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Be wary of the righteous rationalist: We should reject Sam Harris's claim that science can be a moral guidepost


Say what you will about Sam Harris, the man's got guts. In The End of Faith (W. W. Norton, 2005) and Letter to a Christian Nation (Knopf, 2006), Harris, a neuroscientist, rejects the notion that science and religion can coexist. We can't believe in science, Harris says, and still believe in supernatural beings that part seas, resurrect dead people and keep tabs on our naughtiness and niceness.

Harris slams nonbelieving apologists for religion such as the late biologist Stephen Jay Gould. With typical rhetorical grandiosity, Gould proposed that science and religion need not conflict because they are "nonoverlapping magisteria" that address separate realms of existence. Science tells us what is, religion what should be. Given all the crimes committed in religion's name, Harris retorts, why would anyone look to it for moral guidance?

I'm with Harris up to this point. I part company with him when he argues in his new book The Moral Landscape (Free Press, 2010)—which comes fortified with blurbs from Steven Pinker, Richard Dawkins and other antireligious scientific luminaries—that science can take religion's place as the supreme arbiter of moral "truth". "There are right and wrong answers to moral questions," Harris asserts, "just as there are right and wrong answers to questions of physics." Questions about morality, he explains, are really questions about human happiness or "well-being," and these questions can be empirically resolved, just as questions about diet and disease can be.

One can raise all sorts of philosophical objections to this position, and the philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah does just that in a New York Times review ironically titled "Science Knows Best". My concerns about Harris's proposal are simpler: I just look at the harm—historical and recent—wreaked by scientists supposedly concerned with humanity's well-being. Some examples:

—From 1946 to 1948, physicians funded by the National Institutes of Health deliberately infected nearly 700 Guatemalan prisoners, mental-hospital patients and soldiers with syphilis to test their responses to antibiotics. The leader of this research, John C. Cutler, was also involved in the infamous Tuskegee studies, in which scientists withheld antibiotics from black American males naturally infected with syphilis. "It's ironic—no, it's worse than that, it's appalling—that, at the same time as the United States was prosecuting Nazi doctors for crimes against humanity, the U.S. government was supporting research that placed human subjects at enormous risk," the bioethicist Mark Siegler told The New York Times.

—In the 1950s and 1960s researchers at leading universities embedded electrodes in the brains of mental patients to test whether minds and bodies can be manipulated via electrical stimulation of neural tissue. In 1969 the Yale physiologist Jose Delgado (whom I profiled in Scientific American in 2005), extolled the benefits of brain implants in his book Physical Control of the Mind: Toward a Psychocivilized Society (Harper & Row, 1971). Delgado declared that brain implants could help create "a less cruel, happier and better man." In 1970 Frank Ervin and Vernon Mark, two brain-implant researchers at Harvard University with whom Delgado had collaborated, proposed in their book Violence and the Brain (HarperCollins, 1970) that brain implants and psychosurgery might quell violent crime and rioting in inner cities.

—In recent decades prescriptions of drugs for children, including infants, supposedly suffering from psychiatric illness have skyrocketed. Some 500,000 U.S. children and adolescents are now taking antipsychotic drugs, Duff Wilson reported recently in The New York Times, even though some experts believe the drugs "may pose grave risks to development of both their fast-growing brains and their bodies." In another Times article Wilson details how psychiatrists who tout the benefits of antipsychotics receive grants, vacations, meals and other gifts from drug manufacturers. The Harvard physician Joseph Biederman, whose research helped spur a 40-fold increase in diagnoses of bipolar disorders in children between 1994 and 2003, received $1.6 million, "from companies including makers of antipsychotic drugs prescribed for some children who might have bipolar disorder," according to Wilson.

Some will complain that it is unfair to hold science accountable for the misdeeds of a minority. It is not only fair, it is essential, especially when scientists as prominent as Harris are talking about creating a universal, scientifically validated morality. Moreover, Harris blames Islam and Catholicism for the actions of suicide bombers and pedophilic priests, so why should science be exempt from this same treatment?

Clearly, some bad scientists are just greedy opportunists who care about only their own well-being. But those who fervently believe their own rhetoric about saving humanity may be even more dangerous. Consider the harm done in the name of Marxism and eugenics, pseudoscientific (not religious) ideologies that inspired two of the most lethal regimes in history—Stalin's U.S.S.R. and Nazi Germany.

Harris asserts in Moral Landscape that ignorance and humility are inversely proportional to each other; whereas religious know-nothings are often arrogant, scientists tend to be humble, because they know enough to know their limitations. "Arrogance is about as common at a scientific conference as nudity," Harris states. Yet he is anything but humble in his opus. He castigates not only religious believers but even nonbelieving scientists and philosophers who don't share his hostility toward religion.

Harris further shows his arrogance when he claims that neuroscience, his own field, is best positioned to help us achieve a universal morality. "The more we understand ourselves at the level of the brain, the more we will see that there are right and wrong answers to questions of human values." Neuroscience can't even tell me how I can know the big, black, hairy thing on my couch is my dog Merlin. And we're going to trust neuroscience to tell us how we should resolve debates over the morality of abortion, euthanasia and armed intervention in other nations' affairs?

I suspect Harris wants to rely on brain scans to measure "well-being" because he doesn't trust people to simply say what makes them happy. If a Muslim girl says that she likes wearing a veil, as many do, she doesn't know what's good for her, Harris might say. Maybe she doesn't, but magnetic resonance imaging won't help us resolve these sorts of issues.

When scientists venture into the moral realm, they should not claim that their investigations of what is yield special insights into what should be. I realize I'm asking a lot of scientists—and secularists—to be humble when religious and political zealots like Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin are so bloated with self-righteousness. This asymmetry recalls Yeats's famous line from his poem "The Second Coming": "The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity." But if we all become zealots, we're really in trouble.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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