So many books, so little time

My pile of unread books is growing much faster than I can read them.  Thanks to the kindness of friends, the largesse of my editor and agent, and the well-stocked U of C library, I have these.  Only the top two, which portend future travel, were paid for.

86 Comments

  1. Posted October 28, 2010 at 10:06 am | Permalink

    Here’s my advise. Control your catmania en stop looking for the best donut in the country.
    And read mr. Coyne. Read !
    Skip Colombia and Vienna. Start with Pinker.

    • What a maroon
      Posted October 28, 2010 at 1:55 pm | Permalink

      And then go on to Tomasello, Langacker, Bybee, Talmy….

    • murci3lag0
      Posted October 29, 2010 at 2:11 am | Permalink

      What are you saying?!! Dr Coyne don’t forget to go to Colombia!! In particular go to “salento, caldas” (spectacular forest), “el parque de los nevados” (see the effects of global warming on the permanent ice covers of the volcanos), “parque Tayrona” (enjoy the spectacular beaches and meet a very ancient Indian culture), “Amazonas” (the lungs of the world), and “Choco” (the most dense and less explored forest of the country, with a permanent humidity of 100%).

  2. Tom Ellis
    Posted October 28, 2010 at 10:09 am | Permalink

    While Michael Turelli was staying in Vienna last month, he mentioned (amongst other mischief) that you were after somewhere good for old school Austrian food for your visit in December. Here’s my two cents!

    Rebhuhn
    Berggasse 24,
    1090 Wien

  3. Damian
    Posted October 28, 2010 at 10:10 am | Permalink

    I would love to hear your comments on the Steven Pinker books.

    • CrookedTimber
      Posted October 28, 2010 at 3:24 pm | Permalink

      Seconded! I’ve never found a good discussion group for The Blank Slate. I enjoyed it, but others more familiar with the field may have legit criticisms.

  4. Tyro
    Posted October 28, 2010 at 10:10 am | Permalink

    I just finished “The Moral Landscape” by Sam Harris on my new Kindle (BTW: I’ve tried many ebook readers over the years and really love the modern generation – hope it lasts!). I didn’t think I’d be persuaded but he makes one heck of an argument and I think we’ll be hearing a lot more about it in the coming years.

    Definitely another book to add to your heap 🙂

    • Insightful Ape
      Posted October 28, 2010 at 11:01 am | Permalink

      It is just a great book. I have often found Harris less than persuasive. This time I find it hard to disagree with anything he says.

      • NewEnglandBob
        Posted October 28, 2010 at 11:52 am | Permalink

        I agree, Insightful Ape. A lot of what he says is common sense.

    • JBlilie
      Posted October 28, 2010 at 12:16 pm | Permalink

      Just finished The Moral Landscape as well, an excellent read. Agree with him or not, he’s an excellent writer.

      I think Harris accomplishes his task of laying the groundwork thought for a science of morality. I think he points the way, and I can’t poke holes in his arguments (I’m sure some can). My only complaints were the usual worries about utilitarianism, and I think he addresses these quite well.

      In the end, I think he makes his point about there existing an objective moral landscape to be discovered and documented.

      • Tyro
        Posted October 28, 2010 at 12:48 pm | Permalink

        As a writer I think he lacks some of the flair and polish of others and can be nearly humourless but he tackles interesting topics and presents them in an approachable, persuasive way.

        I find that he is also able to get himself some media attention which is also an important part of being an author, particularly about controversial subjects. In this case I wish that he had started his media campaign on TED and other spots after his book was available so that he could be met with more support rather than doubts and attacks. It will be interesting to see how this plays out over the next couple years.

        • Heber
          Posted October 28, 2010 at 2:17 pm | Permalink

          I disagree. I think flair and polish is are two of his most salient qualities as a writer. He has a delightful way with metaphores as well, and even the ocassional poetic pennach makes its way throughout his writing.

          • Stephen Gaffney
            Posted October 28, 2010 at 3:21 pm | Permalink

            I also disagree – Sam Harris is a very funny writer. The End of Faith was brilliant in its blend of seriousness and humour. I thought the similes he used to back up his points were hilarious.

            And that Edge piece he wrote (in response to the critics of Coyne’s Seeing Is Believing) was comedy gold.

            • Posted October 29, 2010 at 5:25 am | Permalink

              Yes, Harris pwned the faitheists completely in that Edge comment.

              I liked his “End of Faith” a lot, but I’m sorry he went off the rails on his justification for torture, because the dilemma “would you torture to save lives?” is not actually the dilemma anyone faces.

            • Heber
              Posted October 29, 2010 at 12:11 pm | Permalink

              @ray moscow
              Harris’ hypothetical torture scenario was not mant to be realistic. So it is true that nobody today faces that dilemma, the point, however, is that unless one can find an intellectual objection to that scenario, one will not be able to reject the categorical use of torture “in principle”.

  5. E.A. Blair
    Posted October 28, 2010 at 10:13 am | Permalink

    Feel free to send some my way.

  6. Posted October 28, 2010 at 10:19 am | Permalink

    Read “the blank slate!” I loved it.

  7. Cornelius
    Posted October 28, 2010 at 10:21 am | Permalink

    Tyro,
    can you give a synopsis of Harris’s argument?

    • JBlilie
      Posted October 28, 2010 at 12:25 pm | Permalink

      It’s hard to do that. He covers a lot of ground. I’ll give it a go:

      1. All mental states originate in matieral causes in the human brain. (This entails rejecting the afterlife as a value to be considered.)

      2. The only moral measure worth speaking of is: promotion of human well-being / flourishing.

      3. Although we may not be able to write an equation that defines the best of all possible worlds (or the entire surface of the moral landscape), it’s clear that some cultures promote human well-being better than others. (For instance, compare Sweden with Sudan.)

      4. There may be more than one peak on the moral landscape. This does not mean that comparing the peaks with the valleys is impossible or unimportant.

      5. Advances in brain science will make it possible to, to some as yet undetermined extent, define the slopes of the moral landscape.

      I’m probably forgetting some of his main points: I don’t have the book here right now.

