‘The Moral Landscape’ by Sam Harris

‘The Moral Landscape’ by Sam Harris (Black Swan, 2010): review by Robert M. Ellis

Sam Harris is often accounted one of the ‘new atheist’ school of thinkers who have offered a rallying point of anti-religious thought in recent years. The new atheists seem to rapidly divide opinion, because their detractors and admirers focus on entirely different aspects of their writing. The admirers cheer on their well-aimed blows at religious dogma, whilst their detractors tend to be horrified by their reductive certainties and lack of interest in the complexity of experiences that surround religion. Whether they are guilty of aggression and arrogance, as often alleged, is a matter of which criteria one applies – do we accept their rationalisations in the spirit of their concern for truth, or do we look at the wider impression they make on us, expecting a breadth and even-handedness that tends to appear rather too rarely?The Moral Landscape

Sam Harris is typical of the new atheists in reflecting this difficulty. On the face of it he has at least three advantages over the best-known new atheist, Richard Dawkins: a degree in Philosophy, a Ph.D. in neuroscience, and some experience of Buddhist practice (discussed more fully in his more recent book, ‘Waking Up’). However, in this book, which is an argument for taking prescriptive ethics seriously from a scientific standpoint, there are (oddly) no references at all to Buddhism, mindfulness or anything related to it. This book is apparently based on his neuroscience Ph.D. thesis, despite the fact that it is much more a piece of (at least slightly popularised) philosophy than it is neuroscience. It must have undergone a great deal of adaptation from a Ph.D. thesis, as the references to the research Harris engaged in often appear rather incidental to the main argument. It also fails to pull its punches in the way any prior reader of ‘The End of Faith’ would expect, particularly engaging in repeated attacks on Islamic beliefs (which always focus on the most extreme) and an extended (and rather personal) attack on Francis Collins, a prominent scientist who is also an evangelical Christian.

I often find Harris the most plausible of the new atheists, because he simply has a wider view (particularly compared to Dawkins) and takes more types of conditions into account. I was sympathetic in principle to the fact that this was an attempt to bring together discussion of philosophy, psychology, neuroscience and critical discussion of religion, and that the book was evidently addressed to a wider audience than just academic philosophers. Nor is this just another anti-God book. This is a book about ethics.

On the face of it the main argument of the book may also appear to be doing some similar things with ethics to ones I have attempted myself: that is, presenting a positive account of what ethics is that is based in experience, challenging both moral relativism and religious absolutism, and along the way challenging the fact-value distinction. Harris is rightly impatient with the narrow descriptivism of many scientists who think that science has nothing to do with values, and that ethics should be handled only with the gloves of distanced neutrality. He points out the evidence that there is no difference between the way facts and values are handled by the brain. He also recognises that ethics is a revisable, open-ended enquiry rather like science, and avoids at least some of the idealisations of ethics that have made too many philosophers treat it as absolutely distinct from science. He is also right in his well-known criticisms of religious metaphysics, which he links with an argument about the moral inadequacy they create.

However, if you have sympathised with these aspects of Harris’s case, nodded your head over the book, and felt in harmony with his anti-religious crusade, then I want to suggest that you have not read the book nearly critically enough. In fact, Harris’s whole approach here is symptomatic of the critical mistakes made in a recent wave of increasingly popular secularist thinking. These mistakes are often a mirror image of the kinds of mistakes made by the new atheists’ opponents, the religious absolutists, and amount to a string of unnecessary dogmatic assumptions, false dichotomies, and selective use of arguments against opponents that apply just as much to their own position. What shocked me most about Harris’s argument here, too, is his narrow and highly selective interpretation of scientific evidence about the brain, including his own data, without any acknowledgement of the possibility of alternative interpretations that undermine his case.

