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Differentiation: Maintaining The Self In Relation: Sex – Part 3.

October 28, 2014 Leave a comment

Schnarch attempts in his work here to deny the old adage: “save the beauty in sex for marriage” (p. 71), he is attempting to expand awareness of the beauty of sex, by looking at our sexual potential, that is he wants to “take a deeply sex-positive stance by examining a superficially sex-positive philosophy.” (p. 71) He states that saying the above adage is like saying that the beauty of sex is in sex, as if you could extract it with the one you marry if only you have love and technical proficiency, and likewise destroy it if you share it with the wrong person.

Here’s my point: there’s no beauty in sexthe beauty is in people. You can’t save the beauty in sex, you have to put it in. We all develop inner beauty to varying degrees. Sex becomes beautiful when we bring our personal beauty to it. The issue isn’t simply who your partner is, whether you’re in love, or how good you can do it. It’s who you are. (Schnarch, 2009, p. 71)

Schnarch states that some of the problem comes from a common view of sexuality that we accept that make it difficult to live the above, that is: we often confuse genital prime with sexual prime. To Schnarch this mistakes a part for the whole, in that sexual prime has something to do body development, but sexual prime also has something to do with who you are as a person and that’s the authors point about needing to inject the beauty into sex: “if you’re interested in sex with intimacy there isn’t a seventeen-year-old alive who can keep up with a healthy sixty-year-old!” (p. 76) He asks us to meditate on that point, if intimacy is about disclosing yourself through sex, people who are more open to letting themselves be known are more likely to have more profound sexual experiences. A seventeen-year-old is going to get more erections and have shorter refractory periods than their older counterparts, but they are still establishing their masculinity states Schnarch, they are still developing emotionally. Think of that sixty-year-old, who has more “personhood”, that through the successes and failures of life know themselves, they may not like and accept everything about themselves but they’re on the path, Schnarch says they bring more “self” to sex, and the “differentiation to disclose themselves, unvarnished.” (p. 77)

Schnarch criticizes certain models of sex such as the reductionist “hormonal model” of sex by stating that hormones never determine when you have sex, who you have it with and what it means to you, and moreover he asks:

If our models for human sexual response have no component for intimacy or salience, how do we talk about sex having “meaning” without it sounding like conservative proselytizing or religious moralizing? If we can’t show our kids the dynamics of sexual desire or eroticism, how do we explain the sexual advantages of age and maturity? (Schnarch, 2009, p. 78)

Schnarch also criticizes what he calls the “piece of meat” model of sex, that is we have become fixated on as he states “tight buns”, and “flawless skin” as the “height of sexual attraction” (p. 79), we worship youth as the essence of eroticism, although he notes there’s no use in simply letting your body go as a response to this model, rather we could also focus on the emotional development that comes with increased sexual intimacy. But, with all this criticism what model does Schnarch himself employ? This he calls the “quantum model”, but what is it? The analogy Schnarch uses is to that of quantum physics and quantum theory which essentially studies “dynamic variables that specify a system’s behavior”, but more than that Schnarch’s quantum model offers a multilevel view of sexual functioning.

At its most basic, the quantum model explains how you function sexually – what’s required to make your genitals “work” and reach orgasm. But its real strength is helping people go beyond utilitarian genital function. At the limits of their sexual potential, humans are capable of bringing “high meaning” to sex and integrating sexuality and spirituality in mutually enhancing ways. In short the quantum model is easy to learn, and many people have used it to resolve sexual dysfunctions and explore their sexual potential. (Schnarch, 2009, p. 81)

Schnarch explains his thesis by starting with the physical dimensions, that is what physically happens to you during sexual stimulation, and is arguably the easy part during sex:

When your body detects sexual stimulation, it responds. The key is when your body detects it. When you are sufficiently aroused, your genitals respond. Become more aroused and your body reaches orgasm. At their simplest biological level, genital response and orgasm reflexes occur whenever sufficient stimulation has occurred.  (Schnarch, 2009, p. 81)

Schnarch asks us to imagine that your body has two “response thresholds” that is two sexual trigger points, (1): one for arousal (genital response) and (2): one for orgasm. When your body exceeds its physiological threshold for arousal your body reacts by preparing for sex (vaginal lubrication in women and an erection in men), when your level of arousal exceeds your orgasm threshold, you reach orgasm, Schnarch states that reaching orgasm and arousal thresholds are dubbed “normal sexual functioning”.

