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Go to: How can you derive an 'ought' from an 'is'?

Liveliest Crib's Avatar Jump to comment 43 by Liveliest Crib

I could be way off base here, but I think Sam Harris is arguing not so much that "ought," as typically understood, can be derived from "is," as typically understood, but that "ought" is not really what we think it is in the first place. Once we re-conceptualize our understanding of "ought," we can see easily how it can be derived from "is." (Good grief, what the hell did I just write?)

Okay, let me try this:

As an American atheist, I am typically confronted by lobotomized religious neighbors who think they can instantly checkmate my every word with a trite cliche: If there's no god, there can be no objective morality. The thrust of this "argument" relies on an unspoken modus tollens follow up: Obviously, though, there is objective morality. Therefore, there is also a god. At least, I think that's what's on their minds, given the smug smiles they don upon completing the sentence, and the way in which they recoil in horror at my suggestion that perhaps there is no objective morality after all. It's as though I just might be on the verge of eating their livers with a nice Chianti.

For me, the notion that morality is not objective did not undermine the concept of morality altogether, though I think I understand why it troubles people.

Anyway, one day, one of those Americans whose lobotomy was not completely successful asked, "So, why are you good then? And I don't mean that you need to believe that some super being is watching and threatening you all the time to get you to behave. I'm just wondering, when you strive to be moral, as most atheists I know do, why do you do it? Are you purely being selfish, doing good things for the good feelings that result inside of you? When I say an action is moral or immoral, I'm pretty sure I am in touch with what god wants me to be in touch with. It's just a feeling. I assume you're in touch with those feelings, but how do you understand them if not as feelings from god?"

My answer was as follows: First, I see no reason to relate my very natural feelings to anything supernatural in order to justify them. More importantly, though, I do not consciously view the world through a moral lens in order to derive a benefit from it. I view the world through a moral lens because I have no other choice. I have to. Morality, it seems to me, is a biological drive like hunger is a biological drive. To ask me not to view the world through a moral lens is like asking me not to be hungry. I might be able to fast for a certain amount of time, but I cannot help feeling hungry. Eventually, my hunger will get the better of me, and I will eat. Likewise, I might behave immorally sometimes, but eventually, my conscience will get to me somehow.

My interrogator was given pause, but uncomfortable with my answer. It was a fancy version of, "Because I'm hardwired for morality," which fails to satisfy anyone who insists that "morality" is itself some universal, metaphysical thing. I answered a normative question empirically. He didn't want an empirical answer. He wanted a self-contained normative answer.

Enter (I think) Sam Harris.

Ought isn't what we think it is. Ought is neither supernatural (how the religious see it) nor pure, subjective opinion (how their more enlightened counterparts see it).

Morality does not simply begin with an arbitrary normative premise from which the morality or immorality of particular actions logically follows. It begins with something deeply rooted in our brains and evolutionary history, something we might be able to understand empirically because it has empirical roots. (Harris: "Values, therefore, are (explicit or implicit) judgments about how the universe works and are themselves facts about our universe (i.e. states of the human brain)." [emphasis mine]

Thus, Harris argues (I think) the normative realm and the empirical realm have more in common than we think, and they can both be studied by science. After all, science is not a collection of empirical knowledge, but a method for gaining confidence about our perceptions of empirical reality. If that's the case, why would science not likewise be a method for gaining confidence about our perceptions of morality?

When Sam Harris speaks of some normative starting point of "wellbeing," there is the inevitable reply: But what if a person simply does not value wellbeing in the first place? His detractors have apparently noted psychopaths and sociopaths as examples of such persons.

But, do sociopaths really offer a viable, alternative normative framework? Or are they objectively malfunctioning like a person who somehow never gets hungry (and who, consequently, will get sick and die).

And if a non-sociopath claims he experiences no philosophical or moral discomfort with the act of murder, how seriously do we really take him? I think Sam Harris would suggest that we take him as seriously as someone who claims to consider his own fecal matter delicious: He's either lying, rationalizing or objectively malfunctioning. Sure, there's no accounting for taste, but someone who enjoys the taste of his own fecal matter has something objectively wrong with him.

I find Sam Harris' venture down this path at once frightening and fascinating. I eagerly await his next book.

Tue, 06 Apr 2010 05:54:00 UTC | #456333

Go to: A plague of atheists has descended, and Catholics are the target

Liveliest Crib's Avatar Jump to comment 44 by Liveliest Crib


With the backing of their many churches and their official dogmas, people have preached lie after lie about atheists. We're immoral, amoral or just heathens who hate god. We have no basis to judge anything in this world, so we act selfishly.

The moment we claim that their churches are not forces for good in the world or that it's okay not to believe in god, we're told that we hate them.

You know what? I'm in a bad mood right now, and reading this didn't help.

So, to you Christians out there who think that I hate you because I do not share your beliefs . . . you couldn't be more wrong, and . . .


Mon, 30 Nov 2009 07:03:00 UTC | #418306

Go to: Two White Guys Walk Into a Bar...