Before I start to offer more support to these critical allegations about the book, though, let me give the whole argument a little more context by pointing out the thinking that Harris must surely have come into some contact with, but that he has totally ignored, even though they were of obvious relevance, and in my view their use could have given a lot more consistency and perspective to his case. I have already mentioned the lack of mention of Buddhism, but to this can be added the complete ignoring either of the Middle Way or anything remotely analogous to it. Indeed the possibility of any third alternative to religious absolutism on the one hand and scientific naturalism on the other just doesn’t figure in his argument. Like one of his associates, Owen Flanagan with his ‘Bodhisattva’s Brain’, he appears to have explored Buddhism without remotely considering the possibility that it might contain within it any kind of distinctive epistemological or moral standpoint that might have anything to say about the very issue of moral relativism he is addressing. This is not all he ignores, though. Surely, as a student of neuroscience, he must have come across brain lateralisation and all that has to contribute to this debate? But no, not even a mention of the way over-dominance of the left hemisphere may distort our moral judgements. Then what about the embodied meaning thesis? Surely he has come across the work of Lakoff and Johnson? No, traditional representationalism is simply assumed, and all questions of meaning simply avoided. Then there is the integration model used by Daniel Siegel, of potentially great use in understanding ethics from a scientific point of view, also ignored. Many of the key game-changing developments of philosophy, psychology and neuroscience, some of them predominantly developed on the US West Coast where Harris did his graduate studies – all totally ignored. What we get instead is a slightly new variation, with neuroscientific additions that have no central role, on the kind of moral naturalist argument that could have been given by Hume more than 200 years ago. The book was published in 2010, but all these developments were at least well under way before then. It’s always a bit risky to complain about what a writer fails to include rather than what they did include, because books are limited and there is such a huge amount that could potentially be included in any book, but in this case the omissions are both extremely salient and right in Harris’s path both academically and geographically, so I am inclined to suspect dogmatic exclusion rather than accidental ignorance. At the very least this can be counted an opportunity missed.

What these ignored perspectives could potentially contribute is a discussion of how judgements can become dogmatic, whether in religion or elsewhere. One can hardly say that Harris is not interested (or should not be interested) in dogmas and their relationship to the brain, because he did his Ph.D. neuroscience research into the effects of belief on the brain. Yet there is almost nothing about moral judgement in this book. Religious dogmas are attacked and reason appealed to, on the assumption that reason can make a difference. But there is no recognition that dogmas can take non-religious forms as well. There is discussion of the role of belief in the brain, but no indication of how one might differentiate the provisional from the dogmatic in the way a belief is held in the brain. I suspect that one reason Harris may not want to explore that route is because it would profoundly threaten his assumption that dogma is a distinctly and almost exclusively religious creation. Any exploration of the role of dogma in the brain would involve the recognition that dogma is much more widespread than that, and that religious dogma should take its place as only one form of possible dogma.

One of the reasons that Harris says nothing about moral judgement appears to be that he is a determinist who thinks that judgements are illusory and have no impact on what we do. Our choices, he tells us, are just rationalisations by which we reassure ourselves that we are in control, rather than indications that we actually are. But this is one of Harris’s most basic dogmas. Granted that many of our conscious judgements are rationalisations of brain processes that have already occurred, this does not mean that we cannot have a longer-term effect on the judgements we are liable to make. To use Jonathan Haidt’s image of conscious judgement as the rider of an elephant, most of the time the elephant goes where it wants, but that does not prevent the rider from planning ahead and subtly goading the elephant one way or another. The rider is not helpless, it is just that steering an elephant is complex and involves time delays.

Harris even trots out the Benjamin Libet research telling us that the brain events indicating a judgement occur before we are conscious of making a judgement, though all this tells us is that judgement is not a merely conscious process, and that the actions it affects may not be the immediate ones. This leads to some other big holes in his case. He appears to be telling us that our decisions will occur regardless of the judgements we make, and yet that prescriptive ethics matter. How can prescriptive ethics matter if there is nothing we can do about how we act? If his reasonings are just another conditioning element, which will persuade us regardless of our judgement, there is nothing to prescribe, only an inevitable process to describe, making his determinism radically inconsistent with his rejection of scientific descriptivism. There is nothing in this book, either, about how we can improve our judgements, despite the fact that Harris apparently knows about meditation and that he discusses cognitive biases as evidence of our irrationality. This is prescriptive ethics without prescriptions, without any apparent practical application for improving our lives.

Harris’s case against freewill is similar to his case against religious belief, and also his case against religious moral absolutism: that is, a purely negative pointing out of the delusions of metaphysical dogma. This is fine as far as it goes, but then is assumed without further argument to support the contrary case. Yes, freewill is a metaphysical dogma, but so is determinism – and the dogmas of determinism are neither examined nor justified, merely assumed. Similarly, pointing out the dogmas of theism offers a justification for agnosticism, not for atheism, but Harris entirely ignores agnosticism as an option. The same pattern is repeated in this book in relation to absolutist religious ethics. Much energy is exerted to show the dogmatic untenability and the disastrous moral effects of religious absolutism, for example by encouraging the spread of AIDS by discouraging condom use. Harris also points out the practical inadequacy, hypocrisy and contradictions created by moral relativism, especially of the descriptivist type embraced by many scientists (who, for example, according to Harris, will even defend female genital mutilation as acceptable within the terms of its own culture). All of this, one would have thought, leads us to a Middle Way position in which both absolutism and relativism need to be avoided, and where moral good is seen as developed by judgements that avoid dogmas on either side. But not a bit of it. What Harris offers, instead, is naturalistic absolutism.

