In a debate with Patricia Churchland, Peter Singer, Sam Harris, and Lawrence Krauss, Simon Blackburn explains why Harris simply has it wrong on whether science can provide substantive guidance on morality:
There is no doubt, he notes, that "science can inform our values" (and I would add that this goes trivially for many other types of knowledge). But "as to whether you need nothing but science", "I don't agree with Sam about that and neither do the other three speakers we've heard so far."
Blackburn grounds this in the traditional fact/value distinction but focuses on the functions of mental states rather than on ontology: where beliefs represent the world as it is, desires and concerns represent it as one would like it to be. Values represent a specific kind of desire that you are prepared to make public and insist upon from others.
Blackburn goes on to say that the idea that ethics is about promoting welfare and avoiding suffering is a commonplace of every moral philosopher, not a discovery of science (as he claims Sam Harris has it): "Where the moral philosophers find the going difficult is in having an adequate conception of human flourishing."
One might think the good life is merely about dreamlike states of contentedness -- something that could be achieved by lies and drugs, the subject of Huxley's objections in Brave New World. This leads Blackburn to a "fools paradise" objection (one might also call this the Truman Show objection): one might be happy merely out of ignorance and delusion, including deception by others on a grand scale. According to Aristotle such a person is not flourishing -- although this is something no neurological measure could tell us. If wisdom and knowing the truth are measures of flourishing, then mere knowledge about mental states (and accompanying brain states) is not enough. The same brain state accompanies a true belief as a false one, when they have the same content (and all other things being equal).
According to another conception, flourishing is a matter of self-mastery, of suppressing rather than satisfying desire, as in Buddhism. The litmus test for the debate might be whether a scientist could ever tell us whether was Buddha was right. According to Blackburn, that simply will never be the case.
Finally, he notes that "philosophy problematizes question of well-being," and that saying everyone should be happy provides absolutely no guide to how to live one's life. He further seems to suggest that what constitutes flourishing might vary radically from one individual to another.
(I'm not endorsing all of these arguments -- I still have to think them over; although I've described my objections to Harris in previous posts (and hopefully will be able to do so in more detail in the near future)).
Glad you brought up Aristotle. It seems like Harris and Blackburn both agree to a definition of science that assumes A. was wrong about what’s required to understand “cause.”
From Aristotle’s perspective, I think Blackburn would be right to say something more than observing the mechanics of a process is required to say what “flourishing” is, but that additional knowledge wouldn’t be “unscientific” just because it’s not limited to mechanics.
I think Aristotle would say that knowledge of any kind, including mechanical knowledge, implies that you know/recognize the form or look of something, i.e., what the things are that are combining to bring some other thing about (that is, some thing that you recognize in the same way that you recognize the composite parts). And if you can observe these things combining in regular ways, there’s no reason why you can’t say the end result explains the observed phenomena (and/or make rational inferences as to natural ends).
These and other considerations seem to discourage Aristotle from making the sharp distinction between facts and values. In fact, for him, isn’t “science” required to know what virtue (intellectual or moral) is, if not 100% required for executing ordinary moral actions?
Daniel Horne says
I’ve got a more knuckleheaded response to Harris, but I’m surprised I didn’t hear it in Blackburn’s comments. (Or maybe I missed it.) Here it is:
If science were able to inform our moral choices, then we would expect history to reveal scientists as those who have lobbied hardest for the moral accomplishments we’ve made over recent centuries. But that’s just not the case.
Let’s say, for example,
the rise of democracy,
the end of slavery,
the end of child labor,
the suffragette movement,
the Geneva Conventions,
the civil rights movement, etc.
I’ve never seen scientists take the leading edge on any of these moral issues. In fact notable scientists of the day were sometimes immoral. (See, e.g., Werner Von Braun, or the doctors in charge of the Tuskegee Experiments).
And to the extent that one can identify scientists who have advocated moral advances over the past 2 centuries, one can equally well point to religious advocates who have done at least as much. (See, e.g., William Wilberforce, Mahatma Ghandi, or MLK.)
Why doesn’t that blow Harris’ argument out of the water? What nuance am I missing?
BTW – I’m not asserting that religion can inform moral choices better than can science. I’m just saying that neither religion nor science informs moral choices. Religion or science are used to justify moral arguments that you would have made anyway.
Ethan Gach says
I think Harris would make a distinction between moral knowledge and moral practice.
He’s arguing that people know morality through application of a broadly defined science. that moral knowledge need not control how one acts. A good analogy would be Doctors who smoke, eat unhealthy, or do any number of other unhealthy things but are still able to tell their patients what will make them healthy.
Jeffrey Jeffers says
I presume you watched the TED talk Sam Harris gave (titled, How Science Can Answer Moral Questions). In this talk, right from the opening, he made clear that he’s going further than what you say he is in your reply to Daniel Horne. Also, the subtitle of his book is How Science Can Determine Moral Values. I might think the subtitle of the book is hyperbole, if I hadn’t seen his talk. Time and time again, I see people sympathetic to Harris’ approach turn it into something quite moderate. Well, I think it’s clear that I don’t take his thesis to be moderate or uncontroversial, but even if all he’s saying is that we need science to guide our actions (even if it doesn’t fully determine them) then this is like, you know, not interesting. Sure there are some people on the fringe that don’t want to hear what science has to contribute, but we’ve been using science to guide our actions for a long time now already (similar to the way a family uses a map to guide their actions on a trip, but of course science didn’t tell them to set out for the Catskills in the first place).
Jeffrey Jeffers says
Meant to say the *map* doesn’t tell the family to set out for the Catskills. I need to be more careful. But really it’s six or half-dozen.. A map doesn’t tell us to go out on the road, and science doesn’t tell us to maximize well-being. Sure sometimes we can get fired up just by reading a map, but the marks on a map, by themselves, don’t give us a sense of adventure or leisure.
Ethan Gach says
Right, but you can determine moral values, and what it is to be moral, without necessarily subscribing to it.
Horne seemed to imply that people who have the greatest knowledge of morality or study it the most, will also be the most moral people. Clearly that need not be the case, and often isn’t.
His thesis is that morality can be determined by science. If you watch the full “The Great Debate,” or read his book, both of which I assume you’ve done, you’ll remember that what he doesn’t think he’s saying anything all that controversial.
Jeffrey Jeffers says
Before we delve in too quickly and then wish we had gotten clearer at the beginning, can we get a couple of examples on the table of science determining values?
Ethan Gach says
We value some form of objectivity, because discrepancies in how an individual sees the world and how it may actually exist can lead to confused actions with unfortunate consequences. A lion on the horizon appears farther away than it actually is, and I might smell more badly than I actually think. In both cases it is prudent to consult a friend or third party. But to know that appearances can be deceiving and that such deception can be mitigated by certain behaviors seems a scientific (empirical/experiential/trial and error) discovery.
Honesty as a value would probably have a similar story. Does that help at all?
Daniel Horne says
I believe I implied no such thing! My review of Harris’ general arguments derives from this:
I won’t be reading his book, and if I _do_ have to read his book to understand it, then I think that does not bode well for his argument.
Harris believes morality can be prescribed using scientific method. But to my mind, that conclusion would mandate certain necessary implications, whether Harris wants to concede the point or not. For example, I would expect to see a correlation between [those who have historically been most familiar with scientific method] and [those who have historically advocated (regardless of whether they followed through on) compelling moral arguments].
But that just hasn’t happened. The moral achievements of past couple of centuries — whether they be “actions” or “discoveries” — have not come from those who are most familiar with scientific principles.
I find that the analogy to smoking doctors fails, because doctors (and related medical scientists) _have_ been the ones to discover what behaviors are harmful. (And newly minted doctors can point you to the research, in a way that the layperson cannot so easily do.) But no one applying any kind of scientific method has been able to inform our moral choices, whether through their actions — equally importantly — their own statements.
In other words, quite aside from the fact that scientists don’t act uniquely moral by any definition of the term (the smoking surgeon scenario), nor have they ever presumed (until Sam Harris came around) to be able to even tell us what acts are moral or immoral.
Harris can perhaps retort that the science just hasn’t evolved yet, but that’s what string theorists about their “science” as well, and they receive appropriate skepticism as a result.
I concede that I may be missing Harris’ argument, but if so, I think that says more about Harris’ ability to present it. In short…evidence, please.
To be more inflammatory, I’d like to just call a spade a spade. Harris is engaging in a political tactic, not advocating a true scientific conjecture. Harris is not famous for being a scientist. He is famous for being an anti-theist polemicist. One of the common arguments he encounters is how one can get to morality without religion. This is his response.
Dyami Hayes says
First, I agree that the inability of most Harris-followers to re-articulate his argument displays a short fall in The Moral Landscape. Extracting the nuances can be like, if you’ll allow my crude analogy, Mill’s charitable take on Bentham, transforming hedonism into a more agreeable utility theory. Also, Harris, like Krauss et al., seems to actually consider some philosophy proper to fall under his very BROAD category of “science”. For someone interested in philosophy, these arguments are full of juicy, elusive ideas that can, and probably will, spark great ethical theories.
Second, your problem of the Disinterested Moral Scientist (TM) [this should be the title of someone’s book lol] is one I can perhaps defend:
Science, while always relevant to philosophy, has only been relevant to MORAL philosophy as of late, due to advances in neuroscience/psychology. This is why in the last decade many neuroscientists ARE writing about/ speaking about ethics! So Werner Von Braun, being a physicist from the 70’s (or 60s?) should have nothing to say about morals. To say science can determine values is NOT the same as saying all science, and thus scientists, can determine values.
Third, I’d love to get more into HOW exactly Harris’ argument can be revamped, cleaned up, to satisfy disgruntled philosophers everywhere, but I feel I’d be getting a little off track.
Hope that helps!
Ethan Gach says
I was fairly disappointed with Blackburn’s response (I love his books).
He seems to assert the fact/value distinction with the representational vs. the direction-of-fit example. But that’s the very proposition Harris is attacking. Harris presents some arguments as to why he believes that a fact/value distinction is merely a conceptional illusion, but Blackburn never really responds to that (did I miss it somewhere?)
In addition, he (Blackburn) mentions the “fool’s paradise” problem, while shrugging aside any of the “neurological” facts as being somehow less then or not helpful. He presupposes that there would be a real difference for the individual’s well-being predicated upon whether or not they were “really” flourishing or not.
I raised this problem in the Facebook discussion page back in October when David Sosa wrote a piece at the NY Times philosophy blog around the similar “matrix problem.”
Both Sosa and Blackburn seem, in their propositions, to presuppose that there would actually be some difference, whether or not the experiencer could experience it or not, that would ultimately make one thing just happiness, while another would be true flourishing.
Perhaps someone could help me understand better where Blackburn is coming from.
If Harris were to say, the only things that should concern conscious creatures are experiences. Experiences can be good or bad, better or worse, as a property of experiences. And how do we know this? Well we observe, test, trial and error, etc. Thus in this way, science can be a moral guide because all that concerns conscious creatures is experience, all experiences are collections of facts, and these facts are best explored through science, with science broadly defined as a sort of secular empiricism or secular rationality.
