Just as the role of god(s) has been undermined over the last centuries, in the last decades, so has the role and reliability of reason in our daily lives. There are two conflicting models to describe the relationship of passion and reason: Plato saw reason as controlling the passions like a charioteer controls wild steeds but Hume saw reason as the slaves of passion — here as slaves caring reason on a palanquin. I couldn’t decide how to illustrate this so I made two: this one above and below.
In September 2011, Sam Harris published his book “The Moral Landscape” and two years later (Aug. 2013) he made a contest which ends in 3 days — Sunday February 9th — where he will pay anyone $20,000 if they can persuade Harris that his theory is wrong.
Harris’ central argument is:
Morality and values depend on the existence of conscious minds—and specifically on the fact that such minds can experience various forms of well-being and suffering in this universe. Conscious minds and their states are natural phenomena, fully constrained by the laws of the universe (whatever these turn out to be in the end). Therefore, questions of morality and values must have right and wrong answers that fall within the purview of science (in principle, if not in practice). Consequently, some people and cultures will be right (to a greater or lesser degree), and some will be wrong, with respect to what they deem important in life.
I agree with this view in part — but it does not seem the whole picture because:
- Like other animals, humans seem to be willing sacrifice their own well-being for others — particularly their offspring.
- A particular behavior is intimately tied with others in a complex web such that one behavioral practice (or moral) can not be judged alone but only in relation to all the other interconnected values and actions.
Well, I don’t really want to discuss his views here. Sam is much brighter than I am, and I am sure he has replies to my simple objections. I haven’t read the book or heard his talks where he replies to common objections. But that is not the point of this post instead, I want to point you to something more important!
Today I read an EXCELLENT article by Jonathan Haidt who stakes $10,000 that no one will win Harris’ contest. Not because Haidt feels Harris is right, but because he feels the chances of Harris changing his mind are catastrophically slim.
What Haidt writes in his fine article is based on the same insights I use here on Triangulations when arguing against what I call hyper-rationalist atheists — and heck, even beliefism theists.
For real fun, Haidt ends his article with a very optimist plug for an organization in the US congress which is trying to take into account the complex relationship between reason and passion while they nurture new relations between policy makers.
So, with no further ado, please go read Haidt’s article!