This absolutism is never clearly acknowledged as such, but rather introduced by frequent reference to claimed moral facts of the matter. The power of such claimed facts is then rhetorically associated with the scientific (or naturalistic) understanding of ethics, so that the unwary reader may end up believing the scientists somehow know the moral truths that Harris is so convinced of. This way of proceeding reminds me of the similar deceptiveness in Plato in the ‘Republic’, who goes on about the moral truth of the Forms in a way that may make us assume that he (or his dialogue characters) actually know these moral truths. It is only on closer examination that these ‘moral truths’ turn out to be mere abstractions not actually known (and very likely not actually knowable) by anybody. As a general rule of thumb, the more philosophers go on about moral truths (especially when they don’t clearly admit to not knowing any), the more we should suspect them of not acknowledging their limitations, and thus actually lacking moral wisdom.

The naturalistic understanding of ethics to which Harris tries to appropriate these ‘moral facts’ is one in which the good is described as ‘well-being’. Harris professes that he is unable to imagine any kind of moral appeal that is not in some way an appeal to people’s well-being. Harris is open about ‘well-being’ being an open and flexible term, the exact nature of which requires further exploration and research, but nevertheless he asserts that there is always a ‘fact of the matter’ about what sorts of actions would lead to more well-being. He does not seem to recognise that any such ‘fact of the matter’ is irrelevant when we do not have access to it. Our moral judgements need to be based on what we can judge in experience, not some purely notional absolute entity beyond experience. Our experience does include the value of well-being, but also includes many other values: is the value of art and aesthetic appreciation reducible to well-being? Is the pursuit of science itself? Is the welfare of animals and landscapes? Perhaps an argument could be found for all of these, questionably also leaving a residue in each case of aspects of these goods that do not seem to be about well-being. However, the bigger objection in the end is our lack of understanding of any final account of good, and thus the inadequacy of any particular such account that tries to nail it down to only one quality. There are all sorts of things we do or should value, for all sorts of reasons.

The gap between what we actually value and what we should value is also a problem for naturalism of any kind. I call that gap the ‘stretch’ of an ethical approach. The right level of stretch for our practical needs in a moral approach is one that is just a feasibly little way ahead of where we are: not too much so that we become alienated and hypocritical, but not too little so that the moral approach fails to challenge us at all. In traditional moral absolutism, such as Judeo-Christian morality, the gap is usually so big and the approach so psychologically inept that one can almost call such a morality institutionalised failure. Moral naturalism, however, claims to base our ‘should’ on what we already value, leaving an obvious problem with producing any ‘stretch’ at all. Due to his determinism and his lack of interest in judgement, Harris does not tell us how ethics can have a ‘stretch’ function, or any other kind of function, in our experience. Indeed all his examples are not about practising ethics to positively change our lives, but overwhelmingly about moral disapproval of Muslims, US conservatives, or other easy targets. Even if his targets were somehow to adopt Harris’s ‘reason’ and suddenly agree with him, he offers them no positive advice as to how they could change their moral practice from the conditioned point where they begin, beyond adopting well-evidenced scientific beliefs as a basis for pursuing well-being. But such beliefs, for someone brought up in another tradition, would probably have far too much ‘stretch’. Scientific utilitarianism would probably be just as alienating as the most distant pronouncement of Yahweh, if those adopting it were not supported in incrementally adapting their existing beliefs in more adequate directions.