    • Tyro
      Posted October 28, 2010 at 1:09 pm | Permalink

      There have been several sketches of his argument already and I’m hoping that Jerry will eventually put forward a review.

      Just to add to what they’ve said, he argues that the currently accepted belief that science cannot answer questions about what ought to be (because so many societies and people have had very divergent answers to these questions and nothing we can say can convince them that they’re wrong) is wrong. While it’s true that there are different morals out there, some are clearly better than other and some are worse. Exactly how we measure this is problematical and he doesn’t claim to have this solved, but he argues that this is found in other areas of science and has been overcome. Difficulty can be worked around and should not stop us as a matter of principle, something which many argue today.

      He gives the example of a person living through civil unrest in a jungle, coping with the rape and murder of one child, and the brutalization and kidnapping of another, with a life that is always close to violence and mistrust and no doubt be ended this way. Then he contrasts it with a couple that has wealth, safety, comfort and love, who have been able to purse work they find fulfilling and have given back to their communities, who have not known violence or fear and probably never will. He says that it should be obvious that the former lifestyle is inferior and less desirable than the latter and argues that moral systems can help us develop a world closer to the latter and less like the former.

      An understandably large portion of the book is focused on this question, of whether we can say that one moral code is better than another (yes), of whether science can inform us of which is which (again yes) and to denigrating the moral/cultural relativists who refuse to take a stand on these issues.

      In much of the rest he goes through a long list of arguments against his and one by one knocks them down. He even tackles some of the problems that researches will face (such as we being poor at knowing how we thing and what makes us happy) and offers some means of investigation. (This is where the neurology comes in, a factor that I found to be a much smaller part of the book than others did.)

      I’m very interested to read what some philosophers and scientists who have studied these issues more deeply have to say. For the moment it certainly hit upon all of the points that I had problems with before and persuaded me that I was wrong.

  8. Erin
    Posted October 28, 2010 at 10:24 am | Permalink

    And then when you’re finished reading all those books, I’ll give you my address and you can loan them to me! Looks like good reading!

  9. Dominic
    Posted October 28, 2010 at 10:32 am | Permalink

    Eek! Is that all? I guess I am a bookaholic & when I became a (mature) student 14 years ago it spoiled me as a reader as I nearly always have more than one on the go, & buy faster than I can possibly read them. “Of many books there is no end & much study is a waeriness of the spirit” I think Ecclesiastes says…

    • Dominic
      Posted October 28, 2010 at 10:33 am | Permalink

      Weariness! Obviously was a useless student…

  10. randyextry
    Posted October 28, 2010 at 10:35 am | Permalink

    If you’ve never read The Blank Slate, you need to bump that one to the top.

  11. Heber
    Posted October 28, 2010 at 10:45 am | Permalink

    Harris, I think impeccably, makes the argument that 1) morality can and should be viewed in the spirit of scientific objectivity. 2) there are moral truths to be known whether they are accessible in practice or not. 3) science (as our best effort to form rational views of the universe) is the only viable way of determining what we should do with respect to the goal of increasing the well being of conscious creatures. 4) any objections you can find against a science of morality you will also find in any other science.

    I’m halfway through his book and I hasn’t to say I admire Harris now ten times as much as before. He had this almost uncanny ability to be clear, eloquent and persuasive in each one of his sentences. I thought his book would surely be stacked in Coyne’s pile.

    • NewEnglandBob
      Posted October 28, 2010 at 11:54 am | Permalink

      If I remember correctly, Jerry Coyne is most of the way through Harris’ book.

    • Tim Martin
      Posted October 28, 2010 at 12:08 pm | Permalink

      Yeah, except he defines morality as “that which increases well-being,” which makes all of his points completely obvious. And it also makes his book not about morality, given the actual definition of the word.

      • Paul W.
        Posted October 28, 2010 at 12:46 pm | Permalink

        I disagree.

        Moral systems are always justified in terms of promoting the general well-being, among other things.

        (E.g., it’s no accident that a personal God or an impersonal Karma generally punishes antisocial behaviors and rewards prosocial ones.)

        On rational reflection in light of actual facts, the idea that morality should be about doing well by others doesn’t go away.

        The other free-floating agendas for morality—such as irreducible obedience to God, deference to moral authorities, strict rule-following, and emphasis on “purity”—do tend to go away on rational reflection it light of actual facts.

        (E.g., if there’s no God, and no real moral authorities, it’s hard to be obedient and deferential to them. Likewise, if your concept of purity falls apart, it’s hard to care in the same moral way, even if you still have obsessive-compulsive urges or something.)

        I think Harris is clearly not arguing that unreflective, uninformed morality is consistent and uniform.

        He’s arguing that reflective, informed morality tends to converge usefully.

        I think that’s correct, including a quasi-utilitarian concern for consequences, at some level.

        For example, consider Kant’s categorical imperative. It’s not about doing what has the best outcome in a given case, but it is about following the rules that would have the best outcome if everybody did them.

        Rules are justified by their consequences, in a different way than under straight Utilitarianism or Rule Utilitarianism, but morality is still recognizably about promoting the general welfare.

        Cross-culturally, if you ask people why they should follow the moral rules, a common answer is that if people didn’t follow the moral rules, social chaos would ensue—as far as I know, it’s universal to justify the moral rules at least partly in terms of their consequences for the general welfare.

        (For example, in societies with a heavy emphasis on Honor and personal loyalty, it’s assumed that without such, you couldn’t trust people enough to get things done. And vigilanteism is generally justified by the bad consequences of non-enforcement of moral norms—you have to show that bad acts have consequences, for the good of all.)

        If you think that there are any moral systems that don’t respect such a constraint, I’d be interested in hearing what they are.

        • Tim Martin
          Posted October 28, 2010 at 8:10 pm | Permalink

          Also, I just replied to your reply in the thread on Sam Harris on the Daily Show. After several days with no reply, I had stopped checking the page.

      • Tyro
        Posted October 28, 2010 at 1:12 pm | Permalink

        He does spend some time talking about what alternative definitions can be used and shoots them down. He’s put up a reasonable starting argument so if you disagree, I think you need to at least sketch out a counterargument.