Where would Blackburn say Harris had gone astray, and based on what criteria?
Maybe Blackburn would say that new discoveries aren’t going to tell us anything new about certain fundamental moral ideas, for example, the intuition that innocent people shouldn’t be punished. What’s a crime and what’s a punishment, yeah, we might learn more about that; but the “formal” idea most of us have that good things should happen to good people doesn’t seem like something “scientific discovery” has a very direct relation to. This would be like saying we can pretty much know in advance that what we experience later isn’t going to change our idea that 2+2=4.
Ethan Gach says
Thanks for responding Brian. Would you indulge me in a quick explanation of why good things (what are good things/how do you know this) should happen to good people (who are good people/how do you know this)?
If you can do it without recourse to some experience or evidence gained through experience, I’ll concede.
My point wasn’t that morality is known prior to experience. It was to suggest that certain things that most humans take to be true (ordinary concepts of justice–“do unto others”–and basic mathematical ideas) don’t seem to be learned through experiments that, if you called them scientific, would allow us to account for why we distinguish between experience that is scientific and experience that is other than scientific. And what was originally being discussed wasn’t whether we learn right and wrong through “experience,” but whether “science” can tell us right from wrong. Hope that helps.
Wes Alwan says
Thanks for all the comments and apologies for not chiming in yet — hopefully soon when health and time permit!
Wes Alwan says
This might help: http://partiallyexaminedlife.com/2010/12/14/science-cannot-ground-morality-but-robots-can/
I’m still writing a longer post about this.
Jeffrey Jeffers says
It appears we’ve run out of room in our little sub-thread, so I’m moving down here. In response to my request for examples of science determining values, here’s what you said,
“We value some form of objectivity, because discrepancies in how an individual sees the world and how it may actually exist can lead to confused actions with unfortunate consequences. A lion on the horizon appears farther away than it actually is, and I might smell more badly than I actually think. In both cases it is prudent to consult a friend or third party. But to know that appearances can be deceiving and that such deception can be mitigated by certain behaviors seems a scientific (empirical/experiential/trial and error) discovery.
Honesty as a value would probably have a similar story. Does that help at all?”
Well, I appreciate the effort, but no, no it doesn’t.
I could (purely hypothetically) value objectivity because I want to find out the most efficient way to commit a genocide. So, do we both value the same thing? (this is a rhetorical question, of course)
What you’ve provided is an instrumental rationale for relying on objectivity, but it appears that you already had your value determined, which seemed to be the avoidance of “unfortunate consequences.”
I’m open to more suggestions…
Ethan Gach says
Before we repeat this cycle of me trying to demonstrate where a value comes from, and you striking it down, would you hold that values can be determined by anything at all?
If you’re question is how do I know that I want to be happy, or to commit genocide. Well I know that from a personal experience. If your asking why I can dictate that one should want to be happy over commit genocide I would have to explore the effects of happiness and those of genocide.
I could see a hard question to answer being one like, well why should any conscious creature wish to remain conscious. That would be hard to answer. But you submit that it could be answered and by something no scientific?
And just to make it clear, I’m not fully committed to Harris’ view, it’s just an interesting point to explore, especially when no on over here seems at all open to it.
Jeffrey Jeffers says
I think there’s a great deal of ambiguity surrounding this issue, and Sam Harris presents his thesis is such a way to take advantage of that ambiguity. Now, I can’t read minds, and I’m offering no theory about motives, but I do know that Sam Harris has a B.A. in philosophy from Stanford, and when he takes on the orthodox view in philosophy about facts and values, he’s taking on a particular tradition, with particular doctrines and ways of talking. In other words, he’s can’t claim ignorance or say he’s just using layman’s terms and get out of it. I’m not sure how much he’s delved into the meta-ethical literature on the subject he’s now writing and speaking about (my guess is not much) but since he’s had philosophical training, he has no excuse (he’s been given the tools to familiarize himself with the literature in a serious way). So, he raises the stakes for himself by dismissing a whole tradition’s way of thinking; he better be right. If it turns out he’s wrong because he hasn’t correctly summarized the position that he claims to refute, then this will be very frustrating. The fact that philosopher’s consistently say he’s wrong, well, that’s not determinative, but it might count for someone on the outside look in. If that doesn’t make perfect sense, I’ll shelve it for now and perhaps as we move on it will begin to make more sense.
That said, I’m not wondering how you know *that* you’re happy, or *that* you want (hypothetically, of course) to commit genocide, I’m wondering how you *justify* claiming that either of these desires is the right one. When the is-ought gap is the topic, the topic is about how one *derives* (with moral force) an ought from an is. So if you start with your ought in mind (wanting to be happy) then of course all you have to do then is decide what makes you happy, and do it. But of course that’s just dodging the original question.
Perhaps it would be practical to go ahead and leave behind certain meta-ethical issues and just live our lives pursuing whatever it is that makes us happy. But to be clear, that wouldn’t actually be taking the meta-ethical issues head on, it would be side-stepping them. That’s not what Sam Harris is doing; he’s taking on a particular tradition of thought, so he can’t simply advise that we pursue our happiness, because the tradition is too far ahead on this question. What I mean is,
*How do we know what makes us happy is good?*
People disagree over this. Some say they’re truly happy molesting children (like NAMBLA). Now we can simply dismiss them, and in everyday discourse I recommend exactly that. But meta-ethical discussion is rarefied, and so it’s only appropriate, when having such discussions, to breathe in the rarefied air without protesting. OK, so, simply telling people that their stated bliss is not TRUE BLISS is begging the question. Maybe it does make them happy. Does that make it right?
We’ve known about hypothetical imperatives for a long time now. It’s not new. IF you want to income equality, THEN you should pursue progressive taxation or protectionism (or what have you). But the “IF” is the issue in the first place. If anyone doubts this, then I trust they’ll have no objection when I say IF you want to commit genocide THEN you should emulate Adolf Hitler.
Ethan Gach says
So I can’t speak to the traditions of Stanford he may be operating in or against.
As far as knowing which one is “right” (happiness/genocide). The meta-ethical question is side stepped. Harris admits this. He’s not seeking to address it. Most if not all the people who disagree with him seem to disagree on that point.
When presented with the, how do you know what should be one’s aim, I profess not to know. And to the extent that science is unable to answer it, it seems equally as unanswerable with any force from any other discipline.
One could easily say to Harris, “But how DO you know that?” and put an end to the conversation. One could do that with all manner of other explanations. So on the meta-ethical question, the fact that it might not fair any better than any other approach says nothing as to whether it can be utilized. If science can not answer moral questions in that way, it seems philosophy can’t either. If though, you accept that philosophy can answer certain questions concerning moral action, I’m not sure how you couldn’t also accept science as be capable as well (after all they are not completely different).
Molesting is not right, unless it did no one any harm. It does do the child harm, and if it could be verified that it did not, than again, no problem. Since it does harm, that harm could be weighed against other people’s happiness, we could regard liberty as important, etc. Harris does away with none of these tools. He is more making the claim that they begin and end with certain scientific methods of exploration.
The fact that we could begin to understand with more authority how the brain functions and the nature of pleasure and pain as well as other emotions, seems to indicate that this science will have consequences for determining who is happy and mentally healthy, or at the very least, who is not (and of course, side-stepping they “why” of choosing “happiness” or “health”).
Harris admits that he has no interest in the meta-ethical quandary many moral philosophers are drowning in. It’s a valid critique to say that he should care, or that those questions are central. But I’d give the burden of proof to those asserting so rather than those who feel it unnecessary.
Jeffrey Jeffers says
Good. We’ve centered around something, and that’s the issue of whether Harris signals clearly that he’s side-stepping the meta-ethical issue, or if he’s actually taking it up. BTW, I didn’t mean to say Harris is operating against the traditions of Stanford in particular, but of philosophical thought of meta-ethics in general. The fact that he studied philosophy at Stanford is relevant if in fact he fails to properly engage the literature on the subject he’s now speaking and writing about. Stanford is a place one would be properly trained, I would imagine.
And, well, I don’t really care if anyone wants to side step meta-ethics. That’s fine with me, so long as it’s clearly signaled. However, coyly brewing up controversy by seeming to engage a long-standing meta-ethical tradition, while falling back on common sense notions of allowing empirical information to inform our choices when called on it, is very annoying. But I recognize that you don’t agree that this is what Harris is doing, so my job now is to point it out. I don’t have time for that now, but if you stay plugged in, I’ll get around to it.
Ethan Gach says
Sorry that last part confused me.
“However, coyly brewing up controversy by seeming to engage a long-standing meta-ethical tradition, while falling back on common sense notions of allowing empirical information to inform our choices when called on it, is very annoying.”
I’m not sure he does it coyly, as he says so in the book, in the introduction. Now he doesn’t say he’s side-stepping per say, rather that he think doesn’t think the meat-ethical issues are deserving of much attention. That I could see as being controversial. And I could see disagreements being brought over that, which, in the “Great Debate” above, seems to be Blackburn and Singer’s beef.
So I guess there are two questions, one is, to meta-ethic or not, two, is everything after that empirical or not. The first, Harris I think claims not to, but doesn’t attempt to give a defense of not doing that in the book.
Rather he works on second part, i.e. whether the rest is grounded in empiricism or not.
Do you think that gets the issues right?
Jeffrey Jeffers says
When I work my way around to this issue, I’ll be citing Harris’ TED talk. So, deserving the criticism “coy” often means that one hints in more than one direction. So I don’t take Harris’ denials as, by themselves, settling the argument.
Now Blackburn doesn’t just respond by saying Harris gives short shrift to the traditional debate, he’s accused Harris of essentially saying that we could, in principle, go up to a scientist and ask if the Buddha’s moral view was right. Blackburn isn’t alone among philosophers in the kind of critique he’s offering. So it could be that Harris is misunderstanding whether or not his thesis actually treads on the territory it does(1), (or it could be that Harris and his publishers are attempting to phrase things as to generate the most buzz, and in the process go too far(2)) or it could be that all these philosophers are failing to understand Sam Harris(3). Between 1 and 3,I think one should seem inductively more likely than the other, but of course the issue can’t be left there (and 2 is something I toss out just to outline the kinds of things that could have happened to end up where we are now).
I recognize that the issue of whether all moral belief comes from experience is important, so I won’t ignore it. I just want to get you on record.. you don’t believe Sam Harris is saying anything in this book, and on his promotion tour, about moral justification itself?
Ethan Gach says
If by moral justification, you mean justifying one moral over another (and I only say “if” because I might be unfamiliar with the phrase in its correct use), I think Harris would locate justification in its narrower scope in knowledge of human suffering, gained through science. He analogizes that move to the move in medicine and mental health (so I’d be curious if you can point me in the direction of some literature concerning philosophy of health).
As he claims in the “Great Debate” clip (as I interpret him), Harris is not saying that only science can inform values (though whatever informed them would need to be experience based), but that it has claim as much as philosophy, its broader cousin.
