Sam Harris defends his TED Talk

In a previous blog entry, I embedded the TED talk given by Sam Harris -- I'll embed the video again for reference:

He apparently got both a lot of flak and a lot of praise that he thought came from misunderstandings. Moral Confusion in the name of "Science" | Project Reason. He wrote quite a long essay, but I'll quote from just a part near the beginning.

Sam writes:

My intent was to begin a conversation about how we can understand morality in universal, scientific terms. Many people who loved my talk, misunderstood what I was saying, and loved it for the wrong reasons; and many of my critics were right to think that I had said something extremely controversial. I was not suggesting that science can give us an evolutionary or neurobiological account of what people do in the name of “morality.” Nor was I merely saying that science can help us get what we want out of life. Both of these would have been quite banal claims to make (unless one happens to doubt the truth of evolution or the mind’s dependency on the brain). Rather I was suggesting that science can, in principle, help us understand what we should do and should want—and, perforce, what other people should do and want in order to live the best lives possible. My claim is that there are right and wrong answers to moral questions, just as there are right and wrong answers to questions of physics, and such answers may one day fall within reach of the maturing sciences of mind.

I've been trying to think of where I can distinguish my thoughts from Sam's -- and the only real question where I think we could have divergent opinions would be in trying to pin down what exactly he means by promoting the well-being of conscious creatures. But, since he isn't trying to parse things at a level that would be controversial to me (nor does he seem to have the inclination), I doubt there's much disagreement. I will admit that he mentioned the possibility of brain scans as a way of discovering well-being in the future, and that sounded weird to me. I can follow the implicit logic easily enough: if the concern is the well-being of conscious beings, and if the mind depends on the brain, and if the brain is scannable in some meaningful way regarding overall well-being and happiness, then in the future being able to scan the brains of people in a particular society or belief system will be possible and instructive. It's not obviously wrong to me, but I'm not convinced I've thought about it enough to come down clearly on the issue just yet.

Sam also mentions that he is frequently met with hostility to these ideas by people in academia -- which I have found the case to be with me, as well. The largest source of disagreement between my fellow atheists and I come on the issue of moral relativism. I have long defended the notion that there exist such a thing as moral facts -- in that sense I'm a moral realist. I have also found it an odd point of agreement between many of the theists that I argue with that moral relativism is incorrect. Although, since I think that Yahweh's ordering his followers to commit genocide is morally wrong -- it's interesting to see a Biblical literalist start to argue that genocide is only sometimes wrong.

Anyway, I'm still forming my thoughts on these issues -- let me know what you think!

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