        • Tim Martin
          Posted October 28, 2010 at 2:08 pm | Permalink

          Paul W: I don’t want to spend much time on this here, because I imagine there will be much discussion of the book when Dr. Coyne posts on it after finishing it.

          That said, what do you disagree with? That Harris has redefined morality? Because he has. The usual definition of “moral” allows you to make unqualified prescriptive statements. Consider what I can do without invoking morality:

          1. Killing someone decreases well-being.
          2. If you want to increase well-being, you should not kill someone.

          It’s a perfectly valid argument, but the prescription in the end is just a simple if/then statement. The antecedent has to be true for the prescription to hold. If you don’t care about increasing well being, the “you should not do that” part doesn’t apply. Now see what I can do if I invoke morality:

          1. Killing people is morally wrong.
          2. You should not kill people.

          See how number 2 is now a completely unqualified statement? There is no if anymore; the statement is that you should not kill people, period. If one can say that something is “morally wrong,” they then have the power to make statements like the above. And that is the way the word is normally used.

          Defining “moral” as “that which increases well-being” takes away this ability to make prescriptions that are not dependent on an antecedent in an if/then statement.

          as far as I know, it’s universal to justify the moral rules at least partly in terms of their consequences for the general welfare.

          And what happens when you equate the moral rules with “consequences for the general welfare”? That is what Harris has done. He states multiple times in the book that moral = that which increases well-being. You can’t use a concept to justify itself.

          Tyro: A counterargument to what? Like I said, I agree with his points. It’s completely obvious that well-being can increase or decrease and we have the power to do something about it. It’s also obvious that the word “moral” should have nothing to do with this conversation. We’re talking about well-being, and we already have a word for that. It’s called “well-being.”

          • Tyro
            Posted October 28, 2010 at 2:53 pm | Permalink

            Tim,

            If one can say that something is “morally wrong,” they then have the power to make statements like the above. And that is the way the word is normally used.

            Harris devotes considerable space towards first defending his equation of “promotes well-being” and “moral” so if you have a problem with that definition I think you need to explain why it is inadequate.

            Second he does deal explicitly with the argument that people may say that something harmful is in fact moral. He talks about the motivations behind this, from societal history, culture, religion and even psychopathy and in each case he explains why we should not believe them or not take them seriously. The analogy he uses frequently is that of how ignorant or deluded people try to label their brand of nonsense to be “science” and we rightly say that their opinion should be of no concern.

            If someone does think that morality leads to something other than well-being or actually promotes harm, why should we take them any more seriously?

            • Tim Martin
              Posted October 28, 2010 at 3:26 pm | Permalink

              Harris devotes considerable space towards first defending his equation of “promotes well-being” and “moral”

              No, he devotes considerable time to conflating the two. He does not equate them. Objective morality (as I’ve defined it and as most people use it) doesn’t exist. There is no logical way to make unqualified prescriptive statements. Stated in other words, you can’t get an ought from an is. Harris agrees with this. He states on page 30: “I am certainly not claiming that moral truths exist independent of the experience of conscious beings… or that certain actions are instrinsically wrong.” So morality, as the word is normally used, is not something that is “out there” in the universe. It is simply the case that humans have strong feelings about what it is and isn’t okay for people to do, and they are inclined to justify those feelings by saying they are in line with some Objective Truth.

              But this is false, and it is also not what Harris is talking about. Harris is talking about well-being. Any time he makes a statement about what is “objectively moral,” he’s using his new definition of moral (i.e. “that which increases well-being”). His statement is exactly equivalent to saying “action X objectively increases well-being,” which is completely obvious. Of course empowering women increases their well-being. Harris then says, “therefore, empowering women is the moral thing to do,” expecting us to forget he’s already defined “moral” as “that which increases well-being,” making his sentence completely devoid of content.

            • Heber
              Posted October 28, 2010 at 6:27 pm | Permalink

              @ Tim Martin

              “His statement is exactly equivalent to saying “action X objectively increases well-being,” which is completely obvious. Of course empowering women increases their well-being. Harris then says, “therefore, empowering women is the moral thing to do,” expecting us to forget he’s already defined “moral” as “that which increases well-being,” making his sentence completely devoid of content.”

              I don’t see how that syllogism is devoid of content.

              -A moral act is that which increases well-being

              -Empowering women increases wellbeing

              Therefore

              -Empowering women is moral.

              The conclusion follows logically from the two initial premises. This is of course a tautology but one has to agree with the first and second premise. Now, as we know, some people may not agree with the first premise, but we can wave the off as incompetent and misguided (just like we do in science with people who don’t comport with established scientific facts). And some other people may disagree with the second premise in which case we would muster the evidentiary data and persuade ratioanl dissenters this way.

              So yes, Tim. It should be obvious to everyone who agrees with the premises but the problem is that so many people don’t.

            • Tim Martin
              Posted October 28, 2010 at 7:49 pm | Permalink

              I’m not sure how you can state that this is a tautology, yet it has content, since tautologies are by definition devoid of content.

              Anyway, you still are not understanding my point about your/Harris’ argument.

              A moral act is that which increases well-being.

              This is not a premise; this is a definition of terms. Imagine if I wrote a book about snarfblats – I would have to start off the book by telling you what a snarfblat is. So I would say, “a snarfblat is an act that increases well-being.” Then I would be free to say things like “empowering women is a snarfblat,” or “preventing freedom of speech is not a snarfblat,” and you would know what I mean.

              Harris has told us multiple times throughout his book that he’s using “moral” or “good” to mean “that which increases well-being.” Therefore, “empowering women is moral,” and “empowering women increases well-being” are the exact same statement – not by any power of deductive argument, but simply because we’ve defined them so.

              So the second premise of your argument, and the conclusion of your argument, are the same thing. And yes, it’s a true statement, but it is not one about “morality” as the word is normally used. You cannot make prescriptions based solely on the statement that “empowering women increases well-being.” It is just a statement of fact.

