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Moral Landscape – how Sam Harris makes an argument for the existence of God

January 15, 2014

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.

  1. Atheist naturalism means that everything we observe and experience is the result of natural evolutionary forces.
  2. Sam Harris claims that some things like our fulfillment go beyond our genes and natural evolutionary forces.
  3. 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.

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11 Comments
  1. I disagree with your assessment of Harris’ remarks. I’ll easily admit that understanding Harris is not always the easiest of tasks as some of his remarks seem convoluted on face value.

    Evolution can be explained as the survival of those genes best adapted to changing environmental pressures and we are used to seeing how the physical environment can do this. What we have not openly contemplated is the non-physical environment and how this is shaping our current evolution.

    Non-random genetic selection is being altered in that the gene pool of humanity now includes unintended selected genes: we are helping more to survive that would have died off without modern medicine. In other ways we fool our ‘nature’ with prosthetics so that natural selection is now selecting that which is not desired by our genetic make-up – Think about what humans find attractive and how we have worked to mimic that rather than provide it organically thus leading to unintended genetic selection. The landscape of environmental pressures changes when we consider that survival requires more than to continue breathing in this complex world we live in. Now, to survive and thrive requires different thought patterns, different abilities than what was required even just 100 years ago. This is subtly but certainly changing the course of human evolution.

    It is difficult to see directly and to even envision but it is happening. This ‘mental’ pressure on selection is changing evolutionary pressures. Social changes are as well. We indeed are evolving as a direct result of the changes we have made to our lives as a result of the capabilities evolution has given us so far. I believe that what Harris is saying is that the forms of selective pressure are changing from what they used to be into something derived from the planet what we’ve built for ourselves… a planet much different from our early modern human ancestors and their anticedants.

    Evolution is an explanation of change and to an extent the rate of change in a population. We have changed our environment and so evolution will seem to take a new twist right along with us.

  2. Ignostic Atheist permalink

    In atheist naturalism our brains could never have been designed, in fact nothing is ever designed.

    You must have missed the part where he personified evolution and is using it as an analogy. Evolutionary “design” in this sense is simply the product of evolution. Moreover, his statement remains true because it is in the form of a negative, “… our brains were not designed with a view to our ultimate fulfillment.” You’re ranting about him mentioning design, when the fact is that he said, “… our brains were not designed…”

    This is a remarkable claim. Essentially Harris is claiming that our modern culture and values are not the result of evolution!

    Again, the statement was in the form of a negative, “Evolution could not have foreseen…” This does not mean that these are not a product of evolution, it just means that they were not a goal of evolutionary processes, which is how many see them.

    Yet this is a problem because atheist naturalism says that there is nothing but our genes.

    Naturalism says that there is no supernatural. Perhaps you’re thinking of, I don’t know, Darwinism. Not that Darwin knew about genes. What Harris is saying, though, is that we are more than mayflies. We have many wants and desires from evolution, which do not directly benefit evolution. For example, in a world where we have sufficient food, every day, our sweet tooth is a burden or a pleasure rather than a survival trait.

    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!

    He didn’t, but even if he had, shoving god in the gap doesn’t solve anything. You might as well toss in aliens for all the answers it will provide.

    • Thanks for the comments, though I’d suggest that personifying evolution is misleading.

      Your second comment about the ‘goal’ of evolutionary processes is also curious. For there is no ‘goal’ in naturalistic evolutionary processes – it is mindless. Also your comments miss my point about the fruit of naturalism. In naturalism everything must be the product of DNA and mindless evolution (otherwise you have a case for God – which I think Harris makes).

      With regards to your comments on naturalism I’m intrigued with your comment that Harris says that we are more than mayflies – this again is curious because according to atheism we are not more than mayflies. We are just DNA and we dance to its tune. What do you posit explains the difference? When did this difference ‘begin’? At what point in the evolutionary timeline?

      With regards to the ‘gap’ aliens don’t solve it because they are also material beings. You will need to posit something else to explain it.

      Thanks for the comments and interaction.

      • Ignostic Atheist permalink

        For there is no ‘goal’ in naturalistic evolutionary processes – it is mindless.

        I never said otherwise, and neither did Harris. That’s what you’re not getting.

        In naturalism everything must be the product of DNA and mindless evolution (otherwise you have a case for God – which I think Harris makes).

        Again, what he is saying is that evolution was not directed toward things like government or economics. There is no goal. I said it, you said it, he said it. You’re reading into his personifying evolution as an actor (perhaps in order to relate better to those who like to think of it as such), and ignoring the fact that he’s actually saying all those personified things: goals, design – aren’t happening.

        What do you posit explains the difference? When did this difference ‘begin’? At what point in the evolutionary timeline?

        The difference, of course, is a complex brain which gives rise to a complicated consciousness. As things with evolution usually go, it was no doubt a gradual process, beginning with the first rudimentary nervous system and ending with our own brain, with no clear delineation as to when conscious reflection became possible. This can be contrasted, perhaps, to the concept of a soul, and the question of when it is acquired both evolutionarily and individually.