Of course this isn’t the entire spectrum of human sexuality for Schnarch, as he states some 400,000 years ago our species underwent some extraordinary changes, in that women stopped going into “heat” and started menstruating, meaning they had year round sexual desire, this led to men and women staying together longer, and led to the rise of families, societies and most important for us here today: the neocortex evolved. This opened up new avenues and problems for human sexuality, human sex and sexuality took on a mental aspect as well as a physical one, with humans being able to emotionally connect during intercourse, and desire a specific partner rather than simply responding to sexual tension.

But when our ancestors traded hormonally programmed regularity for the ability to bring meaning to sex, we became more susceptible to sexual dysfunctions and “inhibited sexual desire”. (Schnarch, 2009, p. 83)

We use our neocortex for self-awareness, thus making intimacy possible, but it can also drive us crazy as Schnarch says “spectatoring” ourselves and our performance during sex. Thusly our neocortex has become integral to our sexual functioning, the meanings we perceive during sex can determine how your body functions and how satisfying that functioning is. Schnarch states his quantum model takes into account the mental and physical aspects of sex by realizing that we are biologically based creatures that can bring meaning to sex, our feelings he says can have a bigger effect on arousal than can physical touch hence why his model attempts to look at the physical aspects of sex only after he’s addressed the mental.

We need a new mental picture of what constitutes sexual responsiveness. The total sexual stimulation you require to reach either your arousal or orgasm threshold stimulation is made up of sensory (mostly touch) stimulation you’re receiving from your partner plus your feelings and thoughts – feelings and thoughts about what you’re doing, whom you’re doing it with, and what it implies to you. Total stimulation is therefore more than friction of mucous membranes (as it is in more primitive species) and more friction plus fantasy. So to restate what we said earlier: when the combined stimulation of sensation plus feelings and thoughts reaches your threshold for arousal, or orgasm, the response you expect occurs. (Schnarch, 2009, p. 83)

Reference

Schnarch, D. (2009). Passionate Marriage. New York, New York. W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.

Differentiation: Maintaining The Self In Relation – Part 2.

September 10, 2014 Leave a comment

Now that we have looked at some of Schnarch’s ideas regarding sex, intimacy and relationships lets turn our focus toward his main thesis, that is: differentiation. But, what is it?

The polishing process in marriage is what I referred to earlier as differentiation. In a nutshell, differentiation is the process by which we become more uniquely ourselves by maintaining ourselves in relationship with those we love. It’s the process of grinding off our rough edges through the normal abrasions of long-term relationships. Differentiation is the key to not holding grudges and recovering quickly form arguments, to tolerating intense intimacy and maintaining your priorities in the midst of daily life. It lets you expand your sexual relationship and rekindle desire and passion in marriages that have grown cold. (Schnarch, 2009, p. 51)

Of course Schnarch’s thesis applies to almost anybody, in the sense that it applies to any person in relation to another person, he simply couches his terms in marriage. To Schnarch well-differentiated people can agree without feeling like they’re “losing themselves”,  similarly they can also disagree without feeling “alienated and embittered” (p. 56), they can “stay connected with people who disagree with them and still ‘know who they are’. They don’t have to leave the situation to hold onto their sense of self.” (p. 56) He states that a lack of differentiation can come from many sources (most notably the level of differentiation you learned from the family unit you come from), such as the perception of what he calls “fusion fantasies” that is the illusion we have that our partners are supposed to be as part of us, like one organism operating under the control of a single mind. This “emotional fusion” is the opposite of differentiation, in which he describes it as an “invisible-but-tenacious emotional connection” (p. 57), and here he states is an important lesson, differentiation is not simply a lack of connection, it is of a different kind, in which you can “stay in connection without being consumed by the other person” (p. 56), it is a ‘higher-order’ process that balances connection and autonomy. A lack of differentiation states Schnarch alienates us from those we love; emotional fusion is also a tricky problem to solve as popular culture has adopted it as the default position to be in, thus leading to us to think we’re not connected at any sign of an issue thereby forcing us to retreat in defense: “But the deeper truth is that we have to move away to counterbalance the tremendous impact we feel our spouse has on us. Or, unable to turn away, we turn ourselves over to the connection, but it feels engulfing.” (p. 57) It’s important to note that differentiation isn’t about alienating yourself either, Shnarch states differentiated people have strong emotional bonds, that is they “don’t require physical distance, infrequent contact or totally consuming careers to maintain their separate identities or moderate their reactivity to others” (p. 64), it is more about the ability to choose which contacts they will indulge in, out of deep liking, not compulsion. Going further Schnarch presses this point stating that those who urge for space within a relationship, are not highly differentiated people, that although defining boundaries is an important early step in differentiation, it is done so within the relationship “(that is close proximity and restricted space)” (p. 67). On the other side Schnarch states poorly differentiated people try to “keep the door open”, or “bolt as increasing importance of the relationship makes them feel like they’re being locked up.” (p. 67) Working on being able to maintain your sense of self in an intense emotional relationship is what develops your own level of differentiation.

