The Moral Landscape: How Science can Determine Human Values. Sam Harris. 2010. Free Press, New York. ISBN 978-1-4391-7121-9 Reviewed by Martin Wallace.
If faith is belief without evidence, then it is not open to scientific enquiry by a weighing of evidence. This attitude was supported and promulgated by Stephen Jay Gould. He claimed that there are “non-overlapping magisteria” of science and religion (NOMA).
However, what if it could be shown that there are events in the world of human brain physiology which can account for such “religious” activity as a sense of moral values?
This question is discussed brilliantly in this new book by Sam Harris. He says: “Questions about values are questions about the well-being of conscious creatures.” A sense of well-being is dependant in sentient beings like us on cerebral events and is therefore open to scientific investigation.
Well-being is engendered for example, by happiness, kindness, and compassion. Harris is a neuroscientist and has studied brain function by magnetic resonance imaging while subjects consider propositions. He has shown that the same part of the brain is active when considering scientific suggestions as when considering moral or religious precepts. The process of belief is the same, irrespective of content.
The part of the brain involved is that where activity can be seen with the placebo effect.
Harris makes interesting comments about the damaging effects of religion and politics on our sense of well-being. Given his past writing, we can expect some acerbic comments:
” For nearly a century the moral relativism of science has given faith-based religion-that great engine of ignorance and bigotry-a nearly uncontested claim to being the only universal framework for moral wisdom.”
He dismisses “cultural relativism” as a creation of academics. Well-being is shared by all members of all human cultures given the same conducive surroundings, as is our shared physiology.
He also is very firm about “scientific relativism” and the inhibitory effect it has had on human well-being. There can be no such thing as Christian physics or Muslim algebra!
The text of this book is accompanied by an expansion of the arguments in extensive Notes which are listed in the Index. There is also an extensive list of references.
This book answers the question my mother put to me 60 years ago. “It is all very well to talk about your lack of belief in religion, but what will you put in its place?”