So I got to see Sam Harris speak last night in Berkeley. It was stellar. A few things stood out:
Adam from Mythbusters was there. I spotted him first standing in the line and walked up to him. I said, “So, you either look like the guy I’m thinking of or you are that guy. Which is it?” He says, “I’m him.” I say, “Great (shaking his hand), I enjoy your work.” He was totally cool. It was strange to hear him laugh (which is familiar from the show) to Sam Harris’s jokes. At one point Sam Harris said on the topic of science not being in the values business, “It’s a myth.” All the cool people looked at Adam, and he smiled.
I actually didn’t have a ticket to the talk, and when I arrived after driving from SF I was greeted with a “Sold Out” sign. Major downer. So I was standing in the “hope” line when I hear someone say that a guy over yonder has extra tickets. I teleport to his location and he says, “Oh, yeah, I have a ticket I’m giving away.” I figure he means I have to dance or do a backflip or something, and he simply hands it to me. So, at that point I wasn’t even in the “will call” line, I was then in the “I got a ticket, foo” line. Choice.
The talk was sufficiently fresh–even for those who were familiar with the work. I took a few notes on his argument path since I intend to be familiar with common counters (such as the ones I received in a recent Facebook mini-debate).
Somehow the idea of Adam Savage and Sam Harris in the same room together was really cool–especially when that room was a giant Church–when the topic was how bad religion is at discovering and fostering morality.
So, here are the primary points (a mix of my summaries and his actual arguments/phrasing):
The primary Knight’s move goes like so:
- Morality is related to well-being of conscious creatures
- Well-being is tied to the state of the universe
- It is science that can offer the most regarding the state of the universe
We have beliefs about facts and we have beliefs about values. Both relate to the natural world. Under FMRI, the brain handles both equally.
An easy way to think of the science of morality is to imagine a world where everyone in the world is experiencing the maximum possible misery. That’s bad. Now imagine that anything that takes us away from that state is good…or at least better. Now, let’s apply science to see how to do that. Our current situations are simply more complex and less extreme versions of this.
Even if you’re religious, the focus is still the improvement of well-being of conscious creatures. The difference is that this is spread out disproportionately into the afterlife. So then it simply becomes a matter of if that’s the actual best way to increase the well-being, which in turn hinges on whether or not the propositions of the various afterlife states are true
Our understanding of health is nearly as elastic as our understanding of morality. We have issues even identifying when someone is alive or dead, but this doesn’t mean we can’t say someone is suffering from smallpox. The fact that we don’t have all the information on a complex subject doesn’t mean we can’t be certain about certain things about it, e.g. happiness vs. suffering vs. health vs. suffering from smallpox. Nobody would think to ask someone screaming in pain from smallpox, “How do you KNOW you’re really suffering?”
Even though we are barely scratching the surface of medical knowledge, we can still dismiss biblical chemists and biblical physicists. There are wrong answers–even in a topic where we don’t have all the right ones (or even many right ones)
Certain things are usually true even if they aren’t always true, like “don’t lose your queen” in Chess. If you want to play good Chess you have to know this, but there are times 1) when it’s your best move, and 2) when it’s your ONLY move. Lying is bad, but it’s ok when Anne Frank is in your basement and the Nazis come calling.
Religion is not a good word. It’s like Sports. Sports don’t tell you anything about violence because there are both Badminton and Muay Thai. If you get hurt doing Muay Thai you’re a Muay Thai fighter. If you get hurt playing badminton, you’re just embarrassed
It’s the same for religions. Religious extremism isn’t the problem. Fundamentalism isn’t the problem. The more extreme of a Janist someone becomes, the less you have to worry about them. The only problem with Muslim fundamentalists is the fundamentals of Islam.
Spain translates more of the world’s text into Spanish every year than the Arabic-speaking world has translated into Arabic since the 9th century
…anyway, it did cover the same arguments covered in the book (which I’ve gifted to a few close friends), but with some slight variation. I strongly suggest you pick up a copy.
I honestly feel it’s one of the most important books that currently exists in the world. Few things are more important than rationally discussing how to increase happiness and reduce suffering. ::