Reviewers are talking about Sam Harris’ new book, The Moral Landscape, available from Amazon. Harris’ first book, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason attacked religion ( see my discussion of it here) but in this book he is preposing science as a source for ethics. This sounds like Harris might be a naturalist, but he doesn’t think morality is directly measurable in that way, but rather that morality is linked to wellbeing and wellbeing can be grounded in measurable things. He discusses it in Radio 4s Start the Week, available here. It’s on my reading list.
Eagleman was recently interviewed on Andrew Marr’s Start the Week (http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00zzqy9#synopsis). In his new book ‘Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain’ he explores the brain and presents, in an accessible way if the reviews are to be believed, his case that decisions are made by the brain all the time and that we are usually not aware of the reasons for the decision.
“In a recent experiment, men were asked to rank how attractive they found photographs of different women’s faces. The photos were 8 x 10 inches, and showed women facing the camera, or turned in three-quarter profile. Unbeknownst to the men, in half the photos the women had their eyes dilated, and in the other half they did not. The men were consistently more attracted to the women with dilated eyes. Remarkably, the men had no insight into their decision making. None of them said, “I noticed her pupils were 2 millimeters larger in this photo than in the other one.” Instead, they simply felt more drawn toward some women than toward others, for reasons they couldn’t quite put a finger on.
But their choices weren’t accidental. In the largely inaccessible workings of the brain, somethingknew that a woman’s dilated eyes correlates with sexual excitement and readiness. Their brains knew this, but the men didn’t—at least not explicitly. Presumably, the men also didn’t know that their sense of beauty and attraction is deeply hard-wired, steered in the right direction by programs carved by millions of years of natural selection. When the men were choosing the most attractive woman, they didn’t know that the choice was not theirs, really, but instead the choice of successful programs that had been burned down deep into the brain’s circuitry over the course of millions of years and hundreds of thousands of generations.” (page 6)
Read more here: http://www.eagleman.com/incognito
For philosophers and politicians the question here is if our decisions are largely made by our brains, rather than ‘us’ (and by us we mean the conscious self) to what extent are they free and therefore to what extent can we be blamed for our choices, for example to commit crimes. Eagleman thinks this is the wrong question to think about. The right question is what to do with an individual who has done something, in the light of the brain that they have. He thinks that punishments should be individualised to the particular individual, rather than universalised. If human judgments are the result of the particular developments of the brain caused by decades of experience and inherited genes, the important thing to do is work out what needs to be done to that individual to prevent a repeat of the offence. It is simply not a question of moral responsibility which is something Eagleman finds mysterious and perhaps inaccessible. Eagleman is not a hard determinist in that he believes there is some space for free action, but it is a small space.
This leaves questions for religious systems that place a lot of importance on moral responsibility, such as those that consider ‘sin’ an important feature or karma. Eagleman’s work is based on neuroscience, not theology, but surely theology must respond to these new understandings of our brain operations?
You can buy the book here: http://www.amazon.co.uk/exec/obidos/ASIN/1847679382/rsweb-21
Many thanks to the students of Benenden school for their hospitality and conversation this evening.
International Religious Freedom Report The International Religious Freedom report is submitted to Congress annually by the US Department of State. This report supplements the most recent Human Rights Reports by providing additional detailed information with respect to matters involving international religious freedom. It includes individual country chapters on the status of religious freedom worldwide. http://www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/irf/. Also available as a pdf here: http://www.uscirf.gov/images/annual%20report%202010.pdf
Persecuted and Forgotten Aid to the Church in Need have published their report on persecution against Christians. Free copies may be ordered from www.acnuk.org . Examples of persecution are reported from around the world including Asia Bibi on Death row in Pakistan for blasphemy, the murder of priests in Iraq, restrictions in China and bombings at Churches in Egypt.
