Two things disturb us about Harris' argument. (If you've read the book and can tell us that reading it would change our minds, please let us know -- we'd love to be wrong on this.) But as we understand it, Harris's argument is both arrogantly imperialistic -- or worse -- and non-Darwinian, which is rather ironic from someone arguing that science will out the Truth. The 'logic' of the argument is to put together intelligent-sounding phrases that have little actual content....especially little scientific content.
Best known as one of the New Atheists, Harris has written previously on how he knows there is no God. He argues in his new book, and in the lecture, that only science can answer the questions of life's "meaning, morality and life's larger purpose" (as quoted in the review).
Which prompts us to ask, Where is existentialism when we need it? Better yet, let's call it Darwinian existentialism. If we are truly to take the lessons of Darwinian evolution to heart, we must accept that there is no "larger purpose" to life. The only purpose to life, which we don't ourselves construct, is to survive and reproduce. And even that is not a purpose to life itself, which to an arch Darwinian might be not to survive, so something better can do it instead. Or to expend solar energy in some particular way. To argue otherwise is to position humans above Nature, which is precisely what Darwin and his contemporary supporters argued was biologically not so (though even Darwin fell into that ethnocentric trap in Descent of Man).
Further, if we accept Darwinism in the raw, there is no meaning or morality for science to find. Meaning, morality and purpose are constructed by us once we've got food and a mate. As animals with history and culture and awareness of both, we imbue our lives with values and morals and meaning, but they are products of the human mind. This doesn't mean that they aren't important, or compelling, or even things to live or die for, but those judgments are our own. But people with the same genome can adopt very different sense of meaning -- which is equally important and compelling.
According to Harris, science can uncover not only facts, but values, and even the 'right values'. Just as science can tell us how to have healthy babies, science can tell us how to promote human 'well-being'. And "[j]ust as it is possible for individuals and groups to be wrong about how best to maintain their physical health," he writes, as quoted in the review, "it is possible for them to be wrong about how best to maximize their personal and social well-being."
What is this well-being of which he speaks? Who says we or anyone should 'maximize' it, and who are 'we' in this context? Well-paid professors? If he meant Darwinian fitness we might pay attention because that's the only objective measure of success that counts in a Darwinian world (unless it's ecosystem expansion, even if at the expense of particular species). But what he means is something much less empirically tangible -- ironically for someone arguing that science will find it. He means happiness. This would be perfectly fine in the realm of psychology or Buddhism or philosophy, but, to our minds, this argument of his is on the same playing field with religious arguments about morality and purpose -- which of course he would not accept -- and even pre-Darwinian.
And, it wasn't that long ago that Science decided that homosexuality wasn't an illness to be cured, or that phrenology wasn't in fact enlightening, or that bleeding patients wasn't a cure -- and of course there are many other such examples. When what was once True becomes False, what does this say about Science and its ability to find the ultimate Truth? Why would anybody think we're right today....unless it's from ethnocentric arrogance?
The Enlightenment period was the age in which the belief grew that modern science could be used to create a better world, without the suffering and strife of the world as it had been. It was a world of the Utopians. Their egalitarian views were opposed vigorously by the elitist right ('we're just scientists telling it like it is') in the form of Thomas Malthus, Herbert Spencer, strong Darwinians, who opposed the more idealistic thinking. The Science Can Find the Moral Truth view grew through much of the 19th century, but its consequence, 'modernism', was rejected after science gave us machine guns, carpet bombing, eugenics, the Great Depression, dishonorably wealthy industrial barons, and other delights of the 20th century. The reaction to that went under various names, but included things like cultural relativism and anti-scientific post-modern subjectivism. Unfortunately, like any Newtonian reaction, the reaction was equally culpable, if less bloody, in the opposite direction, by minimizing any reality of the world.
Cultural relativism, against which Harris rails, is the view that each culture is a thing of its own, and we can't pass judgment about the value of one culture over another, except as through our own culture-burdened egotistical eyes. That is not the same as saying that we have to like someone else's culture, nor adopt it, nor need it be a goody-goody view that we have to put up with dangers from such culture (like, for example, the Taliban). But there is no external criterion that provides objective or absolute value. Racism and marauding are a way of life in many successful cultures; maybe by some energy consumption or other objective measure it's best for their circumstances. Science might suggest (as it did to the Nazis and Romans and some groups today) that their way is the only way, the best way, Nature's chosen way.
Science may be a path to some sorts of very valuable Truth, and better lives, such as how to build a safe bridge or have painless dentistry (the greatest miracle of the 20th century!). Regarding many aspects of our culture, we would not trade. We ourselves would love to attain the maximum happiness that Harris describes. But it is an arrogance to assume that in some objective sense that is 'the' truth.
And what if the 'facts' said that to achieve the greatest good for the greatest number (not exactly an original platitude, by the way) meant that people like us (and Harris) had to cut our incomes by a factor of 100, or 1000, for resources to be equitably distributed? After all, the USSR implemented 'scientific' ideas of maximal good for the masses (communism, Lysenkoism, to the tune of tens of millions purged, frozen to death in Siberia, or starved because of failed harvests, and more). The Nazi policies were explicitly based on the belief that Aryans were simpler better than others, based on warped Darwinian truths, and we know what happened.
So, anyone who would still not realize that the smug self-confidence that one can find the ultimate truth through science either is another tyrant potentially in the making, or hasn't read his history.
Whether or if there can be some ultimate source of morality is a serious question and if it has an answer nobody's found it yet. Religion has no better record than materialistic science, nor secular philosophy. Nor does Darwin provide that kind of objective value system, especially in humans where very opposed cultural values can be held by people toting around the same gene pool.
The Darlings of the Smug rise, like mushrooms, in every society. They are glib, but so are demagogues of other sorts. They're all potentially dangerous -- or are those for whom they serve as the intellectual justification. Again, that is not to say we should adopt someone else's values, nor that we should hold back from defending ourselves against those who threaten us.
Still, oblivious to these points, Harris argues, as does the far right in the US, that cultural relativism is wrong and should be completely and utterly discounted. Here are some quotes from his TED talk:
How have we convinced ourselves that every opinion has to count? Does the Taliban have a point of view on physics that is worth considering? No. How is their ignorance any less obvious on the subject of human well-being? The world needs people like ourselves to admit that there are right and wrong answers to questions of human flourishing, and morality relates to that domain of facts. It is possible for individuals and even for whole cultures to care about the wrong things. Just admitting this will transform our discourse about morality.Again, how is this different from, say, the Aryan line which would say we have a right to decide and purge, all in the name of science (and, by the way, it was medical science as well as Darwinism)? Why is this not the arrogance of imperialism all over again?
When the Taliban, the religious right and the likes of Harris and the New Atheists all believe that only they are the keepers of the Truth, dominion can be attained not by science but by wielding of power alone.