              If by any chance you disagree that Harris has defined “moral” to mean the same thing as “increasing well-being,” then just give me the real definition of “moral,” according to Harris.

            • Diane G.
              Posted October 28, 2010 at 8:18 pm | Permalink

              If by any chance you disagree that Harris has defined “moral” to mean the same thing as “increasing well-being,” then just give me the real definition of “moral,” according to Harris.

              Pardon me for jumping in, as it’s unlikely I know what I’m talking about…but Tim, it seems to me that that’s exactly what Harris and his readers are saying. The question I have is why you see this as not in line with traditional moral thinking.

              IANA philosopher, but I would tend to think that a traditional definition of morality would have to do with determining “right” from “wrong.” That would require a definition of how we recognize what is “right,” and I think Harris’s definition is as good as any other…Of course, it does require appeals to our consciences, it seems to me–“well-being” in the sense that we can live with the consequences for other people of our decisions; i.e., well-being can mean ‘peace of mind.’

            • Tim Martin
              Posted October 28, 2010 at 8:54 pm | Permalink

              @Diane:
              The question I have is why you see this as not in line with traditional moral thinking.

              Because… it isn’t. Read about the normative meaning of morality at Wikipedia. To say something is moral is usually to say that it is instrinsically good, which means that we can make unqualified prescriptive statements based on it. Saying that “X increases well-being” does not allow us to do that.

              It is confusing that Harris uses “moral” to mean “that which increases well-being,” and it entices Harris and his readers to conflate the two meanings. By the end of chapter 2 of TML, Harris has already straw manned at least 2 philosophers.

              In the 4th footnote to Chapter 1, Harris quotes J. L. Mackie where Mackie argues against the traditional notion of an objective morality intrinsic to the universe. Mackie is using the same definition of morality that I and most others use. Harris then objects to Mackie’s argument, and says that Mackie is wrong given Harris’ definition of morality! Harris objects to Mackie’s claim that morality cannot be objective, because Harris has redefined “morality” to be something that is objective!

              Harris also straw mans Joshue Greene on page 65. Greene argues quite lucidly in his dissertation that there doesn’t seem to be anything that could make a moral claim true or false. This is, again, using the normal definition of the word. Greene defines moral claims as those which are evaluative, or involve a value judgement (pg. 67 of the dissertation). So “Katie lied” is an objective fact, while “Katie lied and that was wrong” includes a value judgement. (This fits in perfectly with how I’ve been describing moral claims as “prescriptive,” because you can say “Lying is wrong, therefore Katie should not have done it.”) Greene makes the argument that there is nothing that could make such an evaluative claim (“lying is wrong”) true. Harris again injects his own, different definition of “moral,” and argues that Greene is wrong, when Greene wasn’t even talking about well-being!

              It’s completely ridiculous what Harris does, and I’ll bet it’s gonna happen a few more times before the end of the book.

            • Diane G.
              Posted October 28, 2010 at 10:27 pm | Permalink

              I want to acknowledge your reply, Tim, and admit that it definitely proved I don’t know what I’m talking about. I’ll have another look at the Wikipedia link you include, and the rest of your comment, and try to get up to speed. I hope someone else with more philosophy background (than me, I mean, lest that not read the way I intended it to!) will also comment on your dispute with Harris’s approach…I am interested, if still a bit befuddled…

            • Tyro
              Posted October 28, 2010 at 10:48 pm | Permalink

              Tim,

              Harris has told us multiple times throughout his book that he’s using “moral” or “good” to mean “that which increases well-being.” Therefore, “empowering women is moral,” and “empowering women increases well-being” are the exact same statement – not by any power of deductive argument, but simply because we’ve defined them so.

              He doesn’t merely define them that way, he presents a detailed argument about why our this definition in fact matches our colloquial understanding of the term. He also goes to show that any definition of morality which is different must be inadequate, in essence saying that his definition is both necessary and sufficient.

              What he’s doing isn’t redefining morality, it is making a vague term explicit.

              To say something is moral is usually to say that it is instrinsically good, which means that we can make unqualified prescriptive statements based on it. Saying that “X increases well-being” does not allow us to do that.

              I don’t understand what you’re saying here. As far as I can see, Harris’s definition does allow us to say these things. The Wiki article and your “unqualified good” definition seems to agree very well.

              Can you give some examples of where your definition does not overlap with Harris’s or there’s some substantive difference?

            • Tim Martin
              Posted October 29, 2010 at 8:53 am | Permalink

              Tyro,

              he presents a detailed argument about why our this definition in fact matches our colloquial understanding of the term.

              Where can this argument be found, exactly?

              Can you give some examples of where your definition does not overlap with Harris’s or there’s some substantive difference?

              I already did that in my reply to Paul W. above. Talking about well-being only allows you to put a prescription in an if/then statement (and it’s not really a prescription in that case. It’s just a way of saying, “logically, if you want to do this, you should do this”). Real moral claims are those in which you make an unqualified prescription not embedded in any if/then statement.

              As far as I can see, Harris’s definition does allow us to say these things.

              Ok, then give me an example.

          • Tyro
            Posted October 29, 2010 at 10:07 am | Permalink

            Tim,

            he presents a detailed argument about why our this definition in fact matches our colloquial understanding of the term.

            Where can this argument be found, exactly?

            Chapter 1 “Moral Truth” is a long argument to establish that moral truths exist, and that the well-being of conscious creatures is what it means and how we should investigate it. He breaks the argument down word-by-word, first showing that conscious creatures should be (and are) our focus, then he talks about well-being:

            Now that we have consciousness on the table, my further claim is that the concept of “well-being” captures all that we can intelligibly value. And “morality”—whatever people’s associations with this term happen to be—really relates to the intentions and behaviors that affect the well-being of conscious creatures.

            This is followed by pages of argumentation, dealing with potential religious sources of morality and asking “what if certain people insist that their “values” or “morality” have nothing to do with well-being? Or, more realistically, what if their conception of well-being is so idiosyncratic and circumscribed as to be hostile, in principle, to the well-being of all others?”

            This is followed by further pages of argument to answer exactly these issues.