Differentiation is the ability to maintain your sense of self when your partner is away or when you are not in a primary love relationship. You value contact, but you don’t fall apart when you’re done. Differentiation is different from similar sounding concepts. It’s entirely different from “individualism”, which is an egocentric attempt to set ourselves apart from others. Unlike “rugged individualists” who can’t sustain a relationship, differentiated folks welcome and maintain intimate connection. Highly differentiated people also behave differently than the terms autonomy and independence suggest. They can be heedful of their impact on others and take their partners needs and priorities into account. (Schnarch, 2009, p. 67)

Schnarch states that having a solid core of beliefs and values allows the differentiated self to be solid yet permeable, this way if your partner tries to mould or manipulate you, you can retain your identity, or as you choose, incorporate new information as you see fit. Schnarch is quick to note however that this can be a slow process, out of “soul-searching deliberation” , not simply as a response to the pressures posed by others. One might wonder if this is only an intellectual exercise that divorces feeling from thought, connection from relationship, Schnarch says no: “Differentiation doesn’t involve any lack of feelings or emotions…” (p. 68), it simply means that you form bonds that do not involve being swept up in such, that you don’t get caught up in your partners emotions, you can subjectively and objectively evaluate your and your partners feelings, in short: you feel, but you are not defined by your feelings. Nor is this differentiation selfish, you do not put yourself ahead of anyone, you can if you choose allow yourself to be as emotionally influenced by your partner as you want, but it is this expression of autonomy, that is an expression of differentiation. It is more about the awareness that your partner is their own person (complete with their own genetic, historical, culture familial experiences which shape who they are), and their wants and needs are just as important as yours, you allow yourself to see merit in their positions even if they aren’t congruent with yours, and even in circumstances where they conflict.  Schnarch calls this “mutuality”: “Differentiation is they key to mutuality; as a perspective, a mind-set, it offers a solution to the central struggle of any long-term relationship” going forward with your own self-development while being concerned with your partners happiness and well-being.”  (Schnarch, 2009, p. 68) (See how this touches on other philosophers thoughts here, and here). Finally Schnarch states two important principles we can look at here:

First, we emerge from our family of origin at about the highest level of differentiation our parents achieved. (Schnarch, 2009, p. 69)

The author states our level of differentiation is established during our adolescent years and can remain at that level for life.

In the process of regulating their own emotions, poorly differentiated parents pressure their children for togetherness or distance, which stops children from developing their ability to think, feel, and act for themselves. They learn to conduct themselves only in reaction to others. (Schnarch, 2009, p. 69)

How do we escape this conditioning? Schnarch states it isn’t easy, and that we can raise our level of differentiation through concentrated effort (like therapy), or through crisis (as commonly occurs through marriage, family, friendship and career). Mostly our level of differentiation stays as it is  generation to generation, and usually only changes when a family member is motivated to do so. This view too differs from the popular one that our spouse is our supposed to be our savior, pulling us out of our woes, or your family’s grasp.

Second, we always pick a martial partner who’s at the same level of differentiation as we are. (Schnarch, 2009, p. 69)

To Schnarch if one partner is disproportionately differentiated to the other, the relationship generally ends, sometimes one is only a half-step further along their path than the other (he accentuates that they’re only a half-step). Thus we need to give up the illusion that we might be so much further along than our partners or so much more healthy, moreover Schnarch states three things are implicated when you think/argue this way:

  • You have about the same tolerance for intimacy, although you may express it differently.

  • You and your spouse make splendid sparring partners because you have roughly the same level of differentiation.

  • Assume you are emotional “equals” even if you’d like to believe otherwise. If you want to discover important but difficult truths hidden in your marriage, stop assuming you’re more differentiated than your partner. Look at things from the view that you’re at the same level and you’ll soon see the trade-offs in your relationship. (Schnarch, 2009, p. 69)

As Schnarch states becoming differentiated is the most loving thing you can do in your lifetime, for those you love and yourself. This process however is not easy, as he says no-one ever wants to differentiate, and you’ll probably do it for the same reasons everyone else does: “differentiating eventually becomes less painful than other alternatives.” (p. 74) Don’t’ expect the process to be pain-free, as love can be both beautiful and painful, so too can differentiation. The reward is, at a high level of differentiation you will be able to tolerate, enjoy and see the meaning in the pains and joys of love.

Reference

Schnarch, D. (2009). Passionate Marriage. New York, New York. W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.

Differentiation: Maintaining The Self In Relation: Primer – Part 1.

