“It is time that we admitted that faith is nothing more than the license religious people give one another to keep believing when reasons fail.” – Sam Harris (American author, neuroscientist, philosopher, the co-founder and chief executive of Project Reason)

“Reason is the power or capacity whereby we see or detect logical relationships among propositions.” – Alvin Plantinga (American author, analytic philosopher, the John A. O’Brien Professor of Philosophy Emeritus at the University of Notre Dame, and the inaugural holder of the Jellema Chair in Philosophy at Calvin College)

Sam Harris is an atheist who asserts that:

“(1) some people have better lives than others, and (2) these differences are related, in some lawful and not entirely arbitrary way, to states of the human brain and to states of the world”.[1]

As Christian apologist and philosopher William Lane Craig argues, “If God does not exist, then what basis remains for the existence of objective moral values?  Why think that human being would have objective moral worth?  On the atheistic view, human beings are just accidental byproducts of nature, which have evolved relatively recently on an infinitesimal speck of dust called the planet earth and which are doomed to perish individually and collectively in a relatively short time.  On atheism, it is hard to see why human well-being is objectively good, any more than insect or rat well-being.”

This is what Sam Harris calls “The Value Problem” in his book the Moral Landscape – How Science Can Determine Human Values.” [1]  Harris asserts that morality is somehow rooted in nature even though nature is morally neutral.

On a naturalistic view, moral values are just the behavioral byproducts of biological evolution and social conditional.  Just as many types of animals exhibit cooperative and even self-sacrificial behaviors (because natural selection has determined it to be advantageous) so their distant cousins, homo sapiens, display the same behaviors for the same reasons.

Even fellow philosophers and atheistic thinkers have been critical of Harris’ assertions.

 In his review for Barnes & Noble, Cal State Associate Professor of Philosophy Troy Jollimore wrote that the book “has some good, reasonable, and at times persuasive things to say” to people who are unfamiliar with moral skepticism, but “has little to say to those people who actually do know what the arguments are, and it will not help others become much better informed.” Jollimore also worried that Harris wrongly presents complex issues as having simple solutions.[2]

The philosopher Simon Blackburn, reviewing the book, described Harris as “a knockabout atheist” who “joins the prodigious ranks of those whose claim to have transcended philosophy is just an instance of their doing it very badly”, pointing out that “if Bentham’s hedonist is in one brain state and Aristotle’s active subject is in another, as no doubt they would be, it is a moral, not an empirical, problem to say which is to be preferred.”[3]

Allen Orr in the New York Review of Books finds that “Despite Harris’s bravado about ‘how science can determine human values,’ The Moral Landscape delivers nothing of the kind.”[4]

Steve Isaacson wrote Mining The Moral Landscape: Why Science Does Not (and cannot) Determine Human Values. Isaacson concludes, “The largest objection to Harris’ argument is still Moore’s open-question argument. Harris dismisses the argument as a word game easily avoided, but he never explains the game nor how to avoid it. He just ignores it.”[5]

Harris issued a public challenge for anyone to write an essay of less than 1,000 words rebutting the “central argument” of the book. The winning essay was written by philosophy instructor Ryan Born.[6]

If Harris only had faith, maybe he’d have the license to keep believing now that his reasons have failed.

[1] Sam Harris The Moral Landscape pg. 15

[2] Jollimore, Barnes & Noble Review, Oct. 22, 2010.

[3] Morality without God Prospect magazine 23-Mar-2011

[4] The Science of Right and Wrong by H. Allen Orr New York Review of Books May-2011 issue

[5] Mining The Moral Landscape: Why Science Does Not (and cannot) Determine Human Values. “Mining The Moral Landscape: Why Science Does Not (and cannot) Determine Human Values (978-1480292680): Steve Isaacson: Books”. Amazon.com. Retrieved 2012-11-20., page 38

[6] The Moral Landscape Challenge: The Winning Essay