Tag Archives: sam harris

Worst possible misery for everyone

Sam Harris, in his book “The Moral Landscape”, defines good as that which moves away from “the worst possible misery”.

Once we conceive of “the worst possible misery for everyone” then we can talk about taking incremental steps towards this abyss. -Sam Harris, Moral Landscape, pg 39

While listening to Sam’s opening speech in his recent debate with William Lane Craig (audio, video), it occurred to me that by “misery”, Sam means, “physical misery”. That made me wonder, what about nonphysical misery? It seems that Sam’s dedication to physical materialism could prove to be a great hinderance here.

The best example of non-physical pain in my estimation is phantom pain experienced by amputees. In this case its the memory of a limb is the source of pain. I’m sure physicalists would argue that the neurons in the brain which supposedly constitute memories are the physical source of pain in this instance, but it seems like a stretch to think that memories themselves could be the source of pain since, in our memories, our limbs are still in tact. Phantom pain is not only the recollection of a limb that no longer exists, but an extrapolation from there that the body must be in pain since the limb is no longer providing feedback to the nervous system.

Next to phantom pain for non-existent limbs would be psycogenic pain, ie mental disorders. Mental anguish is one of the most common forms of pain we experience all the time. From mild discomfort (ie small insults or slights) to insurmountable pain (ie the loss of a loved one).

In conclusion I believe there is sufficient evidence for the claim that metaphysical pain trumps physical pain in

  • Duration – it is not possible to remove metaphysical pain through medication or amputation.
  • Intensity – while both metaphysical pain can be mitigated somewhat through medication, its intensity is not limited by natural constraints.
  • Capacity – physical pain does end at some point. Nerves get overloaded and either shut down (become numb) or the body builds a tolerance or the body itself shuts down (ie the person passes out). Metaphysical pain is bound by none of these physical constraints.

So if the greatest possible pain is not confined to physical states of affairs, it follows that any solution to the problem of pain would need to entail a metaphysical component to it if it is to be a complete and coherent. Sam’s solution is simply incomplete. It fails to adequately address metaphysical pain which would still exist even under the most ideal physical circumstances. And since it is possible for the metaphysical to effect the physical, and not vice versa, it also follows that any solution to the problem of pain should come primarialy from a metaphysical source, not a physical one.

So while I agree with Sam that morality would entail the transition from a state of pain to a state of pleasure, I find Sam’s solution to be shallow and incomplete. The greatest possible pain is not physical, its metaphysical. So the solution we ought to be looking for, if we are serious about looking for an exhaustive solution, should be metaphysical, not physical.


Sam Harris on the rape of religion

As a biological phenomenon, religion is the product of cognitive processes that have deep roots in our evolutionary past. Some researchers have speculated that religion itself may have played an important role in getting large groups of prehistoric humans to socially cohere. If this is true, we can say that religion has served an important purpose. This does not suggest, however, that it serves an important purpose  now. There is, after all, nothing more natural than rape. But no one would argue that rape is good, or compatible with a civil society, because it may have had evolutionary advantages for our ancestors. That religion may have served some necessary func­tion for us in the past does not preclude the possibility that it is now the greatest impedi­ment to our building a global civilization.

-Sam Harris, Letter to a Christian Nation

If religion is an evolutionary byproduct which is no longer useful, why should we suppose that Sam’s atheism is any different? Indeed, it seems that if evolution can take us from rape being beneficial to socially condemned, doesn’t it stand to reason that the practice could make a comeback at a future date if evolution (whatever that is) leads us in that direction?

I would be the first to admit that the prospects for eradicating religion in our time do not
seem good. Still, the same could have been said about efforts to abolish slavery at the end of
the eighteenth century. Anyone who spoke with confidence about eradicating slavery in the
United States in the year 1775 surely appeared to be wasting his time, and wasting it

Indeed, it seems that we have little reason to think that rapists today aren’t merely misunderstood revolutionaries who want to drive us back to a more traditional time where men apparently clubbed women over the heads whenever they felt the urge to mate.

After all, if evolutionists are right with regard to our origins, rape is apparently the original “traditional marriage”.

Sam Harris on the importance of beliefs

A BELIEF is a lever that, once pulled, moves almost everything else in a person’s life. Are you &. scientist? A liberal? A racist? These are merely species of belief in action. Your beliefs define your vision of the world; they dictate your behavior; they determine your emotional responses to other human beings. If you doubt this, consider how your experience would suddenly change if you came to believe one of the following propositions:

  1. You have only two weeks to live.
  2. You’ve just won a lottery prize of one hundred million dollars.
  3. Aliens have implanted a receiver in your skull and are manipulating your thoughts.

These are mere words—until you believe them. Once believed, they become part of the very apparatus of your mind, determining your desires, fears, expectations, and subsequent behavior.-Sam Harris, The End of Faith

I may disagree with Sam’s subsequent assessment with regards to specific faiths. Specifically his view on the Christian faith. However his understanding of the importance of faith and its role in a person’s life is a lesson that, sadly, many Christians could stand to learn.