Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Sam Harris on why Science can answer moral questions

What do we think? My thanks to David Sutherland.


Anonymous said...

oh dear

Tony Lloyd said...

I think it's awful. To be fair I only gave him 10 minutes before swtiching off in irritation. But in that time he:

1. Muddled the concept of a moral fact with an empirical fact. His argument for a factual basis of morality is:
i. Science deals with facts
ii. There are moral facts
iii. Therefore science deals with them
2. Took a version of utilitarianism "as read". If you take a rights/duty based approach to ethics then you do not make ethical decisions on the basis of well being of sentient creatures (though, often, their well being will help inform choices). Similarly with many other priniples of ethics: adopt them and at times you will act against what Harris claims is the basis of morality.

3. Resorted to creationist style "the other side of the dichotomy I've falsely created is wrong, therefore I'm right." I'm thinking of his criticism of "spare the rod, spoil the child". The theists, there, have got it wrong and it's a powerful argument against God as a basis of morality. It's no argument at all for Sam's basis.

Does Harris address these points in the rest of the talk? Or should I still not bother?

Matt M said...

It seems to me that once you accept that (a) individual "flourishing" is the aim of morality, and (b) human beings are part of the natural world, it becomes obvious that science has a role to play.

I'm just curious as to what Harris would have to say to someone who rejected one of these things.

Mark Jones said...

Sam's inviting criticisms here:


...if anyone wants to engage.

John W. Loftus said...

I hope the best for this argument and way of thinking. It may have to be put forth as a hypothetical though. If we want holistic happiness then science can help us through the study of human nature what makes people holistically happy. Then for people who don't want to be happy (who have a Freudian death wish) or people whose happiness lies in subjugating others to their rule (as in dictators of serial killers), we'd have to make other arguments.

Still Matt McCormick, Richard Carrier and I agree with the thrust of what Harris is arguing for. It needs to be argued philosophically as well as scientifically and may well be a significant advancement over Nietzsche, Sartre and Camus.

Andrew Louis said...

This just stopped after 5 minutes, not sure what the deal was…

One thing of note:
“Values reduce to facts - to facts about the conscious experience. We can therefore visualize a space of possible changes in the experience of these beings….”

I certainly agree with Tony here, but would add that this reminds me of the example against reductionism highlighted by Rorty’s “Antiponians” in “Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature”. Suppose happiness is something we want to attain, great. In essence then, harris assuming that this “happiness” can be reduced to some neural state that we can then call a fact (some idea, concept or other that we can prove and call truth), lets say, neural state [NS] H. In my mind this brings to the forefront the platonic appearance/reality distinction – in this case the whole idea that words are nothing more then representations of some underlying reality. So “happiness” is a mere metaphor/representation of the underlying reality [NSH]. So rather then report, “I’m feeling happy today!.”, we can state, “I’m experiencing [NSH]!”

Could it be any more obvious that that’s a wee bit question begging? How do you know when you’ve reached the goal of adequately representing reality? Perhaps that’s [NSG]? We know we’ve reached the goal, because we feel like we’ve reached the goal and can prove that we feel that because we can detect [NSG] with our neural state readers, therefore we can prove it. But what if I feel that you’re full of shit, [NSFUS]? Could it be that I’m experiencing an invalid neural state, and that if somehow I buy into Platonism I could be made to feel [NSH], and then, [NSG]? Wow, this is starting to sound like religious dogma now.

Guys like this do nothing to further science; instead they’re just creating more religion, more authoritative argumentative positions which are just as question begging, bootless and based on fallacy. Granted what I stated above isn’t value (for simplicities sake) nonetheless he’s playing the game of reducing value, emotion, and consciousness to brain states – and then treating the brain states as facts, i.e. the underlying reality that all our language has been pointing to since the dawn of man.

Tony Lloyd said...

Watched the rest, don’t agree with it anymore.

I would agree with much of what he says on moral relativism. I would also agree with much that the presuppositional apologist (hi Sye!) says about the subjective nature of any “basis” for thought. Both Harris and Sye then go on to argue:

1. There must be an authority
2. What you have isn’t an authority
3. So what I have is an authority

There is a very big difference between an authority and “an authority”, between something that we accept as an authority . The argument may be valid (logically valid: if the premises are right then the conclusion is right) either if you have “an authority” or an authority but we would dismiss at least some of the premises out of hand.

If we took 1 to mean that there must, in fact, be a reliable source of truth then we know that is not true. No method has proved totally reliable. This means that 2 is true (your/my method isn’t a reliable method : so you/I do not have an authority). This is, though, at the expense of 1: Harris’/Sye’s method isn’t a reliable method, so Harris/Sye do not have an authority:

1. There must be an authority [false]
2. What you/I have isn’t an authority [true]
3. So what Harris/Sye have is an authority [unsound]

1 would be a little more arguable if we meant “you must accept something as an authority”. But then 2 is false, you (not me, I’m a weirdo) accept some things as an authority. So you have “an authority”:

1. There must be “an authority” [arguably true]
2. What you have isn’t “an authority” [false]
3. So what Harris/Sye have is an authority [unsound]

What both Harris and Sye seem to argue is:

1. There must be “an authority” (something accepted as an authority)[arguably true]
2. What you have isn’t an authority (something that is a reliable source of truth) [true]
3. So what Harris/Sye have is an authority [invalid]

nostradamus said...