            Finally he tackles the is/ought distinction and argues that “ought” in fact is a question of what actions we should take to promote the well-being of ourselves and others:

            ly care about, it must translate into a concern about the actual or potential experience of conscious beings (either in this life or in some other). For instance, to say that we ought to treat children with kindness seems identical to saying that everyone will tend to be better off if we do.

            Talking about well-being only allows you to put a prescription in an if/then statement (and it’s not really a prescription in that case. It’s just a way of saying, “logically, if you want to do this, you should do this”). Real moral claims are those in which you make an unqualified prescription not embedded in any if/then statement.

            Yes, I read that and I don’t understand it, hence my question for examples. I don’t think you’ve provided any, nor has this clarified anything.

            Which moral claims, specifically, do you think can not be made with Harris’s definition?

            When I read your argument it sounds like you have a problem with his clarity, with any definition which doesn’t distil down to a wild assertion. What you call “real moral claims” seem to be those which are made by someone too ignorant, unself-aware or childish to defend his position. It sounds like you’re saying that the problem with Harris is that he’s actually explaining his position and defending it rather than merely laying out a long string of assertions.

            Maybe I’m wrong on that but I’m not sure how else to take it. Since Harris argues persuasively that we should and do care about the well-being of conscious creatures (and that we don’t care at all about the moral claims of those people who do not) then the fact that he’s making this the explicit foundation seems like a very good thing.

            What he has done is to exclude psychopaths, misanthropes, sadists and the ignorant from having the same degree of respect as those who do care about the well-being of others, and what you seem to be arguing is that is critical failing. If that’s the case, I’m going to side with Harris on this one.

            • Lyndon
              Posted October 29, 2010 at 11:26 am | Permalink

              I have not read the book, but have a quick question.

              Obviously a lot of the past discussion of “morality” has been confused, and this is an attempt at an reevalution of morality. If we are going to now definitively define morality as well-being, why retain calling it “morality”? Why not simply say “to increase well-being” EVERYTIME instead of saying “morality”?

              Harris is trying to grab the upper hand on a concept “morality” that built a certain repertoire among our society based somewhat on the confusions that differ from Harris’s and other (new and better) accounts of “morality.” It seems the need to resort to calling it morality is to play on this confusion, to usurp a concept that has all sorts of misconstrued baggage, but hoping to continue to grab the emotions surrounding the term as one continues to repeat the term in an enlightened way.

              Why not dispense with the term, and simply call it “well-being”? Is it not out of the fear of past and present charges of atheism being labeled “immoral” and the stigma that comes with it? We, too, cannot abandon the emotionality of restructuring our baseline beliefs.

              This problem is comparable to philosophers who speak of compatibilistic “free will,” which thoroughly alters the way that most people think of free will (which is confusedly), but these philosophers seemingly wish to hold onto the concept of free will out of a desire to retain the social repertoire and institutions that belief in free will supports. But, alas, it would be far better to simply stop using the term that society has ubiquitously obfuscated, like with “morality” in this situation.

            • Tyro
              Posted October 29, 2010 at 1:09 pm | Permalink

              I can sympathize with your reaction, after all who amongst us hasn’t been frustrated by apologists who redefine “god” to be something totally unrelated to the common meaning but which happens to be easier to prove? And this argument-by-equivocation is a favourite of most cranks so it’s perfectly fair to be sceptical.

              However I think that a reading of Harris’s argument may convince you that he has a point. He isn’t merely re-defining “morality” to be something simple and then trying to smuggle in all the extra connotations. As I talked about a bit with another commenter, Harris devotes the better part of a chapter to arguing that “the well-being of conscious creatures” is in fact what we do mean when we talk about morality (at least for all fruitful, informed discussions and yes, he does go through a list of potential exceptions and counterarguments including religious-based morals and shows why these definitions are either inadequate or harmful). He argues, convincingly, that this definition is both necessary and sufficient.

              And to preserve clarity, he does not immediately switch to “morality” but continually uses the phrase “well-being”, perhaps so that people who aren’t persuaded by this can at least follow the rest of his arguments. I did not detect the equivocation which I feared and which you seem to be touching on.

            • Tim Martin
              Posted October 31, 2010 at 7:04 am | Permalink

              Tyro,

              Yes, I read that and I don’t understand it, hence my question for examples. I don’t think you’ve provided any, nor has this clarified anything.

              Well did you actually go and read my response to Paul W.? The contrast I draw between the following two arguments isn’t exactly hard to find.

              1. Killing someone decreases well-being.
              2. If you want to increase well-being, you should not kill someone.

              VERSUS:

              1. Killing people is morally wrong.
              2. You should not kill people.

              The second argument is an unqualified prescriptive statement (or “it involves an evaluative claim,” as Greene would say). Harris cannot make these with his definition of morality. Harris can only make if/then statements like the first argument. That is the unequivocal difference between the two definitions of morality, and it shows that Harris’ definition is not just a clarification of the standard one.

              While Sam Harris is arguing that “well-being” encompasses everything that people already mean when they talk about morality, he is ignoring a great deal that would contradict his position. First, you have the evaluative claim issue that I talk about above. Second, you have the fact – and it is a FACT – that moral judgements are generally made using emotional centers of the brain. We call “moral” that which feels right, not that which we have logically determined increases well-being. As a result, there are cases where what feels right and what increases well-being are at odds, and I gave several examples at the end of this comment.

              In the end, what is “moral” tends to correlate with what increases well-being, but they are not the same, and the way we arrive at judgements about the two is neurologically also not the same.

              Lyndon,

              YES. Well said. Harris is definitely trying to usurp the connotations of a word he has no logical reason to be using.

              Tyro, if you disagree, why does Harris straw man attack his opponents by replacing their (standard) definition of morality with his own? (see my response to Diane above). Why is he constantly using vague language like “morality relates to well-being?” Gravity relates to planetary motion, but that certainly doesn’t tell me what gravity is! Harris is constantly using amibiguous language like this throughout TML. Of course, such language also implies that morality isn’t exactly the same thing as increasing well-being, otherwise Harris would use the word “is” instead of “relates to” or “is about” or “links to” or any of the other vague phrasings that someone with his background in philosophy should know to avoid.