Liveliest Crib's Avatar Jump to comment 21 by Liveliest Crib

Lisa Miller:

All the while Hitchens and Wilson went on and on and on and on, always well mannered, never conceding a thing. [ ] There are other voices out there . . . . Hecht is as much of an atheist as Hitchens and Harris, she says, but she approaches questions about the usefulness of religion with an appreciation of what she calls "paradox and mystery and cosmic crunch." . . . . "I don't think it's so bad if religion survives, if it's getting together once a week and singing a song in a beautiful building, to commemorate life's most important moments." [ ] We need urgently to talk about these things: ethics, progress, education, science, democracy, tolerance, and justice—and to understand the reasons why religion can (but does not always) hamper their flourishing.
Oh, there is no better example of the modern American media's attitude than this! First, she clearly hasn't read any of the books by Harris, Dawkins et. al., since they all discuss what she purports to want to discuss. She probably does not even know that Harris avoids the word "atheist." He advocates avoiding the word. He advocates the very "rational spirituality" she says is lacking in the debate. But like a typical pseudo-journalist, Ms. Miller hasn't bothered to understand what she is critiquing.

Moreover, and more importantly, she's simply bored with the back-and-forth. All the people who seek actually to learn something from it can go to hell as far as she's concerned. Because that's what the modern media is all about: putting up two people with opposing viewpoints to yell at one another until the topic gets boring, whereupon it just moves on to the next match. Nothing is really investigated and nothing is really learned. Hell, they'll even manufacture issues where none exist, just to have the next match televised.

As for the rest of her drivel . . .
Together they've sold more than 3 million books worldwide, which suggests they may be in this for more than just our edification.
Seriously? An ad hominem motive attack? Yeah, their books make money. Let me guess, had the books not made so much money, that would likewise have been a reason to disregard them, right?
The atheists are, more than other interest groups, joyous cannibals and regurgitators of their own ideas.
Repeatedly outlining one's own position is what one does on a speaking tour. As for the cannibal part, may I just say, WTF?
Let's move beyond faith versus reason.
i.e. We're losing. Let's move the goal posts.
The whole thing has started to feel like being trapped in a seminar room with the three smartest guys in school, each showing off to impress … whom? Let's move on.
i.e. We're losing. Let's move the goal posts.
They thrive online, where like adolescent boys they rehash their rhetorical victories to their own delight.
Since we're just tossing around insults, Ms. Miller, why don't you go blow a rodeo clown?

Fri, 23 Oct 2009 02:30:00 UTC | #407693

Go to: Evolution All Around

Liveliest Crib's Avatar Jump to comment 37 by Liveliest Crib

Like many posters before me, I must express my frustration with this article.

He keeps insisting that evolution is an undeniable fact. A moment's reflection reveals the problem: We don't speak of Darwin's fact of evolution. [ ] Dawkins is aware that evolution is commonly called a theory but deems "theory" too wishy-washy a term because it connotes the idea of a hypothesis.
One cannot help but wonder whether the purpose of this article was to undermine Dawkins' latest book altogether. Sure, it begins by extolling it, and purports to accept evolution, but by veering in this direction, the author does nothing but invalidate the book's entire reason for being: to explain the evidence so plainly that the average layperson, using his common definition of "fact," understands that evolution, as a matter of fact, actually happens.

Complaining that Dawkins uses the layperson's term "fact" when "theory" is the appropriate scientific term reveals either that the author did not actually understand the book, or understood it perfectly, but with the prejudice required to re-muddy waters Dawkins so painstakingly cleared.
Evolution, in Dawkins's view, is a concept as bulletproof as a mathematical theorem, even though it can't be proved by rigorous logical proofs.
I must concede, I only just purchased the book yesterday, and have only begun to read it. But I would be surprised if Dawkins genuinely confused analytic truths with empirical ones. He may take a certain poetic license in order to explain evolution to laypeople, but that would be as far as I would expect him to go.
He seems to have little appreciation for the cognitive structure of science.
No, Mr. Wade, you sir, have little appreciation for linguistics and the difference between ordinary language and professional jargon. Dawkins is combating a persistent and very powerful semantic problem, namely that the term "theory" means something very different in ordinary language than it does in the parlance of science.

Your argument, Mr. Wade, is equivocal at best, dishonest at worst. When Dawkins explains that scientific "theory" might as well be scientific "fact" in ordinary language, it does no good to retort, "Yeah, but in science the correct word is theory."

No good, that is, unless your goal is to confuse the potentially enlightened!

Wed, 07 Oct 2009 19:58:00 UTC | #404163

Go to: The Angry Evolutionist

Liveliest Crib's Avatar Jump to comment 67 by Liveliest Crib

Kiwi @ #420708:

Actually finding one new fossil form increases the total number of gaps by one, but creates two new gaps. This is because the old gap is not the same as either of the new gaps in that it is a gap with one different "edge" now. Think of it like a bridge with several supporting pillars sunk into the water. If a new supporting pillar is sunk, the two new gaps are not the same as the one in which the new pillar is now seen.
Hee hee. Yes. One more gap than before; two gaps where once there was one; two new ones replacing one old one. Just not two more in total than before. :)

Thu, 01 Oct 2009 23:49:00 UTC | #402722

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