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Moral confusion in the name of 'science' - Comments

dfledermaus's Avatar Comment 1 by dfledermaus

I hear morality is to be the subject of Sam Harris's next book. I suspect we're getting a preview of the controversy that will spring up over it.

Mon, 29 Mar 2010 20:29:00 UTC | #453765

Eelis's Avatar Comment 2 by Eelis

This kind of utter drivel is really making me lose faith in Sam.

His insistance on "transcendent experiences" and the like already had me worried, and now this.. It's too much!

Fortunately, nobody seems to be taking him seriously.

Mon, 29 Mar 2010 20:38:00 UTC | #453768

r u i's Avatar Comment 3 by r u i

You made no point there Eelis. Do you wish to make one?

Mon, 29 Mar 2010 21:14:00 UTC | #453774

ateu luso's Avatar Comment 4 by ateu luso

Unrelated to this piece, I have to say that I tend to agree with Eelis on Sam's transcendental experiences.
I know this is greatly simplified, but if you take some psychotropic substance, you will experience some weird shit BECAUSE of the drug you've just taken! Hallucinations, perceptual and cognitive distortions and the like might occur, no big surprise there! I find it difficult to then try and relate this to some heightened sensory experience... Heightened in reference to what? Why heightened in the first place?

Anyhow, it's late now, I'll read this piece of Sam's tomorrow with a clear head. I really enjoy reading/hearing most of what he has to say, I just had to get this off my chest.

Mon, 29 Mar 2010 21:24:00 UTC | #453777

Cartomancer's Avatar Comment 5 by Cartomancer

I must say I find Sam's case rather compelling. Admittedly I have tended to think about morality in a similar way myself hitherto, so perhaps I am biased. Perhaps naievely I have also assumed that most people probably also view morality like this, and the quantity of criticism Sam is receiving for such apparently commonsensical points genuinely surprises me.

I have always thought of morality as simply "the sets of rules we come up with in order to live in societies", and it seems obvious that certain sets of rules will work much better than certain others, creating different societies with different possibilities, opportunities and restrictions. Reality only works in one way, and the consequences of the way it works will determine the import and efficacy of whatever rule-sets one comes up with.

To be honest I am skeptical as to how much of an impact Sam's work in this area will have on our actual moral development. What he is providing is an over-arching explanation of our moral contemplations, not a detailed plan for their reform, or even concrete pointers for their future direction. He is attempting to clarify and focus how we talk about the way we derive our morals, but he is not really suggesting any radical changes in the derivation itself. If Sam is correct that all moral intuitions stem initially from a concern with wellbeing (and I find it very hard to see how they could not) then pretty much the entirety of moral philosophy up to this point has ALREADY been working within the parameters he describes. We are already, by and large, trying to work out what brings maximal wellbeing to human individuals and human societies, however divergent our current notions of what that wellbeing consists in are. Similarly, ascetics, self-mortifiers, flagellants and others who devote their lives to pain do not do so because they think it will ultimately make them miserable and unfulfilled.

It seems to me that the vast majority of cultural differences regarding morality are just window-dressing that conceals the same set of basic needs, desires and circumstances. There are no human cultures which truly value death over life, or their own suffering over their own contentment. Many cultures claim to do so, but in reality they simply have skewed and inaccurate views of what life, death, suffering and contentment consist in. Taliban suicide bombers, for instance, consider that death is not really death, and the suffering of martyrdom will lead to greater contentment in the afterlife. The values are the same, the desires are the same, the neurophysiological architecture is the same, it's merely the understanding of the nature of reality that is insufficient.

I also find it somewhat bizarre to say that the border between science and the rest of rationality is necessarily fuzzy. As far as I am concerned there isn't a dividing line at all, however fuzzy - science and rationality are pretty much synonyms. I find it very difficult to think of an example of science that is not rational, or an example of rationality that is not scientific. The distinction is, to my mind, an unhelpful and superfluous one.

Mon, 29 Mar 2010 21:25:00 UTC | #453778

Steve Zara's Avatar Comment 6 by Steve Zara

I think Sam is putting forward useful moral strategies, but is making a bit of a mess of it. For example:

"She: What makes you think that science will ever be able to say that forcing women to wear burqas is wrong?

