Letters to an Atheist

2. The Moral Landscape

 Sam Harris, author of The Moral Landscape


Dear Edward,

Thanks for putting me on to Sam Harris’ The Moral Landscape. I downloaded the Kindle version after I arrived home and I’ve read enough of the book to form what I think is a reasonable critique. But if you think I’ve misunderstood or misjudged Harris, please feel free to correct me.

First, my positive comments. Harris an intelligent writer and it’s encouraging to see an atheist urging a case for objective moral and ethical standards. But to quote Forrest Gump, ‘That’s about all I have to say about that.’

As I said when we met up, we all reason from the standpoint of our presuppositions, both conscious and sub-conscious. Harris’ conscious presupposition is God doesn’t exist and that ‘science’ provides the sole basis for objective moral values. However, Harris also senses that the universe is rational, that it has meaning and that it has purpose. That is a Christian presupposition because if the universe came into being by chance it can’t have meaning or purpose.

Harris’ basic premise – that morality is based on what contributes to the wellbeing of others – is not so much a scientific theory as a philosophical reworking of John Stuart Mill’s theory of utilitarianism, which holds that the standard of moral value is ‘the greatest good for the greatest number.’

The philosopher David Hume recognised that we can’t derive values from mere data. Science enables us to build and drive cars, to make television sets and to split atoms, but science can’t tell us whether it is right to drive cars, what shows we should watch on TV or whether it is write to explode atomic bombs. ‘Science’ cannot bridge the gap from ‘is’ to ‘ought.’

In 2011, Harris delivered a lecture in Cambridge entitled, ‘Who says Science has nothing to say about morality?’ In the Question and Answer session, in a response to a question from Richard Dawkins, Harris confessed, ‘I actually think that the frontier between science and philosophy actually doesn’t exist… Philosophy is the womb of the sciences. The moment something becomes experimentally tractable, then the sciences bud off from philosophy. And every science has philosophy built into it. So there is no partition in my mind’ (My emphasis).

What Harris means by ‘science’, then, is ‘philosophy’. The title of his lecture was therefore misleading. It should have been entitled: ‘Who says Philosophy has nothing to say about morality?’

Harris’ response to Dawkins raises another issue, which is that modern science was founded by men who accepted the Bible as a revelation from the Creator of the universes. Those men believed that the universe is rational, has meaning and can be explored and explained only because it was created by an infinite-personal God.

Without Christianity, modern science could never have come into being. But since the middle of the nineteenth century, science has come adrift from its original moorings and we have seen the rise of ‘Scientism’, which claims that science has the answer to everything.

Science’s proper role is to describe nature and explain it in terms of patterns or laws. Science can’t tell us how to live. It can’t distinguish between right and wrong. It can only tell us what is. So when Harris’ fellow atheist Richard Dawkins tells us that it should be a criminal offence for parents to refuse to abort an unborn child suffering from Down’s Syndrome, he speaks only of his personal values, not of absolute values. Yet Dawkins wishes to impose his personal ethically preferences on everyone.

But, back to Sam Harris and his hypothetical moral landscape. In the book, Harris presents the following syllogism:

(1) Morality is about improving the well-being of conscious creatures.
(2) Facts about the well-being of conscious creatures are accessible to science.
(3) Therefore science can deduce moral objectivity. In other words, science can inform us about what increases or decreases the well-being of conscious creatures.

All well and good, provided that Harris’ basic premise is correct. If it isn’t, his logic collapses like a house of cards. So far as I can tell, in the book Harris never actually informs us why his premise is correct. He assumes his premise is self-evidently true when, in fact, it’s just a personal value judgment.

Because Harris rejects the existence of a transcendent Creator, his only recourse is to try to ground moral values in the natural world. But the natural world is morally neutral.

Morality, particularly altruism, has long been a problem for Evolutionists because natural selection (aka: ‘survival of the fittest’) is presumed to be the mechanism by which evolution works. It’s no wonder, then, that atheists have a problem with self-sacrificial behaviour. Their minds tell them that selfishness is natural while at the same time approving the unnatural practice of selflessness. They therefore have to look for examples in nature to explain why kindness and altruism can serve the cause of the principal of the ‘survival of the fittest.’

Jacques Monod, argued in Chance and Necessity, that the universe is the product of ‘the impersonal plus time plus chance’ and that ‘our number came up in a cosmic Monte Carlo game.' Thus, there can be no basis for objective moral values and duties. If  existence is meaningless, how can humans have any objective moral worth? Indeed, Dawkins’ colleague at Oxford, Peter Atkins, goes so far as to maintain that human beings are of no more value than the slime on a microscope slide. This is what Harris refers to as ‘The Value Problem.’ And it is a very significant problem.

From a naturalistic perspective, moral values are just the behavioural by-products of biological evolution and social conditioning. Just as a troop of baboons exhibits cooperative and even self-sacrificial behaviour because natural selection has determined it to be advantageous in the struggle for survival, so we have evolved a sort of herd morality for precisely the same reasons. That herd instinct morality might or might not function well in the perpetuation of our species but from an atheistic point of view there is nothing that makes this ‘morality’ objectively binding and true.

The only adequate foundation for morality and ethics is the infinite-personal God of the Bible.

I hope these thoughts and observations are helpful to you.


29 Crow Road, Partick,

Glasgow, G11 7RT.