Practical use of ethics is also inhibited by Harris’s rejection of the recognition that we do not have a single unified self. On p.234-8 he considers and rejects the evidence produced by Daniel Kahneman that our ‘remembering self’ may value quite different things from our ‘experiencing self’ – a distinction with obvious implications for moral consistency. This is only one of many psychological insights into the absence of a unified self, including the unconscious, multiple personality disorder, or other variations of our self-view and identifications over time, so it is odd that he only picks on this one. Harris then argues that the only true self is the ‘experiencing self’ to which other selves can be reduced – “consciousness and its ever-changing contents remain the only subjective reality”. This appears to be just a left-brained refusal to even consider the moral effects of the self over time, and is one of many examples of him, far from embracing a scientific ethos as he claims to be doing, narrowly rejecting the implications of scientific evidence on the basis of dogma. Given that this recognition offers the key to the problem of ‘stretch’, Harris should embrace it rather than refusing it, for it reveals how we can have one ‘self’ sincerely committed to a moral belief whilst another one remains resistant to it. In my view, if we can recognise that we vary over time but work to integrate these variations through integrative practices, the moral prescriptions that we might identify with at one time are able to more thoroughly permeate our character and actions. On the one hand we ‘ought’ to do what we recognise, in our more aware moments, would address conditions better, but on the other this ‘ought’ is not what most of us values most of the time.

For Harris, good actions are then seen in exclusively consequentialist terms, as ones that lead to consequences promoting well-being and avoiding harm. Here Harris seems to be completely self-deceived about his own conceptualisation of the good as well-being, assuming that because he has produced an all-encompassing label for the good and accepted that it is open-ended, that therefore the good must be equivalent to his label. But all he has done is appropriate the idea of good to his particular conception of it. He talks a lot about the ways in which we all generally recognise well-being as good, but entirely discounts any other conception of good, or any other way of working out the best action than a consequential way. The supposed scientific provisionality of well-being thus turns out to be so much empty talk, because he seems to be completely closed to the idea that the good could be better conceived in any other way, despite the fact that it frequently has.

Harris’s consequentialism is accompanied by an even more astonishing claim – that every attempt to think about ethics in terms other than well-being and harm is in fact false, and the people who think that they think otherwise are actually (apparently in every case) thinking in terms of well-being, but doing so with a poor grasp of the facts as to what will actually lead to it. For example, Harris alleges, even Muslim terrorists committing a suicide bombing want well-being – they just envisage it in paradise with their houris rather than on earth. Not only are deontological thinkers like Kant or Rawls not taken at their word as being genuinely deontological, but anyone who ever blindly followed a religious rule is apparently motivated not by genuine respect for the rule but by hidden calculations of well-being and harm. How extraordinary this claim is can be readily seen if it is turned round – what if a Kantian were to claim that everyone who thinks they are concerned with consequences of well-being was actually obeying unacknowledged rules, but just not getting the rules right and doing it badly? Harris’s claim here is not a synthesis (of the kind I have attempted myself) whereby the concerns of each type of ethics are shown to be better fulfilled by a broader formulation, but simply an appropriation based on a flat refusal to take other forms of moral thinking seriously. Thereby can one readily detect the mere insistences of dogmatism.

Harris’s treatment of the fact-value distinction follows a similar pattern of appropriation rather than synthesis. Harris is quite right to point out how much of a dogma the fact-value distinction has become in both philosophy and science, and that there is no justification for it. However, his reason for avoiding the fact-value distinction turns out not to be a genuine wish to synthesise facts with values, but rather a wish to reduce values to facts about well-being. This is not even-handed, nor does it adequately reflect the reasons why the fact-value distinction is unjustified. Values in practice contain inextricable factual assumptions, yes, but facts in practice also contain inextricable value assumptions. If you want to break down a false distinction, even-handedness is crucial: for example, one does not break down false distinctions between Hinduism and Buddhism by insisting (as Hindus often do) that Buddhism is really just Hinduism – that is appropriation, not a synthesis overcoming an unhelpful false dichotomy. Such appropriation merely causes further conflict, because it represses part of the picture. So if values have not been taken seriously enough beside facts, the remedy is to take them more seriously, and when you have shown how much they have in common with facts (as Harris does) make sure that you start treating facts in a way that reflects the element of valuation involved as well as the reverse.

To really start taking values seriously in this way, one needs an embodied understanding of meaning to replace the representationalism that Harris takes for granted. For the error of the fact-value distinction is founded on the belief that factual claims have some sort of ‘objective’ status in the world, a truth or falsity, which values lack. In order to break down the false distinction properly one must recognise that both facts and values, together with all other symbols, gain their meaning from a relationship with bodily experience causing neural links to be formed. One is then free to focus on the ways that both facts and values are subject to judgement which can be more or less adequate, in the process explaining how the dogmatism of which Harris complains depends on the representationalist fiction of a proposition that is meaningful in purely cognitive terms in relation to a state of affairs out there. Instead, however, Harris actually sharply distinguishes cognition from ‘mere sentiment’, and for him the point of the right values is that they are solely cognitive. To try to dispose of the fact-value distinction without challenging the cognition-emotion distinction on which it is founded achieves little.