Me: Because I think that right and wrong are a matter of increasing or decreasing wellbeing—and it is obvious that forcing half the population to live in cloth bags, and beating or killing them if they refuse, is not a good strategy for maximizing human wellbeing."

That's not an answer to the question!

I think I have a reasonable idea of what Sam is saying, but I'm not sure about the way he is expressing things.

Mon, 29 Mar 2010 21:30:00 UTC | #453780

AngelsForAtheists's Avatar Comment 7 by AngelsForAtheists

What Sam is Doing is trying to show that religiously oriented morality should no longer be respected. But that there are in fact some objective truths about human well being. So far he is showing what things are and should not be but is leaving an open discussion on the subjectivity of the human spirit. Any attack on religion is a noble effort. And anyone who criticizes transcendental experiences have never had one. Like a virgin saying "oh but sex isn't that great..."

Mon, 29 Mar 2010 21:32:00 UTC | #453782

prolibertas's Avatar Comment 8 by prolibertas

"All truth passes through 3 stages: First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as self-evident". -Arthur Schopenhaur

Personally I think Sam's campaign is going to end up being a perfect example of this.

Mon, 29 Mar 2010 21:37:00 UTC | #453783

Steve Zara's Avatar Comment 10 by Steve Zara

Carto-

"If Sam is correct that all moral intuitions stem initially from a concern with wellbeing (and I find it very hard to see how they could not) "

I think the problem is whose wellbeing is under consideration, and this is always controversial. I believe that in some tribal societies it is (or was) normal for adolescent men to gain adulthood by some kind of victory in battle: the wellbeing of other tribes simply didn't matter. Currently in the USA there is a libertarian movement that considers the wellbeing of others in society to be a personal matter, and no-one else's concern. We still have in existence some irrational ideas of nationality, where wellbeing matters in inverse proportion to geographical distance.

Mon, 29 Mar 2010 21:49:00 UTC | #453786

Nunbeliever's Avatar Comment 9 by Nunbeliever

I have to read this piece again tomorrow with fresh eyes. One moment I tend to agree with Harris, the next one I tend not to, the third one I agree, and so on...

EDIT: I think this passage answers much of the criticism I have encountered so far.

It is also worth noticing that Carroll has set the epistemological bar higher for morality than he has for any other branch of science. He asks, “Who decides what is a successful life?” Well, who decides what is coherent argument? Who decides what constitutes empirical evidence? Who decides when our memories can be trusted? The answer is, “we do.” And if you are not satisfied with this answer, you have just wiped out all of science, mathematics, history, journalism, and every other human effort to make sense of reality.


Because, even if science ultimately can't decide whether well-being or misery is to be preferred science can't actually ultimately define why a logical statement is in fact logical or coherent either. These are axioms every rational person is required to accept if he or she wants to be taken seriously. These are the rules of reasons they teach in universities all over the world and all rational people learn to take for granted. I mean, in order to proove that 2 plus 2 = 4 is true there are certain rules we just have to accept. For example that the prime numner 2 always has a specific and constant value in any given equation. Otherwise 2 plus 2 = 4 is a meaningless expression. In the end we either get into an infinite regression or accept these axioms as inherently true.

Or in other words we all accept that there are certain axioms regarding rational thinking in general. Perhaps ín much the same way we can consider well-being as the foundation of morality as an axiom?

Mon, 29 Mar 2010 21:49:00 UTC | #453785

Chrysippus_Maximus's Avatar Comment 11 by Chrysippus_Maximus

By 'good' I mean that which I know to be useful to me.

Mon, 29 Mar 2010 21:57:00 UTC | #453789

bethe123's Avatar Comment 12 by bethe123

Such a long article provides a rather large attack surface...very brave, Sam.

Anyway, to address a core Sam claim:

In fact, I believe that we can know, through reason alone, that consciousness is the only intelligible domain of value.


