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Lies Sam Harris Tells Himself

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I watched the video of atheist Sam Harris trying to prove that science can form a basis for morality (posted by Dr. Dembski below), and it got me to thinking.  Everyone knows the moral law. It is, as Budziszewski writes, that which we can’t not know. Therefore, like everyone else, Mr. Harris knows that his moral impulses are not arbitrary, that they are grounded on something both necessary and objective. But his atheistic metaphysical premises lead to the inescapable conclusion that just the opposite is true, because if his premises are correct, he is compelled to believe that his moral impulses are contingent and subjective, that they are mere accidental byproducts of the interaction of chance and mechanical law.

If one’s premises lead to a conclusion that one knows to be untrue, one has a choice. One can either reject those premises and try to find better ones more congruent with the facts, or one can cling to those premises in the teeth of the facts. If one chooses the latter option, it will become necessary to tell lies to oneself in an effort to reduce the dissonance that must inevitably result from that choice. Here we see Mr. Harris tenaciously clinging to premises that have been falsified by his own experience and telling himself (and everyone else who will listen) whoppers to reduce his dissonance. Let’s consider the obvious lies Mr. Harris tells himself.

Harris’ lies all revolve around the is/ought dichotomy, so let me set some background. In 1739 David Hume first described the is-ought dichotomy in A Treatise of Human Nature. In a nutshell Hume said that prescriptive statements cannot be derived from descriptive statements. In other words, a description of the way a thing “is” cannot form the basis for a statement about how that thing “ought” to be, and for nearly three hundred years Hume’s is/ought dichotomy has been almost universally recognized as true by those who think about such matters.

 The is/ought dichotomy has important implications for science and it limits. Science is concerned with descriptions of how the world “is.” Therefore, most people acknowledge that science has nothing to say about how the world “ought” to be.

But not Harris. No, he says: “It is often thought that there is no description of the way the world is that can tell us how the world ought to be. But I think this is quite clearly untrue.” Note that he says the “is/ought” dichotomy is not “probably untrue,” or “perhaps untrue,” it is “plainly untrue.”

WOW! Stop the presses! Sam Harris has overturned three hundred years of settled metaphysics in only two sentences.

But of course he has not. An assertion is not an argument. (I know, all you Monty Python fans are asserting, “Yes it is!”) The burden of demonstration is on Harris to support his statement with logic, and to his credit he gives it a go. But, as we shall see, he falls woefully short.

Harris’ argument is not new or original. It is a version of “utilitarianism,” which posits that an action’s morality is determined by its “utility,” and its “utility” is in turn determined by whether the action results in a net increase in happiness or pleasure among sentient beings. In other words, an action that increases net happiness is “good” and one that decreases net happiness is “bad.” Harris substitutes the term “human flourishing” for “happiness,” but in all other respects his argument is the same.

Utilitarianism has a kind of first blush plausibility, but one does not have to think about it very long before it comes off the rails in at least two important respects. First, we know for a certain fact that some acts ought to be suppressed no matter how pleasurable they may be for the person who commits them. For example, utilitarianism would lead to the conclusion that if it can be demonstrated that a pedophile’s pleasure from molesting children is greater than the suffering he causes, then, for that pedophile, molesting children should be considered “good.” Any system that might possibly lead to such a conclusion is obviously worthless.

Secondly, and at a more fundamental level, we see that Harris has not really solved the is/ought problem at all. Let’s look at his argument again. His says the methods of science can be used to show us how to increase human flourishing, and when they are used in this way net happiness is increased, and that is “good.” Problem solved.

 But is it? No, Harris has made the exact same error Hume recognized nearly three hundred years ago. Hume wrote that he was often surprised to find that writers would talk about the world as it “is” and from there switch to statements about how the world “ought” to be without trying to connect the former with the latter. Hume observed:

This change is imperceptible; but is however, of the last consequence. For as this ought, or ought not, expresses some new relation or affirmation, ’tis necessary that it shou’d be observ’d and explain’d; and at the same time that a reason should be given; for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it.

In the exact same way Harris has smuggled an “ought” into his argument through use of an “unspoken premise.” Harris’s argument can be broken down as follows:

 1. Science can show us that which can increase human flourishing.

2. Therefore, science can show us what is “good.”

But wait a minute. Isn’t there an unspoken premise that precedes premise 1? Yes there is. If we express the unspoken premise, Harris’ argument turns into the following:

 1. We ought to increase human flourishing.

2. Science can show us that which can increase human flourishing.

 3. Therefore, science can show us what is “good.”

Can Harris’ unspoken premise (i.e., the new premise 1) be demonstrated scientifically? No, it cannot be. Harris’ unspoken premise runs headlong into Phillip Johnson’s famous “grand sez who.” Who says that human flourishing ought to be increased?

The Sudanese government has committed or at least allowed genocide in the Darfur region. Apparently those in charge in Sudan believe it is “good” to decrease human flourishing among millions. I (and doubtless you) say they are wrong. But can “science” arbitrate between the Sudanese government leaders’ opinion and ours? No. Unless there is an objective moral standard that transcends both the Sudanese leaders’ opinion and our opinion, there can be only “those with power” and “those without power.”

Fortunately, there is such a standard, and that standard says, “Thou shall not kill.” Therefore, we can know for a certain fact that the genocide in Darfur is evil, no matter who may disagree with us.

Not so Sam Harris. He says, genocide decreases human flourishing and is therefore wrong. The Sudanese leaders say, “why should we care about the flourishing of our enemies?” To which Sam Harris says . . . [crickets] . . .