Sam Harris’s The End of Faith was perhaps the first major book in the wave of New Atheist books published after 911. Harris argued for the importance of challenging our so-called private beliefs, since beliefs (mental representations) cause our behaviour and thus have public consequences. He argued also that so-called moderate religion shouldn’t be off-limits to nontheists, since moderates enable more dangerous, fundamentalist religion by contending that since religion has a harmless form, religion itself is never a primary cause of violence. That book defended a commonsense realist philosophy, according to which beliefs are made true or false by the facts, and the facts support atheistic naturalism.
Whatever you might think of his earlier case for a certain philosophical perspective, you should be struck by the shift taken by his more recent book, The Moral Landscape, in which he attempts to show that social conflicts between groups who disagree on moral issues aren’t inevitable, because science has the potential to show us the truth about moral values just as science has done with regard to the rest of nature. Harris uses his case for a science of morality as a weapon against religion, since theists claim that religion (along with philosophy) are valuable in part for providing the only conceivable framework that justifies morality; that is, the theist means to bash science-centered nontheism for the latter’s inability to justify morality. In the process of countering this moral argument for theism, however, Harris throws the baby out with the bathwater. If morality is actually in the purview of science, then neither the philosopher nor the theologian can have anything crucial to say about moral issues, just as a chef or a politician has no authority to speak about biology or physics.
Unfortunately, Harris’s case for scientific morality conforms to the positivist’s pattern of ironically celebrating science with a philosophy that must be kept in the shadows. In Harris’s case, he should have two reasons not to call attention to the philosophical nature of his arguments for scientific morality. First, those arguments would demonstrate that there is a crucial philosophical debate about morality after all, namely the debate about whether morality can be scientifically justified; the nature of this meta-debate, in turn, prevents a fulsome, Scientistic worship of science at the expense of philosophy. Second, his arguments happen to be badly flawed, often resting on evasive verbal tricks or contradicting each other, due presumably to his contempt for philosophy and thus for its ideals of clarity and rigorous logic even in discussions of nonscientific issues. Harris’s case for scientific morality, therefore, illustrates the perils of scientific, as opposed to philosophical, atheism.