No Sam.
I personally think all life is sacred, even one celled animals, which I suppose have no consciousness. I think all life is the domain of value, not just consciousness... Incidentally, my "moral axiom" does not obviously elevate AI (i.e. computers) to be included in moral questions, whereas Sam's does if you believe machines can achieve consciousness, so the distinction is non-trivial, and some I suppose might be inclined to believe any system that did allow a MACHINE to be morally relevant to be sadly mistaken, no matter how well Sam has convinced himself he has a proof.
I do not insist anybody else to subscribe to this belief that life is in some sense sacred or special nor do I claim it can be proved. It is however distinct from Sam’s axiom. Sam did claim uniqueness by the use of the word “ONLY” and that is clearly not true.

Mon, 29 Mar 2010 22:02:00 UTC | #453792

NakedCelt's Avatar Comment 13 by NakedCelt

Don't quote-mine, bethe123:

In fact, I believe that we can know, through reason alone, that consciousness is the only intelligible domain of value. What’s the alternative? Imagine some genius comes forward and says, “I have found a source of value/morality that has absolutely nothing to do with the (actual or potential) experience of conscious beings.” Take a moment to think about what this claim actually means. Here’s the problem: whatever this person has found cannot, by definition, be of interest to anyone (in this life or in any other). Put this thing in a box, and what you have in that box is—again, by definition—the least interesting thing in the universe.
Hard to argue with that. It's very like the only convincing argument against solipsism I've ever found -- viz., if everything is an illusion, then there is no "reality" against which to call it an illusion, and the illusion itself is the realest thing there is.

Mon, 29 Mar 2010 22:09:00 UTC | #453795

bethe123's Avatar Comment 15 by bethe123

NakedCelt-- Sorry, I do not agree with it. Sam is wrong.

Mon, 29 Mar 2010 22:13:00 UTC | #453798

Steve Zara's Avatar Comment 14 by Steve Zara

" Incidentally, my "moral axiom" does not obviously elevate AI (i.e. computers) to be included in moral questions,"

Then you are either a vitalist, or a dualist.

Mon, 29 Mar 2010 22:13:00 UTC | #453797

r u i's Avatar Comment 16 by r u i

Sam harris is a kantian?

Mon, 29 Mar 2010 22:18:00 UTC | #453801

Chrysippus_Maximus's Avatar Comment 17 by Chrysippus_Maximus

Utiliwhatianism?

Mon, 29 Mar 2010 22:25:00 UTC | #453802

r u i's Avatar Comment 18 by r u i

8. Comment #474166 by prolibertas

"All truth passes through 3 stages: First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as self-evident". -Arthur Schopenhaur



In science, first it is tested... then some more tests... and then it is accepted has a theory that should be open to some more testing...

Mon, 29 Mar 2010 22:31:00 UTC | #453808

MondSemmel's Avatar Comment 19 by MondSemmel

I think the same passage that Nunbeliever cites clinched Sam Harris' argument for me:

It is also worth noticing that Carroll has set the epistemological bar higher for morality than he has for any other branch of science. He asks, “Who decides what is a successful life?” Well, who decides what is coherent argument? Who decides what constitutes empirical evidence? Who decides when our memories can be trusted? The answer is, “we do.” And if you are not satisfied with this answer, you have just wiped out all of science, mathematics, history, journalism, and every other human effort to make sense of reality.


Or in other words: Many or even most of the arguments against there being, say, "objective morality" (which science could then study, make predictions about, etc.), have inflated expectations.
One possible rule of thumb in arguments like these should be: If anyone applies their requirements for the issue of morality to other sciences (e.g. physics, which I study), and these requirements would similarly destroy/negate these other sciences, the requirement is faulty/useless/etc. For example, there obviously is a problem with defining well-being, but so what? There are problems with defining anything and everything, from health (a great example by Sam) to time or length (oh dear, before my first lectures I wasn't really aware problems would already arise there...) or age or death or whatever you suggest.

I think many of the most common arguments against Sam's position basically demand that a scientific position on morality be devoid of axioms. If I'm true about this, these arguments are also devoid of substance.