In his words,
“I think this gap between is and ought, or between facts and values, is imaginary. I think it’s a myth. And we need not take it seriously.
The only thing we have to understand is that morality relates to conscious minds. I mean, without a universe of sentient creatures, there’s no such thing as right and wrong, and good and evil. There’s no value there.
And the moment you have creatures that can experience changes in the universe, well, then these changes can matter. And I think it’s clear that because consciousness is arising out of the way the universe is, at some level, it’s clearly dependent upon the laws of nature.
Then it’s clear that there’s going to be a science of right and wrong and good and evil. There are possibilities for extraordinary suffering in this world – to speak specifically of human beings – and there are possibilities for extraordinary happiness. And all of the variables that can affect our states of being in this world fall, potentially, into the various bins of science – from genetics to neurobiology to psychology to sociology to economics.”
The definition of green is acquired through visual experience and tempered by our communication of those experiences with one another. His argument seems to be that, like green, well-being is a definition known through experience. While individuals might disagree upon what constitutes the experience they had (concerning well-being), as they disagree over whether something is a certain shade of green, scientific exploration can look at the human brain and give an objective answer, just as it can look at the wave-length of the light bouncing off leaf and inform us of what shade of green it is.
The benefit of this exchange, for me at least, is that if anything it’s helping to demonstrate that what Harris is saying is if anything, probably less controversial than most think.
Jeffrey Jeffers says
So Ethan Gach,
To reply more directly to the opening question in your last post, yes, I’m open; values can be determined by something. If they’re determined by compulsion by an evil divine dictator, well, they wouldn’t be morally *good* values, it seems. So we’re not only concerned about what *causes* moral values, we want to make sure they’re good ones too. And not only that, we want to make sure that even if/when we have the generalities right (goodness is happiness, pleasure, or what not) that we have the right targets as well. This concern has motivated some philosophers to embrace intuitionism about moral truth (we perceive goodness intuitively, and it is an intrinsic quality that can’t be reduced to anything else) and has motivated other philosophers to become moral skeptics (denying that moral assertions express true propositions). Harris has done neither.
I could have a goal to whipe out all redheads because of the red headed girl that dumped me in high school, but explaining the cause hasn’t even started us down the metaethical path.
Ethan Gach says
Harris might disagree, but as I interpret him, he is more or less saying that the basic values of health/flourishing as well as objectivity/consistency/etc. are taken at face value. Harris is not against intuitions, as they are in and of themselves empirical.
I’m not sure how causes got brought in here. If I spoke of causes I probably meant it shorthand for “the basis of.”
So in as much as we are both at a loss for deciding the basis for moral values, I don’t see how we could jump to conclusions about which methods are superior for deciding that. If we both agree they can be decided, we’re halfway to Harris.
Again, he might disagree, but in philosophy speak I read him as an empiricist. So if we also admitted that these bases, whatever they were, had to come from “facts” about how the world “is,” we’d be probably 99% in agreement with him, though again, I can’t speak for the man.
So given that, which of those leaps are we not making together? Which of them, upon making, have I landed head first against the pavement?
Jeffrey Jeffers says
I think causes got brought in because you were asking if I allowed that values could be determined by anything at all. Determination is like cause. If something is the basis of something else, I can only think of this in the following ways, off the top of my head:
A) Thing 1 is the cause of thing 2 (the flying ball broke the window)
B) Set of events 1, in some large scale way, cause set of events 2, (the way some people view chemistry as leading into biology),
Now, if we’re not talking about causes, then maybe we’re talking about,
C) Thing 1 provides the foundation, such that thing 2 is justified by thing 1.
I’ll leave that there and hope for your comments.
Moving on, I don’t think intuitions, if we’re talking about moral realism, are *completely* empirical. Getting to the heart of the matter, the fact that experience is needed to apprehend something, like mathematical entities, does not settle the issue. The question is whether the apparatus of the senses are sufficient to apprehend the entity.
If we just want to say something in layman’s terms, like “Well I was walking by a pond the other day, and then it hit me, I feel like we should do a much better job of protecting the environment.” I say, well, fine. But if a cognitive scientist comes along and tells our pond-walker that the experience was *entirely* empirical, then our pond walker might want to say that it felt like something more than that. In other words, it’s not like the words “environmental protection” were etched into a tree, causing the man to become an environmentalist. The squirrels didn’t stand up and give a sermon that imparted some kind of wisdom into our pond-walker. In a very personal way, his epiphany felt sublime, emotional, etc. Now all these things can happen within the space of personal experience, granted, but if one is not only an empiricist, but a naturalist, then what in the natural world could actually make these intuitions “real” as it were. In other words, if they’re all reducible to neuron B firing at X time or what have you, then OK everything is empirical.
But if the content of the intuition is somehow real beyond just the reductionist line, then it must be that at least a moderate version of rationalism is true as well (which doesn’t necessarily forestall moderate versions of empiricism, but it does forestall “b*alls to the wall” empiricism, if you will). The fact that some kind of experience is needed to apprehend such things does not, by itself, give reason to reject all forms of rationalism.
So we still have to settle on whether the empiricism Harris touts is an example of moral realism (if you believe Harris has side-stepped meta-ethics, then by definition you must believe that Harris is not claiming to solve any meta-ethical problems or claiming for himself through this venture any labels that are themselves meta-ethical labels, like “moral realist” and the like).
So one more thing on intuitions, I could have an intuition that The Rolling Stones is better than the Beatles, and I could have an intuition that women should should not expose their flesh in public. If Harris isn’t talking about meta-ethics at all, then Harris isn’t saying that one is *actually* or *literally* better than another. If no intuition is actually apprehending anything real in the world (as we take it) then OK empiricism wins in a rout. But if the things that aren’t obviously a part of the fabric of the world that we apprehend through experience are real, and Harris is claiming that they are (like mathematical entities) then it must not only be that rationalism is true, but that Harris *is* treading way over into meta-ethical turf.
If all that talk of naturalism muddies things up too much, we can leave it behind. For now, the stress should be on whether experience is *sufficient* to apprehend something like a mathematical entity. The senses gives us certain kinds of information, and some say the intellect apprehends truths directly as well. Either could come from experience, but both sides are not empiricist.
Ethan Gach says
“Now all these things can happen within the space of personal experience, granted, but if one is not only an empiricist, but a naturalist, then what in the natural world could actually make these intuitions “real” as it were. In other words, if they’re all reducible to neuron B firing at X time or what have you, then OK everything is empirical. ”
I’m fine with the above.
And I’m fine with saying that some things are apprehended directly through something other than the senses (though I don’t know quite why we would limit the senses to smell, taste; also I cannot apprehend 2+2=4 without using my senses, that is, I could not think it or transmit it without them). So say while experience would not be sufficient, it, and whatever else came after, would both be predicated on experience, making any further truths answerable to experience.
But your responses are a bit above me. It’s a lot at once and I’m having a hard time grasping the finer nuances in what you say.
Perhaps we could backtrack to what you see Harris as proposing and what in that you find wrong or unsupported (and I’m open to the critique that he’s unoriginal).
And again, thanks for the continuing back-and-forth.
Jeffrey Jeffers says
No problem on the back and forth; it’s fun. I don’t set out with the idea of burdening anyone with the amount I end up writing. I need to tighten it up.
For now, if we have an innate structure such that we can apprehend truths that aren’t in the territory of natural scientists, then the natural sciences aren’t needed in apprehending all truth. Maybe the natural sciences won’t even help in areas like this; Harris wouldn’t agree, I think (by “help” I mean help us make the judgement itself, not that it wouldn’t have instrumentally valuable things to add). And, maybe I saw Jesus yesterday in the course of my experience, but presumably no one will believe me (well, not no one) unless I can haul a team of scientists out to the church. As for apprehending 2+2=4 w/o using your senses, well, maybe I agree in a trivial sense. Maybe you had to brush your teeth before you went to school that day, maybe you had to eat some food to stay alive, maybe… well you know what I’m getting at. But at the moment you make the apprehension that 2+2=4, I can’t see that your senses are involved in the apprehension. Again, I grant that maybe you had to see the chalk board to understand, or hear someone say something or some such thing, but the apprehension itself is not a sensory one, and this seems important, whether you had to use experience to stumble out of bed and see the chalk board or not.
As for Harris’ possible unoriginality, that isn’t the worst thing in the world. However saying something unoriginal while at the same time seeming (at the very least, in this case) to say something controversial is, well, worthy of blame. I’ll try to fill your request in the not too distant future.
Wow, for me, that’s a short post.
Ethan Gach says
“…but the apprehension itself is not a sensory one,”
By apprehension, are you referring to the first time I “learn” it? For instance, I could learn to recognize that sequence of symbols as referring to some second thing, which would be similar to other learned behaviors, empirical in that I learn through repetition to to associate the two, that is the symbols and what they signify.
I’m not in a position to explore what occurs when one “learns” something (as for the first time). So for instance, the phenomenon of first learning that 2+2=4 might be best understood by neurological research concerning the occurrence.
Of course that the phenomenon is best understood by empirical procedures says nothing about whether the phenomenon itself is empirical.
Again I’d ask, could someone who was fed through an IV and kept alive till the full maturation of their bodies, but with minimal sensory input and no personal interactions, understand the concept of 2+2=4? And what would they need to be taught fist? Would, assuming they were blind and had never been allowed to use there hands, etc. are you holding that they could be taught 2+2=4 without referring at some point to the way things are in the world?
Help point out where I go amiss if your main point eludes me.
Jeffrey Jeffers says
I agree that the phenomenon of first learning that 2+2=4 might be best understood by neurological research concerning the occurrence. But I don’t believe neurology is the study of tools that helps us understand why 2+2=4 *is true*.
Studying the way the brain behaves doesn’t help us with epistemological justification (even though it could help us to see what the brain is doing when people believe they are warranted in believing something). But when you say
“Of course that the phenomenon is best understood by empirical procedures says nothing about whether the phenomenon itself is empirical” hints to me that you agree quite a bit.
Now, on your last paragraph, the fact that experience in needed does not mean the actual apprehension is itself sensory. The fact that we need to couch mathematical learning in learning about collections of objects may in fact be a good reason to be a mathematical anti-realist. I mean, what the hell is *two* objects? If it’s only applicable to similar objects like apples, then what could be the difference between 6 apples and 8 apples? In each case, we just have a hunk of apples. So I don’t think mathematical learning could be sustained through step by step comparison to actual objects. Not only because it would be inefficient, but because it just wouldn’t do the conceptual job.
So anyway, what’s most important is not whether sensory experience in necessary to have knowledge of abstract objects (like numbers and mathematical operators) but whether sensory experience is sufficient. You could have all the experience in the world, but without the conceptual competence to understand math, you couldn’t gain justified (sincere) belief about it.
