The Moral Landscape – A Four Part Review (Part 1)

Two friends and I recently committed to reading Sam Harris’s very insightful new book, The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values, 2011.

Would you like to join us?  It would be great to have your comments on the book as well. As we read, we are each identifying key statements we agree with, and statements where we disagree.

As I am an evolutionary developmentalist, one who thinks our universe is engaged in mostly unpredictable and divergent evolutionary processes, but at the same time, a few predictable and convergent developmental processes, it will be an interesting read. Most scholars, Harris included, advocate the standard evolutionary theory, which mostly ignores concepts of long-range developmental change, either in life on Earth or in the universe as a system.  Yet we see many apparently irresistible trends in economic and cultural development in our societies as they complexify (for example, increasing personal rights and freedoms, increasing evidence-basedness, etc.), and a multi-billion-year record of accelerating complexification in our universe. We are also faced with the possibility of a coming technological singularity, perhaps even this century, and we can think of such events in both evolutionary and developmental terms. So our disagreements should be interesting.

The book has six parts: an introduction and five chapters. As I read, I will post my agreements and disagreements with each part below.  The first part follows:

The Moral Landscape – Introduction

Agreements (and my rewording/additions in italics):

There is an arrow of moral development. Some social practices are inherently more moral than others, and can be agreed and measured as so.

There is also moral evolution. At any time, a number of ongoing moral experiments are being run, which aren’t measurably better than each other, just different.

Questions about values, meaning, morality, and purpose can be researched scientifically, and some agreement can be reached by evidence-seeking people today in each of these areas.

As data and science advance, moral opinions, particularly in developmental areas, will be increasingly constrained by facts.

Yet experiments and uncertainties will also always remain. They are central to evolutionary process.

How a person perceives the gulf between facts and values influences their opinion on almost every issue of social importance.

We must know our values, look for facts, build bridges with reason, know the limitations of reason, and have tolerance with ambiguity.

Stephen J Gould’s concept of science and religion as non-overlapping domains is false.

It is a temporary political compromise, much like Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. Challenge it. 

Both science and religion speak to values, in very different ways, and so are often in conflict.

We can imagine a hypothetical space called the moral landscape, whose peaks correspond to well being or progress, and whose valleys to suffering or regress.

There are usually exceptions to every moral rule. Yet these exceptions do not take away the objective rightness of the rule. Example: Kindness is usually more conducive to well-being than cruelty.

David Hume was wrong when he said no description of the world can tell us how to behave.

What Hume missed was that our morals need to be in harmony with individual or universal progress, and ideally both. The better we understand the way humans and the universe typically evolve and develop, the better our thoughts and behaviors can aid and align with universal progress.

The concept of well being, and progress, is like concept of physical health. It defies precise description yet is indispensable, and can be approached scientifically.

A scientific account of human values is not the same as an evolutionary account. Evolution has much contingency and happenstance in it.

But a scientific account of values could be fully described as an evolutionary developmental account, if we live in an evo devo universe.

Different opinions have differing value. We may try to equally value all opinions, but some we value more (expertise), and others (novices, psychopaths) we discount.

Just as there are objective differences in the health of primitive and modern societies, there are objective differences in their well being and progress.

There is a lot of valuable, desirable evolutionary diversity between various modern societies. But there are harmful and undesirable developmental differences too. For example, anonymous and toxic cities, plutocracies, autocracies. There are clear examples of better and worse developed and developing societies.

It is possible to believe and to value the wrong things. Both beliefs and values are amenable to reason and evidence to some degree.

We must occasionally experience some pain, harm, or unpleasantness, to avoid greater pain, harm, or unpleasantness at a later date.

Religious or ideological dogmatism, not listening to reason or evidence to revise ones beliefs and values, is a chief enemy of well being and progress.


“There is no such thing as a Christian or Muslim morality.”

Strongly disagree. There are today many flavors of moral experiment, and also ever more over time.

“Faith, if it is ever right about anything, is right by accident.”

Not so. This ignores the way our intuition guides our faith. Even the athiest has faith in their unbelief. Faith is critical where evidence does not yet tread, yet should also not be overused.

“How human beings should live in 21st century has many competing answers, and most are surely wrong.”

Disagree. Diversity is “right” for its own sake, and much, often most, is either adaptive, or pre-adaptive experimentation. There is no one right answer with any evolutionary experimentation, only with that very small subset of evolutionary experiment that turns out to be development.

“Science and religion, being antithetical ways of viewing reality, will never come to terms.”

Disagree. Religion will become far subtler and reform, but will always remain. I believe AI’s will have their own religion. I also believe it will be far subtler and more evidence constrained than ours. We should seek to be neither theists nor athiests but agnostics. To gently challenge the certainty of others theisms and athiesms, and to move them into possibilianismTheism and athiesm will always remain, but we can help all who have extremes of belief and nonbelief to become more evidence constrained. 

“Our modern concerns about meaning and morality have flown the perch built by evolution.”

Disagree. Memetic evolution and development are still evolution and development. Ignore them at your peril.

“The survival of memes is not dependent on their conferring some benefit on their hosts.”

Strongly disagree. Memes are both evolutionary and developmental. Memetic progress, both evolutionary diversity and developmental advance, seems to be occurring in many systems, via multi-level selection. We can observe memetic evolution and development at the individual, group, species, and planet levels, at least.

