Praise, Blame and Sam Harris's "Confluence"

In a forthcoming article in the New Statesman, Sam Harris states that not only is the idea of god a delusion, but so also is the idea of free will. He states that "we can find no room for it in the causal order" and that "all of our behavior can be traced to biological events about which we have no conscious knowledge." Finally, he states that "every person represents a confluence of forces that he did not will into being - and we can be lucky or very unlucky in this respect."

While all of this might be true, I'm not inclined to make as much of this as Sam is. If one completely unpacks that confluence, we risk losing the big picture: that of the human herself. If we think of a human being as a machine that can be tuned like an instrument, which knobs should we turn and why? More importantly, who gets to turn the knobs? All social and personal goals are bound up in that 'confluence,' so in the end, it comes down to an arbitrary set of value judgements no one is qualified to make (Not that someone wouldn't try).

I regard myself as a responsible human being: one of the many, many pillars upon which civilization rests. That civilization is the lifeblood of all human endeavors, providing manifold benefits to us all. We do not all contribute equally to that civilization, and some weigh it down, sometimes in grevious ways. I recognize that even the Charles Mansons of the world may be themselves victims (if that is even the right word) of circumstance, but my compassion is muted by the scope of human experience that must be sacrificed to save that one shaky pillar. My desire to show mercy is undercut by the other pillars still standing, wavering, looking for an excuse to fall down.

For now, I regard the notions of praise, blame, and responsibility as at worst workable shorthands designed by natural selection to maintain society and order, and identify and achieve ever greater social harmony. Clearly there is more to it than that, and science can contribute to that process, but it must take care not to undermine it's raison d'etre: the human experience itself.

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Comment by Daniel young on December 17, 2011 at 6:42am

If we think of a human being as a machine that can be tuned like an instrument, which knobs should we turn and why? More importantly, who gets to turn the knobs? All social and personal goals are bound up in that 'confluence,' so in the end, it comes down to an arbitrary set of value judgements no one is qualified to make (Not that someone wouldn't try).

I view this from a slightly different perspective, I feel that our "nobs" are already being tuned by the culture and their governments. This is still being accomplished because of the ignorance of the layman, the citizen.

The more people realize just how pliable their brain really is, the more they will realize that all this information from commercials ( you need this thing, you will be happier with this product, eat all this and don't worry whether it is healthy or not... ).

As well as the somewhat one-sided information that we are bombarded with from the mass media (The "prominent" rich are to emulate because they represent "the good life", Muslims are evil, Christians are good, watch all this crap on the TV because its important...)

When we understand more about the brain, we will be better outfitted to raise our children in such a way that they can fully realize their potential, ( beatings and abuse of all kind is not a good thing to do, and knowing the different brain developmental stages and how and what to teach during the stages is important.)

I don't see how discovering how the biological machine works takes anything away from the "I" in the machine. Nor can I explain what the "I" is, but having knowledge about the biology of "me" will help me and my offspring to survive as long as possible and intent as possible.

I'm not so naive to think that this sort of knowledge wont be, but probably will be misused, I can see only one cure for this problem and that is more knowledge for Everyone.

Naturally this is my cultural, subjective view of things, others will be of another opinion.

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