By age 19 I had read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and Voltaire’s Bastards. With those two books my faith in science and reason was permanently shattered. Zen and the Art explained how the core tenant of science, that it’s possible to develop a number of hypotheses and test them to see which is true is inherently flawed. Hypothesis development is a creative process affected by personal biases, and so it’s impossible to develop a finite set of neutral hypothesizes to evaluate. One’s results will always be affected by where one started, and so the process of scientific inquiry, while useful and practical, is in no way value-neutral or capable of arriving at Truth.
Voltaire’s Bastards exposed how the men of reason who run our society—from the rational bureaucrats to the economists, politicians, and academics, are more dedicated to rational structures than to societal good. Reason can justify atrocity as easily as it can uphold egalitarianism. The Tuskegee Experiments were rational to those in charge and the Japanese hunt whales under the guise of scientific enterprise.
So, when I saw the title of Sam Harris’s TED talk, “Science can answer moral questions” I was skeptical, to say the least. Interested, though, I tried to be impartial and hear out his arguments. Within minutes of beginning his speech, Harris revealed his bias that Western rational thinking is “normal.” He said that “we” don’t feel compassion for rocks or ants because we don’t perceive them as suffering, and while it’s possible that further scientific evidence could upend these beliefs, for now it’s not a concern. But if you practice Shinto, you do believe rocks have spirits and if you’re a Jain, you don’t eat potatoes because they’re so full of life it’s a sin to be so glutinous.
To this criticism, Harris would perhaps reply that there is no scientific evidence that rocks or ants have a spirit or suffer. I would say, though, that science is a process of enlarging and enriching context, and there was a time when scientists failed to see the spark of intelligence in dolphins or chimps or people with brown skin. Just because science has not caught up with reality does not mean that reality doesn’t exist.
I am, perhaps, picking nits here though, because the real thrust of Harris’s argument is that regardless of its ideological underpinnings, morality is meant to guide humans towards a healthy, happy existence and through science we’ve pretty well figured out what constitutes healthy human development. Ergo, if science can determine the proper path to achieve the aims of morality, science can be used to evaluate moral decisions.
As an example, he points to all the states in the US that still allow corporeal punishment in the classroom because of Biblical justification. According to the Bible, it is deemed moral (i.e. will guide the victim to a better life) to beat children into submission. Through psychological research, however, we know that beating children is not good for them, and in fact can often be very bad for them. This seems like a clear case in which science can answer a moral question: Is it right to beat disobedient children? Science says, “No.”
It’s a good point, and it was around this point in his talk that I started softening to his thesis. He used the burka argument/the general mistreatment of women in fundamentalist cultures and I found these tough to argue against too. The fact is, I feel really conflicted about this issue. I’m not a moral relativist. I think genocide is bad. Hitting kids is bad. Rapists should be punished. And while I could listen to Harris’s examples, pull out my Zen handbook and ask with a half smile, “Who can say what is good and bad?” I just wasn’t feeling it.
I can ask that question with minor injustices in my life. I can contemplate the big picture and think that my relationship break-ups and broken bones are neither good nor bad (or both) I’m simply unable to do that with the glaring examples of injustice and exploitation that plague the world. Fuck zen, it’s just shitty for humans to be treated like second-class citizens, sold into slavery, forced to be child soldiers, or made to live in burlap sacks under threat of death. It’s just shitty, and I agree Sam, humanity should get on the same page about that.
The opposite of our morally balkanized, conflicted world, though, is just as scary to me. A world of scientifically proven morality is a world drunk on hubris. Who’s to say science isn’t lagging behind the Jane’s and potatoes are worthy of protection as valid creatures capable of love, suffering, and joy? Or even if they’re not, who’s to say that we’re applying the right criteria to determine what is and is not worthy of protection? To return to the Tuskegee experiments, or even earlier, slavery, it was rationally understood that black people were not human. Reason prevented no suffering there, and indeed promoted and justified it. More recently, James Watson, co-discoverer of DNA and a seemingly reasonable man of science, advocated eugenics and pronounced that the entire population of Africa is less intelligent than other peoples of the world.
Now, Harris would maybe counter that while science makes mistakes, it is more capable of admitting them and correcting than religion is, and that may be true. But I think its truth is contingent upon science existing in an ecology of belief systems. Enthroned, I think science could be just as tyrannical as any theocracy. Harris, I think, has an idealized idea of science, independent of human ambitions and immune to manipulation. In reality, and this is the point of Voltaire’s Bastards, reason is corrupted to the desires of those who claim to be reasonable. Rational thinking isn’t some natural phenomenon. It’s not like gravity. It’s a tool developed by humans to solve specific problems. Like any tool it can be used and abused.
I don’t want to hate on Harris though. You can see in his talk that he’s genuinely upset by exploitation. I think it kind of pisses him off in this deep way that I can relate too. He also has an interesting article on killing Buddhism that shows he respects many of the ideas communicated by Buddhism, even if he scoffs at the mysticism. That scoffing though is where I part with him.
The world is just so much bigger that science. Science is great but it’s always playing catch up, and you have to understand that other cultures and practices have reached places science hasn’t yet. Chinese medicine works even though it’s a completely parallel universe from Western medicine. The whole point of a zen koan is that it’s non-rational and great insight can come from wrestling with the non-rational. And Hinduism. I mean, it makes no fucking sense if you look at it superficially, but look closer and it’s brilliant. Just read this thing by Rah’s dad, he’s far more eloquent than I am.
Anyway, I should wrap this up, so in conclusion: I appreciate Harris’s efforts because the world is in some rough shape now, but I fear the scientific dictatorship as much as I fear the clash of theocracies. In the end I think it comes down to the Golden Rule. Unless the whole world is full of masochists, I think “do unto others…” would take care of things fine. It’s just easier said than done.