I recall watching this speech Sam Harris gave at the Aspen Ideas Festival well over a decade ago now. https://youtu.be/-j8L7p-76cU I found it amazing then and I must have watched it more than a dozen times since. I recall wanting to learn to speak like that. Even now I haven’t seen a clearer, good humoured and more forceful defence of reason against faith. There’s a strong sense in which I feel I owe Sam some gratitude for having taught me to talk. His style is an ideal to move towards: speaking clearly, with good humour and concede where concession is warranted. In that speech you can hear for yourself all the ways in which Sam’s most vociferous detractors and opponents lie about his positions and have misrepresented his motivation. And where he concedes religion can indeed be very useful and consoling and more besides.
Sam has had to defend himself many times against the charge he’s unusually or even unfairly focussed on religion. And one religion in particular. He has been absolutely right to respond that in fact this doesn’t quite get to the heart of what truly motivates him. Actually, what Sam is concerned about rather often - and this comes through in his talk and in his books - is dogma. Religion is not centre of the bullseye (even if it’s on the dart board). The central concern is dogma. It is just that religion is rather typically, one of the largest most robust repositories of dogma. And this focus on dogma exists precisely because it can cause such harm - and we often don’t realise how until the harm is or has been done. Almost always it’s unintentional. A great example Sam uses is how the Catholic Church teaches that “human life begins at the moment of conception”. This seems quaint-even sweet and good. In one sense it’s true (zygotes are alive) but on the other hand zygotes are not people. And Sam observes that if the argument is “they are potential people” then given the right conditions so is any cell in your body. So when one scratches their nose, on this view, they’re engaged in a veritable genocidal level of murder of “potential humans”.
But this Catholic doctrine – this dogma is a foundational claim. It is from here that they build moral structure – they reach other conclusions about the rightness and wrongness of many other things; for example, abortion and the use of stem cells. This foundational claim about human life* beginning at conception does real harm. But the harm isn’t due primarily to the fact it’s false (and it is false - zygotes are not people - at a minimum a nervous system is needed to encode the knowledge that makes a person a person)- it’s damaging because the church will not even consider the possibility that there might be a way to learn more on this topic or to consider it different. Because it’s a foundational claim. It’s Church doctrine. A dogma. And this is why it can result in terrible suffering in ways the early church scholars could never possibly have foreseen. For in the context of a world that can treat actual suffering of actual people if only we could use embryonic stem cells, we have a problem. (Now, by the way, I don’t think it’s at all clear WHEN a zygote becomes a person. I know it’s not one. Nor would a blastocyst be one. But an embryo? Now I don’t know. This is a sorites problem of real consequence) so the moral foundation “Human life begins at the moment of conception” - good though it sounds as a way of enshrining the sanctity of life - turns out in the context of modern medical procedures - to cause real harm. Or in the case of abortion where early term abortions are made unavailable to victims of rape, the foundation would seem to be a perfect engine of suffering.
So Sam is absolutely right to root out and condemn dogma. Dogma are irrational. But it’s how religions build belief systems. They build upon axiomatic claims – foundations. It is purported to be somewhat like a mathematical system. Here are the axioms: now, let’s see what follows. Of course nothing can ever show axioms are true and indeed they may be false. So what follows in such a case is liable to be false also. Some mathematicians - it must be said - can sometimes admit (in better moods) that they aren’t interested in what is actually true in reality. Rather: just what follows as a matter of logical necessity. Quite right too!
(*Note: by “human life” the Catholic Church means the life of the zygote is a human. They mean: there are human souls in those zygotes. )
So Sam rejects dogma because it’s dogma. He understands that dogma are those things we cannot improve if we take seriously the idea they must be true. He’s focussed on that. And I couldn’t agree more. But what is the difference between a foundation (even a weak one) and a dogma? Moreover, what exactly follows from Sam’s axioms? Can they be the basis of some nascent all encompassing moral system of a kind?
One thing we might observe is that if morality is about “the well being of conscious creatures” then this reduces morality to a domain of feelings. Indeed Sam’s other axioms: “we should avoid the worst possible misery for everyone” is explicitly about the feeling of suffering. But this *central* focus on feelings in objective matters is a mistake. It takes what should be an objective domain of enquiry (morality) and reduces it to questions of “how do you feel?” or “how do we feel?” and so on. Now very often our feelings of pain or joy are indeed relevant. But are feelings the best guide in all cases? Could we formulate moral systems without these axioms? Let us consider any other objective domain of enquiry and the relationship there between knowledge creation (i.e: the solving of problems) and the existence of “foundations” or axioms.
In physics there exist postulates for various reasons. So Einstein “built” special relativity upon two postulates: the speed of light is constant for all observers and the laws of physics are the same for all observers. But this hardly helps with thermodynamics. And large parts of quantum theory were created to solve problems without being concerned about the postulates of special relativity. That’s physics. As to mathematics – well there is the preeminent example of an domain where axiomatic systems rule the day. But Gödel showed in mathematics we cannot have a complete set of axioms that can ever solve all mathematical problems.
So in physics: not everything *follows from* the 2 postulates of special relativity. And in mathematics it is provably the case we cannot prove everything from any given set of axioms. So much for axiomatic systems being needed to create knowledge and solve problems. Instead of a focus on axioms, the truth is that in all cases creativity is how we find solutions. It does not happen via derivation. If this is true in mathematics and physics - that the majority of what we know *cannot be derived* from a fixed set of axioms why should we think it possible in morality?
As to Sam’s two premises - I have no great criticisms against morality being concerned with the problems of conscious creatures and that we need to avoid the worst possible misery for everyone. But I’ve no criticisms against either of those or Einstein’s postulates or indeed many of the best ideas. That’s why they’re best. I just don’t ever elevate my best ideas to foundational or dogmatic nor indeed regard them as any kind of “necessary starting point”. So while I lack “coherent criticisms” of Sam’s axioms, they’re not necessary as a foundation or a starting point for any moral discussion. They’re just useful if our interlocutor tries to assert that x is better than y even when x causes lots more suffering. Or that feelings never matter at all. If indeed we tried to build a system of ethics upon them, we’d be talking about suffering and feelings constantly. We’d descend into subjective debates about subjectivity.
We don’t need foundations – just claims that remain tentative. As indeed Einstein’s postulates in special relativity are. I cannot conceive how Einstein’s postulates might be true (in our actual universe). They must be, it seems to me given what else I know. Likewise “the worst possible misery for everyone is bad” is an excellent critique against those who would push a moral relativism. There is no argument I know against that claim so cannot conceive of how it might be false.
But now from here what do we do? If this is the starting point, where then? Do we move left or right, north or south away from the worst possible misery? While we agree we must move – is it a coin toss? If not what should we do? That’s the real moral question that the foundation simply cannot help with.
Sam’s foundational claims may seem unproblematic. But then so too did the claims of the early Church scholars who laid the foundation that “Human life begins at the moment of conception”. In both cases the mistake is the same: deriving consequences from firm foundations isn’t the way problem solving works and the way forward is in rejecting dogma and embracing fallibilism.
The most valuable thing you can offer to an idea