The best way to illustrate the relative importance of the issues, I think, is to acknowledge that I consider myself a moderate rationalist, AND I’m at a loss to imagine how one could know about abstract objects without any experience at all. But the “teacher,” so to speak, in the Pigliucci video, claims that there are objective facts that aren’t scientific (and he means empirical science). The student, if you will, asks what other kind of objective fact there could be. The teacher gives the example of 2+2=4. Now, I can assure you that in committing to the view that personal experience is insufficient to learning abstract objects, you are not committing to the view that experience isn’t necessary at all. Some extremists may believe that experience is not involved in the least, for all I know. But I can assure you that you needn’t worry. BUT, you do believe that 2+2=4 is true, and you believe you are justified in believing it. If it’s true that the justification of your belief is not the province of the natural sciences, then you believe something is true, and you believe you are justified in believing it, in spite of the fact that it’s status as objective fact is not a matter of empirical science. So you agree with Pigluicci! 🙂 Now, what’s left is for yo to determine if his reply to Harris was on topic, in my view.
One more thing before I sign off, I should have said this in the thread above, but I think the video could be improved a bit. What I mean is, simply understanding arithmetic doesn’t make it true. If it did, then there would be no distinction between math and unicorns. Certainly the example of unicorns doesn’t contradict Sam Harris.
So, math and unicorns are distinct if math is true. If not, then though there may be some differences, we’re only dealing with self-imposed definitions in both cases. If so, then we may not be dealing with objective *facts* in the right way (meaning, in order to count as analogous in the relevant way, we must be talking about mathematical objects that are true not only about our own self-posed ways, like with unicorns)
Ethan Gach says
I don’t even remember where I said it, but I’ll repeat it here. If all facts are based on experiential information at some level, even if they can later be abstracted into some “rational” second or third order of facts, that even these abstracted facts can still be unseated by further experiential facts in the future seems to put Harris on okay footing.
And if nothing else the only issues that remain are ones of definitions, “well he doesn’t use empirical in the strict philosophical sense,” or, “Mr. Harris’ definition of science is broader than his critics will admit of,” and of his coy, meta-ethical elusiveness.
If you accept some form of moral realism, Harris would than say to you, well at its first and last, the answers to those moral questions will be best arrived at, or at least can be sought after, using a broad form of science among other things.
On this issue of Harris’ version of “science,” I read him as saying the only legitimate mode of inquiry is “science,” but that that mode of inquiry is already inherent in all or at least most of our favorite methods of inquiry such as philosophy, art, etc. And that the best traditions of these disciplines utilize a value system very similar to science, and that THE “Science,” is only one particular subset of a broader field of “sciences.”
Jeffrey Jeffers says
The formulation “If all facts are based on experiential information at some level, even if they can later be abstracted into some ‘rational’ second or third order of facts, that even these abstracted facts can still be unseated by further experiential facts in the future,” is ambiguous.
What’s particularly ambiguous is “based on.” I didn’t ever mean to agree with that. The fact that experience is necessary to apprehend something does not necessarily mean that the justification of holding the belief is based on experience. I’m particularly confident that I didn’t agree that the formulation beliefs taken apprehended through the intellect, rather than through the senses, was “later” abstracted into 2nd or 3rd order facts. That presumes too much, I think.
I mean, I could need to get out of bed in order to make it to the shooting range and shoot my gun. That would mean that my getting out of bed was necessary for me to shoot my gun. But it wouldn’t necessarily mean that my shooting the gun was “based on” me getting out of bed, (depending on what I mean by “based on.” I know you are trying to establish that you mean just about whatever I mean and that experience is the foundation no matter how I slice it, but I’m denying that that’s necessarily true, and I’m denying that you have demonstrated that it is). It could be that in order to shoot my gun, I have to have an innate structure sufficient for me to do it. Perhaps I just somehow intuit the motions needed to pull it off. The fact that I need to crawl out of bed to get to the shooting range does not make my crawling out of bed the most important factor in the way my shooting skills are acquired.
Furthermore, I really want to be careful with this quote: “even these facts can still be unseated by further experimental facts in the future” is not clear enough. What I want to say is that we have to allow for the possibility that they’re able to be unseated by future experimental facts. This doesn’t mean that this possibility is real. But see in order for your defense to go through, you have to have already decided that they’re not justified by what rationalists would say. That’s true because rationalists believe some things can be known through the intellect. If you think sitting in an armchair and breathing falls within the range of the kind of experience Sam Harris has in mind, then I think many people would find that very remarkable.
The last part,
“If you accept some form of moral realism, Harris would than say to you, well at its first and last, the answers to those moral questions will be best arrived at, or at least can be sought after, using a broad form of science among other things.
On this issue of Harris’ version of ‘science,’ I read him as saying the only legitimate mode of inquiry is ‘science,’ but that that mode of inquiry is already inherent in all or at least most of our favorite methods of inquiry such as philosophy, art, etc. And that the best traditions of these disciplines utilize a value system very similar to science, and that THE ‘Science,’ is only one particular subset of a broader field of ‘sciences.”’
This is *very* slippery, and if it’s true I think Sam Harris undoubtedly knew what he was getting himself into. On his understanding of what constitutes science, we’re no longer talking about whether his terms adhere to “strict” philosophical uses, but whether they follow any widely accepted usage at all.
I had a minute…
Jeffrey Jeffers says
Ugh, bad writing… The above is sloppy, but I can contain the urge to rewrite most of it. Except
“I’m particularly confident that I didn’t agree that the formulation beliefs taken apprehended through the intellect, rather than through the senses, was ‘later’ abstracted into 2nd or 3rd order facts”
should have been this,
“I’m particularly confident that I didn’t agree that beliefs apprehended through the intellect, rather than through the senses, are ‘later’ abstracted into 2nd or 3rd order facts.”
Jeffrey Jeffers says
What’s important to many rationalists is that the truths they apprehend (like 2+2=4) are *immediately* justified even if they only occur within the context of experience. They’re not later abstracted into another category, they in fact are not given by the five senses at all, and so are immediately different than watching a ball break a window and concluding that the ball broke the window. You can call it experience if you want, but you can’t say anything in the experience is what justifies the belief (the way experience ultimately justifies beliefs in the natural sciences, or so we claim).
Now, Sam Harris can get around this by using the terms in completely idiosyncratic ways if he wants (not merely diverging from strict philosophical uses. Since art is included, he must be using the terms oddly). But he can’t then behave in ways that a philosophy BA from Stanford should reasonably be able to understand would be interpreted the way it’s currently being interpreted by many people.
Ethan Gach says
Many people don’t like Harris, and they don’t like what they think he says. Read the book. He defines what he means by these terms. It’s a short book. Not a whole lot going on. I wouldn’t even recommend buying it. A cursory look through via a library copy would be more than adequate. He defines what he’s talking about with certain terms there. And as Humpty Dumpty would argue, the speaker is the master, not the words, they can mean what he means them to mean. You might disagree with whether he should use them like that, but that doesn’t put an end to one’s obligation to charitably interpret the other in whatever way the other means to be interpreted.
I’ll simplify my meaning so as not to let much get lost in the exchange. I’m asserting that everything that can be asserted as fact, whether or not it is based on experience, can be unseated by experience. Thus you may intuitively know, upon being confronted with, that 2+2=4, but if personal experience should deviate from that claim, you would be obligated to let go of it. Because I am asserting that no rational truths exist, that can exist, in a vacuum devoid of experiential grounding, so that even if experience was completely contrary to the fact, we might still maintain it.
And if we grant the above. That experiential facts would have standing when it came to adjudicating matters of mathematical or rational fact, as in, does the a priori rational fact continue to jive with new experiential fact, I would maintain that as a result, science, as observation of our’s and other’s experience, would have standing in adjudicating matters of fact and value truths.
Ethan Gach says
What I’m asserting, is that any truths, are attached to experience (experience being the sum total of our cognitive/sensory actions). And if that is the case, that experiential/scientific/sensory/empirical information bears a relationship to all truths, then when we are deciding if something is moral or not, perhaps it can be decided a priori, but that could be contradicted by experience, in which case experience is clearly pertinent to determine morality, in which case we should involve science, in fact must involve science, in our moralistic pursuits.
Jeffrey Jeffers says
I don’t think all the things you’re saying are unreasonable, and I should have explained myself a bit more in my last post (usually I have the opposite problem). Having said that, after talking with several different people who have defended Harris, I now believe that if you polled Harris’ defenders and asked them questions about what Harris is up to in his latest book, they would give different answers, so what you *might* have is different defenders of Harris attaching their own reasonable views to Harris’ thesis (that he’s expressed in interviews and talks several times). Actually you’re the first I’ve encountered that’s asserted that he’s said nothing that contradicts orthodox meta-ethical thinking (in other words, you believe that he’s side-stepped meta-ethics).
Now at the beginning of his TED talk, Harris starts by asserting that the historical idea of the separation of facts and values is wrong, (a philosophically and meta-ethically substantive statement), and that moral facts are a kind of fact. Now, this is coy because moral facts could be a kind of fact the way robust moral realists take them to be. In which case, Harris is aligning himself with them, the people who explicitly don’t view science as uncovering moral truth (not exactly the first string of empiricist-reductionism here). Or it could be that he means by “fact,” the kind of facts that the natural sciences typically uncover, which are not moral ones but instead are descriptive ones. Now if you want to call them moral facts, then at least realize that “neuron firing at time t” is not a moral statement in most people’s estimation.
You may idiosyncratically want to expand the definition of science to include art. But, this is slippery because this could mean that it’s just the good old fashioned scientific method either way, in which case most artists would likely balk that that’s what they’re up to, and philosophers of science would likely not include art as a science, and most scientists would also exclude art from their discipline.
Just saying “everything that we experience” is not a good way to clump art and science together in this case, because one deals in aesthetic appreciation, another, the experimental study of the natural world. If Harris wants to say that something like “The Rolling Stones are better than the Beatles” is a fact on par with “evolution by natural selection is how humans evolved,” then that’s very very controversial. If he just wants to say that the facts of the brain are what neurology tell us and those are involved when one says the Rolling Stones are better than the Beatles (the facts that show what happens in the brain while one is appreciating art), then that gets us nowhere morally at all. Not only is this banal, it’s not even on topic.
I know you think I’m being pedantic and focusing too much on whether you cross your t’s and dot your i’s, but trust me, this stuff is important to what Harris is up to in his latest venture.
Now, in your last email, I have serious concerns about your last sentence, *even by your own definitions*. You’ve said that science is a very very broad term in Harris’ latest schema. So, if science includes art, then what you mean when you say that our moral pursuits must include science, when translated into normal usage of the terms, is “our moral pursuits don’t need to include science.” Correct? Because if science is also art, then maybe all of our moral pursuits will be correctly understood by reading literature, or by looking at art, or hell, by going to church. No? Why not? They’re all experience, and by the definition you gave, even art is science.
If the methods that are typically associated with the natural sciences must then apply their standards to art, literature, religious experience, then I think you took me for a ride by telling me that science includes art. So I hope that isn’t needed.
Ethan Gach says
Science includes art if the art in question uses certain scientific principles. Maybe you would think me small minded if I were to equate the most general instance of science as “trial and error.”
