It's still too soon for me to make any pronouncements about that, having just scratched the surface of the book, but this endnote from chapter 1 leaves me skeptical about Harris's entire project:
...I am convinced that every appearance of terms like "metaethics," "deontology," "noncognitivism," "antirealism," "emotivism," etc., directly increases the amount of boredom in the universe. My goal...is to start a conversation that a wider audience can engage with and find helpful. Few things would make this goal harder to achieve that for me to speak and write like an academic philosopher.As someone who spent two years working on a thesis that dealt with almost all of the concepts that Harris thinks so increase boredom in the universe, I obviously disagree with his assessment; but that's beside the point. There are two things that really bother me about this, and make me suspect that The Moral Landscape is going to be shallow and, itself, quite boring.
The first is that Harris seems to be completely missing the point of popular scientific and philosophical literature, which is to present complex ideas in such a way that audiences without an academic background in those areas can begin to understand them. One does not do that by avoiding the subject, but by writing about it clearly and as simply as possible (and, yes, with minimal jargon). Here's another reason I prefer Richard Dawkins. His recent book The Greatest Show On Earth, in which he presents the evidence that supports the theory of evolution, doesn't shy away from dense subjects like genetics, geology, etc. It tackles them head on, and Dawkins proves that he has a gift for writing about them in such a way that lay-audiences can grasp their relevance to evolutionary theory, even if we couldn't afterwards teach a class on the subjects. Harris is essentially saying that his goal is simply to avoid subjects that might bore the reader (or him). That's terrible popularizing.
It's also a double standard. When I took a course on the philosophy of mind in my first semester as a grad student, we read a lot of pure neuroscience (Harris's own area of research, and one that is of central importance in The Moral Landscape) early on. I found most of it deadly dull, but trudged ahead anyway because I needed to know it to understand the more philosophical (and to me, more interesting) papers we would be reading later on. Harris simply assumes that what is interesting to him is interesting to everyone, and that what isn't interesting to him isn't worth talking about, even if it directly impacts the thesis of his book. That's not true, and I'm willing to bet that it will leave his argument feeling insubstantial in the end.
The second problem with this is that it makes Harris sound like one of the religious people who have come in for such scathing criticism in his other work. Yesterday I linked to Jerry Coyne's thorough rebuttal to Mark Vernon's incredibly ill-informed article on evolution. I suspect that Vernon feels similarly about evolution as Harris does about moral philosophy. He recognizes that it's an important topic (if only because it's often held up as a problem for a position he's committed to defending) and feels compelled to pontificate on it, but all that research he would have to do to actually understand the subject is just so boring. There's nothing wrong with being dilettantish, if all you're concerned about is cocktail party conversation. But if you're going to present yourself as some sort of authority, you really ought to take the time to learn about your subject in detail, even the parts that don't interest you much.
I'm going to continue to read The Moral Landscape, hopefully with an open mind. It is, of course, possible that Harris is some kind of philosophical savant, and that he'll be able to present answers to questions that actual philosophers have been debating for centuries, despite finding the subjects too boring to meaningfully engage. However, I have a feeling that, in the end, Harris will be revealed to have taken a vital metaethical question for granted, and we'll see that he had another reason for refusing to engage with the subject: he has no good argument for his underlying assumptions.