Of course, this also has implications for science, showing that the objectivity of science depends not on theories lining up with a state of affairs that they correctly describe, but rather on the adequacy of the judgements (whether individual or team-based) that scientists make. That in turn would challenge Harris’s assumption that the value of science rests on its relationship to ‘facts’ and force him to be a little less absolute in his appeal to the value of science.

But Harris is fiercely committed to the truth, in a way one can often admire as productive of intellectual passion, but also be wary of as a source of delusion. Often I think there is a confusion (a common enough one) between finding the truth a meaningful and important idea and claiming to have it. Harris writes:

The seventeenth-century philosopher Spinoza thought that merely understanding a statement entails the tacit acceptance of it being true, while disbelief requires a subsequent process of rejection. Several psychological studies seem to support this conjecture. Understanding a proposition may be analogous to perceiving an object in physical space: we may accept appearances as reality until they prove otherwise. The behavioural data acquired in our research support this hypothesis, as subjects judged statements to be ‘true’ more quickly than they judged them to be ‘false’ or ‘undecidable’. (p.157)

The odd thing about this is the ease with which modern neuroscience and psychology are presented as apparently embracing this seventeenth century rationalist concept of truth. If we take Spinoza’s speculation seriously there can be no such thing as provisionality, no such thing as scientific hypotheses, no imagination, no such thing as the arts – no play space in which we can check out a belief without considering it true. Instead, according to this Spinozan doctrine, we accept what we understand as true first and then have to ‘unaccept’ it, belief in it as true being the default. If Harris (not to mention Spinoza) really believe this, then their view of belief seems to be as impoverished as that of the Taliban: either you completely believe what is presented to you or you don’t. How can he then blame Muslims for rioting when they see cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad, given that seeing the cartoon and understanding its content apparently leads them to instantaneously believe that whatever is being attributed to Muhammad in play is truly being attributed to him?

As for the evidence that supports this view, it seems to be overwhelmingly based on the unexamined assumption that all meaning is propositional. If you hear ‘Mars’ or ‘vomit’, presumably you understand these things (because they have a relationship with defined neural channels formed by past experiences in your brain), but they are not propositional. How then could they automatically be assumed to be ‘true’? Neuroscience itself gives plenty of evidence, laid out by Lakoff and Johnson but thoroughly ignored by Harris, that meaning does not operate in this way. So the evidence Harris offers here seems to be merely a result of confirmation bias – when experiments are set up to find purely cognitive meaning and do not even test for meaning that is not propositional, it’s not surprising that they fail to find any evidence for provisionality. If, however, we regard propositions as constructed out of building-block words that already have meaning before they are combined, it’s not difficult to envisage that what was previously understood as provisional in part could also be constructed into larger provisional propositions – even if there are also many experimental subjects who take the dogmatic route of assuming that what they encounter as whole propositions must be true.

This implication of embodied meaning is also one that Harris does not take into account in his treatment of religion, because he is determined to interpret religion solely in terms of its beliefs, and asserts that every other religious feature (such as ritual) is solely dependent on belief. This does no justice at all to the complexity and interdependence of religious phenomena, or to the complexity of the role of religious belief in a given individual, where it may rub shoulders with many other beliefs. Why should a particular individual not find ritual meaningful first, and then perhaps adopt beliefs as a matter of group conformity so that he can continue to develop his meaningful relationship with the ritual? Harris also insists, again without any justification apart from dogmatic representationalism, that the meaning of religious beliefs should be understood only in their own traditional terms, rather than understood as, for example, primarily meaningful as a mark of committed group membership. That religion might function for someone primarily as an expression of archetypes, for example, also apparently just does not figure on Harris’s horizon. “Religion” it seems, must by decree simply mean dry abstract metaphysical propositions, regardless of what it actually means to the people involved. Is this really a ‘scientific’ way of understanding the phenomenon of religion? Is it any less dogmatic than the pronouncements of a Pope Benedict or any other leader of religious orthodoxy, who similarly insists on such dry interpretations from the other side? Rather what we have here is an unholy alliance of two ‘opponents’ that actually have more in common in their false opposition than otherwise: the unholy alliance of logos against mythos.

