The blog of Dr Glenn Andrew Peoples on Theology, Philosophy, and Social Issues

Public Lecture: The New Atheism, Science and Morality


Public Lecture: The New Atheism, Science and Morality

As you know (and a number of you have very kindly supported me in the endeavour), shortly I’ll be flying off to Oxford for a conference at which I’ll be speaking (more on that another time). When I get back I have a couple of speaking engagements lined up in Auckland before returning home to Dunedin. Here’s one of them.

The New Atheists, that outspoken motley crew full of passion and godlessness (a description I rather suspect they’d appreciate and endorse), have little time for the view that the existence of moral truths is correctly explained with reference to God as the moral lawgiver. That view, says Sam Harris, is downright dangerous in our day and age. Instead, we should think of moral facts as being scientific facts, facts revealed to us by neuroscience as it describes the human brain and its ability to produce the experience of either happiness or suffering. With this argument in hand, many might think that the New Atheists have latched on to a way of preserving genuine moral truths in a world without God.

But have they? In this public lecture I’ll explain how Dr Harris presents his view, and I will also explain the fundamental moral issues that his account overlooks altogether. Far from being an explanation of morality that makes God redundant, what the New Atheists really have in Harris’s account is a model of morality that lacks foundations unless God is re-introduced as the lawgiver who decides which states of affairs we ought to be trying to bring about in the first place.

Date: Monday the 6th of September 2010, 7pm

Place: University of Auckland, Library Basement 15

EDIT: HERE is the Facebook page for this event.


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  1. Pat

    Soooo wish I could be there.

  2. Pat

    Can you really have a whole seminar on Harris’ talk? He didn’t say much, are you going to bring in some other atheist philosophers/theorists?

  3. Yeah I definitely will be drawing on other sources, Pat. Harris is a good springboard intot he issue because he’s so hot right now (in the trendy and bad sense).

  4. For those of us who can’t make it, will it be recorded and will you make the audio available?

  5. Jason

    For what it’s worth Vox Day devoted a chapter to Sam Harris in his book The Irrational Atheist I don’t know how it would work in with your talk but some of it might be useful.

  6. Yeah, I wish I could be there too. I bet that whole thing would rock!

  7. Manuel Labor

    Regarding Harris’s position –
    is he saying moral laws are actually scientific laws because a person being happy or sad is an emotional state that we can assess scientifically? So that some actions make people happier (neurological state that can be observed) and that this is the most valid grounding for morality?

    If so, I think I get what he’s saying but that really doesn’t seem to be what we mean when we speak of morality. It also feels like a form of consequentialism – not the actual action/behavior is what matters but the results it brings about (happiness).

    This view leaves me a bit bothered, since many different people have many different opinions of what makes them happy.

    Reminds me of a line in Chesterton’s Orthodoxy:

    “If it be true (as it certainly is) that a man can feel exquisite happiness in skinning a cat, then the religious philosopher can only draw one of two deductions. He must either deny the existence of God, as all atheists do; or he must deny the present union between God and man, as all Christians do. The new theologians seem to think it a highly rationalistic solution to deny the cat.”

  8. Manuel, I should hone up on Harris. But the point that science can asses what makes us happy really does not solve much for two reasons. First, science can only asses what is conducive to various emotional states, whether those states are good or bad is a philosophical question which I know of no scientific way of answering. Second, even if science can show us that action X makes us happy ( where we have a plausible definition of happiness) that does not get us to moral truth unless we assume that actions which make people happy are right and those that make people unhappy are wrong. This assumption however is itself a moral claim and not one known by science.

    Third, you get the obvious problem that some actions make some people happy and others unhappy, and that animals are also capable of certain emotional or mental states such as pain and pleasure, and so the issue arises as to how one asses the different weighs of animal happiness human happiness, whose matters and why, science as far as I can tell has not provided any answer to these questions nor do I see how it could.

  9. Rob


    I guess you know that Douglas Wilson wrote a book rebutting Harris? Do you have it? I could send you a copy…

    Harris did a lecture before a large audience under dimmed lights a while back on this subject (I watched it online). I though he was really incoherent, but the crowd cheered, so I figured they must all know something that I don’t or were brainwashed or something. You may find it useful to watch.

  10. Rob, yeah that was at the TED conference. I responded to that talk in a podcast episode here. The talk I’ll be giving will be similar but more geared for a live audience, and a little broader to include the New Atheists more generally and not just Harris.

  11. Manuel Labor

    Hi Matt:

    “unless we assume that actions which make people happy are right and those that make people unhappy are wrong.”

    That very direct way of putting it really helps me see how flimsy Harris’s position is. I feel that, to a large extent, is what Harris is trying to get across: Some actions (facts) make some people happy (facts) and this provides the foundation to a scientific enveloping of morality.

    I recently listened to Glenn’s podcast on this and he’s right; Harris does nothing to address the “is-ought” distinction raised by Hume.

    A guy on youtube by the name of Muertos posted something interesting on this as well:
    “Forgetting for the moment that morality is not descriptive, but rather is a series of statements of certain actions one ought to do or ought not do, we can turn to J.L. Mackie’s take on this.

    To say that naturalistic, material objects can stand in a moral relation to one another is absurd. What does it even mean for one object to stand in a moral relationship with another object? It is meaningless.”

  12. Deane

    Glenn asked:
    “is there a naturalistic basis of moral truth?”


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