August 13, 2014 2 comments

Schnarch has some interesting ideas regarding marriage, intimacy and relationships that I intend to share here, to him society generally has distorted our view of sexuality, love, relationships, communication and intimacy. For example we have taken an idea about intimacy, namely that our partner accepts and validates us, and convinced ourselves that this is the totality of what intimacy has to offer, thus placing the burden of being accepted and validated exclusively on our partners. He states that sociologists have suggested we crave “intimate union”, but Schnarch disagrees in that he believes something else is going on, in that we appear to crave intimacy but what we actually are searching for is someone to make us feel “acceptable and worthwhile” (p. 39).

We’ve assigned the label “intimacy” to what we want (validation and reciprocal disclosure) and developed pop psychologies that give it to us – while keeping true intimacy away. We’ve distorted what intimacy is, how it really feels, how much we really want it, and how best to get it. Once we realize that intimacy is not always soothing and often makes us feel insecure, it is clear why we back away from it. (Schnarch, 2009, p. 39)

Similarly Schnarch states we do something similar with communication, in that we expect to be understood the way we want and be answered with the response we want, he wants however to shift the focus away from making our partners do the impossible task of fulfilling our thoughts, desires and projections (they are not mind readers, they can only accidentally get your expectations right), and to turn the compass inwards, to look at ourselves as the source of our validation, or at least able to structure intimacy in a way that our partners aid us in a “self-validating” intimacy. Thus in turn reflectively enhancing your relationships net intimacy and sexual connection.

This goes too for sex in which Schnarch believes we have rooted sex and sexuality in a “biological hunger”, much like the desire for food, and thus low sexual functioning is labelled “sexual anorexia”, a sexual “eating disorder”. This places couples under an enormous amount of pressure to fulfill their partners and perhaps even their own expectations about sex and sexuality,  after all how messed up would you be if you didn’t want to eat? The same is thought of sex.

We don’t realize that seeing sex as a “drive” makes us focus on relieving sexual tension rather than wanting our partner. It may be true that the more tension (“horny”) people feel, the more they tend to seek relief – but if that’s the only reason you think your partner wants to be with you it tends to kill sex and intimacy in marriage. (Schnarch, 2009, p. 41)

Thinking of sex as a biological drive states Schnarch sets us up to believe we’re supposed to know how to have, enjoy and appreciate sex, and it also makes us think we should want it all the time, but this does not take into account the mental aspects of sex and sexuality:

Until couples go beyond viewing sex as a biological drive, they presume sexual behavior is a good measure of sexual desire and orgasm always involves high arousal and satisfaction. Common experiences of married couples disprove both assumptions.(Schnarch, 2009, p. 41)

Just what alternative view should we have of sex? Schnarch does offer some insights here (p. 75), but perhaps we can look at that later. In our next post we will begin to discuss Schnarch’s interesting and complicated differentiation thesis.

Reference

Schnarch, D. (2009). Passionate Marriage. New York, New York. W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.

Notes On Sam Harris’ ‘The Moral Landscape’: Specific Reflections.

October 4, 2013 3 comments

What about reflections more specific to Harris’ theory, that is the so-called “is/ought” problem:

The eighteenth-century philosopher David Hume famously argued that no description of the way the world is (facts) can tell us how we ought to behave (morality). (p. 10)

Harris states the problem as an issue between ‘facts’ and ‘values’, that philosophers and scientists such as Hume, G.E Moore, Jerry Fodor and Karl Popper have “fallen into the trap” (p. 10) of creating a firewall between facts and values, by thinking there is a problem here.  Scientists often study the “is” Harris states, that is they study “human happiness, positive emotions, and moral reasoning, they rarely draw conclusions about how human beings ought to think or behave in light of their findings. (p. 10) Moreover Harris states that it is generally considered “intellectually disreputable, even vaguely authoritarian” (pp. 10-11) for scientists to suggest that their work has implications for the moral life of others. Harris considers this kind of thinking to be a “faith in the intrinsic limits of reason” (p. 11) Harris believes that the divide between facts and values is illusory in at least three senses:

  1. whatever can be known about maximizing the well-being of conscious creatures – which is, I will argue, the only thing we can reasonably value – must at some point translate into facts about brains and their interaction with the world at large;

  2. the very idea  of “objective” knowledge (i.e. knowledge acquired through honest observation and reasoning) has values built into it, as every effort we make to discuss facts depends upon the principles that we must first value (e.g., logical consistency, reliance on evidence, parsimony etc.);

  3. beliefs about facts and beliefs about values seem to arise from similar processes at the level of the brain: it appears that we have a common system for judging truth and falsity in both domains. (Harris, 2010, p. 11)