So maybe what I mean to say, is that in the same why I learn to paint based on trial and error, I also learn to launch a rocket. Both the “art” of painting and the launching of the rocket, most operate with respect to certain “facts” about the world.
So I only meant to liken science and art in that they share something central in their need to operate according to “facts” about the world. In this way, one can not say a priori what kind of rocket will reach escape velocity, and one can not say whether green or red will be more aesthetically pleasing in a specific context.
And even if we should disagree about which color would work best, we would tend to use explanations based on facts about the world, including facts about our subjective experience. Even if we appeal to concepts or principles, those will be what they are with respect to facts about our experience or the world at a given time.
As far as the disparate understandings of what Harris means to do with regard to the meta-ethical literature, I understood him, when saying that talk of it increases the amount of boredom in the universe, to be dismissing it out of hand, making the implicit argument that there is no evidence for why such a question should even exist. I could be wrong, and misreading him, or asserting some revisionist doctrine of Harris which he would disown. I’m curious what the people you are in contact regard him as saying, and how they regard his repeated analogizing of meta-ethical questions to medical relativism in which we might argue about what constitutes a healthy life?
And I don’t think you pedantic. I also apologize for not taking the time to try and respond more fully and to each of the legitimate points you raise.
Ethan Gach says
I’m willing to walk back the part about science/art. I myself will stand by it, and I think that it is implicit in Harris’ broad definition of science, but to my knowledge he hasn’t actually made such a claim explicitly, so I won’t attribute it to him.
Jeffrey Jeffers says
No worries; none at all.
On whether Harris would disown what you’re saying, well, I think Harris would associate himself with any interpretation that *sounded* reasonable. So I think he would affirm your interpretation (just speculating, of course).
But if he’s either dead wrong, coy, or at worst, both, then I suppose I actually insist that he’s either completely out to lunch or on the other hand, capitalizing on the ambiguity in what he’s saying (clearing up all the ambiguity could kill the titillating buzz). If he simply said that he’s saying that we should use trial and error, then maybe I should be able to count the time my cousin finally got to see Jesus in church. I mean, I think if he wants to exclude the things he obviously wants to exclude, it’s going to be through the scientific method as understood and practiced by the natural sciences, or at the very least through the logic of reductionist-empiricism (which doesn’t allow for aesthetic facts, like there being a fact of the matter about whether the Beatles are better than the Rolling Stones).
I doubt he’s saying only that we use experience and that we allow our opinions to be disconfirmed by experience as the layman understands the terms. If he did say that, he wouldn’t be excluding things the New Atheists wish to exclude.
And if he merely said something uncontroversial, then not very many people would be interested in a book like that. Seriously, we can think about it: Richard Dawkins said he wanted the subtitle to one of his recent books to read “The Root of Some Evil,” but the publishers insisted on replacing the word “Some” with the word “All.” So we can, as a matter of interpretive method, put ourselves in the shoes of the author and publisher when it comes to pop-intellectual books like this.
Also if he truly is saying something uncontroversial, then the way to say it is not by going around and starting with how wrong philosophers have been for umpteen hundred years.
I’ll keep up the back and forth and more directly answer your questions, but for now I’m beat… lotsa stuff goes on this time of year.
Jeffrey Jeffers says
What I deny is that Sam Harris is saying something uncontroversial and isn’t being coy and taking advantage of all the buzz surrounding the book (which depends *at the very least* on the appearance of a controversial thesis).
Harris is saying something (A) wrong, (B) coy, or (C) both. If it’s B or C, then he would likely gesture in several directions (a denial that his thesis is controversial could serve as a gesture in one direction, saying orthodox philosophical thinking about a major philosophical subject is mistaken could serve as a gesture in the other direction). I think (C) is the right answer, but what I am firmly denying is that he’s saying (D), something banal but right.
So it could very well be that your interpretation is correct. I have my skepticism over that, but part of the reason for that is not so much that I deny that Harris says what you says he says, but that I insist that he says more than just that (I think some of what you’re saying would count as controversial, and I am attempting to show that too, on the other hand, I am also attempting to show that Harris couldn’t only be saying that). So I don’t deny that at times Harris says things that a reasonable person could interpret the way you are interpreting him.
Now, Troy Jollimore, a professional philosopher, in his review of the book, says that it’s one thing not to get bogged down in the particular jargon of academic philosophy, but it’s another to not even engage with what the discipline has contributed to the topic (Jollimore concludes that Harris couldn’t have engaged, based on the book).
If Harris is side-stepping meta-ethical views, then he shouldn’t say that he’s providing a basis for rejecting moral relativism. Harris says that that science is not only a good way for us to get what we want, but a way to answer moral questions (from a certain banal perspective, morality is just a cultural version of what we want and feel strongly about approving/disapproving of, so surely science would have *something* to say about what we want and approve/disapprove of, but see, he isn’t content with that, so simply stopping with this modest philosophical task is not what he did).
But like I said, I’m beat, got some days of shopping/traveling ahead. I’ll still plugged in though…
Ethan Gach says
“If he simply said that he’s saying that we should use trial and error, then maybe I should be able to count the time my cousin finally got to see Jesus in church.”
In “The End of Faith,” I think he says something to the effect of yes to the above. Your cousin would count the number of times Christ appeared to him and use that as evidence. Then Harris and others would report the number of times they haven’t experienced that, and also use other things, including principles of material physics, etc. to argue against what your cousin saw. But the very fact that your cousin must use even his own subjective personal experience as evidence shows that he must use some evidence, and that that evidence is better or worse, and so one can have a better or worse argument for or against Jesus having appeared in that church. In this way the discussion moves away from appeals to “faith,” and toward appeals to “evidence,” and the “reason,” we use to apprehend and utilize “evidence.”
As someone who enjoys reading philosophy, even the dense, poorly written tombs that spend 99% of their time “engaging with the literature,” and only 1% attempting to say something unique or controversial, I would have no problem engaging in the literature.
On the other hand, what about arguments that are made implicitly at this blog, against the necessity of doing so (all that not referring to a bunch of dead guys stuff, etc.)
Why not just make arguments and if the arguments suck and have already been settled elsewhere, ignore the guy all together. And I’m sure that you would say that is precisely what you are doing.
But when it comes to arguing the meta-ethical issues. One side assumes that morality must be diverse and gives weak justification for it. Another side says why must we assume it diverse and would argue against the need to even provide evidence to that effect.
Many people may not believe in physics, and think that bullets will pass right through them because of some magical ritual they participated in previous to the battle. Of course that’s not true. But I’m at a loss for what would suffice as good reasons for the other individual to believe it.
So what kinds of arguments can referee our beliefs if the very foundations of those beliefs are what is being called into question?
Doesn’t meta-ethics beg the question of why meta-ethics can even make those presumptions?
Jeffrey Jeffers says
Not engaging at all is not the same as not getting bogged down in the literature. Surely, if one goes around saying the literature is wrong, then one is obliged to engage that literature, and not use the terms in idiosyncratic ways when one going to the larger public to declare the wrongness of the literature (I hope we at least agree by now that Harris has not successfully side-stepped meta-ethical issues).
As for Jesus and whether people have experienced seeing him, I had thought that even if most people claimed to have seen him, that we would not believe them, if in fact their testimony was not in line with our best understanding of the natural world. Now, when you appeal to what he said at the End of Faith, I disagree that simply counting heads is a good way to make distinctions between true and false claims. I think we could be surprised how many people would claim to have seen something given the right circumstances. BUT, when you appeal to the part about our understanding of the natural world (principles of materials physics) then you see, the natural sciences ARE given veto power all along. So there’s no use in talking about personal experience that can’t be disproven by the natural sciences, because art is often thought to apprehend actual beauty, not just correlate with certain machinations taking place in our brain. Dito for morality. If this is too ambitious on the part of morality, then we can’t refute moral skepticism, and in particular moral relativism.
On your last point, moral skepticism is not *radical* skepticism. Even if we assume away the concerns of the radical skeptic (the skeptic that demands evidence of the natural world even beyond everyday, banal, evidence) then we’re still not home-free with morality. I know Sam Harris has tried to clump these together before, but seriously, no notable moral skeptics that I’m aware of are radical skeptics. Of course maybe they just don’t have the courage of their convictions, but I’m confident, from my familiarity with the subject matter, that they don’t run together (moral and radical skepticism, that is). For anyone who doesn’t share my confidence, I think the verdict of the entire discipline that devotes their time to studying the issue should matter, even if this verdict alone doesn’t settle the issue.
Seriously, we’re a modern culture, and we simply take scientific realism for granted. If you disagree with me about the way the natural world operates, we can simply both go stand in front of a train and see who’s right. We can’t do that with moral disagreement. If I say that torturing babies for fun is morally permissible, and you disagree, then how do we solve that dispute? I suggest that there is no objective method other than moral relativism. I say relativism is objective, and that might throw some people for a loop. Certainly moral relativism does not hold that there are moral properties above and beyond a culture’s preferences, but at least the method of finding out what’s right and wrong will be objective (just search the culture’s attitude). But let’s not forget, Harris has rejected moral relativism.
When the mullah tells us that imposing on others his fundamentalist Islamic view of how society should be run is what makes him happy, we can’t simply deny that without begging the question. Now, if we say that he makes more people unhappy than happy, so what? We can start from the premise of utilitarianism if we choose, but throughout history people have professed to find happiness in different ways. So which kind is right? No answer is settled.
So there’s either no way to adjudicate between theses views without pin-pointing happiness as some very particular brain state, in which case the natural sciences actually do have veto power (and in any case, I’m skeptical that the very same kinds of moral things actually make people feel the same across time and place.. and we can’t just arbitrarily declare they’re happiness not true happiness), or we’re imposing *our own* particular view of what should count as healthy happiness as the universal view, in which case we haven’t come up with anything even approaching the kind of evidence coming from the natural sciences. See, if the mullah doubts gravity, we can challenge him to a building jumping demonstration. The world is recalcitrant to our views of what it should do. Our morality is not. Hence, these are not analogous.
Incidentally, I don’t feel the need for any robust justification for the *natural* world myself, but if I were looking for one, I would be satisfied with Hilary Putnam’s, (he said that scientific realism is the only philosophy of science that doesn’t make the success of modern science a miracle).
Ethan Gach says
“Now, when you appeal to what he said at the End of Faith, I disagree that simply counting heads is a good way to make distinctions between true and false claims.”
No, but in the absence of all others, it can suffice. These are all, “best guess” scenarios.
“Seriously, we’re a modern culture, and we simply take scientific realism for granted. If you disagree with me about the way the natural world operates, we can simply both go stand in front of a train and see who’s right. We can’t do that with moral disagreement.”
Harris is asking, why not? What makes morality different then every other phenomenon?
“If I say that torturing babies for fun is morally permissible, and you disagree, then how do we solve that dispute?”
The same way any dispute is resolved. Again, the question is why not. And when you posit reasons why not, what gives you the authority to say those are good reasons when you are questioning the very legitimacy of what makes a reason a good one in asserting your position?
