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The Moral Landscape (some early thoughts) January 14, 2011

Posted by shaunphilly in religion, atheism, polyamory, culture.
Tags: , , ,

I’m currently (finally) reading Sam Harris’ The Moral Landscape (which I am enjoying so far).  I am finding that I agree with Sam Harris much more often than not, and will recommend the book.

Right now, I want to post a few short quotes concern an issue I have been thinking about, as well as arguing about on an email list for atheists.

What are our priorities?  How can we make ourselves better people?  What is a good person?

Here is a quote from the book which is tangentially related to some recent conversations I have been having via email with some atheists with varying priorities.

I am arguing that everyone also has an intuitive “morality,” but much of our intuititive morality is clearly wrong (with respect to the goal of maximizing personal and collective well-being).  And only genuine moral experts would have a deep understanding of the causes and conditions of human and animal well-being.
(page 36)

Inserted at the end of that sentence there is an end note, from which I quote the following:

Many people’s reflexive response to the notion of moral expertise is to say, “I don’t want anyone telling me how to live my life.”  To which I can only respond, “If there were a way for you and those you care about to be much happier than you are now, would you want to know about it?”
(page 202)

This is a question that is relevant to religion and faith.  I ask, sometimes, a similar question to believers.  If there were a worldview out there which could allow you to feel happier, more fulfilled, and could also survive skeptical analysis, would you want to know it?  If it were true that religion is indeed a scam, that belief in god(s) is not warranted, and that science truly is the best method we have for attaining knowledge, would you want to know that?

I can only say that I truly would want to know if there were a god.  Whether or not I would want a relationship with said being would depend upon the nature of that god.  Would theists really want to know if they were wrong? Some would, but perhaps not most.

Harris continues on the next page (in the main text):

Whatever [the Taliban] think they want out of life–like keeping all women and girls subjugated and illiterate–they simply do not understand how much better life would be for them if they had different priorities.
(page 37)

I’m finding that I agree with Harris’ main premise of the book so far.  His main idea is that because our behavior, feelings, etc are a result of a physical brain, science is, in principle as well as (possibly) practice, capable of discovering the states of being that would maximize “well-being.” Knowing what ways we might be well is a good start on how we should behave.  I will keep reading.



1. Susan Sayler - January 15, 2011

With some New Atheists I do feel bitten by anger but reading Sam Harris is a truly nourishing experience.

The conversation I am not hearing is one that I would expect Sam Harris to draw on the most; neuroscience.

Why doesn’t Harris or any of the atheists address the fact that the mind of science is left brain dominance all the way, and believers have a right brain dominance. I think these are the most important “facts” in the science/religion debate that go neglected.

Belief is inset before the age of five, before we read and write, into a non-cognitive/non-verbal/non-language part of the brain. The right brain thinks in symbols and translates them into chemical signals. When believers say that they “believe” in the Bible, its a THING, not a group of concepts and laws and rules. Why do you think that atheists scored higher than believers on questions about the Bible? Hello Left Brain — use your science!

New Atheists at least have to cop to the fact that they are not comfortable over there in the right brain, and some of them need to get pretty drunk in order to cross over. Men use their left brain almost exclusively when making any decision. Women always go half right/half left on any decision. Is it any wonder that most atheists are male?

There is a reason that we have a right brain, and when New Atheists research that question in an unbiased way, I think they will look at belief in a new and refreshing light.

shaunphilly - January 15, 2011

Susan, I can’t disagree with you more. For 2 reasons;

1) The Left brain/Right brain distinction is too simplistic.

2) Even if taken loosely, the distinction does not hold as you describe. I know many atheists who are “right-brained” and I know many theists who are “left-brained.”

I, for example, am a pretty good mix of both right and left brained. I actually think that in many ways my imagination, creativity, etc are stronger.

2. Susan Sayler - January 16, 2011

I am not sure you can say the left brain and right brain research is “too simplistic” Here are two amazing cases to ponder: Carl Sagan and Dr. Mike Gazzaniga: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rz19Lh5kjQg&feature=player_embedded#!
and this is the TED talk with Jill Bolte Taylor: http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=UyyjU8fzEYU
Religion is a right brain value, and it is not interested in words, sentences, doctrine, or any kind of abstract reasoning. The right brain “thinks” in terms of symbols, archetypes, images and doesn’t distinguish reality from fantasy. It is very attracted to ancestors too, which is the religious basis of Japanese and Chinese spirituality. And it doesn’t really distinguish between political beliefs and religious beliefs. Lets face it, the left brain just isn’t very spiritual.

3. shaunphilly - January 17, 2011

What I think you are missing is that spirituality is only one aspect of religion. There are aspects of religion which are dependent upon intellect, rational thinking, etc. Theology, while its foundations are based upon assumptions which do not stand up to scrutiny, is a heavily logical exercise. The intricacies of theology are very “left-brained” activities. The mystical/spiritual part of religion is, indeed, more “right-brained” but this aspect of our humanity is not unique to religion, as it is part of many creative peoplke’s lives both atheist and theist.

Religion utilizes all aspects of our rational thinking and creativity (well, except for some more refined parts of skeptical thinking, perhaps). In fact, part of the survival mechinism of religion is specifically that it has aspects of itself that lend sthemselves to all of what we, as humans do. This is why it is simplistic to distinguish atheist from theist based upon a left-brain/right-brain schema.

4. Susan Sayler - January 18, 2011

I personally make a big deal out of the difference between spirituality, religion and belief. Spirituality is a longing that is extremely individual and works against religion. Religion is threatened by any individual’s personal quest because it threatens the religion’s status-quo existence. Belief is what is inbred in us prior to any objective say in the matter. They are all inter-related but nonetheless distinctly different things that hang out in different parts of the brain. It’s been shown in studies that children are more captivated by the cartoon elements of religion (god in heaven, devil in hell, miracles etc) where adults are unconcerned with those things and simply use religion as an avenue of fellowship. The exceptions prove the rule here. Beliefs do not know partisan lines, and many people have their political beliefs enmeshed with their religious beliefs.

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