To Harris, defining goodness in terms of well-being reduces the gulf between facts and values, in that well-being will be tied to the experience of conscious creatures,  and thus part of natural laws and discoverable by science. (p. 13)

What can we say here? Nielsen 2001 might be able to help us again,  in his discussion on the meaning of life in his book ‘Naturalism & Religion’, Nielsen states:

… we want an answer that is more than just an explanation or description of how people behave or how events are arranged or how the world is constituted. We are asking for is a justification of our existence. We are asking for why life is as it is, and not even the most complete explanation and/or description of how things are ordered can answer these quite different question.  The person who demands that some general description of man and his place in nature should entail a statement that man ought to live and die in a certain way is asking for something that can no more be the case than it can be the case that ice can gossip. (Nielsen, 2001, p. 109)

Nielsen continues, pace Harris, that no statement of fact about how we in fact do live can, by itself, be sufficient to answer the question of meaning and in Harris’ case, morality.  “No statement of what ought to be the case can be deduced from a statement of what is the case.” (p. 109) It is important to note that when we say cannot get an “is” deduced from a ought”, we are saying that we logically cannot.  In defending his moral view, that of “wide reflective equilibrium” (which will be discussed in an upcoming post on his book) Nielsen does agree with Harris insofar as there is “no moral difference without a factual difference”, when we critique Harris, it is not so much that his moral theory relies on facts, as much as it reduces all morality to facts, and facts only. There seems to be no reason why we need to restrict ourselves to a seemingly fallacious mode of thought, that, even if not fallacious, ignores “the plausible fit between our various moral judgements and actual beliefs, including for us our reflective beliefs about the (for us now) best established “substantiative and methodological elements of empirical science.” (Nielsen, quoting Railton, 2001, p. 220)  We can, and according to Craig and Moreland 2006 should use philosophy as a second-order discipline, that is a discipline that discusses primary schools of thought (such as, say, the facts of science, and other schools), to draw out the logical and otherwise philosophical implications of the facts we find in our world. Simply reducing values to facts in such a scientistic way by Harris, seems to miss a whole gamut of reflective experience that could influence the so-called moral landscape.

References

Harris, S. (2010). The Moral Landscape. New York, NY. Free Press.

Moreland, J., P., Craig, W., L. (2003). Philosophical Foundations For A Christian Worldview. Downers Grove, IL,  Intervarsity Press.

Nielsen, K. (2001). Naturalism & Religion. Amherst, New York. Prometheus Books.

Notes On Sam Harris’ ‘The Moral Landscape’: Abstract Reflections.

September 26, 2013 Leave a comment

In this series now we have looked at Sam Harris’ moral landscape very briefly (see here), and looked at some other terms, clarifications and confusions (on our part and others, see here). Today, I plan to offer some simple reflections, there has been great critical engagement with his theory by far better thinkers than me in other places (see Shook here, Benson here and Carrier here). Today I’ll start with some more abstract thoughts on Harris’ theory and philosophical assumptions, specializing to some more specific problems with his theory in another post.

Harris only attempts a definition and defence of physicalism at a very shallow level, and without critical engagement:

A dualist who believes in the existence of immaterial souls, might say that the entire field of neuroscience is beholden to the philosophy of physicalism (the view that mental events should be understood as physical events), and he would be right. the assumption that the mind is the product of the brain is integral  to almost everything neuroscientists do. Is physicalism a matter of “philosophy” or “neuroscience”? The answer may depend on where one is standing on the university campus. Even if we grant that only philosophers tend to think about “physicalism” per se, it remains a fact that any argument or experiment that put this philosophical assumption in doubt would be a landmark finding for neuroscience – likely the most important in history.  (Harris, 2010, pp. 179-180)

It is unclear how to specifically engage and indeed understand what Harris’ base assumptions are here, it seems he follows some kind of physicalism, but of which branch or brand?  It is clear it contains reductionism, and as Nielson 2001 states it is hard to imagine how we could have a reductionistic physicalism that relies on the sciences as it’s base without it being just another metaphysical (and dogmatic) system, a material one that replaces a theistic one, what Nielsen calls a “scientific mythology”, that is most importantly, not continuous with science, hence internally inconsistent. (pp. 57, 61) The problem is his reductionism and scientism is linked or perhaps even grounded in his physicalism, with that in mind, what are we supposed to make of his defence of reductionism and scientism?

There is no denying, however, that the effort to reduce all human values to biology can produce howlers. (Harris, 2010, p. 48)

Not much there.

