apparently, some sort of organized mass reviewing is part of the game, and a reviewer sympathetic to Mr. Harris, subtly named UberDawks, admits as much:

Over at Pharyngula we team to post good or bad reviews on Amazon all the time. I’m with PZ Myers on this one, who cares if weve read the book or not, people need to realize how harmful and destructive lies like god, jeebus, intelligent design, evolution denial and climate change denial really are. If Amazon doesn’t like it they can try and stop us, but that doesnt seem to be happening, so this guy can whine all he wants it wont change anything.

So there you have it. And as the eloquent reviewer above states, books that try to discredit atheism are sabotaged (as, for example, Ray Comfort’s book was, “You Can Lead an Atheist to Evidence but You Can’t Make Him Think” ~ though, note to reader, I’m no fan of Mr. Comfort’s rather simplistic arguments, either). But still.

But back to Sam. Now that he’s managed to reduce everything to its lowest common denominator in his previous two books ~ that we are nothing but biological agents that make bio-chemical synaptic connections in our cerebral cortex ~ it makes perfect sense that he would follow up with what amounts to a perfectly logical conclusion: let science determine human values. You know, science… that reliable guide to human values (“and the atomic bomb, napalm, Thalidomide, Agent Orange, DDT, etc.” ~ see second review below) because science, as we all know, is perfectly objective, and only perfect objectivity can guide pesky subjectivity into rationality. I mean morality. No… wait… are they the same thing? Huh?

Each time I read the latest diatribe from the New Atheists (and more often than not, it is a diatribe), I am reminded of G.K. Chesterton’s quip: “The mad man isn’t the man who has lost his reason. The mad man is the man who has lost everything but his reason.” Harris, like so many others of his atheist ilk, comes across sounding perfectly reasonable, totally rational, even really smart. But that’s where it ends, and as a result, the future he envisions, where “moral experts” (presumably neuroscientists with a philosophy degree, like… well, like Sam Harris) decide what is and is not moral, become an Orwellian nightmare in scope and substance. Harris actually advocates a future where lie detectors are installed in places where telling the truth is particularly important (like in a court of law, for example) and which would set off an alarm if someone were lying. Perfectly reasonable, right? Well, let’s see, how many amendments would that trample? Two I can think of right off the bat (the 4th and 6th). And how would it work when someone is saying something he actually believes but which turns out to be completely wrong? Would the buzzer go off then? Or not? And what if someone were telling what she thought was true but wasn’t totally sure ~ would that trip the Harris Detector? Would be she be jailed for perjury? Or just asked to leave the courtroom? Perfectly reasonable?? Perfectly stupid.

In Harris’ bold new world where scientists are the new high priests, the more recalcitrant among us would probably have cognitive implants and take happy pills so that we could all walk around like perfectly happy little Sam Harrises, always obeying the perfect rules of the perfect future society. Does Sam Harris know just how ridiculous he sounds? I’m reminded of one of Yogi Berra’s famous lines: If the world were perfect, it wouldn’t be.

And by the way, if we do ever reach Harris’ scientific utilitarian utopia (God help us), I assume there would be no need of the Harris lie detectors, right, since we’d all be working for our own happiness and there would be no more wars or malaria or child abuse and the lion and lamb would lie down together in the rolling pastures of the Elysian fields?

There are so many problems with Harris’ view of things that it’s difficult to know where to begin. How about at the implied thesis of his book, which is that what makes up happy is a reliable guide to morality. But what about all those things that make us happy that are immoral, like cheating on our spouses in a dry spell of marriage, or cheating on an exam in order to get the A and keep the scholarship, or cheating on our taxes so that we can pocket a little more money? The reason people do these things is because it makes them happier ~ at least temporarily. It’s as if Harris hasn’t heard of this thing called immediate gratification. There are literally countless other examples (exacting revenge, denying uncomfortable truths, the unbridled pursuit of wealth, etc., etc., etc). And what of the other side of this equation, those things that are right but which make us miserable?

And what about those myriad instances in life when a decision is neither wholly good nor bad simply because it’s the lesser of two evils? What temporal lobe is responsible for that decision? And lest you think that those situations are far and few between, just ask President Barack Obama, or any parent with a teenager who has gotten pregnant, or the boss at work who has to fire a single parent with three kids to support, or… or… or…

One wonders where the arts fit into Harris’ brain-as-the-wizard-behind-the-curtain future? Perhaps we just might be able to have “perfect” art someday if we could only isolate the aesthetic section of the brain and have a computer generate the perfect image, the perfect song, the perfect poem… hey, the folks over at Google are developing some A.I. stuff (artificial intelligence) that is supposed to learn how to translate poetry from one language to another. Apparently they’re having a ridiculously difficult time.

Fact is, Harris’s book is either the final manifesto of a culture tripping headlong into madness or just the latest attempt at another Eugenics utopia that will, we hope, amount to nothing more than a footnote in historical texts of the 21st century. I’ll opt for the second, though I realize the first isn’t entirely out of the question.

Which brings us back to Klaatu and The Day the Earth Stood Still. And Sam Harris. What happens when you scratch his skin? Does he bleed? Because Mr. Harris is quickly becoming a parody of everything that is wrong with the New Atheism religion. Even David Hume, the erstwhile Father of modern skepticism, is turning over in his grave. (You think he was critical of religion? You should see what he had to say about atheism.)

I am reminded of a letter John Keats sent to his brother William shortly before John died: “Do you not see how necessary a life of troubles is to school an intelligence and make it a soul?” Sam Harris may be intelligent, but he’s got no soul. By his own admission. Turns out we do actually agree on something.

Two reviews of his latest book:




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