EDIT: This is not to say that formulating useful axioms is not a major problem, but simply that it cannot by itself be an insurmountable one. A science proves its usefulness by creating theories with falsifiable predictions and so on - and while a scientific position on moral issues might possibly never reach the level of natural sciences in that regard, why shouldn't it be able to reach the level of social sciences? Many of the problems of morality are also encountered by fields like economics (getting good data, interpreting data, lack of experiments, etc.) which, as far as I know, is accepted as a proper science...

Mon, 29 Mar 2010 22:46:00 UTC | #453811

lvpl78's Avatar Comment 20 by lvpl78


He asks, “Who decides what is a successful life?” Well, who decides what is coherent argument? Who decides what constitutes empirical evidence?


I find this a difficult argument to support. In principle, there could be differing opinions on what QUALIFIES as empirical evidence, but the abstract notion of what empirical evidence actually IS is fairly(!) fixed. A "successful life" isn't really defined as anything. It's like trying to prove that one painting is better than another. The corollary is that whilst you and I might have differing opinions on who is a better tennis player between A and B, the winning of a tennis tournament is a more rigidly defined objective evaluation than which player we prefer. It's a matter of opinion who your favourite player is. It's not a matter of opinion whether or not Federer won Wimbledon last year.


The answer to all of this is evolution. For all intents and purposes, morality is evolution in this sense.

I remember reading Zen and The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance, which does ask some pretty profound questions. What is quality? What is good? What is bad? What does it mean for something to be good?

Then I read the Selfish Gene. Ultimately what is *good* is just whatever ensures the survival of certain information. To us, that means the survival of genes.

The reason we act morally or otherwise is entirely a consequence of the fact the information being preserved and copied over geological time is the same information that dictates how we act in the first place.

That's why you (probably) care more about your own child than someone else's, more about a human child than a baby earthworm etc etc.

Outside the domain of evolution all of this is utterly meaningless. Maybe that's what Sam is getting at when he says

The deepest problem is that it strikes me as patently mistaken about the nature of reality and about what we can reasonably mean by words like “good,” “bad,” “right,” and “wrong.” In fact, I believe that we can know, through reason alone, that consciousness is the only intelligible domain of value."


I don't think the message needs to be quite as obfusticated as it is in Sam's piece. All you have to do is ask why do livings things TRY and survive? Why is death bad? The answer is because organisms that don't see death as bad, or don't TRY and survive, didn't pass on those characteristics.

That's why AI doesn't act with inherent morality - it isn't self replicating. The whole notion of good/bad/quality etc etc means precisely nothing if not phrased in terms of self replicating entities in a population with variation and heredity.

Mon, 29 Mar 2010 23:01:00 UTC | #453816

dochmbi's Avatar Comment 21 by dochmbi

So bethe123, if I were to transfer all the information in my brain to a synthetic brain in such a way that I would remain the same person, would you revoke my human rights because I am no longer a living being, therefore not valued?

Would love to hear you elaborate what the essential distinction between machine and animal is in your opinion.

Mon, 29 Mar 2010 23:09:00 UTC | #453817

Scandinavian07's Avatar Comment 22 by Scandinavian07

Let's hope Ayn Rand has not influenced his writings.

Mon, 29 Mar 2010 23:15:00 UTC | #453818

bethe123's Avatar Comment 23 by bethe123

dochmbi-- you are begging the question. I will not go so far as Sam as to suggest that makes you an idiot, however.

Star Trek --"What Are Little Girls Made Of" deals with your question. I will not spoil the plot. You will have to watch it if you want the answer. These are old questions.

Mon, 29 Mar 2010 23:18:00 UTC | #453819

MondSemmel's Avatar Comment 24 by MondSemmel

The answer to all of this is evolution. For all intents and purposes, morality is evolution in this sense.


I don't think this argument really works well. Yes, our intuitions about morality, about what is good and what is bad, come from evolution (in the sense that our brains are evolved organs). But that, in itself, is no reason to follow them. Just as our intuitions about physics are sometimes horribly wrong, so too are some of our intuitions about morality - the best example is probably that it can be argued that humans have an inherent level of xenophobia (i.e. in-group/out-group behaviour) due to evolution - treating your in-group better and your out-group worse is advantageous for the self-replication of the corresponding genes, so this trait is passed on.
But what does this tell us? If our evolved intuitions are somewhat racist/superstitious/whatever, that shouldn't have any bearing on how we should behave, i.e. on morality.

