Wednesday, March 24, 2010


Among the many feeds I read is the TED blog, which brims over with delicious esoterica and occasionally over-precious cutting edgeness. This last week, I watched an interesting presentation by Sam Harris, the atheist whose "Letter to A Christian America" I had such fun deconstructing a year or two back. In his speech to the gathered intellectual glitterati, the good Mr. Harris presented the core thesis that science can, in point of fact, provide a foundation for moral and ethical discourse.

Having watched it, and then watched it again, I'd have to say that while he and I have some major differences, some of his core theses are rather impressively simpatico. In particular:
  • I agree with his assertion that the idea that morality is not relative, but is in fact consistent across individuals and cultures. What is good and right for sentient beings isn't mediated by cultural biases or preconceptions. Meaning, just because something is viewed as "right" in a society does not mean that it is, actually, good. When a member of the Taliban or a Stalinist says they know what is "good" for humanity, they are materially and objectively incorrect. Harris admits that this assertion of the good is something he shares with religion, even in it's more oppressive forms.
  • Harris identifies well-being and happiness as the central purpose of sentient life. Not just one's own happiness, mind you, but the happiness of other beings. We who are aware favor the well-being of other beings who are aware. It's a defining feature of the good.
  • When presenting exemplars of the "good," meaning images or sample individuals who represent commonly known archetypes for what Harris defines as "good," Harris uses two. The first is the Buddha. The second is the Dalai Lama. Yeah, they're not Jesus. That would be rather remarkably out of character, and too risky for an atheist in a Christian culture. But they are representative of a faith tradition for which Harris clearly has respect. Meaning, he's not dogmatically anti-faith. Just mostly so, particularly if that faith is Abrahamic/monotheist. This seeming openness has gotten him some occasional flak in the atheistic community, perhaps because by using exemplars who reach his "rational" ethic through ecstatic means, he leaves the door open to faith being...well...not a bad thing. Ah well.
  • Harris views the goal of human existence as radical well-being, and suggests that it is appropriate to describe that highest peak state of human knowledge of the good as "spiritual" or "mystical." Given his exemplars, this is not surprising. But hearing a vanguard "militant atheist" use these terms...not redefining them or insulting them, but respecting them in refreshing.
Though there are many areas in which I'm happy to disagree with Harris, and I have a teensy little quibble with the idea that religious experience and practice is somehow less capable than reason in guiding us towards knowledge the good, this was a surprisingly affirmative little talk.