“Certainly moral relativism does not hold that there are moral properties above and beyond a culture’s preferences, but at least the method of finding out what’s right and wrong will be objective (just search the culture’s attitude.)”
This part confuses me. Could you elaborate? How can it have an objective method?
“When the mullah tells us that imposing on others his fundamentalist Islamic view of how society should be run is what makes him happy, we can’t simply deny that without begging the question. Now, if we say that he makes more people unhappy than happy, so what? We can start from the premise of utilitarianism if we choose, but throughout history people have professed to find happiness in different ways. So which kind is right? No answer is settled. ”
What about the following exchange:
“I feel really healthy.”
“Sorry sir, you’re actually at high risk of having a heart attack.”
“But I feel great!”
“But you aren’t.”
“But who are you to decide?”
In that case, whatever the person thinks about them self doesn’t matter. why should the brain be treated differently from the heart in this way?
“Incidentally, I don’t feel the need for any robust justification for the *natural* world myself, but if I were looking for one…”
Why not? If you’ve just requested robust justification for any proposed system of morality. If morality exists in the world, and not independently of it, how can your justificatory criteria be different for morality, that which is of the world, and for the world, which contains it?
Jeffrey Jeffers says
Some of what you say in your last post is fuzzy to me, so I’ll think more on it. For now, I can get at a few things you said, I believe:
*The exchange you offer is not an example of a moral disagreement; it’s an example of a *purely* factual disagreement. A moral disagreement would involve me saying it’s moral to kill my daughter because she had brought shame to my family by being raped, and you saying that my action was immoral.
Now, referring to what people mean when they use the word “science” use the methods and knowledge of that kind of discipline to adjudicate that disagreement, please.
*In everyday life, I actually am not requesting a robust justification for any proposed system of morality. But Sam Harris has asserted that moral disagreements are disagreements of fact (seriously, are you still denying that this is a meta-ethical claim?) and that moral relativism is wrong (again, how can this be anything other than a meta-ethical statement?) and that he can show us the way to making ethics into a branch of science. So he’s *obliged* to answer these questions. I may have my leanings on all these questions, but I’m not going to write a book saying, with all of the gusto of Sam Harris, that says I can answer moral questions objectively in the way philosophy has traditionally denied. If I did such a thing, then I would be obliged to answer these questions too.
In our unreflective state, it seems to me that “murder is wrong” is as factual a statement as “water freezes at 32 degrees Fahrenheit.” BUT, all it takes is a few moments of reflection to see a very important difference (one would think that in the course of writing a book like Harris has, and in the course of preparing for the whirlwind book tour he’s been on, that he would have had these reflective moments) The moments of reflection thoughtful people are capable of, and willing to expose themselves to, can lead to the realization that if one denies that water freezes at a particular temperature, then all we need to do is show them. On the other hand, if someone denies that murder is wrong, there’s no way to refute their argument.
Now, I think what you’re going to say is that the brain shows that murder is unhealthy or something. But that doesn’t capture everything we mean when we call something morally wrong, IF morality is meant universally, and to apply to all the situations we normally apply it to. If all you mean by morality is that some chemical or neuron fires off in the brain at a certain time, well I think that belief has to be signaled very loudly so people can understand that the terms are being used idiosyncratically.
If you mean your moral terms to be interpreted as people normally do, then I think I have a right to ask how you maintain a realist interpretation of that meaning within a naturalistic paradigm (not that a supernaturalist paradigm gets the job down either, but the naturalistic paradigm forestalls it, in my view, and in JL Mackie’s view, for what it’s worth).
If Sam Harris wants to come along and say that the way we think of morality is normally wrong and that we have to make uncomfortable adjustments to the beliefs that underlie our moral discourse (adjustments to how broadly we can mean our everyday moral statements to apply), then OK, fine. But he hasn’t done that; he’s relying on common sense moral notions, while promising big returns on a method for answering moral questions.
*On why I balk on demanding a robust justification for the natural world while at the same time demanding a robust justification for any proposed system of morality. We can take this in parts (1) First, Sam Harris isn’t proposing any old system of morality, because any old system of morality doesn’t have to answer meta-ethical question to get underway. For example, a plausible reading of Rawls is that he’s a “Kantian constructivist,” which means more or less that Rawls (competently, and clearly) side-steps the meta-ethical topic of moral realism v. moral skepticism while still offering a framework for society to speak to one another about moral disputes.
Now, I think Rawls hung the moon, but it’s important to point a couple of things out. One is that Rawls doesn’t provide much consolation for anyone who isn’t already a Liberal (for anyone who isn’t already committed to a secular, Enlightenment, Liberal Democratic Society). So he doesn’t address those in cultures that are radically different, because he assumes there’s already enough consensus around the values he’s interested in advancing that he doesn’t need to sift through meta-ethical disputes involving relativism, realism, skepticism, etc. Now, Harris would have been wise to do this, but he didn’t. Moral relativism is a substantive meta-ethical doctrine, and one he’s keen on refuting.
(2) Second, a robust justification of the natural world would include a rational justification of induction, would address the realist-idealist dispute, etc. But I’m a pragmatist (colloquially speaking) so I don’t care so much about addressing that stuff. As for whether the natural world is justified in a day-to-day sense, well, it contains its own justification in this sense by remaining the same everyday. So any justification beyond that seems academic (not that such issues won’t arise in the context of other issues).
OK, so, it’s true that the radical skeptic can stubbornly remain unconvinced about the truth of the natural world, but again we can just go stand in front of a train. But (and I don’t know about you) seeing his brains splat against the train will tend to weaken his argument, in my eyes. You may wish to refute this example, but it’s the second time I’ve offered it, so if you have a demonstration of the truth or falsity of moral statements that’s analogous to demonstrations of the truth or falsity of statements about the natural world (i.e., trains running over people) then I would like to hear it.
In the course of trying to come up with such an example, I predict that you will at the very least see that radical skepticism is more difficult to maintain than moral skepticism. Once radical skepticism is seen as unmotivated, we still won’t be home-free on refuting the moral skeptic. The naturalistic paradigm should only posit objects/properties that are necessary to explaining the natural world. As Gilbert Harman has explained, moral objects/properties are not necessary to explain the natural world.
Now, it seems like I’m starting to chase my own tail, so if you don’t mind, I would like to make a special request that you address my example of the train, and that you deal with my argument that moral objects/properties are not necessary to explain the natural world, and that you address my point that Sam Harris is keen on refuting moral relativism, and my several attempts to get you to reevaluate your view that Sam Harris has side-stepped meta-ethical issues.
Ethan Gach says
I’ll preface this and any other comments with the fact that I greatly enjoy this back and forth and don’t mean to be snarky, abrupt or dismissive, even though I may unintentionally end up doing any or all of those things.
“The exchange you offer is not an example of a moral disagreement; it’s an example of a *purely* factual disagreement. A moral disagreement would involve me saying it’s moral to kill my daughter because she had brought shame to my family by being raped, and you saying that my action was immoral.”
It seems you are again presuming they two difference types of agreement. If you would like to insert an argument for the existence of different types of facts I would welcome it, but in this discussion it seems that such a distinction, I’ll use is/ought for short, is given priority with the challenger, i.e. there is only one category of fact (Harris’ position), must offer justification according to more stringent standards.
“The moments of reflection thoughtful people are capable of, and willing to expose themselves to, can lead to the realization that if one denies that water freezes at a particular temperature, then all we need to do is show them. On the other hand, if someone denies that murder is wrong, there’s no way to refute their argument.”
Again you’ve explained why these two things are different by saying, these two things are different.
You Special Request:
“Sam Harris has side-stepped meta-ethical issues.”
I thought I had already said I agree with this part. He doesn’t address the meta-ethical concerns, except briefly, in something or other about how different standards have been imposed on things moral vs. things natural. The one big one being that I don’t have to convince you about a certain naturalistic fact in order for it to be correct, but I do seemingly have to convince you of a moral fact. The one requires consensus while the other does not. Perhaps he would say, the fact that people posit different moralities, in no ways supports a conclusion that one does not exist. Someone could smell and elephant, hear an elephant, and see and elephant. The fact that none of these people could agree on what the elephant actually was doesn’t mean that the elephant isn’t actually one thing and not another.
With regard to the train example. One might ask, why are you so concerned about the skeptic in that sense. Why would his/her opinion on the matter, matter?
There are some facts about the world that some people don’t have the capacity to understand. I won’t even be able to understand certain parts/consequences of Einstein’s theories. So someone quite literally could not demonstrate to me that they are true, or accurate.
As far as an analogous example, I lack the inspiration or intelligence to give you one. Blackburn mentioned, “the argument that will stop them in their tracks when they come to take you away.” So in I posit that not stabbing a stranger on the street is more moral than stabbing them, you would say, “ah yes, but what is your proof?!” And of course proof would be predicated on certain values, knowledge, and capacities of understanding. I might say, well killing not preferable, and you might ask, why? and I might say, because as conscious creatures in our current state it is detrimental to our mental health and the mental health of those around us. And you might ask, how can you make such a claim? And I might point to studies showing trends in depression, fear, and other negative emotions, that while all possibly having their place, would be too greatly increased by such an act as a random killing, and that a scan of my brain would indicate that committing the killing has actually made me more anxious, which has demonstrated consequences for health. And you might ask, well what about someone who likes to kill, and I might say, well the person who is killed might not enjoy it, and in fact could not, cause their resulting death would discontinue any derrivable benefits. But with regard to these sadistic pyschopaths we might say, that it would be in fact moral, to either eradicate such a gene, as it poses a threat to those of us born without the gene, or that we can construct mental prisons, where in these beings can dream of killing and live out their lives that way. And of course this would be all very unsatisfactory for you and other moral skeptics and moral relativists, and I would have no argument to convince you, just as I can have no argument to convince you of why non-contradiction and consistency are preferable.
And I still see this as mirroring the natural realm. If someone says that the earth orbits the sun, and someone else replies, oh but a demon could be manipulating all of our senses to make us thing that was so when really it was not the case, well we would be hard pressed to offer any winning argument their either. And I might say that something is, and you might say, how do you know that it is, and I would, after endless recursions, have no satisfactory answer.
And my feeling is that, in Harris’ move to make oughts into is’s, we are likewise introducing the skepticism of oughts with the justificatory rules of is’s. And so if a moral is a fact, I, at the end of things, have no better reason for saying it is what it is than I have for any other is in the Universe.
Jeffrey Jeffers says
I hope that last message didn’t come across harsh. Even when participants have the best intentions, sometimes arguments can become a maze if both sides don’t look back every now and again and try to remember what got them there.
Jeffrey Jeffers says
On this Christmas Day, it’s occurred to me that I need to distill my core message and deliver it as succinctly as possible.
The denial that there are real differences in the brain states of people depending whether they murder their daughters or not, is not a necessary feature of moral relativism. A prominent version of moral relativism actually just states that there is no point in evaluating an action or state of affairs morally, unless that evaluation is coming from *within* a certain cultural paradigm (in order to have a point, the evaluations need to come from within the same paradigm in which the action or state of affairs occur).