      • Heber
        Posted October 28, 2010 at 2:24 pm | Permalink

        I don’t think his points are that obvious. Especially not to the masses who still believe that homosexuality is the most important moral question of our time or that stem cell research entails the distruction of souls living in petridishes. They shuold be, but they’re not. And that’s why his book is so enlightening.

  12. john
    Posted October 28, 2010 at 10:52 am | Permalink

    Where are the cats!

  13. gillt
    Posted October 28, 2010 at 10:53 am | Permalink

    Tom Robbins is chick lit for hippies. I think you can do better.

    • JBlilie
      Posted October 28, 2010 at 12:28 pm | Permalink

      Agreed. Tried it. Couldn’t stomach it.

    • Posted October 28, 2010 at 8:48 pm | Permalink

      Robbins has some great books, but “Skinny Legs and All” is not one of them. I liked “Half Asleep in Frog Pajamas,” but for some real good Robbins, I recommend “Jitterbug Perfume.” “The universe has no laws, only habits. And habits are meant to be broken.”

      • gillt
        Posted October 29, 2010 at 9:30 am | Permalink

        What about “Still Life With Woodpecker”?

        On it and it alone my dismissal is based.

  14. Insightful Ape
    Posted October 28, 2010 at 11:13 am | Permalink

    I am pleased that I have all my new book on my cell phone now (the kindle app). Very convenient. And no more unpleasant sights of unread books.

    • Philip
      Posted October 28, 2010 at 2:01 pm | Permalink

      Very few sights are more pleasant than a pile of yet-to-be-read books!

      • JBlilie
        Posted October 29, 2010 at 6:03 am | Permalink

        Hear, hear: It’s like watching your bank account expand.

  15. jdhuey
    Posted October 28, 2010 at 11:18 am | Permalink

    I read “The Stuff of Thought” before I read “The Blank Slate” and I think that is not a bad order to read them. “Slate” is definitely focused on how the different conceptions of human nature (the Noble Savage, the Ghost in the Machine and the Blank Slate on one side; the ‘fallen from grace’ concept of religion; and more recently, Evolutionary Psychology) interfaced with politics. “The Stuff of Thought” is more focused on how thinking happens (pretty much extensions of “The Language Instinct” and “How the Mind Works”) and, as such, makes a good ground work for the arguments made in “The Blank Slate”. This is not to say that the arguments in “The Blank Slate” are not convincing in and of themselves, only that the science underlying those arguments is more throughly explored in “The Stuff of Thought”.

  16. hexag1
    Posted October 28, 2010 at 11:23 am | Permalink

    Jerry: put the Blank Slate before the Stuff of Thought. It’s amazing.

    Cornelius: Harris lays out his argument this way.
    1) Questions about right and wrong, good and evil, etc. are ultimately questions about the happiness/well-being and suffering of conscious creatures. All statements about what we value are ultimately statements about the well-being of conscious creatures. What else is there to value? If you can find something to value besides the happiness and well-being of conscious creatures, then the only reason to care about it will be because it matters -to someone-. That is what a value is by definition. If you find a value that doesn’t affect the experience of a conscious creature, then you will have found something that doesn’t matter to anyone, by definition the most boring thing in the universe.
    2) Since minds are the product of brains, statement about the happiness and well being of a conscious creature are statements about brain of that creature. It is a real world phenomenon that can be studied by neuroscience.
    3) Changes in brain states – from states of happiness/well-being to states of suffering and vice-versa – are caused by changes in the brain, changes in the body, and changes in the environment. Included in the environment are other creatures who might affect the happiness of the brain in question. This is where human behavior comes in. How human beings are treat others, how that behavior affects others’ brains, and how that in turn affects how THEY will behave, and and all the cascading consequences are all real world phenomena that can be studied by science. We can understand which behaviors, beliefs, and practices are more likely to move brains into states of happiness rather than suffering.

    Since everything under discussion above can be studied by science, there must exist an as yet undeveloped branch of science – a science of values, a science of right and wrong. Medical science is in a way already impinging on this territory. When medical science extends into figuring out how to minimize suffering in brains, and maximizing well-being, then it will have implications for morality, culture, and even politics.

  17. hexag1
    Posted October 28, 2010 at 11:25 am | Permalink

    BTW: if anyone has read the book, there is a genuinely arresting passage in there that I would like to toss out for discussion. This comes at the very end of chapter 2, in the discussion of free will:

    It is generally argued that our sense of free will presents a compelling mystery: on the one hand, it is impossible to make sense of it in causal terms; on the other, there is a powerful subjective sense that we are the authors of our own actions. However, I think that this mystery is itself a symptom of our confusion. It is not that free will is simply an illusion: our experience is not merely delivering a distorted view of reality; rather, we are mistaken about the nature of our experience. We do not feel as free as we think we feel. Our sense of our own freedom results from our not paying attention to what it is actually like to be what we are. The moment we do pay attention, we begin to see that free will is nowhere to be found, and our subjectivity is perfectly compatible with this truth. Thoughts and intentions simply arise in the mind. What else could they do? The truth about us is stranger than many suppose: The illusion of free will is itself an illusion.

    wow. theres a thought.

    • NewEnglandBob
      Posted October 28, 2010 at 11:57 am | Permalink

      The illusion of free will is itself an illusion.

      That sentence is the one thing is Harris’ book that I did not understand.

      • JBlilie
        Posted October 28, 2010 at 12:30 pm | Permalink

        Me too!

      • Greg
        Posted October 28, 2010 at 12:33 pm | Permalink

        It certainly has some outward characteristics of a deepity, but I get the impression that he’s trying to convey that the confusion around ‘free will’- trying to resolve the paradox he mentions- further entangles us in a mistaken view of the nature of reality.

        I suspect he would not put himself in a strictly deterministic or non-deterministic camp, as both ‘beg’ a question.

      • Diane G.
        Posted October 28, 2010 at 12:40 pm | Permalink

        “The illusion….is…an illusion.”

        Me three.

