Moral Landscape – how Sam Harris makes an argument for the existence of God
Page 13 of Sam Harri’s The Moral Landscape filled me with genuine surprise. In fact I couldn’t quite believe I was reading what he had written. Harris wrote, ‘It is important to emphasize that a scientific account of human values […] is not the same as an evolutionary account’ (p.13). This statement fills me with enormous puzzlement: in an atheistic, naturalistic account of the world how can a scientific account not be an evolutionary one? What account are we therefore to accept? If it isn’t the result of evolution, then where does it come from?
My puzzlement increased a couple of sentences on where Harris writes, ‘While the possibilities of human experience must be realized in the brains that evolution has built for us, our brains were not designed with a view to our ultimate fulfilment’ (p.13). Huh!?!? Our brains were not designed with a view to our fulfillment? This is a genuinely puzzling thing for an atheist to write. In atheist naturalism our brains could never have been designed, in fact nothing is ever designed. In this view, us, our brains, and everything around us are the result of mindless, unguided forces. Nothing can ever be ‘designed’, so why does Harris write about the ‘design’ of our brain?
My puzzlement increases in the next sentence: ‘Evolution could not have foreseen the wisdom or necessity of creating stable democracies, mitigating climate change, saving other species from extinction, containing the spread of nuclear weapons, or of doing much else that is now crucial to our happiness in this century’. This is a remarkable claim. Essentially Harris is claiming that our modern culture and values are not the result of evolution! Harris has reduced ‘evolution’ to species survival, but this is too reductionist. In the atheistic naturalist view he must say that stable democracies etc are the result of non-rational, physical, genetic forces i.e. evolution, because the material world is all there is and we all dance to its DNA. Harris is unwittingly removing the philosophical ground underneath naturalism. He is saying that there is more than simply the results of naturalistic evolution.
He goes on in the next paragraph, ‘After all, from the perspective of man’s genes, there could be nothing more fulfilling than spawning thousands of children without incurring any associated costs or responsibilities. But our minds do not merely conform to the logic of natural selection. […] While we have inherited a multitude of yearnings that probably helped our ancestors survive and reproduce in small bands of hunter-gatherers, much of our inner life is frankly incompatible with our finding happiness in today’s world’. Harris is saying that evolution may have helped in the past, but now there is more to the fulfilled life. He claims that we go beyond our genes. Yet this is a problem because atheist naturalism says that there is nothing but our genes.
I’ll try to express Harris’ puzzling claims in terms of a logical argument.
- Atheist naturalism means that everything we observe and experience is the result of natural evolutionary forces.
- Sam Harris claims that some things like our fulfillment go beyond our genes and natural evolutionary forces.
- Therefore Sam Harris is claiming that atheist naturalism is false.
Harris is effectively suggesting that naturalism is false. Similarly an argument can be mounted to suggest that the ‘gap’ that Harris has identified i.e. between natural process and knowledge/consciousness/mind – can be bridged by God! This is what I found so puzzling – Harris is actually making an argument for the existence of God! He invokes a form of the argument from reason which is an argument which essentially shows that the necessary conditions of logical and mathematical reasoning and also human happiness … require the rejection of all broadly materialist worldviews. As C.S. Lewis writes, ‘If Naturalism is true, every finite thing or event must be (in principle) explicable in terms of the Total System. Harris appears to be denying this.
An excellent chapter dealing with this argument can be found in Peter Williams’ book, ‘C.S. Lewis vs the New Atheists’ (Chapter 4 – the argument from reason). Here is an interesting link by Paul Copan as he discussed this question with Richard Dawkins exploring the same issue of determinism that arises with naturalism.
It appears that Harris rejects the philosophical results of evolution. He makes some genuinely puzzling claims and unwittingly makes a case against naturalism and for a ‘mind-first view’ of human happiness and values which is best explained via theism.