Moral Landscape – definition of science
I’ve started reading Sam Harris’ ‘The Moral Landscape’ in view of the Moral Landscape Challenge. It is claimed that the book is provocative and it certainly begins that way. There is plenty of food for thought in just the first two paragraphs of the introduction!
Harris opens by outlining the Albanian tradition of Kanun: a tradition that if a man commits a murder, his victim’s family can kill any one of his male relatives in reprisal. He then uses this story as the example to pose his basic thesis – ‘can science adjudicate on this matter?’
In posing this dilemma he opens up the key questions which must be resolved for Harris to satisfactorily demonstrate that science can determine human values. He asks, ‘whose definition of ‘better’ or moral’ would we use? This is not just the problem of science, but it is the problem of any atheistic morality – whose definition should we use?
Harris also observes that current scientific investigations on morality are merely descriptive, not prescriptive. In the footnote Harris then defines what he means by ‘science’ and it is a very curious and somewhat idiosyncratic definition of science. His definition conflates “science” with “facts”. He defines ‘science’ as ‘our best effort to form a rational account of empirical reality’.
This is curious because by defining science so broadly, it includes many things that we would ordinarily not consider scientific – e.g. the study of history, which Harris acknowledges in the example of JFK’s assassination. There are other areas of human endeavour which then become ‘science’, for example the legal process in determining the guilt of the accused. Similarly philosophy, because it seeks the same goal could also be seen as scientific. Even the work of a poet or songwriter who seeks to form a rational account of reality through their poetry and pose could even be deemed ‘scientific’. Even more controversially, religious claims, could also be seen as ‘scientific’. Hence the life, crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ could be understood as a ‘scientific fact’ – for it would be a ‘profoundly unscientific frame of mind to deny that it occurred’. Yet I’m not sure this is a conclusion that Harris would be ready to accept, but it seems the logical consequence of this broad definition.
Similarly Christian philosophy would also fall under the auspices of ‘science’ as this seeks to answer deep philosophical questions such as ‘why is there something rather than nothing’, and establish a coherent account of rationality and knowledge itself. Again, I’m not sure Harris would subscribe to this view, but it seems an outcome of his definition.
It seems that Harris has expanded the definition of ‘science’ to embrace all epistemology – science becomes epistemology. How significant will this definition be as Harris develops his thesis? We will keep reading and see.
We’re only 2 paragraphs and a couple of footnotes in and it’s already provocative!