The denial of moral relativism, on the other hand, means that we can make true moral evaluations of actions, or states of affairs, even if the actions and/or states of affairs all happen within a cultural paradigm very different from our own.
Now, since moral relativists don’t necessarily deny the facts of the brain Harris will want to point to, then something else must be going on.
What that something else is, I suggest, is that people don’t merely mean, when they say something is wrong, that it produces X brain state. Often the right thing to do is to sacrifice one’s own life (which, you’ll notice, is very unhealthy). Now, if Sam Harris wants to say that he’s talking about *maximum* happiness, (thereby ushering in periodic heroic acts that lead to death in the interim, but could lead to health and prosperity for more people in the longer run), then that’s a very substantive moral doctrine that’s not justified by any of the knowledge and methods of science. Science provides us with facts; the idea that maximizing health for all is better than maximizing health for some is not learned from science. Remember, Harris opened his TED talk by asserting that science does not merely help us get what we want (which is what most people already believe) but that it can answer moral questions (and he denies moral relativism).
What it would take to deny moral relativism is to answer the concerns I’m outlining. So he shouldn’t have said he’s refuting moral relativism. If the radical skeptic denies the force of the natural world, we can ask him to stand in front of a train. If the moral skeptic denies morality, we won’t win the argument just by showing him a brain scan. He can always says “so what?” In such a case, he can acknowledge the facts that Harris is so intent on him acknowledging, and yet can refuse to draw any morals from it. That’s not radical skepticism, that’s moral skepticism. If Harris insists on asserting that it is on par with radical skepticism, then just what kind of fact is the moral skeptic missing in this case?
I hope it’s starting to become clear how Harris has boxed himself in from all angles.
(not as succinct as I had hoped, but I’m getting better)
To continue what I was getting at on the other post:
First, I don’t see how we can avoid rendering the term “science” incapable of explaining anything “scientifically” if we apply it, as Ethan Gach seems to want to do, to all cases in which we hold something to be true. That is, if we can’t point to a case in which something we feel to be true is not a matter of science, then any statement of the form “science is what teaches us x” is not falsifiable. If so, such a definition of science is, ironically for Ethan/Harris, basically a preserve of what philosophers usually term a priori knowledge. That’s one problem.
Second, I think we have to say that morality is almost always about things we hold to be true out of a more or less presorted combination of instinct, cultural norms or cues, and the normal interaction of our brains with other things in the world. Someone who acts “morally” acts on principles that, however he or she got them, aren’t exactly up for inductive examination. Unless you’re Socrates, you’re probably not going to be able to explain to anyone how you’re doing the right thing while you’re trying to figure out, scientifically, what the right thing is.
My specific question for Gach/Harris, then, is what a morality based primarily on science (assuming that we have to mean, by “science,” something narrower than “experience” if we want to say something meaningful, new, or otherwise interesting) would look like. Could it preserve, for example, the belief held by most members of most societies that it is “simply good” to punish criminals (i.e., for the sake of justice)? If so, then how? If not, how? What does science have to say about the virtually universal prohibition against parent-child incest?
Not to “fetishize,” but it’s worth mentioning that this question has been asked and answered many times. Plato’s Republic, for example, asks what it would take for science or philosophy (which Plato likes) to govern public morality. The answer is a reductio ad absurdum in which smart people steal duller people’s smart children and do pure science together while the less scientifically inclined work and die for fairy tales. (Consolation prize: it’s cool to sleep with your sister.)
There may be happier mediums than this. Still, I think the general point holds that the more we say we want to establish justice or morality on scientific or objective grounds, the more we have to do away with things we often hold to be true for scientifically dubious and yet, it seems to me, completely understandable reasons (e.g., that death isn’t the end for, say, young children who are raped and murdered). I think that’s the biggest general problem with Harris’ larger project, which seems to take it on faith that serious difficulties don’t really arise in asking everybody to become an atheist.
Ethan Gach says
“then that’s a very substantive moral doctrine that’s not justified by any of the knowledge and methods of science. Science provides us with facts; the idea that maximizing health for all is better than maximizing health for some is not learned from science. ”
No, just as science can not justify science’s use of consistency, or even science’s own existence. And yet science is, and continues to be. There something functional to all this, which is important, even if I lack the coherence of mind to understand the relationship of all these things to function/efficacy.
But again, the core rules of adjudicating any argument/disagreement can never themselves be justified, does that mean all argument is fruitless?
“Not to “fetishize,” but it’s worth mentioning that this question has been asked and answered many times. Plato’s Republic, for example, asks what it would take for science or philosophy (which Plato likes) to govern public morality. The answer is a reductio ad absurdum in which smart people steal duller people’s smart children and do pure science together while the less scientifically inclined work and die for fairy tales. (Consolation prize: it’s cool to sleep with your sister.)”
If we look at the Republic as offering a certain science of morality, certainly a dubious project at best, would it be fair to evaluate it against a different morality? You seem to be saying that the morality espoused by the “republic” in the Republic, is obviously loony, based on your descriptive choices like, “steal,” “dumb,” and “die for fairy tales.” But what metrics would you use to make those judgments?
And with regard to morality being instinctual, we could also argue down another road of convergent moral preferences.
Jeffrey Jeffers says
Good post Brian.
I just want to hone in on a couple of things:
*First, Ethan Gach has said that he’s open to the possibility that Harris isn’t saying anything original or interesting. So if we say that Harris isn’t saying anything interesting if he says that we learn right and wrong from experience (in the broadest sense of the term) then he’s OK with that. What I want to stress is that whether Harris knows it or not, he has said more than that (hence my assertion that he has boxed himself in from all corners). There seems to be this idea floating around among people sympathetic to Sam Harris’s latest, and that’s that Harris’ thesis boils down to something very common sense and obvious, perhaps even banal and uninteresting, and that anyone who thinks otherwise is just projecting something onto Harris’ thesis. What I want to say is that this is very unlikely.
It could be, as I’ve intimated, that Harris and his publishers are being coy. That when backed into a corner, it’s all “hey this is very common sense stuff” while at other key places in the marketing effort, it’s presented as new, groundbreaking, and even iconoclastic.
It could be that Harris may really not know when he’s venturing beyond and banal and obvious point and into something highly controversial.
But in either case, what’s not happening is Sam Harris openly and overtly making a very everyday and common sensical point, even if it’s self-consciously presented that way.
*Secondly, in interpreting Harris to simply mean that experience in general is what he’s exalting, but not, strictly speaking, scientific experience in particular (thought scientific experience is included) the issue gets glossed over. The issue is whether science (and here we have to use the term in a recognizable way) has veto power over personal experience.
If you’re trying to stretch reliable methods of knowledge to all forms of experience, I don’t think you can simply say, “yeah, you know man, I’m not tryin’ to say your personal experience is wrong. In fact I want to include it, it’s just that I want to include science’s verdict on your personal experience too.” This isn’t actually broadening any criteria beyond what naturalists already allow. So we’re right back to whether science in the natural or hard sense is up to the task of having veto power over our everyday experience. (we could argue over that, but at least then we would all be on the same page)
In the scheme Harris has devised, the natural sciences, with their ways of knowing and learning, are allowed into our moral roundtable. They’re not here just for instrumental guidance, mind you, because Harris has already explicitly said he’s aiming for more than that. They’re here to make substantive (not just instrumental) contributions to our moral knowledge. They are not transforming into something like basket-weaving, but maintaining the integrity of their methods; they’re render their verdict on our personal intuitions. So, in this case, rhetoric about including experience in general functions as a misdirection away from the core argument over whether the natural science, but its very nature, is even up to the task of making substantive moral contributions. I’m not saying this misdirecting function is achieved consciously, just that that’s what all the focus on experience in general does.
This whole post is basically an argument that Harris has to mean more than mere experience when he uses the term science, even if he sometimes gestures in the direction that would cause a reasonable person to interpret him as simply wanting to exalt experience in the broadest possible sense. When we say that Harris isn’t saying anything interesting if he’s interpreted in a certain way, I think the way that’s meant to be read is that we have very serious doubts that such interpretations plausibly capture Harris’s meaning. It’s not that we’re saying, well he’s either saying something wrong or uninteresting and leaving it at that. I think what’s meant is something more like, “the option that has Harris saying something completely unoriginal and uninteresting is not a very good interpretation for getting at what Harris is saying.”
That said, I like Brian’s post, and think it should be dealt with directly, it’s just that I could see an opening, and I couldn’t resist trying to close it. Now, back to Brian’s post..
Ethan Gach says
Have either of you watched the entire “Great Debate: Can Science…” from which the above video is taken?
Jeffrey Jeffers says
In the video you mention, Sam Harris opens up by very explicitly saying that the traditional view of intellectual sophisticates is that science can help us get what we want, but cannot tell us what we ought to value, and he aims to show that this view is mistaken (“an illusion” he calls it). He does come right out and say that the relationship between facts and values is philosophically uninteresting, so much so, that we can safely ignore the history of moral philosophy. Now, in interpreting what Harris means here, we can either
A) Interpret him as saying that moral philosophy is mistaken about how facts and values are not the same thing and therefore science is a new area of acquiring moral knowledge that philosophy has no say in.
B) Interpret hims as just saying that science can help us understand brain states that we commonly correlate with health, and we commonly correlate health with goodness. No meta-ethical issues are implicated here. They’re side-stepped.
How you can choose B over A as a more accurate interpretation kind of boggles my mind at this point. But such is life.
Harris says that the aforementioned “illusion” is a dangerous one, because we risk waking up in a world where the only ones sure that there is such a thing as moral truth will be religious demagogues. (so what? I say. We believe what’s warranted, damn the consequences)
Harris tells us values reduce to facts, facts about the well being of conscious creatures (of course, he’s just telling us what he already believes, because “well being” is itself a morally loaded term; the guy who kills his daughter for being raped thinks this his society is healthier, morally. If we just assert that he’s wrong, we haven’t answered the moral question, we’ve begged it).
Harris goes on to say that if, for example, there are only rocks in the universe, then there are no values, but the moment you get conscious minds that can care about something, you get values (but remember, science can do more than merely help us get what we want, Harris has already told us). Harris tells us that once we have conscious creatures, what there is to value are changes in experience (hmmm, which kind of change? Bad to good, good to bad? I look forward to science answering this question). Harris correctly points out that we care more about primates than insects. The reason he gives is that primates are open to a wider spectrum of experience than insects (but of course, this spectrum is both one of pleasure and pain, so we haven’t shown how to decide which one to prefer).
Harris boldly asserts that the only premise he needs us to grant is that the worst possible suffering for everyone is bad, and that if the word bad means anything, it applies to such a situation (of course that’s true, but what of the situation where only raped girls are the ones suffering, doubly so for getting killed by their fathers? Harris needs more than he thinks he needs in order to justify his conclusion. Plus, suffering is just suffering. We can grant that something has a linguistic meaning, but that doesn’t mean it’s real beyond out preferences. And remember, science can answer moral questions, not just help us get what we want, Harris assures. And on linguistic meaning, surely there is a range of ways one can use terms in Dungeons and Dragons, but we can’t establish that any of the entities are real simply by referring to the D&D glossary).