        What you assert is based upon inaccurate reading. If you’re only on page 13 and can’t get past reading what you want to read, this book isn’t going to work for you.

      • Thanks again for your comments and clarification. I think I might have misunderstood something you said, regarding the mindlessness of evolution. You (and Harris) were talking about what evolution could not have foreseen. When you said “This does not mean that these are not a product of evolution, it just means that they were not a goal of evolutionary processes” – I took this to imply that there might have been a goal in evolution after at all? Perhaps that was what I was implying and I didn’t mean to misrepresent you. However my point is that even to speak of things like ‘goals’ in evolution and what it could and could not have foreseen is meaningless in a naturalistic sense. Hence to speak of something ‘not’ as a goal implies that there actually was one. Otherwise I can’t understand why he even mentions the point. Maybe you could clarify for me here. Thanks.

        Disregarding whether there is any ‘goal’ of evolution your second comment misunderstands my point slightly. Whether or not evolution was directed towards government or economics is irrelevant because evolution produced it – this is why I can’t see how you can separate a scientific account from an evolutionary one. I also think that personifying evolution and speaking of what our minds are being ‘designed’ to do is misleading, don’t you think?

        Regarding your explanation of why we’re more than mayflies – your explanation unfortunately doesn’t explain it at all. It is a massive problem for the naturalist to explain consciousness. Harris himself once said, ‘the ultimate relationship between consciousness and matter has not been settled’.

        I am certainly not intent upon inaccurate reading. I’d be keen to hear your thoughts on the other posts I’ve written on Harris’ Moral Landscape. What are your major criticisms of Harris’ work? I’d be keen to hear them.

        Thanks again for the interaction.

      • Ignostic Atheist permalink

        I took this to imply that there might have been a goal in evolution after at all?

        It is very like a theist to see a declaration that there is not something, and turn it into the admission that there could be that something. Saying that, “they were not a goal,” does not mean that there exist evolutionary goals. It is not unusual to talk of evolutionary processes as if they have purpose – even Dawkins does it, much to his own chagrin. This is because, from a retrospective viewpoint, it appears purposeful, and purposeful language is appropriate if you view the planet as one large organism, but as we define purposes and goals as conscious motivations, they don’t actually exist in evolution. Seeing as Harris isn’t saying that they do, it’s difficult to see how you can honestly take statements that say that specific impulses don’t exist (not designed, not have foreseen) and twist it into saying that, therefore, others do.

        Whether or not evolution was directed towards government or economics is irrelevant because evolution produced it – this is why I can’t see how you can separate a scientific account from an evolutionary one.

        I agree, I don’t know why he said this, and the lack of immediate context doesn’t help. However, I don’t think it’s terribly important to the meat of your commentary, which is that Harris is arguing for a god. That rests on your false assumptions from his mentioning (a lack of) design and foresight.

        It is a massive problem for the naturalist to explain consciousness.

        This is true. But where you postulate a supernatural connection to the natural in the form of an intangible mind or a soul (a massive problem to explain, if there ever was), I suggest that, like every other mystery ever surpassed, the solution will turn out to be natural.

      • Thanks for your comments, I think we’re finally getting somewhere and a good series of comments. Thanks.

        Just to go back to the ‘goal’ part of our discussion. I think we basically agree on this topic, but still to speak of something ‘not as a goal’ may not necessarily imply that there is a goal, but is still a meaningless statement in naturalistic evolution because there are no goals or even ‘non-goals’. Wouldn’t you agree?

        Your final comments about explaining consciousness are interesting. Why is postulating a supernatural connection to the natural so big a problem when it could be argued that consciousness itself is supernatural?? Which seems more likely – “material leading to immaterial” or “immaterial leading to material”?

        Your comment was that ‘the solution will turn out to be natural.’ This is a confident statement? How can you be so sure? This strikes me as an a-priori conclusion not one reached on any evidence.

        Also keen to hear your major criticisms and reflections on Harris’ work. Thanks for the interaction.

      • Ignostic Atheist permalink

        … but is still a meaningless statement in naturalistic evolution because there are no goals or even ‘non-goals’. Wouldn’t you agree?

        Sure, but he’s talking to people for whom either evolution or creation does have goals. The point though, is that you can’t make the statement that he is unknowingly making an argument for a god, when he is saying that these things specifically aren’t happening. You may be enjoying yourself, but I am getting tired of repeating that point.

        Why is postulating a supernatural connection to the natural so big a problem when it could be argued that consciousness itself is supernatural?

        Because your physical body is natural, regardless of however you consider consciousness.

        Your comment was that ‘the solution will turn out to be natural.’ This is a confident statement? How can you be so sure? This strikes me as an a-priori conclusion not one reached on any evidence.

        No, my comment was, “I suggest that, like every other mystery ever surpassed, the solution will turn out to be natural.” This means that it is my opinion, fueled by a solid trend of science continually peeling back the shroud of mystery, which was previously labeled as “God”. This can be contrasted with your own a-priori assumption that, in spite of the activities of a god being continually eaten away over time, this particular mystery will forever remain in the province of the supernatural.

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