Einstein puts the final nail in the coffin of atheism...



atheists deny their own life element...

add some comment moderation to your blog of blasphemy

Andrew Louis said...

It’s interesting to note that he said (and I paraphrase), “The only people who agree with me [on the idea that there are right and wrong answers to what is good and bad] are religious demigods.”

And he says,
“The demigods are right about one thing, we need a universal conception of human values…”

Wow, he’s arguing for convergence. Yippie!
We MUST have a convergence theory of moral truth, he says.

I think it’s funny how the guy in the end (having lived in Muslim society) brings up the point of view of those women wearing the berkas, their justification, etc. To which Harris brings up the point that those women, whereas they may believe that, wouldn’t have the choice to cloth themselves with something else. OK, great. And he said earlier that, “I think women should be able to wear what they want to wear.” But then he puts up the picture of the women wearing berkas, and the other picture of the western women wearing next to nothing on some magazine covers and says that in both cases, what’s being worn is WRONG.

So uhhh, what can women wear? According to Harris we really don’t have a choice on what to wear, we just have some choices. Where’s that moral high ground Harris? Somewhere in those neurons I hope.

This guy is a d-bag.

Kosh3 said...

Yeah, not grand.

'Science can answer moral questions' boils down to 'science can indirectly assist in moral deliberation by discovering how happiness is achieved, e.g. at the level of the brain, and psychologically'.

Did anyone deny this? A greater awareness of the IS'S makes recommending OUGHT'S more informed, but it doesn't mean science has much to say about the OUGHTS. That would be interesting, and novel, if it were true. But I couldn't help but think that Harris was telling people something never in doubt or misunderstood...


Juliawells said...

The theists, there, have got it wrong and it's a powerful argument against God as a basis of morality. It's no argument at all for Sam's basis.

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Martin said...

Harris, quite early on in the talk, says:

"There is no notion, no version, of human morality and human values that I have ever come across, that is not at some point reducible to a concern about concious experience, and its possible changes."

which indicates to me that either a) he has never heard of paganism, and/or North American Indian religions which hold "nature" as sacred, or b) he doesn't consider these types of religions/belief systems as worthy of his attention.

Harris comes across as a cultural imperialist of the worst type, so much so that that the interviewer cannot resist saying it to his face. He is as dangerous as any suicide bomber, probably more so because he believes he has both science and morality on his side. A refugee from the Neo-Con movement redressed as a progressive, perhaps.

Smörgåsmåsen said...

What if the only way in which some person could achieve a state of happiness was by doing something that most of us would consider immoral? Would it really be moral of him to do that then? I don't think Harris answers this question.

DM said...

see, you may have won the argument, but you lost your lives...


Einstein puts the final nail in the coffin of atheism...



atheists deny their own life element...

add some comment moderation to your blog of blasphemy

Angelinebrown said...

I hope the best for this argument and way of thinking. It may have to be put forth as a hypothetical though.

Real Estate Law Temecula

Greg O said...

Got to love the bit where Harris talks about 'domains of expertise', and how his opinions on string theory would be dismissed at a physics conference because he's not a physicist. Attending any conferences on moral philosophy any time soon Sam?

The whole thread of the argument is bonkers. He starts by spelling out the view he's supposedly opposing - the view that science can't tell us what matters, morally, but that once we've taken a view on what matters, science can help us achieve it. Then he goes on to express a view on what matters, morally - happiness - before showing how science could help us achieve it. Hmm.

Martin said...

Harris admits we could be wrong about the inner lives of insects, but sees no irony in laying down the rights and wrongs of burka clad Muslim women. If we could be wrong about what insects think and feel, isn't it also possible he could be wrong about what Muslim women think and feel? Harris' problem is that he doesn't show at any time that he has tried to communicate with the women. This would be somewhat simpler than communicating with insects.

Harris' arrogance is to tell us what is right for Muslim women, without at any time showing that he has tried to understand what their wishes and desires are. They have not asked for Harris to liberate them, so who is he really speaking for? He seems to want to "tidy up" the world, according to his own social norms, without engaging in any way with the very people whose lives he would change the most. Why doesn't he just admit that he is offended by the burka, and then we can all get back to discussing philosophy?

jeremy said...

Harris has replied to his critics here.

For me the central issue was Hume's "is/ought" divide, which Harris has little time for. A question from this non-philosopher: how strong do most philosophers regard the wall as being between "is" and "ought"? In other words, if he's right (though I can't see how he could be ), would this be a turn up for the books in philosophy circles?

Seb Pharoah said...

Seems like everybody is just against science here purely because its a big player in town and maybe the biggest. Philosophy doesnt need to be at the mercy of science the way people here are defending so eagerly , it can steer and direct science in a way that is beneficial to the group. You may laugh at sam for saying he wouldnt pose string theory arguments because hes not a physicist, however there is a laughable difference between string theory and moral philsophy, one in which almost any arm chair ponderer can debate and one where opinion is less regarded and fact is keenly saught after. Can we all agree as scientists or philosophers , that division is an ugly future and unity is a bright one. Free speech is all we have and our egos seek to breach that right.