      • Tyro
        Posted October 28, 2010 at 12:43 pm | Permalink

        I take it that you are familiar with and accept “the illusion of free will”. Harris then delves a tiny bit deeper and ask whether we really are as free as we think.

        “It is not that free will is simply an illusion: our experience is not merely delivering a distorded view of reality; rather, we are mistaken about the nature of or experience. We do not feel as free as we think we feel. Our sense of our own freedom result from our not paying attention to what it is actually like to be what we are. The moment we do pay attention, we being to see that free will is nowhere to be found, and our subjectivity is perfectly compatible with this truth.”

        I think this dovetails in with his discussion about the difference between how we remember an experience and how we actually experienced something. He uses the example of a holiday in Rome and one in Hawaii on the beach – we may remember Rome as being more enjoyable yet if we pay close attention to how we feel when we’re there we may find that we actually enjoy Hawaii more.

        In this case, we may think back on decisions and think we were free to make any decision but when it comes time to actually decide and we pay close attention to our thoughts and feelings we find that we aren’t free at all.

        So we say that free will is an illusion because we think we’re free but are not. And this is itself an illusion because when we’re actually making the decisions we don’t feel even feel free, this is just something our mind constructs after the fact.

        • NewEnglandBob
          Posted October 28, 2010 at 1:27 pm | Permalink

          Yes, I read the words, but that does not clear up that sentence for me.

          (You have an extra ‘feel’ in your last sentence.)

          • JBlilie
            Posted October 28, 2010 at 1:39 pm | Permalink

            Yep.

          • Tyro
            Posted October 28, 2010 at 1:48 pm | Permalink

            Well, where’s the gap?

            When you have a decision to make, do you feel that all alternatives have equal merits or do you feel that, based on your beliefs and values, only one answer is a real alternative?

            There’s the obvious example: you meet your buddies for beers after work and you have a nice time chatting and not once do you or anyone you know decide to kill the bartender. Should you ever think about it, that seems so repugnant that you couldn’t possibly do it. At the time, these choices don’t feel free at all, they feel compulsory, like there’s no alternative. I think Harris is arguing that we play tricks on ourselves and think that our past decisions felt free (but weren’t, the first illusion) when in reality they didn’t even feel free at the time.

            • JBlilie
              Posted October 28, 2010 at 1:53 pm | Permalink

              I think Harris is arguing that we play tricks on ourselves and think that our past decisions felt free (but weren’t, the first illusion) when in reality they didn’t even feel free at the time.

              If that’s what he’s getting at, then the sentence conveyed it poorly, IMO.

            • Tyro
              Posted October 28, 2010 at 1:55 pm | Permalink

              No argument there!

            • NewEnglandBob
              Posted October 28, 2010 at 1:58 pm | Permalink

              When you have a decision to make, do you feel that all alternatives have equal merits or do you feel that, based on your beliefs and values, only one answer is a real alternative?

              Neither. I can pin varying worth onto the alternatives.

              The buddy scenario can not happen for me, because I don’t drink beer (rimshot).

              I understand the first illusion and I am convinced that we do not have free will. We are all programmed by our genes and our environment combined, which doesn’t mean we always make the same choice (bagel vs, bialy)because there are oh-so-many variables which change constantly. Given this premise, I do not see the illusion of an illusion.

          • Tyro
            Posted October 28, 2010 at 1:49 pm | Permalink

            pardon the sloppy phrasing/spelling/grammar – I’m on cold meds and am feeling a little out of sorts.

            • Heber
              Posted October 28, 2010 at 2:09 pm | Permalink

              If it’s any consolation, I fully understood your interpretation.

              It has to do with the fact that at a given time, we never know what our next thought is going to be. Thoughts nad ideas simply arise in our minds upon no conscious effort on “our” part. So, in what sense are we really free if our “intentions” just emerge without our intending them to.

              Note that is exhorbitantly difficult to articulat, if not impossible,to articlate this idea without sounding confused. I swear I’m not confused. And this isn’t a deepity.

        • JBlilie
          Posted October 28, 2010 at 1:48 pm | Permalink

          Just looks like a double-negative to me; but I know that’s not what he means.

  18. Posted October 28, 2010 at 12:50 pm | Permalink

    Looks like Pinker’s writing ’em faster than you’re reading ’em! Get your head down Coyne and concentrate. 😉

  19. Bob Williams
    Posted October 28, 2010 at 12:59 pm | Permalink

    Yes, The Blank Slate is an urgent must. I read much of it to my wife and was amused by her 19th century reaction.

    • Diane G.
      Posted October 28, 2010 at 1:19 pm | Permalink

      So…still married? 😀

    • Sigmund
      Posted October 29, 2010 at 5:38 am | Permalink

      I had the same reaction from my scullery maid!

  20. Oscar
    Posted October 28, 2010 at 1:00 pm | Permalink

    Hi Jerry, I’ve been a constant follower of the blog (first post though) and I just wanted to let you know I wouldn’t mind helping you as a guide or translator if you needed one in Colombia, or at least let me invite you for a couple of beers. Great you’re planning to visit!

  21. DiscoveredJoys
    Posted October 28, 2010 at 1:33 pm | Permalink

    The Blank Slate (which I bought as a cheaper ‘damaged book’ a few years ago (2002) is an excellent and thought provoking read.

    My only slight quibble is that the arguments become even stronger if more recent research could be included.

  22. Wayne Robinson
    Posted October 28, 2010 at 3:06 pm | Permalink

    I’ve read Charles Seife’s “Proofiness”. I strongly recommend it and thought it was also very funny. A book I’d add to your list is Ben Goldacre’s “Bad Science”.

  23. MikeN
    Posted October 28, 2010 at 6:28 pm | Permalink

    I’m going to have to disagree with everybody here about “The Blank Slate”. I thought “The Language Instinct” was good, if not totally oonvincing, but was disappointed with TBS.

    The first part is a convenient summary, in a pretty elementary way, but his application of evolutionary psychology to modern society reduces to basic right-wing talking points.

    I specifically remember the section on the male/female wage gap, where he goes through the history of its narrowing to the current US standard, then segues into an argument that any attempt to further decrease it is unnatural and actually oppresse women.