From here Harris addresses why a scientific morality need not be a simple evolutionary account, that it would include “the totality of scientific facts that govern the range of conscious experiences that are possible for us.” (Harris, 2010, p. 49) And, he does address his scientism too:

Charges of “scientism” cannot be long in coming. No doubt, there are still some people who will reject any description of human nature that was not first communicated in iambic pentameter. (Harris, 2010, p. 46)

But does one really need to be with him, or someone who gets their morality from scripture? Given that there are a plethora of secular moral theories which do not rely purely on the sciences for their dictums, it would seem not (Mackie, 1977, Martin 2002 for examples). And that goes to the problem with Harris’ assumptions, if not his theory, he assumes there is no atheistic, even naturalistic position that would disagree with him. Not only has he avoided giving his theistic, idealistic opponents a fair treatment, but he has not given his naturalistic ones one either.

None of this engages with what are serious concerns about the grounding of his theory in coherency. One might argue his is a pragmatic case to make, that the functionality of neuroscience to explain brain mechanisms and resulting behaviour is supported by both practice, theory and indeed praxis. But, and although it would seem the stronger case to make, with a great philosophical and naturalistic tradition (in Quine, Dewey, Hook, Pierce etc), Harris ignores a pragmatic approach to his naturalistic moral theory, instead seeking at a shallow level to defend the strongest and some might argue, incoherent form of physicalism, that is linked to scientism and reductionism. What about intersubjectivity, and the social aspect of humans? Nielsen argues that we are not just biological machinelike beings, explainable only by the hard or natural sciences, rather a holistic explanation of morality needs to include a macroscopic view that includes descriptions of us as “irreducibly social beings and the human animal as a self-reflecting animal.” (p. 57) We want to include in our worldview explanations that cater to all of reality; are anthropologists studying reality? Are cultural theorists? Are political scientists? Are economists? These are not hard sciences, if they are sciences at all, but it is hard to believe these people aren’t studying reality, and that their investigations have nothing to say about morality. Harris, by definitional fiat, is ruling out that these people will have anything to say; this is dogmatic physicalism of the kind even atheists can, and indeed should reject, at least insofar as Nielsen (an atheist philosopher) would argue.

Obviously these thoughts are not conclusive, and to many, not even on point. Of course they aren’t meant to be decisive, and I am a fallibalist after all, I of course could be way off.

References

Harris, S. (2010). The Moral Landscape. New York, NY. Free Press.

Mackie, J., L. (1977). Ethics: Inventing Right And Wrong. Strand, London. Penguin Books.

Martin, M. (2002). Atheism, Morality And Meaning.  Amherst, New York. Prometheus Books.

Nielsen, K. (2001). Naturalism & Religion. Amherst, New York. Prometheus Books.

Notes On Sam Harris’ ‘The Moral Landscape’: Subjectivity V Objectivity.

September 15, 2013 Leave a comment

After looking at some basic terms, very briefly (see here), I want to turn now to something which may seem peripheral, and maybe it is, but is of interest to me nonetheless. What am I speaking about? Relativistic v objectivist morality, and some misunderstandings about it, and where Harris might land on either issue.

Moral Relativism

As stated in the last post, Harris’ thesis is about setting up a moral system that is objective, and based on truth – that is – not relativistic, subjective, and thus not simply relying on the whims, or preference of any given person or culture on any given day.

Moral relativism, however tends to be self-contradictory. Relativists may say that moral truths exist only relative to a specific cultural framework – but this claim about the status of moral truth purports to be true across all possible frameworks. In practice relativism most always amounts to the claim that we should be tolerant of moral difference because no moral truth can supersede any other. And yet this commitment to tolerance is not put forward as simply one relative preference among others deemed equally valid. (Harris, 2010, p. 45)

Harris goes further than this, he states that the motivations for relativism lie in the intellectual reparations for Western colonialism ethnocentrism and racism (p. 45), this being the only “charitable” thing he can say about it.

Later on in his book, the last page in fact, Harris in recognizing some of what anthropologists and cultural theorists might say about the state of relativism, states that it is not subjectivity that is the problem for a moral theory, at least as far as the scientists who study the brain are concerned. No, it is the belief (among those scientists) that there is no intellectual justification for “speaking about right and wrong or good and evil, across cultures.” (p. 190)

Much of this of course might be considered a caricature of what relativists, of any breed- be they anthropologist, atheistic philosopher, Post Modernist (theistic? After all a divine intelligence is a mind is it not? Would a moral law given from such an intelligence be considered simply divine relativism?) or otherwise – might say. He does not engage much with relativistic challenges to his theory, instead choosing to make common sense points, rather than referencing. This is a book written at the popular level however, you may choose to give it wriggle room for that, or not.

