Sam Harris: Science Can Answer Moral Questions

What’s good, and what’s evil? Traditionally, religion and philosophy have answered these questions, pushing science to the side, asking it to stick to the world of natural laws and knowable facts. But Sam Harris wants to change things. At TED, he’s arguing that science (particularly neuroscience) can address moral questions precisely because these questions fall into the world of knowable facts. And, even better, science can provide definitive, highly objective answers to such questions. Just as there are scientific answers to all questions in physics, so there are clear answers in the moral realm. This applies, for example, to whether children should be subjected to corporal punishment, or how society deals with very meaningful gender questions. (Things get a little emotional on this topic at about 11 minutes in.) The upshot is that Harris isn’t buying a radically relativist position on morality, and this will disappoint many post-modernists. The Enlightenment project is alive and well, ready to make its comeback.

Update: You can find a rebuttal to Harris’s thesis from physicist Sean Carroll here. Thanks Mike for pointing that out.


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Comments (3)
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  • Roderic Rinehart says:

    Fantastic. Sam Harris is such an enjoyable author, I was not surprised to find that he is enjoyable to listen to. He needs a podcast on iTunes or a course at The Teaching Company. I know I would subscribe or purchase.

  • Ben says:

    So unfortunate that Sam Harris has overlooked the art of contemplative religion in it’s entirety. If Mr. Harris were to allow himself a moment of humility in the presence of living contemplative masters, I think that he would quickly realize the deep (and recorded) empirical research into the nature of consciousness and morality that contemplative… See More “religions” have been undergoing for at least 2500 years. Harris’ fatal blind-spot may well be his subconscious subscription to Protestant individualism and scientific materialism… The roots of which are hardly unreligious. Once he starts “interrogating” people’s emotional responses with neuro-gadgetry, it is likely (like many others) that he will discover empirical evidence SUPPORTING the very same devotional elements of contemplative religious cultures that he so vigilantly aims to disprove.

    There is so much great neuroscientific research going on around ethics, emotional states, and human compassion at the moment. A great Buddhist scholar & neuroscientist named B. Alan Wallace has a very good video on this subject…

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