    Uh, Stephen, Sweden? Norway?

    • Lyndon
      Posted October 29, 2010 at 9:32 am | Permalink

      I would say the problem is not that he tries to bring his evolutionary understanding to modern society, that is very necessary, it is something we should be doing. It is only that he does so rather carelessly, as you point out. Such analysis requires much greater reflection than Pinker gives it in the Blank Slate.

      One of the bigger problems is a closing off of the possibility of changing baseline environmental and social structures. When you start off assuming a certain social structure will “always be there,” the behavior of humans that follows such a structure, given a certain evolutionary and genetic structure, limits ones ability to analyze the possibility of changing the structure in the first place. For instance, when you close off possibile relationships between men and women to an (overall) insistence on heterosexual monogamy, the behavior that will be displayed by humans under such a system will duly reflect a limited range, and will thus encourage one (Pinker) to claim that equal wages will be damaging to this society– but this is only nominally true as he had already closed off possible social changes from the outset, and thus the range of human behavior became limited as well.

      • Lyndon
        Posted October 29, 2010 at 9:42 am | Permalink

        I think Pinker sets up a strawman of what others think about the blank slate and human behavior today (many others have already stated this).

        A quick reason why I think Pinker and others are wrong on the behavior thing, and why that distorts much of the message of the book. Still a good book and worth the read, and much to be gained from it.

        I propose that given a (radical) change to the environment of any individual the possibilty of their behavior is infinite. And I do not see a way around that. Just think of the different languages and types of languages we could speak or utilize. This seems like it would ultimately, given a difference in the language of ones environment, for instance; it taking one second to say, “I am hungry,” in English versus 30 seconds to say “????” [the same thing] in “????”, there would be a difference in behavior, and it would be an infinite possibilty, or at least as close to infinite as changes in languages could go. This goes for all sorts of other (radical) change to the environment that radically change the behavior of the individual.

        That does not mean genes and evolution are not limiting and part of the equation for any and all behavior, they are, it is only that any specific behavior, any specific act of an individual seems to fall in an infinite possibility. And it is hard for me not to argue that if behavior is infinite it is therefore “blank.” I agree with Pinker that it is a bad analogy, and should be done away with. The “slate” may be lined, quartered, and creviced, etc., and be very determining of what becomes written, but the old slate was already limited by four sides and being black, and those limitations did not stop it from being blank.

        Of course understanding the structure of the slate as it will determine behavior given a certain environment is imminently important, and that is what he points out so well.

        There is also a mathematical paradox that I think fits this problem. All apologies to math and logic people for this rendition. The paradox is about whole numbers compared to rational numbers. One intuition is that there has to be more rational numbers than whole numbers, but on the other hand both groups of numbers seem to be infinite, and therefore, we seemingly have one infinite group of numbers (whole) that are larger than another (rational), which seems like a paradox.

        I would argue that genes and “nature” are structuring and help determine behavior, but that behavior still is infinite. And what the focus on genetics and evolutionary theory of behavior has taught us is that the infinite set of human behavior is more limited, like the group of all whole numbers, than if it was completely “blank”, like the group of all rational numbers.

  24. Tim Harris
    Posted October 28, 2010 at 11:45 pm | Permalink

    I am delighted to see ‘The Hare with Amber Eyes’ on your list: it is a wonderful, painful and (since everybody seems to be interested in morals) deeply moral book.

  25. Ben Breuer
    Posted October 29, 2010 at 3:57 am | Permalink

    Nice thing you’ll go to Vienna. I’ll put in a plug for the Heurigen (wine bars) South of the city center, in Mauer and (separate town:) Perchtoldsdorf. If you’re lucky you can get excellent, if filling, food there. As for sights, there are too many, but perhaps you’re interested in the pathological-anatomy museum. It’s a bit creepy but instructive. 🙂

  26. GrueBleen
    Posted October 29, 2010 at 3:59 am | Permalink

    So very few books in your ‘unread’ pile, Prof Coyne. You must either possess super-rapid reading (and lightning comprehension) skills, or your filter system’s rejection threshold is set way too high. Then again, like most of us, I guess you know only too well that no matter how hard you try, you’ll never read a statistically significant percentage of the books yet to be written, much less the huge number already in print (or in e-reader form).

    Anyhow, I thought I might be a bit presumptuous, and ask if, amongst the books you’ve already read, Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen’s ‘Figments of Reality’ is one. I have read it, and I know what I think, but one can only see true perspective when one can look through other’s eyes.

    I also had the idea, especially considering the long and impassioned discussion above about Sam Harris, that perhaps you might consider opening a long term thread dedicated to a ‘slow reading’ of some worthy book (to anybody who hasn’t encountered the idea of a ‘slow reading’, it’s kinda like Ta-Nehisi Coates ‘Effete Liberal Book Club’ only a bit slower and more deliberative).

    Just a thought. We could even start with WEIT.

  27. Dominic
    Posted October 29, 2010 at 8:13 am | Permalink

    The Scopes memoir looks interesting. In a review of the book from The Journal of American History, Vol. 54, No. 2 (1967) by Kenneth Bailey says he had so much fan mail he had to burn it. “Moreover, if he ever actually taught the dreaded theory of evolution he did not and does not remember it.”

    He also says –
    “The authors erroneously tell of William Jennings Bryan’s presence in Nashville while the 1925 antievolution bills were pending in the legislature; they fail to credit properly those Tennesseans who spoke out against the Butler bill. Actually this treatment contains comparatively little about the Dayton trial that has not been previously known. It is, however, a compact and useful narrative, simply and modestly told, and in the main reliable.”

  28. karaktur
    Posted October 29, 2010 at 1:32 pm | Permalink

    Tom Robbins – you’ll enjoy that. I would suggest, if you haven’t already, get a copy of “Another Roadside Attraction” for a discussion of what might happen if they find “The Body”.

  29. Sili
    Posted October 31, 2010 at 11:57 am | Permalink

    You should read Why Evolution is True by some Coin guy. Top notch work.


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