Harris’s attack on scientists who make compromises with religion also sometimes gets rhetorically out of hand. In his extended attack on Francis Collins, the evangelical scientist who headed the Human Genome Project and wrote about his view of the relationship between science and religion, Harris lays into Collins not only for interpreting his experiences of religion and his science so as to fit Christian orthodoxy, but apparently for even discussing his experiences such as ‘a feeling of peace’ at all in the context of a discussion of science and religion. Harris later clarifies “What is irrational, and irresponsible in a scientist and an educator, is to make unjustified and unjustifiable claims about the structure of the universe, about the divine origin of certain books, and about the future of humanity on the basis of such experiences.” That I can agree with, but the general impression of nastiness towards Collins has already been well-established in the reader’s mind by this point. How dare the guy experience a feeling of peace and have the cheek to tell us about it?

At one point it appears that Harris’s own research itself potentially undermines his strong differentiation between ‘religion’ and ‘science’, by showing that negative metaphysics is neurologically very similar to positive metaphysics. Harris writes:

Our study was designed to elicit the same responses from the two groups on nonreligious stimuli (e.g., ’Eagles really exist’) and opposite responses on religious stimuli (e.g., ‘Angels really exist’). The fact that we obtained essentially the same result for belief in both devout Christians and nonbelievers, on both categories of content, argues strongly that the difference between belief and disbelief is the same, regardless of what is being thought about. (P.197)

If anything, this seems to be a rather useful piece of evidence that it is the metaphysical nature of beliefs, rather than their precise content, that makes them unhelpful. However, Harris discounts this apparent similarity between ‘religious’ and ‘non-religious’ beliefs by then going on to emphasise other differences in brain response to religious and non-religious stimuli. One would expect different stimuli generally to have different meanings and thus produce different types of response, but Harris himself presents evidence that our responses to truth-claims are different, and are not dependent on whether they are ‘religious’ or not. Again, he seems oblivious to any recognition that quite a different construction could be put on his research evidence to the one he gives.

Such is the extent that Harris gets caught up in his own rhetoric that at the end he even co-opts reasoning itself to the secularist cause.

The goal is not to get more Americans to merely accept the truth of evolution (or any other scientific theory); the goal is to get them to value the principles of reasoning and educated discourse that now make a belief in evolution obligatory. Doubt about evolution is merely a symptom of an underlying condition; the condition is faith itself – conviction without sufficient reason, hope mistaken for knowledge, bad ideas protected from good ones, wishful thinking elevated to a principle of salvation etc. (p.224)

How can reasoning make a belief in evolution obligatory? Reasoning is the drawing of conclusions from assumptions, and entirely depends on which assumptions you start with. Does Harris really believe that acceptance of scientific theory depends on reason, rather than recognition of evidence or avoidance of deluded assumptions? But this idealisation of reason is of a piece with his rejection of the role of judgement, as he believes that reason forces us to certain involuntary conclusions. A judgement as to whether to accept certain assumptions in the first place, or to alert us to suspect assumptions, would require awareness, not just reasoning ability. It is tempting to say that this secularist faith in ‘reason’ without accompanying judgement or awareness matches the faith in religious salvation of their opponents, but of course there are also differences that such a comparison might obscure.

When you start to look at Sam Harris’s work carefully and critically, it really starts to fall apart. When I first read ‘The End of Faith’ (some years ago) I must admit that I was quite impressed, but on reading ‘The Moral Landscape’ I have instead reached the conclusion that he primarily makes a strong first impression by a few overstretched insights laced with excessive rhetoric. Yes, he has some important insights about the moral effects of religious dogma, and he can be admired for the courage with which he has put forward those insights. In this book he also displays insights into the limitations of relativism. But on the whole those insights are isolated, and when you look at his wider work he turns out to be a rather conventional naturalistic philosopher, who also makes some heavily-filtered use of neuroscience and psychology but appears not even to know about some of the most morally significant  bits of them. His writing has far more chutzpah than it has coherence, consistent insight, or self-examination, and it is very far from even-handed. It is a long way from the Middle Way, and on no account should be confused with it. I am very concerned about how easily the unwary may be taken in by the deceptive ways in which he tries to appropriate the centre ground in the service of views that are deeply dogmatic.


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