Mon, 29 Mar 2010 23:20:00 UTC | #453820

Bonzai's Avatar Comment 25 by Bonzai

dochmbi

So bethe123, if I were to transfer all the information in my brain to a synthetic brain in such a way that I would remain the same person,


Interesting thought, but is it even theoretically possible?

Most of us here would agree that a disembodied consciousness like a soul floating out there is impossible. But is consciousness, or rather more specifically, "personhood" possible in an disembodied brain which is deprived of all sensual inputs from the body? The body also influences the mind in other ways, for example, hormones imbalance can change your personality drastically even though the hormones are not properly related to brain functions.

I think a consciousness in a synthetic brain, even if possible, would be very limited and perhaps very weird. It most certainly wouldn't be you.

Edited for clarification "You" are not just a snapshot of your brain state, but it is also the way you experience and interact with your environment. This is ongoing and is deeply tied to your body as a whole.

Mon, 29 Mar 2010 23:22:00 UTC | #453821

lvpl78's Avatar Comment 26 by lvpl78

MondSemmel


our intuitions about morality, about what is good and what is bad, come from evolution but that, in itself, is no reason to follow them.


I totally agree on this, but perhaps I didn't articulate my point well enough. We may have behaviours that are defined by our evolution, that when viewed coldly and rationally we deem to be "immoral". Nevertheless, our basis for deeming them "immoral" will ALSO be defined by our evolution. I'm not just saying that how we behave is determined by our evolution, I'm saying that how we think we SHOULD behave is also determined by our evolution. The two may often be in conflict but that is just because our behaviours are layered, multi-faceted and complex. We don't always act "morally", and each of us has a slightly different view on what is moral.

Mon, 29 Mar 2010 23:32:00 UTC | #453823

NakedCelt's Avatar Comment 27 by NakedCelt

Comment #474181 by bethe123:

NakedCelt-- Sorry, I do not agree with it. Sam is wrong.

On what grounds? Remember,
Imagine some genius comes forward and says, “I have found a source of value/morality that has absolutely nothing to do with the (actual or potential) experience of conscious beings.”... whatever this person has found cannot, by definition, be of interest to anyone (in this life or in any other).
That's Sam's argument. If he is wrong, then either
(a) something that has no actual or potential effects on the experience of conscious beings is nevertheless of interest to someone -- "someone" here meaning "some conscious being"; or
(b) a proposition that has, in principle, no possible application, can nevertheless meaningfully be called a moral proposition.
Which of these positions are you asserting?

Comment #474203 by bethe123:
dochmbi-- you are begging the question.

No, bethe123, you are begging the question. Dochmbi posed a hypothetical to you; if you consider it impossible in principle, you must argue your case (and be damned to spoilers for some Star Trek episode).

Mon, 29 Mar 2010 23:36:00 UTC | #453824

bethe123's Avatar Comment 28 by bethe123

NakedCelt--
To show a proof is wrong, it is sufficient to provide a counterexample. My moral axiom does that.

As Bonzai seems to have intuited -- "I would remain the same person" is an assumption, and it begs the question. Sorry, the Star Trek episode is available free online, but I will not reveal the plot and it does deal with this issue.

Mon, 29 Mar 2010 23:43:00 UTC | #453826

dochmbi's Avatar Comment 29 by dochmbi

How are animals and machines any different other than the materials and the way they are created? For all intents and purposes, I consider myself a machine.

Mon, 29 Mar 2010 23:49:00 UTC | #453830

lvpl78's Avatar Comment 30 by lvpl78

The difference between an animal and a machine is that the animal is a product of replication, heredity and variation in the population.

Otherwise - yeah, I agree we are just machines. When someone says "would it still be you" in the case of the brain transplant scenario, my answer is yes. I am my brain. more specifically, I am the information in my brain and I am the mechanisms by which that information changes.

Mon, 29 Mar 2010 23:54:00 UTC | #453831