The challenge of subjectivity, and what it means to knowledge of all types is a serious one, that many philosophers have struggled with (see here, here, here, here, here). Heidegger, Patocka, Husserl, Foucault and Post Modern thinkers working in that tradition such as Heise are all concerned with how the phenomological, subjective experience is taken into account with theories of objectivity, as Patocka states, theories that situate us in the third person, or as Foucault might say, theories that ignore power relations. It would have been nice to see stronger engagement with this philosophical challenge.

Objective/ Subjective

To further draw out what Harris might mean though let’s turn to what he means when he uses the terms ‘objective’ and subjective’, and indeed ‘absolute’. Harris thinks that many people are confused about what scientific objectivity might mean:

As philosopher John Searle once pointed out, there are two very different senses of the terms “objective” and “subjective”. The first sense relates to how we know (i.e., epistemology), the second to what there is to know (i.e., ontology). When we say that we are reasoning or speaking “objectively”, we generally mean that we are free of obvious bias, open to counterarguments, cognizant of the relevant facts, and so on. This to make a claim about how we are thinking. In this sense, there is no impediment to our studying the subjective (I.e. first-person) facts “objectively. (Harris, 2010, p. 29)

From this Harris uses the analogy of his tinnitus to show that although this is a subjective experience, he is being “objective” in the sense that is he is not lying about his tinnitus, this is not preference or bias. He states his experience can be confirmed by an otologist, which suggests his tinnitus has a third-person (objective) cause that can be discovered. Moreover Harris states that much of the sciences of the mind are predicated on being able to “correlate first-person reports of subjective experience with third-person states of the brain.” (p. 30)  From here Harris states that many people think that just because moral facts relate to experience and are thus “ontologically subjective” all talk of morality must be subjective in the epistemological sense, that is biased, or merely personal. Harris doesn’t think this is so. He doesn’t deny that there is a subjective realm of experience in regards to his talk of objective moral truths, or objective causes of human well-being. He is not saying moral truth exists independently of the experience of conscious creature either, or that some actions are intrinsically wrong. What he means to say is:

I am simply saying that, given that there are facts – real facts – to be known about how conscious creatures can experience the worst possible misery and the greatest possible well-being, it is objectively true to say that there are right and wrong answers to moral questions. (Harris, 2010, p. 30)

Finally, Harris makes the distinction, that is not always obviously delivered in say, debates on morality between atheists and theists, that there is a distinction in moral talk between ‘objective’, that is in either the epistemological or ontological senses discussed above and ‘absolute’, in which a moral truth is so and has no exceptions (see Moreland & Craig, 2003 for an equivocation between absolute and objective). We can speak of morals Harris thinks in objective terms, without speaking about them in absolute ones.

Many people seem to think that a universal conception of morality requires that we find moral principles that admit of no exceptions. If, for instance, it is truly wrong to lie, it must always be wrong to lie – and if one can find a single exception, any notion of moral truth must be abandoned. But the existence of moral truth – that is, the connection between how we think and behave and our well-being – does not require that we define morality in terms of unvarying moral precepts. (Harris, 2010, p. 8)

Reference

Harris, S. (2010). The Moral Landscape. New York, NY. Free Press.

Moreland, J., P., Craig, W., L. (2003). Philosophical Foundations For A Christian Worldview. Downers Grove, IL,  Intervarsity Press.

Notes On Sam Harris’ ‘The Moral Landscape’: Primer.

September 6, 2013 2 comments

I’ve read this book a long time ago, since then my perspective has changed, and after some interactions with friends on Facebook in which it was brought up again, I decided to give it another read. I’m not entirely sure what I want to say about it, if I had any major criticisms, but I know I do want to catalogue some notes, some account of what it is Harris is saying in his book, for my notes, and to refer to later on.

It might be best to start with Harris’ main thesis, which he states:

I will argue, however, that questions about values – about meaning, morality, and life’s larger purpose – are really questions about the well-being of conscious creatures. Values translate into facts that can be scientifically understood: regarding positive and negative social emotions, retributive impulses, the effects of specific laws and social institutions on human relationships, the neurophysiology of happiness and suffering etc. The most important of these facts are bound to transcend culture – just as facts about physical and mental health do. (Harris, 2010, pp. 1-2

To Harris human well-being depends on “events in the world and on states of the human brain.” (p. 2), and although he doesn’t anticipate a complete understanding of all the complexities and nuances of moral problems, he does propose that his theory will force people to deal with moral reasoning constrained to the (scientific) facts. Morality and values will become a discussion about facts of the brain, about how thoughts and intentions arise, and what those mental states will mean in terms of behavior; terms like “good” and “evil” will be exhausted by the science governing the analysis of these states.  As the man himself states: “I will argue that morality should be considered an undeveloped branch of science.” (p.4)  Harris makes his motivations clear, in that at least in part he is looking to solve the problem of relativism, that is specifically moral relativism from the secular left and the “scriptural literalism” of the conservative right, he wants an objective morality that is not based on supernaturalism.

