An open letter to Sam Harris
Is there a real moral difference between me saying “it hurts when you hit me” and a scientist saying “water freezes when it gets below 32°F”?
Several weeks ago, I sent an email to neuroscientist/author Sam Harris via his website’s contact form. To no one’s surprise, he didn’t respond; between publishing a new book on religious tolerance, fending off hoards of critics, and being an overall boss at conversation-starting, I’m sure he has his hands full.
But I would very much like him to get around to my question — so instead of submitting this email into his contact form on a daily basis, I decided to tweet him this link until I get through. If anyone else would like to weigh in, you’re welcome to comment here, tweet me at @HearAlma, or send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
September 13, 2015
A friend introduced me to one of your videos last week, and since then I’ve been on a relentless Sam Harris spree. I so appreciate your earnestness — which seems to stem from a genuine concern for humanity — as well as your clear communication style. I respect and thank you for all your hard work.
I am a Christian. Not sure how you’d type me, since the subcategories tend to mean different things within Christian circles than they do without, but I think to you I would be a selective literalist. Literal virgin birth of Jesus, literal resurrection, figurative creation accounts, etc.
I found your talks compelling from the beginning, but I think what hit me hardest was your observation that “rigorous honesty” is not encouraged or applied within faiths the way it is encouraged in science. I’ve heard people pit science and faith against one another in the past, of course, but always in the form of “you can’t believe in evolution and be a Christian” rather than simply “these are two very opposite ways of interacting with information.”
The latter is much more clearly true and was, at first listen, much more troubling to me. I am a singer-songwriter who markets herself as a truth seeker — more in the sense of asking questions rather than answering them, but of course as a Christian I have specific answers in mind. The notion that I might be something of a Christianity validator rather than a truth seeker is offensive to my sensibilities.
Most of my creative work pertains to questions of morality and the human condition (see my song “Take 21”: https://youtu.be/JXxUZpOHNSs), so I was particularly interested in hearing your thoughts on that matter. But it’s here that your ideas cease to compel me, and I want to make sure it’s not simply due to the time constraints of TED or the poorly framed questions of your (often bumbling) opponents.
What I am wondering is this: on what grounds can we equate “flourishing” with “good”? I see that just as we can differentiate a dead man from a healthy one, we can objectively judge whether a moral code causes mankind to flounder or flourish. But I fail to see why, objectively, the flourishing of mankind as a whole should take moral precedence over that of a single man, or why the flourishing of highly conscious creatures should take moral precedence over that of insects or water or empty space. I think I understand the facts here — that if mankind as a whole flourishes, there is more “gross flourishing” and less “gross suffering” (I should say that I don’t think flourishing/suffering can be added in this way; even if a whole continent of creatures is suffering, each individual creature’s suffering can never exceed a certain amount), and when compared to the flourishing/suffering of inanimate objects, a highly conscious creature’s experience may mean more to it by nature of its consciousness. But what is the real moral difference between me saying “it hurts when you hit me” and a scientist saying “water freezes when it gets below 32°F”? From an objective standpoint, both are statements of fact.
For someone to say it is “bad” for water to be frozen, he must define his intentions for the water: frozen water is “bad” for city budgets when it buckles the pavement on the Interstate; it is also “bad” for parties when you didn’t intend to leave the soda in the freezer for so long. In the first scenario, “bad” only exists because the mayor and the city council exists; in the second, “bad” exists because the party host exists. In the grand scheme of things, what difference does it make if the water has consciousness? It is essentially someone else’s prop and gets its meaning entirely from the outsider’s desire for it. As you conceded in your TED talk, we can’t really be sure where along the spectrum of consciousness moral obligations come into play — but truly, in a mayor-less and party host-less world, would it matter? Rabbi David Wolpe grazed this question in your debate at the American Jewish University, but I don’t think he really got to the heart of it. I hope this is a better way of framing the issue! If not, I hope you’ll give me a chance to reframe it.
Thank you again for your wonderful research and your compassion for mankind! Take care, Sam.