“Conflicts between religion and science, because they are zero sum, will only get more explicit.”

Disagree. As social wealth grows, there will be opportunity for increasing memetic insulation of disagreeing groups (some of which will be harmful and less adaptive to the insulated group). I think you underestimate both the coming magnitude and the effect of accelerating wealth. I expect a lot more diversity of belief among subcultures, but at the same time, more reform and more evidenced-based agreement among all of them. 

Your thoughts?


  1. Hi John,

    Are you familiar with Robert Freitas’ elegant thermodynamic formulation of ethics?


    I feel it offers a more philosophically rigorous framework within which Steven J. Dick’s Intelligence Principle fits, as do your ideas on the counterproductive nature of one-way messaging on the part of advanced civilizations.

    Because we all have imperfect information — and because our minds are certainly suboptimal at analyzing the available information — determining which actions minimize the total entropy of the universe, or even just of our local environment, is still necessarily full of moral ambiguity.

    Nevertheless, recognizing and assisting the developmental trajectory of life toward STEM compression is a clear and conscious moral imperative in entropic ethics.

    I agree with your view that faith may be a positive state (when still constrained by empiricism), as it is usually better to use intuition in the presence of uncertainty rather than to be morally paralyzed by abstaining from seeing any meaningful meta-narrative structure to reality (this is a pitfall of Postmodernist thought a la Lyotard, imo).

    Incidentally, I currently have Eagleman’s book Sum in from the library and I’m enjoying his creativity. However, I feel that Ignosticism is technically a more intellectually coherent stance than Possibilianism.

    Regarding Harris’ contention that “Science and religion, being antithetical ways of viewing reality, will never come to terms” I’m inclined to disagree as well. Yet, to those who would entertain the notion that science is a means of myth-making not so different from religion, I feel there is significant danger in drawing such a false equivalency, stemming from ignorance of (or failure to appreciate) Popperian falsifiability. It is truly an indispensable mental tool for investigating reality; no less useful than Occam’s Razor.

    Perhaps the most nuanced, while concise, exploration of the limits of objectivity in science I’ve encountered is an account given in Scientific Perspectivism (Giere, 2006). As hypothesizing about the future by extrapolating past trends necessarily demands significant self-awareness of personal selection bias, I hope you may find some of Giere’s arguments relevant to your field and worthwhile.



    • Hi Kjell,

      Wonderful post, thanks for sharing. Are you I’m now following you on TW and G+. Great posts.

      Curiously, I skimmed Bob Freitas’s masterpiece, Xenology, just a few months ago. My colleague Clement Vidal pointed out his fascinating thermoethics work, and his statement, on p.653:

      “The essential characteristic of all intelligent systems constructed of matter-energy is that they process information. As noted earlier, smarter lifeforms tend to survive more often than dumber ones, so we should observe a strong evolutionary trend toward increasing intellect. Translating this into the language of information theory, we might say that the more bits per second a given creature can process, generally the more successful it will be and the stronger the evolutionary pressure to increase the bit rates that brains can handle. Furthermore, since more efficient organisms preferentially survive, all else being equal, there should also exist strong evolutionary tendencies to increase the efficiency of information processing — that is, to process more information using less energy and less material supportive bulk. ”

      This is STEM compression, in his words. If STEM efficiency and density increase is a real developmental process, many of us should be independently discovering it. I emailed him about it, and sent him a draft of my Transcension Hypothesis article, and he responded with:

      “Yeah, I wrote that passage you quoted way back in 1979. The point seems rather obvious, doesn’t it? :>) In fact, it’s part of the basis for thermoethics (, a system of universal ethics I began working on in the 1970s but never had time to properly finish. I think your conclusion [developmental transcension of intelligence to inner space] is quite supportable and consistent with my viewpoint, though there might be one or two other possibilities justified by the evidence.”

      That is quite the complement from a polymath like Freitas. I’d love to hear more about the “one or two other possibilities”. Perhaps he will share them here in the future… Bob?

      I think Frietas’s thermoethics is foundational work leading us toward a science of ethics. I’d love to see it integrated with work on maximum entropy thermodynamics. Martayushev and Seleznev have written a great 2006 review of MaxEnt thermodynamics:

      I share your comments on faith and intuition. I may gently part company with you on ignosticism. Wikipedia’s page on Ignosticism says “A simplified maxim on the subject states “An atheist would say, ‘I don’t believe God exists’; an agnostic would say, ‘I don’t know whether or not God exists’; and an ignostic would say, ‘I don’t know what you mean when you say, “God exists” ‘.” If this is accurate then while I may start as an ignostic in any conversation with a theist or athiest, once I understand their definition of God, and for any of the many definitions that I’ve understood so far, I’m agnostic. This leads me to think agnosticism, not ignosticism, is the strongest attractor for universal intelligence as it develops. We shall see, as they say.

      Thanks also for the comments on the privileged position of the scientific method and falsifiablity, and for the reference to Giere’s work, which is new to me. Scientific Perspectivism looks like an excellent way to dig into our own cognitive models and selection bias as we attempt to construct better scentific methods. Here’s to increasing awareness of our cognitive limits, and appropriate humility as a result!


  1. […] theories of human values. I recommend The Moral Landscape, by Sam Harris, 2011, which I’ve reviewed earlier.  But most of this work still is not deeply biologically-inspired, as it remains focused on […]

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