Five Year Report: Intolerance against Christians in Europe compiled by the
I attach a flier which has suggestions for how school children may respond to the Japan emergency. I taught in Japan for a year many years ago, in a county called Toyama, on the west coast of the central Honshu island. Tragically, a whole class of children from Toyama were killed when they were visiting Christchurch, New Zealand in the earthquake a few weeks ago. Of course this is now overshadowed by the scale of the greater disaster that has befallen Japan.
My year in Japan was part of a cultural project to bridge our countries and encourage friendship between our peoples, and at the end of it I made a commitment to be a friendly envoy for Toyama county and the people of Japan. In the light of the disasters that have befallen that people I, and my wife who also taught in Japan, have decided to try to encourage schools to do something.
The flier has a couple of suggestions, one of which is to encourage the act of making origami cranes, which is a tradition that every Japanese school child learns and participates in. It is linked with the story of Sadako Sasaki, the girl who wanted to make a thousand cranes as an act of peace after the dropping of the atomic bomb. In Japanese tradition a crane lived for a thousand years and it was said that if you made a thousand cranes your wish would come true. Sadako wished for a nuclear free world of peace. She died of leukemia, from the bomb, before she finished her task so her school friends finished it for her. Now every school in Japan participates in this act of peace in her memory and in the hope of peace.
I would like to inspire some schools in England to take up this tradition as an act of solidarity with the school children of Japan and in the hope of peace for them and for the world. If stories were to reach Japan of school children from across the seas making cranes for Japan then it might just give them a little hope.
If you feel you can help, click the link below
Many thanks for your time.
Response to Japan
So what should A Level Religious Studies look like in future? Currently most students take a religious ethics paper and the next biggest group is Philosophy of Religion. Biblical studies gets fewer students and the specific religious fewer still. Pre -U has a mix of Philosophy, Ethics and Biblical studies. So should we go for 3 areas rather than two? What do want students to get from their A level RS? Answers on a postcard…
I have been hearing about something called narrative
ethics. Essentially this I’d an approach to ethics which is
understood in two ways. One way takes a personalist approach to a
dilemma that is focussed on the story of the moral agent, their
history and situation and relates moral decision making to this
‘narrative’. Another form is to actually use an existing narrative,
such as the Bible, and use it to approach a moral understanding of
what to do. An example of this is the use of Exodus by Liberation
Theology. So narrative ethics is quite different from ethics that
are principle based. It is a kind of combination of personalism,
virtue theory and situation ethics, rooted in historical
experience. How this would work in practice needs teasing out so I
might write a piece for REonline trying to do so. However there are
some obvious problems. It sounds rather relativistic. How can we be
sure we are really doing the right thing and not simply something
that fits our personality? Do moral principles have no place
I have been thinking about these again. I feel that often people talk about shared values without articulating them very much. Google the phrase and you get some quite different views on what they might be. Some take a more secular approach. Liberty, the human rights group sees human rights themselves as an expression of shared values. Click here to watch some of their short videos on these. The Guardian Newspaper ran a series on something called citizen ethics with contributions from scholars and writers. These took a rather more critical and virtue based approach. Neither of these say very much about religious and philosophical differences however and the perceived sense of civilizational clash. Other approaches seem more inclusive of religious perspectives. Runzo has written something interesting here. There is an interesting Scottish attempt called values in harmony and there is the statement by the Parliament of World Religions called Towards a Global Ethic.
I enjoyed meeting the students who came to the Thinking Conference at York St John University last week. The questions were good too. I had talked a little about applying theories to environmental ethics . I had mentioned that I though Kant’s centrality of the person and the necessity of universalizability was helpful in understanding why we should be just in not pursing industrial policies that harmed others living in low lying parts of the world which suffer from rising sea levels. It seems to me that the Categorical imperative is a really helpful way of thinking about about responsibilities, our duties to others, and the need to follow ourselves the rules about how we develop. I think Kant wants us to think foreward to the Kingdom of Ends and so the future matters. So we must not only think about the here and now. But I still think we need habit forming ethics to help deal with the practical problem of how to get people to live more simple lives.
You can download the talk here.
In one of the feedbacks someone raged about Gaia theory. If you are out there and want to make a point, this is what this site is for.