He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.
And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly with your God (Micah 6:8 NIV 2011).
In the introduction to The Moral Landscape, Sam Harris declared that “human well-being entirely depends on events in the world and on states of the human brain.” He stated his “general thesis” in his opening chapter: “science can, in principle, help us understand what we should do and should want—and, therefore, what other people should do and should want in order to live the best possible lives” [italics original]. Harris’ pronouncement is bold, dangerous, and self-contradictory.
The boldness is evident in an admission by Harris that at the present state of the scientific craft the hypothesis cannot be confirmed. His declaration about human well-being, events in the world, and states of the human brain is presented as “a very simple premise.” While we have “no answers in practice” [italics original] to the questions that would test the premise, Harris expressed confidence that we can have “answers in principle,” [italics original] and that the principle will eventually become practice. Such confidence has its genesis in the materialistic credo pronounced clearly and concisely by Carl Sagan: “The Cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be.” By his consistent capitalization of “Cosmos” in the book by that name, Sagan elevated the material realm to an ultimate metaphysical status. If matter and energy constitute all of reality, as Harris and Sagan have posited, then Harris’ premise about human well-being must be true.
If Harris is correct, and my well-being is “entirely” dependent upon events in the world and on states of my brain, what choice do I have? In that Cosmos, all that I think is determined “entirely” by external stimuli. My “decision” to provide a meal to a homeless man I encountered and the harsh words spoken in haste and anger to a loved one were neither virtuous nor sinful, they simply were. Events in the Cosmos, inevitably and mechanically, produced states in my brain; those states in my brain then determined my deeds. According to this understanding of the kosmos, all that we are has been determined already by the materialistic forces at work around and through us.
Some have tried to make room for genuine choice by invoking the indeterminacy inherent in quantum mechanics. This effort fails. According to quantum mechanics, while we can predict reliably, in statistical terms, how a collection of particles will respond to the conditions in which they exist, we can neither predict nor control how a particular particle in that collection will respond. Between the probabilistic and materialistic reliability of quantum mechanics and the absolute agnosticism regarding any specific particle, no fissure exists in which genuine choice can germinate.
Is anyone willing to live in the Cosmos that Harris and Sagan have described? They have asked us to ponder their proposals and to rely upon reason rather than faith. If they are correct, their appeals are not genuine choices on their part, they are nothing but inevitable responses to events in the world. Our response to the appeal is, similarly, not a reasoned choice; our reaction is an inevitable response to events in the world, events that include the publication of books by Harris and Sagan. In essential terms, we are scarcely different from the electrons coursing through the semiconductor maze of a computer. Again, is anyone willing to live in the Cosmos that Harris and Sagan have described?
Much of human experience appears to answer that question in the negative. Human beings appear to have an irresistible commitment to life in ktisis, Creation. The criminal justice systems operating in nations around the world presume that deterrence and rehabilitation are possible. In the Sagan/Harris Cosmos, the implicit choice inherent in deterrence and rehabilitation is a mirage that vanishes upon closer examination. Similar assessments could be offered concerning marketing, management, government, medicine, education, et cetera. We desire to produce positive change in the world around us; if Sagan and Harris have discovered the essence of reality, even those desires are involuntary responses to external stimuli.
If you cannot live in a manner consistent with your metaphysical premises, perhaps you need to reconsider those premises. If free will is a fiction, if “choice” is illusory, we are merely mechanical components of a complex machine, responding blindly and ignorantly to the materialistic forces acting upon us. Few people are content to live according to such a deterministic, fatalistic metaphysic. We insist that our choices matter, that our decisions have genuine consequences (whether positive or negative). Something there is that doesn’t love blind, irresistible compulsion.
Above I commented that Harris’ pronouncement is bold, dangerous, and self-contradictory. I have addressed the boldness, but why “dangerous and self-contradictory”? This side of my assessment of Harris is established upon the “shoulds” in the thesis. If science can know with perfect confidence what “should” be done, how far can we be from a scientocracy that imposes those conditions upon the population with absolute confidence in the “virtue” of such acts? Conversely, according to Harris and Sagan, such imposition is nothing but a response to “events in the world” and is itself merely another event in the world. The virtue of the “should” contradicts the materialistic premise and is but a vapor that dissipates in the light of analysis.
Isaac Asimov, in the final chapter of I, Robot, imagined a world much like the one that Harris seems to advocate. In Asimov’s world a computer network, The Machine, was made responsible for all planning in all human activities and was empowered to execute those plans without informing the human population; no human consent was involved. Sabotage by a resistance movement, The Society for Humanity, was factored into The Machine’s plans. Even the apparent choices made by the Society had become Harris’ “events in the world” and “states of the human brain,” all part of a grand complex of states and stimuli reduced to data that could be calculated and incorporated into the grand algorithm. Choice had ceased to have any genuine consequences; choice had ceased to exist in any meaningful sense. Only when we turn our backs on Sagan and Harris, only when we unplug The Machine, do our lives become truly “ours.”
In the Christian academy, we are committed to educating students for ktisis/Creation life in the Kingdom of God. As we teach our classes and mentor our students, we understand ourselves to be transforming lives. Belief in the genuine transformation that is the implicit goal of any educational endeavor is unfounded if we live in a Sagan/Harris Cosmos. The transformation we seek to accomplish is a matter of the human spirit (in concert with the Holy Spirit), not a blind, inevitable result of “events in the world,” not the machinations of The Machine. A secular academy is not neutral, but is founded (explicitly or implicitly) on a metaphysical foundation that is incompatible with the transformational goal of education. Conversely, as members of the Christian academy we are educators in the fullest, most genuine sense of that calling. We guide students on a path. We do not compel them; rather, we empower them to “act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8 NIV 2011).
Asimov, Isaac. I, Robot. New York: Doubleday, 1950.
Harris, Sam. The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values. New York: Free Press, 2011.
Sagan, Carl. Cosmos. New York: Random House, 1980.