The Moral Landscape

Throughout the book Harris discusses several terms, which we might now like to turn to and define, for the sake of clarity, firstly, the Moral Landscape:

Throughout this book I shall make reference to a hypothetical space that I call “the moral landscape” – a space of real and potential outcomes whose peaks correspond to the heights of potential well-being and whose valleys represent the deepest possible suffering. Different ways of thinking and behaving – different cultural practices, ethical codes, modes of government etc. – will translate into movements across this landscape, and, therefore, into different degrees of human flourishing. I’m not suggesting that we will necessarily discover one right answer to every moral question or a single best way for human beings to live. Some questions may admit of many answers, each more or less equivalent. However, the existence of multiple peaks on the moral landscape does not make them any less real or worthy of discovery. (Harris, 2010, p. 7)

Harris anticipates that some may find this term vague, but he argues there are analogies we can use, that of food, in that there is no one food that is right to eat, yet there is an objective difference between food and poison.

Peaks and Valleys

Although we covered this briefly above, let’s draw out some more detail on these terms:

Even if there is a thousand ways for these two people to thrive, there will be many ways for them not to thrive – and the differences between luxuriating on a peak of well-being and languishing in a valley of internecine horror will translate into facts that can be scientifically understood.  (Harris, 2010, p. 41

Harris’ theory is aiming, in consequentialist fashion (a topic for another blog) to map out a formula to provide a way to find the most amount of happiness for the most number of people, and although he admits there will be “practical impediments” to finding that route there will be moral equivalencies on such, and in turn many peaks on his moral landscape. That is a point that needs special attention, Harris seemingly respects that different cultures and people might have different ways to reach a moral peak, to feel fulfilled in life, but the unifying factor is the moral theory he is proposing; you feeling you have different values, may also be a way to a peak on the moral landscape (it would of course need to be evaluated). The grounding of a science of morality in conscious states, with “the worst possible misery for everyone at its depths and differing degrees of well-being at all other points – seems like the only legitimate context in which to conceive of values and moral norms.” (p. 41)

Well-being

Another term we might like to look at is that of “well-being” a term that Harris admits is difficult to define, but through analogy Harris explores how we might use it: that is, in reference to physical health. To Harris physical health is a term that is indispensable, yet is constantly open to revision (think of what might have been considered healthy in the dark ages, compared to now) similarly so too is well-being. Although there might be ‘valleys’ and ‘peaks’ on the moral landscape, we must define that which is good as integral to well-being. It might be reasonable to ask from here why this is so, and what specifically composes this ‘good’ Harris speaks of. Harris thinks, that when we ask, for example if pleasure is good (or should be maximized), we are really asking if it is conducive to some deeper form of well-being, and although some may question whether it makes sense to maximize pleasure in any given sense, it makes no sense to ask if maximizing well-being is thus. This admits that there are answers to the question of well-being, even if we aren’t sure what they are, but most importantly, it ties “notions of goodness to the experience of sentient beings.” (p. 12)

Harris anticipates and respects the objection that some may not accept that values or morality have anything to do with well-being, or rather that some may possess some skewed form of well-being that is hostile to the well-being of others, he states this objection is at the heart of many peoples doubts about moral truth. To this objection Harris states that consensus, that is in moral or scientific discourse does not hold that every opinion is valid, that for some reason people who do not accept our moral goals make the act of looking for such incapable. To further draw this point out Harris looks at Biblical Creationists in science, now, they may claim to be using science, but as Harris states “real scientists are free, and indeed obligated, to point out that they are misusing the term.” (p. 34) Similarly those concerned with moral discourse whose moral principles cause tremendous suffering, nothing predisposes us to simply saying these people have distorted values. Going further Harris asks if people would attack the philosophical underpinnings of medicine with questions like: “What about all the people who don’t share your goal of avoiding disease and early death?” (p. 36) Harris thinks that although someone is allowed to raise such an objection as this, it doesn’t mean we need to take it seriously. Harris admits we all possess intuitive moral reasoning, but much of this is wrong, and only genuine moral experts will posses a “deep understanding of the causes and conditions of human and animal well-being.” (p. 36)

Reference

Harris, S. (2010). The Moral Landscape. New York, NY. Free Press.

Categories: Atheism, Ethics, Philosophy, Science
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