Harris says it will be possible for there to be right and wrong ways to avoid the worst possible misery, which is undoubtedly true. So what? Again, what we need to refute the guy who kills his daughter for being raped is that there’s something even beyond his cultural rules or self-interest that’s right, above it all. Demonstrating that his daughter is in misery won’t tell him anything he doesn’t already know.
Harris tells us that he gets a lot of mail asking, skeptically, how we would convince a member of the Taliban that throwing battery acid in a little girl’s face . He responds that we don’t need to convince this person that it’s wrong, and points out that we can’t convince everyone that evolution is a fact, and correctly points out that scientific truth is not dependent on convincing everyone. (of course, scientific truth is dependent on experiment that *can* actually settle factual disputes, so Harris has moved past the issue of how to actually settle such disputes, in giving this analogy. If all we have is our pre-scientific preferences, then Harris shouldn’t have promised that science can do more than help us get what we want… then again, I’ve already made this point, and I’m starting to get the sinking feeling that I did so in vain).
Harris continues with this extremely wrong-headed analogy by saying that there are some people that refuse to be moved by evidence, but that we don’t doubt what science teaches us just because of these people’s stubbornness. (Again, when it come to moral truth WHAT EVIDENCE does he have? None).
Sam Harris says that clearly there are facts that relate directly to human well-being (uuuhh, yeah, in the sense he’s using the term here it won’t answer any moral questions. For what it’s worth, moral relativists are generally no ignorant of the brain’s relationship to emotional states).
Harris tells us that there are better and worse ways to avoid the fate of countries like Congo and Somolia. That’s unquestionably true, but for the guys going around and taking people’s property, with harems of women, taking whatever resources they want, and living high on the hog, they would prefer the state their country is in. If we’re going to answer a moral question in the way Harris promises in his opening, we haven to do more than impose what we already kinda feel is true in our gut (remember, science has been promised to be up for more than simply helping us get what we want, and moral philosophy can be ignored on the nature of answering moral questions).
Now, Sam Harris is a very comfortable and competent presenter, and based on his credentials, a very intelligent guy. But based only on his latest venture, an extremely sloppy thinker.
Now that I have Harris’ intro out of the way, did you have some other part of the video in mind?
Ethan Gach says
You bury me with text. This may take a while.
Jeffrey Jeffers says
Sorry. If necessary, you can distill what you think is the type of mistake I’m making throughout my critiques. If it would help, you can use an example or two to illustrate the point. I certainly don’t want to burden you with answering each and every point I made. I think we’ll agree that if you can show that my general method is flawed, you then by definition refute everything else I say. So we can work around the long text, I think.
Ethan Gach says
Sorry, didn’t mean to critique it, just wanted to make it known I’m still following and my overwhelmed mind needs some more time to try and give an honest, thoughtful, and more helpful response them perhaps some of the ones I’ve been giving.
Ethan Gach says
I’ll start by sticking to this whole point about needing to dispute the guy who we morally agree with.
Blackburn says there is no argument that will stop them in their tracks when they come to take you away. Do you agree?
If you do, then it seems there are two options. Either no morality can be established, because these arguments will never be settled, or we can come to a morality because settling these arguments has no weight when it comes to justifying our morality or determining it’s correctness. Do you lean any given way on that?
Do you think morality is a fact(s)? Do you think this is a single set or many divergent groupings that can not be reconciled?
You should watch the entire debate. It’s all very interesting, with many good speakers, and a very good back and forth after the presentations. Harris and Blackburn directly address one another. To get back to the I think my first comment, do you think that Harris and Blackburn are speaking on the same page, or know what the other is talking about? Or do you think Harris doesn’t realize what he’s saying, despite Blackburn’s appeals?
My feeling was that, whether or not you think Harris is confused/misguided/wrong…Blackburn does little to settle the question, seeming at best, uninterested.
Jeffrey Jeffers says
As for Blackburn’s prediction, it’s possible that the captive could say something to a capture what would stop the captures in their tracks. Something like “Love they neighbor.” Perhaps the captures are religious, and the phrase touches on something very sentimental in their past.
Then again, what if the captive said “a Dungeon Master will seek revenge on those that betray him.” The captive, in the first case, is referring to a religious principle, in the second case, the made-up principles of the adventure game Dungeons and Dragons.
Now, maybe the captures played D&D growing up and took it a little too seriously, and so believe that the captive is a Dungeon Master that will kill them with his magic powers if they apprehend them.
Now, I think what Blackburn was getting at was that there is nothing that *should* stop the captives in their tracks. What I mean is, there is no moral principle that’s true in the way the captive needs it to be. Sure, it’s *possible* that the captives would be motivated to stop, but the mere fact that they’re motivated is not enough for an analogy to scientific justification.
In the case of science, let’s say someone (a scientist) is held captive for saying untrue things about the world. But let’s further stipulate that the captive is actually right (believes and states that humanity evolved through random mutation and natural selection). The culture that sends the guards to seize our scientist says that the reason she is being captured is because she’s spreading falsehood. They don’t say she’s being arrested for being disloyal to the government, or corrupting the youth, or any such thing, just that she’s spreading false beliefs, and in particular the false belief of evolution by natural selection.
So the culture believes evolution by natural selection is false, and they mean the same thing we do by that word. Now, let’s say that she’s picked up and put on trial. But during the course of her trial, she convinces the court that evolution by natural selection is actually true, and does so by the reasoning we say is sound and valid.
Now, we have three cases of people being “stopped in their tracks” as it were. But surely we don’t think every time people are persuaded, that they are persuaded by truth. It’s not a necessary condition of agreement that truth is responsible for the agreement.
As for Blackburn’s attitude, he probably thinks is a very clean and clear issue, one that will have no bearing on what he publishes, and one that is a pop intellectual issue, but isn’t advancing his philosophical maturation. I don’t know though, he did say he wasn’t good at public speaking. I’ve had the same experience before, where the only way to get your nerves under control is to speak monotone.
Moving on, I don’t believe that we can reduce everything we mean (commonly mean, I’m not referring to some weird person who doesn’t know how to speak properly) by using just utilitarianism, deontoloy, virtue ethics, flourishing, etc.
As for the debate, I’ve watched each member’s presentation, and some of the more informal back and forth, so I’ve seen virtually all of it.
Going back to the question of stopping people in their tracks, I agree with you and Sam Harris that people can stubbornly refuse to be stopped in their tracks no matter what argument they’re presented with. But I also insist on the importance of the fact that we don’t just call what people agree on truth. Now, there have been some philosophers that have controversially said that’s all truth is, (now that’s certainly not realism, and not scientism, and not New Atheism). Suffice it say for now, what we mean by truth is not fully encapsulated by what people agree on. We believe that everyone can agree on something, but be wrong. So if I convince someone of something, that doesn’t necessarily mean that I did so on account of telling them something true.
Now, if someone cares about truth, and so is stopped in their tracks by being presented with evidence of the truth of a propositions through valid reasoning, well that’s a particular kind of persuasion. If on the other hand, someone is convinced that you need to be captured, wasn’t into D&D as a kid, and wasn’t raised religious, (to continue the hypotheticals), then there’s nothing to appeal to to stop them in their tracks.
The thing about science is that it’s either true or not, independent of whether we like it or not, agree with it or not. Of course the **only** way the properties of science can stop someone in their tracks is if they care about truth and are convinced with good reasoning. But if they don’t, there’s nothing we can say. The thing about morality is that we’re dealing with a much larger playing field. In science, we define the goals more sharply than we usually do, and so then the field of what constitutes appropriate evidence is more clear. With morality, what Sam Harris should present us with is something analogous. Even if we can’t convince the guy in the Taliban throwing battery acid in a little girl’s face that she’s wrong, how bout we just convince each other that we’re talking about something beyond a mere definition (after all, D&D has definitions too) or simply something that refers back to our own agreement (people can agree on all sorts of things).
We mean something more by “evil” than that it violates our own cultural biases (but if we’re wrong that we can achieve this, then moral relativism is true, at least in some form) or that it doesn’t fit with some formula we’ve imposed. Now, I’m still wondering, what can be appealed to beyond our own cultural biases, that will count as evidence that the member of the Taliban ought to value flourishing (and its accompanying brain states) over his own tradition and source of moral authority?
Oh yeah, and Blackburn settled the question, I think, it’s just a matter of whether you agree with him or not. Either there’s evidence that should persuade a person not to capture you or there’s not. I think there are probably better ways to present his view, but I can’t say I can think of one right now.
Jeffrey Jeffers says
In short, science has no intrinsic power to motivate, and it gives us the power only to say someone is inaccurate in their view of the world if they flout it.
If Sam Harris wants to say that much of what we mean in our moral discourse is confused, and that he’s here to lop much of it off and tell us that we should only retain this one certain subset of what we currently mean, then OK. But again, he hasn’t.
He tells us he can give us the tools to justify even our most ambitious moral judgments, like that the member of the Taliban is evil for throwing battery acid in a little girl’s face, even though he values his fundamentalist religion over our approval of flourishing. It can’t just be that we’re talking past one another, and the Taliban acid thrower doesn’t fit our view of flourishing, because we mean more than that when we call him evil.
As for science, it’s like a good care. It either runs good or it doesn’t. Some people care about that kind of stuff, some people don’t. But we can tell whether it drives good or not. If someone says it only goes 35 on the freeway, we can take it out for a spin and decide the issue. That’s all there is to that. Whether it’s a *good* care beyond that, well no one can say, I think.
True we need a baseline to judge something very clearly, like whether something is true, fast, efficient, etc. But whether something is *good* beyond these, well, we can’t win arguments in this realm by appealing to evidence in the world. I insist that we mean more by our moral terms than that can be reduced to a certain brain state, or can be defined only in terms of our own cultural paradigm. If Sam Harris doesn’t think this, he’s the one using words weirdly.
What we mean by our moral terms may be too ambitious, but that would be a call for error theory; that’s a route Sam Harris can’t take if he’s going to overcome the nihilism and relativism atheism has long been associated with.
Jeffrey Jeffers says
car, not care… geez
Ethan Gach says
“But I also insist on the importance of the fact that we don’t just call what people agree on truth. ”
Agreed, no pun intended.
If science showed that flourishing for all people is more or less the same thing, what would you think? Would you deny the legitimacy of such a claim on the part of people employing scientific means.
“If someone says it only goes 35 on the freeway, we can take it out for a spin and decide the issue.”
What if they were blind, deaf, and dumb? In which case, maybe those who miscalculate matters of morality simply have ill-tuned faculties for such sense perceptions/reasoning.
So what do you mean by the term moral? I have probably been using it in an inappropriate way. What do you refer to when you use the term?
Ethan Gach says
I think we can retire this thread and just keep it to the Robots post, so we don’t have to keep checking both.
I thought this was a fairly well formed response to Blackburn….