Sam Harris, author of The Moral Landscape: How Science can Determine Human Values made a stop at UC San Diego last night, and it was great. If you have a chance to see Sam Harris on his speaking tour promoting his new book, DON'T MISS IT.
Harris makes an excellent case that science does have a right, and even an obligation, to participate in the debate about the origins of morality.
Religious leaders have argued for thousands of years that morality can only originate from God. Harris starts his lecture by thoroughly debunking this notion. He begins by showing that there is no plausible justification for the claim. Then he completely devastates the argument on practical grounds: religion's abysmal failure to show moral leadership in any important period of history makes their claim to moral leadership a joke.
Harris then goes on to build a very clever series of logical steps that ends with the inescapable conclusion that science can be used to determine whether something is right or wrong. He starts with a fascinating premise: "Imagine a world in which the absolute worst thing is happening to every sentient being on the planet." That is, everyone is having the most miserable, horrible time possible. Can we all agree that any change at all would be good? It's obvious: any change would be an improvement.
Once you accept this conclusion, you've abandoned two important claims: That only God can say what's moral, and that all morality is culturally relativistic. No matter which god you believe in or what culture you live in, you'd agree that the most-miserable-world scenario is undesirable, and any change for the better is more moral.
From there, Harris builds the case that there is a huge collection of questions where we can all agree that one answer is moral and the other is not. Using the tools of science and statistics, Harris shows that as a society, we can start from the foundation, the acknowledgement that there are axioms of morality, things that we can agree are bad, and use reasoning to answer some of the hard questions of morality.
I can't possibly summarize his lecture or his entire book in this short blog, so please Click Here to check his speaking schedule and get the lecture from the master himself.
If you haven't read his previous books, I highly recommend them too. The End of Faith had a big influence on me while I was writing The Religion Virus.